Monday, November 10, 2008

Optional Reading Summary, Douglas

“The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World” by Susan Douglas, considers trends in journalism and entertainment media, specifically, the fact that news is characterized by ethnocentrism and entertainment media by narcissism. Douglas argues, “new communications technologies have not created a global village but have, ironically, led to a fusion of ethnocentrism and narcissism, best cast as a ‘turn within’” (p. 620).

With Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” idea as a starting point, Douglas endorses a kind of soft determinism in which “technologies are not seen as the prime movers, but as having some agency in the mix of how individuals, institutions, and political-economic systems respond to and shape technological change” (p. 623).

One principle at work is the irony of technology, which says, “the economic and political system in which the device is embedded almost always trumps technological possibilities and imperatives” (p. 625). It follows that communications technologies can have consequences opposite of what we think they might be. In Douglas’s example, it is possible for us to learn more about the rest of the world, but we are becoming more isolated and less informed about global politics.

This is due in part to conventions of news reporting. In the 1980s, the three broadcast networks downsized, eliminating foreign news bureaus and cutting back on international reporting. This was accompanied by an increase aimed entertainment and lifestyle news, and celebrity journalism. The turn within saw a marked decrease in foreign news from the 70s to the late 90s. Emphasis on higher profits and lower costs meant that international news coverage was the most expensive to produce, despite new technologies.

In addition to commercial pressures, storytelling conventions also “worked against constituting an empathetic global village subject” (p. 630). The focus on foreign people as Others, victims or combatants, with lack of context, denied people in other places their own subjectivity.

The trends of reality TV, which grew from 2000-2005, and celebrity-based entertainment, made personality, the body, and consumerism seem more important. Douglas holds that these genres made a bubble of the reality TV world which “privileges self-absorption, self-scrutiny, the intricacies of interpersonal interactions and an obsession with the private and personal at the expense of any broader public issues” (p. 632).

Douglas’ argument is clear, that the news cultivates ethnocentrism, while reality TV cultivates narcissism. She notes briefly that the life span and dominance of the turn with in remains unclear, as people disregard the news and some audiences, such as college graduates, value international news.

Douglas argues that it is political and economic structures that encourage either a microscopic or telescopic use of technologies. Soft determinism, or a “middle-level level theory” of technological determinism “seeks to find an intermediate level of analysis in which technology is seen as both socially constructed and as society shaping” (p. 635). Media can have multiple and at times paradoxical powers, hence, the often contradictory consequences of the digital revolution.

1 comment:

richard said...

I found her article fairly convincing. She is right to not completely abandon any causal claims about the role of technology in shaping our society. This middle-level soft determinism allows for a more flexible notion of technology as differently interpreted and employed in varying contexts. Teasing out how and why technologies take on the forms they do remains the challenge.

I suspect McLuhan's global village might encompass a bit more than foreign news coverage and the proliferation of reality tv shows. Changes in the Internet and wireless communications continue to shift the flow of information and potential subject positions. We can't say a heightened human awareness on a global scale after WTO protests in Seattle, which did in fact happen, wasn't at least facilitated by these technologies. And she wrote this before US soldiers' use of cell phones and digital cameras shared with a global audience the backside of the CNN/Pentagon's studio-production war.

There are also some very strong normative claims underlying her analysis. While the environment, world hunger, politics, philosophy, and the meaning of life (p.633) may be important things to consider, from what vantage point do we judge these to be better topics than a show about wife swapping? It's a culturally elitist one. She seems intent on demoting the value of these popular media, even drawing loose psychological associations with narcissism. Like it or not, the crap reality tv shows are pumped around the world. Hence they are part of our global village.

The question she leaves us with involves whether technologies have "inherent properties" within them. In one instance this appears a slippery slope back toward determinism. How much of the design of a technology can account for its relative stability within the social context? I believe there are a range of possibilities within any innovation. Perhaps the optimism of McLuhan was speaking more to potentials?