07 August 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we slaves to the new media?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: are we slaves to the new media?

I think that today we are way beyond thinking of the new media as a
novelty or a curiosity. The main question is how far are we from this
innocent and virgin territory? And were are we heading?

See you Sunday and take care



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Are we slaves to the new media?

An old issue about New Media is whether new media is digital media. And
digital media implies a wide range of equipment from computers, to audio
players, digital televisions and of course mobile phones. These tools
and equipment are just one part of the story. However, there is always
the chance that we might be dazzled by this hi tech that we forget the
reason why we have all the gadgetry.

And this is the first issue about new media, we need to have access to
this gadgetry before we can have access to the new media. This equipment
is neither cheap nor stand-alone. Digital equipment generally requires
the support of two sorts of networks: an infrastructure network to keep
the digital equipment connected; for example telecommunication
companies, internet service providers with their routers and servers,
software vendors to make all this equipment function and other equipment
to keep the network functioning. Added to this there is the peripheral
industry that is also required to keep the new media functioning: ear
phones, digital storage, printers, consumables etc.

The second network is the content of the new media. The purpose for
having all this hi tech gadgetry. The content is, in my opinion, the
focus of our discussion. The question we then have to ask ourselves is:
why should we be slaves to the content of the new media? But first we
have to look at the basic question of access to the hardware or the

The issue about the hardware is that this assumes we have a certain
level of income to be able to afford the equipment. Thus, income
disparity may prevent us from affording the equipment we need to access
the new media. In turn this will lead to what has been termed the
information gap: those who have access to the internet and those who
don't. Some might argue that this might not be a bad idea because it
will prevent us from becoming "slaves" to the new media. However, the
more dependent we are on the new media the more we need to access it in
order to survive even in our community. For example, today it is very
difficult to find a paper copy of a telephone directory.

Furthermore, "slaves" need not always mean compelled or forced to do
something. Although, by definition, if some resources are only found
on-line we might feel compelled to access the new media. For example,
certain companies are offering music (singles) at just under a US
dollar, but you cannot get this deal in a shop. You have to log onto the
company's website.

We might also argue that the cost of this equipment is quite cheap and
that in many cases the authorities make access to use this equipment at
a discount rate if not free. However, the manufacturing of this
equipment does not come cheap. Making this equipment has what economists
call externalities. Some of these externalities are pollution, carbon
emission and waste hazards. But there are also externalities that cannot
be easily calculated in monetary terms: for example, sub standard labour
conditions, absence of human rights in some of the countries where this
equipment is made, job insecurity etc, etc. Of course, I am not
suggesting that the new media is causing all these ills, but rather that
any high volume industrial activity has measurable and immeasurable

Moving on to what New Media means, I think we have to broaden our scope.
What we call the internet is just one of the means by which we exchange
information. Is the new media only about digital content or maybe a mix
of contents? For example, today a film is not just a movie we see at the
cinema. There is whole industry behind it, sales of DVDs, the website of
the film, merchandising, forums and so on.

Furthermore, how should we interpret some aspects of the new media?
Emails have not replaced letter writing. But rather, email is a new way
we communicate with others in a quick and convenient medium. What we can
do with email we could never have done with ordinary letter writing.

An important question we can ask about the new media is whether new
media is replacing old media (it does not matter what this means) or is
it that new media is introducing new functions that the old media have
become redundant? Of course, the new media has replaced some aspects of
the old media, but this is not that significant compared to the new stuff.

If we look at the way news is brought to us today, we might think that
this is a novel and very different from the past. Some of you will
remember that in the past access to news was a newspaper or a news
broadcast on television or the radio. Anything else would have taken a
long time and effort for very little more. Today those of us who have
access to the internet also have assess to practically all the news
channels and newspapers in the world in all the languages we care to
think of. We can even access news and reports that in the past would
have never been published. However, news today goes a step or two
further. We can comment directly on the news wherever we find it. Or we
can join communities to comment on anything in the media with the same
interests as us.

But the new media has also given rise to the citizen journalist/citizen
reporter ( see Wikipedia for this or for example news channels such as
CNN iReport). Today news need not be gathered by professional
journalists, but by ordinary people who happen to be in the right place
at the right time. There are many reports and articles on this topic so
I will just give the bare bones here and leave you to follow the stories.

The positive aspect of citizen journalism is that we have news as it
happens from people who happen to be there. This brings us stories from
all over the world and in many case from many points of views. Thus we
get a real time picture of what is going on from literally different
angles. This is the new media or at least part of it. This situation has
not gone unnoticed. There are a number of criticisms for this way of
gathering news.

The first is that some of these citizen reporters are not professionally
trained so we can expect standards and quality to come down. This is a
red herring in my opinion, freelancers and ordinary people have always
had access to the media when important events took place. What has
changed is that the individual decides who to approach and maybe the
copy to write. A more serious criticism is that the owners of these news
channels are getting a valuable product, both in money and content,
without paying for it. People are prepared to give away for free what in
the past was worth a lot of money. People are prepared to be paid with
glory or a recognition in a caption or at the end of an article. Yes, a
lot of this is true, but we can also see this as a marketing strategy;
giving something for free at the point of use might also be value in say
job opportunities or prestige. Value need not always be measured in
terms of money or directly in money.

