The Medium as Platform: An Emerging Sense
- Steven Maras
School of Humanities
University of Western Sydney,
This paper argues for an approach to the study of new media
that distinguishes between different "senses" of medium standing
in a continuum. It identifies an emerging sense of medium, which
has to do with an understanding of the medium as a platform.
One of the most exciting and also troublesome
aspects of the study of new media is the emphasis on the "new". As
problematic as the pre-fix "post" in postmodernism and
post-structuralism, the pre-fix "new" demands a series of
historico-temporal or qualitative thresholds be set up between
either old and new media, established and emergent media, or present
and past media (see Marshall, 1987). When proposed in a rigid way
these thresholds become normative ways of constructing or policing
the field, leading to a distinction between different models of
media: analogue and digital, pull and push, broadcasting and
broadcatching. Such a rigid approach can potentially block off
interesting avenues of study (the process whereby an emergent medium
becomes established, or an old-medium is born again, for example).
While an impulse of much new media theory is to establish
the difference of a new kind of medium, or a transformation of the
media beyond established definitions, it runs the risk of operating
through a process that fails to differentiate between different
concepts of medium—a massification of the media that ironically
parallels the massification of the audience in mass media. In this
piece, I want to argue in favor of an approach that distinguishes
between different "senses" of medium standing in a continuum. This
approach is not primarily interested in asserting the differences
between one medium and another (the quest for medium specificity),
but rather examines the rhetorical aspects or metaphorics of a
particular concept of medium. This approach is epistemological in
the sense that it opens up the issue of how we know what a medium
is. Being attuned to different senses of medium means being aware of
the way we talk about different media, and the way our understanding
of medium is created through discourse.
A pre-cursor for
this kind of approach exists in the work of James W. Carey and his
discussion of the telegraph. He argues that one of the effects of
the telegraph was a change in the very understanding of
communication. Carey writes,
When the telegraph reached the West Coast eight years
in advance of the transcontinental railroad, the identity of
communication and transportation was ended in both fact and
symbol. Before the telegraph, 'communication' was used to describe
transportation as well as message transmittal for the simple
reason that the movement of messages was dependent on their being
carried on foot or horseback or rail. The telegraph, by ending the
identity, allowed symbols to move independently of and faster than
transportation. To put it in a slightly different way, the
telegraph freed communication from the constraints of geography.
The telegraph, then, not only altered the relationship between
communication and transportation; it also changed the fundamental
ways in which communication was thought about. (Carey, 1989, pp.
In this passage, Carey traces an event that
altered the sense of communication, its popular understanding, and
identity with other terms such as transportation. The introduction
of the telegraph changed the way that communication was thought
The study of the media has seen shifts of a similar
nature. Michael Heim tracks a movement between two important senses
of medium in the following passage. In the pre-modern period,
medium meant conceptual awareness in
conjunction with the five senses through which we come to
understand things present before us in the environment. This
natural sense of media was gradually dissipated during the modern
period by man-made extensions and enhancements of the human
senses. ... Electronic media gave new meaning to the term. We not
only perceive directly with five senses aided by concepts and
enhanced by instrumentation, but also are surrounded by a panorama
of man-made images and symbols far more complex than can be
assimilated directly through the senses and thought processes.
Media in the electronic sense of acoustic-optic technology ...
appear to do more than augment innate human sensory capacities:
the electronic media become themselves complex problems; they
become facts of life we must take into account as we live; they
become, in short, the media. (Heim, 1987, p. 47)
this passage, Heim shows how through extension and instrumentation
"the media" comes to occupy a different register of existence. "The
media" in this account are distinct from any general artifact that
can serve as a means of communication to us. Extending the idea of
the electronic media, "the media" also develops into the idea of the
mass media, usually associated with the print and broadcasting
industries (see also Williams, 1976, p. 169).
explores a further transition moment in our sense of medium when he
asks the question "where is the mass medium?". By asking this
question, Eco is reacting to a centralized conception of the mass
media based on a particular relationship with authority. Some
defining features of this conception are:
a centralized transmitter, with precise political and
pedagogical plans, controlled by Authority (economic or
political), the messages sent through recognizable technological
channels (waves, wires, devices identifiable as a screen, whether
movie or TV, radio, magazine, page) to the addressees, victims of
ideological indoctrination. (Eco, 1986, p. 148)
Eco's analysis, the mass media are no longer where he once assumed
them to be. The messages have cascaded beyond the borders of
traditional models of communication to produce a new kind of media
event—the multiplication of the media—and with it a new relationship
to culture. Clothing, vehicles, brands, all form channels alongside
those of the newspaper advertisement and the TV Broadcast. With each
change in the channel under consideration Eco notes that "in a
certain sense the meaning of the message changes, and its own
ideological weight" (Eco, 1986, p. 149).
