Category Archives: Mediums

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”.