Are we active?

We didn’t have a TV at home until I was 8.

When we got one mum had strict rules. No TV before school, only half an hour of TV per day after school.

Mum would say, ‘go outside, ride a bike, use your imagination’.

She grew up on a farm, they had no TV. They’d spend their days outside making their own fun. When they used to go visit their cousins in the city, it was so boring, they’d just sit in front of the TV all day. They wouldn’t talk to each other, or invent their own games, or go exploring.

Mum told us that twins on a farm near to them even invented their own language, and taught mum to speak it.

That’s how imaginative kids were before television.

All these stories had the appropriate effect on me. To this day, if I am watching TV during the day I feel a little bit guilty.

Guilty because I’m passive, inert, lazy.

This was a popular critique of mass media, especially television, in the twentieth century. That mass media created passive audiences. Where once people told their own stories, now they consumed them via a large industrial media system.

The production lines of the mass media factories reproduce the same cultural products over and over again.

In their pessimistic account of this culture industry, the Frankfurt School thinkers Adorno and Horkheimer, argued that the culture industry produced a kind of advanced distraction.

Forms of mass media like radio, cinema and television relied on the ‘avid participation’ of ordinary people who tuned in, watched and learnt to ‘dream the dreams’ of mass culture.

We think we are individuals, but the mass media teaches us to desire the same things over and over again: the same homes, cars, bodies, holidays and feelings of ease and pleasure.

Adorno and Horkheimer famously said, we think we are free to choose, but really all we have is the choice to choose between that which is the same.

This critique of mass media like cinema, radio and television matters because it is an important backdrop against which early digital and interactive media technologies were celebrated.

If the television viewer was a passive dupe, the user of internet technologies like blogs and social networking sites was active and engaged.

Where a medium like television only allowed for ordinary people to consume content, emerging digital media enabled them to create their own.

Where once you could only turn on the TV and watch what was on, now you could make your own video and upload it to YouTube, or you could choose to stream whatever you wanted whenever you wanted.

Did this mean that where the media of the ‘mass society’ made us inert and passive, the media of the networked society would make us engaged and active?

And, did that mean, that were ordinary people were disempowered and controlled by mass media they would be empowered by digital media?

Not quite.

Sure, the media and culture industry relies on our participation much more than ever, but that’s because we are now a productive part of its commercial and political machinery.

To understand the kinds of participation afforded by digital media, we need go back and track the transition from the managerial capitalism of the mass society to the flexible capitalism of the networked society.

That is, digital media emerge as part of a new mode of exercising power, and controlling economies, societies and political systems from the 1970s onwards.