We are frequently exposed to claims that the contemporary media ecology is one in which audiences have been liberated from the passive age of mass media in which media consumption meant sitting down whilst watching and/or listening to material made by professional filmmakers, journalists and television broadcasters. In place of this passive mode of spectatorship, we are told that networked digital media turns audiences into prosumers; a portmanteau of producer and consumer which captures the notion that today’s audiences are allegedly active participants within an interactive digital convergence culture.
Attached to these claims often come arguments that these qualities of interactivity and participation have made contemporary societies more democratic, accountable and open places, that is to say that digital technologies are proclaimed to have a profound effect upon politics. But how do we quantify these claims? What kinds of evidence exists that supports and contradicts these ideas, and what critiques exist which suggest that these claims might be ideologically motivated? This section seeks to introduce some historical and contemporary thought surrounding technology and politics so that we can begin to approach some of these questions.
As we have seen elsewhere in this book, there have been a plethora of ways that media and politics have been historically explored with regards to issues such as Ideology, Discourse, media effects, and the public sphere. Understanding technology’s role in politics also means contemplating technology and agency – considering how and if technology acts as actant capable of setting limits and exerting pressures upon socio-political formation.
In contrast to Jurgen Habermas’s claims that the mass media necessarily entailed the corruption of a public sphere informed by democratic debate, an argument was advanced in various forms at different times by Marxist theorists of media such as Bertold Brecht and Hans Magnus Enzensberger , and which suggested that the issue at hand was the type of technological assemblage available. Brecht explores the notion of political potentials which would be brought forth by a future form of the radio as a two-way mode of communication, which allowed the audience to speak back to the program, and therefore creating a participatory debate rather than a unilateral broadcast. Writing in the 1970s Enzensberger outlines a hypothetical communication network based on reversible circuits rather than centre to periphery broadcasting which would be a minimum precondition (although by no means an ensuring condition) of a socialist rather than a capitalist media structure.
Consequently, when the Internet and the World Wide Web were nascent technologies in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, there was a strand of neo-Frankfurt School media analysis which argued that this new model of many-to-many communication (as opposed to the one-to-many model of broadcast media) would facilitate democratic debate through interactivity and participation, and construct a form of mediated public sphere.
Computers are a potentially democratic technology. While broadcast communication tends to be one-way and unidirectional, computer communication is bi- or omni-directional. Where TV-watching is often passive, computer involvement can be interactive and participatory. Individuals can use computers to send email to communicate with other individuals, or can directly communicate via modems which use the telephone to link individuals with each other in interactive networks. Modems can tap into community bulletin boards, web sites, computer conference sites, or chat rooms, that make possible a new type of interactive public communication. Democracy involves democratic participation and debate as well as voting. In the Big Media Age, most people were kept out of democratic discussion and were rendered by broadcast technologies passive consumers of infotainment. Access to media was controlled by big corporations and a limited range of voices and views were allowed to circulate.
In the Internet Age, everyone with access to a computer, modem, and Internet service can participate in discussion and debate, empowering large numbers of individuals and groups kept out of the democratic dialogue during the Big Media Age. Consequently, a technopolitics can unfold in the new public spheres of cyberspace and provide a supplement, though not a replacement, for intervening in face-to-face public debate and discussion. For instance, many computer bulletin boards and web sites have a political debate conference where individuals can type in their opinions and other individuals can read them and if they wish respond. Other sites have live real-time chat rooms where people can meet and interact. These forms of cyberdemocracy constitute a new form of public dialogue and interaction, and take place in new public spheres, thus expanding our conception of democracy.
Douglas Kellner: Techno-Politics, New Technologies and the New Public Spheres
A similar perspective on the potential for the Internet to form new public spheres can be found in Mark Poster’s interview with Wired magazine about the potential of the Internet to become a new public sphere.
An early activist attempt to create a communication infrastructure along these principles was Indymedia , [see also Aotearoa Indymedia] a movement which grew alongside the anti-globalisation/alter-globalisation movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Angered and frustrated by the corporate media’s reporting of large scale protests and political events, whereby the perspectives of governments, police forces and corporations were regularly presented whilst those of the protesters themselves were rarely heard, an international community of media activists worked on creating a system that would allow people to post news to Indymedia websites themselves. Whilst this sounds somewhat mundane and ordinary now, only 15 years ago, the notion that news could be written by regular people rather than professional journalists was seen as a radical political gesture. Within a few years there were Indymedia collectives and websites in over 150 different countries spread across the globe and the idea that news was something which could be produced by citizens as well as journalists had taken off.
