What New Media Does

In our latest episode in the series “What Concepts Do,” we welcome guest producer Nazlı Özkan, who leads us through a discussion of New Media. How has newness been produced as a feature of media in different political and historical contexts? How can anthropological approaches help us understand the ways that technological novelty becomes a part of statecraft, activism, and everyday life? The episode moves beyond the optimistic excitement surrounding new media to foreground its historical significance in the experiences of activists, state officials, and ordinary people.

Note to the listener: One of the interviews in this episode discusses the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This interview was recorded prior to the atrocities unfolding in Gaza.


Nazlı Özkan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University, İstanbul. She holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University. Her research was funded by several institutions, such as the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Fulbright Foreign Student Program, and Henry R. Luce Initiative of Religious and International Affairs. As a media anthropologist, she has been exploring the relationship between media and politics through her work on journalism, religious inequalities, and the state; journalism and digital media; and history of new media technologies in Turkey. Her work has appeared in journals such as PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Visual Anthropology Review, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, and Media, Culture & Society. She was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow from 2020 to 2022 with her project, History of New Media in Turkey, Radio Television and Mobile Devices.

Paula Chakravartty is James Weldon Johnson Associate Professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University (NYU). Her research and teaching interests span comparative political economy, migration, labor, and social movements, and the study of colonial and racial power. She is currently completing a monograph on Media and Economic Violence. She is also working on two on-going collaborative projects: a co-authored book on Media, Race and the Infrastructures of Empire; and a field-based partnership research project on migrant mobility and debt in Uttar Pradesh, India. She has published widely in numerous journals across disciplines including American Quarterly, Antipode, Economic and Political Weekly, The Journal of Communication, Media, Culture & Society, International Journal of Communication, Political Communication, among others. Her books include Race, Empire and the Crisis of the Subprime (Co-edited with Denise Ferreira da Silva with Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), Media Policy and Globalization (Co-Authored by Katharine Sarikakis with Edinburgh University Press, 2006), and Global Communications: Towards a Transcultural Political Economy (Co-Edited with Yuezhi Zhao with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008). She serves as the Vice President of the NYU Chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors).

Miriyam Aouragh is Reader in digital anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Westminster. She analyses how the contradictions of capitalism shape the modes and meanings of resistance in the era of revolution and digital transformation. Her analysis is grounded in the complex revolutionary dynamics in the Arab world. In what she calls “techno-social politics,” she studies a political temporality marked by revolution and counter-revolution. She wrote about the paradoxical context of online-revolution and cyber-imperialism. Throughout her academic projects, she conducts extended fieldwork (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco), in order to relate participant observation and interviews to media analyses. Aouragh is involved in numerous international collaborations where the central focus revolves around solidarity, critical race, political-economy, empire, and infrastructures. At the University of Westminster, Dr. Aouragh is involved in Centre for Social Media Research, was co-director of the Arab Media Centre from 2018-2020 with Tarik Sabry, and Co-Lead Coordinator of the Global Media Research Group with Tarik Sabry. 

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel is a media anthropologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. She is the author of Image Brokers: Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation (University of California Press, 2016), an ethnography of the international photojournalism industry. She has published on images of the War on Terror, medical portraits, X-rays and crowdshots. Her current project, Portraits of Unbelonging, is the first in-depth exploration of the official role of photography in the history of Armenian emigration to the United States. She has published in Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Visual Anthropology, Grey Room, Anthropology Now, and Jadaliyya, and she has contributed chapters to volumes on global news and journalism, contemporary public spheres, photography and memory, and visual cultures of nongovernmental activism.

Walter Armbrust is a Hourani Fellow and Professor in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He is a cultural anthropologist and author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (1996); Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution (2019); and various other works focusing on popular culture, politics, and mass media in Egypt. He has published widely in numerous journals including Comparative Studies in Society and History, Cultural Anthropology, Material Religion, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, among others.

Rebecca Stein is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She studies linkages between cultural and political processes in Israel in relation to its military occupation of Palestine. She is the author of Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2021); Digital Militarism: Israel's Occupation in the Social Media Age (with Adi Kuntsman; Stanford University Press, 2015); and Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism (Duke University Press, 2008); and the co-editor of Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture (with Ted Swedenburg; Duke University Press, 2005), and The Struggle for Sovereignty: Palestine and Israel, 1993-2005 (with Joel Beinin; Stanford University Press, 2005).


This episode was created and produced by Nazlı Özkan, with production help from Contributing Editors Nick Smith and Ximena Málaga Sabogal. Sharon Jacobs, Joyce Rivera-Gonzalez, and Steffen Hornemann provided pitch review.

