For two centuries at least, philosophers have argued that the media through which power is exercised cannot be distinguished from the action of power itself. Such media include writing (laws), speech (parliaments), images (evidence), data (measurement), numbers (statistics) and their means of distribution (mail, telegram, telephone, internet). Only a slight change of focus is required to understand that money too is a medium, the medium of exchange. Media are the intrinsic forms taken by power and economy. This is why media matter.
But how do media matter, exactly? In the most general sense, media 'matter' because they are material, but material of a very specific kind. Every medium is actual: it actually exists, actually mediates. This actuality is its physical form, which derives from its past how it has been constructed, out of which elements, how those elements were constructed in their turn. If technological innovation is a process of reassembling old parts into new forms (Schumpeter), then technologies are containers of history, and the past accumulated in them is what makes up their actuality: the accumulated force of history.
But as Marx observed, we make our own history, albeit not under conditions of our own choosing. Media technologies are actual in the sense that they are the accumulation of the wisdom of the anonymous dead. But they are also potential. Potential derives from the Latin word for power. Power is the capacity for acting, that is, for making actual (Arendt). Everything that has potential has the potential to act, that is to bring about a new actuality. Without that capacity, nothing happens.
Every medium inherits its past, but also converts that past into a new present. According to both Kant and Hegel, technological devices are distinguished from living things because their purpose is external to them. Living beings live in order to live: their first task is to carry on living. Technologies have as their first purpose to produce something else, something external to them. They have no instinct of self-preservation. From this point of view, technologies are entirely the servants of humans. And yet we have the terrible image of the factory as the eater of souls: the technology as enemy and conqueror of humanity. Marx used the phrase 'dead labour' to describe machines: they are the accumulated skills of those who went before us, abstracted from the work of their bodies, made concrete, and subjected to the laws of whatever mode of production dominated at the time.
The opposition between visions of technologies as either master or servant is inadequate. They are the servants of some (the owners of the means of production) and the oppressors of others. But if it is the case that both power and wealth are media, then the technologies are not inert. They are the media through which power is exerted and wealth extracted. Technologies too mediate between people. All technologies are media technologies. All technologies mediate, as when heat is converted into velocity, or electricity into computer displays. They mediate when they convert energy into its representation (gear trains, code). All technologies mediate through a chain of transformations and representations. They also mediate between the past and the future, the accumulated past of both human skill and previous technologies, and the immediate future posited by their capacity for action, their potential.
Both actual and potential, media mediate between people, between natural forces (animal power, the laws of physics) and people, and between technologies and people. [It remains to be seen whether it is possible to mediate between technologies and natural forces without the intervention of people]. Because they also mediate between past and future (they are actual-potential), media are the medium of history, and they are temporal and historical in their nature. This is not to say that they have an essence: some ideal form which shapes every given medium. Rather, media are continually changing, because they are the medium of change.
This historical dimension of mediating between people, technologies and nature is basic to how media operate as media of power and wealth. Classes, cliques, factions and occasionally individuals conspire to seize control over particular media formations – the legal system, broadcasting, transport systems. In dong so they seek to restrain the potential of the media they inherit, restricting tools for inputting, distinguishing between types of access, delaying outputs for some while accelerating them for others. The minute adjustments required for these operations constitute a major part of media historiography.
But media formations must mediate. It is simply impossible to run a society without media: the two terms are synonymous. We cannot imagine a society without language, any more than we can imagine a language without a society (Lévi-Strauss). Media are the material of society: they are what we do when we are sociable: talk, share food, wear clothes, make love, make war. Mediation is society, and society is mediation. Even the highly specialised media formations – medicine, for example – are social in their essence. Even the most authoritarian media, the most deeply opposed to dialogue – such as weapons – are produced in, and produce, social relations.
Because they must mediate, media open themselves up to struggle over their own constitution. The boss may own the machinery, but it is the hands who most often make the adjustments that improve it. In a stable system, the improvement is taken from the hands and delivered to the bosses. It is as if we cannot, as a species, resist tinkering, improving, acting in dialogue with the materiality of our media. This is the secret of the open source movement; as it is of the argument that the gift of free labour to social networks is a gift to the bosses of unpaid work. Tinkering may then support the status quo, or it may bring about permanent change. It brings us joy, either way. It is joyful, I believe, because it brings us into dialogue with the ancient dead whose labour is accumulated in machines, and allows them to participate in the making of a new potential, a new future.
The struggle over media technologies historicises them once again. Technologies have their own dynamic, in the same way that music or mathematics have. But they also mediate constantly between themselves, between people, and between people and machines. The actuality of media is then the product of past struggles over their shaping. Their potential is also a subject of struggle: shall we use this factory to make bombs or bicycles? Both products and sites of struggle, media also mediate struggle, since they are the media of power and wealth. This is why to describe mediating technologies as either masters or servants is inadequate. It also explains a crucial feature of media technologies.
To the extent that they are the means of production, media technologies belong to their owners, and take their form from the mode of production. We could put this differently and say that they take their form from the regimes of power in place in a given period. Thus the newspaper had the typical form of a factory product: mass-produced for straightforward consumption; while the internet invites prosumers and produsers to customise and produce their own content.
But to the extent that they are arenas of struggle, the underlying technologies (the printing press, the server) are capable of more than the purposes for which they were perhaps initially designed. They can be repurposed, redesigned. Sometimes these tinkerings emerge in the form of activism, sometimes as art, sometimes as ideas, sometimes as innovation. Each and any of these is itself a mediation, and therefore opens itself up to struggle: to producing new innovations, new potentialities; or to being subsumed back into the status quo, the old actuality.
Media matter because they are the medium of history – of politics, of economics, of war, of love. How do media matter? They matter by their constantly changing designs, affordances, combinations and by their constitution in and as the struggle over mediation itself, that mediation which is the whole of the social, and beyond it our connection to the natural world and ultimately to technologies themselves.
To understand mediation, it is necessary to observe in detail the machinery of mediation. The grand epochs – agriculture and writing; the clock, printing and steam; automation, electricity and electronics – give us only the barest sense of the actual texture of either media or history. Especially when thinking about the digital era which we have only just entered, we need to look at the details of the design and use of media technologies. Comparisons with more remote epochs are valuable because they help clarify what is specific to contemporary mediation. They also tell us about what has been left behind, and therefore indicate something about what is to be done to maximise the potential of our media. Any future democracy, any future justice will be mediated. Understanding how the very fabric of humanity is mediated second by second is essential if we are to make possible a future other than the present.