March 13, 2021
There is now widespread awareness of, suspicion about, and even opposition to 'algorithms'. As widespread as the multiplicity of situations and domains in which these mysterious entities seem to be making more and more decisions: around welfare payments; university places; travel routes; and police patrol routes. Algorithms are also pervasive in media and communications. They build you customised magazines with news from several sources, help inform what movies you watch, the posts you see in your social media feeds, the way a matchmaking website pairs you with others, not to mention all that advertising and direct marketing. Media today are personalised, whether we want them to be or not. And we are becoming more than a little worried about these algorithmic agents that seem to make all this personalisation possible. Their computational decision making, their capacities at deep learning: so hidden; so obscure. In this episode, we think about the growing role of algorithms in shaping contemporary media cultures, from the early rise of apps and personalised ‘filter bubbles’ to the rather ordinary recommendation systems we rely on today. We also grapple with growing concerns for how deep structural biases around race, class, gender and sexuality are embedded into and reinforced by the way algorithms – such as those enabling facial recognition technologies – actually work. But we will also ask: what if the politics of algorithms is not just about prying these black boxes open, revealing their internal biases and perhaps correcting them? Instead, might it be that we need to understand the problematic social and cultural conditions from which these algorithms and associated technologies sprout up, get nurtured and grow?
Thinkers Discussed: Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You); Blake Hallinan and Ted Striphas (Recommended for You: The Netflix Prize and the Production of Algorithmic Culture); Raymond Williams (Keywords); Daniela Varela Martinez's and Anne Kaun (The Netflix Experience: A User-Focused Approach to the Netflix Recommendation Algorithm); Safiya Umoja Noble (Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism); Ruha Benjamin (Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code); Axel Bruns (Are Filter Bubbles Real?); Frank Pasquale (The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information); Taina Bucher (If...Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics); Mike Ananny and Kate Crawford (Seeing Without Knowing: Limitations of the Transparency Ideal and its Application to Algorithmic Accountability).
March 7, 2021
One of the more celebrated aspects of contemporary media is that it seems so much more participatory. In principle, at least, anyone can for example establish a Twitter or a YouTube account, and share their experiences or views with minimal censorious intervention. Some have explained this apparently more participatory media culture with reference to the capacities of technologies. After all, people can participate more easily when so many media functions are collapsed into an internet-enabled device like a smartphone. And yet, for others, this technological explanation is flawed, underplaying longer-term cultural shifts, which these new technologies might more properly be seen as crystallizing. In this episode, we begin with work by thinkers such as Henry Jenkins, who have notably opposed technological explanations for a participatory media culture. For Jenkins, ordinary people’s participation in media creation is about more than gadgets, devices or platforms. Rather, it is a momentous cultural shift, towards new and potentially democratising forms of 'collective intelligence' that blur the old distinction between media ‘producers’ and ‘audiences’. Jenkins’ work has been widely discussed. For some, his model of ‘a convergence culture’ overemphasises the individual agency of media participants. Sure, they may be technically freer and more enabled than in the past, but when someone creates or shares a meme, for example, they also partially reproduce or conform to cultural norms. We might also ask: does insisting on ‘culture’ bring us back to the same unsustainable technology/culture dichotomy we have challenged in earlier episodes? It is probably difficult to conceive, for example, of the cultural conditions for a so-called post-truth politics without some account of the technical affordances of social media platforms.
Thinkers Discussed: Tim Dwyer (Media Convergence); Lev Manovich (Software Takes Command); Ithiel de Sola Pool (Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age); Thomas Friedman (Thank you for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations); Henry Jenkins (Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide); Axel Bruns (Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage); Pierre Lévy (Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace); Bernard Stiegler (The Economy of Contribution); Jose Van Dijck (Users Like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content); Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene); Limor Shifman (Memes in Digital Culture); Noam Gal, Limor Shifman and Zohar Kamph (‘It Gets Better’: Internet Memes and the Construction of Collective Identity); danah boyd (Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications); Jason Hannan (Trolling Ourselves to Death? Social Media and Post-Truth Politics); Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business).
