Philosophy  •  April 1, 2002   

The Medium is the Being

The Internet is often referred to as “a virtual world”. The term implies that it is not a real world. This in turn implies that the personalities developed on the Internet are unreal or fake. We perceive an Internet personality to be representing or misrepresenting the real thing, but I argue that there is no such thing as a “real” personality independent of a medium.

If a medium is an extension of ourselves, talking to someone face-to-face is, in fact, just another medium with its own specific characteristics. The only difference is that it is not an extension, but is built in to us. This fact becomes more apparent if you observe those with physical handicaps. It is certainly a “hot” medium with a lot of information. It takes place in real-time. It involves sound, vision, and even smell. We can pick up not only what the person is saying literally, but also the content of the meta-languages such as a tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand gestures.

“Hot” (hi-definition) medium is not necessarily better than “cold” (low-definition) medium. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. A telephone, for instance, is often deliberately used to cool down the message. If you have to make an apology to someone, using a telephone is often easier than doing so in person. Chatting on the Internet has a similar effect where the coolness of the medium invites an intimate conversation.

It is not possible to say that one medium is better than another. It all depends on the context, what you are trying to achieve. In the same way, it can also be said that no medium is more real than others. Something being high in definition does not make something more real.

I have several friends who moved away far, who started corresponding with me via Emails or letters. I then discovered whole different aspects of them that I had never known existed. These different personalities of people that come out in different mediums are not necessarily phony.

There are people, like actors, who can fake a personality well in person, but not in writing. On the other hand, there are those who are awkward in person, but who can express themselves beautifully in writing. This does not mean that one is fake and the other is real. It simply means that a personality cannot manifest itself independently of a medium, and that there is no medium that is more real in itself than others.

The question then is what am I? If all these things including my own body are mediums, then what do I consist of? My thoughts? No. My thoughts require a medium called language without which they would not exist. My memories? No. All our memories are specific to mediums through which they were recorded. Memories recorded through our eyes have no meaning to our ears. By the same token, memories without their corresponding mediums are not only meaningless, but are non-existent. If someone who was born blind were given a visual memory through some sort of technology, as far as he is concerned, it would not exist.

The conclusion: the medium is the being. If I were to borrow Wittgenstein’s analogy, a chain is a set of links configured in such a way as to form a string. Nothing outside of links exist. In the same way, we do not exist outside of the mediums. Our existence is defined by a specific configuration of a medium. Dyske on the Internet is quite different from Dyske in the so-called “real” world. Another way of looking at this is that Dyske can be defined with a specific configuration of the Internet as a medium, and can also be defined with a specific configuration of the “real” world. They can be very similar or very different, but neither is more real since there is no such thing as a real Dyske independent of a medium.

In this sense, there is nothing “virtual” about the Internet. It is as real as the “real” world, if not more.