A Sneak Peak at Roger Fidler's 'Mediamorphosis'

By: Steve Outing

Media futurist and newspaper flat-panel proponent Roger Fidler is one of the most visible names in the newspaper new media industry. For three years, he headed Knight-Ridder's Information Design Lab in Boulder, Colorado, where his team worked on a prototype of the digital tablet "newspaper of the future" before KRI pulled the plug in mid-1995. Currently, the new media pioneer is a professional in residence and coordinator of the newly created Information Design Laboratory at Kent State University's school of journalism, and he continues to work on flat-panel display technology media applications with the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State.

For some time, Fidler also has been working on a book, "Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media," which will be published by Pine Forge Press in January 1997. Because this has been such an eagerly awaited work, today I will offer up an excerpt from the upcoming book, with the permission of the author.

Says Fidler, "I began researching this book in the fall of 1991 while I was a Freedom Forum Fellow at Columbia University. I completed the final version of the manuscript in May 1996, so it has been about five years in the making. In that time, (it) evolved from a book just about the future of newspapers into a much more comprehensive book about the digital transformation of all communication media."

Fidler's new media roots go back to 1979, when he was part of Knight-Ridder's ill-fated Viewtron videotex service. He also was the founder and president of Presslink (a KRI subsidiary), and has been in the newspaper business as a journalist, designer and technologist for three and a half decades.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 1.

Roger F. Fidler, "Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media." Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1997, 320 pages. ISBN 0-8039-9086-3. Available initially in academic book stores and Border Books. Direct orders: 805-499-0721 x7100.

The Mediamorphic Process

... Before we can even begin to make reasonable judgments about emerging technologies and the future of mainstream media, we need to acquire a broad, integrated knowledge of human communications and the historic patterns of change within the overall system. This knowledge is central to our understanding of the mediamorphic process, which I have defined as: The transformation of communication media, usually brought about by the complex interplay of perceived needs, competitive and political pressures, and social and technological innovations.

Mediamorphosis is not so much a theory as it is a unified way of thinking about the technological evolution of communication media. Instead of studying each form separately, it encourages us to examine all forms as members of an interdependent system, and to note the similarities and relationships that exist among past, present, and emerging forms. By studying the communication system as a whole, we will see that new media do not arise spontaneously and independently -- they emerge gradually from the metamorphosis of old media. And that when newer forms of communication media emerge, the older forms usually do not die -- they continue to evolve and adapt.

The example of FM's delayed success and radio's transformation from a mass-audience medium to a niche-audience medium can also be used to illustrate this key principle of mediamorphosis. As TV began its grand ascent, general-audience radio went into a steep decline that led some analysts to predict the eminent death of the medium. But radio didn't die. Nor was AM entirely subsumed by FM. Instead, AM adapted and through the adoption of new technologies and marketing strategies has steadily become more competitive with FM. Since the beginning of the 1990s, AM radio has been showing strong signs of revival in the United States and elsewhere.

The rapid diffusion of TV also brought about significant transformations within the newspaper, magazine, and film industries, which will be elaborated upon in subsequent chapters. Each was declared a dying medium without the capacity to compete with TV's immediacy and compelling images, yet each proved to be more resilient and adaptable than expected. This also illustrates an important corollary to the metamorphosis principle: Established forms of communication media must change in response to the emergence of a new medium -- their only other option is to die. The metamorphosis principle, as well as several other key principles of mediamorphosis, derive from three concepts -- coevolution, convergence, and complexity.


All forms of communication are, as we shall see, tightly woven into the fabric of the human communication system and cannot exist independently from one another in our culture. As each new form emerges and develops, it influences, over time and to varying degrees, the development of every other existing form. Coevolution and coexistence, rather than sequential evolution and replacement, have been the norm since the first organisms made their debut on the planet. The wealth of communication technologies we now take for granted would not have been possible if the birth of each new medium had resulted in the simultaneous death of an older medium.

Communicatory Codes. Specific forms of media, as with species, have life cycles and eventually do die out, but most of their defining traits will always remain part of the system. Just as biological characteristics are propagated from one generation to another through genetic codes, media traits are embodied and carried forward through communicatory codes that we call languages. Languages have been, without compare, the most powerful agents of change in the course of human evolution.

As we will discover in chapter 3, the development of spoken language and then written language brought about two great transformations, or mediamorphoses, within the human communication system. Each of these two classes of language has been responsible for reordering and greatly expanding the human mind in ways that made modern civilization and culture possible. Countless transforming technologies affecting all aspects of human life and communication have been inspired and energized by these two agents of change.

Now a third great mediamorphosis resulting from the recent development of a new class of language is poised to once again radically influence the evolution of communication and civilization. For the past two centuries, industrial age and information age technologies have been conjointly contributing to the rapid development and spread of this language, which has only become known to most people in the past two decades. This new class of language is called digital language. It is the lingua franca of computers and global telecommunication networks.

Communication Domains. Since the origin of written language, the forms of media have coevolved along three distinct paths that I refer to as domains. These domains, which will be described in the next chapter, have propagated specific sets of media traits that have remained relatively stable for nearly six millennia. But, as we will discover, digital language is already transforming the existing forms of communication media. It is the agent of change most responsible for the present blurring of distinctions between the historic domains of communication.


