First Attempt to answer that question (April, 2006)

Please criticise, correct, discuss.


Author: Soledad Caballero (Montevideo-Uruguay)

How does the emergence of the new technologies affect the way we understand media and culture?


In this essay we will focus our attention on the ever changing culture and media environment to explain how our way of understanding these are affected by new technologies, in opposition to the technical determinist vision in which culture and media are shaped by technology.

New technologies have introduced new objects -like the mobile phone- and have allowed the emergence and circulation of new cultural practices -like blogging and exchanging text messages through these devices. Furthermore, both new objects and practices are being vastly adopted into our daily lives.

By analyzing some examples related to the emergence of new technologies, the text that follows shows how an increasing amount of media and content producers are remodelling the media landscape. In particular, blogs and citizen journalism are addressed as well as its interaction and mix with traditional media.

The media environment after the introduction of these new technologies has a growing amount of content and actors in the scene. The content is generated with an increasing participation of citizens as well as new players in the media business, many of which have a technological business background. This changes take traditional media to question their functions and goals in society, an push them to change. This is to say that new technology challenges our assumptions in regard to the established, even though technology itself is not enough to change it.

In a similar way, new technologies introduced new objects and new cultural practices that challenge what we take for granted in the world around us, and our ways of doing things. Mobile phone technology and in particular, the differences in the ways SMS (Simple Message System) is being adopted, is used to exemplify how diversity in the cultural landscape gives rise to the unexpected, in the mass expansion of a techno-cultural practice. This view is the result of considering technology objects and their uses as cultural objects and cultural practices. However, this cultural system is not isolated but in relation to economic, historical and sociological variables. So, cultural determinism has to be discarded.

Citizen journalism and new media actors


Considering culture as a symbolic system in Clifford Geertz terms[1], this is to say as a well-ordered system of symbols and meanings, it is possible to affirm that the emergence of new technologies scrabbles that order.

Communication Studies have been centred around the conception of a powerless receptor of the media messages for a long time. The image of a “coach potato” [2] sitting in front of the television illustrates the idea of a non active receptor, as well as underlining the negative implications of the “coach potato” itself. This notion lead the first investigations in Communication Studies and debate continued for a long time.

Later on, Communication’s theory took us beyond this point of view and claimed that the receptor is not powerless nor inactive. And the activity of the receptor has been evidenced in several empirical researches. But never before have we witness its activity in such a material, concrete way as today when the receptor has actually taken the place of the emissary. Because new technologies have facilitated the creation of content and the individual simply broadcasts it from his/her own computer, and even mobile phones. Technologies like Blogs and Podcast allow the emergence of these new media at lower broadcasting costs. As a result, there is a larger amount of content generated by the former receptors.

Citizen journalism has undergone significant growth within the new content created by “receptors”[3] using these technologies. It reflects people’s opinions and worries related to current events that concern our society and life. Therefore, there are new voices and different points of view circulating in the information world, certainly a positive value in a democratic environment.

However, credibility and accuracy are matters of concern in this new environment which arguably lacks experience, rules and critical analysis. The citizen does not have the media branch credibility that supports the journalist work, nor gives a rigorous treatment to the information as a journalist is expected to do. Therefore, these increasing number of sources might end up generating more data but not more reliable information.

Moreover, this rapid increase in available voices might be a problem in itself. There is one new blog created per second and about 50,000 posts per hour in daily Posting Volume tracked by Technorati [4]. Such amount of new content may end up generating nothing but noise into the information environment.

For that reason, search engines or aggregators of information are needed to sort the information, and additionally mediators gatekeepers that guide us to the information “that matters”. This is to say there is a need for human participation to classify meaningful data from chatter. On the other hand, the same search engines and aggregators of information can censor or just ignore certain contents leaving it out of their network information, in the same way as traditional media might have done before. As a matter of fact, Google did so in their Chinese engine by request of the Chinese government, Microsoft shut down a blog that did not pleased the Chinese government, and Reporters without Borders have just informed on Yahoo giving a draft email of one of its users to the Chinese which was then used to send the man to jail. [5]

On the other hand, more voices do not necessary mean more people hearing. So this phenomenon does not necessary contribute to a better understanding or improved communications between human beings.

