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Technology, Agency, and Walled Gardens

A presentation for a guest lecture at the University of the West of England to Media and Cultural Studies Undergraduates

Sy Taffel

on 9 April 2012

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Transcript of Technology, Agency, and Walled Gardens

So what is currently being enclosed?
Is segregation for commercial purposes
something new?
'Web 2.0 raises the fundamental issue of 'walled gardens',
areas of segregation for commercial purposes
(e.g. Facebook and iTunes).'
Enclosure of personal data

Commodification of communication

Privacy issues
Social Media & Enclosure
Walled Gardens
Systems of communication which don't spy on their users for financial gain

eg Indymedia, Statusnet, Riseup

FOSS which support the idea of digital commons rather than digital commodities
Alternatives to Enclosure
The appropriation of commons
and its bounding and demarcation
as private property
Media & Enclosure

Free vs proprietary software

Open vs Closed Formats

IP as Commodity
Common Land - Distributed + Local

NHS - Centralised + National

FOSS/P2P - Distributed + Nonlocal
Modes of Commons
What is new/digital media?
Problems with 'newness'

Difficulties of 'digitality'
Manovich: Principles of new media
Numerical Representation
Cultural Transcoding
Technology, Agency, and Digital Culture

1. What is New/Digital Media

11. Technological Determinism and Social Constructivism

111. Walled Gardens and Digital Commons
Learning Aims:

1. To identify what new/digital media refers to, and to go beyond simple analogue/digital or old/new binary oppositions

11. To explore historical debates surrounding technology and agency, and to consider how these debates may be relevant today

111. To consider the ways in which processes of commodification and enclosure are present in contemporary digital technologies, and to examine the ethical and political connotations of these processes.
Media and Agency: Technological Determinism
Marshall McLuhan

Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962)

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
Media and Agency: Technological Determinism
According to McLuhan the primary meaning or effect of ‘any medium or technology, is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.’ (1964:16)
This contrasts with what McLuhan describes as ‘our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it is used that counts,’ which he terms ‘the numb stance of the technological idiot.’
Media and Agency: Technological Determinism
For McLuhan, humans use technology to amplify or extend parts of their body into the environment, and these extensions come to define the type of culture within a society
'With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system.’ (1964:65)
Media and Agency: Technological Determinism
The older patterns of mechanical, one way expansion from the centres to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralise but decentralises’ (1964:55).
For McLuhan, ‘the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village’ (1962:31)
Raymond Williams

Welsh Marxist Cultural Theorist

Crucial figure in the development of media and cultural studies as academic subjects in UK HEI
Media and Agency: Social Constructivism
Media and Agency: Social Constructivism
Highly critical of McLuhan
If the medium is the cause, all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects.’ (Williams, 1974:130)
Media and Agency: Social Constructivism
From this wholly unhistorical and asocial base, McLuhan projects certain images of society: ‘retribalisation’ by the ‘electronic age’; the ‘global village’…The technical abstractions in their unnoticed projections into the social world, have the effect of cancelling all attention to existing and developing (and already challenged) social institutions. If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself. (Williams 1974:131)
McLuhan’s work becomes a form of technological essentialism ‘which ratifies the society and culture we now have.’ (Williams 1974:130)
Media and Agency: Social Constructivism
Determination is a real social process, but never (as in some theological and some Marxist versions) a wholly controlling, wholly predicting set of causes. On the contrary, the reality of determination is the setting of limits and the exertion of pressures, within which variable social practices are profoundly affected but never necessarily controlled...We have to think of determination not as a single force, or single abstraction of forces, but as a process in which real determining factors... set limits and exert pressures, but neither wholly control nor wholly predict the outcome of complex activity within or at these limits or against these pressures.
Williams 1974:133
We have to reject technological determinism, in all its forms.’ (1974, 133)
Media and Agency: Neuroplasticity
Media and Agency: ANT
Through the process of synaptogenesis, infants undergo a process where synapses which are used are maintained whereas those which are not wither away, leaving the child with only those pathways which have been developed and used in formative years. Although synaptogenesis is greatest in infancy, plasticity continues throughout childhood and adolescence, with some degree continuing even into adulthood. In other words, our brains adapt themselves to our environment.

In contemporary developed societies, this plasticity implies that the brain’s synaptic connections are coevolving with an environment in which media consumption is a dominant factor. Children growing up in media-rich environments literally have brains wired differently from those of people who did not come to maturity under that condition.
Hayles 2007:6
Technology does not determine society. Nor does society script the course of technological change, since many factors, including individual inventiveness and entrepreneurialism, intervene in the process of scientific discovery, technical innovation and social applications, so the final outcome depends on a complex pattern of interaction. Indeed the dilemma of technological determinism is probably a false problem, since technology is society and society cannot be understood without its technological tools
Castells 1996:5
McLuhan’s sense of the Global Village was not as a Utopian place, but an increasingly tribal site of conflicts. Web 2.0 raises the fundamental issue of ‘walled gardens’, areas of segregation for commercial purposes (e.g. Facebook and iTunes). This panel debates the phenomenon of the walled garden and how other ‘plants’ may subsist or not in the digital world.
1. Numerical Representation
11. Modularity
111. Automation
1v. Variability
v. Cultural Transcoding
Full transcript