The episode is one of the outcomes of Özkan’s larger project about the history of new media in Turkey, which received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no: 101003389.

Theme Song: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear


Aouragh, Miriyam, and Anne Alexander. 2011. “The Egyptian Experience: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution.” International Journal of communication 5: 1344–58.

Armbrust, Walter. 2022. “Meandering Through the Magazine: Print Culture(s) and Reading Practices in Interwar Egypt.” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 15: 56–91.

Buckley, Michelle, Paula Chakravartty, and Sahiba Gill. 2023. “From Indenture to “Good Governance”: eMigrate and the Politics of Reforming Global Labour Supply Chains.” Antipode 55, no. 1: 90–112.

Kuntsman, Adi, and Rebecca L. Stein. 2015. Digital Militarism: Israel's Occupation in the Social Media Age. Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Özkan, Nazlı. 2023. Wireless Telephone, Materiality, and Making of the National Auditory in Turkey. Media, Culture & Society 45, no. 6: 1225–41.

Stein, Rebecca. 2021. Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine. Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


[00:00 Podington Bear—All the Colors in the World plays]

Nick Smith [00:02]: Welcome to AnthroPod, in our latest episode in this series what concepts do we welcome guest producer Nazlı Özkan, who leads us through a discussion of New Media. How has newness been produced as a feature of media in different political and historical contexts? And how can anthropological approaches help us understand how technological novelty becomes a part of everyday experience?

Nazlı Özkan [00:34]: Hello, everyone, welcome to AnthroPod’s new episode of the series, “What Do Concepts Do?” Today, we are going to focus on the concept of new media. We will specifically explore what the notion of new media does when we approach it from a historical perspective and when we understand the unique shape it takes across different contexts. My name is Nazlı Özkan. I'm an assistant professor at the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University in Istanbul, and I'm a cultural anthropologist. I have five guests who will share with us their experiences of working with the concept of new media in a roundtable format. My guests are Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, who is a media anthropologist at Rutgers University's Anthropology Department; Walter Armbrust, a professor of Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford; Rebecca Stein, who is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University; Paula Chakravartty, who is a professor at New York University in the Department of Media Culture Communication in the Gallatin School; and Miriyam Aouragh, a digital anthropologist at the University of Westminster. Before jumping to the discussion, let us give you some background information about where this podcast comes from.

When we say new media most of us immediately think about digital media. But there is a very important scholarly approach that I'm also very much influenced by which refuses to reduce the media to digital media. This approach states that all of the media devices we use were new at the point of their introduction. In time, we normalize them so they become old media or just media for us. Approaching the newness of media from a historical perspective necessitates exploring the novelty years of quote unquote “old technologies” such as radio. In this way, we see that what constitutes media novelty is not only about new technical features, such as transmitting songs across great distances. [02:36] Media novelty is also constructed by how various actors from states to citizens to marginalized groups make sense of, and incorporate these new technologies into their lives. For example, in the normalization of radio as a broadcast technology, the State’s intervention was essential. And in my research, I traced the role of the Turkish state in this normalization process. I do this by looking at the availability of technical knowledge about radio. As I did research in the media archives, I saw that in the 1920s and 1930s, there was so much public knowledge about the technical details of the radio technology. People in this period had access to enough knowledge to open their radio devices to fix them. With this knowledge, they could even assemble their own radio receivers. This was very surprising for me as an anthropologist who is firsthand experiencing the novelty years of digital media. Today, it is beyond our imagination to open our smartphones or laptops, either to experiment with them or to fix them. So I got curious about to what extent people were free to experiment with the new technology of the 1920s, and it didn't take me long to find out that the Turkish state, as a newly established nation state, wanted to control the circulation of this technical knowledge.

To understand this control, we need to understand the design of early radios. In the early radio technology, it was possible to experiment with both transmitters and receivers. Today, we think of radio as a broadcast technology, so we define ourselves as listeners only interested in receiving radio broadcasts. But early radio allows people to also send messages or to speak with others similar to telephones. For this reason, radio was initially named as wireless telephone and people could assemble both transmitters to send their messages and receivers to receive them. [4:33] The state of Turkey banned tinkering with or assembling transmitters while encouraging to experiment with receivers. This official ban on transmitters also determined the availability of the technical knowledge. While there was an abundance of knowledge about how to assemble radio receivers, when it came to transmitters, this knowledge was hard to access. In my research, I explore how this control over technical knowledge about transmitters is a strategy of nation state building since this control constructs a national audience of radio, ready to only receive official messages, rather than to send messages that might challenge the official message. Last year in May 2022, I organized a workshop in which we came together with an interdisciplinary group of scholars to discuss instances such as these that explored the interaction between new media and politics from a historical point of view. Scholars speaking in this podcast were among the participants of this workshop. So in this AnthroPod episode, we would like to share some of the discussions we had at the workshop, while also keeping the spirit of this discussion alive. I would like to start with Zeynep Devrim Gürsel. Gürsel underlines that studying new media from a historical perspective requires one to explore the newness in relation to what comes before. She gives the example of police photography as a new genre of photography and how it emerged in relation to its predecessor, which was studio photography.

