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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Questioning the dogma of the medium

I've been thinking about what I call the dogma of the medium, and the need to question it. Here are a few preliminary thoughts.

By dogma of the medium, I mean the automatic acceptance of a medium as a rigidly defined category for creative works. For example, we often think of creative works as belonging to medium-centric categories like books, albums and movies.

Medium-centric ideas are a big part of our recent past: technologies, industries, roles in society and the format of creative works are often tied to specific mediums. We have 300-page books that are written by authors and published by publishers, and sold in bookstores. The dogmatic aspect of this is both in how it effects creators and in how it effects other participants, e.g., the creator is encouraged to create in terms of an existing medium and format, and other participants are conditioned to expect their creative experiences pre-categorized in medium-centric and format-centric terms (do you want to see an action movie?).

The way I think about it: why should a "book" just be a book? Why not text that you read interspersed with dialog audio that you hear, featuring one sequence with a musical soundtrack and a conclusion punctuated by a silent film?

As a musician, I've been thinking a lot about this idea of books with music. Many books describe music as part of a story, and so it seems like an obvious, potentially new medium, in some sense. I was excited to hear about the new Neal Stephenson book, Anathem, coming with a CD of music by David Stutz (as described by Cory at Boing Boing). Being a Neal Stephenson novel, I have to imagine there's a very deliberate orchestration of text and/with music.

When you think practically about some of the possible combinations of mixed-media / multimedia elements, it's easy to both come up with good precedents (books with pictures inside!) and also technically improbable cases (books with buildings inside!). So, the dogma of the medium doesn't effect every corner of creativity, and, at the same time, there isn't necessarily a need to explore every possible corner all at once. But, it's in the middle—in our everyday interaction with books, CDs and movies, that I think this dogma deserves to be questioned.

In particular, with regards to digital works, why confine these to the shape of physical technologies? Why have an online "music store" and iPod that is all about "playing music"? Why have a "book reader" like the Kindle?

These devices do have features beyond their more analog / physical counterparts, but these features are like decorations tacked on to the form of past mediums. So, while an iPod can display images, text or video, the music format of the iPod doesn't give one many creative options for extending music with images, text and video (unless you define the music as a subset of video, e.g., being medium-centric again, just around video).

The web, and hypertext / hypermedia, potentially supports new and imaginative ways to combine text, images, audio and video. But, to the degree that new kinds of creative works may be happening on the web, I think we're still a little stuck evaluating them in medium-centric terms of books, CDs and movies. If a work is not obviously like one of the already established mediums, it's just another "website."

The expansion of copyright laws also reinforce the dogma of the medium. Now that the original copyright on a work automatically extends permissions over any possible translations to new mediums, it's not a given that people will creatively transform works from medium to medium. This exploration now is controlled wholly by the original creator, rather than a larger collective who might find value deriving not only from the original creator's inception, but from many participants sharing and transforming the work into other mediums.

I call Err or Man a "music deck" as a way to highlight it's differences from past mediums and formats. It's nevertheless convenient and useful to sometimes describe it as a CD, or an album, or as a book, or as a website. But, the dogma of the medium is an issue in that people and stores and devices all tend to approach Err or Man in medium-centric terms. That's not going to change (at least for a while), and I even intend for Err or Man to "work," at least to some degree, in terms of medium-centric categories. But, there's also more to find in Err or Man when you put aside the dogma of the medium.


I really like the concept of “dogma of the media” and I agree that we could be headed towards a world where it’s hard to draw the lines. 
As you know, we’ve been making videos and people seem to like them.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we really know very little about video production.  We aren’t steeped in industry knowledge. We don’t have degrees or even lessons that form a foundation. In some ways, I think we are free from the dogma of video production - and it’s an asset.  We don’t know enough to know what you’re supposed to do, say, act, produce, include, exclude, etc.  I think (hope) a lot more people will find themselves in this position and benefit from it. I’m reading “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky and he has a number of points about this.  I think you’d like it. :)
Thanks for the post Jay.

Thanks for the comment, Lee. I definitely started thinking about this topic more after you showed me the Kindle, and after you wrote-up your review of the Kindle.

I also was thinking about your videos as a kind-of new medium. People are thinking about them as “videos,” because that is the existing medium that best encapsulates what you are doing. But, I wonder, if everyone were more fluid with mediums, if a new medium would emerge that is more specific to what you are doing.

As a simple example, your videos are often viewed on the web, and many are about subjects that are also on the web. So, imagine a video segment that displays an actual live RSS feed—not just a video of an RSS feed, but an actually currently live RSS feed. I could imagine the feed appearing in a “Paperworks” font that looks like handwritten text on a whiteboard. . .

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