I decided to publish here regularly all the coursework I have submitted so far at Coventry University – to receive more than just one opinion towards my ideas. So fell free to comment as much as you like!
The first assignment I want to put online was written in the context of a seminar which focused theoretical approaches in communication, culture and media. It deals with the current processes of information production, primarily in the new media:
Knowledge in Contemporary Media Culture
Postmodern Approaches on the Production and Consumption of Information in the Internet
Today’s media culture offers virtually unlimited access to information. Knowledge seems to be available everywhere, any time for everybody. Most notably the Internet significantly changed the way information and media products are created and consumed; it is no longer bound to the limitations of time and space. Since its emergence utopian visions and hopes lie on the world wide web: Many described it as a possible catalyst for a broader participation in political, social, scientific and artistic processes. Others called it an extension of the freedom of speech. Some of these assumptions should indeed prove true – but only to a certain extent. There are still limits, and the great democratisation of the Internet in a fully political sense wears on comparatively slowly. Nevertheless, concerning the availability of information, the introduction of this new communication technology into the private sector during the 1990s can be described as a pivotal turning point for media culture – at least in industrialized, capitalistic societies. New content enters the ever-flowing data-stream continuously, generating this immense diversity which shapes contemporary media culture; Plurality became one of the main characteristics of today’s media, particularly in the Internet. Different, new forms of media artefacts emerge constantly: Hybrids and cross-formats challenge traditional classifications and genres and new categories have to be invented. A shift in the classic relationship of consumer and producer is detectable, too: it is nowadays, due to ongoing technological progress, much easier for recipients to become creators of media artefacts and information products themselves. As the production and consumption of information i.e. knowledge changes, profound transformations in culture become observable. Postmodern theories on epistemology, culture and media thereby provide applicable approaches to describe these developments as some of the visions and forecasts of prophets like Lyotard, Virilio, Baudrillard or Kittler seem to prove true.
But what is knowledge nowadays actually? Which role do the media play in the complex relationship between culture, information production and consumption? What can postmodern theories tell us about the characteristics of today’s media and culture? Do we live in an information society – or a permanent simulation (Baudrillard 1988)? This paper attempts to approach answers to this complex questions by describing and analyzing postmodern perspectives on the issue. The chosen examples focus on the Internet as an almost always available source of information. It shall be assessed to what extent postmodern theories and concepts help to understand media and culture properly. Therefore the epistemological background as well as the differences to the concept of modernity have to be illuminated. After that, a summary of the postmodern characterisation of media as an important, determining factor for society and culture is given. By examining current examples of information products some of the basic mechanisms of knowledge production, distribution, and consumption shall be identified. Finally, the advantages but also the shortcomings of postmodern theories are explained. Due to the limits of this essay not all theories, terms and ideas can be discussed in detail; some aspects can only be ascertained cursorily. An in-depth discussion on the concepts of modernism and modernity cannot be provided. The examination on postmondernity and postmodernism can also highlight only selected aspects, as these are very broad and ambiguous terms. Nevertheless, some of the most important ideas and findings of postmodern theories on media culture, and the contemporary forms of information and knowledge shall be illuminated and assessed. At first, the philosophical and epistemological background of postmodern thinking has to be described, before any further conclusions on the issue can be drawn.
2. Postmodern Concepts of Knowledge
Since more than 25 years, the conceptions and ideas behind the terms Postmodernity and Postmodernism cause controversial discussions in the field of philosophy and the humanities, most notably in cultural and media studies – though until today no satisfying, fixed definition of both buzzwords can be given (infed.org, http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-postmd.htm 13/12/09). However, both concepts cannot be considered synonymous: Postmodernity describes a social condition while Postmodernism can be identified as a cultural concept (applied e.g. in arts). The perspicacious as well as polarising ideas of postmodern (media-) philosophers lead to new perspectives on contemporary Western conceptions, society, politics and culture. According to many postmodernists, Western society went through several radical changes during the last 60 years (Lyotard 1984: 3). Thereby rapid technological process was and is an important factor. Primarily the ways knowledge is produced and consumed altered dramatically. Its importance for the post-industrial society increased significantly as it became “[…] the strategic resource and [its] transforming agent […]” (Bell 1980: 531).