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel [06:08]

One of the people who trained me at Berkeley, Paul Rabinow, anthropologist Paul Rabinow, wrote in French DNA, and I'm quoting from him “from time to time, and always in time, new forms emerge that catalyze previously existing actors, things, temporalities, or spatialities into a new mode of existence, a new assemblage, one that makes things work in a different manner, and produces and instantiates new capacities.” I've always really appreciated how Rabinow worded this, because I think spending time with this sentence, even before I went into the field to work on digitalization in news photography, got me focusing on this idea of “from time to time, and always in time.” And I think the “always in time,” I've always taken as a, as an invitation, maybe even more than that—a demand to always put technological novelty in historical context. So that when we talk about new media, it's not what is called new at that particular moment, it's really trying to understand what is its relationship to what comes before? What are the particular things that are new? And then, what does it being known as new enable or cause? Right, but always thinking about the historical context of new media. And that's really been kind of a cornerstone of my research practice. [8:02] So that demands that I think about things like Is this a new genre of photography? Or is this, you know, a use of photography that's actually going to mandate new infrastructures altogether? Right? Um, really thinking about what I've called infrastructures of representation. So not just does this photograph look different than photographs that have come before it, but does it use or patterns of circulation—or the audience's it's going to serve or the purposes it's going to be put to—does it actually change who is making decisions about it, or what capacities are afforded by this image? And those types of questions are very interesting to me. And I think there's always this really interesting tension between thinking about genre and thinking about new media, in the sense of, right, by genre we tend to think about form and the force of continuity.

So before, you know when, when there's a new need, I often say genres don't just fall from the sky, you have to borrow what existed before and try to adapt it. So for example, I've recently spent many years thinking about police photography, and especially looking at how Alphonse Bertillon transformed Criminal Identification in France in the 1880s and early 1890s. [10:04] And Alphonse Bertillon was very frustrated by the fact that the police were taking photographs, pretty much since photography was invented, but they were taking photographs that completely use the same aesthetics of studio photography. And instead, what he insisted on was coming up with a new way of actually looking, right, and putting aside all of the conventions and aesthetics of the studio form, and coming up with a with a new form, you know, which was seeing from the perspective of the police—so seeing like the police, but even Alphonse Bertillon of course, at the beginning, you know, the genre that he had to work with was the studio photograph. And I'm interested in when, you know, when you can borrow the genre and transform it or adapt it. But when, you know, then what you want to do with that kind of photography—or I suppose any media—then actually mandates that you develop new infrastructures altogether, right, and new modes of circulation, which often bring in new actors and new decision makers. So I'm very interested in this tension between, you know, conventions and continuity of form. And then, you know, when the materialities of a particular technology, or the political expectations from it, mandate, that something, you know, again, going back to, something new occurs all together that that instantiates new capacities [12:02], and that's when I think we're really talking about new media in a different kind of way than just adaptation of existing genres.

NÖ [12:13]: In addition to exploring what came before in a particular location, it's also important to question the well established narratives about media history in different geographies. Walter Armbrust argues that studying new media in regions, such as the Middle East, gives us a way to move beyond the colonial periodization of media history.

Walter Armbrust [12:34]

I want to emphasize that new media in the Middle East were in most cases, just as new everywhere else. Printing, for example, had been assimilated in Europe for quite a while before it was widely embraced in Middle East. But all other mechanical means of reproduction, all their mechanical new media were truly global in their impact—photography, recorded music, radio, cinema, television. The fact that one of these media might have come to one part of the world five or ten years before another is perhaps one of the least interesting issues for scholarship. And yet, assumptions about the diffusion of media technologies persist in the study of media in the Global South. I mean, it's true that many of these media did come to Egypt, for example, which is my own research area before full independence, but often the colonial periodization of new media can get in the way of understanding the full range of what people actually did with media. So for me, new media are simply media at the point at which they're new.

NÖ [13:48]: Rebecca Stein calls new media at the point, at which they were new, is the moment of these technology’s emergence. Stein explains that emergence refers to the initial periods in which several actors, such as the states or activists, are still learning how to use newly adopted technologies. Emergence is a crucial moment to explore media novelty because the political significance and meaning of these technologies are still in the process of making in the moment of their emergence. Studying emergence gives us new insights about how institutions, such as the military or the state, work or fail to work properly.

