Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, October 19, 2006

New Media Shaping The Future Of Art, Music And Literature: An Analysis By Andy Oram (Part I)

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The Internet has raised new possibilities for art, music, literature, and film simply by streamlining familiar activities. Digitization and downloading make it faster, easier, and less expensive to store, distribute, extract samples from, and issue comments on the arts - activities that have already gone on for centuries.

Photo credit: Michael McCann

Even though this has sufficed to change the artist's craft and business, a lot more is in store for the arts. The power of Internet-related technologies guarantees they will eventually alter the arts by infusing them with characteristics they could not achieve before (or achieve only with great effort).

The early twentieth century saw inventions or wide-spread diffusion in three major technological areas - the phonograph, film, and radio - that transformed the arts in immeasurable ways. The early twenty-first century should bring an even more radical transformation.

We've had revolutions in media many times in history (the invention of writing and printing, the arch, stained glass, acrylic paints). Artists originally used the term medium for the material they were using: oil paints, watercolors, lithography, and so on.

In the twentieth century, the word was seen even more in its plural form and included such new media as film, radio, and television. This article uses both meanings of the term, and shine light on the social significance of the difference between medium and media.

Thus, this article explores new artistic media and forms of expression emerging in the twenty-first century, and the effects of digital networking on them. The article starts with a historical view of the arts and the social changes that accompany them, and features a list of seven characteristics for new media on the Internet.

Cultural stages

This article unashamedly paints in broad strokes and favors primary colors. So let's think in grand terms. We can divide the history of humanity and its forms of expression into two stages.

The inner-expressive stage

Photo credit: Alcorn Gallery

The first stage began with folk tales, ballads, and myths as the main forms of expression. The personal needs for communicating their inner experience of the world led thousands of anonymous individuals to develop these cultural artifacts.

The invention of writing and printing helped to spread this narrative form and to develop the first stage further with such innovations as the sonnet and the novel, and to elevate the specific contribution of each individual, named author. (This is a good time to apologize for the Western-centric examples; the history of other cultures may suggest that different rules apply in other parts of the world.)

Graphic arts and architecture also expressed the spirit of the age, but were more localized. Thousands of people on multiple continents could pass around a myth, but only the people living in the immediate town could appreciate a picture or building. Printing allowed graphic art to be shared more widely, but disseminated it as part of a new medium that did not reproduce the richness of the original paint or other medium.

These media promoted a sense of individuality, being the fruits of long periods of solitary contemplation. Viewing, listening to, or reading the works also helped to develop individuality, along with a power of concentration and a consequent ability to analyze and reason. The invention of printing sped up the urge to individuate.

This doesn't mean that the age dominated by printing was free of mob behavior and demagoguery. Certainly, some of the most scurrilous attempts to sway people through emotion date from that period, but these examples don't weaken the power of the medium to promote reflection and individualism.

The kind of individualism promoted by art and text does not involve the pursuit of money and material power in society, the struggles with which we associate individualism in a free market economy. Rather, it is the individualism of viewpoint, which pushes toward bringing others over to the author's ideas and gaining social power through persuasion.

However, there may be a deep and subtle relationship between the growth of individual self -expression and capitalist economic development. Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many "self-made men" who become famous for their business success feel compelled to write books.

In addition to helping people develop individual identities, the arts and culture of this period led to religious, national, and universal identities - in other words, identification with various groups of humans or with higher causes.

The traditional media are also noteworthy because they are essentially open to all. Physical barriers have made it hard to share them through most of history, but there were no artificial restrictions on sharing. In fact, people tended to alter them more often than not and pass along the altered versions. Toward the end of this period, copyright was invented, but it was weakly enforced and lapsed quickly on each individual work.

The manufactured stage

Photo credit: Florea Marius Catalin

The second period is much shorter than the first, but it contrasts so strikingly that we have to consider it a radical change, not an evolution. It coincides roughly with the beginning of the twentieth century, when three new media quickly became widespread: film, radio, and the phonograph.

According to Wikipedia, film became viable with the introduction of the kinetograph (which generated films) and kinetoscope (which displayed them) by Edison Laboratories in 1894. The Lumière brothers in France started making and displaying films in 1895, but it was the early 1900s before people were regularly visiting movie houses.

