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date: 10 December 2018

Media Technologies in Communication and Critical Cultural Studies

Summary and Keywords

Media technologies are at the heart of media studies in communication and critical cultural studies. They have been studied in too many ways to count and from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet fundamental questions about media technologies—their nature, their scope, their power, and their place within larger social, historical, and cultural processes—are often approached by communication and critical cultural scholars only indirectly. A survey of 20th- and 21st-century approaches to media technologies shows communication and critical cultural scholars working from, for, or against “deterministic” accounts of the relationship between media technologies and social life through “social constructivist” understandings to “networked” accounts where media technologies are seen embedding and embedded within socio-material structures, practices, and processes. Recent work on algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platforms, together with their manifestations in the products and services of monopolistic corporations like Facebook and Google, has led to new concerns about the totalizing power of digital media over culture and society.

Keywords: media technologies, technological determinism, social constructivism, media effects, Frankfurt School, Birmingham School, Toronto School, German media studies, communication and critical studies


Media technologies are older than Homo sapiens and as ubiquitous as fire, cooking, and clothing. Such technologies not only keep us warm and nourished but regulate and otherwise mediate desire, status, shame, fear, belonging, identity, wealth, power, authority, and consciousness (Schwarz & Cordwell, 1979). And yet the term “media technologies” in the English language is no older than the 1950s and did not become common, especially in communication and critical cultural studies, until the 1990s. To be sure, well before then the concepts of “media” and “technology” were widely used, but the hybrid “media technologies” seems to have begun to take form only as concepts like “audio-visual” and “information technologies” took hold in industry and government in the second half of the 20th century. “Media technologies” became a way of capturing in a single concept the seemingly ever-expanding set of techniques and technologies developed and distributed in the 1950s and beyond, from video to 8-track tape to cell phones to, of course, digital computers.

Indeed, the concept is very useful. Media (from Latin, medius, “middle”) are simply things that go between, are in the middle, or otherwise mediate among other things, animals, or phenomena. Technologies (from Greek, technê, a word situated somewhere among our notions of “art,” “science,” or “skill”) entail not only material objects but the techniques, practices, and knowledges that are integral to any use of material objects. Media technologies, therefore, encompass the array of material objects that go between. The broad concept allows us to study under a general category everything from fire to food, fashion to film, the mathematical functions encoded into computer software to, of all things, clouds (Peters, 2016).

This is not, of course, how most scholars of communication and critical cultural studies have approached media technologies in the 21st century. Rather, they have approached them as discrete things, especially digital things, so much so that in some circles media technologies have become nearly synonymous with digital technologies. This is understandable, but unfortunate. It is understandable because digital technologies dominate what most of us recognize as our everyday mediascapes (Appadurai, 2010). It is unfortunate because the focus on digital technologies can keep communication and critical cultural scholars from asking broader questions about the communicative capacities of media technologies, especially with regard to their invention, adoption, adaptation, dissemination, and commercialization.

Still, the pathways of 21st-century media technology study are promising, to say the least. In general, they have worked from, for, or against “deterministic” accounts of the relationship between media technologies and social life through “social constructivist” understandings to “networked” accounts where media technologies are seen as both that which “embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments and institutions” (Jasanoff, 2010). Scholarship has moved, that is, from asking what media technologies cause to how media technologies function within social life. This allows us to “contextualize the technology historically, culturally, and systemically, and explicate the social, material, and temporal dimensions of how technologies are produced, deployed, configured, and used” (Gillespie, Boczkowski, & Foot, 2014). It also allows us to consider more fundamental philosophical, sociological, and critical matters of materiality (Packer & Crofts Wiley, 2012), media (Peters, 2016), mediation (Kember & Zylinska, 2015), mediatization (Finnemann, 2011; Hjarvard, 2013; Livingstone & Lunt, 2014; Lundby, 2014), and deep media (O’Gorman & Hamilton, 2016).

