Skip to content

What's Next? How Digital Media Shapes Our Society

By John McDonald
Media and Information stock photo

A summary of Professor Leah A. Lievrouw's most recent book, which explores the rapidly changing role communication plays at the center of human experience and endeavor.

UCLA Information Studies Professor Leah A. Lievrouw’s first academic job was at Rutgers University in the late 1980s. One day, a colleague, a media effects researcher, was talking with her in her office and said, “Well, you know this new media stuff, it’s kind of interesting, but really it’s just a fad, isn’t it?”

That “new media stuff” has been the centerpiece of Lievrouw’s research ever since and today is central to many of the economic, social, political and policy challenges that confront the globe.

“My interest is in new technologies, communication information technologies and social change, and how change happens for good and ill. It’s really a sociological take. I’m more interested in what’s going on at the whole society or whole community level,” Lievrouw said. Professor Lievrouw joined the UCLA Department of Information Studies in 1995 and in 2005 co-edited “The Handbook of New Media” (Sage Publications), with Sonia Livingston of the London School of Economics. The book became a central resource for study of the field and is still used in classrooms and cited in research.

“It was really a big comprehensive survey with leading people in the field who were working on this research, right across various sub-fields and different topics,” Lievrouw said. “For a long time and in some circles still it is kind of the definitive capture of what the field was like and what the issues were at the moment.”

With changes in technology and communication rapidly occurring with ever larger impact, Lievrouw and her colleagues began talking about not just an update, but a whole new book.

Lievrouw decided to move forward and eventually linked up with Brian Loader, a professor at the University of York in the United Kingdom and editor-in-chief of the journal Information, Communication and Society, to serve as co-editor.

The book draws together the work of scholars from across the globe to examine the forces that shape our digital social lives and further our understanding of the sociocultural impact of digital media.

Routledge Handbook of Digital Media and Communication

“As of this writing, as the world undergoes breakdowns in social, institutional, and technological systems across every domain of human affairs in the wake of a biological and public health crisis of unprecedented scale and scope, such a framework for understanding communicative action, technology, and social forms has never been so apt or so urgently needed.” - Routledge Publishing

Mirroring the approach of the earlier “Handbook of Social Media,” the book is organized into a three-part framework exploring the artifacts or devices, the practices and institutional arrangements that are central to digital media, and draws the connections across the three elements.

The book explores topics such as the power of algorithms, digital currency, gaming culture, surveillance, social networking, and connective mobilization. As described in the introduction by Routledge, the “Handbook delivers a comprehensive, authoritative overview of the state of new media scholarship and its most important future directions that will shape and animate current debates.”

“I really like that again this seems to be a pretty definitive state-of-the-art kind of look at what is going on with these technologies,” Lievrouw said. “This has perhaps a more critical edge than we had 20 years ago, because we have begun to see the downsides of digital media as well as all the upsides that everyone had such hopes about. What makes me really happy is that this volume kind of pulls back a bit and takes a bigger stock of the issues and challenges. We have a few chapters that I think are just really definitive, written by some of the very best people on the planet. We were very lucky to recruit such a terrific lineup of people.”

Professor Lievrouw refers to a series of essays on critical topics in the book by leading experts such as Paul Dourish exploring Ubiquity or the everywhereness of digital media; Veronica Barrasi, writing about youth, algorithms, and political data; and Julie Cohen, writing about the nature of property in a world driven by social media and more.

“In her chapter, Cohen asks, what’s the nature of property? Every aspect of our behavior or of our beliefs is constantly kind of being pulled away from us, appropriated and owned by outfits like Google and like Facebook. They now consider this their proprietary information, and we’ve not had that before in the world really, certainly not on this scale. I think that’s worth exploring,” Lievrouw said.

Timing is everything, and the new book is emerging at a time of particular relevance and questioning about digital media.

“The book has happened to come out at a moment when there’s so much skepticism, and so much worry,” Professor Lievrouw said. “What’s interesting is that the worry is in the scholarly community too and has been for a little while.

“We’re in that moment where we are having to look, not only at the most egregious and outrageous behaviors, opinions, and disinformation, and all the kinds of things that have come out from under the rocks. And the system itself is rather mature at this point, so the question becomes, ‘Where is it going to go? What do we do next? Is it just more incursion, more data, more surveillance, more circulation of stuff?’ And we are doing it without editing, without gatekeepers. And we should never forget about the impact of places like Facebook, Google, Amazon. “It has changed social structure.

It has changed cultural practices. It has changed our perception of the world fundamentally. And I think it’s not just the technology that did this, it’s the way we built it.

