In Grammophon, Film, Typewriter Kittler puts forwards the example of the jet airliner as a meeting point for many media types, ranging from radar to micro waved meals, the passengers are encased in a "multimedia embryonic sack". (Johnston on Kittler, 1997, p.3) The choice of this example item, while still relevant today, is indicative of the time at which the text was written. One could wonder if Kittler would have chosen a different example, had he written within today's media landscape. As the argument constructs, one of the main points put forwards is one called the dependent variable —the end result of our senses perceptions being blinded by the non differentiation of media types, in the scheme of computer technologies— where the media situation and environment would end up being a collection of scenarios resulting from the collaboration between engineers and sales people. Technical and modernist knowledge holders on one end, finance driven careerists on the other, together on the mission of distribution. Kittler's depiction is some 30 years old now, it is safe to say that today's media environment is quite different to the formers. Is this example still the most illustrative of the industry working today?
Before any question is addressed, we must define what is meant by media landscape, in order to analyse it properly. A landscape is a wide angle, a far reaching view, with items in the tangible foreground, other much away from us. We might not see all of it, we might not even recognise a lot of it, but the use of the idea of a landscape to peer at media as an entity is helpful. Meanwhile let us remind ourselves that this keyword is the plural of the term medium, and spans a relative diversity (Ryan, 2012, p.1).
The media landscape that Kittler was mourning is one within which media disciplines have an associated medium. This is not to say that digressions did not occur, but there was an intent and a clear use case for most mediums, audio tape kept audio, film kept images, paper kept text. He was foreseeing these distinctions to disappear completely, and he was entirely right. We now are on the entire opposite end of the spectrum; mediums coagulate to fit into a greater perspective of media, unified platforms on which we may consume most types of known mediums. Kittler forsaw this happening "with the full deployment of fiber optic cables and computer technology". Practically speaking, this is not exactly the case of today, but alternate infrastructures have made that effect happen. The internet is indeed the meeting point of networks and technologies, making possible for pretty much any medium in existence to be distributed, or a close, and in most cases, sufficient representation there of. (We could return to this trans-mediation to web fallbacks as a possible explanation of a link between the dependency variable and a deliberate control veil later on.)
The arrival of this unified shared meeting point and the adaptations of old(er) mediums to work on the web have seen the creation of categories of mediums that are considerably unique and self standing. A notable dimension of this creation is also the world of 'mobile' technologies, requiring a lot of re-inventivity and adaptations of mediums, or at least, a new sub category of medium morphisms aiming to make content accessible to smaller and simpler mini computers. I will add that most new mediums created for (and from?) the web follow the same basic pattern: starting with a category of media, then resolving it's distribution for one sub— or hypo— network. (I distinguish these types of networks as it is my understanding that all networks are concentrically embedded within each other, the only nuance is their order of relation, which is not the object of this paper.)
From this formula we discover the makings of news apps, music playing websites, image sharing networks and video distribution environments. —A more focused analysis of these origins could be made by tracing back the governing issues that are resolved by the Apple computer (and trademarked) campaign 'There is an app for that'. We now also can see that if our media landscape is different from the DN1900, our current environment is one of simple combinations of earlier divided dimensions of media. Realistically, no new categories of mediums have been invented, but our usage of these formers now tend to happen in subcategories, in conjunctions of networks and mediums.
One resulting, unresolved, part of this praxis of mixing and matching is a feeling of inability for precise typification. It's increasingly hard to describe the utility or usage of our new patchwork mediums, and in the attempt there of, we've begun using terms that actually broaden narratives. Deciding when or how new vocabulary can help solve the description of doings is an uncharted field, unregulated and non maintained, if only by a marketing department associated with the distribution of products. Still, we've adopted a vocabulary in the last decade which seems to help us place the contemporaneous dimension of a product. Ad interim, these additions are again, broad terms, in opposition to what we would want them to be, specific words to narrow a topic down. Some of these words: technology, platform, app, interface, experience, users, cloud, data, mobile, ... the list goes on.
The contemporary lexicon of patchwork mediums is an echo of the development of the dependency variable: we understand from Kittler that when a medium type is encoded in digital numbers, we become dependent on the vision of reality that has been devised by the engineer —but not only— responsible for the translation. This is one level of adaptation. Today, we reach upon a second level of adaptation when the first encoding is then incorporated and revised into today's patchwork mediums. The lexical field we use for today's media shows us how far removed we have become. We no longer use computers, we use technologies, interfaces have become experiences, we are now people, no longer users. (Lialina, 2015).
In the previous paragraph, the term adaptation is used to explain interpretation and translation from one form to an other. These translations, each time they occur, create a hierarchy between system deviser and system user. It is the dependency that Kittler warns us of. Continuing on the understanding of the exponential multiplication of medium sub-types as soon as they get crossed, the same happens to our level of dependency, and our distance away from the original form of the medium.
To not (yet) follow the path of what it may mean for the regular user to be more and more distanced from original matter in the avenance of patched mediums, a modeling substitution from the user's point of view, on the receiving end of these adaptations, would be degrees of opacity. An effect of blurriness introduces itself, an inability to distinguish, an additional difficulty to see a root comes automatically with every time an adaptation is made.
To attempt a full outline (with the only interest in the medium transformation —I will not consider here other practical, legal or ethical dimensions) of one of these processes would be as such: with the origin in recorded audio, and the end output being the branded streaming platform Spotify, x degrees of opaqueness are countable. Acoustics are recorded and digitised into digital numbers. These digital numbers undergo a compression process in the aim of distribution. These compressions get multiplied and sent out to various storage locations. The items are made available through an interface. This interface is available though a device, typically a portable one, such as a laptop, phone or tablet. This device has a portal that gives access to many interfaces, usually dubbed apps, preceding app stores. The device serves the interface, after access has been granted. The user interacts with a stack of layers that eventually lists all the available compressions and then only gets access to the recorded audio.
In observation, the packing and unpacking of the media is made as simple as possible for the end user, and made so, for their not to be a need to consider all the necessary components. But these steps, these translations, these degrees, all create distance, and crucially many dimensions of dependency.
The landscape of media is not that different from the one at the time at which Kittler wrote the text that spawned this essay. What we have seen is an increase in subcategories and cross sections of original medium types. And the unsettling idea that while we move forwards within media, while our day to day usage is supposedly become easier, we understand less about it now more than ever.
If Kittler had had our media landscape at hand to use for examples of meeting points of embryonic multimedia, he might well have spoken of Smart TVs as a type of environment that displays amounts of unclear (or at least non explained) unattainable back end knowledge to keep the device working, parallel with cocooning of enjoyable access to a variety in type and in class of media, of content. An example of a world where if you desire to access, you have no choice but to accept a degree of blindness.