In order to make better sense of past, present, and potential research on media technologies, this article begins by considering what can be learned from the plurality of ways researchers have studied two recognizable media technologies: broadcast radio and writing. Then it zooms out to consider several schools of media research that emerged in the middle of the 20th century that continue to shape the ways in which researchers study media technologies and their impacts. Finally, this article will try to make some sense of the array of approaches in communication and critical studies to media technologies, suggesting a set of critical questions and issues for the 21st-century study of media technologies.

The Critical Kaleidoscope

Media technologies are not only ubiquitous—ways of studying them are legion. Take broadcast radio as a paradigmatic media technology. Scholars have studied radio’s origins in telephony (Barnouw, 1966) and even in telepathy (Peters, 2012). They have probed the significance of Hertizan waves, or radio waves, as well as microwaves (Stephan, 2001). They have looked at radio inventors like Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi (Satia, 2010) and at later radio engineers (Slotten, 1995). They have studied developments in the engineering, technology, and infrastructure of radio broadcasting, for example the addition of frequency modulation (FM) to amplitude modulation (AM) (Slotten, 1996) and much later the addition of internet radio (Lasar, 2016). They have looked at national (Balbi, 2010), international (Wood, 1992), and pirate (Fuller, 2007) radio. They have looked at public broadcasting (Slotten, 2009), the Nazi’s use of radio (Bergmeier & Lotz, 1997), and at Cold War radio (Puddington, 2000; Stoneman, 2009). They have looked at the relationship between radio and the rise of corporate mass media (Wurtzler, 2009). They have critiqued advertising on radio (Meyers, 2014; Stole, 2006). They have considered the government regulation of radio (Hugh, 1994; Slotten, 2000). They have looked at public panic caused by radio (Jerábek, 2017), and they have interrogated the relationship between radio and socio-economic class (Patnode, 2003). They have studied radio and tinkering (Takahashi, 2000), shirt-pocket radios (Schiffer, 1993), and the marketing of radios (Arceneaux, 2010). Last in this incomplete list, but certainly not least, they have examined radio with respect to the phenomenologies, economies, and techniques of sound (James, 2015; Sterne, 2006).

Indeed, broadcast radio is a powerful and multi-sided thing. It has been a means of education, entertainment, dissemination, coordination, community, and keeping in touch. It has also been a means of oppression, exploitation, disruption, and deception. Here the critical task is as old as criticism itself. Plato (ca. 429–347 bce), to whom credit must be given for inaugurating the critical tradition to which communication and critical cultural studies is indebted (Richter, 2016), named criticism diakritikos, the art of discriminating, dividing and distinguishing this from that (Plato, 1921, p. 226c). For Plato, the challenge was not only distinguishing between “good” and “bad” but getting a grip on the many-sided “wonders” that exert so much influence and power on people, cultures, institutions, and epochs (Plato, 1921, 235b), not the least media technologies and their users, operators, and audiences.

In fact, Plato is among the first of the full-fledged critics of a second, even more paradigmatic media technology, writing, which in its Phoenician form was still relatively new in 5th century bce Greece. The broad outlines of Plato’s critique of writing are fairly straightforward: writing artificially externalizes, decontextualizes, and reifies speech, separating it from living, breathing dialogue; writing weakens human memory; and writing renders speech mute and unresponsive to interrogation and inquiry (Ong, 2013; Peters, 2012; Plato, 2003). Nevertheless, the scope of Plato’s critique is debatable. Some see it as limited to particular historical contexts and issues, and others as much more philosophical and general. This debate is instructive for further considering the array of critical approaches to media technologies.

The case for limiting Plato’s critique of writing to a particular historical situation stresses that in all of Plato’s many extant writings, he critiques writing directly only twice—in his dialogue Phaedrus (Plato, 2003) and in a letter of disputed authenticity, the so-called Seventh Letter (Plato, 1947)—and in both cases his concern is less writing and more the place of writing in politics, education, and, above all, political education. To be precise, it is logography, or “speech writing” in the context of the Athenian polis, that is the target of critique in the Phaedrus. Logographers were 5th- and 4th-century Greek speech writers who typically wrote speeches for use in the courts or the assembly. Plato participated in a general critique of logographers, who were often paired with the sophists as corrupting Greek politics (Lentz, 1982). This interpretation of Plato’s critique of writing stresses that Plato was concerned with certain writing practices in Greece, but it does not see Plato as making a critique of writing as such.

