All posts by georgews

Medium parameters

In my undergraduate thesis I gave a list of properties of mediums—variables which differ from medium to medium. My initial list of properties was based completely on my own observations of different mediums, i.e. “made up”. As such there may be better and worse ways (in an explanatory sense) to parameterize mediums.

(By “parametarize mediums” I mean “create a set of parameters that can be used to describe different mediums in a common way”. One simplistic way to parametarize fruits, for instance, would be to consider any fruit to be a combination of a shape, a color, and a taste. Under this parameterization, a banana would be understood simply as a yellow, curved, mild fruit while an orange would be an orange, round, tart fruit. A different way to parameterize fruits would be to consider them each a combination of a size, an origin plant type (tree vs. shrub, etc.), and a number of seeds. Any parameterization misses some information and emphasizes other information, just like how a map of a city might highlight the location of subway entrances without showing where there are hills, or conversely could highlight the area’s topology while ignoring subway entrances.)

The idea I have right now is to make this post a living document where I can record and iterate upon my parameterization of mediums, adding new parameters, splitting apart or combining others, and so on, towards an explanatorily helpful framework for defining different mediums. I don’t have a particularly well-defined system for doing this yet, but I anticipate that too will be part of what I iterate on over time. For now I’m just feeling out what makes sense based on the interactions I have with different people via different mediums.


Here’s my current parameterization of mediums (already modified somewhat from the latest version in my thesis). The idea is that any medium could be (incompletely, but usefully) described as some particular configuration of the following variables:

  • Accessibility (along various dimensions): More of an entire category of dimensions, accessibility refers to the ways in which, for each possible configuration of physical and mental functions and structures, a medium is usable by people with that configuration. For example, oral speech is not accessible to someone who is deaf, although signed conversation is, as are writing and Twitter. Often the word “accessibility” is focused on the ways in which a medium is usable by people whose physical and mental apparatuses differ from “the norm”, however, I see accessibility as including the ways in which a medium is usable by people whose physical and mental apparatuses are similar to dominant society’s “norms”. Taking this approach avoids constructing broad categories of “normal” and “abnormal” (which I suspect are more often harmful than they are helpful), turning “accessibility” from a set of “yes/no” dimensions (along the lines of “is this usable by people who are ‘abnormal’ with respect to x?”) to a more general “by whom is this usable?” question. (For instance, rather than considering a 28 inch countertop generally “accessible” and a 36 inch countertop generally“inaccessible” or “normal”, I would consider a 28 inch countertop “accessible to people around 4 feet tall”—a category which includes some adults identified as Little People as well as some children—and a 36 inch countertop as “accessible to people around 5 to 6 feet tall”.) This approach is in keeping with Nick Pentzell’s claim that “everyone’s life has restrictions and requires accommodations—it’s just that many of these have become accepted by society and go unnoticed as such”. Ultimately, then, the set of dimensions under the umbrella of “accessibility” are asking “for what configurations of physical and mental functions and structures”—or, more succinctly, “for whom”—is this medium useful?
  • Audience Valence: Are communications in this medium one-to-many people (e.g. a tweet), one-to-one (e.g. a text message), many-to-one (e.g. a widely-signed petition to a representative), or many-to-many (e.g. a chalk talk)?
  • Dimensionality: How many dimensions of an idea can be structurally represented by the medium? For example, a table with rows and columns can directly represent two dimensions of an object or idea simultaneously. Most media can gesture towards multidimensional ideas, but few can represent them directly.
  • Dynamicness (or “Adaptability”): Can the medium adapt to various contexts and inputs? Does the same communication always take the same form regardless of its recipient (making the medium static), or can the recipient influence how the idea is communicated (making the medium dynamic)?
  • Immediacy: How much time passes between a representation being generated in the medium by its originator and being consumed by its recipient? Does the originator of a communication revise their communication before it is received by its recipient(s)? Are the answers to these questions fairly consistent across uses of this medium, or do they vary between uses?
  • Persistence ↔︎ Ephemerality: Do representations created in the medium decay or disappear over time, or even immediately (as in oral speech)? Or do they stick around until they’re explicitly destroyed?
  • Privacy ↔︎ Publicity: Does the originator of a communication have control over who does and doesn’t receive it? Who can “discover” the communication, and how?
  • Reversibility: Can the originator revoke/delete/destroy a communication such that it is no longer discoverable?
  • Interconnectedness: Are different representations of the same idea within a communication structurally connected in any way (beyond the originators’ and recipients’ potential recognition that they are related)? (In other words, does the medium provide a structure to indicate that the “same” idea is being referred to in different places?)
  • Outerconnectedness: Are communications within the medium completely self-contained? Or do the “link” in some way to communications outside the medium? If so, to what extent, and how?
  • Transparency: Is the “theory” of the medium explicit and visible? Do originators and recipients of communications within the medium know why the medium is structured the way it is?
  • Summarizability/Overviewability: Can the same idea be viewed at different levels of detail within the medium? Can it be viewed at different levels of abstraction? Does the medium only support abstract overviews of an idea (e.g. the brevity of Twitter) or in-depth elaborations of an idea (e.g. the length of books)? Does the same medium represent the same idea in multiple ways?
  • Progressiveness of Disclosure: Do representations within the medium reveal an idea gradually, or all at once? Is it possible to “jump ahead” in the medium, or is the only way to get to a certain point in the idea to go “through” the ideas leading up to it?
  • Fidelity: How much information is transferred at once in the communication? Does this information include meta-communication, or information about the communicators’ emotional/psychological/physiological states while communicating?
  • Anonymity: Is the identity of the communicator(s)? known to the recipient(s)? Is the identity of the recipient(s) known to the communicator(s)? (Is there scoping of identities, where one side of the communication knows that the other side of the communication belongs to a particular subset of all people, but not who they are specifically?)

