Creative Commons licensed photograph, "Underwood," by Flickr user Canned Muffins

Lab Report


Deconstructing our Digital Landscape

In this first lab, we learned how to use Markdown to compose lab reports and field book entries. Markdown was daunting at first, but after typing a few practice paragraphs to learn how to manipulate the text through inline editing, I felt more confident using the program as I would any other word processor. This was my first time using a plain text editor, aside from some minor coding for very specific projects.

My first impression of Markdown in the context of our readings was one of mild confusion. It seemed to me that composing in Markdown was an act of circumnavigation of Marshall McLuhan’s assertion in Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, that “the medium is the message,” (McLuhan 13). Writing in a plain text format was to strip back the abilities afforded by other word processors: a sidestepping of the game of meaning-making by refusing to engage in the conventional forms. However, as I wrote in Markdown, I came to realize that the spirit of the program in fact aligned perfectly with McLuhan’s statement. Our usage of Markdown is not an ignoring of the medium, but rather an embrace of it. By stripping back the exterior features that we have come to expect in a word processor in favor of inline editing, Markdown magnifies the actions we take when writing. This brings to the forefront the choices which define our work based not on the content of our messages but rather their context and form.

Instead of admonishing the forms of a “normal” word processor as superfluous, the plain text formatting highlights the effects of the decisions we as writers make when using all of the features afforded in Word or Google docs, such as typeface, color, font size, line spacing, and the numerous other facets of a processor, all of which we have at our fingertips. While none of these decisions we make actively affect the content in a way which we might consider when choosing them, they do influence the overall visual presentation and reading experience of the work. As noted by Bonnie Mak in her piece Architectures of the Page, the page is “[so] habituated to its operation, we often overlook how the page sets the parameters for our engagement with ideas,” (Mak 1). This is true of the pages we type as well as those we read. When opening a page in Google Docs for a class, I automatically change the text to Times New Roman size twelve font, even when presented with alternative options. I never think about what said choices mean in terms of my piece. What tone does the serifed font suggest? Would a sans serif font fit better with the theme of whatever I am writing? As Mak notes, “Designers make calculated decisions regarding the size, shape, color, and quality of the material to suggest to readers what kind of page it is and how they wish it to be treated,” and as a writer of a piece, I should do the same, yet when faced with all of the freedom of a rich text editor, my choices appear null (Mak 2).

In this way, the usage of Markdown emphasizes that the text we are surrounded within our lives both in analog and digital forms is intricately crafted. By writing in plain text, Markdown offers a counterpoint to the endless typefaces and formatting schemas that write out our lives. In this way, we’re able to see past the blindness that McLuhan noted, saying: “the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” (McLuhan 5). By removing our content from the medium of the traditional word processor, we are able to see the elaborate detail of it as a medium unobscured by content.

Furthermore, Markdown’s intext editing makes it so that altering the medium, such as adding bold or italicized words, requires an acknowledgement of it. As writers, we are required to use the medium as a furthering of the message rather than as a passive element of our work. In this way, I found that in opposition to my initial judgment of the program, Markdown supports McLuhan’s case that the medium of a message is a message in of itself. Furthermore, this lab report, in which both my understanding of Markdown and its correlation to Mak and McLuhan are aided by composition within the program itself, serves to literally equate the medium with message and meaning.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, MIT Press, 1964.

Mak, Bonnie. How the Page Matters.“Architectures of the Page,” University of Toronto Press, 2011.