Ralph Schroeder
Publication Date
Publication Date: 
January 1, 2018

"New technologies-in-use have made a difference to social development, and for this reason the internet and how it has displaced traditional media cannot be dealt with within the silos of disciplinary specialization or empirically investigated with theories of the middle range."

Designed for students and scholars of digital media and society, the internet and politics, and the social implications of big data, this book is meant to fill a perceived void: that existing theories of mass or interpersonal communication do not work well in understanding a digital world. Rather than explain the role of the internet or media in society as such, Ralph Schroeder separates out its role in 3 different parts of society - or, put another way, types of power or social orders: politics, where legitimacy and inputs are bounded and authoritative; markets, where sellers and buyers are connected via diffuse and extensive exchanges; and culture, with its plural worlds of symbols and sources of information (but also with one unified or cohesive part: science). These differences are one part of the argument; another is that technology shapes society - or "technological determinism". Schroeder argues that the internet extends the reach and intensifies the penetration of media into society, but in doing so, it shapes these orders or powers and is shaped by them. It can be added that the distinction between these orders or powers is not just analytical, but also applies to how media, including the internet, work in practice.

The 3 main topics covered - politics (chapters 2 and 3), everyday life (4 and 5), and big data (6) - concern how digital media relate to existing media systems (2), enable right-wing populism (3), connect to others (4) and to information (5), and the implications of big data (6).

One task of chapter 2 is to compare the media systems in advanced democracies (the United States (US) and Sweden) and in developing countries (China and India) - where digital technology causes change in the political directions, in people's social and "informational" lives, and in knowledge based on digital media data and how it is used. Some studies have found that new digital media set different agendas from traditional media. For example, blogs and microblogs (Twitter), according to Neuman (2016), shift the political agenda away from the priorities of elites in traditional media such as economic and foreign policy - and towards issues that are closer to people's concerns such as crime and abortion. At the same time, since people's activity on digital media can be captured, political election campaigns (among other forms of political communication) can use these digital data traces to measure and predict the public's views, and hence reach voters in a more fine-grained way and make politicians more responsive to online sources. Many other comparisons can be made, including among countries where public broadcasting has played a major role (all countries except the US), or looking at how elites exercise control over media (e.g., the party in China), which is where the bulk of citizens get their news. To cite another example, the difference between, for example, newspaper-centric (India, Sweden) and TV-centric (US and China) countries is rapidly being eclipsed by the difference between younger and older people, or the difference between those who are likely to access news via smartphones as opposed to via TV or in print. In India, there are examples of political mobilisation by means of non-smart mobile phones; for example, during state elections in Uttar Pradesh, when Dalits (untouchables) coordinated their voting, and this contributed to the victory of their party.

Chapters 4 and 5 move from the public arena to personal uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs): socialising and information seeking. Schroeder feels that "only a small subset of this new - increasingly mediated - way of life is important. This includes unequal access to - especially reliable - information and possibilities to shape an open and diverse cultural agenda, and social support. New social divides are thus emerging, but it is important to pinpoint where they play an outsize role, as with an urban-rural divide in India and China, or the divide between smartphone-only internet users and those who have access via a range of devices."

Chapter 6 focuses on infrastructures that have become important as gatekeepers, including Google (or other search engines), Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. One new feature of these systems is that they collect "big data" about users. "More powerful knowledge thus plays a role in everyday life, but it remains largely invisible, as when digital media users are unaware of how information is filtered for them. Big data raises certain issues in new guises, such as privacy, but the public is also adapting to the ways in which media uses are being harnessed for advertising and marketing."

The conclusion (chapter 7) draws these chapters together and also returns to the theoretical debates that were introduced in the introductory chapter. "Exaggerated hopes and fears about new media are in large part due to the 'sociology of the last five minutes' (a phrase coined by Michael Mann), whereby recent technological trends are seen as beckoning huge transformations. A longer-term comparative perspective shows how limited - but also how in specific ways significant - new media and the internet are, in everyday use and also in contrast with mass and interpersonal media. One feature that is common throughout the four countries discussed - and beyond - and that is overlooked in existing media theories, is the role of elites and their gatekeeping and agenda-setting power. Neither the capitalist concentration of media power nor idealism about bottom-up forces captures how the content produced for new media remains the preserve of political elites and media professionals....The concluding chapter retraces the argument about the nature of media, technology and globalisation, and also the arguments about the different roles of media in different societal domains, the autonomy of media, and the implications of a limited attention space across media."

Open access PDF: free; hardback: £35.00; paperback: £15.00; epub: £5.99
Number of Pages: 



UCL Press website, January 11 2018. Image credit: ThoughtCo