Hypermediated Reading

Digital Literacy as a Method of Decolonization

When Marshall McLuhan introduced the phrase “the medium is the message,” he was interrogating the effects of technology, arguing that messages include “a change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” beyond the information being directly communicated.[1] The reinterpretation of “the medium is the message” to mean the synthesis of mediums and their communicated content arose as the phrase was appropriated by scholars, designers, theorists, and Silicon Valley to describe function of internet and digital technologies. Websites, programs, and platforms are created with an understanding that their algorithmic and aesthetic design are as much a part of their communicated message as the information they convey. For example, website themes and colors can determine whether a digital text is designed to reach a specific gender demographic;[2] typography can construct a personality for the digital text or complicate its temporality by making it appear old or new.[3]

The internet’s primary function as a digital information network infiltrates its design, adding additional layers of mediation that can make users unaware of intervening actors and ideologies. While the biases in graphic, algorithmic, infrastructural, analytical, and information system design have been well-documented and debated, less attention has been devoted to the ways in which appearances of neutrality and equality—two of the most celebrated characterizations of the internet—are constructed on the internet.[4] Katherine Hayles argues that electronic literature, or “digital born…object[s] created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer,” is defined by intermediation, connecting and translating “between systems of representations, particularly language and code, as well as interactions between modes of representation.”[5] The result is layers upon layers of mediation that complicate the application of traditional reading practices to digital texts. Hayles notes that for “readers who do not themselves program in computational media, the seduction of reading the screen as a page is especially seductive. Although they are of course aware that the screen is not the same as print, the full implications of this difference for critical interpretation are far from obvious.”[6] Layers of mediation and hierarchical structures embedded within the text are then unacknowledged by the reader as they view the screen as a flattened, planar surface.

The one-dimensional perspective of the digital interface becomes problematic as representations within literature that have historically created binaries and hierarchical power structures are translated into electronic literary forms.[7] Within the text, layers of digital design that are built for generating pathos and profit can construct top-down hierarchies that are impressed upon representations of the post-colonial Other. Outside gazes continue to perpetrate subjugation by reading the text as a level surface, compressing the representations of the post-colonial Other into oppressive layers of the digital design. Digital technologies such as videos, animated GIFs, images, and text are used to convey narratives of distant suffering as realistically as possible as a means of humanizing the crisis for their audiences. However, their attempts to evoke empathetic responses from primarily Western audiences can create hierarchies of power that are masked by the supposedly neutral information system architecture of the internet.

As digital technologies become increasingly oriented around user experience and immersion, it will increasingly be up to the user—the spectator—to restructure their own understanding of epistemology, culture, and history after witnessing events from a digital distance. While information studies and globalization theorists have analyzed the dual effects of time-space compression and time-space distanciation in communication technology, the combination of the internet and digital design results in new, mediated conceptualizations of connection and distance.[8] Anthony Giddens introduced the concept of time-space distanciation to explain how the scale and speed of time-space compression also resulted in the stretching and scattering of cultural and social systems, allowing them to be removed from local contexts and recontextualized.[9]  Panayiota Tsatsou extrapolates Gidden’s concept by including the influences of electronic mediation in accelerating and facilitating the building of social relationships across time and space.[10] I conceptualize digital distance as the distortion of time, space, and relationality that result from electronic mediations and distanciation. Users can be led to believe that they are more relationally connected and proximal than they spatially are. In other cases, digital distance can create the contexts for detachment and voyeurism as users witness events that are perceived as spatially and culturally distant, and yet are immediately accessible through digital mediation and connectivity.

Additionally, digital narratives can distort, color, or reframe reality by under constructed pretexts of objectivity, democracy, immediacy, and morality. For example, digital narratives of humanitarian crises often stage “immediate” encounters with the experiences of their subjects through images, video, interviews, and virtual reality. The hierarchical framework of humanitarianism, however, can draw “a distinction between innocence and guilt” to garner sympathy for its subjects, “leaving no space for the experiences of life” as well as no room for the subject to ever be equal to the sympathetic savior.[11] Thus, digital texts not only hybridize the identities and narratives of their subjects, but also construct what post-structural philosopher Jean Baudrillard terms “hyperreality.” Hyperreality occurs when the lines between simulation and reality become so blurred that they create a new kind of social reality that influence how individuals perceive and engage with the world. While questioning and reconfiguring the way post-colonial bodies and spaces are represented is a necessary step, it is also necessary to question and reconfigure the way we read post-colonial texts, especially in evolving digital contexts where there are extra layers to filter reality.

