WGF Symposium #151: “New Media, New Publics?”

Front: Laurie Obbink, Joe Masco, Daniel Salas, Gabriella Coleman, Rosalind Morris, Mary Murrell, Maria José de Abreu, Patricia Spyer, Kajri Jain, Winnie Won Yin Wong, Rosa Norton Back: Christopher Kelty, Rebecca Stein, Charles Hirschkind, Zeynep Gürsel, Sha Xin Wei, Martin Zillinger, Alex Dent, Carlo Caduff, Leslie Aiello

The 151st(!) symposium of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, “New Media, New Publics” was held this past March 13-19 at Palácio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal, organized by Charles Hirschkind (UC Berkeley), Maria José de Abreu (University of Amsterdam) and Carlo Caduff (King’s College London). Like all of our symposia, the work presented here will be featured in a future special open-access issue of Current Anthropology!

One thing that’s special about this symposium (and that we’re especially excited about) is that it is the first in WGF history to feature an audio-visual component with the participants themselves. In the coming weeks, expect to see a series of short videos with the organizers, participants and others outlining their particular projects, what the symposium means for the anthropological study of media, and the larger history of the Wenner-Gren symposium program. This is something of a new frontier for the Foundation and the program, so please let us know what you think once they go live!

Read the Organizer’s Statement below for a better grasp of the symposium’s theoretical concerns and goals.





New Media, New Publics?

Charles Hirschkind (University of California, Berkeley)

Maria José de Abreu (University of Amsterdam)

Carlo Caduff (King’s College London)

New media technologies have acquired a significant presence in many parts of the world. The rapid proliferation of such media are reconfiguring the conditions of public life in ways that challenge our conventional models for understanding publics, publicity, and politics. If the concept of the public always included a certain ambiguity between observation and participation, production and consumption, today’s new media environments make the inadequacy of these distinctions strikingly apparent. The growing indistinction between accessing media-based content and providing it (to states and private companies) would seem to be unraveling a certain grid of political and commercial intelligibility, thereby intensifying a general sense of uncertainty, instability, and flux. These anxieties associated with the shifting media landscape, however, are also accompanied by a celebratory embrace of what are seen as new potentials and opportunities as well as new modes of social connectivity and political agency.

An earlier generation of scholars had already noted how the temporality of news media structured the kind of events that could be represented; the fact, for example, that acts of destruction, often very rapid in their occurrence, were far more representable within the formats and protocols of news than acts of creation and construction which, in contrast, usually require much longer allotments of time.  With much of the new media, however, an intensification of this interdependency between the event and its representation occurs: new media do not simply structure the representability of events, but increasingly provide the conditions and context for their occurrence.  In other words, rather than illustrators of events, the compression of capturing-time with real-time has turned these technologies into part of the very critical phenomenon they mediate and describe: media communication becomes increasingly organized around a shift from representation as storage and report of events to representation as trigger of events.

Many recent developments bear witness to the fact that contemporary events have become ever more saturated by technological mediations. The protests in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East in 2011, for example, were interpreted across their unfolding in terms of potentials and liabilities ascribed to the plurality of media forms deployed in and around the public demonstrations. Another example is disease control experts who increasingly rely on data-mining technologies that track everything from web browser searches to news wires and online discussions in order to identify emerging epidemics, a practice that can easily generate exaggerated estimations of disease. These and other examples point to the importance of attending to the disjunctures between the epistemic values of diverse media and processes bearing on the outcome of events that remain outside the frames such media enable. They also point to the way indeterminacies characteristic of contemporary media may actually work to deprive events of some of their eventfulness: the sense of unbridled possibility intrinsic to the new media, endows events with a certain indeterminate character.  What are the consequences of this for the formation of publics? What kinds of publics are coming into being in such techno-mediated milieus? How are the conditions of social mobilization and political deliberation changing today? The aim of the symposium is to tackle these questions and explore new directions for future research.

An important question here, one that builds on long standing inquiries within media scholarship, concerns the role of media in the configuration and reconfiguration of epistemologies and economies of knowledge. One important body of scholarship, for example, has been exploring the implications of newer media for the ways in which words, texts, images, and sounds are archived, retrieved, assembled, circulated. Other scholars have called attention to the strange dynamics of how older media forms are recuperated, reinvested with value, and idealized in the moment of their seeming obsolescence.  The present moment thus offers the opportunity to enlarge anthropology’s contribution to the exploration of media forms and expand the scholarly conversation. The focus of the symposium is on three intersecting themes that have not yet received sufficient attention in anthropological accounts.


A)   The first theme relates to “new” media (websites, blogs, computer games, Listserv, Twitter, Facebook) as well as to new uses of “old” media (radio, print, film, television, photography). While a great number of media studies have been preoccupied with the topic of “new media,” this rapidly expanding field of research on computer-mediated communication continues to lack ethnographic substantiation of some of the most important claims. With this in mind, we are inviting scholars from the fields of the anthropology of media, linguistic anthropology, media and visual studies whose work will help to situate the so-called “newness” of the new media historically and geographically. The key aim is to provide evidence, from both the global North and the global South, of the ways in which “new” media technologies are extending, replacing, embedding, remediating, and repositioning “old” media conventions.  Ethnographic accounts will allow us to question the presumably self-evident notion of “new media” by highlighting a number of concrete situations characterized by historically specific and socially distinctive configurations of inter-mediality.

B)   Our second theme is concerned with the changing conditions of social mobilization. This theme highlights the fact that communication technologies have produced new possibilities for the mobilization of people and, simultaneously, for the control of populations. Rather than exaggerating claims about the power of media, we suggest conducting empirical studies that examine how media technologies are enabling strategies of surveillance, data and metadata mining, viral and targeted marketing. Control tactics have resulted in the emergence of new collectives engaged in efforts to design systems of exchange that promise anonymous or encrypted internet communication.  A new space of illicit exchanges is taking shape today, ranging from the conduct of criminal activities, the circumvention of political censorship, the infringement of copyright laws, hacktivism (state and non-state), the leaking of sensitive information, to the open-access movement that is defending against the monopolization of technology by corporate interests. What, in fact, are the implications of emerging forms of activism promoted by anonymous online organizations such as WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks for reflection and agency (political, aesthetic, religious, etc.)?  Moreover, a wariness around exposure to electronic surveillance and control is no longer limited to hacktivists and other technology experts but is rapidly becoming a concern of ordinary citizens, who are increasingly developing new competencies in techniques of electronic evasion.

C)   Our third and final theme examines how the mining of electronic information—web patters, web searches, cell phone data, online discussions, etc.—enable the formation of publics in a rather different way than through the circulation of content.  During the last election in the United States, for example, the Democratic Party aimed their media strategies less at the management of representations than on gathering data and metadata archives so as to better target and mobilize potential allies and supporters. Through their analysis of extensive electronic data, they were able to catalyze and orchestrate mass support on election day.  Our concern here embraces as well the collapse of the distinction between marketing and consumption, between accessing data and producing it—; a characteristic of new media that both commercial and political entities have begun to enthusiastically exploit.

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