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An Intellectual Biography

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Introduction: Understanding Media as an Extension of Understanding Man

          If, as Marshall McLuhan posited in his interview with Playboy, “all media… are extension of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment,” then attempting to understand those changes and exploring the transformed environment is an extension of understanding man. In this way the media scholar is like the philosopher as much as he or she is like the sociologist. And why not? Mass media operate as teacher, counselor, friend, babysitter, minister, politician, parent, and wallpaper; it only follows that attempting to study and understand media is also an attempt at pedagogy, anthropology, theology, historiography, political philosophy, carpentry, and interior design.

          Media operate as an extension of “man,” generally, but also of “man” (or “woman”) individually. Thus part of understanding and studying media must include introspection: how has my life changed deeply, how has my environment been changed? Just as important is the question of how media may have driven me to study it. The concept of “calling” is important to modern western Christianity. By being “called” to study or create media, am I more like the priest or the missionary?

Forming an Individual Groundwork of Understanding Interpretation of Media

          It is no mistake that I rely heavily on religious language to explain how, on a personal level, I (and, I believe, others) experience and understand media. The Bible, as a medium, elicits extreme and varied responses from its users: fundamentalists and skeptics, evangelicals and liberals, spiritualists and intellectuals, radicals and conservatives; all point to this single medium as the place from which their ideology arises. In High School I attended two distinct church youth groups. Dwayne, the liberal-arts educated Greek and Wesleyan history scholar, would lead a group of high school students through discussions blending eschatology with practical application, pointing out where our young minds may have been over simplifying complex statements or misapplying teachings meant for a specific context. Perhaps Paul’s letter to the Romans, Dwayne might suggest, really was meant first for the church around 58 AD and we, in modern times, are meant to look to it as teaching without necessarily viewing it as written specifically for 21st century life. Pastor Kelly, the young and enthusiastic youth pastor at the nearby Assemblies of God church, meanwhile, could give a sermon to a group of youth on the same epistle to the Romans and tell us that this was a God-breathed book firmly indicating how a simple prayer could ensure salvation. As a medium the Bible provides no tools to declare whether Pastor Kelly or Dwayne were correct or severely misguided. However, the Bible also was not operating as a blank slate for Pastor Kelly or Dwayne to write their own ideologies. No, the Bible serves simply complexly as an extension in the exact sense McLuhan (himself a devout Roman Catholic) implied.

           The one clear teaching these apparently irreconcilable approaches to the same medium had on my 16-year old mind was that understanding was not simple; analysis, questioning, research, and a critical mind are required if one wants to learn. Looking back it is clear also that the lesson I took away from comparing Dwayne and Pastor Kelly was the very postmodern idea that multiple understandings, indeed multiple truths, exist. Both Dwayne and Pastor Kelly, the liberal theologian and the evangelical pulpit pounder, both a critical approach to interpreting scripture and a fundamentalist approach, should be viewed as true. This truth, though, is not necessarily applied to the specific words of the Bible–for instance a literal seven day creation of the earth, culminating in Adam and Eve as individuals as the start of humanity. Rather, the “truth” is that these multiple and divergent understandings arise by extension through the medium itself dependent on a user. Perhaps the proverbial tree falling in the forest sounds different depending on the location of the listener.

Developing an Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Media

          The questions that arose through interacting with the Bible/Christianity, and just as much through interacting with Pastor Kelly and Dwayne, were reinforced through attending Messiah College for undergraduate studies. Studying Film and English literature and writing, I was given an opportunity to apply the critical mind to other media. Because the student as a user is forced to make connections that the professor of an individual subject is unable to foresee–an individual taking courses on Digital Video Production, Modernist Literary Theory, and Pre-modern Non-Western History in the same semester can not help but combine these multiple fields into one “knowledge base”– the very model of higher education encourages users to develop different understandings. My Digital Video Production course may have included students who were studying painting; they would approach the class differently than I would if I’m studying Final Cut Pro alongside Virginia Wolfe. This interdisciplinary model is extended all the more by, say, my extracurricular involvement in planning Student Activities, studying abroad in England, eating dinner in front of the TV or in the cafeteria with my peers. College, as a medium, is not like the television that is only able to show one channel at a time and intensify a single experience; college is more akin to the computer that allows and encourages engaging multiple senses with various programs at concurrent times.

