The Medium is Not the Message

That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.
–Ludwig Wittgenstein

Here is Frank Sinatra performing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” on his 1957 album A Swingin’ Affair.

Here is a solo guitar version of “Night and Day” I recorded a couple years ago.

Click to hear the recording, which was played on a guitar not unlike the one pictured here.

Here is a picture of the LP on which the Sinatra version of “Night and Day” appears.

Of course you can’t hear music by looking at a picture, but you could imagine putting this record on a turntable and hearing the same song as above. Specifically what would happen is a stylus would travel over a rotating sheet of vinyl. Variations in the height of the vinyl would be translated into vertical movements of the stylus, which would in turn be translated into an electrical signal that, when amplified and played through speakers, would produce a song identical to the first link above, give or take a few pops and skips. It would not be identical to my version, but it would nevertheless be the same song.

Here is the sheet music to “Night and Day” courtesy of Wikifonia, the web’s best source of free lead sheets.

This sheet music is the written form of both songs above because the markings on the page correspond to its notes. Well, not exactly. It’s written in the key of G, while both of the songs are played in D. It also doesn’t annotate the horn and bass lines of the Sinatra version, and it certainly doesn’t annotate the improvised riffs in my version of the song, but by longstanding convention you are considered to be playing a lead sheet so long as you stick more or less to the chord progression and at some point produce a recognizable version of the melody.

Of course I’m speaking loosely when I refer to the notes “on the page” because there is no page. There is an actual sheet of paper printed off from this very site sitting in a ring binder in my house, but you wouldn’t know that because you’re looking at an image on this website. Which strictly speaking is an image on some kind of screen in front of you. Nevertheless we’d say these are the same piece of sheet music, though they’re different from the paper one in my ring binder (it’s in the key of D) and also presumably different from whatever Sinatra’s session musicians played off of a little over fifty years ago.

When I talk about the songs above I of course don’t mean that a song is physically “above” the current line of text–that’s just a way of telling you how to go find the song on this page. The song itself is at the other end of the hyperlink. You click on the hyperlink, sending a request to a computer to fetch the song for you, which forwards the request to another computer and so on and so forth. Eventually the file containing the song is retrieved and sent back to you. There may be any number of intermediate copies of the song scattered among computers all over the world expediting the process of creating another copy which exists on your local machine. The song also temporarily exists as bursts of network packets intermingled with a mindbending number of other packets, where each packet is just a list of numbers which is in turn just a sequence of voltage variations passing down a piece of copper or fiber-optic cable. Unless we are network engineers, however, we conceive of these intermediary copies as a technicality, an artifact of the delivery system. (This is by analogy with a written note, which certainly does not become a series of identical notes when it is passed from hand to hand.)

The file containing the song actually resides in a data center, which is some giant humming room located in an unremarkable looking industrial park that, for all the amazing computational power it houses is primarily a masterpiece of the art of air conditioning. Either of the versions of “Night and Day” you just listened to exists on harddrives on some set of the servers in a room that looks something like this.

Were it necessary I suppose you could go to the data center and find a machine that contained the file and extract its harddrive. With the help of a hardware specialist you could even determine the approximate location on which the information is stored, either as a magnetic irregularities on a spinning drum or a set of transistors in a particular state. It would be possible to tap a small plastic box in two separate places with the head of a pin and correctly say that the song is here but not here, though outside of a harddrive manufacturing plant it’s not clear why you’d ever do such a thing. The song isn’t really a physical entity–it just happens to correspond to many physical entities of many disparate types.

And I’ve only scratched the surface of the correspondences. The song is also stored on cassette tapes, iPods, laptops, scratchy old 78s, 8 tracks, and Diamond Rios gathering dust in the bottoms of desk drawers. Oldies radio stations are broadcasting it in the form of radio waves all across the globe. At this moment the members of a pickup band are at a café, street corner, or living room somewhere, at a loss for what to play next until one of them says, “What about ‘Night and Day’?” The breath of a woman waiting at a bus stop in Oslo on her way to a graveyard shift at a 24-hour grocery store emerges in visible rhythmic puffs as she whistles “Night and Day” even though she doesn’t know the name of the song, or the lyrics, and in fact doesn’t even realize she’s whistling.

Why this orgy of isomorphism? Two reasons: communication and memory. If no one plays “Night and Day” no one will hear it, and if the song is never written down or recorded it will eventually be forgotten. But even memory provides no exit from the cycle of representation. Close your eyes and remember the song that you just heard a minute ago. That you can means there is now something about the configuration of your brain that bears a resemblance to radio waves and electrical variation in a length of fiber-optic cable and markings on a score and pressure fronts of air in the vicinity of a cabaret singer and once upon a time Cole Porter’s brain and his alone. The song is, we say, now part of you.

I’m purposefully making this all sound a bit mystical, but really there is no magic here. Unifying disparate phenomena under a single name is just something us humans do. And in this case the details of the mapping between any pair of phenomena is usually straightforward–there are plenty of accompanists who can turn the printed notes of a score into the correct key presses on a piano, plenty of audio engineers who understand the relationship between microphone diaphragm deflection and voltage levels in exhaustive detail. It’s just that there are so many mappings between so staggeringly many disparate kinds of things that it’s difficult to conceive of the proper level of abstraction to capture them all and is therefore tempting to say that the ability to be put into correspondence with each other is just what “Night and Day” is.

The above is mostly me doing an impersonation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Picture Theory of language from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which very roughly is the claim that a thought can represent reality by virtue of bearing a structural relationship to it. I say impersonation because I don’t fully understand the theory and because I can see where I am diverging from points I do understand, e.g. my concern with the physical groundings of these representations runs contrary to Wittgenstein’s insistence that the world is comprised of “facts” instead of “objects”. But a significant part of the Tractatus does hinge on the idea of structural similarity, and this is where there can be mutual illumination between the writings of a World War One era philosopher and the current explosion of information technology.

The story is that Wittgenstein’s inspiration came from a courtroom model of a traffic accident recreated on a table-top using toy cars. This is an isomorphism, sure, but I’ve always found it an unsatisfying example because the mapping is a little too clear. In both the real world and the courtroom we’re observing a spatial relationship between cars; it’s just in the latter case the cars are a lot smaller. There must be more to the Picture Theory than a shrink ray. The concept of a function from mathematics is closer to the mark, but it’s difficult to talk about functions without everyone too narrowly picturing numerical relationships drawn on graph paper. Likewise anyone who has given any thought to language, or musical scores, or photographs has wrestled with the idea of representation, but usually still on a very recondite philosophical level.

Then along came computers. The collapse of various forms of information into a single physical medium is a practical business we’ve all been witnessing in our daily lives. We ourselves have replaced our cassettes with CDs with an iTunes library and felt like we’ve done nothing, or contemplated how the purchase of a Kindle might allow us to recapture shelf space for knick-knacks. Photo developer kiosks and newspapers really are going out of business. Our daily life has given us a feel for the malleability of information, and about a century ago Wittgenstein gave it a name.

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