July 29th, 2007 | Published in Foundation
I am using the word kernel as the starting point for a new media theory intentionally imitating the way the computer operating system Linux was developed. In operating system terminology the kernel is the core code that is loaded at start up. Linus Torvalds put the beginnings of the Linux kernel on the Internet in the early 90s and asked if others were interested in helping him develop it. I am putting what I hope are the beginnings of a new media theory on the net in conscious imitation of what Linus Torvalds did because his action resulted in, not just a new operating system, but a new way of developing computer software.
Torvalds gathered together a team of volunteer programmers who, without pay, were able to bring Linux to a high level of usefulness rivaling commercially developed operating systems like Windows or the MAC OS. I am entirely aware that software development and the development of theory are different tasks and that this attempt to leverage the dynamics of networking that Linus Torvalds used with Linux may not work for theory development.
Attempting to use this model of development arises directly from my own point of departure indicated on the above diagram by the pairing of Marshal McLuhan and Eric S. Raymond. McLuhan’s central contention was that media and technology were extensions of ourselves that perforce give rise to new and disruptive ways of thinking and doing things which are not at first recognized. For example McLuhan argued that the printed word led to standardized spelling and interchangeable parts, but more profoundly to linear thinking. While McLuhan prepares us to anticipate these kinds of developments whenever new media and technology are introduced, Raymond gives us direct insight into some of the developments emerging from the computer network we call the Internet.
In his book The Cathedral and the Bazzar, (The link is to the free online version.) Raymond documents how the Internet gave rise to an apparently impossible feat of software development – the development of a competitive operating system by a group of volunteers. He argues that in a networked environment, where anyone with the requisite skills can participate in a project, it becomes possible to accomplish work that previously could only be done by a hierarchically organized entity. My own thinking begins when I entertain the idea that Raymond’s bazaar style of organization, using the Internet, can be extended to fields other than software development. Blogging is the obvious example where – as Glenn Reynolds put it – an Army of Davids can rival the Goliaths – the large industrial organizations and big institutions of the modern world. Relatively small numbers of bloggers have had serious impacts on politics and on the established media. In the case of newmediatheory.net I want to see if work traditionally done in our culture by universities – theory development – can be accomplished on the Internet using something akin to the open source model. In part this approach implies that contributions may come from outside the population of academics formally qualified for such work. High school students edit Wikipedia. Embedded reporters, and the soldiers they work with, have a perspective on information war that I can never have. Bloggers like ‘backpacker’ from Pakistan who reported the assault of the Red Mosque find themselves briefly the center of world attention and may have insights into the workings of media because of their unique experience or simply because of their cultural perspective. If the project grows then, like with Linux, defining its boundaries may be shared but to start I will have to be the judge of what I think fits and what does not. Unlike software there is no simple way to objectively see if it ‘runs or crashes’ – so the task of constructing a workable theory is inherently more difficult.
As those who have read the inaugural post on this blog know I am not alone in being unhappy with the way media theory has developed in the academic world in the second half of the 20th century. Like Camille Paglia I have gone my own way with media studies largely based on McLuhan and have never uncritically accepted postmodern media theory as an entirely satisfactory way to view literature or evaluate and understand media. Nor, I hasten to point out, do I think simply going back to the older modernist way of looking at things is adequate either.
In subsequent posts I intend to argue in more detail that an unrecognized part of the modern world’s problem with terrorism and its elusive relationship to new and old media emerges from the same new networked world that made Linux possible. Just a Bill Gates found himself flummoxed by the emergence of Linux, so Donald Rumsfeld was forced to acknowledge the importance of media in fighting a 21st century war when he admitted that the US was losing the information war. I found direct confirmation that others were thinking along the same lines when Richard Landes organized the Herzilya Conference in Israel last year under the title “Media as a theater of war.” While contemporary events have catalyzed my thinking, I do not see the need for new ways of understanding media as just a response to external events, but an area that has deserved attention for some time and is part of the larger task of trying to find a way beyond both modernism and postmodernism.
To conclude this close up of the starting point of my own thinking I am aware that it raises all manner of difficulties, many of which I have not fully appreciated as well as those Rumsfeldian ‘unknown unknowns’ I have not yet dreamt of. I recognize that I still find useful older concepts such as ‘the unconscious’ as espoused by Freud and Jung that many contemporary thinkers regard as obsolete or invalid. As is obvious from my diagram I have only covered the point of departure – the kernel – of my own thinking in this post. Paglia’s linked triad of McLuhan, Brown and Fiedler are connected to my kernel through McLuhan who is plainly the central character in this attempt to build a new approach to understanding media. I am rereading Brown and Fiedler (after a hiatus of over 40 years) with an eye to their influence on Paglia’s thought before I attempt to weave their thinking into the whole. Nor, of course, do I reject the inclusion of other thinkers as my thinking develops. I look forward to your comments.