Sunday, 9 January 2011

Interview with Marshall T. Poe

Marshall Poe (1961) is associate professor of history at University of Iowa. Last year (2010) he wrote the book "A history of communications. Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet" (the book is "not yet published" in Cambridge University Press site but it's available in Amazon)

I had the chance to interview him.

1) When did you start using the Internet?

That would be about 1992. I remember because I'd just come back from a year in the Soviet Union.

2) We've seen the crisis of music industry, the crisis of rent of home video (and other similar examples) and do you really think that Internet changes nothing?

Since the 19th century, we in the West have had a deep bias for new technology, and particularly media technology. We think it's going to save us, to fix us, to make a brighter future for us. We fill it with our hopes, and therefore exaggerate its potential. If you read what pundits of the 1950s wrote about, say, television, and compare it to what pundits of the present say about the Internet, you get an eerie sense of deja vu. Television was supposed to "change everything" and the Internet is supposed to do the same. But the former didn't, and the latter won't either. The history of modern media--mass newspapers, radio, TV, and now the Internet--is strikingly continuous. Each provided (and continues to provide) news, entertainment, and commerce, and each is funded primarily by advertising or the state. That later media are "better" than earlier media is some technical sense is important, but not important enough to "change everything." Like its modern predecessors, the Internet will change some things and not others, and the system in which it is entrenched--modern liberal capitalism--will remain unaltered.

My sense is that many people don't know this and some don't want to believe it. If I were to write an essay called "The Internet Changes Everything," few people would pay any attention to it and those who did would probably agree. But if I were to write an essay called "The Internet Changes Nothing" (which I did), it would get a lot of attention, most of it negative (which it did). Why the radical difference in responses? The reason is not empirical: "the Internet changes everything" is just as false as "the Internet changes nothing." No modern medium changes everything or nothing. Rather, the split has to do with ignorance and investment. Again, many people don't know that the history of modern media is continuous (they believe the hype) and many others are committed to the idea of discontinuity (they create the hype).

So, in direct answer to your question, no, I don't believe the internet changes nothing. When I called my essay "The Internet Changes Nothing" I was trying to make a point about about our tendency to exaggerate the impact of modern media technologies in general and the Internet in particular. What I believe is that like mass circulation newspapers, commercial radio, and broadcast TV, the Internet will change some things and not others.

3) Don't you think that Internet may probably need longer time to change social structures of the society?

I'm reminded of that famous quip attributed to Mao. A reporter asked the Great Helmsman what he though of the French Revolution. "It's too soon to tell," he responded. The history of media shows that it sometimes takes centuries for the implications of new forms of communication to work themselves out and reach a kind of equilibrium with the other institutions and values in a society. This was the case with writing and print. But I'm not sure that it will be the case with the Internet. Writing and print were quite different than the media that came before them, so they were disruptive (though they took a long time to disrupt). That's not really true of the Internet. It looks and acts a lot like a TV. What do you use a TV for? Mostly for news and entertainment. What do corporations use TV for? Mostly to sell you stuff. What do you use the Internet for? Mostly for news and entertainment, though you can also look things up and chat with friends. What do corporations use the Internet for? Mostly to sell you stuff, though they also use it to store and communicate data. Nothing really set the stage for the reception of writing and (mass) print; TV set the stage the Internet, at least in the Free World.

4) You think that Internet won't change everything but don't you think that Obama wouldn't be president if Internet had not been existed now?

No. The reason Obama was elected has much more to do with the two-party system than the Internet. Nothing about the Internet favors Republicans or Democrats. Internet or no, a Republican or Democrat is going to occupy the White House. This time it was a Democrat; next time (some next time) it will be a Republican. The Internet won't change that, at least anytime soon.

5) What do you think about sociologists like Manuel Castells who built an entire theory around network society (a kind of Internet-society)?

I don't really like the the phrase "network society." It's redundant. All human groups ("societies") of whatever size, shape or purpose are made of networks, that is, non-random (structured) links between people. What's interesting to me is that different media technologies enable people to create different kinds (sizes, shapes, purposes) of networks. Speech makes speech networks, writing makes writing networks, print makes print networks, audiovisual media (TV and the like) make A/V networks, and the Internet makes Internet networks. Once writing was invented, none of these media-enabled networks was "pure," that is, existed in isolation from other media (and here I mean in place with writing). The first writing network was really a speech + writing network; the first print network was a speech + writing + print network; and so on. Today we in the developed world live in a speech + writing + print + A/V + Internet network. This being so, it doesn't seem sensible to speak of "Internet society," for there is no such thing. There is an Internet network, structured by the capacities of the Internet medium. But it's embedded in other, earlier media. Because it's embedded, it's hard to study the internet network in isolation. It's not impossible, though, and sociologist like Castells are doing their best.

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