Researching the ways in which new media and digital technologies are positioned in modern universities means reading about the changing models of governance, management and administration that shape how research and teaching are conducted. This proves very revealing in unexpected ways and—appropriate to my focus on discipline characteristics—there are clear differences in work from different fields. In the Humanities, and to a lesser extent, the Social Sciences, authors (even when offering some critique) discuss the ‘essence’ of digital media, often imbuing them with a quasi-magical quality. In these largely techno-determinist narratives, new media and digital technologies directly enact a “paradigm shift” that is inevitable because they innately (so it appears) alter our social relations, and relations of space-time. In fact, these technologies are agents or instruments of a shift with origins located elsewhere. Authors writing about what might be called ‘digitalism’ and science tend to be more prosaic. They acknowledge quite coolly that the increasing dominance of digital technologies on campus and in research ‘workflows’ is directly linked to the priorities of the market economy. This is obvious when we think about the emphasis on “innovation” (developing commodifiable products of interest to commercial private sector companies, who may in turn outsource their R&D activities) and on training students to adopt this same mind-set while charging them ever-increasing fees. University infrastructure becomes the final service-platform of a top-down government agenda. This agenda is reinforced by managers and normalised (through various means) in the minds of those working at lower levels—i.e. research and teaching staff.
Clearly digital technologies offer many exciting opportunities, regardless of debates on their nature. They are fascinating to explore, which is why I have chosen them as my topic of research. But we must remain aware of the wider systems which they are a part of, and this is why I am interested to consider them in relation to the academic “habitus”. Krull (2000) reminds us that nowadays, most Western governments view the funding of Higher Education as a “strategic investment” and that with limited finances available to support that investment, a focus on “public-private partnerships” and inter-disciplinarity are the logical outcomes of current political logic, focused as it is on “knowledge economies”1 . At the same time, “market populism” and “consumer democracy” have become “ideological lodestones against which all new policies [in the public sector] must be evaluated”, as Deem, Hillyard and Reed (2007) explain. The formation and dominance of neo-liberal New Managerialism (NM) and New Public Management (NPM) theories are part of a “cultural revolution” with a series of inter-linked effects upon “the discursive strategies, organizational forms and control technologies” embedded within and used to legitimate public services. Networks, personalisation and customisation are among the concepts it privileges. Universities are “by no means exempt from these underlying structural pressures and the ideological momentum that they generate”, having become more like “workplaces” than “communities of scholars”2 . The restructuring inspired by NM and NPM have significant and long-term consequences for academic communities. I would argue, uncontroversially (?), that the promotion of digital media is one of those consequences.
This leads me to some more general thoughts about academia which are only loosely relevant to my work but which are certainly relevant to my status as a junior member of the academic community. Whether the changing management models mentioned above are good or bad is dependent on the position of the observer. Specifically, in relation to what the observer and his/her community have to gain or lose. Naturally, it can be hard to criticise a system on which you rely for employment, especially when the changes you are critical of seem utterly inevitable and “just the way things are now”. It is hard to know what the effects of changing technologies will be. It is easier for a journalist or other commentator to descry what is happening to HE (for instance, the current funding cuts) than it is for a low-grade academic on a temporary contract or in a department facing an uncertain future. Clearly, if attitudes based on a combination of fear and the desire for self-preservation (if not whole-hearted subscription to the new ideals) become endemic, there are likely to be depressing consequences. I’m sure we can all imagine those. The nightmare scenario is a group of ‘yes men’ and women unquestioningly serving highly paid superiors who do not necessarily possess or appreciate the core intellectual and social values of the average academic. Rather than scholars choosing the methods and tools that best fit a particular course, or project, they will be enforced. More positively, it may be possible for those in all fields of enquiry to adapt to the new market-centred regime without totally compromising. Despite inevitable concessions, traditional values and ideals might quietly be defended and promoted from within. This enterprise is a difficult one—a little like brokering for peace when outside the negotiating room there are bodies and ‘collateral damage’.
1Krull, W. (2010). Beyond the Ivory Tower: Some Observations on External Funding of Interdisciplinary Research in Universities. In Nico Stehr and Peter Weingart eds. Practising Intderdisciplinarity. University of Toronto Press, pp.260-270.
Showing why a linear narrative of technological progression is not enough if we want to fully understand New Media, Jussi Parikka’s latest book promotes and outlines the compelling “Media Archaeological” approach which he is helping to advance and define (in the tradition of theorists such as Laurent Mannoni, Siegfried Zalinkski, Lev Manovich, and of course Michel Foucault, all of whom are discussed in the text). Parikka, Erkki Huhtamo, and others in this emerging field embrace an understanding of media predicated upon a recognition of the heterogeneous and historical conditions of technological development, usage, implication, and cultural assimilation.
