Archive for February, 2011

There’s a lot of really interesting discussion going on at the moment about the role that social media and online/offline networks have played and are continuing to play in the revolutions which have swept across Tunisia and Egypt and are emerging in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Iran.

Manuel Castells, the Catalan sociologist most famous for his writings on the Network Society, the Information Age and Communication Power is interviewed on the subject by Jordi Rovira for the Open University of Catalonia

The spontaneous social movements in Tunisia and Egypt have caught political analysts on the hop. As a sociologist and communication expert, were you surprised by the ability of the network society in these two countries to mobilise itself?

No, not really. In my book Communication Power, I devote a large part to explaining, on an empirical basis, how changes to communication technologies create new possibilities for the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of society, by-passing the barriers of censorship and repression imposed by the state. The issue clearly isn’t dependent on technology. Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass self-communication.

Could we consider these popular uprisings as a new turning point in the history and evolution of the internet or should we analyse them as a logical, albeit extremely important, consequence of the implementation of the Net in the world?

These popular insurrections in the Arab world constitute a turning point in the social and political history of humanity. And perhaps the most important of the internet-led and facilitated changes in all aspects of life, society, the economy and culture. And this is just the start. The movement is picking up speed, despite Internet being an old technology, and deployed for the first time in 1969.

Young Egyptians have played a key role in the popular uprisings, thanks to the use of new technology. However, according to the calculations of Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo, only a quarter of Egyptians have internet access. Do you feel that this situation may – in his words, create a divide in these countries between those with access and those without access – one that is even greater than that in developed countries?

This figure is already out-of-date. Around 40% of Egyptians over 16 have internet access, if we consider not just private homes but also cybercafés and places of study, according to a recent 2010 study by the information company Ovum. And this figure rises to around 70% among young urban dwellers. Also, according to recent figures, 80% of the urban adult population has internet access via their mobile. And, in any case, in a country of some 80 million, even a quarter, which is double among young city dwellers, according to the oldest sources, this means millions of people on the streets. Not all of Egypt has demonstrated, but enough have to create a sense of unity and bring down the dictator. The story of the digital divide regarding access is old, untrue today and boring because it’s based on an ideological predisposition, among intellectuals, of minimising the importance of the internet. There are 2,000 million internet users on the planet and 4,800 million mobile subscribers. Poor people also have mobiles and, although fewer, they have forms of internet access. The real difference lies in broadband and connection quality, and not in access which is spreading faster than any other technology in history.

It would be naive to think that, given the events of recent weeks, those unlawfully holding the reins of power will just stand by with their arms crossed. Nicholas Thompson, social media expert, wrote in The New Yorker that “in Iran, the government was clearly successful to a certain point in using the internet to slow the passage of the green revolution. In Tunisia, the government hacked into the password of almost all the country’s Facebook users. If Ben Ali had not fallen so quickly, that information would have been very useful”. To what extent does power have the necessary tools to quash uprisings started on the Net?

It doesn’t. In Egypt, they even tried to disconnect the whole net but they couldn’t manage it. There were thousands of ways, including telephone land line connections to numbers abroad which automatically converted the messages into twitters and fax messages in Egypt. And the financial cost and functional effort involved in disconnecting the internet is so much that the connection had to be restored extremely quickly. A power cut on the net is like an electricity power cut today. Ben Ali didn’t go that quickly, there was a month of demonstrations and massacres. And in Iran, the internet couldn’t be shut down, with information about the demonstrations and videos of them on You Tube. The difference is that over there, politically speaking, the regime had the power to brutally repress things without causing divisions in the army. However, the seeds of rebellion are there and young Iranians (70% of the population) are now massively against the regime. It’s a question of time.

In Egypt, popular mobilisation via the digital media has created cyber heroes such as Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive. Leaders of uprisings historically led political and social movements from the grass roots, which would then play a key role in the political future, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France or Lech Walesa in Poland, just to give a couple of examples. However, we now have people with important technological knowledge, but often little political baggage. What role do you think these new leaders will play in the future of these countries?

The important thing to remember about wiki-revolutions (self-generating and self-organising ones), is that leadership doesn’t count, they are just symbols. However, these symbols don’t have any power, nobody obeys them and neither would they try. Perhaps later on, when the revolution has become institutionalised, some of these people may be co-opted to be a symbol for change, although I very much doubt that Ghonim wants to be a politician. Cohn-Bendit was just the same, a symbol, not a leader. He was a student and friend of mine in ’68 and was a true anarchist, rejecting leaders’ decisions and using his charisma (the first to be repressed) to help spontaneous mobilisation. Walesa was different, a union Vaticanist, which is why he became a politician so quickly. Cohn-Bendit took a lot longer and even so is still a green at heart who although now elderly, maintains values of respect towards the origins of social movements.

