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3.5: Political Economies of Digital media

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    • Contributed by Media Hack Team
    • Hack-a-thon at University of Otago and others
    • Published by Creative Commons

    PE led approaches to the study of digital media again fall into several distinct areas which approach the production of digital media from disparate areas. While Marxist approaches are again often central, there exist an additional series of approaches which consider the ways in which production of digital media, and of digital commodities in general depart in certain respects from other modes of information access and distribution.

    Some of the early approaches to new/digital media focused upon the ways that the increasingly widespread distribution of networked computers afforded a mode of access which was a radical departure. Previously media had been dominated by broadcast technologies and mass media generally, whereby a very small volume of individuals were entrenched within a privileged position as content creators, and were able to broadcast mediated content from centres out to the millions of citizens who could only receive media. Mass media, then can be understood as both a one-to-many model of communication as well as a one way model, as only those who work in broadcasting can produce media, whilst the vast majority of citizens can only receive information. Such a one-to-many system of communications corresponds to the model of a centralised network.

    By contrast, the Internet heralded the arrival of an alternative model, in which any network user was able to connect to any other network user(s), and was able to both send and receive mediated communications. Rather than being a one-to-many mode of communication, the Internet allowed one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many forms of discourse, taking the form of a distributed network. Additionally the hierarchical restrictions to access had seemingly tumbled down, with any citizen who possessed a computer, modem and internet connection able to produce mediated content. This led to a wave of early Internet scholarship which saw the Internet as a technology which contained a vast democratising potential, realising some of the formal elements discussed by socialist theorists of media such as Bertold Brecht (1932) and Hans-Magnus Enzensburger (1970) as necessary preconditions for the formation of a democratic and participatory media and culture, negating the criticisms made by Jurgen Habermas (1991) which posit the media as a fundamentally anti-democratic mode of communication which turned active citizens into passive consumers.

    Whereas mass media representation reinforced and re-inscribed the structures of representative democracies, whereby an economic and political elite who have access to the means of media production and distribution are able to disproportionately influence the majority of the populace by means of their wealth (of both power and capital), networked electronic media allegedly creates structures predicated upon non-hierarchical interactions.

    Such claims have been tempered, however, by the realisation that while contemporary media technologies have greatly increased the ability of certain previously marginalised groups to effectively communicate their concerns and participate in mediated discourse, the material reality of information technology commodities within the network society, has not seen social inequalities diminish and democratic participation increase. The digital divide exists as one of many divides between the haves and have-nots in contemporary society alongside divisions in wealth, education, health care, and technical expertise. Expecting the introduction of digital communications platforms to enact a process whereby these inequalities simply dissipate in the face of the deterministic properties of new technology is a utopian fantasy. As Espen Aarseth (1997:67) reminds us:

    The belief that new (and ever more complex) technologies are in and of themselves democratic is not only false but dangerous. New technology creates new opportunities, but there is no reason to believe that the increased complexity of our technological lives works toward increased equality for all subjected to the technology.