This page contains links to a series of recordings related to the book Media & Society: production, content & participation and the course Media & Society at The University of Queensland.
The Industrial Production of Meaning
In this first group of recordings we sketch out our starting points for examining media and society. The ideas covered in these recordings are taken up further in the chapters on meaning, industrialisation and power in Media & Society: production, content and participation.
Take a moment to look around your local neighbourhood for a mobile phone tower. Is it tucked away at the back of an industrial site or on the roof of a local building? A mobile tower is as good a place as any to start thinking about media and society. They alert us to the symbolic and data-processing nature of media. Through the mobile tower at the moment you look at it is streaming the the symbols that make up our everyday culture: songs, television shows, social media posts, and news stories. They travel from media organisations, through the telecommunications network to the screens of our smartphones. At the same time, the smartphone relays data back through the mobile tower. That data is used, more and more, to shape our experience of everyday life.
When did we start using the terms 'medium' or 'media'? Since the 12th century the term 'medium' has been used to describe things, substances, relationships and people. Paint, banks, and clairvoyants are all media. In the 19th century we started to describe channels of mass communication as media. Media are both tools for making, sharing and understanding the world and devices for capturing and storing information.
Building machines that store information outside the body. Cave painting. Smoke signals. Pigeons. Camera Obscura. Printing press. Telegraph. Radio. Cinema. Television. VCR. Walkman. Mobile phone. Personal computer. Social media. Augmented reality.
In the first half of the 20th century much attention was paid to the capacity of mass communication like newspapers, cinema, radio and then television to shape how we understood the world. Political theorists began to pay attention to 'communication' as an important process in making and maintaining cohesive societies based on a simple proposition: how people understand the world shapes how they act in the world. Attention must be paid then to the 'pictures' we have in our heads about how the world is.
To understand media institutions and technologies, we have to examine how they emerge as part of the mass industrialised societies. Commercial media institutions emerge because industrialists invest funds in them as channels to advertise their goods. By the mid-20th century media institutions resemble the factories of the mass society in their highly organised and systematic production of symbolic content.
During the twentieth century a class of new professionals emerges, people who go to work each day at media and cultural institutions. Journalists, advertising creatives, film makers, radio producers, editors and so on. What do these professionals make? In a simple sense they produce symbols, images and stories. But, in a more profound sense what they produce is shared ways of life, they produce groups of people who share common ideals and desires.
Media institutions are central to the exercise of power in society. Power is exercised with a mix of coercion and consent. Where coercion involves the use of force, consent involves establishing 'common sense' ways of doing things that are accepted by the majority of people. Media are critical to making and maintaining consensus in mass societies. Media don't exercise power with force, but rather with persuasion and suggestion. They affirm particular ways of life, people and ideas, and they deligitimise others.
In this second group of recordings we explore the social process of representation. The ideas in these recordings are taken up in the chapters on meaning, power and communication professionals in Media & Society: production, content and participation.
Let's begin with signs. Humans make sense of the world and their relationships with others by making and using symbols. When I'm walking along a street in a new city looking for somewhere to have a drink, I peer into the shop windows, glance at the menus and even look at the people eating or drinking at particular places. I'm looking for signs that a cafe is a good one. What are these signs? A recognisable brand logo might signify quality to me. The style of dress of the customers, or the beard of the barista behind the coffee machine, might signify how hip the place is. These symbols signify to me how good the food and coffee, they shape my judgments.
The symbols we use do more than just simply name objects in the world. They conjure up a whole tableau of human feelings and relationships. If I say this is my brother. The word brother signifies an actual person. That's straightforward. But if I say, my brother is a deep ocean I conjure up a range of associations. I don't mean that he is literally an ocean, I mean to signify that something about his character. This signification of a whole terrain of feeling, a way of life, a sense of character is a critical feature of the way humans communicate with one another.
An image. A radio program. A story. A film. My Instagram account. A snap. A letter. These media objects are all texts. Collections of symbols that together create, carry and convey meaning. Texts are lively. They have multiple meanings. I go to a film with a friend. On the way home we talk about the main character, a young man who grows up to be a drug dealer. I feel sympathy for him. My friend doesn't. He doesn't like drug dealers, and he has his reasons not to. Our different life experiences lead us to read this complicated text in different ways. Making sense of cultural texts is a social practice through which we arrive at an understanding of our world and our relationships with each other.