For some years now, Islamic fundamentalist movements have used new technology to promote their causes. The Muslim Brotherhood, which launched its own Wikipedia (Ikhwan Wiki) last year, reasserted that Islamists of all kinds “have exploited the internet to the full, despite the efforts of their adversaries.” This organisation, which could become the main beneficiary of a future election and which links together a great number of people committed to the total application of Islamic law, arouses suspicion among many trained young people who have led this uprising via new technology. How does this paradox make you feel?

Anyone who doesn’t use the internet now for their projects is backwards, with the exception of respectable eco-fundamentalists who write by the light of a candle (generally on a solar-powered computer). Consequently, both Islamists and even terrorists, also use it. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll win elections. To start with, they have been on the margins of recent social movements. And their election predictions in free elections do not get over 20% in any survey. Their organisation and tradition may lend them certain weight, but they do not represent the vast majority of an essentially young movement favouring freedom. They have been used by the regime to shock the world and the United States. It reminds me a little of when Franco used the fear of communism when everyone thought that the communists would secure a high return and then the PCE didn’t get over 10%, although in Catalonia the PSUC enjoyed significantly more support for a short time. Be that as it may, if the military does not keep its promises, if there are no free elections, if the demands of the fundamental working-class struggles unfolding in Egypt are not met, if there is violence against the population, then in that radicalised situation there may be Islamic armed resistance, but not by the middle-class Muslim Brotherhood.

The international media ? which the Egyptian regime tried to censor and even physically attacked ? together with Egyptian citizens who used the digital media, have enabled the shackles of information censorship to be shaken off. Months ago, Wikileaks achieved maximum return on its leaks in uniting the leading presses which published the vast amount of information that it held on its website. Is this alliance between conventional media and new technology the path we should be following in the future if we wish to successfully fight these huge challenges?

Large media corporations have no choice. They either ally with the internet and people’s journalism or they will become marginalised and financially unsustainable. However, that alliance plays a decisive role for social change. Without Al Jazeera there would have been no revolution in Tunisia.

In your article in La Vanguardia entitled Comunicación y revolución from 5 February, you ended by reminding readers that China had prohibited the word Egypt on the internet. Do you think the conditions are right for a popular movement similar to the one sweeping the Arab world to happen in the Asian giant?

No, because 72% of the Chinese support their government, because the urban middle class and mainly young people are extremely busy getting rich and the problems of the peasants and working class, China’s real social problems, are not on their radar. The government is taking excessive precautions, because censoring by system antagonises a lot of people who are not really against it. Democracy in China is not a problem for most people right now, unlike Tunisia and Egypt.

Events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt are yet another example of the inclusion into our daily lives of new forms of communication, such as SMS, blogs, podcasts, RSS, wikis, Twitter and Facebook, which have led to what you term “mass self-communication”, the upshot of developing the web. Can this new type of globalised and atomised communication, fed by the contributions of millions of users, change our way of understanding interpersonal communication or is it just another powerful tool available to us?

It has already changed it. Nobody who is on social networks everyday (and this is true for some 700 million of the 1,200 million social network users) is still the same person. It’s an online/offline interaction, not an esoteric virtual world. How it has changed, how this new type of communication changes it each day is a question to be answered through academic research, not by sitting around gossiping. And that’s where we are now and that’s why we have conducted the Project Internet Catalonia at the UOC.

In December, the German Ministry of the Interior announced the creation of a cybernetic war defence centre to repel spying attacks, while in Tallin (Estonia), in an ultra secret NATO laboratory, leading IT specialists are working to prevent the evolution of conflicts in a world increasingly dependent on the internet. Bearing this in mind and having seen what is happening in the Arab world at the moment, could it be said that cyber attacks will be the war of the future?

They are in fact the war of the present. The United States considers cyber war a priority and has allocated it a budget ten times larger than that of all other countries put together. And in Spain, the armed forces are preparing themselves quickly for the same thing. The internet is the space of power and happiness, of peace and war. It’s the social space of our world, a hybrid space built on the interface between direct experience and experience mediated by communication and, above all, by internet communication.