In my (non-meta) “Mediums” posts on this website, these (or earlier/later versions of these) will be the parameters I use to describe different mediums. Having a common parameterization of mediums (though I recognize making this a living document undermines some of that commonness) helps us compare different mediums. Comparing the combination of “red, round, and sweet” with the combination of “orange, round, and tart” lets us meaningfully compare (some aspects of) apples to (some aspects of) oranges.

Why have a section on “mediums”?

The way we communicate affects what we communicate. This is a core premise of my undergraduate thesis, a core premise of this blog, and a core reason for having a section devoted to different “mediums”, or ways of communicating.

What do I mean?

Consider the sentence, “Humans should stop eating animals.” Imagine how you might respond to seeing that sentence as a post on Facebook, and, alternatively, at the top of an empty argument map. (Perhaps you’ve just come across a new argument mapping program and this is an example sentence used in their tutorial.) Actually imagine this for a moment; look at a clock, start imagining, and scroll down when you’ve imagined for a minute or more.

A group of eighth graders I presented my thesis to in December, 2018 thought that someone posting that sentence on Facebook would “get attacked”—so people seeing it, presumably people who disagree with it, would be inlclined to “attack” the poster—whereas upon encountering it on an argument map the same people would be inclined to “list reasons for and against it”. (Perhaps you thought something similar, or perhaps you imagined something completely different. Either way, my guess was that you would imagine something different happening in each medium. Of course, I’m curious if that’s not what you thought, too.)

Making a related argument to these eigth graders, Derek Powazek suspects that if someone set out to create an “argument machine”—a social machine designed to generate as many heated arguments as possible among the people involved—it would end up looking a lot like Twitter.

In both the eigth graders’ imagined responses to the sentence about eating animals, and Powazek’s thinking about an “argument machine”, there is a recognition that the way we communicate—that is, the medium we use to communicate—affects how and even what we communicate.

There’s a rather well-known dictum on this sentiment from Masrhall McLuhan which states that “the medium is the message”. While I don’t hold that the medium completely determines the message as this quote might be interpreted to say (and I don’t know enough about McLuhan to know whether or not that’s what he meant), I do think that the medium influences the message in ways that are quite neglected given their significance.


