A Media History of the City
A media history of the city could take on any number of forms. The shape of this history would largely be determined by how we defined its key terms. How should “the city” be understood? Such a history could begin in ancient or pre-historical times, starting with the earliest human settlements and urban agglomerations. On the other hand, it would also be possible to select a single moment along this vast timeline and analyze this temporal snapshot to see how various media are intersecting with urban life. This history could even be a contemporary history of modern media practices and institutions and their role in the urban experience. The other key question is how “media” should be understood. What media should be included in our study? How inclusive or exclusive should our definition be? Depending on how expansive our definition is, our history could begin by looking at human settlements established in pre-literate societies where spoken language was the primary communication medium. Our history could also look at the development of alphabets, and the role of various writing media such as tablets, papyrus, and parchment in facilitating the construction and governance of cities. Our history could instead follow a traditional mass communication view of modern media. In contemporary New York City place names such as Radio City Music Hall and Times Square attest to the impact that media of mass communication has made in urban spaces.
In order to limit the scope of this essay, I will frame my response as a curriculum overview for an imagined undergraduate course on media and the city. Framing the response in this way provides a framework and rationale for defining the terms of our analysis and the range of history we can reasonably attempt. A typical U.S. undergraduate introductory course in media studies approaches its subject using the “big 5” traditional media: newspapers, magazines, film, radio, and TV. For the sake of this essay, and imagining a potential undergraduate course based on this subject, I will structure my response around these “big 5” traditional media. Also in following the structure of a typical undergraduate media course, the history I present will correspond to the history of mass communication in the United States. The history I offer here is mostly confined to the 20th century, and focuses on U.S. cities. As such, this imaginary course I am outlining could be called “History of U.S. media and urbanization.” In what follows, I offer five key moments in this “media history of the city,” with each moment corresponding to one of the big 5 traditional media. Each entry will offer some historical information on the development of that media form, and a case study that illustrates the intersection between media use and the life of city. Finally, I will offer a sixth moment and case study that accounts for more recent developments in digital media and technological convergence, as well as salient aspects of urban life in the 21st century metropolis.
Moment One: Penny Papers and Newsboys on Strike
Early colonial newspapers tended to be political in nature, what were called the “partisan press” as opposed to commercial papers. In the 1830s, technological developments associated with the industrial revolution allowed for new paper production practices. Expensive handmade paper could be replaced by cheaper mass produced paper. Before this change in production, newspapers cost about 5 cents to purchase, which was relatively expensive for the time. Therefore newspaper readers tended to be affluent. Using the less expensive production techniques, publishers could sell papers for as cheap as 1 cent. Thus the “penny press” or “penny papers” were born, and this is the moment when newspapers truly became a mass media. Newspaper publishers had long relied on subscription service for reliable purchases of their papers, but in the penny press era individual street sales became an important part of the business model as well. One of the major penny press papers was the New York Sun owned by Benjamin Day. Under Day’s stewardship, the Sun privileged accounts of the daily triumphs and travails of the human condition, what are now known as “human interest stories.”
The penny papers introduced many innovations that remain part of the newspaper industry today, including assigning “beat” reporters to cover special story topics such as crime, and shifting the economic basis for publishing from the support of political parties (as in the “partisan press” era) to the market. The penny press era gave rise to an increase in newspaper production with an emphasis on competitive, profitable papers. This economic environment set the stage for some of the most famous newspaper barons to enter the scene. For instance, Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal shortly thereafter. Pulitzer pushed for the use of maps and illustrations in his papers, so that immigrants who were not fluent in English could understand the stories. Both Pulitzer and Hearst used bold headlines and layouts to attract reader attention. These practices became emblematic of the yellow journalism period, a term that also connotes sensationalism and even unscrupulous journalistic standards. Pulitzer and Hearst papers did call for social reforms and drew attention to the poor living conditions of poor immigrants in the cities; however, the papers also embellished stories, fabricated interviews, and staged promotional stunts in order to increase reader interest and boost circulation. In 1895, a conflict began that would go on to boost both papers’ fortunes. The island of Cuba had been a colony of Spain since the arrival of Columbus, and in 1895 an insurrection began against Spanish rule that would become known as the Cuban War of Independence. At the time Hearst and Pulitzer were engaged in a war of their own: a circulation war. Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers used the conflict to sell papers and boost circulation, deriding Spain in headlines and calling for U.S. intervention. In 1898 the U.S. ship the Maine was sent to Cuba and exploded and sank in Havana harbor, with hundreds of sailors killed. The World and the Journal ran headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine,” and the Spanish-American War is still remembered as a prime example of propaganda in the U.S. media swaying public opinion in favor of war, even when facts were misrepresented or embellished.
