“It is pure information without any content to restrict its transforming and informing power.” – Marshall McLuhan

Although McLuhan was referring to the advent of the electric light above, he very well could have been predicting the rise of telematics. A relatively new term in the media lexicon, telematics lies at the intersection of telecommunication and informatics. First used in a 1979 article of The Economist, this neologism is defined as “(The science of) the long distance transmission of computerized [[information]].” (OED) In examining the etymology of the words from which telematics was created, the meaning of the term becomes more clear – the Greek prefix ‘tele’ indicates communication over long distances or “impressions produced at a distance from the exciting cause”, while informatics is another recent term coming from the Latin ‘information’, “knowledge communicated concerning some fact.” The word “inform” as a verb initially meant, “to give shape to” – a point well worth noting in light of the increasingly ubiquitous [[presence]] of telematic devices in the modern day.

As the spread of computerized information expands, the actual mainstream use of the term ‘telematics’ has narrowed, and is primarily used in the automobile industry to refer to GPS devices and other means of computerized communication in cars. With that said, the types of devices in automobiles are a sub-sample of the types of devices that permeate 21st century industrial culture. Ascott (232) specifically defines telematics as the interaction of the human [[mind]] with computers in a sense never before encountered. He holds that the constant connection of the human world to almost the entirety of information that exists has fundamentally changed how people interact with and create mediums.

Winston (19) points to the experimentation with electricity in the 18th century as the beginning of telematics. He quotes an early physicist as saying “I have, by the help of a distended wire, propagated… sound a very considerable distance in an instant.” The first technology to catch on internationally in this regard was the [[telegraph]]. The construction of a cross-Atlantic telegraph system resulted in a level of communication heretofore impossible. Electricity served as an obstacle-jumper – “communication could now take place regardless of impediments such as distance or embodiment.” (Clarke 132) Diplomatic [[discourse]] no longer mandated letters and cross-ocean convoys. Reliable communication was possible at the touch of a button. New technology is often treated with a mixture of reverence, horror, and mysticism. Soon after the telegraph reached a mass [[audience]], some New England women claimed to be channeling spirits through the device. (Scone 29) The quick adaptation of the new method of communication could not be handled in an incidental manner, leading to responses like the above in some cases.

Following the telegraph, [[radio]], [[television]], and the Internet quickly became the main conveyers of information and entertainment to the public, with the latter medium serving to encompass all previous media and specifically deal in the area of computation and communication. Ascott (236) considers Jackson Pollock to be one of the first artists to understand the coming revolution of networking. Of his interlocking lines, Ascott says, “[Pollock’s] [[imagery]] carries a sense of anonymity of authorship that embraces the viewer
in the creation of meaning. Nothing in painting could be more emblematic or prophetic of the network consciousness emerging with the telematic culture.” Jackson’s use of flatness and horizontal space are further testaments to the onset of telematics, which have, in Friedman’s terms, flattened the world.

While radio and television served as one-way dialectics, computers allowed for viewer input, resulting in personalized communication abilities, viewer choice of media substance, and interpersonal networking. That is not to say that telematics were not already informing media theorists – the 80s television show Max Headroom was lauded for playing with postmodernist and telematic ideas years before other shows. (Sconce 189) Regardless, the modern era is defined by telematics on global, national, and interpersonal, and intrapersonal grounds, as well as communication between all of these social levels, all of which takes place through a computer. It is in telematics that we see the manifestation of McLuhan’s global central nervous system. Through the Internet and wireless instant communication the world can now react to news and information in the instantaneous way an organism reacts to heat and pain stimuli. Through this new sensory system, the very essence of the individual and individuality is being reinvented as part of a larger social entity. (Katz 200)

Computers allow local phenomena to go “viral” and spread across the country, and likewise national news can quickly be accessed in urban and rural areas. Peer-to-peer networking allowed people to share a variety of mediums between themselves under a veil of anonymity. The rise of torrenting has resulted in one individual being able to download microcosms of one song and assemble them on her personal computer. The computer is the epitome of this new [[cybernetic network]]. In addition, computers seem unlimited in their abilities of emulation – “The essence of the interface is its potential flexibility… each individual computer interface is an aspect of telematic unity, such that to be in or at any one interface is to be in the virtual presence of all other interfaces throughout the network of which it is a part.” (Ascott 239) A large part of telematics is that unity attested to above – although people may be spread across an entire continent, the crossroads of communication and information unifies them all. Likewise, media from images to sound to [[text]] can all be unified and spread through telematics in a way impossible before. It is now possible to have friends that only exist through the medium of the computer and truly connect with them. (Meyrowitz 119) Essentially, a great “absent presence” is now in the world that has dramatically affected the way in which people encounter media. (Katz 223)

The ubiquity and speed of telematic devices and the spread of telematics in general have given pause to a number of critical theorists. Adorno felt that the increasing reliance on technical detail of new mediums versus content served an ulterior motive of profit and dumbing down populations. (Adorno 11) The type of [[memory]] lauded by Plato and attested to by Yates, already vanishing with the invention of [[writing]], then the printing press, then the typewriter, may be completely vanquished by cloud computing and ever-present recording devices. Artificial memory is, in a very real way, beginning to undercut natural memory. (Yates 20) Information can now be accessed from anywhere, which may have a lasting effect on humans’ own abilities to recall and remember.

Media is now quickened – it is produced in ever larger numbers and can be sent to an ever growing populace at ever increasing speeds, thanks to the steady doubling of processor speed and hard drive capacity every 18 months. McLuhan’s assertion that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” is exemplified in telematic technologies – although it is worth noting that devices like the iPhone and netbook go beyond a reflection of television to an all-out encapsulation of every media to come before them. (McLuhan 8) Telematic, [[interactive]] devices are the coldest media devices yet invented – every aspect of them is personalized according to the whim of the user. A dialogue is constantly maintained between the device and the person. This level of interactivity and constant access leads to matters of [[noise]]. Arguments go both ways on this issue: some feel that noise is “a regrettable impediment to perfect efficency” while others feel that “much of the most exciting critical work of the past five decades have derived from… reversing the [negative] sign of noise.” (Clarke 163-164) Regardless, the constant influx of information, and viewer choice out of a wide array of available media, leads to a constant battle against noise.

Ascott, in his appropriately named “Telematic Embrace,” speaks of the “deep-seated fears of the machine coming to dominate the human will and a technological formalism erasing human content and values. (Ascott 233) Does the ever increasing hold of telematics on global and personal affairs serve to help or lull humanity? This fear is a common science fiction trope, as well as an anxiety shared by C.S. Lewis in “The abolition of Man.” As [[technology]] progresses, media made by and out of those very technologies are commenting on these deep-seated fears. The popular [[film]] “Avatar” has as a core message that simplicity and organics are more human then brute technology (although it is of note that an organic internet exists on a global level on that film, with each creature having a method of connecting its nervous system to the world). Information is [[virtual]] (Clarke 157), as opposed to the more organic sources of life like food and oil, and the fear that it will come to dominate humanity is one that has seized hold of popular media since the dawn of the industrial revolution. One key trope is that telematics decreases, not increases, communication, and that a neo-primitivism is needed to turn humanity towards a more appropriate way to live. Telematics have impacted media and life on almost every level, and will continue to do so. Whether they serve a noble or ulterior motive is a question worthy of rigorous debate.

David Casey


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Ascott, Roy. Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. Berkeley: University of California, 2003. Print.

Clarke, Bruce. “Information, Communication.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Ed. W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010. Print.

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