Wednesday, October 27, 2010


by Drew Martin

We often think of media as a direct flow from creator to audience or the back and forth of interactive users. Whether it's the lone Russian novelist meticulously crafting a story or a call-in radio talk show, we reason there is intent followed by labor/performance/usage, which results in a book, broadcast, episode, movie, website, etc.

Media, however, is not so cause and effect: not so obvious. One can write simply to create a way of thinking...and one can take notes not for the sake of taking notes, but simply for the enhancement of memory, which is the side effect of the process. One can also write letters and then tear them up...letters to relatives, lovers, politicians and authorities. The letter exists not to exist.

The potential of existing and reaching the supposed target holds drama and suspense. Think of how well Vladimir Nabakov plays on this tension in Lolita. He extracts the adult-moralist conscious in what might as well be a letter of confession and embeds this in the character of Lolita's mother. Instead of having Humbert write and then destroy the confession, Lolita's mother writes a letter to expose Humbert but is run over and killed while darting across the street to mail it. In the linear narrative of the novel this little media interjection opens the book up to consequential possibilities and leaves us on edge until the end.

The function of this kind of letter for us in real life is to release ideas from our minds. Externalizing a thought, frees it from the burden of concealment: from what feels like a physical enclosure within our heads. It's a common therapy, isn't it? Though my mother always told me, you should never write anything you don't want the whole world to see. So true.

The duality of purpose and non-purpose is an important concept in media. In many regards most media exist but simultaneously don't exist. Sometimes people see movies together, whether they realize it or not, just to be sit side by side and continue to discuss them only to have a conversation. I am not criticizing that kind of involvement and interaction, simply pointing out that the movie itself is not so important and that going to see and discussing a movie both parties hate may be, in the end, more bonding of an experience than seeing something they both love.

Scholars of media, may literally stand with their backs to the screen, watching an audience as intensely as that audience follows the action. Outside of academia, there is even a whole genre of reactionary postings on YouTube of people reacting to shocking footage for the first time. The person recording the expression assumes we, the viewers, understand what is being watched, so the only thing in frame is the expression of surprise, disgust, etc.

I have written before about how art is helpful for archaeologists in placing artifacts, and I have heard (perhaps its an urban legend) that some universities use pornographic films to study period pieces of furniture. My father told me that when he was working on his Ph.D. in nuclear physics, he and his colleagues used the steady signal from Russian satellites as a constant to determine the varying strength of the Ionosphere. What these three ideas share is that they approach a medium beyond the original intent, which suggests there are undiscovered worlds to all media.

We are at a point in technological history where media is reclaiming the interactivity of the public square. What we have grown to understand as the linear narrative is merely a result of one-way media: books and movies could only really function properly in one direction, compared to a story teller, who can cater to the age, size, background and cues of a crowd. Likewise, a comedian can stop and ask the audience a question and then proceed accordingly to the responses.

Sites such as attempt to be über-relational in order to "personalize the Internet", but media is still a far way from the dynamic comedian taking the pulse of the audience. We still operate by being selective from the start: by knowing which comedians we like and what genre of movies we prefer. Perhaps there will be a time when websites can react to our laughter and be able to switch from an archives of comedians so that a joke by Richard Pryor is followed by George Carlin and then Joan Rivers, just to keep us rolling beyond the isolated skit.

Perhaps one film can have multiple ratings but play according to the audience it senses or have a slight change in plot and end depending on how many times the viewer has seen it. In the 1980s, books and movies attempted this. Some books had the reader jumping back and forth to different pages according to choices he or she made and some movies released different endings but the choice itself was disruptive and knowing that there were different endings turned out to not be that big of a surprise.

While advanced Google algorithms and efforts by to amass as much information about you to customize your preferences, the less obvious approach will happen when the computer notices which shoes you are wearing, can comment on your tattoo, or detects when you are down and need some cheering up.