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Main characteristics of New Media

New Media are Digital, interactive, hypertextual, globally networked, virtual and sometimes based on simulation. 

This post provides further information and elaboration on these six key features of New Media.  Main Characteristics of New Media_1.png

Digital

With the growth of digital technology in the 1990s, the vast majority of information is now converted, stored and transmitted as binary code (a series of 1s and 0s.). Qualitative information has today become ‘digitalised’.

Digitalisation what allows so much information to be stored in compact hard disks or micro memory cards and it is also what allows for the near instantaneous transmission of information via cable and satellite.

Digitalisation has also resulted in ‘technological convergence’, or the convergence of different forms of information (text, audio and visual) into one single ‘system’ – most web sites today offer a fusion of text and audio-visual information, and our mobile devices allow us to perform a variety of functions – not only reading text and watching/ listening to videos, but also searching for information, sending messages, shopping and using GPS functions.

Analogue is the opposite of digital.  It is stored in physical form and examples include print newspapers, records, and old films and T.V. programmes stored on tape.

Interactivity

‘Old media’ tended to be very much a ‘one way’ affair, with audiences on the receiving end of broadcasts, for the most part able to do little else that just passively watch media content.

New Media however is much more of a two way affair and it allows consumers and users to get more involved. It is much more of a two way form of communication than old media. 

Increased interactivity can be seen in simple acts such as liking a Facebook post or commenting on news piece or blog. However some users get much more involved and create their own blogs and videos and actively upload their own content as ‘prosumers’.

New Media seem to have fostered a more participatory culture, with more people involved and the roles between consumer and producer of media content becoming ever more blurred!

Hypertextual

Hypertext, or ‘links’ are a common feature of new media, which allows users more freedom of choice over how they navigate the different sources of information available to them.

In more technical terms, links in web sites offer non-sequential connections between all kinds of data facilitated by the computer.

Optimists tend to see this feature as allowing for more individualised lifestyle choices, giving users the chance to act more independently, and to make the most of the opportunities new media markets make available to them.

Global Networks

Digital Media has also facilitated cultural globalisation – we now interact much more globally and via virtual networks of people rather than locally.

These networks allow for ‘collective intelligence’ to increase – they allow us to pool our resources much more easily and to draw on a wider range of talents and sources of information (depending on our needs) than ever before.

NB one question to ask about networks is what the main hubs are, through which information flows. This has implications for power.

Virtual Worlds

New Media presents to us a very different reality from face to face to ‘lived reality’ – for most of us this means a very fast paced flow of information with numerous products and people screaming for our attention.

However, this situation has only existed since the mid 2000s, and it must be remembered that New Media reality is virtual reality.

This is especially true when it comes to social media sites  which give users the opportunity to present themselves in any way they see fit, and while most users don’t go full Cat Fish, most people choose to present only one aspect of themselves.

Simulation

Simulation goes a step beyond the ‘virtual’ nature of New Media as usual. Simulation is most obviously experienced computer games which provide an immersive experience for users into a “virtual life” that is simulated through digital technology.

These virtual worlds are synthetic creations that ultimately rely on algorithms which set the parameters through which events in the gaming environment unfold.

Examples today include not only online RPG games, but also driving and flight simulations.

Sources 

Adapted from  Martin Lister et al – New Media: A critical Introduction (Second Edition).

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Sociomaterial Perspectives on the self in digital networks

Sociomaterial perspectives hold that datafication via digital devices (both personal and public) are fundamentally  intertwined with the way we construct our identities and ‘practice selfhood’, so much so that it is more accurate to say that today we ‘live in media’ rather than ‘we live with media’.

The most obvious manifestation of the intertwining of digital technologies, datafication and selfhood is our extensive use of mobile phones, tablets and laptops: not only do we rely on these devices for information, we also use them (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) to continually upload information about ourselves to the net.

And even if we choose to reduce our use of such technologies, or live without them altogether, our sense of self will still be partially governed by digital technology because so much of public life and public space is informed by its use.

