Patrice Riemens on Thu, 26 Aug 1999 19:32:34 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Dominique Wolton: "Internet is not a Media"

Geert got quite a number of reactions to his request for info on the French
communication sociologist Dominique Wolton, most of it fairly negative.
Though Wolton surely would make it in WIRED's 'species-to-be-extinguished'
list, his statements are still worthwhile to be taken cognizance of from
the source. Hence this translation of the 'Liberation' interview which
triggered the whole discussion. In the end I briefly review what reactions
came in on Libe's MultiMedia site.  The whole thing happened in
March/April, and died out then, at least there.

cheers, patrice



Dominique Wolton in conversation with Catherine Mallaval (Liberation, 20/21
March 1999)

After his "Eloge du grand public" (In praise of mass audiences), in 1990,
and "Penser la communication" ((Re)thinking Communication) in 1997,
Dominique Wolton closes of his trilogy with "Internet et apres? Une theorie
critique des nouveaux medias" (Internet, and then what? A critical theory
of the new media), just published. 200 pages plus of scathing critique, an
opportune gift for the Internet Party (a yearly French event to promote the
Net, transl.). Going against the mainstream, Dominique Wolton, who has been
for ten years now the director of the Politics & Communication research
group at the CRNS (France's prestigious national scientific research
organisation, transl.) invites us to pause and ponder for a while when
talking about the Net, that allegedly 'magic' tool. This because, he
writes: _"new technologies are being pushed wholesale, without anybody
daring to criticize them, or to question whether they are entitled to so
much space within the public domain, or to wonder whether they do represent
such a massive, unqualified progress". Thus he embarked on a big de-bunking
drive, which will reassure those who are not partaking in what he calls
"this feeling of absolute liberty, of power even that is captured in the
expression 'to Surf the Net'..."  Exerpts:

Catherine Mallaval (DM): Your take is that the Net is not a true media.
Aren't you being bellicose here?

Dominique Wolton (DW): Not at all. A pipe, however performing, is not a
media. A true media stems from the supply side, as is the case with a
newspaper, a radio station, a television channel. They offer their services
to a public, which may or may not 'buy' them.  Conversely, the Net stands
on the demand side: the users come and take whatever they want, whenever
they want. That's one. Second, a true media is build upon a conceived, or
even pre-conceived idea of an audience. Whereas the Net is targeted to any
and everybody, to a "world citizen" that does not exist, but titilates the
imagination. Finally, there is no media without a pre-constructed
programme, a grid of references that is not a jail-house, but on the
contrary, a statement of ambition, a desire to organise an incredible
number of despatches according to a certain conception of one's audience
and of what one wishes to tell it.  Here again, the Net does not fit the
bill.  All this would not be problematic at all, but for the fact that this
type of communication is being bandied as a big step forward, particularly
in contrasting passive potato couches in front of their TV sets and active,
intelligent internauts behind their keyboards! Direct, unmediated
communication, as a mere technical performance. It caters to dreams of
individual freedom, but it is illusory. The Net may well give access to a
mass of informations, but nobody is a world citizen wanting to know
everything about the entire world. The more information there is, the
greater the need for intermediaries - journalists, archivers, editors, etc
- who filter, organise, prioritise. Nobody wants to play for cheif editor
every morning. The equality of access opportunity to information does not
create equality of competence in handling information. Mistaking the one
for the other is techno-ideology (ideologie technique).


CM: But the Net enables like-minded communities to communicate?

DW: Yes, but others, like Radio, Citizen's Band, Free Access Channels do
and did the same before!  And the challenge of communication is not to link
all the Tiger Woods fans of the planet, for Chris' sake! The true challenge
is to hold together communities which do not have much in common. fishermen
and hunters may be, or more seriously, Turks and Kurds, for instance...
Only the media which work from the supply side, only the mass media
therefore, which try to enroll the largest possible audience, are able to
handle social differences.  Hence, they may also contribute to political
and cultural emancipation, whereas the Net conversely runs the risk of
increasing cultural imbalances and unequalities. So, again, let's not lump
technical performance with advances in (the quality of) communication.


CM: But then why all these wild dreams & fantasies (about the Net)?

DW: That is because we live in the midst of this technological revolution.
But it is not the first one.  The true culprits of this uncritical and
a-historical fascination for technology are the cultural elites themselves.
They never understood the democratic challenge that the mass media
represented in the first place.  They snubbed them - while using them to
their purposes all the same - now they go on pushing for the
individualisation of communication and interactivity, and call this a
progress!  In short, they naively parakeet what the industry leaders are
preaching. Journalists also are to blame, who abstain from applying their
critical faculties in this regard. It is not because one can flash a
picture from one corner of the planet to its opposite that progress in
communication has been achieved!  Just as they were fascinated by what
sattelites could do during the Gulf War, and then saw the limits to it, now
they are jumping on Bill Gate's bandwagon! They celebrate the existence of
20 million internauts, but there is no guiding vision to it. Just as they
do not speak out on the matter of regulation. As if plenty was the
corollary of virtue...


CM: You are in favor of 'constraining' (regulating) the Net. Yet the Net is
often taken as synonymous with 'freedom' ?

DW: There is no such thing as freedom without rules.  the United States are
taking a different stand, but that is totally self-serving, since they
basically own the communication industry... Everybody praises this
so-called freedom of communication, but just as the NGOs are battling
dictatorship with the help of the networks, the maf(f)ia, speculators, and
even kid-porn peddlers (hello, long time no see! transl.) are on-line too.
We *must* regulate the web and its content.

CM: So what is the future of the Net to you?

Will the network metastases towards its functionnal self, aka e-commerce,
or will be able to lend a democratic ideal to this communication tool? Both
of them are realisable technically, but they are conceptually
irreconciliable. A choice will have to be made.  For the time being, talk
is about setting up interactif fora, cultural (self) expression, but behind
our backs it is the mercantile rationality that is being installed...

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