Vivek Haldar

Media Meta Argument

Whenever a new medium for expression ascends, there is a vigorous debate comparing it with the predominant medium, and whether it should be adopted en masse. A new medium always shears against the predominant one. Many argue against it. These arguments often have a common structure:

The new medium is…

  • technologically inferior
  • more expensive
  • not “necessary”
  • not good for us

These are tautologies for every fledgling medium.

The old medium has been around for quite a while, it is dominant and it has been continuously refined. The new medium is raw, unrefined and has rough edges.

The incumbent media has finely tuned supply-chains, marketing, advertising and economies of scale. The new one doesn’t.

The old medium has been serving everybody’s needs just fine, often for quite a while. Nobody “needs” the new medium.

And then there’s the pompous argument that the new medium will ruin our minds and corrupt our culture and turn us all into zombies.

The latest incarnation of this argument template is Roger Ebert’s argument against 3D movies. As you read that, keep the above list in mind. He hits each of these points.

I’m not trying to refute his (or anybody else’s) argument. I’m more interested in the meta-argument – the structure of a class of arguments.

The fascinating thing about the new-media-vs-old-media argument template is that even though it holds weight, every incarnation of it throughout history has been futile. Writing overtook the oral tradition. Recording overtook live performance. TV overtook radio.

But my use of the word “overtook” is misplaced. The new medium doesn’t overtake the old one, it helps it find it true niche, what it was really meant for. Only after the new medium starts doing all the things we thought the old one did, do we realize the special circumstances where the old one shines.