Sociomaterial perspectives on human action are strongly influenced by actor-network theory and take our extensive use of digital technologies into account by focussing on the way that humans interact with non-human material objects such as computers in heterogeneous and diverse networks.

This approach sees objects as agents within a network, able to exert influence on humans, and it is interested in how things and meanings interrelated. It also takes account of how factors such as class, gender and ethnicity influence the context of a relational network.

Sociomaterial perspectives also recognize that there is a complex ‘web’ of interaction which lies beyond (or behind) technologically mediated networks: programmers, marketers etc, and (importantly I think) that the technologies and software which governs action within a network are themselves the product of human interactions (and thus values).

This perspective offers a useful response to post-structuralism which focuses purely on discourses and meanings, which are largely seen as floating free from the material context of action.

More specifically the sociomaterial perspective on understanding selfhood in a digital age focuses on:

  • How people experience technologies
  • How technologies are incorporated into people’s senses of self, and how they extend their sense of self
  • How social relations are configured through such networks incorporating networks.

Assemblages

The concept of assemblage is often used in the sociomaterialism literature. An assemblage is configured when humans, nonhumans, practices, ideas and discourses come together in a complex system. With digital systems, an assemblage will consist of the following:

  • Computer software and hardware
  • Developers
  • Manufacturers and retailers
  • Software coders
  • algorithms
  • Computer servers and archives
  • The computing cloud
  • Platforms and social media

According to sociomaterial perspective, individuals are ‘entangled’ in such assemblages – and understanding these entanglements is a complex business, precisely because these assemblages are complex – there are lot of human, and non-human actors involved.

Within these assemblages, humans can iimbue objects (such as their phones) with biological meaning, and understanding these meanings is key to understanding human action, but humans are also changed by all of the above ‘objects’ (along with the other actual humans) which make up the assemblage in which an individual acts.

Turkle (2007) for example calls mobile devices ‘evocative objects’ because they are basically repositories of ourselves – we have so much information stored on them!

Kitchen and Dodge (2011) use the term code/space to denote the ways in which software and devices such as mobile phones and sensors are configuring concepts of space and identity – our devices may even govern our access to certain spaces (think etickets), and because our behaviour can be tracked through them, we can also be nudged, or disciplined into certain ways of acting via our technologies.

Sources and Notes

This is my summary of part one of chapter two of my current January 2018 read: 

Lupton, Deborah (2017) The Quantified Self, Polity

This kind of theory should hit A-level sociology about 2035, about 2 years before the cyborgs take over once and for all. 

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The Big Data Value Chain

There are three types of company in the big-data value chain: the companies who collect the data, data-analytics companies, and data-ideas companies. This new ‘organisational landscape’ will change the power-relations between businesses enormously, at least according to Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier (2017)  in ‘Big Data’: The Essential Guide to Life and Learning in the Age of Insight;. 

‘Pure’ data companies are those which have the data, or at least access to it, but not necessarily have the right skills to extract the value from the data. A good example of such a company is Twitter, which has masses of data but licences it out to independent firms to use.

Data analytics companies are those with the statistical, programming, and communication skills necessary to mining insights from data – Teradata is a good exmaple of such a company.

Finally there are those companies with the ‘big-data mindset’ whose founders and employees have unique ideas about how to unlock and combine data to find new forms of value – for example, Pete Warden, the co-founder of Jetpac, which makes travel recommendations based on the photos users upload to the site.

Data analytics has recently been touted as being in the ‘prime position’ in the big-data value chain: there has been a lot of recent talk of the shortage of ‘data scientists’ in the age of ever increasing amount of data…. The McKinsey Global Institute has talked about this for example, and Google’s chief economist Hal Varian famously called statistician the ‘sexist job around’.

We have been given the impression that we are wallowing in data, but lack sufficient people with the skills to mine this data.

Cukier, however, thinks such claims are exaggerated because it is likely that this skills gap will close. Interestingly, in a recent talk on big data science, this view also seemed to be the consensus.

He predicts that what is more likely to happen is that firms controlling access to the data will start to charge more for it, and big data innovators will be be where the real money is…

Hyrbid Data Companies

Companies such as Google and Amazon stretch across all three links in the data value chain. Google collects data like search-query typos, uses it to create a spell-checker and employs people in-house to do the analytics. Such vertical integration is no doubt precisely why Google is today one of the world’s largest companies.

