Brief report about the International Conference: Revisiting the Emancipatory Potential of Digital Media in Asia

24-25 January 2014, Leiden University
(program and book of abstracts)

The conference with nineteen speakers covering eight Asian countries (mostly China and Japan) was highly vibrant and inspirational. Richard Rogers, Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, set the emphasis on digital methods in his keynote speech (see also the website and the monograph), which caused the focus of attention in the subsequent panels to be on methods as well.

Some presentations derived from a mix of online/offline case studies (e.g. Rangaswamy on Facebook use by male youth living in Chennay and Hyderabad; Goebel on e-government in China). Other researchers demonstrated that research done online does not necessarily afford offline fieldwork as well (e.g. Rui Kunze on the Meaty Monk in China). This lead to discussions concerning the desirability to distinguish between online and offline, a distinction that does not make everybody happy – can we answer certain questions only online or only offline? These discussions were also relevant in the session about convergence or hybridity of technology: which technology do people use for which actions, when and where?

Interrupting the flow of presentations were three question-sessions during which the organiser Florian Schneider from Leiden University asked “where is digital Asia?”, “how do we study digital Asia?”, and “who do digital media emancipate?” which instigated lively discussions. It became clear that researchers did not feel unanimously comfortable with defining ‘Digital Asia’ in terms of a geographical location and that it should be debated. Towards the end of the conference, however, after discussing for two whole days, a consensus was created to take ‘digital Asia’ serious within the framework of Area Studies, partly based on Rogers’ ideas about ‘cybergeography’, which considers geographical locations of, for example, servers and users. The question was bombarded with counter-questions, such as: when does ‘the digital’ start? And who are digital Asians? And can we talk about Digital Europe as well?

Whether digital media ‘emancipates’ was the underlying leading question of the conference. And although with a few exceptions (e.g. Nakamura) none of the presentations mentioned the concept ‘emancipation’, it, or preferred by some: ‘empowerment’, was a perhaps uncomfortable and therefore ambivalent point of discussion. Several researchers, in fact, seem to work on the basis that digital media emancipates without questioning it and therefore the presentations dealt more with the question ‘how does digital media emancipate?’. Yet, during this and other discussions it became clear that the presenters and the audience were aware of the fact that the internet has not been created for emancipation, adding to the importance of the question.

A question that appeared several times throughout the conference concerned the class-background of internet-users and some presenters felt reluctant to identify certain voices as to derive from a middle class, although word usage seems to point out such a background. Also cultural, social and economic capital were mentioned several times, yet without further dwelling on those concepts and examining whether they could lead to a discussion about theory. Similarly, the concept ‘public sphere’ was mentioned more than once, unfortunately without leading to a discussion on theories about ‘digital society’.

Mainly focusing on internet activities, the presentations rarely discussed digital devices that can do more than allow access to the internet (with the exception of e.g. Jin who discussed smartphones in the Korean context). In fact, materiality as such was not mentioned. It would be interesting to hear more about the interrelation between the production of ICT from the beginning (e.g. mining of raw earth products) to the end (e.g. e-waste) and society as I think that understanding those interrelations would throw some light on ICT-society relations from another angle. Another topic that has been circumvented was ‘the digital divide’: problems linked to poverty, class, gender, age, location, physical ability and other explicit markers for digital divides and as obstacles to the possible ‘emancipation’ have not found much attention. Yet, the conference offered ample inspiration, and exactly by leaving out certain questions – and recognizing this – managed to put the focus on those as well.

Other links:
Benney, Jonathan. 2013. The aesthetics of microblogging: How the Chinese state controls Weibo. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, 66.

Poell, Thomas; de Kloet, Jeroen; Zeng, Guohua. 2013. Will the real Weibo please stand up? Chinese online contention and actor-network theory. Chinese Journal of Communication, 10.

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