Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Misuse of New Media and Technological Determinism

revised version posted June 15, 2010

Opening Statement

In Chapter 1.6 of New Media: A Critical Introduction, Lister et al. invite us to ask if technology actually has the power to change us in itself. This question is based in the philosophies of two of the most influential writers on new media, Marshall McLuhan, who said that big cultural shifts can come about through new media technologies, and Raymond Williams, who said that we are the ones who decide how we use the medium, and thus create this change (Lister et al., ch 1.6).

In general, Williams' perspective is important in that it invites us to investigate why we use a medium as we do, however it seems to imply that we are in total control over its use. If Williams was right, a medium's use and effects on us would only lie within a fairly logical model, however that does not seem to be the case. Through this research, I hope to find that there are very basic psychological, often illogical, tendencies that we have which dictate how we use a new technology, and that the pull towards these tendencies is so powerful that we will accept or welcome most of the change that comes with acting them out through a new medium. This argument, while it uses Williams' theory in its analysis, leans away from it in emphasizing that in a way there is something inherent in how we use a medium and thus the medium does have the potential to change us.

This paper is not meant to say that we are not conscientious at all of the ways that we use new media or technology, but focuses rather on the uses of new media that we seem to be drawn to without concern for productivity or well-being, since I believe that this research will prove that they have a large role in the end uses for new media. Ultimately, I do believe that the responsibility for how a medium is used lies in our hands, however it seems to be a mistake to talk about how we impact new media without having humility and understanding where our own control over it starts to slip away.

Defining Theory

McLuhan and Technology As Extensions of Ourselves

Marshal McLuhan talked about the idea originating with Aristotle that technology is an extension of ourselves (Lister et al, ch 1.6.4). While new media can be extensions of our eyes and ears, in general it is possible to say that all technology is an extension of our will. As technology becomes better and better, we get closer and closer to doing that which we have always wanted to do. This means that technology is able to create change simply by enabling. In this essay I am stating that we have always wanted to do certain things, and technology is merely an agent towards achieving this.

Finding the Perfect Form

From a similar perspective, once we start thinking of each new medium as an enabler, it is also beneficial to start to look at Plato's idea of the difference between the intellectual and visible world, presented in "The Divided Line" (Book VI). In the Divided Line, Plato states that there is a perfect intellectual form, which we can only strive to achieve in physical reality. In terms of technology, the true form of communication could be considered to simply send your thoughts from one person to the other as inclined to do so. Technological limitations have always held us back from achieving this, although we have tried to through various mediums. As time goes on, however, we are becoming less bound by technology, and we are continuing to progress in the direction of realizing this true form through "brain-neurological engineering," discussed in chapter 1.4.1 by Lister et al. It could be said that with this new technology we are closing the gap between the physical and the perfect form.

Defining Concepts

What Do We Mean By New Media?

In discussing new media, the first important step is to define what we are considering a "medium" and the differences between a "new" medium and an "old" medium. A fitting definition of "medium" for this paper comes from the Merriam-Webser online dictionary: "a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment." This definition can still be overly inclusive, as a rock can be a medium for communicating that there was a volcano near by at some point in time. In order to narrow down the scope of this paper we will only be discussing objects or technologies within their ability to communicate or store information as a medium, and only those that are considered to have enough aptitude for such that they are described by Lister et al. in New Media, a Critical Introduction. This definition also helps separate a technology from a medium, as when technology beings to be considered in reference to a medium it is only in its state that it is being used for "communication, information, or entertainment".

Separating "new" media from "old" media is also difficult. Lister et al. outline some of the main characteristics of new media to be: "digital, interactive, hypertexual, virtual, networked, and simulated" (1.2). They progress to outline all of these terms further (Lister et al. ch 1.2.1-1.2.7) and discuss their histories (Lister et al. ch 1.3), and in doing so make it clear that there is not a true dividing line between new media and old media. For the purpose of this paper, the main difference between new and old media is in the ease of access and the lifting of the limitations presented by old media, including centralization, linearity, and others that come with an analogue medium and its distribution. The personal computer with the internet generally embodies all of these principles of new media, and encompasses other forms of new media including video games and social networking, and is primarily discussed in this paper, along with other forms of new and old media, including television and video games (not necessarily those just played on personal computers).