The most serious criticism for me is that by relying more and more on
citizen reporting news media and channels are reducing the number of
professional reporters to cover overseas news and events. However, for
me the problem is not that there aren't professional in the field, but
rather that there aren't more investigative and in-depth reporting from
the field. To qualify this statement , compared to the past we may
indeed have more stories from the field by professionals, but that
in-depth and investigative stories are no more hard hitting than in the
past. For example, we know that certain countries have abysmal labour
conditions but very few journalists and channels are going out of their
way to reports on these events that will make a difference.

The next question we can ask about the new media is this, for sure the
new media is giving us more news and more information about new things,
but is it giving us better and more reliable news and information? This
is a valid question to ask, but maybe we can also look at the
philosophical question that stems from all this. Are we prepared and do
we have the capacity to filter the news and information from the useful
to the useless or biased?

The new media also includes many other activities in our life. We can do
our shopping on line, bank on line, pay taxes and fines on line. We can
also book holidays on line, join communities with the same interests as
us. We can buy music and films on line and if we feel talented we can
even try and attract an audience for the things we specialise in. Today
there are many musicians that have a successful career selling their
music on line, without ever getting noticed by the mainstream media.

Hence, are we slaves to the new media? An article in The Independent*,
describes how British children are now being kept away from the
playground because their parents and teachers are afraid they might hurt
themselves. However, as the article mentions, parents are less "vigilant
when it came to internet safety."

The new media has also introduced a new crop of crimes and criminals:
Credit card fraud, identity theft, illegal downloading of copy right
material and a few other unusual behaviour. One of the most common
complaints about the new media is that it makes it easy for children and
adults to access morally questionable material, least of which is
pornography. But for really serious consequences, access to the new
media has made it easy for radical groups to get together and share
dangerous ideologies, in many cases leading to some very serious mischief.

Earlier I said that the word slavery need not always mean forced or
compelled. As I have also said, the in many cases we are also compelled
to use the internet to access some services or to make our life easier.
But we can also choose to access the new media because we can find
things there that we are interested in. For example, if we are
interested in philosophy we can join a huge number of forums who discuss
all aspect of philosophy, have, in many cases, free access to the works
of important thinkers and philosophers both modern and past master. For
a philosopher the internet is heaven in a computer; and the same goes
for large number of other activities.

Can we therefore feel compelled to access the new media because, the new
media is compelling? Can we distinguish between compelling behaviour and
having what is described in Matt Richtel's report** in the New York
Times, The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive?, as "having a condition"? In
this report, published in 2003, there are the views of two Harvard
scientists on the possibility of addiction to information.

For a rough and ready definition of addiction we can use the Wikipedia
version which basically states: "In medical terminology, addiction is a
state in which the body relies on a substance for normal functioning and
develops physical dependence." (Wikipedia, Addiction accessed
07-08-2008) On information fixes, Dr Ratey says, in the New York Times
article: ''It's an addiction,'' he said, adding that some people cannot
deal with down time or quiet moments. ''Without it, we are in
withdrawal.'' But I don't think that many would dispute that the new
media can be addictive.

As the article points out, there are consequences for this addiction.
One of which is that by trying to multi task we are becoming less
productive: answering the phone, writing emails, check a web site etc,
etc. Maybe those who are slaves to the new media are better off than
those who are addicted to the new media. But I also asked why should we
be slaves to the content of new media? Maybe the New York Times article
shows us the mechanism by which we become slaves or addicted to the new
media and information in particular. But does this give us the causal
reason of what makes us slaves or addicts?

To answer that question I think we have to understand something about
our information processing capacity. Or rather we have to understand our
brain. This not an easy task but as the many websites that give
information about the brain*** one thing is clear: the brain is a
complex information processing organ. But not only that, the brain is
also a source for creating and disseminating information. Information,
in other words, is what the brain is all about.

But as I have tried to show and the New York Times article confirms,
information we obtain from the new media can be both a source to improve
our lives and a source of some very serious conditions. Moreover, the
new media has practically made information available in unlimited
quantities and on all possible subjects. In other words, more than just
being slaves to the new media, is the new media heaven on earth for our
brains or is it the demise of human beings as we know ourselves? Has the
brain finally created an infinite abundance of the raw material that
makes it the single most important organ for human beings. Or has the
brain created the ultimate condition for its own demise? As I said
earlier can our brain cope with all this information we are making
available with the new media?

Could it be that the charge against the new media is more serious than
slavery and addiction; maybe the new media indulges our brain without
limits, hindrance and ethics.

Take care


*The Independent, The end of playtime? 4 August 2008,

**The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive?
Published: July 6, 2003

***CS-449: Neural Networks Fall 99
Instructor: Genevieve Orr, Willamette University
Lecture Notes prepared by Genevieve Orr, Nici Schraudolph, and Fred Cummins
"The Brain as an Information Processing System"

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Brain Basics: Know Your Brain

Human brain. (2008, August 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 23:45, August 6, 2008, from



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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we slaves to
the new media?

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