Field Notes: Media and the Future of Content

[Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation]

This article first appeared on Microsoft TechNet.

The famous communications theorist and professor of English literature Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the form in which communications are relayed is more important than the content of the message itself. McLuhan also invented the term “global village,” and with these two intellectual strokes, established his importance in the field of intellectual thought. I wonder what McLuhan would think of Unified Communications or books written for Amazon Kindle. I wonder, too, what he would view as the relationship between new technologies and the cultural change that accompanies them.

I bring up the concept of Unified Communications with some humor. Indeed, if the same message is to be transferred over different media, or in other words, if the cost of transferring from medium to medium (for the same message) is trivial, then what becomes of McLuhan’s homily? If we are to believe McLuhan, do we then believe that the promise of technology to radically simplify meaning simply isn’t true? Or have the proponents of said technologies only really promised the speedy and plentiful transmission of messages with nary a view towards creating meaning?

I believe that technologies do both, but that on the whole they are intellectually neutral. They both facilitate communications of some varieties and open the possibilities of new meanings being created at the juxtaposition of form, content, and context. (They actually reduce communications of some varieties as well—witness the demise of the handwritten letter.)

Consider for a moment e-book readers and their users. Although I don’t use e-book readers, I know many people who swear by them—and not just for the convenience. Some people feel that they can absorb content in-depth if they can surround their reading experience with context (such as being able to find online dictionaries or Wikipedia references just a click away). Some authors write books specifically for distribution to the Web and will soon do so for e-books.

In the very near future, books will become rich Internet experiences through which one will be able to both see and hear what is happening in the text. Imagine a story about the havoc created by an explosion if one could both see and hear the explosion on the page. Some readers might be enthralled, while others will bemoan the atrophying of the imagination when literature must appeal to the senses of both sight and sound.

Many people have called for the demise of printed books. There are still others who continue to stock their library shelves and for whom the smell and feel of newly printed books evokes strong emotions. The market for first editions and autographed books remains quite strong, even in our challenging economy. Neither point of view is right or wrong—the specific technology in this case is neutral.

Similarly, look at the current debate around the future of print magazines and newspapers. Whereas there are numerous valid arguments about the deleterious environmental impact of these mediums, most of the debates consist of platitudes about the world moving to digital. That said, I (an IT pro) love printed magazines—they serve a specific need for me. For others, the burden of authorship inherent in print confers a sense of legitimacy to content rendered in that form, whereas the lack thereof (or perceived lack) on the Web creates the opposite effect. On some subjects, people enjoy short, clipped, unedited content (such as blogs), while for other subjects, they prefer longer, edited communication.

Both types have good reason to exist. Technology allows for the distribution of this content, but does not dictate expression; it can magnify it, offer a forum for it, but not enable it.

Ultimately, the future of written content is complex—it can take many forms and involve many types of media. Meaning and form do matter. Technology in this case plays a significant though not essential role in the making of meaning.

Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation. Before joining Ascentium, he spent more than seven years at Microsoft, where his last role was as Director of Technical Audience and Platform Marketing. Romi is widely published in the areas of technology, politics, economics, and sociology.

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