Week 2 reading reflections

This week’s readings explored the nature of technologies and their effects and the famous statement by McLuhan “the medium is the message” (Murphie & Potts 2003, p. 11). I disagree, at least fundamentally, with the technological determinism theory, that “society is shaped by its dominant technologies” (Murphie & Potts 2003, p. 12). Technologies are born from and into a certain period in history, and in some cases are not simply the next logical step in the evolution of technical development but a direct result of that time and the events that shaped it. This rejection of technological determinism pushed me in the direction of cultural materialism and its acknowledgement that “the characteristics of a society play a major part in deciding which technologies are adapted, and how they are implemented and controlled” (Murphie & Potts 2003, p. 20). What else could account for the failure of the segway? However, at the same time it seems undeniable that technologies do have inherent characteristics that determine the way we use them and therefore the effect they have on society, at least to some degree.

This is why I found Saskia Sassen’s (2009) idea of forcing our own logic, not that of the engineers’, onto technology so interesting, especially as programs and systems are becoming more flexible making this more and more possible. We are able to create our own flows – choosing what feeds we follow, how and when we follow them. Tiziana Terranova (date unknown) spoke of the flood of data and how it both equalises and overwhelms and I think we need to choose our own logic to navigate this, whether it’s to cling tight to the tree branch of traditional hierarchy or let go and go with the flow and become strong swimmers.

I feel like the message and the medium have become more tied together, as media become even more interwoven into everyday life and interaction. For example, we share so much because we can, it’s normal now, and because we share so much new and better ways of sharing are created – so we share more. So which came first – the ability to share or the desire to? In some ways, it’s a chicken or egg scenario, a continuous cycle, blurred by the speed with which new technology develops and how quickly society reacts to it. An interesting area for research, perhaps.

Sources:

Murphie, Andrew and Potts, John (2003) ‘Theoretical Frameworks’ in Culture and Technology London: Palgrave Macmillan: 11-38

Terranova, Tiziana ‘Tiziana Terranova introduces Liquid Democracies’, transmediale (date unknown) [2 March 2011] <http://www.transmediale.de/tiziana-terranova-it-introduces-liquid-democracies>

Saskia Sassen (2009) ‘The Internet as Playground and Factory’ [2 March 2011] <http://vimeo.com/6789940>

Distribution Project – Pamphlets and Blogs

The publishing technologies of pamphlets and blogs have both had a noticeable effect of the public sphere. The public sphere is a term used generally in society to refer to information available to and discussed in the public, but has a more precise connotation in academic writing. There, it denotes a “concept for thinking about how democratic culture should work” (McKee 2005, p. vii). Jürgen Habermas, an eminent public sphere theorist, describes the bourgeois public sphere as “the sphere of private people come together as a public…to engage [public authorities] in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.” (Habermas 1991, p.27). By giving a brief overview of the histories of blogging and pamphleteering and examples of what instigated their prominence in society a context will be established that can therefore be used to examine the effect of these technologies upon the public sphere.

As is the case with many literary forms the word pamphlet has never been satisfactorily defined. However, the main qualities that differentiate pamphlets from books are their paper covers and length of less than eighty pages (Wyllie 1955) Originally, pamphlets were seen to be mainly short, quarto books. (Raymond 2003) Here, ‘quarto’ refers to the sheets used in the production. They were folded twice and thus lower in stature than the once-folded sheets making up a folio, for when pamphlets first appeared amongst the ephemeral literature found in the streets early modern societies they were distrusted and considered insignificant and unworthy. (Raymond 2003). In fact, when Thomas Bodley founded a library at Oxford in 1603 he wanted pamphlets to be excluded (Shepard 1973).

However, this changed. One of the main events that highlighted the capability of pamphlets to create controversy and stir up public opinions was the Martin Marprelate pamphlet war of the sixteenth century. Written under a pseudonym the Marprelate tracts trumpeted the Presbyterian cause and sparked in the Elizabethan state officials a corresponding anti-Martinist campaign. (Black 1997) Though the Martinists were fighting a losing battle, against not only state opinion but that of the public as well, it the “style, not his arguments on church government, that would ultimately have the greater impact.” (Black 1997, p. 708) The amalgamation of fiction, colloquial prose and references to everyday life in the tracts and the sheer infamy that surrounded them enlightened others to the social and public possibilities of pamphleteering (Randall 2004). The French Civil Wars were another way in which the pamphlet was cemented into the fabric of everyday English social life.  While news concerning wars had been published before the French Civil Wars resulted in increase in both production of pamphlets and regularity of the pamphlets produced. (Randall 2004)