Rebecca Stein [14:31]

I'm going to talk today about my my last two books, which were part of a single project investigating the relationship between digital media technologies and the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories, which has been ongoing since 1967. And both books ask the question, how have digital technologies altered this political landscape of military occupation for Israelis and Palestinians? Of course, for Palestinians, that would mean living under the repressive yoke of the military occupation. And in my work, I'm particularly interested on the other side in Israeli perpetrators: how has it changed sort of practices of perpetration? We might talk about acts of digital perpetration. Both of these books are really interested in what we might call an “ethnography of emergence.” And by that, I mean they focus heavily on early moments of experimentation with digital technologies, among a range of institutions and actors in the in the political theater of military occupation. I mentioned earlier that in these books, and, one of these books is a collaborative project written with my colleague, Adi Kuntsman—my most recent book Screen Shots is my own work—and particularly my last book, Screen Shots, were really interested in emergence.

What I mean by that is, I spend a lot of time in these books, thinking about experimentation, thinking about days, when digital media technologies of various kinds were new, were, had to be learned, where their political import was not obvious, across these reins of actors and institutions. And all these these folks in in various ways, and obviously in various locations of power, had to do the work of learning to employ them. This moment of newness and emergence really yields very interesting observations for the anthropologist because as I said, these are moments of experimentation, and sometimes these experimentations don't go as planned. [16:44] Sometimes these experimentations are not particularly smooth. Let me give you one particular example. I spend a lot of time in my last book, Screen Shots, which again, is a study of camera technologies, thinking about how the Israeli military pulled various camera technologies into their into their political toolkit of military occupation, and sort of the glitches that they encountered along the way—when camera policy was not in step with camera usage by soldiers in the field, when cameras didn't work as expected, when live feeds failed, when batteries failed—all these moments in the early moments of the digital ecosystem, when the military sort of was a little bit out of step and had to fumble around with the usage of their technologies. I think we learn a lot about we learn a lot about these institutions, we learn a lot about these institutional investments in technologies when we focus on their moments of emergence.

NÖ [17:50]: What we learn from these moments of emergence and experimentation is how to challenge well accepted narratives, such as high-tech supremacy. Rebecca Stein explains that her focus on glitches and failures helps her to complicate Israel’s rebranding of itself as a technologically superior nation.

RS [18:09]

Well, in the case of the Israeli military, which as I said, is the focus of which plays a large role in both of these last two books on the digital terms of military occupation—I was again, trying in part to counter a story that has been very important to the Israeli state over the last fifteen years, which is the story of sort of high-tech supremacy in the context of military occupation. And this is a branded narrative sometimes the State likes to use the language of the high-tech nation, or the startup nation, to tell this very celebratory narrative about the military occupation. One of the things that's in this branded narrative is very much in the background of my ethnography of military officials learning very improvisationally to harness these new digital technologies to their own political ends and often failing—failing in ways both large and small. And failing in part because as they learned, they really couldn't keep up with with technology usage by Palestinian activists, that activist proved much more savvy users of a range of technologies—particularly social media—the military often found itself lagging behind activist usage and, and bemoaned this. This was a source of much frustration for the military. So again, I think so part of for me part of this investment in emergence is a speak back to a State narrative of technological supremacy, which is not only a narrative that comes into being at the digital age, but it's very much a core narrative of the colonial project of Zionism, which told a story about bringing modernity to Palestine as listeners will surely know. So this is in part a way to use digital ethnography to conduct a kind of anti-colonial ethnographic project through the lens of media.

NÖ [20:12]: Paula Chakravartty also uses the notion of new media to carry out an anti-colonial research project. Chakravartty highlights that nation states use media novelty to also create a state narrative about a transparent and just governance. What this narrative, however, tries to hide its colonial structures of domination.

Paula Chakravartty [20:34]