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I’m currently working on a paper for a MECCSA one day symposium called Mediating Environmental Change: Exploring the Way Forwards. The event takes place in Bournemouth on Friday 4th May and judging by the line up it promises to be a great event.

My paper’s titled ‘Media, Materiality and the Environment: Exploring the Ethics and Sustainability of Hardware’ and will explore a range of ways that the life cycle of the hardware that enables the creation of digital media has numerous detrimental environmental and social consequences, alongside a range of alternative practices which could constitute a more sustainable and ethical hardware life cycle. I’ll try and post some more details up once the paper’s finished

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Last week I was in London for the Podium Conference entitled Countdown to the Games. Held at the Excel centre (on the same day as an armoured vehicle expo was in another part of the centre!)  the conference was designed to present information to FE and HE educators about various aspects of the forthcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the plethora of related events which will coincide with the games.

The Olympics of course has undergone a considerable evolution of its ethics since its resuscitation in 1896. Originally the preserve of the amateur, Olympians were strictly forbidden from receiving any kind of monetary reward from their sporting prowess. The concept of the games was that it was about the taking part rather than the competition itself. Indeed Jim Thorpe (link), the US athlete who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball for two seasons before his Olympic successes. Over time however, successful athletes from the West began to earn lucrative sponsorship deals (which were not paid directly to them, but into trust funds) and Eastern bloc nations began fielding athletes who were nominally students or has a profession, but essentially functioned as full time athletes paid for by the State. Given that the amateur ethic of the Olympics had essentially been bypassed anyway the regulations were gradually relaxed until we reach a point today where the only non-professional sport at the Olympics in London will be boxing.

Another Olympic ethic from the past was an anti-commercialism. Until the retirement of IOC president Avery Brundage in 1972 the games had no sponsors and no revenue from exclusive television deals. Brundage believed that the inclusion of corporate actors in the games would unduly impact the IOC’s ability to make independent decisions and would lead to a form of politicisation, something he had strongly resisted. Brundage’s resistance to this revenue stream meant the IOC left organizing committees to negotiate their own sponsorship contracts and use the Olympic symbols. It also meant the Olympics was not the massive money making machine that it has become today.

Fast forward to today and the build up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the ethics of amateurism, fair play and anti-commercialism that the Olympics used to stand for have all but disappeared. Virtually all of the athletes on show at the Olympics will be full time, professional cyborgs who have the latest in cutting edge sports/science to aid them in every way the rules allow. In fact, there will be a huge amount of mobilisation on the part of the organisers to create anti-doping facilities to try and catch the athletes who use scientific advances to try and alter their bodily composition in ways prohibited by the rules, as famous examples such as Ben Johnson, Dwayne Chambers and Marion Jones have done in the past.

Finally on the commercial front the Olympics will be a massive corporate venture, with NBC and other companies paying insane amounts of money for exclusive television rights within national boundaries. Similarly the games has an immense amount of corporate involvement on seemingly every front. From Glaxo-Smith-Klein setting up the anti-doping facilities, to G4S handling a lot of the security to Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the other multinational corporate sponsors whose logos will be plastered all over London come 2012. Within the Podium conference this was heralded by numerous speakers who have helped organise facets of the games as a wonderful thing which is good for the Olympics and good for London. Over and over again the audience was subjected to rhetoric surrounding corporate social responsibility.

But what exactly does this corporate social responsibility amount to when you examine some of these corporate actors and their ‘socially responsible’ behaviour? The one that really had me seething with anger on the day was the inclusion of G4S. They had a stall promoting their work by where you went for coffee and had something to do with the security and the games session that I didn’t go to. G4S are the private security firm who do things like handle the deportations of failed asylum seekers for the Home Office and run private prisons and immigration removal centres. They have been frequently criticised for handling deportees in an excessively violent way, and on 12th October 2010 three G4S security guards killed Jimmy Mubenga while they were deporting him. On the day of the Podium Conference there was an article published in the Guardian which reported that G4S had been warned that their excessively forceful actions were likely to cause the death of someone in their custody. These warnings were unheeded, and consequently a man died. Apparently this is the kind of behaviour that suited speakers at the Podium Conference were so quick to uncritically praise.

Another example would be Coca-Cola, one of the three main sponsors of the Olympic games in 2012. Coca-Cola are currently subject to a global boycott by human rights and environmental justice campaigners because of the corporations actions over a large number of nation states. Whether it’s their involvement in hiring paramilitaries to murder union leaders in Columbia, other union busting activities to prevent their workforce from collectively organising, or the overexploitation and pollution of groundwater supplies in India, Coca-Cola are embroiled in numerous scandals which clearly show what corporate social responsibility means to them.

