sizing up media, technology, and society

The Triadic Media

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Hey all

I’ve done some thinking lately in making connections between the hectic media landscape that we currently occupy and what I consider to be an incredibly useful theory that I learned about in a cognitive science class. It’s called the tri-level hypothesis, and while originally applied to information processors and found in cognitive research, its theoretical basis helps to frame incredibly complex systems in a way that simultaneously preserves their entirety and divides up the constituents that make it possible. It is most easily illustrated by way of the metaphor of chess.

When we consider the game of chess, we can imagine it as existing and working through three distinct levels: the physical, the functional, and the implementational. At the physical level, the game of chess can be understood in terms of its physical components: as a square game board, divided into an alternating grid, upon which two specifically arranged “armies” (represented by various game pieces) are aligned and move along the surface of the grid as the game is played.

At the functional level, chess is seen as a collection of rules that govern the operations that are possible in the context of the game. These rules may include the movement allowances of each piece (bishops move diagonally, pawns one space at a time and only forward), who gets the first move, only one piece moved per turn, and how victory is achieved.

At the implementational or semantic level, we can understand chess in terms of what actually transpires on the board: the particular moves and exchanges that are produced by the presence of both the physical level and the functional level of game pieces and rules; the fact that chess is a game.

Despite this example being a laughably simple system in comparison to larger information processors, it is useful in a number of respects, with its only stipulations being (1.) the recognition of these levels as relatively autonomous and (2.) the acknowledgement that the use of all three levels is required to adequately address the system in discussion.

So, with this framework close at hand, what can it do for us in media studies? It may help to first understand what aspects of the media can be seen as existing at each level.

Within the physical level, I tend to locate the physical technologies and components that make media possible, including newspaper, ink, film monitors, transmitters/antennae/receivers, cables, speakers, DVDs and DVD players, etc. These are the physical channels within a “medium”, and are of tremendous initial importance (You can’t receive a phone call without the right hardware that enables you to do so).

At the functional level, I see the protocols and operating languages that make the translation of information into semantically relevant content possible. Examples at this level may include the IPv4 or IPv6 web protocols (the set of rules responsible for the proper routing of the entire web), file formats (.doc, .docx, .mp3), each of the computer programming languages, network types (CDMA/GSM for cell phones, 802.11x for wireless internet), website formats (digg’s voting system, blog protocol) and firmware (halfway between hardware and software, the guidelines in hardware that tell a CD player that it’s a CD player and not a toaster).

At the implementational or semantic level, we see the relevant content that is being created, transmitted, and enjoyed or utilized by end-users. This level includes the applications that connect us to friends, the pictures we check out on facebook, the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the services that matter to us.


Now what in the world, with this organization in mind, am I thinking? First and foremost, I have found this way of framing our media environment useful in understanding how the conflicts of interests of media enterprises arise in the first place. As I see it, any company you take a closer look at likely has different degrees of investment in or ownership each level. For instance, landline phone companies enable their users to connect and chat on the phone (semantic level) by charging them for the physical access to the phone lines that blanket the world. Thus it comes as no surprise that traditional phone companies would feel threatened by VOIP services such as Skype that offer the same semantic service of chatting on the phone, but through different physical means and using different protocols, perhaps even for the very competitive price of free, as the phone costs are already incurred within one’s internet subscription. The Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format war competed on the basis of physical superiority in an attempt to convince consumer how much better their movies would look and sound when delivered through their format. This, of course, is not the cause that they champion, which actually has much more to do with growing profit margins and market share.

Another interesting perspective that the tri-level hypothesis affords us is one where we can see how companies attempt to exert and control another level through their dominance of one level, which again, is likely motivated by economic allure. My favourite example of this is once again network neutrality, whereby the telecoms (who own the physical wires, and use established protocols) are attempting to gain ownership over the content that is enabled (but by no means caused) by the aspects of the medium that they own.

As stated earlier, this is wrong and likely won’t work (but may make our lives difficult) for a few reasons. The movie “Steal this Film II” and Henry Jenkins’ book, Convergence Culture, bear witness to the fact that it is the delivery technologies that evolve, die and change, and it is the content that remains in circulation and evolves according to its own ways. Delivery technologies by and large exist at those physical and functional levels, whereas the semantic media and channels of circulation we typically think of are a-formal: not reliant on a particular form in order to exist. This is why when VHS and Napster died, DVDs, Kazaa, and Limewire were born. If Bittorrent (the most advanced form of sharing to date) were ever to die, the content-media hydra would simply find another way to redistribute the content, and ensure that its circulation would continue.

It is a mistake and a great injustice to allow the owners of a given channel to exert a dominating force over another. Content and connection are what matters, and technicalities disregard what is truly important to the citizen-consumer in the name of higher profits and greater control.  This being said, companies savvy to this tri-level approach may integrate the levels of media as to produce an ecosystem that not only satisfies the consumer, but also the enablers and producers of that content.

Any thoughts?


Written by jon.

April 3, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. this is the best, most sophisticated writing you’ve produced on your blog. your approach to theory is very useful here and bears witness to the deep levels of commitment you’ve shown to the course as a whole. i would urge you to kep writing and to forge your own theory of communication within convergence culture. there is real room to produce some insightful, groundbreaking material. [in other words, this is very good work…]



    April 9, 2008 at 7:57 pm

  2. Great ideas! I’m going to get my hands on a copy of Jenkins’ [i]Convergence Culture[/i] as soon as possible. I also suggest reading Lawrence Lessig’s [i]Free Culture[/i], which you can download as a .pdf here:

    I’m getting through this one now, as I have time.

    The tri-level hypothesis is interesting, especially applied to media studies. I would have liked to have seen more arguments like this, pointing out the clear distinction between hardware and content, in that discussion with Mirko Bibic on CBC. I plan to post my thoughts on this eventually, but I should probably finish reading Free Culture first.

    The main thing that’s coming to mind right now, as I consider what you’ve said, is the notion of turning over control of the “hardware” of media like the internet to the government. It’s a difficult conundrum, because nobody is completely fond of their government, but few people are enthusiastic about very important services like health care being privatized either. Of course, a change like this involves so many factors it makes my head hurt just thinking about it. There’s lots of discussion to be had, for sure.


    April 21, 2008 at 4:59 am

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