Digital Products I. Medium and Commodity

In Products Reading Time: 4 minutes

This is the opening of a small series about digital products. Its aim is to map connections and break-points between traditional audio-visual media and their digital successors. Part two: Communication or Things?

From reception to broadcast: twenty years ago, the »new« of new media was their ability to transform recipients into producers. The internet created new public spheres where everyone with a computer and an opinion (or a cute dog) could grab a keyboard to start messaging. Meaning: digital pervasion did not start with word processors or computer games, but with media of communication.

That is still the purpose of many apps on our smartphones: social media, messengers, chats and the good old phone itself. But within the last 10 years or so, a second group of apps took over. These offer »tangible« forms of usage that yield rather non-communicative outcomes: order food, buy tickets, book a holiday, scan invoices, call a taxi, check the weather forecast.

Practical Media

You could say the media have become practical. Moreover, by now these practical media have outnumbered communication apps – so you might be just forgetting that you still hold a medium in your hand. Of course, practical apps are about communication as well, simply in the sense that they are command units to ‘make things happen‘. But here I am interested in the foundations and traces of old school media, how they work within the new forms to lure us in.

My take is: to get a clearer picture of digital products, it is helpful to look at old media, following Marshall McLuhan’s proposition “that the »content« of any medium is always another medium“.1 In a sector where disruption is a value of its own, there are voices who „refer to newness only to claim that traditional comprehensive categories don’t live up to new technologies, although they are quite fit to assess them.“ 2.

So here are three assorted perspectives on apps in light of their predecessors, with a look at the corresponding innovations of digital products in the end.

Audio-Visual

The first one is obvious: the smartphone is an audio-visual medium. It is an object that projects text, picture and sound which are made for our perception and our brain. This triad of device, sign and body is the material foundation, the constitutional medial order.

This is pretty mundane, but relevant since the appeal of traditional audio-visual media is being transferred onto the digital ones. We have learned and experienced that cinema and television are beautiful, entertaining, exciting, comforting, informative etc. Their qualities and associations re-appear in any digital context. Even if apps try to behave as serious and businesslike as possible, they always make use of the sensual joy of the medium.

To Fathom the World

The second perspective concerns the general ability (or »power«, if you prefer) of the media to shape our understanding of the world and our everyday life. The mandatory quote: »Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media.«3

This statement aims at what we have learned to call »content«: whatever generates some kind of meaning via text, image, movie, sound etc. Every individual manufactures its own meanings from these perceptibilities. And whatever the results may be, there is no getting around it.

Books, cinema, radio, TV, facebook, amazon, tinder and the likes are not inconspicuous instruments that entertain or serve us to organize our lives. They define our comprehension of the areas they step into.

Products

The third perspective is economic. Programs – on the TV and the smartphone – are trade goods. This rather dry assessment is not as exciting as the former, deeply personal connections of media. Nevertheless, this where you can make an impact – by refusing to buy bad products or by changing your very own behavior.

The economic perspective searches for the promise of a product. What is its aim, its value, its achievement? Entertainment, Shopping, Sports, Leisure? Again: rather simple. But the problem is that digital products rarely work in such a clear-cut manner.

The next question follows right away. What is the currency of a product? Traditionally, it is money or attention (i.e. advertising), while the old types of media preferably merge the two currencies if think of magazines and American cable television.

We rarely perceive media offerings as products. We might say »what a shitty movie«, but only few people will trash their television set or never visit the cinema again. The usual routines of product consumption – research, purchase, assessement, return or throw away – do not apply. You do not question the product itself but only this particular instance. You just switch over, glide into the next program and don’t apprehend the commodities you are dealing with.

Digital extensions. Interactivity, Operational Knowledge, Data as Currency

So much for mapping the intersections of analogue and digital media.4To wrap it up, let’s take a look at the major shifts of digital products in regards to the discussed topics.

Interactivity means that your position in a media environment changes – from being a mere receiver into a producer. You not only use your eyes, ears and brains to participate, but activate previously idle parts of your body to enter the realm of public signs as a maker.

This results in new operational knowledge which works below the meaning of signs. The movements of hands and finger are getting hard-wired into our motor functions, just like the use of a hammer.

Finally, digital products create new currencies from our behavior. The price has tripled: not only do we pay with money or attention, but also with our data. And this currency circulates in a market we effectively do not know.

  1. Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964
  2. Forgive me my poor translation from German. Get the American original: Adrian Daub. What Tech Calls Thinking. 2020
  3. « Niklas Luhmann. The Reality of the Mass Media. 1996, S.9
  4. Of course, »analogue« is a historical designation, not a technical one.