What Is New Media? Part II
What is New Media? These four words structured into a simple question have never yielded a simple answer for me. I am constantly asked by customers, family members, professionals and strangers to explain what I am studying in college. When I tell them I am going to graduate with a Bachelor’s of Arts in New Media Communication, those who actually care; respond: “what’s that?” My usual response is to stumble embarrassingly as my mind toggles searching for the correct words to effectively describe “New Media.” I usually end up saying something along the lines of: “It’s basically a hybrid degree of Art, Communication and Information Technology.” My explanation of New Media, while embarrassingly simplistic and vague, always receives the same response: “so you’re working on computer?” At this point I just smile, and nod; “yes, basically.”
As a student on the final leg of my voyage into undergraduate education, I am daily reminded how I need to get my shit together and be able to perfect the “elevator talk,” pitching New Media in a concrete way at a moment’s notice. As someone who wants to journey further into academia beyond undergraduate studies, I understand the importance of defending one’s area of discipline or scholarship. In this piece, I will hypothetically pretend New Media is my future area of scholarship and will defend its’ viability in the world. Defending New Media as a disciplinary field of study, of course first requires defining it. New Media is the expansion of all previous communication mediums produced in the civilized world, from analog to binary.
Before the end of the 20th century, mankind’s ability to function upon the linear model of communication: “Encode, Message, Decode, Receive-Message;” was completely dependent upon the physical, at best two dimensional tools in its’ immediate biosphere. For most of mankind’s existence: wars were constantly waged over resources which could facilitate communication. Resources such as: Trees, Copper and Minerals. Due to the physical properties of print media: paper, ink, coloring and adhesive were all needed to create a printed piece of media. In Western Civilization the main texts created prior to the 16th century were ones of a theocratic ideological nature. Print media was used as a vehicle to disseminate the Abrahamic faiths of: Christianity, Islam, & Judaism. Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press which originated in the 1450's; provided the opportunity to expand print media. This expansion was not met with open arms, especially in the Catholic controlled Europe, due to the perceived removal of the Church as the official guides to “truth.” A fascinating altruism which extends to even contemporary New Media, developed from the printing press’s revolutionary power. Whenever there is an attempt to de-concentrate the means of media production, this attempt is met with skepticism and demonized by the ruling class of that time period.
This semester, “The medium is the message,” a saying of Marshall McCluhan, seemed to be one of two seminal existential truisms which pervasively shape “New Media.” The printing press if it could speak was not whispering, but shouting an exclamation of empowerment to the world around it. The machinery now able to fundamentally reshape the medium had a message: “You who had no choice but to leave the confines of your homes and enter into a singular location to hear someone’s interpretation of a single specific text (Bible, Koran, Torah), are no longer bound by these constraints.” The kind of freedom this message delivers is reminiscent to me of Jesus proclaiming to the Jews that they were no longer a “slave” to the law. The medium also became the message as the content changed once the machinery became more widely available to the masses.
The notion of content transforming once it got into enough hands is another unchangeable impact of “New Media.” Columbus sailed to the new world in 1492 and the populous needed to be convinced of the merit of this endeavor. Jamestown was founded in 1607 and before the world knew it, religious texts did not even make up one-half of printed media. The Enlightenment period of Descartes, Locke and Rosseau would never have been possible without the advent of the printing press in mid 15th century.
America would have to wait until the telephone and radio to receive its’ next paradigm shifting dynamic New Media. The telephone at first a clunky assembled jumble of trial & error, when made accessible by the masses, changed the way Americans and the world could communicate. This is another fundamental aspect of any “New Media,” any New Media changes the way we communicate. Once beholden to the slow process of relying upon the Pony Express or Postal Service to rely important information across geographic and temporal distances, people were now able to almost instantly send and receive messages they previously would have waited days for. The communication expedition function of the telephone led to economic growth and technological innovations which catapulted America into the 20th century. So far these mediums have advanced written and oral communication, the radio advanced auditory communication. The radio specifically initiated the concept of the “mass-audience.” Individuals and families separated by many miles were now able to hear the exact same thing, at the exact same time. By doing this, Media for the first time was now an experiential mode of communication which allowed for message conception and reception to occur over a non-isolated physical environment as in the Theater.
For all the possibilities and extensions of human sensory experiences of reading, speaking and hearing; which the printing press, telephone and radio created; it is important to remember that there was always some group who wasn’t happy with this “New Media.” Church wanted the printing press, wealthy wanted the telephone lines and the military wanted to monopolize radio waves. The ability and fundamental nature of New Media to supplement existing modes of communication, simplify and streamline them, gradually become widely available and displace whatever establishment is in control; is revolutionary and ever present in these examples. After the radio, there were the picture and moving picture. The eyes of mankind now no longer relied upon first order representation of experiences, or textual readings to bring fulfillment to their daily lives. The picture was able to capture moments which were once temporary, and make them almost permanent. In the Information Processing Cycle (Input, Process, Output, Storage) this storage function of the camera allowed for the expansion of human consciousness and changed communication behaviors. Rather than describing an event, people were now able to “show it” to one another. Once enough people had access to pictures, words were no longer acceptable descriptors of a situation. Society’s expectations had shifted based upon the invention of the medium of photography. Another key aspect of any New Media, any New Media shapes our societal expectations of how we communicate and how we are communicated with.
