“Media” is a word with unusual weight in the United States. The keyword appears in the name of a discipline—media studies—as well as numerous subfields, such as media industry studies, feminist media studies, comparative and transnational media studies, and most recently, digital media studies. “Participatory media,” “interactive media,” and “social media” are all relatively new terms that describe the production and consumption of digital texts, images, and sounds through the World Wide Web and mobile applications that use social networks such as YouTube, Pandora, Facebook, and Twitter. The quick uptake and incorporation of these new media into everyday life in the United States and globally have resulted in a proliferation of usages of the keyword “media.”
Though “media” is the grammatical plural of the singular “medium,” the word is most often used in the singular. It is easy to portray “the media” in negative terms as “addictive” and socially isolating, as a purveyor of harmful stereotypes and violent images, yet media scholars working in the cultural studies tradition have tended to focus less on this preoccupation and more on the ways that the media creates a sense of identity and practices of social belonging for its users. Some of the earliest thinkers to take the media as an object of critical analysis were Continental philosophers such as Theodor Adorno (2001) and Walter Benjamin (1968), who worked in a mostly German tradition known as “critical theory” or the Frankfurt school. Like the later French writer Jean Baudrillard (1994), they were deeply interested in the increasing ubiquity, cheapness, and profusion of printed images, recorded sounds, and moving image sequences. They saw these new media technologies as signaling a profound social shift. Technological advances starting with the printing press and moving on to photography, film, and digital devices and networks enabled copies to circulate more widely than ever before, bathing individuals in a constant flow of images that had meant something very different when they were singular and traveled less freely. In the foundational 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936/1968), Benjamin both mourns the loss of the unique “aura” that original artworks possessed and ushers in the study of the media as an academic discipline. Benjamin’s focus on the automation of media production has inflected media studies in the United States and elsewhere with an abiding concern with the technology, politics, and economics of media as well as its content.
Members of the Frankfurt school shared Benjamin’s interest in mechanically reproduced or “mass” media, and their stance toward it was fundamentally suspicious. At the same time, this group, particularly Adorno, was among the first to take the power of the “mass media” seriously and to recognize it as a cultural apparatus deserving of its own set of theories. In his 1963 essay “The Culture Industry Reconsidered” (1963/2001), Adorno argued eloquently for a critical and pessimistic view of “monopolistic mass culture,” or the sale of culture for profit, a phenomenon that he considered fundamentally at odds with aesthetic quality and the public good. Adorno reserved special scorn for news magazines and television, particularly genres such as Westerns and musicals, which were not only full of empty spectacle and numbing repetition but earned enormous sums for companies that exploited both workers and audiences. He is careful to note that his objection to “mass media” and “mass culture” has nothing to do with his moral judgments of its audience and its taste preferences. Indeed, his critique of mass media is that it is not popular enough, meaning it does not “arise spontaneously from the masses themselves” but is rather a commodity, a product “tailored for consumption by masses” (98).
In sharp contrast to Adorno, Marshall McLuhan had a sunnier, even utopian attitude toward the role of media in society. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964/2003), he was eager to consider electronic media forms such as television, radio, and film as specific forms of technological practice. While we no longer envision television as “hot” or radio as “cool,” as McLuhan advocated, digital media scholars have taken up his work after a period of neglect during the eighties. What they find useful is McLuhan’s envisioning of electronic media forms such as television and radio not just as ways to get information and entertainment but also as having distinctive affective qualities and as extensions of the human body and brain. Benedict Anderson’s influential 1983 Imagined Communities, for instance, found a new and receptive audience in the 2000s and beyond because it explained national identity and nationalism as artifacts of a particular medium—print—and the sociocultural formation he called “print capitalism.” Drawing on historical materials from diverse anticolonial movements (beginning with the American Revolution), Anderson found that newspapers did far more than report happenings in a particular regional locale. They also brought the nation into being by creating a readership that came to view or imagined itself as sharing a common identity. Media, in this account, do more than convey information or even ideology. They create communities. Anderson claimed that national identity was less a function of birthplace or legal standing within a citizenry than it was an “imagined” or virtual state—called into being by the process of mediation itself. A form of media such as print, in this account, functions as a space or medium of cultural interpellation.
