Co-Adaptation: The Evolution of Writing and the Shaping of Society
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. (McLuhan, *Understanding Media*)
When new media emerge in a society, their place is at first ill defined, and their ultimate meanings or functions are shaped over time by that society's existing habits of media use (which, of course, derive from experience with other, established media), by shared desires for new uses, and by the slow process of adaptation between the two. (Liu, "Imagining the New Media Encounter")
In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, Marshall McLuhan explores various types of technology that have “newly emerged” and shaped our society. Emerged technology, or “media,” which according to Liu, an evolving society in turn has developed, shaped, and changed. McLuhan and Liu introduce new ways to think about developing technologies in relation to people and society. McLuhan argues that the significance of “new media” is not the social implications or technological significances such media bring; rather, the technological medium itself is the message, or the underlying significance. Technology, as McLuhan writes, might be better understood when it is interpreted as an extension of ourselves — developed and used as a function of our beings and ever-changing state of lives.
Computer science and coding languages such as Markdown, python, java, C++ and more, have radically changed the way our society thinks about language, representation, communication, and art. In many ways, coding languages such as Markdown serve the same function as writing has years before the computer. The written word – in all its might and meanings — was used to record, communicate over distance, market ideas, promote businesses, display advertisements, flaunt political cartoons, adopt and adapt artistic forms. Writing as a technology has served as the crux of our society — extending nearly all aspects of our lives. The difference today, however, is that the technology of writing now exists in the digital sphere: computer language. In many ways, coding languages serve the same technological purpose as writing, but it is “newer” in the sense that it is “digital.” Computer languages have reincarnated and restructured the conception writing in today’s society, serving the same function as the written word but on a digital scale. As traditional forms of writing were used, coding languages are now used to represent facebook advertisements, applications, digital manuscripts, digital art, email, Microsoft software, etc. Liu would argue that what has changed since the advent of data science is not technology, but the medium itself — and that makes all the difference.
When McLuhan’s work is reimagined in conjunction with that of Liu’s, one might understand the relationship between technology and society as reflexive — deeply embedded within one another, influencing how the other is interpreted, adapted, and changed. With these social and technological changes (which Liu conceptualizes occurring within an ecological system), we often think of media and technology as a function of society. But the reality of such social and technological advances is that both adapt together and simultaneously. Technology is an extension of ourselves; media is a function of society; but society, too, is a function of “new media.” In other words, technology and its implications are shaped by societal systems, yet society as a system itself is intricately shaped and changed by techonology. Perhaps this is the core significance of McLuhan’s argument when he iterates: the medium is the message — something that is innately structured and simultaneously structuring.
In the example of Christopher Woods’ Interpreting Visible Languages, Woods correlates the expansion of Mesopotamian civilization with the appearance of writing. Uruk, a Mesopotamian city-state, demonstrated a “dramatic increase in the sociocultural complexity that defined the city-state at the end of the fourth millennium.” Several texts found in Uruk revealed how writing adapted societal life — via the presence of administrative texts documenting transactions, as well property, material, and labor management. Conversely, as writing facilitated sociocultural development, increasing societal complexity also adapted and advanced writing and its uses as a medium within an advancing Uruk society. Social and technological change were thus co-adaptive and interdependent.
Markdown as a language system can be thought as analogous to the relationship of writing and society in Uruk. The emergence of coding languages such as Markdown restructured media processes such as publishing and journalism that were once solely dependent on records and conventional writing forms. However, these media spheres have since adopted data science — illustrating how adoption of such technology has changed the media sphere, but also how the changing media system has changed and advanced the functions of computer language technology itself. Manuscripts that were once drafted and edited mechanically through writing, are now often done digitally. Information is archived through computerized data system, reworking accessibility of archival materials, and the speed at which work is processed and completed. As a result, journal outlets and publishing companies publish more content more often, as the digitizing of the media spheres has expanded and quickened systems in which writing was the primary operating medium.
As with every form of technology, there are affordances and limitations. With computer languages such as Markdown, affordances include the expansion of industries due to the speed and high functionality of coding. Limitations may include the need to outsource work to keep up with new rapid, expanded industries — therefore, employing fewer people and having less in-house, quality-gauranteed work. Affordances and limitations of a particular medium demonstrates how technology both changes and is changed by a given system. Listed below are potential affordances and limitations of Markdown as a programming language.
- Simple to use once learned.
- Markdown can be used to convert plain text into HTML format. This allows smooth and clean transfer, as well as proper PDF output format.
- Fast. Simplicity allows speed. One can avoid using complex HTML tags. Markdown is also overall faster than a word processor. This speed helps clear up workflow for companies and businesses.
- Markdown eliminates editing "tools" that are used when writing on other digital platforms. This allows for a more fluid and seamless writing experience that does not feel as "clunky" or mouse-oriented.
- Markdown prevents extra coding around text that occurs otherwise in Microsoft Word. This allows for easy transfer and editing of text, which is especially useful in publishing with the editing of manuscripts.
- File size is small.
- No zipping or archiving are required for transporting files.
- The emergence of e-texts.
- Cannot detect when words are misspelled, or sentences are grammatically incorrect.
- Language symbols can take some time to learn.
- Less choice or ability to control font appearance.
- A faster, clearer workflow could lead to fewer employment needs, more outsourcing, as well as higher standards for employment skills and requirements.
- Changing system dynamics on how products and goods are sold.
With the affordances and limitations computer languages such as Markdown have offered, various aspects of society have changed. Coding languages have served as a key part of a new social shift towards the digital. Writing that once served the purpose of communication, journalism, publishing, marketing, etc. has now largely been replaced by data science. The shift in these medium — from writing to code — has introduces new sets of affordances and limitations, that have restructured the way our society functions. Technology and data science in turn, have adapted and developed to align themselves with a new social sphere that functions primarily through the digital. In the example of the publishing industry, books are no longer edited and sold in the same way. Technology’s role in changing the book industry has largely increased the amount of books produced, as well as the rate at which they are manufactured. The digitizing of industries has helped clear, quicken, and synthesize workflow - offering new margins of profit and sales. The need for data science in the publishing industry has led to the emergence of new distribution and marketing platforms to account for growing digital consumption (thus also creating new job roles). However, this has also correlated to a growing monopoly of Amazon over booksellers nationwide.
Like writing and the Uruk society, the relationship between society and coding as a technology medium (and form of writing), is reflexive, co-adaptive, and interdependent. The publishing industry, among other industries, was revolutionized with the advent of data science and computer languages such as Markdown, python, etc. However, this revolutionary change adapted and expanded the functions of data science and coding to fit a changing industrial sphere. Thus, coding as a medium and the social industrial sphere, like writing and the Uruk society, vastly changed and have changed one another – together. New affordances and limitations of budding technologies have restructured the way society has operated and navigated itself. Writing has shown us this, as have the automobile, the aeroplane, and languages such as Markdown. The changes that these media have brought society are ultimately a product of their medium. This is their message.