The New Media Revolution

The “transcoding” (Manowich) of society along the lines of digital media and computer networks can be considered revolutionary. One of the important consequences of the digital media revolution is the transformation of age-old communication structures. Human society has long been structured by either one-to-one interaction or, as soon as the number of people involved in interaction no longer permits everyone to speak to everyone, by one-to-many, that is, top-down, hierarchical communication. The digital communication revolution may be considered a revolution precisely because asymmetric, one-to-many communication and the hierarchical social structures which for centuries have been a precondition of cooperative action in larger groups is no longer the only means of constructing social order and in many areas is becoming increasingly inefficient. Above the level of face-to-face interaction, that is, on the levels of groups, organizations, institutions, and social systems, communication need no longer be hierarchical. The affordances of digital media modify the spatial and temporal parameters of communication such that it has now become possible for communication to take place in the mode of many-to-many, whereby, as Actor-Network Theory points out, not only human, but also non-human actors participate in communication. This means that social structures must no longer be vertical processes for producing, distributing, and controlling information.

Flattening out hierarchies in all forms changes the nature of knowledge from objective facts into disputable links and associations. As David Weinberger (To Big to Know, 2012) says, it changes the very structure of knowledge from a pyramid into a cloud. One-to-many, hierarchical communication is based on an economy of scarcity in knowledge. The inherent limitations of print madia were such that a small number of experts and authorities stood at the top of the pyramid and the masses at the bottom. Top-down communication is characterized by limitation, exclusion, and restricted access to knowledge for all others. Knowledge in the digital age is no longer scarce. Knowledge is no longer structured as a pyramid. Instead, it is a cloud. It is non-hierarchical, inclusive, connected, complex, and public. In the place of a sequential, progressive, and deductively ordered and thus stable edifice of facts, the digital revolution has created an unbounded, heterogeneous, uncoordinated network of links. The digital media revolution is revolutionary because it has replaced the pyramid as the central icon of social order with the cloud.

From the point of view of Actor-Network Theory it can be claimed that digital technologies have not only become influential actors in the network society, but that “networking,” that is mediation, translation, enrollment, and inscription into networks is fundamentally conditioned by the non-hierarchical communication of new media. This is changing not only society, but also all the various actor-networks of which society, and the world for that matter, consist. Networking understood as the construction of associations among actors is now more and more dealing with new kinds of actors and new kinds of associations. Networking is becoming revolutionary. The digital revolution has moved beyond being an object of media studies and has entered into areas of society that are not usually considered media at all. It has given rise to many new concepts. Here are some of them: globalization, digital infrastructure, ubiquitous connectivity, crowdsourcing, open innovation, social media, co-creation, semantic web, collective intelligence, intelligent agents, prosumers instead of consumers, conversational markets, learning organizations, informational overload, open educational resources, flows, knowledge workers, identity management, distributed cognition, connectivism, virtual organizations, the cloud, knowledge management, decentralization, self-organization, viral communication, and much more. These terms are not to be found only in media studies, but in every area of society including education, health care, science, politics, art, law, etc. If we decide not to dismiss these terms as superficial buzz or merely the latest hype, then they can be understood to describe a fundamental shift in the way that networking is done and also in the world that arises from it. Concepts such as the above describe a different kind of world and a different kind of reality than that which was built on the foundations of analog, hierarchical communication. This world and the kind of reality it consists of we suggest calling “mixed reality” since the virtual and the physical are inseparable. There is no longer a physical world distinct from the world of new media. Knowledge and action are equally dependent on the physical and the digital. This has far-reaching consequences for how we think about work, the world, and human existence itself. At the least, it means we have to develop new concepts in order to describe and understand what is real, what is important, and what life is all about.