Maybe the first example I'll draw from that speaks to the question of new media, and novelty most directly, is some research that was recently published in the journal Antipode, which is a critical geography journal. And this is work that I've done in collaboration with a colleague named Michelle Buckley, who's a geographer at University of Toronto, and also a lawyer, a labor lawyer in New Delhi named Sahiba Gill. And we conducted research for, over a period of time, looking at migrant workers traveling from India, specifically the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, to the Gulf, to the Gulf region. And one of the things we were interested in looking at and what the article that was just published focuses on is a e-governance program called “eMigrate,” which is an online portal that is meant to make transparent the process of migration of low wage migrants from India, to the Gulf and Singapore, and elsewhere, where you have the practice of migration through recruitment leads to, you know, very extreme conditions of exploitation and death for these migrants. So, this portal called “eMigrate” from India, established by the Indian government, was really meant to do what many of these programs of e-governance are designed to do around the world, which is increased transparency, and make processes of illegal types of action, like charging these migrants extra recruitment fees, et cetera, et cetera. [22:46] It's supposed to catch that through the through this e-registration process. And I bring this example up, because actually, what we found, in this kind of novel technological intervention, is what we found is that the way it worked in practice, and this was a piece of research, where we combined both ethnographic research and interviews with returned migrant workers from the Gulf with a kind of historical archival analysis of the histories of recruitment, in terms of the legal history of recruitment of migrants from India, to other parts of the world, that was really designed in the period of British imperial rule.

And what we found in the research is that the kind of legal architecture that governed the way that this new novel technology worked was a legal architecture that was set up in the period of when the British introduced indenture in India, and in other parts of its colonial empire, at a moment in which chattel slavery is abolished. And so as slavery is abolished, the British introduce a new legal regime that allows for the migration of low wage free migrants who travel to different parts of the world, under a system of indenture where they owe a certain debt in order for the privilege to migrate in order for the privilege to work. [24:50] And so that's actually what we what we found is that those kinds of legal architectures still govern the ways that low wage migrants from India migrate to many parts of the world, including the Gulf. And so what we found is that the e-governance, novelty in many ways, you know follows these kinds of path dependencies, these legal path dependencies, these institutional path dependencies that can be traced back to the British colonial era. So even though you know, indenture is abolished in the in the 1920s, and you of course, have independent Indian government post-colonial government coming into play in 1947, the reform of certain immigration acts, you still have ways of governing low wage migrants that echo and reinforce what the British imperial regime did.

NÖ [26:00]: So far we've talked about how nation states adopt new media technologies to highlight themselves as capable technology users. Nation states use these narratives of high-tech supremacy in order to conceal abuses of power that have the roots in colonialist structures of domination. Zeynep Devrim Gürsel suggests that nation states do not always represent themselves as capable technology users. They sometimes accept that they're catching up with new technologies. Gürsel underlines that highlighting failure to use new technologies can also become a strategy to disguise power abuse, such as human rights violations.

ZDG [26:40]

There are times when there's an exposé, right, where a hidden camera is involved and therefore news audiences are allowed to see something that they otherwise would not be able to see, that the state or various actors want to keep hidden, right. That's what I think of as exposé photography. We go back to the Abu Ghraib scandal. The photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, that made headlines around the world in spring of 2004. Those photographs were taken by the soldiers involved themselves. And in fact, the taking of the photography was very much part of the abuse. The way that they're posing for photographs, is possibly one of the most disturbing things about those photographs, right? At the time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who I always refer to as an under-cited visual theorists, because he really did have a lot to say about how things appeared. And I hope someday to write about Donald Rumsfeld as as a visual theorist. [28:22] But in any case, definitely Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the time, in a speech to the U.S. House arms committees, Armed Services Committee—and this was just like a week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke—what he said is “we're constantly finding that we have procedures and habits that have evolved over the years from the last century that don't really fit the twenty-first century. They don't fit the information age. They don't fit a time when people are running around with digital cameras,” as if the problem was that soldiers had access to digital cameras.

And, as opposed to, not only I mean, this is an example of trying to use new media and the newness of the media, and the fact that there are not yet protocols to police and regulate the use of this media by the police that is the concern, rather than the abuse that the photographs were able to capture—and the fact that photography was, in fact such a big part of that abuse in the first place. So I think these are examples where we really need to ask: when we think about new media, when does its newness, serve a political purpose? When is blame shifted to the newness of the technology and the unfamiliarity with the technology? When does that provide an out? Rather than saying, yes, as Susan Sontag did at the time, the photographs are us, meaning that they reveal something about that U.S. military culture at large.

NÖ [30:30]: As we see, using media novelty to disguise oppression and abuse is a common political strategy. Walter Armbrust points to a different political purpose, attributed to new media, when a new outlet emerges in the Middle East. Newness here refers to an excitement about the new political opportunities brought by new technologies that will finally help the region to catch up with the West. Armbrust states that the foundation of the Al Jazeera news network created similar excitements among scholars and the public that the Middle East was finally seeing the emergence of a civil debate, which is considered the foundation of the modern democracy. Armbrust historically locates this problematic excitement within the context of the post-Cold War politics.

