From TV bulletins to social Media newsfeeds, the Media plays a massive role in shaping the world as we see it. In fact, different Media have helped make possible our world of independent nations, binding together disparate communities through shared cultural touchstones, such as the press and national broadcasters. With the transfer of people's lives to the online world, the Media has become crucial to almost every aspect of how human beings live. A new social order is being built through our relations with Media, but what power over us does this give to corporations and governments? Nick Couldry explains the significance of five core dimensions of Media: representing, connecting, imagining, sharing and governing. He shows that understanding these dynamics is a vital skill that every person needs in the digital age, when the fate of our political worlds and social environment may rest on how we communicate with each other.
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A History of Connection: Some High Points
Orders of Connection
A Connected Life?
Conclusion: Media as Ecology
Thinking about Media ‘Effects’
Media Representations and the Possibility of Democratic Politics
Battles for Voice, Battles for the Image
Media’s Missing Conscience?
Conclusion: Evaluating Media’s Symbolic Power
Media Fictions and Social Complexity
Society and the Algorithmic Imaginary
Platforms That Track Us
Data Collection in Everyday Life
A Corporate Eye on the World
Conclusion: New Imagination for an Algorithmic Age?
Media, Sharing, and the Building of Social Life
Online Sharing: An Expanding Universe
Media Sharing and the Seeds of Violence
Conclusion: Media Sharing and the Architecture of Social Life
The Centrality of Media to Politics
Media and the Future of Political Order
Conclusion: Rule by Tweet or Rule by Surveillance?
End User License Agreement
Table of Contents
In these short and lively books, world-leading thinkers make the case for the importance of their subjects and aim to inspire a new generation of students.
Helen Beebee & Michael Rush, Philosophy
Nick Couldry, Media
Robert Eaglestone, Literature
Andrew Gamble, Politics
Lynn Hunt, History
Tim Ingold, Anthropology
Neville Morley, Classics
Alexander B. Murphy, Geography
Geoffrey K. Pullum, Linguistics
Graham Ward, Theology and Religion
Copyright © Nick Couldry 2020
The right of Nick Couldry to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2020 by Polity Press
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All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Couldry, Nick, author.Title: Media : why it matters / Nick Couldry.Description: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA : Polity, 2019. | Series: Why it matters | Includes bibliographical references. | Summary: “The media plays a massive role in shaping the world as we see it. Couldry explains the significance of five core dimensions of media, and shows that understanding these dynamics is a vital skill that every person needs in the digital age, when the fate of our political worlds and social environment may rest on how we communicate with each other”-- Provided by publisher.Identifiers: LCCN 2019020466 (print) | LCCN 2019981525 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509515141 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509515158 (paperback) | ISBN 9781509515189 (epub)Subjects: LCSH: Mass media.Classification: LCC P90 .C689 2019 (print) | LCC P90 (ebook) | DDC 302.23--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019020466LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019981525
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To Chris, Imogen, and Will
This book was written between June 2018 and June 2019, in a period of considerable turbulence and rising controversy in media, politics and society in Brazil, Hungary, India, the UK, the USA, Venezuela, and many other places. Rather than bracket out that context, I have tried to reflect it.
Thanks to Pascal Porcheron of Polity for his invitation in 2016 to write a book in Polity’s Why It Matters series, his patience with a slower schedule than originally planned, and his perceptive editorial input. Thanks to Ellen MacDonald-Kramer for her support too and to Justin Dyer for a sharp and sensitive copy-edit of the manuscript.
I also want to thank various institutions and people without whom the book, once committed, could never have been written or completed. In terms of institutions, thanks to the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, which granted the sabbatical during which this book was written; and thanks to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and MIT’s Comparative Media Studies programme for being congenial homes in autumn 2018. Turning to people, particular thanks to my niece Isobel Edwards for carefully reading an earlier draft and reassuring me that I had made at least some progress in shedding the jargon and unnecessary detail that often gets in the way of academic writing. And thanks to Yongchan Kim for advice about media in Korean history; to Kim Schrøder for alerting me to the original version of the Stuart Hall research paper discussed in Chapter 2; and to Sonia Livingstone and Rafał Zaborowski for conversations over a number of years about the ‘media deprivation’ exercise as performed in their Media Audiences course at the LSE. Many thanks also to João Vieira-Magalhães for research assistance and, as ever, excellent help on many matters of detail. Thanks to three anonymous reviewers for Polity for helpful and constructive comments that helped me to produce a better version. And heartfelt thanks to Louise Edwards not just for commenting on the manuscript, but even more importantly for tolerating my frequent distractions and absences during much of this book’s writing and for her clarity, as always, in grasping what really matters. The faults that remain are my responsibility.
I dedicate this book to Chris Powell, Imogen Crarer, and Will Crarer. In their world, media will surely matter even more than in mine – whether for good or ill, we must wait and see.
Nick CouldryIslip, near OxfordJune 2019
Imagine your life without media.
This is a standard exercise in media classes, but it’s hard to put into practice, even for a day. It’s a little like being forced to navigate across a room completely blindfolded. And yet imagining your daily routine without media involves more than just imagining the lack of a sense. It means imagining a world that is, like ours, organized around media and the assumption we all have access to media, where suddenly you don’t hold the resource of media in your hand.
What makes the ‘media deprivation’ exercise hard is the act of social imagination it requires. We have become used to organizing social life – and wider society – through what we do with media. Operating on a different basis, even for a day, requires us to imagine the routines of a society different from the one we live in.
