Creating Technology for Social Change

John Fiske: Now and The Future

Last week, I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers at the Fiske Matters conference which was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. John Fiske has been and continues to be one of the most important intellectual influences on my work. His strong defense of popular culture as offering a series of resources through which active audiences struggled over meaning was a foundation for my ongoing investigation of participatory culture and new media literacy. His work was controversial at the time he introduced it – in part because he challenged the tendency of left academics towards cultural pessimism which had motivated so much of American cultural theory in the late 20th century. Fiske struggled to get us to look closer at the lives of ordinary people and the ways that they struggled to assert aspects of their own needs and desires through their relationship with mass produced culture. For Fiske, mass culture was culture produced by commercial industries, while popular culture was culture at the moment it became a resource for ordinary people through the process of consumption.

Fiske retired more than a decade ago, just as the digital revolution was helping to make the agency of grassroots cultural producers and consumers much more visible than it had been before. To some degree, the shock of the culture war which surrounded Fiske’s works had left many of us uncertain how to carry that tradition forward. We had lost his mentorship and intellectual leadership; we didn’t know how to face down his critics; and we didn’t want the backlash to cripple our own professional development.

But this conference represented a rallying of the troops, a gathering of the tribes. It felt like a homecoming party or a family reunion for a particular strand of cultural studies that had made such a difference for each of us in the room. For a good recap of the event, read this blog post by Bill Kirkpatrick who delivered an eye-opening talk about what Fiske’s ideas have and could contribute to debates about media policy.

We were honored that Fiske came out of retirement to share one last lecture with his students – in this case, a talk about how shifts in social consciousness were reflected in the material culture of the 16th and 17th century, which in the end turned out to also be a provocation to think about how our own relationship with self and community were changing in the digital age. This was a talk by a man who had spent the last decade of his life running an antique shop in Vermont and who was clear he was no longer reading cultural theory still managing to share some insights to scholars very much confronting the challenges of understanding his own time. Fiske suggested that antiques were physical reminders that people had thought and live differently in the past and that they had often done so in ways which were meaningful and satisfying to him; it was a suggestion that there were always alternatives to the current configuration of culture and power and thus, if things had changed in the past, they could and would change in the future. We hung on every word, reminded of his lively wit, his provocative personality, his attention to each phrase, and his systematic development of thought.

And as the weekend continued, we learned more about how he had impacted each of us – through his teaching inside and outside the classroom, through his writing, and through his work as an editor and leader in the field. He stitched together through his travels a network of people which scanned across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the Americas. And we saw how his students had taken his ideas to Asia and Africa as well. We saw Fiske’s own students and contemporaries as well as the next generation – our students can be seen as Fiske’s intellectual grandchildren, those who had found his writings through our own teaching and scholarship, all of whom still saw Fiske’s ideas as a living presence in our thinking. Fiske made clear that he saw his legacy not in the continued circulation of his ideas, which he had seen as contributions to contemporary debates and conversations about culture and politics, but through the minds and personalities he had influenced. I certainly know that I channel Fiske all the time in both conscious and unconscious ways. It felt liberating to be able to talk with others about the importance of this man and his work.

I was asked by Routledge to write a general introduction to Fiske’s scholarship which will accompany the reissue of some of his key books later this year. I also helped to pull together roundtable discussions of his former students around each of the books, feeling that it was far better to represent his works through conversations and colloquiums rather than lectures. I wanted to give just a little taste of this material here – part of my discussion of Fiske’s relationship to technology and politics:

“The technology needed for them [The Right] to establish the total surveillance upon which to base their moral totalism is already available. Fear will increase the likelihood of that technology’s use and the probability of right-wing forces being in power to use it. It is, therefore, in their interests to confine as many of us as they can to our cultural and geographic enclaves. Is this what we want?” — John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change, 1994 (MM, 253)

The above four sentences constitute the final words in John Fiske’s final book before his retirement. It is telling that Fiske ends the book on a provocation — “Is this what we want?” No matter how dark his vision of the society had become, Fiske believed we have a choice, that we have the capacity to change our social conditions , and he called upon academics to deploy their expertise and institutional power in the service of social change.

He asks explicitly: Is this what we want?

He asks implicitly: if not, what are we going to do about it?

The question culminates in a chapter devoted to what Fiske describes as “technostruggles,” one of the few places where Fiske wrote extensively about technology as an agent of cultural change. Fiske wrote about arcade games, well before his contemporaries, in Reading the Popular (1989). He discussed the ways people were using channel changers to exert greater control over television in Television Culture (1988). And he described how the widespread deployment of photocopiers were causing anxieties about copyright regulation, even as copying television programs and music was becoming more “socially acceptable” [TC 311]. In each case, his arguments were ultimately less about the technology than about its popular uses. In such passages, Fiske suggested the complex interplay between technological and cultural change, but he never developed a theory of oppositional use of technology until the final chapters of Media Matters.