WA [31:16]

The idea was that the West had won the Cold War, and now the whole world was going to adopt the ways of the West—they were going to be capitalist and liberal democracies. And the Middle East was kind of the problem area for this because the Middle East didn't seem to be doing what supposedly everyone else was doing. There had been no media studies in the Middle East, prior to the 1990s. And then all of a sudden, we get people talking about the end of history, and supposedly there's no challenge left to the superiority of capitalism and liberal democratic settings. And the Middle East was seen to be an outlier. In other words a place that, unlike the rest of the world, sort of hadn't caught up to, you know, kind of the new end of history, liberal democratic order. And so consequently the first thing that I encountered, and this is perhaps part of my positionality, once I had finished my PhD in 1993, was the Al Jazeera effect. This introduction of civil debate in a place that supposedly had none, which basically came through you know, it was immense, considered to be immensely exciting, precisely because the Middle East had been left out of this new global order up until Al Jazeera. And then Al Jazeera was, by the end of the 1990s, was seen as being a harbinger of civil society, but then that quickly gave way after 9/11 [September 11th, 2001], to Al Jazeera as public enemy number one because they had interviewed Osama bin Laden, they supposedly were in bed with terrorists, and they were something that all of a sudden the American political—and to some degree academic establishment—decided had to be counteracted. [33:17] All of which is not say that Al Jazeera wasn't an important phenomenon.

And people in the Arab Middle East, were also talking about Al Jazeera—they were also excited about it. But Middle East Studies, as this kind of, you know, area studies and sort of Interdisciplinary studies was captivated by it. And there must have been, I don't know, a dozen books written about Al Jazeera. I don't think any of them were written by anthropologists though. And yet, I wonder if the, you know, sort of immense excitement about Al Jazeera still had the effect of dissuading anthropologists from orienting themselves towards Media Studies. Even if anthropologists weren't attempting to enter this kind of increasingly crowded field of Al Jazeera studies, conceivably, the fixation on it still might have affected the research imaginary of the discipline.

NÖ [34:12]: New media platforms, as forces of democratization, came to the fore of public attention, this time during the uprisings in the Middle East that started in 2011. Miriyam Aouragh details how once again, particularly the Western public attributed a liberating power to the media by calling these uprisings as Facebook and Twitter revolutions.

Miriyam Aouragh [34:33]

At the beginning of the Arab uprisings, me and Anne Alexander were both like, you know, we've been long term activist as well ourselves, but also involved with the regional politics. And we were both sort of doing work around media and digital politics, and we were both kind of like, struck by the, the emphasis on on the newness like every is like new. And there was something about this contradiction of Arabs using social media and the sort of using this new media and making a new Arab out of it—like constructing a new liberated Middle East, rising up using these new digital tools. So, the the work with Anne Alexander was published in an article. We thought we'll be, we should just be clear where we stand, and we titled our first article, “The Sense and Nonsense of Facebook Revolutions.” And it might sound strange now, but actually, at the time, it really was a reference. It was a reference that was used by many journalists, and also quite a number of scholars or academics calling it the “Facebook Revolution.” So we kind of like, try to reframe the observation at the time. To sort of make this point about, of course, digital technologies are relevant and important, and the kind of digital pessimists are also a bit silly to like, ignore that. But of course, at the same time, also digital technologies are not the beginning or the end or deterministic, so the sort of digital optimists are also kind of equally silly. [36:31] So that's why we called “The Sense and Nonsense of Facebook Revolutions.”

But we also had an argument about this, in the sense that we were making the point about what we call synchronization, like digital technologies and medias should be observed and should be studied, in the sense of them being part of a synchronized mode of change or development. So, they are in sync with other modes of doing politics, but also other political realities. So the synchronization was our main critique. To say that, well, if we take, for instance, Egypt, there was a certain period—a certain moment—where digital media synchronized with other aspects in society, for instance, a really strong sense of a tipping point being reached by the fact that an increasingly broader section of society was actually in agreement with a lot of the grassroots activist about having to change the regime, having to topple the regime. So the slogan “Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām,” the people demand the downfall of the regime. It was not any more the slogan of a small group, minority, or the kind of, you know, usual thing that happens where you have kind of a leftist, progressive political movement that doesn't, that has a lot of important demands, but doesn't seem to reach the kind of broader section. [38:29] And there was a moment and 2010–2011, where a lot of countries were seeing accumulation of a particular demographic shift and a particular political economic deterioration, and a political authoritarian maturation that kind of like clicked into place where the shift also reached the tipping point. And so the activists synchronized with larger parts of society that included journalists. So our point was the fact that journalists in mass media were picking up the messages from the activist, were actually picking up the Facebook posts and Tweets from a number of activist groups, and then amplifying those messages and making it part of a broader public discourse, was the main difference. And the fact that a political opposition or movement at the time also synchronized with that, let's say, moment and feeling of trying to change the reality because they share the common enemy also helped because those political movements—for instance, the trade unions, or in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood—they actually had a strong infrastructure of mobilization. They actually had networks of people groups, institutions, organizations, mosques, Union Buildings, et cetera, from which they could mobilize and then synchronize.