Benjamin Day’s New York Sun did not offer a subscription service, and instead relied solely on individual street sales to make a profit. To better distribute his papers, Day placed a wanted ad seeking workers to sell the newspapers on the street. Day expected adult workers to respond to the ad, but he found instead that children inquired about the job instead. The first vendor he hired was 10 year old Irish immigrant who would take bundles of papers onto a street corner and shout out the most arresting headlines to get reader interest. Soon this became a new and pervasive method of selling newspapers on city streets. These newspaper vendors or “hawkers” were also called newsboys or paperboys, although girls were often found in their ranks as is evident in many of the photographs taken of children news vendors at the time. These children worked long hours, often through late nights and early mornings, and even sleeping on front stoops or in the street, something also attested to by photographs of the period. Vendors would buy bundles of newspapers from the publishers, and they were not refunded for unsold papers. In 1899, in the wake of the boost in circulation numbers precipitated by the Spanish-American War coverage, many publishers raised the price of newsboy bundles from 50 cents to 60 cents. In response, in July 1899, newsboys refused to sell Pulitzer and Hearst papers. Newsboys demonstrated in the thousands and broke up newspaper distribution in the streets. One gathering blocked off the Brooklyn Bridge, disrupting traffic across the East river as well as interrupting news circulation throughout the entire region. Pulitzer tried to hire adults to vend his newspapers but they were sympathetic to the newsboys’ plight and refused to defy the strike. He did hire men to break up newsboy demonstrations and to protect newspaper deliveries. The newsboys asked the public to not buy any newspapers until the cost of bundles was lowered and the strike was resolved. Eventually the publishers relented: although the cost of bundles was not decreased, the publishers agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsboys. The strike ended in August 1899, two weeks after it had started.
The 1899 Newsboy Strike is a significant moment in the history of U.S. media, U.S. urban life, and U.S. labor relations. New York City was built by a great deal of immigrant labor, and many of these laborers were children. It is important to remember and acknowledge this important part of U.S. urban history. The 1899 strike was credited for inspiring similar newsboy strikes in Butte, Montana and Louisville, Kentucky. It is an important story in the history of labor law reform in the U.S., even though it is not as well-remembered as landmark events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. While the newsboy strike did not lead to the sort of immediate reforms that the Shirtwaist factory disaster did, it did impact the implementation of child labor laws in the city over the following decades. Furthermore this case illustrates the practices of distribution and circulation that newspapers relied on, as well as the political economy of the media and its relationship to national and global politics.
Moment Two: Muckraking Magazines and the Shame of the Cities
The modern magazine has decidedly “urban” roots. The word “magazine” originally referred to a storehouse for munitions. The first use of the term to refer to a publication was in 1731 by “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published in London. The publisher of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” used the pen name Sylvanus Urban, and this is what I meant when I said that magazines had “urban” roots. As with newspapers, developments of the industrial revolution such as conveyor systems and printing processes allowed for less expensive manufacturing practices, and therefore magazines could be sold cheaper and reach a wider audience. Another significant development was the Postal Act of 1879, which reduced the postal rates of magazines to the same price as newspapers, making the cost of a magazine subscription affordable for more Americans. Additionally, more and more jobs and people were moving from rural areas to cities. As increasing numbers of immigrants came together in urban cores, national magazines helped facilitate the formation of national identities as opposed to local or regional identity. Relatedly, the increase in the number of dime stores, drug stores, and department stores created new venues for consumer items, and magazines offered new venues for advertising these items. Ladies’ Home Journal was known for running the latest consumer advertisements, and became the first magazine to reach a subscription base of one million customers, reflecting the growth of the female consumer base.