In such moments of
transition in the very sense of medium it is important not to
privilege one order of medium across the realm of all media. The
notion of "the media" as applied in broadcasting does not always
apply to the sense of a "medium" in a séance, for example—although
both areas share a link to the "ether" or ethereal. McLuhanesqe
definitions of the medium as an extension of the human can stand at
odds with political economy definitions of "the media". As evident
in Eco's work, the notion of the medium as a "channel" for
communication is widely used to describe various media. Distanced
from a link to the channeling of spirits, this term relates to the
technical problems of conveying messages or signals to a
destination. However, the mathematical model of communication can
lead to a dependence on a constricted understanding of content that
excludes the communication medium. We can suggest that particular
aspects of Marshall McLuhan's work—his discussion of the electric
light as a medium without a message, for instance (McLuhan, 1967, p.
15)—show his interest in short-circuiting a restricted idea of
content and a narrow understanding of medium as channel.
While we should be mindful not to privilege one sense of
medium across the realm of all media, we should also be attuned to
the way the meaning of "medium" can change across different realms.
In computing, "media" is increasingly being used to refer to a
volume or partition on a hard disk drive, or a writeable compact
disk. In this usage, your "media" becomes a resource to be deployed
or configured, and subject to digital manipulation or further
composition, as much as a vehicle of communication. Here, a notion
of processing material competes with a notion of transmission
(although some processing of the signal was always required to
achieve a low signal to noise ratio in the transmission model).
At this point, I wish to discuss an emerging sense of media,
which has to do with referring to a medium as a platform; a usage
that is becoming more common. For example, Stuart Cunningham states
that "[television] is the main platform on which whatever passes as
public debate and collective sense-making in today's society takes
place" (Cunningham, 1997, p. 90). Malcolm Long describes Digital
Television as a "multimedia home platform" (Long, 1999). John
December sees a key function of the computer as the provision of "a
platform for the operating system and software applications to
support network data transmission and user applications" (December,
1996). Terry Borst sees the wireless camcorder as a new platform on
which the screenwriter can craft stories (Borst, 2002). Elizabeth
Jacka refers to "new platforms (the Internet and especially Digital
TV)" as part of a transition to "a multi-channel, multi-platform
communications universe" (Jacka, 2002, p. 337). The term has found
its way into policy circles, with the Australian Department for
Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts announcing that
"around the world media businesses are being driven by the
imperative of delivering readily adaptable content across multiple
platforms" (DoCITA, 2002).
As explored here, the term
"platform" resonates with a number of meanings. In computing,
"platform" has a widely accepted meaning designating an operating
system or other shared base via which the computer carries out
commands and operations. Working "cross platform", between PC and
Mac operating systems, is a common experience. Even in this area,
however, the term is finding non-orthodox uses. Steve Jobs of Apple
describes Quicktime as "the unifying format and platform for
multi-source, multi-destination content creation and consumption in
the digital age" (Jobs, 1998).
In manufacture, particularly
the car industry, different models of vehicle are produced on the
basis of a shared platform: usually a vehicle's suspension,
drive-train, and structural components. This allows companies to
produce economies of scale across a range (in the production and
storage of parts for example). As Schuster notes, "the idea behind
sharing platforms is to cut development costs, offer more new models
and increase factory efficiency" (Schuster, 2001).
"Platform" also relates to a stepping-off point—often
elevated, or supported by robust scaffolding—that differentiates the
stage from common earth or ground. It can be used literally to refer
to a position or stage from which to address an audience, or gain a
vantage point, or metaphorically to refer the policy platform of a
political party or candidate.
All of these senses of the
word "platform" are finding currency in relation to contemporary
discussion of media. Indeed, we can go so far as to suggest that
media are increasingly interpolated as platforms in which they enter
into both familiar and unfamiliar inter-connection with forms of
branding, modes of buying and selling, new functionalities, and
strategies of communication and interactivity.
idea of the platform is an idea of the "web portal". The importance
of the portal derives from the difficulty of navigating vast domains
of information in hyperspace. The shifting, hypertextual structure
of the World Wide Web has often provoked a feeling of being lost in
hyperspace. The notion of a portal helps provide a sense of
orientation here. A frequently visited site such as Yahoo! (given
the issues of navigation it is not coincidental that search engines
are often well placed to serve as portals) can become a doorway or
gateway into a range of Internet applications: electronic mail, user
groups, the Web, and also e-commerce. What differentiates the portal
from the platform is that from the perspective of the latter the Web
is not the only form of technological delivery possible. The
Internet is itself a potential and always expanding platform in
liaison (and in competition) with others such as digital television,
cable networks, and mobile phones.
The attraction of
platform-talk in contemporary media culture can be understood
through reference to convergence. In his classic explanation of the
term Nicholas Negroponte uses three rings, arranged in a Venn
diagram, to illustrate his point. Each ring represents an industry:
broadcasting and motion pictures, computing, print and publishing
(see Brand, 1987, p. 10). Negroponte also refers to these areas as
the entertainment world, the interactive world, and the information
world (Bass, 1995). For Negroponte, prior to convergence, the three
rings or worlds overlap slightly. Under conditions of convergence,
the rings move together until they almost completely overlap.
The merging of the three rings induces
an obvious instability into the industrial sector in question. The
terrain or landscape is no longer as predictable as it once was. The
original medium or technology that gave the area its identity (film
and television, computer, the book) becomes open to re-deployment.