What I found really concerning about the Podium conference, was that at an event aimed at FE and HE institutions – places of education which are supposed to promote critical thinking – the majority of those in attendance seemed quite happy to buy into the rhetoric of benevolent corporate social responsibility without engaging any kind of criticality which all to quickly exposes the hypocrisy behind companies such as G4S and Coca-Cola claiming to be socially responsible.

While the Olympics was built on one set of ethics based around amateurism, enjoying sports, taking part and nations coming together in a peaceful and pleasurable way, over time these values have evolved into cut-throat competitiveness and crass commercialism where unethical corporations who market themselves as socially responsible whitewash their poor human rights and environmental justice records by sponsoring the games and raising their brand profile.

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Memes are a concept that keep popping up in discussions around contemporary media technologies and social relations. Within the field of media ecology, Matt Fuller devotes a large section of a chapter of his Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Technoculture book to memetics, contending that as a neo-darwinian cultural analogy the term may be a useful tool, though he does critique some aspects of the way the term is used. Elsewhere, such as in this article from Paul Mason on the BBC website, memes are identified as a key conceptual tool for understanding the wave of protests and mobilisations which have swept the globe over the past year.

Basically I disagree with both Fuller and Mason’s approach to the value of memes. Memetics is not a useful tool for analysing contemporary social practices and technological relations, nor is it key to grasping the way in which protesters have been fighting against the consequences of an economic crisis caused by the financial sector’s failure and the governmental decisions to bail out the banks and continue to let the bonuses flow while announcing austerity measures for everyone else. Memes are basically a failed analogy. In 1976, arch-reductionist Richard Dawkins penned the Selfish Gene, a book which sought to reduce complex social behaviours to genetic programming. Dawkins’s thesis was basically, that as the smallest unit of biological inheritance, genes were the basic building blocks of behavioural patterns. This of course is philosophy and not science, and a particular brand of reductionist philosophy which seeks to reduce all actions and events to the smallest quantifiable unit, just as atomism had done before we learned that atoms were not in fact the smallest units of matter. And just as we learned that you can’t tell everything about matter by looking at what atoms, subatomic particles or quarks it is composed of, we have come to learn that you can’t learn everything about a biological organism from studying its genome.

Since Dawkins’s wrote the selfish gene, neodarwinian evolutionary theory which posited that the processes of biological evolution were Mendelian inheritance and random mutation has been rocked by the discovery of several modes of evolutionary change which are neither. Horizontal gene transfer, endosymbiosis and co-evolutionary strategies (such as genes behaving in different ways according to environmental variables) all demonstrate that the neodarwinian position in the mid-70’s was only ever partially correct, as other evolutionary processes existed but were unknown back then. Indeed, many of these developments signal a move away from reductionism towards the kind of connective, contextual understandings evident in work in contemporary area of inquiry such as autopoiesis, complexity theory, and the ecology inspired perspective of another philosopher/scientist from the 1970’s, Gregory Bateson, who argued, ‘The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line or the society… The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.’ This kind of connective, ecologically informed, synthetic mode should be where media ecology generates its conceptual tools, not the reductionist (and it turns out erroneous) approach of neodarwinism.

Moving on to memes, Dawkins claims that these are the cultural analogue of genes. So while genes are the smallest unit of cultural inheritance, definite and quantifiable matter which exists in a complex sequence (the genome); memes must be the smallest quantifiable units of ideas. Except of course they aren’t. Even positing the smallest quantifiable unit of an idea seems ridiculous because ideas cannot be quantified according to scale. You cannot deconstruct ideas from a complex sequence to their basic units of being.

If memes are such a laughable concept, why then have they proved a popular one? My thinking around this is that alongside the ridiculous aspect of the analogy with genes, memes are used as a way of talking about the way that ideas evolve. The concept of cultural evolution has proved a controversial one with scientists (for example see Gould 1996 for a scathing critique), however if we approach culture and concepts as dynamic complex entities which resemble open physical systems in that they require a certain amount of intellectual energy to survive and propagate themselves, the comparison may seem somewhat more grounded. Gould criticises the notion of cultural evolution as reducing cultural change to neodarwinian principles, which would be bit as foolhardy as trying to ducing ideas to their basic building blocks.

