When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
Media mediate our world. They permeate every aspect of our lives and shape our interaction with reality and others. For instance, navigating Amsterdam by bike fosters a markedly different experience compared to drifting through its canals on a boat. This lens of technology as a medium provides a nuanced interpretation of the idea that technologies are simple instruments (see metaphor 1). Initially, we mold our tools, yet as time progresses, these instruments reciprocally shape us. This dynamic of mutual influence, foregrounded in media analysis, accentuates the blind spots in the tool and machine metaphor. Calling technology by these names, we often fail to fully capture the oscillating interplay between the creator and the created. Technology is something that happens in between us. Marshall McLuhan articulated this interplay as one of the first, highlighting the virtually boundless array of technologies that can adopt the role of a medium.
According to him, far from being mere instruments of facilitation, tools modulate our cognition and perception. Every medium in a sense intermediates our relationship with the world and shapes subjects and objects, facilitating different sensory experiences and engendering various forms of interaction. The auditory landscape presented by radio fosters a different engagement compared to the visual narratives shaped by television. Or consider the subtle differences in cognitive pathways forged when noting down thoughts on paper, as opposed to typing them on a laptop. It's not just a difference in method, but a branching into differing streams of consciousness, a demonstration to the pervasive impact of the medium (paper or keyboard) we engage with.
In the philosophy of technology, the focus of media analysis has largely shifted towards digital media. Consider, for instance, how Whatsapp – understood as a social medium – has shaped communication and relationships. Whatapp replaces, to some extent, face-to-face communication, it hinders our spoken communication capabilities, and substitutes it with an alternative form of chatting. It has shaped us into disembodied chatters. Within this new constituted realm between disembodied subjects, we gained emojis, gifs, and stickers as new forms of communication.
In the field of postphenomenology - forget the difficult name but remember it has mediation as one of its core themes - the main point is not so much that there is a subject and an object first, and then the medium is some-thing ‘in between’ them. On the contrary, the medium is fundamental and co-constitutes the subject and object pole. It is not a thing but a relationship, because there is no immediate relationship to reality and others. In the example above, it is Whatsapp which co-constitutes the disembodied sender and recipient. We do not put Whatsapp in between us, but Whatsapp binds us together.
Consequently, the essence of the media metaphor resides in the famous McLuhan axiom ‘the medium is the message,’ guiding us to focus not just on content but on the structural dynamics of the medium itself. This approach invites us to examine, for instance, how the operational mechanics of social media — the algorithms, the filter bubbles — shape public discourse and influence democratic processes, rather than merely dissecting the content spread through these platforms.
This shift of focus from content to the ways the fabric of the medium impacts the specific message they want to communicate, echoes a broader philosophical transition. In some ways, it offers an accessible introduction to certain facets of Heidegger's philosophy of technology. In Heidegger's perspective, the quintessence of technology transcends the physicality of technical objects, unveiling itself as an “enframing” (Ge-stell) — a distinctive mode of revealing beings. In the modern era of technology, according to Heidegger the actual reveals itself as ‘standing-reserve’. For instance, when in the Alps, modern people do not see holy mountains anymore, but sources of energy and potential areas for Ski-tourism.
Such a transition signals a philosophical evolution from concentrating on tangible objects (things) to an emphasis on logos, unraveling deeper layers of existence and understanding. Technics, thus, becomes more than a collection of tools, machines and fancy gadgets; it turns into a lens through which we perceive the world, influencing our understanding of the human essence in this technologically intertwined society. This perspective navigates beyond the physicality of technological entities, urging us to delve into the human-technology nexus in our techno-society (which is explored in the next section of metaphors).
Perceiving AI as a medium rather than a tool or entity urges us to move beyond trying to define its 'essence' or intrinsic nature. Instead, this metaphor urges us to explore the roles it adopts in existing digital media and impacting content. Essentially, the emphasis shifts to scrutinizing the dynamics of our interaction with artificial intelligence and comprehending how it molds our perceptions of reality and relationships with others.
