Visual Rhetoric: The Frustrating Frontier
All kinds of arguments can be made about why pre-teen me attached himself so firmly to Star Trek (specifically The Next Generation): maybe it was accessible morality plays and overlays of real world issues (like all good sci fi); perhaps I appreciated the role models of strong, thoughtful, responsible men when I lacked a positive father figure; Trek certainly offered escapism from middle school unpopularity. All of those arguments would be valid, but for a child growing up on the cusp of the tech revolution, I also liked the shiny high-tech world the Enterprise crew inhabited. I of course liked high-profile devices like phasers, photon torpedoes, and tricorders, but also ranking highly amongst those devices was the PADD (personal access display device). I think it was easy and compelling to see the power of having access to a computer in the palm of your hand.
Move forward two decades and we have the realization of the PADD in the form of the iPad (that had to factor at least marginally in the naming choice, right?) and other tablet media devices. I’ll skip past the “magical” and “revolutionary” Apple product intro talking points – we can suffice with the fact that these are great, versatile devices that have opened up avenues of access and media saturation far broader than we could have imagined when they were non-functioning slabs of plastic on our television screens in 1990.
Yet these devices aren’t perfect. Perhaps we’re still in the phase of initial remediation Delagrange details in Chapter 2 of Technologies of Wonder, because I’m pretty sure that the Enterprise crew never had to deal with issues of media compatibility, non-supported file formats, and locked-in, low-functionality mobile versions of websites that were the only option for PADD access. We want our iPads to be universally functional stand-ins for books, full-OS desktops/laptops, and television, but we have to get by right now knowing that most things will work really well, but that we’ll also encounter the occasional website or service that just can’t translate to the tablet experience. It is then that we become acutely aware of the mode and its effect on the media we are trying to consume.
Delagrange notes the problems we may be experiencing right now as we realign our interactions and expectations of media:
With all media, but particularly with new media, the viewer experiences an oscillation between immediacy, the sense of immersion in or “liveness” of the medium, and hypermediacy, the ways in which the medium calls attention to its mediation . . . for most people, immediacy—a transparently “real” experience of a medium that erases the frame and appears to provide unmediated access to its content—is the over-arching desire of new media, and the desire of their users. (27)
And a bit later:
Hypermediacy, on the other hand, which calls attention to its mediation through the accumulative effect of stacking, layering, linking, juxtaposing, and other visual, verbal, and aural strategies, would seem to resist a unified perspective, offering a multiplicity of points of view on every screen … hypermediacy only reminds users of the immediacy they desire. If this is the unstated goal of remediation—a “new, improved” way to inhabit the same old unexamined Cartesian spaces and relations of knowledge and power—it is little wonder that conventional, conservative, transparent practices of “appropriate” academic discourse tend to reassert themselves in new media spaces. (27)
When the effect of this remediation kicks in fully, we’re reminded that we’ve not chosen the “real” thing. This reminder carries with it all the thoughts new media doesn’t want us to think – frustrations that content doesn’t “just work,” belief that the mode being used is amateurish or underdeveloped, or half-hearted plans to revisit the content in its optimized mode later – all of which risk translating into a negative reader judgment regarding the author(s) and their work.
Delagrange notes that this type of remediation struggle has occurred in preceding format expansions such as painting-to-photography, stage-to-film, radio-to-TV. I’m acutely aware that in these moments there were doomsayers that history looked badly upon once the shift was fully realized and it was clear the world had kept on spinning, so I won’t proclaim the sky is falling. I will note, however, that this shift is objectively different and may therefore produce different results. These medium shifts that precede were generally 1:1, content in one ubiquitous format moving to another eventually ubiquitous format. This shift from all of the above to new media is multi-channel. We have dozens of different options for consuming any single type of media, including the academy’s ongoing discussion. One app will work with a handful of streams, but not another handful of other sources. Content providers or device manufacturers, through business arrangements or self-promotion, choose to actively preclude certain providers’ streams altogether. On top of that, hardware in use is in varying degrees of compatibility. I can’t really use an iPad 1 anymore because Apple has stopped updating its OS and the apps I use to consume media streams are increasingly less compatible with the older, slower, less-capable iOS 5x. In a fundamental way, this fractured pressure to consume different streams, in different spaces, and on different devices will stand as a barrier to hypermedia unifying to monolithic, ubiquitous standard for quite some time, and perhaps indefinitely. This is a disincentive to publish in new media. We’re familiar with the channels we’ve been using for so long, and we can’t unify between one or even a small handful of channels, so the new media alternative is inherently more fragmented.
I’d like to think that in the unseen moments of Star Trek, we see Worf snarling and hurling his decrepit and barely functioning iPADD 35 across his quarters because the app he used to fill out his routine security briefings has crashed one too many times. His dark mood will continue into the turbolift to the bridge, where a smug Riker will sing the virtues of his iPADD 37S, and where Data will innocently (and therefore annoyingly to Worf) outline the virtues of the most recent build of Android OS. Maybe that’s why Worf is always in such a dour state.