Indeterminate Media – Learning to Cope in a World Without Certainty

Our media is evermore indeterminate, and we struggle to keep up with this fact. To quote Donald Rumsfeld “there are known knowns, and there are known unknowns”. We used to be able to predict with certainty how media would be consumed, appropriated and valued. Now it is increasingly difficult to do this with absolute certainly. In the prediction business, when it comes to media, it is best to adopt a precautionary attitude, because we can’t be so sure of ourselves anymore. How people consume media, interpret media, make sense of the culture that is defined by and through that media, is evermore indeterminate, and therefore, evermore difficult to be specific about with any exact degree of certainty. How will media and media content develop in the future and what it will look like as new technologies and new distribution systems take hold? The only thing that is certain, it seems, is that things are becoming more uncertain.

Instead, media and the meanings that are generated through networks and sign-systems of media consumption, are increasingly up-for-grabs and contested in a variable and unstable ecology of remixing, redistribution and aggregation. Though it never used to be this way. Media was once organised as a set of dominant convergent channels that were associated with national cultures. Television and radio broadcasting, cinema and newspapers, were all defined in an age of information scarcity and communication resource rationing.

The mass media, as it was called, was a fixed point of reference and meaning. We knew what we had with only four television channels. We knew accurately when people would sit down and consume that media and in what format, via what technological mechanism, and with a near certainty that this was done with something approaching uniformity for millions of people. All the media organisations had to do was to conform their products and thereby eliminate any obvious contradictions. The message was streamlined to a central core and the values it adopted were said to be universal. This was then delivered with enough force to millions of people who had no choice in the matter. It was either Saturday night on ITV or Saturday night on BBC Television. Very little else mattered.

This channelling of media and content gave rise to a very powerful industrial media complex that was able to produce programming that served a notional ‘national spirit’ through the common bonds of greatly appreciated programmes and experiences. Programmes like Top of the Pops, Dad’s Army, Brideshead Revisited, are all programmes that held the public’s imagination. Creating what has become known as ‘water-cooler’ moments, in which a shared sense of experience was fostered as millions of people tuned-in to see each episode, and talk about the programming as if gathering around the village watering hole. The myth of cultural unity writ-large.

In contrast, the internet was founded on a different set of principles. Namely the principle of indeterminacy. Rather than seeking to foster and organise channels, the internet was designed from the start as an indeterminate network characterised by nodes which communicate with each other via alternative pathways. Data can be shared, processed and redistributed without recourse to a central-control centre, or without it being re-packaged and remediated. Optimistically, this gives rise to the idea that the internet is a wild frontier with few boundaries. There is always a way-in or out of a fenced-off intra-network. Blockages and obstructions can be bypassed, and control and ownership are ultimately flexible and re-workable.

Indeterminacy of media on the internet means, therefore, that we can never predict specifically how something will be played out or understood. We can never know specifically what devices will be used to access content that we push out. We can never say for certain that a consumer of a media product will be guaranteed to watch it, listen to it, or interact with it in any fixed form. Instead, media is consumed using multiple platforms and devices across varying network access points, and at variable degrees of quality – high-definition to low-fi. Watching a film might mean sitting in a cinema or alternatively streaming video when on a bus journey. It’s all the same to the consumer, perhaps, only the comfort level changes?

As mobile processing power and data-rates continue to improve, the likelihood that media content can be fixed and channeled, be it audio, video, interactive or data, is receding. Indeterminacy means that we can only guide resources to a range of potential variables rather than a specific or determined outcome. If we are planning to make content for future media opportunities it is probably less wise these days to do this from the point of view of only delivering media in one form.

Newspapers have led the way in diversifying their content across the web. The use of multimedia content in news organisations, like The Guardian, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail is growing month by month. Should anyone want to purchase a radio station in the UK, and run it simply as a broadcast operation, they would be hard pressed to make a go of it. Without the integrated support of collaborating and corroborating media services, the chances of any single form of legacy media finding an audience, using one channel alone, is increasingly distant.

Media producers can now only talk about probabilities, rather than fixed certainties. Planning to get programmes to different audiences is now more an asymmetrical process of sweeping across a range of different formats and distribution networks. And while there will continue to be moments in which media offers the unique coming-together of a community through fixed events, like sport or national occasions (that depend on the notion of ‘liveness’), there are many more options that consumers of media products can consider, and indeed the pool of consumers for that media is becoming ever wider as global networks of media distribution become embedded and sustainable.

Buying the box-set of discs, streaming the series on-demand, file-sharing, signing-up for subscription services, creating our own user-defined channels, these are only indications that we are at the start of this process. What does it mean to be watching images on a TV screen as opposed to a smartphone? How do we cope with the building of personal archives of books, music and games that we then share with friends, making recommendations and ‘liking’ content via social network sites?

These are only the start of the process of change and indeterminacy. The trick is to think about what the core and non-transferable skills are going to be needed by agents in this world. What are the skills and literacies that people will need to create, curate, share and manage their own content, both ethically, sustainably and independently? How will individuals make sense of the content that they will be consuming when they can access it in so many different formats, and through so many different networks? How can we share our common interests for producing and consuming media in a world where so much is changing and so much is indeterminate?

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