That Plato was making a more general philosophical critique of writing has been argued by many, above all members and adherents of the Toronto School of communication theory, discussed further later. Walter Ong, a student of Marshall McLuhan, reads Plato as maintaining that writing is “inhuman” because it locates knowledge, which is inherently a possession of the mind, outside of the mind and into the manufactured products of written texts; writing, as such, undermines not only the human mind but human memory; furthermore, it renders speech unresponsive, a kind of dead letter; and finally, it lifts human communication out of the contexts that make it meaningful. Of course, it was not lost on Ong that Plato himself was a writer, and an extremely influential one at that. Ong cites fellow Toronto School associate Eric Havelock’s belief that not only was Plato caught in a contradiction—critiquing writing as a writer—but that Plato was not fully in command of his argument, as it was itself a product of the profound shift in consciousness that happened in Greek culture as a result of the new dominance of writing, a shift that lifted Greeks from the oral, aural, poetic, and immediate to the literate, visual, philosophical, and abstract (Havelock, 1963).

In sum, some see Plato’s comments about writing as targeting a particular cultural practice in a particular time and place, while others see him as launching a wholesale critique of the technology of writing itself. The critique of media technologies more generally tends to gravitate toward one of these two poles. Those who would “historicize” tend to also be those who see “technology” as always already part of a larger social, cultural, and historical whole, whereas those who forward more universal critiques of media technologies tend to see technology as having deterministic power (Kittler, 1999).

This brief discussion of approaches to Plato’s critique of writing also shows us how critiques of media technologies can be, and often are, themselves subject to critique. The critical kaleidoscope is therefore not only about an array of ways to approach a given media technology such as radio or writing, it is also about the variety of theories, assumptions, and attitudes one brings to the critique and the ways in which these critical positions can themselves be criticized. Indeed, within the academic study and critique of media technologies, one’s critical position (or perhaps disposition) tends to broadly determine the structure and direction of the critique. And while there are too many particular positions to recount, it is possible to discuss broad rubrics of critique as they emerged in the 20th century.

Twentieth-Century Schools of Study

The 20th century was especially important in the academic study of media technologies for two different reasons. First, and most obviously, it witnessed the proliferation of media technologies: telephony, radio, film, television, new forms of photography and film projection, radar, computers, computer networks, and early cell phones and cell networks. Second, in the context of universities, especially American universities, the 20th century witnessed the rise of disciplinarity: more than colleges and universities being organized into departments and distinct fields, academic research became organized around professional associations and research networks that organized themselves into quasi-regulatory bodies via journals, association memberships, and, most importantly, the assumption of the authority to tenure and promote faculty members (Abbott, 2002). The proliferation of media technologies together with the disciplinization of the university contributed to several distinct “schools” of media study, all of which were interdisciplinary in orientation, yet each of which took a distinctive approach to a set of similar problems, issues, and questions. Four such schools were particularly influential: American media effects research, the Frankfurt School, British (and American) cultural studies, and the Toronto School. This section looks broadly at the concerns, themes, and critiques of these schools.

Studies of the “effects” of media were spurred in the 1920s and 1930s by an interest among governments (liberal and illiberal alike) in the possibilities mass media offered for state propaganda and education and a simultaneous interest among corporations in the possibilities mass media offered for marketing and advertising. Prior to World War II, the study of “media effects” in the United States ranged from a focus on public opinion (Lippmann, 2017), to the techniques of propaganda (Bernays, 2005; Lasswell, 1927), to work on the relationship between movies, youth, and topics such as education and delinquency (Blumer & Hauser, 1970; Holaday & Stoddard, 1970; Payne, 1933). After World War II, research into media effects grew in complexity and sophistication as researchers looked at the new medium of television and brought new theoretical approaches to their work from psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

