Media in Transition: The Promise and Peril of Transition

Media in Transition: The Promise and Peril of Transition

The MIT Communications Forum held its seventh conference on media transition, the "instability of platforms -- the promise and peril of transition" last weekend, bringing together approximately 250 media studies researchers, graduate students and practitioners from around the world to participate in a wide ranging discussion of the state of media today.

A panel on Unstable Platforms led off the conference, addressing questions that ranged from what's happening to our cultures story-tellers to how to define journalism today. To the latter question, the panel offered the answer that journalists are those who use primary sources, seeking information directly from the newsmaking sources, rather than relying on accounts of others. This answering, comforting to those - like this writer - who have no formal journalism training, might be challenged by those who do.
The conference then moved to parallel sessions, with papers being presented on a variety of themes.

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A panel on "Precursor Transitions" spoke to historic parallels to these times. Heidi Gautschi presented "From Dots and Dashes to Bits and Bytes: What the Telegraph Can Teach us About 21st Century Change and Transition" spoke about the introduction of the telegraph and the new age of disembodied communication, noting the appearance of fiction that spoke of male and female telegraph operators forming "online" relationships, meeting, with outcomes we'd find familiar. They live happily ever after - affording the woman the freedom to quit her job - or the man would be discovered to be misrepresenting himself, leading to heartbreak. Flourish Klink explored the story of "The Amateur Press Association and the Growth of American Participatory Culture." Amateur press associations, Klink says, were groups whose members had "hobbyist" printing presses in their homes, would send their manuscripts to a central postmaster, who would then distribute it back to other members. She traces these as a direct precursor to modern fan culture and, in this context, sees a long tradition of participatory culture, making online publishing neither revolutionary nor radical.

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A subsequent panel on "Computer Histories" looked at the Internet and personal computer history itself, focusing on development of these bedrock platforms. Sandra Braman reported on a work in progress, "Designing for Instability: Internet Architecture and Constant Change," her textual analysis of Internet RFCs, the documents that defined the technical standards on which the Internet is based. Among her findings is the constant sense that those writing the early the RFCs felt they were temporarizing, waiting for the real experts to show up and tell them what to do, with the only slowly dawning realizations that they were the experts they were waiting for. Kevin Driscoll revisited "Bill Gates’ "Open Letter to Hobbyists,” a letter that a then 20 year old Gates sent to a hobbyist newsletters complaining that they very early software that Micro-Soft [sic] created, distributed on paper tape, was being stolen more often than it was being purchased. While some consider this the moment that Micro-Soft became "evil", Driscoll suggests, instead, that this letter introduced the issues that became the core of the Free and Open Source Software movement a decade later.

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Another panel examined Pirates. Burcu Bakioglu's Operation Payback (…is a Bitch): Hacktivism at the dawn of Copyright Controversies looked at some of the first activities of Anonymous, the group that more recently has become known for its campaign around WikiLeaks. (This being an academic conference where people care deeply about the distinctions, no mention of WikiLeaks is complete without pointing out that WikiLeaks is not a wiki.) Jinying Li presented "Piracy, Circulation, and Cultural Control in Cyber-Age China." examining piracty in China, where the term piracy itself ("daobari") is now censored on the Internet. Because the Chinese cinema industry is so heavily censored, an underground culture of pirated films has grown to the extent that pirated copies of some films become collectible items and some independent film producers use piracy to market their films.

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A panel also looked at "Capital, Time and Media Bias," providing both a McLuhan-esque and Marxist view of the current trends in media. While it may be reflexive to dismiss anything Marxist as quaint, the analysis of the flow of capital and the focus on distinguishing between the apparent and the essence provide a powerful viewpoint from which critical insights can be raised. As one panelist said, "Capitalism loves speed because, as Benjamin Franklin observed, time is money." This drives the modern mobile telecommunication/media industries and its relentless need for speed.
Running through the panel discussions was the theme of failure, that our media and communication systems are failing in their duty to explain how the world works. The focus on the "bread and circus," rather than the core elements of political and financial power make it more difficult to be an effective citizen of the world.
The Communications Forum's next Media in Transition, MIT8, will occur in two years.