Mind and media

Connect-universum 2012
Author: Negri Marco


What experiences do we have of the relationship between mind and media? In the first part of these notes, I try to describe the relationships between mind and media (in particular certain essential points of connection or disconnection between a person’s mind and Twenty First Century media of mass communication). In the second part of the writing, I try to evaluate the relationship between mind and media — I try to observe the marriage or divorce between mind and media from a normative point of view: from a perspective based on some shared values, such as freedom, truth, health and friendship. I focus in the end on the importance of taking both interpreted facts and ethical judgments about the relationship between mind and media as something complex — something to be understood by being aware of the multifaceted nature of human beings and reality.

Topic of report: Mind and media

It is significant to notice that our experiences of the relationship between our mind and the technological media of mass communication show us the image of an articulate or differentiate landscape. This is so because the analysis of the nexus between the human mind and the media of communication demonstrates that such nexus relies upon a high number of facts and upon the possibility of evaluating them by means of many distinct and sometimes diverging normative judgments. In the first place, the human mind or consciousness is something ambivalent and somehow ineffable — it is perhaps the most complex thing that the human beings know in the cosmos (one could even say that it is the ‘strangest’ thing of which the human beings are aware). In the second place, contemporary mass media, being themselves human artifacts — that is, technological tools of communication ideated by the human mind itself — are elaborate and continuously evolving machines. They are machines that one could presently describe (at the beginning of the Twenty First Century) by means of the following points: i) they are technologies that take the form, more and more explicitly, of spatial or iconic devices — of digital tools conceived to get closer and closer to the essential visual and imaginative capacities of the human cognitive system; ii) they are technologies that take the form of integrative devices, of tools that could incorporate, inside one single system, many other subsystems or functions (they are, for example, ‘digitalizing devices’ (from the Latin word ‘digitum’, finger as discrete unity) that allow one to put together telephones, radios, television sets, data or information processing machines, etc. by means of one single computer; iii) they are technologies that take the form of more and more powerful devices, first of all with respect to the relevant amount of information that they are able to carry and with respect to the high speed at which they in fact vehicle such information; iv) they are technologies that take the form, at least in part, of interactive devices: for example, of machine that make it possible for their human users to pass commands and in general ‘inputs’ to the machine itself (for instance, by means of an active user ‘interface’); etcetera.

Given such qualities characterizing the contemporary media, one could then see why their relationship with the human mind might turn out to be both good and bad. This of course could be so for every kind of instrument, and the media of mass communication are, first of all, an instrument: it is not indeed surprising that one could use a simple tool such as a knife both for helping oneself more easily to eat a cake and for violently killing other people. The actual media of communication are complex instruments (at least a little more complex than a knife) and the ways in which they could be used by the human mind or influence the human mind are extremely various — this is true, although a straight comparison between human mind and current computers would immediately make it clear that the human mind is a kind of ‘machine’ unattainable for current machines as computers. The possibility for the marriage between human mind and media of succeeding or failing mainly depends, then, on the ability of the human mind itself to reflect on the media.

The essay is divided in two main parts: I try, in the first part, to throw some light on a series of facts and descriptive cases that seem to connect the actual machines of mass communication with the mind (or that seem to separate the actual machines of mass communication from the mind). I devote the second part of the essay to discuss some value-judgments that apply to the relation between the actual media and the mind. A few final remarks follow.


A person’s mind could simply be taken to refer to the set of that person’s cognitive and sensory experiences, broadly conceived — such idea of the mind should be seen to include such things as a person’s perceptions, emotions, will, actions (i.e. intentional behaviors), etc.

What are the media? We all know what they are: they are technological machines of social communication. Indeed, if we take into consideration their history, we could perhaps just say this: that the history of the media amounts to the development of more and more powerful — e.g. more and more far reaching — and sophisticated systems of mass communication. The most relevant historical fact which seems to shape the history of the media at the beginning of the Twenty First Century is then the so called ‘Turing’s machine’: the prototype of all successive computers up to the present new digital media.

Not to be mistaken: technological mass-media, at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, are, for example, telephones (mainly mobile telephones), radios, televisions, and, first of all, as we have said, computational systems — that is, informational hard-wares and soft-wares, etc. The central role played by computers, and in general by digital systems, in shaping the media at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, is the possibility offered by such systems to integrate, in the space of one single ‘machine’, many different functions.

