Thursday, July 27, 2006


The other day, my pal Jeff Pooley pointed out to me a new project that is being assembled by the good folks over at the Institute for the Future of the Book. They're putting something together that should be of interest to media scholars and, to a lesser extent, everyone else (oh, them). Here's the deal: the Institute for the Future of the Book is going to introduce a project they call MediaCommons. On July 17, the IFB's Kathleen Fitzpatrick announced the MediaCommons project, and the online discussion boards have been filled with commentary ever since.

MediaCommons, says Fitzpatrick, will be a "new model of academic publishing." It will be less of an "electronic press" than a "scholarly network." I must say, they really do seem to be thinking in a constructively broad manner about this. MediaCommons will indeed be dedicated partially to online publications. Instead of being tied to a traditional model of peer review, it will involve "peer-to-peer review, in which texta are discussed and, in some sense, 'ranked' by a committed community of readers." Instead of determining whether or not a text will be published, these readers will simply rank texts, with comments. This focus will allow MediaCommons to make "the process of scholarly work just as visible and valuable as its product." Sounds good.

But that's just the potatoes. Here's the gravy: MediaCommons is going to be more than just online publishing. It will involve electronic monographs, electronic casebooks, electronic journals, electronic reference works, and electronic forums. I would explain all of these, but you should really just check out Fitzpatrick's description.

Much of this project seems quite excellent. The creators of MediaCommons claim that this will lead to new forms of and opportunities for collaboration. This seems likely. More dramatically, they also claim that this will help to change the relationship between the academy and the public. They say that, although scholarly work is "often...defined as a public good...much academic discourse remains inaccessible and impenetrable to the publics it seeks to serve." They believe that "the lack of communication between the academy and the wider reading public points to a need to rethink the role of the academic in public intellectual life."

This is where I think they start misfiring a little bit. Note a few of the assumption in this. First of all, it's probably a bit much to presume that MediaCommons will re-shape the relationship between the academy and the public in any dramatic fashion. I find it unlikely to imagine that MediaCommons will be particularly interesting to members of 'the public' (that amorphous group that everyone wants on their side). Just because something is available online and is written/voiced in an easy to understand language does not mean that anything dramatic is going to change in the relationship between the public and the academy.

It's also worth pointing out that this argument partakes of an assumption that is common to academics who deal with the question of public scholarship. The good folks at the IFB seem to presume that the public is being served by this. That may very well be true in this case. However, it's worth reminding ourselves that academics often flatter themselves by presuming that their work is in the public interest. Is there an audience clamoring for this? Will the world be saved if only our insights could be distributed to a broader public? In essence: does the public want this? My answer: maybe. But remember that just because something has been put together for an audience does not mean that it serves that audience's interests. Those are two different things. I'm probably going too far here. Addressing the public on crucial issues of the day (as many issues relating to the media are) is a laudable activity. Much contemporary academic scholarship does have a ridiculous level of impenetrable jargon. It would help to create a sense of renewal of professional purpose if there were a go-between linking scholars and the public. But it still seems to me as if MediaCommons is more likely to function as a broad scholarly network than as a medium for public intellectual work. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with that.

Monday, July 24, 2006


A recent pair of posts by Dana Polan and Mark Andrejevic on FLOW touch on an issue of supreme importance to scholars of the media. Polan's article in Flow 4(7) dealt with an episode of The West Wing that featured a shot of Foucault's 'Society Must Be Defended'. Polan riffed on this a bit, describing how this kind of name-drop tv works to appeal to a creative class. But Polan reserves his best point for the end, when he addresses the situation of the media theorist attempting to incorporate Foucault in descriptions of how the media operate. Says Polan, "one fundamental problem is that Discipline and Punish is about citizens being looked at while television is about them looking: how to get from one to the other?" This strikes me as exactly right. The point is not that Foucault is worthless to the media theorist. The point is that application of Foucault's ideas to media theory is probably best done through use of a theoretical pirouette, whereby we move from 'being looked at' to 'looking'.

Polan makes his point artfully. But I don't think he's the first to make that point. John B. Thompson's "The Media and Modernity" makes a similar--if less Foucault-friendly--point. Thompson opines that
"If Foucault had considered the role of communication media more carefully, he might have seen that they establish a relation between power and visibility which is quite different from that implict in the model of the Panopticon...[T]hanks to the media, it is primarily those who exercise power, rather than those over whome power is exercised, who are subjected to a certain kind of visibility."

