Technology, Hybrid Spaces, and Globalization in SPDS

April 9, 2014

Facilitator: Julie Warner

In our discussion scheduled for Friday, April 11, 10:30 am EST, we will focus on three readings that explore the idea of the hybrid spaces occasioned by networked computers and local explorations of “global” spaces.

In Castells’ (2010) “Globalisation, networking, urbanisation: Reflections on the spatial dynamics of the information age,” he describes the “new spatial architecture” (p. 2737) of networked computers.  He explores the interaction between technology, space, and society and puts forth the space of flows as the emerging spatial logic.  He makes  clear the connection between the materiality of networks, the nodes in the network, and resources in the material places connected to those nodes. In the past, we have discussed the idea of spatial justice and the distribution of resources. Recent Pew findings (Zickhur, 2013) tell us that 62% of people in rural places have high speed internet access (thus access to the concomitant new hybrid spaces). But going further, Castells (2010) asserts “the points of connection in this global architecture of networks are the points that attract wealth, power, culture, innovation, and people, innovative or not, to these places” (p. 2742). Some places are “excluded from the dominant logic of global spatial integration” (p. 2737). Thus, he explains how the economic realities of a global knowledge economy play out in local contexts. This was helpful for me in thinking about the ways digital literacy-rich environments (to riff off of Jocson and Thorne-Wallington, 2013) map on to other resources and opportunities linked to physical places. 

Appadurai (1990) also explores the idea of flows. His work makes me question what “global flows” mean for local places. In my experience, schools use firewalls and means of disabling the internet on tech devices to scale the internet. Rather than offering powerful, potentially transformative access to the space of flows/hybrid global-local spaces, the internet is highly localized. The spaces are just a digital mirror of the physical space. Is the goal for students in the 21st century to become cosmopolitan and have an amplified global voice? At the same time, I think about what related to global flows is relevant in the rural world

Gordon and de Souza e Silva’s chapter on Globalization from Net Locality shows how the local influences the global. This piece helped me to think about how social (and as we’ve described them literacy) practices intersect with technologies to create space(s). Web 2.0 is powered by/comprised of user contributions. In my own work I’ve wondered about how legible the intersections between the local and the global are for youth. They share the realities of their physical  and social worlds on social media, contributing to an industry they understand little about.  And relatedly, in thinking about spaces in relation to this idea, most youth stay on the “front end” and don’t engage on the “back end.” Even though we celebrate youth media work as production, from this perspective, zooming out a little, we can think about the importance of the legibility of the larger structures of youth digital media production. To that end, I’ve recently found Rushoff’s ideas (“program or be programmed”) to be salient. 

Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Public Culture, 2(2), 1-24.

Castells, M. (2010). Globalisation, networking, urbanisation: Reflections on the spatial dynamics of the information age. Urban Studies, 47 (13), 2737–2745.

Gordon, E., &  de Souza e Silva, A. (2011). Globalization. In Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World (p. 168-183). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.


I finally started Turkle’s Alone Together…thoughts on connections between ELIZA and Facebook

March 28, 2012

I’m getting started with Sherry Turkle’s newest book Alone Together and it raises some salient issues in terms of my research with teen bloggers and the audience in online communication.

In the first part of the book, she describes interactions with ELIZA, a program written by Joseph Weizenbaum to act as a psychoanalytic therapist.  This video gives you a good idea of what it was like to interact with the program:

Notice that ELIZA responds with a predetermined set of queries once provoked with input from the user.

Turkle notes that people would almost always start with “Hello” or “Hi how are you today?” And then would, as interchanges went on, tell ELIZA secrets, as if it were a confidant!

My brother and I used to play with a similar program called Dr. Sbaitso.

(We used to swear at him and this would cause a “Parity Error”!)

We would converse with this computer program. We were aware that it was a computer program. We knew that it wasn’t sentient. Yet it was intriguing I remember, and I remember engaging with it to find out if it was really aware.

So what does this have to do with my research?