February 27, 2021
Media technologies today seem to be everywhere. Assisting us in – or invading – each and every corner of our daily existence. We have already discussed how this ubiquity is embedded into a huge range of physical infrastructures; environments where media technologies surround us. And yet, we also increasingly carry media around with us, in our pockets, hands, ears, across our eyes, around our wrists. We wear media like clothes – and we may soon implant media within our bodies. This need not be seen in the guise of science fiction. It is more interesting to see it as really quite ordinary. For a long time, we humans have shared an intimacy with media technologies. They not only affect how we see ourselves, but modulate and help produce who and what we are. In this episode, we will begin our exploration of media as embodied technologies with the humble mobile phone. Through their aestheticisation, practical uses and technological development, mobile phones were an important precursor to the myriad mobile devices we know today. Contemporary embodied technologies however go beyond being portable, or affording wireless access to online content. They are increasingly built into our bodies, and modulate our interactions with environments: automatically detecting one’s geographic location and orientation, or one’s bodily temperature and heartrate, or the ambient sound and lighting in a room. This leads to a range of issues warranting critique, which we explore with reference to increasingly popular 'self-tracking' apps and wearables. Should the significant bodily data sets generated by such apps and devices concern us? Might we need new ways to think about digital literacy, medical efficacy, privacy, and surveillance? And how might these mobile technologies be developed and applied in the future?
Thinkers Discussed: Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska (Life After New Media); Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordon Frith (Mobile Interfaces in Public Spaces); Erving Goffman (briefly); Sherry Turkle (The Second Self / Evocative Objects); Lisa Gitelman (Always Already New); James Katz and Mark Aakus (Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance); Harvey May and Greg Hearn (The Mobile Phone as Media); James Miller (The Fourth Screen: Mediatization and the Smartphone); Ian Bogost (Apple's Airpods Are an Omen); Judith Butler (briefly); Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Modernity); Daniel Palmer (iPhone Photography: Mediating Visions of Social Space); James Gilmore (Everywear: The Quantified Self and Wearable Fitness Technologies); Adam Greenfield (Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing); Kate Crawford, Jessa Lingel and Tero Karppi (Our Metrics, Ourselves: A Hundred Years of Self-Tracking from the Weight Scale to the Wrist Wearable Device); Hillel Schwartz (Never Satisfied: Social History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat).
February 19, 2021
We have already discussed the importance of paying attention to how media technologies are powerful when they are ordinary and relatively invisible. When they work like ‘appliances’ in daily life. This was the key message of McLuhan’s ‘medium theory’ as well as theories of media domestication. These perspectives are limited, however, in that they tend to imagine media technologies individually: the television, the radio, the smart home assistant. They rely on an image of artefacts showing up in our home or office; user-friendly things which extend our contact with others or provide us with certain experiences. We sometimes ignore these domesticated artefacts and things. But we almost always ignore what lies below, or beyond: the vast, dispersed infrastructures on which these media technologies depend. In this episode, we consider media technologies as large-scale infrastructures. If we were to push the boundaries, we could point to all kinds of infrastructural dependencies related about by media: electrical power; water networks; or the mining or rare metals. We will focus however on the internet, as itself a technological infrastructure. This is perhaps the only case where it might make sense to refer to ‘the Internet’ as a proper noun, with the capitalised ‘I’. Thinking of the internet as an infrastructure takes on obvious importance when we look at its history, from its inception as ARPANET, a cold war project in the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, to its more complicated interweaving with other technologies and ideas in subsequent years. While many still tend to describe the internet as an intangible or ‘virtual’ space, we will show that it in fact material, physical, subject to political manipulation and contestation, and increasingly acknowledged as rather fragile.
