I spent much of yesterday searching the internet for people who are writing about media, not primarily as technicians or as users, but as critics. I was looking for those who are undertaking to ask questions about the social, ethical, cultural, political, and philosophical implications of what I will consent to call “new media” until I have a chance to explain why I think there are better terms available to us. Unfortunately, my search was mostly unproductive. I did come across some individual articles that were very interesting, usually from blogs focusing on social media or on the economics of online media, but I found very few people who are actually focused in any serious and sustained way on the questions that I am asking.
This does not mean, of course, that these people do not exist online, only that I have not discovered them, but I have to admit a certain amount of disappointment with the online community of writers I have read so far. There is much that debates the comparative merits of the newest social media site or the latest plugin for blog software, much that discusses the finer technical points of creating, managing, and using online media, and much that explains how to advertise, leverage, and monetize this media, but there is so little that actually takes the time time to ask the serious questions about the broader functions and implications of media in our society.
During my search, however, I did encounter one blog, authored by Alexander van Elsas, that is asking some questions in directions that are interesting to me. I had intended to introduce him here by discussing an article he wrote on television as a social medium, but his post this morning on instant access caught my attention, so television will have to wait.
Van Elsas’ argument is essentially that there are limits to the desire for instant access and that, once this desire becomes sated, there will be a partial return to slower media. His position hinges on the assumption, which I think is accurate, that most information is not urgent. While it may be very important to know as soon as possible about certain political or economic news, and while it might be very desirable to know as soon as possible about certain entertainment or social news, most information does not require or gain from increased immediacy. As the novelty of immediacy as such wears off, therefore, it may very well be that people begin to consume certain kinds of information in ways that are slower and more measured, even if these slower media are not the ones that we have used traditionally.
I think that Van Elsas’ argument can easily be validated by real practises in the world. Most people who take a newspaper no longer do so as a way to get the most current news, because the newspaper very obviously does not play this function any longer, though it certainly did at one time. People take a paper in order to take their news more slowly, over a cup of coffee in the morning on the front porch. I certainly use books for this very reason. Though I have a large collection of etexts, and though I make use of online etexts when I am doing research, I most often choose to order the physical book, sit with it in my hand, and read it at my leisure. It is not that I could not obtain and read the text more quickly through electronic means, it is that I would gain nothing by this additional speed. The reading of most texts does not require or benefit from instant access.
This is not to say that a recognition of the value of slowness necessarily implies a return to these older media, though I think that it will mean the continuance of some, particularly the book, much longer than many people predict. Recognizing the value of slowness should also mean a careful consideration of how new and emerging media might be used in slower, more careful, more deliberate, more reflective ways. To some extent this is what I am trying to do through this current medium, but broader opportunities for this kind of approach exist within the media themselves. What is required of me is to use media at my personal pace rather than at its maximal pace, to proceed with precisely the speed or the slowness that the moment and the task require, to resist the impulse to move more quickly simply because it is possible to do so.
Let me close by reflecting for a moment on the idea of immediacy itself, one that van Elsas uses throughout his post, and one that I have been using also, because this idea opens up a paradox in our discussion of media, a paradox that bears on the possibilities of developing and using media in different directions than they are being developed and used currently. Immediacy actually describes a state where there is an absolute lack of media and mediation. When something is immediate, it literally means that it is without any kind of medium through which it becomes mediated. There is, therefore, a certain irony in the drive to make media become immediate, because this drive is literally the drive to remove media from media, to make media so perfect that it disappears altogether.
This drive is, of course, always destined to failure. No matter how instantaneous a medium is able to transmit its content, it will always remain that the medium and the transmission were there, were operative, were mediating the content in ways that are unavoidable. What the drive for immediacy eliminates is not the medium as such, but only the visibility of the medium. It does not remove the effect of mediation, but it allows us to forget this effect, to maintain the illusion that the medium has disappeared, that our access is live and untransmitted.
A recognition of the value in slower media, therefore, is connected with a recognition of the paradox’s of immediacy. To slow my consumption of information is to recognize again the reality and the unavoidability of media as such. It is even to revel in the unavoidability of this mediation, the smudges of newspaper ink on the fingers, the smell of a book long closed, the sight of a message more than 140 characters. It is to dispel, even if just for a moment, the illusion that what I see and hear and read and know is immediate. It is also, for this very reason, a place from which the illusion of immediacy can be questioned and critiqued.