As I was thinking about all this, I realized that maybe the way that teens are thinking about their audience when they are writing online in the blog environment has nothing to do with the network or the globalized communication capabilities of the computer/ the distant audiences that the Internet makes possible. Instead, perhaps they are thinking just about the physical hardware in front of them. In blogging for example, you approach this computer, you start typing and telling it things essentially, as if it were sentient, as if it cared…we want to interact with these machines for some reason. It’s almost like we would feel better if they were more lifelike.

I’ve often wondered about the trend I have noted where I will see teens write “Goodnight, Facebook”. Are they addressing “Facebook”? All of their Facebook friends? It’s always reminded me of how people would name their diaries people names. Like Anne Frank addressed hers “Dear Kitty”, almost as if she were addressing the diary itself.

Turkle writes:

“Why would we want to be in conversation with machines that cannot understand or care for us?… ELIZA’s popularity revealed more than people’s willingness to talk to machines; it revealed their reluctance to talk to other people. The idea of an attentive machine provides the fantasy that we may escape from each other. When we say we look forward to computer judges, counselors, teachers, and pastors, we comment on our disappointments with people who have not cared or who have treated us with bias or even abuse. These disappointments begin to make a machine’s performance of caring seem like caring enough. We are willing to put aside a program’s lack of understanding and, indeed, to work to make it seem to understand more than it does—all to create the fantasy that there is an alternative to people. This is the deeper “ELIZA effect.” Trust in ELIZA does not speak to what we think ELIZA will understand but to our lack of trust in the people who might understand.” – Turkle, Alone Together


Is blogging “writing”?

April 8, 2010

Much of the research that has been done on writing frames what the writer does as surmounting a “rhetorical situation”. This is usually thought of as conceptualizing the audience, formulating the topic, and giving the text exigency or organization. It has also been thought of as the “rhetorical triangle”:

This is closer to the Aristotleian idea of rhetoric in which the speaker appeals to the logic of the subject (LOGOS), the audience’s emotions (PATHOS) and the author’s own character (ETHOS) in order to cause some effect on the audience.

In this view, then, is the blogger faced with a rhetorical situation?

Blogs are primarily text-based but usually multimodal, or comprised of additional modes such as images, videos, and hyperlinks, typography, layout and more. Some of the teen blogs I have surveyed contain not just text-based entries narrating their day-to-day lives, but also poetry and song lyrics, embedded video culled from video sharing sites like YouTube, and images which they drew or found online, as well as photographs taken with cellphone cameras.

When you compose with multimedia, is that “writing”? What about when you produce a new text using content not originally “yours” that you remix?

I wonder what is the most apt term for what the blogger does.

Merriam-Webster defines rhetoric as:

1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively: as a : the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times b : the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion
2 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : a type or mode of language or speech; also : insincere or grandiloquent language
3 : verbal communication : discourse

It seems to me that this definition implies, though its emphasis on “effectiveness”, that the writer or speaker is persuading. So the rhetorical situation then would be a matter of “persuasion”.

So would blogging better be called the “task of composition”? Composing it seems captures this sense of using language to produce a text as well as bringing together particular elements to create a whole.

In some sense then, blogging IS writing. However, with its multimedial and multimodal components blogging is more than approaching a rhetorical situation involving topic, audience, and form or ethos, pathos and logos.

“Qualitativeness” and Turkle’s Life on the Screen

March 29, 2010

MIT professor of Sociology of Science and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen (1995) is an early landmark ethnographic study of online life. Bogdan and Biklin (2007) describe the 5 features of qualitative research as being naturalistic, as collecting descriptive data, as being concerned with process and not simply outcomes, as performing inductive data analysis, and as having an interest in meaning or how people make sense of their lives. Given these characteristics, it is clear that qualitative methods are well suited to a study of online life and computer-mediated communication (CMC).  As Hine (2000) asserts, “Qualitative and interpretative studies are however particularly well placed to study a cultural context in its own terms and have been influential in establishing the features of CMC” (p. 18). Turkle’s groundbreaking study is one of these which helped to establish features and also how people take them up and make them a part of their own lives through the use of qualitiative methods.

