Amanda Stanhaus

Category: New Media

The Danger of a Customizable Digital Edition of The New York Times

Originally submitted on as a term paper for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”[1] The Internet has quickened the habits of readers to create skimmers. The classic print journalism of The New York Times is made for the digital skimmer; articles are “front-loaded,” beginning with key information. The New York Times continues to embrace the possibilities of the Internet, and in 2014, will launch a redesigned version of its website, www.nytimes.com, henceforth referred to as the digital edition of The New York Times in this paper. As marketed, the subscriber’s preferences–not the editor’s authority–will determine a subscriber’s digital edition experience. Traditionally, an editor’s authoritative responsibilities include choosing featured stories, crafting headlines, and ensuring articles are “front-loaded.” With its redesigned digital edition, The New York Times is responding to the saturated mass market and utilizing the Internet’s ability of “mass customization,” what Mark Andrejevic describes as the ability to produce mass quantities of items, which can be tailored to niche markets & specific individuals.[2] If The New York Times allows its digital edition to be customized like any other self-curated social media “news feed,” it will sacrifice its editor-directed experience that already serves a niche market, subscribers to The New York Times. The customizable navigation bar expected in the 2014 redesign of the digital edition of The New York Times must be reconsidered; continued use of traditional editorial tactics will incentivise digital subscribers to click on and skim just as many articles as a bygone cover-to-cover newspaper reader would have consumed.

Previously, comprehensively reading The New York Times newspaper was viewed as necessity. The newspaper’s physical presence was a material reminder of the range of knowledge required to be an informed individual. The editors of The New York Times determined the organization of the newspaper. The newspaper was read from start to finish.[1]   Each page presented the reader with titles, subtitles, photos, and articles. This newspaper was able to command and retain its audience by publishing the most innovative, provocative, and interesting stories.[3] Reading the entire newspaper was an indispensable part of many people’s morning routines. The New York Times must digitally command the modern reader’s attention with a website that conveys the indispensable editor-directed experience of the print edition.

The digital edition of The New York Times was launched in 1996, last redesigned in 2006, and a prototype of the 2014 website redesign is now available.[4] As the most-visited newspaper website, its reporting sets America’s national agenda and its online innovation sets trends for web journalism.[5] Compared to the print edition, the distinguishing feature of the digital edition is that subscribers must click on the title of an article to access that article. Because of the crucial click, the goal of the website redesign is optimal user navigation, as seen in a fixed navigation bar with sections “Most Emailed” and “Recommended For You,”  along with traditional sections; this navigation bar stays with users regardless of location on the page.[6] This menu bar creates a more personalized experience for subscribers, as it can be customized actively, by declaring a favorite section, or passively, by the site monitoring the subscriber’s habits.[7] This customizable navigation bar is already available for The New York Times apps; this website redesign reflects the apps’ design and is meant to, in the words of the director of digital design Ian Adelman, “minimize the friction of moving through the site.”[8] In the print edition, the editor-directed experience provided friction, causing a subscriber to discover an article and potentially change his or her opinion. With this website redesign optimized for user navigation, The New York Times is adapting to new characteristics of its digital self-directed skimmer, at the expense of preserving the indispensable editor-directed experience.

The New York Times knows its digital audience and is marketing the website redesign accordingly. The prototype’s marketing describes how a digital subscriber is able to “Browse & Explore: Quickly flip through articles in the section you’re reading and find what interests you.”[9] But loyal subscribers to The New York Times respect the editors’ judgment and want to know what the editors feel is necessary to know. If a skimmer wants to find something that interests them, they will use Google to find it. Furthermore, The New York Times describes the redesigned digital edition as having easy access to sections, and a digital subscriber can “also make a list of shortcuts to your favorite sections.”[10] The prototype’s press release touts this customizable navigation bar as more efficient.[11] Instead, the press release should tout its continued tradition of “front-loaded” articles, which are ideal for the digital efficiency-maximizing skimmer. In addition to the necessary click to access an article, a customizable navigation bar will further isolate the subscriber-directed digital experience. A person subscribes to The New York Times for its unmatched editorial authority. A static navigation bar would preserve an editor-directed digital edition, which is necessary for The New York Times to continue to distinguish itself as “the newspaper of record,” retain its respected editorial authority, and repel the current self-curated social media “news feed” fad.

