The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 1

Last week, posted a review of Tim ChalliesThe Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion from engineer Erik Eekhoff.

One thing that caught my eye was Eekhoff’s critique of Challies’ use of terms like mediated and unmediated (it caught Justin Taylor‘s eye as well). Eekhoff brings up some great points, some of which will be applicable to my own book on technology and faith (out August 2011, hint, hint) so in the next few posts, I want to spend some time distinguishing between various ways we use terms like medium, mediated, and mediator in hopes of providing some clarity on such matters.

Note: For the plural of medium I use the term mediums rather than media because media can be associated with so many other ideas like “the news media.”

What is a Medium?

In the simplest and broadest definition possible, a medium is a thing between two other things, like the medium sized Carl’s Jr. drink you see pictured above.

But when we talk about mediums in relation to technology and communication, we are concerned with how that middle thing transfers (or mediates) something between the two things on either side of it. We use the two terms I’ve introduced (medium and mediate) and their derivatives (mediator, mediated, immediate, etc.) in a variety of uses in different contexts which I’ve divided into five categories, the first two of which we’ll cover here.

1. Medium as Connection

When I was a kid my dad – who was doctor – showed me how to hear by brother’s heartbeat with his stethoscope. He also helped us make a telephone from two cans and a long strong which my siblings and I used to send secret messages to one another. Both of those devices – the stethoscope and telephone – function as mediums because they literally and physically stood between two people mediating sound between them.

Three things are worth pointing out about mediums that physically stand between two parties. First, for the medium to work properly the people on either end of it must use it synchronously, or at the same time. Second, the medium will enable an interaction that humans can’t naturally do. Thirdly, the medium will at the same time disable something that humans can naturally do in the absence of the medium.

For example, the telephone enables physically distant people to hear one another’s voices, but while we are using it our ability to interact directly with the people around us is disabled. Likewise, the stethoscope enables a doctor to hear a person’s heartbeat, but it temporarily disables normal speaking.

But not all mediums function in this direct relationship as we’ll see in the next case.

2. Medium as Transference

Several years ago, my brothers and I backpacked through Europe and while passing through Paris we visited the Louvre and saw the famous Mona Lisa. We also use the term medium to refer to the material an artist like Da Vinci uses – in this case canvas and oil paint. But as I stood there in the Lourve, the painting wasn’t literally between Da Vinci and me. (In fact, if Da Vinci were still alive, he could stand behind me making me the medium point between himself and the browless beauty!)

Even when something isn’t directly between two people, we still refer to it as a medium because it transfers (or mediation) something between two parties. But unlike the direct mediums above that must be used synchronously, the use of these mediums is a two stage process.

First, the painter (or writer or photographer) creates something with a medium. Then, later, a second person consumes the content that resides on the medium. Letters, movies, photographs, and stone tablets are all mediums where creation and consumption of content happen asynchronously.

You might have noticed that in the above paragraph I made a distinction between content and medium, but one of the big points that is often made about mediums is that the medium and the content can’t always be easily separated. For example, the Mona Lisa (the content) wouldn’t be the same if it were remade using a different medium like cartoons or movies. This is in part because people react to the same content differently depending on the medium used to mediate the content. By now, we’ve probably all learned this the hard that people often interpret the same content differently depending on whether it comes in an emails, text messages, hand-written notes, or in person.

One way of explaining this is to go beyond the simple idea that mediums only transfer content and instead say that the medium itself is “content,” or that the medium itself has meaning.

But when we do this, we’ve introduced a tricky problem that we’ll deal with in the next post under Medium as Environment and Medium as Language.


Toy → Tool → Environment: The Progression of How We Use Technology

A few weeks ago I had the rare pleasure of meeting an fellow as interesting as Chris Ridgeway. Chris currently works in church fundraising, but he did his master’s thesis on media ecology under Scot McKnight, and he has some great ideas about technology and culture.