Postmodern thinking is in many ways a radical break with the ideals and concepts of Modernity; it actually attempts to define itself by being not modern. Modern and postmodern thereby are ambiguous, often confusing terms and very difficult to separate from each other – some speak of a “nebulous distinction” between them (Smart 1990: 14). However, comparing the philosophical and epistemological background of both concepts, blatant differences can be identified. The major distinction between postmodern views – which are highly influenced by poststructuralism and deconstructivism – and modern philosophy lies in the virtually contrarian conception of knowledge. While modernists still assume that there is a certain reality which can be approached through science and its methods, postmodern positions negate this essentialist perspective. The idea behind this new, provoking perception of knowledge is basically the turn away from the ideals and principles of Enlightenment, which proved to be wrong – from a postmodern perspective. The failure of the so-called grand narratives (Lyotard 1984: 50) would provide evidence for this thesis. By having a rather constructivist perspective, they challenge the concept of a single truth. To them several versions of truth exist, each a construction or creation of the theorist behind a given explanation (e.g. Webster 1995: 165). Michel Foucault’s writings on knowledge, power and discourses are also very important for the proper understanding of postmodernist positions. He anticipated this conception of truth, ergo knowledge, when he stated that “[…] each society has its regime of truth its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true” (Foucault 1972: 131). According to Lyotard, knowledge is never generated only for its own sake; it always has a certain purpose and a specific value. Even science cannot provide a valid, objective production of information. He describes this as the commodification or mercantilisation of knowledge, adjusting Marx’s principle of commodification used to describe the relation of use value and exchange value in capitalistic societies (Lyotard 1984: 5 et seq.). By analysing and depicting the condition of knowledge, Lyotard formulates the basic postmodern epistemological perspective on the issue. Summarized, it says that every piece of information is biased and constructed – whether it is a news article, a book, a video clip or a scientific research project (Webster 1995: 165). This assumption implies that there is no real hierarchy of knowledge – basically all forms of information are equal; the qualitative distinction between different forms of knowledge are mere constructions. Thus, identity and history for example are not naturally given but they are constructed through language i.e. discourse. From a postmodern point of view given information / knowledge is always questionable or at least negotiable:
Thus, put crudely, in such perspectives both our powers of empirical perception and our powers of pure logical conception are incapable by any rational means at any one time of ever making ‘total’ sense of – of ‘totalizing’ – or even observing, all the facts that would make up the truth; and what we do perceive or conceive may always to some equally valid percept or concept that contradicts it. (Nash 2001: 6)
Hence, one could speak of a paradigm shift in the conception of truth i.e. knowledge and information. The rejection of modernist thinking forms a basic aspect of postmodern concepts and theories – which contest the hegemony of high modern perspectives on a wide range of philosophical and cultural issues (Jameson 1982: 111); it questions for instance science and its methods. Further, everything is informational and plurality stands against conventional categorisations, hierarchy, integrity and morality. Knowledge is purchasable and consumable like any other commodity in a capitalistic society. Hence, it can be described as an utility. Simultaneously, controlling knowledge, i.e. the creation of information, means possession of power – to dominate discourses or shape representations / identities for example. Thereby, individuals know the world through language (Sarup 1988: 118) – symbols and images are the only reality we have; texts of every form are the source of knowledge. The media are the most important factor in the process of producing, distributing and consuming it. They establish the free flow of information. Hence, communication technologies i.e. the media are of particular importance in postmodernist theories on epistemology and culture.