My grandpa used to sit down and watch the news on television every night at 7pm. The news bulletin would describe and depict events in the world that day. The images on the screen re-presented reality to him. The 're' prefix matters here. Making a television news bulletin involves using media technologies and human judgments to construct a re-presentation, a re-constructed account, of events in the world. A cultural text never provides unmediated access to reality, but is filtered through the technical and social process of representation.
Representation is a social process. Representations construct reality as we know it. Representation is a system of signs and meanings. Representations matter because they shape how people think about the world which in turn shapes how they act in the world. Representation processes in the mass society are institutionalised and routine. Some people have more power to shape representations.
Representation is a process made of many moments. No human controls all of these moments. Encoding are those moments when a human translates events in the world into representations. When I write a story or take a photograph I am encoding meanings into a cultural text. Decoding are those moments when a human translates the text into meanings. When my friends reads my story, looks at my photograph they are decoding meanings from it. My friend might see different meanings in the text from what I intended.
In cohesive societies we agree about most things, most of the time. We agree that people should have a job, that going to school is a good thing, that criminals should go to jail, that a holiday at the beach is just the best, that people should be free to do what they want in their own homes. We never pay all that much attention to all the things we agree about. Our media, political and popular culture seems sometimes full of disagreement. But really, it is mostly a machinery for reinforcing common-sense ideas.
A Fox News reporter goes to China Town and talks to residents. The background music is Kung Foo Fighting. He asks people on the street about martial arts. When he finds people who can't speak English he asks them about politics. They don't have anything to say. Is this racist? One person watches the news segment and thinks, 'see immigrants don't contribute to our democracy!' another person watches it and thinks, 'this is so racist, presenting only stereotypes about Chinese people!'. They decode it differently. A reporter from The Daily Show offers an oppositional decoding of the segment, and goes to China Town to recode it.
Students protest on a campus. A cop sprays them with pepper spray. Protestors film the events on their smartphones and upload it to YouTube. News crews film the event too. It generates national media coverage. The Chancellor responds with a highly managed press conference and interviews with selected media organisations. The students respond with media interviews, rallies, a blockade of the Chancellor's press conference and a silent walk of shame. They are all engaged in the social process of representation, struggling with each other how reality will be understood and whether or not the cop's and university's actions will be seen as legitimate.
Hegemony is the process of building alliances and shaping consensus. Hegemony helps us analyse situations where different groups are struggling with each other to establish a common-sense way of doing things. Copyright in the digital era is one of these struggles. Is streaming a copyright video more like borrowing a book from a friend or stealing one from a shop? Ever since the Betamax enabled home-taping in the 1970s, the television, film and music industries have tended to defend copyright by seeing new technologies that enable the copying and sharing of media as illegitimate and illegal, while technology companies established the precedent that the devices they created had legal uses. In teh late 1990s, Napster brought this battle into the digital age.
This section contains advice on academic research, reading and writing.
An explanation of the elements of journal articles and the process of scholarly debate.
A series of exercises for developing an academic argument.
From a mass to a networked culture industry
In this third group of recordings we examine the place of digital media in the transition from a mass to a networked society. The ideas covered in these recordings are taken up further in the chapters on networked production, audiences, commercialisation and interactive media in Media and Society: production, content and participation.
Lie in bed. Scrolling on phone. Wake up. Reach for phone. Switch on the radio. Switch on the television. Get in the car. Put on headphones. Turn on podcast. Get to desk. Open Spotify. Sit on the train. Watch billboards for advertisements zip by. Meet a friend. Go to a movie. Media are entangled with our everyday lives. They saturate our homes, our public spaces, and our attention. We spend much of each day touching media devices, looking at them, listening to them. We are now a strange kind of animal, one that is always tethered to a device that collects, stores and disseminates information. We only started living like this about a hundred years ago. In that time, media has moved to the heart of how we manage ourselves and our societies.
Does the television dream your dreams for you? Are most of the images in your head gleaned from cinema? Are the tunes you whistle programmed by the radio? When cinema, radio and television became part of the rhythms of everyday life, critics began to observe a recomposition of the human experience. We begin to imagine our lives within the symbolic coordinates set by industrial media machines. If watching television consigned us to the role of consuming narratives produced by others, digital media seemed to make us more active. We could now make and share our own content. Tell our own stories. We became a productive part of the industrial machinery of media.
