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Introduction: The Problem of Digital Media

Posted by: | February 22, 2009 | 20 Comments |

The failings of Mass Media have been widely remarked upon, practically since their inception. “Radio,” Bertolt Brecht famously complained in his 1932 essay The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, “is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out.” Brecht argued that, if it could overcome this limitation “radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life.” Sadly for Brecht and others like him, this was not to be. Instead, radio, shaped by the physical limits of spectrum scarcity, by tight political control exercised by states over the public airwaves, and economic limits imposed by expensive transmission equipment, became a one-way mass medium, in which only a few had the privilege to speak to the many.
Decades after Brecht made his remarks, a medium with the potential to achieve the sort of two-way communication he hoped for in radio was emerging, though not from a place Brecht would have thought to look for it. In the early 60s, the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was looking for a way to link researchers and computing resources in widely dispersed sites throughout the United States. Drawing off the theoretical insights of Norbert Wiener’s Cyberneitcs, which suggested ways humans and machines could be linked in two-way, interactive circuits of communication, ARPA researchers designed a suite of technologies allowing for the interconnection of otherwise incompatible computers and computer networks. (Hafner, 1998) By the late 80s, the “network of networks,” first called the ARPAnet (after the agency) and later the Internet (for the “internetworking” protocols that made it work), was thriving, linking together academics from around the world and across disciplines in multi-way conversations. Alongside the Internet, clusters of electronic bulletin boards and teletext messaging services – such as San Francisco’s famous WELL, and the French Minitel system – were allowing users to share information, expertise, and life experience with each other. Author Howard Rheingold, working from his experiences on the WELL, argued that these users were in the process of forming “virtual communities” based on their electronic communications. As isolated bulletin boards and services linked up to the growing Internet in the last years of the 1980s and early 1990s, these “virtual communities” promised (or threatened) to fuse into one, vast “two-way radio.”
By the beginning of the 21st century, however, the pendulum seemed to have swung back the other way, towards one to many mass-media. The Internet’s “killer app,” the World Wide Web, ushered in an age of readily available information, but it also helped create an environment in which the Internet served primarily as a distribution mechanism for this information. As a short piece in the December 9, 2001 edition of the New York Times puts it, “despite the popular conception of the Internet as our most interactive medium, on the great majority of Web pages the interaction all goes in one direction.” (Johnson, 2001) However, the piece goes on to note that “an intriguing new subgenre of sites, called WikiWikiWebs,” are bucking this trend by creating sites where “users can both read and write”(Johnson, 2001). The Times describes Wikis as “communal gardens of data,” in which volunteer participants work together to grow and nurture site content. It is particularly interested in calling attention to “the most ambitious Wiki project to date,” an attempt to apply, “this governing principle to the encyclopedia, that Enlightenment-era icon of human intelligence.” The name of this project, Wikipedia.
The origins of Wikipedia date to January of 2001, when project co-founder Larry Sanger announced its existence in an informal post to the mailing list of a prior web based encyclopedia project, Nupedia. Sanger asked readers of his post to “Humor me. Go there and add a little article.  It will take all of five or ten minutes.” (Sanger, 2001a) When the Times took note of the project about a year later, Wikipedia had already grown to encompass 16,000 articles (Johnson, 2001). Seven years later, in 2008, the English-language Wikipedia included over two million articles, and the project has grown to include dozens of other languages, many with thousands or hundreds of thousands of articles of their own.
These projects have not only grown in size, they have also taken on considerable cultural visibility and significance. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the case of Sarah Palin’s Wikipedia article. On August 29, 2008 John McCain, then the Republican nominee to be President of the United States, announced that he had chosen Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running-mate. News programming on the night of the 29th was dominated by this development, understandably so, given that the nearly unknown Palin was only the second woman to be nominated to run for the Vice-Presidency of the United states, and the first to run as a Republican. Among the many stories to air was a small segment on National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered” discussing changes made to the article on Palin in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia (Nogichi, 2008). The NPR story contended that the Wikipedia article on Palin had undergone a frantic round of editing the night before McCain made his announcement (an announcement that took almost everyone by surprise), and had been altered in a way that tended to enhance Palin’s image. These facts lead one Wikipedia editor to suspect the page had been changed by someone connected to the campaign.
The fact that a national news program was willing to devote time to the ins and outs of Wikipedia editing, a practice which can border on the arcane, on the day of a historically significant political announcement is one indication of the cultural salience Wikipedia has achieved in its seven years of existence. Furthermore, if the allegations of tampering are true, it would suggest that a national political campaign may have considered Wikipedia important enough to take the trouble of altering it to show their Vice Presidential candidate in the best light before she was publicly announced. In one sense, this work was not in vain, since Wikipedia’s own statistics indicate that the article on Sarah Palin was viewed 2.5 million times on the day of her announcement alone, with additional views over the next two days bringing the article up to a grand total of four million views for the last three days of the month of August (Wikipedia Article Traffic Statistics 200808). The month of September would see the article viewed another six million times (Wikipedia Article Traffic Statistics 200809). The campaign erred, however, if they hoped that these readers would be seeing their preferred revision of the article, since a flurry of editing activity quickly changed the information presented, as Wikipedia volunteers tried to bring the article into line with their professed ideal of “neutral” information.