A range of theories and disciplines are naturally relevant: Parikka uses source material from philosophy, cinema studies, art history and computing science to show that the imaginaries of the subconscious – as well as the social and political conditions which “maintain our subject-object relations” (p46) – are deeply relevant to theoretical and artistic “regimes of memory and creative practices in media culture” (p3). Layered patterns of desire and perception are as informative of meaning and use as are technical specifications. Many new technologies seem to demand fresh conceptualisations of the relationships between sense and reality (page 20); further, the traditional A&H tools of interpretation, understanding and critique may need to make way for use, perversion and modulation (p163).
This awareness of multiplicity and mutating contexts resonates within my own research, which draws on literature from several fields of study to examine how academics across and within disciplines perceive and use New Media. Beginning to analyse the results of my pilot data gathering work, I find that there is no simple way to interpret the data. Using bipolar numeric scales (Semantic Differentials), I asked 8 academics from 4 different fields to indicate where they would position their understanding of “New Media” in relation to adjective pairs connoting concepts derived from multiple discourses; hence some terms are political, others abstract, others related to function and so on. Comparing the numbers with the terms and ideas expressed in interviews and discussions, I find that the “results” can be viewed from many different angles. A few examples are below:1
Some academics feel that New Media is as open as it is closed, or that it is far less inclusive than exclusive. But where do these stated positions stem from? From an individual’s empirical “rationalist” mindset? From their observations? Or from their personal desire that New Media be one thing instead of another? This can be illuminated by digging into the revelations made during an interview/conversation. While subtle distinctions in attitude can, I think, be related to the field in which someone works (their training, their background, their vocabularies and their instincts), difference of attitude/approach are nevertheless more nuanced than a discipline-based arrangement might imply.
My dataset is only a small one, but in it I see some evidence of the bridging/constructive effects of New Media within the academy – even as tensions and problems around implementation, policy, or definition are brought to light. Certainly I don’t think it is contentious to argue that using New Media within their work is giving academics a chance to engage with a greater diversity of concepts and theories than would traditionally be associated with their specific field. A computer scientist is most likely aware of philosophical and political concerns about the medium, while artists become more au fait with web technologies and programming languages. New skills, techniques and methods are learned and developed at the same time as political and critical perspectives.
Jussi Parikka talks about the praxis of media archaeology and provides examples of computer/art assemblages which “beg the question: do we have to become engineers to say and do anything interesting and accurate about current media culture?” Happily, he concludes that “the ways to engage effectively and critically…are not that narrowly defined” (p155): however, both the writing about AND the instantiation of Media archaeology require more than text-centrism. Certainly, developing a set of theories, tools, and techniques for the analysis and teaching of Media/New Media studies is a key challenge not just within this emerging field, but within Information Science more generally.
As we finished our morning interview, Wanderer showed me the exit with a smile. “The time just flew in, didn’t it?” she remarked. Despite the unusually early start, I felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. My bag now had a folder and an mp3 recorder full of original information; I left the building in agreement. The session hadn’t dragged at all. Wonderful. Back at my desk, an email from Ian arrived. “Not as scary as I expected!” she confided. I had to laugh at the thought of our discussion having instilled any foreboding. Isn’t research meant to be enjoyable? Speaking with Ian, Wanderer and others about their fields of research, their organisational cultures, and their views on new media, I’m fairly sure that’s something we all agree on. Regardless of discipline!
I’m now halfway through my pilot data gathering activities and have met with 4 out of 8 participants via 2 “paired interview” sessions – 1 along the road at Manchester University and 1 here at MMU. Preparing materials for what seems an eternity, I am very happy to report that both sessions were extremely informative and genuinely thought-provoking. So far, my interviewees have seemed to find them worthwhile too.1
Getting your “subjects” to take part enthusiastically rather than having them keep one eye on the clock (hey, that’s my job!) is vital to obtaining quality data. That’s why I’ve chosen and devised a combination of discussions, semi-structured interviews, writing activities, and Semantic Differential exercises. Conversations and dialogues are far better than simplistic closed question formats. And of course, timing, flow, and sequencing are everything. It’s too early to conclude but my instinct tells me my data gathering instruments are pretty successful.2 Transcribing the audio and comparing terminologies, anecdotes and insights is already proving fascinating. Hopefully the next 2 are just as illuminating!
Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