What's New in New Media?

By Natalie Jeremijenko, 10 May 2002

In this issue’s Pin Code, we hand special guest star Natalie Jeremijenko the mic. Working as a technoartist, occasional member of the Bureau for Inverse Technology, design engineer and researcher at NYU’s Media Research Lab/Center for Advanced Technology, she is well placed to spot major shifts in the new media landscape. She sees a new tendency to build alternative structures and institutions as a crucial development 

What seems to be redefining the ‘new’ in new media is the peculiar phenomenon of techno-activist -artists and punks establishing their own institutions. So what happens when this motley crew set up their own labs, establish their genres, become chairs of departments, finish their most ambitious code project? What does it look like? Is there a common concern? Is there a new institutional form or at least a new aesthetic emerging?

How do anti-institutional independent techno-activist-artists institutionalise?

Long identified with nomadism, tactical media, temporary labs, unstable tools and ever shifting strategies, net artists and technoartists seem to be undergoing an important shift in their practice. This could be described as the effort to define and hold some ground. Moreover, it is the self-conscious effort of bringing the politics of participatory democracy to the technologies, software, institutions, labs, magazines, listserves, and genres – to precisely the things that are at least relatively stable.

The way I recognise these new ‘technopunk’ institutions is not by a Linux operating system, copyleft licenses on software, an explicit oppositional politics, or an alternative distribution system – although all these may be present. The tell-tale sign is rather the ‘structure of participation’ across different softwares, systems, places, venues, and strategies. What is consistent is how people participate, not what they use to participate with. And what is interesting is that these initiatives differ from the structures of participation used to institutionalise the (progressive) social movements of the 20th century. This is not a social movement but a technosocial movement.

Francesca Polletta’s forthcoming book Freedom is an Endless Meeting, drawn from 900 hours of interviews with various leaders and participants in 20th century US social movements (civil rights, students’ nonviolent coordinating committees, women’s lib collectives, pacifist peacemakers), elaborates the structures they used to coordinate activity and institutionalise the very principle of participatory democracy upon which they were organised. Rather than reproducing the conventional wisdom that deems participatory democracy to be worthy in principle but unwieldy in practice, she shows that activists are drawn to the solidarity produced by the innovations of participatory democracy. In other words, the principle itself produces real practical and political benefits.

However, her argument also addresses why the different processes that fostered social action and cohesion did not create lasting institutions. Polletta found that 20th century groups tended to use familiar (rather than effective) frameworks for deliberation and interaction. Participatory democrats particularly treated each other as religious fellows (see pre- and post-WWII pacifist organisations), as teachers, learners and as friends (e.g. women’s groups). This should be seen as contrasting with other popular institutional relationships in which participants treated each other as family members, colleagues or business partners. While these social relationships mitigate competition and manipulation, they also offer a limited repertoire with built-in instabilities: tutelage tends to break down when goals are unclear; friendship models don’t scale well because they are, by definition, exclusive and also resist the formalisation of institutionalisation; and religious fellowships resist new bases of authority.

By contrast, social templates that order micro-interactional rules about how to raise issues, frame disagreements and formulate dissent are made explicit in online social organisations, and present an opportunity in which people ‘learn’ different patterns of engagement. Observable online interactions are beginning to show certain patterns: small-scale discussions tend to be ordered by informal social norms which don’t scale well; explicit ‘rules’ are developed as the governance structure for larger communities; and, in very large contexts, it is mainly system design that is used to order micro-interactions. But the strategic benefits of innovation and solidarity enjoyed by participatory democrats are echoed in the structures of participation in technopunk and new media institutions. They are (a) open, both in terms of membership and the development of their structures, (b) privilege open-ended interaction and are therefore innovatory, and (c) institute ongoing social interaction or solidarity in which there are clear lines of accountability.

On a wiki page [], I describe a handful of genres, projects and systems that structure solidarity and participation to innovatory and developmental ends. If you can add a project, lab or application with this structure of participation, then perhaps we can build a better picture of the technosocial movement. At the very least, ‘how do I participate?’ seems like a reasonable question with which to evaluate interactive systems, networks and projects. Instead of designing atomised interactions and temporary labs, by looking at the structure of participation we could focus on the cumulative properties of coordinated interaction within the social and political agendas that actually constitute information processing.

Natalie Jeremijenko’s <natalie.jeremijenko AT> homepage []