3. Postmodern Media Theories
Media and communication technologies are of special interest to Postmodern theories: They are indentified as the crucial factors in the construction and transformation processes which configure an individual’s perception of the world. Though the descriptions and analyses are partially very different, they share the assumption that the media shape reality. At this point once more the constructivist background of postmodern philosophy becomes obvious. Media also determine contemporary culture. The French philosopher Villem Flusser for instance emphasised that the changes in communication always had an impact on the cultural development (e.g. Flusser 1995). McLuhans theories about the nature and impact of media thereby anticipated many of the ideas of later postmodern thinkers and provided a basis for their work. In their media ontologies Virilio and Baudrillard use a similar, relatively coarse division of human history, characterising the different epochs on the basis of the use of media / communication technology (e.g. Virillio 1975; Baudrillard 1993). They also share the assumption that content and use are determined by the form of the medium (Genosko 1999: 84). Furthermore, media are omnipresent and provide the main source of information; communication technology makes its fast reproduction and transportability possible (Flusser 2002: 71 et seq.). The postmodern positions towards the media are ambiguous: on one hand, due to their inherent dynamics, media have the potential to change society dramatically. But on the other one, they are industrialized and commercialised (Virilio 1995: 7) – which entails certain negative consequences and restrictions concerning production and consumption. Media have been also characterised as artefacts of military technology, released only for limited civil use (e.g. Virilio 1995: 14; Kittler 1999). But postmodern theorists describe even more profound effects: Baudrillard for instance states that in the computerised, digitalised media society the Saussurean relation between signifier and signified ceased to exist: in the ever-flowing data stream signs emancipated from the signified and became objects themselves – that is the very essence of what he describes as hyperreality, the condition of the age of simulation we live in. According to him, today information is beyond reference; signs are no longer representational, the so-called sign-value overcomes use-value (Baudrillard 2005: 9 et seq.): the representation becomes actually more important than the real object. Signs turn into simulacra, which constitute the simulation. The precondition for this development was basically the step from the metallurgic to the semiurgic society (Best / Kellner 1991: 118). Assuming that the differentiation between reality and simulation become obsolete, can provide a new perspective on the digital commodities of the Internet. In his dromology Virillio also focuses the impact of media on the perception of reality. According to him, media can be described as vehicles which neutralise distances, making the world a smaller place. Every advancement in communication technology thus transforms reality. Moreover, everything that is produced in media it remains available (Viriio 1997: 16). However, as achieving economical aims, i.e. the seek for profit, often becomes the dominant mechanism in the production of information, any liberating effects of new inventions must be limited. Furthermore, users are not able to completely understand the mechanisms and the used language behind the interface in the computerized age; their consumption is limited to the simulation presented to them. Only a few individuals are capable to master the true code which constitutes the data stream (Kittler 2002: 28). Also, the distinction between different forms of media becomes obsolete as digitalisation synchronizes them. Altogether, the different postmodern theories give a rather pessimistic or at least sober assessment of contemporary media.
To summarize briefly the most important aspects of postmodern media theories: Media determine the perception of reality by providing information which contains selected knowledge about the world. Thus, they shape attitudes, ethics, representations, identities and ultimately culture. Knowledge is thereby produced everywhere, anytime (e.g. Virilio 1995). Furthermore, postmodern media analyses imply an equality of all media content i.e. information products – they actually deny a hierarchy of media artefacts. Hence, postmodern positions challenge the antagonistic-binary relationship between high culture vs. popular culture, too. By embracing the concept of plurality they clearly distance themselves from the modernist Frankfurt School for instance. The emergence of new, unconventional forms of media content prohibits a clear distinction between classic genres (Virilio 1995: 15). Maybe most important: The conventional relation between the sign and the signfied disbands. Today it is no longer possible to distinct between the two of them; signs become self-referential, moving in “ceaseless circulation” (Webster 1995: 177). This provides an applicable approach to analyse forms of information production and new forms of consumption in an age of digitalised media content.
4. Production of Knowledge in Contemporary Media Culture
Following postmodern theories, the media are the major source and catalyst for the proliferation of information and knowledge, respectively. They also cause cultural changes (Allmendinger 2000: 57); their importance even grows, as the good producing society transforms into a service society (Bell 1973). As mentioned above, the production, distribution and consumption of information is nowadays no longer limited to classic mass media. Print and broadcasting media artefacts melt together with other new forms in the world wide web. The emergence and acceptance of this new medium caused significant changes in former space-time-relations. The next passage shall cursorily describe and analyse current forms of information production by applying postmodern approaches.
4.1 Information Production, Consumption and New Media
Information constantly flows through the media. It is a non-physical, highly liquid commodity and virtually always available. It moves fast, spreads and escapes control (Rutsky 2005: 61). The Internet is thereby often metaphorically described as an “ocean” (e.g. metaphor lookout).Thus, knowledge often appears in pure digital content, i.e. non-physical commodities. This entails the described mobility and makes an easy exchange possible – it diffuses through consumption. One could speak of a decentralisation or liberation of information. The precondition for the consumption of information products in contemporary media culture are free individuals acting as consuming subjects in a capitalistic society. In the Internet virtually everyone can produce information and spread it through the electronic channels around the globe. An example would be Wikipedia and its several specialised derivatives. Everyone can participate and publish texts, i.e. knowledge, and provide it for free sharing. Wikipedia actually exists only because of the voluntary work of its authors. Although the validity and quality of the provided information is often debatable; this seems to be the disadvantage of free information products. The possibility of using wikis, websites, blogs etc., contributes to the establishment of plurality as countless users worldwide can participate. For example, WordPress and Blogspot are used by millions of people everyday, too (wordpress, http://wordpress.org/about/ 12/12/09; blogspot, http://labnol.blogspot. com/2006/06/blogger-templates-45-million-blogspot.html 12/12/09). They offer broad spaces for knowledge production and consumption. Blogs thereby have to cope with the same deficiencies as Wikipedia. The provided information is seldom really for free, too, as many bloggers allow advertising on their homepage. However, authoritative scientific knowledge is less accessible compared to everyday knowledge (e.g. recipes on a blog about British kitchen). The use of many academic online databases and libraries such as Jstor is limited to an exclusive group of recipients. It is often expensive, too. These and plenty of other examples seem to verify the postmodern assumption that every form of knowledge is commodified. Professional media and information producers thus have the opportunity to offer their commodities in multiple ways – crossmediality provides another technique to implement pluralism.
