Tag Archive | New Media

The New Groves of Academe

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”. 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.
2Deem, R., Hillyard S., and Reed, M. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford University Press, pp.4-6; page 26.

Majestic Skagen

One of the best parts of being involved in academia is getting the chance to travel, meet new people, and hear about research in areas you might never learn about in your daily work environment. Getting feedback and being challenged on your research by people not specialist in your particular field can be just as useful as hearing what those closely interested in it have to say. Add in the chance to experience some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful scenery while staying in a former royal residence, and it’s pretty hard not to be happy! Skagen, famous for its fish, its boating opportunities, and for a crystal clear natural light that has historically attracted the best of the nation’s painters, was the venue for CMI’s PhD Summer School. This year’s topic was “The Future of the Internet” and we focused on two areas in particular: Internet and the Media and the RFID/smart device-centred Internet of Things (IoT).

The students and researchers attending came from Finland, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and um, Scotland – some of us via Thailand, Norway, China, Italy, or the US. Our backgrounds, methods, and our own research topics were almost as diverse as our nationalities, some people being based firmly in political economy, others in technology development, others in policy formation and some in media and cultural studies, with varying degrees of specificity. This type of group is definitely a good reflection of the key role which “convergence” (a keyword at the event) and interdisciplinary understandings now play in socio-technical research and development – and by extension in the businesses and market-places which drive or are driven by their results.

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Bill Melody, one of our lecturers, was keen to emphasise and challenge us to think about the inter-relations and interactions between theory, practise, applications, markets, and infrastructure configurations – as well as the increasingly vital role played by policies and regulation (whether at EU or national level). What determines how society makes use of its ICTs and media? What leads and what follows? To a complex “ecology” of path dependencies and paradigm shifts, those of us outwith Political Economics would of course add human nature, imagination, epistemology and pedagogy. Wherever you locate your specific research, it’s important to be aware of all of these overlaps. Diagramming is helpful for that. So too is disagreement. Everyone was given the chance to ask, answer, and debate.

As well as lectures on topics such as Standardisation, Business Models, Copyright Economics, and Hybrid and Over-the-top television services, we worked in small thematic groups on our own PhD topics, presenting, discussing and giving critical feedback. I got a lot of inspiration and many useful ideas from the other members of my group (our common link being a socio-cultural and new media focus) and am already thinking about how to reflect that in my thesis; in particular, the theories I want to draw upon and the scope of my questions. Many thanks to Martina, Atle, Alkim and Professor Ruth Towse! 🙂 As you can see from the photographs, there was a very good social schedule as well as work one, with a trek across moving sand dunes, cycling, and trips to the beach (as well as the local pubs) all included in an intellectually refreshing event which was excellently organised by Aalborg University Professors Reza Tadayoni and Anders Henten.

Differentiating the difference

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.

1For presentational clarity, the first term in each pair is represented by -3 and the second by 3. The actual exercises did not include negative numbers.

Structures of Participation

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

The position of technology relates to multiple structural factors.

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!

1 Participant anonymity is optional.
2 Thanks to everyone who helped me test and refine these.

New Media and Academia: Altered Attributes

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 🙂

To state that there is no such thing as New Media is not the avoidance of an answer: rather, it is a rejoinder which meets the question of definition head-on. It is to suggest (with the hint of a challenge) that if we are to address the subject of “New Media” in significant depth we may first have to place aside our assumptions about what is actual and what is perceived; as well as the place of metaphor. These are the very assumptions around which much of “New Media” revolves, and with which it and its practitioners play. Contrarily, the very fluidity and liminality of these types of digital media, which may be referred to as “new”, “social”, “interactive”, “mobile” or “virtual”, suggests that there are particular thresholds or boundaries within which they exist, hence typical characteristics which might be identified. Nevertheless, it is important to make clear that seizing upon or fixing some particular conception or definition of New Media would in many ways run contrary to the purpose of my thesis. What it is necessary and rather simple to accept is the relative, historically situated, and (in terms of reception and acceptance) contingent character of anything labelled “new” – which partly explains why New Media defies easy classification. Another reason why an in-transition sketch is often the best that can be offered is that “New Media” can be seen differently depending on where, how, why, and by whom, it is being considered. It refers to something constantly being updated and refreshed; continually shifting; and which frequently but unpredictably accommodates ideas, features, and perspectives not previously included. Yet it also builds on tradition and what was prior. For the academic subject or “discourse communities“, whose attitudes towards New Media are the focus of this research, this is also the case – as well as, increasingly, for the disciplines and institutions to which they belong. There, as Nowotny et al observe, “near absolute demarcation criteria have failed”.

