Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape

The following text was written as part of the original draft for the MacArthur white paper about educating young people for a participatory culture. It was cut due to length considerations but it providees useful background for people reading the report. Most often, when people are asked to describe the current media landscape, they respond by making an inventory of tools and technologies. Our focus should be not on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices. Rather than listing tools, we need to understand the underlying logic shaping our current moment of media in transition. These properties cut across different media platforms and different cultural communities: they suggest something of the way we live in relation to media today. Understanding the nature of our relationship with media is central to any attempt to develop a curriculum that might foster the skills and competencies needed to engage within participatory culture.

The Contemporary Media Landscape is:

1. Innovative. We are the midst of a period of prolonged and profound technological change. New media are created, dispersed, adopted, adapted, and absorbed into the culture at dramatic rates. It is certainly possible to identify previous "revolutions" in communication. The shift from orality to literacy, the rise of print culture, and the emergence of modern mass media in the late 19th and early 20th century each represent important paradigm shifts in the way we communicated our ideas. In each case, a burst of technological change was followed by a period of slow adjustment. If, as Marshall McLuhan (1969) has suggested, "media are often put out before they are thought out," then there was ample time to think through the impact of one media before another was introduced. As historians and literary scholars have long noted, the explosion of new technologies at the end of the 19th century sparked a period of profound self-consciousness which we now call modernism. Modernism impacted all existing institutions, reshaped all modes of artistic expression, and sparked a series of intellectual breakthroughs whose impact is still being felt today. If anything, the rate of technological and cultural change has accelerated as we have moved through the 20th century and shows no signs of slowing down as we enter the 21st century. The turnover of technologies is rapid; the economic fallout cataclysmic; and the cultural impact unpredictable.

Today, the introduction of new media technologies sparks social and aesthetic experimentation. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has described the present moment as one of cultural "plenitude," represented by an ever-expanding menu of cultural choices and options. McCracken argues that "plentitude" is emerging because the cultural conditions are ripe for change, because new media technologies have lowered barriers to entry into the cultural marketplace, and because those traditional institutions which held innovation in check have declined in influence (what he calls "the withering of the witherers".) The result has been the diversification of cultural production. Each new technology spawns a range of different uses, inspires a diversity of aesthetic responses, as it gets taken up and deployed by different communities of users. Such transformations broaden the means of self and collective expression.

2. Convergent. Every major idea, image, sound, story, brand, and relationship will play itself out across the broadest possible range of media channels. As Henry Jenkins (2006) argues in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, convergence is being shaped top-down by the decisions being made by massive media conglomerates who have controlling interest across all possible media systems and who enjoy the power to insure that their content circulates globally. It is in their economic interest to move any successful media content from one delivery system to another in order to maximize profit and broaden market potential. At the same time, convergence is being shaped bottom-up by the participatory impulses of consumers, who want the ability to control and shape the flow of media in their lives; they want the media they want when they want it and where they want it. And, as a result, they pull media content into new spaces illegally if that content is not available for purchase in those formats. Moreover, these consumers are taking advantage of the new media technologies to respond to, remix and repurpose existing media content; they use the web to talk back to media producers or tell their own stories about fictional characters.

3. Everyday. The technologization of the American home has been an ongoing process across the 20th century. Our family rooms have become home entertainment centers. Our family hearths are now electronic. Media technologies are fully integrated into our everyday social interactions. In some ways, these technologies have been a wedge between family members; young people often deploy media to cut themselves off from the people around them. Yet, at the same time, these new technologies have enabled greater connection to more dispersed family members, helping to combat some of the forces which are breaking down extended families. The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling famously contrasted the monumental technical achievements of the early 20th century ("the great steam-snorting wonders of the past") with the more everyday and familiar technologies of the late 20th century ("the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.") Contemporary technology "sticks to the skin, responds to the touch....pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us." There is a danger that as this technology becomes so familiar, so much a part of our daily routines that it becomes invisible to us: we can no more see the layer of media that surrounds us than fish notice the water they are swimming in.

At the same time, we can now take our media with us wherever we go. We are still coming to grips with the full implications of this latest shift in media access. Once again, this technology can be used to cut us off from our environment and isolate us from people around us -- the iPod is advertised as allowing us to create a soundtrack for our lives. In some cases, the availability of these media adds a sense of tentativeness to our real world interactions which can now be interrupted at any time by demands from elsewhere. We engage in what sociologist Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention," shifting focus between mediated and face to face inputs as different needs arrive. We can also use these technologies to annotate our environment -- giving us access to information when we need it and thus to heighten our awareness of the world around us. As Mizuko Ito has described, we can use these technologies to maintain ongoing contact with the people in our lives who matter to us the most. And as Howard Rhiengold has suggested, we can use these technologies to mobilize quickly in response to urgent demands on our attention.

