Theories of Media Change: Understanding New Media
Garnet Hertz (Draft, last modified 13 November 2006)

1. Overview


Change; cinema; communication; critical theory; culture; digital media; film; hype; information technology; intellectual history; McLuhan; media studies; media theory; new media; sociotechnical change; technology; visual studies.

Project Proposal: Theories of Media Change

“Change” is a concept that appears to have gained momentum in contemporary media studies discourse.  With the shock of newness waning thin and with digital media appearing not as universally revolutionary as at its dotcom pinnacle, new media theory has become less revolutionary and more nuanced.  Seeing itself as part of a larger current of media revolutions, flows, and genealogies, new media theory has begun to look at new (digital) technologies in a comparative light.  Toward this effort, the concept of transition has been embraced by a number of media theorists and researchers that are interested in exploring and articulating the dynamics, metaphors and aesthetics of sociotechnical change with respect to technologically mediated human communication.  Texts along this line of thought include Remediation (Bolter & Grusin),   Always Already New (Gitelman), Laws of Cool (Liu), New Media, Old Media (Chun & Keenan), and Rethinking Media Change (Thorburn & Jenkins).

Although there are no clear origins, the work of Canadian Marshall McLuhan is seminal in the foundation of media theory and his work holds a unique role in attempting to articulate a general language of media-in-transition.  Towards the end of his life, McLuhan and his son Eric embarked on a project to update the 1964 Understanding Media in response to his critics' requests to provide a solid basis for his drastic and metaphoric claims; the result was Laws of Media: The New Science , published by his son eight years after Marshall's death. Laws of Media defines a general theory of media change, constructing a “tetrad” model with four characteristics of media-in-transition: extension, obsolescence, reversal and retrieval.  These four dimensions are spun together to propose an innovative and poetic model for conceptualizing and articulating media change.

The first half of my project, titled “Theories of Media Change”, proposes to tackle Laws of Media and to position it in reference to other general theories of media/technological change from a range of disciplines: Moore's Law (Computer Science), Rogers' Diffusion of Innovation Theory (Sociology), Gartner's Hype Cycle Theory (Management), Callon & Latour's Actor Network Theory (Sociology) and Bolter & Grusin's Remediation Theory (Media Studies).  Drawing from a range of disciplines, the tetradic model will be thrust against, compared to, and critiqued alongside a range of models of media change.

The second half of this project, titled “Understanding New Media Transitions”, questions whether general theories of media change are accurate models in describing media transitions.  Are general “universal” theories of media change ignorant of cultural differences, historical periods, and social contexts?  Or do media technologies, at least within popular western culture, generally observe predictable stages of discovery, hype, disillusionment, adjustment, and mass diffusion?

In order to tackle these questions, these general models will be cross-referenced with two historically transitional periods of “new” media history: pre-film / early film history (1870-1900), and early networked digital media (1980-2000).  Within these “novelty years”, careful analysis will be given to the dynamics of pre-commercialized and “pre-protocol” experiments by inventors, artists, theorists and the public.  Generalized theories of media change, including McLuhan's tetrads, will be examined in these two historical periods of western culture to expose weaknesses, strengths and lines of demarcation between theory and history.

This research is important because it takes an increasingly important vector in contemporary culture – new (digital) media – and dissects the concept of newness within a rich historical and theoretical framework.  It analyzes theories of patterns and trends, cross-references these theories to the histories of cinema and digital media, and provides rigorous analysis about the cultural implications of new media beyond our current era.

Theories of Media Change: Graphing Revolutions in Telecommunications & Information Technology (Garnet Hertz)
Figure 1.  Slide from Calit2 lecture given November 7th 2006: "Theories of Media Change: Graphing Revolutions in Telecommunications & Information Technology"

Completed Work: Readings and Lectures

The 2006-2007 academic year has been spent researching, reading and taking notes on a large amount of sources related to this project. A complete reading list can currently be seen online at  Beyond this, relevant citations to this topic from these readings have been compiled and tagged with metadata: these notes - currently totalling about 100 pages in lenth - can be seen online at

Also, some lectures have been given about this topic, including a presentation to Paul Dourish's research group in informatics at UCI on June 1st 2006, and a public lecture at the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology on November 7th 2006.  Slides from the Calit2 talk, entitled "Theories of Media Change: Graphing Revolutions in Telecommunications & Information Technology" can be seen online at

Research Plan: McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology & Getty Research Institute

After advancing to candidacy, I propose to conduct archival research at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto during Fall 2007.  The Institute currently offers unpaid research fellowships that include access to original source archives and McLuhan Program staff and fellows.  This fellowship would aid in gaining a deeper context in the works of McLuhan related to media change, and help disseminate my research within the Canadian academic community.

Also, during my SSHRC tenure I propose to do archival research into early film history at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California during early 2008.  During this timeframe, the Getty's research theme is “Change”, an ideal match for my “Theories of Media Change” research topic.  Ed Dimendberg, who is serving on my doctoral exam committee and is helping direct my research into pre-film history, will be of assistance in my research at the Getty.  Dimendberg currently coordinates UCI's participation in the Getty Consortium Seminar and has offered his guidance at the institute and their archive of early cinematic devices.  This research will enrich the quality of my project by allowing me to conduct research within the world's largest collection of moving image hardware, and will allow me to firmly position and test my work in theories of media change within a solid historical period.

Justification for Choice of University & Conclusion

This research is proposed to continue at the University of California Irvine in the Visual Studies PhD Program, co-advised by Mark Poster (History) and Peter Krapp (Media Studies) with the external assistance of  and Ed Dimendberg (Film History) and Lev Manovich (UCSD, New Media Theory).  In addition to the formidable experience of my committee, UCI is also home to key organizations that are supportive of this project: the UCI Critical Theory Institute, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, and the UC Humanities Research Institute.

