Bringing Marshall McLuhan’s analog insights to bear on contemporary digital media always seems more like a given than a wager. Fifty years later, the eminently citable professor of English remains the go-to authority in the still nebulous field of media studies. But these citations––be it in the latest fluff piece on the iPad or the introduction to an academic monograph––tend to destroy the medium of his message. Which, if you’re hip to McLuhan, is his whole point. His performative aphorisms echoed through the tubes of the very media he sought to critique. In popular films, glossy magazines, and around the talk show circuit, McLuhan would intone the same inscrutable phrases over and over again, all the while reveling in the different voices each medium had to offer.
But in this gadget-happy week of CES 2011––Honeycomb and PixelSense, variable form factors and mobile mesh networking––I can’t resist the temptation to once again look to McLuhan for a little kernel of something, if only to mediate between the incoherently gushing execs (“leverage the ability of these businesses to deliver converged opportunities!”) and the jaded tech bloggers who don’t even know why they go anymore.
“Gadgets and gimmicks did not begin as physical objects, nor are they only to be understood as such today.”
I cite this passage from The Mechanical Bride (1951) not to highlight the networked, distributed nature of many of the devices on display this week, i.e. cloud-based mobile media or the more astounding “radio wave trickle chargers” (true visionaries get little press at CES; anything without a readily identifiable business model is dismissed as “psychotic”). Instead, it’s important to recognize how McLuhan taps into a much deeper history of the gadget’s immateriality. The word “gadget” is a sort of empty container for any object whatsoever, and the shape of that container changes drastically from its origins in late 19th-century nautical jargon to its present day association with portable electronics. The functionality of the gadget, as a perpetually evolving, abstract category of tools, is redefined with each new era.
Here, ASUS Chairman Jonney Shih presents his company’s “gifts.” Each falls at a different point on the spectrum between tablet and netbook, categories that have been jockeying for position as the “third device” in personal computing ecosystems. The range of form factors proposed here illustrates just how much the questions raised by the iPad are still in play a year later. In this Year of the Tablet 2.0, we’re still waiting to see if some new medium, some new form of interaction, will emerge out of the affordances of this device. These ASUS tablets are “gadgets” in that they present speculative versions of what this emerging medium might look like.