Tag Archive | PhD

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.

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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” โ€“ 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 โ€“ 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] โ€“ 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.

The Meanings of New Media

In parallel to addressing complicated methodological questions, it’s going to be important to outline what exactly is meant (in the context of my research) by “New Media”. The term is one of those that means different things to different people, varying according to where they work, what pre-conceptions they hold, and of course, the way you phrase the question. It encompasses both the socio-cultural and the technical. Pasted below are some definitions of New Media gathered from a simple Google “definition: ” search.

Which of these (click to enlarge!) make most sense to you? What about if you were a Professor of Chemistry, or a Researcher in Archaeology? What would they mean – or imply – if you were Head of a Journalism School; but were also wearing a slightly different hat and taking part in some PR activities on behalf of your institution? Some Universities now have Social Media policies in place that tentatively suggest best practices although their focus often seems to be on using Social Media as a sort of PR and outreach “toolset” – without any great attention paid to the fine-grained ways in which different New/Social Media concepts and techniques may or may not apply to different members of the faculty at different stages.

Blogs, wikis, social bookmarking sites; articles or multimedia objects with comments pages embedded – these are naturally enough included in just about all definitions. So too are online community art projects. But what about, say, ebooks? They are New Media, yes, but are they Social Media? Do they allow for that key element around which I hope to structure my data analysis – participation? It might be argued that the ability to quickly publish documents in ebook formats makes them a participatory media. But this is taking part in a quite solitary way: your engagement is more with the carrier than with a group. If someone annotates or makes a comment on an ebook, you will probably never know about it. Where is the innovative dialogue and debate – distinct from more traditional kinds?

These questions really matter since I will need to identify precisely the examples I want to use within data gathering exercises. Selecting various instances or types that may or may not be somewhere on the participatory spectrum will certainly be valid as “controls” or to provide contrast and illuminate findings. Texture and tone are as important as polarities.

As Zizi Papacharissi has pointed out, older forms of print and broadcast media, which by their very nature aim to communicate with people and get them talking, have always been Social and interactive. They have always had the potential to effect social change (even if unintentionally). So, to contrast “Traditional Media” with digital variations by calling these “Social” may be misleading. She prefers “New Media” (as a way of not over-emphasising the social aspect) and I think that making the same distinction will be helpful.

Still, this imprecision and fluidity of meaning is why approaches derived from psychology (such as Repertory Grids or Semantic Differentials) will be appropriate to my work. These introduce something approaching objectivity to the measurement of the subjective – and can allow us to find out which concepts or connotations people associate with “New Media” – before we try to find the connections and differences between them. By letting interviewees/subjects speak for themselves to identify constructs or respond to paired adjectives, we try to avoid the introduction of bias on both sides. Knee-jerk responses such as “New Media is just a flash in the pan” or “Well, I think Facebook is really cool” are not what will get us to the heart of the matter.

To take one example, Sarah Kjellberg nicely summarises the ways in which blogs should be understood as evolving hybrid genres, full of rich and subtle socio-technical characteristics that vary depending on purpose, use, author, audience and time. Blogs (like other New Media) are “shaped by individuals at the same time as they shape social practices”. That’s the sort of approach that might well get us to the heart of things.

Information and Communications: a first meeting on my research

Well, it’s time to start thinking properly again about the Research Proposal that brought me here. What better way than to kick some ideas around with my lovely new Supervisors? I met them this morning for a very productive exchange and a few cups of coffee. The building was strangely quiet since (swot that I am) I’m starting a little bit early. Well, quiet save for a procession of tidy-looking primary school children in blazers, who apparently were being shown around the campus!

The project that will (hopefully) 3 years from now secure me a shiny Doctorate is provisionally entitled ” New Media and Academic Researchers – Politics, Philosophies and Participation“. The idea here is that I will address the ways in which academics across disciplines perceive and make use of New/Social media within (and beyond) the research and possibly teaching lifecycles. This will be looked at in relation to theories of participation. Obviously ascertaining attitudes and perceptions is a delicate and tricky undertaking, so we are still thinking about what precise methodology will be most suitable. Repertory Grids are one strong contender, as is Sentiment Analysis. This is where my Supervisors, Frances and Jill, will be able to guide me through the territory. Whatever we decide it will be fascinating learning from them!

Jill, one of my new supervisors, introduces me to the building.

Key questions of the research are:

  • How do the attitudes of academics in various disciplines, with regard to new media, compare?
  • Can we use participatory theories (and a historical awareness of the role of scholar) to understand and analyse academic uses of/attitudes to new media?
  • Is there a typology of users, attitudes and type of use, which can be identified?
  • What are the implications for official and institutional policy, scholarly communication and the positioning of new media technologies?

There is going to be a lot of categorisation, classification, and data gathering involved in answering these questions. The end result should allow us to:

  • Analyse and interpret the changing position and responsibilities of scholarship and scholarly discourse as a result of ‘disruptive’ new media technologies.
  • Examine the extent of hierarchies, professional constraints or societal expectations of scholars on their relationship to new media.
  • Construct a typology of users based on attitudes and as a predictor of behaviours analysed and interpreted under participatory theory (assuming that participatory theory proves to be a valid and useful lens for modelling).

As you can see it’s pretty ambitious! We will need to have more discussions (next Wednesday is Meet 2) on that. Whatever the nuances, it’s pretty much agreed that scholars and academics are vital to the public sphere – as they have been since the days of the Enlightenment. With the boundaries between the “public sphere” and the “private sphere” shifting, merging, and forming all sorts of intricate relationships in the online age, it’s more important than ever that we understand what exactly is at stake for academia within that picture.

Hope you will agree this is an interesting topic! Comments and thoughts appreciated.