What should be clear however in any discussion of cultural or technical evolution, is that the processes of cultural/technical evolution are not exact replicas of those found amongst living systems. Even within the category of living systems though, there are, as we have better grasped since Dawkins’s 1976 efforts, a range of evolutionary strategies which do not apply to all forms of life. Bacteria can swap genetic material (horizontal gene transfer) in ways which afford their particularly rapid mode of evolution, animals such as humans obviously do not display these properties. If I walk near you, we don’t swap genes and evolve. Just as there exist different evolutionary processes between different types of living system, you could quite reasonably expect there to be different evolutionary processes between living and non-living systems. Because cultural evolution depends on processes, such as the interventions of powerful commercial agents in their propagation, again the meme/gene analogy appears to be a poor and potentially obfuscatory one, whereas examining and analysing the various processes of cultural, technical or conceptual evolution, and exploring how, where, and under what conditions they occur seems a more productive approach which actually explores the complexity of non-living and non-organic forms of evolution.

Better understanding the processes of cultural evolution, the different dynamic factors which converge to form the attractors and phase space of concepts and technologies is a useful research aim for media ecology influenced research. Exploring what some of these processes are and how they work we can allow actors to better manage their interventions into the networks of mediated discourse, and reveal why certain ethically or factually dubious ideas, climate change denial, islamaphobia, extreme nationalisms etc are so well received. Appropriating poor analogies of dated, reductionist, scientific concepts such as the meme however contributes nothing towards this task, and merely makes media ecology appear to be a somewhat confused mish-mash of bastardised scientific concepts.

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Really good blog post from Tomas Rawlings, a Pervasive Media Studio Resident, DCRC PhD candidate and all round top bloke, on how his research adopts an ecological approach to media.

I’m doing a talk at Goldsmiths about games today.  Not just games as we tend to find them now, but how the impact of the networking of our technology is going to change the design, development and support of gaming.  Below are my notes to accompany the session…

A Bit of Theory
I’m coming at media from the angle of Media Ecology, a new(ish) term that you might see bandied about, that I think indicates an approach that offers us new ways of viewing the world.   Once you start to see media as networked – connected – then the realisation of this confluence changes how you approach design.  This also brings to mind Fuller (2005) and his illuminating discussion of why he uses the term ‘ecology’ in his book ‘Media Ecologies‘;

The term ‘ecology’ is used here because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter….The term ‘media ecology’ is used and in circulation in a number of ways. The term is chosen here because this multiple use turns it into a crossroads: Putting these two words next to each other produces a conjunction of two variables that are always busy with meaning. Their dynamism, however, always arises out of concrete conditions. The virtuality of such conditions, their possible reinvention or alternative state, their pregnancy with change and interrelation, is as deeply implied in this concreteness as much as it can be said to be subject to definition. (Fuller 2005:2-3)

Parikka’s (2007) study of computer viruses, suffuse with biological terminology, firmly stating the position of life and the biological as within the realm of media ecology;

The coupling of biology and technology, which, of course, has longer roots beyond digital culture, finds alive and kicking within the media ecology of digital culture. These types of couplings can also provide vectors of becoming for a novel understanding of digital culture. Life does not remain a mere metaphor but also becomes an implication of autopoiesis, of self-moving, of acting and force.” (Parikka 2007:26)

So why go all ecological? Ecology is all about relationships of energy. It’s about understanding the complex web that life weaves. When you look at ecology, you are looking at context. We don’t look at an individual organism, we look at how it relates to it’s fellow organisms – whether in competition, co-operation, predation, symbiosis, parasitism and so on.

Ecological Food Web

The Physics of Media are changing
Its all up in the air now. The safe certainty of buying a physical product (VHS, DVD, cartridge…) that has a contained, non-networked media artefact are fading rapidly. We are moving from a world of discrete non-relational media to one based on physical products to one based on virtual products. This means it is easy to distribute, modify, copy and paste. It means the barriers to entry and distribution are much, much lower. The problem that will be faced by future digital projects is getting noticed. Lets take video as the example…

“In mid-2007, six hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. Then it grew to eight hours per minute, then 10, then 13. In January of this year, it became 15 hours of video uploaded every minute, the equivalent of Hollywood releasing over 86,000 new full-length movies into theaters each week.” (link)

The biggest problem we will face in creating new media artefacts is getting noticed. So a number of people are looking to the idea of media as a service (or happening) and not a product…..

