Theorizing New Media in a Global Context; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love New Media
Advanced computational and communications technologies play a definitive role in today’s global economic, social, cultural, political and even ecological orders. The evidence of this exists in technologies used to implement the internationalization of management, the globally shifting labor pools, transnational banking and other such signs of economic globalization. It lives as well in social, political and cultural manifestations of globalization such as WikiLeaks and the social media-fueled Arab uprisings. New media works using these kinds of technologies stretch conventional definitions of art, presenting challenges for art history and criticism, owing largely to their military and industrial origins.
While the tools that shape new media practices can have a transnational impacts and profoundly influence globalization, little critique or consciousness of globalization’s attendant issues arise within discussions of new media studies. New media tools provide contexts for potentially global-scale interaction, yet theorization around new media rarely intersects with discourses of globalization. What is the disconnect between new media’s global impact and new media’s discourses, which maintain little engagement with theorization of larger social and ethical concerns? In the context of rapid technological evolution, should the study of digital and electronic culture mirror ethical concerns, given the urgent social and political work that needs doing in the world? More specifically, when new media technologies are used for creative and other non-commercial purposes, to what degree should makers be asked to take theorization or ethical contemplation into account?
One of the persisting challenges of a theory/practice-based new media program is how to integrate theory well into curriculum. As someone occupying a leadership position in one such creative program, I regularly contemplate what roles philosophical and ethical inquiry play in innovation. In example, since computational and communications technologies have enabled the increased fluidity with which subjects move across traditional nation-state borders, universal rights discourses might be one key area of attention. Considering the rights of diasporic, transnational and migrant subjects requires greater attention as their global numbers increase. New media practitioners, to some degree, set the terms for these kinds of important interchanges. As such, they hold considerable power over the terms of engagement. If the selection and implementation of technologies shape the terms of these flowing exchanges, then it follows that the providers of those tools and contexts should possess a sophisticated understanding of what those exchanges might mean.
This essay is part of a larger consideration of the influence of advanced technology on contemporary artistic production, as well as how scholars and critics assimilate it into a cogent intellectual history. Specifically, this essay examines the intersection of digital media’s creative practices and criticalities, moving away from theories of form and procedure, and situating its scholarship in a global ethical context. How can these and other globally framed issues of social uplift extend to an area that is fundamentally concerned with perpetual innovation, and often situated in a profit-oriented context? If electronic and communication technology-based art establishes a self-critical apparatus for contemplating its cultural impacts, then what critical tools can be implemented to greatest effect? Moreover, is the discourse of new media the place to advance these and other theoretical concerns?
I should make clear that there are many individual artists whose works do consistently address important questions of their day; it is, rather, on the meta-level of the canonical or disciplinary that I make my critique. New media studies is a truly interdisciplinary undertaking that has no fixed academic home, and by extension no organized intra-disciplinary self-regulating value system or ethics – in other words, no cohesive philosophical discourse. D.N. Rodowick’s Reading the Figural1 and Mark Hansen’s New Philosophy for New Media2 and the interventions collected in CTheory.net form three examples of scholarly interventions into philosophical engagement with new media, but these are asymptomatic of the more dominant practice-oriented sector of new media scholarship. New media studies, however, as an ‘area’ or ‘movement’ in scholarship, does possess a kind of centripetal pull of ideas that requires careful consideration ‘as though it were’ a discipline. This discussion is aimed squarely at the level of discipline, particularly in regard to how new media practices are studied, historicized and its ‘object of study’ theoretically understood. Innovation and profit – which perpetually beckon to creatively oriented programs to act as ‘think-tanks’ of commercial development – do not assure lasting significance, and in this regard our fledgling movement has serious problems.
In 2008, the worth of theory for digital media was explored in a public discussion between Ian Bogost and Jay David Bolter at the Georgia Institute of Technology. During this debate, entitled, “The Value of Theory in Digital Media Studies,” both scholars pointed to the fundamental tension between what Bolter identified as the “procedural” side of digital media and the “culturalist” or critical theoretical side. Bolter asserted that critical theory is not designed to help make things; that it is not in effect “productive” in the sense of resulting in a product. Rather it is there to make an intervention in the form of critique. On this point there was no dissention from Bogost, who likewise indicated that, “theory’s purpose is to change perspective, not create output.“3 And they were absolutely correct in this from the standpoint of measurable outcomes – the critique critical studies offers could be characterized as a drag on productivity, a kind of noise that disrupts the flow of creative efficiency. This is because its concerns are not with production, but with honing a set of critical tools that vigorously assess the products of a given society for their underlying meanings and ramifications. In its questioning and self-reflection, it can be seen to slow immediate results.
