Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
  Shaping and Being Shaped, by Daniel Chandler

The Transformation of Purpose

The selectivity of any medium may lead to its use having influences of which the user may not always be conscious, and which may not have been part of the purpose in using it. We can be so familiar with the medium that we are "anesthetized" to the mediation it involves: we "don't know what we're missing." Insofar as we are numbed to the processes involved we cannot be said to be exercising "choices" in its use. In this way the means we use may modify our ends. Amongst the phenomena enhanced or reduced by media selectivity are the ends for which a medium was used. Since it may be impossible to foresee all the consequences of our use of a medium, such use tends to be accompanied by "unintentional side-effects" (Winner 1977, pp. 88-100). In such cases, our "purposes" are subtly, and often invisibly, redefined.

Langdon Winner refers to this as reverse adaptation, or "the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means" (ibid., p. 229).

This is the opposite of the pragmatic and rationalistic stance, according to which the means are chosen to suit the user's ends, and are entirely under the user's control. How much it matters to us that our ends are transformed by our media depends on whether such transformations seem to us to be in general harmony with our overall intentions: "side-effects" can, of course, be "positive" as well as "negative". But we are seldom (if ever) so detached in our use of media that we can assess the phenomenon in all of its complexity. Since side-effects can also be immediate or delayed (short-, medium- or long-term), they may need a historical perspective too. And as dynamic processes which are enmeshed with others, they elude our attempts to identify them. Subtle side-effects of our use of media may escape our notice, but they may -- nevertheless be profound.


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