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What implications do the shifting boundaries of the field of new media have for media methodology and epistemology?

What implications do the shifting boundaries of the field of new media have for media methodology and epistemology?

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Published by: justinpickard on Feb 21, 2011
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02/21/2011

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Digital Media: Critical PerspectivesJustin Pickar
What implications do the shifting boundaries of the field of new media have for mediamethodology and epistemology?
The origins of this essay question lie in a series of tensions and queries highlighted by Kember and Listeret al., for whom recent developments in 'new' and 'digital' media have posed a challenge to some of thefundamental precepts of the discipline. As an example, take Kember – who asks:
'If a mobile phone held to the ear is not to be regarded as a biotechnology (and a hands-free set isn't either)then what if/when it is worn inside the ear as a rather sophisticated earplug and is no longer visible externally?At what point, at which boundary, does it become possible to address the relationship between the body andmedia, between biology and technology?' (Kember, 2004: 238-239)
As technological development sees the convergence not only of different media (in a complex and non-linearintermediation), but also between new media and the body, through technological prosthesis, Lister urges us to askwhether 'our interactions with technology [have] become so all-pervasive to produce hybrids of biological andtechnological components' (Lister et al., 2009: 95) Here, I want to examine what such claims mean for us as(human) subjects, focusing on current developments in the twin fields of 'new' and 'digital' media as their traditionalobjects of study have been superseded.As a point of a departure, Fornäs talks of an intermedial turn within the discipline, tending toward thedissolution of the border between old and new media – 'proposing instead to use similar interdisciplinary methodson all modes and technologies of communication' (Fornäs, 2008: 898). We can find similar currents in the work ofBolter and Grusin, who proposed the term 'remediation' to describe the 'representation of one medium in another'(Bolter and Grusin, 2000: 45). Taking as their subject the ways in which '[b]oth new and old media are invoking thetwin logics of of immediacy and hypermediacy' (Bolter and Grusin, 2000: 5), they capitalised on the intermedial turnto draw attention to the genealogies and archaeologies of media – new or otherwise.Questions of novelty and intermediality remain a key concern of the field, but this is not necessarily thedevelopment implied by the above question. Instead, we are reminded of Kember's claim on the most significantshift in digital and new media studies; a shift predicated on the fact that 'science and technology and media [though1
 
Digital Media: Critical PerspectivesJustin Pickar
irreducible] are becoming – more manifestly, more complexly – connected.' (Kember, 2004: 235).Take US biologist Craig Venter's much-publicised milestone in synthetic biology; successfully reproducingthe genome of
M. mycoides 
in a DNA synthesiser. In order toe mark the genome as a human creation, Venter'steam 'spliced in fresh strands of DNA, each a biological “watermark” that would do nothing in the final organismexcept carry coded messages, including a line from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate lifeout of life.”' (Sample: 2010) Read as a message, or media content, this mirrors an event from the earliest days ofnew media, when 'What hath God wrought?', the first message of US inventor Samuel Morse, 'was carried down atelegraph wire running from Washington to Baltimore along the side of the rail tracks.' (Winston, 1998: 24) Withdigital media studies founded on a principle of equivalence – that different forms of media content, once digitized, ismade of the same kind of binary
stuff 
– this kind of biotechnological breakthrough can certainly be seen asstretching the boundaries of the discipline. With nothing substantive to separate the binary email attachment laterdecoded as a photograph, and the lines of Joyce encoded as a watermark in Venter's bacterium, there is no longerany meaningful distinction between digital data and DNA.Taken alongside media's increasing mimicry of biological processes, as they embrace the dynamics of'self-replication, evolution, emergence, and autonomy' (Kember, 2004: 240), we can begin to apprehend a fieldwhose subjects are necessarily complex and hybrid. Here, Kember, among others, appears to be awaiting thedevelopment and popularisation of so-called 'intelligent media,' which 'might include any medium from televisionand film to fabrics, software and toys that can display biologically based 'behaviours' such as the ability to adapt tothe environment, learn and communicate.' (Kember, 2004: 236) If, in this context, as she suggests, 'a kind ofhistory plus biology (…) would do much to enliven if not repoliticise debates on new media' (Kember, 2004: 245),we should surely heed Wakeford's call to be 'increasingly attentive to the overlaps in the discourses producedabout new media and those generated around new forms of biotechnology and genetic research' (Wakeford, 2004:136).Such a new, 'late' media studies would require a reappraisal of the extant epistemology and methodologiesof the field. With an increasing co-entanglement of new media and technoscience, the discipline-defining tensionsbetween Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams have resurfaced from the murky depths of the technological2
 
Digital Media: Critical PerspectivesJustin Pickar
imaginary. Within media studies, Williams' triumph was inevitable; hitched, as it was, to the institutional dominanceof social constructivism within the university – a historical contingency which foreclosed many 'aspects of the wayin which cultural and media studies deals with technology' (Lister et al., 2009: 79). Thus, while McLuhan's writingsmay be derided as the foundation of the now-dated cyberculture studies of the 1990s, these shifting boundariesand new currents within media studies demand a second look at his body of work. By retrieving McLuhan'semphasis on physicalism from the junk heap of media history, and embracing the recognition of complex and non-human agency found in Latour's work on Actor-Network Theory, the discipline would be far better positioned tocomment on the complex causalities and hybrid actors and entities of the contemporary world. Certainly, for thosesuch as Latour, such a new, 'late' media studies is long overdue; writing in 1993, he comments that, having foundourselves 'invaded by frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, databanks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers,and so on (…) something has to be done.' (Latour, 1993: 49-50)As a response to Latour's rallying call, McLuhan posited both technologies and media as 'part of a largerclass of things; (…) extensions of the human sense; sight, hearing, touch, and smell.' (Lister et al., 2009: 83) Inrecent years, attempts to resurrect this casting of the media as technological prostheses have met with staunchopposition. Take Fornäs, for whom such a reading would surely extend the concept of 'media' to a point where itwould cease to be useful: allowed, through abstraction, to 'overflow all [disciplinary] boundaries and deprive thearea of any reasonable sense of distinction from other conceptual entities.' (Fornäs, 2008: 898)For those such as Fornäs, who remain stubbornly coupled to theories of Raymond Williams, it is oftentempting to approach the media solely in terms of message or content: disembodied; stripped of its materiality. Thisis an approach that fails to apprehend the specificity of science and technology studies which, in its increasingintimacy with the new media studies, demands an increasing emphasis on questions of materiality andphysicalism. By framing the media as a form of technological prostheses, capable of extending and augmenting thehuman senses, McLuhan's writings have been seen to prefigure 'the concept of the cyborg in late twentieth-centurythought on media and cyberculture or technoculture (…) [with it being] the question of the relationship betweenhuman agency and technology in the age of cybernetic culture, which the neo-McLuhanites attempt to map.' (Listeret al., 2009: 82-83) At a socio-historical moment in which, as noted by Lister et. al., 'people's 'couplings' with3

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