Characteristics of new media in the Internet age

Andy Oram
October 8, 2006. Later revised in light of public comments.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go
—Ira Gershwin, "Love Is Here To Stay," 1937

Some technologies enhance current activity—making it faster, easier, or less expensive—while other technologies foster entirely new possibilities. We generally consider the second category more significant in its social impact. The Internet, of all recent technological innovations, should certainly seem to be fraught with this second, stronger effect, but in the case of the arts, the world is still awaiting the expected upheaval.

The roles played by the Internet in art, music, literature, and film to facilitate digitization and downloading certainly live up to their promise. They make it faster, easier, and less expensive to store, distribute, extract samples from, and issue comments on the arts. But those activities went on for centuries before the Internet.

Few doubt the power of Internet-related technologies to alter the arts deeply. The early twentieth century saw inventions or wide-spread diffusion in three major technological areas—the phonograph, film, and radio—that transformed the arts in immeasurable ways. The early twenty-first century should bring an even more radical transformation.

We’ve had innumerable revolutions in art throughout history: just think of the invention of writing and printing, the arch, stained glass, and acrylic paints. And this article concerns media in many aspects. Artists originally used the term medium for the material they were using: oil paints, watercolors, lithography, and so on. In the twentieth century, the word was seen even more in its plural form and included such new media as film, radio, and television. This article uses both meanings of the term, and tries to shine light on the social significance of the difference between medium and media.

Thus, this article starts with a historical view of the arts and the social changes that accompany them, and features a list of seven characteristics for new media on the Internet.

Cultural stages

This article unashamedly paints in broad strokes and favors primary colors. So let’s think in grand terms. We can divide the history of humanity and its forms of expression into two stages.

The inner-expressive stage

The main forms of expression in early human history consisted of folk tales, ballads, and myths. The urge to preserve memories of events and relationships experienced by large groups of people, as well as needs for individuals to communicate their inner experiences, led to these mostly anonymously cultural artifacts. The invention of writing and printing helped to spread these artifacts while developing the first stage further with such innovations as the sonnet and the novel, and elevating the specific contribution of each author, now individually named. (This is a good time to apologize for the Western-centric examples used in this article; the history of other cultures may suggest that different rules apply in other parts of the world.)

Why did I not mention graphic arts and architecture so far? They too expressed the spirit of the age, but were more localized. Thousands of people on multiple continents could pass around a myth, but only the people living in the immediate vicinity of a picture or building could appreciate it. Printing allowed graphic art to be shared more widely, but disseminated it as part of a new medium that did not reproduce the richness of the original one. (Nonetheless, the engravings created for print books benefited from a richness of texture that now strikes us as breath-taking in comparison to low-resolution, twentieth-century television or computer screens.)

First-stage media promoted a sense of individuality, being the fruits of long periods of solitary contemplation. Viewing, listening to, or reading the works also helped to develop individuality, along with a power of concentration and a consequent ability to analyze and reason. Recent experiments on the human brain reveal how foreign these achievements are to the distracted culture of Internet browsing.

The invention of printing accelerated individualiation for readers as well as authors. This doesn’t mean that the age dominated by printing was free of mob behavior and demagoguery. Certainly, some of the most scurrilous attempts to sway people through emotion date from that period, but those examples don’t weaken the power of the medium to promote reflection and individualism. According to Adrian Johns in The Nature of the Book, his massive history of printing in England of the 1600s and 1700s, printers often changed authors’ work, and even booksellers weighed in with demands for deviations from the manuscript. Thus, for all its weaknesses and its predilection for spreading misinformation, printing opened up expressive possibilities to both authors and others claiming to act in the author’s name. At the same time, doubts over the faithfulness of the printed document required readers to execute individual judgment based on the appearance of the book and what they knew about the bookseller and publisher.

The individualism promoted by art and text does not involve the pursuit of money and material power that we associate with individualism in a free market economy. Rather, it is the individualism of viewpoint, which pushes toward bringing others over to the author’s ideas and gaining social power through persuasion.

However, there may be a deep and subtle relationship between the growth of individual self-expression and capitalist economic development. Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many “self-made men” who become famous for their business success feel compelled to write books.

In addition to driving participants to develop individual identities, the arts and culture of this period led to religious, national, and universal identities—in other words, identification with various human groupings or with higher causes.

The traditional media are especially noteworthy because they are essentially open to all. Physical barriers have constrained their sharing through most of history, but there were no artificial restrictions on sharing. In fact, people tended to alter the cultural works more often than not, and to pass along the altered versions. The end of this stage witnessed the invention of copyright and various other forms of monopoly on printing, but they were enforced ineffectively, while copyright lapsed quickly on each individual work.

