To say that news and technology are closely connected is to state the obvious. The historical overview of technological advancement—from marathon runner and courier to telegram and satellite—can be easily drawn but doesn’t help us address the urgent questions put to us by the real-time condition of the global news industry. Understanding technology is one thing, to give it direction is quite something else. Stop downloading, start making news.
Marshall McLuhan asked: “Are you living in the present?” It struck him that the public, gathered round the new medium television, loved watching the cowboy series Bonanza best. Modern television viewers lived in the 19th century more than in the sixties. “They live in Bonanzaland”, said McLuhan. Similarly, the pioneers of the Wild West lived not in the industrial revolution but instead surrounded themselves with the atmosphere of 18th century countryside romanticism, added McLuhan to his observation. This historical pattern goes for the Internet era as well. The content of the new communications platforms comes from old media. This is just one of the media laws that ‘new’ media cannot escape from. In today’s news industry, we recognize yesterday’s ideology. The French technology sociologist Bruno Latour proposes that we have never even been modern. This is the fundamental problem which mediatheory—focusing on the all-encapsulating infotainment phenomenon—struggles with. Old goods are sold in a new format. News is not new, however much technology is thrown at it. The ideological character of news doesn’t change because it flashes by on the screen of your mobile. The revolution will not be webcasted.
Never before did news belong so much to consumer goods. Never before was it so cheap and was so much money made from it. It isn’t surprising either. The postmodern enlightenment criticism has done its job. Through deconstructivism, media have been stripped of their claim that with the support of information the population would enhance its critical consciousness. The news industry forms. It guides the public’s attention in a special direction. Technological news ‘mobilizes’ the public opinion in the sense of speeding it up. News doesn’t behave as a passive and neutral outsider but creates active vectors and produces events. These are generally accepted viewpoints I repeat here. In the adventure society it is necessary to carry further the production and distribution of facts by as many channels as possible. Reality TV teaches us the limits of interpretation. As Paul Virilio has taught us time and again, there cannot be reflection of realtime media events. What is to be done is the creation of void spaces, holes in the media systems, that allow alternative story telling to emerge.
So far new technologies have failed to make true their claim on decentralisation of news services. The Internet hasn’t been an obstacle to concentration of the press and hasn’t given life to dissenting views. Instead of fragmenting and democratising the ‘organized attention’, new media only serve to enhance the concentration of power. There has been no fragmentation of channels. This should be taken seriously not just by media activists and concerned citizens. The Internet is under threat of being reduced to a collection of curiosities with funny facts and quirky points of view. Alternative websites like Indymedia have less influence today than like-minded alternative magazines in the decades before, in spite of its strongly increased potential. The technological progress is made undone by a lack of marketing. New media runs into existing economical and political relations that cannot be broken down by technological revolutions. Tactical media initiatives of artists and activists aren’t able to just make a quantum leap and thus they are forced to stick to their own subculture. The aesthetic breakthrough movement of the nineties that defined media as a synthesis of art and politics is confronted with the harsh realities of information warfare, from Kosovo to 9/11 to Afghanistan.
The images of the beating up at the roadside by police officers of Rodney King were an expression of ‘camcorder activism’ as much as a report on daily racism in the US. The expansion of the Internet strengthened DIY media, but not for activists alone. Virtually everything is being taped and has the potential of becoming news. However, webcams hardly have any impact yet on the structure of news services. The opposite is more true. They fit in perfectly into the current media landscape. Alternative news that spreads like a bush fire over the Internet isn’t picked up by the international press agencies. On the contrary. More and more the Internet is shunned as a reliable source of information. In an atmosphere of growing mutual distrust, stirred up by hackers, trolls and quasi subversive ego artists, the Internet becomes a secondary shadow media.
The definition of what is news and what isn’t and how it should be presented remains in control of a small band of journalists and editors who determine the world agenda. More and more violence (and tragedy) is needed to get through to the select group of images that circulate across the globe and are repeated endlessly. There is hardly any notion of differentiation in the news offer. The percentage of local reporting decreases due to the possibility to run a media with less and less human resources by rationalisation. Radio stations are programmed from a distance and have no need of presenters or editors. Automated software reads the news that is sent to the speechbot once an hour. News has become bulkware.
People do react to this cynical and contradictory development. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, as an act of civil disobedience, citizens switched off their television sets. Fascination with realtime reporting has worn out and the ‘embedded’ reports are countered with disgust. Having a videophone attached on a tank, driving through the desert is, at best, boring. Technology is not news. News is no longer seen as a dissimilar collection of images but it is experienced as a intimidating dis-information environment, insperable of advertising. Not only does the collective indifference protect the media user from overidentification with the unreachable and unknown Other, but it also prevents him or her having angry fits over the daily media manipulations. The fact that the news fails to renew itself leads to the a building up of social tension that goes unnoticed. It expresses itself most strongly in a growing awareness about the unbearable hyperreality of the media. This growing discontent with the media realm expresses itself in an enhanced popularity of conspiracy theories. News media are seen as puppet theatre with off-media players pulling the strings from a distance – secret puppet-players who remain unknown to the media users. As the democratising of the media comes to a standstill, this kind of populist thinking increasingly gains support.
