Lab 1: Encountering the Unknown

Our first lab for Reading Machines was a two-fold introduction to Markdown: a) an opportunity to learn about the platform and medium in which we will be required to compose this semester and b) an opportunity to experience/experiment with the meta-narrative of the “new media encounter” as Alan Liu discusses in “Imagining the New Media Encounter.” While the lab was rather simple, it was symbolic; symbolic of the “mess[iness]” and confusion that Liu attributes to new media encounters as it was littered with technical difficulties, interrupted and stilted conversations about downloads and programs, confused stares, and more than a few attempts at troubleshooting (1). This messiness and those errors are an important part of understanding what both Liu and McLuhan propose as the integral “content” of media. After a brief overview or tutorial, our task was simple: reflect and explore.

How can writing in Markdown for the first time be an experiment and an experience of encountering new media?

This is the question and topic that I will be exploring throughout my report, highlighting the ways that this meta-narrative furthers our understanding of what media is in practice. While I had written in Markdown briefly before, I would not classify myself as anything other than a beginner. Throughout this lab, however, my experience of markdown as a new medium was tempered by the technology throughout which I was interacting with it: Atom. Like my prior experience with markdown, I am still new to Atom as a mutli-faceted text-editor. In thinking of the relationship between an interface, engagement, and the “content” of media as MuLuhan theorizes (8), I want to explore the importance of the “problems” and “mistakes” I experienced when first using Atom and Markdown, emphasizing the ways that play, experimentation, and experience define our understanding of media.

One of the important similarities between McLuhan and Liu’s descriptions of encountering media is their emphasis on form. In his analogy of the “eclectric light,” McLuhan writes:

The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.” (8, emphasis mine)

While composing in Markdown is nowhere as simplistic as McLuhan’s illuminating metaphor of the light, I would argue that there is an important likeness to be made to McLuhan’s point: text is the content of plain-text files and plain-text markup is the content of Markdown. While this might not be a perfect comparision (or very developed, at all), I want to emphasize the importance of form as a limiting and expansive part of media. McLuhan contends that “any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary […] the greatest aid to this end is simply knowing that the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody” (15, empahsis mine). Here McLuhan is depicting the ways that media, if new, can be entrancing and obscur the limits and “actors” seemingly behind the curtain. If your experience with a new program or software program is neat and mediated through a tutorial, it is easy to forget that any new media comes with confusion and difficulty. Or, in this case, that a simple tutorial of writing in Markdown glosses over all of the difficulties in writing and formating your own work later on.

Liu also touches on this important idea in “Imagining the New Media Encounter” when he outlines the narrative forms of new media encounters for media theory, or the forms of discourse that he sees emerging out of encounters with new media. The first two narratives revolve aroun “itentity tales” with “otherness” and “a life cycle of media change” (3). In the third narrative, Liu discusses the historical situtatedness of media which extends to the fourth, and perhaps most important, narrative: unpredictability.

The historical, socio-political, and subjective registers of media identity described above are not just neutral substrates (like pure silicon) on which programs of determinism and resistance run […] The weaker form of this hypothesis may be put this way: new media encounters are messy. ‘Messy’means that rightangled historical, sociopolitical, or psychological distinctions between old and new media typically do not survive concrete acts of narration. (5)

The messiness of new media encounters that Liu describes goes beyond any confusion and troubleshooting that you might have when trying to figure out a new program or format for writing–like Markdown. It includes much for than that, but still is integrally tied to the form of the medium. For instance, my experience of composing in Markdown for the first time is not just about my difficulties in formatting or navigating the commands to bold, italicize, or seemingly hightlight words or the ways in which I continually looked up guides for Markdown commands, but it is about the messiness of this medium. Markdown–to my best understanding–is a wierd mix of plain-text, HTML-style syntax, and standardization. The very “content” of Markdown is a replication of other forms of writing forms for digital interfaces, complicated by the ways in we utilize it across platforms and devices. Additionally, composing in Markdown is designed to be less “distracting,” with formatting directly controled by the user when composing, instead of interruptions needed for other word or plain-text processors. Yet, it mediates a similar experience with familiar syntax for italicizing, making block quotations, and numbered lists–forms replicated in a different medium.

Indeed, part of both the beauty and interest I see in using Markdown is this blurring between forms and experiences of writing: it produces something akin to word processing in a format that feels like coding. I want to call it a wierd hybridity between the two, something not entirely new, but a replication of the two, a messy “new medium” that is easy and difficult, exciting and frustrating, and familiar and new. When experimenting with Markdown, it is tempting to play

  • with
  • form
  • and
  • format.

This exercise is meta and engaging and, in some ways, makes me think of creating form poems; only, this time, I can choose to break up

  1. my
  2. sentences simply
  3. to make
  4. a point and
  5. experiment
  6. with all ways to style a document.

In academic writing, this type of experimentation feels forbidden and novel–or at least is not something that you would likely do in a research paper you are submitting for a final grade. Normally. Therefore, as I am reflecting on this lab, I want to view some of the problems I had in writing in Markdown as an important part of this experiment. Liu asks an interesting question: “So what is a good story about encountering new media? (9) Liu’s answer to this is “less sotries than whole imaginiative environments” or “borderlands of surmise,” an narrative that imagines the possiblities of new media. By breaking away from the form of a traditional written response, I hope that I am demonstrating a form of the narrative that Liu imagines in my experience with Markdown, visually and theoretically reflecting on composition as an act of writing and attention (or intention) to form that is one way to start making larger connections between theory and practice.

Works Cited

  1. Liu, Alan. “Imagining the New Media Encouter.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, edited by Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens, Blackwell, 2008.
  2. McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, MIT Press, 1994, pp. 7-21.