Staying Content with Forms

Reading this article, I had a little thought about some descriptive terms for media, so please bear with me, (or don't, it's a free Internet) while I flesh these out.

The article is discussing the difference between "content" and "experience" with media. e.g., Music consumers care more about the experience than the content, so they will buy iPod and iTunes, rather than simply downloading them for free, because this experience trumps both free torrents and big box music retailers.

This argument aside, (which characteristically, I believe to be a narrow interpretation of a wider ISSUE which I will now lay down the metaphysics upon), it got me thinking about two similar terms, which I have thrown around a bit: "content", and "form".

I'll cut to the chase, and say like all dualities, these are two elements of a compound. So, if you are quick on the dialectics, you could probably skip to the end. However, I'll probably do some loop-de-loops before then, so look out.

The effect of the deployment of "form" and "content" depend on where you draw the line. Basically, we are taking a material/ideal ruler, and laying it down somewhere, over top of another discussion. "Content" ends up being the more material aspects of a particular thing, while the "form" is more ideal. You can pick your own example. This is a good differentiation to make, useful for many things, not the least of which is splitting between the specific and the general. Within the general form of poetry, we find many specific instances of content, which might vary, but still fall under the same taxonomy. And because this is a taxonomy, we can move our duality-rubric around, deciding that two examples of poetry have the same poetic content, while being under the same form of writing or linguistic expression. It's all relative, of course. "Content", as a material classification of the specific, tends to be different than other similarly defined content, whereas "forms" unite various content by their similarities. And this extends up and down micro/macrocosms in various directions, overlapping and subsuming previous distinctions, as we need to. After all, "form/content" are only words, and they must work for us. As long as they work, who cares?

But when we're trying to understand media, of which words are only one form of "content" (heh heh), we should probably be a bit more delicate. Especially if we are attempting to predict the future of a particular medium, and its associated technology. Calling something an exemplary form (or "experience") does not necessary speak for itself. Different people will privilege content over form, or form over content, in various instances, depending on what they are referring to by each. It's the writing that matters; no, its the technology; no, it's the delivery; no, its media form itself; etc.

If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you will probably have noticed that I tend to deploy the "material" aspects of a particular situation, over the "ideal". This is because I read a bunch of books by this guy with a beard one time, and it has kind of stuck as a habit. However, if you really follow what I'm trying to say, (if I am not totally opaque and obtuse), you will notice that normally I am rounding upr aspects of what be called "ideal", in order to point out that it is actually more effective when they are considered part of the "material". I am shifting the taxonomy, playing my own little word game, but for this reason: "ideals", "genera", and "forms" are often used as givens, or unchangeable elements of a situation; whereas "materials", "species", and "content" are seen as mutable, able to be manipulated, and at various levels of accessibility and provenance--also known as available through PRAXIS (to use another of those words lodged in my brain).

My point is, we should not honor boundaries of Form, simply because we have identified them as such. Even the most dogmatic of beliefs are usable as a material to be built upon, and tools to be deployed to improve our praxis. The evolution of the word praxis is exemplary; like many philosophical terms, it has been re-appropriated from its original, Platonic and Aristotelian uses, to more, ahem, material forms. (Riddle me that.)

Anyway, back to media. When we think of content, as opposed to form, we might very well think of music or literature, opposed to iPods or Kindles. And yes, it would seem that the form is more important to the user's experience than the content. If you have a good technological form, you can move units of content.

But, we could also pose it this way: think of, as content opposed to form, sound waves or words opposed to genres of music or literature. If you have a good genre, can you move crap words to the consumer? Sometimes yes, but not always. You can't just put a heavy bass line over some shitty hook, and then sell mp3s of it. I'm giving people with bad taste the benefit of the doubt, thinking of them more as "ill-informed" than really liking crap music. I don't think this is going out on a limb--if you look at the demographics of people who buy "bad" music, they are often those whom, for whatever reason, have not had a chance to be exposed to anything better. But I think this is moving away from the point--which is, you must have some content that is, experienceable (regardless of merit) before you can sell anything to anyone. Even if its vampire fiction or club bass, someone has to like the content before they're willing to buy anything. This is a lesson the media industry has yet to take seriously.