In addition to sustaining and reflecting the growing consumer economy in the country, magazines also played an important role in social reform movements. Jane Addams reportedly first read about the settlement house movement from a magazine article (possibly from an article in Century magazine). With her interest piqued by the article, Addams and a friend soon travelled to London to visit the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall. The settlement house movement advocated the establishment of “settlement houses” in poor areas where middle class volunteers would come and live, with the goal of alleviating conditions of poverty and creating solidarity among the social classes. Two years after visiting Toynbee Hall Addams opened the first U.S. settlement house, Hull House in Chicago. Addams also wrote articles about the settlement house movement for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s. Another important role of magazines in social reform movements was related to photojournalism. Magazines had the ability to reproduce high quality photographs, giving them a visual edge against other media of the day. In the late 1880s an emigrant to the U.S. named Jacob Riis became shocked at the living conditions in the New York City slums and purchased a detective camera to document life in these areas. Riis exhibited his photographs as part of a public lecture presentation called “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.” The lectures became popular and Riis wrote an article based on his lectures for Scribner’s Magazine. His project was eventually published as a book.
The aforementioned McClure’s magazine was a hotbed of reform-minded journalism at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the 1800s the magazine had published exposes on the working conditions of miners and corporate practices of the Standard Oil Company. In 1901 journalist Lincoln Steffens published the first article in a series on corruption in U.S. cities. Steffens first went to St. Louis and reported on the machinations of the local political machine. Next he went to Minneapolis, and found the mayor and police chief colluding to take bribes for local houses of prostitution. Then he went to Pittsburgh (Pittsburg at the time), writing that “if the environment of Pittsburg is hell with the lid off, the political scene in the city is hell with the lid on.” The final entries in the series were based on visits to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The series was eventually published in book form in 1904, titled The Shame of the Cities. The articles made Steffens a national celebrity and inspired a trend of similar expose articles in magazines, including Cosmopolitan’s “The Treason of the Senate”. Steffen’s magazine articles became icons of the muckraker movement, so called by president Roosevelt because they climbed through society’s much to cover the stories. The muckraking journalists are an important part of U.S. media history, and the social reform movements are an important part of U.S. urban history.
Moment Three: Movie Palaces and a Tale of One City
As with newspapers and magazines, the development of motion pictures was closely tied to technological and social developments occurring as part of the industrial revolution. Developments in celluloid film, electric lighting, and the mechanical gears to turn film reels all contributed to technological underpinnings of film as a mass media. In France the Lumiere brothers invented one of the earliest film cameras, and the first film they shot was of workers leaving their family factory in Lyon. In the U.S., Thomas Edison developed the kinetograph, and shortly thereafter established an association of film and technology producers called the Trust. The Trust was a consortium of U.S. and French producers who agreed to pool film technology patents. Edison had also made an arrangement with George Eastman to make the Trust the exclusive recipient of Eastman’s motion picture film stock. To escape the control of the Trust, independent film producers left the traditional motion picture centers of New York and New Jersey. They went west, eventually settling in Southern California which offered cheap labor, ample space, and a mild climate that allowed for year-round location shooting. Southern California became the center of the U.S. film industry, and Hollywood became a toponym for the U.S. studio system (and remains metonymic of that industry today). The Hollywood studio system was built on vertical integration, which meant ownership of every means of the movie production process. This included production (everything involved in making a movie), distribution (getting movies to theaters), and exhibition (the process of screening the movies). Edison’s Trust tried to get the edge on exhibition by controlling the flow of films to theaters. The Hollywood studios instead decided to buy theaters themselves. The Edison Trust was eventually ended due to trade violations, and the Hollywood studios controlled every part of movie production and circulation. Paramount studios alone owned more than 300 theaters. During this period of film exhibition, movie studies built single-screen movie palaces, often ornate architectural achievements that offered a more hospitable viewing environment. Some of the most ornate and expansive movie palaces were built in Chicago. The architectural firm of Balaban and Kurtz designed many of the most famous, including the landmark Chicago Theatre (originally called the Balaban & Kurtz Chicago Theater). Other Chicago theaters built by the firm included the Oriental, the Riviera, and the Uptown theaters. The Uptown theater was the largest movie palace built in the United States.