While pamphlets began as an unreliable and trivial news source this changed dramatically over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The “pamphlet became a pre-eminent model of public speech, a way of conceiving of the power of the word” (Raymond 2003, p.26) and part of everyday life, exercising a huge amount of social influence. Halasz (1997) saw them as having an effect in two main ways. Firstly, pamphlets offer access to historically and culturally important discourses and secondly to topical and ephemeral information and entertainment, the latter is also confirmed by Shepard (1973). Both of these are extremely important in the functioning of the public sphere.

The term blog was derived from “weblog”, which was in turn a combination of the words web and log. Weblog was coined by Jorn Barger in December 1997 (Perlmutter 2008) and has since given rise to terms such as the tongue in cheek ‘blogosphere,’ the collection of all blogs and bloggers. While there had been some technology for sharing ideas and thoughts available previous to the existence of blogs, such as bulletin board systems (BBSs), closed and sometimes paid systems could not compete with the open and accessible nature of the blogs, not the mention to lure of the hyperlink (Barlow 2007.)  Hyperlinks allow users to move from blog to blog, discussion to discussion and idea to idea with ease. Early technologies released by the companies Pitas and Pyra labs meant making your own blog was relatively simple (Perlmutter 2008). In the words of  Farkas (2007, p. 12) blogs are a “low-threshold technology” and do not require advanced knowledge of information technology. Today, creating a blog using a  host like Blogger (Blogger 2010) is as simple as entering a name and an email address. The popularity of blogs grew so much in fact that Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, based on Internet search data, for 2004 was blog (Farkas 2007). Estimates in 2005 saw the size of the blogosphere doubling every five months.

Similarly to the publishing technology of pamphlets and pamphleteering there are several well-known events that brought the possibilities inherent in blogs to light, many of which are concerned with politics. One such example is that of the resignation of Senator Trent Lott, whose comments were purported to have racial undertones (Barlow 2007).  The major news media, for all intents and purposes, ignored this but the blogger refused to relinquish their grip. The combined pressure of the blogs eventually led to Lott’s resignation.

Thus it can be seen that emergence of both blogs and pamphlets were significant events. McKee (2005) comments upon how it is generally agreed that Western societies changed dramatically during the seventeenth century, with print being a main affecter of change. However, beginning nineteenth century and certainly by twentieth century conversation had become a product in the marketplace (Halasz 1997).  When Barlow’s (2008, p. 3) comment that the supposed reclaiming of the public sphere “ through the blogs is, in some resects, nothing more than a return to the type of debate and journalism practiced in the United States before the tremendous growth of the commercial news media” is considered it could be said that activity in the public sphere simply had a brief rest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before awakening again in the advent of the Internet. Whether the same type of activity was present in each time period remains to be seen.

One similarity between the two publishing technologies is that both wrested power away from ‘top-down’ institutions, in the case of pamphlets this was the state and the monarchy where appropriate, for blogs it was the huge mainstream media organisations. As Halasz (1997, p. 165) points out “print is, from its inception, allied with those sites and practices of high literacy.” This was astoundingly obvious in early modern life where books were costly and meant only for the monks, scholars and noble class. However, pamphlets were cheap and easily accessible to all classes. Here, the power taken from the authority was not merely the power of information or the ability to influence public opinion, though that power was certainly present as well, but the power of the actual written word (Raymond 2003). The increase in literacy that resulted actually facilitated the construction of a definable public sphere, where events and thoughts pertinent to the community could be reported on and debated.  With blogs on the other hand, the changes wrought in the public sphere in terms of power have largely been due to the information available. With the commercialisation of the mainstream media many people began looking for alternate sources of news. Aaron Barlow describes a personal experience of his where the events of 9/11 highlighted the “inability [of the mainstream media] to understand just how they were viewed by the public and their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their cynical reputation” (Barlow 2007, p.115) and caused him to turn to the blogs for information during an event that would shaped the history of years to come. The blogs are  “carving out a new place in the universe of organization and authority” (Barlow 2008, p.xi) and once again allowing the public sphere to carry out its intended function by giving people the information they need to make decisions about their society. In a world where “two-third of Americans now believe that traditional journalism is ‘out of touch’ (Loewenstein 2008, p.7) it is easy to see why blogs had such a dramatic effect on where citizens looked for information.

