The science of new media

One of the joys of my life is observing the world of science as it attempts to cut and paste life into quantifiable bits that can be measured and studied. It’s this obsession that everything can (and needs to be) measured that provides the most enjoyment, for scientists can back themselves into some wonderful corners. So it is with scientists who are trying to determine (from a logical perspective) why the internet is such a powerful communications tool.

Enter the world of haptics (pertaining to the technology of touch. It is an emerging technology that promises to have wide reaching implications. — Wikipedia) and a fun, albeit weighty, article in today’s Online Journalism Review called It feels relevant: biological tactility in news media.

Here we have a journey through the history of how information is processed, the outdoor theater, “hallucinatory” dimensions, and tapping a mouse to conclude that the “new” in new media is very much a biological thing.

If a journalist deals with a 3D graphic, an immersive multimedia news environment or GIS mapping mashup, he or she has reached fundamentally new territory. Hansen (new media critic, Mark Hansen at The University of Chicago) and others, drawing from scientific research, conclude that the way a person receives and absorbs mediated digital information is a mind-body process. And the online multimedia experience is more complete, more biologically compelling than previous forms of media, including cinema. As Hansen puts it, the new media experience is “qualitatively different from “the ‘verisimilitude’ and ‘illusion’ of the cinematic image.”

This also differentiates online news video from broadcast TV news practices, as journalists who work with online video photography have found through trial and error. This difference becomes more pronounced with the use of panoramic cameras and immersive perspectives.

But whiz-bang devices are only the experimental edge or mega-toys of the Internet. The medium’s unique tactile experience can easily be appreciated by clicking a mouse, tapping the keys or interacting with audio-visual displays. This is another world from turning pages or flipping through channels.

Really now, can we trust anybody who uses a word like “verisimilitude” in a sentence? And what exactly is a “new media critic” anyway?

But I digress. This is a fascinating look at what I wrote about yesterday, modernism attempting to corral postmodernism, the most basic tenets of which are involvement, participation, and distrust of institutional authority. Why do we need to quantify that to “make sense” of what’s taking place around us and, more importantly, participate with the participators? Look, technology is providing the tools, but it is people that are providing the heat. Have people changed? Not a chance. Then what is it that’s driving this revolution? The same stuff that drove the pioneers westward, put humankind on the moon, and pushes us all to improve our lot in life. Add to that the very real sense that our institutional culture exists to protect the institutions, not the people they’re supposed to serve, and you have the ingredients for change.

I don’t doubt that YouTube, MySpace and SecondLife are visceral, tactile experiences for people, and that the study thereof is new and exciting. But please, people, let’s not overcomplicate something that’s really pretty simple. And let’s not try and use that information to further delude ourselves into thinking that this “participating” is somehow evil and that we can find ways to manipulate use it to maintain the status quo.

Long ago, I noted that the web engaged three senses — sight, sound and touch — and that the best that previous communications’ mediums could do was two (unless you count the smell of popcorn). This isn’t rocket science, folks.

Sex and eating occupy all five senses, but you knew that already.


  1. ironic that these words (verisimilitude, etc.) are from a prof at THE University of Chicago, where the most recently famous T‑shirt to be had on campus reads something like: “ok, that works well in practice, but what about in theory?”.

    (all proceeds going to fundraising efforts at breckinridge house)

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