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Spheres Of Invention

Communication media are systems and processes that enable communication. They are invented and subsequently evolved in at least five interrelated "spheres of invention", as depicted in he following model:

The nature of these spheres of invention, their relationship to each other, and their potential relationship to communication theory is described in

Jim Wade of Georgia State nicely summarizes the core claims associated with this model in the following lecture notes:

Media, Culture and Society Class Notes 1/16-17
“The Process of Media Invention and Evolution”

  1. The emergence and evolution of new media
    1. Media exist and evolve as a system and process
    2. Five spheres of invention – locus of invention, ripple – system where media are invented and evolve
      1. Mediators
      2. Characteristics
      3. Uses
      4. Effects
      5. Practices
    3. Two evolutionary cycles – engine of change – feed forward and feedback within system
      1. Genre
      2. Media
  2. The evolution of media - The Hammer becomes a drum
    1. Mediators
      • Components from which media are build and the ways in which they are organized
      • Elements which receive, store, transmit, shape, modify, direct and deliver messages – infinite possibilities – create possibilities
      • Example – face to face communication
        • Modalities – sight and sound
        • Carriers – light and air
        • System elements – language, memory, filters
    2. Characteristics
      • The essential qualities of a communication system
      • Characteristics of modality, message, production, performance, participants, speed, feedback, storage, transmission, and mediator
      • Characteristics allow for certain uses
      • Emerging media are compared to established media
      • Media with similar characteristics will compete for uses
      • New media’s success depends on its differentiation from existing media
    3. Uses
      • The purposes to which a medium is actually applied
      • Example – paintings capture images, recreate feelings, make political statements, and reshape the way we see the world
      • A medium dies when its uses are replaced
      • Media remain as long as sufficient use continues
      • Different users can have different uses
      • A medium’s success depends on the number of uses and the extent of effects on participants and world
    4. Effects
      • The actual impacts which the use of a medium has
      • Two types of effects
        1. Application effects - desirable results of successful use of a medium to achieve a goal
        2. Outcome effects – undesirable results of a medium’s use
      • A given result might be desirable for one person and undesirable for another
      • Perception, not reality, is critical element of effect so that it influences the development of the system
    5. Practices
      • The patterns of behavior that participants within a medium adhere to when using a medium
      • The constraints that communicators adhere to when using a medium
      • Two types of practice
        1. Generic practice – forms used to maximize desired effects – best practices
          • Application driven
          • Message components, structure, contexts, ideals
          • Develop through imitation
        2. Regulative practice (constraining practice) – norms and rules
          • developed to minimize undesirable effects
          • Rules oriented and effects driven
          • Govern practice through rights, responsibilities, norms, ethics, policies, rules, laws, roles
          • New mediators established to regulate, enforce, sanction
  3. A media system
  4. Cycles of development

Here is a more practical explanation, starting with the five spheres of invention themselves:

A medium is built from a set of construction materials. It may be useful, in this regard, to think of a medium of communication as a LEGO construction in which building blocks, when put together in a particular way, allow communication to happen. There are usually lots of ways in which a given set of materials can be put together, and the label medium often covers more than one way of putting things together. In this regard, it is sometimes useful to apply a simple rule of thumb: "if it seems like the same medium, it probably is". Appearance (look and feel, if you will) is probably more important to defining a medium than many of the specific construction materials or the way they are assembled. Materials do matter. Something in a postal delivery system, needs to deliver the mail. Something in a radio broadcast system, has to capture sound and something else has to reproduce it. And regardless of what is there, those elements will occupy about the same location in the overall construction.
A medium can be described as a set of possibilities. We refer to those possibilities, in general, as characteristics. It is tempting to think that characteristics are simply emergent from the construction in the sphere of mediators. Indeed, we will assert that they are below. But while lots of possibilities might emerge from a particular combination of mediators, only a few will matter very much to our decision to try and use a medium for a particular purpose. We invent these (what might be called) "saliant" characteristics. Indeed, companies that build and sell media spend large amounts of money on inventing and selling such characteristics. A lot of the publicity and advertizing that surrounds a medium is focused on telling people what a particular medium can do that other media can't. Product positioning is, in general, about selling the salient characteristics of a product such that people can imagine what they might do with it, and select one product over another. This is as true for media, especially new media, as it is for any other product.
A communication system with characteristics is the simply potential. It becomes real when it is actually used. Our purposes in using media are wildly varied, and while it is possible to reduce them to an underlying dimensionality, the range of words we use to describe our purposes in communicating - discussion, entertainment, business, parenting, understanding, socialization, tragedy, negotiation, attraction, education, commerce, romance, dialogue, news, socializing, comedy, decision-making, adventure, and control, to name a few - are sufficiently varied as to defy reduction to just a few dimensions. We use different media to satisfy different combinations of these and other purposes, and the wide variety of media we use reflects both their divergent capabilities and the range of our purposes in using them.
Use of a medium all but ensures effects. Indeed, use of a medium without effect all but ensures that the medium will not be used again by the same person or for the same purpose. Many of the effects of media are intentional. Creators of messages will seek to inform, persuade, influence, educate, entertain or otherwise affect consumers of those messages. Consumers of messages will seek information, solice, connectedness and other practical and emotional goals in attending to those messages. Producers of media content seek to profit from the messages they enable. Production suppert people try to make a living from their craft. These desired and largely intended effects are not

These spheres of invention interrelate in specific ways. Some of the more important interrelationships, outlined in the figure above, aer described below:

Characteristics emerge from Mediators
Uses leverage Characteristics
Effects are primarily a consequence of Use
Practices are primarily a reaction to Effects
Practices become mediators
A Cycle of Media
A Cycle of Genre

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-- Last edited September 18, 2015

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Unless otherwise noted, the contents of this page were written by participants on the Media Space Wiki, operated by Davis Foulger, and should be cited accordingly. For example (APA):
Foulger, D. and other participants. (September 18, 2015). Spheres Of Invention. MediaSpaceWiki. Retrieved on from
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