Fiske’s relative disinterest in technology (and often, in media ownership) drew sharp criticism from political economists, who felt that he underestimated the structuring power of entrenched capital. He explains in Understanding Popular Culture that his theoretical perspective is “essentially optimistic, for it finds in the vigor and vitality of the people evidence both of the possibility of social change and of the motivation to drive it.” [UPC,21] We’ve heard so much over the past decade and a half about the democratic potential of new media technologies and practices that it is easy to forget that Fiske saw the Internet as simply another battleground through which ongoing struggles over meaning, pleasure, knowledge, and power would be conducted. But he also did not accept a model which saw certain media technologies as forces for cultural domination:

“Information technology is highly political, but its politics are not directed by its technological features alone. It is, for instance, a technical feature of the surveillance camera that enables it to identify a person’s race more clearly than his or her class or religion, but it is a racist society that transforms that information into knowledge.” [MM 219]

The affordances of new media could be deployed towards certain ends, but ultimately, how they were used reflected their cultural context.

Fiske saw the promises of a digital revolution but did not declare a premature victory over mass media:

“New technologies cannot in themselves produce social change, though they can and do facilitate it.” [MM 115]

“Power is social, not just technological, and it is through institutional and economic control that technology is directed.” [MM 137]

“We can make our society one that is rich in diverse knowledges, but only if people strive to produce and circulate them. Technology will always be involved and, if its potential is exploited, its proliferation may make the control over knowledge less, not more, efficient.” [MM 238]

“Technology is proliferating, but not equally: its low-tech and high-tech forms still reproduce older hierarchies, and although it may extend the terrain of struggle and introduce new weapons into it, it changes neither the lineup of forces nor the imbalance in the resources they command.” [MM 239]

“The multiplication of communication and information technologies extend the terrains of struggle, modifies the forms struggle may take, and makes it even more imperative that people grasp the opportunities for struggle that the multiplying of technologies offers.” [MM 240]

Yes, Fiske tells us, media matters, but media change does not overcome other social, cultural, political, and economic factors…..

When I brought John Fiske to MIT shortly after Media Matters was published, I remember the disappointment and frustration some of my students felt that Fiske was “not ready” to embrace the promise of the digital, because at the epicenter of the digital revolution, we were full of hopes that the new media would lower the barriers to entry into cultural production and distribution, allowing many more voices to be heard and putting greater power (political, economic, cultural) in the hands of “the people.” I was surrounded by early adopters for whom the transformative capacity of new media was an article of faith. In this context, I often had to work hard to resist technological determinist arguments and to insist, as John had taught us, that cultural and social factors shape technology far more than technology shapes culture….

Confronted with the assertion that the wide availability of new tools would enable greater public participation, Fiske wrote, “In premodern Europe,… everyone had a larynx, but few were able to speak in public and political life.” [MM 238] Technological access was not sufficient in the absence of efforts to overcome those social and cultural factors which blocked full participation — what we now would call “the participation gap.”

Fiske typically followed claims about grassroots resistance with an acknowledgment of the powerful forces which were stacked against us. For example, Fiske was interested in the unequal status of high tech and low tech uses of communication technology, contrasting the “videohigh” of the broadcast industry with the “videolow” of citizen camcorder activism, a contrast which paves the way to a consideration of how broadcast and grassroots media competes with each other for attention and credibility. Fiske wrote “technostruggles” in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial. As Fiske notes, the original video showing the Los Angeles police beating suspect Rodney King, captured via a home movie camera by a passerby George Holliday, possessed high credibility because it displayed so little technological sophistication:

“George Holliday owned a camera, but not a computer enhancer; he could produce and replay an electronic image, but could not slow it, reverse it, freeze it, or write upon it, and his videolow appeared so authentic to so many precisely because he could not.” [MM 223]

The LAPD’s defense attorneys deployed a range of technical and rhetorical tricks to reframe the King video and change how it was understood, at least by the jury, if not by the general public. For Fiske, this struggle over the tape’s meaning suggested what was to come — an ongoing competition between those who have access to low-tech, everyday forms of cultural production and those who had access to high-tech communication systems. If new media technologies were expanding the resources available to those who have previously seemed powerless, they were also expanding the capacities of the powerful.

In Media Matters, Fiske’s embrace of participatory media practices was suggested by his enthusiasm for low-bandwidth “pirate” radio stations within the African-American community. At the same time, Fiske was quick to link networked computing with institutions of government surveillance. Fiske warned that the same practices deployed by companies to construct a “consumer profile” could be applied by governments to construct a “political profile”: “The magazines we subscribe to, the causes we donate to, the university courses we register for, the books we purchase and the ones we borrow from the library are all recorded, and recorded information is always potentially available.” [MM 219] Fiske predicted that conservatives might intensify the power of the government in response to their “fear” as America became a minority-majority country in the coming decades. Fiske anticipated that increased controversy around racial conflict would be embodied through “media events” such as the Rodney King tape and the LA Riots, the battle between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and the murder trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson. A decade plus later, we are more apt to ascribe the growth of surveillance culture to the “terror” produced by 9/11 and its aftermath, though Fiske would have pushed us to consider the ways the War on Terror is linked to racial profiling and may mask other kinds of conflicts.