I made a quick reference before to the advanced media theory class that I’m taking this term at uOttawa as part of my doctoral program in Communication. As the session wraps up, here are some of my key takeaways from the course.
Prof. Pierre Lévy‘s upcoming book “Le médium algorithmique” (The Algorithmic Medium), which we read for this class, proposes that we are at the dawn of what he calls “the algorithmic era,” a moment in history where our way of thinking is being shaped by our digital technology and, as its name suggests, by the use of algorithms. Lévy’s theory rests in part on the work of the Toronto School of communication theory, of which Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan are some of the main figures. Both Innis and McLuhan argued that material culture such as technology (the railroad, the telephone, the Internet, etc…) shapes knowledge. McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” was based on this notion, meaning that the medium through which a message is communicated has an impact on the actual message. McLuhan’s theory rests on Innis’s own investigations of how different societies can be explained by looking at their predominant means of communication. (I presented Innis’ Empire and Communication in class. I talk about it here).
Along this train of thought, Lévy argues that there is a correlation between the evolution of media and the evolution of culture, and therefore of communication, of knowledge, and, altogether, of societies. Our current society, he says, starting at the beginning of the 21st century, is being determined by digital technologies, which have completely disrupted the era of mass media where media such as television and the printing press were dominant. The main characteristic of new digital media is the algorithm, which allows for the automatic manipulation of symbols.
This notion is key to understand Lévy’s theory: symbolic coding is exclusive to human beings, the only animals on the planet with a rational soul. (Thank you, Aristotle). In linguistic theory, symbols are made of a signifier and a signified. Symbols are social conventions. Societies “agree” on the use of signifiers in order to indicate the concept, meaning, or thing being signified. Human beings use symbols to communicate with one another; most importantly, we use symbols to think. Our capacity to speak gives us the capacity to transform the definition of our symbols and create new ones. Said in other words, the way we think is shaped by our language. All forms of communication media, by definition, are forms of manipulation of symbols. (“Manipulation” is not necessarily a negative term here. It simply means that media is a practice of crafting messages, which is a practice of crafting symbols in a certain way with the intention to communicate). Therefore, the way in which media communicate their messages has an effect on the the concept, meaning, or thing being signified.
Lévy argues that throughout history we have witnessed different “eras” distinguished by the dominant media of their time. Since media can determine knowledge or, in other words, how we think, Lévy proposes that each one of those times also mark different epistemological eras (*see translation below):
*Free translation, from bottom to top layer:
Oral Episteme: narration, rituals, elders’ memory
Scribal Episteme: temple-palaces, large-scale agriculture, systematic knowledge
Literary Episteme: empires, universal religions, philosophies, currencies
Typographic Episteme: nation-states, industry, natural sciences
Algorithmic Episteme: information economy, human sciences
No era is completely closed once another one begins. Each layer on the pyramid rests on the previous ones and takes elements from all the others. In the mass media era, for instance, the signifiers are manipulated mechanically; diffusion is automatic, allowing messages to travel far and wide. But there is no automatic transformation of symbols, which marks the main difference with the algorithmic medium. However, diffusion is still automatic today, and non-algorithmic media forms are still very much in use.
For Lévy, the algorithmic medium is marking the beginning of a transformation in the way we think and also in the way that we produce and share knowledge. He argues that we are witnessing the dawn of a new form of collective intelligence powered by networked technologies. Our class was in some way a series of exercises to illustrate that point. Our Twitter hasthag, #uoam17, was used to take notes on and off class. By the end of the term, we had inadvertently created a series of virtual “notebooks:”
There is a lot more to say about this class. For now, I will just say that the implications of recognizing that we are indeed in the dawn of the algorithmic era, characterized by the algorithmic medium, has consequences for everything from education, to media (and therefore media studies), to cultural values and politics. If we accept the notion that our dominant forms of communication determine our way of thinking, we could be facing a major transformation of our cultural and political life as we know it. Many theorists have argued that the printing press and modern democracy go hand in hand. It is fascinating to think how a new form of politics will be born from the digital era, based on what Manuel Castells has called “the new culture of freedom” created by the Internet, in which traditional power dynamics are being disrupted. (I presented Manuel Castell’s Communication Power in class. See my entry about it here).
Ultimately, what I have taken away from this course is that the media does not interest us but in the measure that they affect our way of thinking, or the sensations that they make us feel.