Technology has quickened the pace of modern life and consequently digital news consumers choose the articles they skim. Information is now needed urgently, and Daniel R. Schwarz notes “with the help of [the Internet and] Google, [we can] zero in on what we want more quickly than by turning pages of a newspaper.”[12] And Schwarz sites Professor Geri Gay’s research concluding, “people are more likely to skim stories online rather than read them carefully.”[13] In general, news skimmed on the Internet is self-directed, as the digital subscriber clicks on articles of interest; incrementally, power is transferred from the editor to the digital subscriber. Alex S. Jones explains, “news on the Web is almost entirely chosen by the viewer. You have to seek it out, which means that you can easily miss important stories or avoid troubling ones. Print newspapers had offered a smorgasbord, but you had to cast your eye over a range of information that included some hard news.”[14] The digital subscriber determines his or her online news consumption, unlike the print subscriber who is directed by the editor-determined layout. In 2006, Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations, acknowledged that The New York Times print edition is consumed differently compared to the digital edition:

[A] lot of people read the Times because it’s an enjoyable, relaxing thing to do. And that I think is the principal use [of]…the paper. It’s not, hey I’m going to go find a story in the Times today. [Rather] it’s I read it because I enjoy it. It relaxes me. I feel better informed after I read it….[I]t’s a valuable part of my life. On the web, it’s much more, it’s much more deterministic. I mean we do have some users who kind of read the web like they might read the paper. But most people read the web much more in a targeted way.[15]

Speaking in 2006, Martin Nisenholtz does acknowledge that editorial “gatekeeping” is somewhat significant to subscribers to The New York Times.[16] This view is obviously irrelevant now, as the 2014 website redesign trades its “gatekeeping” power for mass customization. Subscribers to The New York Times already make up a niche market and the stories editors deem important makes for a customized experience; if the digital edition is further customized, the subscriber will only skim stories that serve his or her own interests. Instead of reading news on free, less reputable, customizable websites, digital subscribers pay a fee and acknowledge how valuable the news reported by The New York Times is to their morning routine, fully preparing them for current event discussions throughout the day. If The New York Times conforms to the digital skimmer’s preferences, it will lose its most valuable possession, its editorial authority, its power to present subscribers with stories they would not have chosen for themselves and sway their opinion. The digital edition of The New York Times must preserve the valuable experience of the editor-directed print edition.

Ted Nelson’s dream of hypermedia & hypertext is manifested in the digital edition of The New York Times. While the editors of The New York Times still determine what stories are featured and the captivating headlines, skimmers self-direct their digital experience by clicking on articles that non-sequentially interest them. Nelson, who coined the terms hypermedia & hypertext, described how the human mind and its ideas are non-sequential, and consequently, “readers do better if they don’t have to read in sequence, but may establish impressions, jump around, and try different pathways until they find the ones they want to study more closely.”[17] A digital subscriber is able to hop around to articles in The New York Times that serve his or her interests and Schwarz describes how on the digital edition “audio, video, plain text, and nonlinear hyperlinks intertwine–one might say, build on one another–to create a generally nonlinear medium of information.”[18] However, this self-directed experience can box a subscriber in to his or her own preferences. If a subscriber only clicks on headlines that match his or her interests, the subscriber will miss the more difficult stories of the day, not to mention the rival political party’s point of view. Schwarz explains, The New York Times “has entered a brave new world where the emphasis is on giving readers a reason to enter its site and click on a story–any story.”[19] Schwarz misses a key point that The New York Times is an established news organization and this is the incentive to “enter its site.” A customized digital edition will erode its revered editorial authority. Forfeiting this editorial authority by accentuating the customizable hypertext aspects of the digital edition will conflict with its established status as the most-visited newspaper website due to its editorial authority.

The click necessary to access an article on the digital edition of The New York Times already diminishes opportunities to expand one’s knowledge base by happenstance and a customized navigation bar will only facilitate a dangerously self-directed digital experience. Traditionally, when physically turning the page of the print edition a reader might come across a story that they did not intend to read.[20] The New York Times editor Jonathan Landman explains the different implications of gatekeeping for the digital and print reader:

“One of the best things about reading a newspaper is serendipity. You turn pages and stumble across such interesting and unexpected thing…On the web, that’s harder to do. The web diminishes the power of editors, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because it lets readers pursue their own interests, ignoring editorial judgment that doesn’t reflect their worldviews. It’s bad because editorial judgment can sometimes challenge people’s world-views in constructive ways.”[21]

The biggest asset of The New York Times is its editorial judgment that challenges its subscribers and sets the nation’s agenda. It needs to leave the ability to help web users find what interests them to Google. The New York Times is unfortunately planning to sacrifice its editorial authority to conform to the Internet’s norm of mass customization. The customized navigation bar expected with the 2014 design must be reconsidered, as it will cause the revered editorial authority of The New York Times to unravel.

