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

Digital Media: Critical Perspectives

Justin Pickard

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

The origins of this essay question lie in a series of tensions and queries highlighted by Kember and Lister et al., for whom recent developments in 'new' and 'digital' media have posed a challenge to some of the fundamental 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 and media, between biology and technology?' (Kember, 2004: 238-239)

As technological development sees the convergence not only of different media (in a complex and non-linear intermediation), but also between new media and the body, through technological prosthesis, Lister urges us to ask whether 'our interactions with technology [have] become so all-pervasive to produce hybrids of biological and technological 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on current developments in the twin fields of 'new' and 'digital' media as their traditional objects of study have been superseded.

As a point of a departure, Fornäs talks of an intermedial turn within the discipline, tending toward the dissolution of the border between old and new media – 'proposing instead to use similar interdisciplinary methods on all modes and technologies of communication' (Fornäs, 2008: 898). We can find similar currents in the work of Bolter 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 the twin logics of of immediacy and hypermediacy' (Bolter and Grusin, 2000: 5), they capitalised on the intermedial turn to 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 the development implied by the above question. Instead, we are reminded of Kember's claim on the most significant shift in digital and new media studies; a shift predicated on the fact that 'science and technology and media [though


Digital Media: Critical Perspectives

Justin Pickard

irreducible] are becoming – more manifestly, more complexly – connected.' (Kember, 2004: 235).

Take US biologist Craig Venter's much-publicised milestone in synthetic biology; successfully reproducing the genome of M. mycoides in a DNA synthesiser. In order toe mark the genome as a human creation, Venter's team 'spliced in fresh strands of DNA, each a biological “watermark” that would do nothing in the final organism except carry coded messages, including a line from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”' (Sample: 2010) Read as a message, or media content, this mirrors an event from the earliest days of new media, when 'What hath God wrought?', the first message of US inventor Samuel Morse, 'was carried down a telegraph wire running from Washington to Baltimore along the side of the rail tracks.' (Winston, 1998: 24) With digital media studies founded on a principle of equivalence – that different forms of media content, once digitized, is made of the same kind of binary stuff – this kind of biotechnological breakthrough can certainly be seen as stretching the boundaries of the discipline. With nothing substantive to separate the binary email attachment later decoded as a photograph, and the lines of Joyce encoded as a watermark in Venter's bacterium, there is no longer any 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 field whose subjects are necessarily complex and hybrid. Here, Kember, among others, appears to be awaiting the development and popularisation of so-called 'intelligent media,' which 'might include any medium from television and film to fabrics, software and toys that can display biologically based 'behaviours' such as the ability to adapt to the environment, learn and communicate.' (Kember, 2004: 236) If, in this context, as she suggests, 'a kind of history 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 produced about 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 methodologies of the field. With an increasing co-entanglement of new media and technoscience, the discipline-defining tensions between Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams have resurfaced from the murky depths of the technological


Digital Media: Critical Perspectives

Justin Pickard

imaginary. Within media studies, Williams' triumph was inevitable; hitched, as it was, to the institutional dominance of social constructivism within the university – a historical contingency which foreclosed many 'aspects of the way in which cultural and media studies deals with technology' (Lister et al., 2009: 79). Thus, while McLuhan's writings may be derided as the foundation of the now-dated cyberculture studies of the 1990s, these shifting boundaries and new currents within media studies demand a second look at his body of work. By retrieving McLuhan's emphasis on physicalism from the junk heap of media history, and embracing the recognition of complex and nonhuman agency found in Latour's work on Actor-Network Theory, the discipline would be far better positioned to comment on the complex causalities and hybrid actors and entities of the contemporary world. Certainly, for those such as Latour, such a new, 'late' media studies is long overdue; writing in 1993, he comments that, having found ourselves 'invaded by frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, 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 larger class of things; (…) extensions of the human sense; sight, hearing, touch, and smell.' (Lister et al., 2009: 83) In recent years, attempts to resurrect this casting of the media as technological prostheses have met with staunch opposition. Take Fornäs, for whom such a reading would surely extend the concept of 'media' to a point where it would cease to be useful: allowed, through abstraction, to 'overflow all [disciplinary] boundaries and deprive the area 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 often tempting to approach the media solely in terms of message or content: disembodied; stripped of its materiality. This is an approach that fails to apprehend the specificity of science and technology studies which, in its increasing intimacy with the new media studies, demands an increasing emphasis on questions of materiality and physicalism. By framing the media as a form of technological prostheses, capable of extending and augmenting the human senses, McLuhan's writings have been seen to prefigure 'the concept of the cyborg in late twentieth-century thought on media and cyberculture or technoculture (…) [with it being] the question of the relationship between human agency and technology in the age of cybernetic culture, which the neo-McLuhanites attempt to map.' (Lister et al., 2009: 82-83) At a socio-historical moment in which, as noted by Lister et. al., 'people's 'couplings' with


Digital Media: Critical Perspectives

Justin Pickard

machines are increasingly frequent and intimate, where our subjectivity is challenged by this new interweaving of technology into our everyday lives, [McLuhan] forces us to reconsider the centrality of human agency in our dealings with machines and to entertain a less one-sided view.' (Lister et al., 2009: 85)