The moving picture or movie was an incorporation of many other aspects of previously discussed mediums. The movie allowed for visual storytelling in the way a novel could. The movie transcended temporal boundaries like the phone, by capturing motion. Visually the movie built upon the work of the camera and redefined expectations of communicating visually. It was no longer enough to see a picture, or hear or read about an event, People now wanted to see pieces of the actual event as if they were actually there! Technologies evolved, improvements were made upon existing mediums and expectations were constantly being altered by the New Media available to each generation. These resources were always initially the property of the ruling class or ideological state apparatus in place, but within a decade or two; trickled down to the masses and revolutionized human experience. Color being added to movies in the 1930's was another amazing innovation of media technology.
The crucial function colorized films provided which is relevant to any study of New Media, is the ability to make an experience “more life-like.” Any New Media technology which has stood the test of time, has been a vivid recreation of daily human lived experiences or beautiful distortion these. Television functioned much like the radio. Television allowed a message to be transmitted across a wide geographical landscape to a large population of people simultaneously. When it finally was affordable to the masses, Television offered insight into the “soul” of America. Never before had there been such a concentrated group of representational media placed in such a large number of audience’s faces. Television like the radio and newspaper, really was able to shape national dialogue and disseminate ideology in a large scale manner.
There was a massive shaping of dialogue about fictional characters: “Hey did you see Howdy Doody last night?” This was unprecedented by newspapers and radio as both largely functioned on an informative basis during World War I, II and Korea. The elevation of a fictional character beyond the screen and into our national consciousness (Lone Ranger) was revolutionary. Another fundamental aspect of any New Media, is that the New Media must have almost supernatural abilities to breathe life into something which is nothing more than an artistic or narrative construct. These icons of mid-century America could never have flourished without the widespread vehicle of broadcast television. Their aura, mythology and status were completely dependent upon their consistent visual representation and subsequent social regurgitation.
The printing press transformed text and who read text. The phone orally/audibly transformed when a message could be received and where. The radio allowed for an oral message to be heard by many people at the same time. The picture transcended words and stored a moment which used to be forever lost upon occurrence. The moving pictures not only re-created visual reality, but they formed the ability to make a new visual narrative reality. Color being added to films made stories more life-like and relevant than ever in human history. Television created the ability for a mass public consciousness to be formulated by visual representation across a variety of spatial and temporal boundaries.
Broadcast Television specifically with the examples of the Kennedy vs. Nixon presidential debate, death of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War coverage; supplemented the already rich vivid nature of the radio’s ability to re-tell current events to the masses; while also adding a visual indexing function to media which enhanced the power of media messages. Rather than simply hearing about the terrors of the Vietnam War, citizens were able to see emotionally moving photos and videos portraying the horrors of war. More and more families were now able to keep in touch with current events just by turning on their television. This fact lessened reliance upon the radio and newspapers, but did not eliminate them completely.
New Media always improves upon whatever technologies are already existent, usurps them utility wise and then begins their own cycle of waiting to be surmounted by another New Media technology. Music constantly fluctuated distribution wise during the 20th century. The phonograph became the record player, the record player became, the Walkman, and the Walkman became the CD player. The primary transitional nature of these “containers” shifting as well as all New Media can be answered by: Who, What, When, Where, Why & How?
At first the consumer was required to be sedentary and wealthy or in a position of power to access the phonograph. The content available was also extremely limited and a record could only contain a single song, two at best. As pointed out in Lessig’s Remix Culture the all-time high concentration of record player ownership and use in the United States was in the mid 1920’s. This historically makes sense as it was prior to the Great Migration, Great Depression and World War II. As Americans shifted into a more migratory lifestyle, so did their media and media technologies. Records now were able to contain several songs a piece, record players were widely accessible and relatively inexpensive. Media has always had the unique ability of invisibly to most, adapting to the lived conditions and expectations of the dominant culture.
I digressed into music because the next fundamental “New Media” for the first time is a channel not a piece of hardware. MTV originating in 1981, functioned within all of the previous requirements of New Media I have outlined. Music, radio and television which were the pre-requisites for MTV, created the craving for what MTV would broadcast. A culture of immediacy and intimacy was being cultivated in America. The hyperreal connection fostered by MTV’s visuals combined with hit songs of the day deepened the potency of celebrity in American popular culture. What’s important to remember is that despite this unique innovation; music was still being listened to, it was just being enriched by becoming more than an auditory sensory experience. Music was becoming a visual experience also. Education is constantly attempting to make learning as sensory enriched a process as possible because scientifically it has been successfully theorized that this leads to better information retention, media historically has validated this premise better than any scientific lab control ever could.