What is "Loss of Control"?

How much control we really have over our lives, or free will, is a very complex topic. In their paper on determinism, Ogletree and Oberle (99) quote Velman in discussing that even our conscious decisions are "the result of preconscious processing in the mind/brain." According to this, that means that every conscious decision is predetermined by our subconscious to an extent.

Loss of control can go deeper than this though. To a point we do not even have conscious control, or "phenomenological free will" (Ogletree, Oberle 98) over the way we use new media. Phenomenological free will is "the person's own perception of intentionally choosing, rather than whether or not that choice is 'free' or 'determined'"(Ogletree, Oberle 98). Pertaining specifically to the loss of control around how we use the internet, Thatcher et al. use the term "problematic internet use" in their paper, describing it as related to the inability to self-regulate one's internet use at times (section 1.1).

For this paper, however, we will fully adopt the idea of "problematic internet use" by Thatcher et al. which additionally includes Bead and Wolf's notion of "use of the internet that creates psychological, social, school, and/or work difficulties in a person's life" (section 1.1). This means that even if people are consciously making the decision to use the medium as they do, we will still discuss it if it is acknowledged as creating problems. "Difficulties in a person's life" are also somewhat relative to the culture that someone lives in or the amount of self-awareness or external pressures that people have, however when viewed in the context of the cultural and psychological norms of the United States "difficulties" can be viewed slightly more objectively.

We will also extend the term "problematic internet use" to "problematic use" of new media in general. This takes into consideration lack of self-regulation as well as uses of all forms of all new media that create problems in a person's life.

Problematic use under these definitions is actually a fairly encompassing term when we consider that it can be a temporary state of being. The "inability to self-regulate one's [new media] use at times" (Thatcher et al. section 1.1) can include any sort of impulsivity, such as getting distracted by, or even spending more time than you know you probably should engaged in the behavior. In this paper, when referring to our "loss of control" around the way we use new media or a "illogical" use it is based primarily on the idea of problematic use. Other definitions for loss of control could fit into this discussion as well, such as addiction or hard determinism, however problematic use seems to fit the scope of this theory well.

Discovering How We Use New Media

Since we have defined the concepts of new media and loss of control as discussed in this paper, as well as established new media as an enabler, we can now look to the uses of new media and ask what exactly they are enabling us to do? This will help us uncover the inherent uses or the perfect form of each media. What trends are there throughout different mediums?

In chapter 4.3.1 of New Media: A Critical Introduction, Lister et al. discuss that when people invested in home computers for their families there were doing so in order for the kids to do homework, but in reality, the internet would be used for play on the parts of the children. To Williams, the inability for parents to see this end use might have seemed to indicate that there is nothing inherent in the medium that dictates how we use it, however if we consider the history of how people have used recent other mediums and how their brains work, it should become clear that this use could have been anticipated. When we look at our brain chemistry, and the things we are naturally drawn to, it is easy to see that the people who foresaw the home computer being used mostly for productivity were simply looking in the wrong place.

How and Why We Use a New Medium

So, what exactly do people do with various media technologies? According to Jane McGonigal, three billion hours are spent weekly playing online games online, and the average amount of time spent playing games in countries with a "strong gaming culture" by the time a child is twenty-one is nearly equivalent to the amount of time spent in school between fifth grade and high school graduation. When internet use at home first became popular, it was rumored that one of its first uses were for pornography.

Today, according to in March 2010, people spent more time on Facebook than any other website. These are all very prominent uses of the home computer and are normally more associated with entertainment than any sort of productivity. In fact, they are commonly referenced in association with addiction, with the exact term "social networking addiction" generating 409,000 search engine results, and the exact term "game addiction" generating 209,000 results (via Google in June 2010).