I will build upon Katherine Hayles and Alan Liu’s critiques of literary reading practices as well as Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s media theories to propose a new reading practice that functions with an awareness of hierarchical power structures within digital media: hypermediated reading. Bolter and Grusin identify hypermediacy as a digital design mechanism that is structured to create a constant awareness of the intermediating interface between the user and the content that they are viewing. I argue that the concept of hypermediacy must become a part of the user’s interpretive gaze in order to deconstruct the layers of mediation that are impressed upon digital representations. Hypermediated reading is a method for close-reading that highlights the hierarchies embedded in digital texts and the concealed constructedness of cultural representations online. By reading with an awareness of the power structures that are embedded within the form of digital texts, readers can come to a better understanding of digital liminality by acknowledging the preliminal and postliminal binaries that force processes of hybridization in representation. This, in turn, can separate the hyper from reality by exposing the partiality and instability of constructed internet architectures.

The debate over how to read has been an ongoing challenge for literary scholars and the introduction of digital forms of texts has only created more difficulties in determining standards for reading practices. Hayles, in particular, critiques how literary studies promotes close reading strategies but does not conceptualize or teach digital reading practices, even though digital texts are becoming increasingly popular and prominent.[12] She assesses that while close reading has maintained a position of privilege in literary practices,[13] its “detailed and precise attention to rhetoric, style, language choice, and…word-by-word examination of a text’s linguistic techniques” opposes the internet’s privileging of “fast reading and sporadic sampling.”[14] Instead, Hayles recommends a synergistic approach to reading that allows the deficits of practices like close reading to be compensated by alternative methods like hyperreading, a concept defined by James Sosnoski as “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading.”[15]

While Digital Humanities and Comparative Media scholars have advocated for the development of alternative reading practices that can account for the ways in which digital texts deviate from traditional print, missing from these conversations is the development of a reading practice that prioritizes the identification of the unique structural mediations within digital texts. The need for a reading practice that acknowledges the hierarchical formal elements within digital media is exacerbated by another gap within digital literacy techniques: the lack of cultural criticism in Digital Humanities pedagogy. In the aptly titled article, “Where is the Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Alan Liu expresses his concern for the absence of analytical practices within Digital Humanities that synthesize textual analysis with cultural criticism. [16] Liu’s call for cultural criticism in the digital humanities echoes the debates over distant reading, Franco Moretti’s attempt to challenge the limited scope of the English canon by analyzing mass amounts of literature through a macroscopic, computational approach.[17] In response, scholars criticized distant reading for minimizing human experience and limiting the capacity to explain sociopolitical, cultural, and historical trends that exist outside of quantitative analysis.[18] Others noted that computational, quantitative methods may in fact “invit[e] us to inadvertently adopt biased views of literature under the mask of objectivity.”[19] Hypermediated reading, then, addresses the biases within texts as well as the biases that can be reinforced by reading practices by deconstructing their pretenses of objectivity.

Hypermediated reading is an attempt to synergize post-colonial theory’s attention to cultural representation with an expansion of postmodern deconstructionism that critically reveals the constructedness of representations within digital media.[20] To understand hypermediated reading, it is important to first recognize the interrelated functions of remediation, immediacy, and hypermediacy within digital design. David Bolter and Richard Grusin were the first to define remediation, immediacy, and hypermediacy as processes and goals that influence digital interface design. Remediation, the act of translating a medium or its content into other mediums, is universally used throughout digital texts because of their use of multiple forms of media.[21] The viral nature of the internet also becomes a forum for remediation, circulating digital media and subjecting them to reconfiguration such as through re-tweeting, captioning, editing, and embedding. Mary Queen adds that additional remediation occurs as Western values filter digital narratives. [22]

Bolter and Grusin examine the contradictory, yet often combinatory goals of immediacy and hypermediacy in digital design. Immediacy aims for the erasure of a medium’s presence so that users “stand in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium,” presenting an experience that is “interfaceless” and “natural.”[23] A common example of a medium that employs immediacy is virtual reality, which attempts to create an experience for the user that is believably immersive by hiding all traces of the technological infrastructures and frameworks that create the experience. Hypermediacy, on the other hand, integrates an awareness of the medium into its infrastructure, often intended to create a sense of “transparency” in which the user understands the interventions of the architectural design.[24] For example, the layout of YouTube’s auto-play panel is designed so that the user is always aware of the thumbnails that represent the videos that are being recommended. Both hypermediacy and immediacy prioritize the user’s encounter with the interface and are important design strategies for competing in the attention economy of the internet.[25]

While oscillation between immediacy and hypermediacy has been recognized as a common process in digital media, the varying and layering of perspectives can become filters that reinvoke cultural binaries through a biased gaze. I will apply hypermediated reading to Google’s “Searching for Syria,” migrant-related selfies and their memes, and TIME’s progression from the “Finding Home” project to “Heln’s First Year” to demonstrate how reading with an awareness of the intermediary structures and influences built into the text exposes its embedded cultural filters and biases. 