In 1906 of a group of Chicago officials, designers, and business interests met to discuss the various problems facing the city. The Columbia Exposition a few years earlier had been received as a great success, but now problems of overcrowding, congestion, and the growth of manufacturing in the city were causing concern. This group of stakeholders met over a period of 30 months, and in 1909 they finalized their agreed-upon plan. The Chicago Plan proposed sweeping improvements to the city including rehabilitating the waterfront, redirecting railroad traffic in the city, and redesigning streets to permit better flow in and out of the business district. The mayor signed off on the proposal and then ordered a massive public relations campaign to promote the plan. Informative lectures explaining the plan were held throughout the city, articles and editorials were published in the newspapers, and the proposals were even summarized into a textbook that was taught in city schools, and a generation of Chicago school children grew up learning the values of the Chicago Plan. Also produced as part of this campaign was a two reel film titled A Tale of One City. This film was screened in city movie theaters continuously as part of the vigorous PR effort. Communication scholar James Hay has written about the role of the film in promoting the Chicago Plan as a significant moment in the history of urban renewal projects. The role of the film’s exhibition in the promotional campaign demonstrates the significance of the networks of film distribution and exhibition in reaching a mass audience, but also how the architectural design and location of downtown theaters in the city center made movie theaters important sites for engaging the public and shaping the vision of future urban development.
The Paramount decision of 1948 ended vertical integration and required studios to give up their theaters. This ended the era of studio control, but opened up new venues for film screening such as art houses that exhibited foreign films and documentaries, as well as hundreds of drive-in movie theaters for the millions of filmgoers who now had automobiles. As Americans moved to the suburbs, the movies did, too, building new forms of theaters in multiplexes and then megaplexes. While industry expressions such as “blockbuster” harken back to the role of downtown theaters in film exhibition (the term refers to patrons lined up “around the block” to get into a movie theater), most of the movie palaces have been repurposed, disused, or destroyed. Methods of film distribution and exhibition have significantly changed, and the downtown theaters and movie palaces have been largely replaced by suburban multiplexes. The example of A Tale of One City shows, however, that for a time downtown movie theaters played an integral part in the public life of the city.
Moment Four: Radio Remotes and Mediated Urban Nightlife
The groundwork of popular broadcast radio was being established during the late 1800s. Developments in telegraphy and the theoretical proof of electromagnetic waves were among the chief developments in this early history of the medium. The rise of the new medium of the airwaves was soon reflected in the built form of the U.S. metropolis, which was also turning increasingly skyward. By the 1920s and 30s radio broadcasters were transmitting from the Metropolitan Life building in Manhattan, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were designed and built with spires to serve as antennas for broadcasting radio transmissions.