In light of this context, we can delve deeper into some of the pivotal societal dialogues of our time, especially given the undeniable link between AI and the troublesome dynamics of social media platforms. Adopting this lens encourages us to unearth the prevailing social issues of AI, such as the profound implications AI has on democratic processes, social polarization, the fostering of hate speech, alongside its impact on the self-perception of younger generations.
On a less negative note, the medium metaphor also opens up avenues to ponder the transformative potential (generative) AI holds for various industries, including its capacity to revolutionize the processes behind filmmaking, writing content, and photography or graphic design. In the early stages, our approach is usually to incorporate new technologies into our current workflows. But as time progresses, these processes are fundamentally reshaped around the technology. This is evident today as we attempt to assimilate generative AI into established workflows. Yet, emerging innovators will shift this dynamic, posing a fundamental question: what would a newspaper, thinktank or marketing company, designed from scratch with AI at its core, resemble? In these kinds of analyses, it’s not uncommon to witness people employing a dual approach that merges the tool (see 1) and medium metaphor. This means painting a picture of a future where AI not only facilitates the birth of novel vocations and tasks – spurring ‘what can we do with it’ type of questions (tool metaphor) - but also reshapes industries fundamentally (medium metaphor).
Delving deeper into generative AI from a medium perspective unveils many more topics for exploration. Let's consider a few more. For example, it would be enlightening to dissect the differences between googling and chatGPTing. Although both can look up information, interacting with Google's index-based search engine is very different from having a dialogical engagement with a chatbot like ChatGPT. While querying ChatGPT about the capital of France won't yield a list of potentially relevant web pages as Google might offer, it synthesizes a most probable answer leveraging a sophisticated mathematical language model. Accordingly, it is not a search engine but a statistical reasoning engine that mediates your reality. We no longer perceive reality through a 'digital magnifying glass' (search), but rather through something fundamentally different, often referred to as a 'statistical parrot' by some. This comparison illuminates an important shift; whereas a magnifying glass merely enlarges and prioritizes what's already there, a parrot mimics us, even when it generates 'new' assemblages of words, images, and so forth, in the process.
Current Large Language Models (LLMs) represent a blend of information retrieval and generative capabilities. When a question is asked, the current version of ChatGPT not only generates answers by itself but also utilizes search engines to gather information, then synthesizing responses from these sources. This can be seen as a fusion of the best of both worlds and a progressive approach. However, the nature of dialogue-based responses from these LLMs still contrasts sharply with the index-based answers provided by search engines like Google. The former is more akin to oral communication, while the latter leans towards visual information processing. For certain types of searches, such as finding a new pair of jeans, users might prefer the concise, visually-oriented results from index-based searches. Furthermore, the operational costs of sophisticated chatbots like Gemini and ChatGPT are considerably higher, which is an important factor to consider when choosing between these different query methods. The days of googling aren’t behind us.
There is another interesting angle to the media metaphor. Adopting it for AI introduces a temporal or process-oriented dimension. AI does something. AI acts. Delving into the ways it works, the medium underscores the remarkable autonomous decision-making capacity of AI, highlighting its role as a pseudo-agent. This leads us to contemplate on the complex interplay of control and influence in our daily lives — a constant tug of war between human choice and algorithmic determinations. Because on whose behalf is this algorithm running, we can always ask? We find ourselves entwined in this dynamic as we navigate day-to-day tasks, grappling with the uncertainty of who or what exactly guides our decisions. For instance, one might wonder if their electoral choice was genuinely personal, or significantly swayed by the altered perception of reality fashioned by algorithms. We often think that others are the ones being influenced, while maintaining the belief that our choices are, in the end, made independently. Similarly, does one's musical preference stem from personal taste or has it been molded substantially over the years by Spotify's algorithmic suggestions? What would have been different without this medium?
It is crucial to note that these queries don't bear straightforward answers; yet it is unmistakably clear that the pervasive influence of algorithms has woven into every facet of our existence. In this digitally mediated landscape, our moral agency is not forged in isolation but is continuously shaped and expressed through digital platforms.
In the following section, we delve into metaphors that focus on the human role in interacting with contemporary artificial intelligence, including portrayals like the cyborg and the quantified self.