Furthermore, the Internet realises the globalisation of information production and consumption, at least for Western users / consumers. The illusion of distances becomes completely obsolete: within minutes a recipient in France can inform him/herself about cultural customs in Papua New Guinea. In seconds the same user exchanges this information via video chat with a friend in Cape Town. Simultaneously he/she shops online overseas and skims a PDF about Postmodernism downloaded from the server of a US-University. The possibility of getting the latest news, listen to music, to shop, and play with friend online via a single medium causes profound transformations in everyday life of millions of consumers. Technological progress is the activator for this development: “Digitization has, in other words, enabled various cultural products and forms of knowledge to be more easily commodified and consumed.” (Rutsky 2005: 67). Although the dissolving of distances is also detectable ‘outside’ the Internet, think for example of the outsourcing of information services to foreign countries. The globalisation of information evolved gradually and in several dimension but always through new, more effective communication technology. Nevertheless, processing and circulating information through computers around the world caused the probably most radical transformations (e.g. Allmendinger 2000: 56): these range from education, entertainment, and information to social interaction. It further increased the speed of information exchange and lifted the sign, as an object of its own, to a new level: new media artefacts like computer programmes are actually nothing else than a composition of signs without any practical reference to real objects. Recipients pay real money for digital signs they use for different purposes in virtual realities – pure simulation.
4.2 “Anything Goes”? Problems and Limits of the Internet
The Internet might provide an open space in which each and everyone can express himself/herself and provide any kind of information. However, these advantages are accompanied by certain dangers: myths can be created and distributed in short time, spreading false information. Think for example of the confusion amateur websites and forums about health issues cause: Internet users tend to diagnose themselves by relying on information from the web, where quality control still cannot be fully realised. The vast choice of media artefacts containing knowledge can lead to disorientation, misinformation and finally anxiety. It can be a difficult and confusing task to select useful, qualitative information from the data stream of the Internet. Important questions in this context would be: How to sustain quality? How to prove validity? Furthermore, though numerous possibilities for participation exist, many of the published blogs, websites etc. are simply ‘noise’, lost media artefacts which pass by without being consumed by a mentionable audience. This shows that not all available information is equally percieved. Applying Aristotle’s communication model, ethos is still important for the perception and evaluation of a media producer. Besides, entertainment still seems to be the major purpose for using new media. There might be a slow increase of political activities but the great democratisation of the masses remains to be realised. Instead established political, economical, and academic institutions professionalise their performance in the Internet, aiming for communication dominance in the virtual space – hegemony possibly remains in their hands. The commercialisation of the Internet grows continuously, too: more and more content must be purchased before it can be consumed. Thus, many Internet users have to rethink their “for-free”-mentality. However, the fluidity of information confronts producers as well as consumers with various judicial questions about trademarks and owner rights.
Moreover, there are still certain limits to the freedom of information, especially outside the hemisphere of democratic societies; The People’s Republic of China for instance successfully controls the vast spaces of the Internet within its borders. Limited access to information and control over media by gatekeepers thereby are important issues in Western societies, too. The forms of control are of course less rigid and less obvious. There are certain systematic mechanisms which control access to new media: insufficient education and income can exclude individuals from using the Internet. Hence, an individual’s media competence and its economic situation determine the accessibility i.e. the potential extent of participation. This is one of the main reasons why it is not possible to characterise Western social structures as information societies in general. There are still considerable segments which do not apply to a fully digitalised life in which information is the worthiest capital. Anyhow, the term indeed becomes appropriate to growing parts of Western society. Another important aspect is the role of big Internet companies like Google as gatekeeper / content selectors. As the dominating search engine worldwide the corporation inhabits a possible monopoly on the selection of information – an elementary problem concerning the freedom and unhindered fluctuation of knowledge. Many of the utopian hopes put in computer technology (Rutsky 2005: 63) have not become reality, yet.
