In her brief synopsis of the development of digital media, "Inventing the Medium," Janet H. Murray presents so-called new media as one digital medium with a greater, more powerful capacity for expression than other media. Whereas linear media —or texts —fail to capture human thought, Murray argues that the digital medium allows for work that can better approximate human cognitive and emotional experiences. All creativity, she writes, stems from exploring the world as a problem. As the world and our understanding of it become more complex, existing media fall short, while the "informational structure" of the digital medium (e.g. the rhizome) offers possibilities for new spaces and forms.

She highlights tensions between humanists' and engineers' respective use and development of digital media since the 1960s, linking these differences to humanists and engineers' supposedly disparate approaches to creative pursuits. Rather than privileging one perspective, Murray writes that World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee as exemplifying both a technical and cultural approach to the digital world.

Dismissing concerns that so-called new media present historically anomalous challenges to artists or adopters, Murray suggests instead that as we explore the new medium's possibilities, digital work presents an opportunity for an exceptionally expansive, even unifying, experience:

Now that we have shaped this new medium of expression, how may we think? We may, if we are lucky and mindful enough, learn to think together by building shared structures of meaning. How will we escape the labyrinth of deconstructed ideologies and self-reflective signs? We will, if we are lucky enough and mindful enough, invent communities of communication at the widest possible bandwidth and smallest possible granularity.

We need not imagine ourselves stranded somewhere over the evolutionary horizon, separated from our species by the power of our own thinking. The machine like the book and the painting and the symphony and the photograph is made in our own image, and reflects it back again. The task is the same now as it ever has been, familiar, thrilling, unavoidable: we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity."

Murray's vision of "communities of communication at the widest possible bandwidth and smallest possible granularity" brings to mind Bill Gates' declaration in 2000 that the Internet would allow "friction-free" interactions. Though Gates used the term to describe commercial interactions, Murray seems to anticipate a streamlined cultural experience through digital media.

Discussion Questions

1. Why are "shared structures of meaning" useful to the nonfiction writer?

2. Is Murray suggesting that the digital medium necessarily privileges the universal over the culturally specific?

3. Murray suggests that the task of transitioning to 'new' or 'digital' media will not differ from any earlier historical transition to a new medium. Are there ways in which this may not be true? For example, does the ease of manipulating or appropriating digital text make writing nonfiction in digital media more problematic than in other media?

Cyberspace Web Overview Creative Nonfiction related courses

Last modified 6 February 2008