The pivotal publication in postwar “media effects” research was Elihu Katz and Harold Lazarsfeld’s Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications, published out of the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University (Katz, Lazarsfeld, Columbia, & Bureau of Applied Social Research, 1955). The book attacked what it characterized as the pre-war “hypodermic needle” model of media effects, which envisioned media as “a simple kind of nervous system—reaching out to every eye and ear, in a society characterized by an amorphous social organization and a paucity of interpersonal relations” (Katz et al., 1955, p. 16). Instead, following the work of Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in the 1948 book The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign, Katz and Lazarsfeld argued for a “two-step flow” model of communication where messages from the media are twice mediated as “ideas often flow from radio and print to the opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population” (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948). In other words, Katz and Lazarsfeld argued that people were influenced not only by mass media but also by community leaders—thus the importance of “personal influence.” The implication was that messages are twice mediated: it is only when media influence community leaders that they can effectively influence most people. This suggested, on the one hand, a multiplier effect: as the ideas forwarded in a magazine article, for example, reached community “opinion leaders,” they could also reach community members who never read the article. On the other hand, the two-step-flow model stressed the “limited” effects of mass media. Unlike the vision sometimes propagated in the work of pre-war researchers like Bernays and Lasswell, mass media could never be all-powerful.

As is apparent, mid-century mass media effects research was more interested in the “messages” of media than in media technologies as such. Nevertheless, it left two important legacies for the explicit study of media technologies. First, even though it argued against a “hypodermic needle” model of communication, it nevertheless saw media technologies as instruments for the transmission of messages. In this sense it not only extended the pre-war media effects model it criticized but echoed, and even embraced, the engineering approaches to communication being forwarded by likes of Claude Shannon, Warren Weaver, and Norbert Wiener in the middle of the 20th century (Shannon & Weaver, 1999; Wiener, 2016). Second, it anticipated what would later be called the “social construction” approach to media technologies, which stresses how people use media over the inherent powers of media technologies themselves. Indeed, mid-century media effects research was deeply indebted to the social theory of Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils, which saw modern liberal society as a maximally integrative system capable of adapting to technological, economic, and political disruptions and innovations to reach new homeostases (Pooley, 2006). Hence, while this school focused on the effects of mediated messages over the attributes and affordances of media technologies, they helped establish—and in some sectors entrench—an approach to media technologies as instruments that are socially negotiated and mediated.

The Frankfurt School was a contemporaneous but competing school. Comprised of a group of German academics, a number of whom emigrated to the United States around World War II from the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, the Frankfurt School set out to show just how powerful mass media really were. Like the media effects researchers at Columbia, these thinkers—among them Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock, and associates like Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Siegfried Kracauer, Franz Leopold Neumann, and, later, Jürgen Habermas—were interested in mass media and their effects on the attitudes, behaviors, and outlooks of the “masses” and “mass man.” However, they sharply diverged from any notion that mass media were mere instruments with limited effects. Their “critical theory,” based on the works of Karl Marx and, to lesser but still significant degrees, Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant, tended to be focused on the large-scale, sweeping effects of mass media and the industrial and technological processes that make them possible (Horkheimer, 1972).

In his seminal 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer argues that a critical theory of modern society sees in “the internal and external tensions of the modern era” the seeds of “a new barbarism” (Horkheimer, 1972). The obvious referent for this new barbarism was Nazi Germany. However, the Frankfurt School’s critique extended well beyond Germany to encompass modern capitalist society writ large. Indeed, while the specter of Nazi Germany cast a dark shadow over the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse, and others, their most significant work was produced in the United States and with U.S. consumer capitalism in view. Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which introduced the notion of the “culture industry,” critiques the total repressive powers of American consumer culture. Like Marx, thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School were first and foremost theorists of capitalist modernity. For them, questions about media technologies were always simultaneously questions about the larger social mechanisms of modernity, especially markets and technology. Embedded within modern capitalism, they argued, were strong totalitarian tendencies.