While the things people do with home computers are uses in themselves, it is possible to "enframe" them further, and establish more underlying uses of the computer and media in general (or meta-uses). One good example of assessing these meta-uses for a medium is to examine them from the perspective of "uses and gratifications." Chandler reiterates a typology of "common reasons for media use" from McQuail, which can be seen as some of the deeper reasons why we watch television. McQuail groups the purposes for watching television into four main categories: "Information", "Personal Identity," "Integration and Social Interaction," and "Entertainment" (Chandler). Each category has a list of more specific uses beneath it. For the full typology see

When we look at it, McQuail's typology actually seems to be relevant to most forms of media, although to a slightly different extent with each. Using this model to describe the common uses of the home computer discussed thus far in this paper, it is possible to say that originally, the home computer was purchased for informative purposes but was actually used for entertainment purposes. As more people had access to the world-wide web and the medium grew there was an increasing draw towards social interaction and personal identity that is shown through the growth of social networking. In a sense, however, it can be said that through social networking this typology has reemerged itself, as people seek information about other peoples lives, develop their identity by expressing themselves to their friends, play games with their friends, and in general are constantly interacting socially. The the fact that the home computer is used for such similar purposes to television makes our drive towards these uses more apparent since the home computer has so much productive potential.

A Biological Model for New Media Uses

Addictive and pleasurable behaviors are often linked to dopamine, endorphins, and generally to the reward centers of the brain (McGronigal) (Koepp et al. 266) (Zull 61). Dopamine release during video games has been proven (Koepp et al. 266), and logically, it makes sense that getting a "like" on facebook, a new text message, or leveling up in a video game also active activate these parts of the brain, as would "productive" behaviors, such as finishing a homework assignment, or getting a good grade. What seems to be different between "productive" behaviors and video games or Facebook is the constant feedback cycle which is telling us when we are doing good or bad (Schell) (McGronigal).

So, how would this reward theory work with television? The powerful connection between the actions being viewed on television and the viewer is made clear in the research done by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonard Fogassi in their study of mirror neurons. These neurons fire when we do something ourselves, as well as when we view it being done by someone else, helping us to mediate understanding (Rizzolatti et al.). On TV, there are more rewards for greater activities for the characters we are watching, and we have an amazing ability to relate to all of this excitement and drama as if it were happening to us.

A good question to explore further, however, is why something is perceived as a reward. There are some sources of pleasure, which seem pretty hardwired into the brain. Berridge, Kent, and Kringelbach note these to be the basic pleasures associated with survival and procreation, such as sex and food, as well as social pleasures (459). Logically, it makes sense that text messaging, or getting a "like" on facebook fulfills a social desire, but in general exactly how we go about fulfilling this social desire and to how powerful this desire is seems to vary based on biological, psychological, and social factors. This seems to be the point at which Williams' reasoning would be helpful.

Returning to Loss of Control

Returning to McQuail's typology of the reasons we use new media the way we do, which I referred to earlier as "meta uses," it is clear that many of these lend themselves to addiction. Some specific uses included in McQuail's typology are "escaping, or being diverted, from problems," as well as other uses that can promote feelings of power and confidence such as "identifying with valued other (in the media)" or "gaining a sense of security through knowledge." Similar uses are addressed by Peele (1985) as being common motivators for developing addictive behavior, specifically: "reduction of pain, tension, and awareness (i.e., escape); enhanced sense of control, power, and self-esteem (i.e., compensation); and the simplification, predictability, and immediacy of experience (i.e., ritual)" (Horvath, p379)." This means that television can easily be used to meet the ends that lead to addiction, as can things like social networking, gaming, or looking at online pornography if we agree that they can also be used to those ends.

As an middle-class American, I often times see myself and others around me using the internet or television problematically. Personally, I can attest to frequently feeling as if I have a hard time resisting the distractions of Facebook, or obsessive Googling. I have seen many of my roommates as well as my family, including my parents, getting "sucked in" to the television and video games when they intended to be doing other things.

