Are New Media Destabilizing?

Wikileaks.

Tunisia.  Egypt.  Yemen.  Bahrain.  Libya.  Iran.

Media theorists Harold Innis and Ben Bagdikian have trumpeted the destabilizing power of new forms of communication.  Are we now witnessing instability spurred by the arrival of the Internet?

Innis, who died in 1952, is credited with getting his fellow University of Toronto professor, Marshall McLuhan, thinking about the transformative power of media. Perhaps the most interesting of Innis’ own ideas was that forms of communication create “monopolies of knowledge,” which can in turn be shattered by new forms of communication. One example: how the spread in Europe of paper and printing, both controlled by merchants in the cities, overturned rural monasteries’ control of book learning. When monopolies of knowledge crumble, Innis was arguing, political and religious hierarchies can teeter or topple. The Reformation, which would lead to religious wars throughout Europe, followed close on the heels of the printing press. (See Jeff Jarvis.)

Ben Bagdikian, a long-time Berkeley journalism professor, applied Innis’ idea to a series of periods of turmoil. Bagdikian connects, for example, the revolutions and rebellions that raged over Europe in 1848 to the communications revolution of the previous decades. Bagdikian is not enough of a technological determinist to ignore the fact that the “basic causes” of those revolutions and rebellions “involved the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, with the consequent growth of nationalism and individualism.” But he insists that “new communications accelerated the change and in so doing caused events to happen differently.” Those new forms of communication included the steamship, the railroad and the telegraph, all of which allowed, for the first time in human history, messages to travel faster than a horse or a pigeon. “The spread of information, the broadening of the range of ideas and the consciousness of mutual knowledge propagated the political epidemics of 1848,” Bagdikian concludes in his book, The Information Machines.

That book was published in 1971, with more recent instabilities in mind: “The spasms of change in American society in the mid-1960s,” Bagdikian argues, “are attributable in large part to new methods of communication.” Foremost among those new methods: television. Most of the perpetrators of the anti-war demonstrations, cultural clashes and race riots of the 1960s were members of the first American generation to grow up watching TV.

This is not historical theorizing at its most rigorous. How can you prove that one or another new form of communication was a necessary cause of a period of instability? Instability, after all, has never been in short supply.  Still, Innis and Bagdikian do seem to have been on to something in arguing that major changes in the way people communicate can make it more difficult for authorities to govern. And we have, of late, been undergoing a series of major changes in the way people communicate.

One lesson that might be drawn from the Innis-Bagdikian analyses is that it takes a while for a medium to reach the point where it might destabilize. Electronic television was invented in 1927. Commercial television began in the United States in 1948. But a new generation had to come of age before the campuses and the inner cities began to shake, rattle and roll.

How long might it take for the Internet and its various cousins to encourage similar instability — if they are going to encourage similar instability. Have we just witnessed the most powerful of the disruptions with Wikileaks or the demonstrations in the Middle East? (Might, for that matter, the Tea Party demonstrations of recent years be credited to a different mix of media: talk radio, cable television and the Internet?) Or are there more widespread revolutions to come as a generation that has been living on smart phones, Facebook and Twitter since it was young comes of age?

Inherent in Innis’ theory is the notion that as the new, once revolutionary forms of communication begin to be co-opted and controlled by authorities a new “monopoly of knowledge” will eventually form. Ben Bagdikian puts this point thusly: “Usually, the instability of new knowledge continues until the established order not only drops its objection but adopts the new mode to preserve whatever remains of its influence, changing from an enemy to a champion of the new communication.”

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, for example, didn’t quite know what to do with television — with its raw images of war, its taste for satire, its incessant desire to peek behind the scenes. By the time of Ronald Reagan, however, presidential handlers had learned a thing or two about the medium: They knew where to place the flags and when to release the balloons to make sure the cameras would get a flattering shot. They learned when to release good or bad news and on what shows to appear. Television became a president’s friend.

By this way of thinking (and in line with what I suggested in a previous post), what we are seeing in Egypt and Tunisia — “propagated,” in part by social media — is not the beginning of a great age of people power. It is just an interesting moment: a period of instability that will end when authorities — democratic or despotic — learn to use social media to their ends. (This is an interesting light in which to view Evgeny Morozov’s assertions.)

And by this way of thinking Julian Assange, Wikileaks and the glorious desire of digital information to be free do not represent the beginning of an age of hyper-transparency, with governments unable to keep a secret. They represent instead the moment — with all its attendant instability — before governments master the art of keeping secrets in the age of interconnected computers.

How long these interesting moments might last, what beyond Mubarak and Ben Ali might be overthrown, who besides diplomats will be discomfitted, we don’t know.

About Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism in the Carter Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World" (Palgrave Macmillan), "Beyond News: The Future of Journalism" (Columbia University Press) and "Journalism Unbound: New Approaches to Writing and Reporting" (Oxford University Press). He also wrote "A History of News" (Viking, Penguin, Oxford) and "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford), along with two widely used journalism textbooks.
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