Monday, February 22, 2010

What's Massive about Media?

    Media is the plural of medium, and is a substrate through which information flows.  During the AAAS Mass Media Luncheon, speaker Dr. Jeffrey Kirsch , the Executive Director of the Fleet Science Center , asked us for our reactions to the phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 60's: "The medium is the message."  Just the day before in the Counter-terrorism Symposium, Keith Devlin spoke about the difficulty of quantifying "information" and its reliability.  These discussions led me to think about information like light -- a pure and difficult to measure substance whose appearance is determined by the substance through which it passes.  Rather than thinking of information as being stuck in some sort of box to which an elite few hold the key, I recognize that information is difficult to confine.  Just as we created the light bulb, neon signage, fiber optics, and lasers to channel light which is typically free to move about, we design means by which we channel information so that it can be viewed, touched, heard, smelled, and sensed as we see fit.
    We control some of the media through which information passes: our own mental framework, a blog, a podcast, an imax movie, a newspaper article, our social interactions.  But we don't have nearly as much control over the information itself, which is floating everywhere around us in more or less dense and disorganized clouds.  So people who choose to be involved in media are attempting to corral information, this unruly light-like substance, so as to harness some of it's power and help others use it as a tool to brighten their lives.
     With this metaphor in mind, I see that there is power in heterogeneity. With a variety of media, what remains to be seen is which media will excel at fulfilling which roles.  While some media will replace others (like compact fluorescents are increasingly replacing incandescent bulbs), many will coexist or work in concert.
   Still there is the concern that people will be blinded by so much information, as if we are in a world covered in a thick blanket of pure white snow.  Well, I think that's what sunglasses are for!  In other words, people will have to squint for a while before they realize which media they need in order to function, and many members of the public are probably in that squinting phase right now.  So when they realize that they need a way to filter out the intensity in order to focus in on some of the details and survive, they will be scrambling to find good journalists.

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