During the first half of the twentieth century mass societies were highly-managed by a combination of corporate and government bureaucracies. Experts planned and made decisions about how to allocate resources in order to keep societies stable. They promised a 'good life' to citizens, and organised political, economic and social systems to deliver it. Their centralised decision-making required enormous bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies grew incapable of collecting and processing the information required to make timely decisions. Both socialist and capitalist economies become less efficient at organising everyday life. As the quality of life diminishes, populations grow restless. Capitalism prevails. A new mode of global, flexible, networked, data-driven production emerges. The rigid efficiency of the mass production assembly line gives way to the computer-programmed flexibility of the network.
Paul Baran was a researcher at the US RAND corporation. During the Cold War he sets about designing a communication and command system that would survive a nuclear attack. His answer? A network. From the get-go Baran imagined this technology as both a military and marketing asset. It could be used to defend against a catastrophic attack by ensuring that no part of a military machine was dependent on a central point. It could also be used to organise a highly flexible and responsive mode of production. Baran's model for a network underpins the design of the internet. It weaves its way into our political and cultural imaginations. It becomes an organizing principle for economies, markets and corporations.
Networks stimulate the emergence of new kinds of social formations, jobs and identities. There are new winners and losers. Industrial cities and their big factories disintegrate, along with the communities and ways of life they supported. Global cities become the epicentres of economic and cultural life. Industrial zones emerge in Asia. Media technologies become central to organising a fast, flexible, data-driven and mass-customised cultural and economic formation.
Reflecting on our cohabitation with media
This section contains recordings that explore the emergence of media platforms, their engineering projects, commercial interests, role in our everyday lives and cultural consequences. It also contains advice on doing a research exercise called a 'walkthrough' and writing for audio formats like podcasts. Together the posts set out a way of exploring, analysing and publicly speaking out our cohabitation with media.
A 'walkthrough' is a research exercise to explore, reflect on and analyse your daily lived experience with media. Walkthroughs are used by media, technology and cultural researchers in universities and media and technologies companies.
Write like you speak. Write short. Be creative and provocative. Navigate your listener though an experience.
Facebook says you can download all the data it has collected about you. Your personal archive. To you this archive is the ephemera of ten years or more spent chatting, liking, and expressing. To Facebook it is one entry in a vast collection of training data that it uses to program sociality, customise your experience and train machines.
Move fast and break things. Disrupt. Innovate. Our cultural life is now organised by major corporations that produce platforms. These platforms are socio-technical engineering projects. They engineer the interplay between human experience and intelligent machines.
The smartphone is the device that integrates media platforms into everyday life. We wear them. Media move beyond the circulation of symbols. They become the infrastructure of everyday life.
Facebook is organised around the effort to engineer an evermore seamless interplay between lived experience and intelligent machines. With the launch of the News Feed in 2006 Facebook began the process of building an architecture that would monitor, predict and attempt to capture, modulate and program our attention. The original interface between human and platform was the web browser, now it is the smartphone, Zuckerberg and his employees are now imagining what comes after teh smartphone.
Brands are the engine of commercial media platforms. Media platforms generate revenue by engineering participatory and data-driven modes of branding. Their livelihood depends on their capacity to knit brands into the lives, expressions and feelings of users.
What do media make? Audiences. Audiences are productive workers in advertiser-funded media. They do the work of watching advertisements, and incorporating the products, services and experiences advertised into their own lives. On digital media platforms they do the work of being watched: turning their lives into images that others consume, and generating data about their expressions, movements and feelings.
Media platforms enable brands to customise and configure audiences in real-time. This makes the audience product that platforms sell to advertisers much more refined than the mass media of the twentieth century.
The last status updated posted to my Facebook profile was made by a robot five years ago. This is participatory media. We do not only address other humans, we also train computational machines.
The co-founder of Twitter Evan Williams reflects. 'I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that'. Ten years after the printing press, perhaps it would have been clear what it would disrupt, but not so clear what it would enable. In the dark, frantic rhythms of social media, we find ourselves in a similar moment.
Writing and Production
Written by Nicholas Carah and Mallory Peak. Theme by Scott Regan.