Edison is also credited with the invention of the phonograph in 1877. According to Wikipedia, the phonograph really took off with the invention of the disk in the mid-1890s; it is thus a feature of the twentieth century as much as film.

Experiments with radio are generally dated to 1895 (whether it is credited to Tesla, Marconi, or the Russian physicist Popov). While audio broadcasts over telephone lines were tried as early as the 1880s and numerous wireless experiments took place around the turn of the century, 1912 seems to be the date of the first public radio broadcasts of significance.

Social differences

Photo credit: Marc Dietrich

The use of the term "manufactured" to describe the new media regime has two implications. First, unlike the artist with her hands on clay or the author scribbling the words as they come to mind, the new media include a technological element at the very genesis of the work that means it is physically manufactured.

But increasingly, the twentieth century media became manufactured in a deeper sense that has crucial impacts on the filtering and altering of the original inspiration. Movie plots, characters, and dialog are designed by teams along well-defined parameters; textures and instrumental solos in songs are created as part of an architectural plan for the musical piece.

Unlike the earlier media, the brave new twentieth-century media were rigidly centralized. Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, and others have written rooms worth of books about the social effects. Broadcasting grabs the commanding heights of culture and takes on the role of an authority who expounds while others listen meekly. Movies and phonograph records are self-contained; that allows them to play a wonderful archival role but also fixes a performance permanently and allows for no further modification.

The new media certainly include some of the most enjoyable and moving artistic and documentary works humankind has produced, but in terms of the wider culture it has led to significant trade-offs.

The immediate effect of all these media are to suppress the ancient human "stories around the campfire" and parlor-room performances that kept culture close to individuals and small groups. The professionalization of art removed opportunities for developing artists to perform in local communities, while leaving every talented child aspiring to the pinnacle of stardom. It also overrode local cultures in favor of commercially chosen artifacts and cultural references having manufactured meanings.

An unfortunate characteristic of the centralization of twentieth-century media is that gaining entry has become such a difficult task that for many it turns into a lifelong struggle reminiscent of Kafka's story "The Great Wall of China". Before getting a hearing for a screen play or a song, before even gaining access to the decision makers who control everyone's careers and offer the hearing, before even talking to the agents who control access to the decision makers, you need to spend years networking and muscling your way into the élite.

Technology has brought down the cost of recording and editing audio and video, and the Internet has somewhat democratized access. This may be a prelude to the development of new Internet media.

Mass media have earned the name because they reduce their audience to a passive mass. Ironically, while unifying its audience with a single message, it atomizes them because they interact increasingly with the media rather than with each other in communities. As Jerry Mander put it in his famous tirade, Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television:

" we all watched from our separate living rooms, it was as if we sat in isolation booths, unable to exchange any responses about what we were all going through together. Everybody was engaged in the same act at the same time, but we were doing it alone."
(Jerry Mander, Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television, 1978, p. 26.)

Just for the record, this article does not endorse Mander's radical views of the harmful consequences of television (or modern living in general), because it's not clear his criticisms can be tied down and verified. Are the masses of citizens less thoughtful than they were in pre-television days? Would they take different political positions without television? These are hard assertions to prove.

The social power of film, radio, and television were strengthened by their ability to tap into their audience at a deep emotional, subconscious level. These very different media share the trait of streaming. Unlike written text, they move inexorably forward and practically force the viewer or listener to engage without pausing to analyze or compare different viewing and listening experiences. So the change from medium and media has carried with it massive social effects.

A huge number of commentators complain that mass media offer one-dimensional and idealized views of important life experiences (people making love, getting shot, recuperating in hospitals) that are offered as if they reflect reality. And whether naively, or against their better judgment, recipients of these antiseptic views learn to treat them as reality.

It's easy to see why advertising (which became common in the 1920s) has always coexisted with mass media. The centralized control over the user's emotional response almost calls for a merging between mass media and advertising, a merger rapidly being consummated with infomercials, product placement, and government-sponsored media disinformation.

It is clear, also, that the centralization of film, phonographic, radio, and television companies led to an unprecedented power in the hands of their owners. Newspapers shaped attitudes in the past (and continue to do so), but rarely with the wide reach of the modern media, or with its advantages in the realm of emotions.

Only religious organizations have exceeded modern media companies in their hold over large populations. No wonder democracy nowadays is measured partly by the degree of separation of media and state.