Broadly speaking, the Frankfurt School made three central claims with respect to media technologies. First, they argued that modern “means” of communication like film and radio were in fact part of the larger totalizing forces of capitalism, industrialism, and modern science and technology. Thus, far from having “limited” effects, as Katz and Lazarsfeld argued, media participate in the larger process of modern totalitarianism, the “colonization of the lifeworld” (Habermas, 1987), or the domination of human community by powerful interests. Second, they argued that modern media technologies are products of capitalist market logics, not social needs. Consistent with a Marxist humanism (Feenberg, 1991), they assumed that technologies should be fitted to human life, rather than humans being fitted to technologies; but, in keeping with the Marxist critique, they argued that capitalism makes both humans and technologies servants of capital. Third, they argued that modern media technologies exercise power at psychic and sociological levels, more than communicative ones. That is, media cultivate values, outlooks, and attitudes far more than they persuade through explicit messages.

As such, the emancipation of media technologies depends on the emancipation of society as a whole from capitalist domination. In this emancipatory project, and perhaps surprisingly, associates of the Frankfurt School sometimes professed a strong commitment to modes of modernization rooted in technical rationality. They did not reject reason, rationality, and technology as such, but instead its captivity to capitalist modes of production and ideological rationalization. This, of course, is consistent with Marx, for whom the main point of critique was not technology and rationality as such, but its subordination to capitalist interests. It was also consistent with the course of Marxism as a practical political project in the 20th century, which, in what can only be called a tragic irony, embraced forms of technical rationality—policing, propaganda, and industrialism—to produce some of the most blatantly oppressive political regimes in human history.

It was a group of thinkers significantly influenced by the Frankfurt School that pursued a more thorough critique of technical rationality, arguing for an approach to the critique of mass culture and capitalist power that was grounded in the experiences and practices of people, especially working-class people. British cultural studies took form around the work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and Richard Hoggart at the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the 1960s to examine, from a neo-Marxist perspective, the control mechanisms of modern society and the ways in which they are resisted, re-appropriated, or otherwise evaded by people. The field that emerged, typically called “cultural studies,” resists tight definition (Grossberg, 2010; Hall, 1996). It is less coherent than a set of teachings or methods—it is certainly not a theory—and more an affiliated set of attempts to come to better terms with, in the words of Lawrence Grossberg, “how people are empowered and disempowered by the particular structures and forces that organize their everyday lives in contradictory ways, and how their (everyday) lives are themselves articulated to and by the trajectories of economic, social, cultural, and political power” (2010). Cultural studies, therefore, has traditionally been strongly tied to studies of “ordinary” or “everyday” life. It is interested in the relationship between macro-structures of power and the practices of people in everyday life.

British cultural studies tends to stress the role of media technologies in processes of domination and resistance. On the one hand, it focuses on how peoples’ attitudes and behaviors are shaped by the interests of media industries, governing powers, and corporate interests. Media technologies are thus seen as instruments of hegemonic power, as with the Frankfurt School. On the other hand, British cultural studies argues that people are powerful too, in that they are capable of supporting hegemonic power or resisting it (Hall, 1973; Hoggart, 1969; Williams, 2015). Here the humanistic underpinnings of the school are vital, in as much as people are seen as actively interpreting or otherwise engaging with media in their homes, workplaces, or entertainment venues in ways that can reinforce or undermine powerful interests. Far from being passive receptacles of media content, cultural studies tends to see media messages and media technologies as artifacts with which people variously engage even as hegemonic interests regulate the systems and content with which people are able to engage.

This humanistic underpinning also led British cultural studies to see “culture” as varied and diffuse, rather than—as the Frankfurt School is frequently accused of doing—as a top-down elite affair. In the 1960s and ’70s, scholars in and around the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies turned their attention to topics of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality in ways that would be very influential in academic humanistic inquiry in the decades to come. Ironically, however, though “materialist” in philosophy, the focus of British cultural studies on meaning, signs, symbols, ideas, and ideologies would become the target of some critical scholars in the 21st century who claimed media studies had not been “materialist” enough, as it too often neglected the material attributes and affordances of actual technologies, techniques, and practices (Packer & Crofts Wiley, 2012). Some scholars turned to the Foucauldian focus on “governmentality” to supplement British cultural studies, a supplement that, among other things, shifted focus more squarely to the large-scale societal impact of media technologies (Bratich, 2003).