Bogost and Bolter debated how the procedural and critical culturalist aspects might better dovetail, a question that particularly hounds new media theory/practice programs. Bogost suggested that the two elements mesh well in digital art production; others suggested this is demonstrated in design, or that it may be the role of scholarship to integrate the two. This seems to configure the coming together of theory and practice as the purview of artists, to relegate it to the aesthetic or the academic, as opposed to centralizing its importance for the procedural.
This question, with its attendant procedural / culturalist tension are connected to a larger contemporary crisis of higher education, particularly the conflict between the classical understanding of the university as cultivating intellectual acuity, versus the more neoliberal iteration of the university as training ground for capitalist enterprise. Writing on this crisis of academia, Gregory Jay characterized it as such:
“[a] fundamental tension arises between the academic mission of preparing students to be critical citizens and neoliberalism’s demand that they subordinate themselves to the dictates of the market. Obviously, neoliberalism has no need or desire for academic research that questions its operation, as such criticism creates ‘inefficiency’ in the market.“4
Even the tools themselves beg not to be analyzed. The clean, abstract shapes of laptops and mobile devices, inscrutable and minimalist, disguise their origins and value systems. Indeed, there are many ways in which theoretical contemplation seems not to mesh well with production. Consider, too, that Bolter and Bogost’s conversation, though urgent in its acknowledgement of an ongoing tension around procedural and culturalist considerations, foundationally posits them as binary. The framing of the argument suggests that culturalist considerations are naturally outside proceduralism, whereas I argue that makers are always, already creating and imposing value systems, through decisions they make in the processes of development and production.
Even further, I would argue that theory’s presence in new media scholarship chafes at sensitivities that arise from an overarching shortcoming in the area: new media studies lacks a unified ethos. That is to say, we may refer to ethics-based theory in our products, but that is very different from having an ethical grounding that guides, provides purpose and articulates a code for the movement. Theory provides the tools for ethical debate and self-critical reflection, and surely serves to articulate concerns that have ethical ramifications. Yet it is often seen as an external punitive force, and hence sidestepped. However, rejecting the influence of theory as secondary to production does not displace the central importance of ethics. Ethics in the disciplinary methodologies of new media should and do precede theorization; ethics should act as agreed-upon fair and honest practices in advance of whatever diverse disciplinary outcomes may emerge.
My inquiry here, however, is not merely to advocate for a cultural studies-based critique of technology. In a larger sense, new media theorists must ask ourselves as members of a common set of interests: what is important about what we do? What is so consequential that intellectuals from other fields would look to our studies to identify key ethical concerns related to technology in the global context and, more importantly, derive useful reasoning that can have impactful resonance outside the hermeneutic specialty of new media? What is it that new media studies produces that is different from what Silicon Valley does? How can our field of collective interests have global relevance – or, lacking core values – even sustain itself? What do we hope to achieve if we do not have ethics?
Consider one lynchpin of internal ethical conflict at play in new media: the imperative to constantly innovate drives technology forward – and this drive is embodied both by those who undertake the challenge of developing new technologies, as well as those who intercede, such as hackers and other interventionists. New media theorist and programmer Alexander Galloway describes this imperative as a part of a larger discussion on the political dimensions of network architecture. “Hackers,” Galloway explains, “don’t care about rules, feelings, or opinions. They care about what is true and what is possible. And in the logical world of computers, if it is possible then it is real. Can you break into a computer, not should you or is it right to…In fact, possibility often erases the unethical in the mind of the hacker.“5 Galloway refers to hackers and their relationship to code and specifically protocols, but the paradigm of “possibility eras[ing] the unethical” is quite apropos to other areas of technological development, where the pursuit of innovation demarks a frontier to be discovered as an inevitable form of progress. Technological innovation races toward the promise of a horizon where the better, modern, efficient and more functional purportedly hold libratory potential for culture. As a result, technological industry seems to function largely autonomously from a self-critical apparatus beyond that demanded by capitalism, to guide its aims. Hackers react to hierarchal institutional systems, certainly tangle with regulatory measures, and are ideologically configured as having an antagonistic relationship with capitalism. But as Galloway points out, this is separate from having an ethical framework to guide them. And in the end, their efforts may ultimately and inadvertently contribute to the strengthening of the controlling logics of protocols, by pointing out the loopholes and backdoors that are eventually sealed. Certainly, Galloway’s perspective generalizes; still, it illustrates its point well. It is this question of the ethical (as opposed to merely the possible) that requires a critical foundation, one built from sound theoretical building blocks.
