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Lister, M., Dovey, J., Giddings, S., Grant, I., & Kelly, K. (2009). New Media: A Critical Introduction. Routledge.

September 19, 2010

Part I: New Media and New Technologies

In the first part of the book, New Media: A Critical Introduction, the authors argue that technology (not just as we understand it today but even ancient ones such as the the wheel and paper) is not just an occasional aspect of contemporary culture. It is not “peripheral” to the analysis of culture but an intrinsic element of what we understand culture to be.

Part I gives us a robust conceptual framework within which we can situate the myriad social and cultural implications of new media. The following are the highlights of Part I:

  1. The authors employ a philosophical approach to understand the “newness” of new media. They argue that there is a positive ideological charge in calling something “new” because it carries with it, connotations of progress, improvement, and the hope for a better world. The “newness” is mindfully constructed to fulfill specific needs.
  2. The authors do not claim a single, all-encompassing definition of new media, saying instead that “new media” include a “range of phenomena” and that it is “a term with broad cultural resonance rather than a narrow technicist or specialist application”. I really liked this conception of new media and it was refreshing that the authors did not seek to define or essentialize something that they claimed was extremely complex.
  3. However, they do claim that new media are characterized by six main attributes:
    1. Digital – All data represented numerically.
    2. Interactive – As opposed to the passivity of the audience, as was the case with “old” media.  Audiences are users and produce meaning in a collaborative fashion.
    3. Hypertextual – Emphasis on non-linear and associative mental and communicative linkages, which reminded me of the stream of consciousness style of writing!!! J  
    4. Virtual – The idea of immersion and how that affects the way we think of “space”.
    5. Networked Decentralized distribution of content and demassified networks of communication with media channels catering to niche audiences. Differentiated media texts can now be accessed in multiple ways regardless of audience location. New media is networked at the level of consumption and dispersed at the level of production, both allowing for increased prosumer participation.
    6. Simulated – As opposed to mere representation or remediation.
  4. New media is imbued with significance – not just cultural, but also personal because it carries with it lofty ideals: the democratic ability to interact and communicate with the message as well as other people who are processing the message; the ability to think independently and thereby resist totalitarianism and hegemonic forces; and the ability to productively participate in social issues and question the status quo.
  5. This brings us to the most significant aspect of this section – the question whether new media technologies have the potential to transform cultures and our positionalities within these cultures. The authors discuss McLuhan’s deterministic argument that new media will revolutionize everything and will cause people to change the way they think and act. They also consider Williams’ rather pessimistic (but more realistic, IMHO) contention that new media will only sustain and reify existing power structures because they can exist and survive only in present social conditions that are inevitably repressive.

While the historical overview of new media technologies offered in this section was useful, the most important concept to emerge out of the first section (for me) was the idea of the “technological imaginary” and the critical approach to understanding the power dynamics. The authors use the phrase “technological imaginary” to refer to the basic human desire for completeness and self-actualization by assuming another state of being. When applied to a technological context, the “technological imaginary” seeks to rid the world of social injustices and usher in democratic and coherent social realities.

The modernist viewpoint is that for a medium to be truly new, it needs to be a dramatic departure from the old. But the authors contend, and I agree, that when critically examining something so mutant and dynamic such as new media, it is especially important to pause and consider the past because such reflection can enrich our understanding of why the need for “new” media arose. While new media are a response to “old” media, it is does not necessarily follow that old media were evil and need to be eliminated. In fact, as the authors claim, there is definitely a sense of déjà vu when it comes to new media. Media that are considered “old” today used to be new at some point of time and were at that time hailed for their revolutionary potential, just like new media are expected to solve social problems and realize human desire.

Overall comments:

I appreciated the fact that authors presented several different arguments pertaining to the history, growth, proliferation of new media and attempted to synthesize the many (often contesting) notions about new media today.

Discussion items

  1. I am rather foggy about the concept of “hypermediacy”. Perhaps we can discuss this as a group. Is the basic idea behind hypermediacy that media should be understood as extensions of the human body? How does that work?
  2. The concept of technological determinism has always fascinated me. Proponents of technological determinism understand technology as the foundation for all human knowledge, activity, and culture, and they argue that technology causes cultural changes. Williams would vehemently reject this argument. I am not a “cause and effect” kind of person by any means but I wonder if there is really no merit in this claim? Of course, it is always difficult to challenge the existing power dynamics in a given society, as Williams posits, but I am not sure that McLuhan’s argument that technology determines history is wholly without any significance vis-à-vis new media today. Is there a middle path?
  3. How might we think of the apparent “fragmentation” and demassification of new media vis-à-vis the shared nature of new media (the ability to tag, like, comment, edit etc.)?
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