“The notion of ‘boundary work’ implies not only that boundaries are not fixed and permanent but that they need to be actively maintained. Moreover, their definition, mapping, and maintenance, often serve a social function. Social contingency and professional expediency influence the choice of ‘stories’ about Science [including Social Sciences]. Defining the sciences, mapping their territory in public space, making and reshaping them in the image tailored for the specific time and the occasion are all part of ‘boundary work’. And scientists, as ‘boundary workers’, are actively engaged in such activities as an integral part of their scientific endeavours” [page 57]. We must first understand the “socio-epistemological meaning of context” before we are able to address and understand the political and institutional characteristics of Science. Both types of context affect knowledge structures within academic disciplines. The current shifts occurring in the “conceptualisation and enactment of Science” are part of a move toward a “Mode II” society where contextualised knowledge moves “into the context of implication” [page 201] – i.e. wider society beyond the University proper, a “social space of transformation” or, what the authors, in a re-imagining of ancient Greece’s public sphere, call “the agora”. This space is typified by, among other things, “socially distributed expertise”, and “changing rules of engagement” whereby social relationships become vertical rather than horizontal and where institutional structures and traditional modes of interaction are “aided” and altered by “the pervasive role of information and communication technologies” [page 105]. Just as time and space have been reconceptualised into the “more capacious category of space-time, so science and society “co-evolve” as an aspect of coalescence [page 49]; the distinction between academics and those who would previously have been deemed “incompetent outsiders” is no longer as meaningful an analytical tool.

Some critics point out that this was always the case; not just for Science, but also for the Arts & Humanities, and that such a perspective or vision of scholarship might be seen to date as far back as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. A utopian novel published in 1697, New Atlantis greatly influenced Enlightenment concepts of Scientific rationalism, even depicting participation in the academy by certain select members of the public (although in Bacon’s narrative, this is tightly-controlled, hierarchical, and revolves around the acceptance of particular customs). Others propose that it was Universities and institutions which parted Science from its original multi-varied and accommodating form. In either case, we may assume that the modern University can be broadly characterised in these terms, in particular the dominance of ICTs. Altered power structures and novel “visibility” regimes are also created by and reflected in new forms of media and communications technology. Divisions between producer/consumer, author/reader, expert/layperson are challenged and blurred; politicised discourses often position it in terms of access to knowledge, power, and a re-structured public sphere. Traditions and novelty converge and collide. Clearly then, there are strong thematic links and properties which typify both “New Media” and Academia in the 21st century. These require much further exploration.

Endnotes:
1 I have removed some inline references in support of various arguments to make this entry more blog friendly. For the most part, hyperlinks are provided instead.

