Because Yochai Benkler emphasizes the potentially revolutionary function of the internet to promote and facilitate the enactment of social justice, comparing his approach to that of Harold Innis seems pertinent. The obvious difference between the two writers’ approaches derives from the grand historical sweep of The Bias of Communication to the current insularity of The Wealth of Networks: while Innis describes the revolutionary social and cultural impacts of numerous communication technologies throughout the history of humanity, Benkler focuses on the internet.
As we discussed in class, if we plug the internet into the general timeline of communication technology that began with simpler mediums like stone and papyrus, the new medium should follow the generalization set up by Innis. If every new communication technology in the history of mankind, whether biased by time or space, has “caused” a social change, then the internet should not be an exception. Whether Innis’s argument would still “hold true” for the internet cannot really be established until a future historian looks back on our current situation and can demonstrate both that the space-biased internet created a revolution to overturn a time-biased medium (television) and that some as yet inexistent futuristic time-biased medium will cause a social revolution that makes the internet seem time-biased as well. Benkler seems to think this internet-based revolution is in progress.
Benkler, however, is much more tentative, and many times he declares that his speculative claims about the internet’s capacity to empower social justice through democratic potential, greater individual autonomy, increased peer production, widespread availability, working outside of dominating economic structures, enlarged social networking abilities, etc. may or may not actually cause social change in the future. Benkler is optimistic, if not utopian, while Innis, if forced to make a prediction about the internet’s capacity to effect social change, would probably encourage us to bet all our money on revolution.
So, even though Benkler and Innis utilize quite different research methods, they both assume that social change will occur and that communication technology will play a role in shaping, if not outright determining, the result. Hence, it makes sense that critics have written that Benkler suffers from the TD.
A final note: it’s amusing that Benkler’s sole reference to Innis seems to dismiss Innis as a technological determinist by lumping Innis in with Langdon Winner’s concept of technological objects’ politics (17). Indeed, Benkler appears to be agreeing with Innis and Winner throughout: the internet is the device with which we will change society’s politics. The main difference between Benkler and Innis thus comes down to Benkler’s wavering tentativeness in contrast to Innis’s certainty.
Teaching Assignment: Social Constructivism
In theory, this assignment matches up with Susan Douglas’s book, but in practice I would probably have students read a much shorter essay from The Social Shaping of Technology, or one of its successors.
Goal: To get students to think about the many determining forces that inform technology practice. This could also be turned into a lesson about technological determinism, policy, materialism, or various other relevant areas of discussion depending on where the teacher places emphasis.
1. Have the students pick out the social factors that shape the development, production, adoption, and use of the technology in question. Make appropriate lists on the blackboard.
2. Using the same categories from the lists on the blackboard, have them brainstorm the same determining factors for an example technology as a class. This could be anything from toothbrushes to cell phones. Prompt them to dig deep into the less obvious connections between factors like cultural norms, manufacturing, and advertising.
3. Divide the class into smaller groups. Assign each group a technology relevant to the class, and then challenge each group to come up with as many determining factors as they can for their assigned technology. Set this up as some sort of friendly competition.
4. Make each group present their findings and allow the class to discuss/argue omissions, etc.
Adaptation: This assignment could be easily made into a writing assignment. Applying the social constructivism approach to a technology could be turned into anything from a short response paper to a long research paper. The same assignment procedure could also be used to teach any multi-faceted concept beyond the theme of technology.
Yes, I believe there are both fundamental and causal differences in the structure of hypermedia political campaigns in contrast to previous campaign models, and Howard does a decent job of demonstrating these differences. For instance, in a brief section of his book called “Power and Social Control in the Hypermedia Campaign,” he writes: “there is an important difference between the mass media and hypermedia campaign: Instead of voters choosing to support a candidate or campaign, now candidates and campaigns choose supporters” (168). This difference via internet political software is both fundamental and causal, because “technology staffs” have the technological power to restructure the power relationship between politician and citizen. Fishing analogy: no longer must a campaign broadcast to the public at large, like casting a trawling net; rather a political campaign can “narrowcast,” like targeting an especially desirable fish with a spear-gun. This fundamental transformation of structure gives agential choice to the political campaigners to target individuals with spyware and data-mining where they lacked such agency in the past. Rather, in the past campaigners could target vaguely outlined publics with redlining tactics, but they lacked the detailed information necessary to redline at an individual level, much less sponsor digital self-redlining. Furthermore, hypermedia software changes the causal relationship of politics as well, because the invasive tactics used by campaign software cause different kinds of citizen behavior not evident in the past, like donating to campaigns online. Thus, both political campaigns and voters possess significant agency to choose each other, whereas in the past that agency fell mostly to voters.
