Tag Archive | Thesis

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.

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.

Room for Research

Another morning meeting with my Supervisors provided me (yet again) with plenty to contemplate. In fact, I think we were all slightly surprised at the number of ideas flying around. I wonder if we are going to expand the topic to breaking point before we manage to narrow it down and find precisely the right focus? This is a normal part of the process; but right now my project seems to be elastic: there is so much to (potentially) take in that it’s hard to know exactly what not to include. However, I have started to work out a structure that makes – or appears for now to make – logical sense; and which will hopefully incorporate a little of everything necessary to contextualise, justify, and clarify my thesis for the official committee due to assess it now that I’m properly enrolled. Skeleton sections that I am working with are (at the moment of writing):

1.    The Role of the Scholar, the Scientist, the Intellectual: Philosophical Roots
2.    Participatory Democratic Theory
2.1.    The many flavours of participation
2.2.    Philosophical engagement and challenges
3.    The Nature of Scholarship and New Technologies
4.    New Media, Shifting Contexts, and Multiple Modes of Analysis
4.1.    Recent Studies
4.1.1     Academia
4.1.2      Studies of Participation and New Technologies outside Academia    Private sector    Public sector and NGOs
5.    Potential Framework for this Research

Simple, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

When thinking about all of this, it’s vital to have the right space to work in. Something they keep warning us about is the risk of becoming “isolated” when undertaking a PhD; so it’s great to get talking to other researchers about their work. As well as being interesting in and of itself, this can at times shine a light on my own work or make me see things from a new perspective. To quote Karl Popper: “everybody with whom we communicate [is] a potential source of argument and of reasonable information”. Much of that takes place (it seems) in Room 118 of the Geoffrey Manton building. Already, a piece that a fellow PhD student showed me, where she locates her work in relation to a critique of Antonio Gramsci’s “hegemony” has given me inspiration.

A space for ideas

118118 joke here

And it turns out that I didn’t have to go all the way back to the Museum of Science and Industry to photograph some retro telephones! Wonderfully, Room 118 still has an old beige model that casually displays the name (“Manchester Polytechnic“) under which what is now MMU operated until 1992, when it was granted University status under the Further and Higher Education Act. Some people, I guess, like to be reminded of the history of their institutions – and of the older forms of communication which contributed to the point we find ourselves at today.