“New Media”? Please Define.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

What, exactly, is “New Media”? I ask this question quite a bit these days. I read the edited readers, I go to conferences, and I chat with friends but with little satisfaction. I have a penchant for defining words. It's a bad habit, perhaps. At least that's what my students would tell you after they receive their papers with the comment “define please” scattered throughout the margins. But it is a serious question and problem since the last 160 years or so of communication history involves the succession of one “new media” after another and, as I will mention later, there seem to be a number of jobs posted that want research and teaching in “new media”. Given the lack of definition, I can imagine that I am not the only one reading those ads pulling at wits end to figure out what exactly that means.

By the way, I don't say this to be willfully obtuse. For example, as I write this article the Electronic Entertainment Expo or, as we say in geekspeak, E3, is meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center and half of my “new media” will sink slowly into a state of “old new media” under the weight of planned obsolescence. Last year it was my Xbox. The new Xbox 360 crushes my green and black machine with more pixels per square centimeter and processing per nanosecond capabilities. If you own a Nintendo Gamecube, meet the Wii, a new gaming system which promises to “break down that wall that separates video game players from everybody else.” The result, Nintendo claims, will not only converge Johnny with non-gamers like Grandma and Grandpa, but wireless connectivity with the internet and other Nintendo game devices such as the DS. And as some of you PS2 owners may know, Sony will be getting big play this week as it unveils its latest, greatest version of the Playstation, the Playstation 3, an entertainment center that will be backwards compatible with all PS1 and PS2 software. And that's not all. The system will continue to play older DVDs, CDs and bring with it a 20 GB hard drive, ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. But the big news is, as one industry analyst has pointed out, that
the PS3 will act as Sony's “Trojan Horse” that sneaks in the company's patented “Blu Ray” HD DVD technology under the Christmas Tree of many an unsuspecting American family
, Given Sony's losses to Apple in the market for personal musicplayers, it is fair to say that the PS3 is, as,one Sony executive claims “one of Sony Corp.'s most significant product launches in a long time.”

Sony Playstation

Sony Playstation

Don't make the mistake of thinking that these developments are simple “improvements.” Rather they are examples of how your video game box has gone from something that involved your television and sometimes your internet connection (True, Xbox has always had Ethernet capabilities, Sega's discontinued Dreamcast system had a port, but only some models of PS2 had internet capabilities and Nintendo's soon-to-be antiquated Gamecube ignored the net altogether), to one where it is an expected part of our entertainment experience. For me the key term in discussing these developments should be no surprise to anyone reading Flow: media convergence. Take the case of Microsoft for example. The news that the company intends to, as another analyst notes, “ accelerate the convergence of PC and mobile phone and Xbox 360 was the biggest news [he had] heard so far [at the convention].” I don't know about you, but I am paying close attention as these “media convergence machines” fight for marketshare.

I note all of these developments with the caveat that I have come to these systems relatively late in the game. To be sure, my interest in gaming and gaming technologies is a complete 180-degree reversal from the way I felt about these developments little over a decade ago. If we were to rewind eleven years into the past when the initial Playstation was released you would find me hard at work at Northwestern as a graduate student who couldn't tell the difference between a PS1 and smoke alarm. Sony's remarkable accomplishment of an integrated entertainment unit that would play something called of DVD as well as my Cds on my Tv, was not only off my radar screen, but was just a little pricey for a 27 year old living on a GTA stipend. Since that time I have been a full-time teacher for almost 8 years, have moved a couple times and now find myself more and more fascinated by these media machines. In fact, I will admit that even though I have no desire to get an Xbox 360 or a PS3, the new Nintendo Wii looks pretty tempting. This is partly Jason Mittel's fault, as he organized a wonderful weeklong seminar on video games that I attended at NITLE in the middle of Vermont where we spent our time immersed in Xboxes, Playstations and various PCs. Marginal interest has only accelerated over the last 12 months and now I can claim more than a passing interest in multiple systems and games.

King Kong Game Cover

King Kong game cover

The initial reason I began to find these systems so wonderful is due to the fact, beginning in the late 1990s, it became clearer and clearer that their influence on older pieces of the basic media environment was becoming more and more undeniable. Simply put, I think it is fair to claim that without at least one of these little boxes, I would find it difficult to understand why all of the films and television programs that my students (particularly male students) love were morphing right before my eyes into even flashier, quickly edited, multi-screen affairs that feel more like puzzles and games and less like any kind of narrative form I grew up enjoying or studying. The most recent example of this from my point of view is Peter Jackson's King Kong. It's fair to say that the numerous scenes in the jungles if Skull Island where Jack Black, et. al. spend their time fighting dinosaurs and big bugs operates like an hour-long ad for Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. Peter Jackson's close collaboration with Ubisoft is certainly exceptional: hand-in-hand cross-medium cooperation between videogame designers and film directors is rare but we can expect more of them in the future. As rare as it is, the collaboration has more than paid off for Mr. Jackson. The famed director is slated to be the executive producer of Halo, a film that will be based on the made-for-Xbox Microsoft videogame property and act as Microsoft's initial entry into the film industry. Indeed, in support this kind of cross-collaboration, a number of my students who are avid gamers are adamant Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is far superior to Peter Jackson's King Kong, the film.

