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New Media: Battleground for Ideological Power

The advent of “new media” as a concept was meant to create an alternative imaginary to those of mass media’s visual culture. Marshall McLuhan, in the late 1960s, established a counter value system based on the use of media designed specifically to become “extensions” of our human senses, bodies and minds and he foresaw that they would eventually form large media ecologies (McLuhan, 1964)[i]. These ecologies where characterized by a shift in thinking within which the public would become actors of social change, a mode of thinking which is now central to a wide array of techno-cultures.

McLuhan believed that the wide adoption of new media would participate in major changes in how  “man” viewed the world and would eventually lead humans to find a new type of spirituality based on a technological collective consciousness (Carpenter, 2001)[ii].  While McLuhan was speaking from within a modernist and a catholic framework, he introduced the possibility of different ideologies in media practices than those of the dominant mass media of the time. He also opened the door to different ways of thinking about media design and popularized the idea that we would eventually create a mediated public sphere. In contrast to the traditional media culture, which was based on the institutionally controlled presentation and consumption of culture, the emerging new media culture became about facilitating mediated social and cultural innovations of makers, which included the public.

The notion of new media did create the possibility for new ways of thinking about media and for considering alternate production frameworks as legitimate. Instead of considering the public as composed of viewers who passively consume images within a one way communication system, the public became active,  composed of users use media a two way systems to find information, create content, share experiences and/or invent new awareness and new social imaginaries; participants involved in a social process.  These differences in values legitimized different approaches to how one understands the “mass” or public but also who can produce mediated myths and societal imaginaries.

Social Media: evolving public societal  imaginaries

Social media is the first innovation to have become a massive “new media”. Prior to its adoption, visual culture was the dominant media culture.

Visual culture represents media, film, television, photography and web 1.0 that all served to present messages to a rather anonymous public that could only watch and admire the aesthetics of visual artefacts and of an imaginary based on greed, narcissism and alienation.

Given how expensive broadcasting was in the late 20th century, only a few had the monopoly over the production and distribution of media messages. And traditionally, at least in North America, mass media has been financed and distributed by groups or individuals who support the meta-narratives of the military industrial complex.

Similarly, until digital networks and the falling prices of computing, new media innovation was the monopoly of institutions, universities usually at the forefront of expensive new forms of production, which would then be made available to the public and private industrial sectors (Moeglin, 1994)[iii].

The rise of network culture altered these financing, production and distribution processes and as a result the social processes involved in some forms of media innovation. In effect, digital networks have challenged the institutional monopoly over media innovation. Today, the public can participate in all aspect of the media life cycle as much in the process of innovation or narrative construction.

Digital networks as Sociological Spaces

Social constructivist theorists, building on Lev Vygotsky[iv] contructivist approach to knowledge, consider that in social settings, groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels.

This is what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu[v] referred to as a “habitus”, the values, the dispositions and expectation of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life. The habitus is a type of structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.The habitus is not a tool of rational thought, it is the unconsciously hidden context of a social group. Indeed, these values which exist in any given social group, let it be professional, cultural, familial, communal, etc, are undetectable by an outsider because, during childhood, each member of the group has, often unconsciously, internalized this specific set of rules which govern language, behaviors, social hierarchies and conventions.

In the familial sphere, control of space has meant that parents and adults had monopoly over the meta-narratives and habitus children were learning from and with this control were counter balancing and to some degree controlling the degree of influence of the societal values children were exposed to at schools, in religious institutions, peer group, TV, movies, books and other media.

Today, the new media ecologies we live in have challenged this control over space and in the process, children have gained access to narratives that are altering their sense of reality far beyond what their parents used to be able to control.

Children are learning not necessarily by using media, but also and at first by watching us using them. According to Doctor Laura Marham, a Clinical Psychologist, author of the parenting blog: Ahaparenting.com:

“The way children learn values, simply put, is by observing what you do, and drawing conclusions about what you think is important in life. Regardless of what you consciously teach them, your children will emerge from childhood with clear views on what their parents really value, and with a well developed value system of their own.”[vi]

Children are constantly observing the adults in their lives and noticing their values and paradoxes. While we more or less recognize many of familial habitus, the influence of mediated ones is less obvious.

Our children are currently witnessing their parents shifting into the habitus of a new media society, where the DIY cultural ethos is now being propagated in all sectors of life, not just creative or cultural sectors.

Increasingly, children are watching their parents and other individuals use technologies to create their own myths, redefine their ideals of reality. Networked media have drastically altered the way people are potentially exposed to, and has introduced the potential of participating in the creation of, new values that have by-passed the social filters put in place by cultural institutions, what sociologists call the obligatory passage points (Callon, 1986)[vii] of social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970)[viii].

Social media are based on communication models that encompass both dissemination of ideas via content and dialogue with others. Over time, social media have facilitated the development of technological selves, by being environments where people experiment and recreate their human identity, capture and share their lived experiences, and represent themselves in relation to the world in which they live (Foth, et al. 2011)[ix].

They entered life at a time when Youtube has become a visual “human” library, similar to the “memex”, imagined by Vannevar Bush: “an electromechanical device enabling individuals to develop and read a large self-contained research library, create and follow associative trails of links and personal annotations, and recall these trails at any time to share them with other researchers. [x].

