Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove
- Former Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology and Professor at the University of Toronto
- Research Director at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3) at The Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona
- Scientific director of the Rome based monthly Media Duemila
- Former Professor of Sociology at the the University of Naples Federico II
What is Organic Media?
I consider myself a ‘network architect’. Not because I have ever programmed anything, although I have actually conceived and implemented a variety of networking software for my students; but principally because I see a network as an architecture of connections. My limitation in imagining network as an architecture was that it was inert, purely a functional geometry. Agnès Yun’s Organic Media changed that for me. I now understand why my friends architect Marcos Novak and network designer Matteo Ciastellardi called their publications on networked communication ‘Liquid architectures’. Network architecture involves fluid mutability and unpredictable patterns of growth. This is what Organic Media is about.
This is the story of a media formed by relationships, and therefore lives and evolves continuously. We call this living, growing media ‘organic media’. (Prologue, p.9)
In Agnès Yun’s approach, organic media is biological, social and technological all at once. It is all networks fusing together, perceived as a single multiform, distributed, trans-configured environment in constant purposeful activity.
The whole book is an epistemological challenge destined to change your mind about media.
It took me three mental steps to fully understand the concept:
- The words first brought up connotations of living, growing things; I got that.
- Then, because I was semi-consciously still emphasizing the technological character and apparent externality of the electronic networks, my thoughts met a contradiction: the internet is not biological, is not attached to my body, hence it is not organic.
- But after giving it more thought, I understood the concept differently. I could see the value of establishing a continuity between human intervention — decidedly organic — and electronic media. I finally saw and felt myself as a social and biological node meant to steer my networking in the fluid continuity and proliferations between social and virtual networks.
Thus, I have changed my understanding of myself by probing it with the notion of organic media. But the point, of course, is to understand the organic media per se.
This will take a book to unpack.
Of course, there is a biological metaphor at play. Yun says that media are alive in their proliferation between and across human and technological relationships. It is important from the outset to clearly distinguish the author’s use of the ‘living’ metaphor from vitalism, a defunct theory that living things were animated by some unverifiable principle. Furthermore, this principle was deemed to be different and separate from the material manifestations of life. Yun’s organicism doesn’t involve an originating principle. It’s a strictly human and rather logical affair. It favours, on the contrary, not the separation but the reunion of biological, social and technological realms. Organic media is still a metaphor but its purpose is to stimulate a new approach to media, not to make a scientific observation.
There is merit and value to apply the term to the technological realm as it is so intrinsically associated with human intervention. “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us” (McLuhan). There is indeed a close association between our minds and our screens in front of which most of us spend more than half our waking hours. Society evolves in a hybrid condition on- and offline. It is a single environment totally interconnected, occupied by myriads of uniquely purposeful configurations, in constant growth, change and updating. That is what is organic about them.
What is the value of reviewing media as organic? It is a frame, a new filter, a special lens to seize and size up the whole scene of the net and the digital culture. Agnès Yun is a visionary: she grabs the whole picture and sees how connections and groups of interest form and reform in their rhizome fashion. Organic Media focuses observation and attention on the patterns and principles of connection and growth. By detailing how these formations occur, she elicits new keys to understanding what is really happening in the digital culture and how to benefit best from it.
