Are New Media New?

This post can be considered the sequel to an earlier post inspired by a conference held at MMU about Digital Transformation. The basic issue, I guess, is concerning how we are supposed to think about the recent digital revolution.

Before getting down to the question “Are new media new?”, I am going to have a bit of an unprofessional rant. I’ve always been into computers and, growing up in the 90s and 00s, I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced several significant developments in computing. I’m also lucky, though I admitedly didn’t think it at the time, I was lucky that my family couldn’t afford the latest developments as they happened and were, technologically, probably about six years behind at each stage. The reasons for this is that I just about remember a Sinclair Spectrum, I was able to spend a lot of time using an Amiga 1200 and my first own computer was a second hand Amstrad 464 (discontinued in 1990) in about 1996.

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All of this added up to me appreciating just how amazing Windows 98 really was, which in turn allows me to appreciate how amazing the contemporary Windows operating systems are and how mediocre MacOS X and Linux are. And, while I’ve never studied the history of computing in depth, this modest experience of different pieces of nascent personal computing is more than most and sufficient to make me realise two important things: 1) computer companies lie about features being new and revolutionary, 2) most computer users don’t realise that many features are a lot older than they seem to be. Both of these things annoy me.

For example, Apple’s adverts for the iPhone 3Gs—following their usual tendency to claim that every little change they ever make changes everyone’s life forever—really annoyed me because they were showing off a copy and paste functionality, calling it “incredible”, that had been in most non-smart phones for two or three years, not to mention my family’s Amiga 1200 in the early 90s and the earliest punch card computers in the 1960s. Windows 7 adverts annoyed me because they advertised, as new, printer and network sharing functionality that had undergone only superficial changes since Windows 98.

Perhaps most importantly, the backbone of the Facebooks, Twitters, online communities, blogs and websites of the world, and all the things we like to call “new media” is something called a relational database. This core piece of technology, far from being  new, was invented in 1970 by a very clever man called Edgar. And, even that wasn’t that new because it was a development from pre-existing computer database methods and most of the filing systems used before the popularisation of IT (The Dewey Decimal System, Filing Cabinets, a Chest of Drawers!) could be described as databases.

In short, people lie about the novelty in technology. OK, digital technology has advanced very fast but this advancement has the character of a steady evolution and development rather than a series of consequent revolutions and radically new developments. Rant over.

But the above is just a rant. Can anything philosophical be said about the above? There are two things that I think are worth saying. The first, and least important, is that it is, as in all cases, important to remember the history of the things we deal with in life. Without history, there is only ignorance. Without history, to quote Nietzsche, we would just be cows who never speak because we cannot remember what we were going to say. Using the history of these devices as our guard, we can navigate thoughtfully through the various lies people like to spread about them.

Second, it is import for us to not confuse ‘the new’ with ‘the latest’. Twitter may be the latest successful entry into the social networking brigade, but it was hardly new. The new is the absolutely unprecedented. Twitter had clear precedents and was clearly, to anyone with eyes, a rip off of status updates on the already extant social networking websites. Indeed, that was how it was originally branded. I can’t find the video, but I remember looking at twitter when it first started and they attempted to sell themselves as a service for letting your friends know what you were up to when you weren’t at home or at work. It is interesting how Twitter was transformed into something quite different to this, first (according to my memory) by the political uses of it in Iran and then by the corporate ab-uses of it in its wake. But, that is a whole other blog post.

Equally, Facebook/MySpace/Bebo could hardly have been said to be new in the true sense of being without precedent. Social Networking is essentially a development of online forums (fora?), which were in turn developments of newsgroups and the various ways that people have communicated on the internet and its precedents for decades. To my mind, ignoring usability and the aesthetic appearance of the two, the only real difference between online forums and the first generation of social networking platforms is that forums organise posts by topic and social networking organises posts by the people who said them.

For sure, this development was incredibly successful, but it wasn’t really new. If a book shop suddenly stopped organising itself by genre and only by authors name, we would say “Oh, that’s a quite useful reorganisation of a shop. Now can I buy my J.K. Rowling books without having to navigate between the fantasy, crime thriller, and weird-novels-about-small-towns sections. Or at least I could if she published everything under her own name.” We would not say “Wow! You won’t believe this entirely new invention I saw!” And, we certainly wouldn’t give it a convoluted new name in the way we have for “social network”. On that point, who actually uses Facebook for social networking? It would be more accurate to call it an illiterate cat distribution nexus.

In short, there is a difference between the new and the latest. And while there have been some developments in technology that could be described as new in the last ten years, there are far fewer than we are tempted to rabbit on about. Things like Facebook, podcasts, Twitter and the Daily Mail comment leaving facility are not really new but are just the latest, most user-friendly instances of technologies that have long been in development. The only thing vaguely new about them is that, due to this user-friendliness and adequate marketing, they have become far more widely-spread than any of their ancestors.

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