In 1923 a nightclub called the Cotton Club opened in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment, even though the club featured many of the premiere African American performers of the time. In 1927 Duke Ellington and his band the Washingtonians opened at the Cotton Club. Not long after, a Manhattan-based radio station began broadcasting Ellington’s performances live from the Cotton Club. Scholar Tim Wall has written about the Ellington remotes (the radio industry term for these live, on-location broadcasts) as occurring during a moment of transition for both radio and jazz. The technological, organizational, and cultural futures for the new medium were still being explored and negotiation. The broadcasting of jazz music was significant during this period as well. In 1929, radio network WABC began broadcasting the Ellington performances. WABC broadcast nationally, so now Ellington was being transmitted coast-to-coast. As Wall argues, the national broadcasting of jazz music represented the intrusion of urban life and culture into the country. In 1930 another radio network picked up the Ellington broadcasts, and now the performances were heard on the flagship stations of NBC’s Red and Blue networks. These broadcasts grew Ellington’s fame, and he recorded more than a hundred compositions during this period. The Ellington broadcasts represent a significant moment in the regulatory history of radio, but also the attempts of the young medium to establish a cultural role for its programming. The case of the Ellington Cotton Club remotes also represents how urban culture and performance, and especially African American culture, was being mediated through the shifting systems of national radio networks.
Moment Five: Sitcom Suburbs and the Urban Crisis
Television truly became a mass medium in the years following World War II. Housing subsidies and entrepreneurial real estate developments privileged private suburban construction. Many Americans left urban centers to move to the suburbs, which had a lower tax base. Home ownership doubled between 1945 and 1950. As Americans left cities, and therefore also left the downtown movie theaters, music halls, and other urban venues of recreation and entertainment, radio became a cheap alternative to the movies. The years 1948 and 1949 saw peak radio listenership. After that, television replaced radio as the dominant medium in the home.
In addition to the role of housing policies and subsidies in spurring suburban development, there were also many discriminatory housing policies designed to keep U.S. minorities from moving into suburban communities. This practice has been referred to as American apartheid, and is one of the driving factors of the “urban crisis” that developed in U.S. urban life and discourse during this period. The scholar Dolores Hayden has used the phrase “sitcom suburbs” to refer to the homogenous developments that were also depicted in many of the nationally popular sitcoms during this period. One early flare up of these tensions happened in the Los Angeles area. In 1965, California voters passed a proposition that effectively repealed a fair housing act designed to alleviate discriminatory policies that prevented black and Mexican Americans from buying and renting in certain areas. Shortly thereafter, riots began in the Watts district and lasted for 5 days. More riots occurred in U.S. cities in 1967, and again in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In each of these cases, the U.S. news media broadcast TV images that have become iconic of these riots and the overall “urban crisis” that came to dominate discourses on U.S. cities for decades.
Following the riots President Johnson appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of the unrest, and suggest how to prevent further unrest. The Kerner Commission detailed several factors that contributed to the urban riots, including explicit and implicit racism and housing discrimination. The commission also called attention to the news media for coverage that misrepresented facts of life in these cities and contributed to a deepening of divisions between white and black Americans. The Kerner Commission’s concerns were echoed by media theorist George Gerbner in his cultivation theory of television, which posits that increased exposure to violent TV programming cultivates a worldview in the viewer in which they perceive reality to be more dangerous than it really is. This period of urban fear and flight, the move to fortified homes and gated communities, has analogous developments in media coverage and development up to today.
Moment Six: Oppa Gangnam Style
Our history so far has taken us from 1899 to 1968. In this last section, let us catch up on some of the developments that occurred in the last 60 years or so. Developments in microprocessor technology led to a computer revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, home computers became more popular and were predicted to revolutionize daily life. Developments in graphical user interfaces allowed everyday, non-technical users to approach computers. In the late 1960s the U.S. defense department began researching a redundant communication system that could remain intact following a nuclear attack. The project. ARPAnet, eventually developed into the Internet. Web browsers and HTML, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s “worldwideweb” launched in 1990, have enabled the Internet to become a mass medium. The computer revolution has also lead to unprecedented technological convergence. Computers connected to the internet have access to the full array of media content. Developments in smartphone technology have changed what was once merely a phone in a mobile device and site of media convergence, and increasingly the favorite device for media consumption and production.
