Media, Pictures, and Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New

In the introduction to her book Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture, Lisa Gitelman explains that media are plural, that they exist as “socially-realized structures of communication” (7). This definition is important because it deals with two ways that people tend to talk about media. The first, as outlined by Gitelman, is that laymen tend to use the word media primarily in reference to the news and entertainment industries and their output. This type of use indicates an idea of media (singular) as a collective “they,” that has some power in terms of cultural practices and circulations. What this use of the word elides is all of the other things that serve as textual and cultural mediums for communications, like the cell phone, for example. Most people would readily admit that what they can access on their phones– Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube– belong to the category of media, but few people understand that the phones themselves are also media. The second way that people tend to talk about media is as a technological structure that has force and history and agency all on its own, which has the effect, Gitelman argues, of “naturalizing or essentializing technologies as if they were unchanging” (8) and as if their functions were performed automagically (9) without regard to human relations or their own origins and development within social and cultural norms. 

If media exist as structures of communication, Gitelman signals that its work is centered on representation. Each newly developed medium, she argues, represents its predecessors like McLuhan suggests, but it will also provide new sites for elaborating our experiences of representations, as Altman theorizes (4). I was thinking about this in relation to the development and proliferation of social media platforms. Social media platforms, which center on self-representations, have changed the way the public takes photographs. No longer are cameras developed and pictures stored materially in photo albums or scrapbooks; instead, social media serve as the public destinations for the digital pictures we take through our camera phones. These new mediums not only changed how we stored our photos, they also changed how those photos were circulated.  In conjunction with these changes, as social-networking sites increasingly moved from text-based (a la the Facebook status) to image-based (a la Instagram and Snapchat), tech-comm companies prioritized camera (and image-editing) improvements for each new generation of smart phones. The current iteration of these symbiotic media necessitates other changes to photography practices. Before, for example, taking any picture using a roll of film cost something. Not only did the film itself have a price tag and a limit to its memory that was quite low– often 24 photos– but the development of the film cost both financially and in terms of the labor and time needed for dropping off and picking up. Now, the cost of a digital photo is nearly nothing, resulting in an exponential increase in digital photo-taking. We take pictures of everything, we exchange and circulate those pictures, remixxing or editing or filtering them until they better represent our ideal selves, and we await parasocial connection engendered by their circulation. 

Although it is common to consider a medium’s content– the digital photo itself– all on its own, Gitelman argues that we must take into account the fact that no content is ever  free from the structures of the media it was produced within. And just like content cannot be divorced from the affordances and constraints of its medium, the medium itself cannot be examined without acknowledging the socio-culturo-political affordances and constraints in which it was created. Thus, the digital photo apart from the medium that produced it or the other media that circulated it, can only offer us part of the story. 

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