From the archives: Media as triggers, as sparks, and the ‘push’ model of making

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It’s the time of year when teachers and lecturers are preparing material for the coming year, and occasionally I get an email – I’m pleased to get an email! – asking about some thing of mine, and where it can be found.

In this case, two different people wanted to know where to find the bit about ‘triggers for experiences … millions of sparks’, so here’s the answer. The key bit of the text in question says this:

We should look at media not as channels for communicating messages, and not as things. We should look at media as triggers for experiences and for making things happen. They can be places of conversation, exchange, and transformation. Media in the world means a fantastically messy set of networks filled with millions of sparks – some igniting new meanings, ideas, and passions, and some just fading away.

[This approach implies] a sort of ‘push’ model of making, where you intend that the thing you have made will make a difference in the world, although you don’t aspire to predict what that difference will be.

This is from my book Making Media Studies (pp. 7–8). To give this more context and explanation, I will give you a couple of sections of the book, in full. (Obviously, I would be happy if you actually wanted to buy the whole book, but this is for free).

From Chapter 1, ‘Introduction’, of Making Media Studies (pp. 7–12):

Media as triggers for experiences and making things happen

If we are taking an alternative approach to what media studies means, perhaps it would help to have a different way of thinking about media. So here’s a thought. Let’s put it in a box, just for emphasis.

We should look at media not as channels for communicating messages, and not as things. We should look at media as triggers for experiences and for making things happen. They can be places of conversation, exchange, and transformation. Media in the world means a fantastically messy set of networks filled with millions of sparks – some igniting new meanings, ideas, and passions, and some just fading away.

The simple word ‘media’, of course, encompasses a vast range of interesting things – different technologies, publications, games, and tools, numerous types of content and conversation, and more stuff produced by humans than we could ever list or comprehend. It would, therefore, seem reckless to try to pick out one reason for being interested in all of them. Nevertheless, I hope that the assertion in the box perhaps offers a starting point for thinking about media in a different way.

Like most ideas, this is not really new. Indeed the first bit is only a minor adaptation of two related things said by Brian Eno, the musician and artist: ‘Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences’ (Eno, 1996: 368), and ‘… the other way of thinking about art, is not that it’s a channel for communicating something but that it’s a trigger; it’s a way of making something happen’ (Eno, 2013: 23). I’ve shifted the subject from ‘art’ to ‘media’, but the provocative point is the same. Eno himself immediately attributes the ‘triggers for experiences’ idea to his former art tutor, Roy Ascott, and of course this is really just a neat way of encapsulating a point about art which has been around for literally thousands of years. Aristotle, for instance, some 2,350 years ago, suggested that works of art should offer something that would give rise to ideas and sensations, with the example of music in particular being upheld as something which, by its nature, cannot offer depictions of things, or even of emotions, per se, but which can stir or trigger feelings in the listener (Aristotle, 335 bc; Eldridge, 2003: 29). Clearly, it is not new to say that art prompts something to happen in the person experiencing it, rather than being an inherent quality of the art object itself. But Ascott’s and Eno’s way of expressing it – art as a ‘trigger’ and ‘a way of making something happen’ – is a little more emphatic and active: a sort of ‘push’ model of making, where you intend that the thing you have made will make a difference in the world, although you don’t aspire to predict what that difference will be.

So let’s go back to my opening paragraph and take it sentence by sentence.

We should look at media not as channels for communicating messages, and not as things. – It is common, and understandable, that media would often be thought of as sets of objects, produced by institutions, for particular purposes, including the transmission of ideological messages. This approach was more adequate in the past than it is today (as discussed in the two following chapters), but has always been somewhat limited. In media studies, the idea that you can learn much about media in society through ‘content analysis’ – i.e. counting or recording the appearances of things in a media product – was always both dreary and wrong. You can’t learn about the role of a medium in the world merely by staring at that medium. And more generally, thinking about media as just ‘content’, made by others, was always the least exciting way to consider these phenomena. So let’s press on to the more positive points.

