All revolutions are different (which is only to say that all surprises are surprising). If a change in society were immediately easy to understand, it wouldn’t be a revolution. And today, the revolution is centered on the shock of the inclusion of amateurs as producers, where we no longer need to ask for help or permission from professionals to say things in public. Social media didn’t cause the candlelight protests in South Korea; nor did they make users of PickupPal more environmentally conscious. Those effects were created by citizens who wanted to change the way public conversation unfolded and found they had the opportunity to do so.
This ability to speak publicly and to pool our capabilities is so different from what we’re used to that we have to rethink the basic concept of media: it’s not just something we consume, it’s something we use. As a result, many of our previously stable concepts about media are now coming unglued.
Take, as one example, television. Television encodes moving images and sounds for transmission through the air and, latterly, through a cable, for subsequent conversion back to images and sound, using a special decoding device. What is the name of the content so transmitted? Television. And the device that displays the images? It is a television. And the people who make that content and send out the resulting signal—what industry do they work in? Television, of course. The people who work in television make television for your television.
You can buy a television at the store so you can watch television at home, but the television you buy isn’t the television you watch, and the television you watch isn’t the television you buy. Expressed that way, it seems confusing, but in daily life it isn’t confusing at all, because we never have to think too hard about what television is, and we use the word television to talk about all the various different parts of the bundle: industry, content, and appliance. Language lets us work at the right level of ambiguity; if we had to think about every detail of every system in our lives all the time, we’d faint from overexposure. This bundling of object and industry, of product and service and business model, isn’t unique to television. People who collect and preserve rare first editions of books, and people who buy mass-market romance novels, wreck the spines, and give them away the next week, can all legitimately lay claim to the label book lover.
This bundling has been easy because so much of the public media environment has been stable for so long. The last really big revolution in public media was the appearance of television. In the sixty years since TV went mainstream, the kinds of changes we’ve seen have been quite small—the spread of videocassette tapes, for example, or color TV. Cable television was the most significant change in the media landscape between the late 1940s (when TV started to spread in earnest) and the late 1990s (when digital networks began to be a normal part of public life).
The word media itself is a bundle, referring at once to process, product, and output. Media, as we talked about it during those decades, mainly denoted the output of a set of industries, run by a particular professional class and centered, in the English-speaking world, in London, New York, and Los Angeles. The word referred to those industries, to the products they created, and to the effect of those products on society. Referring to “the media” in that way made sense as long as the media environment was relatively stable.
Sometimes, though, we really do have to think about the parts of a system separately, because the various pieces stop working together. If you take five minutes to remind yourself (or conjure up, if you are under thirty) what media for adults was like in the twentieth century, with a handful of TV networks and dominant newspapers and magazines, then media today looks strange and new. In an environment so stable that getting TV over a wire instead of via antennae counted as an upheaval, it’s a real shock to see the appearance of a medium that lets anyone in the world make an unlimited number of perfect copies of something they created for free. Equally surprising is the fact that the medium mixes broadcast and conversational patterns so thoroughly that there is no obvious gulf between them. The bundle of concepts tied to the word media is unraveling. We need a new conception for the word, one that dispenses with the connotations of “something produced by professionals for consumption by amateurs.”