What is a medium? Literally, it is something placed right in the middle between two other things: something that could thus ‘mediate’ between those two things. When, for example, a person A calls a person B by telephone, the telephone, by means of which A and B can talk, is a device logically placed between A and B. Let’s notice, here, a possible analogy between a person’s mind and a medium of communication. If one locates a person’s mind in between i) a subject or Self and ii) some sort of (external) objects, then the mind is something that could be seen to share certain structural or functional characteristics with a medium of communication: one could see, for instance, that a person’s mind conceived as her background cognitive dispositions is, just like any given medium of communication, something that somehow mediates between the person’s self and the objects or stimuli that she perceives (this idea of the mind as a cognitive structure that ‘mediates’ a person’s perceptions is precisely Kant’s idea of the mind).

One crucial point of essential disconnection or difference between a human mind and a technological medium of communication, such as, for instance, a digital computer, is of course the fact that the human mind can create a computer but the opposite — i.e. the possibility for the digital computer of creating a human mind — does not hold (this possibility has been even discarded from a theoretical point of view, at least for the fact that there are many persuasive arguments against the so called ‘hard’ (or ‘strong’) project in artificial intelligence’).[1]

A further question is now this: how does the human mind concretely interact, or simply get in touch with, the modern technological media? Let’s observes some cases: a person talks and listens through a mobile phone, or listens to the radio, or watches a TV, or reads and watches the information displayed on a computer screen, etc. (as we have said, all these things might now occur when a person is using just one single ‘machine’, for one single machine could now work as a mobile phone, or as a TV-set, or as radio, or as a video or Internet player, or as an electronic book, etc.).[2]

When a person is watching images (e.g. pictures, videos, etc.) on a digital computer, but also when she is reading some written texts on a computer, the person is somehow behaving as homo videns. But there is more: even when the person is using the audio files of a computer she is more or less explicitly behaving as homo videns, for the audio files — and thus the generated sounds, etc. — are something that is located in this or that spatial part of the digital machine (first of all in this or that ‘active’ region of the screen, etc.). The centrality of the visual attributes of the media, in particular the relevance of the screen of contemporary digital machines, has prompted some scientists to observe that when a person begins to exploit a modern communicational device, she somehow passes from a three dimensional (i.e. ‘3D’), ordinary reality to a two dimensional (i.e. ‘2D’) reality. Thus, for example: a person that makes a video call to a friend by means of a computer should be seen to be an individual that interacts with her friend in a two dimensional reality (and so: a person who decides to spend more time making video calls to friends instead of meeting them in normal streets, etc. is simply someone who decides to spend more time in a two dimensional reality — rather than in a three dimensional reality).

Are contemporary media active or passive devices? (Are contemporary mass media more passive or more active devices?) They are getting — just as devices — more and more active, that is, more and more interactive machines. Why is this so? It is so because the number of functions available to contemporary media users is getting higher and higher (this point is of course connected to the higher and higher power of functional integration of contemporary mass communication devices). Indeed: a Twenty First Century computer clearly allows its users to have access to more operations than, let’s say, a Twenty Century TV-set (here one could simply begin to notice that machines merely producing black and white images have been replaced by machines producing high definition colored images).

Another more and more evident fact characterizing the media, in particular their relationship with the human mind in the first half of the Twenty First Century, is this: the acceleration in the processes of communication made possible by contemporary media. Executing tasks by means of a computer is getting quicker and quicker (and just by pushing a button on a keyboard one could now, for example, instantaneously change the images, videos, texts, etc. displayed on the computer screen). Here one could also reflect on Baudrillard’s idea of the ‘moving image’ as the central mode by means of which recent media technology mediates reality.[3] To be precise: Baudrillard argues, from his post-modernist perspective, that the ‘moving image’ (the image that one watches on a TV set or on a computer screen, etc.) is in fact the main element by means of which the media literally ‘substitute’ the real world. However: Baudrillard’s description of what is unreal in our ‘medialized’ perceptions is — at least as it seems to me — somehow hyperbolic (i.e. somehow exaggerated).

