Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 39 (2014) 674–675
©2014 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Review

Johan Söderberg
University of Gothenburg


Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014. 344 pp. ISBN 9780262525374.


Until recently, relatively little attention was given to topics such as computer technology, digital media, and the Internet by Science and Technology Studies (STS) researchers. The purpose of this anthology is to bridge STS and Media and Communication Studies (MCS). Considering that same ambition underpins another forthcoming anthology tentatively titled Digital STS: A Handbook and Fieldguide, and that the merging of perspectives is the focus of this CJC special issue, one cannot help but question why this movement at this time. By tackling the gap between these two fields of inquiry, the editors and contributing authors hope to establish a new plateau from which to launch future research inquiries.

The rush to bring STS and MCS into contact with one another coincides with a broader turn in the social sciences and humanities. Arguably, this turn is due to exhaustion within the scholarly community with the idea of countering technological determinist beliefs (which are expressed in different ways by natural scientists and computer enthusiasts) by promoting social constructivist accounts of the same phenomena. Lately, the watchword “constructivism” has been replaced with “material” and each chapter in the first half of this anthology touches on this transformation. As noted by the contributors, it is hard to tell what the new terminology signifies, given the divergent and contradictory meanings that can be read into the term “material.” This being said, the terms “material” and “materialism” are often used to temper the freedom elsewhere ascribed to the “will” to construct itself and its surrounding environment ex nihilo. In other words, saying “material” enables one to avoid saying “determinism” while ostensibly meaning the same thing. The change of words masks a volte-face in regard to an earlier constructivist consensus within the scholarly community.

This provocative interpretation is offered by Jonathan Stern in an effort to think counter-clockwise with the latest turn. By reminding his readers of what it was that made constructivism attractive in the first place, he raises a warning against moving too quickly from one extreme to the other. Although critiques of technological determinism are trite in academia these days, the need for such critiques is unabated. A token hereof is the latest wave of hype around 3D printers. Indeed, the turn to materiality in scholarly discourse is mirrored in the Californian trade press, where enthusiasm over virtual reality has been exchanged for the “Atoms Are the New Bits” hymn.

Aside from materialism, STS and MCS are part of a larger shift that is not specifically addressed by the editors, but can be deduced from the second half of the anthology. The second half of Media Technologies is focused on the political hopes and fears connected to information technology. The discussion across these chapters touches on labour issues in the computer industry, the link between political freedom and new technology, and algorithmically mediated conflicts.

In the 1990s, the discussions about the expected, political consequences of the Internet were coloured by hopefulness, even though counter-weighted by critiques of technological determinism and high-tech libertarianism. MCS scholars had a share in this optimism too, reflecting something of the forward-looking posture of their respondents, computer engineers and new media users. Whereas the optimism of the latter focused on the next generation of information gadgetry, the former placed hope in interactive media consumption and the rise of a networked (and thus non-hierarchical) mode of organization. As for STS scholars, they reformulated the enthusiasm of their respondents, natural scientists, about the next scientific breakthrough, into a vague optimism about change as such. It was thought that scientifically and technologically induced change would uproot traditions, norms, and hierarchies and set free the play of hybrid identities and becomings. Nowadays, unbounded, Promethean change has a more  doomsday ring to it. The cutting edge of scientific research today, that which attracts funding and media attention, is to model the havoc that awaits us on the other side of the 2 degree Celsius threshold, where planet Earth is becoming increasingly unihabitable. Concurrently, large-scale and visionary engineering projects take on evermore survivalist and absurdist qualities, as examplified by geo-engineering. This thematic shift is directly addressed in Steven Jackson’s chapter, where he insists on the actuality of repair in current reflections of new technology. Although the other contributions move in different directions, the same bleak future looms in the background of these discussions, and this is precisely what connects the second half of the book with the foregrounding of materialism (i.e., determinism) in the first half.

The idea that the world can be fashioned ex nihilo by pure will is now colliding with the externalities of that same creation. This is my answer to why the paths of STS and MCS are intersecting at this time: both find themselves at a crossroads where their inquiries and their disciplinary identities have to be reformulated in the light of a new, more gloomy cultural sentiment in society. Natural science, computer engineering and media culture (i.e., the empirical fields of these two disciplines) are undergoing changes as the master narrative of the “end of history” is being replaced with that of Antropocene.


 



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