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Media Theory Reading List

My research has primarily been at the intersection of learning and new media. While I gained a solid foundation in learning from my doctoral studies in Learning Sciences and Technology, I had to largely discover the media theory literature for myself. In order to make that discovery process easier for others, I'm posting a recommended reading list here.

A Good Start

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Turkle examines how Internet technologies, such as MUDs, change how people think about and communicate identity. She concludes that new electronic media further a postmodern notion of identity. This is a good introduction to why the media we adopt matter on an individual scale.

A Solid Foundation

Bijker, W. E. (1995). Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Bijker puts forth a theory of how technology evolves in its early stages due to social forces (users, laws, inventors, other technology, etc.). He then examines the evolution of three technologies through this analytical lens. Both the historical analysis and the theory of sociotechnical change are worthy.

Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Bolter and Grusin motivate and explain the power of remediation, the process by which people understand new media by applying practices of other (more established) media. This is perhaps the best work since McLuhan on how media relate to one another. Where McLuhan emphasizes how technical properties connect media to each other, Bolter and Grusin show how the technological similarities allow users to adopt media.

Gitelman, L. (1999). Scripts, grooves, and writing machines: Representing technology in the Edison era. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
This is a careful historical analysis of how recorded sound technology (i.e., phonograph, grammophone, etc.) evolved. One remarkable conclusion from it is that written language is such a fundamental medium that it affects how inventors and users conceptualize new media.

McLuhan, H. M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
This is perhaps the most important treatise on media theory. In it, McLuhan establishes several important concepts: "the medium is the message," the global village, hot and cool media, etc. In the later chapters, McLuhan applies his theories to existing media. Besides its historical importance, this book should be treasured for its ability to correctly predict the future. In many ways, these concepts are more salient today than when the book was written, over 40 years ago.

Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Meyrowitz combines a McLuhan perspective on media with a Goffman perspective on social behavior to analyze how television changed American culture. While his analysis is restricted to television, his conclusions are quite applicable in the Internet age. This work exemplifies how electronic technology is moving us towards a global village.

Further Perspectives

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composititon. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Writing is so fundamental to how we conceive of new media and how we communicate meaning to others. In this book, Bereiter and Scardamalia detail their findings of how people write and how technology can support them in that process.

diSessa, A. A. (2000). Changing minds: Computers, learning, and literacy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
This book concretely describes what true computational literacy could be like. diSessa grounds these concepts in older notions of literacy to show how computation just extends existing media forms. When I taught an undergraduate class on educational technology, I used this book as the textbook. It is accessible enough for a general audience, but conveys some deep ideas about learning, media, and computation.

Gitelman, L. & Pingree, G. B., Eds. (2003). New media, 1740–1915. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
All media were new at one time. This collection of academic articles focuses on media that originated in the time period between 1740 and 1915. While these are historical analyses, many of the conclusions and trends are applicable to new media today.

Nardi, B. A. (1993). A small matter of programming: Perspectives on end user computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Nardi examines why certain environments succeed at encouraging end-user programming, programming that is specific enough and simple enough so that people who would not characterize themselves as programmers can use it. For example, spreadsheet programs, like Excel, are used by a wide group of users to computationally manipulate numbers. This work does a good job of characterizing programming as a medium of expression.

Resnick, M. (1994). Turtles, termites, and traffic jams: Explorations in massively parallel microworlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
StarLogo is a programming environment that allows users to explore concepts of emergent behavior by programming multiple turtles in a microworld. It is a great example of how a new medium can connect users to new ideas.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
This is the seminal book on the process of design. Schön characterizes design as a process of reflection in action. Furthermore, he shows how that process can be learned and taught.

Tenner, E. (2003). Our own devices: The past and future of body technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Tenner shows how various media (shoes, baby bottles, helmets, keyboards, etc.) evolved over time. He shows how new techniques, invented by users, affected the evolution of these media and their use.

Yamada, H. (1980). A historical study of typewriters and typing methods: From the position of planning Japanese parallels. Journal of Information Processing, 2(4):175–202. [download]
This article presents a thorough history of the adoption of the typewriter, how it affected society, and why rival keyboards lost out to the ubiquitous QWERTY layout. Based on that analysis, Yamada posits some lessons learned that should inform the design of a keyboard for typing Japanese text. As this article was written more than 25 years ago, it also provides insight into the potential of computers to open up a design space that had been severely restricted by mechanical limitations.