Understanding New Media
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Understanding New Media

Eugenia Siapera

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Understanding New Media

Eugenia Siapera

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The new media landscape touches every aspect of our social, political and cultural lives. It is more important than ever, therefore, that we are able to understand and explain the complexity of our digital world. Understanding New Media gives students the tools and the knowledge they need to make sense of the relationship between technologies, media and society. This best-selling student introduction:

  • Makes complex ideas accessible, clearly explaining the key thinkers, theories and research students need to understand
  • Brings theory to life with a range ofnew case studies, from selfies or trolling, to the app economy and algorithms in social media
  • Gets students started on projects and essays with guided research activities, showing them how to successfully put learning into practice
  • Provides guided further reading, helping students to navigate the literature and extend their studies beyond the chapter

Understanding New Media remains the perfect guide to the past, present and future of the new media world. It is a vital resource for students across media and communication studies and sociology, and anyone exploring new media, social media or digital media.

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1 Understanding New Media

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about different approaches to the study of the new media
  • To critically understand the relationship between technology, new media and society
  • To learn the main positions of important theorists of technology and media
Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time [
]. Rapidly, we approach the final phase [
] when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society [
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 2001 [1964]: 3
The media determine our situation.
Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1999: xxxix
The first excerpt, from the introduction of Understanding Media, reveals McLuhan’s vision of the electronic media world: that through the media, humanity – fully connected – will collaboratively build and share a global world. The fragmentation and alienation associated with the ‘mechanical age’, or the age of the industrial revolution, is now replaced with a compulsion to participate and become involved. Kittler’s statement is more succinct: all that we are, he claims, is determined by the media. The crucial argument for both theorists is that the media play a central explanatory role in the shifts and transformations in human history. Understanding media therefore means understanding humanity. We shall examine McLuhan’s and Kittler’s work in more detail later, but for now, the important issue is that understanding media brings an insight not only into the technologies or devices themselves, but also into societal changes. Understanding new media is expected to lead to an understanding of changes and transformations in social processes, norms, ideas and practices. The media are inextricably bound to society: the study of one requires the study of the other.
The exact nature of the relationship between the media and society is a subject of much debate. But even without reaching any definite conclusions, the increasing centrality of the media, and especially of the new media, is clear to all of us. Televisions and radio sets have had a long presence in households in at least the developed world. But the rise of the new media is associated with their ubiquity; they are found everywhere: in living rooms, offices and schools, in the streets, in playrooms and bedrooms. And what’s more they are found not only in the so-called developed world, but in developing countries as well. A recent study reports that mobile phones are now as common in certain parts of Africa as they are in the United States (Pew Research Center, 2015). This spread poses a series of important questions regarding society, but also about economic, political and cultural institutions, as well as our experiences. We may want to see these as increasingly, or perhaps even inevitably, mediated (Livingstone, 2009). In other words, the involvement of the new media in society, the economy, politics, culture, the self and experiences is such that none of these escape unscathed. Understanding new media, in this sense, means understanding how they interact with a series of social, economic, political, cultural and psychological processes, giving rise to a new kind of world. As we shall see, this world may not resemble very closely the one in McLuhan’s vision, but it can nevertheless be thought of as a new media world.
This chapter is concerned with providing the lens through which our interrogation of the new media can take place. Theory, in its original Greek etymological roots, literally means view or sight; as such, theory constitutes a particular way of seeing and examining something. Social phenomena do not reveal themselves to us in their entirety but we look at them from specific viewpoints and analyse them from certain perspectives, commensurable with our expertise, level of knowledge, and historical positioning. It is necessary therefore to clarify the viewpoints and perspectives adopted here and the main assumptions and arguments they make. Two distinct but related theoretical lenses are required in our current interrogation of the new media: one that concerns the relationship between technology and society, and one that concerns the new media as media. The first section will cover the former and the second section will discuss the latter.