The New York Times must not cater to the self-directed skimmer, but instead editors must continue to direct the subscriber to a variety of articles that need to be read to be a fully informed citizen. The New York Times has a loyal following because of its unwavering editorial leadership; a comprehensive, editor-directed experience must define the digital edition as well. The editors of The New York Times must direct the subscriber and not allow the subscriber to determine his or her digital skimming experience. To replicate the traditional newspaper experience and incentivise comprehensive article selection, the navigation bar should only feature the traditional section selection. The 2014 redesign should reconsider a customizable menu bar that features personal recommendations and allows subscribers to prioritize their favorite sections. The editors of The New York Times will preserve their traditional gatekeeping power by continuing to craft attention-grabbing headlines, choose the featured stories and publish “front-loaded” articles.[22] An editor’s job is even more indispensable to the digital edition of The New York Times. A print reader was confident that if it was featured in The New York Times it was must read. This trust must be translated to the digital experience, as digital skimmers determine their own experience by clicking.

Relevant to The New York Times transition of its print journalism from paper to computer screen is Henry Jenkins’s distinction between media and delivery technologies. Jenkins explains, “history teaches us that old media never die–and they don’t even necessarily fade away. What dies are simply the tools we use to access media content…Delivery technologies become obsolete and get replaced; media, on the other hand, evolve.”[23] While delivery technologies have short lifespans, a medium persists within a changing media landscape. The print journalism of The New York Times will continue to be an institution within today’s media landscape, as its “front-loaded” articles are ideal for the modern skimmer. Jenkins describes a historical trend that a medium’s content may shift, its audience may change, and its social status may rise or fall, “but once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options.”[24] The editorial authority of The New York Times satisfies a core human demand; people want to be fully informed citizens, presented with a wide range of important stories, so they can discuss current events with others. While a subscriber’s delivery technology of choice will shift from the print to the digital edition, The New York Times will continue to be indispensable.  Modernizing media landscapes change both how media is produced and consumed.[25] Print journalism will always be a medium, but how it is delivered–paper vs. screen– and consumed– read vs. skimmed–will change as technology changes the pace of the lives of modern subscribers to The New York Times.

With the 2014 redesign of its digital edition, The New York Times sacrifices its renowned editorial authority and conforms to the Internet’s norm of mass customization. The customizable navigation bar creates a subscriber, not editor, directed digital experience.  The reputation of The New York Times rests on its editorial excellence, it is the “newspaper of record.” The proposed 2014 redesign of the digital edition of The New York Times dangerously signifies its distinguishing birth; the digital edition’s subscriber-determined experience will be distinct from the print edition’s editor-determined experience. Originally when www.nytimes.com was created, the print and digital editions were indistinguishable. In 1996, www.nytimes.com experienced its integrating birth, as André Gaudreault & Philippe Marion, explain as “an extension of earlier practices.”[26] If implemented as marketed, the 2014 redesign will be the digital edition’s distinguishing birth, just as

& Marion describe, it acquires distinct institutional legitimacy when its quest for identity and autonomy is matched with institutional recognition and investment.[27] The digital edition of The New York Times is needlessly on a quest to conform to the Internet’s norm of mass customization, attempting to create a distinct identity compared to the print edition. The editor-determined experience of the print edition is the biggest asset of The New York Times. As the most-visited newspaper website, it has the opportunity to act as an innovator of web journalism, and is mistaken to implement a subscriber customization option.[28] Of course, the editor has transferred control to the digital subscriber, as sections and headlines must be clicked, so articles can be skimmed. A customized navigation bar will only exacerbate the self-directed nature of the digital edition and be detrimental to an editor’s ability to fully inform the subscriber. Plus, allowing a customized navigation bar is the cliff of a slippery slope towards a customized homepage.

