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Essay of the Day: Jean Lievens on the P2P Revolution in Media

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
21st March 2012


A text from Jean lievens:

“The Internet as a “new” medium is not an extension or an extra platform of the traditional media; it is qualitatively different because it turns the passive media consumer (the couch potato) into an active contributor. People not only like to consume, they also like to contribute and share. The Internet makes this possible. Therefore, we are dealing with a completely new ball game, making former Marxists analyses and demands in relation to this subject quite obsolete.

Parts of these thoughts are literally taken from two books by Clay Shirky’s: “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus’. To avoid too many quotes, I left some of the references out. I mention this here, because I don’t want to appear cleverer than I am. On this subject, Shirky rules…

Manufacturing Consent

Karl Marx explained that in every epoch, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. The emerging working class build their own press to fight these dominant ideas. Genuine working class papers played an important role in the battle for democratic rights and political power. Lenin considered Iskra not only as a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also as a collective organizer. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organized labour.

But the days of the printing press as the medium ‘par excellence’ are long gone. First radio, then TV and now the Internet were added to the mass media arsenal that developed under capitalism. Noam Chomsky explains that propaganda is to a democracy what violence is to a dictatorship. In order to keep their privileged and dominating position in society, the ruling class needs to control the minds of the majority. They do this using the so-called ‘free media’, which off course is not free at all. The “traditional” media (I make this distinction because the Internet is a different cattle of fish; to begin with: who ‘owns’ it?) are under control of a power elite who owns and/or control the institutions. The masses of people are marginalized, diverted and controlled by what Chomsky calls “necessary illusions”.

For over fifty years, TV was probably the mightiest weapon in the hands of the ruling class to control public opinion, not only through ‘the news’, filtered by selected editors operating as gatekeepers, but mainly through all sorts of entertainment programs, most of the time reflecting the lives and aspirations of the rich and the wealthy middle class, consuming their way into happiness.

From couch potato to creative involvement

One of the major conquests of the worker’s movement was the limitation of the working week to 40 hours (1/3 work, 1/3 sleep and 1/3 “free time”). In reality, every working mother and father will tell you that this “free time” is not free at all. We need it to fulfil all sorts of responsibilities: household tasks, administrative obligations, and even more and more unpaid work for the company or state institution we work for (thanks to e-mail, PC’s, smart phones and the need for “permanent education”). For most working people since the fifties, their “real” free time is spent before TV: an average of over twenty hours a week, worldwide! This is the equivalent of a part-time job, making watching TV the main human activity after work and sleep (despite the fact that watching too much TV is an important source for unhappiness). In addition, TV also contributed largely to out-crowding social activities and stimulating material aspirations (consumerism). As usual, the US are ‘leading the way’. Americans spend more than 33 hours per week watching video across the screens, according to the latest Nielsen Cross-Platform Report. That is nearly the equivalent of a fulltime job!

However, the Internet is changing this culture, especially amongst young people who are not conditioned by their experiences with the “traditional media”. For the first time in history, some cohorts of young people are watching TV less than their parents. They are shifting their behaviour away from media that presupposes pure consumption. The reason is that the Internet not only allows people to “consume” information, it also allows people to comment, share and contribute. It even allows people to make news! With more than a billion smart phones with Internet connection around, it becomes less and less possible for authorities to keep news hidden. Thanks to Twitter and other social networks, the news is out as it is happening.

In addition, sharing and creating are deeply human needs that weren’t possible to develop under the old regime of traditional media (wit the exception of the odd letter to the editor), but are starting to blossom in the new ecosystem of the Internet. In this new ecosystem, value is created on a non-commercial base by millions of contributors. Media commentator and author Clay Shirky calls the “free time” of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate “cognitive surplus”. By 2010, it was estimated that Wikipedia represented something like a hundred million hours of human thought. But Americans alone watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year! So the “production” of Wikipedia only represents the tiniest fraction of “free time” that shifted from consuming to producing.

A new ecosystem

It is therefore a mistake to consider the Internet just as “another media channel”. To understand the impact of it, we must review our old ways of thinking about “the media”. The Internet is not “an invention” with clear aims and preconceived ideas of the consequences. YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia… did not even exist ten years ago, today they penetrated the life of hundreds of millions and even of billions. Especially the social uses of the new media tools have been a big surprise, in part because the possibility of these uses wasn’t implicit in the tools themselves. In addition, the social media are also challenging governments and traditional media in reporting all sorts of news: from natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami and the Haitian earthquake to political violence in Kenya 2008, Libya 2011 or Syria today.