Naturalistic research as dictated by a qualitative approach to the study of CMC requires new thought in terms of how to approach and delimit the field or “case” (Dyson & Genishi, 2005). As Turkle explains in her notes on method, “Virtual reality poses a new methodological challenge for the researcher: what to make of online interviews, and, indeed, whether and how to use them.…researchers with different interests and theoretical perspectives will surely think about this decision [regarding method] differently” (p. 324).  Indeed, the use of qualitative methods in studying social interactions online must begin with a theoretical framework that addresses the nature of reality. Some qualitative researchers approach the Internet as a virtual reality, separate from “real life”. Others, like Miller and Slater (2000) maintain that “We need to treat Internet media as in continuum with and embedded in other social spaces…they happen within mundane social structures and relations that they may transform but that they cannot escape into a self-enclosed cyberian apartness” (p. 5). The nature of the screen, body, and cyberspace can only be explored after a theoretical approach is decided upon.

In Turkle’s study she sought to explore the social functions of Internet use. She wanted to “explore an individual’s life history and tease out the roles technology has played” (p. 324). Though she carried out participant observation and interviews online, she also observed face-to-face and made the decision to report out if she had met the person face to face for interview only. She says that this choice is related to the purposes of the “real life bias” of her study and argues that this approach allowed her to present her findings with more richness and attention to the complexity of social life. As Hine (2000) says “The decision to privilege certain modes of interaction is a situated one. If the aim is to study online settings as contexts in their own right, the question of offline identities may not arise” (p. 22). Turkle presents a view in her book of identity as fragmented. Such a view is certainly influenced by early utopian claims about the Internet that indeed present a picture of the Internet as a “cyberian apartness” where differences are erased. One popular New Yorker cartoon from 1993 of a dog going online illustrated the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

I take a view of the identities as more fluid, and I view the Internet as embedded in people’s lives and only taking significance in the ways in which people take it up and use it. I would criticize Turkle’s statements about identities as fragmented such as “you can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want. You can be the opposite sex. You can be more talkative. You can be less talkative…you can just be whoever you want really” (pp. 184-185). I believe on the other hand that offline and online are not discrete but simply a part of people’s lives.

This study was fruitful for me in thinking about how to approach qualitative studies of “social lives and cultural meanings that people are constructing as their lives become increasingly entwined with computer technology” (p. 323). I am concerned with studying what has been called the “new ethos” (Lankshear & Knoebl, 2006) that is arising around technology use. In the way of technology and change, Lankshear and Knobel (2006) differentiate between the new “technical stuff” made of hardware and software and new “ethos stuff” (p. 93) which they define as the “the emergence of a distinctly contemporary mindset” (p. 73) which arises in conjunction with the social use of new technologies. This is the difference between the technologies themselves and how people take them up. Leu et al. (2004) describes these new ethos or mindsets as the “important new strategies and dispositions required by the Internet” (p.) Leu et al. (2008) argue for the existence of “changes in social and cultural ways of doing things, ways of being, ways of viewing the world (world views), and so on” (p. 7).

In my interest in exploring the mindsets and “new ethos” of Internet use, Turkle’s work enhanced my understanding of “qualitativeness” in its flexibility or reflexiveness. She not only responded to the data and interpretations as she was in the field by shifting her approaches or refining her theoretical lens, but she brought her own background into the way in which she approached her study. She opens her section containing notes on method in facts by stating, “This is a very personal book. It is based on ethnographic and clinical observation, where the researcher, her sensibilities and taste, constitute a principal instrument of investigation” (p. 321). She goes on to explain where her “sensibilities and taste” originate, including her background in sociology, anthropology, and personality psychology as well as her work as a licensed clinical psychologist. Thus her approach comes to be of two parts, that is, field research and a “clinical component”.

It was helpful for me to realize the flexibility of qualitative design. My own research of the “new ethos” of the Internet will require such flexibility because “burning issues in representation and communication have proliferated along with the profound changes in the social, cultural, economic and technological world, issues for which there are as of yet no answers. In that context the need is to open up questions…” (Pahl & Roswell, 2006, ix). Just as Turkle explored the ways that ethnography and clinical approaches can speak to each other, I will seek a flexible approach that responds to the interests of the study at hand.

