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13 Juni 2017

Wer profitiert von der sogenannten New Media Revolution?

Der gegenwärtige Wandel von Medien und Kommunikation wird regelmäßig mit der Metapher der Revolution beschrieben. In diesem Essay arbeiten Noam Tirosh and Amit Schejter heraus, wie diese Verwendung unsere Wahrnehmung und Interpretation des Wandels prägt. Die Autoren argumentieren, dass Facebook, Google und Co. das Medien-Ökosystem zwar als frei und revolutionär beschreiben, aber tatsächlich ihre Kontrollmacht ausdehnen wollen. Eine Revolution der neuen Medien wird nur statt finden, wenn Bürger und Gemeinschaften, die bisher ausgeschlossen sind, Zugang zu Medien bekommen.

Dossier: Wie Metaphern die digitale Gesellschaft gestalten

Obviously, each new appearance among men stands in need of a new word, whether a new word is coined to cover the experience or an old word is used and given an entirely new meaning. (Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1963, p. 25-26)

The new media revolution is a common metaphor often used to describe the contemporary communication ecosystem. Indeed, metaphors, images, similes and imaginaries are crucial to the way we understand the world we live in. Individual and collective imagination, metaphors and other linguistic devices act as discursive building blocks when members within a society interpret and cope with the reality surrounding them. New phenomena, in Arendt’s (1963) words, are in need “of a new word”.

These discursive constructions may also influence the process of designing information policy. The history of media regulation is replete with images such as the marketplace of ideas, the information superhighway, the digital divide and cyberspace. Descriptions, comparisons and representations serve to simplify an explanation and to illustrate what words sometimes cannot. At the same time, they are often used in order to obscure the ideological tenets that are at play when shaping and extracting policies. In this short essay, we focus on the new media revolution metaphor and how it influences the way individuals, groups and policy makers interpret the mediated reality they operate in.

Using the metaphor

Among the people most busy advancing the revolution discourse are Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google/Alphabet. They are seeking to shape the way people experience the world and the role of media technology in it. “There have been moments in history where the invention of new technology has completely rewired the way our society lives and works,” wrote Zuckerberg in The Wall Street Journal in 2014. “In the coming decades,” he continued, “we will see the greatest revolution yet, as billions of people connect to the Internet for the first time.” Zuckerberg has also used the term revolution in other contexts. He talked about how India “embraced the computer revolution,” mentioning that India has “a vibrant computer industry and a lot of the best engineers in the world”. In 2016, he stated that there is “a big revolution that is happening.” This revolution, he continued, gives:

Teachers and students need the tools to learn […] the content that they care about [at]the pace that fits them […], learning in a way that fits them, you know, whether that’s, uh, watching a video or playing a game or reading or working with other students or tutoring,[…], giving people the tools that they need there. (Zuckerberg, 2016)

Sergey Brin, for his part, has recently noted that “[t]he revolution in deep nets has been very profound, it definitely surprised me, even though I was sitting right there.” He has also commented that “the openness of the web which has fuelled the information revolution is vanishing because of censuring by countries such as China and companies creating monopolies.” His partner at Google Larry Page has claimed that “change tends to be revolutionary, not evolutionary” and that “especially in technology, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.”

Drawing on the revolution metaphor, Google is seeking to counter any attempt to regulate the internet. They are focused on regulations that limit, in their opinion, the perceived new media revolutionary attributes. Thus, for example, in a 2014 submission to an Israeli committee contemplating the future of and need for regulating audio-visual services provided via the Internet (Prof. Schejter and Dr. Tirosh served as the Committee chair and his aid respectively.), Google wrote (in Hebrew) that the Internet “encourages pluralism and provides opportunities for realizing freedom of expression”. According to the submission, the internet facilitates freedom of expression in its widest sense, due to the lack of entry barriers and space or time burdens (Ibid). The internet revolution they describe identifies only one barrier that needs to be removed – direct speech regulation.