NÖ [40:12]: Miriyam Aouragh is working with Paula Chakravartty on a book manuscript that defines such amplified expectations from new media as “technological optimism.” Paula Chakravartty explains that “technological optimism” is a foundational element of modern media systems, which emerge at the height of Western Imperialism in the nineteenth and the twentieth century. At a time when Western states use new media technologies, such as the telegraph, to increase the operation of the colonies, modern media were telling a completely different, in fact, contradictory narrative of liberal Western progress. As Chakravartty highlights technological optimism that associates new media with progress and revolutions is reminiscent of this time period.

PC [41:00]

So, the second project, or this the the sort of another dimension of my research project, which has different, different articulations, but one is a co-authored book with Miriyam that we are working on the title of which is tentatively: “Media, Race and the Infrastructures of Empire.” It it really, you know, asks, what—older technologies, whether we think of the telegraph, the newspaper, or the radio or more contemporary technologies: the internet, artificial intelligence, social media—what is the relationship between both old and new technologies and the question of empire? And here, I would say that, you know, most of our histories of modern media technologies are not only Eurocentric and not only assume a kind of universality based on the history of European modernity and American exceptionalism, but those histories also circumvent for the most part, any kind of substantive engagement with the history of European colonialism, with the establishment of white supremacy, and the history of extractivism, which was a crucial dimension of the development of modern media information technologies of the nineteenth century. [42:45] So I mean, I think put more simply, you know, especially when we think about twenty-first century digital media, when we think about both, you know, mid-twentieth century and twenty-first century media in general, especially the kind of American technological optimism of media and information, we rarely connect it back to this longer history. And if we do that longer history is seen as a completely separate from the invention of these media technologies in the American century. What we want to do in this book is think through the kinds of continuities between imperial-racial, right, so modern, European colonial/racial understandings of these technologies.

And so I'll just give one example—and this is actually going to be probably the first chapter of the book, which, you know, I'm calling “The Global Color Line: Colonial Occupation, Extraction, and Rule.” And in this chapter, you know, we begin with looking at the telegraph as a technology that comes into use by the British in the aftermath of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India under British rule, and what what we're trying to show here is that the kind of laying of underwater cables and telegraph lines in the late nineteenth century was crucial for Western for the development of Western news agencies to implement what DuBois, in the U.S., would call “the global color line.” [44:48] And here you know, it's interesting to think about this, right, and the ways in which in the twentieth century, the U.S. tries to define itself as a force for freedom against the European colonial powers, but at the same time, of course, in 1898, the U.S. becomes an extra territorial empire with its occupation of the Philippines and Cuba, etc. I mean, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, etc. And so the U.S., of course, is a settler colonial state. But in this period, it becomes an extra territorial colonial empire. And so this is why Dubois is writing about this kind of global color line.

And I'm, I'm going back to the example of the telegraph because it's interesting, because in 1857, the uprisings in Lucknow in India, were a response to the kinds of crushing tax regime, the forced settlement, the displacement of merchant communities, the destruction of artisan groups, coercive cultivation of indigo and other commodities, the expropriation of land and right to land, among other dimensions of colonial violence and humiliation of the British over the people living in this part of India. So the uprisings in 1857 would, you know, were very significant in that they had global consequences for what was called then Pax Britannica. And it spurred rebellions in much of the British Empire from Burma, nearby to Jamaica, and it would become the basis for a long tradition of racist British history in popular culture, about what they would call diabolical, irrational and violent Indian subjects, driven by religious hatred. [46:53] That's how the Sepoy Mutiny was represented to much of the world. So in this sense, the British use the rebellion to justify new brutal techniques against future anti-colonial insurgencies, realizing the key to their control was the new technology of the telegraph, which had quickly alerted colonial centers of rule in Delhi, and then London about an uprising in the hinterlands. So, the connection here is the way in which the telegraph then becomes important for the establishment of Western news agencies, who draw from this kind of colonial racial logic, which traverses both European and U.S. imperial ambitions and shaped the way the world sees itself. So in that sense, the way that the American news agencies are reporting what is happening in the Philippines and in Puerto Rico is not new, but it builds on these kinds of histories. It builds on these kinds of histories, but not just as a kind of ideological project—it builds on these histories, precisely because of these infrastructures of the telegraph, which then feed into the power of these news agencies in shaping how the world sees itself, actually operate.