Children are beginning to do their own research and production online (Ito, 2008)[xi] at a time when virtual social groups have now levied the power of informal communities to create official and legally binding social organizations that legitimize and protect the values they cherish. An example of such structures is Creative Commons that has emerged to protect humanist values and the right to share information and content.

Many of our children do not know of a world that distinguishes between online and offline worlds. Their parents are people who are incorporating and relying heavily upon virtuality within their everyday personal realities (Miller, 2008)[xii].  They are used to the non-narrative nature of social media and expect its content to influence real life events.

Some of them may come across as a youtube video documenting the use of Second Life within the health sector. They may form an idea of a mental health system where digital space is used as an informal meeting place by people suffering from chronic depression who can use it to re-accustom themselves to human contact and social rules before re-entering physical social life. It may become quite normal to them to become part of collective technological identities.

Other children may have seen their digital activists parents rallying people to their causes. In 2012, the “idle no more” movement in Canada is demonstrating the power social media now has in creating a public force of resistance demanding new social and cultural realities. To children witnessing or participating with their parents to these activities, having the ability to undermine the power of the dominant social, cultural and economical class may seem like a right.

Within a more neo-conservative family, other children may have watch their parents collapsed commercial and social interests by using their individual buying power and their social networks to put pressure on institutions and influence their actions. These children may have learned already that it is possible to take advantage of the fact that reputation influences market shares by becoming political consumers who convert the apolitical marketplace into a site of contestation at the intersection of globalization and individualization that influence corporations, international organizations, general labour and production practices.

Our children are born in a world where industrial enterprises have also derived substantial value from informal collectives and user-created content. Businesses are honing upon this process and softening the boundaries between their institutions and the public sphere. Users are invited to participate in the economy as an equal, co-creating value with peers and companies to meet their personal needs (Tapscott  and Williams, 2006)[xiii].

This comes at a time of great social unrest due to economic and social decline. Today’s adults have seen the transformation and seemingly perpetual demise of western economies and know that today’s young adults, will find themselves without the promised future of a professional that education once guaranteed. The elimination of retirement age, the decrease in salaries and cost of life all have created impossible futures within the current capitalist framework. The aggregation of these pressures throughout their everyday lives, combined with the understanding that the expectation that they should meet or exceed the standards of living of their parents is unsustainable, is the context for a quiet revolution that may grow to be very loud in the next few years.

According to Bill Moyers, the middle class of America is dying (Moyers, 2010)[xiv] and, in Canada, at least in Toronto, it is expected that the middle class will represent less then 10% of the urban population within 25 years (Hulchanski, 2010)[xv]. The lack of availability of clean food and other products is affecting families and as more children are suffering from reaction to an increasing toxic environment. Parents and others are quietly changing their modes of life, creating alternative forms of markets, collectives and legitimizing other values of living.

The massification of new media ethos is reintroducing on a large scale, the notion of personalized norms and values. Via the Internet, Mobile phones and digital media, some people are finding their own voice. In parallel, science is also experiencing a paradigm shift where the demonstrated individuality of our genes, neural systems and cells is challenging many of the medical beliefs of the last few centuries.

Such a shift is exemplified by the way in which the notions of difference (physical, mental, cultural, etc) and diversity have been portrayed as pathologies and/or diseases that must be rectified, cured, and/or eliminated.  Yet, difference is core to our “being” (Deleuze, 1968, p. 39)[xvi], it refers to a real system of differential relations that creates actual spaces, times, and sensations. As we will examine in the next chapter.

Next: The Aesthetics of Space

[i] McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[ii] Carpenter, Ted (2001). “That Not-So-Silent Sea.” In: Donald Theall. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. McGill-Queen’s University Press. pp. 236–261.

[iii] Moeglin, Pierre (1994). Le Satellite éducatif. Média et expérimentation, Collection

“Réseaux”. Cent. Paris.

[iv] Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[v] Bourdieu, Pierre (1990). “The Logic of Practice”. Polity Press.

[vii] Callon, Michel (1986). “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay.” pp. 196–233 in Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, edited by John Law. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[viii] Bourdieu, Pierre, and Passeron, Jean-Claude (1970). La reproduction. Paris: Minuit.

[ix] Foth, Marcus, Forlano, Laura, Satchell, Christine, & Gibbs, Martin (Eds.) (2011) From social butterfly to engaged citizen: Urban informatics, social media, ubiquitous computing, and mobile technology to support citizen engagement. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussets, United States of America.

[x] Drexler, Eric (1990). Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[xi] Ito, M. (2008). Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out. Keynote address for the Association of Internet Research, Copenhagen, Oct 16th, 2008.

[xii] Miller, David (2008). The Comfort of Things. Polity: Cambridge.

[xiii] Tapscott, Don and Williams, Anthony D. (2006). Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Portfolio Trade

[xv] Hulchanski, David. (2010). The 3 Cities within Toronto, Income Polarization. Cities Centre, University of Toronto, 2010. http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/curp/tnrn/Three-Cities-Within-Toronto-2010-Final.pdf

[xvi] Deleuze, Gilles. (1968). Différence et repetition. PUF: Paris.  


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