Noam Chomsky and others have attributed mass media's political and social power not so much in its telling people what to think as in its shaping how they think - what people treat as a worthy issue for political discussion. In airing this analysis, fatalism and facile determinism must be rejected. For instance, the importance of quasi-religious "moral values" in many countries was a result of dedicated grassroots activism, not the mass media.

At most, the mass media contributed to oversimplification and polarization by assigning facile labels such as a "culture" or "civilizational" war once the activists succeeded on getting their issues on the agenda.

Socially, media power can be seen in its influence over issues discussed and attitudes in the public. Financially, it can be seen in its advertising and lobbying budgets. But the legal aspects of power in media deserve special attention.

Legal differences

Photo credit: Ryan Pike

Twentieth-century media adopted legal practices from past media - contracts with artists, copyright, trademarks - but created a virtual revolution in the legal regime.

Key laws were passed in 1909 in the United States - that is, at the time the new media were beginning to become commercially significant - extending copyright to music, phonograph recordings, and motion pictures. In Britain, copyright was extended to phonograph recordings in 1911, and to motion pictures and broadcasts in 1956.

When the Berne Convention (adhered to by a wide range of countries, particularly in Europe) was revised in 1948, it extended copyright coverage to a comprehensive range of works: cinematography, choreography, art, and architecture, just to name a few. Finally, the 1961 Rome Convention gave broadcasters control over reuse of their broadcasts; it was adopted by many European countries.

The Internet brought a concerted reaction from media companies. For instance, in 1998, the U.S. passed the No Electronic Theft Act to prevent Internet users from posting unauthorized copyright material online. The law was spurred by infringement of software but applies to any copyrighted work.

The main historical significance of the law was that it focuses on criminal penalties (including jail) instead of civil penalties (damages from lawsuits) for copyright infringement, bringing government in to do the media's job in policing copyright enforcement.

An even more important 1998 law was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Among its numerous provisions (some of them benign) was the notorious prohibition on "circumvention", which basically broke new ground by ruling some technologies illegal in the interest of protecting the copyright interests of movie and music providers. The support of these major corporations has given this provision an international impetus, getting it adopted or considered in numerous countries and international treaties.

But the biggest change in legal regime in the United States was to make copyright extend far longer than before. Copyrighted works now remain under copyright long after the death of everyone who is living when the work is created, perhaps even after the deaths of everyone's children. There is certainly a precedent for a long copyright term (the 1886 Berne Convention defined a copyright term covering the lifetime of the author plus 50 years) but a 1996 treaty made it even longer, and recent U.S. laws have gone even further than the treaty.

It is now assumed, among creative people seeking access to twentieth-century works, that works currently falling under copyright (those created from 1923 on) will never be available for copying and reuse. Governments will keep extending copyright terms at the behest of major studios, while the technical measures that are illegal to "circumvent" will also keep works from being used from any purpose except those that the studios think can contribute to their revenue streams.

Copyright and technological measures cover text and other traditional media too, but the most important works have fallen into the public domain by now. Ask anyone to cite the ten most influential works of the twentieth century, and few books or works of fine art are likely to appear; the list will be dominated by sound recordings and film.

Thus have the intrinsic emotional power and market dominance of the new media caused them to displace the older ones. And the legal regime of permanent copyright and digital controls over reuse help to cement the division in the history of culture.

Summary of differences

The following table summarizes the differences between the older forms of expression and the new. Given that this table represents an extremely simplified view, one could find objections and exceptions. But if you hold back and read on you will find that this simplification allows us to draw some useful conclusions.

Differences between traditional and twentieth-century mass media:


End of Part I of 3

Part II: The Future Of Art - How The Internet Is Reshaping Artists' Universe

Originally published on October 8, 2006 as "Characteristics of new media in the Internet age" by Andy Oram on The author integrated the original article with comments and suggestions provided by the readers, as this essay is available in a wiki at, where others can edit and contribute to its development.

About the author


Andy Oram is a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. He works as an editor for technical publisher and information provider O'Reilly Media, specializing currently in free software and open source technologies. His Web site is and his email address is andyo (at)

Andy Oram -
Reference: Praxagora [ Read more ]
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posted by on Thursday, October 19 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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