Technology and Society

We can begin our interrogation of the relationship between society, media and the technologies that underlie them by posing the question, in the first instance, as a question of the relationship between technology and society. If new media are new precisely because they rely on new technologies, then before looking at their actual mediation, it may be worth considering the relationship between technology and society. Does technology determine society? Or does society determine technology? What are the effects of technology on society? Is technology good or bad? There are three possible answers to this question, which mobilize a different version of what technology is. This is based on Darin Barney’s (2004) classification of theories of technology into three categories: instrumentalism, substantivism and social constructivism.
Instrumentalism views technology as neutral, a tool that is employed by people in ways that reflect each society’s goals and values but also its problems and limitations. Technology itself cannot be assessed on moral or political terms, as it is seen as a neutral device. While we can examine and judge the ways in which technology is used, technology as such can only be judged on the basis of how efficient it is. Following this logic, as long as technology is efficient, then it is also in a sense ‘good’. This logic underlies the kind of technological optimism referred to above, which holds that technological innovation signifies progress and must be thought of as good (Barney, 2004). If technology is made to serve bad ends, then it is not technology that should be blamed, but rather those who used it in these ways. Positive or negative outcomes are the result of appropriate or inappropriate uses of technology.
In contrast, substantivism holds that technology is ruled by a certain logic, which implicates not only our societies, but also our subjectivities and our very being. For this school of thought, represented by the works of the sociologist Max Weber (1958) and the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1977), technological outcomes reveal the logic and essence of technology. This, in turn, is considered to be that of instrumental rationality, involving the logic of standardization, homogenization, and the mastery of nature and society (see also Barney, 2004: 38–39). For substantivism, using technology also implies using human beings, or rather producing a certain kind of human being and a certain kind of society. All technological outcomes entail this logic, and there is no way to distinguish between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones: they are all more or less equivalent and all display the dominant technological logic of instrumental rationality and efficiency.
Finally, social constructivism questions the focus of substantivism on technology alone, arguing that it disregards human agency and the role played by contingency and random factors. In actual empirical cases, we can observe that technological outcomes are not always the most technological or efficient, while we can also see the failure of certain technologies to take hold, although they are both efficient and ‘technological’ – genetically engineered food or nuclear power may be two cases in point. The point here is that technological outcomes must be seen as the products of a complex interplay of social, political, cultural, economic but also technological factors. Each technology interacts with its context, and the artefacts produced and the uses they are put to feed back into technologies, leading to other directions and new artefacts. This is the argument put forward by the social constructivist school of thought, associated with the work of Wiebe Bijker and his colleagues (e.g., Bijker, 1995; Bijker, Hughes and Pinch, 1987). Given the plurality and heterogeneous character of our societies, we can infer that technological uses and outcomes will be as plural and as heterogeneous: while some might be considered ‘progressive’ in the sense that they contribute to a more equitable and just distribution of wealth, status and power, others may be seen as politically problematic, socially destructive or psychologically pathological. This is not only a reflection on the uses themselves, but also the result of the interaction and articulation between certain political, social, etc. characteristics with some elements of the technology itself.
Assuming a position across these various positions, the philosopher Bernhard Stiegler argues that technology and humanity are coeval or co-originary: technology is a necessary supplement to humanity. The central problem posed by Stiegler in his four-volume work Technics and Time concerns the role of ‘technics’. The term ‘technics’ refers to the object of techno-logy, and more specifically to the domain of skills, as opposed to episteme, the domain of knowledge. For Stiegler, all human action relates to technics (1998: 94). But what is the relationship between humans and technics, or skills and tools? Stiegler makes use of Derrida’s insight (in Of Grammatology (1974 [1997]) and Of Spirit (1991)) on prostheses or supplements to humans as ever-present. Derrida showed that the philosophical move to isolate thought (the ‘essence’ of humanity) from technics or the technological means (supplements) by which it is articulated is in fact impossible: speaking, writing, printing and, crucially, archiving are always there when thought is articulated. Thought, life or even nature cannot be understood without technics: this is what Derrida terms prosthesis of/at the origin, or ‘originary technicity’ (Of Grammatology, 1974 [1997]).
Because the relationship between technology and humanity is one of a dynamic mutual composition (Stiegler, 2006), what is at stake is nothing less than the future of humanity. Stiegler argues that technical objects are the exteriorization of memory-thought, which then condition and circumscribe the ‘interior’, this very memory and thought. But this dependence on such mnemonic devices, as he calls them, entails loss of knowledge, which is then displaced and moved onto these technological objects. Losing our mobile phone, to use Stiegler’s (2006) example, means losing all our contact numbers, which are no longer in our memory. Equally, consider the loss of the aptly named ‘memory stick’, which involves the loss of stored knowledge that we cannot retrieve from our memories. And here we must think, argues Stiegler, what this entails for our future. When in new technologies all the ‘know-how’ is ‘exteriorized’ and stored in devices controlled by others (corporations, governments, armies, etc.) then we are faced with two effects. On the one hand, this entails a kind of ‘human obsolescence’, the deskilling and consequently the ‘proletarization’ of more and more humans, who after this loss of knowledge become fit only for consumption. On the other hand, we find the assumption of more and more power by the cognitive and cultural industries that run today’s societies of control (Stiegler, 2006: 18–19). For Stiegler, this leads to a politics of memory, a struggle for control of these technological mnemonic devices.
It is fair to say that most people tend to assume an instrumentalist view of technology, as a tool to use in their everyday life. In so doing, they may overlook the specific ways in which technology structures life. For example, one may think of the difference between a society where mobile phones did not exist and a society where they are widely available: these are clearly two very different societies, with people having very different practices and experiences. These specific ways in which our lives are structured by technology are the result of how these technologies are put together. The idea that technology has a particular ‘essence’, although hard to grasp and perhaps harder to agree with, makes an interesting point: while the instrumentalist and social constructionist views prioritize the human and social elements and control of technologies, the substantivist strand is the only one that takes into account the materiality of technology – technology not only is acted upon but also acts on the world. So to return to the point made earlier, technologies may structure our lives in both technological and non-technological ways. What technologies can actually accomplish, for example supporting voice and image over the internet, which is what Skype typically does, is a very significant parameter, and cannot be ignored. Moreover, the technical infrastructure that is required in order to support this technology (the wires, fibre optics, camera and sound equipment and so on) leaves a trace in the material world, and has a clear impact on the social world; one clearly needs and presupposes the other. In this, the social constructivist viewpoint of the role played by a variety of other, non-technological factors is very important in helping understand and frame the impact that technologies may have in our lives. For example, some mobile operators offer free data plans making the internet more accessible to their subscribers; hence, while two mobile phone users may have the same technology they may not be able to use it in the same manner because of the different costs it has for them. From this point of view, in considering technologies and society we must consider the technical-material and social dimensions equally. This argument underpins our discussion of media theories.

