Always Already Mediated: The Myth of the Great Agora

by on Sep.17, 2012, under general

I am presently cross-registered for a class at Harvard called Digital Power, Digital Interpretation, Digital Making. Taught jointly by an impressively interdisciplinary array of professors, it is, to paraphrase a characterization from the first day of class, an intentionally incoherent but hopefully productive approach to thinking about all sorts of issues bound up in our digitally mediated world.

Our first full seminar occurred this afternoon, led by Professor Jonathan Zittrain. It was a brief history of the Internet, or more specifically a study of the Internet and how it took shape, looking not only to significant individuals (Jon Postel) and organizations (IETF), but also practices (RFCs), contingencies (common carriage), and conflicts (the birth of ICANN).

Our reading, for this class, included two seminal papers by Yochai Benkler and Larry Lessig. Each deals with the question of what the Internet is and contains a vision for what it might be. Each deals deeply with the structure of the Internet. But there is a very interesting tension between the two when it comes to thinking about how people are mediated generally.

In From Consumers to Users, Yochai Benkler advocates for an Internet organized around the commons in order to promote an information environment constructed of”diverse and antagonistic sources.” He does so by repurposing a central metaphor of the IETF – the hourglass of layers of Internet protocols – to describe layers of infrastructure: the physical, the logical, and the content. After revealing the material characteristics of the Internet, he discusses the implications of private vs. commons ownership and administration. Benkler strongly favors the latter. “Today, as the Internet and the digitally networked environment present us with a new set of regulatory choices, it is important to set our eyes on the right prize,” he writes. “That prize is not the Great Shopping Mall in Cyberspace. That prize is the Great Agora—the unmediated conversation of the many with the many.”

I am a big fan of Benkler, of his many-layered model of the Internet, and of the commons argument generally. However, this last line struck me, because I don’t think it makes any sense.

Consider Benkler’s ideal of the Great Agora. Presumably, he means an ideal version of the Greek agora, or central, open-air gathering space in the ancient Greek city states, which, Benkler says, was home to “the unmediated conversation of the many with the many.”

But such a space was profoundly mediated. Most fundamentally, from the perspective the study of media, it was mediated by the architecture of the Agora. By this not I mean only its literal architecture (walls, pillars, stalls, and so forth). I mean also the informational properties of the physical world within which the Agora is situated, and upon which all other behavior necessarily depends.

For example, one property of conversation in the Agora is that sound travels until it does not. The ability to raise or lower the volume of ones voice to adjust for audience (or the inhibition posed by an inability to adjust volume for the intended audience) is a natural, taken-for-granted property of the physical world which mediates the conversations those in the Agora would like to have. And there are social practices which are organized around manipulating – one is tempted to say “hacking” – these properties, whether it is huddling together in hushed tones in an attempt to limit a message, or organizing a human microphone in order to spread it further.

This insight developed for me (and was explored further in my thesis) after reading the works of Larry Lessig, in this case his The Law of the Horse: What Cyberlaw Might Teach. In his attempt to demonstrate that cyberspace “is” nothing – that it “is” only what we build it to be – Lessig describes the importance of such architectural (that is, built) considerations with the following example:

We have special laws to protect against the theft of autos, or boats. We do not have special laws to protect against the theft of skyscrapers. Skyscrapers take care of themselves. The architecture of real space, or more suggestively, its real- space code, protects skyscrapers much more effectively than law. Architecture is an ally of skyscrapers (making them impossible to move); it is an enemy of cars and boats (making them quite easy to move).
What we take away from Lessig here (and also Meyrowitz, and others who have written about the affordances and impacts of communication technologies) is that there is never any such thing as an “unmediated” experience. All conversations must take their form in a medium – whether digital or print or the open air – and are quite literally shaped by that medium as a result.

This is not to say that the medium determines what is said, but only to say that it affects how what is said is said, circulated, and accessed. As Saenger writes, until the invention of spaces between words, texts were almost always read aloud, because only by sounding out the phonetic structure of the mass of letters could words be parsed. Or, in the case of the human voice, the ability to be heard in the metaphorical sense of understood depends on the ability to be heard in the literal sense of sound waves moving through the medium of the air.

All of this is to say that when we study how people communicate amongst each other, we can’t compare our analyses or advocacies against idealized abstracts of “unmediated” individuals. There is no – and could never be – such a thing as an “unmediated conversation of the many with the many.” We are always already mediated. Any such study of how people communicate must be grounded in what the properties of a given medium are and how individuals interact with these characteristics to achieve their ends. Benkler has already done a terrific job of this with his deep dive into the material characteristics of the web, but it’s important to remember for apparently “unmediated” environments too.

This post originally appeared on the blog for the Center for Civic Media.

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