This paper concerns the sociotechnical relations between mobile ICT networks and ‘media publics’, using a term to describe collaborative practices emerging around the production, consumption, and distribution of digitally networked media. It advocates a ‘network media theory’ that explores how emergent media practices are alternatively constrained or enabled by telecommunications design.
Where the network as a cultural trope is prevalent in critical theory, the technical design characteristics of network media (architecture, topology, protocols and standards) are frequently ‘black-boxed’ in favour of overarching discussions of an immaterial ‘network culture’ as it relates to issues of governance, subjectivity and political economy. By eliding a deep consideration of the material substrate of the network and subsequently the many ways in which media publics are generated in diverse relations between human and non-human actors, contemporary theory has failed to explore the complex ecologies of sociotechnical networks. Instead, in the literature of ‘media 2.0’ we continually encounter causal models of analysis that all too easily equate centralised systems with broadcast cultures and decentralised networks with democratic media practices, failing to attend to the many nuanced ways in which network media constrains and enables the formation of media publics.
This argument is illustrated with a discussion of recent prototypes for episodic networks*. Superficially these networks represent an ideal platform for the kinds of user-generated practices associated with optimistic accounts of new media. However, through an analysis of the network protocol, this paper will explore how social aggregation techniques immanent to the network leverage normative models of media consumption and distribution whilst discouraging others.
This study demonstrates the need for appropriate frameworks and methods for research into network media. While a number of theoretical approaches from technology studies are useful for the formation of a network media theory, this paper will in conclusion consider ‘tactical media’ as one suitable method. Continuing the study of episodic networks, it will outline two recent tactical media art projects Undersound and UmbrellaNet that utilise an episodic network structure, and explore their role as critical tools for engaging with network media.
*episodic networks are a form of mobile ad hoc network which, rather than using a stable form of infrastructure, routes data packets through pair-wise connectivity between mobile devices. Data is transferred opportunistically by everyday proximity between humans carrying mobile devices i.e. commuters on public transport, without the aid of a centralised relay structure.
- Rachel O’Dwyer. I’m the founder and Editor in Chief of Interference a Journal of Audio Culture, Co-organiser of the Dublin Art and Technology Assocation Data 2.0 www.data.ie. A Lecturer in Interactive Digital Media in Trinity College Dublin and a researcher in the Department of Engineering in Trinity College Dublin. My research explores the political economy of mobile networks and is funded by the Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology. My research interests include sound studies, network culture, software studies, autonmist marxism, mobile and wireless networks, spectrum policy, political economy of communications, art and technology, free culture and open source and tactical media. interferencejournal.org data.ie
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