The digital edition of The New York Times should continue to distinguish itself, just as the print edition has, with its excellent editor-directed experience that fully informs subscribers. The same techniques that made The New York Times the print newspaper authority should continue to cement it as an authority on the Internet. Jones describes the indispensable philosophy of Arthur Gelb, former managing editor at The New York Times:

‘Good stories!’ he would bellow in exasperation as he read of yet another news organization’s trendy experiment in trying to attract a crowd. ‘It is all about good stories!’ Then you surround those good stories with strong headlines–which is an art in itself. And you edit the stories so that readers don’t have to read ten paragraphs before they find out what happened yesterday.[29]

Continued use of traditional editorial tactics will translate the editorial authority of the print edition to the digital edition of The New York Times. Skimmers will dedicate their precious time, proving that regardless of delivery technology, The New York Times editor-determined experience provides them with a comprehensive set of stories and is an indispensable part of their fully informed morning routine. The New York Times must trust that its digital subscribers recognize their editorial excellence is too valuable an asset to sacrifice. If the redesign is implemented as described, one trend to track will be how many subscribers to The New York Times, already a niche market, further customize the editor-determined experience. Given this discussion, it can be expected subscribers will respect the unmatched custom experience created by the editors of The New York Times and will not further customize their navigation bars on www.nytimes.com. A well-organized reading experience featuring attention grabbing headlines and good “front-loaded” stories, regardless of changing delivery technologies, must continue to engage the subscriber and direct them through a comprehensive edition of The New York Times. Success for the digital edition of The New York Times will be achieved when skimmers click on the same amount of stories as print readers would have consumed with their morning coffee.

[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media:the Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 8.

[2] Mark Andrejevic, “The Work of Being Watched:Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 2, (2002): 237.

[3] Alex S. Jones, Losing the News:The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 205.

[5] “The New York Times,” Nieman Journalism Lab.

[7] Tim Carmody, “Inside the New York Times’ web redesign,” The Verge, Mar. 13, 2013, http://www.theverge.com/2013/3/13/4094824/inside-the-new-york-times-web-redesign.

[8] Carmody, “Inside the New York Times’ web redesign.”

[10] Ibid.

[12] Daniel R. Schwarz, Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 150.

[13] Ibid, 151.

[14] Jones, Losing the News : The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, 180.

[15] Schwarz,  Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, 129-30.

[16] Schwarz,  Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, 130.

[17] Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974,” in Multimedia: from Wagner to Virtual Reality, eds. Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (New York: Norton, 2001), 159.

[18] Schwarz,  Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, 119.

[19] Ibid, 116.

[20] Ibid, 121-122.

[21] Ibid, 122.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 13.

[24] Ibid, 14.

[25] Ibid, 16.

[26] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, “A Medium is Always Born Twice…” Early Popular Visual Culture 3, no. 1 (2005):4 & 12 .

[27] Ibid, 4 & 13.

[28] “The New York Times,” Nieman Journalism Lab.

[29] Jones,  Losing the News:The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, 209.

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Replaceable. But Sustainable?

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

“Everyday we throw away millions of electronic devices because they get old and become worn out. But usually, it is only one of the components that causes the problem….electronic devices are not designed to last.”[1] This sets the stage for a description of Phonebloks, marketed as a sustainable, replaceable phone. Sterne describes the current market structure, explaining new media technologies “are designed to become obsolete after a short period of use…to make room for future profits, additional hardware sales, and performance upgrades.”[2] Phonebloks is marketed as the antithesis, for example a broken screen can be simply replaced with a new one.[3] Phonebloks has partnered with Motorola; their joint venture is called Project Ara.[4] Project Ara addresses Sterne’s concerns outlined in “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media,” marketed as a sustainable phone, minimizing electronic waste, but it may increase electronic waste.

Phonebloks uniquely addresses stylistic and technological obsolescence, which Sterne describes as a main cause of electronic waste. Curtly, Sterne notes, “Obsolescence is a nice word for disposability and waste.”[5] Stylistic obsolescence is when an object goes out of style; current marketing schemes turn stylistic obsolescence into planned obsolescence.[6] As for technological obsolescence, it is supposed to signal innovation, progress, and thereby necessity.[7] Most importantly, obsolescence is man-made, Sterne explains, we can “choose to sustain an object long after it would have begun to fall apart on their own.”[8] Phoedbloks is initially marketed with a revolutionary feature of being able to replace the broken part of your phone with a new one, instead of replacing the whole phone.  But, by  improving tiny bloks, instead of multiple aspects of a fully-integrated phone, the timeframe of technological and stylistic obsolescence could quicken and could create exponentially more electronic waste. And the Phonebloks does not address the issues of “backward compatibility.”[9] If bloks are rapidly improved and are not backward compatible, the owner is forced to upgrade their phone, blok by blok, creating equivalent electronic waste of purchasing phones in full.

