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

Selectivity and Media

In the context of "a phenomenology of human-machine relations", Don Ihde, a philosopher, has analyzed the selectivity of technology, arguing that human experiences are transformed by the use of instruments, which "amplify" or "reduce" phenomena in various ways. As he put it: "Technologies organize, select and focus the environment through various transformational structures" (Ihde 1979, p. 53). Prior to Ihde, Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis had also explored the selectivity of media, although their focus had been primarily on the social "effects" of various media of communication. Innis had argued in The Bias of Communication (1951) that each form of communication involved a "bias" in its handling of space and time (see Carey 1968, & 1989, Ch. 6). And McLuhan, in books such as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and The Medium is the Massage (sic, McLuhan & Fiore 1967) had asserted that the use of particular media "massages" human "sense ratios" (allusions to which are also found in Innis). More recently, Neil Postman has reinterpreted McLuhan's aphorism that "the medium is the message" as meaning that "embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another" (Postman 1993, p. 13).

The selectivity of a medium arises from the way in which it formalizes phenomena within its own constraints. Any medium facilitates, emphasizes, intensifies, amplifies, enhances or extends certain kinds of use or experience whilst inhibiting, restricting or reducing other kinds. Of course, our use of any medium for a particular task may have advantages over "the alternatives" (such as "saving" time or labour), but use always involves a "cost." There are losses as well as gains. A medium closes some doors as well as opening others, excludes as well as includes, distorts as well as clarifies, conceals as well as reveals, denies as well as affirms, destroys as well as creates. The selectivity of media tends to suggest that some aspects of experience are important or relevant and that others are unimportant or irrelevant. Particular realities are thus made more or less accessible--more or less "real"--by different processes of mediation.

The routine use of a medium by someone who knows how to use it typically passes unquestioned as unproblematic and "neutral": this is hardly surprising since media evolve as a means of accomplishing --purposes in which they are usually intended to be incidental. And the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more "transparent" or "invisible" to its users it tends to become. For most routine purposes, awareness of a medium may hamper its effectiveness as a means to an end. Indeed, it is typically when the medium acquires transparency that its potential to fulfill its primary function is greatest.

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