As for the acceleration in the processes of human communication allowed by modern technologies one could observe the similarity between the change affecting the media and the change affecting the systems of transport. Like the systems of transports (e.g. animals, carriages, cars, trains, airplanes, etc.), the media are first of all types of carriers — information (or disinformation, etc.) is the basic ‘good’ carried by the media. Like the systems of transport, which have historically incremented their speed, the media, as we have noticed, have also historically incremented their speed. So one could now compare, for example, a person that sends letters by means of a pigeon with a person that sends electronic mail messages; and then compare all this with the difference between a person that travels by camel and a person that travels by airplane.

In considering the relationship between media and mind is it relevant to trace a distinction between medium and content (of the medium)? Yes, this seems to be a simple distinction to be aware of. To consider an elementary case: when a person reads Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf’ both on a paper book and on an electronic/plastic book and is negatively influenced by it, one should perhaps see that it is the book as content (i.e. the thoughts of Mein Kampf’) rather than the book as medium (i.e. the paper or the electronic/plastic reading device) which has negatively influenced the person. And conversely, trivially: if Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf’ falls down from the shelves and disturbs a person’s sleep, one should see that it is perhaps the book as medium (i.e. the paper or the electronic/plastic reading device) and not the book as content (i.e. the thoughts of Mein Kampf’) which has disturbed the person (at least in consideration of this basic fact, Marshall McLuhan’s famous claim (in his Understanding Media) that ‘the medium is the message’ should be seen to be implausible — that is, one should take this claim, ‘the medium is the message’, at most as an eclectic slogan, not as an evident empirical statement).[4]


I now would like to raise an explicitly normative question: do the new media of mass communication play a positive or a negative role with respect to a person’s mind? More specifically: given certain shared and basic values such as i) freedom, ii) truth, iii) health and iv) friendship, how should one judge the relationship between the new media and the human mind?
I) Let’s begin to say something about the experienced sense of freedom or un-freedom that a person could entertain when she gets in touch with the contemporary media. Let’s for example focus on this situation: a person knows how to use a computer well and also likes using it (indeed the person has learned how to use a pc well because she likes using it); when she does something with her computer she feels free. By contrast: for another person, using a computer is a problematic experience — this latter person finds it difficult to use a computer and does not really enjoy to learn how to use it well: she claims in the end that she does not feel free when she has to use a computer.

Another question concerning freedom is this: is a person’s mind objectively free if the person has access to new media technologies? Yes, she is: enjoying more possibilities means for a person enjoying more freedom. This is true — i.e. this is at least prima face true -, though one should now also observe this basic opposite point: since a person’s life is contained in a given logical space, every new possibility entering such dimension also somehow constrains it. For example: a person who is aware of the fact that she could use a computer to send messages has intuitively less open memory (or less free ‘space of thought’, etc.) than a person who is not aware at all about such possibility (it is for similar reasons that philosophers are sometimes interestingly advised to make ‘tabula rasa’ of all their knowledge and somehow embrace Socrates’ intellectual stance: ‘I know that I don’t know’).

II) Let’s now try to answer a question that has at its centre the idea of truth: is a person, who is exposed to the power of contemporary media, more or less liable to be or become victim of false (i.e. not even veridical) information? Let’s here focus on this case: a man, who is living in Persia many centuries ago, can know the events which are occurring in northern Europe because another man, who is travelling by horse from northern Europe to Persia, sometimes brings him news about that far away land. Of course the former man has simply to trust the latter man: it would be impossible for the former man quickly to check the truth or falsity of the latter man’s reports (by assumption, the former man could in fact just wait for the arrival of other travelers by horse, or wait to have he himself the possibility of going to northern Europe by horse, etc.). Let’s now compare this case with a contemporary (i.e. beginning of Twenty First Century) situation: a man, that is living in what is the actual Persia, could know what is happening in northern Europe not only by consulting other human beings coming to him by horse, but also by making a phone call, or by listening to the radio, or by watching a TV program, or by reading about northern European facts on the Internet, etc. In this second case, the man in Persia could also quickly or more quickly check the truth or falsity of the received information about northern Europe — he could, for example, make many quick phone calls and check what is really occurring in northern Europe by asking many different people; or he could consult and compare different websites (thus different articles, ‘blogs’, etc.) that contain information about northern Europe; etc. If one observes a system of communication based on people delivering information by travelling by horse and a modern system of mass communication, it is the latter that seems to offer more epistemic guarantees.

