On “Hypermedia”

A recent issue of the journal Public Culture includes an article by the media scholar Marwan Kraidy, in which he engages – not very successfully in my view – with criticisms of the Syrian regime made by the singer Asala Nasri as an effective challenge to Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy (and hence a crucial component of the Syrian uprising). Leaving aside the question of how much mediated challenges matter to a regime whose staying power has been closely linked to its military capacities, Kraidy’s analysis is shaky even when it comes to exploring the way media themselves function. His view of contemporary media – so-called “hypermediated space” – focuses mostly on message transmission capacities: that is, how much “information” can be transmitted, how quickly, to what nodes in a mediated network.

Asala’s challenge was supposedly more effective and more relevant simply because her words were (able to be) transmitted more densely and frequently via the Internet. While this may be true, in a very basic way, this kind of argument tells us little about both what is actually said, and what are the principles of the forms of media in which it is said. Both content and form fall by the wayside, hostages to what amounts to a rather crude technological determinism.

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First, a word on “hypermedia” as Kraidy uses the term. Writers such as David Bolter and Richard Grusin have put a cultural spin on the idea of “hyper-mediation” – or the multiplication of references to media forms; for example, using website-derived aesthetics in printed newspapers, or sharing TV news clips online, or indeed reading out Facebook comments on a radio programme – and have looked at the particular meanings and functions such moves have in mediated communication. Not so Kraidy, for whom “hypermedia space” is simply the multiplication of “points of access” to messages, made possible (or merely amplified?) by digital technologies.

Demonstrators during the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, 2005. (Image via Elie Ghobeira / Wikimedia Commons)

For Kraidy, hypermediation is good for things such as civil society engagement and socio-political change, because people are no longer limited to getting their information from a single media source. (Yes, it is that simple.) The problem with this view is that we are still talking about potentials, rather than any discernible effects such media multiplication might have. People can – as they did, according to an earlier article of Kraidy’s, during Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, a kind of not-really prelude to the “Arab Spring” – bypass official channels of information in order to share messages, organise, etc., if only there is a hypermediated multiplicity of communication points for them to access. But of course there is no guarantee that they will actually do so. Further, though the “points of access” may be many, they are not all of the same type, and certainly not spread equally across the population. (The “digital divide” may be breaking down in many Arab countries with the advent of cheaper smartphones and mobile data plans, but there is more to accessibility and engagement than just the fact that somebody can access the Internet from their phone.) Facebook, for instance, might enable people to organise a protest effectively, but on the other hand there is no guarantee that this kind of engagement will actually last – as it gives little accountability and makes no provisions for more lasting organisational structures than e.g. face-to-face meetings might. These are important points, but they are lost in an argument which speaks only about “access to information” without delving in more detail about how media actually work.

To my mind, one of the more bizarre arguments to have come out of this approach is what I’ll cheekily term the “Arab Idol Democracy” argument. This is another point that Kraidy makes: that music talent reality shows – such as Arab Idol, its predecessor Super Star, and Star Academy – which allow audiences to “vote” on their favourites to advance to the next round, are amplifying the possibilities for participation and showing that democratic forms of engagement have real effects. Pick up your phone, and you enter a hypermedia space in which you are participating as a good, democratically aware citizen, whose vote will count and have an impact.

st3

“The stars of Star Academy 3.” “Arab” democracy in action.

Apart from being subtly orientalist – ignorant Arabs being educated about democracy by a Western-sourced cultural form – this argument again completely ignores both the form and content of media interaction. “Participation” might count, but it is limited to casting a (premium-rate-charged) tele-vote on a small pool of contestants who do not in turn have any lasting impact or accountability, and disappear from the scene completely once the “season” is over.

There may be a highly cynical comment about the state of participatory democracy in there somewhere. But this isn’t what Kraidy is saying; for him, rather, the effects are real, and (really) beneficial. In the end, I think, his arguments do little but demonstrate the true perils of technological determinism: taking certain laudatory statements – about “increased participation” and suchlike – for granted, and applying them in a superficial manner with only enough actual analysis that they still stick. Even though there is much greater complexity there in practice.

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On “Hypermedia”

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