4. Appropriative. New technologies make it easy for people to sample and repurpose media images. We can now quote and recontextualize recorded sounds and images (both still and moving) almost as easily as we can quote and recontextualize words. Increasingly, our culture communicates through snippets of borrowed media content. Young people construct a mix tape to share how they feel with each other. They create a collage of images to express how they see themselves. Their webpages function as the digital equivalent of the old commonplace books, a heady mixture of personal expressions and borrowed materials. Artists have always borrowed and built upon earlier works in their tradition. As the new technologies has expanded who gets to express themselves through media, this practice of creative rewriting of previous works has also become more widespread. We still do not have a well considered ethics of appropriation. We are expressing ourselves in new ways but we do not yet have the conceptual resources to allow us to pull back and reflect on what we are creating.

New communications technologies, such as the digital video recorder or the DVD player, allow consumers to more fully control the flow of media into their homes. New modes of entertainment, such as computer and video games, depend on our active engagement: we do not simply consume them; we make them happen. Online fan communities and modding cultures are blurring the lines between consumer and producer. We want to become a part of the media experiences which matter to us; we want to create and share our own media with others. In some ways, mass media displaced the participatory impulses which characterized the folk culture of 19th century America: we moved from a country of cultural producers to one of cultural consumers. Amateur cultural production was pushed underground, hidden from view, through it was not totally destroyed by the rise of mass media. The Web has made this layer of amateur production more visible again, providing an infrastructure where amateurs can share what they created with each other: this ability to share media has helped to motivate media production, resulting in an explosion of grassroots expression.

5. Networked -- Media technologies are interconnected so that messages flow easily from one place to another and from one person to another. Communication occurs at a variety of levels -- from intimate and personal to public and large-scale. The one sender-many receiver model which dominated print culture and modern mass media is giving way to a many-to-many model in which any given participant can easily circulate their work to a larger community. The capacity to "network" has emerged as an important social and professional skill. Young people become adept at calculating the advantages and disadvantages of deploying different communications systems for different purposes -- trying to decide how to communicate their ideas only to those people they want to see them while maintaining privacy from unwanted observation.

6. Global -- Media content flows fluidly across national borders; people deploy the new communication networks to interact with others around the world. The global scale of this new media landscape changes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. We might imagine a progression from nations sending single diplomats to interact with each other over a distance to the modern era of international flight where many have the experience of directly visiting other parts of the world to the present moment when an increasing number of people interact daily, if not hourly, with people living on the other side of the planet. The long-term consequences of this experiment in global cultural exchange are still being discovered. Some have argued that this expanded communication will bring about greater understanding; others see the return to fundamentalism as a reaction against the threat posed by these global exchanges. Some worry that the most economically powerful nations will overwhelm the rest, insuring a homogenization of global cultures; others contend that such a world requires the constant production of cultural difference in order to satisfy a seemingly insatiable hunger to step outside the parochialism of our own culture.

7. Generational -- Historically, cultural traditions and norms were passed from one generation to another: these kinds of transfer constituted a primary focus of educational practices in these traditional societies. Throughout the 20th century, however, as the rate of technological and cultural change accelerated, young people adopted cultural styles and values radically different and often fundamentally at odds with their parent's generation. Recent research suggests that young people and adults live in fundamentally different media environments, using communications technologies in different ways and forming contradictory interpretations of their experiences. Adults know less than they think about what young people are doing on line and young people know less than they think about the values and assumptions that shape adult's relationship to media.

8. Unequal -- Some have suggested that this new media culture should be described as "elective," suggesting that people can opt in and out of different levels of participation. Roles are adopted and shed easily at least by those who have the access and skills needed to adjust quickly to new communities. Yet, in another sense, it would be wrong to describe these cultures as "elective." In so far as participation within them represents a new source of power, wealth, and knowledge, it also represents a new site of privilege and inequality. Participating may be elective for those who have the resources needed to belong in the first place but no such option can be exercised by those who are being left behind. Expanding access to cyberspace has the potential of empowering new segments of the public to become fuller participants in cultural and civic life, yet we can be concerned by the ability of these electronic technologies to render invisible anyone who is not able to participate. As British research Sonia Livingstone notes, ""teaching the skills required to produce content is more crucial than ever. Indeed, not to do so would be positively disempowering for citizens given the present rush to duplicate, or even to displace, our present social and political institutions online." .

Of these eight traits, the only one which might describe our current educational institutions is "unequal." Otherwise, our schools have not kept pace with the changing environment around them. If we were to start from scratch and design an educational system to meet the needs of the culture we have just described, it would look very little like the current school system. Our schools doubly fail kids -- offering them neither the insights they need to avoid the risks nor the opportunity to exploit the potentials of this new participatory culture. Indeed, the skills kids need to function in the new media landscape are skills which are often read as dysfunctional and disruptive in the context of formal education. Kids are, for the most part, learning these skills on their own, outside of school, with the consequence that they are unevenly distributed across the population.