Monday, June 30, 2008


So, a while back, my friend and co-blogger Mark Brewin took on the forces of evil, which had (presumably right before tying our heroine to the train tracks) made the internet out to be some kind of revolutionary and good, democratic thing. I'm going to follow him up on this, with a coda that presents my real ideas here.

Brewin offers two claims, and encouraged us to follow up on them:
CLAIM THE FIRST: "While [the internet] may reduce the importance of some forms of social inequality, it builds upon, perhaps even heightens, the importance of others." He takes as an example the supposedly democratic wikipedia, which in fact is pulled together not by an army of the hoi polloi, but by a relatively small group of people. Prospective wikipedia entries that don't fit the definitions of 'entry-worth' that are maintained by the unseen overlords simply don't make it online. Concludes Brewin: "Wiki as Internet elitism, disguised as Internet egalitarianism."

CLAIM THE SECOND: "At the same time, it would be misguided to ignore the ways in which the new media environment has increased the scope for human creativity, and opened up possibilities for human interaction that most of us couldn’t even have imagined as recently as ten years ago." Brewin mentions nothing in support of this, because he doesn't have to. The evidence is all over the place.

Right, Mark. Good. But where do we go when we pull these things together? There are lots of opportunities. Here is one idea and a meta-level observation:

ONE IDEA: The idea of visibility seems to be an important dimension in much of this. Think about it this way: wikipedia is an example of an online application that allows for new modes of visibility/revelation/publicness (in that it is relatively open to a relatively large number of people to post and edit entries), while the system by which this visibility is policed is itself not very visible. In this sense, there is an ambivalence of visibility about the whole thing, in that the act of concealment/occlusion is part of the revelation. Foucault made a big deal about how the 'eye of power' worked, and how individuals (and more broadly, the human sciences & individualism) were constituted in part through the subjects being available to power because they were monitored by power.

But here we see the reverse (and NOT the opposite) of this: we see how visibility is something that is used (and how concealment of visibility is used) by online interactants. That there is something being concealed at all times is not a difficult suspicion to maintain; it is an obvious Kenneth Burkean starting point. The question I pose is this: how persistent is this blend of visibility and concealment? Is this what it's going to be like for a while? I doubt it...

From a different angle, I think we see yet another instance of how we are, in Alvin Gouldner's terms, moving from a society organized by "the command," to a society organized around "the report." The wikipedia example shows us a snapshot of a societal arrangement that makes it so that facts (here in the obvious form of a compendium of facts that is obviously based on an encyclopedia model) matter, and reflection about how those facts attained their fact-y status is less easy to come by. And, as umpteenth journalism scholars have pointed out: fact-based reporting is VERY difficult to accomplish with a large number equal participants. If objective reporting survives as an ideal in newsrooms, it is at least partly because 'facts' lend themselves to the kind of hierarchical arrangements that newsrooms have created. Wikipedia and other less-than-directly-democratic online ventures show us that the facts go well with hierarchy. If you want democracy, you better be prepared for something much messier than facts.

META-LEVEL OBSERVATION: I have grown weary of attempts to understand these issues simply by identifying utopian and dystopian claims surrounding new media. Historians of the media often do this, and it often looks like this:
Premise 1: Old media were often described in utopian and dystopian terms. [examples provided]
Premise 2: This new media phenomenon is also described in utopian and dystopian terms. [examples provided]
Conclusion [with my own sarcastic use of un-grammar]: The computers is nothin' new.

This approach to history and new media is easy to find, and there are some serious problems with it. First: This approach is usually invoked in an appeal to get 'past' technological determinism (a la McLuhan). But in almost all cases, this technological determinism is chucked overboard in favor of a cultural determinism. And it's often a flavor of cultural determinism that makes it seem as if nothing ever changes. Speaking as someone who scoffs loudly and rudely at claims of novelty: there is new stuff, and the material (the technology, the economy, and other stuff) matters.

Second: This approach is often motivated by an approach to historiography that often goes unstated (indeed, some practitioners of it may be surprised to find it called an approach at all). It goes like this: I'm going to tell you about old and new media, but in order to do so I will ignore the media themselves and just tell you what a couple of elite newspapers have to say about those media. Those who have done media history know why researchers make this choice: newspapers are a heck of a lot easier to find (and understand) than other historical data. But I think it's time to get past the purely discursive, cultural, continuity-favoring approach to technology. But easier said than done.