Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

Blog and project archive about media theory, science fiction theory, and creative coding

Beyond Sociology and Media Studies, by Alan N. Shapiro

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From Marxism to Media Studies and Beyond

The study of the societal consequences and existential meanings of digital technologies has today, in effect, merged with media studies: this is called the field of “digital media.” John M. Culkin brought his “Center for Understanding Media” from Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio to the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1975. Deep into the 1980s, there was still very little respect shown to the study of media in sociology departments at American universities. Academic sociology remained focused on areas such as social organization, social psychology, the family, gender, demographics, urban sociology, statistical and quantitative research, and criminology.

Marxist-oriented sociologists continued to insist for a very long time that economics and class relations (or antagonisms) between workers and capitalists in the sphere of production are the driving force or “determining instance” that explains society and the world. Marxists did not take seriously continental “post-modernist” thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, who prioritized the study of media, consumerism, cultural semiotics, and the overwhelming power of images and rhetoric to destabilize modernist truths and certainties.

During the 1970s, Marxist luminaries like Fredric Jameson and Mark Poster resisted the hyper-reality and simulation intellectual theses of Baudrillard. Then, in the books Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) and The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context (1990), Jameson and Poster, respectively, changed course and confronted earnestly the Baudrillardian simulacra (copies without originals). They then attempted to synthesize the awareness of post-modern culture’s virtualizing detachment from stable references together with the perennial Marxist assurances of the primacy of production, and the corollary privileged revolutionary cognitive-historical perspective of “the proletariat.”

Jameson claimed that aesthetic production had become an extension of the production and fetishism of commodities as analyzed by Karl Marx in the first chapter of Das Kapital. Poster swapped out the “mode of production” for the newer “mode of information.” For Baudrillard, on the contrary, the abstracting and nihilistic forces of ubiquitous product advertising, linguistic signifiers without signifieds, and visual simulacra have put an end to the era of production, and have thrown us into a situation of the disappearance of meaning and communication, and the possibility of new radical and ironic reversals of the system.

The golden age of sociology was the prevalence of the knowledge paradigm whose primary object of investigation was “the social.” Now we are in the golden age of media studies. The media have become the object of inquiry of the currently dominant knowledge paradigm of cultural analysis and in the humanities. But the intense emphasis on media is now starting to reveal itself as being a resistance to a newer paradigm which is emerging, in a way analogous to how sociology resisted media studies and media theory in the 1970s and 1980s. This third paradigm now coming into view has something to do with existence, experience, experiment, and engagement; with emotions and embodiment; with code and with the importance of posthuman agents; with the transdisciplinary relation between philosophical morality and computer science algorithms; with the street art of “the construction of situations”; with post-scarcity and post-economic post-work; with pragmatic-utopian visions of a better society; and with “technological anarchism.”

For a long time, we contemplated and spoke about the information society. Then in the 1990s came the Internet and online existence. It is often said that Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian founder of worldwide media theory (who published mainly in the 1960s and 1970s), predicted the World Wide Web (a globalized hypertext-and-multimedia electronic network based logistically on the URL addressing system, HTML page layout language, and HTTP communications protocol invented by Tim Berners-Lee of the European physics research organization CERN).

By 1992, the “global village” Internet had expanded to more than one million connections, up from only the 213 computers which comprised it in 1980. 1995 was the breakthrough year for the Internet when it reached the scale of twenty million computers. In 1994, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, which would become the most important portal for online shopping. In 1995, online auctions and online buying-and-selling (to some degree “anarchistically” or peer-to-peer with an apparently limited institutional “middleman”) began resolutely with the establishing of eBay. The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which is infused with a democratic spirit since almost anyone is allowed to contribute or to edit articles, was launched in 2001. Facebook, which has become the world’s largest social media and social networking site, got started at Harvard College in 2004.

Now Science Fiction is Living Us

Now the next generation of digital technologies is upon us. We are exploring primarily three advanced digital technologies: Artificial Intelligence and moral algorithms, Virtual Reality and “Mixed Reality,” and the transformation of the economy in an anarchistic decentralized direction thanks to the blockchain and similar technologies. A discussion about contemporary and imminently approaching digital technologies and a discussion about science fiction are synonymous. Instead of saying that we are now living science fiction (that the previously imagined future has been realized), it makes even more sense to say that science fiction is living us (its ubiquity has thrown into doubt our assumptions about who we are).

Mobile Phones, Personal Digital Assistants, Smartphones

Martin Cooper was the leader of the engineering team at Motorola that designed the first cellular portable phone prototype (called DYNamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) in 1973. It was ten more years before Motorola’s portable phone was made available to the public. Cooper says that he was inspired by the handheld “communicators” of the Star Trek: The Original Series TV show of the 1960s. The communicators on Star Trek were compact units with a flip-up transceiver antenna grid. Opening the flip-antenna portion activated the communications device, which one could then speak into without dialing. The MicroTAC was introduced by Motorola in 1989 as the world’s first flip-phone design.

The first Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network was up-and-running in Finland in 1991. IBM’s Simon Communicator, introduced by BellSouth in 1994, was the first significant Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). It integrated a phone, fax machine, touchscreen and keyboard; and included applications software for calendar, appointment scheduler, address book, notepad, e-mail and games. 1999 saw the launch by Nokia of the 3210 mobile phone, which sold more than 160 million units, and the 7110 model, which was the first portable phone to incorporate World Wide Web Internet access, making it an important precursor of the “smartphone.” In the same year, GeoSentric brought out a phone with GPS and mapping features, and Kyocera released the Visual Phone with peer-to-peer video communication. In the year 2000, Sharp was the first to market with a camera phone (the J-SH04). In 2002, RIM sold its first popular multi-purpose BlackBerry combo phone and PDA, focusing on e-mail, text messaging, and Web browsing as applications. Later smartphones also became very adept as music players.

