Why have a section on “mediums”?

The way we communicate affects what we communicate. This is a core premise of my undergraduate thesis, a core premise of this blog, and a core reason for having a section devoted to different “mediums”, or ways of communicating.

What do I mean?

Consider the sentence, “Humans should stop eating animals.” Imagine how you might respond to seeing that sentence as a post on Facebook, and, alternatively, at the top of an empty argument map. (Perhaps you’ve just come across a new argument mapping program and this is an example sentence used in their tutorial.) Actually imagine this for a moment; look at a clock, start imagining, and scroll down when you’ve imagined for a minute or more.

A group of eighth graders I presented my thesis to in December, 2018 thought that someone posting that sentence on Facebook would “get attacked”—so people seeing it, presumably people who disagree with it, would be inlclined to “attack” the poster—whereas upon encountering it on an argument map the same people would be inclined to “list reasons for and against it”. (Perhaps you thought something similar, or perhaps you imagined something completely different. Either way, my guess was that you would imagine something different happening in each medium. Of course, I’m curious if that’s not what you thought, too.)

Making a related argument to these eigth graders, Derek Powazek suspects that if someone set out to create an “argument machine”—a social machine designed to generate as many heated arguments as possible among the people involved—it would end up looking a lot like Twitter.

In both the eigth graders’ imagined responses to the sentence about eating animals, and Powazek’s thinking about an “argument machine”, there is a recognition that the way we communicate—that is, the medium we use to communicate—affects how and even what we communicate.

There’s a rather well-known dictum on this sentiment from Masrhall McLuhan which states that “the medium is the message”. While I don’t hold that the medium completely determines the message as this quote might be interpreted to say (and I don’t know enough about McLuhan to know whether or not that’s what he meant), I do think that the medium influences the message in ways that are quite neglected given their significance.

Why is that a premise of this website, and how does it relate to the idea of “children as theorists”? If the broad hypothesis that the medium influences the message is true, then children’s inclination to theorize, and the theories they create, are shaped by the medium they’re using to do so. And—crucially—other children’s or adult’s ability to successfully internalize a child’s shared theories—that is, the message that’s received—may differ based on the medium used to communcate it. We might hear something completely different from what a child wanted to communicate.

A child might be able to explain something better verbally than in writing, for instance. Or, feeling limited by their spelling (or handwriting, or mechanics, or something else associated with the medium of writing), they may simply choose to write something else in response to a question than they might say in response to that same question. In both cases, both the intended message and the received message may differ based on which medium is used to communicate.

If we want to co-theorize better forms of education with children—the people most affected by it—then we need mediums that do an exceptionally good job of supporting them to communicate the things they really want to communicate, and supporting the recipients of these messages—both other children and adults—to deeply “get” what they’re communicating.

If we consider the ways in which we’re all still, and always, “children”—such as our need for scaffolding and the right schema to think certain thoughts, which doesn’t go away when we grow older—then the imperative to imagine better communicative mediums becomes even greater.

If significant portions of our political discourse take place in an “argument machine”, if our thinking about who to support is done in a medium whose existence is funded by ads which can be designed to achieve someone else’s goals without regard for your values, and if our sharing about that thinking is done in the many mediums with mechanisms for sharing others’ thoughts out of context, with “like” buttons that implicitly ask not “do I understand this?” but rather “do I agree with this?”, then…

We might feel frequent fatigue about how others perceive us and our views, and hear a lot of people talking about “political polarization”. We might elect leaders we didn’t mean to elect, or wouldn’t have elected if our exploitable psychological fears could have had less of an influence and our values could have had more. And we might feel unsafe in the places we conduct our social discourse, pressured to present ourselves in ways we won’t be targeted or judged for more than ways that reflect our deepest selves.

If the last paragraph seems to you to follow from the one before it, then you understand how our mediums can influence our communication. If the last paragraph sounds to you like an all-too-familiar reality, then you understand why this website has a whole section devoted to better understanding this problem—a section on “mediums”.