On an even less abstract level, Howard makes an additional point that shows how structural and causal changes to campaigns have become common due to hypermedia. He writes: “the technology staff has the power to filter, destroy, or protect information for the campaign organization. Since so much political campaign business now occurs in digital form, the technology staff simultaneously plays the roles of archivist, accountant, and confidant” (168). On an informational level, hypermedia thus allow campaign IT personnel to rewrite or whitewash problematic digital information. Placing the control of information in the hands of IT staff causes or enables them to manipulate information as they see fit as they create the structure of both hypermedia software and politicians’ websites. An entirely new subset of workers has a hand in controlling the material presented to the public. Therefore, the changing technology puts much greater political agency into the hands of technicians where before such control was exercised by news media, speech writers, and public relations workers. The process of building a campaign diverts from the public spotlight to a bank of hidden computer terminals.
Howard defines “political redlining” as “the process of restricting our future supply of political information with assumptions about our demographics and present or past opinions” (132). He continues to describe three ways that redlining occurs over hypermedia: 1) from the politician’s standpoint, hypermedia campaigns can target specific constituencies; 2) internet technicians can target specific groups by funneling certain content to them; and 3) individuals can redline themselves by tweaking their use of political websites (132). The first redlining method parallels the definition of pre-hypermedia political redlining, so it seems like an unproblematic analogy to make with current internet campaigns. Howard spends almost the entire first half of the book proving the impact of the second redlining method. Further, the function of spyware, cookies, etc. in all hypermedia topics, not just politics, demonstrates that some form of redlining targets consumers of all information via the internet. However, since the problem of individual agency came up last week, it’s on my mind and makes we question the efficacy of Howard’s third method of redlining.
Howard’s first two methods of redlining place the targeted content-restricting or content-providing agency with the facilitators of political campaigns: politicians and their IT crews manage information dispersal. The choice of what content to provide and/or block lies wholly with the puppet masters, as the cover imagery of Howard’s book visualizes: a politician twitches his thumb, and targeted consumers of politics open (or delete without reading) the political email generated by the politician’s hypermedia machine. As Howard’s title suggests, politicians attempt to manage their citizen-constituents in a clear causal relationship.
In contrast, with Howard’s third method of individual political redlining, agency no longer lies with politicians and their webmasters, but with individual consumers of knowledge. The burden of proof is on Howard to prove that hypermedia somehow reverses the flow of power from consumer to politician. For example, Howard writes: “With hypermedia, though, many of these schema – and the tools themselves – are actually constructed by individuals, with or without their informed consent” (134). Or, in other words, “people assemble their own networks for conveying political information” (135). Certainly, individuals can choose, to an extent, how to navigate the internet, but how does an individual choosing between an infinite number of information providers and tools compare to politicians’ attempts to direct information according to class, race, and geographical voting record? The agential choice of the politician is to exclude people based on their assumed political stance whereas the agential choice of the individual includes or excludes information from their network. The first type of agency imposes information, or the lack thereof, on individuals. The second type of agency has no power over other people. Thus, the causal relationship in the second type of individual agency does not seem to compare to the top-down hierarchy of the first type. In other words, redlining implies some sort of power relationship between entities that an individual cannot exercise over him/herself.
Also, I don’t see how individuals choosing hypermedia content is any different than individuals choosing what information to encounter at any moment in an individual’s life. An implicit argument in Howard’s discussion of political redlining claims that individuals must politically redline themselves every time they choose one type or source of information over another, whether it be parking meter instructions or a jury’s verdict. At that point, the process of redlining is indistinguishable from the process of daily living. Our network of knowledge is always a constant choice, but surfing the internet in itself does not empower one person over another.