Sterne notes the negative financial implications for a company producing a replaceable, sustainable new media device that will saturate the market and concludes that the people must act because capitalism will never create such a device on its own.[10] Sterne ends his article with an challenge, “It is up to academics, designers, policymakers, and artists to come up with convivial models of computing…We need digital hardware that is more democratic.”[11] Similarly, Phonebloks’ marketing video ends asking everyone to come together to signal to companies there is a “a need for a phone worth keeping.”[12] The parent company bankrolling Project Ara is the ideal Sterne described, a manufacturer more interested in long-term stability than short-term growth.[13] Google owns Motorola and Techcrunch proclaimed Motorola is currently the  most interesting smartphone company.[14] As Vaidhyanathan noted, “even though YouTube itself loses money, Google overall makes money.”[15]  Google’s sheer size and various ventures allows it to undertake the potentially unprofitable Project Ara. Project Ara looks to answer Sternes call to arms, but will a replaceable phone be sustainable or wasteful?


[1] “Phonebloks,”  http://ow.ly/qECCY.

[2] Jonathan Sterne, “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media,” in Residual Media, ed. Charles Acland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007),19.

[3] “Phonebloks.”

[4] Techcrunch, “Motorola Wants To Make Modular Smartphones A Reality With Project Ara,” http://ow.ly/qECWS.

[5] Sterne, 17.

[6] Ibid, 20.

[7] Ibid, 21.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 23.

[10] Ibid, 28-29.

[11] Ibid, 29.

[12] “Phonebloks.”

[13] Ibid, 29.

[14] Techcrunch.

[15]  Vaidhyanathan, “Render unto Caesar: How Google Came to Rule the Web,” 36.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)

A Brighter Future?

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

Siemens aspires to be the world’s problem solving pioneer.[1] Their video “Smart Buildings – The Future of Building Technology” portrays an unsafe and inefficient world in peril, which can only to be made better by Siemens’s systems. “Our world is undergoing changes…changes that force us to think in new ways.” As a car drives through a pre-dawn city, punchy and disconcerting sounds meet each turn. Yet, none of the subsequent suggested improvements are truly innovative, the video admits the building of the future borrows from the past; “along the way to the future we will network classic domains completely and intelligently and we will create synergies that make new functions possible.” This confirms McLuhan’s conclusion that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.”[2] Siemens intends to automate functions to improve efficiency, comfort and security of urban life, but Fuller, Vaidhyanathan, Lyon and Deleuze would warn that, if implemented the new media of the building of the future will have unintended, negative consequences.

Now daylight, Siemens’s building of the future is radiant and described to be a living organism, “networked, intelligent, sensitive and adaptable.” It is solely managed by one man in a dark control room tapping on a control panel. From this room, the man moves pods containing offices and meeting areas, allowing for “solutions that adapt to changing needs of operators and users.” From the control panel, he can also optimize route usage for both cargo and people. The energy used by the building of the future will be effectively managed, as the building’s intelligent energy management system controls the interplay of internal consumers, producers and the energy mix of public power grids. In Siemens’s building of the future, one person and a control panel will improve efficiency, comfort and security for all occupants.

Fuller would disagree with the efficiency implications of the extensive control panel, in light of his distaste for Microsoft Word. Fuller explains, “in order to create the fastest possible route between the human and the computer, a conduit to every function must be as accessible as possible on the screen; hence many icons on many toolbars occupying much of the screen. The questions is not whether this works: It clearly doesn’t. Users simply remember the few icons that they use regularly and are effectively locked out of the rest of the program.”[3] Siemens, creating all of this software to correct current inefficiencies, feeds right into Fuller’s conclusion, “software is too often reduced to being simply a tool for the achievement of pre-existing, neutrally formulated tasks. Culture becomes an engineering problem.”[4] Siemens’s building of the future will correct culture’s current inefficiencies, but will only be met with user frustration similar to those who use Microsoft Word.