The New Data Intermediaries

Cukier also predicts that there are certain business sectors which will benefit from giving their data to third parties, because keeping it in-house will not be as beneficial to them as sharing their data and combining it with others – third parties are needed to facilitate trust – for example, travel firms will benefit from such an arrangement, not to mention the banking and finance sectors – where more data is better.

The Demise of the Expert

Cukier also predicts that big data analytics will see specialists in different fields being replaced with those with data-science skills able to manage whatever field based on data. He argues that ‘mathematics, statistics, perhaps with a sprinkling of programming and network science, will be as foundational to the modern workplace as numeracy was a century ago and literacy before that’.

Big Winners, Medium Sized Losers..

Large data companies such as Google and Amazon will continue to soar, but big data presents a challenge to the victors of small-world data such as Walmart, Nestle, Boeing…. How these will adapt remains to be seen.

There are, of course, opportunities for ‘smart and nimble start-ups’, but also individuals might start to sell their own data, possibly through new third party firms.

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How Technology Companies Manipulate our Behaviour

Design features such as likes, swipes, notifications and autoplays make being on-line more addictive, less autonomous, and cause pyschological and social harm, at least according to this recent Guardian Article by Paul Lewis: Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia‘.

Are we all digital technology zombies?

Below I summarize this article and add in a few comments.

Technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google have incorporated a range of design features into their mobile devices, operating systems and social media applications that make them addictive, which results in us spending longer online than we really want to, clicking on links we never intended to and making us more distracted, less rational and more impulsive than ever.

Former Google employee Tristan Harris says that all of our minds are “jacked into the system” and “all our minds can be hijacked. We are not as free as we think we are”. Harris believes that tech companies deliberately set out to make their products addictive, as they are oriented to respond to the incentives of an advertising economy and thus experiment with techniques which are most likely to grab people’s attention.

As an example, Harris points out that the Facebook icon which notifies users of new activity and ‘likes’ was originally blue, but no one used it, then they switched it to red, and everyone used it, because red is a trigger colour, which is why it is used as an alarm signal. Now the red icon is everywhere, and every time smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots, pleading to be tapped.

red notification icon
The Red Notification Icon – Inducing the anxiety of variable rewards?

The most seductive design, according to Harris, exploits the psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive – variable rewards. Each time you swipe down you don’t know what’s coming next, either an avalanche of likes, or nothing, and the action even mirrors that of the slot machine: a human action to ‘pull down’, and a pause before a variable result. The pull-down to refresh was originally designed in 2009, and has since become one of the most widely emulated features in apps – even though refreshing can now be done automatically, the pull-down function remains, because if users aren’t involved in the process, then the experience is less addictive.

social media swipe addiction
Swipe to refresh and lock-in your addiction

Justin Rosenstein designed the like feature for Facebook in 2007 – to create a means to send ‘little bits of positivity at the click of a button’, creating what he now calls ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’. ‘Likes’ were  wildly successful, and hence they spread to a range of other social media platforms, and now it is the short-term pleasure of this social affirmation that is one of the features which drives people to touch, swipe or tap their phone more than 2500 times a day on average.

Facebook Like
Facebook like – dings of pseudo-pleasure?

Tech companies can exploit such information to keep people hooked: manipulating, for example, when people receive ‘likes’ for their posts, ensuring that they arrive when an individual is most likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or just bored, and such information can be sold to the highest bidder.

James Williams, a former Google employee who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, but has now turned critic of the industry, describes the tech industry as one which has the ‘largest and most centralised form of attentional control in human history’ – he had an epiphany moment one day while working at google when he glanced at one of Google’s multi-coloured dashboards showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. He says that he realised ‘this is literally a million people that we’ve persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to do otherwise.’

Some of the Negatives Effects of Being Online

Firstly, technology may be contributing to so-called ‘continuous partial attention’ – In the attention economy (driven by the needs of advertisers) – everyone is distracted most of the time – which actually prevents us from getting things done, the complete opposite of what technology was intended to do!

