As I read this essay I found my self focusing on the characterization of perceptions of new media. With my trusty highlighter I noted words like: confusion, breathlessness, exhilarated, alarmed, horrifying, question, creation, destruction, powerful, guard. If nothing else, the variety of emotions evoked by these words suggests that “new media” is a vast and important landscape. When I examine my own experiences with new media I find incidences of all of these words and many more.

On balance, as a techie, “hyper-rationalist”, interdisciplinarian, and mathematician, I lean towards the optimistic side of the new media emotional ledger. This despite the fact that I have experienced many of the negative aspects of new media: libel, identity theft, lost data, wrecked computers, wasted time, and, yes, even the embarrassing, accidental group reply. Am I an innate optimist? Or, have I made some kind of subconscious, rational assessment, that all of this stuff adds up to a net gain? Murray certainly guards her own leanings in this essay. She paints a well-rounded view of new media. So, how’s a body to approach this subject matter?

One theme of the essay of particular interest to me is the tension between humanists and rationalists. As a mathematician, I tend to imagine large, complex systems as “high-dimensional spaces”. Loosely speaking, we move around in a “low-dimensional space” in which we can be uniquely located by three numbers: latitude, longitude, and elevation. Three dimensions.

Objects in high-dimensional spaces require a long list of numbers in order to be uniquely “located”. Consider the space of human identities. How do we locate ourselves in this space? Here’s a list of “numbers” to help you find me in that space: male, father, teacher, cyclist, independent, agnostic, son, forgetful,… That’s 8 dimensions and counting–far more than 3 dimensions. It’s likely that “identity space” is actually infinite dimensional. Murray’s humanists crawl around in this infinite dimensional space with aplomb–not caring to even quantify their general vicinities. Her rationalists quantify, measure, project, predict, draw conclusions, and attempt to list as many of the “numbers” as they can.

In an infinite dimensional space, you can’t list all of the numbers. Rationalists hope that the numbers that they have ignored are ingnorable. Humanists, by not bothering with the numbers, use other (referential) methods to convey meaning. Murray’s essay convinces me that these two approaches inform each other in an ebb and flow. In some ways, we see that the Rationalists have been rising for the last 500 years and that the current wave of new media will pave the way for a permanent ascension. New media criticism is the way back for humanists. By pointing out that “low-dimensional” approximations of high-dimensional spaces are fraught with danger, humanists demonstrate their value. Think about the simplistic reliance on financial modeling that led to the recent global financial meltdown and the somewhat incoherent and distinctly high-dimensional response of the “Occupy movement”.

While I recognize that the paradigm that I have described here is yet another low-dimensional approximation of a complex idea, I plan to approach the remainder of The New Media Reader with this paradigm in mind.

Posted in The New Media Reader