Thursday, 1 March 2007

William Merrin - Media Studies 2.0


Responding to his critics in his 1968 Playboy interview, McLuhan acerbically commented, ‘for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place’. I don’t know how many decades it took these critics to realise this revolution had happened and was passing them by but I do know that everyone in media studies faces an equivalent challenge today. Something is happening here and the only question that counts is do you know what it is?

My moment of recognition came a few years ago when a student came to my office and asked if I could look at her essay. She handed me a memory stick – the first one I had ever seen. Not knowing what to do with it I held it up to the light and declared the introduction was weak, the argument needed clarifying and the bibliography needed to be improved. She didn’t look amused. What I realised that day was the absurdity of being a media studies lecturer when your students knew more about media than you. Sure, I knew more about media studies than them but that was no great consolation if it had no relationship to the media that were out there – the media that our students were using. I decided that day that everything had changed; that I had to get to grips with every aspect of the contemporary media revolution. I already knew the literature anyway. For the last decade I’d happily consumed every book on how the internet was going to change everything but somehow it never really did: the changes remained theoretical or confined to a small group of people. Now things were different. The waves of this revolution were visible. Major changes in media were happening on a daily basis and happening to all of us. Entire media forms and industries were being transformed right in front of our eyes.

This was a different world to the one I grew up in. The only difference between the television my mother watched in the 50s and the one I watched was two more channels. Although colour TV existed, we didn’t have it and the VCR took so long to come down in price that my mother only bought one as I went off to University. This was an age when the telephone was nailed to the kitchen wall, when it couldn’t take photos and when the only person walking around outside with one was my action man, with his giant telephone set strapped to his back. Television was only available on the television, you couldn’t get the radio on it and no-one was trying to hack into your set to steal your money or identity. For what seemed like half the time it wasn’t on anyway, merrily shutting down every few hours, not even starting until 9am and finishing not that long after I’d gone to bed. Still, as I went to sleep I could dream about the future … about going to work in a jet pack, about female robots and flying cars and Nottingham Forest remaining champions of Europe …

My son’s world is nothing like the one I grew up in. It’s one, however, that we have to understand if we’re going to teach media to our students and to the generations that follow. Too many media studies lecturers know too little about contemporary media. How many lecturers smugly complaining about the painful historical and cultural ignorance of their students know anything about what’s happening today? Our students may never have seen Cathy Come Home, heard of Godard or have a clue who owns what newspaper but how many media studies lecturers have a Facebook profile, play WOW or pass on mobile phone porn? Just look at the god-awful state of the textbooks we write for them. The same dreary topics and chapters and the same obsolete information. New media is barely covered and if it is it’s usually reserved for a final chapter desperately trying to signal its hip contemporaneity but in effect naively quarantining these technologies and processes, ignoring the fact that they’ve already changed everything the book’s covered. I can’t even think of a medium that hasn’t been affected in its production or reception –one way or another they all include new media, use new media, intimately link with new media or have become new media. The revolution has already taken place and we’ve barely begun to think through what it means. Books can’t even keep up. By the time they’ve been written and passed through a series of readers and editors to finally find a place in a busy publication schedule to be turned into pulped vegetable matter and by the time they’ve been sent to shops where someone might - eventually - buy them and perhaps even read them within the next few years, the entire media world has been transformed. The result is, for all of us, it’s a struggle even to keep up. Not many disciplines have this problem. I’m fairly certain chemistry lectures don’t have to turn up to the second half of a lecture and announce that things have just changed: that the bad news is they’ve just found three new elements but the good news is they’ve dropped argon as no-one was using it anymore. And not many chemistry lecturers sit giving lectures to students that know more about their subject than they do ...

Like I said, the revolution has already happened. There isn’t a choice here. This stuff is happening and its radically and constantly changing our entire field. Media studies has to keep up. To date the most exciting and innovative appreciation of new media has come from sociology and cultural / cyberculture studies. Media studies just didn’t want to look at technology because, after Raymond Williams, we’re all terrified of the sin of ‘technological determinism’. Plus we didn’t need any new theory because we had audience studies and endless interviews with Buffy and Sex and the City fans ... The result is it’s taken a long time for the subject to catch up and to catch on to the fact that the revolution has already happened. It’s time to upgrade Media Studies. It’s time for Media Studies 2.0

For years now I’ve kept old newspaper cuttings and printed off internet news stories to follow what’s been happening but these piles of folders and box files are increasingly unwieldy and barely searchable. I first began developing a news resource for myself and my students on my University’s ‘Blackboard’ virtual learning environment but then I realised that I was spending my time lecturing on Web 2.0 and how we can bypass the traditional authorities and the hierarchies of publishing and expression and not practicing what I preached. I was labouring away to produce content and value for the University that it owned and controlled access to and that I couldn’t take with me. Why not just do it myself: set up an external archive of links to stories, sorted by topic that could act as my own personal searchable database and that all my students could access, not just those registered on that module option – and, indeed, that all students and anyone else could access? So I have.

22nd November 2006