As a consequence of changing media environment, traditional media is reviewing their goals and functions in society, their business models and even their shape. We can see their transformation as well as the emergence of hybrid media that have characteristics of both worlds. For example, the partnership between Reuters and Global Voices[6] (a network of bloggers) that will include blogger voices commenting Reuters news has recently been announced. Moreover, a blog technology company, Pluck, has launched a service (BlogBurst) that offers blog generated content to online and print editions of newspapers[7].

The partnership between Reuters and Global Voices further than merging new media with traditional ones, it can also be said that solves one of the problems that arises in this new environment, and that is credibility. In other words, at the same time that old actors in the media arena, like Reuters, are including citizen blogging into their daily content, they are reaffirming their gatekeeper role by selecting sources and giving them credibility just for being chosen. Simultaneously, old media may be trying to regain the trust of their audiences by including “citizen’s voices” in their agenda.

The outcome of blogging for journalism will be negative in the opinion of more than one third (35%) of the journalist’s interviewed by an Euro RSCG Magnet and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism study. The research has also reported that another 33% think “their effect will be largely positive”.[8] But this alone will only depend on the varied factors that come to play in and beyond the production of content .i.e.: the users’ background and concerns.


160 characters are enough


Technology has to be considered as a cultural and social practice in itself as Michael Schudson states.[9] And new technologies and new practices are new objects and signs that start to circulate affecting the cultural system.

The rocketing rise of the mobile phone and its uses represent a paradigmatic example of how technology can affect the way we understand culture. Quite besides it having been widely adopted, what is striking is the different ways it has been utilized with regard to countries, local cultures, gender and ages, as well as its uses that have grown beyond expectations.[10]

The adoption of the mobile phone has been incredibly fast in several societies (as in Italy); its penetration has surpassed the number of fixed telephony lines (as in Uruguay) [11], and even the number of persons (as in Denmark).

Besides being used to make voice calls, the mobile phone has also introduced new cultural practices. The Short Message Service (SMS) allows people to exchange alphanumeric messages up to 160 characters between their mobile phones. SMS is spreading all over the world and has turned out to be a significant way of communication in our daily life even if it was not born to fulfil this purpose [12].

Although new technologies are having a principal role to play in the current cultural changing scenario, they are not the only factors. Other variables like gender, age, social position, and economic matters within certain cultural contexts, are also acting in current cultural changes; specially on those issues related to the adoption of new technologies .

The mobile phone penetration and uses differs from one place to another. In Uruguay, a South American country despite everything that that implies economically and technologically, mobile telephony penetration is about 40%, and SMS messages have already duplicated the traffic of mobile phone calls[13]. On the contrary in the United States of America (USA) the adoption of SMS has not been that successful [14]. Therefore, even taking into account the broadening acceptance of a new cultural practice, cultural diversity has to be taken into account.

A study comparing Japanese and Taiwanese youth’s practices related to these new communication technologies stated that although Taiwanese broadband Internet connections are more expensive and slower than their Japanese counterpart, these are preferred and are used to a much greater extent by Taiwanese adolescents[15]. The study conducted by Kenichi Ishiia from University of Tsukuba (Japan) and Chyi-In Wub from Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica (Taiwan) focused on comparing media cultures among Taiwanese and Japanese youth. It also reports that the use of text messaging services through mobile phones is much more widespread among the Japanese youth than the Taiwanese. Furthermore, it is suggested that the reasons for these results are the early development of an internet driven Taiwanese BBS (Bulletin Board System) that led their youth to be more comfortable with the Internet, while Japanese reluctance to communicate directly led them to adopt SMS more readily. The findings discussed in the study suggest that “despite the worldwide standardization of communication technologies, the culturally different personal relationship patterns in the two countries studied have created different media trends for their youth." [16]

There are other factors to bare in mind that include gender and age. Differences in gender uses of the mobile phone have been identified in studies carried out among a young population [17]. Moreover, age is also quite a relevant variable in regard to the use of text messaging through cell phones. The Media Literacy Audit released last March by Ofcom, the Office of Communications in United Kingdom, informed that the different reasons for having a mobile phone are significantly related to age, and texting is the main reason for young people between 16 to 24 [18]. The younger happen to be heavy users of SMS beyond local cultures or geography.