Secondly, the attention economy thrives on a ‘sensationalise, bate and entertain’ logic and as a result the media is now is now more than ever biased in favour of that which is sensationalist and entertaining. People like Donald Trump do well in this environment because they are good at grabbing attention with their simplistic,  emotional and extremist views –  that which is rational is less likely to get attention than that which is impulsive.

Finally, and related to the above point, this may be changing how we view politics – we see it in increasingly polarised terms – because the only thing which grabs our attention at a similar level of Donald Trump is a similarly extreme reaction, in the form of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn for example.

What are the solutions to avoid getting addicted in the attention economy?

Some of the big names who created the technologies of the attention economy are actually ducking out of it themselves – having turned off their social media updates, or even uninstalled most of the apps from their hardware.

Find out More

If you’re interested in Tristan Harris’ initiative to make digital technologies less addictive – you might like to check out his Time Well Spent Website, and his TED talk below…

Related A-Level Sociology Debates

As I see it this material fits in to at least two places on the A-level sociology syllabus:

  • This material seems to be coming from the structuralist side of sociology – that society shapes (or at least frames) social action. See this post: ‘Sociological perspectives: the basics‘ for an overview of structure versus action approaches in sociology.
  • There’s also some clear relevance to the increasing power of Transnational Corporations: this material certainly suggests that transnational technology companies wield enormous power to shape people’s actions.
  • If you study the media option for A level paper 2, no doubt it’s even more relevant!

 

 

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Is Digital Technology Good for Education?

Digital technology is now an integral part of education. Devices such as tablets and smartphones are now common means of interacting with people, consuming media, interacting with institutions and generally living out many aspects of our daily lives.

These technologies have transformed the generation and communication of knowledge, and the way in which learning and understanding take place. In an organisational sense digital technologies are now central to the ‘formal’ organisation of education: free online courses have emerged to supplement and compete with traditional bricks and mortar institutions; national governments now spend billions on digital education resources and have ed tech policies and initiatives; and digital education is entwined with a global economics and politics and ongoing changes as to what counts for knowledge skills.

While it is teachers and students who have to use technology, much of the debate about ed tech takes place amongst those outside of education: Policy makers, industrialists and other influential actors outside of education often frame discussions about educational technology in dramatic terms of wide-scale educational reform, speculating on how ed tech might lead to major transformations such as doing away with teachers, schools and universities.

To what extent is digital technology actually changing education? Is this in our best interest? And How might the potential for radical change actually be realised?

Digital technology and social change

Discussions about digital technology are nearly always associated with doing things differently. Some envisage changes as being broadly positive with digital technologies being  associated with doing things cheaper, faster and more efficiently; others focus on the more negative aspects of social change – such as the idea of ‘google making us stupid’.

The potential of digital technologies to change education is imagined along a scale of modest improvement to wholesale revolution.

At the improvement end of the scale there is talk of:

  • ‘Improving learning’ – through making it more social, situated or authentic.
  • Improving learners – technology is described as enhancing, enabling, assisting, supporting and scaffolding learning.
  • Improving teachers – by expanding their capacity to teach, and making them more efficient
  • Increasing the relevance of education institutions – making them more relevant to society

At the transformation on end of the scale….

  • Courses being delivered online rather than face to face
  • Learning through playing games rather than being taught directly.

Tellingly, these changes are sometimes described in language borrowed from IT and compter engineering – for example ‘School 2.0’, and some commentators talk of ‘upgrading’ ‘hacking’ or ‘rebooting’ education.

All of these changes imply a recoding or re-scripting of the rules of education, with digital technology acting as a catalyst for change.

More extreme still is the idea that digital technology will lead to a wholesale revolution in education, with technology destabilising the formal educational establishment.

Some of the targets here include:

  • The school
  • The university
  • Formal examinations and qualifications
  • National curricula
  • Teachers and unions

These debates are framed in terms of empowering marginalised groups:

  • Individuals over institutions
  • Private markets over public sector monopolies
  • Outsiders over insiders.

