The American media owe much to James Bopp, Jr. His career-long endeavor to end limits on political campaign donations bore fruit with the Citizens United decision, and the Super PAC’ed Republican primaries have generated record print and broadcast expenditures. On one hand, in a setting where one good jab deserves another, media advisors have encouraged a race to the bottom, facilitated by the claim that political candidates are not responsible for what is uttered on their behalf. On the other, there are increasing signs that an extraordinarily cash-rich ecosystem is breeding significant innovation in campaign strategy and media use. Political campaigns have long deployed “transmedia” logics…long, that is, before academics named the practice…and they continue to innovate with their mash-ups of social media, mainstream media and live events. While the broadcast primary debates appear to be amateurish versions of a poorly thought-through reality show, they in fact mask a far more troublesome shift in the American public sphere in which anonymous corporate “persons” can drown-out mere human voices.
Yet, in the midst of these disturbing trends, there is hope. In a dynamic reminiscent of the contrast between the 1990’s concentration of media ownership and the simultaneous appearance of the Internet as a work-around where people could not only circumvent the established channels, but could produce and distribute their own culture, the massive forces unleashed by the Super PACs have coincided with the appearance of new social movements and new patterns of media use. Consider Occupy…the subject of Sasha Constanza-Chock’s recent research…and its transformation of the terms of the public debate. Consider Anonymous…those non-corporate persons who have contested corporate and state impositions on the Internet. And consider the larger transformations in information gathering and circulation, of which WikiLeaks is but one dramatic example.
The pas de deux between these, to oversimplify, top-down and bottom-up developments, has put media ever more at the center of contemporary cultural practice. And with that centrality, the work of the faculty, researchers and students of CMS has continued to grow in relevance and visibility. This issue of In Media Res, as usual, documents our commitment to understanding the dynamics of media change using a combination of traditional scholarship and hands-on research. Terms such as “engaged” and “applied” describe the work of CMS’s various research groups and the program’s outreach activities. This semester, those outreach activities will include the weekly CMS colloquia and the Communications Forum; the Center for Civic Media’s weekly lunches and speaker series; the HyperStudio’s workshops and studio talks; GAMBIT’s weekly research presentations and Friday afternoon game sessions…plus the Purple Blurb digital writing series, and the many activities of the other lab groups. The Education Arcade will again host the Sandbox Summit, and the new MIT Open Documentary Lab has organized a highly-buzzed workshop for makers, funders, curators and scholars on the new arts of documentary.
All this activity is difficult to contain, which is not a problem since the point is to get it out into the world. But containers still matters in institutional settings, and CMS will undergo a long-awaited institutional transformation later this summer as it joins with the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (where many of our faculty currently work) to produce a new administrative entity. Meanwhile, CMS is hiring additional faculty in film and television studies, in game studies and more, and the admissions committee is again coping with the highest number of applicants in the program’s history. Change remains the name of the game, but the dust is settling and at least our institutional contours are becoming clearer!