And so the argument here really has to do with this remarkable thing that happens in the late 1800s, and then into the early twentieth century is that, you know, you have a modern media system in which, at the height of European and the beginning of American extraterritorial empire, you know, the scramble for Africa, et cetera, et cetera—which is exactly the period in which W.E.B. DuBois talks about the you know, the global color line—it is at this exact period, where you then have a modern media system, which tells a story of liberal progress, right, and of modern liberal progress. [49:15] And so if you think about the ways in which the world sees itself on a road to liberal Western progress—during the very heights of European imperialism and the scramble for Africa, you know, and the beginning of the U.S. foray into its extraterritorial empire which spans Asia and the Caribbean—you know, you see really the connection between the ways in which the story of the birth of new technologies has been told without foregrounding these kinds of Imperial encounters. And so retelling, rethinking those histories becomes really crucial to how we then understand how those technologies you know, whether we think about telegraph, telecom, the kind of, you know, the wires that connect to the content side of the story, right—the news, the information, the images that we see today—how those histories have, in some ways, always already been part of these kinds of European and then American colonial encounters in relation to these other parts of the world.

NÖ [50:32]: On a final note, when we shift the focus away from the State narratives about new technologies to ordinary people's engagements with them, we also see that new technologies become tools of self-fashioning, Walter Armbrust emphasizes that political meanings of new media is complicated when we explore their daily use, since we see that already existing analytical frameworks such as modernity or class cannot fully capture how people engage with media.

WA [51:00]

The way people use media tends to be as a tool of self-fashioning. And they don't necessarily have in mind the same kinds of political—I mean there may be political effects that you can read into them into what people were doing, but it doesn't necessarily get at what the media meant to people who were using them to fashion themselves. I mean, you know, for example, in one articles that I did—the one that was published in “Arab Media and Society”—people were using a range of different kinds of media that could be represented in an illustrated magazine to position themselves either as effendiyya, which at the time was a was a term that historians have often glossed as middle class, although it's actually much more complicated than that, or to position themselves against it in very various ways. But that wasn't necessarily exactly a political act. It may have had political implications, it may be that people who were involved in trying to create political mobilizations could use that in some way, but I'm not convinced that it actually had very much to do with what people themselves saw that they were doing. If you look, for example, at people's personal artifacts—papers that are left to used booksellers, and so forth, and I'm getting this to some degree from Lucie Ryzova a historian who has written stuff that I find very conducive to this way of looking at things—you will find among their personal effects, for example personal diaries, in which they are incorporating mass media representation sometimes things that are clipped out of, magazines, sometimes references to films, to music, they listen to, to talk about things like love, to talk about things like their social positions, to talk about their relations to their peers, their relations to their families, I mean all sorts of things, which you certainly can connect to political analysis. [53:22] But I think that if you're doing that, to some degree, takes you further away from what they actually meant to the people who were doing it. And, you know, these were people who may, in fact, have been constructing sort of new ways of being in the world, due to the circumstances of colonialism, or the advent of the idea of modernity, that, of course, was very much promoted in the sorts of things that they were seeing and reading and hearing. But I don't think that that really captures very well what they're doing with it and what it meant to them.

NÖ [54:05]: In this AnthroPod episode, we suggested that exploring new media from a historical perspective allows anthropologists to move beyond the colonial Western oriented narratives of progress and advancement, usually attributed to new technologies. Our guests have highlighted how this historical perspective shows that the notion of media novelty is usually a discursive strategy used by nation states, sometimes to entail a transparent and just governance, and sometimes to rebrand themselves as high tech nations. Examining the initial periods in which technologies were first adopted is a productive vantage point to move beyond the excitement strategically promoted through the notion of new media since the initial periods enable anthropologists to observe technological failures. When denied by the nation states, technological failures help us to undo the colonial narrative of high-tech supremacy. When the nation states accept that they are failing to keep up with new technologies, we can question why it is useful for power holders to appear as incapable technology users at that particular moment, and what this incapacity might be hiding. Yet, even under so much attempt to officially orchestrate the meanings attributed to new technologies, ordinary people and activists engage with new media in ways that cannot be fully captured with existing political frameworks. Historically tracing new media then, highlights how meanings or functions attributed to leave technologies emerge through a negotiation between different actors.

NS [55:47]: Thank you for listening to this episode of AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. This episode was produced by Nazlı Özkan with production and editorial assistance from myself, Nick Smith, and Ximena Málaga Sabogal. For show notes including the bios of all participants interviewed in this episode, please search for arthropod at www.culanth.org, that's c-u-l-a-n-t-h dot org. Until next time.