Nearly every personal computer sold today offers users the ability to play CD-ROMs that blend text and still images with audio and video clips, as well as the opportunity to conveniently dial into global networks and access vast stores of textual and audio/visual information. This is just one of the more obvious examples of the concept known as media convergence. The idea that diverse technologies and forms of media are coming together now seems almost commonplace, but not so long ago it was considered quite visionary.

In 1979, when Nicholas Negroponte began popularizing the concept in his lecture tours to raise funds for a building to house the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, few people had any comprehension of convergence. Audiences were often astonished by Negroponte's revelation that "all communication technologies are suffering a joint metamorphosis, which can only be understood properly if treated as a single subject." To illustrate this concept, Negroponte drew three overlapping circles labeled "broadcast and motion picture industry," "computer industry," and "print and publishing industry." Since then, the notion that these industries are coming together to create new forms of communication has shaped much of the thinking about the future of mass media and human communications.

Multimedia Forms of Communication. Negroponte and others at MIT are credited with being among the first to recognize that this convergence of media industries and digital technologies would ultimately lead to new forms of so-called multimedia communication. Multimedia, or mixed media as it is also known, is generally defined as any medium in which two or more forms of communication are integrated.

Within the broadest definition of the term, most printed newspapers and magazines qualify as forms of multimedia because they convey information through a blend of written words, photography, and graphics displayed on a paper medium. However, the visions of multimedia popularized in the past two decades have tended to dismiss paper as an "old" medium. The preferred "new" medium for displaying blended content is the electronic screen. With an electronic display medium, such as a computer monitor or television screen, new multimedia systems are capable of conveying information through various blends of full-motion video, animation, and sounds, as well as still images and written words.

Misinterpretations of Convergence. While the concept of media convergence, as promoted by Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab, has provided a popular and useful tool for comprehending some of the changes now taking place within established media businesses, it has also been prone to misinterpretation. Common assumptions that the present convergence will lead to fewer forms of communication, or ultimately to the demise of established forms such as newspapers and magazines, are not supported by historic evidence. Everett Rogers and other media scholars have clearly shown that "the history of communication is the story of 'more.'" Rather than consolidating or replacing older forms, newer forms have tended to diverge and add to the media mix. To be fair, when Negroponte drew the three overlapping circles, he was not attempting to predict outcomes as some people have suggested. He was merely pointing out regions of potential opportunities for new media development.

Two other common misinterpretations are the beliefs that convergence is something new to this period of time and that it primarily involves mergers. Convergence has, in fact, always been essential to evolution and the mediamorphic process. Large-scale convergences as we are now seeing within the media and telecommunication industries may occur only occasionally, but the forms of media that exist today are actually the result of innumerable small-scale convergences that have occurred frequently throughout time. Even though merger and convergence are often used synonymously, they do not mean the same thing. A merger implies that two or more entities (for example, companies, technologies, or media) are coming together to form a single, integrated entity. Convergence is more like a crossing of paths or marriage, which results in the transformation of each converging entity, as well as the creation of new entities.


During periods of great change, such as we are now experiencing, everything around us may appear to be in a state of chaos and, to a large extent, it is. Chaos is an essential component of change. Without it, the universe would be a dead place and life would be impossible. Out of chaos comes the new ideas that transform and vitalize systems.

Chaos Theory. A central tenet of contemporary chaos theory is the notion that seemingly insignificant events or slight initial variations within chaotic systems, such as the weather and the economy, can trigger cascades of escalating, unpredictable occurrences that ultimately lead to consequential or catastrophic events. This aspect of the theory is often illustrated by the example of a butterfly flapping its wings in China and causing a hurricane to develop off the coast of Florida.

Chaotic systems are essentially anarchistic. That is, they exhibit nearly infinite variability with no predictable long-term patterns, which explains why precise long-range weather and national economic forecasts are all but impossible. It also explains why no one will ever be able to accurately predict which specific new media technologies and forms of communication will ultimately succeed and which will fail.

The importance of chaos to our understanding of mediamorphosis and the development of new media is actually less in the theory than in its connection to another related concept -- complexity. In this context, complexity refers to the events that take place within certain apparently chaotic systems. The study of complexity has been fostered by a group of scientists from different disciplines who founded the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico in the mid-1980s. Chaos and order, like birth and death, are opposite extremes of all complex, or so-called living systems. According to physicist Mitchell Waldrop, the edge of chaos is "where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo."

Complex, Adaptive Systems. Research conducted at the Santa Fe Institute has led to several insights central to the mediamorphic process. As scientists studied the behavior of complex systems, they discovered that the richness of the interactions that occur within living systems allows them to undergo spontaneous self-organization in response to changing conditions. In other words, complex systems are adaptive, in that "they don't just passively respond to events the way a rock might roll around in an earthquake. They actively try to turn whatever happens to their advantage."

By recognizing that the human communication system is, in fact, a complex, adaptive system, we can see that all forms of media live in a dynamic interdependent universe. When external pressures are applied and new innovations are introduced, each form of communication is affected by an intrinsic self-organizing process that spontaneously occurs within the system. Just as species evolve for better survival in a changing environment, so do forms of communication and established media enterprises. This process is the essence of mediamorphosis.

Contact: Roger F. Fidler, fidler@usa.net


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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