Inventing the Medium–Trying to Find the Words

Inventing the Medium Cover

For the past two weeks I’ve been reading Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice by Janet Murray.  And I’ve been really struggling to find the words to discuss this book in a formal post.

It’s a much slower read than the books I’ve gone through up to this point–in large part because I’m so afraid I’ll miss something important. Murray does such a wonderful job of connecting ideas about design, the creation/consumption/use of text, changing mediums, Human-Computer interaction, information architecture, and usability.  But as I read, a part of me becomes frustrated because even though the content itself is clear as I’m reading it, I don’t know that I could actually explain those same ideas to someone else. (Another part of me has been stuck in a succession of “Ah-ha!” moments, where I find myself saying, “That’s what I’ve been thinking all this time but haven’t been able to articulate in words!”)

I think a lot of my frustration comes from the fact that the Inventing the Medium is written as a textbook, and it’s probably meant to be read over the course of an entire semester, rather than in just a few weeks. I’m at such a loss for how to actually respond that I think the most useful approach is to just try to condense the information and explain it, section by section.

The text itself focuses on digital design practices–how we create, consume, understand, use, and ultimately “interact” with digital information design. Murray structures her discussion about digital design around the four affordances of the digital medium:

  1. Encyclopedic: The computer can contain and transmit information in humanly accessibly form, and it can represent processes through logical, symbolic representations (databases, archives, portable media players)
  2. Spatial: The computer constructs space different from preceding mediums by creating virtual spaces users can navigate through; represents space (maps, images, video tracking, 3-D models, GPS)
  3. Procedural: The medium is able to “represent and execute conditional behaviors” (examples: spreadsheets, search engines)
  4. Participatory: The medium interacts with the user; it is reciprocal and interactive, allowing the user to manipulate and have an effect on the digital content and computer processes (examples: blogs, media sharing sites, social networking sites, recommendation sites)

Affordance Grid from Inventing the Medium (By Janet Murray)

These four affordances work together across a grid. Although one single computer application or website cannot realistically take advantage of each of the four mediums to their full extent, keeping all four affordances in mind helps designers engineer the user experiences we’ve come to expect (or desire). For instance, the feeling of interactivity is created by exploiting the participatory and procedural affordances.

After the introductory section of the book which helps contextualize the conversation of digital design and gives an overview of the how the digital affordances work function, the remainder of the book is divided into four sections–each focused on an individual affordance.

The next string of blog posts on Inventing the Medium will likely be me working through each section, copying and pasting key quotes and passages, and trying to find my own examples and explanations I can anchor them to.  It feels a bit clumsy and unoriginal, but I think it’ll help me sort through the information and form some sort of foundation I can eventually start building upon.


2 thoughts on “Inventing the Medium–Trying to Find the Words

  1. I’m interested in “clumsy and unoriginal”. I wonder what would by adroit and original when it comes to responding to a text, especially a complex one one is reading for the first time? I suppose the clumsy comes from the fact that you are kind of reading out loud in public because you are blogging about your reading and that means writing as you read and idea found in texts evolve over time, time which the tool you are using doesn’t afford very well. I guess also that at this stage of the inventional process, originality isn’t as important as ownership, which is why your examples of her ideas is exactly what you want at this pint.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it’s like reading out loud in public. One question though–can you explain what you mean by “time which the tool you are using doesn’t afford very well?” Are you referring to blogging?

      I’m really, really enjoying the book–but there are just so many moving parts!It’s like looking at a complex piece of machinery. I understand how it functions; I can make sense of how all levers, pulleys, wheels, etc. work together to make the machine work… but Lord help me if I try to explain it or recreate it once I’ve walked away from the machine.

      You’re right, though. Ownership is more important at this point. I can’t DO anything with the information until I really understand and internalize it. I just hate that it’s such a slow process. I’m impatient.

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