Games as a Service
What this means is that the user is not so much buying a game as buying into a world. The job of the developers is to create and maintain that world and it’s integrity. The user is paying for the maintenance that the developer is undertaking.

Examples of Games as service include subscription MMOs, for example World of Warcraft – 12 million subscribers that pay to buy the game and pay to play. Blizzard (who develop the game) has earned $1.1 billion in income this year alone. There are also free to play MMOs (where you pay for time-shortcuts!) – an example is Darkorbit by Big Point (where you can save time by purchasing Uridium).

Game Feedback Loops
This is where the system running the game has within it the capacity to create feedback and more importantly, feed-forward loops. So the activity of players encourages more players to join in. An example of this is the iPhone chart, where many people buy new games based on what’s popular – which in turn fuels what is popular. It also used to be the case that the rating system, where players deleting an app were asked to rate it, was slightly bias to the negative, and hence a feedback loop. So building into the development process the expectation of iteration is a good thing. Also listening to the user feedback and where possible, acting on it can also help to build that feed-forward loop.

Control Systems (from Wikipedia)

Quality & Value Added
Savage Moon as a tower-defence game on Playstation Network. It cost £5 when you could play loads of different games of the same type for free online. So why would anyone bother to play it? I’m happy to say lots and lots did. Because when you pay £5 there is an expectation of a curatorial process, a higher standard of graphics, gameplay and testing. (This is the same idea as used by Arduino, the open source hardware company that allows other manufacturers to make it’s circuit boards knowing many users gravitate towards them as they are the best at making them…)

So in summary – we’re into new territory here for games, but I think one thing is certain – that the idea of designing and building a small one-off experience is over. An example that draws all of these in is the user-generated content (UGC) and a great game, is LittleBigPlanet where the users make the content and the developers build the platform. It still has a box purchase but the costs of maintaining the ongoing 1.5 million levels is met by a roll-out of additional value-added objects that players can (and do, by the million!) buy.

So in summary (again) – we’re into new territory but I think one thing is certain – is that the idea of designing and building a small one-off experience is over…. the physics of media have changedexcept where they haven’t….

Witch-house bands go even further: they put their music up for free on places like SoundCloud, but remove the files after a certain number of listens or downloads, creating scheduling and scarcity in a system that’s otherwise about abundance and time-shifting. Aside from the fact that some of these bands are really good, witch house is interesting to follow because it’s a sort of ad hoc Darknet — the places where you can hear this music move around. One week, it’s a private group on Last.fm. The next week, it’s a public message board. The week after, they’re all living on a blog entry’s comment thread. To keep finding this stuff, you’ve really got to want it. Modern networking tools are mobilised in pursuit of an atemporal way of gathering a fan base.

Generally this is a really good introduction to some of the key ideas around Media Ecology illustrated by some well thought out practical examples which many people will be familiar with. The only statement I found myself disagreeing with was the line that argued ‘We are moving from a world of discrete non-relational media to one based on physical products to one based on virtual products.’ While its true that pre-digital media existed as discrete physical products, whose capacities to connect and exchange information with one another was frequently either impossible (trying to record from an audio cassette onto vinyl on a domestic LP player) or involved a highly lossy analogue recording process (such as recording vinyl onto tape, or anything onto VHS), it is wrong to characterise flows of digital information as a virtual process.

Copying material between networked digital computers is certainly far faster and easier than using ‘old media’ analogue technologies, and it is also possible to create perfect digital copies (although popular digital media formats such as .mp3, .mp4 and .flv are often in fact heavily compressed lossy recordings). However this is not as a result of a de-materialisation or virtualisation of the information. Contemporary digital computing technologies provide highly complex physical systems which combine the properties of extremely powerful information processing power, vast amounts of storage space for binary data, and connectivity to a massive global network of similar machines. These three properties combined afford computer users the ability to digitise (to translate material previously encoded in analogue media into discrete binary code which is then readable by other digital computing technologies) and share media assets and other digital data far more easily than previously.

However this process is entirely dependent on physical (non-virtual) computing technologies which require a vast expenditure of energy and resources to create. A UN University paper from 2004 found that producing a desktop computer and 17 inch CRT monitor uses 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of various chemical and 1500kg of water. The material costs of digital computing technologies used for media production and distribution are frequently overlooked by media studies as a discipline. I see media ecology, a method based on relationality, connectivity and context as a way of exploring material impacts of media technology which are frequently obscured by the rhetoric of virtuality.

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