On December 21, 2012, a milestone was reached. The music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first video on YouTube to receive one billion views. The case of Gangnam Style can tell us a lot about the state of mass media industries, as well as the state of cities, in our present moment. Psy is a K-Pop musical act, which stands for “Korean Pop,” a genre originating in South Korea. His global popularity points to the importance of transnational media flows in the contemporary media environment. For instance, the increasing importance of the Chinese box office market for the Hollywood studio system. Also, the fact that his popularity spread globally via the Internet indicates the significance of media convergence, as well as how digital platforms for media circulation have upset the traditional forms of media dissemination, as well as changed our metrics for gauging media success (i.e. YouTube views versus box office, Nielsen ratings, or circulation numbers, etc.).
Gangnam Style also tells us a lot about cities in the early 21st century. The title of Psy’s song refers to the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea. The Gangnam district is known for its affluence, and is a hip and trendy neighborhood. This association, and the apparently mocking portrayal of lavish lifestyles in the music video, have led some commentators to interpret the song as a satirical and subversive critique of conspicuous consumption. It should be noted that Psy’s own comments about the meaning of the song do not support these interpretations. Regardless, the Gangnam Style example can help illustrate the valorization of cities that has been a trend of post-industrial economics and post-modern cultural practices. In the 1970s New York City went through a fiscal crisis. City services were sparse, the city government almost went broke, and crime and visible disorder in the city reached peak levels. As part of the city’s recovery and repositioning, the I ❤ (love) NY branding campaign appeared. This campaign has remained hugely popular, and is representative of a postmodern consumption of the symbolic capital of cities. Another salient example would be the tote bags sold by American Apparel that just list names of global cities (Madrid, Tokyo, London, etc.). These cultural products, and the Gangnam Style song, are indicative of a revanchist return of capital to city centers. These examples, and indeed neighborhoods such as Seoul’s Gangnam, also point to the role of gentrification as a global urban strategy for development. In this way, Gangnam Style can serve as a vehicle for addressing some of the most pressing issues facing urban citizens today.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: “Define Media Ecology.”
The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.
This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.
In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.
Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.
McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.
McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.
Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.
There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.
Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments
Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.
In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.
Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.
Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media
Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.
Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.
In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm.
Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.
To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.
The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.
This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.
Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett
Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”
Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.
Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”
The Modern City as Public Realm
In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.
In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.
Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.
Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres
Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.
Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.
Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.
There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.
Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.
Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.
These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.
The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: “Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars”. This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:
Seltzer’s essay on serial killers and the pathological public sphere immediately calls J.G. Ballard to mind. Eventually Seltzer does cite Ballard, but it is in reference to Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, a selection that renders the author’s omission of Ballard’s subsequent novel, Crash, all the more conspicuous (Crash was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996, the year after Seltzer’s article was published). The article’s introductory anecdote about Sylvestre Matushka, who engineered train wrecks and claimed to only achieve sexual satisfaction when witnessing these accidents, is obviously evocative of Crash. Ballard’s story follows characters who are sexually excited by car crashes, and stage car accidents and recreate famous wrecks. Seltzer cites The Atrocity Exhibition in order to borrow Ballard’s phrase and relate it to his own notion of the pathological public sphere: “spectacular corporeal/machine violence, a drive to make mass technology and public space a vehicle of private desire in public spectacle: the spectacles of public sex and public violence” (p. 124). Though he never refers to Crash, Seltzer’s language here could have come direct from the book’s dust jacket: “The coupling of bodies and machines is thus also, at least in these cases, a coupling of private and public spaces” (p. 125).