To give just one example: Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘witness’ or ‘testimony’) was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya. The traditional media was not covering it, and the government had no intention to report it. Ushahidi originated from a blog, making it possible for people ‘on the ground’ to report ethnic violence with the help of their mobile phones or pc’s. In other words, the website aggregated available but dispersed knowledge and collectively weaved together all the piecemeal awareness among individual witnesses into a nationwide picture. It has been used afterwards to track similar acts of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to monitor places and avoid voter fraud in India and Mexico, to record supplies of vital medicines in several East African countries, and to locate the injured after the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.

Capitalist development and urbanization undermined and ‘atomized’ social life. Social media provided us with a tool to rediscover it, not in the already outmoded notion of ‘cyberspace’, but in real life (for example Meetup bringing people with similar interests together on the Internet, with the aim of socialising in real life). They are not an alternative to “real life”, but becoming more and more a part of it. “Participatory culture”, a term invented to describe Internet activity, is the modern name of an old habit reflecting basic human needs like belonging, participating and creating. If you “participate”, from sending a photo of a terrorist attack on a London Tube station using Twitter, to making and sharing a lolcat on Facebook, your act “matters”. How trivial your participation might be, it is qualitatively different from sitting in your couch watching Desperate Housewives or Big Brother. That doesn’t mean that we’ll stop watching TV, only that consumption is no longer the only way we are using the media. Shirky: “In addition, the world’s “cognitive surplus’ is so large that even very small changes can have huge ramifications in aggregate. Just one percent of the trillion hours we are watching TV is the equivalent of one hundred Wikipedia’s worth of participation per year.”

“Social media and the use of the Internet are also increasingly coordinating events in the physical world. The new technology enables new kinds of group forming at practical zero cost. It leads to an enormous increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organisations. By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management or ‘leadership’ in general (think of Wikipedia), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication and scope of unsupervised effort. Social media tools make action possible by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive.” The classical Marxist analysis of “the media” is insufficient to deal with this development, simply because the technology that made it possible did not exist just ten years ago.

If you can write, have an Internet connection and a PC or smart phone, you can create your own mini news station. You can make a blog or a “vlog”, make little ‘news flashes’ using the webcam, share interesting articles you found on the Web, etc. You can share your views on a broader platform or comment on other bloggers. You can share with the whole world your photos on Flickr, your video’s on YouTube and your messages on Twitter. It is true that most of these individual contributions go unnoticed (the most active contributions tend to be much more active than the median participant, therefore any measure of “average” participation becomes meaningless) and don’t “compete” with the traditional news media. But this is beside the point. The Internet is not a newspaper or a TV station. It is even not a business or an institution. It’s something very ‘different’. What we are witnessing is the beginning of a revolution that will make the traditional media formats obsolete in the long run. We see already the migration of all other media to this new platform. But it is a platform that ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ are occupying together and therefore the borders that separate them are fading.

Traditional media are based on a one-to-many model: one newspaper, made by few professionals to be read by many readers; one TV station, staffed by a selective group of professionals to be passively watched by many viewers. The control over the traditional media is in the hands of a ruling elite that exercise their control through ownership or political power. They select and appoint the managers and editors, who in their turn hire journalists, photographers and other professionals. The editors, controlled by managers who are accountable to the owners or political masters, decide what is news and what isn’t, and how they bring it. Not surprisingly, they see themselves as free spirits and independent agents, the gatekeepers of the free press. What they don’t realise (until they are summoned by their masters), is that the reason why they are where they are, is because they think what they think in the first place. Therefore people with different views, the so-called “dissenting voices” are not heard much. The stance of ‘leading newspapers’ and the ‘institutional memory’ prevail and become “official recorded history”. Finally, people’s interest and attention are often focused on other material than issues about which they could become concerned with. Most workers don’t read the political opinion of the chief editors, but, as Michael Albert points out, stick mainly to the sport section because at least, these pages tell the truth.

