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Excerpt from Global Currents: Media and Technology Now edited by Tasha G. Oren and Patrice Petro
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This volume sets out to explore the complex relationships among media, technology, and globalization. Our title, Global Currents, also serves as our conceptual framework to suggest new and contemporary ways of thinking about mobile media forms and technologies-notably film, television, music, and the Internet-within the complex dynamics of global circuits and the multivalent processes of globalization. Rather than a set of binaries or confrontations, this collection conceives of these relationships through the guiding metaphors of currents, flows, journeys, passageways, and transmissions. The inspiration and impulse for this volume was a conference we organized at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for International Education in April 2002. Interdisciplinary in scope and international by design, this conference aimed to expand the dialogue about the contemporary character of technology, communication networks, and the mediated arts, in an effort to show how each has been affected by worldwide trends, now often designated by the all-encompassing shorthand term "globalization." Participants from a wide variety of scholarly and professional fields (including .lm studies, cultural studies, economics, communication, anthropology, computer science, law, software design, musicology, and rhetorical studies) were invited to reflect on recent developments within their own disciplines and fields-and to engage in a cross-disciplinary dialogue about the changingroles of technology and media within new social and cultural configurations in our increasingly integrated, mobile, and globalized world.
This cross-disciplinary exchange served not only to energize the conference but also to transform the essays gathered here. For instance, now commonplace issues in studies of global media and technology (e.g., the digital divide, cultural democracy, citizenship, the role of minority publics, cultural policies, Internet activism, and innovations in computer hardware and software) were examined in a fresh light as scholars, artists, and computer scientists joined together to push beyond accepted definitions, and to consider media and new technologies theoretically and historically, and as fodder for policy, invention, and art. Although the approaches taken and conclusions reached are by no means uniform, all contributors begin from the assumption that to speak of the global is necessarily to speak about media, understood not as technological essence or formal system but by way of media circulations, institutions, and multiple meanings and effects.
What distinguishes this collection is thus its truly cross-disciplinary engagement with now-conventional assessments about the promises, potentialities, and failures of contemporary technologies and media practices. Indeed, the contributors to this volume, both collectively and individually, endeavor to move beyond the tendency either to celebrate the resistances supposedly inherent in media forms or to condemn the "global media" entirely as cultural imperialism triumphant. New technologies, they argue, do not simply destroy older forms of communication (in this logic, the Internet supercedes television, which put an end to .lm). Rather, they call into being new relationships and mobilities while solidifying older ones, creating new and ever-changing circuitries of commodity exchange and media flow that require conceptual and theoretical approaches as innovative, interdisciplinary, and expansive as the developments they seek to understand.
These approaches, moreover, insist on moving media studies from the realm of technological identity (or ontology) to the realm of judgment and practice (or epistemology). Put another way: In the ontologically defined terrain of so much of media studies, various technologies produce (are indeed responsible for) particular global flows and effects; thus is .lm study separated from the study of television or music or the Internet to establish their particularities, identities, or intended effects. For the contributors to this volume, this kind of ontological understanding is hardly the point. Rather, they insist that media technologies must be understood in terms of practice, both institutional and aesthetic, and within larger global processes, in which media forms converge and in ways that are polyvalent, uneven, and nonsynchronous.
To capture and build upon this interchange of ideas and cross-disciplinary dialogue, and thus to build upon an understanding of global media that necessarily involves judgment, intervention, critical thinking, and critique, this collection is organized into two broad overlapping and interrelated categories. The first, entitled "Institutions: Nationalism, Transnationalism, Globalization," focuses on systems-material, legal, political, or discursive. The second, entitled "Circulation: Cultures, Strategies, Appropriations," takes up questions of representation and textual practices. While the first section looks directly at the media within global economies and emerging corporate and legal policies, the second section focuses on media technologies in their textual, theoretical, and experiential dimensions. The distinctions between the two sections, however, are more heuristic than absolute or practical, for although they mark a subtle difference in emphasis (from systematic structures to cultural texts and practices), both sections are best understood as guiding terms for a much more expansive discussion about the relationships among texts, contexts, and institutional frameworks. Indeed, whether in textual practices, legal systems, or distribution networks, the media and contemporary technologies of representation are organized in ways both formal and informal, textual and institutional, caught up in circuits of global media flows often opaque to traditional modes of theorizing-and found in places and spaces where the textual, institutional, political, and aesthetic interact and overlap.
This thematic grouping reflects the essays' collective attention to the questions, issues, and challenges that currently surface at the meeting point of global processes and technological possibilities. However, we also include an alternative table of contents that assembles the essays by technological and media-specific categories. This more traditional organization-with modules on the Internet, television, film, and music-may be of use to students in the classroom or to scholars interested in a particular media format. In any case, and regardless of how readers choose to make their way through the volume, it will quickly become clear that the convergence of media forms in processes of globalization is something that all the essays explore and underscore.
The first section of Global Currents takes on the question of globalization directly by analyzing media practices both within and outside changing definitions of the nation-state, the global system, and established disciplinary models for their understanding. It is of course a near cliché in globalization discourse to credit technology, and media technologies in particular, with a rapidly shrinking and seemingly homogeneous world. Whether or not technologies can be thought of as initiating formations, they are, primarily, powerful tools in the hands of producers, corporate owners, and users. Indeed, it is through that relationship that their impact on our changing environment can best be felt, articulated, and analyzed. As the essays in this first section of the volume make clear, understanding global media requires systematic examination of institutions and the strategies they employ to control and shape media technologies and their subsequent use. In this sense, this first section most clearly articulates the book's fundamental contention that it is not technological innovations that shape global changes but rather how (and by whom) they are put to use, developed, and delimited. Lenny Foner puts the issue succinctly in his essay "Crypto Regs: Fear, Greed, and the Destruction of the Digital Commons," which opens this volume. "While dependent upon technology," he writes, "the main issues in our current worldwide information systems are political, not technical. Thus, pursuing a purely technical solution to these problems is unlikely to succeed." In his detailed and timely contribution, Foner, a technologist at the MIT Media Lab, offers an insider's view of the mounting threats to freedom, use, privacy, and exchange in the digital sphere. These threats, as Foner argues, are not the price we pay for a wired world but rather the result of active collusion between corporate and political interests. As he details the extent and possible reach of such infringements on user freedoms, Foner nonetheless insists that they are reversible; developments that fulfill rather than impede the potential in information technologies are within our grasp through popular political agency. In this sense, Foner informs us, the arguments that traditional understanding of rights and protections are diluted or complicated by developing technologies are strategic, deliberate, and, most importantly, wrong-aimed at deflecting attention from political action by configuring emerging questions about global media as somehow purely "technological" in nature.
In "What We Should Do and What We Should Forget in Media Studies: Or, My TV A-Z," Toby Miller also takes aim at "commonsense" understandings of media as a transformative force. In this pointedly provocative essay, Miller provides a survey critique of contemporary television studies that still labor under received epistemologies about "effects" and "power." As he argues, the same paradigm that structured narrow conceptualizations of television research in the past now dominates attempts to study television in the global context. By revealing how studies about the latter draw deeply from ingrained assumptions in the former, Miller points us toward a new and more fully integrated approach to global media studies. As Miller puts it: "The best political economy and the best textual analysis can work in tandem through the imbrication of power and signification at all points on the cultural continuum. Ideally, blending the two approaches can heal divisions between fact and interpretation and between the social sciences and the humanities, under the sign of a principled approach to cultural democracy."