I think the word 'primarily' is debatable here, but the general point is most consistent with Polan's musings. We watch tv, read, the paper, surf around on the Web, and we see stuff. Since the advent of print (if not before), culture has operated very much through this kind of visibility (broadly defined), which differs in some important ways from Panopticism.

The thing is, this understanding of the limits of the direct applicability of Panopticism to media processes often takes the act of consuming the media as a one-way flow. Along comes Mark Andrejevic in FLOW 4(8), who reminds us that commercial surveillance is and has been a major part of the mass communication. Andrejevic voices his argument as a rejection of some tendencies in cultural studies. As he puts it,
"Cultural studies of TV have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about the messages: the programmers and advertising with which broadcasters saturate the airwaves. They have spent much less time on what remains of central concern to media producers: the flow of information in the opposite direction."

Of course, this touches on the kind of audience surveillance that was the topic of my previous post regarding TiVo. Andrejevic tells us that commercial broadcasting involves a "two-way flow", as we viewers emit information about our own viewing habits. He describes the Portable People Meter that Arbitron has developed for measuring audiences with a truly impressive level of detail. Basic point here: If you didn't think Panopticism was relevant to media studies, these Portable People Meters will convince you that it is. Think we're not being disciplined through our own oft-unnoticed visibility? Well, you're kind of wrong.

The thing is, I still walk away unsatisfied. I think it makes sense to apply the idea of Panopticism to the increasingly involved process whereby audiences are monitored and measured. But the Thompson/Polan dissatisfaction with this--the fact that visibility operates in ways that Foucault didn't quite get, and that the media are a big part of this--seems entirely right. Media visibility plays a crucial--and still under-theorized--role in contemporary culture. It is through being watched that power can become legitimated, naturalized. And I'd sure like to hear more about this part of the equation.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


As promised, here are what I think are the main arguments against net neutrality. Some of them overlap quite a bit, but I'm trying to go for full coverage here, so please do bear with me.

ARGUMENT #1: The government should not be involved in any "heavy-handed regulation" (Ted Stevens quote) before the need for such regulation becomes obvious.

ARGUMENT #2: Broadband network providers have built much of the existing backbone of what we call the internet. If we want something even better, someone's going to have to pay for it. Broadband network providers will create the next-generation internet if we let them finance it through a tiered system.
Addendum: this will hit rural and low-income citizens hardest, as they continue to wait for the full benefits of the internet. The improvements our low-income and rural friends want so much will be delayed all the longer, because the process of improving the internet will be bogged down by net neutrality requirements.
Addendum: if net neutrality is established by the government, big content providers will occupy many of the resources of network providers. This will push the expense of broadband rollout to the consumers (paraphrase from letter to NY Times editor by Mike McCurry and Christopher Wolf)

ARGUMENT #3: The free market will solve a lot of problems that net neutrality advocates say will occur if net neutrality bills don't pass. Consumers simply won't tolerate the doomsday scenario of tiered service. The market will find a way for us to continue accessing all that we want to access. The market for internet connections is sufficiently competitive to respond to consumer demand.

ARGUMENT #4: The defeat of net neutrality will make it so that the market continues to offer incentives to develop new forms of high-speed content delivery. The material that is clogging up the 'series of tubes' (video and audio streams, in particular) will be delivered more efficiently if there is a market-derived impetus to support video and audio streams. Net neutrality would prevent such an impetus from forming.

So, there you have it. This is why some folks say net neutrality won't work.

What do I think? I think it's a good idea to pay attention to the interests involved in any policy debate. The interests in this debate work to pit the network providers against the content providers and consumers. I can't find any consumer groups that take up the cause of the network providers. Though I think it's naive to presume that content providers are acting in the interests of 'freedom,' I do think net neutrality is workable, appropriate, and generally a good idea. But, you know, I'm far more fascinated with the arguments of those with whom I disagree.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


By now, many have seen, heard, or read Senator Ted Stevens' (R-AK) opinions about net neutrality. He is against the proposed net neutrality act currently being proposed in Congress. To a great extent, commentary on Stevens' opinions has focused on his seeming lack of *any* understanding of how the internet works. If you would like to hear his full statement (it is worth it), has done a good job of archiving it for all to hear.