Siemens’s video highlights its ability to control building occupants with both audio and visual guides throughout the building. Two women and a man are shown walking into a bright lobby, being scanned upon arrival; the building of the future utilizes  “discrete access controls according to the open door concept…People are guided quickly and safely to their destination, through personalized assistance, a wide range of control and navigation solutions point the way comfortably, and at the same time improve discretion in defined building zones.” What about a deviant who does not follow the directions of the green arrow wall art and handheld devices? While this question is not directly answered by the video, the building features occupancy sensory, highlighted as an asset to safe fire evacuations,  and only at the end does the control panel feature photos of people inside the building.  These two features have the potential to replicate the panopticon, as explained by Vaidhyanathan, “a design for a circular prison with a central watchtower, in which all the inmates would behave because they would assume that they were being observed at all times.”[5] The building of the future represents what Deleuze coined societies of control, while there are no barriers, what counts in these types of societies is “the computer that tracks each person’s position–licit or illicit–and effects a universal modulation.”[6] Lyon explained the motivation of current video surveillance systems, “they answer to particular political-economic pressures….neo-conservative governments wishing to contract out services and to cut costs, especially labor costs. In so doing, they are also attempting to reduce public fear of crime and create spaces for ‘safe’ consumption in the city.”[7] Yet, it is not a government that is designing the building of the future, but  Siemens– a multinational corporation. This is a result of what Vaidhyanathan described as public failure and the rise of corporate responsibility, “as the state has retreated from responsibility to protect common resources… private actors have rushed in to claim the moral high ground in the marketplace…The problem, however, is that corporate responsibility is toothless. Corporations do–and should do–what is in the interests of their shareholders, and nothing more.”[8] A corporation’s building of the future, with tracking and video surveillance capabilities, creates a society of control for the building’s occupants.

Siemens proudly concludes that the proposed building will solve today’s problems and society will further benefit from a network of these buildings throughout a city. Zooming out from the bright networked city, a fire truck with lights flashing is shown and met with a foreboding narration that networked cities “will also mean more security, security that growing urbanization urgently needs.” The analysis of Fuller, Vaidhyanathan, Lyon and Deleuze highlight the dark side of the new media that are featured in the building of the future. Their conclusions can be summarized by Weiner’s warning, “Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.”[9]


[2] McLuhan,“The Medium is the Message,” 8.

[3] Fuller, 151.

[4] Fuller, 162.

[5] Vaidhyanathan, “Infrastructural Imperialism,” 111.

[6] Deleuze, 7.

[7] Lyon, 16.

[8] Vaidhyanathan, “Render unto Caesar: How Google Came to Rule the Web,” 42-3.

[9]  Weiner, 72.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)

Creative Condominiums

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

We can determine technology & media, but they can similarly determine us. McLuhan, a technological determinist, recognizes the power of any medium to impose itself on the unwary, but “the power of technology [is] dependent on alternately grasping and letting go in order to enlarge the scope of action.”[1] Comparing technological determinists with the view of symptomatic technology, Williams describes the nuances, for technological determinists see that technology creates new ways of life, while the view of symptomatic technology understands technology to provide materials for new ways of life.[2] In “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” Viola is deeply aware of technology’s determinism; he alerts artists to the symptomatic ability of technology, as technology can be a tool that artists use to improve and create new art forms, but only if artists conduct the construction of condominiums in data space.

Viola ponders the holistic potential of technology to benefit creativity, knowing that the tools are available for artists to use. Creation is a holistic experience; Viola describes how in Central Java, “the music was learned and conceived as a whole in the minds of the musicians.”[3]  Piece-by-piece video editing is a thing of the past, just as humans carve their realities out of an interlocking whole, computers will allow for “a spatial, total-field approach of carving out potentially multiple programs (…holistic software models, data spaces, and infinite points of view).”[4] Building upon Bush’s “Memex”, Nelson similarly saw the holistic possibilities of computers; with digital storage and hypertext the written word could finally reflect the non-sequential path of ideas.[5] Nelson proclaimed, “writers do better if they don’t have to write in sequence (but may create multiple structures, branches and alternatives), and readers do better if they don’t have to read in sequence.”[6] Viola expects artists to benefit from similarly embracing technology.