Seltzer’s argument is also evocative of a different Crash: the identically-titled but textually-dissimilar Crash, a 2004 film exploring race relations in contemporary Los Angeles through the interweaving of multiple characters and plotlines. Los Angeles is famous for its iconic freeway system, and the city is often regarded as the apotheosis of car culture, an alternatingly visionary or dystopic manifestation of car-dependent society. The film Crash uses the city’s freeway network as a thematic device, beyond the relation of the story’s interweaving plot threads and intersecting characters to the on-ramps and cloverleaf interchanges of L.A.’s freeways as seen from above. The film opens at the scene of a car accident one of these L.A. freeways, and the first lines of dialogue (spoken by a character riding in a car involved in the accident) establishes the thematic significance of the film’s Los Angeles setting:
Graham: It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Compare this sentiment with these words of serial killer Ted Bundy quoted in Seltzer’s article:
“Another factor that is almost indispensable to this kind of behavior is the mobility of contemporary American life. Living in a large center of population and living with lots of people, you can get used to dealing with strangers. It’s the anonymity factor.” (p. 133)
Seltzer does cite a Los Angeles-based film in his discussion of public and private space: the action-thriller Speed, a sort of wish-fulfillment Hollywood fantasy for Angelenos where the city’s congested freeways are cleared of all traffic and the hero’s speedometer never drops below 50 miles per hour. Seltzer notes the film’s use of “public vehicles of what might be called stranger-intimacy” (p. 125): elevators, buses, airplanes, and the city subway system. Seltzer’s highlighting of transit systems to illustrate the collisions of public and private space resonated with my own research in this area. Seltzer cites urban sociologist Georg Simmel’s account of “the stranger” in urban life; Simmel’s theories have influenced a great deal of urban studies, including theories of transportation and public space.
Toiskallio (2000) applied Simmel’s sociability to an analysis of “the interaction between the taxi driver and the fare as an example of an intensive urban semi-public situation where feasible and face-saving social interaction is needed” (p. 4). The term “semi-public” refers to that are neither public nor totally private, as taxicabs are neither public nor private transportation, but “paratransit” (p. 8). Such distinctions are further complicated by the recent advent of “car-share” or rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft. These services are essentially hired car services, and function much like taxicabs, but with significant differences. Most relevant to the current discussion is the fact that rideshare drivers do not drive company vehicles as taxi drivers do, but operate their private vehicles to transport customers. This situation transforms a person’s private car into a space of stranger-intimacy. There are consequences here not only for transformations of public and private space, but also the coupling of bodies and machines, as well as implication for affective labor and transportation services.
On September 24th and 25th, I was on hand for the Urban Media Studies conference, hosted at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. The conference was organized by members of the ECREA temporary working group on media and the city. It was a thoroughly international event, with participants from across Europe and the United States, as well as Russia, Japan, and Brazil. It was also interdisciplinary, with various academic fields represented by scholars from communication, sociology, geography, and other faculties. In addition to academics, the participants also included artists, policy makers, and urban planners.
A key concept that I noticed appearing in several presentations is that of assemblages. Presenters spoke of ecologies and assemblages for staging mobilities, sites such as airports as assemblages of digital interfaces, and cities as communicative figurations involving constellations of actors and practices.
Another recurring theme was visibility. Many participants highlighted the often imperceptible functioning of digital technologies. While they may not rely on the visible infrastructure of previous technology, these media regulate bodies in material ways, often establishing and enforcing otherwise unmarked borders. In his keynote address on staging mobilities, Ole Jensen stated that technologies must become visible to the community in order for them to realize them as a field for action.
A recurring question, still unresolved, concerned the distinction between urban and rural. If this is a conference on urban media studies, could there be a rural media studies? With all the discussion of planetary urbanization, is the distinction between urban and rural still meaningful? Participants were divided on this issue. Some suggested that through the networking of the globe via media and ICTs, the “urban” has become the predominating way of life across the planet. Others argued that rural areas are very much an extant reality and way of life, and the distinction between urban and rural people and places is still very clear.
The conference program included an optional excursion to tour some of the housing developments built during Croatia’s socialist period. I was impressed with beauty of central and historic Zagreb, so this excursion provided a fascinating view of parts of the city not normally visited by tourists (nor, as I learned, by locals).
Our tour went not only around the socialist housing blocks, but also to the top of one. Despite the hazy and overcast weather, we had a spectacular view of Zagreb, the surrounding area, and into Slovenia. It was a wonderful addition to the program, and a personal conference highlight.