The “new ethos” of writing online…what it inspires for literacy education

March 2, 2010

Lankshear and Knobel (2006) differentiate between the new “technical stuff” made of hardware and software and new “ethos stuff” (p. 93) which they define as the “the emergence of a distinctly contemporary mindset” (p. 73) which arises in conjunction with the social use of new technologies. This is the difference between the technologies themselves and how people take them up. Leu et al. (2004) describes these new ethos or mindsets as the “important new strategies and dispositions required by the Internet” (p.) Leu et al. (2008) argue for the existence of “changes in social and cultural ways of doing things, ways of being, ways of viewing the world (world views), and so on” (p. 7).

Since the Internet is a “literacy issue”, most of these new ethos have to do with reading and writing. Rhetorical approaches such as audience awareness in writing in new media environments like blogs are part of the literacy practices which comprise the new ethos. There is a dearth of research to date about how teenagers think about the creation and dissemination of online multimodal texts and specifically how they conceptualize their audience when they are writing online, although their audiences are quite different in nature and scope from those of print-based writing environments. Schools continue to teach within the framework of the ethos of print literacies alone (Gee, 2004; Lam, 2006; Sefton-Green, 2006) instead of those fostered by new media because as of yet descriptions and protocols do not exist outlining what the online writing environment and practices therein actually entail. The social context for literacy learning is changing, but not enough is known in this realm to aptly inform pedagogy.

Specifically, a focus on audience in a study of teenage bloggers writing online is important considering the characteristic of the blog and other forms of online social media to provide a real audience and thus an authentic context for writing. In traditional literacy education contexts, the writing in the classroom is decontextualized, and the only “real” audience is the teacher. The problematic aspect of this fact becomes clear in light of existing research that contends that audience is important to good writing both in terms of quality and motivation to write (cite).  Even considering that students are expected to be able to write for and expect to be evaluated by a variety of audiences in print-based approaches to literacy curriculum and teaching, audience awareness is important as a focus of research.

Another aspect of this problem of the lack of knowledge about the new mindsets or new ethos of the social use of technology is that students who use these technologies outside of school and are competent in these “new strategies and dispositions” are often deskilled when they enter the classroom. Their “ways of doing things, ways of being, and ways of viewing the world’’ (Leu et al. 2008) are not recognized. The disconnect between what is required in the way of new ethos to participate in the contemporary media environment and the kinds of literacies which are privileged by the government-sanctioned school curriculum positions these students as incompetent (Hull & Nelson, 2005; Mahiri, 2004). As Jewitt (year) purports: “pedagogic understanding of students’ mediascapes demands the adoption of strategies for engaging with the literacy worlds of students and their interests and desires. The theoretical and pedagogic focus of multimodality and multiliteracies can support teachers in engaging with the resources students bring into the classroom. This includes understanding students as sign makers, the texts they make as designs of meaning, and the meaning-making processes that they are engaged in. These can give insights into the kinds of resources that students have access to (as well as those they do not)” p. 261. The dearth of research around the new ethos of digital literacies like blogging not only hinders the literacy learning of those students who approach literacy tasks from the place of new ethos, but it also ensures that students who do not have the new ethos mindset and the concomitant strategies and dispositions will not be afforded the chance to develop them. This is problematic given assertions that these new ethos are what will be needed to be successful in our increasingly digital, networked, and globalized society (cite).
We are at an important crossroads in terms of the research being done in the realm of literacy education considering rapid and monumental changes in the semiotic and communicative landscape.  This inspires the need to develop an [adequate] theory and practice for identifying, understanding, and explaining the new of composition which includes how teenagers conceptualize their audience when they are writing online. As Reinking purports (1998): “Digital forms of expression are increasingly replacing printed forms and there is a widespread consensus, at least intuitvely, that this shift has consequences for the way we communicate and disseminate information, how we approach the task of reading and writing, and how we think about helping people to become literate” (p. xv)

Hull, G. & Nelson, (2005)

Jewitt, C.: Multimodality and Literacy, RRE 32

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006)New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning.

Leu et al. (2004)

Leu et al. (2008) H of NLR.

Mahiri, (2004).