However, as is often pointed out by the critics of blogs and also by their supporters, the information provided is generally unreliable. The ability to post anonymously and the ease with which seemingly sound sources can be fabricated does result in a lot of false information. Furthermore, the content published using blogs is usually considered to be subjective. The point that must be remembered here is that this passion and emotion is expected. The function of the public sphere is mainly to discuss, not simply to report.  Barlow (2007) celebrates this lack of objectivity. The lack of hidden agendas can strangely increase our confidence in a blogger. Expertise is of little consequence in the blogosphere, instead reputations are built on content posted and opinions contributed in the virtual world. The hierarchy of prestige is radically rearranged as conversations and discussions flow, an example of democracy at work. This is not the case with pamphleteering. While it is true that pamphlets were not objective, the war pamphlets that reported only good news based on personal letters from the battlefield is proof of this (Randall 2004), it was still people with the necessary funds who were printing the pamphlets. A pamphlet could stimulate oral conversations at taverns and market stalls but there was no direct way for the reader to reply. The only written conversation taking place was the usual ‘call and response’ from the two opposing parties generally seen in pamphlet wars. Therefore, while pamphleteering did allow for the construction of a public sphere it did not allow for anywhere near as much distribution contribution of content as the blogosphere.

Finally, there is the physical nature of the material produced and it consequences for circulation and preservation. Blogs create digital content, and as Barlow (2007, p. 103) so neatly sums up “on the Internet, nothing disappears.” Thus, an archive of the public sphere is automatically created and the ‘I told you so response’ is much more effective. Furthermore, circulation is completely simplified. All that is needed is an Internet connection and this has broadened the public sphere. Discussion around the globe is facilitated by the interactive and digital qualities of the blog. Obviously, this is not the case with pamphlets. They are both limited in their circulation and ephemeral in their physicality. Combined with the scorn originally placed on the pamphlet this means that only a fraction of the actual number remain.  Also, this meant that the public sphere only extended so far and was concentrated in the cities. However, both technologies did allow a wider audience than before to be reached, through the power of new technology.

It is undeniable that both blogs and pamphlets as publishing technologies have had an effect on the public sphere. The quote “pamphlets are…ubiquitous and polymorphous, they imply a generalized access to the circulation of printed discourse and thus open us the social space that will come to be conceptualized as a public sphere” (Halasz 1997, p.4) could easily refer to blogs by changing the word  ‘printed’ to ‘virtual’. However, the ‘marketplace of print’ is a very different location to the online world that exists today and as seen above, this is bound to alter the effects of each technology on the public sphere.

References:

Barlow, A. (2007). The rise of the blogosphere. Westport, Praeger Publishers.

Barlow, A. (2008). Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. Westport, Praeger Publishers.

Black, J. (1997). “The Rhetoric of Reaction: The Martin Marprelate Tracts (1588-89), Anti- Martinism, and the Uses of Print in Early Modern England.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 28(3): 707-725.

Blogger (2010). “Blogger: Create your free blog.” Retrieved 6 June, 2010, from https://www.google.com/accounts/NewAccount?service=blogger&continue=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.blogger.com%2Floginz%3Fd%3D%252Fcreate-blog.g%26a%3DADD_SERVICE_FLAG&hl=en&sendvemail=true&followup=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.blogger.com%2Floginz%3Fd%3D%252Fhome%26a%3DSERVICE_ONLY&naui=8.

Farkas, M. G. (2007). Blogs. Social software in libraries: building collaboration, communication and community online. New Jersey, Information Today, Inc.: 11-19.

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Trans. Burger, T. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Halasz, A. (1997). The marketplace of print. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Loewenstein, A. (2008). Introduction: getting on the blogging bandwagon. The Blogging Revolution. Carlton, Melbourne University Publishing: 1-15.

McKee, A. (2005). The public sphere: an introduction. Cambridge, The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Perlmutter, D. D. (2008). The Ascent of Blogs. Blogwars. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc.: 61-108.

Randall, D. (2004). “Review: Recent Studies in Print Culture: News, Propaganda, and Ephemera.” Huntington Library Quarterly 67(3): 457-472.

