Media, Genre, Language, API

[Research] (05.08.08, 3:54 pm)

I would like to look at the idea of a mental model and extend that idea outward, pushing it until it encompasses and overlaps some other ideas. It would be good at some point to actually define models, so that they coalesce clearly. There is probably a good mathematical formulation of it, but I can’t think of one right yet. I think a good way of imagining it would be to see a model as an organized system of meaning, which structures its domain, and also provides a lens for interpreting other things.

In that light, I’d like to turn to other conceptions that organize meaning, relationships, and the like.

Media is generally used in two ways, one can view media as a conduit for meaning (or content of some kind), which in turn is shaped by the medium itself. A picture, viewed through a TV screen is not a picture, but it is a picture on TV. The power of the medium itself to affect its content is severe, and many authors, notably McLuhan, have explored the idea of a medium as something that is endlessly regressed. If the “content” of a medium is another medium, we can look at models as media, and note that the “content” of a model is always another model. Baudrillard writes of the regressive quality of simulation (and simulation is really an “enacted” model). Without making too many conceptual leaps, one could probably come to the conclusion that models are media, and a medium imposes its own model on whatever passes through it.

Genre is a similar term, and is used as a classifier. The term usually defines conventions and styles. Genres can typically be understood structurally and also in a number of other ways. A good example of this is Propp’s morphology of Russian folktales, which identifies the structural components of the stories. Other genres may be defined in terms of style or conventions, rather than structure, for instance film noir. Genres can be used to categorize works or texts, and as such, they represent a system of features which describe models that encompass the works that make up the genres. While the converse may not be true, models do not necessarily define genres, genres are necessarily models.

What is interesting about examining genres is that while a genre might make up a system that has a model, individual works falling under that genre are also inherently systematic as well. Any work is necessarily systematic in some sense or another. As a result of this, it will have its own model, but by belonging to a genre, it will also be described by the genre’s model as well. The model of the work can thus be seen as a sub-model of the genre.

As a programmer, I’m also very interested in languages and APIs, each of which define their own representation of things. A language, whether a programming language, or a terminology used by a domain, represents a particular view and understanding of the world. Usually languages will construct meaning and relationships through metaphor. Through analogy, domain specific languages model their domain, and reflect inter-domain knowledge in terms of relationships from the external world. Languages do not generally classify, but they are constructive. Similarly, APIs may be thought of as subsystems of meaning within a language or domain. Josh Bloch described the process of designing an API as defining a new language. The API is a quintessential example of a model in use, not just because it is procedurally and symbolically represented, but also because it may be fuzzy around the borders, despite being symbolic. Furthermore, an API also denotes the essential purpose of a model, which is not necessarily to describe everything, but rather explain a very specific part of it.

Like APIs, models are also tools. It is interesting to reflect on early theories of new media, which centered around the conflict between looking at the computer as a tool versus a medium. If we examine this idea from the perspective of models and simulation, we find that tools and media are not so dissimilar in nature.

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