(Gee, 2004; Lam, 2006; Sefton-Green, 2006)

Reinking (1998)

Discourse as a verb

February 24, 2010

I’m thinking more seriously about my methodology as I begin my research on how a teen blogger conceptualizes audience when writing online. I am using a sociocultural perspective of literacy to frame my study and so I’m thinking about how I conceptualize discourse. This is one of those words that you see everywhere in scholarly work but can get sticky because there is a variance of usage.

For my study, I am using the term discourse in the sense of language-in-use. Drawing largely from Foucault, I see discourse as functional–as a verb, a set of actions, and as something we use language to DO. In my study discourse will be considered as reflective of the mental processes I’m looking at which are the ways that teens are conceptualizing their audience as they write in online spaces.

To be clear, this is different from a textual analysis. I’m not looking at the processes that make a unit of language take shape and have meaning but what the teens are DOING. They are using images, video, layout, language, etc TO DO SOMETHING and I’m interested in who they imagine as their audience when they do.

So in my case, discourse analysis is a way to make visible language and literacy events in the blogs–specifically the “conversations” that happen both via blogroll/commentary/hyperlinked blogs AND in the heads of the bloggers, since I see the blog as one side of a one-to-many conversation. Who are they talking to, what about, and why?

Discourse analysis makes sense as one piece of my approach for a study of audience awareness of teen bloggers because blogging is social media (well, sometimes–depends on how it’s taken up!) And I’m considering writing as a social interaction–response to a real-imagined audience.

The discourse in this case is NOT neutral and CREATES an audience.

Of course, as represented by my graphic, I am considering discourse within the sociocultural frame. It is important to mention that I don’t see offline/online as discrete. Shoutout to danah boyd: “[Teenagers’] participation is rarely divorced from offline peer culture; teens craft digital self-expressions for known audiences and they socialize almost exclusively with people they know” (p. 3 in her dissertation). As Miller and Slater (2000) assert: “We need to treat Internet media as continuum with and embedded in other social spaces…they happen within mundane social structures and relations that they may transform but that they cannot escape into a self-enclosed cyberian apartness” (p. 5). I view the Internet as embedded within teenagers’ lives and as taking significance only through its use. The teenagers though are socioculturally situated. They are teenagers, who blog…and I will even need to clarify that “teenager” is a sociocultural construction! And that blogging is just one practice within the “ecology” as Jenkins says of their literacy practices.

Rethinking audiences in writing online

February 23, 2010

I’m planning to begin researching the way a teenage blogger conceptualizes her audience when writing online. This study necessitates some thinking about the concepts of authorship and audience in blogging.

I argue that the blog fosters a unique relationship between author and audience mainly as a result of the way that the blog structures communication. The kinds of communicative structures blogging platforms support include asynchronous communication by way of comment boxes and response to blog posts by other bloggers via interlinked blogs (in other words, the possiblity for interaction by potentially vociferous audiences), the ability of the Internet to allow for wider, possibly global dissemination of texts to invisible, anonymous, and heterogeneous audiences and at the same time a combination of known, offline audiences as well. None of these characteristics are new, but in the kind of combination made possible by the blog, they are unique to this platform (Fornas, et al. 2002; McMillan, 2002).

Although blogging as a part of so-called “Web 2.0” applications is thought of as an artifact of “participatory culture” as defined by Jenkins (1994, 2006), audiences have been thought of as participatory before blogging or Web 2.0 audiences. Levine (1991) reminds us that audiences in the 19th century and Elizabethan theater can be characterized as “…more than an audience; they are participants who can enter into the action on the field, who feel a sense of immediacy and at times even of control, who articulate their opinions and feelings vocally and unmistakably” (p. 167). These audiences could structure the course of a performance through their vocal feedback delivered as a performance unraveled.

Furthermore, while some have argued that later audiences for television were passive and less subjective consumers of mass culture (Chomsky), other theorists have disputed this notion (Foucault, 1980, holding that the discourse dissipates the power) and research has been done about the participatory nature of even television viewing (Hall, 1974, Morely, 1980; Ang, 1991).

In this case, I hold audience to be of two parts. For a blog, there is both a real audience which are those who actually read the blog (these readers might be known to the author online or offline or unknown “lurkers”) and an audience which exists in the mind of the blogger.