          The interdisciplinary approach that informed my “spiritual” intellectual growth in youth group as well as my college experience helps in beginning to understand how multiple truths can be arrived at through users of the same media but it does not answer the question of how media are spread, of why one medium is successful over another. Understanding the diffusion of media, and the diffusion of user understanding of the media, is important if the goal of media study is to better understand how humanity operates. How, for instance, do certain genres and styles gain in popularity as Western films did in the 1950s, or as southern-style rap music did in the early 2000s? How are different audiences approaching these styles?

Diffusion of Innovations

          One tool that can be useful in understanding the diffusion of media, and the understanding thereof, is Everett Roger’s theory of the diffusion of innovations. Rogers posited that innovators create a product, a small number of early adopters–those eager to try new innovations– help spread this product, a much larger group of secondary adopters–those who may be more cautious about the product until they see it in use– spike the use of the product, later adopters join in when the product’s popularity is declining, and so on. The diffusion thus appears as a bell curve, with a clear peak and an eventual decline.

“]//cq-pan.cqu.edu.au/david-jones/Reading/Adoption/onweb/  [Accessed 6 October 2008]

 

Though this model was intended to help understand marketing and consumer habits, it can easily be applied to the habits of individuals approaching any medium. This theory, importantly, places the responsibility for a product’s success (be the product physical, like a computer, ephemeral, like a web site, or theoretical, like an ideology) in the hands of the users. The user is the base from which the innovation extends.

          Through exploring how innovations are developed and how they are adopted and spread we begin to develop an understanding of the users: by studying the “extension of man” we are necessarily studying the “man.”  The innovators and the early adopters, as sets of users who actively create and spread products much the same way as the high school youth group leader or college professor, are arguably the most responsible for influencing how the product is understood and interpreted by later adopters. Analyzing how innovators and early adopters spread products and make choices is tantamount to studying both the products and the users at the earliest levels.

Applying the Diffusion of Innovations: Research Directions

          Growing up in the developing digital and web-culture of the Internet boom in the 1990s, I have been witness to several innovations that have had radical effects on the larger society, causing McLuhanian “deep and lasting changes… and transforming environments.” Two particular innovators, whose media developments have significantly transformed environments in surprisingly different ways, are Apple and Google. Both companies have successfully influenced huge amounts of early adopters to spread their products to the extent that the products are now ubiquitous and have caused “deep and lasting changes” to the way we approach media and, by extension, life.

Despite significant, and nearly unparalleled, influence over the early adopters–certainly the larger culture no longer watches Microsoft or AOL’s developments with the same interest–these two companies operate quite differently. Apple has branded itself so that the CEO, Steve Jobs, is personally associated with any given innovation whereas Google is branded to appear either anonymous, as with the Google search tool and Gmail, or collective, as with YouTube. Thus Apple structures its innovations to be diffused ‘top down:’ Steve Jobs is the innovator who spreads iTunes, Macbooks, and iPhones; physical products that profit Apple by continuing to serve as marketplaces (the iTunes store or the App store on the iPhone).  Conversely Google is ‘bottom up:’ the individual users are given the appearance of having control of the innovation at least at some level, as with targeted advertising to match search results and history; Google’s profit comes not from the users purchasing products but from the advertisers using Google as a means to reaching consumers.

          I would like to explore more deeply how these two innovators operate, but just as much I would like to explore the connections between the early adopters for each. Because both Apple and Google are among the most popular innovators in the Web and digital technology world they share several interested users who make up the class of early adopters. How are the early adopters interpreting Apple and Google, and how are they spreading their interpretations?

Future Directions and Conclusions

          This is but one aspect of the innovator/early adopter model that I would like to apply to understanding media and how it serves as an extension of man. In the future I would be interested in further exploring the social implications of the Roger’s theory of the diffusion of innovation—how does this theory speak to what “cool” is, in terms of social currency; how do former early adopters react to the demise/failure of innovations like HD-DVD or a political candidate like Hillary Clinton; how do the late majority and laggards interpret new innovations prior to adoption?

          The interdisciplinary model of the New School’s Media Studies masters program is designed to encourage the sort of analytical, critical thinking I developed during my undergraduate years. Because I am interested in specifically exploring the developing digital media landscape, the online program and production courses will allow immersion in the language and tools of media creation. At the same time, blended production and theory courses encourages forming connections and experiencing multiple interpretations to the same medium. Forming and building upon the groundwork of understanding media is essential to growth as a teacher, as a historian, as a political scientist, as an artist, as a craftsman, as a person.

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Written by Tyler Baber

October 21, 2008 at 3:16 pm

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