The difficulty of sustaining the media deprivation exercise is an example of a problem identified sixty years ago by the biologist Gregory Bateson. Bateson called this ‘the double bind’: even if we choose not to communicate, we end up communicating something, just by that abstinence. In a similar way, even withdrawing from all our systems for communicating through media sends a message. That’s why students doing the media deprivation exercise often have to stop: their parents are anxiously calling round to ask what’s wrong with them. It is as if, by not communicating, they were sending a message.
Media matter in our world, and in a particular way. Having access to certain information flows according to particular rhythms matters for whether contemporary societies are characterized by order or chaos; it affects what sort of social order is possible. These are flows not just of information, but maybe of other resources too: visibility, the possibility to connect, and some control over what images and information reach us. Social order depends today on a media order, which makes certain demands of us: the requirement to be connected and to follow what our ‘networks’ are doing; the requirement to be tracked by platforms.
Yet having access to media means something different to different people. The global businessperson with three phones and numerous other connected devices has a very different relation to media from the Chinese migrant worker who works in the factory that makes those devices but may only share a phone with family or friends, or the Filipino micropayment worker who, far from sight, ‘cleans’ social media platforms of shocking material, or the UK contract nurse who relies on a smartphone app to access her next job.
Even the types of things you might mean when you talk about your experiences of media could vary hugely. You might mean your personal collection of photos, music tracks, vlogs, and podcasts, and how you keep track of them all. You might mean a live television broadcast (royal ceremony or major football game) and your experience of chatting about it with friends via your mobile phone as the broadcast went on. You might mean sending to someone on the other side of the world a favourite image, song, or TV programme via a weblink, or sending her money via a payment system. Or you might have in mind the version of normal life that the mainstream news media presents, and the battles of some, yourself included, to make a different reality visible. Such battles can take a very practical form: for example, filming an act of violence on the street right in front of you and posting it online where others can see it and protest about it. ‘Media’ – our experience of media – spans everything from daily habits of media use to the social reality that is presented by media. As media transmission becomes embedded in the most ordinary of objects, ‘media’ can even include how your smart TV (refrigerator, watch, whatever) tracks your interactions with it, whether you like it or not.
Is there a common definition of the term ‘media’ that underlies all this variety? The working definition of ‘media’ that we will adopt in this book is as follows: technologies that are able regularly and reliably to transmit or preserve meanings across space and time (from a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the most elaborate textual creation, whether a Shakespeare play or a multi-series television drama). In the age of digital media, media inevitably involve computing power of some sort. Such power is embedded in almost all media technologies (from phones to tablets to large computer servers). The complexity of the category ‘media’ is already clear.
There’s another complexity too that we have to face if we adopt even this basic definition of ‘media’. For in thinking about media, we must think across a number of dimensions. There is the technology of transmission itself, but there is also the content that is transmitted and, over the long term, stored. There are the industries and organizations that produce that technology and that content. And, at the other end of the media process, there are the people and organizations that use media devices, make sense of the contents sent to them, or send their own messages through media platforms.
And, as the difficulty of performing the media deprivation exercise teaches us, there is the question of what difference all these many aspects of media make to the societies in which we live. In thinking about media, therefore, the challenge is to think about media as a dimension of how contemporary life as a whole is shaped; how today’s societies find their form.
In surveying what it might mean to study and think about media, this book will inevitably make selections. I won’t spend much time on the details of media industries, even though they are important places in which to work and the economics that drives them is fascinating. I also won’t spend much time on the details of how media messages might influence us to believe certain things, or at least think about certain things. If, after reading this book, you decide you want to study media further, you will soon find the large body of research on these topics which has influenced the story about media that I tell here.
Instead I have chosen a different way into media as a subject. I will look at media’s role in how we experience the world, and the work media do in constructing the world in which we live. This choice has an impact on the language I will use in this book. Media are tools for telling back to us the story of our world. In that sense, media stand in for ‘everything’. And yet media are also many things, and many types of thing (institutions, types of content interfaces, audiences). That’s probably why, in some versions of English, the noun ‘media’ is treated as both singular and plural. I have already relied on that ambiguity: compare the book’s title – Media: Why It Matters – to sentences in this introduction where the word ‘media’ takes a plural verb. If that, for your version of English, sounds strange, I can only apologize. But this grammatical instability of the word ‘media’ in some versions of English is no accident. It captures how a complex and often conflicted set of institutions, techniques, and mechanisms for connecting and representing human beings (which we call ‘media’) can build a landscape, a world. That process – of making worlds through media and our uses of media – is the topic of this book.
This way of thinking about media – and media’s importance to the type of world we live in – is no substitute for studying history, politics, or economics. But it is an approach to the world (and media) that can enrich your thinking whether you are an economist or historian, sociologist or scientist, artist or lawyer. So much so that, over the past four decades, large numbers of students and researchers have decided it is worth studying as a specialism in its own right. By ‘studying’, I have in mind the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s definition of study as ‘thinking about experience’. ‘Thinking about experience’, Freire wrote, ‘is the best way to think accurately.’1 All of us have plenty of experience of media. Studying media, then, in spite of the media’s own caricatures, at times, of ‘media studies’, is hardly trivial. It means drawing on this experience to think seriously about the complexity and depth of how media are changing the societies and world we live in.
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