Ang’s analysis relying on Foucault’s notion of discourse to examine audience is useful to me in my attempt to describe how authors are conceptualizing their audience, this audience that exists within their heads. Ang argues that television producers view their audiences as somewhat homogenous and able to be classified and controlled through the use of particular discourses which position them as consumers in order to sell them products and services. However, the audiences constructed by these discourses do not exist organically and the real audiences for television programs end up a mismatch which are more agentic than the television producers attempt to make them.

Like Ang, I believe that blog authors construct a certain picture of the audience that they envision in their head through the discourse they use in their blog text. By uncovering the discourses of the audience developed by the blogger, I think we can know more about how the blogger conceptualizes her audience.

However, because blog audiences are not only discursively constructed but also exist in the “real world”, I will examine the blog comments and interview bloggers about evidence they have of “actual” audiences for their blog.

In addition to the theoretical basis hitherto described, this approach is also based on work by Ede and Lunsford (1984) wherein they challenged the previous dichotomous approaches to audience, audience addressed and audience invoked. Those in the audience addressed camp believed that tailoring writing to a specific audience is not just a real possibility but also the key to strong, successful rhetoric. Those who believe in the audience invoked, on the other hand, see audience as a “constructed fiction” (Ong). Ede and Lunsford argue that neither of these approaches is the reality of the rhetorical situation when it comes to audience. In the case of a blogger’s sense of who their audience is, I would agree with Ede and Lunsford that audience should be viewed as both real and concrete as well as existing within the mind of the writer.

What am I overlooking in my theoretical framework? I would appreciate any feedback.

What will the tablet mean for literacy teaching and learning?

January 26, 2010

Mobile learning is nothing new, but with the unveiling of the much-hyped Apple tablet which supposedly is 3G enabled, I’ve been thinking about what the implications might be for literacy teaching and learning. (Here’s a pic that insider’s say is closest to the actual product). The significance of the buzz around the Apple tablet (or iPad) is that though tablets have been around for a while, none have really picked up a lot of steam and Apple on the other hand always seems to do it right–not to mention that developers always jump on the Apple bandwagon which helps things. (Here’s a link to the rumor mill for those interested).

My professor, Chuck Kinzer, has talked about how the proliferation of mobile devices will make the educational research on multitasking obsolete. You can’t really have a bunch of windows open at the same time on your mobile device–chatting, listening to music, surfing the web–like you can with the laptop or desktop computer. With a larger screen though, likely to be 10 inches diagonally, this multitasking may be possible.

People are saying the Apple tablet will make the Kindle obsolete because the tablet will act as an e-reader. This video (which is a pitch for a particular company, but still a quick overview of the e-reading abilities of the tablet for the student user) shows a shelf of tablet-based textbooks within the tablet, the user accessing multi-media (a video lecture), study guides, and a class/study calendar.

But the tablet will be more consequential than acting simply as an e-reader. Of course, you will have apps like you do with the iPhone, and some just for the tablet. And of course there will likely be multimedia capabilites; one will be able to watch videos surely but also probably make and distribute them–expanding what we think of as reading a textbook in a traditional sense, and harnessing this idea of a participatory culture in interacting with the textbook through multimedia. So in addition to reading, students can create and share media.

The tablet precursors to the iPad have, too, featured the digital ink-enabling feature which, with a stylus, students could annotate directly on textbooks, notes, powerpoints, etc. I think in this current climate though we will see this in a more collaborative sense of annotating and drawing. Peer-editing papers comes to mind.

I’m thinking about the possibilities for social networking + tablet tech in education. Online study groups–collaborative note taking (real-time wiki style maybe ala Googlewave?) sharing notes and auxiliary materials, videoconferencing–that are potentially global. The ability to have a real community of practice in which students are in touch with experts, wherever they may reside, being real apprentices in authentic learning contexts.

And think, students tutoring, teaching each other across long-distances via shared presentations, real-time math lessons using the stylus and videoconference. They say teaching something is the best way to learn it!

I can’t fully wrap my mind around the implications of GPS/Googlemapping technology and the tablet on education, but I forsee placeblogging and Web 2.0 applications like Foursquare playing prominently in the history, geography, or social studies classroom.

