Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Computer as a Medium

Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying that "the medium is the message." Strangely, it seems to me that his stock hasn't really risen (a curiously market-informed metaphor now that I think of it, but never mind), despite the fact that his other sound-bite, the "global village" seems to have been a home run of a prediction. For stories or other creative works that are presented on a computer, the medium -- the computer -- may not be the message, but it's such a significantly different medium from any previous creative form that it deserves its own analysis, and until we have fully assimilated it into our culture, the medium will indeed be part of the message.

First, computers can serve as visual or aural media, or, in the overhyped term of the mid 90s, multimedia (what in high school we called "audio-visual"). This isn't particularly new - the arrival of sound in film (or the use of live music integrated with silent films earlier) unified these two senses decades ago. Everything new is old again; even that was just a return to the live theater (but with a curious loss of dimensionality). Second, computer media is potentially generative; a large (and in some cases infinite) number of potential incarnations of a given creation can possibly exist, depending on random numbers, user interactions, or other input. This generative aspect is based on the fact that, unlike most other forms of media, computer media can receive input from the audience.

From the point of view of computers, this all sounds painfully obvious. Computers have screens! Computers can take input, and then respond in some pre-programmed way! But when matched up against our expectations of media, of creative work, of literature, this is all new and unusual. And to the extent to which our preconceived notions of literature are more limited than our capabilities as creators in this new medium, it is often our imaginations that limit our creation.