In this environment, there is a need to hold ground, claim ground,
or launch an offensive. The idea of a platform as a staging point
becomes attractive under such conditions. More than a representing a
"new delivery platform" (Jacka, 2002, p. 340), the platform becomes
a point of stability in an otherwise unstable environment
characterized by on-going organizational change, multiple
technologies of delivery, and the re-purposing of content. This is
evident when Fiona Martin suggests that the ABC Online, the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation's on-line arm, is a "platform
for the development and dispersal of knowledge about interactive
media production" throughout the organization (Martin, 1999, p.
It is commonplace to see digitalization and
convergence described in terms of new forms of technological
delivery (e.g. CD-ROM, DVD). This practice privileges an
understanding of the medium as a vehicle and misses an important
facet of new technologies: namely, that the content is not sealed
for delivery but open to modification by the interactant.
Digitalization—both as a technology of compression, and a technology
that enables interactivity or interaction with the screen—encourages
media to be re-thought as platforms for interactivity. The PC
combined with Internet becomes a platform for interaction. High
Definition television becomes a platform for datacasting. The Mobile
phone becomes a platform for the mobile Internet. Stand alone game
formats can, once connected to the network, define a platform that
can be re-thought in terms of remote game play and interaction
across the network.
Television stations can become
platforms, creating an extension or identity that projects the
business into new interactive environments. Numerous media companies
have re-packaged themselves as an information portal in this way,
often through partnerships with Internet companies (in Australia the
Nine Network is linked to the Microsoft Network to form ninemsn, and Channel 7 linked to
America On-line to form i7.aol. Similarly, an
individual television program (such as a lifestyle or gardening
program) can lever itself into the position of an information
platform where one can access facts or stories of interest. Here the
conglomerate nature of modern corporations become important, where
cross-promotion can lead to the program becoming an entity, brand,
or franchise that exists in the form of a TV program, but also an
information center that is diversified across a web site, a
magazine, and merchandising (see Schatz, 1997).
extensions of this kind are currently Web-based, they can go beyond
the Web (while still incorporating its functionality). On the
Australian pay television network Foxtel, the music station Channel
[V] uses a facility called Rover to send fans SMS text messages when
a special on their favorite artist is being programmed (Veldre,
2001). This is deemed to enhance "stickiness" with customers
(Bawden, 2001), and is deployed alongside a program of concert
events, and bus tours. To cite another example, T-shirts have, as
Eco noted, long been an interesting media platform. In an extension
of this practice fashion has become a platform for cyberculture:
resulting in "cybercouture". For Pia Myrvold, "cybercouture is a
concept that combines fashion, art, philosophy and technology with
the new opportunities represented by the Internet". It involves
putting together "different ideas that merge within contemporary art
and philosophy in this information-based world where traditional
marketing and ideas of distribution are being challenged by new ways
of receiving and processing information". Artists, writers,
musicians, philosophers and others are invited to explore "Clothes
as Publishing" (see Myrvold, n.d.). In such contexts, the notion of
platform can become attractive because of the way it doesn't lock
you into to a specific medium, and thus limit the multi-media
possibilities of "information-based clothes". It can also signify an
independence from traditional models of marketing and distribution.
A significant aspect of this becoming-platform of the media
is the way it disrupts mechanistic understandings of convergence as
meeting at the one point. While it was once commonplace to think of
the PC as the singular site for convergence, this understanding no
longer holds. While multimedia made an initial impact because of the
way it combined the functionalities of various media forms onto the
one screen (or the one CD-ROM disc), it is no longer considered the
only site of convergence. Instead, today, we see a number of pockets
in which convergence is happening in different ways and at different
rates, under varying conditions. This kind of convergence is not
restricted to the hardware of technological delivery.
Convergence is thus not some inevitable, uni-linear
technological process. Indeed, convergence necessarily happens
around particular media platforms that have become attractive
because of the possibilities introduced by digitalization (PC,
Internet, Cable, Mobile phone, Television). These platforms are
often in competition with one another. However, the question of
which platform becomes the more dominant, or the most stable, is
reliant on whether or not the platform works in terms of established
cultural practices and protocols; and conventions of interactant
(user, viewer) behavior and media use; the flexibility and strength
of the industrial formations that support it; and the quality and
desirability of the content or services available on such platforms.
Not all platforms—the wristwatch, for example—can successfully
support the functions and features that could feasibly be loaded
There is a sense in which the platform
understanding of medium constitutes an order of medium that is alien
to other senses of media. That is, the understanding of the media as
a platform is not always identical to notions of broadcasting or a
craft-based understanding of the medium. Indeed, there is a sense
that craft-oriented notions of technique can supplanted by new forms
of strategy in this mode. In this post-media dimension, the brand
itself (and not the medium) can function as the platform. A concept
(Star Wars, Harry Potter, Nike) can thus become
the platform upon which a number of media forms enter into
combination in order to achieve the most significant audience
penetration or reach, in a way that (as for the car manufacturers)
achieves maximum economies of scale in the re-purposing of different
components or contents.
Thanks to David J. Sutton for his discussion of some of the
issues in this paper.
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