Research Project: The Paradigm Shift

The paradigm shift was a concept I had only heard by now, but hadn’t explored in depth. There is the notion that since digital came along there has been a paradigmatic shift in the media landscape. In order to understand and judge what is the meaning of the paradigm in media I traced the term back to its origins.

Thomas Samuel Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996), American historian and philosopher of science
Thomas Samuel Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996)

Thomas Kuhn was an American physicist, historian, and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was deeply influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term “paradigm shift”, which has since become an English-language staple.
-from Wikipedia

Scientific revolutions are tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science… Major turning points in scientific development are associated with [such] names [as] Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein and Darwin. More clearly than most other episodes in the history of at least the physical sciences, these display what all scientific revolutions are about. Each of them necessitated the community’s rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it. Each produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the profession determined what should count as a admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we will ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Reading this gave me context for the use of the term “paradigm shift” and helped me understand why can it be used under the context of media. Adding to this, Amanda Griscom, in her thesis published at the Cyberarts and Cyberculture Research Initiative from the National University of Singapore, she makes a clear distinction in the use of the term and calls it “relevant to an exploration of communications technology”. The title of her thesis; “Anarchy and Hierarchy: Comparing The Cultural Repercussions of Print and Digital Media” and the main subject, which on the core is a comparative study cultural impact since the invention of the printing press till the Digital Revolution, and the Hypertext & Hypermedia concepts. The fact that she used the concept of the paradigm shift, solidifies its importance in understanding why the digital is a revolution.

She then continues by a more elaborate explanation of the use of this term in a media context through Marshall Mcluhan’s work.

Marshall McLuhan’s media theory embraces the Kuhnian notion that human experience will qualitatively evolve under the influence of a new invention. Studies in the effect of media are exempt from one basic tenet of Kuhn’s theory: Whereas Kuhn describes the eradication of past scientific methods as “incompatible” with — and therefore negated by — the new one, revolutions in media do not “prove wrong” the value of its predecessor, but reposition it. I endeavor in this thesis to prove that, while digital technology is expanding the potential and perceptual scope of humanity today, the message of the print medium is not obsolete or untenable, but repositioned within a broader understanding of reality. (Amanda Griscom)

The above statement was crucial for answering my questions on what is widely known as the “Death of Photography”. Since digital penetrated the photography market it was inevitable to stop the demise of analogue. What had really died from digital was the business models of either large corporations or freelancers working in some way or another with photography. The companies that still exist, and generate wealth around “photography” are the ones who adapted soon enough, before going bankrupt. I say “photography” in quotes because for the sake of accuracy it is not photography. Digital imaging is a medium evolved, surely from photography, but not just. Digital imaging has its roots in computation, and communications as well. It is as Lev Manovich describes, still a representation of reality -as analogue is- but a different one.

Worth mentioning from Griscom’s essay is the chapter called “No Media Becomes Extinct”, which also assisted in reaching the conclusion that photography has transformed into digital imaging.

When new media descend upon a culture they do not eradicate the influence of their antecedents, but reposition and supplement them.

And through Mcluhan’s definitive writings “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”.

Those who panic now about the threat of the newer media and about the revolution we are forging, vaster in scope than that of Gutenberg, are obviously lacking in cool visual detachment and gratitude for that most potent gift bestowed on Western man by literacy and typography: his power to act without reaction or involvement. It is this kind of specialization by dissociation that has created Western power and efficiency. Without this dissociation of action from feeling and emotion people are hampered and hesitant. Print taught Western man to say, “damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!” (Understanding Media 178)

A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them. Each medium, if its bias is properly exploited, reveals and communicates a unique aspect of reality, of truth. Each offers a different perspective, a way of seeing an otherwise hidden dimension of reality. It’s not a question of one reality being true, the other ones distortions. One allows us to see from here, another from there, a third from still another perspective; taken together they give us a more complete whole, a greater truth . New essentials are brought to the fore, including those made invisible by the “blinders” of old languages. Yet a new language is rarely welcomed by the old. The oral traditions distrusted writing, manuscript culture was contemptuous of printing, book culture hated the press, that slap-dag heap of passions. (Amanda Griscom)

Also an important part from the thesis is the question set by Amanda Griscom to Michael Joyce (writer and instructor of hypertext fiction, and authority on cyberculture) “Is the digital revolution generating a paradigmatic shift? In the service of what?”

Kuhnian paradigm shifts are by definition something we cannot know. We recognize a paradigm shift retrospectively and from the perspective of the new space. Also, although I am a good post-modernist and old leftist and so on, I’m not certain that revolutions are in the service of any identifiable ‘what’ (movement, belief structure, sense of personhood) as much as their own energy. They are cyclonic, feeding on what they pass over, moving in themselves, given form (again) from without and aiding in our attempt to make meaning among us. (Michael Joyce)

Even though the question was set approximately in 1996, Michael Joyce’s answer was instrumental for me holding back from the assertion of a paradigmatic shift in photography.

Alan Briot’s essay “Paradigm Shift: The Transition from Chemical to Digital Photography” was an interested essay because of the distinction it makes between the chemical and the digital photograph. It also uses the paradigm shift under a photographic context, while breaks down in sections what he thinks has actually changed. (Capturing, Processing, Printing. Observing)

Lev Manovich also makes a distinction between chemical and digital in his essay “The Paradoxes of Digital Photography”, due to their different nature, but instead of taking any extreme position he asks questions such as:

“Shall we accept that digital represents a radical rupture with photography?”
“Is an image,mediated by computer and electronic technology, radically different from an image obtained through a photographic lens and embodied in film?
“Shall the phenomenon of digital imaging force us to rethink such fundamental concepts as realism and representation?”

In this essay I will refrain from taking an extreme position of either fully accepting or fully denying the idea of digital imaging revolution. Rather, I will present the logic of digital image as paradoxical; radically breaking with older modes of visual representation while at the same time reinforcing these modes. I will demonstrate this paradoxical logic by examining two questions: alleged physical differences between digital and film-based representation of photographs and the notion of realism in computer generated synthetic photography.

The logic of the digital photograph is one of historical continuity and discontinuity. The digital image tears apart the net of semiotic codes, modes of display, and patterns of spectatorship in modern visual culture – and, at the same time weaves this net even stronger. The digital image annihilates photography while solidifying, glorifying and immortalizing the photographic. In short, this logic is that of photography after photography (Lev Manovich)

All the above where very important to reject or not particularly accept the cultural notions I have adopted within a photographic environment, such as the demise of photography and the paradigmatic shift. By acknowledging years of theory of a variety of disciplines, I am able to make a conscious decision of the importance of mentioning the paradigm shift in my final presentation. I haven’t mentioned the “shift” but separate points from each author helped me build my presentation and come to a conclusion.

List of References:

Kuhn, T. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Mcluhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge

Griscom, A. (1996) Trends of Anarchy and Hierarchy: Comparing the Cultural Repercussions of Print and Digital Media. [online] Thesis (Honors). Rhode Island: Brown University <> [09 January 2014]

Manovich, L. (2003) The Paradoxes of Digital Photography in The Photography Reader. ed. by Wells, L. ; London: Routledge

Briot, A. (2006) Paradigm Shift: The Transition from Chemical to Digital Photography [online] available from <> [09 January 2014]


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