This Friday I will be giving a keynote for the Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies Association of the UK (MeCCSA) exploring the question of what a medium is beyond the discussion in Inventing the Medium. I will be talking about the four existing models of Media Theory, and about the new model I discuss in ITM and in an earlier article for Popular Communication, which is based on the work of Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello.
This Hellenistic period terracotta of two women playing the ancient game of knucklebones – a form of dice – (from an image on the British Museum website) is iconic for me of one way to think about what a medium is.
According to Merlin Donald, human culture passed through a mimetic stage that preceded the invention of language. Although he does not talk about games in this context, it seems to me that game-playing is an expression of our pleasure in synchronizing our behavior with one another, by imitating common actions and sequencing them in predictable ways. Michael Tomasello points out that a baby goes through a similar stage of mimetic communication starting at nine months when it figures out that other people have consciousness similar to their own. We see babies delight at that stage in teasing a parent with repeated behaviors that create a strong response or in pointing at something to draw attention to it. Tomasello identified the “Joint Attentional Scene” as the locus of this kind of infant/parent communication, and a necessary predecessor to the acquisition of language. Early humans must have gone through a similar sequence, and we can think of human culture as repeating a similar pattern in every era. We become aware of other people’s minds acting like our own, and we build on that by elaborating common rituals that focus our common attention, creating new meanings.
The Roman women are a good reference point because the game is so simple and the circle of attention is so circumscribed. Imagine two much earlier creatures, our pre-verbal ancestors playing with sheep’s knucklebones, or with pebbles, taking turns throwing them down and picking them up. This is similar to one of the earliest games that adults are charmed into playing with babies: baby throws something out of a crib, adult retrieves it, baby throws it down again. As in knucklebones, the moment when the object lands is the dramatic focus of the game, but knucklebones (like dice) adds another symbolic elaboration: how it lands becomes meaningful. It is not hard to imagine shared imitative play like throwing and retrieving games supporting the development of symbolic communication (if it lands this way it means something different than if it lands that way).
I see media development as beginning with the baby’s pointing and throwing things out of the crib, and with our pre-verbal ancestors sitting in a circle and clapping together or throwing down stones. We establish rituals for focusing attention on the same thing and then we develop conventions that associate meaning with whatever is in focus, from an articulated sound signifying “Mama,” to a ceramic token representing a bushel of wheat, to an ATM transaction turning into purchasing power. A medium is always a way of creating meaning by using culturally established conventions to focus our shared attention.