Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

As we continually wait for the next big thing, we are doomed to disappointment, finds Tara Brabazon

August 4, 2016
People eating in Times Square, New York City
Source: Alamy
The future’s bright: but while new technologies promise happiness, efficiency or productivity, new products are a let-down and dissolve into daily life

If Margaret Thatcher were still alive, prime minister and digitised, then she would rewrite her proclamation that “there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families”. The socially networked @ironladyMT would confirm, “there is only Twitter and networking”.

Her reading list would also transform, with Milton Friedman replaced by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s book Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Recognising “the wonderful creepiness of new media”, Chun probes how the internet activates remarkable contradictions: banal but revolutionary, intriguing yet boring, innovative but gossipy.

Updating to Remain the Same is composed of two parts, each encompassing two chapters. The first part enters “Imagined Networks, Glocal Connections”, while the second probes the “Privately Public”. While the word “glocal” should be avoided in academic writing on pain of death and/or watching looped episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, this structure is effective. The first part is stronger than the second, with the book’s latter stages offering a fairly pedestrian view of trolling, comment culture and “slut shaming”.

Importantly, this book offers a corrective to the early gurus of internet studies – sweeping from John Perry Barlow to Henry Jenkins and Howard Rheingold – who assumed that technology was inherently revolutionary, progressive, democratic and resistive. The revolution was not televised or downloaded: instead, it was commodified through Apple advertisements. That digital revolution never arrived but the surveillance culture of the 2010s has meant that removing our shoes at airports is the least of our worries. Left-wing libertarianism aligned with right-wing neoliberalism to create a culture of constant crisis, constant updates and constant change. And data. So much data. These zombie data are not (really) deleted, return at embarrassing moments and never die.

Chun’s key analytical thread is to track how technologies configure user habits. She argues that “neoliberal subjects” are encouraged to change their habits – often under the threat of an impending, imagined or actual crisis – with the promise of happiness, efficiency or productivity. Instead, new products remain a disappointment and dissolve into daily life. Smartphones are now as banal as a pen that happens to ring and receive text messages.

She shows that if a product does not update, then it dies. Therefore, a crisis is used to disrupt a habit and create an update. The second analytical intervention Chun makes is to recognise the fixated obsession of new media on the individual, not only through YouTube but in Facebook’s request to reveal “what’s on your mind?” Such disclosures become habits: the public sphere is a new private space to titter about shoes, food and Jon Snow.

As communities dissipate, networks blossom. We search. We never arrive. Instead, our online habits are correlated, particularly at moments of personal havoc, so that corporations target products to us that solve private problems through shopping. Anticipation morphs into disappointment, ephemerality and obsolescence. We wait for the next big thing.

This book is at its best when it explores the relationship between crisis, media and habit formation. It loses focus in the second part and the conclusion, where an exploration of “found habituation” is ambiguous, woolly and convoluted. Beyond this conceptual weakness, however, Chun’s book will be incredibly useful in internet, media, communication and cultural studies, alongside marketing and the media programmes. The jump between habit and habituation is too stark, but the agitating research aligning neoliberal crises and media updates is brilliant, provocative and elegant in its style and power.

Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies, Flinders University, Australia, and author, most recently, of Play: A Theory of Learning and Change (2016).

Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media
By Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
MIT Press, 264pp, £23.95
ISBN 9780262034494 and 333764 (e-book)
Published 29 July 2016

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