And this is where, for me, the engagement begins. For it is my experience that when students make claims such as the one above, I find myself more and more grateful for my training in film and television history, aka. “older media.” For someone like myself it was this training that emphasized the strategies of cultural institutions with long histories of cross-collaborations with each other and other mediums. In discussions with these students, I have been able to offer them a longer vision that helps them overcome un-nuanced hyperbole (i.e. “for the first time in the history of media” pronouncements) with nuanced curiosity. Film and broadcast historians are able to bring to the fore issues such as the institutionalized media intertextualization and how Hollywood helped usher in and develop these techniques in post-classical studio era of blockbuster films that focus more and more on the purchase, development, and nurturing of pre-sold, multimedia properties. Furthermore, when I have discussed the “battle of the videogame platforms,” this training has allowed me to provide students with lessons about how this struggle is one in a longer history of media struggles over “standards and practices” and patents. Many readers will be reminded of past media platform struggles and how each of these contained not only an economic desire to dominate the marketplace, but a promise to make two distinct media issues become as one. Whether they be the format wars between Vitagraph's sound-on-disc vs. Fox's sound-on-film, RCA's 45rpm 7″ record vs. Columbia's 33 1/3 LP, CBS's UHF TV vs. RCA's VHF TV patents, or Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS systems, each of these struggles have their particular lessons for us, some of which are applicable and some of which are not. But for the moment, let's remind ourselves that in terms of “convergence” in each of these strugmediagles there existed a promised unification of sorts (i.e. “Sound + Film”, “In-Home Concert/High Fidelity sound” + “Great Music Repertoires”, “Broadcast Audio” + “Broadcast Video”, “Home Taping” + “Television”, etc,). Convergence is nothing new: these struggles were often over which system would better provide a promised convergence between seemingly disparate media forms, standards and practices. And more importantly, what is old was once new and what we now consider to be “standard” is ex post facto by definition.

So allow me to go back to the beginning of this piece because convergence is also one of those “hot words” for “new media,” the focus of my initial question. And “New Media,” to be honest, is a term that I tend to hold in contempt as, at worst, “newspeak,” or, at best, glib trendiness. This comes after a year of reading multiple job postings that seem to match the term “Assistant Professor” with “New Media” as if they were attached through some sort of unspoken bi-conditional bond. To be frank, in many of these ads I have no clue what “new media” is. In some cases, it seems that these ads want theorists that focus on “non-linearity” and “hypertextuality.” In other cases, these ads hint around and let the reader know that it has something to do with personal computing and videogames. But often these ads hedge their bets as if to challenge the applicant to define “new media” in their job letters.

In response, I would like to end this article with a set of questions
and challenges, each of which I hope we can begin to air in forums such
as Flow.

1) Is it so hard to ask that in upcoming posts for positions in “New Media Studies” that committees can do a better job of communicating what they feel does and does not constitute “new media”? Is new media “contemporary media”, “emerging media”, or does it have to do with “new media practices”? Many of us are not searching for justifications, rather better explanations of what you are looking for and what you mean by “new media.”

2) By hiring more and more “new media” scholars, does that mean that we somehow have a sufficient intellectual grasp on that “old media” so we can push forward? In what ways are we so significantly deficient in our understanding of said “old media” that we would be willing to commit time and energy to defining these deficiencies in order to argue with Deans and Provosts for potential hires that would help us address these needs?

3) If media is converging, shouldn't we demand that our students in Radio/Television/Film departments study BOTH film and broadcast histories, not one or the other? And if we do, should we do so in a way that “converges” either the subjects or the students with the intention of creating students who have an understanding of the multiple interests and histories that inform DVDs, TiVOs, VOD, etc.?

4) It's true that we need to better understand how “computertization”
and “Playstationication” alters our media experiences and practices. Given that this is the case, what would be so wrong in framing these developments as continuations of older media concerns? Is it wrongheaded to believe that these new media aren't as divorced from the issues of institutional control and programming as some would want us to believe?

And before it gets too heated, is anyone out there up for a game of Mario Karts?

Image Credits::

1. Bill Gates

2. Sony Playstation

3. King Kong Cover

Please feel free to comment.

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5 comments

  • New Media as Other

    Since Tim cites me as the catalyst to get him gaming again (with a key assist to Katamari Damacy), I figure I should weigh in on his provocative column (albeit through some rambling thoughts caused by too much time playing videogames).