We should look at media as triggers for experiences and for making things happen. – This view assumes an assertive and interventionist orientation to media: we make and share things because we want to do something, we want to bring about a change in the world. This doesn’t need to be a big thing – it would often be on a tiny scale; the intended change might just be, for example, to make one friend smile for a moment. Conceiving of media as things that we do stuff with offers a powerful sit-forward alternative to the chilling passive approach within media studies which is centred around ideas of victims, exploitation and delusion. (As I’ve indicated already, I think we really should be concerned about issues of surveillance, and the corporate world hijacking what should be a free and open internet, but part of the solution to those grim scenarios is to build and use alternatives. The abuse of our data is not an inherent or inevitable part of internet technologies; we have to try to make our own futures, and compel governments and businesses to behave more ethically).

[Media] can be places of conversation, exchange, and transformation. – As a result of the big obvious change that happened over the past 20 years – which most people was within the last 10 – media have changed from being primarily about watching, listening, and reading, to being most significantly – or at least most interestingly – about creating, and discussing, and so bringing about change in people, ideas, and culture, and how these things are valued and developed. The former watching/reading mode still exists alongside that, of course, and is fine, but if we want to attend to the significant things that are going on – and which have the most potential value for the future of our societies and cultures – then we are bound to want to look at conversation, exchange, and transformation.

To take another seed from the art world, I have long admired Martin Creed’s frank, thoughtful approach to why he creates artworks. He seems to find this question difficult, but says it’s about emotion, self-expression, and ‘wanting to communicate and wanting to say hello’ (Creed interviewed in Illuminations, 2002: 101). This everyday drive – ‘wanting to say hello’ – is perhaps key to a lot of today’s valuable communication, because we want to make a connection, but need to do so in a useful way, via doing something else. Studies (summarised in Gauntlett et al, 2012) have shown that busy learning communities online – from the New York Times comment discussions to thriving DIY sites such as Instructables, Craftster, and Ravelry – are successful because people actively want to help each other, to share and gain inspiration, to feel more involved in the world, and to develop their own understanding through supporting others. So: conversation (of any kind), exchange (of ideas and inspiration), and transformation (of self and ultimately society) are vital, and we should be thinking about how media systems can be designed to encourage these qualities.

Media in the world means a fantastically messy set of networks filled with millions of sparks – some igniting new meanings, ideas, and passions, and some just fading away. – The proliferation of social media and online platforms means that there is a really incredible amount going on. The sea of traditional media content was really vast, of course, but it seemed at least potentially quantifiable – a set of countable objects being output in one direction (more or less). Now, there are millions of these sparks, these potential triggers for experiences, every day. They are not all going to have a very noticeable impact, and we would not expect them to. We have moved away from the era of big things which are meant to have big impacts. When you’ve spent 18 months producing a whole documentary, say, or a whole exhibition, you need it to have big results. But in a world of networked DIY media, with convivial sparks leaping in all directions, the expectation upon each of the bits is lighter, but positive connections and inspirations can happen very frequently.


What this means in practice


There are various implications which flow from this kind of approach.

Implication #1: It means that our main question is not ‘what do the media do to us?’, but rather ‘what can we do with media?’. If our primary interest is in what ‘the media’ do to us, we assume from the start a kind of victim mindset. It’s not necessarily a wholly passive stance, because we might be trying to look at what some of these media do to us so that we can make complaints or protest about it. However, it’s still a position of being on the back foot.

But if our primary approach is to ask ‘what can we do with media?’, we are on the front foot, seeking to engage, looking for ways to make society better – or at least looking for ways in which technologies, or the things you can do with technologies, can be used to support people to shape culture and society in a positive way.

Implication #2: This approach therefore means that we would expect to find the most relevant ideas and knowledge in different places. Scholars in ‘media studies’ or ‘communication studies’ – with a background in psychology, say, or literature – do not necessarily become redundant, but may be only partially useful. This front-foot approach means that we would have designers working with sociologists and anthropologists – as well as artists, architects and anyone else that would like to join in – to make tools that would enable people to create, exchange, converse and collaborate, in ways that felt natural to them. This doesn’t mean that technologists or technology companies would be in the driving seat, because we don’t actually live in a binary system with critique on one side and capitalism on the other. Instead we’re talking about collaborations where people with different kinds of insights about media, and what people do with media, could develop constructive innovations.