Raymond, J. (2003). Pamphlets and pamphleteering in early modern Britain. Cambridge, Cambride University Press.

Shepard, L. (1973). The history of street literature. Newton Abbot, David & Charles.

Wyllie, J. C. (1955). “Pamphlets, broadsides, clippings and posters.” Library Trends 4(2): 195-202.

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Macken-Horarik, M. “The children overboard affair” Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 26.2 (2003), 1-16

In this paper Mary Macken-Horarik focuses on the need for a way to analyse the “symbiosis of visual and verbal stories in media treatment” (p. 1) of subjects such as asylum seekers and the now infamous children overboard event. What is meant here is that in order to completely and fully evaluate a story in the media the “visual, verbal, typographic and layout” (p. 1) components must be examined; individually but also how they affect the whole. The author uses the children overboard event to emphasise the importance of this and demonstrate how both image and text contribute to the meaning of a “multimodal” (p. 6) text, that they are mutually dependent (p.7). To begin, Macken-Horarik gives a brief summary of the proceedings and it becomes clear that it was based on “fourth-hand” information (p. 4). However the newspaper headline treated it as fact and used an image to support this. The fact that “captions explaining the date and the details of the photographs” had been removed (p. 4) highlights the “combined effect of visual and verbal narratives” (p. 14). By altering or completely removing the accompanying words the image has been changed completely and can now be shaped by and also shape the text of the article. Macken-Horarik describes three ways, or “strategies” (p. 7), where the verbiage (9) and visual combine to create certain views or connotations surrounding the people involved in the event. The first of these is “Genericisation-Specification” (p. 7). The political leaders and other high-ranking officials are described as being “individuated” (p. 8) whereas the asylum seekers are genericised and “symbolically removed from the reader’s world of immediate experience.” (p. 8) This is compounded by the ban of photographs that serves to maintain the asylum seekers’ emotional distance from the population of Australia. Here it is the lack of visual information that is a key component in creating a particular discourse. The second strategy is “categorisation” (p. 9) which can be broken down into functionalisation, where someone is defined by what they do, and identification, where the definition is based more on who a social actor is. Identification can be further separated into classification, relational identification and physical identification. Finally, the third strategy is role allocation (p. 11). Here the reader is introduced to the actor/goal components of an image (p.11) where the boat people are shown to be the victims and portrayed in a negative way. The verbiage in the text supports and encourages this view where “the navy plays a primarily active role in relation to the boat people.” (p. 12) This is evident in the visual where a female sailor is shown to be rescuing two asylum seekers. Through both language and image selection the refugees are shown to need rescuing as a result of their illegal activities and to be deliberately placing themselves in danger. As a result the audience of this newspaper article is exposed to a particular discourse.

Schirato, T. and Yell, S. “Signs and Meaning.” Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2000, 18-33

As the author says “this chapter deals with the relationship between signs and meanings” (p. 18). It explores the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure who propounded that “meaning is relational” (p. 19) and that meanings in a language are produced by differences opposed to similarities. We can define a word or meaning only by what it isn’t in and how it relates to other words and meanings in “a semiotic system” (p. 22). However, due to humanity’s innate variation everyone has at least a slightly different view as to what these differences might be. In the reading this is addressed as meaning changing “depending on the relationship between different signifiers, and the context of those relations’ (p. 23).

Here signifier is referring to one half of Saussure’s  “linguistic sign” (p. 20), the other half of which is the “signified” or the idea elicited by the sign (p. 20). Furthermore, the relationship between them is “arbitrary” (p. 20) and thus unlikely to change, that in fact Saussure saw changes across time as “irrational forces ‘distorting the logical purity of the language system’” (p. 24). I find myself disagreeing here if I am interpreting this correctly. I have always thought that a main characteristic of language and the relationships between the words in that language was change and evolution of meaning. How else are recent appropriations of words like “wicked” and “tool” explained?

Therefore I wasn’t devastated when the author and Volosinov went on to point out flaws in Saussure’s ideas. For example, in contrast to Saussure the author states, “there are plenty of signs that are not intended” (p. 21) though this problem is explained to have been overcome in another theorist’s work. Furthermore, whether meaning can be seen as completely arbitrary is called into question and supported with a reference to Nietzsche: “production of meaning is always, first and foremost, a sign of power” (p. 22), a concept entirely relevant to media studies. I prefer Volosinov’s theory, where signs “are adaptable and changeable” (p. 26) and heavily influenced by ideology. This seems to me a more fitting way to view meanings, signs and semiotics rather than Saussure’s view of languages as “idealised, abstract machines” (p. 25).