For those in academe, it comes as no surprise that people are turning to Wikipedia for information in large numbers. Almost all in the teaching profession can relate an anecdote about students for whom the search engine and Wikipedia article are the first, last and only tools of research, much to their professors’ chagrin. The high ranking given to Wikipedia articles by the popular search engine Google almost certainly helps to make Wikipedia a popular source of knowledge. Siva Vaidynathan cites a 2008 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education which reports that a study done at the Hoover Institution finds that searches for 100 common “terms from prominent U.S. and world history textbooks” return Wikipedia as “the No. 1 hit […] 87 times out of 100” (Troop, cited in Vaidynathan, 2008).  Vaidynathan goes on to note that he has “been trying to understand the rather rapid rise of Wikipedia entries in Google searches starting in 2007. In mere months, every search I did went from generating no Wikipedia results to having them at the top of the list.” (Vaidynathan, 2008) On a less anecdotal level, Nielsen’s Net Ratings finds that web traffic to Wikipedia has grown “nearly 8,000 percent” over the five year period from 2003-2008 and that “four of the five top referring sites to Wikipedia […] are search engines” (Nielsen Online, 2008). Web traffic data collection service Alexa lists Wikipedia number eight in its list of the 500 sites receiving the most web traffic, with only major search engines, the social networking behemoths Facebook and Myspace, and Microsoft’s MSN network receiving a higher volume of traffic.
If Wikipedia were just an Internet-accessible encyclopedia, its growing popularity as a source of knowledge would not be terribly remarkable. However, the “interactive” nature of how Wikipedia is produced, noted by the Times only a few months after the project’s inception and demonstrated by the activity on Sarah Palin’s article, marks a profound shift from the traditional methods of encyclopedia writing. Unlike past encyclopedias, such as the renowned Britannica, which were authored and edited by a hierarchically organized group of professional writers and editors working for a single firm, Wikipedia is produced by a loosely organized, largely egalitarian group of volunteers. Furthermore, once a traditional encyclopedia is published, the information presented in its articles becomes a fixed object of knowledge, at least until such a time as properly authorized experts are assembled to produce a new edition; Wikipedia, in contrast, has no fixed editions, rather the information on the site remains fluid, alterable at any time by (almost) anyone with a web-browser. Thus, Wikipedia represents not merely another collection of knowledge, but an example of a whole new means of creating knowledge, perhaps even a new “regime of truth,” to use Michel Foucault’s term.
Wikipedia did not invent this means of creating knowledge all on its own. Rather, it builds off of a larger movement I will call Peer Production, following Yochai Benkler, who has produced the most comprehensive theory of this form of production thus far (Benkler, 2006). Another important site where Peer Production takes place is the world of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS). Advocates of Collaborative Peer Production, including James Boyle, Yochai Benkler, Larry Lessig, and Henry Jenkins, hold that, under certain conditions, the traditional capitalist organizational methods of markets and firms may not be necessary for the process of producing information – whether that information is computer software or encyclopedia entries. Rather, if information is treated as a common resource, rather than as strictly controlled individual property, decentralized production will flourish as a variety of actors produce and share information for a variety of reasons. At first glance, this is exactly what appears to be happening on Wikipedia, where a wide variety of actors from all corners of the globe and from many walks of life: political operatives, concerned citizens, devoted fans, passionate scholars, and many others, contribute to the project on a volunteer basis and for their own reasons. The products of their labor are held in common, using a legal license developed by the Free Software Foundation called the GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License) that ensures that no one can treat Wikipedia articles as their exclusive property. The actual, physical computers that enable Wikipedia to exist are owned and operated by a not-for-profit foundation, called the Wikimedia foundation.
This decentralized, anti-propertarian method of producing information would, on its surface, seem to be of great interest to the academic discipline known as Cultural Studies. After all, the theorists Cultural Studies draws on have often concerned themselves with criticizing how mass-culture lends itself to processes of domination and exploitation: from Adorno and Horkheimer’s early work on the mesmerizing effects of the “culture industry,” to Stuart Hall’s exploration of how the consumers of mass-media might construct “oppositional codes” allowing them to resist the ideological biases of these media, to Delueze and Guattari’s celebration of the subversive potential of the “rhizome,” which connects everything to everything else, over the top-down hierarchy of the “tree.” Wikipedia, and the  Peer Production form in general, would seem to have great potential to be put to use in the cause of the greater freedom and social justice Cultural Studies seems devoted to. Indeed, those involved in Peer Production have often themselves made similar calls for freedom and social justice. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has often been heard to remark that the goal of the Wikipedia project is to “deliver the sum total of human knowledge to every human being on earth,” and Wikipedia’s explicit policy of including multiple points of view on a variety of topic seems broadly compatible with Foucault’s notion, cherished by Cultural Studies, of the “heterotopia” in which different systems of knowledge and power co-exist freely.
On closer examination, however, the relationship between Collaborative Peer Production and Cultural Studies is more complex. Whereas Cultural Studies, for all of its attempts to re-invent Marx, remains a discipline in which Marxist language and thought remain an important heritage, the practitioners of Collaborative Peer Production tend to treat Marx and Marxism as nothing but specters to be exorcised. Collaborative Peer Production, for all of its apparent post-modernism, remains a space where modernity and liberalism remain cherished ideals (Kelty 2008, Coleman 2004). Finally, whereas Collaborative Peer Production is a practical method for producing information, Cultural Studies is a largely theoretical discipline.
These differences, however, are exactly why Collaborative Peer Production and Cultural Studies can be, and should be, fruitfully combined. The theoretical insights of Cultural Studies, unbound by any practical need to “get things done,” can provide the means for pushing Collaborative Peer Production beyond its current envelope, and push it to more completely live up to its idealistic goals of freedom and justice. Collaborative Peer Production, in turn, can provide Cultural Studies with practical methods that might be employed in the cause of theoretical ideals, and real-world experience that can help refine and expand otherwise abstract theoretical notions. To understand how this might be achieved, first we must understand a bit more of the history of both Cultural Studies, and Peer Production.