Fun and Games

Larkin’ About“, a special event running at Contact Manchester last night, really made me want to find out more about “Pervasive and Social Games”, a fascinating area all about participation and interactivity that isn’t natural territory for me. I don’t think the friends who I was there with will mind too much if I tell you we were all slightly shy for the first wee while, given that running around (or Larkin’ About) inside a building full of strangers isn’t necessarily the easiest thing for a rainy Saturday night. Once you get into the spirit of feeling pretty much like a big kid on an adventure playground, it’s a really great way for you – and your inner puzzle solver – to break from taking things too seriously. There’s also the advantage that not actually being a kid, you can get a few drinks up at the bar to help you on your way. 😉

For “Mixtape”, we had to hunt around the building for 9 hidden cassette tapes, each one of which contained a different tune with an original monologue – on various aspects of being in and out of love – spoken over the top. We then had to decide what our own Track 10 would be and why. This was great; not just because the monologues (by Vee Uye, one of the “Larkin Agents”) were impressive, but also because pressing chunky big buttons and (im)patiently waiting for your tape to rewind while hoping you’ve not confused it about SidesA&B takes you back nostalgically to far less convenient technological days. Aah. As the game’s designer more eloquently writes:

Mixtape is a retro-audio treasure hunt with a soundtrack that takes you around the Contact building and into the puzzle of our hearts. Players navigate the space with analogue personal stereos and augment the narrative with their own memories. For 3 players at a time.

I don’t want to imply that “Larkin’ About” was entirely about silliness and feeling retro though! There were plenty of physically active games with intriguing names and educational as well as dramatic aspects, like “Histronauts” (designed by UniverCity Culture at Manchester University), and “Spy School”. These made use of ultra-modern technology – smart phones, geo-tags, and QR codes for instance – but maybe those are the ones I’ll gear myself up for next time!

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If you’re wondering what’s going on in some of my pictures, Mortal Kombat was repurposed and projected onto a huge screen to become “Moral Kombat”. In this game, people who had committed such cardinal sins as “getting on the bus without paying” and “forgetting my mum’s birthday” could seek forgiveness by pitching a stand-in ninja warrior against the judgemental audience – who were also represented by another would-be assassin. Cue a fight to the entirely simulated and amusingly coded death.

All of Larkin’ About’s work is based on the talents of Manchester theatre practitioners, digital artists,  live artists and, naturally, the game players who all this is for. It’ll be interesting to discover what they have on offer in future.

Another Year Older

I really can’t believe I’ve been in Manchester for less than 3 months! With so much happening in such a short space of time – including new intellectual challenges and what seems like hundreds of new faces – time seems to be moving in a very different way from usual. Actually, it feels like a whole new dimension: which is great for the dynamism, but sometimes it’s a bit of a whirlwind!

I could blog about my latest pub trips; Trauma’s November film screeningsan excellent gig at the Deaf Institute; or hearing some new pals DJ to an appreciative crowd at the Sandbar. I could even, I suppose, write something about how my research is progressing – but that can wait for next year, when I’m going to be starting some preliminary data gathering activities, putting together focus groups, and exploring the use of Semantic Differentials. That’s going to be really exciting as I will get to test the waters with my empirical work at the same time as talking to the wider community and continuing to read. I don’t want to give too much away at this stage but can tell you that my data gathering should involve 2 inter-connected strands:

  • A semi-structured focus group discussion with participants from 4 subject disciplines about their views on “Old Media” and “New Media”.
  • A task- and semantic-based exercise using concepts, objects, and adjective pairs derived from and illustrative of participatory theories in relation to media, academia, and communications technology.

Right now, I am reading the ultra-thought-provoking work of Lev Manovich. His beautifully written and meticulous technical/historical analysis of computational and cinematographic innovations since the 1830s suggests (among other things) that many characteristics of “New Media” are – at the very moment we claim them as “revolutionary” – either already existing or mythical. Many preconceptions are misguided and do not get to the heart of what New Media’s novelty and potential really are.

Spoiled today with cake and sweets!

But all of that seems like too much hard work since it’s my Birthday today. Right now I want to say thanks to all the friends and family who got me excellent presents and who sent me good luck wishes; including my lovely flatmates Laura and Quentin, who baked me a surprise cake! Yum. It’s pictured here alongside some sugary loose candy sent over from Sweden by my friend Emma. 🙂 Thank you everyone. And special birthday wishes to my twin sister, Jennifer. The trainers fit perfectly! I love them! Looking forward to seeing you soon!