 In conclusion, this research is targeted at a timely and relevant topic within the field of media theory, and holds key relevance to the disciplines of critical theory, history of technology, informatics and information technology, Canadian intellectual history, media studies, and theory of communication.  I ask for your strong support in completing this innovative and academically rigorous research: I have a proven record of award-winning and innovative work, have the strong support of a top-tier committee and department, and have a solid research plan to successfully complete this project.

2. Condensed Bibliography

Abel, R. (Ed.). (2005). Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. London: Routledge.

Basalla, G. (1998). The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge.

Bijker, W. E. & Law, J. (Eds.), (1992). Shaping Technology / Building Society - Studies in Sociotechnical Change . Cambridge: MIT.

Bijker, W. E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge: MIT.

Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT.

Ceram, C. W. (1965). Archaeology of the Cinema . NY: Brace & World.

Chun, W. & Keenan, T. (2006). New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader . NY: Routledge.

Duguid, P. (1996). Material Matters: Aspects of the past and futurology of the book. In G. Nunberg (Ed.) The Future of the Book . Berkeley: U of California.

Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford: Oxford.

Galloway, A. R. (2004). Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT.

Fenn, J. (2006). Understanding Gartner's Hype Cycles, 2006 . Stamford: Gartner Inc.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. NY: Basic.

Gitelman, L. (2006). Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture . Cambridge: MIT.

Gitelman, L. & Pingree. (2003). New Media, 1740-1915 (Media in Transition) . Cambridge: MIT.

Gunning, T. (1994). An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the [In]Credulous Spectator. In L. Williams (Ed.), Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film . New Brunswick: Rutgers.

Hankins, T. L. & Silverman, R. J. (1995). Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton.

Innis, H. (1968). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture . NY: NYU.

Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.. Stanford: Stanford.

Kroker, A. (1984). Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis, McLuhan, Grant. Montréal: New World.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford.

Lovink, G. (2003). My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition. Rotterdam: V2/NAi.

Mackenzie, D. A. (1996). Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change . Cambridge: MIT.

Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT.

Marvin, C. (1988). When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the late Nineteenth Century. NY: Oxford.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. NY: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967). The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. NY: Bantam.

McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1968). War and Peace in the Global Village. NY: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science . Toronto: U of Toronto.

Musser, C. (1990). The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 . NY: Scribner.

Poster, M. (1995). The Second Media Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations. NY: Free Press.

Smith, M. R. & Marx, L. (Eds.). (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge: MIT.

Thorburn, D. & Jenkins, H. (Eds.). (2003). Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge: MIT.

Weiner A. et. al. (2006). Hype Cycle for Media Industry, 2006. Stamford: Gartner Inc.

3. Research Contributions

Symposia / Panels

Defense: Models, Strategies, Media (2005) / Host Organizations: UCI's Visual Studies, Humanities Center, and Critical Theory Institute / University of California Irvine.

ArtSci2002: New Dimensions in Collaboration (2002) / Host Organizations: Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI), The American Museum of Natural History & the Graduate Center of the City University of New York / CUNY Graduate Center, New York City, USA.

Bridges II International Consortium for the Study and Exploration of Interdisciplinary Collaborative Processes in Art, Culture, Science and Technology (2002) / Banff Centre, Canada.

Crossing Over: Negotiating Specialization in an Interdisciplinary Culture (2002) / University of Regina, Canada.

Brief Description of Master's Thesis

My 200 page master's thesis, Animal-Machine, explores the cultural significance of animal-machine hybridity, biomimetic technologies, and real-world cyborgs in popular culture, science and military contexts.  Using extensive examples, this work challenges brain and computer-centric concepts of intelligence, and articulates the shifting role of embodiment within the framework of contemporary technological transition. My master's work won funding from interdisciplinary sources, including the Canada-US Fulbright Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.  I successfully graduated in Summer 2005 with both an MFA – in an interdisciplinary Art Computation Engineering program – and the Critical Theory Graduate Emphasis.

Exhibiting Media Theory: Experimental Media Technologies

In addition to research in media theory and history, I actively produce experimental media technologies and systems.  These projects provide a “working lab” for theoretical frameworks, and allow – especially in the case of new media – the ability to work with the primary source of media theory: media technologies themselves.  Understanding complex technical foundations provides an enhanced context to understand and comment on the historical, social and cultural significance of media.

Experimental media technologies – presented in galleries, conferences and festivals – also provide an alternate avenue of communication that is legible to a wide audience.  Although not as articulate as a written argument, tactile devices offer forceful metaphors that can gracefully operate between diverse historical, theoretical and social territories.

Themes I have explored over the last decade include posthumanism, cybernetics, biomimetic technologies, virtuality, the internet, computationalism and surveillance.  This work has been widely successful, has won the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, and has been shown in Scotland, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey, the United States and Canada.  It has been exhibited in world-class venues, and curated with some of the top artists of recent history: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Jacob Epstein, Eadweard Muybridge, Takashi Murakami, Mariko Mori, Gary Hill, and Tony Oursler.

Selected Interviews:

Deutsche Wella - Germany (2006), Arte - France (2006), TV Tokyo - Japan (2006), Discovery Channel - Canada (2006), Science Channel - USA (2006), Los Angeles Times - USA (2006), ORF - Austria (2005), The New York Times - USA (2005), National Public Radio - USA (2005), Associated Press - USA (2005), MSNBC - USA (2005),  CBC Radio One - Canada (2003, 2000), CBC Television - Canada (2002).

Lectures and Press:

Guest lectures include appearances at the University of California San Diego, University of California Irvine, California State University Long Beach, University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan, Banff New Media Institute, and InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre.  Popular press has appeared in Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belguim, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States.