So what do we get for looking through the organic glass? First a grounding insight:
The contents of organic media are alive. In traditional media, which is based on mechanical methods of transfer, the ‘transmission’ of contents is the final step in the process. The role of media ends the instant the words are uttered, or the moment content is published, issued, or broadcast. But with organic media, the real work begins after the moment of transfer. Once posted, content acquires an infinite potential for connection and evolution as users begin to engage. Traditional media focuses on displaying and exposing its messages to the public, whereas organic media applies itself to extending the life of its contents and evolving further, by keeping users interested and getting them to connect to the network. (Prologue, p.14)
Over and above this invitation to shift our attention from cause to effect, there are several other things here that Marshall McLuhan would have related to. For example, the transmission issue, he called “transportation versus transformation”, that is, a question of product delivery. He, no more than Agnès Yun, was comfortable with the product minded talk of the industries he consulted for. He would emphasize process. He would have recognized, not without satisfaction, an echo of T.S. Eliot (“In my end is my beginning” — Four Quartets, East Coker) in Yun’s founding notion that the life of content really begins at the moment of publication. In organic media one must focus attention on whatever happens after the content is delivered. The difficulty in analyzing fluid interactions is parsing the various elements in flow. The author does that methodically. In so doing she provides the reader with a sort of ‘grammar of networks’. Based on four parameters: connected, open, social and organic, networks respond also to a set of opposites: space/network, private/ public, connected/isolated etc:
Every internet service, regardless of type or purpose, consists of a user network, an information network, and a hybrid network connecting both. Put differently, the crux of an internet service structure is its ‘network’. It’s no exaggeration to say that the particular relationships formed by and between content and users defines the service itself. (Part II, p.120)
Beside analysing in detail and clearly explaining the articulations and processes of this ‘aftermath’, the book is packed with insights that send the reader’s mind reeling in all kinds of — networked — directions. A few examples:
In the future, everyone will be at once author and reader. Amid a deluge of reading material, the filtering of what’s truly ‘worth reading’ will be performed after the fact by the readers themselves. In this changing landscape, publishers may even come to focus their energies on saving readers time and helping them connect more efficiently with content. (Part I, p.44)
The first chapter of Organic Media is devoted to books. It serves as a key example of what has happened to the publishing industry as long as it continued considering itself as a producer and distributor of content taking media as transporting devices. The issue here is to explore the relationships between content, container and context, rendered more complex by the fact that content and container, and much of the context, share the same digital nature. Content ain’t what it used to be.
CONTEXT HAS THE ANSWER.
The most important aspect of networks, in Yun’s view is context. And of course, it is. However the unnamed but fully present partner in this division of labor is community. What is organic about the media starts with people, with intentions, projects and realizations. The happy outcome of these depends on the connected drives of persons. Take crowd-funding for an example: People put their money where their heart is. The investment is emotional as much as financial. Investors can follow the progress of their investment and begin to feel part of a growing community. They have a direct relationship with the product and can be sure that there will be no disconnect between market valuation and actual production. As an economic formula meant to provide human satisfaction, crowd-funding beats management of unknown stocks by unknown third parties.
I connect very well with “In the future, everyone will be at once author and reader”. I created ‘wreader’, a neologism to express the condition of reading on a computer or a tablet screen. Especially from the tactile screens, there is a strong call for getting the fingers involved fiddling with the keyboard in whatever format. We are compelled to interact.
Trying to evaluate content, we tend to look at numbers. But quantified data is only an approximate indication of people’s involvement with a product or a service. Data Analytics allow for qualified results. Yun provides an important precision about how to measure the impact of a text on the community of readers.
NETWORK REPLACES SPACE.
The theme is picked up and explicated in chapter 3, grounded on the insight that led Agnès Yun to distinguish envisioning space or network in the planning of mediation:
Seen from the network perspective, lumping supporters into groups, like ‘men in their twenties’ or ‘women in their thirties’, is not only extremely primitive but also guaranteed to result in catastrophic error. The space-centric approach of maximum aggregation and display is becoming less and less effective. (Part III, p.161)
What is ‘space-centric’? It is a question of mental geography. Networks replace geography with architecture, preferably liquid. If I am thinking about a network configuration such as Twitter, what do I see: a bunch of dots in an undefined obscure background (space-centric) or as active nodes in an undefined architecture of relationships (network-centric)?