The manufactured stage

The second period is much shorter than the first, but contrasts with it strikingly. The new age coincides roughly with the twentieth century, when three new media quickly became widespread: film, radio, and the phonograph.

According to Wikipedia, film became viable with the introduction of the Kinetograph (which generated films) and Kinetoscope (which displayed them) by Edison Laboratories in 1894. The Lumière brothers in France started making and displaying films in 1895, but it was the early 1900s before people were regularly visiting movie houses.

Edison is also credited with the invention of the phonograph in 1877. According to Wikipedia, the phonograph really took off with the invention of the disk in the mid-1890s; it is thus a feature of the twentieth century as much as film.

Experiments with radio are generally dated to 1895 (whether it is credited to Tesla, Marconi, or the Russian physicist Popov). While audio broadcasts over telephone lines were tried as early as the 1880s and numerous wireless experiments took place around the turn of the century, 1912 seems to be the date of the first public radio broadcasts of significance.

Social differences

The use of the term “manufactured” to describe the new media regime has two implications. First, unlike the artist with her hands on clay or the author scribbling words as they come to mind, the new media include a technological element at the very genesis of the work that requires industrial-level manufacturing. But increasingly, the twentieth century media became manufactured in a deeper sense that has crucial impacts on the filtering and altering of the original inspiration. Movie plots, characters, and dialog are designed by teams along well-defined parameters; textures and instrumental solos in songs are created as part of an architectural plan for the musical work. Although stock characters, derivative works, and other types of copying have always existed, the near-scientific committee artisanship that combines them nowadays is a modern phenomenon.

Unlike the earlier media, the brave new twentieth-century media were driven by technical and economic factors toward centralization, and this centralization became more and more rigid as facilities expanded and companies consolidated. Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, and others have written enough books to fill rooms about the social effects. Broadcasting grabs the commanding heights of culture and takes on the role of an authority who expounds while others listen meekly. Movies and phonograph records are self-contained, a trait that allows them to play a wonderful archival role but also fixes a performance permanently and allows for no further modification.

The manufactured age has been far more prolific than earlier ages and includes some of the most enjoyable and moving artistic and documentary works humankind has produced, but in terms of the wider culture it has led to significant trade-offs.

The immediate effect of all these media are to suppress the ancient “stories around the campfire” and parlor-room performances that kept culture close to individuals and small groups. The professionalization of art removed opportunities for developing artists to perform in local communities, while leaving every talented child aspiring to the pinnacle of stardom. While giving new voices to local cultures, it also overrode them in favor of commercially chosen artifacts and cultural references having manufactured meanings.

An unfortunate characteristic of the centralization of twentieth-century media is to make gaining entry such a difficult task that for many it turns into a lifelong struggle reminiscent of Kafka’s story “The Great Wall of China.” Before getting a hearing for a screen play or a song, before even gaining access to the decision-makers who control everyone’s careers and offer that hearing, before even talking to the agents who control access to the decision-makers, you need to spend years networking and muscling your way into the elite.

Technology has brought down the cost of recording and editing audio and video, and the Internet has somewhat democratized access. This may be a prelude to the development of new Internet media.

The manufactured media are certainly moving to the Internet—and not simply because users are exchanging culture in ways that the large studios disapprove of. The studios’ own experiments in releasing trailers for movies and television shows on the Internet have evolved quickly into putting whole episodes online. CD sales are declining while music sales online are thriving. Media analysts and policy activists even worry about a mass-media takeover of Internet culture, such as described by Jeff Chester in his 2008 article “Google, YouTube and You.” There’s plenty of room for all content providers, big and small, on the Internet, and the new media that we will look at present a contrary trend that can reinvigorate the innovative power of small Internet users.

Mass media have earned the name because they reduce their audience to a passive mass. Ironically, while unifying its audience with a single message, it atomizes them insofar as they interact with the media rather than with each other. As Jerry Mander put it in his famous tirade, Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television:

…as we all watched from our separate living rooms, it was as if we sat in isolation booths, unable to exchange any responses about what we were all going through together. Everybody was engaged in the same act at the same time, but we were doing it alone. (Jerry Mander, Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television, 1978, p. 26.)

Just for the record, this article does not endorse Mander’s radical views of the harmful consequences of television (or modern living in general), because his criticisms recede under scrutiny. Let’s pose them starkly: Are most citizens less thoughtful than they were in pre-television days? Would they take different political positions without television? These are hard assertions to prove.

The social power of film, radio, and television were strengthened by their ability to tap into their audience at a deep emotional, subconscious level. These very different media share the trait of streaming. Unlike written text, they move inexorably forward and practically force the viewer or listener to engage without pausing to analyze or compare different viewing and listening experiences. So the change from medium to media has carried with it massive cultural effects.

