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Media technology and the transformation of the public sphere: a media / social ecology perspectiv


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Academic conference paper that looks at how technology has been understood to bring about a rebirth of the public sphere and the problems of such an approach. Paper offers a case study of an anonymous …

Academic conference paper that looks at how technology has been understood to bring about a rebirth of the public sphere and the problems of such an approach. Paper offers a case study of an anonymous NGO who adopt a more grass-roots approach to civic regeneration that uses media technology. Recommendations for future work are approaches should be holistic, recognizing the need to take on all stages of technology dissemination and not just the cheap technological bits and that approaches should be socially led.

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  • 1. Media technology and the transformation of the public sphere: a media / social ecology perspective. Dr Marcus Leaning University of Winchester Paper presented at: Making Democracy Work In The Digital Age Conference, Institute of International relations and political Science, University of Vilnius, Vilnius, Lithuania 5th November 2009
  • 2. Introduction
    • Media ecology - a useful but slightly inappropriately used term - perhaps social ecology would be better?
    • Whichever, it provides a interesting device through which we can examine the role of technology in delivering social change.
    • Thus when seeking to develop strategies for the revival of the PS, media / social ecology seems an important but underused perspective.
  • 3. The public sphere
    • A historical ‘anomaly’ caused by a convergence of social and technical phenomenon:
      • Emergence of bourgeois capitalism;
      • New composite social class - mercantile class + bits of royal court;
      • Mass circulation media (pamphlets and newspapers);
    • Facilitated a new form of political identity.
    • Came into being in a particular historical situation and damaged by the same processes that facilitated it.
  • 4. All is woe: The public sphere in trouble…
    • Inevitable trajectory of the very processes that gave rise to the public sphere contributed to its transformation:
      • Capitalism -
      • Extension of state interests;
      • (re)feudalisation of communicative space;
    • Plus challenges to its legitimacy by new politics and NSMs
  • 5. The ‘Rebirth’ argument
    • New technologies seen as a means by which it can be recovered, restored or revitalised.
    • This happens as new communication technologies possess unique qualities not present in ‘mass media’ forms:
      • Interactivity;
      • User production of content;
      • Individualised consumption of media;
      • Peer-communication.
  • 6. Technological salvation of the public sphere
    • These characteristics of new media means it challenges the ‘monopolization’ of media by corporate enterprises and state intervention.
    • They allow new channels by which citizens are able to communicate and be ‘political’ outside of the the corporate and state world(s).
  • 7. New media to the rescue…
    • A popular position (for researchers).
      • New media…will undo the damage done to politics by the old media. Far from the telescreen dystopias, new media technology hails a rebirth of democratic life. It is envisaged that new public spheres will open up and that technologies will permit social actors to find or forge common political interests. People will actively access information from an infinite, free virtual library rather than receiving half-digested ‘programing’, and interactive media will institutionalise a right to reply. (Bryan et al, 1998: 5).
      • Blogs will do similar ( Blood, 2002; Colville, 2008; Gilmor, 2006 Kline, 2005; Hewitt, 2006; Scott-Hall, 2006)
      • A few critical voices as well (Barlow, 2007; Froomkin, 2003; Ò Baoill, 2005).
  • 8. Technology and change
    • Embedded in such accounts is a view of the relationship of technology to society and social change:
      • Technology is ‘outside’ of society but operant upon it causing discrete effects;
      • Technology will change society in a desired direction;
      • Technology is the dominant driver or facilitator of change - technology will change social life.
  • 9. Criticism(s)
    • Big problems with this account:
      • Theoretical - Williams (1974), Leaning (2005, 2009) - technology part of society - relationship far more complex.
      • Empirical studies reveal problems of technological lead development - not viable or sustainable.
      • Ethical - imposed, external, ‘pro-poor’, paternal.
  • 10. What to do?
    • Can technology be used?
    • A ‘richer’ approach is needed, one that goes beyond the technological.
    • Local, small-scale NGO (who somewhat problematically) offer an interesting case study.
    • When conceptualized with social / media ecology perspective their work appears very interesting.
  • 11. Cross cultural dialogue
    • The NGO works in encouraging cross cultural dialogue and inter-faith communication.
    • Drew upon funding from a variety of sources to meet political and other agenda.
    • Aim to facilitate cross-cultural understanding.
    • Run projects and workshops to do this activity.
  • 12. Project based – not technology based
    • Started making use of a number of media platforms to both facilitate this activity and as a ‘focus’ for projects.
    • The technology or platform was always additional to and subject to the larger projects.
    • While useful technology could only ever be part of the ‘solution’.
  • 13. Small, but beautiful.
    • Small scale but very effective.
    • NGO engaged in the very activity of facilitating a public sphere(s), the establishment of discourse ethics and citizenship development.
    • Their work involved a range of activities, only some of which were media technology centric.
  • 14. Social / media ecology perspective
    • Media technology is not the engine of change but one component in an ‘toolkit’ that was used to advance the desired change.
    • Other key elements were:
      • An approach to work in sympathy with ‘local’ social practices;
      • Development of grass roots projects - NGO worked with (rather than around) communities + recruit and train locals;
      • Extensive ‘live’ and face to face contact – training sessions, workshops, mentoring plus other techniques.
      • ‘ Aftercare’ - follow up.
      • Not event but a process.
  • 15. Technology alone is not enough
    • For this agency technology was not enough.
    • It requires extensive support and localisation.
    • These are aspects often missed or worse ignored –
      • Not sexy;
      • Expensive! People cost lots;
      • Non discrete – require support - projects are long term.
  • 16. Narrow but deep change
    • Activity can be understood as a narrow but deep, long term engagement rather than a broad ‘quick fix’.
    • Recipients of the activities became more engaged and involved with community activities – virtuous circle.
    • Transformational of people , development of active citizenship.
  • 17. Recommendations
    • Holistic approach
      • technology just one of a ‘basket’ of measures used –
      • has to matched and integrated within extensive social (human) activities, citizenship development initatives
    • Transformative approaches should be socially lead -
      • Driven by local or grass roots level requirements and ideally in partnership with local agents.