Conversely, if you take the network view, your target is each individual customer. And these individuals cannot be aggregated into one place. In this instance, the various mediating activities each person engages in after seeing your message take precedence over how many people actually see it. In short, space prioritizes quantitative reach but network prioritizes the phase that comes after. This phase is when people and messages become linked, through a host of actions including sharing, connecting, recommending, reviewing, and ‘liking’. (Part III, p.162)
Chapter 4 reflects upon mediation and how we are ourselves continuous instances of mediation. Everything we do online or off is published in one way or the other. Everything is mediated, hence the primary creation of content is only destined to be re-created and consumed. Content becomes a pretext for social engagement. How you manage that and what objectives should you fix yourself, Organic Media, proceeds to tell you. Yun distinguishes four stages of content mediation: creation, re-creation, replication and consumption. This is very useful to help evaluate the real or potential impact of a promotion campaign:
Creation and re-creation aren’t enough to explain the workings of a massive and dynamic network, because in reality there aren’t that many users who actively produce, review, discuss, and parody content. You need to add a type of mediation that can ensure quantitative diffusion. Replication increases visibility and spread without modifying the substance of the mediated content. In other words, the content of replication is quantity. The number of people who express interest or approval influences my own choices. (Part IV, p.199)
The author continues:
There are two ways of enhancing visibility. The first is simply to signify my accord by ‘liking’ or retweeting content. All I need to do is click a button, but that causes the content in question to be reproduced on my activity feed and displayed to my friends. Rating a book has the same effect. A high star rating convinces buyers, while a feed entry announcing that ‘so-and¬so gave this book a 5-star rating’ gets the word out to one’s social network. This is what differentiates replication from unauthorized reproduction. You’re not copying content and passing it off as your own, but purveying content through the act of expressing your like or dislike of it. (Part IV, p.199)
Chapter 5 turns to the person.
This chapter concerns the critical issues in today’s media context of identity, privacy, transparency and visibility. The author suggests that these moving targets depend on four interdependent criteria: identification versus differentiation and public versus private. In so doing, she eventually borrows McLuhan’s controversial model of the Tetrad, which goes something like so: every new medium extends a property of the human mind or body, discards or puts aside the previous medium, retrieves a much older medium, and, when pushed to extremes, flips into the opposite effect it was intended for in the first place. As I interpret Yun’s use of the tetrad, networking, as the new medium in play, expands visibility, dumps privacy, retrieves tribal-like public roles and, pushed to excess, flips the over exposed subject into social disregard.
In an open network, as opposed to a closed space, I am not the sole author of my visibility. In addition to my own efforts, relevant nodes and links must be repeatedly produced and sustained by numerous users who share and distribute content. On social media’s organic network, user mediation, rather than boundary distinction, creates a kind of visibility that is present anywhere and everywhere. In other words, the public sphere in organic media isn’t predetermined but infinitely extendable through user activity and mediation. (Part V, p.243)
AUDIENCE DEFINES WHO I AM.
This is a section heading which proposes yet another original insight, especially in terms of today’s complex transformations of what we used to mean by identity:
I am not the agent of my own identity. Rather, I build an audience, and they, collectively, define my identity. According to this logic, even my audience is neither predetermined nor artificially assembled. The audience is the sum of each new person I connect with in my day-to-day communication. Through them I am defined, revised, and made to evolve. (Part V, p.249)
And, a few pages later, addressing the arrival of radical transparency, Yun reminds us about a feature of networking that most of us rarely consider or believe:
Visibility is now a new mode of being. The range of people who are watching you extends far wider than you think. You are visible not just to your own friends but to their friends, to friends of their friends, and to the entire network beyond. (Part V, p.253)
Marshall McLuhan would probably have enjoyed Organic Media because it renders evident how they extend the human nervous system in its complexity. There are a lot of insights that he would have recognised not necessarily as his own but as spontaneous explications of some of his then obscure pronouncements. To continue this preface and push it right into the book, I propose to expand the meditation on the following parallels:
For McLuhan, who, in this observation was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, the artist evaluates and puts the effects of the experience before the causal values of the piece. Impressionism is a case in point: the painter emphasizes the viewer’s experience over and above the exactitude of the object or subject presented. In fact, the single most important bias of McLuhan’s method — and probably the best explanation for both his success in determining the consequences of human innovation and the irritation he provoked among his mostly Cartesian colleagues — was to emphasize effects over causal relationships. Agnès Yun does for the business community what the artist does for art, she takes the cause — networks — for granted and concentrates on network effects. What does business want the effect, the impression or the response to be?
Another common feature in both thinkers is the need to change one’s perception of spatial relationships. McLuhan’s famous quip: “The electric bulb is 360 degree information” is matched by Yun’s recommendation to replace considerations about the spatial perimeter of whatever business proposition with its networking potential. This approach is also congruent with her astute observation of the reversal between inside/ outside in networked environments.