One of the most interesting things he mentioned to me was his theorythat our use of technology goes through three basic stages:

  1. Toy – Our first reaction to a new tool is usually to stare in awe and mumble something like, “Whoooooah…” Remember when you first saw Google and just start typing random things to see what would come up? Remember when you saw FaceTime and video-called people because you wanted to try it out?
  2. Tool – Over time we begin to see the usefulness of a system, and we start using it for more for its function than its ability to interest us. In other words, we stop playing with it and starting using it. Still, when we use something in the “tool” stage, it feels like a special, distinct way of doing something.
  3. Environment – Eventually, we stop noticing the device as something out-of-the-ordinary and begin to see it as a normal part of our everyday environment. No one thinks of tables or chairs as technology, even though one day long ago they were new interesting tools.

Emails vs. Sending and Texts vs. Telling

Let’s take email for example. When most of us first encountered email, it seemed like something from the future, and we said things like, “Cool, you have e-mail?” Even the dash indicated that was a foreign concept to us.

Over time, we all got pretty good at email and began to see it not just as a “toy,” but as a useful and even essential “tool” even for someone who isn’t super tech savvy like my mom. But if you listen to someone like my mom carefully, you’ll hear them says things like, “I’m gonna go do email.” Email is no longer a toy to them, but they still see it as a unique tool which needs to be treated differently than something more familiar like a phone. Contrast that with someone who no longer talks about “email” itself and simply says, “Could you send that to me?” The fact that they use only a verb (send) without mentioning the specific technology means that the technology has moved from being a “tool” to being just part of their “environment” as natural and common as a chair, table, or light.

What about texting? For many adults, mobile phone text messaging is still a “tool.” You can hear it when they say, “Can you send me a text with the details” or  “Can you text me the details?” Contrast this with a teen who might say, “Susie told me she’s gonna be 10 minutes late.” The teen omits any reference to the specific means of communication (call, text, email, etc.) and simply uses a verb (told), because all of those are part of her ordinary life, and they don’t warrant a distinction. For her, texting is an environmental technology.

What does it mean?

I think this is a helpful way for us to open up discussion about how we view the technology we and the people around us use.

When a technology becomes a part of our environment, we are usually more effective in using it and yet less aware of how it might shape our thinking and actions. When we still see technology as a toy or a tool, we probably are not yet able to unlock its full potential. At the same time, we might find ourselves in conflict with a younger person who grew up with the technology and uses it different since it’s a perfectly natural part of his environment.

I’d love to hear if you find this distinction helpful and where you’ve seen it.

Technology is a Yellow Light

Discerning the Lights

The green light on a traffic signal always means “go” while the red light always means “stop.”

The yellow light, however, isn’t so simple. Sometimes you need to slow down and stop, other times it’s best to continue with your current speed, and still other times you might need to speed up a bit to be safe.

Knowing the difference requires discernment.

When it comes to technology, it would be nice if every device could be neatly classified into “green” (you should use it without further thought) or “red” (never, ever use it) categories, but in reality technology is almost always a yellow light requiring careful and thoughtful discernment.

Being the Messenger

Being discerning about technology means that one must understand both the positive benefits a technology can bring as well as the negative tradeoffs that come with it. Without accurate knowledge of both, it’s easy to make bad decisions.

Continue reading Technology is a Yellow Light

This Lent: What is the Perlocutionary Effect of Your Twitter Feed?

Beyond Facts

Take a look at these two sentences

Those two people are married.


I now pronounce you man and wife.

Think for a minute – what’s the difference between the two?

The first is simply a statement about the way things are. But the second one is something more than a statement – it’s an action. When a minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” he’s not telling us they are married, he’s actually joining the two people together. Continue reading This Lent: What is the Perlocutionary Effect of Your Twitter Feed?

Martin Buber on Beautiful Girls vs. Sexy Gadgets

Beyoncé vs Beyoncé

Have you noticed the trend in TV ads recently that show a man deciding between an impossibly beautiful women and a fancy new gadget? If not, here’s probably the most obvious one where we see whether a man on a couch will choose the onscreen Beyoncé or the real Beyoncé:

And here’s another commercial with a slightly different take in which a man confuses his girlfriend, his favorite football player, and his phone.

