Chapter 6: What if the Internet Did Not Speak English? New and Old Language for Studying Newer Media Technologies

Zizi Papacharissi, and Elaine Yuan

It has become customary to welcome new media with a narrative that extols their potential for democratization, equality, utopia, and general advancement. Subsequent research, however, typically reveals that new media are not inherently democratizing, reproduce social inequalities and modify, but do not necessarily improve upon pre-existing social conditions. This tendency frequently leads researchers to interrogate new media in a manner reflective of Western dogmas of inquiry, possibly resulting in theories and histories of media that contain a Western bias. In this chapter, we argue that the tendency to perceive technology as a liberating force derives from Western canons of social inquiry, borne within systems that emphasize capitalism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. As a result, scholars invest time in search of community, identity expression, citizenship, civility, and democracy ideals that processes of industrialization and post-industrialization have reformed in Western societies and that technologies could somehow revive. And yet, time and time again, research results reveal that more than anything, media possess the ability to connect. They do not magically transform, they do not democratize, and they do not fix inequalities brought on by systemic organization. Yet, their transformative abilities are frequently interpreted through metaphors of magic, dominant in societies organized around capitalist modes of production.

In this chapter, we employ the metaphor of the network to make sense of technological architectures that emerge in western and non-western societies. Using this metaphor, we analyze and compare societal structures across cultures, to understand the ways in which networked architectures shape are shaped by the histories and geographies of individual cultures. Resulting patterns of communication lead to a different paradigm for examining technological impact, which emphasizes gradual change, adaptation, processes of remediation and technological affordances that are interpreted differently, based on the cultural context within which they are reified. In this manner, social hierarchies are not upset, but rather reorganized and repositioned. We conclude with a synopsis of this paradigm, identification of terms and language pertinent to historically and culturally conscious inquiry of the internet, and methodological suggestions.