Two Sides of a Coin

Thinking of the internet as a medium from McLuhan, Kittler, and Williams perspectives.

First, two medium-centric approaches.

Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” For him, this implied that meaning in any content piece was inextricably tied to its medium. Importantly, the medium of that piece could be defined by key characteristics which altered human perception and understanding of their social organization and associations with others.

For McLuhan, he would likely present the internet as a medium that has fundamentally changed the scale, pace, and pattern of human affairs. With a click of a button we can reach an “audience” that was never possible before with such ease. In this sense, scale and pace have both been altered. Furthermore, McLuhan might say that the internet has changed the way society is organized in that it is decentralized and allows for niche sub-cultural and interest-based groupings. Finally, because McLuhan seems largely pessimistic about technology, I would assume that he would feel that the internet largely contains a negative message of social fragmentation with people too focused on the gadget and/or their self-image in social media.

From a different perspective, Friedrich Kittler, a media theorist, puts forth a position that attempt to remove the influence of humans in the study of media theory. Instead, he postulates, we should give primacy to the actual technical medium because “the only thing that can be known about the soul or the human are the technical gadgets with which they have been historically measured at any given time” (Kittler, 35). To further his point, he argues that “we knew nothing about our senses until media provided models and metaphors (Kittler, 34). The example he gives is that our idea of a lifetime of experiences flashing-back before our eyes before we die actually came about because of the rise of film as a medium.

Kittler would probably argue that the internet fits in his view of his technical media in that 1) it was developed as part of a military program (aka ARPANET), 2) it was then adapted to use by the general public. Let’s use social media as a model. The social organization of various forms of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. exist because of the medium of the internet. The existence of the technology gave rise to these forms of communications which continued to evolve and take on the form of the existing internet technology.

Second, a human-centered approach.

In contrast to McLuhan, Williams’ espouses a view where social forms drive technological adaption. In this view, the internet developed and evolved because people wanted the ability to connect and relate to one-another. So taking the example with social media above, it is not so much that these forms of association came about because it was available — rather, they were developed to satisfy an unmet need. Furthermore, this logic is further supported when we think that the reason these systems exist is because society was ‘ready’ to adopt them. If people were not ready to adopt these systems, then they wouldn’t have come into existence. Instead Facebook exists because people wanted to and were ready to use it.

In general, I think that depending on the design example, each of the three approaches explains something of the design. However, Williams approach resonates the most to me because he attempts to account for intention and does not leave the design to the mercy of technology. In many of the new technological developments — from the internet, to Snapchat, to Uber, to M-Pesa — I think that Williams approach best explains why that design or system exists. The technology was there— but society was the final determinant whether their needs drove the development OR their needs allowed for its implementation. This optimistic designer approach also helps to account for the role of the designer in society as giving emphasis to communicate intention.