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New media and cultural change from 1980 to 2010 – a set of notes

February 26, 2010

Working towards a journal article on this topic; still very sketchy and in note form but I know you’ll forgive me.


*We must embed our theorising of new media and cultural change in world-historical events and processes; test these theories through the unfolding of historical events in specific geographical locales

* New media do not herald the end of geography (Chapman 2010): geography is as crucial as ever to understand cultural changes and continuities around the globe; culture areas are of particular importance in this regard.

* Culture areas = territorially based ‘total ways of life’ with overlapping fields of cultural practice (law, politics, journalism, academia, art…); people who are raised in these areas develop a cultural habitus that allows them to navigate them in seemingly effortless ways (most of the time!); in the current era we can distinguish two main types of culture area: (1) sovereign states such as Brazil, Ghana, Sweden or Indonesia (these are thick culture areas); these states are in turn internally differentiated into subnational regions and localities; and (2) large geographical regions such as Europe, South America or Australasia (thin culture areas) (see Postill 2006).

* Urban centres: All culture areas have both urban centres (where the concentration of economic and political power is no myth, pace Couldry 2003) and peri-urban hinterlands.

* New media technologies have diffused and become appropriated around the globe in overlapping waves: print, film, radio, TV, internet, mobile phones…; media epidemiological models could be developed to study these waves, e.g. with animated mapping techniques showing the waves over a period of several decades.

* There is no diffusion without appropriation (Postill 2006) – and vice versa: no appropriation without diffusion (something media ethnographers ignore at their own peril). In order for a new medium to spread from A to B (to C to D…) it must be appropriated into the local culture.

* Cultural appropriation entails a diachronic process of ‘domestication’ (Silverstone, Morley, and Hirsch’s 1994). Five empirically messy stages can be distinguished: 1. acquisition (why and how the locals acquired the new medium), 2. objectification (how they turned an alien artefact into a familiar thing), 3. incorporation (how they inserted the new medium into their routines), 4. conversion (how they converted it into social currency), and 5. disposal (how they eventually dispensed with the medium, if at all).

* As newer media spread to new areas they seldom replace the existing media. Instead they combine and collide and remediate (e.g. web TV) in complex and unpredictable ways (Jenkins 2006). Exactly in what ways this happens is something that ethnographic research is well-equipped to document. Over the 1980 to 2010 period we have seen in most locales around the globe a great increase in the number of different media technologies that interact with one another and with their adopters.

* There is no global cultural homogenisation in sight: each culture area (i.e. each country and region) continues along paths of cultural change that are unique. Despite the claims of technology authors excited about the near-global reach of web and mobile technologies, there are no signs that Morocco is heading for cultural convergence with South Korea, Canada, Tahiti or Zambia any time soon. Countries and regions appear to be highly resilient to global cultural homogenisation.


*Decolonisation: unravelling of European (from 1940s)  and Soviet (from late 1980s) empires; emergence of postcolonial order of UN member states; nation-state ideal of ‘one people, one state’ (Gellner) takes hold worldwide; everyday ‘banal nationalism’ (Billig 1995) fostered by regular cultural practices around radio, TV, film, now Web and mobiles. News of imminent coming of post-national world order greatly exaggerated.

* Rise of European super-state (from 1950s); huge common market of relatively affluent people; largest economy in the Planet; an economic giant weakened by its internal divisions (and nation-statism) and lack of a joint foreign policy

* Diffusion of Web, an internet ‘killer app’ (from mid-1990s)

* Diffusion of mobile phones (from late 1990s)

* Mediatisation: “No part of the world, no human activity, is untouched by the new media. Societies worldwide are being reshaped, for better or for worse, by changes in the global media and information environment. So too are the everyday lives of their citizens. National and subnational forms of social, political and economic inclusion and exclusion are reconfigured by the increasing reliance on information and communication technologies in mediating almost every dimension of social life.” (Livingstone 2008)

…. etc (to be continued)


1979 Iranian revolution: Shah ousted, audio cassettes and leaflets widely used to spread revolutionary ideas

1991 World Wide Web launched (I must confess I didn’t notice at the time)

1991 Dissolution of the Soviet Union gives rise to a host of new independent states across Eurasia and marks the end of the Cold War

2001 Terrorist attacks on the US inaugurate the ‘War on Terror’ and justifies the American invasion of Iraq and continued presence in Afghanistan

… etc. (to be continued)

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