    Concerning question #1: in my experience, job postings for “new media” define this terrain relationally to whatever the department already covers. In my current position, I was the “new media” hire in a film program, as I study television. I know “new media” hires with expertise in digital media but with no curriculum flexibility to accomodate teaching that area. And I know of new media candidates who were rejected because they couldn’t get PowerPoint to work in their job talks!

    There is no consensus as to what a new media scholar is supposed to look like, teach, or research – most departments don’t have a clue what “new media” is, just what it is not. It is the curricular Other. Faculty end up learning to be new media experts through emergence (a nice new media buzzword), filtering up from students and personal interest rather than formal training. (Personally, I started teaching & studying videogames as an excuse to indulge in some “hands-on research,” but it has developed into a serious area of interest that ties directly into my primary TV scholarship.) Also, a lot of interest in new media comes from administrative pressures to train students for the next technology boom or appear cutting-edge in college profiles, but often I think this involves playing with cool toys rather than integrating technological developments into the historical arcs and precedents Tim cites.

    But might all of these points have been made about job searches for film studies in the 1970s (or ’80s or ’90s in some places!)? I hope other folks weigh in…

  • Media has a past and a present

    As a grad student looking to apply for jobs in the next year or two, I am increasingly as overwhelmed by as I am interested in new trends in media. In somewhat response to question #3, I have to say “Of course” and it should always have been so. How can students leave RTF departments without understanding at least minimally the relationships between broadcast media and film?

    However, I’m not only interested in broadcast and film and new media as “convergent” media, but also the ways in which narrative proliferates across media. I realize I’m playing with semantics here, but really to understand media and narrative in contemporary terms, students should gain the skills to analyze the reiterative nature of narrative across media. As a liberal arts die hard, I think these skills cannot end at film, TV, video games and new media, but should even include literature and graphic novels etc. that feed media franchises. I love and cherish the canon–aspects of it are essential to understanding pasts and presents of the human experience. However, we do students a disservice by letting them or forcing them to study a film canon, or TV broadcast history, when we end the discussion just when things get interesting–why stop the historical trajectories at the very point when the critical skills we attempt to foster can help our students engage in media they actually consume?

  • “Hypertext Rocks!”

    While back at Berkeley, in the overworked, underloved Mass Communications undergraduate program, plans were afoot (and are now progressing) to start a New Media program at Cal. Interestingly, and unfortunately, the position paper for the program felt the need to bounce itself off Mass Comms as doing silly stuff and asking the wrong questions of the wrong things.

    This seems to be a real problem with where “New Media” often comes from — an urge to avoid media and television studies completely. In Cal, it was a program growing out of Art and Information Sciences, and clearly just wanted to talk about computer art and why hypertext rocks. I worry, though, that we may end up with a wholly unsatisfactory division of both object of study AND disciplinary approach, whereby English Lit depts are doing one thing, Film Studies another, TV Studies a third, Communications a fourth, and now New Media a fifth. All of which ends up frustrating me as much as it does Jean, since surely we should be able to move across media and disciplinary toolboxes … but in the endless pursuit of creating borders, instead we’re convincing postgrads to be purists.

    This also has a generational component, therefore, since those who are most free to be intellectual journey-men and -women are those with job security/tenure. Those stuck trying madly to fit themselves into purist boxes are the younger generations of scholars (especially when on the market) … who, in a case of sad irony, are often those most familiar with and interested in truly “new” media.

  • The convergence of older media with newer media has been around for a long time with shows like Amos ā€˜nā€™ Andy and the Lone Ranger going from radio onto television. It is very interesting seeing how both television and film are converging with the new media of video games. Television shows like Buffy, movies such as Catwoman, and even books like Harry Potter have all been made into video games (Although most of them being terrible). Media is also converging in the way that modern game systems have the ability to play TV or movie DVDs. This convergence of media makes me believe that students in the Radio/Television/Film departments should study both film and broadcast histories because both affect each other in very significant ways. I would also like to see students studying new media, such as video games, along with film and broadcasting. Many people look down upon video games, but I believe that they have as much of a cultural impact as television, film, and radio. By studying video games, we can discover how the ideologies and stereotypes in games reflect in those who play them. Video games could be seen as a continuation of older media, especially with the way many modern video games are having more of a cinematic feel. Video games often include the same camera and editing techniques of film and can easily be seen as an extension of it. The themes and narrative structure of games also help in being an extension of old media. I would also like to add that it is interesting how Sony is most likely to lose again in the format wars with its poor sales of the Playstation 3. Unless Sony cuts the price of its new console, it seems that the PS3 and the Blu Ray disc will lose to the Xbox 360 and the HD DVD.

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