The medium is the message

When I started university, ICQ was the leading instant-messaging system, and people who were into that sort of thing knew their ICQ numbers so they could exchange them like business cards. MSN Messenger was gaining popularity, though, and I had some friends who used each, so after a while I installed that, and ran both.

I still miss ICQ sometimes. It was simple. Clean. Mostly ad-free. But moreover, it behaved differently than MSN did. For starters, it allowed you to send messages to people regardless of whether they were online. I could type a message, proof-read it, and send it off; the recipient would see it immediately if they were logged in and sitting at their computer, or whenever they came back. MSN, until recently, was like a telephone — if they weren’t there, you couldn’t reach them. There was something I liked about that blind transmission mode – it meant you could reach people even if your schedules didn’t line up, but it also meant that receiving a message didn’t imply a duty to immediately reply. You could think about it, take time writing the response, or even simply be absent — that was okay, since continuing the conversation didn’t require both parties to remain online and attentive; message latency was possible.

The other difference was in allowed message length. I don’t remember, anymore, the character limits, but MSN’s was only 225 characters or so. ICQ’s was longer, and the client would allow indefinitely long messages to be sent anyway, by breaking them up into segments for the transmission. This meant that you could compose complete thoughts — lay out an argument or a chain of reasoning, and complete it, before hitting ‘Send’. I used to have long discussions with one or two of my friends on all kinds of topics, and I really appreciated the freedom to write out fully-formed thoughts; those conversations were often long, detailed, and thought-provoking.

With MSN, I had to learn to think in sound bites. Complex arguments couldn’t be laid out in full, because barely could the first sentence be written before it was sent to make room for the next. It was less like exchanging letters, and more like constantly interrupting each other.

So my mode of expression changed. I rephrased things so they could fit the short message length. I changed topics, even, avoiding things that were too intricate to be explained so briefly. I became cautious about saying things that could be misunderstood if only partially received. I learned to speak quickly, and think short thoughts.

But not every thought fits into a sound bite, and so I turned to weblogging, as a way to express longer thoughts in a broadcast way, when dialogue didn’t allow that depth anymore. There’s value in expressing thoughts, working them out and writing them down, even if nobody reads them. (Well, there’d better be, or a website like this isn’t worth much.)

And so it is today with Twitter. I’ve got an account, and I post pretty regularly, but I often find myself rejecting thoughts because they won’t fit there. Not everything I want to say lends itself to the medium. And so here’s this weblog, for longer thoughts. Like this one. I suppose I could have posted:

McLuhan was right: Twitter changes the way you think by molding your thoughts to fit the nature of the medium #MediumIsTheMessage

… but sometimes I like to explain myself, you know? Paint a picture, give my reasons, indulge in a little expressive prose. There’s room for short announcements, brief thoughts, and concise messages:

Now at GO Bramalea; anticipate Union 10h37. See you upstairs!

#MSL just landed, and the pictures look great! @MarsCuriosity

METAR CYYB 131200Z 25015G25KT 1/2SM BKN004 OVC011 01/M00 A2893 RMK CU5ST3 SLP140

… but not everything has to fit into the See > Repeat ; Think > Shout mode of operation. So I’ll keep it up at Twitter, but also here.

If only I could find the time to write it all down.

MSL entry at Mars imminent

The MSL spacecraft should enter the martian atmosphere in just over nine hours. It will do what is always difficult — land on a planetary body — in a new and challenging way. It will be a tremendously impressive feat of autonomous space robotics if it succeeds, and crushing disappointment if it fails. Either way, it’ll be a big day in the history of planetary exploration.

This is the first time a mission I’m working on will reach another planet. It’s tremendously exciting. I’ve been reading and daydreaming about space missions and planetary exploration since childhood, and I’ve always thought taking part in those would be the kind of thing worth spending my life doing. With MSL approaching its entry to Mars, I stand at the threshold of doing just that.

Landing on Mars is always difficult; it doesn’t always succeed. The landing sequence for MSL is complex and ambitious. I’m sure, however, that the engineers who developed the landing system for MSL have done the best they possibly can. The spacecraft is in flight, and the autonomous landing sequence is already running. From here, there’s nothing more to do than wait and watch.

I’ll do that tonight from the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency. You can follow me on Twitter at @CosmicRaymond. Hashtags #MSL and #CSATweetup are in vogue; the rover is @MarsCuriosity.