For more than 50 years media theorists have written about and debated the liberalizing effects of new-media technologies. Today we are still debating whether new-media affords liberalization “to the masses”. The aesthetic dimension of 21st century media represents a paradigm shift in the way humans interact with the world around them, and this aesthetic dimension is the key in understanding how new-media liberalizes.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger argued, in 1970, that new-media have finally broken down the one-way stream of communication from broadcaster to receiver, and in so doing has abolished the class divisions of the ‘control’ of the mode of production. (Enzensberger, H. 1970) The division between the producer and the consumer had up till then reinforced the social division of class structures. This change, he argued, cannot merely be interpreted “in terms of trade unionism or liberalism”. A larger structural change had taken place that would eventually cause the decline of national sovereignty. But this change was not only a ‘liberalization’ of the working classes. Electronic media is pervasive, and by its nature it does not adhere to the needs of any class – “because of their progressive potential, the media are felt to be an immense threatening power…for the first time they present a basic challenge to bourgeois culture.” (Enzensberger, H. 1970)
Interestingly, the idea of producers on the one hand and consumers on the other, was to him “not inherent in the electronic media”. We only believe (or believed) so because the economic and administrative approaches to media made them so.
He describes the aesthetics of written literature and how Radio, film, and television have taken the same form: as a one-way monologue that “isolates the producer and reader.” However, the structure of electronic media is not one-way, it is two-way – “the structure (itself) demands interaction.” (Enzensberger, H. 1970)
Let us assume and set aside the fact that all media require ‘audiences for profit’ in order to exist. Can the aesthetics of new-media that Enzensburger alludes to answer whether technology is a form of control over the masses, or a liberating force?
Alexander Galloway (2010) analyzes new-media in comparison to ‘old media’ from an aesthetic point of view. He argues, “The entire world is one of proximity…we have an innate desire that the world be brought near us.” (Galloway: 1) For this to happen we need to become passive viewers to allow media to bring us closer with content. In so doing we also have to let go of our presence whilst doing so. For example, we forget about our own presence when in a cinema. But, he argues, the computer does not have the same effect on us because it is a totally new form of medium entirely.
In our use of digital devices the image of man is not the object that is being brought closer to the audience. The computer is the object with which we interact – the computer is the object. “Man is the object of photography, painting, or cinema, and data is the object of the computer.” (Galloway: 2) In the use of digital media we project ourselves onto the world, instead of simply seeing the world through another lens (for example in photography). Thus the ways of engaging with a digital medium is limitless – for as long as we continue to recreate ourselves, we will continue to recreate how we use digital devices. Digital devices are not a ‘formal medium’.
And herein lies the answer. Because 21st century new-media is characterized by people projecting themselves onto digital media – participating in the medium – the medium itself is liberalizing. Power is defined as the ability to do something or act in a particular way. People have and will continue to have a choice in how they project themselves. Thus the ‘power’ of digital media is in the ‘hands of the masses’ and not in the hands of the owners of production.
In this same vein, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) provided a new perspective to the analysis of media and the way it relates with humans. One of his most ‘important’ observations was that The Medium is the message. It explores the nature of the medium not as a dissociated instrument but as an extension of human senses in a new technical form. He also describedMedia: Hot and Cold where he observes media in terms of the amount of participation required from the audience. Because the aesthetics of digital devices allow for and require users to interact with them they are a ‘cold media’. And our interaction, engagement, and participation is natural – we are naturally extending our human senses onto these media.
Howard Rheingold (2002. Smart mobs: The Next Social Revolution) takes this notion and extends it further. He predicted that technology in the hands of the masses would not only ‘liberalize’ us as individuals, but that digital devices would become a social instrument.
Through the liberation of the crowd the crowd becomes a kind of technology itself, as it generates expectations and circulates messages. This is because the technology of the crowd exists across temporal divides, so that people feel close whereas they physically might be not. The ‘mobile crowd’ is able to organize itself efficiently, its design enables the quick and pervasive spreading of messages, and if certain members or ‘pods’ leave the crowd, the structure continues to exist. By contrast, in a top-down structure if you shutdown top management the whole system crumbles.
Rheingold argued that Networked forms of social organization may be the newest major organizational form – after tribes, hierarchies, and markets. His main point is that the evolution of organizations have always disrupted – “when hierarchies replaced traditional, tribal, and consultative forms of organization, societies suddenly run according to rank were violent and bent on conquest, long before the hierarchical form matured through the institutionalization of states, empires, and professional administrative and bureaucratic systems.” (Rheingold, H. 2002)
Rheingold predicted this in 2002 long before the mass adoption of social networks today. My point is that Rheingold’s prediction happened naturally because of the aesthetic nature of the digital medium. It was not something that was forced upon consumers or was ‘sold’ to them. People themselves choose to participate in social networks and networked forms of organization. And we can directly link this with the observations of Enzensburger, McLuhan and Galloway. Social media on digital devices is a two way medium – it allows for social participation and people choose to participate.
The notion that humans enjoy cooperating to each other’s benefit given the right conditions and payoff is difficult to refute. “Common pool resource management…is social arrangement to balance cooperation and self-interest.” (Rheingold, H. 2002) This ‘new social form’ is only now possible because of the combination of “computation, communication, reputation, and location awareness”. (Rheingold, H. 2002) A new reputation system can thus now be formed, as a new “Interaction Order” has been created from the “social and technological climate”.
Some might think such a claim is ‘techno-utopian’ and unrealistic. But we should remember that the mass adoption of new media is still a new phenomenon. Because media today is characterized by user participation, because such participation is natural, because we will continue to project ourselves onto new digital devices, and because this natural participation is continually evolving, we simply cannot ‘define’ new-media. As Galloway says, “the main difficulty is…that new media may be defined via a reference to a foundational set of formal qualities…if the computer were a formal medium, then perhaps our analysis of it could be too. But my position is that it is not.” (Galloway: 7)
Today the power of new-media is in the hands of those who choose to use it, and an attempt to predict the future of such a medium is futile. A true understanding of the future of new media simply requires a true understanding of the evolution of how people will naturally want to project themselves onto media. If anything, history shows us that “interaction orders” continually evolve. The aesthetics of new-media allow the evolution of human interaction to define its future. It is thus a liberalizing medium.
Enzensberger, H. Constituents of a Theory of the Media. New Left Review. 1970. 64: pp. 13-36
Galloway, R. 2010. The Anti-Language of New Media. Discourse. 2010: 32.3 pp. 276-284.
McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media (The Extensions of Man). Gingko Press.
Rheingold, H. 2002. Smart mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Perseus Publishing.