Data is the Medium

Robert Hall
May 17, 2018 · 2 min read

Note: this is part of a series of deliberately short essays in an attempt to actually write down some random thoughts that frequently bounce around my inner hemisphere. Prior essay: Wandering thoughts on Code and Art. Next essay: Data is a Story.

I’m (obviously) mirroring here Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” There’s another way of phrasing this idea: data is a medium, and media is data. Broadly speaking, every medium is a form of data and vice versa.

This idea is increasingly blurred with modern technologies. Such examples include an internet of things, edge computing, virtual reality, augmented reality, and online storytelling experiences. (I’ve written about my experience with that last one.)

Data as media can be understood in the broadest context. That is to say, an actual pile of dirt holds just as much information as machine typed representations (numeric, graphic, symbolic, etc.) of a pile of dirt. It’s still data, whether you can sift the dirt with your own hands, or you sift it with a lexicographical sorter in a sequence-based algorithm.

Naturally, it’s critical to actually draw a distinction between the physical world and a theoretical one sandboxed in computer models. At the same time, the internet increasingly connects our world with more and richer abstract (metaphysical?) layers, be it any given blockchain, or an ever-isomorphic YavaScript universe. For the Luddite, we are overrun.

Everything about this idea naturally extends into the human sphere. Humanity is both a medium and a datum. I like to call this cosmological. A short teaser is that human data is roughly informational and frequently abstract, as opposed to machine data which is generally encoded and frequently logical. The distinction between logic and abstraction touches on the controversial differences between AI and human learning. I’ll likely talk about this in my next essay, but no guarantees.

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