Another version of cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s—what media scholar James Carey has called “American cultural studies” (Carey, 1997)—also attempted to focus on the materiality of media by fusing studies of material engineering and economic innovations with studies of story, symbol, and rhetoric. These scholars argued that technologies, including media technologies, have cultural histories that, far from being incidental to their power, are integral to it. Hence, to critique media technologies is to critique their material form; their attributes, affordances, politics, and economies; and their mythological form, the stories and symbols in which they are embedded. Carey claimed two guiding lights for American cultural studies: Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan (Carey, 1981). Mumford is one of the most important cultural critics in the United States during the 20th century, and central to his project was the critique of technology, especially as it took shape under capitalist regimes. McLuhan, on the other hand, was arguably the most important media critic in North America during the 20th century and a central figure in what came to be known as the “Toronto School” of media studies and communication theory.

Whereas mid-20th-century media effects research, the Frankfurt School, and British cultural studies each tend to start with macro forces like “society” or “capitalism” in approaching media technologies, the Toronto School—scholars Harold Innis, McLuhan, Northrop Frye, and Eric Havelock at the University of Toronto, together with Saint Louis University’s Walter Ong—tended to work from particular technologies, techniques, and human experiences to arguments for the large-scale social consequences of innovations in media technologies (Goody, 2005). As Leah Lievrouw argues, “These scholars, and their contemporary intellectual successors, are perhaps unique in communication and media studies for their unapologetic focus on the material features or ‘biases’ of media and communication technologies, and the consequences of that materiality for societies and civilizations over the long historical term” (2014, p. 38). For example, McLuhan argued that the linear form of print was responsible for the prestige and ubiquity of linear thinking in European modernity (McLuhan, 1962). Ong (2013), who was McLuhan’s most precocious student, argued for fundamental differences in human consciousness between those belonging to “oral” societies and those belonging to “literate” ones. Innis (2007, 2012), whom McLuhan and Ong considered the guiding light of Toronto School, argued for the biases of the basic materials of media technologies, arguing, for example, that paper—because it is light weight and pliable—has a “spatial” bias (as it can extend communication across space), whereas stone—which is highly durable, if heavy—has a “temporal” bias (as it can extend communication across time).

Therefore, for the Toronto School, the most powerful effects of a media technology are felt not in its content or messages but in its material form—or as McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 2013, p. 9). Media technologies are “extensions of man,” McLuhan argued, where “man” represents both the individual human body and society at large (McLuhan, 2013). Humans transform themselves and the world with each new major media technology, typically by reconfiguring experiences of time and space. In this way, the Toronto School is like the Frankfurt School in arguing for the large-scale or macro effects of media. But whereas the Frankfurt School tended to approach these macro effects of media technologies only as they participate in the totalizing forces of capitalism, the Toronto School located the large-scale effects in the material features of the media technologies themselves.

In addition to focusing intently on the materiality of media technologies, the Toronto School revealed the breadth of media technologies. Because they concentrated on how the material makeup of a medium, apart from any particular content, “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan, 2013), they saw the scope of media technologies as including things like the electric light, the automobile, clothing, or the bomb. Each of these apparently contentless technologies profoundly affects human consciousness and community, and as such mediates them. Thus, McLuhan’s most famous book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, reads like a survey of the various ways in which various media technologies shape culture, society, and history.

Yet the arguments of the Toronto School come face to face with the specter of “technological determinism” (see Peters, 2017). Innis, McLuhan, Ong, and their colleagues are frequently labeled technological determinists, and they have been embraced as such by a more recent vein of media studies associated with the work of Friedrich Kittler, often called German media studies (Kittler, 1999, 2010; Peters, 2016). In drawing our attention to the ways in which the material features of media technologies have effects quite apart from any content or message the medium might transmit, the Toronto School and German media studies seem to argue that technologies determine the shape of human consciousness, culture, or society—or, in Langdon Winner’s formulation, technologies are, or at least can become, “autonomous” (Winner, 2001). Indeed, from the perspective of instrumentalists, who see technologies as instruments under human control, as well as from that of social constructivists, who see technologies as but one factor in a larger repertoire of human meanings and practices, the great mistake of the Toronto School is attributing too much “agency” to technologies themselves.