The question of where agency for transformation lies in Media Sovereignty is especially important given his emphasis on rhetoric. As a discipline, rhetorical studies seems to suffer a constant crises surrounding the power of rhetoric to effect action/human behavior. Price provides no new insight into this disciplinary question, however. Agency for Price seems to reside in governments, corporations, NGOs, juridical structures, militaries, and other institutions. These institutions implement rhetoric in a unilateral asymmetric, top-down way to control individuals, so almost nowhere in Price’s book do the consumers of media content play a role other than as manipulated hordes. For example, Price states the effects of “tropes of restructuring” on central and eastern Europe to highlight consumers’ lack of agency: “For the audience, the consequence is the rapid remaking of the images on the screen almost from the beginning—what is vaunted, how people dress, and the narratives that are told. Television and radio become the handmaidens of the radical transformations of the street, the coming of McDonalds, and the reordering of what constitutes acceptable visions of the future” (114). The citizens of central Europe are powerless in the face of capitalist imagery: see advertisement, buy freedom fries. These multilayered institutional powers, the Man, possesses the only agency here. This confluence of agency to effect action is stated, in brief, in one instance in Price’s book, when he introduces his analysis of the V-Chip: “The interrelationship between government action, industry action, and evolution of norms is illustrated, somewhat whimsically, by the experience” with this new technology of information control (125). “Information intervention” is implemented by the powers that control media distribution and content, not the individual consumer who’s left only the action of pressing an on/off switch.
In contrast, the only obvious people who possess any individual agency to effect action are advocates for new information control models. According to Price’s argument, “Metaphors evolve into models, as the intuitive value of a figure of speech transfigures into a program of action” (86). For example, Charlotte Beers and Norman Pattiz helped to mold the United States’ information control response to 9/11. They advocated a media model, the United States government implemented it, and the Muslim masses were manipulated into obeisance to American values. The persuasive action on Beers and Pattiz’s parts was effective; their models became norms of operation. However, the rhetorical effect on Muslim populations constitutes near total rhetorical failure.
This response may seem quite negative, but I appreciate the importance of Price’s study. I learned a lot through his landslide of examples and evidence. My main complaint, and I think almost any scholar of rhetoric would agree, is that Price throws the term rhetoric around with flippancy. He provides an amazing contextual analysis and exposition of the rhetorical situation, but almost every time he gets to a juicy text, he doesn’t analyze it. The words just seem like mere elements of context rather than a focus of study. There are a couple brief exceptions, like his discussion of the Supreme Court decisions in Reno v. ACLU. Thus, ultimately, his analysis serves to strip agency from individuals by placing it wholly with institutions.
I believe Innis would consider the internet a space-biased medium owing to multiple factors, like its fleeting informational content, its portability, and changeability. The more vital question for Innis, however, would probably center on whether the internet will usher in some sort of social upheaval similar to the numerous revolutions contemporaneous to other transformations of communication technology that Innis describes over and over again in his book.
Following Innis’s process model, such upheaval sees a balance between a space-biased medium and a time-biased medium, before the newer of the two technologies achieves widespread and popular usage. So, if Innis looked at contemporary society in conjunction with the internet, would he see the roots of a stable period like that he posited for the cultural primacy of Ancient Greece before writing became rampant and helped transform Greece’s oral tradition? Or, would Innis see a period of revolutionary potential in which the internet is banishing the importance of a space-biased medium to transform society? In order to speculate Innis’s position on the internet, one must first decide where in his process theory of change our current society falls. If Innis rose from the grave to assess our situation, I don’t think he would see transformation in action. Like many other internet critics, he might see revolutionary potential in internet technology like hacktivists, multitude scholars, etc. However, at the same time, Innis would also observe the continued dominance of capitalist lifestyles around the globe. Thus, because the internet is still in its infancy, especially given the vast amounts of time that new communication technologies took to usurp the primacy of former communication technologies throughout history, I believe Innis would argue that ours is a civilization in the midst of its flourishing. However, like all flowering civilization in the past, ours must fall as well. But, at the moment, the internet coexists quite in peace with global capitalism, and our civilization and the internet seem to feed each others’ strengths.
Another question to consider: what is the time-biased medium that the internet will replace in importance? The internet has transformed print into a time-biased medium. Whereas print was once the communication technology of revolution due to its space-biased characteristics, now the internet has trumped print in terms of its ability to transcend large spaces. In turn, dusty institutional libraries seem like other monuments to lost cultures like the Pyramids and the Acropolis. Libraries have become traditional, bound in time. The internet usurps the library with its ease of use. We delete unwanted information with the touch of the mouse rather than a spectacular bonfire of books.
Of course, all of the other modern communications technologies, like telephony, television, radio, etc. have all become enmeshed with capitalism without causing a total revolution, so perhaps Innis would not put much faith in the internet.