Thinkers Discussed: Lisa Parks (‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Towards a Theory of Media Infrastructures); James Carey (The Telegraph and Ideology); Nicole Starosielski (The Undersea Network); Jean-Christophe Plantin, Carl Lagoze, Paul N Edwards and Christian Sandvig (Infrastructure Studies meet Platform Studies in the Age of Google and Facebook); John Durham Peters (The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media); Michel Callon (Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay); Susan Leigh-Star (The Ethnography of Infrastructure); Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing); Manuel Castells (The Internet Galaxy); Lori Emerson (Other Networks); Laura DeNardis (The Internet in Everything: Freedom and Security in a World with No Off Switch / Hidden Levers of Internet Control: An Infrastructure-Based Theory of Internet Governance); Joana Moll (CO2GLE); Alexander Galloway (Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization); Gilles Deleuze (Postscript on Societies of Control).
February 5, 2021
Worries about media technologies often stem from their association with change, change that may be perceived as positive or negative. Even though we tend know very well that social and cultural transformations are complex, we also often seem prepared to think of individual media as bringing change. To believe that there was a situation before this or that media, and then another situation after. These apparently transformative media technologies have often been described as ‘new media’. This term began to acquire some currency in the 1960s, in the age of television. But its use exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Why? There were many answers: the internet, interactivity, multimedia, mobile devices, user-generated content. But for some, the new media of this moment came out of a longer-term and more general development: the rise of the computer as a media technology. Not just a new addition, to all the other technologies, but an emergent backbone for virtually all mediated communication and experience. In this episode, we look at how this argument is exemplified by the work of digital media theorist Lev Manovich, who suggests that what makes new media ‘new’ is its creation, storage, distribution and display via the language (i.e. software code) and hardware of digital computation. On a basic level, computational media all share a basic metabolism of binary code: ultimately describable with nothing more than 1s and 0s. The question, however, is broader than this: beyond previous media formats becoming absorbed into the medium of the computer, are we seeing the rise of a specifically ‘computational’ culture?
Thinkers Discussed: Lev Manovich (The Language of New Media / Software Takes Command); Mark B.N. Hansen (New Philosophy for New Media); Alexander Galloway (The Interface Effect); Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin (Remediation: Understanding New Media) Gabriele Balbi and Paolo Magaudda (A History of Digital Media: An Intermedia and Global Perspective); Lewis Mumford (Authoritarian and Democratic Technics); Fred Turner (From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism); Jennifer Light (When Computers Were Women); Mar Hicks (Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing); Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg (Personal Dynamic Media); David Berry (Against Remediation).
January 31, 2021
It is often said that media technologies provide us with a ‘window on the world’ beyond our own experience. A window not only connecting us to a distant world, beyond our immediate reach, but also to one which we can join into, and share simultaneously. One term for describing how media afford this window on the world is ‘liveness’. The most obvious example is live news coverage: journalism that is valued because it’s on location, at the event, brought to you the viewer ‘live’. But liveness is not just live coverage. It refers to mediated experiences that place a priority on the value of ‘now’ over later. A kind of experience which very often tends to rely on centralised media – from broadcasters to social platforms – as the privileged means of accessing such live experiences, perhaps increasing their power along the way. In this episode, we explore liveness first via a vignette into the experiences of broadcast journalists covering the prison transfer of presumed Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who along with their viewers, abruptly found themselves witnessing a televised murder. From there, we will consider different approaches to liveness. These approaches have in the past been rooted in the study of radio and television. But the streaming comments, images and increasingly video of social media platforms clearly demand we revive and reimagine the concept to understand new kinds of networked real-time-like or live experience.
Thinkers Discussed: Karin Van Es (Liveness Redux: On Media and their Claim to be Live / The Future of Live); Philip Auslander (Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture); Nick Couldry (Liveness, 'Reality', and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone); Annie Van den Oever (The Aesthetics and Viewing Regimes of Cinema and Television, and their Dialectics); Joshua Meyrowitz (No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior); Paddy Scannell (Television and the Meaning of Live: An Enquiry into the Human Situation); Esther Weltevrede, Anne Helmond and Carolin Gerlitz (The Politics of Real-Time: A Device Perspective on Social Media Platforms and Search Engines).
