Christian’s excellent introduction to Lev Manovicht focused in part on the power of the medium to shape communication. The term “medium” refers to the communicative substrate that we chose to “fix” a given message, different examples include: print, radio, film, television, web and so on. What’s fascinating about media is how they invariably shape both how a message is expressed and how it is perceived. Marshall McLuhan encapsulated this concept when he famously said that “the medium is the message”, by which he sought to describe how the unique strengths, limitations and evocative powers of a given medium will exert forces on the message being communicated that can approach the significance of the very content being communicated, sometimes even eclipsing it. And it happens on both ends – media shape both the creation of communication and interpretation of communication.
This idea that the “vessels” of communication shape the content that they hold is important to understand in order to create effective expressions of meaning, since it’s always, and invariably, part of the mix. Thus, designers and artists (amongst others) have been examining the nature of abstracted forms of meaning for ages. For instance, let’s consider a very basic form of visual communication: the symbol. A guy named Rene Magrite did once back in the early 20th century in his painting The Treachery of Images:
For those of you who don’t read French, the caption reads “This is not a pipe.” And, it’s true. It isn’t a pipe – it’s a painting of a pipe. In fact, what you’re looking at is (to paraphrase Scott McCloud), is not a pipe but rather a digital image of a painting of a pipe. Get it? It’s interesting how seamlessly we accept symbolic representations for real concepts and things. While it’s necessary for visual communication to work, it’s also dangerous when you consider the possibility that symbols can carry unintended, or even intended, “mis-meaning”.
Instead of going further, I’d like to stop here and ask what you think about all of this. What do you think about what McLuhan and Manovich are saying about the power of medium to shape messages? For good or for bad? And what about this “treacherous” potential for subversion in symbolic representations of meaning?