If, as Kember suggests, the concerns of this new media are increasingly those of 'the kinds or types of intra-action, kinship, connectivity and community that are or might be made possible in contemporary technoscientific culture' (Kember, 2004: 245), we must return to our notions of cybernetics, complex agential networks, and the humanmachines of Donna Haraway. Another productive source is Bruno Latour's work on ActorNetwork Theory; framed as a means of engaging theoretically with 'social action (…) due to the relations between humans and the increasing quantity of non-human things that populate the cultural landscape' (Lister et al., 2009: 338). As contrasted both with Williams' 'pure' humanism and the technological determinism of McLuhan, Latour's writings prepared the way for a 'late' media studies whose subjects are 'simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society' (Latour, 1993: 6). In this reading of the field, 'reality is made up of networks of human and non-human things, rather than being divided into entities that are or are not agents regardless of their contexts.' (Lister et al., 2009: 99) As an illustration of this hybrid complexity, Latour provides us with a day's worth of news stories and media events, lifted from a single newspaper:

'On page eight, there is a story about computers and chips controlled by the Japanese; on page nine, about the right to keep frozen embryos; on page ten, about a forest burning, its columns of smoke carrying off rare species that some naturalists would like to protect; on page eleven, there are whales wearing collars fitted with radio tracking devices; also on page eleven, there is a slap heap in northern France, a symbol of the exploitation of workers, that has just been classified as an ecological preserve because of the rare flora it has been fostering! On page twelve, the Pope, French bishops, Monsanto, the Fallopian tubes, and Texas fundamentalists gather in a strange cohort around a single contraceptive.' (Latour, 1993: 2)

Though these examples may have been anchored in the social and historical particulars of the early 1990s, one need not look far for their contemporary equivalents – items which blend human and non-human agency; forging complex systems from people and things. Think again of Craig Venter's work on synthetic life, outlined above; international debates on global warming; media coverage of the Large Hadron Collider; the 2008 financial crisis; or European travel chaos born of the ash clouds from Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, in the spring of 2010.


Digital Media: Critical Perspectives

Justin Pickard

Here, the epistemological emphasis in on structure and agency, with commentators such as Haraway and Kember recognising that the biological base of much of this new media acts both at the level of the metaphor, and – with McLuhan – in the terms of its subject/object's technical and material characteristics. Building on her thoughts on intelligent media, Kember raises the example of connectionism; 'a form of computer modelling that is based on the function of neurones in the brain, and hence sometimes referred to as neural networking.' (Kember, 2004: 240) Approaching from an orthogonal direction, Haraway uses her writings to forcibly expand the technomediatic imaginary, invoking 'various figurations ranging from the cyborg, vampire, oncomouse, femaleman and modest witness.' (Kember, 2004: 244) For her, these signifiers are fertile, productive and exciting sites through which to examine people's cultural and techno-historical biases. Zylinska broadly agrees, with reference to the way such 'extensions of man' must be analysed; 'not from a human point of view, but from a position of inbetweenness, as the very process of 'extending humanity' undermines the inviolability of the boundaries of the human self and the non-human, machinic other.' (Zylinska, 2002: 3)

Drawing the various strands of this new, 'late' media studies with an examination of the methodological challenges arising from the shifts and increasing permeability of its boundaries, we turn again to Fornäs, who continues to highlight the confluence of digitality and the intermedial. Here, he claims, the methodologies of any such 'late' media studies must be capable of 'filling the gap between ethnographic observation and textual analysis.' (Fornäs, 2008: 898) Regardless of the specific research tools used, Wakeford emphasizes the overarching importance of 'partiality, multiplicity and situatedness' (Wakeford, 2004: 136) as the foundations of a more flexible, reflexive and overtly agential discipline. Certainly, Kember agrees, seeing partial knowledge – limited, say, by the reflexivity inherent in methodologies such as participant observation – as 'a more responsible, ethical way of producing knowledge about emergent entities (…) [in which] subjects encounter other subjects, humans encounter other agents (animal, machine) to which they are connected by new kinds of family ties or kinship.' (Kember, 2004: 244) Thus, rooted in an episteme that has long since outpaced the constraints of its disciplinary origins, it is the prospect of new and diverse methodologies that will underpin any further shifts, opening the way for a more inclusive and dynamic media studies; prepared to address the dispersed, hybrid subjects and entities of the contemporary world, without rejecting questions of physicalism for the well-trodden safety of content, discourse, and audience.


Digital Media: Critical Perspectives

Justin Pickard


Bolter, J. D. and R. Grusin (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media (London: The MIT Press)

Fornäs, J. (2008) 'Bridging gaps: ten crosscurrents in media studies,' Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 30 (6), pp. 895-905.

Kember, S. (2004) ‘Doing Technoscience as (New) Media,' in Morley, D. and J. Curran (eds.), Media and Cultural Theory (Abingdon: Routledge)

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Lister, M., Dovey, J., Giddings, S., Grant, I. and K. Kelly (2009) New Media: A Critical Introduction (Abingdon: Routledge)

Sample, I. (2010) 'Synthetic life breakthrough could be worth over a trillion dollars,' The Guardian, 20/05/2010, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-synthetic-life-genome> [Accessed 25/05/2010]

Wakeford, N. (2004) ‘Pushing at the boundaries of new media studies,’ New Media & Society, Vol. 6 (1), pp. 130-136.

Winston, B. (1998) Media, Technology and Society (London, Routledge)

Zylinska, J. (2002) 'Extending McLuhan in the New Media Age: An Introduction,' in The Cyborg Experiments: The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age (New York, NY: Continuum), pp. 1-14.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful