New Media 5: Building a Better Mousetrap – Digital Incarceration

In the final part of this short series on new media we can note a significant extension to the idea of digital pessimism.

While new media ownership is sometimes likened to what Socha and Eber-Schmid call “the growing pains of the American Wild West”, where a diversity of companies compete for market share, the reality is probably closer to its old media counterpart; various forms of vertical, horizontal and diagonal concentrating processes have increasingly come into play, leading to the notion of:

digital incarceration. This involves the idea producers are able to create digital “prisons” that are entered freely by consumers; once there, however, they are locked in. Someone who puts their life online through social networks such as Facebook or Flickr finds it very difficult to leave. A further similarity between the behaviour of old and new media corporations involves two related processes:

  • locking-out competitors from markets.
  • locking-in consumers to products.

A relatively small-scale example of these tendencies is Amazon’s development of an eBook reader (the Kindle) that gave them control over who could publish eBooks for this product and how consumers could use the product (to buy eBooks form Amazon). On a much larger scale Apple has, over the past 30 years, consistently attempted to lock-out market competitors and lock-in product consumers; this corporate strategy failed spectacularly in the 1980s because Apple was not sufficiently powerful to challenge IBM’s strategy of allowing anyone to manufacture a “Personal Computer” (Apple would only allow third-party manufacturing under licensing they controlled). More-recently this strategy has, however, proved spectacularly successful with the development of the iPhone and iPad that allows Apple to control both of these processes.

The concept of digital incarceration is not only an important concept in itself, because of the way it points to interesting tendencies and developments within new media (many of which are, equally significantly, an extension on a global scale of old media economic and cultural tendencies); it also has applications across other parts of the Media Specification.It can, for example, be applied to evaluate Pluralist arguments about consumer choice and media diversity, particularly in relation to moving the debate away from the significance of “individual choice”. In late capitalist societies, for example, the point is not whether individuals have “consumption choices” in terms of media technology but rather the consequences of exercising such choices.

To use an analogy: whether a mousetrap is humane or inhumane in terms of how the mouse is treated, ultimately it’s still a mousetrap. For those, such as neo-Marxists, who are critical of pluralist approaches, it doesn’t particularly matter if consumers of both media hardware and software have a wide range of choices if the consequences of exercising such choices are ultimately much the same…

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