At the technological front, miniaturizing of gadgets progresses at the same speed. Tools for recording and communications are becoming invisible. This process increases general unease. Instead of enhanced security, news technology only produces a new sort of ‘strategy of tension’ in which media events aren’t just recorded but moreover actively designed. The sense of permanently figuring in a movie, is how modern life is felt by many already, even if the technology isn’t around yet. The awareness of ‘being in the media’, is enough. Increasingly there is no reason to assume you are outside the media atmosphere. Small, mobile media only serve to underpin these feelings. The paradox between the phenomenal increase in available data and the diminishing amount of news that’s being pumped round over more and more channels, creates an unstable, ‘uneasy’ regime that will implode sooner or later. The disappearance of the global real-time media will be marked by the occurrence of more direct storytelling at the edges of the media landscape. The new news will be post-technological and it will take time to tell stories. Media can only slow down. There isn’t much going on at the other side of the speed of light.
It is an exciting challenge to design a new format for news services. There is no need to research the excisting channels of publication for this. For this is not about a reform movement that wants to hype up news even more. In this respect, political and cultural subcultures offer few starting points. There could be a lead in the quest for a different approach to the increasing aestheticism of technology. Looking for a symbiosis of art and politics is a dead end. To find an answer to the question how news could be decentralized, it could be worthwhile to restart the network architecture. To eliminate the news category full stop is certainly worth a try. It is no use to neutralise excisting news services with anti-news or worse: with good news. The only result of it is the production of even more news. What we could do is take the lead from Henk Oosterling’s ‘radical mediocrity’ and look for the ‘inter’, the informal, the blind spot of the informed view, as Dutch philosopher Henk Oosterling calls it. But alienation and authenticity can never be more than a point of departure. There is no way back to a ‘true’ world for the media.
Another option is Arjen Mulder’s strategy of art and technology ‘becoming unintelligible’, as stated in his book ‘Living systems’. The ‘trip to the end of the information era’ he proposes could free us of the agonizing yoke of the global realtime media. His alternative expostulation of the neurobiology doesn’t offer an answer to the crisis of the news. It is too much in the news itself for that. The biological era is not post-informative and it is unthinkable in itself without computers. It is still too early to part from the computer era, as Dutch media theorist Arjen Mulder suggests (however beneficial this eventually would be). On the contrary. The ever smaller and more powerful chips get into everything and nothing. Perhaps uncertainty and instability could be introduced to disempower the status of the news (without falling back to rumour). It may be a bit too simple to dream of the ‘End of the News’. This pre-millenium strategy, of everything coming to a close anyway, has a limited tenability. The theory-fiction is a bit too easy-going on this. Enough people have looked away already (and rightly so..). The world gets ahead of news refusenicks. Still, the question of what comes after the news regime is a legitimate one. The answer could be found somewhere beyond the obvious contradiction between news and non-news, irrespective of what the next technology has to offer.
It is no longer necessary to have high expectations of new media. In his book ‘False horizon’ Dutch Internet journalist Francisco van Jole praises the Internet for its quality of connecting people to each other. In his view computernetworks are informal and small-scale channels like the telephone. Those who think big will be disappointed. “Perhaps all these small-scale effects are like the butterfly in Peking that will cause a hurricane in the end. But those who, on seeing the butterfly, think of the hurricane all the time, easily lose sight of the beauty and the wonder of the butterfly itself.” Therefore it seems fitting—after all the huge dotcom dreams— restart on a mico level. “The immense power of the Net is not in the applications but in communication, not in the masses but in the individual”, says Van Jole. The failure of the Internet as a mass media can be seen as a hopeful sign. Let a thousand weblogs blossom and fracture the Internet landscape. Maybe the crippling omnipotence of the global news industry can be broken in the long run. It requires considerable patience and commitment however, not to give in to ‘Think Big’ and ‘Size Matters’ and to keep on working on the side of the fragmented minorities. One of the biggest treats to the current weblog movement is branding and re-portalization.
New media dishes out old media. This may be true a truism but is there anything to be done about it? The inwardly turned postmodern theory may have developed a refined system of concepts, but these insights haven’t translated themselves into a general consciousness. News goes on being vulgar propaganda to most people. That’s that. At the same time everybody knows that there’s no truth hidden behind the lies. The intotainment wave hasn’t succeeded in taking away the unease. It is therefore a tremendous task to open up this deadlock and to come to new means of gathering news, presentation and distribution with the help of all available theories.
Francisco van Jole, Valse horizon, Meulenhof, Amsterdam, 2001.
Arjen Mulder, Levende systemen, Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 2002.
Henk Oosterling, Radicale middelmatigheid, Boom, Amsterdam, 2000.