I admit that Stevens' opinion is hilarious. However, there seems to be a tendency in the press (and now the Daily Show is part of this) to cover the issue as if it's simply a case of Stevens being a nut. What we're not getting is a decent sense of what arguments are involved in all sides of the net neutrality dispute. Stevens doesn't really make arguments, but he does allude to arguments. Having read about this issue for a while, I'm struck by how rarely one comes across any carefully assembled arguments against net neutrality. I've heard decent arguments about how difficult it might be for the Federal Gov't to implement any kind of net neutrality. There's also the notion that net neutrality will undermine the companies that supposedly built the information superhighway. I think internet service providers are unwilling to use this argument too much, because they know they're piggybacking on public spending as it is, what with the infrastructure and software having come largely out of research institutions and the military.

In a weird way, I'm frustrated by this. I would love to hear a good argument against the idea of net neutrality. I'm finding nothing terrbily compelling, yet. Let me know if I'm missing something. Please. Until then, we're left with Stevens 'series of tubes' reasoning.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Whilst perusing a recent issue of New Media & Society, I was pleased to come across a dandy little article by one Matt Carlson, entitled "Tapping Into TiVo." Carlson provides a surveillance-by-way-of-political-economy riff on the structure of transactions that shapes how TiVo operates. As those who know me will attest, I am perpetually on the verge of getting TiVo at home, and I read this piece with particular interest.

The nutshell of Carlson's argument concerns the fears and advantages that face the existing advertising/media industry. It works like this:
1) "Networks lose the prolonged attention of their audiences."
2) TiVo jeopardizes "the practice of using program time to entice viewers to sit through commercial time that provides the primary base of television economics"
3) The ratings system is not designed to deal with time-shifted programming. "If the trust in the reliability of ratings...begins to vanish, networks and advertisers will be forced to find alternative methods of audience measurement"
4) "As interactivity and broadband internet resources continue to expand, content providers fear that it will grow easier for individuals to redistribute, without permission, their content."

So, as many have pointed out, TiVo may enhance the "sky is falling" mentality in the broadcast biz, as the the promises of a more user-centered medium threaten the core assumptions that sustain the advertising/ratings axis.

Of course, the plot thickens, as Carlson reminds us that TiVo is not just a giant-killing, "prosumer" tool. TiVO also offers advantages to advertisers and to broadcasters. The points:
1) "Widespread time-shifting would add value to the midnight to 6 am time slots since a DVR will search through the entire day for programming".
2) "DVR users watch more television than they did before owning a DVR."
3) "DVRs offer new potential spaces for advertisers, such as within EPGs." (EPGs = electronic programming guides)
4) "Content providers and advertisers are also interested in interactive ads, such as a 'showcase' for programs that the user clicks on to record the show or contests that users can enter with a click of the remote."
5) AHEM: "The greatest potential benefit of DRRs, and one stressed by TiVo, is the creation of a two-way flow of information that facilitates the collection of viewer data and ultimately addressable programming and marketing."

Carlson helpfully notes that, with the advent of TiVo, control (in the James Beniger sense of the term) has shifted from "scheduling to surveillance". This is how viewing will be patterned/disciplined in the near future.

Carlson is to be thanked, I think, for not going with the tiresome prediction that "It used to be that we watched TV. Now....TV IS WATCHING US". TV has been watching us for some time. It's just that there have been adjustments in the process by which we are monitored, and this system of surveillance has been made (dramatically) more detailed.

What Carlson doesn't do--because he's a responsible scholar trying to be careful--is try to predict how programming will change as a result of these changes. It's fun to imagine a world where Arrested Development would have been saved because TiVo allowed advertisers to gaze into the viewing habits of that show's (relatively well-educated and well-off and young) audience. I'm not so confident about this. An easy prediction to make would be that TiVo may simply be the next step on the road to a 'pay per' approach to television. TiVo is already conditioning viewers to look at their viewing habits as a queue/menu. This is the kind of a la carte (or 'disaggregated' or 'unbundled') programming that broadcasters feared for a long time. But it's possible, from Carlson's vantage point, to see how broadcasters aren't facing massive dispersion of the audience so much as they are dealing with a (perhaps dramatic) change in how audiences are to be disciplined. In other words, TiVo may not be the end of the mass audience, but the beginning of a new technique for creating new kinds of mass audiences. Not all roads lead to audience fragmentation, but many of the roads we're on right now seem to go through it.