“I think we are entering a period of reckoning about these technologies, the whole complex of people involved in the building and operation of platforms and different kinds of applications, especially data gathering. Data has come to the center of the economics of this thing in a way that it hasn’t before. This is a good moment to reassess what works, what has been emancipatory, what has been enabling for people, how the diffusion of these technologies, and the adaptation of their use, is impacting different places and different cultures all over the world.

“Every thoughtful researcher in this area I know is turning this over in their head, saying, ‘How did we get to this point? What happened here?’ I think what this book can help us understand not only where we are right now, but also to think about what could be next, and what can we do to repair this. Right now, I don’t think anybody has a solid answer for that. If they do, it’s an answer they don’t like.”

Excerpt from Introduction

No longer new, digital media and communication technologies—and their associated infrastructures, practices, and cultural forms—have become woven into the very social fabric of contemporary human life. Despite the cautiously optimistic accounts of the potential of the Internet to foster stronger democratic governance, enable connective forms of mobilization, stimulate social capital (community, social, or crisis informatics), restructure education and learning, support remote health care, or facilitate networked flexible organization, the actual development of digital media and communication has been far more problematic. Indeed, recent commentary has been more pessimistic about the disruptive impact of digital media and communication upon our everyday lives. The promise of personal emancipation and free access to unlimited digital resources has, some argue, led us to sleepwalk into a world of unremitting surveillance, gross disparities in wealth, precarious employment opportunities, a deepening crisis in democracy, and an opaque global network of financial channels and transnational corporations with unaccountable monopoly power.

A critical appraisal of the current state of play of the digital world is thus timely, indeed overdue, and required if we are to examine these assertions and concerns clearly. There is no preordained technological pathway that digital media must follow or are following. A measure of these changes is the inadequacy of many familiar concepts— such as commons, public sphere, social capital, class, and others—to capture contemporary power relations or to explain transitions from “mass society” to networked sociality—or from mass to personalized consumption. Even the strategies of resistance to these transitions draw upon traditional appeals to unionization, democratic accountability, mass mobilization, state regulation, and the like, all part of the legacy of earlier capitalist and political forms.

How then to examine the current digitalscape? Internet-based and data-driven systems, applications, platforms, and affordances now play a pivotal role in every domain of social life. Under the rubric of new media research, computer-mediated communication, social media or Internet studies, media sociology, or media anthropology, research and scholarship in the area have moved from the fringe to the theoretical and empirical center of many disciplines, spawning a whole generation of new journals and publishers’ lists. Within communication research and scholarship itself, digital technologies and their consequences have become central topics in every area of the discipline—indeed, they have helped blur some of the most enduring boundaries dividing many of the field’s traditional specializations. Meanwhile, the ubiquity, adaptability, responsiveness, and networked structure of online communication, the advantages of which—participation, convenience, engagement, connectedness, community—were often celebrated in earlier studies, have also introduced troubling new risks, including pervasive surveillance, monopolization, vigilantism, cyberwar, worker displacement, intolerance, disinformation, and social separatism.

Technology infrastructure has several defining features that make it a distinctive object of study. Infrastructures are embedded; transparent (support tasks invisibly); have reach or scope beyond a single context; learned as part of membership in a social or cultural group; are linked to existing practices and routines; embody standards; are built on an existing, installed base; and, perhaps most critically, ordinarily become “visible” or apparent to users only when they break down: when “the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout.” As of this writing, as the world undergoes breakdowns in social, institutional, and technological systems across every domain of human affairs in the wake of a biological and public health crisis of unprecedented scale and scope, such a framework for understanding communicative action, technology, and social forms has never been so apt or so urgently needed.

Two cross-cutting themes had come to characterize the quality and processes of mediated communication over the prior two decades. The first is a broad shift from the mass and toward the network as the defining structure and dominant logic of communication technologies, systems, relations, and practices; the second is the growing enclosure of those technologies, relations, and practices by private ownership and state security interests. These two features of digital media and communication have joined to create socio-technical conditions for communication today that would have been unrecognizable even to early new media scholars of the 1970s and 1980s, to say nothing of the communication researchers before them specializing in classical media effects research, political economy of media, interpersonal and group process, political communication, global/comparative communication research, or organizational communication, for example.