On revolution

What happens here is that an old word, revolution, is being used to describe new phenomena, thus granting the word “an entirely new meaning” (Arendt 1963: 25-26). Yet, it is important to get back to the conventional meaning of the term revolution. Revolution is most commonly defined as the “forcible overthrow of a government through mass mobilization (whether military or civilian or both) in the name of social justice, to create new political institutions“ (Goldstone 2014: p.4).

Some prominent thinkers, however, suggest that revolutions are not about “mere changes” (Arendt, 1963, p.11).  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn (1962/1970: 5) defines revolution as the instance in which the new discovery “necessitated the community’s rejection of one time-honored scientific theory”. A scientific revolution, he explains, produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the profession determined what should count as an admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done. Such changes, together with the controversies that almost always accompany them, are the defining characteristics of scientific revolutions (p. 6).

At the same time, Arendt claimed that the term revolution should refer to social incidents that focus solely on the “foundation of freedom” (Arendt 1963: 51). For Arendt, the tension between freedom and tyranny is constitutive for the very existence of politics. Thus, for her, the only way to understand revolutions is to acknowledge that “the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide” (Arendt 1963: 19).

Indeed, for both Kuhn and Arendt, revolutions are not mere changes in a perceived reality; instead, they are an inherent alteration of the foundation of reality. Revolutions are, on the one hand, a rejection of the way things are, and on the other hand, a moment of liberation from oppression. Thus, the replacement of one form of oppression with another is not a revolution in Arendt’s or Kuhn’s understanding.

What do Google and Facebook mean when they speak about the new media revolution?

Google, Facebook and the like claim that the contemporary media environment should stay out of the regulatory bodies’ scope, due to the revolutionary attributes of this environment. However, they are in fact trying to increase their own control over the contemporary media environments, while describing these environments as free and revolutionary in essence. Revolution, in that sense, is used neither in the Arendtian or Kuhnian manner. The so-called revolution Google wants is one that will free them from having to adhere to laws and regulations. Google, Facebook and other media conglomerates are actually aiming to minimise the freedom and liberties of individual users through their active denial of any regulations that may benefit users and increase their freedoms when using contemporary media.    

And indeed, more freedom and liberty is possible. It is the unique characteristics of contemporary media – mobility, interactivity, abundance and multimediality – that enable a new regulatory discussion. The new affordances enabled by these media have the potential to drive justice-based communication policies and to improve the situation of the least advantaged among civilians (Schejter & Tirosh, 2016). Only by enabling access to media for disconnected individuals and communities, and by making sure that they can capitalize on these media, we believe that freedom would be increased, and the new media revolution will truly begin. Unfortunately, the current discourse rather hides than reveals this potential. That is why we need to be cognizant of the double-edged use of the term revolution: to ensure it serves the people, and not the new rulers.  

| Arendt, H. (1963[2006]). On Revolution. London: Penguin Books.
| Goldstone, A. J. (2014). Revolutions – A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
| Internet.org, “Internet org summit in New Delhi” (2014). Zuckerberg Transcripts. Paper 158. http://dc.uwm.edu/zuckerberg_ les_transcripts/158.
| Kuhn, S. T. (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
| Meyrowitz, J. (1993). Images of Media: Hidden Ferment – and Harmony – in the Field. Journal of Communication, 43(3), 55-66.
| Schejter, A. & Tirosh, N. (2016) A Justice-Based Approach for New Media Policy: In the Paths of Righteousness. London: Palgrave-McMillan.
| Zuckerberg, Mark, “Live discussing the election, news, education, science, AI and the future at Techonomy” (2016). Zuckerberg Transcripts. Paper 214. http://dc.uwm.edu/zuckerberg_ les_transcripts/214

Noam Tirosh, is Ph.D. Student Kommunikationsfakultät der Ben-Gurion Universität. Amit Schejter ist Co-Direktor des Institute for Information Policy und Gastprofessor am College of Communications an der Pennylvania State University.
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Noam Tirosh

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