I have here characterized a series of challenges, each nested inside the next: new media exists within a context of globalization, while its theorization seems not to acknowledge major ethical concerns of that context. Meanwhile new media studies is currently driven by its procedural side, while its diminished critical culturalist side seems to contradict the logic of production. However, without critical examination and contextualization, much of what new media does is indiscernible from research and development – a compromised position in the face of the tech industry and its resources. When subject to the accelerated expectations of technological innovation, such production can only temporarily impress audiences, before facing the certain doom of obsolescence. Armed with an ethics and a set of critical tools with which to self-evaluate, new media scholars and producers become social actors with agency to affect global outcomes, whose cultural context is inextricable from their innovation.
One need make no argument about the connectedness between cultural context and the tools that form the object of study for new media scholarship. Noted sociologist and scholar of globalization Saskia Sassen, in example, contests the dominant understanding of the relationship between digital and non-digital spaces. Sassen argues that the dematerialization associated with digital media is largely myth, and in fact the goings on of the datasphere are deeply bound to the material world.
“The digital is imbedded in the larger societal, cultural, subjective, economic, and imaginary structurations of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate. At the same time, through this embeddedness, the digital can act back on the social so that its specific capabilities can engender new concepts of the social and of the possible.“6
The feedback loops that she describes between the digital, the non-digital, the social and the possible evidences an interplay that is mutually influential; it potentially opens up new and fertile territories for conceptualizing our sphere of activity not as hermetic, but engaged with context and subjectivity. Sassen stops short of prescribing a call to action, or characterizing producers of digital systems as powerful makers of meaning. However, implicit in her portrayal of the digital and material is an assertion of dynamic interconnectedness: that we cannot expect to affect one element in a web of relations without exacting real consequences in other areas.
Technological development is ideologically configured as ultimately good, necessary and fundamental for progress; that the moral obligation to pursue innovation outweighs the ensuing sacrifice. It carries with it the promise of social betterment through technology, including but not limited to true democratic inclusion, a global web of consciousness and the outstripping of bodily limitations such as mortality.7 However, there remains the matter of bodies, and how advanced technology imposes itself upon subjects in the world. An array of activist scholars have challenged the ethical neutrality in technology discourses and their visual cultures, including among others: Lisa Nakamura, María Fernández, Thuy Linh Tu, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Jennifer Gonzalez and Coco Fusco. “For all the celebration of mobility and fluidity,” Fusco has written, “digital technology organizes a world economic order that thrives on a global labor pool of poor non-white people – for whom ‘access’ to many critical signifying practices – legal, symbolic, and electronic – is diminished and even denied.“8 Fusco along with many others argue for a more equitable set of relations between a global North and South, calling into question the duress of technological production on the bodies of disenfranchised laborers. These scholars are undertaking important work that deconstructs the present-day continuation of imperialist expansion and the rhetoric of technology as progress. They importantly tackle the issues of post-colonialism, hybridity, mobility, migration and Diaspora as they intersect with new media.
These are only a few perspectives, the lenses for which already exist in the array of disciplinary approaches associated with critical studies such as sociology, philosophy, political science and media studies. Seyla Benhabib, a venerated political theorist, utilizes liberal democratic philosophy to reason through the ethical challenges heightened by globalization. Benhabib emphasizes moving from the rights of citizens as defined by national identities and borders, to universal human rights, which acknowledges the increasingly porous nature of borders as a result of global flows of capital, products and bodies.9 Manuel Castells, arguably one of the most important sociologists studying the impacts of globalization and advanced communications technologies, published Communication Power, which ambitiously undertakes to characterize sweeping impacts of both online social media and traditional mass media – what he calls “mass self-communication” and its reshaping of global power.10 Castells describes a shift from mass communication to “mass self-communication”, a system with persistent, deep interactivity in which messages are conveyed from many senders to many receivers, and in which the roles of sender and receiver may be fluidly interchanged. This endows the communication subject, as Castells outlined in a 2011 presentation of this research at Cambridge University, with “a great deal of autonomy…over the institutions and organizations of communication.“11 In his thorough sociological assessment of this paradigm shift, he claims that, “the transformation of communication from mass communication to mass self-communication increases the autonomy of social actors and, therefore, the processing of power relationships in society at large.” [Cambridge, 68:35] In his articulation of the power relations implicit in this communication shift, he identifies four particular sources of power in relation to the new mass self-communication. The first, which he calls “networking power”, is the power to include or exclude entities from the system. The second, “network power” is the power to set the terms of the interactions that take place within the system through protocols. The third, “networked power”, is the power of enabled social actors over other social actors within the system. The fourth, “network-making power”, is the power to shape a system by installing protocols that adhere to particular goals and values.