5. Conclusion: Chances and Limits of Postmodern Approaches on Media Culture
This critical view on postmodern concepts of knowledge, information and media showed to which extent these theories help to describe, analyse and understand current media culture. To grasp and assess plurality and the profound changes in Western media societies caused by new communication technologies, postmodern theories provide an appropriate approach indeed. They challenge conventional ways of thinking and categorising the world. Hence, postmodern ideas possibly broaden the horizon of the observer. They are applicable to describe the transformations in the complex relationship between signs and sigfined, code, information, knowledge and ultimately the perception of reality today. Postmodern observations offer an elaborate conceptualisation of late capitalistic societies (Smart 1990: 15): they help to understand the processes and mechanisms behind the production and consumption of information in contemporary media culture – in which millions participate (Nash 2001: 4). Thereby Information can be regarded as a kind of capital. Furthermore postmodernist thinking demands science to rethink its perspectives and methods; it illustrates that especially cultural and social studies should apply interdisciplinary approaches. However, postmodern theories do not form a monolithic school of thought – different positions within the field of postmodern considerations can be detected (Allmendinger 2000: 55); it is rather a net of discourses, an intellectual movement (Webster 1995: 164), critically examining the current condition of Western civilisation. Nevertheless, the ideas behind Postmodernity challenge the reader him/herself to critically assess the possibilities of new media: Do we really witness a liberation of information? Who dominates discourses in and on the Internet? Who controls the code behind the surface? Who possesses knowledge? Who decides what knowledge is? Are consumer societies really information societies? Discussing these questions leads inevitably to an analysis of contemporary culture. The same applies for Postmodernism as a cultural concept: it makes the principle of plurality comprehensible. It must not be taken as a form of indifference but as an approach to sustain creativity from which new forms of media can emerge; and it shows that lifestyles today are open and fluid.
However, postmodern concepts are not easy to comprehend and there are several aspects which are debatable. First of all, postmodernist authors use eclectic and selective argumentations. This reflects of course their own postmodern principles but it generates also a certain arbitrariness. It consequently becomes a difficult task to implement their quite subtle and complex theories. Postmodernsts give elaborate examinations of the contemporary condition of culture and express harsh criticism but offer no solutions – the insights are not changed into actions (Adams 1995: 250). Furthermore, as postmodernist positions do not form a single, consentaneous philosophy they can be contradicting or even paradoxical (e.g. Callinicos 1989: 25 et seq.). Another debatable aspect is the focus on Western civilisation. The world is still divided into different cultural and political spaces – the idea of simulation and hyperreality might be adjustable to highly mediatised societies of regions like the ‘West’ or the so-called Second World but not to remote, less developed areas. Here these concepts are not applicable, as often the main premises cannot be provided: an elaborate technological infrastructure, continuing progress and consuming subjects. Thus, in other political and social systems the environment for the production and consumption of information might be totally different. Furthermore, the freedom of the media – even the Internet – can be limited easily, as totalitarian or fundamental religious regimes around the globes show. Therefore, the postmodern description and assessment of the media must be seen in a nearly exclusive Western-capitalistic context.
List of references
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 E.g. Postmodernism in theatre, literature, movies etc.
 For an introduction to modernity and modernism see Harvey 1989.
 E.g. Darwinism, Marxism, Capitalism, but also Fascism as a perversion of modernity’s anthropocentrism – theories which all claim to provide a “total” answer.
 He expresses it even more provoking by stating that knowledge and science are not the same (Lyotard 1984: 18 et seq.).
 E.g. Paul Feyerabend (1975)
 For the relation of controlling representations and power see Berten 1995: 83.
 Most notably in The Gutenberg Galaxis and The Medium is the Message
 The third of his “orders of simulacra” , the epochs he uses to divide history (Baudrillard 1983);
 The logic of speed
 New technologies like smart phones (e.g. ) Apple’s iPhone which provide mobile Internet access, enable today’s users to consume information almost everywhere.
 Newspapers and broadcast corporations such as The Guardian, BBC.
 E.g. service hotlines in India caring for customers in the US.
 E.g. Massive Multiplayer Online Role Play Games.
 See Barth (1972) for a detailed discussion on the concept of myths.
 The speaker’s authority
 For a detailed discussion on information societies see Allmendinger 2000: 59 et seq.