Media and social change: ad-hoc determinants
I was thinking earlier about this business of media and social change and how to avoid the evils of technological determinism (the assumption that new technologies are the prime movers of social change) and its often neglected twin, sociocultural determinism (social and cultural specificities as the prime movers of social change) – the latter of which we anthropologists find almost irresistible.
Perhaps we could eschew both determinisms by examining documented cases of media and social change on their own merits, with an open mind. This is because each instance will be the result of a unique constellation of technological, social, political, economic and/or environmental factors.
Take, for instance, Jonathan Skinner’s paper on how a majority of the residents of the Caribbean island of Montserrat had to evacuate their island at short notice following a volcanic eruption in 1995. The instant diaspora found itself scattered across North America, Britain and other territories and some of them decided to keep in contact online via the Electronic Evergreen, an internet newsgroup. The prime mover or determinant of this dramatic change in Montserratian fortunes was neither social nor technological, but rather a natural catastrophe (as it was indeed in recent years with the Indian Ocean tsunami or the earthquakes in China). The specific technological practices came after the fact, in the shape of what media theorists would call a ‘remedial’ technology: the newsgroup. This pre-Web 2.0 social medium allowed displaced Monsterratians, among other things, to recreate the formerly co-present sociality of their distant homeland. The Electronic Evergreen is the result of a unique constellation of technological and non-technological factors that together contributed to Montserratian social change at a particular moment in the history of this colony.
Quite a different constellation of determinants was at work in the huge social changes surrounding the conflict pitting Muslims against Christians in the Moluccas (Indonesia) from 1999 to 2002 – a conflict in which both sides made extensive use of internet newsgroups and other internet technologies (see Braeuchler 2005).