Testaments to people struggling with problematic internet use are around us all the time today. One example might be the tablet PC, particularly the kindle, with its emphasis on unitasking. Another might be websites like Lifehacker, a popular productivity blog, which has a #distractions tag with a plethora of tips on how to try to resist the many distractions the home computer has to offer.

Our Loss of Control Over Ourselves

Returning to the philosophy of technology as an enabler, and our quest for the perfect form, it is possible to say that we are not adept at having such easy access to that which we desire. A free society is largely based on the idea that people are capable of acting on what's "best" for them. In a society with limited access to pleasurable things it is much easier for the average person to do this. We grow accustomed to having control over our lives within the boundaries that technology has placed on us, however once those boundaries are lifted this becomes more difficult. What will be the eventual result for our society if we keep spending our time watching television or on Facebook?

Technology Changing Us

Since we have now established that there is a strong drive to use technology in the manner that best fulfills certain ends, this means that we are largely subject to whatever changes come from using that medium. For example, with television and computers we have largely accepted a more sedentary lifestyle. Although people often times want to fight against it, the rise in obesity seems to indicate that they have not been that successful.

To what extent is this true, however? Williams uses the example of the written medium, and the fact that whether or not people are literate is a complex issue. In order to use the written medium, people must become literate (assuming that they were not already). An interesting perspective that can be taken in response to Williams' to state that the medium itself is different based on accessibility, and thus people's background knowledge is actually part of the way that the medium itself can be defined, or even can be categorized as part of the technology around the medium. This is the case for distribution as well. Writing is not really a medium if people can not read it. The internet is not the same medium with five versus five million people.

Williams and Causation

In making this argument it is again important to think of what Williams might say. Williams stated that "technology on its own is incapable of producing change...there are rational and manipulative interests at work driving the technology in particular directions and it is to these that we should primarily direct our attention" (Lister et al. ch. 1.6). It seems like Williams might say that it is because of our current excess of down time that we are able to be unproductive, and that if we were starving we would be able to put our quest for hunger above our urge to check our facebooks. While this argument makes sense, to an extent our desire for pleasure can also take the place of our desire for food at certain times, as McGonigal makes clear when she speaks about a culture who played games during times of hunger in order to keep their mind off of their lack of food. Also, while it may be true that extreme hunger in most cases would trump spending time on facebook, as we have made clear anything bellow that, things which people would have considered important, and placed above "down time" in the past, such as hygiene, physical health, and education clearly have moved over to an extent.

Making Productivity "Pleasurable"

As people are discovering that we are predisposed towards using a medium in ways that stimulate our pleasure centers, they are attempting to utilize this in order to promote healthy and productive activities. Jane McGronigal works for an institute that designs games that are aimed at teaching people how to help solve the world's problems. Shell discusses a future where reward systems give us live feedback about our activities in order to promote a healthy lifestyle and education. Thatcher et al. discuss the concept of "flow" which has very similar characteristics of problematic internet use, however is normally discussed in terms of productive activities (section 1.3). "Csikszentmihalyi listed eight components of flow; a clear goal, challenges that match an individual's skills, control over the task, immediate and efficient feedback, concentration and focus, loss of self-consciousness, loss of a sense of time, and an activity that becomes autotelic [i.e. a task is perceived worthy for its own sake" (Thatcher et al. section 1.3). McGronigal lists very similar components to flow as what happens to us when we are playing video games. Knowing that these factors are what make certain things so appealing can lead to adaptations in the way we are productive. When looking at all of these ways that productive behaviors can be integrated with what we are drawn to naturally it is possible to see using these psychological motivators to our advantage.


It seems as if our desire to play and receive rewards are largely guiding factors that determine how we will use a new medium, and we will find ways to best utilize a medium in order to achieve these desires. This is emphasized by the idea of problematic usage. Even as what gives us pleasure changes, if we start to become less responsive to the reward systems present in games or social networking for example, at any given point there is still a certain formula for the way that people will interact with a new medium once it is put in front of them,. At the same time, knowing our own "formula" can also help us find pleasure in other aspects of life, and technology has served to "enframe," asHeideggerwould have put it, or reveal this to us (Godzinski).


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