Fan clubs emerging around popular TV shows have become a modest counterforce, allowing audience members to push back and express their views to content producers. The Internet has enabled them to work together in an innovation called “brand communities.” The TV show American Idol has been phenomenally successful in harnessing this kind of community by letting viewers vote for the winning pop singer. But ironically, while this innovative relationship to viewers boasts a form of democracy, the show’s premise reinforces the modus operandi of the manufactured media stage: everything has to converge on a single winner who takes the prize and is mass marketed to a national audience.

It’s easy to see why advertising (which became common in the 1920s) has always coexisted with mass media. The centralized control over the user’s emotional response almost calls for a merging between mass media and advertising, a merger rapidly being consummated with infomercials, product placement, and government-sponsored media disinformation.

It is also clear that the centralization of film, phonographic, radio, and television companies placed unprecedented power in the hands of their owners. Newspapers shaped attitudes in the past (and continue to do so), but rarely with the wide reach of the modern media, or with its advantages in the realm of emotions.

Only religious organizations have exceeded modern media companies in their hold over large populations. No wonder democracy nowadays is measured partly by the degree of separation of media and state.

Noam Chomsky and others have attributed mass media’s political and social power not so much in its telling people what to think as in its shaping how they think—what people treat as a worthy issue for political discussion. In airing this analysis, fatalism and facile determinism must be rejected. For instance, the importance of quasi-religious “moral values” in many countries was a result of dedicated grassroots activism, not the mass media. At most, the mass media contributed to oversimplification and polarization by assigning facile labels such as a “culture” or “civilizational” war once the activists succeeded on getting their issues on the agenda.

Socially, media power can be seen in its influence over issues discussed and attitudes in the public. Financially, it can be seen in its advertising and lobbying budgets. But the legal aspects of power in media deserve special attention.

Legal differences

Twentieth-century media adopted legal practices from past media—contracts with artists, copyright, trademarks—but created a virtual revolution in the legal regime.

Key laws were passed in 1909 in the United States—that is, at the time the new media were beginning to become commercially significant—extending copyright to music, phonograph recordings, and motion pictures. In Britain, copyright was extended to phonograph recordings in 1911, and to motion pictures and broadcasts in 1956.

When the Berne Convention (adhered to by a wide range of countries, particularly in Europe) was revised in 1948, it extended copyright coverage to a comprehensive range of works: cinematography, choreography, art, and architecture, just to name a few. Finally, the 1961 Rome convention gave broadcasters control over reuse of their broadcasts; it was adopted by many European countries.

The Internet brought a concerted reaction from media companies to preserve markets and revenue sources. For instance, in 1998, the U.S. passed the No Electronic Theft act to prevent Internet users from posting unauthorized copyright material online. The law was spurred by infringement of software but applies to any copyrighted work. The main historical significance of the law was its focus on criminal penalties (including jail) instead of civil penalties (damages from lawsuits) for copyright infringement, bringing government in to do the copyight owner’s job in policing copyright enforcement.

An even more important 1998 law was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Among its numerous provisions (some of them benign) was the notorious prohibition on “circumvention,” which basically broke new ground by ruling some technologies illegal in the interest of protecting the copyright interests of movie and music providers. The support of these major corporations has given this provision an international impetus, getting it adopted or considered in numerous countries and international treaties.

But the biggest change in legal regime in the United States was to make copyright extend far longer than before. Copyrighted works now remain under copyright long after the death of everyone who is living when the work is created, perhaps even after the deaths of everyone’s children. There is certainly a precedent for a long copyright term (the 1886 Berne Convention defined a copyright term covering the lifetime of the author plus 50 years) but a 1996 treaty made it even longer, and recent U.S. laws have gone even further than the treaty.

It is now assumed, among creative people seeking access to twentieth-century works, that works currently falling under copyright (those created from 1923 on) will never be available for copying and reuse. Governments will keep extending copyright terms at the behest of major studios, while the technical measures that are illegal to “circumvent” will also keep works from being used from any purpose except those that the studios think can contribute to their revenue streams.

Copyright and technological measures cover text and other traditional media too, but the most important works have fallen into the public domain by now. Ask anyone to cite the ten most influential works of the twentieth century, and few books or works of fine art are likely to appear; the list will be dominated by sound recordings and film. Thus have the intrinsic emotional power and market dominance of the new media caused them to displace the older ones. And the legal regime of permanent copyright and digital controls over reuse help to cement the division in the history of culture.

Summary of differences

The following table summarizes the differences between the older forms of expression and the new. Given that this table represents an extremely simplified view, objections and exceptions are easy to find. But the simplifications allow us to draw some useful conclusions, which will emerge in the course of this article.

