Media, Language & the Senses

“What does it mean that we have to learn to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ through a new technological media?

“What are the implications for aesthetics? For human perception and consciousness? For politics?”

Human beings interacting with technology, computers and advanced systems must learn to read signs and codes and also learn appropriate reactions and responses. If you look at the most basic form of humans participating in social exchange—language—it was our species’ primal step into media.

As Torben Grodal urges us in “Stories for the Eye, Ear, Muscles,” take a look at McLuhan’s thesis that the medium is the message and trace it backwards through time. Like McLuhan advocated, our newest, most sophisticated systems of media are really made up each of the older media: an audio/video-supported chat room combined the media of stereo, telephony, and typing; each of these can be broken down to marriage of other simpler & more basic media, such as the touching of wires together to make an audible noise that can be interpreted into a message, plus the media of light waves being hurled across a plane to arrive at a recipient ocular receptacle and read as image, to the media of alphabetic letters placed on keys built into a machine with moving black ribbon that produced words, then phrases, then sentences that can be read in order to provide some storyline.

Keep going backward through the timeline of media, Grodal urges, to the very most basic codes and signifiers that build language—speech. This is where all media originates—the birth of language. Imagine the caveman mumbling an accidental grunt. Now this grunt is tied to an event—he mumbled it while stumbling. Now the grunt takes on meaning, to the caveman, a grunt could indicate an event of distress. A series of grunts could mean massive distress, even destruction. The function of producing a sound with the mouth produces indicators, which can also be intentionally reproduced. This is a function of the body working as original media.

In civilization, there could be a need to reproduce a story, such as the caveman’s stumbling over a rock. Perhaps through grunts and indications, body language, using his hands to point out where the testy rock lies, he can communicate to other cave men a simple message such as, “ Watch out; be careful; this rock loose.”

Learning to play a video game is similar to the pattern of learning language (or the invention of language) because with repetition, actions (like the grunt) start to take on meaning or are developed. Repeating the action of visiting a certain video screen and facing challengers provides the player with information upon each visit so that he/she can interpret the symbols and produce a new, different, more appropriate reaction (like a fight plan for facing adversaries). Language gets developed because with repetition and slight variation, the range of possible messages that could be delivered becomes greater; with every pitch of the grunt, a different message could be conveyed. Line the grunts up next to each other, give them different durations, and you have a whole set of messages to alternate, much like the way the set of messages deliverable in the early French telegraphy system developed by Claude Chappe could be rearranged to produce around 25,000 different messages (Sterne 141).

Every human being born learns to reproduce sounds made by the humans around them (each invents the sounds) and practices them and eventually they take on meaning. Then, as one grows up and the brain and auditory and vocal functions develop, your language gets more sophisticated. It is then tied to symbols and you learn to form words. All of these things originate from the physical act of producing a noise that comes from your mouth (or producing words using gestures of the hands). Body language and vocal language.

To use technology, we must learn to use our eyes, hands, voices—everything—in new ways that are meant to communicate information to machines. We must learn to focus our eyes on a TV and therein will be activity that provides familiar symbols and a story (to use Grodal’s term). We must learn what parts of a computer to focus our eyes on to collect information and we must also learn how a keyboard and mouse work in order for our bodies to have interactivity with the machine. The same is true in order to play a video game, drive a car, shave one’s beard, toast a piece of bread, etc.

This can greatly affect aesthetics, human perception and consciousness because we must be trained to focus on certain “important” stimuli, or whatever is before us delivering information that we’re supposed to be using at that moment, while blocking out or ignoring other extraneous information. Take my current position right now. I’m sitting in an office and my focus is typing a paper in response to our readings. So, my mental work is preoccupied with trying to think of language to use in my response, while my body is physically focused like this: eyes following the text, scanning and reading, while fingers type telling the keys what information to enter next. Meanwhile, if you could see what is going on all around me, there is noise overhead from an air conditioner that I’m not paying attention to. Within my line of sight, there is a calendar, a phone, pens and pencils and other various items on top of my desk that I am not looking at & not paying attention to, but I could see. I have trained myself to only look at my screen as I concentrate on writing. This affects my perception and consciousness because at present, my other senses are not front and center. Someone could walk up behind me and scare me and I wouldn’t hear them; or my phone could ring and scare me because I wouldn’t be paying attention to the possibility that it could ring at any second.

Being connected or “tuned in” to technology produces different aesthetic effects because a person can be trained to or directed to only see/hear/smell/feel/taste part of the information that is intended to be seen/heard/smelled/felt/tasted while the rest of their senses are controlled/manipulated/or convinced to act selectively, or not be tuned in at all.

For example, imagine you are going on a trip to bathe in a natural sulfuric hot springs. You think, ‘How am I supposed to enjoy myself, it stinks like rotten eggs around here!’ But someone tells you, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad, once you get used to it. In fact, I’ve been out here so long, I don’t even smell it at all.’

It is possible to train yourself to mentally dampen one of your senses in order to focus on the experience in other ways. Think of people who live next to airports who claim they don’t hear the planes anymore.

Think of the potential the media has to convince the viewer/receiver of anything, if all you have to do is tell them to turn off or ignore those functions of their senses that tell when something is uncomfortable, hurtful, annoying or just plain not right. The power (and potential manipulation) of our sensory programming is strong.

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One Response to “Media, Language & the Senses”

  1. christinatx Says:

    I agree with you that it is a learning process with the way we interact with technology using our senses and body. I liked your example of being in the office. There is a sort of switch that we instantly turn off and on depending on what activities that we are doing. Maybe our brains place our needs of perception and consciousness in a sort of hierarchy format or a short term sleep mode. We can be aware that the television is on while we are con the computer and we hear it, but we are not truly listening and interpreting the information.

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