Couldry, Nick. “The Extended Audience.” In Gillespie, M. (Ed) Media Audiences. Open Uni Press, 2005, 184-196 and 210-220

The main point that I believe Nick Couldry is endeavouring to make in this Chapter is the extension of the audience and its implications on what we consider characteristics of audience and how these should be studied. He makes the point that this “theoretical shift, inevitably, has methodological implications.” (p. 184). The audience has extended and therefore the methods of evaluating and studying must follow.

Couldry refers to three phases in the development of audience that were proposed by Abercrombie and Longhurst- the simple audience, the mass audience and the diffused audience (p. 186). However, Couldry does not agree entirely with Abercrombie and Longhurst. He prefers the term “extended” to “diffused” (p. 196). Our society is in the last stage where the scope of the audience has widened to such a degree that it no longer makes sense to study the “direct interactions of audience with a text…but something much bigger: the whole media ‘culture’” (p.187). Today’s culture is so flooded with media that “everyone becomes an audience all the time” (p.190) and therefore to study audience we must study everyday life.

 

According to Abercrombie and Longhurst, more people are inclined to “see themselves are performers” (p. 191) and this raises a recurring theme in media studies: the blurring of the distinction between producer and consumers, or in this case performer and audience. Has this led to our desire to watch “others ‘like us’” (p. 194) perform and thus the continuing existence of reality television?

 

Couldry explores what happens when this desire is taken to extremes with his accounts in “A webcam in every bedroom?” (p. 217). The proliferation of surveillance technologies in our life mean that we are often not completely certain who is watching us, monitoring us and recording our actions and therefore can never completely comprehend who are audience is, which I find slightly disconcerting. But this is the nature of a modern, extended audience. They are no longer confined to sitting in front of the television and no longer confined to consumption. As a result “being a member of a media audience is becoming a different experience from what it was in the past” (p. 219).

Teresa Rizzo. “Programming Your Own Channel.” In Kenyon, A (Ed). TV Future. Melbourne: Uni Press, 2007, 108-134

 

One of the concepts mentioned in this week’s lecture was that platforms for distribution are changing. One of the ways they are doing this is through the playlist; whether it be yours or someone else’s.  In this reading Teresa Rizzo explores the idea of the playlist and its affect on flow in culture and society, as now “playlists are just as likely to be created by viewers as they are by programming departments.” (p. 108)

 

While the playlist is not a new concept, as it has been used television networks to schedule broadcasting for years, the idea of consumers becoming producers through the creation and use of playlists is relatively recent. It is now a “common tool for viewers to program their listening and viewing preferences on a range of platforms” (p. 110). By simply uploading a video or recording a program we become producers. I thought Cover’s expression of a cause of this as the “desire for democratisation of the media process” (p. 114) was interesting and personally I love being able schedule and organise my media.

 

Rizzo uses three cases studies to investigate this: Foxtel iQ, Youtube and the iPod. As I have Foxtel iQ, a Youtube account and an iPod this reading struck a chord and led me to realise how broadcasting now retains so little control over my media use.

 

A similarity that exists between all three types of technology is the “high level of personalisation” (p. 112) as a result of playlists. Playlists allow us to structure the way we choose and receive media according to personal tastes and preferences as “programming and scheduling enters the domain of the user” (p. 117). This can be in terms of content (watching the programmes that we want to watch) and also in terms of time (when we want to watch them).  A playlist “breaks with the kind of temporal viewing associated with broadcast television” (p. 113).

 

A second aspect to the reading was the idea of flow. Rizzo focused on two main theories of this: William’s “concept of flow as a point of reference” (p. 117) and Deleuze and Guitar’s idea where “flow is marked by constant interruptions” (p. 123).  In my opinion the latter is much more relevant to today pattern’s of media use where different technologies interrupt one another continuously. Where flow was once a “sensation that [was] designed to keep viewers watching” (p. 120) as a consequence of playlist technologies a viewer has the ability and every reason to interrupt this flow and “create a multiplicity of connections” (p. 123).  Therefore, while the idea of flow in its original form may not be compatible with playlist technology, a “flow defined through interruptions” (p. 129) seems very much at home.