Let's move in another direction. To oppose "content" to "form", let's oppose iPod to Digital Media Player. Ah ha--now it seems that it is not the form which really prevails, but the specific instance of that form. Now, I'm aware the article I was reading talked about "experience", not "form", to quote exactly. But they are deploying "experience" as both content and form, depending on what aspect of it they are referring to. It is form, in the sense that it is a digital media player, but it is content in the sense that it is THE iPod.

This brings us to an important point, which might make it a bit clearer how they are using both content and form: commodification is the unification of content with form. The material becomes the ideal, and vice versa. It is not just any media player, it is The Ideal music player, though it is still very much only a music player. Any IT object is not only what it is, but the ideal of that classification. It might function very well as what it is, or not at all. But it must be both material and ideal, content and form, for it to be a commodity.

Apple succeeded in this regard, but a commodity is nothing new. However, the delusion that commodity-status is necessary to move units is new. This is the erroneous belief of the publishing industry, which is desperately searching for its "iPod moment"; they think that when the content of publishing can be unified in form, suddenly everyone will want them, and they can sell Primo-Golden-Hyper-Books, or whatever. Making a commodity isn't going to save any industry, though it might generate sales in the short term. Some books still sell lots of copies, because they are commodified. But a single commodity is not an industry. You must continue to refine and produce new content in addition to interacting with the formal aspects of the medium, if you want to move units. Nobody will buy simply The Idea of anything, any more than they will buy a bunch of words tossed in a heap.

For evidence of this, look at an iPod now. It's a completely different device than the original, crappy LCD, click-wheel crap. It plays games now! It has a compass, a telephone. It's a goddamn video camera/DVR/baby monitor! The fact that it can also be an end-device for digital music is now entirely incidental. The content of the thing, in terms of its technology and functions, have far exceeded the form it was supposed to maintain.

Technology is content itself. Technology is a medium. The Internet is Language. The fact that content now let's use view other content, by nature of their combined content is interesting, but not a revolution in form. Once reading and writing was also a unique form, but it doesn't mean that linguistic communication was new. You can call it HTML if you want, or mp3, or even YouTube: it is all language. It is a language which enables the expression of other languages. Code is both a form and a content. It all depends on what you want to manipulate. If you want to write English language books, you probably see English words as content, and the book as the form. If you want to sell consumer electronics, you probably look at mini-processors and touch-screens as the content, and slick, thin form-factors and UI as the form. If you want to distribute literature to many people who want to read it, you probably should look at quality literature as the form, to which acceptable content-networks are applied. The genera of form can help you think about the species of content, but in the end, the generic and the specific are merely ways of thinking about meaning.

Which brings me to a last, elusive point, which I will not fully explain. Because content and form are really interchangeable depending on your conscious point of view (a coordination of content and form itself), neither are material in the sense that they cannot be transmuted into an ideal perception of material (what we call specific objects, as opposed to just things). If you really want to access the material roots of both content and form, you will have to go after something on which it is much more difficult to maintain a metaphysical handle: the human "expression" of form and content, and both the production and the consumption of this expression. Expression is found in both content and form, and controls the interaction between the two categories in our mind. It is closer to Kant's Transcendental Ideal, but between you and me, we might just say it is the force flowing through the pipes, no matter what sort of liquid they contain, nor where they might take it.

[For further reading, by a pair of dudes who grip it way better than I do, you might want to check out Deleuze and Guattari's essay on form, content, and expression in A Thousand Plateaus. It might be, "A Geology of Morals", but I can't remember right now. I'll check when I have the book in front of me.]

[Also, it should go without saying (though I'm saying it) that this argument about the form and content of material in space, also applies to Time. Say wha? Never mind! Another time then.]

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