Subsequently the CD which was relatively new, began to sell more than a million copies for the first time ever. One successful New Media technology such as MTV, has the domino effect of bettering industries as a whole by expediting the process of innovation. As 20th century came into its’ final quarter (1975–1999) Media became less about what was accessed and more about where it was accessed. Music, Movies, Photos and Print were all still the prevalent mediums which provided entertainment and information to American households. The Home, Theater, Newspapers and other “traditional” locations of media consumption were engaged in a game of “musical chairs.” Theaters were no longer as prominent due to the VHS. Newspapers were no longer as sought after due to television. Music could be heard in a car radio or boombox rather than sitting listening to a record player or home radio. The home was no longer a location with structured media consumption based upon “traditional broadcast scheduling.”
Where we accessed our media changed; as did when we accessed it, how we accessed it, and why we accessed it. Our relationship with our physical environment as a product of this media paradigm shift was forever altered. Americans now were able to experience media in new places, with new faces of different races. A once insular process of watching the “ball game” at home, now put you in a bar with many other sports fans who shared your passion. Listening to a record by yourself, transformed into cruising down the street with your windows down blasting the newest cassette for all in earshot to vibe with. New Media made us leave what we knew and had subconsciously become ritualistic consumption behaviors, and exposed us to new information, new forms of art and expression. Audience fragmentation and the loss of a mass audience did ensue from this De-centralization of singular dominant medium, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The pitiful 1950’s racial representation on television was no longer the only narrative able to be visually consumed. The radio no longer had absolute control over what music you heard and didn’t hear. The newspaper was no longer your only source of information about the world around you. New Media provides options and therefore empowerment to the consumer!
The obvious conclusion to this piece is the proliferation and ubiquity of the meta-medium which is the internet. 1,000 pages of analyzing could not even begin to reveal the revolutionary impact of the Internet. So as I have built a linear, historical case for “What Constitutes New Media,” I will now with extreme brevity explain how the Internet is the 21st Century encapsulation of New Media. The internet which is the product of DARPA from the 1960’s reflects all central tenants of any New Media technology. It began as an experimental medium which was largely reserved for government usage. Very few people had access to the internet and those who did were wealthy, in positions of power or the ones actually inventing the Internet themselves. The Internet then evolved from more than a product for national defense, to a hypertext based dictionary or encyclopedia. Select educational institutions and their students were able to access this mass encyclopedia of knowledge. The masses were as usual with any New Media form, not given access to this new revolutionary piece of technology. It was not until the commercialization of the 1990’s that the masses would be able to benefit from the Internet personally. Although I could go into great length to lament the masses prolonged wait for Internet access from a Marxist perspective I will attempt to move on.
Like Movies, Television and MTV, the internet acted as a collection and exposition of multiple mediums therefore enriching a sensory experience and re-enforcing the power of narrative. “Multimedia” would become the buzzword to describe the incorporation of multiple mediums into a single presentation. Unlike Movies, Television and MTV, the internet was not confined to a singular device from which its’ content could be accessed. Initially the internet was only accessed through a clunky plastic shrouded desktop. Then as all New Media do, the innovation of technologies around the medium took off. The desktop became a laptop, laptop became a PDA and the PDA became a phone? The proliferation of devices through which the Internet could be utilized by the masses led to new experiences, new people being reached by the medium and new content being constructed for these people. Truly in this case “The Medium was the Message.” Our expectations as with all previous mediums were altered by the Internet. We not only wanted instantaneous news coverage, we wanted it live and uninterrupted by static or bandwidth delays. Our music wasn’t something we wanted to line up for or carry physical copies of anymore, we wanted to download it digitally the second it was released by our favorite artist. And when we got this new music, we wanted to tell the artist instantly how much we liked their music, we refused to write a “Snail mail” fan letter.
Who accessed the internet and the content on the internet is constantly fluid. What the content is accessed on (hardware) is constantly changing. Where we access internet content is no longer a singular confined location, we expect global uninterrupted access. When we view content is no longer confined by temporal broadcast structure of the 20th century. Netflix is the greatest living manifestation of the media consumer’s belief that they should have access to whatever they want, wherever they want and most importantly whenever they want. Why we use the internet is constantly changing also. Today we might use it to communicate with our classmates about an upcoming project, tomorrow we might be using the Internet to vote on a State referendum. This notion more than anything excites me, as utility of media has constantly fluctuated to meet the demands of culture and represents a great area of potential progress for humanity. The Internet is the 21st century’s “Meta-Medium,” but as I have showcased in this piece all media have been displaced by something better and more meaningful to the enrichment of human experience.
What new medium will supplement and eventually displace the Internet? That is a very intriguing and optimistic view of the future of “New Media,” but it is a reflection of the world I wish to live in.
What is New Media? New Media is progress. New Media is the ability to change the status-quo of our lived conditions as a species. New Media provides new ways to communicate with the world around us. New Media functions as a mirror of the soul of society on a macroscopic level. New Media is the answer to the prayers of millions of men, women and children who want to know if tomorrow can be better than today. And New Media’s answer to this prayer is always “Yes, just give it time and you will reap the benefits you seek.” New Media is an undeniable and unstoppable historically experienced social phenomenon which transcended all boundaries once thought to be unmovable. The most exciting thing about New Media is knowing; like the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, that soon more seemingly insurmountable “boundaries” to progress are one New Media away from being eliminated from human consciousness.