Indymedia, as an organisation formed along anarchist/autonomist lines, with an anti-hierarchical series of Principles of Unity, was hugely successful within activist circles. However, the lack of formal organisation often proved a handicap in making the platform more mainstream. As time went by, there were an increasing number of commercial platforms which enabled users to create their own news on sites like Blogger, Livejournal and WordPress. Unlike Indymedia these sites were not overtly political, but allowed users to curate their own sites or blogs on any topic they wished, and allowed users considerable control over the look, feel and function of their site without requiring the knowledge of any HTML or CSS (the languages used to write content and styles for web pages). Consequently, as the 2000s went on, user generated content moved away from being a radical political act, and became increasingly integrated into the ways that news and media are generated. Commercial outlets such as The Guardian or Stuff.co.nz’s Stuff Nation incorporated user generated stories and comments into online platforms. Major UGC platforms such as Youtube and Blogger have been bought by larger corporations such as Google, and other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become multi-billion dollar corporations.
This could be understood as a case of what Brian Winston has described as the law of the suppression of radical potential, whereby the potential to create radically new socio-political relations inherent within new technologies are constrained and suppressed by the range of pre-existing institutions and conventions. These effectively work to re-integrate the technology into an altered but not radically transformed society. Consequently, we can understand that the rise of user generated content and citizen journalism has in numerous cases provided mechanisms for previously marginalised and unheard voices to be heard by millions, in some cases bringing about notable changes.
For example, during the G20 protests in London, Ian Tomlinson, a man unconnected to the protests died whilst walking home from work. The initial police account maintained that there had been no contact between Tomlinson and the riot police, and that an autopsy showed that he died of a heart attack. Four days later, it emerged that a witness had video footage showing Tomlinson suffering an unprovoked assaulted by a police officer, and falling violently to the ground. He walked away, but then later collapsed and died. A subsequent second autopsy revealed that Tomlinson died from internal bleeding. Had there not been the widespread diffusion of video cameras amongst the population, this evidence would not have been captured, and the initial (and factually inaccurate) police account would have stood.
However, whilst this and other examples can demonstrate how the diffusion of media production and publishing tools has made a tangible difference, the dominant modes of UGC and social media are far from the non-hierarchical and non-commercial model that Indymedia sought to introduce. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Pintrest and Instagram are all commercial entities which exist to make a profit through collating user data which is willingly uploaded as content, and using this to sell highly targeted advertising. Whilst they evidence a departure from tradition media corporations, they have the same economic imperative and so the radical potential of the Internet – to provide a decentralised, non-commerical model of community-orientated communication – is suppressed and re-integrated into capitalism. As Jodi Dean powerfully argues, it can instead be considered an expression of neoliberal capitalism, whose emphasis on being an individual consumer (rather than part of a homogenised mass culture) mirrors the activity found within social media.
Dean’s arguments about communicative capitalism (a term she applies to describe contemporary capitalism) are a huge departure from much of the cyber-utopian discourse which is regularly heard from places such as TED, Wired and mainstream media accounts of technology and politics. There we are more likely to hear that interactive technology has made society more open, accountable and democratic. That networked technology has made society a better, more connected and more enjoyable place for people to live in, rather than being used to maintain material inequalities and relations characterised by exploitation, immiseration and unsustainability. Typical of this type of pro-technology argument is Clay Shirky’s work around social media as seen in the video below.
Shirky’s position contrasts sharply with that of Evgeny Morozov, who explores ways that the technologies which Shirky evangelises about are used by governments around the world as tools for surveillance and spying upon their populations and others spread across the world. Indeed, the disclosures in 2013 from Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked a cache of top secret documents to the Guardian newspaper and fled the US as he felt morally compelled to inform the world about the extent of the US National Security Agency’s online surveillance apparatus. There are undoubtedly elements of social media and user generated content which support democracy and allow democratic debate to emerge. However, these positive elements are regularly embellished and over-emphasised, as Morozov demonstrates in this extract which explores the use of social media in the failed Iranian revolution in 2009, which was dubbed the Twitter revolution in the West:
This was globalization at its worst: A simple email based on the premise that Twitter mattered in Iran, sent by an American diplomat in Washington to an American company in San Francisco, triggered a worldwide Internet panic and politicized all online activity, painting it in bright revolutionary colors and threatening to tighten online spaces and opportunities that were previously unregulated. Instead of finding ways to establish long-term relationships with Iranian bloggers and use their work to quietly push for social, cultural, and—at some distant point in the future—maybe even political change, the American foreign policy establishment went on the record and pronounced them to be more dangerous than Lenin and Che Guevara combined. As a result, many of these “dangerous revolutionaries” were jailed, many more were put under secret surveillance, and those poor Iranian activists who happened to be attending Internet trainings funded by the U.S. State Department during the election could not return home and had to apply for asylum.
Evgeny Morozov – The Google Doctrine
Consequently, we can see that there are a range of competing discourses surrounding (media) technology and politics. These range from claims that new technologies transform politics in ways that form more participatory, democratic and just societies, to those which see technologies as tools which are employed to continue centuries of exploitation and inequality.
- What kinds of technologies can you think of that might enhance democratic participation?
- What kinds of technologies can you think of that might inhibit democratic participation?
- What relations do you think exist between participatory media and democracy?