Microsoft introduced the Pocket PC in 2002, and Windows Mobile was available soon after that on many PDA devices. But it was Steve Jobs of Apple who really got the information transfer speed, and the usability of the direct-finger-input user interface of the capacitive touchscreen smartphone right with the iPhone in 2007. The iPhone abandoned the physical keyboard in favor of an on-screen keyboard simulation. Smartphones using Google’s Android look-and-feel and operating system started to appear in 2008. By 2013, there were more than two billion smartphones in the world. iPhone and Android-based smartphones now dominate the market, with their broadband network connections, and wireless Local Area Networking (Wi-Fi) capabilities.

The smartphone as exemplary technology of our times brings forcefully to our attention the urgent requirement of inventing and defining a new knowledge paradigm beyond those which take as their object of inquiry society or “the social” (sociology) or media (media studies, media theory). This potential new field of study must exist at the border between theory and practice – bringing transdisciplinary knowledge from the arts, humanities, and social sciences (and computer science) to bear on questions of the active design of informatic technologies and “interactive” experiences. We need a study of the aesthetics and morality of algorithmic design and control of the world by the democratic participant.

Sociologists always wanted to believe in something called “the social.” But this was wishful thinking on their parts – the masses always resisted being “known” or accounted for by the surveys and questionnaires of the market and “social” researchers. This resistance has often taken the form of a hyper-conformism to the questioners’ polls and expectations.

Media theory is a promising candidate. Media theory can certainly provide us with a promising approach, to a certain extent. Marshall McLuhan was the founder of worldwide media theory. McLuhan emphasized that he was not making any moral judgments, that he was describing developments as they are. Every technology or media is both a gain and a loss. This makes absolute sense, but it does not make one value-neutral. To be value-neutral is not the same thing as seeing what was destroyed and created, what was phased out and what came new into the world.

Media studies (or media theory) – which grew over the last few decades to be an order of magnitude more influential and better-financed at our universities than sociology – is suffering a similar fate: it is also becoming increasingly obsolete as a knowledge paradigm. In his seminal work Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan (the founder of media theory) defined a medium as being “any extension of ourselves” (for example, the wheel extends our running capabilities, and the hammer extends our arms). Our bodies and our senses (our sensoria) are extended in and by media. Even language is a medium, since it extends, in the communicational transfer, the thoughts in my head to the ears of the interlocutor.

There is something “human-centered” and Promethean about the McLuhanesque formulation, even though, in his prescient descriptions of the electronic age and the global village, McLuhan tends to depict the twilight of the democratic and individuating effects of the emblematic media of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” book as disseminator of knowledge. With advanced digital, informatic, and virtual technologies, we are well beyond “extending” who we are and what we can do (man the maker) into a continuous and hyper-accelerated “transformation” of who we are becoming, as executed by all the new systems and applications which merge with us in a “cyborg” way, the devices being by now co-determinant of the posthuman situation which we share with them. Additionally, the “new media” no longer serve the function of a “mediation” between two different “realities,” no longer enable a crossover from one to the other, as with the mediation between a story and an audience, or the mediation between a live performance and those who wish to hear it but are not physically present. With contemporary technological phenomena, algorithms and virtual-machine-states hold sway over us and govern us.

Sociology’s idea that “the social” is an objective scientific reality that is ahistorically “always there” is a myth, because “the social” is a construct (as in Berger and Luckmann’s “the social construction of reality” – even though the word “social” in that phrase is somewhat of a contradiction). Media studies’ idea that “the media” are an objective scientific reality that will always be around is also a myth. With the smartphone, for example, there is no longer the “mediation” between two realities, or “the extension of man” – instead we have a combination of many technologies, an assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari, DeLanda) or apparatus (dispositif, Agamben) with the help of which the individual seeks to govern and control the world – or rather, his or her “own” (little) world. The user seeks interaction with and mastery over the world through “informatics”: algorithmic automatic coded procedures and the combinatorial state-altering setting of systems-and-applications options. There are residual elements of “the social” in this posthuman condition, and major elements of “the media” too, but now we are essentially information processors designing through software our social, digital and virtual existence.

The smartphone is incredibly versatile and has many dimensions. I can do “anything” with it at any time, and from anywhere where my body physically and locally finds itself. My smartphone knows so much about the urban and geographical worlds, and about the locations of my “friends” at this instant, their comings and goings. I micro-manage the environmental conditions of my “smart home.” I chat with others, sometimes peer-to-peer, sometimes many-to-many or one-to-many, sometimes with virtual others in social networks. I hyper-connect, I play games, I browse photos, I snap photos, I photoshop-edit and upload my photos. I mashup videos, I read news, I schedule and control today’s activities. Thanks to the digital code which underlies all of this, I pass iteratively through all the states of the diagrammed software state-machines, as they project onto “reality” and devise new realities. I download the app. I configure the properties, permissions, and services of and for the app. I enable or disable notifications to the app. I peruse the contents of the app. Michel Foucault would call this an arena of the micro-physics of power, a machine for the governance of small things, the contested battle between surveillance by the databases of big corporations and the everyday life practices of my enjoyments and freedoms. The tug-of-war between power and anti-power.


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