What is a Medium? Terror and Magic

The premise of Inventing the Medium  is that computation has created a new medium of representation.  How do we know when we have discovered a new medium? One answer might be that we know it by the combination of terror and delight that we experience as pioneering practitioners explore the new affordances for human expression.

For cinema there is mythic moment associated with the birth of film, the Lumière Brothers 1895 showing of a film about the everyday occurance of the arrival of a train.  

According to the legend, the audience for this film went screaming from the Paris screening room in terror, believing that a real train was bearing down upon them (an episode that Martin Scorsese adopted for his 2011 film  Hugo). Although film scholars are skeptical of this event, the iconic story captures the feeling that accompanies a new medium: the frightening sense of being unable to tell the difference between something that is represented and something that is really there.

Some early film artists explicitly played with the delusional quality of film, most notably George Méliès who simulated magic tricks in playful and imaginative staged scenarios like this one:

The Lumière films were documentaries, exploiting the camera’s affordance of portability  — its ability to capture outdoor events  and spectacles too large to be captured on stage or too far away to be seen in person.  Méliès exploited the new representational affordances of the physical film, such as the ability to splice together different shots leaving out intervening events or to capture multiple images in a single frame through  multiple exposures. But both the realist and the fantasist approach are driven by the same  fascination with the power of a new medium to represent the world.

We can see the same cultural patterns in the response to other media, from spoken language to computation…but that is  matter for other posts.

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