How can Castells’ study of power dynamics in the communications network be applied to an analysis of new media art? Creative practitioners of new media provide frameworks for aesthetic experiences, and sometimes additionally allow users to act as producers, manipulators and senders of that information. The aesthetic experiences provided by these frameworks or interfaces result from decisions made by the context providers (makers) of those systems. Those decisions are informed by value systems, preferences, biases and subjective experience. Meaning is generated through decisions made to create the work; unselected or unimagined possibilities are foreclosed upon during this process. The end user (participant) experiences the work as a set of protocols, as something shaped, as already decided-upon. Those decisions, once made, also frame the terms of the conversation that may take place, i.e. the language of the conversation and what options or variables for communication exist. Much new media art can be characterized placing the user/participant in the role of a conduit that completes the circuit of the work. Their interaction makes the work ‘happen’; yet that happening occurs within an array of predetermined outcomes. The programmer/maker of the work, in setting the terms of the conversation, can be said to shape the limits of engagement in relation to that work. The user, in turn, also exerts pressure on the system, strengthening it by using it, but also potentially usurping its functions for unintended, bellwether purposes. In the case of new media works with little or no interaction, the terms are even more preordained.
To create a technological framework for aesthetic experience, is to assert a value system, and thus, to engage in a power relationship with the user/participant. This power relationship between makers and users exists in commercial development and is well understood in communications and media studies, but is less explored in the creative iterations of new media. And while one might argue that, to some degree, all artists (digital or otherwise) delimit the terms of engagement when they publicly present their work, the rule-based qualities of software and absoluteness of hardware’s functioning uniquely lend themselves to rational processes. If these power dynamics are especially pronounced in the case of new media, then it follows that its makers and scholars pay special attention to the underlying force of value systems to shape and delimit meaning-making in their object of study.
Clearly discourse of advanced technology is inextricable from ethical conversation. Technology implements ethics, whether or not its makers self-consciously select or even recognize their ethical positioning. In fact, I would go so far as to say that forms of technology are ethical philosophy in practice. Hence, it is imperative to bring sophisticated language and critical frameworks that enable ethical conversation to take place, within discussions of new media.
As a relatively young area of interest, new media studies need only look to another recent disciplinary struggle, namely that between art history and visual studies, for a cautionary and instructive example. Mieke Bal, a venerated cultural critic and theorist, has written of art history and its notorious lack of “methodological self-reflection,” which led to a profound crisis around its object of study, and the subsequent formation of alternative approaches to visual and material culture.12 Though this issue has repeatedly surfaced for art history, as an array of scholars brought the concerns of class struggle, race, feminist revisionism and postcolonialism to the table. Bal’s 2003 essay, “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture,” as well as the seven published responses to her work, notably struggle with the function of art history and its connectedness to other critical approaches.13 Visual culture studies, the emergent scholarly discipline, promoted analysis that brought rigorous self-criticality to the table. This radically reconfigured the objective of study not in terms of a pedigreed object but through a skeptical relationship to the object in its various webs of relation. Meaning, then, does not issue only from the form, but also context – and the analytical tools possess a kind of ‘self-sharpening’ feature. In time, the academy has seen the melding of art history with visual studies; many departments now bear both names and support both approaches as a means of ensuring the contemporary relevance of art history, while grounding visual culture in the object to some degree. Beginning in the late 1990s, most notably with the contemporary mega-exhibition Documenta X curated by Catherine David in 1997, the art world and by extension art history have been forced to contend with the role of globalization in reshaping the cultural terrain. Serious consideration of art and globality has been initiated by the phenomena of global biennials, attention to comparative modernisms rather than one Euro-modernist moment, an increasing presence of artists whose experience is marked by globalization, and the critical inroads of scholars. In light of the profound economic, cultural, and political impacts of globalization, the attention to shifting context could only be deferred for so long.
