Is media the message?

While it is more of a movement rather then a design issue, I would like to talk about IoT (the Internet of Things). The Internet of Things, or ubiquitous computing has been around for a while but has only really started seeing an upswing the last couple of years. My old company, PTC, like many other companies, completely pivoted their business model to address these issues.

To me it means the ability to make life easier, to have information available at hand, and not have to troubleshoot a problem. For PTC, it meant that instead of sending a Field Service Technician to check out a broken down tractor, sensors could read what was wrong with the machine remotely and the field service technician could show up with the replacement part in hand or have the ability to fix it remotely. But I think what Iot means is to have the ability to have more of a back and forth conversation with technology.

Kittler’s position is that technology drives society, but it is also developed independently from society. It is interesting here because I think IoT is more a ‘chicken and the egg’ situation. I think that the technology available has allowed society to embrace IoT. But in developing technology there is always a purpose, ‘I want to jump higher’ or ‘I want to be able to water my plants while I am on vacation’ and this purpose always stems from society. I do not think that one can be separated from the other. But one could argue that technologies developed for other purposes are developed independently of their society, in that it was not purely developed for the problem trying to be solved, but is applicable to this problem. If technology xyz doesn’t exist, society will not be affected by it. If technology was self-generating, one could say that IoT is now a thing because of the technology currently available, and a different application of, but overall it was not developed purely for IoT from day 1. Once there was a level of technology readily available and we had the realization that we could achieve things like IoT, development started applying and developing new technology to fit the problem.

IoT to me, is just an iteration of HCI and Interaction design’s long standing goals to make life easier, make choices easier or to allow you to do something faster, it is the same goal with a different application.

McLuhan’s statement, “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message.” The social drive behind making things more accessible by connections, is the message, and the technology is a mode for doing that. In a way both Kittler and McLuhan are saying the same thing, that the intention is more important then the technology, the technology will be there (abeit eventually).

Williams then backs this up by stating that the technology is inconsequential, when talking about tv, he argues “if television has not been invented, this argument runs, we would still be manipulated or mindlessly entertained, but in some other way and perhaps less powerfully.” If something is not invented another thing will be invented in its place. So if the technology was not there for IoT, the idea of ubiquitous computing or making life better by technology would still be there and would perhaps have morphed into something else.

  • Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” “Media, Hot and Cold,” and “The Gadget Lover,” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).
  • Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, (Malden, MA: Polity, 2010), “Theoretical Suppositions,” 29–46. Optional introduction (of use for discussion leaders and understanding Kittler’s background): John Durham Peters, “Kittler’s Light Shows.”
  • Raymond Williams, “The Technology and the Society” and “Effects of the Technology and its Uses,” Television (London: Fontana/Routledge, 1974).