This collection of essays reveals an extraordinarily faceted, nuanced picture of communication and communication studies, today. For example, the opening part, “Artifacts,” richly portrays the infrastructural qualities of digital media tools and systems. Stephen C. Slota, Aubrey Slaughter, and Geoffrey C. Bowker’s piece on “occult” infrastructures of communication expands and elaborates on the infrastructure studies perspective. Paul Dourish provides an incisive discussion on the nature and meaning of ubiquity for designers and users of digital systems. Essays on big data and algorithms (Taina Bucher), mobile devices and communicative gestures (Lee Humphreys and Larissa Hjorth), digital embodiment and financial infrastructures (Kaitlyn Wauthier and Radhika Gajjala), interfaces and affordances (Matt Ratto, Curtis McCord, Dawn Walker, and Gabby Resch), hacking (Finn Brunton), and digital records and memory (David Beer) demonstrate how computation and data generation/capture have transfigured both the material features and the human experience of engagement with media technologies and systems. The second part, “Practices,” shifts focus from devices, tools, and systems to the communicative practices of the people who use them. Digital media and communication today have fostered what some writers have called datafication—capturing and rendering all aspects of communicative action, expression, and meaning into quantified data that are often traded in markets and used to make countless decisions about, and to intercede in, people’s experiences. Systems that allow people to make and share meaning are also configured by private-sector firms and state security actors to capture and enclose human communication and information.

This dynamic is played out in routine monitoring and surveillance (an essay by Mark Andrejevic), in the construction and practice of personal identity (Mary Chayko), in family routines and relationships (Nancy Jennings), in political participation (Brian Loader and Veronica Barassi), in our closest relationships and sociality (Irina Shklovski), in education and new literacies (Antero Garcia), in the increasing precarity of “information work” (Leah Lievrouw and Brittany Paris), and in what Walter Lippmann famously called the “picture of reality” portrayed in the news (Stuart Allan, Chris Peters, and Holly Steel). Many suggest that the erosion of boundaries between public and private, true and false, and ourselves and others is increasingly taken for granted, with mediated communication as likely to create a destabilizing, chronic sense of disruption and displacement as it is to promote deliberation, cohesion, or solidarities.

The broader social, organizational, and institutional arrangements that shape and regulate the tools and the practices of digital communication and information, and which themselves are continuously reformed, are explored in the third part. Nick Couldry starts with an overview of mediatization, the growing centrality of media in what he calls the “institutionalization of the social” and the establishment of social order, at every level from microscale interaction to the jockeying among nation-states. There are essays that present evidence of the instability, uncertainty, and delegitimation associated with digital media; reflections on globalization; a survey of governance and regulation; a revisitation of political economy; and the trenchant reconsideration of the notion of property. Elena Pavan and Donatella della Porta examine the role of digital media in social movements while Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman argue that digital technologies may, in fact, help reinforce people’s senses of community and belonging both online and offline. Shiv Ganesh and Cynthia Stohl show that while much past research was focused on the “fluidity” or formlessness of organization afforded by “digital ubiquity,” in fact contemporary organizing is a more subtle process comprising “opposing tendencies and human activities, of both form and formlessness.”

Taken together, the contributions present a complex, interwoven technical, social/cultural, and institutional fabric of society, which nonetheless seems to be showing signs of wear, or perhaps even breakdown in response to systemic environmental and institutional crises. As digital media and communication technologies have become routine, even banal—convenience, immediacy, connectedness—they are increasingly accompanied by a growing recognition of their negative externalities—monopoly and suppressed competition, ethical and leadership failures, and technological lock-in instead of genuine, path breaking innovation. The promise and possibility of new media and digitally mediated communication are increasingly tempered with sober assessments of risk, conflict, and exploitation.

This scenario may seem pessimistic, but perhaps one way to view the current state of digital media and communication studies is that it has matured, or reached a moment of consolidation, in which the visionary enthusiasms and forecasts of earlier decades have grown into a more developed or skeptical perspective. Digital media platforms and systems have diffused across the globe into cultural, political, and economic contexts and among diverse populations that often challenge the assumptions and expectations that were built into the early networks. The systems themselves, and their ownership and operations, have stabilized and become routinized, much as utilities and earlier media systems have done before, so they are more likely to resist root-and-branch change. They are as likely to reinforce and sustain patterns of knowledge and power as they are to “disrupt” them.

In another decade we might expect to find that the devices, practices, and institutional arrangements will have become even more integrated into common activities, places, and experiences, and culture will be unremarkable, embedded, woven into cultural practices, standardized, and invisible or transparent, just as satellite transmissions and undersea cables, or content streaming and social media platforms, are to us today. These socio-technical qualities will pose new kinds of challenges for communication researchers and scholars, but they also herald possibilities for a fuller, deeper understanding of the role communication plays at the center of human experience and endeavor.

This article is part of the UCLA Ed&IS Magazine Summer 2021 Issue. To read the full issue click here.