New Media Theories

For media theorists, the role and involvement of the media in society is crucial. Just as the substantivist view of technology holds that technologies ‘enframe’ or in a sense prefigure society, an influential strand of thought in the discipline of media and communication holds that the media structure societies. While in the field of communication, McLuhan and media theory lost currency because of the rise of alternative paradigms, prioritizing political economic factors or audience practices, the focus on media as objects and technologies returned in the 1990s and 2000s, and the first wave of digital media. This led to a formulation of a distinct theoretical strand, which, although quite diverse, can be subsumed under the heading of new materialism; the focus here is on Friedrich Kittler, and more recently on the work of theorists such as Matthew Fuller and Jussi Parikka. This strand constitutes a useful return to the material aspects of technologies and media, and it allows us to examine how they order and structure the world, the processes by which they operate, and the traces they live behind. On the other hand, there is a tendency to lose the social aspects of media and technologies, the ways in which humans can and do act upon the media and their materials. Network theories of the new media, associated mainly with the work of Manuel Castells, clearly illustrate the role of other parameters, social, political and economic. The following sections will discuss these three strands, which are not mutually exclusive – occasionally drawing upon, adding to, and in discussion with, each other.

Media Theory: McLuhan

As with this chapter, a theoretical interrogation of the relationship between the media and society typically begins with Marshall McLuhan. This is because McLuhan is the first theorist to argue that the importance of the media is not located in the contents they circulate but in the form of the media themselves. In fact his somewhat-opaque statement that ‘the media is the message’ (McLuhan, 2001 [1964]: 7) can be interpreted in two ways: first, it denotes the ultimate priority of media forms, which indeed impart a crucial message, and second, that the contents of any new medium are the old media. To begin with the latter, McLuhan’s argument relies on a slightly idiosyncratic view of the historical development of the various media. Thus, he considers that speech, orality, was the first ‘medium’ – he is clearly using a widened understanding of the term. Subsequently, the media that evolved, such as written language, contained speech as its contents; the invention of the medium of print used written language as its contents. Cinema then used print as its contents and so forth. Specific messages and media contents are therefore not as important or relevant as the actual medium itself. Nonetheless, this kind of cannibalistic behaviour leads straight back to contents as a means for analysing media. Following McLuhan’s arguments, the contents of the new media incorporate all other previous media (cf. Levinson, 1999).
But it is the first understanding concerning the primacy of the media that leads to the more radical implications for any media analysis. This is due to the relationship it posits between media, people and societies. McLuhan famously thought that the media are extensions of the human senses. As he put it: ‘all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment’ (McLuhan, 1969: 54). More particularly, he viewed the media as either extensions or amputations, but nevertheless as inextricably bound to human beings. For McLuhan, the media can extend our senses, but they can also limit them: a medium can amplify or accelerate existing processes or senses (McLuhan, 2001 [1964]: 7), and this is its ‘true’ effect or impact. Examples here include the process of mechanization or the replacement of parts of human labour by machines. The fact that human labour is mediated by machines leads to a fragmentation of previously integrated parts of the process. Similarly, the telephone extends human voice, but it also ‘amputates’ face-to-face interact...