Fascinated by his readings of Marshall McLuhan, computer scientist Alan Kay, pioneer in graphical user interfaces, acknowledges in a 1989 text1 the rhetorical dimension of the tools we use every day (and how they manipulate us in return).
When [Marshall McLuhan] said “the medium is the message” he meant that you have to become the medium if you use it.
That’s pretty scary. It means that even though humans are animals that shape tools, it is the nature of tools that shape us.
Which brings Kay to voluntarily conflate tools and medium (“The computer is a medium!” he realizes suddenly).
Kay notes that the medium is itself rhetorical: it shapes the way we perceive the message; it is the very nature of the medium to convince us, to manipulate us—it is up to us to read it, with more or less literacy and critical distance.
The ability to “read” a medium means you can access materials and tools created by others. The ability to “write” in a medium means you can generate materials and tools for others. You must have both to be literate. In print writing, the tools you generate are rhetorical; they demonstrate and convince. In computer writing, the tools you generate are processes; they simulate and decide.
Literacy, precisely: how do we read a medium presented to us as an illusion, a metaphor where the processes (“simulations and decisions”) are kept out of reach and whose code we cannot read?
What should we do when the architecture of the medium is no longer characterized by spatial geometry, but by a chronotopy of processes?