This is confirmed in Uruguay where the younger population is leading the increasing adoption of mobile phones as Ing. Jorge Suárez, the marketing manager of Ancel, the major operator of mobile telephony in Uruguay stated. [19] The Uruguayan mobile market is growing among those aged 14-29 for whom there is a special payment plan, he remarked. Ancel is a public company and has 50% of the mobile phone market in Uruguay in which other two private mobile operators take part: Movistar (32%) and CTI Móvil (18%). Mobile phones have already reached almost one third of the population (1.300.000 users) and it is expected to attain more than 1.600.000 users before 2007.

Besides, the economic and power contextual forces that interact with culture, media and technology (Wolton) [20] in a certain time and place, have to be addressed too. This is perhaps born out by the following data. Use of SMS texting has proved to be extremely successful among Ancel mobile clients. While the mobile voice traffic reaches 25 million minutes a month, SMS has reached 50 million messages per month, and only 20% of this number corresponds to messaging within mobile phone competitors. Besides this, 75% of Ancel’s mobile text and voice traffic is located at the south of Uruguay, in four of the 19 departments of the country, including Montevideo, the capital, where half of the population lives.

It is possible to remark, although accurate figures are hard to come bye, that mobile phones in Uruguay have already reached more users than internet. And while internet adoption has spread mostly within the higher earning socio economical sector, mobile phones has started to reach a more poor segment of the Uruguayan society and might turn out to be more popular than internet in Uruguay.

This takes us to at least one main broad issue in regard to new technologies media and culture: the problem of media and digital illiteracy and access. As well as the new technology wave moves forward there are people who are not following the rhythm of these changes and do not know how to use them. Or, even worse do not have access to the new technologies and remain left out.

Since the organization of society -its services, its commerce and its economy- a new face is developing using these new technology resources, people who do not have the ability to manage or to interact with the new media and new technologies, could remain as a new kind of illiterate. This problem should be taken into consideration, with special regard to poor economies in which the luck of resources for starting a Digital Literacy Programme plus the inner social economics problems may end up accenting current social categorizations.

To conclude the emergence of new technologies affects the way we understand the media and culture by allowing the materialization of new media platforms and new cultural practices. These new platforms and practices do not fit nicely into our former and established ways of understanding them and challenge them.

Media, culture and new technologies let us see a shaking environment whose final shape is, however, in our hands.

Bibliography


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[1] Geertz in Kuper, A (1999). Cultura. La versión de los antropólogos. (pages 95-145)
[2] My quotes
[3] Idem
[4] Sifry, D. (2006, April)
[5] And, A. (2006, April 20) Did Yahoo help China jail man? The Associated Press in Seattle Post Intelligencer.
[6] Sweney, M. (2006, April 13) Reuters partners in comment blog. The Guardian.
[7] Kiss, J. (2006, April 13) Reuters partners with Global Voices project. Online Journalism News.
[8] Euro RSCG Magnet &Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. (2005) Rebuilding Trust Rebuilding Credibility in the Newsroom and Boardroom. Eleventh Annual Survey of the Media. (page 31).
[9] Schudson Michael. (1993) Contextos de los medios de comunicación. Enfoques históricos a los estudios de la comunicación, in Jankowski, N.W & Jensen K.B Metodologías Cualitativas de la investigación en comunicación de masas. (page 227).
[10] Lorente, S. (Ed) (2002) Youth and Mobile Telephones: More than a Fashion.
[11] Interview with Eng. Jorge Suárez, marketing manager of Ancel (2006, April)
[12] First with the message (2002, March) The Guardian
[13] Interview with Eng. Jorge Suárez, marketing manager of Ancel (2006, April)
[14] Only 25 percent of Americans using SMS. (2005, March)
[15] Ishiia, K & Wub, Chyi-In. (2005, June) A comparative study of media cultures among Taiwanese and Japanese youth
[16] Idem
[17] Lorente, S. (Ed) (2002, June)
[18] Office of Communications. (2006, March). Report on Adult Media Literacy
[19] Caballero, S. (2006, April) Interview with Eng. Jorge Suárez, marketing manager of Ancel
[20] Wolton, Dominique (2001)

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