Differences between traditional and twentieth-century mass media
  Traditional forms of expression Mass media forms of expression
Most influential media Written text Film, music
Viewer attitude Inquisitive, analytical, rational Visceral, reactive
Place of the viewer Individual Part of a mass
Distribution and reuse Free (public domain) Locked down (no copying or sampling)
Who controls reuse Every listener and reader The corporation distributing the work

The third stage

Whenever a commentator makes grandiose statements about history, the reader can anticipate some audacious announcement about the future, couched no doubt in revolutionary terms. This article conforms to the pattern. It has offered a high-level overview, necessarily fuzzy and simplified, of two eras in cultural history in order to announce that we are now entering a third era.

The third era, driven of course by the Internet, challenges all the foundations of the previous two eras. This does not mean art done in the old styles will disappear; we will still have everything from hand-sewing to grand opera. But these are accompanied by new media and perhaps can be enhanced by them.

To understand better how the arts are adapting to the Internet, one can look at changes in other sources of information and human expression. Essentially, they are breaking into bite-sized pieces and turning interactive.

Journalism is being transformed into “living news stories” that the editors update daily or hourly, tracked and supplemented by ten million eternal conversations on blogs. Long-lasting forms of information are moving to wikis maintained cooperatively by thousands of people. Interactive story-telling and drama are available. Scientists are turning to the Internet for peer review instead of hand-picked experts. Even the core research and development efforts of corporations are being farmed out to anyone interested in trying to solve the problems.

All of these efforts reflect aspects of digitization and downloading that apply to the arts as well. Perhaps the best model for new art is multiplayer online games. They are frantically interactive while opening up room for fantastic (in the old-fashioned sense) creativity.

The traits of the Internet that foster these changes are the instantaneous appearance of information and the ability to link content of any size to other content anywhere in the world. These traits encourage Internet users to post quickly, perhaps even before their thoughts gel, and to update their work as comments come back.

Thus, the new art possesses seven characteristics to greater or lesser degrees:


In order to go up on the Internet in a manner others can retrieve, art must be put in a recognizable format. Digitization is accomplished through encodings for text in various languages, music, and video, along with protocols for exchanging the resulting data between programs and computer systems.

A painted canvass is host to unique brushstrokes that cannot be repeated. Fakes are routinely discovered by comparing brushstrokes in disputed paintings to brushstrokes in the original artist’s hand. But when the art is digitized, the brushstroke is converted into a common format that can be extracted and repeated endlessly. Collages become the canonical art form—but on the Internet they potentially become much more intricately integrated than torn or scissored pieces of paper and fabric.

Digitization also permits any kind of data to be rendered as visual or audio experiences, subject only to the limitations of output devices. This will be explored further in the Applied section.

Thus, while digitization imposes rules on artwork (the artwork has to conform to the digital parameters, such as color choice or audio frequency range), it permits great freedom in the manipulation of the material that has been digitized.


Nothing is ever perfect—and the Internet makes it so tempting to improve what you have put up! Modern software lets the most technically naive writer or artist alter her work and show the results instantly.

The Western tradition of canonizing artworks and seeing them as fixed for all time is relatively recent. In the Renaissance, children might alter artwork commissioned and bought by parents years before, or new owners might alter works bought from the people who commissioned them originally, perhaps to add the new owner’s portrait or coat of arms. Still, no one would feel the urge to climb a scaffold just to add one brushstroke to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Art on the Internet, in contrast, could be subject to continuous change.

The combination of digitization and easy distribution over the Internet facilitates sampling, collage, mash-ups, and other reuse of material. Some musicians now offer the tracks to their recordings as separate files so that a particular riff can be incorporated by others in new recordings.


The Internet allows art as mash-ups of contributions large and small from many people. A single author may try to maintain control, but will always feel the urge to incorporate suggestions he finds compelling from other people. Instead of jealously hiding a manuscript in a desk drawer till it’s ready to spring upon the public, many authors now develop their creative works on public sites. And because of the previous trait, the malleability of Internet content, people will feel the urge to suggest changes.

The most Internet-appropriate artworks turn into group efforts, perhaps shifting one parameter this year and another parameter the next, always exploring past the art’s own edge.


In a medium that makes copying so easy, attempts to restrict distribution are probably not worth the effort—particularly if such efforts prevent the reuse of material that is one of the most interesting parts of the Internet experience.

Thus, at least some of the most important artwork is accessible to anyone on the Internet, free of charge. This does not mean, however, that the old notion of the public domain will be retrieved. New art is likely to have licenses that assure certain rights to the original author as well as the viewers.


Art that is constantly changing reflects the needs of particular times and places. Local personalities and fast-breaking news events find their way into artistic expressions.

