Review New Media & Society

I wrote a review for New Media & Society of John Carey and Martin Elton’s, When Media Are New: Understanding the Dynamics of New Media Adoption and Use (The University of Michigan Press and The University of Michigan Library 2010), published as part of the University of Michigan Press and Library’s excellent Digital Culture Books series. Digitalculturebooks content is available to view for free online and for purchase in print and ebook format. You can view When Media Are New for free online here.

John Carey and Martin Elton, When Media Are New: Understanding the Dynamics of New Media Adoption and Use. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press and The University of Michigan Library, 2010. viii + 363 pp. ISBN 978-0-472-05085-7, $47.50 pbk.

Reviewed by: Janneke Adema, Coventry University, UK

 Predicting whether a new medium can be successively implemented and whether or not it will be widely adopted by its intended users is a tricky business. For example AT&T introduced the Picturephone—its trademarked videophone service—in the 1960s, first for business customers only after which they introduced it on the residential market in 1970. AT&T forecasted that by the mid-1980s 2 million Picturephones would be in use. However due to a lack of public acceptance the Picturephone was withdrawn in 1973, leaving AT&T behind with a financial failure of half a billion dollars (p. 183). In their book When Media Are New: Understanding the Dynamics of New Media Adoption and Use (2010), John Carey and Martin Elton provide us with some vivid examples of where the forecasting of the demand for a new medium was either under or overestimated, next to supplying a range of cases where the implementation and/or adoption of a medium failed to live up to expectations or triggered new uses. When Media Are New offers an historical overview of new media implementations, where the authors’ main thesis is that although we cannot eliminate uncertainty, we can reduce it by looking closely at how media have been implemented in the past. The authors argue that examining media innovation in an historical context will stop us wasting our time on making ‘old mistakes’, where many failures—like the Picturephone—are based on a “repeated failure to understand intended users and their needs” (p. 183). When Media Are New thus explicitly focuses on the experiences of users and on how they react and have reacted to new media. It looks at historical reasons to why users choose to integrate new media in their daily life as well as to explanations for why they failed to adopt certain media over time. From this perspective the book explores how our understanding of patterns of adoption can be of benefit when trying to implement new media technologies or services today.

The book is made up of two parts. The first part looks at processes of media adoption and use. It explores this both on the concrete level of suppliers’ implementation and users adoption of new media, and on the abstract level of forecasting methods and user needs research with respect to new media. The second part provides 6 case studies of particular media or particular media contexts and how they developed over time. They focus on how new video technologies affected television-viewing behaviour, on video telephones and teleconferencing, on the development of the web in the context of videotex and teletext, on the development of Interactive Television (ITV), on the implementation and adoption of satellite radio, and on the integration of mobile phones into everyday life. The book lacks an overall conclusion, which would have been helpful in tying established traits and patterns more closely together.

Carey and Elton are two experienced authors from diverse backgrounds (anthropology and management science) both with an impressive track record in researching new media. They have been working together on various research projects for over 30 years, during which they have (both together and separately) conducted research on various aspects of media adoption, use, and behaviour, including media research for industry clients. They use their wide array of research findings in new media implementation and innovation to illustrate the case studies and examples used throughout the book. This comes accompanied by an interdisciplinary approach to the topic, using methods and insights from amongst others sociology, social psychology, mass communication, anthropology, ethnography, and economics.

When Media Are New is part of the digitalcuturebooks series of the University of Michigan Library and Press. The books in this series are made available in print and online under a Creative Commons license to encourage wider (digital) distribution. The text of the online, freely readable version of When Media Are New is the same as the print version with the addition of occasional hyperlinks that redirect you to other places in the text where a certain topic is discussed. The free online availability of the book is of great benefit to researchers and practitioners in the field to discover the book, to easily share it with others, and to use it for pedagogic purposes. It would have been nice to have the book also available as a downloadable PDF or in EPUB format to read on ereaders. The print bookis also accompanied by a separate book website which amongst others features a collection of supplementary materials (images, graphs and tables). It would have been useful if this website was more closely integrated with the online version of the book, where it would have offered the opportunity to enhance the digital edition with images and other additional information, in this sense making more of an expanded use of the possibilities the digital offers.

When Media Are New provides historical background to new media development, to prevent “people unwittingly mak[ing] mistakes that others have made before” (p. 3).  It links media to the specific technological conditions and socio-cultural contexts out of which they emerged, criticising the perceived timelessness of new media. However, the book is very much directed towards media (implementation) now and in the future, where the examples and case studies are read in the light of the now, of understanding users and their needs in the contemporary age. In parts of the book this leads to teleological strands of reasoning, where the emphasis is on patterns and similarities instead of for instance on discontinuities, anomalies and ruptures in a media’s history that defy an internal developmental logic. In this respect it would have been interesting if the authors would have explored a media archaeologically informed approach (focusing on differences in their own right) next to the methodologies already used, to counter and challenge this future-oriented reading of media primarily focused on a better understanding of the present condition of new media.

When Media Are New offers a compelling read and provides a variety of interesting historical case studies, giving much-needed context to new media implementation and use that will be valuable for researchers, practitioners, and students alike. Although it doesn’t offer solutions, it promises that we can reduce uncertainty if we pay closer attention to the past.


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