One trouble with this account is that not everyone uses or is positioned by the media in the same way. The postcolonial response to this line of argument emphasizes the ways that unequal access to media power and the tools of media production results in exclusion of specific populations from the nation on both a symbolic and a very real level. People of color, women, sexual minorities, and other subaltern individuals possess less power within the media system, which has often represented them in stereotyped, limited ways. In other words, mass media do not hail all bodies equally (Loomba 2005). When the Internet and the World Wide Web were adopted more widely in the midnineties, the so-called Web 1.0 period, it seemed that McLuhan’s dream of intimate democratic community through media—what he called “the global village”—had come true. However, it quickly became clear that the Internet was far from radically democratic. Not every body had an equal or voluntary relation to it in terms of access or authorship. The feminist philosopher Donna Haraway argued eloquently that the computer age has made it impossible to separate the body from technology (1991). Biotechnologies enabled by computing devices entangle us in webs and assemblages of human and machine, since the human body is literally a form of media—informational technologies are interwoven with and inform our bodily existence. Haraway’s critique of these technologies, particularly the military and commercial technologies that gave rise to our current media system, has proven very influential to science and technology studies scholars as well as to feminist media scholars. Her work also draws attention to the systemic role that gendered and raced labor plays in building the integrated circuits needed in electronic and, later, digital media devices.
Consider as an example of this system the deep and often unacknowledged connections between internal colonization, settler colonialism, and computing hardware. From 1965 to 1975, the Fairchild Corporation’s Semiconductor Division operated a large integrated-circuit manufacturing plant in Shiprock, New Mexico, on a Navajo reservation. During this period, the corporation was the largest private employer of Indian workers in the United States. The circuits that the almost entirely female Navajo workforce produced were used in devices such as calculators, missile guidance systems, and other early computing devices. To address this type of history, media criticism and analysis will have to turn away from a narrow focus on representations of stereotypes as the most central form of media influence and toward an attention to the intersections of design, implementation, and production of media technologies themselves. This materialist or archaeological approach to media, digital or otherwise, urges us to examine not just how media represent or interpellate different cultures, genders, and identities but also how media devices are produced and marketed. Mobile media such as cellphones, for instance, require rare metals such as coltan, which is extracted from the Congo and finds its way to the rest of the world in a system that echoes earlier forms of resource extraction under colonialism. These practices, along with technological constraints and affordances and less known histories behind the screen, are inseparable from the way that digital media mean (Ernst 2013). Recent scholarship focused on materialist media archaeologies in the digital realm has contributed greatly to the fields of American studies and cultural studies by mapping the links between media infrastructures’ origins, design cultures, and informing principles, as well as the hidden or neglected histories of marginalized groups in computing (Chun 2011; McPherson 2012b; Sandvig 2012).
Earlier digital media scholarship tended to represent new forms of media production and distribution as tools for liberation. Recent scholarship adopts a more critical stance, stressing the ways in which mass media are often fundamentally at odds with the aesthetic and economic needs of the people they claim to liberate. This critical stance has become increasingly important with the rise of digital “participatory media.” For the past twenty years, digital media have been posited as a way for individuals to exert more control over their own identities through media making and distribution. The advent of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and other forms of user-generated content management and distribution have ushered us into the age of Web 2.0, the “participatory web.” It is true that more and more of us are “participating” by contributing our content, images, location information, and “likes” and “dislikes” in exchange for these services. And the production of mash-ups, amateur video, and sampled sound recordings can indeed enable users to create countercultural and critical new messages (Jenkins 2006). Yet the observation that users make, create, and distribute certain types of digital media content such as memes, mash-ups, and video does not mean that mass media’s problems, including rampant racial, gender, and sexual misrepresentation and exclusion, are no longer present. Women and people of color have not been well served by the mass media, which has thrived on the circulation of racist and sexist ideologies as a means of marketing commodities (Banta 1987; McClintock 1995; Ewen and Ewen 2006). Digital media have given users new opportunities to exploit images of race and gender as part of memetic culture (Nakamura 2008; Nakamura and Chow-White 2012). Whether scholars of media choose to focus on neglected histories of media forms; the way that media represents bodies, identities, sexualities, or genders; or other aspects of media altogether, the everydayness of digital media will require us to pay more attention to the media platforms and communities, digital and otherwise, where so many of us live our lives.