There’s a long history to topical art. A troubadour would talk about a particularly beautiful duchess, for instance, while a balladeer would talk about a particularly beautiful duchess who was brutally slaughtered by the duke.

Topical art need not be ephemeral. We are still reading Dante’s Comedia six hundred years after he died, including passages about people and events that you wouldn’t know about unless you lived in Florence at the time he was writing. More recently (less than one hundred years ago) James Joyce similarly wrote about the people and events of Dublin. It may be no coincidence that both Dante and Joyce wrote while in some sort of exile from the cities whose details they reproduced so lovingly, as if bringing themselves home through memories. But now we need historical glosses to understand parts of their classics. The same is true for scenes in many of Shakespeare’s works that rest on references to various parts of the London of his day.


Many of the new artists break down the barrier between art and other parts of life; aesthetic or affective experience becomes just one facet (and a facet increasingly expected to be present) in everything we do.

Crafts have never recognized a boundary between art and practical living; nor have their modern mass-market equivalent, industrial design. In most cultures, music has usually served as an accompaniment to dance, ritual, or some other activity, and even the classical Western tradition turns up plenty of examples of background music, or what Erik Satie called wallpaper music.

As the new media take off, with large numbers of professionals and amateurs tossing their ideas into the pot, practical applications for the arts are inevitable. The entry of computerization into music has already established a habit of environments that include textured sound. And many installations—for instance, screens of data about the local ecology displayed in an aesthetic manner—are presented as modern art when they might be seen more as educational projects.

Thus, a technology from the Preemptive Media Project called AIR is billed as an art project, but deals more with environmental education: it allows urban dwellers to view the exact composition of pollutants in the air as they move from one part of the city to another. It seems eminently reasonably that the new media—being malleable, topical, and applied—would be used to expose changes in user’s immediate environment, which exemplifies those traits most intensely.


The third wave of media may be open, unlike the second, but it might resist becoming a complete free-for-all like the first. There will probably be constraints: legal and licensing constraints as well as artistic and aesthetic ones.

Even when modern artists are happy to let others extract samples from their work, or alter the entire piece, they usually want some credit. And they often require, as fair play, that works based on their open work be released to the public under the same open terms. The most popular clauses in Creative Commons works pertain to these constraints.

Malleable art is also constrained, almost inevitably, by its software design. People are allowed to change particular parameters, such as the speed at which events happen, but not the actual events. They may be allowed to twist dials to invoke new effects, but not touch the basic assumptions on which the work rests.

Because I’ve cited games as a major model for the new arts, let me use the popular site Second Life as an example of parameters. Second Life is luscious medium for artistic development, allowing people to try out new landscapes, new architectures, new clothing styles, and various forms of art and music. Second Life also permits a wide range of expression in the personalities people take on, through figures called avatars.

But there are certain things expected of avatars, no matter how much you stretch their parameters. These expectations are necessary so that people can interact coherently. For instance, avatars have built-in options for walking, flying, and teleporting themselves; these capabilities lay the basis for navigating Second Life and engaging in social interaction within it. If a participant decided, however, that it would suit her character to bicycle or swim, she’d have to design special features to do it.

It may seem odd to lump together legal constraints and technical constraints. But a technical constraint is a kind of a contract. As discussed in the earlier section on the digitized aspect of art, an artist produces a work in a format defined by a technical specification. The software that renders that work must unpack the format according to the same technical specification. Similarly, two computer systems exchanging the data use a protocol and format defined by a technical specification. If one side fails to adhere to the specification, the viewer either sees nothing or lacks part of the experience, such as proper graphical resolution or some interactive feature. So the technical specification is like a contract, and the technical constraints should be familiar to people who deal with legal contracts.

Furthermore, legal constraints tend to become technical constraints, as seen in the development of Digital Rights Management (DRM, also called Digital Restrictions Management by critics). The earlier section on Legal differences described the symbiosis between DRM technologies and laws regarding twentieth-century media; the mere availability of DRM (let alone its already widespread use) augurs that it will make its appearance in new digital media as well.

Challenges in the new arts

This article has perhaps been too bold already in defining how new art forms will look and behave, given that few instances exist so far. But it’s still worth drawing some lessons from the traits just discussed.

Maintaining narrative and intent

Upon reading that art is becoming a collaborative effort, many will immediately object that any artistic expression of value must come from a single person, or at least receive strong leadership from someone like a movie or theater director. And perhaps it’s true that successful new artworks need a director or ultimate authority.