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20 thoughts on “Introduction: The Problem of Digital Media

  1. By: Gavin on February 23, 2009 at 5:37 am      

    Well shit, consider me signed up to read the rest of yr diss!

    One thing that comes to mind when I’m faced with the overly optimistic hype about the democratic potential of Peer Production (is this the official term for this?) you actually point out in yr excerpt with Palin anecdote. Large structures with money have an advantage in writing Wikipedia articles: they can devote the manpower and expertise and shape the discourse by controlling (however incompletely) a major web portal. Read the articles for most businesses and you can tell they are written by the businesses themselves. Even the types of knowledge in articles can get shaped by these forces (though I love “Criticism” so much I click on that first usually). I think it’s often glossed over just WHO makes WHAT on a wiki or whatever else — it’s not just that cliche of the lone gunman geek that Lessig etc love.

    Anyway, I love Wikipedia, and I am pretty much the only instructor at my school that doesn’t see anything abhorrent about it — yes, anyone could have written stuff, but isn’t that true of any source? I mean, why NOT start with Wikipedia as a source? I certainly use it for learning all types of things, including research. Really, I don’t think research papers have caught up with the internet, MLA Citation guidelines notwithstanding.

    Oh, and I don’t know where you are going with your combination position, but you might be interested in this wiki devoted to lacanian psychoanalysis as something more specifically “academic”… Would love to see some kind of Marxist wiki for marxists.org…

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