The Pop-Up Revolution
For the last few weeks I’ve been mulling over an unfinished (for me, at least) discussion in the New Media Faculty Seminar concerning what, in McLuhan’s terms, makes something a discrete medium. The only result of the aforementioned mulling process was that the overall question sprouted as many heads as the hydra, and I tabled it. However, a recent political event woke it up again: the refusal of the United States to endorse a new version of the long-standing international telecommunications treaty sponsored by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, because members of the current group (led by Russia and including China) insisted on passing a companion resolution whose wording suggests “the Internet is a telecommunications service, . . . not, as the United States argued, a form of content” (“US Rejects Telecommunications Treaty”). The desire of some ITU members to include “the Internet” as telecommunications apparently stems from what these interests see as a need to regulate digital modes of communication; when they were unable to get the reference inserted into the actual treaty, they resorted to the resolution. The US and its allies, including Google, saw this as a threat to the free creation of digital speech.
Of course, I have no illusions about the commercial aspects of US resistance to international oversight of the Internet (although the treaty itself seems to be relatively toothless). But it still struck me as the right move, not just for political reasons but because the definition of “the Internet” as a unique type of content seems theoretically sound. Digital communication is not simply another way to make a phone call, and the argument that it is “because Internet traffic travel[s] through telecommunications networks” makes about as much sense as saying that a runner is a car because she uses the public roads.
So here’s where McLuhan comes in: the error would lie in assuming that the medium (the Internet) is the same as the storage/transmission system that houses it. It may be shaped by that system, just as the painter’s work is shaped by the choice of oils or watercolor, but the choice of instrument or pigment or mode of transmission is not the thing itself. Nor is it simply a product of the experience of those who see or read or hear it. In these terms, a traditional movie is the same object if I see it in a theater or watch it on my computer; a recorded song is the same when I play it on my stereo or rip it to my iPod. I may experience some qualitative degradation, but I think in McLuhan’s theoretical framework that is irrelevant. McLuhan’s is not a pure reception-aesthetic, that is, it is not concerned with the variations between individual experiences of the same object (which is an inevitable consequence of the fact that we are different; even if we sit side by side at the same concert we each hear something unique). Instead, McLuhan describes the results of a communicative system, a global village, in which a sender (writer, painter, TV production crew, etc.) intentionally creates and transmits an object to a network of recipients. That object is not simply a content stuffed into a form, but rather from its completion a fusion of the two.
What makes “the Internet” more than simply a new way to deliver more of the same is, I would argue, precisely what makes certain interests want to force it not to be itself: digital objects create or participate in creating new networks. On one level, this post you are now (I hope) reading resembles an example of the prose essay, but as a medium the blog is a hypertext, ready to be stumbled upon by anyone who enters the right terms in a search engine. It is also not in itself a commodity, although it can be monetized; it is subject to the ongoing inclusion in its paratexts of the comments of others; it is “published” on my timeline and at my whim; and it remains editable even once made public. My awareness of these fluid, dialogic traits informs my writing significantly. Many of the new digital modes — MOOCs, crowd-sourcing systems, sharing sites — represent an alternative culture that is also manifested in pop-up businesses, flash movements, and other types of network creation that typically use the immediacy, accessibility, and chattiness of digital media to spread the word. Politically speaking, such phenomena as the spontaneous charitable networks that have sprung up in response to disasters around the globe represent the best of this new culture: its awareness not only that it takes a village but that virtual villages can be built overnight, for a specific purpose.
The US argument that the Internet represents a unique type of content, then, is justifiable precisely in that part of its content is the unique conversation it represents between creators and receivers. That this relation is a political one, and potentially empowering, seems obvious, and the US should continue to use its influence with the UN to support a differentiation that ultimately (and perhaps uniquely) serves both commercial and communal freedoms. Like McLuhan’s beloved advertisements, the Internet blurs the lines between commerce, art, and political speech — or perhaps reminds us that these lines were always tenuous at best.