When Machines become Media

The most far-reaching technologies become media. They become ubiquitous and so easy-to-use, that we can’t resist but use them for self expression, producing and consuming ‘content’ leveraging them. Whenever such democratization happens, a new medium is born.

Take for example the dominant media of today, videos. With the rise of apps like Tiktok, Snapchat and Instagram, photos and videos can be produced and consumed (seen) instantly. They can be enhanced with filters within seconds and shared with the tap of a button!

Looking back in time, it’s hard to imagine that camera technology began in the early 1800s with big bulky machines having an intricate system of lenses and photosensitive materials to process images. It took days and hours of effort to get one shot of ‘frozen reality’ (in post-processing)! Moreover, it required the skills of a modern day experimental chemist or material scientist and use of ‘dark rooms’!!

In the later half of the 19th century, the invention of ‘box cameras’ and ‘roll films’ made the devices smaller and portable. The idea of ‘snapshot’ was introduced in the late 1800s by Kodak and slogans like “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest” expanded the amateur user base of photography. However, developing images still required post-processing and camera techniques were far from being democratized. The barrier to use cameras was still high and it demanded a certain level of craft. Such craftsmen, better known as photographers, developed photography as a new form of art.

The rise of digital technology to store and retrieve images was a big leap towards democratizing photography. It freed images from the ‘chemistry of materials’ and post-processing of the ‘film’. Photos could now be stored, viewed and removed (deleted), all inside a single portable physical device.

With Moore’s law driving the exponential miniaturization of electronics, cameras began to fit in the pocket of users. Soon enough, their evolution in button form-factor followed, which paved the way for cameras in (smart)phones. With the internet , image-sharing over large distances became a reality. More improvements in camera resolution, aided by increased computing power, high speed internet, and development of algorithms and user-friendly apps enabled a world where photos and videos can be produced, stored and consumed at the tap of a button!

Boom! A new medium was born!

Consider another example: Writing- perhaps the first information technology. Today we take written words for granted without realizing that they are an artificial construct.

Writing began as a technology to preserve words and sounds by codifying them as symbols and baking them onto clay tablets, most probably in ancient Mesopotamia. The marks of these tablets were ‘trapped words’; they freed sounds from the barriers of human memory. Various forms of scripts, imprinting technologies as well as the base material (stones, papyrus rolls, palm leaves) were developed with time. Though storing information away from memory was a big leap in human history, the skill of reading and writing still remained to a small fraction of the population across all civilizations.

With the invention of the printing press, and the gradual notion of literacy for all, the average reading and writing skills of the masses increased dramatically. Writing, now democratized as a technology, became a medium.

These two examples are a small sample from a number of such technologies. What’s a ‘medium’ now was simply a technology once, invented to serve some purpose other than self-expression. All ‘media’ are democratized, ubiquitous and easy-to-use ‘machines’.

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Purnendu

Designer trained as Physicist | Currently @ Reality Labs Research at Meta | PhD student @cuatlas | Previously: IIT Roorkee, Co-founder @log9materials