Why is that a premise of this website, and how does it relate to the idea of “children as theorists”? If the broad hypothesis that the medium influences the message is true, then children’s inclination to theorize, and the theories they create, are shaped by the medium they’re using to do so. And—crucially—other children’s or adult’s ability to successfully internalize a child’s shared theories—that is, the message that’s received—may differ based on the medium used to communcate it. We might hear something completely different from what a child wanted to communicate.

A child might be able to explain something better verbally than in writing, for instance. Or, feeling limited by their spelling (or handwriting, or mechanics, or something else associated with the medium of writing), they may simply choose to write something else in response to a question than they might say in response to that same question. In both cases, both the intended message and the received message may differ based on which medium is used to communicate.

If we want to co-theorize better forms of education with children—the people most affected by it—then we need mediums that do an exceptionally good job of supporting them to communicate the things they really want to communicate, and supporting the recipients of these messages—both other children and adults—to deeply “get” what they’re communicating.


If we consider the ways in which we’re all still, and always, “children”—such as our need for scaffolding and the right schema to think certain thoughts, which doesn’t go away when we grow older—then the imperative to imagine better communicative mediums becomes even greater.

If significant portions of our political discourse take place in an “argument machine”, if our thinking about who to support is done in a medium whose existence is funded by ads which can be designed to achieve someone else’s goals without regard for your values, and if our sharing about that thinking is done in the many mediums with mechanisms for sharing others’ thoughts out of context, with “like” buttons that implicitly ask not “do I understand this?” but rather “do I agree with this?”, then…

We might feel frequent fatigue about how others perceive us and our views, and hear a lot of people talking about “political polarization”. We might elect leaders we didn’t mean to elect, or wouldn’t have elected if our exploitable psychological fears could have had less of an influence and our values could have had more. And we might feel unsafe in the places we conduct our social discourse, pressured to present ourselves in ways we won’t be targeted or judged for more than ways that reflect our deepest selves.

If the last paragraph seems to you to follow from the one before it, then you understand how our mediums can influence our communication. If the last paragraph sounds to you like an all-too-familiar reality, then you understand why this website has a whole section devoted to better understanding this problem—a section on “mediums”.

An invitation to ideate together

I first encountered the word “ideation” when I took Shawn Blanc’s Focus Course in January 2017, kicking off a new, and markedly transformed, season of my time at Swarthmore College after returning from studying abroad in Costa Rica the semester before. Shawn introduces Focus Course students to the practice of ideation by asking them to—get ready for it—”Write down 10 ideas.” He gives you some possible topics (10 people you want to get to know better, 10 books you wish existed, 10 books you hope never exist…) and sends you on your way.

So… “brainstorming”, right? Basically, yeah. And, at the same time, there was something about approaching this process as “ideation” that unlocked something for me that “brainstorming” had never unlocked before. Maybe it’s just the words—”ideation” sounds inspiring to me, like a fountain of ideas, where “brainstorming” sounds, well… *stormy*. And *brainy*. What about the *mind*? The heart?—but the thought of “ideating” energized me, and when I tried “ideating” my visions of what my ideal semester might look like, what exciting and unexpected things I might be doing… I came up with a list that was, indeed, exciting and unexpected. What’s more, many of the things on that list actually ended up happening! And many of them wouldn’t have, had I not first ideated them. The “marked transformation” of my time at Swarthmore I mentioned above is due in no small part to the introduction of ideation into my toolkit. That first ideation in Shawn Blanc’s Focus Course was a key link in the causal chain that led to my living a significantly reimagined semester.

Whether you call this ideating or brainstorming (and really, it makes little difference to me—it just took the different name to get me to see this), I invite you to see that there is a *really important* process here that can transform our thinking and our lives if we make the time to do it *intentionally*.

