Professor Meghan Dougherty
New Media, Complexity and the Identities We Develop
New media has continuously found itself becoming ingrained in everyday life. Lisa Gitelman and Goeffrey Pingree say that “when new media emerge in a society, their place is at first ill defined, and their ultimate meanings or functions are shaped over time by that society’s existing habits of media use (which, of course, derive from experience with other, established media), by shared desires for new uses, and by the slow process of adaptation between the two” (Gitleman & Pingree) As individuals living in the 21st century, we see signs of this integration and adaptation every day. Examples of this would include when we check our twitter feed, when we see someone in a television commercial using an iPad, or when we choose to text our friends instead of trying to communicate face-to-face with one another. Even when new media is completely foreign to the general population, when a community is given a chance to see the prosperity and efficiency it can achieve, the mindset of “out with the old, in with the new” begins to take place.
John B. Thompson argues that “an everyday world external to the media is central to individuals’ experience of their lives and their self-formation.” It is important to consider the effects of new media on our lives as we continue to adapt to its technological advances. One may ask the question of how a person is able to experience their own identity or self-formation if they are constantly experiencing new media and not experiencing the physicality of the world around them. For example, texting has increasingly erased the need for face-to-face and even verbal communication. Does this lead to a critical lack of socialization? Through our Media Diet Project we were able to put these issues through the test. By creating a new media fast, I was able to see how one’s relationship with technology can become habitual and as a result I realized just how easy it is to let new media shape our identity.
Before I began my new media fast, it was important to reflect and have a better understanding of how I use the technology around me. Through field notes, video footage, and walkthroughs, one of the biggest observations I discovered was that I have a tendency to use my cell phone whenever I step foot onto public transportation. Whether I am on one of Loyola’s shuttle buses or using public transportation provided by the CTA, it has completely become a routine to just take out my phone. Even though this was not entirely brand new information, our use of technology becomes an entirely different experience when we take a step back and truly observe our behavior and consequentially the relationships we build using technology. When I used my phone I noticed I would check the time, and then either browse the Internet or read and respond to my text messages. When I decided to put down my phone on public transportation for 72 hours, it became both an enlightening and thought-provoking experience.
It almost immediately became clear how much of a reliance I have built over my phone. The first time I shut my phone off on the bus, I had to resist the urge to just glance down and check the time. I quickly paid attention to how I often use my phone not only to communicate but as a makeshift laptop. Like a laptop, I use my phone to check the websites I normally browse such as Facebook, Reddit, Wikipedia and BuzzFeed. I would say this reliance I have developed is symbolic of the relationship that not just myself but many others have built with new media over the years.
There are a lot of people who can relate to the increasing motivation to use new media based on its accessibility and efficiency. Douglas Rushkoff says in his book, Program or Be Prorammed, that “on the net, we cast out for answers through simple search terms rather than diving into an inquiry and following extended lines of logic” and this sentiment is one that can be applied to many people. It is easy to use new media as a way of finding out information or a way of communicating with one another and rarely do we think of what truly is taking place, at least on a complex level (61). As people continue to use new media because of its easiness, habits begin to form and it becomes apparent that “digital technology becomes biased toward a reduction of complexity (Rushkoff 62). Rushkoff is saying that when we are exposed to so much information, we begin to develop an inflated sense of how much we know even though “the more complex our technologies become, and more impenetrable their decision-making, the more dependent on them we become” (Rushkoff 68). Through my Media Diet Project, I saw this dependency through the relationship I have built with my phone.
This dependency can explain the habitual relationship that I, along with many other people, have experienced when it comes to technology. While there is an inherent complexity to new media, we become less accustomed at actually exploring this facet when everything appears to be handed on a silver platter. We are able to go from seemingly simple Google search to opening up a Facebook app in just a matter of seconds all while music is playing in our headphones. It is too easy to ignore the actual technological advances that make scenes like this one even possible.
Rushkoff mentions how instead we “opt for a world in which our technology learns about us” and this is something we can definitely take notice of if we step back and pay at least a little attention to the world around us (Rushkoff 68). For example, when I completed a walkthrough using my Facebook page, I noticed how one of the advertisements on the side was targeted directly at me. The advertisement was aimed at people who have a double major including English. Normally I would not have noticed an observation such as this one but by taking a step back and observing my own actions, I was able to see aspects of new media that I often do not pay close attention to.
I also experienced some self-discovery when I took video footage of myself through Camtasia. One of the biggest takeaways I discovered was that I make my way through websites at a tremendous rate. I often multitask, have various tabs open, and scroll without fully processing all of the information that is on my screen. This behavior can explain why some people would not automatically notice when websites like Facebook target advertisements directly at them. One has to ask: does this behavior reflect the way we conceptualize certain situations?
For a lot of people, habitual use of new media can lead to loss of capacity in regards to concentration and contemplation. In Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” he states that: “my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles” (Carr). Carr also references several of his friends who also made claims that the swiftness they experienced in their new media use has led to an inability to read long texts/articles. Carr even cites scholars such as Maryanne Wolfe have stated concerns that “the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace” (Carr). In many ways what Wolfe says is true. New media is currently in a state of continuous progression which can arguably even be responsible for a change in identity; an identity where one has the desire to be as efficient and quick as possible.
While being able to read complex works of prose is an incredibly valuable skill, there are people who have adapted to the ever-changing ways of new media and as a result have noticed a shift in their own societal identity. New media has opened opportunities for people to communicate and express themselves in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. Twitter and David Silver’s idea of “thin tweets” and “thick tweets” are examples. People can use Twitter to post insignificant details such as “oh snap, it’s raining again” but the idea of “thick tweets” shows how people can use the identities they develop online to further advertise and communicate (Silver).
Silver defines a “thick tweet” as “tweets that convey two or more layers of information, often with help from a hyperlink” (Silver). These thick tweets are often used by companies, celebrities, etc. to self-promote but people can also use them to quickly and efficiently express their ideas to those that follow them. Twitter has become a method of connection that allows people to formulate various ideas about one another – what one tweets becomes almost representative of their societal ideals, beliefs, and even personality. Of course these tweets cannot be compared to the deep reading that is referenced in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” but they are representative of how new media is finding ways of changing the way we look at technology and its importance. As an individual, the use of social media and its affect on one’s identity is something that I can see every day. When browsing Facebook, you can see whenever people are having conversations with one another through the News Feed. Photos are continually uploaded which provide insight into one’s lives and through the use of liking and commenting, we are able to let people know how we feel about any given topic. Even when we use our phones, we are forming an identity of a person who is available at any given moment to continue a conversation through the use of text messaging.
The habits we can develop through new media end up impacting the way we behave and socialize with one another. Even though new media is representative of an impressive, worthwhile advancement in our society, it is up to us to make sure it does not go too far and completely take over our identities as human beings. Regardless of what one thinks about 21st century new media, it cannot be denied that it is changing the way our society functions in a variety of ways.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 1 July 2008. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.
Gitelman, Lisa and Goeffrey Pingree. “What’s New About New Media?” New Media, 1740-1915. MIT Press, 2003. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.
Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands For A Digital Age. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2011. Print.
Silver, David. “the difference between thin and thick tweets.” Silver In SF. Blogger, 25 Feb. 2009. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.