Examining and Changing a World of Media

Jay David Bolter

We live in a world of media, especially digital media, and the changes in the ways we use media constitute one of the major cultural stories of the past half century. The developments in the 1970s and 1980s (cable television, VCRs, CDs, desktop computers and then laptops, and computer communication mediated by modems) were followed by videogames, the introduction of cellphones, the World Wide Web, and the explosive spread of the Internet in the 1990s, and then by smart phones and social media in the 2000s. All but the poorest among us have cell phones, and the use of computers and the Internet for entertainment and social communication now rivals or surpasses commercial and business uses. According to a study in 2011, nearly 30% of all Internet traffic into the American home in the evenings is accounted for by Netflix and other streaming films and television services. Because these media surround us, it is easy to ignore the prominent role they now play in our lives. Because young people have grown up with so many media devices and services, and their parents have grown old with them, it is easy to forget how much our media landscape has changed in the past 50 years.

If we could somehow transport an American through time from 1960 to 2010, she would have little trouble adapting to everyday life and little reason to be surprised […]

If we could somehow transport an American through time from 1960 to 2010, she would have little trouble adapting to everyday life and little reason to be surprised, except in the crucial areas of media and communications. As she walked along the streets, she would be puzzled to see many of the passers-by holding miniature walky-talkies to their ears or tapping on tiny keyboards and screens, while many others appeared to be listening to music through headphones attached to tiny transistor radios. If she walked into an office building, she would be struck by all the individual computer consoles with videoscreens, which have not only replaced typewriters on the secretaries’ desks, but found their way to the desks of technical workers and even executives, who never typed their own letters in the 1960s. If she visited a home, she would find more computers—in a father’s or mother’s home office, in the children’s bedrooms, and perhaps even in the kitchen. Occasionally she might find the family watching television together, but it could now be an enormous flat-screen television of astonishing clarity with hundreds of channels as well as instant access to films and whole television series, streaming from yet another computer.  More often, she would find various family members using their own media devices, and she would notice that the children were apparently typing messages to one friend on the same computer or tablet with which they were talking to another. A few years after our time traveler left, Stanley Kubrik’s epic film 2001 (1968) would have shown her an astronaut making a video phone call (handled by AT&T) back to earth. By 2010, though, everyone seemed to be able to use their small computer screens to talk to and view each other, and their video camera, embedded at the top of the screen, was like a tiny version of HAL’s oculus.

Perhaps nothing in our culture today would mystify a visitor from 1960 more than social media such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. These forms of expression have analogies in practices that she knew (writing letters and greeting cards, making home movies or audio cassettes, pasting travel photos into albums as keepsakes and to inflict on friends and neighbors), but their technical configuration and their manic attraction for tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the world would have been unimaginable in 1960.

If we tried to sum up the changes in two words, they would be “ubiquity” and “diversity.” All sorts of media products and services are available everywhere, for a price, and, despite the predictions, all these products and services have not melted into a single universal form. Charting these changes and considering their meaning for our current cultural moment is the task of the discipline called “media studies.” And it is one of the disciplines that we practice here in Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC).

As valuable as media studies is, however, it can only provide us with a clearer understanding of the history that has led to our current cultural moment. The exciting next step is to take an active role in shaping the future of media. That task belongs to the Digital Media program in LMC, where faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates create and test prototypes for new digital media forms. These experiments draw on our understanding of the origins of digital media and the relationship to the important forms of the past (such as film, television, and the printed book). But they also explore the qualities of digital media that distinguish them from their predecessors, such as interactivity and procedurality.

For example, I work in the Augmented Environments Lab (AEL) with colleagues and students to design new forms of entertainment and informal education using the technologies of augmented and mixed reality. Imagine that you are walking down historic Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia. “Sweet Auburn” was the center of African-American culture during the first half of the 20th century. Your smart phone can be your guide, providing stories about the musicians, preachers, businessmen, and civil-rights activists as you pass by the buildings where they lived and worked. You can see photos of the Royal Peacock club from the 1940s, superimposed on the current building, and hear the music of Duke Ellington, who played there. The voice that accompanies you on your walk is that of Andrew Young, one-time mayor of Atlanta and an activist who worked with Martin Luther King. This is the kind of experience that we are creating in the AEL. Such experiences are not only experiments with a new technology, although it is great fun to put these new mobile devices with high-quality graphics, cameras, orientation and positioning sensors through their paces. Our experiences also depend on the lessons in design and media studies that we draw from looking at our rich media heritage of the past fifty years.

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