In these ads we can point out the obvious trend of men beginning to prefer women on screens to a woman in the flesh. It seems that even poor supermodels and singers are beginning to lose out to digitally enhanced versions of themselves. But I’d like to suggest that something more fundamental than the battle between screen and flesh is going on with our gadgets today, and to help us understand what’s going on I’d like to introduce a twentieth century philosopher named Martin Buber.

Continue reading Martin Buber on Beautiful Girls vs. Sexy Gadgets

Is 30 The Breaking Point for Technology?

Computer scientist Alan Kay (the guy who invented the stackable-windows computer interface we all use today) once defined technology as “anything invented after you were born” to make the point that people usually don’t consider “old” things like automobiles or chairs to be technology. For my parents, 8-track tapes were technology, but they aren’t for me. But  MP3s are technology to me, while my kids won’t think of them that way.

Way back in 1999 Douglas Adams extended Kay’s definition and outlined three classifications that people use (often unknowingly) when they think about “technology.” (his words are in quotes, I’ve added the bold titles to clarify it)

  1. Before Me = Not Technology: “everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal”
  2. Me + 30 = Awesome Technology: “anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;”
  3. Me + 30 + 1 = Evil Technology: “anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.”

So what do you think? Have you seen this play our in your church or job? Do you ever personally think this way? I’m 31 and now that I have 2 small kids, I sometimes find myself more wary of newer technology compared to things I grew up with. How about you?

Information Needs a Compass, Not a Clock

For the March/April issue of COLLIDE Magazine, I wrote an article called “Information Needs a Compass, Not a Clock.”

The thesis is that too often we value information on the basis of how new it is rather than on its capacity to shape our souls for good. We have dozens of ways to access “real time” information, but in reality there are very few cases (other than entertainment) where real time data is truly helpful. In other words,

Even firemen only use fire hoses when it’s really, really necessary.

Go check it out: Information Needs a Compass, Not a Clock

Presentation: Technology in the Kingdom, Society, and Your Life

Two weeks ago, I gave a breakout session for the Electronic Gospel conference put on by Dallas Theological Seminary and headlined by Shane Hipps.

You can order the audio of the keynotes and breakout sessions (including Scott McClellan of Collide magazine and Bill Buchanan from Irving Bible Church) from the Center for Christian Leadership resource center, but I’m posting my slides here since I haven’t posted a talk in a while.

Here’s what’s in it:

  • 00:00-07:41 – Introduction of me and the topic
  • 07:42-22:38 – Technology in the Biblical Story (with a 5 minute audience discussion)
  • 22:39-36:50 – Technology in Society, theory from Postman, McLuhan, Ellul, etc.
  • 36:51-53:21 – Technology in Your Life

Continue reading Presentation: Technology in the Kingdom, Society, and Your Life

Defining the Word “Technology” … Four Times

Technology, like “art,” is not a terribly easy word to define. It turns out that some philosophers have already done a decent job of parceling out categories, and I think they are helpful enough to list them out here. These definitions come from Stephen J. Kline’s 1985 article “What is Technology” found in the Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society.

1. Technology as Hardware – this is the basic level that most of us mean when we use the word “technology.” As a piece of hardware (or an “artifact” for the anthropologist or “cultural good” for the sociologist), “technology” could be a clock, a shovel, a laptop, a belt, a thermometer, a can of root beer, a canteen, a tank, or a fake duck decoy. These are basically things do not occur “naturally” – which, for theists, are things God himself did not make. [As commenter Eric pointed out, this is a very broad definition which overlaps with things we would normally call art. I would also point out that this definition encompasses things that animals might make like bees’ hives and beavers’ dams.]

2. Technology as Manufacturing – taking a step back from the devices in our pockets and on our desks (and the desk itself) are the things that are used to make all these other things. Technology as manufacturing includes not just about the vat holding the molten steel for our next car or the robot putting together our next computer, but also the entire process (or “sociotechnical system,” as the philosophers say) from the people running the machines to the electrical grid powering the plant to the legislation passed that regulates the industry. This conception of technology was largely non-existent before the Industrial Revolution.

Continue reading Defining the Word “Technology” … Four Times