January 22, 2021
By now, you will have noticed we are not spending much if any time trying to understand media technologies in isolation. Instead, we have been and will keep putting media technologies into the settings on which they depend as well as help shape. One prominent academic concept for scholars seeking to understand media technologies in such settings is that of ‘domestication’. This refers to how media technologies – and really technologies in general – become more and more adapted to fit into everyday life. Sure, when media technologies are new, they tend to be seen as disruptive or threatening. But in time, they usually become just another ‘appliance’ used in our everyday existence, something utterly unremarkable, ordinary, even boring. In this episode, we consider this by exploring how the phonograph and early radio were intimately incorporated into social practices, structures and places, in the process shaping the nature of the media technologies themselves. Along the way, we will also consider the more recent arrival of newer digital technologies, such as smart speaker assistants and streaming services based on recommendation systems. Is a concept like domestication fit for purpose when it comes to understanding ubiquitous, algorithmically- and data-driven digital media technologies?
Thinkers Discussed: Martin Heidegger (briefly); Roger Silverstone (Television and Everyday Life / Domesticating Domestication); Jo Helle-Valle and Dag Slettemeås (ICTs, Domestication and Language-games); Lisa Gitelman (Always Already New); Shaun Moores (Media and Everyday Life in Modern Society); Stuart Hall (Encoding and Decoding); Paddy Scannell (Radio, Television and Modern Life); Michel Foucault (briefly); Saba Rebecca Brause and Grant Blank (Externalized Domestication: Smart Speaker Assistants, Networks and Domestication Theory); Ignacio Siles Johan Espinoza-Rojas, Adrián Naranjo, and María Fernanda Tristán (The Mutual Domestication of Users and Algorithmic Recommendations on Netflix).
January 13, 2021
The terms media and communications are often offered as a couplet, or even used interchangeably. But communication is a broad idea with a very long history, and the arrival of media technologies are usually seen to make possible a special form of communication, in which physical co-presence was unnecessary. The printing press, for example, is often argued to have made nations, democracies and bureaucratic states possible, allowing for the widespread dissemination of printed matter as books, newspapers, laws and scientific literature. For the first time, populations who might never meet face-to-face could share culture and knowledge. In this episode, via a discussion of James Carey’s essay ‘The Telegraph and Technology’ alongside other work, we explore how electronic media technologies such as the telegraph transformed the idea of communication itself, separating it from physical transportation. The telegraph, and the technologies that followed in its wake, allowed messages to communicate near-instantaneously. In so doing, they radically altered our experiences of time, space, distance and locality. But communication technologies are not without geography: they are always embedded in and help to produce material times and spaces.
Thinkers discussed: Doreen Massey and David Harvey (briefly); Harold Innis (The Bias of Communication); Marshall McLuhan (The Gutenberg Galaxy); S.D. Noam Cook (The Gutenberg Myth); James Carey (The Telegraph and Ideology); Jonathan Sterne (Thinking with James Carey); David Morley (Communications and Mobility); Raymond Williams (Television: Technology and Cultural Form).
January 7, 2021
Technological talk is everywhere nowadays. All manner of novel developments, good or ill, are associated with the supposed impact of technology. But when we invoke the term ‘technology’, whether in relation to media or in general, just what do we mean anyway? Do technologies drive human history? Or are technologies just tools, extending deeper social, economic, political or cultural structures? In this introductory episode, we consider different scholarly takes on how we might understand and conceptualise media as technologies. We start with one of the most famous ‘technological’ understandings of media: that of Marshall McLuhan, whose catchphrase ‘the medium is the message’ asserted that the historical or long-term effects of particular mediums were of greater significance than media content. Detractors of this assertion, such as cultural theorist Raymond Williams, argued McLuhan’s brand of ‘technological determinism’ put forward a crude and politically naive way of understanding media culture. As we'll see, though, the most useful position is probably somewhere in-between: of course technologies are cultural; but culture is also inherently technological.
Thinkers discussed: Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media); Raymond Williams (Television: Technology and Cultural Form); David Edgerton (The Shock of the Old); Ursula Franklin (The Real Life of Technology); Stephen Kline (What Is Technology?); Donna Haraway (The Cyborg Manifesto); Bernard Stiegler (Technics and Time 1); and N. Katharine Hayles (How We Think).