What’s new in New Media? Discussing Lievrouw’s Alternative and Activist New media

By Javier De Rivera

The next book I’m reading is Leah Lievrouw‘s “Alternative and Activist New Media, and I’ve chosen to write about it while reading it, chapter by chapter.

In the first chapter, Lievrouw discusses about what New Media is and its main characteristics, a good way to introduce the rest of the book, which offers interesting case studies of different social innovations of media in the digital age. The second chapter, for instance, offers an attractive perspective by reviewing Dadaism and Situationism as precursors of New Media activists’ styles. Even so, let’s begin at the beginning.

Before describing New Media, Lievrouw states three levels in any media, that have to be considered as a departure point for media analysis:

  • Technologies: Material devices and artifacts used in communication
  • Practices: Different ways people engage into in new communication practices
  • Social arrangements: New social equilibriums buildt arround these practices and devices.

This is a comprehensive sociological view for media analysis, that enables us to pay proper attention to the whole picture, instead of focusing on minor details or letting technological optimism to delude our analysis capacities.

Later, the author goes through the four main characteristics of the New Media, which can be divided into two different categories. Therse are: 1) recombination processes and 2) network structure,which both coincide to the design and use factors of New Media; 3) ubiquity and 4) interactivity, which relate to the social consequences of the system (shaped by the first two).

1) Recombination refers to the possibility of New Media to include all previous media (text, image, video, audio), which make it a more creative way to express alternative messages or challenge hegemonic discourses.

2) Network structure that enables decentralized communication, not only mediated through a few centers, but with a high flexibility that allows many centers to produce and cast their our messages.

3) Ubiquity has to do more with the universal consequences or effects of the other two elements. As New Media integrates all possible previous media and is built as an infinite network, it tends to extend through any space of reality or social interaction.

4) Interactivity is another important element of New Media, as it enables every user to adapt the media to his or her necessities, changing radically the experience and expectations of users. (who are “users” instead of  just “audience”)

After explaining these characteristics, Lievrouw presents five New Media genres – crystallized social practices – which are being discussed in the next chapters.

Ok, But what’s really new in New Media?

What I really would like to discuss here is if these distinctive characteristics of New Media are a good reason why we should continue calling it ‘new‘. Lievrouw argues that the continuous recombination of technologies and the performative network structure, as well as the ubiquity and the almost infinite interactivity are the reasons why “we have continued to think about new media as ‘new,’ as a moving target

Personally, I think we continue calling it ‘new‘ because we are experiencing some kind of “end of the history” delusion that makes it difficult for us to imagine where we really are in the historical evolution process. This happens because we lack of reference points or referential discourses to make sense of the actual technological and sociological situation. That is why we haven’t found a proper adjective to substitute “new“.

Television was a new media back in the fifties. The radio was also new in the twenties and the print, which we consider “the mother of all media” was a new-revolutionary technology in the seventh century, which by all means was a condition of possibility for the Enlightenment. Anything is “new” when we begin dealing with it and are not really sure how to categorize it.

We can still tag the New Media “new” because they are relatively new, thought not indefinitely, because there are other upcomming technologies that would change the whole media picture (such as the smart-phones, the newest feature of new media). And that is why I’d rather look for an alternative approach to the conceptualization of New Media, without dismissing any of the previous descriptions.

If we focus on the real difference with old and new technologies, we get to the digital versus the analog. Digitalization was what leads us to Information Technology,  then to the revolution of communications and the emergence of a “new” media scenario. Digital Media can be a good option to think about New Media.

The main novelty of digitalization is the representation of reality in “discrete data.” Digital refers to the use of “digits,” numbers that code reality. Digitalization is the process of converting reality in information, and these series of numeric values (digits) that can be transferred via web, enabling infinite reproduction without an original.

Analog Media reproduce reality reflecting it in material supports, like paper or film. There is always an original, and the possibilities of manipulation of information is limited to its materiality. Digitalization reduces reality to cultural codes, establishing the independence of thought from material supports. We still need technological devices, but there is not a direct relation between the device and the type or quantity of information that we can storage, share or publish.

  1. Recombination can be related to this indirect relation between type of data and material support; digitalization allows any kind of information to be reduced to digits.
  2. Digits that can be transferred in a decentralized way (network structure), as they don’t need an original.
  3. The ubiquity can be also explained because everything can be digitalized, there is no limit to it (as we are inevitably are going to see). The ability to convert things in manipulable data or digital information is extendable to everything and everywhere.
  4. And at last, the interactivity of Digital Media is related to the infinite possibility of manipulation of data: as cultural code, digits are like words that can be adapted to any kind of public or automaticly translated in personalized languages.

If we switch from the concept from of New Media to Digital Media, we do not lose any capacity of analysis and all the qualities or characteristics described before are still useful and operative. However, we can get a better explanation of what is the real deal in New Media (digitalization), and that may really help us to define an exceptional frame for further analysis.

Note: This post has been revised and corrected by Erica Hernández

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