The Socio-Material Turn

As this review suggests, the study of media technologies in the 20th century was typically couched within the study of media, especially mass media more generally. The “media effects” school stressed the power of messages conveyed through media technologies. Developed after World War II, the media effects school tended to see the power of messages conveyed through media as itself mediated, and thus limited, by interpersonal relationships and what would later be called “social networks.” The Frankfurt School concerned itself more directly with the power of media technologies as such but primarily as they afforded certain means of mass propaganda, escapist entertainment, or pseudo-communication. More importantly, the Frankfurt School saw the technologies, techniques, and messages of mass media as participating within a larger capitalist system, buttressing that system by helping keep the masses in check through indoctrination and distraction. For the Frankfurt School, much of modern life was practically predetermined, but by capitalist hegemony rather than technological instruments themselves. British cultural studies adopted many of the Frankfurt School’s concerns about capitalist hegemony but also argued that everyday people are far more resourceful in resisting, redirecting, or reinforcing capitalist hegemony than the Frankfurt School seemed to allow. The Toronto School saw media technologies as the most important determining influence in culture, society, and history. The key to understanding any culture, they suggested, was the logic or biases of that culture’s dominant technology of communication.

What of the 21st-century researcher? Three relatively recent innovations are noteworthy. First, there has been “materialist” turn, one that, in the words of Jeremy Packer and Stephen Crofts Wiley, entails a shift from understanding communication as fundamentally about “signs, symbols, messages, and meanings” to one that accounts for “infrastructure, space, technology, and the body” (Packer & Crofts Wiley, 2012). Of course, this turn is not entirely new: in many respects the Toronto School anticipated it and paved the way for a materialist approach to communication. Nevertheless, the 21st-century materialist turn is noteworthy for its diversity of approaches. Far from entailing a particular “school” of research, it represents a more general trajectory within communication and critical cultural studies. Second, the longstanding debate between technological determinists and social constructivists has been modified, if not displaced, by an interest in the networked, diffuse nature of “agency” or, more generically, causes and effects. Central to this innovation has been the work of scholars in science and technology studies (STS) that, on the one hand, echoes a constructivist position emphasizing the social shaping of the meaning and uses of technology while, on the other hand, insisting on the “agency” of non-human, and indeed non-living, objects. Meanings and uses, as well as effects and impacts, are negotiated within and among diverse networks of “actants” (Latour, 2007; Lievrouw, 2014).

Therefore, by the middle of 2010s, an integrated socio-material perspective on media technologies was well established within communication and critical cultural studies. It was materialist in that it called upon researchers to take seriously the material attributes and affordances of “objects,” granting significant agency to the non-human. At the same time, in relying on theories of the “social” via “actor-networks,” “co-production,” and similar approaches, the socio-material turn it took mitigated against technological determinism. Hence, in these theories of the diffusion of power and agency in socio-material systems, it seemed that a middle way between deterministic and constructivist approaches had been found (see Gillespie et al., 2014).

Yet, even amid the socio-material turn, the rise of algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platforms, together with their manifestations in the products and services of monopolistic corporations like Facebook and Google, has led to new concerns about the totalizing power of digital media over culture and society. Work on big data and algorithms (Gillespie, 2010, 2017; Noble, 2018; Seyfert & Roberge, 2017; Striphas, 2015) together with work on the monopolistic power of new media companies (McChesney, 2014; Vaidhyanathan, 2012, 2018) characterizes, with solid evidence, digital media technologies under monopolistic ownership as totalizing in a manner that hails the critiques of the Frankfurt School. The work of these critics, some of whom are socio-materialists, suggests that perhaps the power of the network is not so diffuse after all, but concentrated and hegemonic, and that democracy itself is at grave risk.