We know that a work created by a single author or artist in a fixed period of time can have an integrity that gives it the power that makes us return over and over to our favorite works. In literature, a narrative underlies the work that may infuse it an many levels; even if the explicit progress of the plot does not demonstrate a unifying theme, other aspects of the work that are less obvious may fill in the narrative. These less apparent aspects are also responsible for giving many musical works an implicit narrative. A visual work may provide a narrative at a glance or maintain its integrity in some other way. In all these cases the artist’s genius is responsible for creating a single intent.

According to media analyst Clay Shirky, in his epilogue to Perspective on Free and Open Source Software (distributed by MIT Press as a PDF), many failed attempts were made at the beginning of this century to do collaborative story writing over the Internet. Collaborative writing seems to require strict definitions of roles and goals, which may be why the only successful collaboration Shirky cited was the Wikipedia project, which provides such definitions.

The new collaborative art certainly faces the challenge of keeping coherent. The babble of twentieth-century broadcasting led to a dismantling of meaning and its dissolution into manipulative phraseology, as caught by Samuel Beckett in Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot. The blogosphere threatens to be worse: scads of little-known individuals contributing minuscule comments on evanescent controversies from unknown perspectives with unstated assumptions.

Works that are digitized and therefore subject to being broken up and reused can easily lose the subtleties that give great art its integrity. The malleable, convivial, and topics aspects of a work that can be modified by many loosely associated people over time threatens integrity still more. Who can be expected to grasp and maintain the unconscious aspects of the work that conveyed its intent? We risk a generation of works that offer the viewer only superficial textures and references to other familiar works as organizing themes.

But if artwork fails to become collaborative in some fashion, the Internet will not do for art everything the Internet does well. The Internet will simply be a gigantic library from which it is easy to check out art, but the art itself will be molded along old lines. This is true no matter how complex the practice of sampling and reuse becomes.

If musicians have been able to improvise together for thousands of years, humanity should be able to find ways to collaborate on new art forms with stunning results. New art needs to find a way to form group consensus that does not bury the individual.

Motivating artists

As we’ve seen, powerful incentives exist to make art on the Internet open and free to all. The old pay-per-unit model clearly won’t work for something that is ever-changing, and even a subscription model would have to determine what is fair to charge people who view the work at various times, not to mention people who contribute to the work. Payment models would probably have to be unique to each artwork, and the complexity would drive viewers away.

This leaves unanswered the question of how great artists could be encouraged to contribute their efforts. Great art requires lifelong training and full-time concentration. And while viewers are used to thinking of payments as reimbursement for an artwork already created, from an economic standpoint the payments function more as funding for the artist’s next work. Keeping the artistic ecosystem going is a delicate matter, and there are plenty of examples of market failure in traditional media. The new media may have to experiment for quite a while.

Aesthetic constraints

So far, most interactive, computer-mediated art falls into a particular form. One approaches a screen or other playback device, which may display anything from an abstract pattern of moving dots to a map or video. The viewer can then change the artwork: perhaps by moving levers to affect the movement of the dots, or just by letting the machinery behind the show capture his breathing and heart beat. In short, the artwork is fixed to some extent and provides parameters that act in predictable ways (at least to the original creator of the work).

One can well ask whether the viewer is manipulating the art, or the artist is manipulating the viewer. Most art is successful to the extent that it violates existing parameters. It does something new while preserving enough of the familiar old forms to speak a language its viewers understand. Parameterized art may allow the original creator to go beyond normal boundaries, but it does not invite the viewer into the same endeavor. So the viewer is not a collaborator; not an artist at a level equal to the original creator. The viewer is just part of the artwork.

Any artwork that withholds part of its software from the collaborators—and this goes for games as well—fails to elevate the collaborators to the true level of artist. They are even less empowered than the students who copy a master’s work in a fine artist’s studio.

Legal constraints

Movie-goers were exposed to newsreels in the movie theaters before television became ubiquitous. Later on, packaged news became a staple of television. The editor of each news segment shaped it to his agenda, and the viewer could do little but react—even to regard it dispassionately and analyze it was a feat too demanding for most viewers. It would have been inconceivable for a viewer to chop up and remix a broadcast and then release his own version for the amusement or consideration of his fellow viewers, as dozens of Germans have done recently with video broadcasts of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Most likely, the altered broadcasts of Chancellor Merkel are formally illegal. As parodies, they may just barely escape the charge of copyright violation and perhaps even of libel. But they are probably violations of the Rome convention mentioned earlier in the article, which requires anyone rebroadcasting material to get permission from the original broadcaster. This dilemma illustrates the kind of legal encumbrances that could prevent us from taking advantage of the technical developments in modern media.

Topical art is sure to infringe on copyrighted work (and possibly trademarks) at some point. The human impetus to reflect the most important elements of current life in art—the characteristic of the new art that I have called “topical”—routinely leads to incorporating material covered by copyright or trademarks. The draconian extent of modern copyright legislation then comes into a head-to-head collision with innovative media, as it has already with music sampling.

