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Agents of Change: The Media, Media and Activism

Agents of Change: The Media, Media and Activism
 Théophile Lenoir
Fellow - Misinformation and Digital Policy

Considering, on the one hand, the flood of criticisms levelled at politicians in power and the economy, and, on the other, the regular social tensions expressed in the streets of Paris and other world capitals, one may wonder about the actions of decision-makers: are they doing enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century? As anxiety rises, some may dare to ask: is there even hope that things will change fast enough to durably ease tensions? 

Looking at the issue from a different angle

These questions are productive in that they hold decision-makers accountable. How can one not be outraged by the injustices inflicted upon minorities, whether ethnic or sexual; by our inability to drastically reduce our energy consumption and minimise the impacts of climate change; by the ever-more rising and visible inequalities that no policy seems to stem? These problems must be addressed by our ruling classes, and they must be addressed quickly.

However, by putting the emphasis on action  ("what do women and men in power do?"), we take the risk of hitting a dead-end: given the almost unlimited number of public policy issues, it seems unlikely that public opinion would reach a state of satisfaction. Moreover, by increasing the sense of permanent urgency, there is a risk of taking hasty, even ineffective decisions to address major problems (the French law on hateful content shows the French government’s ability to act for the sole purpose of acting, regardless of the effectiveness of its action).

Is it possible to approach these issues differently? I argue the need to focus on the environment that serves as a basis for our interpretation. Why do dissident voices emerge so often?  

From the media to media

The media environment in which we operate is an incredible vehicle for change. Recently, it allowed a 16-year-old girl to attract enough attention to call out the leaders of the world's major powers on their inability to manage the environmental crisis. It also contributed to stopping the development of the "Maven" project for ethical reasons, which relies on the use of artificial intelligence in a military framework yet in the making. How is that possible?

We define media as anything used to record, transmit and/or process information, speech, images, sounds.

To understand media in the digital age, it is necessary to distinguish the traditional definition of media, in the sense of newspapers, television, etc. from media, plural of medium, intermediary between individuals and their environment. Yves Citton describes this difference in detail in his book Médiarchie, published in 2017 by Le Seuil. He defines media as anything used to record, transmit and/or process information, speech, images, sounds. (p.31) ("tout ce qui sert à enregistrer, à transmettre et/ou à traiter de l’information, des discours, des images, des sons.")

Paper, for example, is a medium; a film strip is another - Marshall McLuhan, a great Canadian communications theorist, would go so far as to say that media are "extensions of man". In his view any technology, by offering human beings a new way of perceiving their environment, is a medium (for example, a car changes our perception of distances). Although this definition largely extends the scope of media (everything becomes media), it has the advantage of emphasizing the role of intermediary, of mediator, that our technological environment plays. This is particularly relevant in the digital age.

Transmission of values

The particularity of media is that they convey a type of vision that is unique to them. For example, writing allows the novel reader to enter easily in the characters' thoughts; the film will facilitate the sharing of emotions through what is visible. These ways of looking at things circulate values: visual formats, such as films or memes, can encourage the creation of ostentatious content because it will have more effect.
Thus, at the beginning of the social networks era (when they were still perceived as a tool for liberation), Manuel Castells, in his book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press, 2012), analysed indignation and hope as a driving force for change and mobilisation, leading to the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement or other mobilisations in Brazil, Turkey, Chile and Mexico. He showed that one form of communication seems to predominate in our media environment.

Silicon Valley and the defense of freedoms

Given the cultural context in which they were born, it is not surprising that social networks ended up promoting a form of expression based on indignation and hope. Activism and mobilization for causes of common interest is part of the DNA of American campuses since the 1964-65 and the Free Speech Movement on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. The movement claimed students' freedom of expression and their right to mobilise around political issues. This idea of free individuals in opposition to the central power accompanied from their early stages the progressions of computer geniuses who will make history. Later, it was inserted  at the centre of storytelling and marketing campaigns in a  part of the IT sector (the 1984 Macintosh ad is now a textbook case).

American academia and activism

These libertarian movements were rooted in academia (and campuses played a major role in doing this), which contributed to their strength. Thus, Gender Studies or Ethnic Studies have provided a series of analyses scientifically demonstrating the injustices suffered by minorities (on this point, it is interesting to note the role played by French philosophers in the emergence of these academic schools. In his book, French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze et Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis, François Cusset describes the recycling of methods developed by French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida or Gilles Deleuze in American academic spheres).

Today, personalities such as danah boyd (without capital letters), a researcher at Microsoft Research, a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University and founder of the think tank Data and Society, represent this form of academic activism. Her messages are powerful, precise and based on extensive scientific analysis (the quality and depth of Data and Society's publications speak for themselves). Another example could be Kate Crawford, a researcher at the same Microsoft Research and New York University and co-founder of the renowned AI Now Institute, alongside Meredith Whittaker, also at New York University. In November 2018, Meredith Whittaker organized a worldwide strike against her employer, Google, in protest against the company's handling of sexual harassment cases within the organization. In July 2019, she resigned from Google.

This in no way diminishes the merit of these activists or the importance of their cause, it simply provides a different understanding of why they exist today and will certainly continue to exist tomorrow.

Therefore, this tradition of activism has been present since the early days of social media networks. In his essay "Technology is society made durable" (1991), Bruno Latour developed the idea that the values embedded in our technology (i.e. in media) travel through time to reach future generations. Activism from the early days never left social media platforms, and today the echoes of the Free Speech Movement protesters can be heard through voices like Greta Thunberg’s. 

Here is a different perspective on the feeling of urgency in which we live. While the ability of personalities like Greta Thunberg to encourage change is impressive, these few paragraphs simply remind us that it is also based on an ecosystem of technologies created in contact with committed academic spheres that wanted to make themselves heard. This in no way diminishes the merit of these activists or the importance of their cause, it simply provides a different understanding of why they exist today and will certainly continue to exist tomorrow.


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