A digital ‘fix’ for a ‘broken’ system?

One of the most significant aspects of ‘digital education’ is its discursive nature. In other words, the values and meanings that are attached to the idea of digital education could be seen as significant as any actual use of digital technology.

Despite some of the transformative claims attributed to digital technology there has been little rigorous evidence produced in the last 40 years of educational technology leading to sustained improvement of teaching and learning. Much of the rhetoric of digital education has proven frustratingly difficult to substantiate.

We are thus perhaps better of treating those descriptions of digital ‘revolution’, ‘transformation’ and ‘improvement’ as evocative and aspirational stories, rather than sober, objective and actual ongoing changes in education – as a space in which people voice their hopes and their fears, and we need to treat any claims attributed to educational technology with scepticism.

In this regard, it is worth paying attention to the prominent argument that digital technology can fix a broken, or outmoded education system:

The economist magazein for example recently turned its attention to the ‘reinvention of the university’ concluding that the internet will turn higher education upside down in the same way it has done with newspapers and book retailing.

Similarly, the media commentator Jeff Jarvis has proclaimed that ‘Education is one the institutions most deserving of disruption – and with the greatest opportunities to come out of it’.

Such statements constitute a direct challenge to the institutionalisation of education – to schools,  state run education systems and the agencies which surround them.

The Economist and Jarvis are by no means alone in voicing their concerns – it is now common to hear mention of education as being ‘broken’, or an obsolete product of a bygone era – with people speaking of the ‘industrial era classroom’, the ‘factory model school’ or ‘ivory tower’ universities –such manners of speaking which convey as sense of the mismanagement of education by monolithic institutions.

The criticisms levelled at  ‘traditional education’ are as follows:

  • The institutions are profoundly undemocratic, the power concentrated unfairly in the hands of elites – such as vice chancellors and university professors and unions.
  • They are inefficient and unresponsive,
  • The people who work in them are untrustworthy, self-serving and greedy.
  • There is a lack of creativity in designing curriculum content
  • There are entrenched problems such as truancy and the ‘school to prison pipeline’.

Martin Weller notes that the fact that education is broken has ‘become an accepted standpoint that is often stated as an irrefutable fact… from which all else follows, a sine qua non of educational revolution’.

Such prognoses tend to be advanced by those outside of the education system who are seeking reform from the various perspectives of the free market, libertarianism, home-schooling, child-centred learning and so on.

As Weller observes, whatever perspectives these criticisms start from, all such accounts are ‘manipulative’ and imply that education professionals cannot be trusted and that solutions require external agents are required to make changes.

For many of these commentators, digital technologies are seen as a means of shaking things up, sweeping away old regimes and remaking education provision in forms fit for the twenty-first century, and over the years they have become associated increasingly with radical forms of educational innovation and upheaval.

Rather than taking such stories at face value, we should be more critical of them, as these are potentially big changes with big implications.

The inevitable digital change of education – reasons to be cautious

Firstly, we need to realise that claims about the need to fix or disrupt education are not value-free – they are linked to wider agendas

Second, we need to recognise the corporate, commercial and economically driven nature of much of the prevailing talk about disruption and deinstitutionalisation. While the greater involvement of the private sector in education is not necessarily a bad thing, history suggests that business ideals and the pursuit of profit do not always translate smoothly into education.

Third, history also reminds us that nothing is certain when it comes to educational change…. There might be unintended consequences (good or bad) from digital disruption.

Fourthly, we need to remember that the inclusion of more digital technology in education is not inevitable, and using ti more is not ‘common sense’. We don’t have to change anything!

Conclusions

We need to be sceptical about the grandiose claims made for the benefits of introducing more digital technology into education. Selwyn rounds off by suggesting that we ask the following questions:

  1. What is actually new hear
  2. What are the second order effects of change?
  3. What are the potential gains and losses?
  4. What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  5. In whose interests does ed tech work?
  6. What are the social problems which digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  7. How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems?

Sources 

This is a summary of chapter 1 of ‘Is Digital Technology Good for Education (2016) by Neil Selwyn