The Internet urgently awaits revision of the international copyright regime to provide safe passage for new ventures. But the attractions of copyright—one of the few monopolies guaranteed by the state—are so powerful that well-heeled beneficiaries will fight to the death to keep it in place.

Some protections for author’s rights could be found in existing law even if copyright disappeared overnight. As a model, the Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication of their Phonograms (Geneva 1971) allows governments to use unfair compensation laws as an alternative to copyright in order to prevent unauthorized duplication and distribution.

Leaving aside the legacy of the second cultural era, the third era will develop its own restrictions. Some may be imposed to extract payments. Even free art offers several reasons for restrictive licenses.

Creative Commons licenses, which originated in the United States and have been adapted to copyright policies in several other countries, allow recipients of copyrighted material to share it with various provisions, such as restrictions on commercial use. But plain Creative Commons licenses may not be enough for some authors, who may want to prohibit uses that they find offensive.

As an example of offensive reuse, consider North American folk music. Because many people in the American South had English, Scottish, and Irish roots, they had a habit of updating folk songs from those traditions. In particular, some songs reflecting the Irish struggle against English rule were adapted to glorify the struggle of the slave-owning Confederate South against the North in the U.S. Civil War. Some Irish patriots would feel fine about that change of scene and some wouldn’t.

It’s worth noting the doctrine of droit moral, or moral rights, which is part of the European copyright tradition and is codified in the Berne convention (Article 6bis). This doctrine gives authors the right to claim authorship; to prevent distortion, mutilation, or misrepresentation; and to prevent use or representation in such a way as to injure the author’s reputation.

The U.S. has not generally acknowledged moral rights, but courts in the U.S. have offered authors some of these rights in other ways. According to the overview Boorstyn on Copyright, the courts use contract law or tort of unfair competition to prevent such practices as substantial cutting and release of “an edited, garbled, distorted version” of a work (Boorstyn on Copyright, section 4:8. p. 112). The article Inspiration and Innovation: The Intrinsic Dimension of the Artistic Soul by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall offers more background on laws and court cases in the United States that either cite moral rights explicitly or provide similar rights to authors under the guise of other doctrines. Another article by Kwall, Author-Stories: Narrative’s Implications for Moral Rights and Copyright’s Joint Authorship Doctrine, points out that the U.S. prefers to recognize the rights only of the dominant author and fails to deal well with situations where multiple authors contribute to a work. Margaret Chon’s article New Wine Bursting From Old Bottles: Collaborative Internet Art, Joint Works, and Entrepreneurship highlights what a limitation this is for the convivial, open, ever-changing works facilitated by the Internet.

The wording of the Berne convention seems to offer authors ways to prohibit reuses of their work that they disapprove of, but it hasn’t been interpreted that way. Instead, it is seen as a way for authors to stop publishers from distorting their work. If collaborative art becomes popular and works start to take off in directions not anticipated or sanctioned by earlier contributors, it may be worth examining whether the doctrine of moral rights is relevant, and if so, whether earlier authors can use it to constrain subsequent authors.

Balancing the tendency toward immersion

Something about online games and virtual worlds leads a lot of people to spend huge amounts of time online—often spending more time in the virtual world than in working. And indeed, the ever-changing and convivial aspects of the online worlds seems tailored to draw people in whenever they can find a free hour. Call it addiction or just an absorbing experience; the virtual worlds have more of a hold on their visitors than books, television, or other online media. And while a few people show great devotion to other activities—sports, television, collecting, or starting the next revolutionary start-up business in a garage—these have not been identified as problems by researchers, whereas online immersion has often been identified as such. China has actually forced people to attend camps where they purportedly try to cure Internet addiction.

Perhaps, as a gentler way to avoid such confrontational interventions, the new arts could be designed to encourage participants to draw on their real-life experiences in the artwork. That would require them ipso facto to return at healthy intervals to the real world. This might be doubly beneficial because people who abandon themselves to online experiences without checking them against their real equivalents can start to believe that distorted views presented online are realistic—a type of distortion that has long been decried since the emergence of twentieth-century mass media.

Bridging language and cultural differences

The last challenge this article examines is that of differences and disparities. First of all, for people to participate in the new art forms, they need computers and Internet access. There are several initiatives to make this possible, such as the One Laptop Per Child project, but the goal is far off. Peoples at all economic levels and in all geographic areas need to express their needs and viewpoints to the rest of the world. Without this capability, they are doomed to be trampled under decisions made by powerful forces without their input.

How are people supposed to understand and contribute to art created by someone with a different language and culture? Must everyone learn English and accept the Western canon of art and literature (to which this article has referred a lot)?

