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The Ever-Expanding Field of Media Studies

Ideas for understanding the mediated world

While poetry and prose, motion pictures and maps, listicles and landscape paintings, audiobooks and animated GIFs have all been reduced to “content” on our screens, the mechanisms that deliver that content to us are now revealing their own complexity. Substrates and filters and cables, we have come to see, possess their own expressive capabilities and politics. Recent hacks and leaks and algorithmic aberrances have brought media’s technical apparatae, long operating surreptitiously in the background, to the fore. The superficiality and inanity of our current Agenda Setters in Chief in Washington, with their claims of fakery and flip dismissals of fact, have paradoxically done much to reveal the deep and complex worlds — the tangle of hardware, software, infrastructure, protocols, policies, and politicking — behind our screens.

“Algorithm” is now popular parlance. News feeds, many Facebook users have come to realize, are hardly natural currents; they’re streams that pass through a system of locks and dams and filtration plants before they reach us. Geopolitics extend even to bot wars on Twitter.

What an exciting and terrifying time to be a scholar or critic of media. As the field expands beyond its former fixations on texts and genres and audiences and industries, media analysts — who’ve long drawn concepts and methods from a variety of humanistic and social scientific fields — now have to add engineering, computer science, design, and policy to their repertoires, too.

This is why I was both energized and intimidated by the prospect of teaching a generalist methods class this semester, for the first time in over a decade. I incorporate specialized methods into pretty much all the classes I teach: we learn about archival research in Data, Archive, Infrastructure; about data-driven approaches in Urban Intelligence; about cartographic methods in Maps as Media, for instance. This time, however, I’d be drawing students with widely disparate interests and backgrounds — from marketing and curating to documentary film production and English literature — and trying to establish a common ground for conversation and a shared toolkit of methods. I adapted the standard course description to reflect the fact that we’re now studying media in an expanded field: one that frames its subject of analysis variously as texts, objects, apparatae, commodities, imaginaries, systems, infrastructures, environments, “users,” human subjects, audiences, communities, “publics,” protocols, platforms, and so forth. Such a mélange of models and metaphors necessitates a diversity of methods.

I figured we’d start with the orthodoxy, then rip it apart — demonstrating that even disciplinary protocols and “best practices” are themselves unnatural constructions that we can subject to analysis. We’ll talk about the values and varieties of method, the risks of methodological fetishism, the weight of colonialism in research, and the opportunities for conceiving of method more capaciously and critically. We’ll then examine method in action — to see how other scholars, journalists, policy makers, artists, designers, curators, and technologists do their work: how they set research agendas, ask questions, choose modes of expression and dissemination, and select a mix of methods that both serve their functional purpose and embody an appropriate ethos. By meeting these other practitioners, and reverse-engineering their work, my students, I’m hoping, will appreciate the richness of methods in action — in a variety of contexts, forms, and functions.

After all that expanding outward, exploring possibility, we’ll focus on helping students develop their individual projects through in-class workshops and one-on-one consultations. I’ve created a collection of method-specific “toolkits” that I can recommend to students based on their individual needs. While the entire group won’t develop expertise in all of these methods — from content analysis to landscape-architecture-inspired fieldwork — they’ll at least be exposed to them through one another’s projects and presentations.

Academic classrooms like mine aren’t the only environments in which educators are grappling with such an “expanded field” of study. Research institutes like AI NowData & Society, Tactical Tech, and the Engine Room have drawn together scholars and practitioners from diverse fields — humanists, social scientists, technologists, artists, policy experts — to tackle the social implications of algorithmic governance and artificial intelligence and “platform capitalism.” They experiment with a variety of pedagogical strategies and modes of outreach: from exhibitions to white papers to public workshops. Public libraries have long been sites of civic pedagogy, and many library systems are now offering a variety of programs and services to promote digital literacies encompassing everything from fake news to Internet infrastructure. New York City’s three library systems, the Metropolitan New York Library Council, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Data & Society, and the Research Action Design collective have partnered to develop tools to train information professionals in digital privacy and data literacy, so they can better educate their patrons. The Library Freedom Project — “a syndicate of librarians, technologists, attorneys, and privacy advocates” — has also been working in this area, focusing on combatting mass surveillance.

These educators and activists also have the good fortune to draw upon a wealth of research resources from an expanded, and expanding, field of media scholars — a field of increasing demographic and disciplinary diversity. Jennifer Light, Mar Hicks, Ellen Ullman, and Lisa Nakamura remind us that women and indigenous communities were an integral part of computing history: they wrote code, “manned” machines, and manufactured chips. Nakamura and Tara McPherson demonstrate how that code has historically encoded racial biases, and Safiya Noble, in her new book, explains how, still today, our search engines reinforce racism. Meanwhile, Clapperton Mavhunga encourages us to expand our understanding of what constitute “innovation” and technology, to encompass non-Western traditions and new genealogies. Virginia Eubanks, in another new title, explains how data-driven decision-making and automated systems perpetuate the marginalization of the poor. Sarah Roberts, meanwhile, highlights the backstage labor of content moderation: those armies of workers who wade through the muck and mud of online “content” in order to filter out material that doesn’t meet legal standards or community guidelines. And Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski highlight the cables and satellites that pull that content, across thousands of miles of sea and air, to our screens. We also have a host of artists and creative technologists who take up these concerns in their practice, generating work that critically comments on its own infrastructures and protocols and histories. Their work, too, serves to expand our methodological repertoire.

Together, these myriad programs and practitioners demonstrate that there’s much behind the screen, much beneath that flattened pool of “content” — and that, in order to understand our contemporary media landscape, to navigate within today’s information environment, we have to practice methodological pluralism and situate ourselves within an expanded field.

As co-editor of the new Media/Publics project on Public Seminar I welcome timely, provocative content that looks beneath, above, behind, and all around the content; essays that examine the ways media are given form, as well as the ways they inform, inspire, and influence; articles that assess how media constitute geographies, infrastructures, and publics; and commentaries that employ a range of methods and modalities. By contributing my own work, soliciting contributions from colleagues, and welcoming submissions from friends and interlocutors near and far — particularly junior scholars, critics from under-represented groups, and creative practitioners committed to critical experimentation — I hope to foster a discussion that constitutes its own expanding field and builds an expanding mediated public.

Shannon Mattern is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School and author of numerous books with University of Minnesota Press. Find her on twitter @shannonmattern.

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