How can we, by developing a problematized relationship to our own material, continue to evolve what we do as new media experts? Now that we are finally moving beyond defining what new media is or isn’t, we are free to move on to possible tasks such as probing technological essentialism in its many forms, unveiling the workings and political urgencies of advanced technology in context, and advancing a commitment to new internationalism as constitutive of technological experience.
I would like to return once more to the conflicts of the “procedural” versus the “critical cultural,” a dualism that falsely divides the intellectual labor around technology, and that needles the anxieties of both theorists and technologists, particularly those occupying the academy. Theorists are anxious that they aren’t understood to be ‘making’ anything, that they aren’t productive, per se, and more likely slow the process of production. Further, in the cases where theorists are not also ‘makers,’ their contribution may be diminished as navel-gazing and interloping into a conversation occurring between producers. However, contrary to the idea that critical theory produces nothing, the intellectual discernment and criticality developed from training in critical methods is measurable as well, however along much longer timeframes and long-tail effects. The rigor of the resistance criticality provides refines the procedural dimension, but also introduces theoretical and ethical self-regulation to its operations. One senses, in kind, the angst of technological producers who are constantly anxious that they don’t make anything important or lasting. Innovation is always overtaken by the subsequent innovation, seemingly without end. The solution to this quandary lies in the development and valuing of a theoretical feedback loop regulated by an ethical framework that takes into account the context and players through which technological progress is made possible, and through which it enacts itself. This should be a rigorous, systemic part of the scholarship that influences the outcomes of production. The digital media we use are not neutral tools, but enact social, ethical and moral worldviews. Theorists and producers needn’t worry: the work we do is relevant; but before we study digital materiality, presentation, aesthetics or evolution, before we theorize the algorithmic or the informational, we need core ethics. For a disciplinary sense of self-assuredness that can enable new media theory and production to do good work in intellectual culture and in the world, it requires a strong ethical philosophy.
- D. N. Rodowick. Reading the Figural (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
- Mark B. N. Hansen. New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- Jay Bolter and Ian Bogost, "The Value of Theory in Digital Media Studies," GVU Brown Bag Series, 10/02/2008, http://gvu.cc.gatech.edu/node/4950 (accessed 1 June 2011).
- Gregory Jay, "Hire Ed! Deconstructing the Crises in Academe," American Quarterly 63, no. 1 (March 2011): 163-178.
- Alexander Galloway. Protocol (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- Saskia Sassen. Territory, Authority, Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 344.
- See Steve Dietz, "Ten Dreams of Technology," Leonardo 35, no. 5, (2002): 509- 513, 515-522.
- Coco Fusco. "The Bodies That Were Not Ours" (New York: Routledge, 2001), 194.
- See especially Seyla Benhabib. The Rights of Others (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- Manuel Castells. Communication Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Manuel Castells, "Communication, Power and the State in the Network Society," Cambridge University Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2011, 16 November 2011, sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1189139 (accessed on 1 August 2012).
- Mieke Bal, "Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture," Journal of Visual Culture 2, no.1 (April 2003): 5-32.
- Mieke Bal's essay fostered a lively debate and garnered published responses by James Elkins, Michael Ann Holly, Peter Leech, Nicholas Mirzoeff, W. J.T. Mitchell, Griselda Pollock, Responses to Mieke Bal’s "Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture," Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 2 (August 2003): 232-268.
Soraya Murray is an Assistant Professor in Film and Digital Media, as well as Core Faculty in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Murray holds a Ph.D. in art history from Cornell University, and an MFA in Studio Art from UC Irvine. A scholar and critic of contemporary art with particular interest in new media art and theory, and globalization in the arts, Murray has published in Art Journal, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Flash Art, and PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. Her current book project, entitled Disciplining New Media, elucidates the unique challenges that shape the reception, scholarship and historicization of new media art.
This text was first published in CTheory. The author wishes to thank her colleagues in Film + Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker of CTheory, and Derek Conrad Murray for their invaluable feedback and support of this essay. Thanks are due as well to Yiannis Colakides for his kind invitation to share this work with a new audience, and the organizers of ISEA 2011, during which I presented an earlier version of this essay.