[1] Marshall McLuhan and Lewis H. Lapham, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Reprint edition (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1994), 7.

[2] Carmel L Vaisman, “Pretty in Pink vs Pretty in Black: Blogs as Gendered Avatars,” Visual Communication 15, no. 3 (August 1, 2016): 293–315, https://doi.org/10.1177/1470357216643909.

[3] Eva Brumberger, “The Rhetoric of Typography: Effects on Reading Time, Reading Comprehension, and Perceptions of Ethos,” Technical Communication 51, no. 1 (2004): 13–24.

[4] Ruben Pater, The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Design Manual for Visual Communication (Laurence King Publishing, 2016); Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (NYU Press, 2018); Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, 1 edition (New York: Crown, 2016); Ramesh Srinivasan, Whose Global Village?: Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World (NYU Press, 2018).

[5] N. Katherine Hayles, “Electronic Literature: What Is It?,” The Electronic Literature Organization, January 2, 2007, https://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html; Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 36.

[6] Hayles, “Electronic Literature: What Is It?”

[7] This is a reference to the long history of otherization in discourse and cultural representation as delineated by Edward Said and Stuart Hall, which I will elaborate on in a later section. Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1st ed (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978); Stuart Hall, ed., “West and the Rest: Discourse and Power,” in Formations of Modernity, Reprinted, Understanding Modern Societies 1 (Oxford: Polity Press, 2011), 276–331.

[8] David Harvey coined the term “time-space compression” to describe the shrinking of time and space from the accelerated connectivity enabled by transportation and communication technologies. Harvey was concerned about the ways in which time-space compression resulted in the capitalist exploitation. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Wiley, 1992), 147–50; Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 14–15.

[9] Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, 14–15.

[10] Panayiota Tsatsou, “Reconceptualising ‘Time’ and ‘Space’ in the Era of Electronic Media and Communications,” Platform: Journal of Media and Communication 1, no. 1 (2009): 15.

[11] Miriam Ticktin, “Thinking Beyond Humanitarian Borders,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 83, no. 2 (October 4, 2016): 257–61.

[12] N. Katherine Hayles, “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” ADE Bulletin, 2010, 62–79, https://doi.org/10.1632/ade.150.62.

[13] Hayles argues that close reading is privileged in literary studies because it “justifies the discipline’s continued existence in the academy” and “makes literary studies an important asset to the culture.” Hayles, 64.

[14] Hayles, 64.

[15] While Hayles includes Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’ “surface reading” methodology as an alternative reading mode that can counteract the dominance and deficiancies of close reading practices, I will argue that surface reading, or reading for “overt messages,” overlooks the stratified forms of digital texts. Hayles, 64–66; James Sosnoski, “Hyper-Readers and Their Reading Engines,” in Passions Pedagogies and 21st Century Technologies, ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe (Urbana, Illinois: Utah State University Press, 1999), 167, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=2138&site=ehost-live.

[16] Alan Liu, “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?,” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2012, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20.

[17] Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000), https://newleftreview.org/II/1/franco-moretti-conjectures-on-world-literature.

[18] Andrew Goldstone, “Distant Reading: More Work to Be Done,” Andrew Goldstone, August 8, 2015, https://andrewgoldstone.com/blog/2015/08/08/distant/.

[19] Maurizio Ascari, “The Dangers of Distant Reading: Reassessing Moretti’s Approach to Literary Genres,” Genre 47, no. 1 (April 1, 2014): 3, https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-2392348.

[20] Though Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, states that “deconstruction is not a method and cannot be transformed into one,” hypermediated reading is inspired by his approaches to questioning the linguistic and textual systems that construct meaning. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Derrida and Différance (Northwestern University Press, 1988), 3–4; Jacques Derrida, “Of Grammatology,” in Of Grammatology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/derrida.htm.

[21] J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999), 17.

[22] Mary Queen, “Transnational Feminist Rhetorics in a Digital World,” College English 70, no. 5 (2008): 471, https://doi.org/10.2307/25472284.

[23] Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 23.

[24] Bolter and Grusin, 33.

[25] Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (Harvard Business Press, 2001), 3–5.