Specifically analyzing video art’s technological possibilities, Viola recognizes that video is gaining intelligence from the holistic approach of computer editing. Previously, the curse of video art was to record everything, but with the advent of the computer, Viola proclaims the seeds of the ultimate recording technology are being planted.[7] Viola is inspired by the impact of computers on fashion design; from inspiration to creation, from checking on fabric stock to sharing with others for comment, “all phases of [the fashion designer’s] work could occur on the same screen as digital information. He could travel in space (Europe, the Far East), as well as in time (art history), all in an instant and available either as written text or visual images.”[8] This system was not a mass produced condominium; the fashion designer is not working within the parameters established by someone else. Instead, whoever created the system the fashion designer used had a deep understanding of what the fashion industry needed from technology–the ability to holistically look at a design-in-progress –and the technology was programmed accordingly. Computer video creation and editing could be similarly revolutionized. Viola writes to persuade and achieve institutional recognition of the technological possibilities, which Gaudreault & Marion claim necessary for video’s second birth.[9]Artists must build upon their existing habits of media use with new uses, as both are essential to a new media’s identification process according to Gitelman & Pingree.[10] Viola urges artists to determine technology’s creative abilities and create a new media identity.

Viola urges artists to embrace technology and dictate its use. Otherwise, Viola warns technology will be determined by the“boring domain of linear logic in the school classroom.”[11] It is on the shoulders of artists, Viola explains, as “we will find that the limitations emerging lie more with the abilities and imaginations of the producers and users, rather than in the tools themselves.”[12] Viola concludes, “today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere–there will condominiums in the data space (it has already begun with cable TV).”[13] Artists must have a vision for technological artistic use and implement that vision. Otherwise, technology will stifle creativity, just as tv channels limit the range of content shown. Viola closes with an anecdote; by turning off his headlights, he tricked a porcupine into believing it was not in danger, “I realized that he was probably walking proudly away, gloating over how he really gave it to that big blinding noisy thing that rushed toward him out of the night. I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness.”[14] The porcupine mistakenly believed it was in control.  Vaidhyanathan would relate this porcupine tale, to the dominance of Google and its soft power, “Google understands the fact that default settings can work just as well as coercive technologies. Overall, Google orders our behavior and orders the Web without raising concerns that it is overbearing. It’s a brilliant trick.”[15] Viola similarly alerts artists in “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” to technology and it’s ability to control users with surprisingly strong “soft power.” Viola wants art to be a part of that new way of life that technology creates. Artists must not be ignorant of technology, as the porcupine was. It is up to artists to decide how technology will be incorporated into the creation of their artwork. Technology provides unlimited possibilities for new artforms, as long as artists take part in the construction of condominiums in data space.


[1] McLuhan,“The Medium is the Message,”15 & McLuhan, “Media as Translators,”56.

[2] Williams, “The Technology and the Society,”14.

[3] Viola, 466.

[4] Ibid, 467.

[5] Nelson, 158-9.

[6] Ibid, 159.

[7] Viola, 464 & 467.

[8] Ibid, 469.

[9] Gaudreault & Marion, 13.

[10]Gitelman & Pingree, xii.

[11] Viola, 469.

[12] Ibid, 467.

[13] Ibid, 469.

[14] Ibid, 470.

[15] Vaidhyanathan, “Render unto Caesar: How Google Came to Rule the Web,” 15.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)

The WELL of Work

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

     Ever so relevant in this social networking dependent era, Fred Turner’s “Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy” documents the phenomenon of the Whole Earth Catalog and subsequently the WELL. Turner describes the network forum aspects of the Whole Earth Catalog, as it “both depicted the products of an emerging counterculture and linked the scattered members of that culture to one another.”[1] The network forum of the Whole Earth Catalog would become a virtual network, the WELL. LinkedIn’s groups and discussions are analogous to the WELL’s conferences and topics; LinkedIn improves on the WELL’s networking capabilities with user profiles and job postings. Virtual networking for work is now not limited to just the countercultural WELL subscribers, but now includes mainstream LinkedIn users.

            The Whole Earth Catalog was a useful network forum for those with counter cultural leanings because it was both a boundary object and trading zone. Turner explains, “like the boundary object, [The Whole Earth Catalog] was a media formation around which individuals gathered and collaborated without relinquishing their attachment to their home networks. But like the trading zone, it was also a place within which new networks were built, not only for social purposes but also for the purpose of accomplishing work.”[2] The WELL would build on these properties, as Turner describes, the WELL “translated a countercultural vision of the proper relationship between technology and sociability into a resource for imagining and managing life in the network economy.”[3] Turner notes the drastic change of company structure in the 1980’s, “hierarchical firms…reorganized themselves as project-oriented networks.”[4] The benefit of networking on the WELL is “even as one’s employer changed one’s employment could hold stable.”[5] In the 21st century, LinkedIn would become the  boundary object and trading zone of choice for professionals.

