A Theory of Media Subversion
Chris Peterson is an admissions officer, teaching assistant, and researcher at MIT. He works at the intersection of digital strategy, new media, and social change.
In addition to his research affiliation with Civic, he is on the Board of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a Fellow at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and the founder, owner, and sole-proprietor of BurgerMap.org.
He earned his B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he completed his thesis on Facebook privacy and/as contextual integrity advised by Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He earned his S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he completed his thesis on user-generated censorship advised by Ian Condry, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nancy Baym.
A Theory of Media Subversion
I've been hunkered down these last few weeks sketching a skeleton of my thesis on user-generated censorship. One of the questions I have been prompted to answer is how user-generated censorship happens.
In its most immediate, technical character, this is a trivial question to answer. On reddit and digg it works through coordinated downvoting, on Facebook through coordinated spam-marking, and so on. But to zoom out for a moment into the abstract: how do all of these technical manifestations work? If these buttons are levers, to be pulled to do things, then where is their fulcrum?
I've been working out a theory of media subversion. A medium is a vessel which carries, transfers, or makes available information. How might the mechanics of a medium be reversed so that it has the effect of dropping, stopping, or making unavailable information?
In his “Theory of Affordances”, James Gibson defined affordances as features, or points of purchase, which an environment “furnishes either for good or for ill.” Influenced by Gibson and the critic David Harvey’s musings on the dialectical, internal contradictions of capital, my framework suggests that a given configuration of a medium provides, inspires, contains, and suggests methods of both use and subversion.
By “configuration” I mean both the formal (material, technologically constructed) and imaginative (metaphorical, socially constructed) aspects of a medium. Let me illustrate this argument with a familiar, even obvious, analog example. Sound is a medium. Its configuration, in the physical world, furnishes individuals with the ability to communicate orally. But despite its apparently simple nature, the configuration of sound generates complex corresponding phenomena of use and subversion.
In a town meeting, mediated by sound, people may raise their voice to be heard by more people, or lower it to be heard by less, with upper and lower bounds described by the limits of the larynx. The Occupy Wall Street protests, deprived of megaphones by the police, relied instead upon the “People’s Mic” to amplify their voices across Zuccotti Park, overcoming the constraints of one voice by coordinating many. In town meeting, speakers are intelligible only because of such coordination. Robert’s Rules organizes around the properties of sound to prevent the confusion produced by uncoordinated speakers, because sound dictates that, if too many people speak at once, much may be audible but little intelligible.
If sound’s configuration suggests that coordinated speakers can communicate with others within earshot, then it also, through inversion, implies that communication can be disrupted by uncoordinating the speakers or removing them from earshot. The hecker’s veto, as a means of subverting sound, operates by rendering speakers unintelligible via the infliction of cacophony. Other methods, as Nancy Fraser noted in her counterpublic critique of Habermas, operate by barring access to or erecting walls around spaces where speech may be heard, rendering speakers inaudible to those who might listen.
Possible methods of a medium’s subversion, therefore, can be found lurking in the shadows of its use. This theory - if it can be called that - isn't really anything new, either in its abstract form (dialectics) or in its application to media. But I've found it to be a useful exercise. The light of means of use can illuminate the means of subversion.