The Participatory Condition

An international colloquium hosted by Media@McGill

Since the late 1990s, contemporary societies have been increasingly mobilized by the relational principle of “participation.” Participation is not only a notion and a set of practices, but also a promise, a belief, a rhetoric, a form of distribution of power, a way of being actively involved with others in decision-making processes that potentially affect the direction and operation of communities, systems and organizations, politics and culture. Its contemporary expansion is manifest in the variety of fields it embraces, including: participative democracy; citizenship; governance; journalism (the collection, analysis and dissemination of news and information); everyday communication; commerce; labor; education; the formation of online communities; urban planning; design; videogaming and virtual game worlds; the culture of curating; and art. Of crucial interest for Media@McGill, this expansion has been facilitated by the development of social media technologies (internet forums, blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.) and new interactive media devices, which favor participatory forms of communication—forms that support open access to information and allow participants to create, generate and exchange information in virtual communities, networks, and cultural co-productions. Hacktivism is the political practice par excellence of participatory politics in the age of the internet—a practice in which traffic can be redirected from one website to another, or websites defaced—shifting or interrupting, as it were, the “flow” of information.

The participatory impulse rests on the overarching expectation that participation empowers individuals, creates stronger communities and fulfills the ideals of representative democracy; that it secures the circulation of information and enhances decision-making processes by enabling the sharing of these processes between rulers and citizens, producers, spectators and users. But debates around participation and the actual unfolding of participatory practices show this assumption to be partway problematic. Because of its expansion as a relational principle, it might well have become a grand narrative that in fact hegemonizes participatory approaches instead of favoring heterogeneity (e.g., the diversity of positions and identity groups). It is imperative to examine the degree to which participation truly functions as a modality of change in contemporary society—a context in which participation is now so widespread that it seems to be more of a requirement than a choice. Has participation become “a new tyranny” (Cooke and Kothari, 2001)?

This is to say that the very media structures that enable participation risk overshadowing important questions related to the value of participation, the possible conformism it generates, as well as its ethical challenges and unforeseen consequences. For instance, does the contemporary imperative of participation deny the citizen’s and the spectator’s right not to participate and stay passive (Carpentier, 2011)? And how is surveillance—a practice enabled and sustained by new media technologies—impacting participation (Andrejevic, 2007)? What is the right balance between open access and privacy (Jónsdóttir, 2013; Cohen, 2012)? To what extent is participation making us better thinkers (Hayles, 2012) or increasing our “stupidity” (Stiegler, 2011)? How is participation affecting our understanding of knowledge, democracy, intimacy and subjectivity (Crawford, 2012)? Although participation is a decision-making process, and sometimes an activist process by which political regimes can be questioned and even dismantled (Cammaerts, 2012), can it not also be considered as a new aesthetics (Frieling 2008; Dezeuze, 2010; Bishop, 2012)? What would be the perceptual, sensorial and affective textures of this aesthetics? These questions are at the center of The Participatory Condition, a two-day colloquium organized by Media@McGill, whose main objective is to assess the role of media in the development of a principle whose expansion has become so large as to become the condition of our contemporaneity.

The Participatory Condition scrutinizes the very idea of participation in the digital age, from our face-to-face encounters with beings and technologies, to the experiences we share as users, publics and producers, in the flesh and online. Like many of the new technologies that preceded it, from the telegraph to the telephone and the Internet, some have seen the “participatory web” as a tool for collective empowerment (Jenkins et al, 2006). While cyber-optimists project increased democratic representation and the levelling of social inequities thanks to the features of the interactive web, cyber-skeptics question the extent to which virtual participation corresponds to more tangible forms of political engagement (Morozov, 2012). Recent scholarship moreover confirms that digital divides or “participation gaps” hold strong, prompting us to interrogate the truly participatory nature of mobile, interactive, and social media.

Consistent with Media@McGill’s focus on Participatory Media in 2013-14, the colloquium The Participatory Condition addresses the history, problems and possibilities of participatory media: for instance, how the practices of the Internet may or may not have changed contemporary practices of citizenship; how participatory media negotiate with surveillance and data-collecting devices that are embedded within the very media that enable participation; and finally, how participatory processes are increasingly expected across the fields of art, design, social sciences, journalism and media, as well as computing.

Drawing from research in the fields of design, cognitive sciences, art, education, law, literature, gaming, and media studies, The Participatory Condition examines the relationships between diverse technological platforms that enable interactivity, the promise of participation they appear to imply, and the nature of the actual exchanges that are derived from their uses. Particular attention is also paid to the modes by which contemporary media transform our practices, as well as our thinking. At the root of our investigation is a questioning of the inherent participatory nature that is often attributed to emerging media, and a cautioning as to what other forms of participation might be obscured by promises of a digital utopia.