Not only is it hard to pull people from many languages and cultures onto common projects, but projects that attract people from around the world may marginalize those from less common languages and cultures. A flood of contributions by North Americans sharing certain assumptions, for instance, might drown out potentially interesting contributions from less connected or less populous areas.

Finally, art that can be viewed anywhere in the world must also deal with the inevitability that it will offend some people. Software filtering does not work well, unless people are ruled by an arbitrary and repressive system of all-encompassing power. Still, there are vulnerable people in the world who would not do well under a steady diet of anything that goes out over the wire.

New media in context

This essay may leave readers dubious about prospects for greatness among the potential art forms and media. But please remain optimistic about the power of human thought and communication. No one has reached the level of Shakespeare at his art, or Michelangelo at his, but new traditions have brought new joys. And the new media rarely start with masterpieces; it takes time for a culture to assimilate the medium.

Furthermore, old forms hardly ever disappear, and artists often move in quite a protean manner between media. The flexibility of their participation in the arts may inject new life in, and give a boost to, old media.

We can assume that when people find they can instantly update their favorite works, they will jump in with a vengeance as they have on Wikipedia and some free software projects. The number of people engaged in art will go sharply up; imagine if you could be even the least of the students in Michelangelo’s studio? Perhaps the word studio will be reclaimed as a place for intensive reflection and creation, rather than referring to a corporation that throws the efforts of a staff into a grinder and emerges with a commercial product.

The new media is not as conducive as the old inner-expressive culture to individuation, but more conducive than mass-media culture to independent and analytical thinking. People explore themselves when wonderful how to change the artwork; this awareness of potential empowers them in a different way from the texts of the past.

The evolution of advertising on the Internet is a token of what the new media are doing to social relations. As mentioned in the Social differences section, advertising is a feature of centralized twentieth-century media. While advertising has taken hold on the Web and even made possible the existence of such major corporations as Yahoo!, Google, and Facebook, the medium’s interactivity and “pull” aspects (readers tend to choose for themselves what to view, rather than be passive recipients of “pushed” information) lead companies as well as individuals to search for more collaborative ways to generate interest in their work. Networks of respected commentators seem to do more to spread an idea than an advertisement.

Like the twentieth-century mass media, the new media creates community through shared experience—but the new media is critically (pun intended) different from the older media in that the shared experience is built from contributions by many and embodies the thoughts of the viewers. We have a romantic notion of a lone artist or writer struggling with her soul in an attic; the new artist and writer may still be physically alone in the attic but isn’t withdrawn from other people; she has to consciously unplug her optical fiber in order to have a moment alone with her soul.

The imagery of Internet media is probably even less realistic than the romantic moments, gun battles, or hospital scenes in the twentieth-century mass media. But the participation of many people in creating the media undermines its hypnotic danger, making the artifice behind the imagery more obvious. When anyone can potentially help construct an online reality, its becomes less of a medium for controlling viewers’ reactions to the world and more an expression of their own experiences.

The creation of political communities suggests that hypnotic detachment can be a group illness as much as an individual one; we face the risk of communities moving further and further apart culturally and politically—to the point where they can’t even use the same terms to mean the same things—even if they live cheek by jowl, as members of each community reinforce their shared prejudices. Another article suggests ways to combat the dissolution of social discourse from this process.

The goals and aesthetics of what emerges in all this experimentation may turn out totally different from the goals and aesthetics of what we currently think of as the arts. Perhaps what’s described in this article won’t be called “art” at first (although the trend in the past thirty years has been to use the term “art” quite broadly).

We must remember that when Impressionist painting began, its masterpieces were banned from traditional art galleries. And the old-fashioned gallery owners may have been justified, because what the Impressionists were asking of their viewers was so different from the standard artwork on display. Similarly, at least one late twentieth-century composer recommended that modern compositions not share programs with Mozart and Beethoven; again, what was being asked of listeners differed too much.

Eventually, the shocking becomes the familiar, and the continuity between old and new styles becomes evident. So Impressionists now share galleries with Old Masters, and audiences accept recent compositions on traditional music programs.

This article has achieved its purpose if it encourages traditional artists to try some of the experiments suggested here, and if it points out areas that need further attention to experimental artists already pushing forward the new media. But the article is important for potential viewers too: it calls on all of us to look for great things in the new media, to tolerate the sometimes sophomoric quality of early experiments, and to give artists in these media the resources and encouragement they need.

Update, December 21, 2023: Many readers will ask how my overview of creativity in this article is affected by generative AI. I don’t believe that generative AI, for the forseeable future, will have much impact on creative human activity. I provide some thoughts on the topic in the article Testing the ability of generative AI to write movie and TV plots.

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