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Article: Toward a History of New Media in the New Middle East

July 10, 2012

The modern Arabic-speaking Middle East is incomprehensible without taking into account the central importance of mass media. Yet existing literature on media in the Middle East often falls into one (or both) of two errors.

First, existing scholarly literature on media in the Arab Middle East tends to clump (with some important exceptions) at either end of a historical spectrum. They describe and analyze  the adoption of the printing press in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or they focus on “new” (primarily digital) media as they have unfolded over the past two decades.

Second, much of the work on contemporary “new media” suffers from an implicit technological determinism (historical studies are generally more sound, but not necessarily well focused on media as a phenomenon that deserves analysis in its own right).

In his paper “Toward a History of New Media in the New Middle East,” Walter Armbrust argues that “new media,” stripped of its technological determinism, is a useful concept, and that a history of new media over the past hundred and fifty years or so will make media an object of study on par with “economy” or “society,” or “culture.” He warns, however, that scholars must be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming the existence of such an object as a given.

Nonetheless, Armbrust argues, there is a great deal to be gained from understanding the media system historically as it emerges and takes on the status of a socially constructed reality in the Arabic-speaking world.

“New media,” from this historical perspective, is a shifting target. Each new type of media technology or genre is “new” in comparison with what has come before.

This is quite different than, say, Enzenberger’s (1970) definition of new media as those forms–such as videotape, fax machines, cassette tapes and personal computers–in which to own the means of consumption is to own the means of production. This stands in contrast (for Enzenberger) with old media —such as print, radio, film and television) in which a small body of producers controls the means of production for contentwhich is then distributed to a vast body of consumers.

References:

Armbrust, Walter. 2012. A History of New Media in the Arab Middle East. Journal for Cultural Research 16(2-3):155-174.

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