Old Media Never Die

Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture, remarks that “old media never die.” Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, has this to say on the matter:

A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them. Manuscript culture had sustained an oral procedure in education that was called “scholasticism” at its higher levels; but by putting the same text in front of any given number of students or readers print ended the scholastic regime of oral disputation very quickly. Print provided a vast new memory for past writings that made a personal memory inadequate.

Of course, McLuhan was speaking to medium theory’s zoomed out, larger perspective, the “break boundaries” in society that move us from media paradigm to media paradigm. Jenkins’s point is zoomed in: the move from 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs is much smaller in scale.

But perhaps the question today should be posed differently? In the age of participatory culture, it’s not that media is being replaced as it is media being confused: mashed up and remixed, to the point that we don’t know what to make of it. A recent example is “Quarterlife,” a new series debuting on MySpace:

Hollywood has been dipping its toe in original online content. Two seasoned producers are about to take a full plunge.

‘); } //–> Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick — who have made films like “Blood Diamond” and “The Last Samurai” and whose ABC series “Thirtysomething” helped to define television drama in the 1980s — have made a deal with MySpace, the online social network owned by the News Corporation, to produce an original Web series called “Quarterlife.”

Mr. Herskovitz described “Quarterlife” as a regular television series, made by network-caliber writers, directors and production crews…A day after their original MySpace posting, the episodes will be available on quarterlife.com. A week later, they will be generally available on the Web. And, if all goes as planned, they will eventually find their way onto conventional television screens.

What’s becoming apparent is that our need (is “desire” a better word?) to categorize media — this is television, this is Internet — is quickly becoming irrelevant. These boxed-in descriptions of media no longer work, no longer apply. Is Quarterlife television? Online? Both? Neither?

From our vantage point, the impact is not that clear. There’s certainly something happening, some sort of societal change is taking place; whether it’s of the same magnitude as print displacing our memory, as McLuhan notes, I’m not sure…

Spaces such as YouTube and MySpace are essential parts of our participatory culture, and yet Quarterlife is an overt attempt to co-opt some of new media’s democratizing potential. That’s why I’m not so sure — it seems like a power struggle at this point, and it’s not clear who will win.

Quarterlife is simply, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”


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