We have come to associate the internet with narratives of appealing unpredictability. We have become accustomed to scanning for the next best thing, to expecting novelty at our fingertips. We are habituated to stories of people using computers to throw established authorities into disarray: stories of surprising computer-related business start-ups, from Apple and Microsoft around 1980 through Facebook and beyond; of peculiar digital inventions taking the world by storm; of internet use by political rebels from Howard Dean to the Tea Party to the Arab Spring; of disruptive events that throw entire industries into disarray, like college students downloading music or uploading videos. The habit of throwing money at internet-related businesses in rough proportion to their air of rebelliousness persists to some degree, even if dampened by memories of the stock collapses and scandals of the early 2000s. Novelty in the digital does not surprise us; it is an expectation – at the same time that we have nearly given up on the idea of change in other in other aspects of our lives (e.g., in dysfunctional politics, our dependence on the automobile, the persistence of poverty).
The Net Effect (2011) attributed this pattern in part to an American tradition of reading experiences through a romantic individualist lens. Widespread interactive computing introduced common experiences to large swathes of the population: the compulsive draw that often comes with computer use, for example, or the repeated wonder of plugging in a new gizmo that a short time ago would have been impossibly expensive or just impossible, or the cubicle dweller’s secret pleasure of discovering, on a slow day at work, something striking on computer networks that is unknown to the powers that be. Romanticism provided a framework for making sense of those experiences, and thus a way to frame computing as an exploration, not a means to an end, as a means of personal expression, as an art.
This presentation elaborates on the sociology of this pattern of expectant novelty, using Papacharissi’s suggestion that the digital world offers a “habitus of the new,” with its own distinct inducements and blindspots. Bourdieu’s notion of a habitus offers a non-dualist, non-determinist way to make sense of the way digital novelty has become woven into the fabric of how we live our day to day lives.
Thomas Streeter is Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont. He has also taught for the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, and was a Member of the School of Social Science at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (NYU Press, 2011) is a study of the role of culture in the social construction of internet technology. His award-winning Selling the Air, a study of the cultural underpinnings of the creation of the US broadcast industry and its regulatory apparatus, was published in 1996. He edited, with Zephyr Teachout, a volume about the use of the internet in Howard Dean’s run for President, called Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope, published in 2007. He has published articles and chapters in outlets ranging from the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal to the Journal of Communication to Critical Inquiry.