Implication #3: The emphasis on ‘experiences’ reminds us to think of media in a multi-modal way – in other words, that we shouldn’t just assume that media use involves looking at screens or paper, but can be a range of different ways of engaging with ideas, through doing things with different kinds of material – or materials – and using sight, sound and touch (and possibly, though less commonly, taste or smell). It’s partly to underline the significance of different kinds of media that this book includes a chapter about LEGO. If you can’t tolerate the idea of having a chapter about LEGO in a media studies book then fine, don’t read it, but the fact that it’s there might hopefully remind us that media, the plural word for medium, can refer to any of the things that humans use to express and share ideas, and (ideally) to develop them together.

Implication #4: If media are places of conversation and exchange, then we need to have open and shareable media content – which mostly we do, on the side of homemade media, and typically we don’t when third parties and companies (and even universities) are involved. This doesn’t mean that the fruits of creative labour have to be made available with no reward for the creator, but rather that we need to develop systems which could, where wanted, direct some of the economic surplus back to the people who have made the music or ideas or software from which we are subsequently benefiting.

Implication #5: This approach would encourage us to build a different kind of education system, with a corresponding sit-forward, hands-on approach to building and critiquing knowledge. We would have to get rid of the testing of memorised facts, and adopt a much more tinkering, experimental and conversational approach to seeing how the world works and what we think about it, where students would develop hypotheses together and try them out, and communicate them, through making and doing. (That could absolutely be done, although it’s quite a change from what is done in most education systems right now. And just to make it seem slightly more difficult, we note that for this playful and creative approach to education to really work, it would probably have to be matched by a corresponding similar shift in how adults work too, with a greater emphasis on playful experimentation, and appreciation of provocative challenges and the possibility of learning through failure).

Implication #6: A further consequence of this approach could be a more artistic and experimental approach to media-making, on both professional and non-professional sides. If we turn again to Brian Eno, he has often spoken about leaving space for the viewer or listener to have to engage and think; for a work to be provocative but not to offer too-easy answers. ‘Triggers for experiences’ wouldn’t work by telling you what to think, but rather by giving you something to engage with.

The most important thing in a piece of music [or, we could add, any other creative form] is to seduce people to the point where they start searching. If the music doesn’t do that, it doesn’t do anything. If it just presents itself and just sits there, if it either declares itself too clearly or is too obscure to even appear to be saying anything, then it seems to me to have failed. So I think that sitting on that line is very interesting. (Eno, 1981).

And if the network is to be filled with the sparks of creative conversations, these of course are more likely to flow from thought-provoking conversation-starters. So then it follows that media-makers have a responsibility to think about different and curious ways of doing things, to challenge others, not simply to be ‘distinctive’ but rather because of a responsibility to cultivate innovation, questioning, and surprise.

Those are just six of the implications which the approach gives rise to. Others appear every day as people make use of the myriad potentials of networked media, of course. Left to their own devices, people continually try out new things and new ways to share ideas and have an impact on each other, and that’s the beauty of it.

This is an extract from:
David Gauntlett (2015), Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies, New York: Peter Lang (pages 7–12).


Aristotle (335 bc), Poetics, available from various sources, such as The Internet Classics Archive,

Eldridge, Richard (2003), An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eno, Brian (1981), interview in Keyboard magazine, July 1981. Available at

Eno, Brian (1996), A Year with Swollen Addendices, London: Faber and Faber.

Eno, Brian (2013), Re-valuation (A Warm Feeling), interview with Irial Eno, Mono.Kultur, no. 34, summer 2013, Berlin: Mono.Kultur.

Gauntlett, David; Ackermann, Edith; Whitebread, David; Wolbers, Thomas; Weckstrom, Cecilia, & Thomsen, Bo Stjerne (2012), The Future of Learning, Billund: LEGO Learning Institute.

Illuminations, eds (2002), Art Now: Interviews with Modern Artists, London: Continuum.

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