Once an account is activated,  a LinkedIn account holder can document their expertise, connect and virtually network by interacting through groups. LinkedIn’s groups are similar to the WELL’s conferences.[6] Within a group, there are discussions–analogous to the WELL’s topics–where users can comment or like a discussion.[7] LinkedIn gives users the ability to widen one’s sphere of influence through interactions over its professional network.

LinkedIn’s improvements to the WELL include user profiles and job postings. By interacting on the WELL, personal reputations, with respect to know-how, prose technique, taste, charisma, personality and style, were created.[8] Active LinkedIn users can similarly build a virtual reputation. But even non-frequent LinkedIn users build a reputation by documenting their industry, education, location, current/previous jobs/employers,  skills/expertise etc. on their profile. If a profile is full of keywords, then networking capabilities are only limited to the voracious search capabilities of recruiters. Furthermore, LinkedIn recommends jobs in corresponding career fields, to which users can apply through the website  and include their profile in their application. LinkedIn is of course not the only 21st century social network to build off of the WELL. But LinkedIn has built on the main take away from the WELL, namely finding work by virtually networking.


[1] Fred Turner, “Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community,” Technology and Culture, vol. 46 (July 2006):489.

[2] Ibid, 490.

[3]  Ibid, 491.

[4] Ibid, 504.

[5] Ibid, 505.

[6] Ibid, 499.

[7] Ibid.

[8]  Ibid, 507.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)

Information Liberation Leads to Conformity, not Creativity

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

Building upon Bush’s memex, Ted Nelson envisions a grand hypertext as the ultimate way for technology to mimic human train of thought and memory.  Bush penned his description of a memex in 1945, imagining a comprehensive storage device that “is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”[1] Almost thirty years later in 1974, Nelson pens Computer Lib / Dream Machines, imagining a grand hypertext, which “consist[s] of ‘everything’ written about a subject, or vaguely relevant to it, tied together by editors (and NOT by ‘programmers,’ dammit), in which you may read in all the directions you wish to pursue. ”[2]  Tumblr’s liberated hodgepodge of information expands an individual’s memory and allows users to seamlessly follow their curiosity. Nelson’s grand hypertext  is realized by Tumblr, as this technology allows an individual to post street style photos, survey others’ photos and interact with other street style aficionados.

A Tumblr blog is a hub of one’s interests, whether the user creates or reblogs the content. Tumblr realizes Nelson’s dream “that we may be able to store things digitally instead of physically.”[3] For example, no longer do fashionistas have to wait for Vogue’s September issue to know what to wear that winter. Fashionistas can assess what the current trends are by viewing posts tagged “#street style.” If a user fancies a blog, the user can choose to follow the blog for constant updates.

Nelson hoped that technology would mimic human’s non-sequential, branch-like thinking. Nelson’s ideal was that technology would allow content to be linked to each other, so humans may act on their natural curiosity and seamlessly transition to either directly or indirectly related topics. On Tumblr, users can view “#street style” posts, and click on the post’s other tags to view specific trends such as, “#cobalt,” “#denim,” or “#leather.”  These tags allow everyone to show their unique perspective on a trend.

Tumblr blogs have endless possibilities, as users can curate their blog with any content, written or visual, that piques their interest. Nelson astutely notes, “the structures of ideas are not sequential. They tie together every which way.”[4]  One’s creative impulse is uninhibited, as it is easy to hop from one interest to another by clicking on tags and reblog a post to document one’s interest in a topic.

Nelson believes information cannot be controlled and instead, it must roam free, as it does on Tumblr. Nelson’s dream of information liberation is nostalgic, “We must once again become a community of common access to a shared heritage.”[5] With universal access to common information, Nelson hopes his grand hypertext maximizes humanity’s creative potential.

Tumblr is the realization of Nelson’s grand hypertext, yet the outcome is the opposite of what he hoped would come from information liberation. In the Tumblr age, no longer does Tokyo have fashion trends distinct from Montréal.  Instead of realizing Nelson’s avant garde dream, Tumblr has fostered his nightmare of humanity’s creative capacity being stifled into conformity.


[1] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic,  July, 1945.

[2] Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974,” in Multimedia—from Wagner to Virtual Reality, eds. Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (New York: Norton, 2001), 160.

[3] Nelson, 158.

[4] Ibid, 159.

[5] Ibid, 161.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)