But now reflect on this opposite possibility: hiding the truth might be on the contrary easier given certain characteristics of the modern system of mass communication. For example: it seems it would be much easier for a person to hide me the truth if she could just talk with me from the other side of a phone rather than having to speak with me while watching me straightly into my eyes (a fortiori it might be easier for an unknown internet site to pass me some false news; etc.).

III) What about a person’s psychological health? Do the new media of communication increase or decrease a person’s sense of psychological wellness? Of course it seems (all things considered) that it is healthier for a person to bring her body to go to walk in a green forest, or to swim in a clean lake, etc., than to put it to sit down for hours and hours in front of a pc video. It seems indeed so, though a person, who could use a computer to develop his or her creative abilities, might receive considerable pleasure, and thus considerable sense of healthiness, by spending a considerable time using a digital medium.

Contemporary digital media, in particular social websites (such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.), or videogames, etc. have sometimes been accused to make their users — especially if they are young — somehow schizophrenic and autistic: persons unable normally to listen to other people, since their minds have just been trained to react to fast moving pictures, or ‘multi tasks’ stimuli, etc. Such accusation against the electronic media, if supported by empirical evidence, should be seriously taken into consideration, although one should then check whether the postulated young victims of the pc have a real opportunity also to engage in normal 3D, classic social relationships. In fact: if I a person must obsessively use (i.e. must use for a very prolonged period of time) a given instrument, then it might be normal to discover that such instrument has generated in the person some sort of abnormal behavior — for example: if a person has to hear for days and days a song that continuously repeats her the word ‘house’, then it might really happen to see that even in the absence of such song the person goes on hearing the word ‘house’.

IV) Value of friendship: do modern communicational technologies favor or contrast the possible development of a feeling of friendship among people? Once again, here, the reality seems to be composite. On the one hand, the speed and possibility of distant reach (together with the high functionality) of many contemporary media make it possible for one easily to stay in touch with many people — even with persons that live very far away from the place where one is living. On the other hand, the fact that the mass media significantly accelerate the possibility of contact among different people might negatively influence the quality of their friendship (for instance, since one knows many people one might not be able to find the necessary time to deepen his friendship with another single person or with a few persons, thus becoming more and more detached in one’s affective behavior).

Final Remarks

The end of the Twentieth Century and above all the present time, the beginning of the Twenty First Century, are sometimes described as ‘Information Age’: a period in which, among the other things, the human mind is massively investigated and with it the possibility of making its technological artifacts more and more ‘intelligent’, that is to say, more and more similar, in terms of capacities and potentialities, to the human mind itself (being the human mind, as we have said, the most powerful ‘mechanism’ currently known in the existing universe or cosmos). However: the main trait of the human mind is its openness, and it is indeed such openness that will constitute in the future the hardest obstacle on the road to make this or that invented machine, including this or that technology of mass communication, similar to the mind itself.[5] And hence: in contrast to the self celebrating, grandiose rhetoric that often surrounds the achievements of present day technological engineers and designers, it is perhaps useful to realize that even the most advanced computer is not — so far, if compared to the human mind — much more than a modest kitchen liquidizer or some other sort of humble electrodomestic.


1. Here I have in mind the contingent, historical debate on the ‘hard project’ on AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence) involving such philosophers as Hubert Dreyfus, or John Searle, etc.
2. On this point also see H. Gardner, Is the Medium the Message?, spotlight.macfound.org/main/entry/medium_the_message/.
3. J. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 1994 (orig. French edition, 1981).
4. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1st Ed. McGraw Hill, NY, 1964.
5. It is interesting here to read this simple thought by G. I. Gurdjieff: “It is possible to stop being a machine, but for that it is necessary first of all to know the machine. A machine, a real machine, does not know itself and cannot know itself. When a machine knows itself it is then no longer a machine, at least, not such a machine as it was before. It already begins to be responsible for its actions.” (Quoted in P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, Mariner Books, 2001, p. 19.)

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