“Happiness ain’t a thing in itself, it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant. And so, as soon as the novelty is over and the force of the contrast dulled, it ain’t happiness any longer, and you have to get something fresh.” (Mark Twain)
This essay has been written as part of a literature examination in the course “Introduction to Media Art and Culture” at the Media Lab Helsinki, examining Lister (2003). The question discussed here: “How do the writers describe the problem with the term “new media”? Conclude by reflecting on your own use of the term?”
I divided my evaluation of the proposed question into three parts, following the structure of the book. Discussing the critical approach towards the term “new media”, I found the authors to discuss three major topics: the difference between “old media” and “new media”, the different approaches to embedding the arise of “the new” in a historical context and the question whether “new media” has been shaped as a solution to some kind of problem or whether it is itself the result of a cultural process.
1. What’s the “new” in new media?
While mainly introducing concepts required for the discussion in the later part of the book, the authors repeatedly state right from the beginning that this elaboration on the “newness” of new media is to give a framework on what is seen as “new”, but not to define “new media” as such – a definition that is to be very critically discussed in the later chapters.
The writers present four answers to how the term “new” might be defined in the context of this discussion:
- 1. When initially defining “media” as an institutional rather than a technical term, the emergence of “new media” is equal with the development of that institution (p.9).
- 2. When “new” is seen as an expression for a state of general cultural change, “new media” is put into a broader context: the shift from modernity to postmodernity, globalization or the shift towards the information age and decentralized geopolitical orders (p.10).
- 3. In an ideological approach, “new” can be seen as the paradigm of having the most current development superseding the previous (p.11).
- 4. As their last explanation, the “inclusiveness” of the term (i.e. being far less restrictive than the terms “digital media” or “CMC”) is presented. The authors state that regardless of the inclusiveness, also this fourth approach implies a strict division between old and new. (p.12)
1.2 “New media”
The book then defines what is seen as “new media” in the context of this discussion: new forms of genres, representation, relationships and experiences, as well as changed conceptions of embodiment of technology and nature and last but not least new patterns of organization and production. In addition, four more technological definitions are given: the rise of CMC, new ways of distribution and consumption, the formation of virtual realities and a transforming impact on the so called “old” media. (p.12-13)
Still working on the “framework” for their critical assessment, the writers declare five “key terms in discourses about new media” (p.13) – or, as they put it in the conclusion of the chapter, “a dynamic matrix of qualities that we argue is what makes new media different” (p.37):
- Digitality: Both the conversion of data into numbers and the possibility for online access are what make data “digital”. While declaring analog media to be closely related to mass production, the digital is here described not so much as a technical term, but as an expansion of the analog media into a “flux” state; thus representing the changes of the material world (from mass production to information society) in the sphere of data/media. (p.13-17)
- Interactivity: The most important distinction the authors make is between the ideological dimension of interactivity and its instrumental dimension. Concentrating on the latter, the authors present several ways how interactivity rather adds new layers of complexity to media in general – for example the interpretation and definition of interactive media – than using interactivity as the defining factor for “new” media. (p.19-23)
- Hypertextuality: Closely related to interactivity as a topic, the book broadly presents both history and theory of hypertext. The main message I want to emphasize here is how Vannevar Bush’s model of the mind and even McLuhan’s assumption that “media are to be understood as extensions of the human body” (p.26) are presented as an example for the “organic” development of media towards “new” media, approaching human nature closer than it has been possible before. (p.24-30)
- Dispersal: The argument of new media as a mean for dispersal is mainly based on the thought that it is a decentralized medium that enables new forms of consumption and production. (p.30-34)
- Virtuality: The authors present two prevailing ways how “virtuality” can be understood. While some see it as the immersion into a virtual artificial reality, the authors stress that it should rather be seen as the embodiment of the individual and what they call “the space of online communication”. (p.35-37)
The authors’ definition of “new media” I described above is most of all amazingly comprehensive. Carefully distinguishing technological points of views from cultural aspects – and clearly turning the focus towards the latter – the book leads the reader to a reflection on the real differences between old and new media.
Thinking about both the four definitions of “new” and the five key terms for “new media”, the term “new media” slowly starts to dissolve. Not only regarding the use of “new” as a distinction from traditional media, but also as a general descriptive term, it appears that we are talking about something far less revolutionary than the common understanding of the terminology implies.
Isn’t the embodiment in a telephone call as “virtual” as hanging out in an internet chat room? And if we wanted, we could even state that a Xerox copy machine is as good an enabler for decentralized use of mass media as is a weblog service (though, admittedly, with a far lower range). Last but not least, even this book itself – with its enormous use of cross-references and its intentional design for non-linear reading (p.5) – is a great example that hypertext does not necessarily have to be digital.
2. Just how new is “new”?
The points embraced in the first chapter of this essay receive additional weight when the authors start to discuss the “newness” of emerging media in general. I already stated in my interim conclusion that, based on the presentation in the book, the novelty of “new media’s” features has to be considered far less incisive than anticipated. The authors now elaborate possible motivations for the perception of the evolving mass media as “new”.
Before getting into a review of three media histories, the authors briefly declare that “new” may be seen as a synonym for something unfamiliar, some form of subtle change or the refashioning of something that has already existed for a long time (p.38).
2.1 Three media histories
The first media historical approach – the idea that new media is the direct culmination of historical processes – is presented through the works of Peter Weibel, Howard Rheingold and Paul Mayer. The eight-stage historical model from Weibel’s book “The world as an interface” (p.46-47), Rheingold’s description of “new media as the culmination of the development of all human media” (p.46) both are used to show how the media currently perceived as “new” are only the most recent steps in the evolution of media in general. Mayer’s model goes even as far as to describe the work of 18th century philosophers as the beginning of the concept of the computer (p.49).