In the new market formed by internet-based media, the distinction between inside and outside dissolved. What was mine was offered up to others through open application programming interfaces (API); the traces and activities of users everywhere were now my resources to use. For businesses, their own services were inside, while competing services were outside; for users there was no such boundary. (Prologue, p.10)
Crowdsourcing is a form of reversal. It can go to extremes such as in the famous Canadian example of the amazing recovery of Goldcorp, a gold mine concession that was already in the proceeds of bankruptcy. Goldcorp is today one of the top producers of gold in North America. It recovered in extremis because the person in charge of managing the dissolution had the genial idea to open to the world the top secret archives of where the digging had already been done and everything that came up with such mapping. The idea was of course to source world experts or gold-mining buffs to propose their suggestions of where to dig, luring answers with appropriate incentives.
I have mentioned above the revised approach to the association of carrier and content which is common to both authors. In Shannon-Weaver’s benchmark ‘sender — channel (noise) — receiver’ model, what interested McLuhan, of course, was the noise. It is, again, not the exact delivery of the content (an engineering issue), but the effects of that content and especially of the carrier that interests both. Carrying this idea to its logical conclusion, McLuhan went as far as professing: “If the medium is the message, then the user is its content”. And, sure enough, here is a new interpretation of the idea by Agnès Yun:
Where does social media get its power? The answer, obviously, is ‘the user’: we are the ones causing all of these phenomena. None of it would be possible without user activity. From the user’s side, on the other hand, life without social media has become something of a challenge. Whether we like it or not, it’s difficult to ‘exist’ without revealing ourselves on the internet. (Part V, p.223)
I need to point out again the common understanding of electronic media as extensions of the Central Nervous System, if only to remind the reader as to how far McLuhan pushed that analogy: “Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.(p.19)… For with the telegraph, man had initiated that outering or extension of his central nervous system that is now approaching an extension of consciousness with satellite broadcasting”. (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, pp.19 and 222, 1964.)
There are so many spontaneous echoes of McLuhan in Yun that I cannot list them all. But I need to add that there is no evidence of plagiarism in any form. Yun cites McLuhan half a dozen times whenever she is directly inspired by his thought; elsewhere the insights are genuine and arise from a shared understanding of media rather than of direct influence. And there are some significant differences. For example, where Yun emphasizes the role of connections, McLuhan might have balked at the idea because his bias was explicitly auditory and not visual. He considered connections as the misguided application of a visual bias to understanding relationships. He would prefer the metaphor of the ‘interval of resonance’, to reveal the kind of vibrant space between things, people and meaning. It is the space of dance and creativity, the play between the wheel and the axle, without which there would be no motion at all. The big difference is that Agnès begins with the overall field of networks, a feature of media which wasn’t evident to McLuhan in the era of television.
Let us remind ourselves that the word network was robbed from the vocabulary of TV networks to be co-opted for the characterization of relationships fostered by the computer and the internet long after McLuhan had published his last media studies. From my estimation, Organic Media is one of the most advanced, yet truly independent extensions of McLuhan’s thinking.
What did I discover reading Agnès Yun’s Organic Media? In fact I never stopped discovering. I thought I had given a long look at networks for decades. Certainly I wouldn’t pretend I knew everything one needs to know about them, but at least enough not to expect big surprises. And the reason Agnès Yun’s book is so surprising is not that she unearthed big new revelations about the internet or about people’s use of it, it is that she looks at networks differently. The mere fact of focusing on media as organic allows her to adopt a more comprehensive and complex field of investigation. As Blaise Pascal said of his approach to common knowledge:
“Qu’on ne dise pas que je n’ai rien dit de nouveau: la disposition des matières est nouvelle; quand on joue à la paume, c’est une même balle dont joue l’un et l’autre, mais l’un la place mieux”(Pascal, Pensées, 022).
“Let no one say that I have said nothing new: the lay-out of the content is new; when you play ball, it is always the same ball players use, but one of the players places it better”(Pascal, Pensées, 022).
Derrick de Kerckhove,
Director of Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3) at The Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona
Wicklow, July 23 2015