In fact, feminist scholars of media technologies have been dealing for decades with similar tensions between contingency and determinism, and they provide contemporary scholars with a model of how to think at once about the social construction of technology and totalizing structures. In Judy Wajcman’s formulation of technofeminism (Wajcman, 2013), for example, the critical scholar is invited to hold together contingency and determinism, social construction and totalizing power. Though there are widely divergent views within feminist approaches to media technology study (for overviews, see Bray, 2007; Wajcman, 2010), the obvious fact of historical patriarchy together with the acknowledged fluidity of gender and the distinction between “human” and “machine” (Haraway, 1997) has put feminist studies of media technology—and analogously, those who focus on race (Nakamura, 2002; Noble & Tynes, 2016), class (North, Snyder, & Bulfin, 2008), or sexuality (Gray, 2009)—at the forefront of many of the most pressing issues in the critical study of media technology.

Given these trends and challenges, the 20th- and early 21st-century history of the critical study of media technologies provides a basis from which media and media technology scholars can think through what they are doing in their research. In the concluding section of this article, several critical questions are posed as a guide for thinking through research into media technologies in the coming decades.

Critical Questions for Media Technology Scholars

The survey of 20th- and early 21st-century approaches to the study of media technologies suggests a set of more or less explicit framing questions facing present and future media technology researchers:

  1. 1. Will I focus on the messages or content conveyed by media, on the particular affordances or features of a given media technology, or on some combination of both?

  2. 2. Do I assume media—in their messages, their material features, or some combination of both—largely determine outcomes or impacts, or do I assume that their particular power is contingent on a variety of social and material factors?

  3. 3. Am I interested in the limited, contained, and constrained “effects” of media, or on their large-scale, society-wide scope and impacts?

How one answers these questions will shape the kinds of research questions they ask, the scholarly literatures with which they engage, methods they draw upon, and the objects, processes, or phenomena they choose to study. In this way, there are no strictly empirical answers to these questions. Every researcher, even the empirical researcher, will bring a priori to their research at least a rough sense of where they stand on these questions.

To be clear, one need not plant one’s flag on each of these issues prior to getting into the nitty gritty of particular instances, issues, or case studies. Indeed, most media scholars work their way through these questions as they go about their work, and many never are fully settled on these issues at all. Nevertheless, it is helpful for scholars of media and communication to step back and consider these questions head on, if for no other reason than they can help one navigate and better understand the scholarly literature in communication and critical cultural studies.

Sitting behind these questions and their various answers are less explicit but even more fundamental questions, beginning with the questions drawn from social theory. Is 21st-century society fundamentally exploitative, and hence conflictual? Or is it dynamic, adaptive, and resilient, and thus prone to homeostasis? So, too, there is a fundamental question about the nature and status of the “technological.” Is technology in an age of machine learning and artificial intelligence finally capable of becoming fully autonomous? Or will it always be constrained by human practices, interpretations, actions, and interactions? And what is the relationship here among the technological, the political, and economic? Are these three interdependent spheres, or does one enjoy sovereignty over the others? Finally, there is the underlying question of the nature and dynamics of “media.” What are the boundaries of “media”? Is the air a medium? Clouds? If so, in what sense? What of people, of culture, of society? Are these media too? If one concludes so, what are the implications of concluding so?

No matter how one might answer these questions, it is clear that media technologies are coming into their own in the 21st century in ways hardly imaginable in the middle of the 20th century. The question before scholars and researchers in communication and critical cultural studies is whether the study of media technologies can keep pace. It is crucial that one tries, for the future of democracy itself seems to be the new critical frontier.

Further Reading

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Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P. J., & Foot, K. A. (2014). Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

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Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter (G. Winthrop-Young, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

McChesney, R. W. (2014). Digital disconnect: How capitalism is turning the internet against democracy. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

McLuhan, M. (2013). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Ong, W. J. (2013). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Peters, J. D. (2016). The marvelous clouds: Toward a philosophy of elemental media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Pooley, J. (2006). Fifteen pages that shook the field: Personal influence, Edward Shils, and the remembered history of mass communication research. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 608(1), 130–156.Find this resource:

Williams, R. (2015). Television: Technology and cultural form. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:


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