Indymedia, Journalism, and Digital Culture (part 2)

Continuing ICA paper, #2

Digital culture

It is important to note that a sketch of characteristics common to a culture does not presuppose that all individuals located within that culture behave or act in similar ways. What I do want to suggest however, is that the actions and behaviours of peoples within digital culture can be summarized into a set of common elements, which we can use to study and understand the role of media and journalism in particular. In other words: a digital culture does not imply that everyone is or sooner or later will be online, but it assumes that the increasing computerization and digitalisation of society has consequences on a shared social level, both online as well as offline. I consider these consequences as these manifest \themselves in our current ways of thinking about journalism and internet.

In this context Lev Manovich (2001: 13) introduced the concept of an information culture as constituted through the visual language of the 20th century, incorporating several new ways in which information is presented and consumed, for example via displays in empty spaces like hotel lounges, airports, and shopping malls, the design of information carriers (varying from books to PDAs), and last but not least: computers. According to Manovich all these representations converge as shops are outfitted with computer screens and digital video displays, computers are outfitted for television and movie viewing, and paper, broadcast technologies and computer networks all merge into mobile wireless applications. This has consequences for the way we see and perceive the world around us. After traveling around the world, media historian Mitchell Stephens (1998) signaled the omnipresence of edited, manipulated and tweaked images as meaning-makers in the daily lives of people across the globe. The many scrambled, edited and converged ways in which we produce and consume information worldwide are gradually changing the way people interact and give meaning to their lives, according to such authors. But the emergence of such a manipulated and edited worldview in itself is not so much part of the digital culture I aim to describe here – it is an accelerator or amplifier of digital culture. As Jean Baudrillard foresaw in a famous essay of 1981, a hyperreal world is emerging in an age of simulation, typified by the realization that images seem to bear no relation to reality whatsoever, leading to a corresponding proliferation of second-hand truth (2001 [1981: 173-4). Scholars like Manovich, Stephens, Castells, and Baudrillard all seem to point at the same phenomenon: something is going on in the daily lives of media users worldwide that makes them (us) accept the fact that reality is constructed, assembled and subverted by media, and that the only way to make sense of that mediated world is to adjust our worldview accordingly, which in turn shapes and renews the properties of media. Media are not changing our worldview, but the ways we engage with, make use of, and produce our own media are changing our values and practices and thus are changing our culture. Or, as Douglas Rushkoff reminds us: reality is open source. As screen-based, networked and digital media proliferate and saturate our lives, we reconstitute ourselves as active agents in the process of meaning-making (we are participants); we adopt but at the same time modify and manipulate the consensual way of understanding reality (we engage in distantiation); and we assemble our own particular versions of such reality (we become bricoleurs). It is this process that is central to my synthesis, and which in my mind defines our contemporary yet still emerging digital culture.

Digital culture is by no means only connected to or spawned by the convergence and omnipresence of devices, it is also reproduced by us as our perceptions of reality (or for lack of a better concept: authenticity) are evolving. I see this digital culture as emerging from practices and communicative acts both online and offline, shaping and being shaped by artifacts, arrangements and activities in new and old media (which distinction becomes superfluous as all media are converging). Seen as such, digital culture is an emergent convergence of previous media cultures: print culture (cf. newspapers, books and magazines), visual culture (cf. broadcast media), and information culture (cf. an analog and digital combination of display and research media). This presupposes digital culture carries some or all of the properties of other media cultures, so let me emphasize that I do not claim to have found characteristics unique or particular to digital culture. I would like to suggest that a digital culture has emerged from the mid-20th century onwards, which development accelerated through the widespread global proliferation of internet. The core characteristics of this digital culture can be caught in three concepts, which should be seen as articulated with each other: participation, distantiation, and bricolage. In decribing these concepts, I make use of recent literature on Indymedia, alternative and oppositional media, journalism and globalization. On a side note I have to point out, that each of these elements embodies its own contradiction: with participation comes disconnection, distantiation goes hand-in-hand with tradition, and bricolage is mediated by its opposite: originality. These are not dichotomies, but must be seen as distinctions on a continuum, or as mutual constitutive parts of a whole.

[to be continued...]