How exactly is ideation so transformative? *Let me ideate the ways…*

  • It is a tool for finding parts of “the territory” not yet (consciously) on our “maps”
  • It brings subconscious knowledge into the realm of the conscious
  • Ideation, in an **impressively short amount of time**, can have an **impressively large impact on overcoming “stuckness”** in many forms
  • Ideation can help us decide what to write about [it is a powerful tool for prewriting]
  • Ideation can help us decide what to *do*, by helping us realize what options we even have
  • Ideation can help us “feel miraculous” [link a.m.b.], inspiring us to act with confidedence [link e.y.], by showing us how much more we know than we know we know [link… …someone]
  • More on ideation as prewriting: you can ideate a bunch of associations [finding the associations you didn’t know you had], then filter through these associations for the things that feel most imporant, then start clustering these associations into key and related points, then start seeing if, and how, they might hang together in an argument, then going back and ideating all over again…
  • Ideation helps you discover, and remember, connections
  • Ideation is fun, it feels good—**ideation can change your mental state from one of frustration and “stuckness” to one of joy and excitement in a matter of minutes**, which is useful even if the thing you’re ideating about isn’t the thing you’re trying to do, and *especially* if it is
  • Ideation is adaptable: a vast range of situations and problems can be shaped into questions or prompts that are useful to ideate on
  • Ideation helps you *know yourself better*—the associations you come up with serve as a window into the way things are linked together in your mind
  • Ideation is “cheap”: it takes very little time, and no preparation—and yet it frequently yields significant rewards

…I feel like I could keep going, and I also feel like I may have started to convince some folks? 🙂

That list was, genuinely, “ideated” in the way I usually “ideate”: I didn’t plan it in advance, I just started writing. I didn’t delete anything from the list, just kept adding. Writing it took about 8 minutes: I wrote quickly, made an effort not to evaluate the ideas as I went, and made an effort to write everything which came to mind about the value of ideation (my ideation “topic”).

I’m not saying ideation is any kind of “complete solution” for any particular class of problems—there are certianly things it’s not and things it can’t do. I’m simply saying it’s a *powerful* and often underappreciated tool for advancing the things we care about. If it’s not something that’s already in your toolkit, I recommend adding it.

In fact… before you read any further, whether you’ve done this before or not, go spend 8 minutes in The Most Dangerous Writing App (which will delete what you write if you stop typing for more than 5 seconds—a great way to turn off your inner editor), and *ideate a list of topics you could ideate about* (meta-ideate!) for eight minutes. (If that seems long… it’s not! Trust me—you can do it!) If there’s something else you’d rather ideate about—do that instead. Any topic will do. Scroll down when you get back.

How did that feel? Is there anything on your list that wasn’t in your head when you started? Are you feeling any more creative than you did before? Did you think you were going to be able to come up with ideation topics for a full eight minutes? Were you actually? (If you “failed” MDWA—which I’ve done *plenty*…—was there anything you came up with before that point that you didn’t anticipate? Did you try again?)

I hope that gave you a taste of ideation. There are many ways to do it—I like using MDWA because it keeps me out of my evaluative mind and in my generative mind. If you didn’t like it—either the ideation or the use of MDWA to do it—that’s okay. I imagine the “law of equal and opposite advice” applies here just as much as anywhere. If you did, then congratulations on finding a useful new tool—I hope having done this serves you well. 🙂


A year and a half or so after I first encountered Shawn Blanc’s use of the word “ideation”, I came across it again, this time in adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy. If we are to improve the world and the state of social relations within it as we aspire to do, she tells us:

We have to ideatate—imagine and conceive—together.

brown, p. 19

Tangibly, there are many ways the practice of “collaborative ideation” might look that I think have not yet been imagined. Perhaps we need mediums devoted to supporting this practice.

I hope for this blog, and particularly this section, to cause more collaborative ideation to exist in our world. With this section of my blog I’m inviting you—reading this right now—to ideate with me, with others, with each other.

I’m doing this by sharing some of what I’m ideating in its raw, unfiltered form. I may make minor edits for readability, and I may on occasion choose to omit things if I think doing so is likely to have have a better impact than not doing so. And, as much as I can, I will leave the ideation I post here untouched, unedited—the actual stuff that I download from MDWA or scribble out in some other medium.

I realize sharing such ideation is a vulnerable thing to do, because it gives you—and me—a window into the associations in my mind. That’s exactly why I’m doing it: I hope to inspire you to share the associations in your mind, to share your ideation, too. ❤

Revisions
2018-12-23: Minor edits, quote formatting, added excerpt.