Sinews and Connective Tissue

"The bundle of concepts tied to the word media is unraveling. We need a new conception for the word, one that dispenses with the connotations of 'something produced by professionals for consumption by amateurs.'

Here's mine: media is the connective tissue of society."

Shirky (2010)

"We view the internet as a set of environmental conditions that span traditional geographic or social boundaries. The internet can serve as connective tissue between and within local information ecologies."

Nardi and O'Day (1999)

Media on the internet (and this is the media with which Shirky is most concerned), whether manifested as video, audio, images, or some combination thereof, needs writing to do its work. This is writing in a different light than we have traditionally assumed—writing as markup, for example. Often, indeed, the media we experience is wholly constituted and represented as writing work (this post, for example), with writing work likewise dictating the visual elements we see and unsee (#000000, #FFFFFF, padding, divs, et al.).

If media, or the internet writ large (as in Nardi and O'Day's formulation), constitutes the connective tissue of contemporary societal interaction, then writing must be the sinew of our contemporary social graphs—the very thing that holds us together, mediates, and articulates sociotechnical existence.


Scott Graham said...

Really interesting thoughts here. My first thought was to say that I would prefer blood vessels or nervous tissue to connective tissue, but that a little too Shannon and Weaver-y for my tastes. Nevertheless, I wonder about what the connective tissue/sinew metaphor does to the sense of mediation (distribution) in media. Another random thought: is HTML/CSS still "writing work" if one uses a WYSIWYG? Certainly still design/composition work, but perhaps not writing.

Brian J. McNely said...

Thanks for your comment, Scott. Your question is one that I've been asked several times, and it's one I still don't have a solid answer for.

Dourish (2001) seems relevant here, so I'll start with him... In tracing the history of modern modes of computer interaction, he describes the shift from machine language and electrical engineering, to assembly languages, to textual representations, and finally to GUIs.

Of interest here is his recognition that all four models of interaction involve what he calls "textual" modes of symbolic representation--what I would call writing work. He argues that in the transition from assembly languages to higher order textual programming, "textual interaction was no longer simply a means to describe computer operations, but became the primary form of interaction."

He also notes that the "compositional character of textual interaction has proven hard to replace as interfaces have developed." Even "graphical interaction," he argues, "has never been _purely_ graphical; instead, it extends the vocabulary of interaction to incorporate graphical as well as textual presentation forms."

And so here is where my contention that writing work mediates human computer interaction comes to the fore, even in graphical user interfaces or WYSIWYG HTML editors. Part of what I try to do with my undergrads is get them to consider the writing work that undergirds WYSIWYG interactions.

In short, I'd argue that WYSIWYG editing is still writing work on multiple levels, but that the GUI makes much of the important writing work invisible. Despite this invisibility, the writing work is still ever present, just like the mostly invisible tendons that hold together and articulate embodiment...

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