How does the Internet change all that? People still watch soaps on TV, read the conservative gutter press, watch manipulated and selected news on TV… In addition, how do you find useful information on the Internet if you don’t even know what you are looking for? Again, this kind of criticism is based on the faulty assumption that the Internet is just another information medium like the rest. But it is not. We are dealing with a medium that isn’t ruled by scarcity, but by abundance, one that transports information in the form of bits and bytes that can be endlessly copied at zero costs, hence the ongoing fight against piracy and the continuous attempts to control what is “published” on the Internet. With the Internet, you don’t need paper to move words, CD’s to move music and DVD’s to move images. It can all be easily copied and transported for free.

Because of this feature alone, the Internet is undermining the business models of all traditional media. The music industry was the first to collapse, newspapers and commercial TV, living from ads, are next in line. It is again technology that makes the old models obsolete. Digital TV makes it possible to watch the programs when you want to watch them, skipping the commercials. You can “freeze” real time TV, wait ten minutes and watch the rest with a small delay in order to avoid the ads. The commercial viability of most media businesses depends on transmitting words, sounds and images, using complicated and expensive equipment like printing presses, recording studios etc. Their survival depends on the preservation of these scarcities. As the problems of production, reproduction and distribution are diminishing, the ruling class and the media professionals are loosing a part of their control over the media. That means also that the battleground for the control over the minds of the people (the manufacturing of consent) is shifting towards the Internet.

The Future (or the end) of Journalism (as we know it)

The Web didn’t introduce a new competitor into the old ecosystem; it created a whole new ecosystem. Its future is the mass amateurization of publishing and a shift from ‘why publishing?’ to ‘why not?” This represents a revolution. In the same way that the printing press made the profession of scribes obsolete, the Internet starts to undermine the profession of journalism. The Protestant Reformation was not caused by the invention of the movable type, but it is also true that it was only possible after its invention. In Marxists terms you could argue that technology in and of itself does not provoke social change, but social change becomes only possible if the material conditions, including technology, are in place. The social effects lag behind, sometimes by many decades. Or is Shirky puts it: “Revolution can be a long drawn-out and chaotic process during which the old systems are decaying and get broken, long before new ones become stable.” In that sense, one could easily argue that the revolution started decades ago.

Let’s return to the question of professional journalism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a journalist is “a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television.” In this version, journalists aren’t journalists unless they work for publishers, and publishers aren’t publishers unless they own the means of production. This definition does not apply to ‘civil journalists’ and bloggers. They are not protected in the same way as professional journalists, who are organized in professional associations and have for instance the formal right to protect their sources. On the other hand, anyone in the world can publish anything anytime on the Web, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable (thanks to tagging). If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a ‘journalist’. And if anyone can be a journalist, then journalist privilege suddenly becomes a loophole too large to be borne by society (Shirky). Journalistic privilege was based on the scarcity of publishing. Now that scarcity is gone. Just as the printing press threatened the power of the scribes and by extension undermined the monopoly of the Catholic Church in Europe, the Internet is threatening not only the traditional media, but also a lot of the core institutions of capitalist society. Therefore, again, the media battle is shifting to the control over the Internet, as reflected in the fight against SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.

Commercial interests and protecting intellectual property (copyright, patents etc) are not the only reason why authorities, under pressure of business interests, are trying to clamp down on Internet freedom. There are many examples of successful political actions as a result of using social media, from flashmobs in Belarus over the ‘frites revolution’ in Belgium to the Arab spring. Social media make it possible for previously uncoordinated participants to create a public protest that the government cannot interdict in advance no suppress without triggering mass reporting by participants and bystanders. The more people are oppressed (in countries without a “free press”), the more they make use of these new tools that provide them with a degree of “freedom” of speech, press and assembly that was formally far more difficult or even impossible to obtain. That means that also authoritarian regimes are looking desperately for effective measures to censure the Internet (think of the Great Firewall of China, but also of its limitations).

Revolution and Co-evolution

According to Clay Shirky, “communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn’t create change; it has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming. We are living in the middle of the largest expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in one generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communication tools”: the printing press and movable type, the telegraph and telephone, recorded content and the harnessing of radio signals. “Each of those represented a real break with the continuity of the past, because any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society.”

“The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the media businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences – employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complicated the change will be.”

Finally, the Internet empowers people not only to bypass government and corporations in favour of taking on problems directly, but also bureaucratic labour organisations. To a certain degree, we see this already happening in the Occupy movement.”

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