Secondly, the modernist concept of progress is displayed: in a modernist context, new media is seen as something radically novel, with clear ruptures and breaks to what has been before. The emergence of new habits, patterns and practices through the new medium is what justifies the use of the term “new” from a modernist perspective.(p.53-55)
In the third media history mentioned, “residual or suppressed intellectual and representational practices” are seen as the drivers for the evolution of media. As opposed to the previously mentioned modernist view, this postmodern approach is based on the assumption that history is no longer a linear process – denying the belief in progressive development employed in the two other histories: according to this history, the novelty of the “new” lies neither in the fulfillment of the past (Weibel, Rheingold, Mayer) nor in the transcending of the old (the modernist perspective). (p.56-58)
While the early chapters of the source text – discussed in the first chapter of this essay – are mainly scrutinizing the question whether “new” is really “new”, this part of the book is offering several ways to see novelty in a historical context. Showing up alternatives, the idea is not to give one definitive answer to the question whether “new media” is the result of 18th century philosophical thinking or a radically new form of media in a modernist sense. Instead, I see the authors using this discussion for the same purpose as their earlier elaborations – explaining the critical study of new media, where “not taking things for granted” (p.39) is the key methodological aspect.
In the end, the message of the book is that the historical context plays an important role in the study of media in general, with the authors opposing the modernist thinking of the “radically new” to the favor of a “remediation” concept: “[...] new media are not born in a vacuum and, as media, would have no resources to draw upon if they were not in touch and negotiation with the long traditions of process, purpose, and signification that older media of communication, representation, and expression possess.” (p.40).
3. What lead to the invention of “new” media?
Now that it has been elaborated what is (or is not) “new” about new media and how its novelty is closely related to what it is built upon, the third related problem discussed in the book is the question what led to the rise of a “new media” in the first place.
3.1 Searching for the better?
The authors are posing the question “Who was dissatisfied with old media?”, based on the assumption that perceiving something as “new” includes that the old has had some flaw that needed to be cleared out. Through the presentation of the term “technological imaginary”, as the psychoanalytic vocabulary has been adopted in media studies, the authors state that a newly emerging medium is reflected the desires and needs of a culture upon. According to the authors, it is fed by what they call the “discursive construction of new media” (p.62): the ways people think of technologies – not only in a technological, but also an economical and cultural way – influences the way the new is adopted. (p.59-62)
3.2 McLuhan vs. Williams
In the last part of the first section of the book, the well-known discussion between technological determinism versus the social construction of technology is presented; through McLuhan as the technological determinist and Williams as the social constructivist. McLuhan’s technological deterministic perspective is to see the technology as the medium, therefore having the medium determine its use. The “social shaping” approach of Williams on the other hand stresses the plural possibilities for the application of a technology, seeing the use of the technology as the medium. (p.72-90)
I am here combining the discussion of two chapters from the book, even though in the original text they are handled separately. From my point of view, the question whether the “new” is solving a problem with the “old” and the everlasting argument between technological determinism and social construction of technology are closely related in this context.
After all, the question the authors are discussing is whether a dissatisfaction with the established media led to the invention of “new” media or whether the “new media” term is the outcome of a new technology that – through the “technological imaginary” – feels like something radically new that it is not. The first would be a clear case of social shaping of technology, where the need for novelty leads to the according use of technology; in the latter case the invention of new technologies would be seen as the key event, whereas its application for replacing the “old” media would simply be determined by the medium.
The authors don’t hide their critique of the McLuhan point of view, making a clear statement for the interpretation that the developing technology is adopted in the cultural context and only perceived as something “new”, rather than really being so. In the first two chapters of my analysis, I already concluded that the “new media” is far from being as radically new as the term might indicate (both in a technological and a cultural sense) and that it is a result of the remediation of social processes rather than a “new invention” in a modernist sense.
In summary, the debate of this problematic term in the source follows a clear line. The authors are showing how the novelty of “new media” is mainly an experienced novelty, where the use of a new technology seems to imply that this is an entirely new kind of medium. Within the roughly 100 pages, the authors present a variety of theoretical approaches in media studies, out of which some would support a much more radical break between “old” and “new” media. But in the end, the critical view of the authors leaves the reader with the feeling that “new media” is more a buzzword than something real.
I have never really liked the term “new media” as a descriptive term for the current electronic forms of media; for the very reason that I consider novelty to be something that expires fairly quick. In that sense the telegraph was as much “new” media as is the internet, only that it has been superseded by the next “new media”.
For a long time, I have used the term “digital media” instead, as the underlying digital technology is the smallest common denominator I could find for naming the field. But the points made by the authors of this book made me think critically [sic!] about this. Not only does the book hit the nail on the head when declaring the term “digital media” as “a purely technical and formal definition” (p.11) within the first chapters, but also do I fully agree that the cultural power of the medium is not in the fact that it is digital, but in the variety of other characteristics, as described in chapter 1.2 of this essay.
So after all, I might return to using “new media” instead of or in addition to “digital media”. But this comes with a disclaimer: using the term “new” in this context does not imply a radical dissociation from something old, but accommodates the insight that my field of academic interest is about the latest and – most importantly – constantly changing form of media. This includes the curiosity for the historical context of the new as well as the role technology plays in this relation. After all, I fully acknowledge that my curiosity for what we call “new media” has its roots in the way technological development affects society. And while I disagree with the technological determinist view of technology shaping culture to a large extent, I do grant technology the key role in social change – not only today, in the “digital age”, but ever since the Neanderthal people discovered their first tools to make their lives easier.