A note before proceeding: this post may read as a bit of a “duh” to some folks. To others it may seem like the height of naval gazing. These relationships have been bouncing around in my head for about a week and I needed to get them out in order to sort these concepts out and begin making them my own. Like any good spark of an idea, this needs to be taken as a beginning and not a definitive standpoint. As with all models, there are holes in this one. My overall goal was to create a jumping off point for future discussions about what it is that we’re doing here at RIT and where we are going.
Last week, after my interviews at RIT, Frank Cost and I sat discussing the School of Print Media (SPM) and its relation to the field of communications. In particular we were trying to situate our position in the ever expanding world of technologically mediated communications. We both agreed that we weren’t simply in the business of facilitating communication, as that’s too broad a category. Nor are we in the business of Publishing, which has specific industry and process implications beyond the (re)production of a text. So, from an academic perspective, what exactly are we specializing in here at SPM?
The field of Computer Mediated Communications divides interactions into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous communications are those in which all individuals are “present” at the time of interaction. The most common example is the proverbial face-to-face conversation. The notion of “present” refers to a temporal and interaction collocation rather than a geographical one. Telephones, live-chat, and video teleconferences are all examples of technologically mediated synchronous conversations. The key thing is that wherever the participants are, they are communicating in real time.
In asynchronous communications, on the other hand, the participants are not temporally co-located. This blog is an example of an asynchronous communication. I’m typing this at ten minutes to noon on Monday April 24, 2006. Who knows when you’ll read this. It might be later today (Monday April 24, 2006). It might be later this week. Or you might have found this through a Google search a year or two after I posted it. The key thing is that you are not looking over my shoulders as I’m typing this – though, speaking as the author, it often feels like you are.
In order to work, all asynchronous communications must produce artifacts (or artefacts if you’re using the Brit spelling) – “Anything made by human art and workmanship; an artificial product.” (artefact, n. and a., 1989) Without an artifact, be it this blog entry or the post-it note left on someone’s computer screen, the communication cannot take place. Note that the artifact does not need to be long-lived or physical. As already mentioned, a blog can function as an artifact, and that post-it note isn’t intended to hang on that screen forever.
Asynchronous communications can be seen as having (at least) two phases – production and dissemination. I’m currently producing this entry, undertaking the action of translating ideas in my head to a static form within a word document. That’s just half of the process. When I press <crlt – s> for the last time and save this in its final form, the artifact is finished. But, from a communicative sense, it’s latent – unshared. It doesn’t have value until it’s disseminated – published to the web. And even then it isn’t truly a communication until someone reads it – thank you for completing the process.
Acts of dissemination are not created – or are intended to be – equal. The vast majority of artifacts that we create and distribute are not intended for mass consumption. E-mail, and letters before them, are by and large considered to be private communications, disseminated to select individuals. On the other hand, my blog and the books on my office shelves are written for larger audiences. Hence we have terms like “mass media” to denote channels of communication with access to large number of people. I think the prefix “macro” might work better than mass for what I’m getting at. Thus we can differentiate between a micro-dissemination and a macro-dissemination. What is useful about “marco” is that it denotes both large scale and “the existence of smaller individuals”
Relating this back to the conversation I had with Cost, the School of Print Media needs to be concerned with the (re)production and macro-dissemination of artifacts (forms of asynchronous communication). This (re)production and macro-dissemination can take place across multiple technologically-mediated mediums – paper, web, and portable media devices.
There are two key ideas here: (re)production and macro-dissemination. Digital media often blurs the line between the production and reproduction of an artifact. For example, take this blog: there is no reproduction of this entry, at least not in a physical sense. In the background my words are tagged and entered into a database. When the entry is called, my words are retrieved, and then have design styles applied against them in order to render a finished page. But, ignoring RSS feeds for the moment, no additional copies of my words are created. Yet those words can still be, and are, fact, macro-disseminated. Thus we cannot only be interested in the reproduction of artifacts.
Macro-dissemination is used to differentiate us from visual artists whose job is also to produce and disseminate artifacts. The differences between their work and ours is a matter of scale (and perhaps reproduction). In order to be financially and culturally successful, an artist must not only produce work but also to get it disseminated (installed in galleries, patron’s residences, or other exhibition locals). At some point, that act of dissemination may include reproducing those artifacts in a macro-dissemination medium, such as print. In doing so, those existing artifacts are used to create new artifacts (note that artifacts often beget other artifacts) and at that point printers often come into play.
What I also like about macro– is that it doesn’t contain some of the cultural baggage of “mass.” In particular, mass contains the notion of uniformity – mass production. We don’t think of mass communications as particularly personal. One of the most talked about areas of print, on the other hand, is Variable Data Print. Facilitated by digital technology, we can create jobs where each artifact is customized (personalized) for a different recipient. The end result is a macrodissemination of individualized communications (hence the value of macro’s acknowledgement of “smaller individuals”).
artefact, n. and a. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. cited March 28, 2006: available from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50053052?query_type=word&queryword=artefact.
macro-, comb. form. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. cited March 28, 2006: available from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50053052?query_type=word&queryword=macro.
 These records are often referred to as “texts.” My only issue with using this designation is that its easy to conflate the idea of a text with type. Thus, for some, in order to be a text a document must contain type and some form of written structure. Semoticians are quick to remind that any form of written language is, at its core, stable images and that images are also texts. For my part, I think that using artifact sidesteps some of these debates.