New Media Theory: Remediation

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Remediation: Understanding New Media by J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin is a remarkably in-depth account of New Media’s rapid evolution to its position at the turn of the millennium. The book functions as a snapshot in time, defining remediation from the context of the year 2000. This book also spends time recounting the history of New Media and projecting Bolter’s and Grusin’s hypotheses into the future. It offers an extensive look into the nature of media as it evolves throughout time, and how new media concepts such as immediacy, hypermediacy and mediation were represented in the year 2000.

Remediation is a process that is constantly evolving, even to this day. It describes the ability of media forms to borrow, change, absorb, replace, and adapt to other media forms. Because media is constantly interacting with other media, it stands to reason that no media form will remain consistent in nature, and that media is a constantly evolving entity.

Bolter and Grusin support many of their points by citing pop culture, technology, and media references from the late 1990s. This popular accessibility assists in grounding their thesis in the minds of the reader by referencing cultural terms that they can easily relate to. For the modern reader, these date-constrained examples offer a clear look into the time and context of Bolter’s and Grusin’s writing, and how their theories and hypotheses were affected by the culture of their time. Fourteen years may not be a long time in most fields of study, but in the world of digital media it can encompass several cultural generations.

These cultural examples include a bit of everything, as would be expected in a book about remediation — sci-fi movies that explore the idea of overcoming mediation through fictional technology (Strange Days, 1995), television programs that offer the sensation of immediacy through point-of-view cameras (Cops), and webcam sites that can stream real-time video imagery over the Internet to viewers at home (Sulphur Mountain Webcam).

Although these examples may seem miscellaneous at first glance, they clearly support the book’s thesis and help to prove the authors’ point. They attempt to envision a culture of transparent immediacy, in which the consumer is given unbiased, unmoderated access to content. These works also function as examples of remediation, or the “borrowing” of attributes from one form of media to another.

At the time this book was written, media both new and old were swiftly converging upon each other in the process of remediation. This resulted in the adaptation of news, stories, and other media across different platforms and achieve different effects. This remediation offered varied and unique experiences to the consumer, even if the message was intended to be the same between media forms.

Despite the heavy focus on modern media, Bolter and Grusin take their time to recount the genealogy of remediation. They trace remediation back to at least the Renaissance and the invention of linear perspective, which they cite as one of the first attempts to bridge the gap between media and reality. However, due to the swiftly evolving nature of media, they note that it may be impossible to give a detailed account of remediation history, and instead limit their scope to studying the logic of contemporary North American new media.

Bolter and Grusin focus on the interplay between what the consumer desires (immediacy, or a perceived lack of mediation) and how producers wish to achieve that effect in a hypermediated environment. This results in the titular “double-logic of remediation” – the desire to present a vast amount of media to a consumer while maintaining the illusion that they are getting an immediate, unfiltered look at the content. This oscillating interplay between two fundamental media qualities serves as the basis of remediation.

Bolter and Grusin wrote about media during a time in which it was rapidly evolving, and media producers were first encountering the struggle of striking a balance between hypermediacy and transparent immediacy. They cite the notoriously dated website designs of the 1990s as an example of hypermediacy, calling them “riots of diverse media forms… all set up in pages whose graphic design principles recall the psychedelic 1960s or dada in the 1910s and 1920s.” These websites were a mashup of different media forms — text, images, video, animation, and everything in between.

However, these sites lacked the quality of transparent immediacy, seeming very clearly mediated and curated. Hypermediation exists in other forms as well, including cutting-edge technologies. The authors cite the bulkiness of head-mounted virtual reality displays as something that can easily take the viewer out of the illusion of immediacy. Media producers and tech developers still face these challenges today.

Even websites that serve a singular remediated purpose (e.g. to stream video through a webcam) are appended with levels of interactivity that change the context, the message, and the experience of the original media (e.g. television). In the webcam example, Bolter and Grusin cite the “jukebox”-like quality of hyperlinking to different cameras on a webcam site, which allows the user to choose what they want to look at in real time. Thus, the medium of the Internet allows for a much different experience than watching television, despite the similar audio-visual presentation of the two platforms.

Despite the inherent “datedness” of some of the examples, this book will stand the test of time and remain relevant for its insights into a particularly transitory era in the history of digital media. Media studies may be one of the few academic fields in which dated pop culture references can actually bolster a thesis. Bolter and Grusin wrote about a point in time, and without these contextual references the book may be perceived as incorrect. At the time it was written, the Internet was only beginning to stand on its own legs, and nobody could have predicted the diverse paths that New Media would take merely a decade after its publication.