So what are your thoughts? How else might such a device change education?

I’ll be looking forward to the official announcement on Wednesday. Until then, we technophiles can salivate over the mockups!

Always on? The horror!

January 25, 2010

Everyone’s chattering about the NYT article “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online” which references the Kaiser Family Foundation’s study “Daily Media Use Among Children and Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago” (Download a .pdf of the full report here). The article’s premise is that with the popularity of smart phones and other devices (and wireless access/3g) that support ubiquitous mobile computing, teens spend nearly all of their waking time “connected”. And this, the article seems to imply, is a negative thing.

The study claims that “heavy media users report getting lower grades”. The study doesn’t claim a cause-and-effect relationship when it comes to media usage and school performance as measured by grades; they say “about half (47%0 of heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly C’s or lower), compared to about a quarter (23%) of light users”. And they say that media usage by minority students is up: “The heaviest media users, the study found, are black and Hispanic youths and “tweens,” or those ages 11 to 14 (NYT Article).” What implications does increased media usage by young people and minority youth in particular have for the so-called “achievement gap”?

Does increased use of digital media necessarily equate to a decreased use of print media? And does this mean students who are heavy media users will then do more poorly in school than those who read bound books on paper?

It all comes back to this question of whether or not media use is changing the way that we think. Well, in my opinion it is unquestionable. Yes, it does, it has to.  I don’t buy that Google is making us stupid, a reductionist, alarmist, and I think, misguided argument–our attention spans are supposedly decreased because of hypertext. RSS makes us lazy. We lose the ability to read Dostoevsky or Proust because we are used to reading that which is brief, incoherent, detached. The penchant for multitasking that technology engenders makes us distractable. We start to understand “lackadaisical” spellings like “Whr R U”, BRB, and LOL.

The comments on the NY Times article reflect the fear of this increased media use. Many of the comments vilify the technology, implying that it is addictive and warn parents not to let kids have access to smart phones and other media because “once they start they can’t stop”–set boundaries, limit use.

These arguments seem silly to me because I don’t share the beliefs of technological determinism that they assume. Instead, I tend to believe that social structures play a role in how these technologies are taken up and employed. I definitely think that they are taken up with enthusiasm and allowed to thrive because of a synergy of various factors. Take Twitter for example. It has been around for years but only recently exploded. The affordances of this application didn’t change, but I think that social factors became such that it became a relevant entity. The perfect storm of consumer demand, trends and fads, and the prevalence of smart phones certainly contributed to its exploding popularity, along with other factors.

But at the same time, I believe the way people make sense of and take up the affordances of new communications technologies are vital to the significance of the media themselves. BUT the affordances of these technologies do affect the ways that users communicate. The medium is not neutral. It has an impact on the way that we encode information–in the larger sense, though it’s cultural impact (as technologies effects on culture and what is valued in terms of content, form, and function), but in the immediate sense, through what we can actually do with the medium (think Twitter and it’s 140 characters, blogs and their supposed interactivity, or real-time textual chat, etc).

The conservative arguments that take an alarmist, fearful view of the changes technology supposedly cause in our language, society, and culture, are reminiscent of Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, who warned against the mental changes that writing would cause, as people began to rely less on their memory in the shift from oral to scribal modes of information coding. I do think it important we examine the ways that our culture has changed as we moved from oral to scribal (as Havelock outlined) to typographical (as we see in Eisenstein) to now digital cultures (foretold by Ong and others). As Birkets reminds us, “it may be time to ask how modifications in our way of reading may impinge upon our mental life. For how we receive information bears vitally on the ways we experience and interpret reality” (p. 72). Now we see that notions of text are varied, including chat, Internet searches, and highly visually-dependent websites. The ways users expect to engage in literacy practices have changed, for one thing, but our “mental lives” have no doubt changed in other respects as well.

For a more optimistic view of youth media use, see Berkeley’s report on digital youth research under the direction of Mizuko Ito from 2008. The summary of the study’s final report asserts that “the digital world is creating new opportunities for youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression. These activities have captured teens’ attention because they provide avenues for extending social worlds, self-directed learning, and independence.” Read alongside the NYT article, one can’t help but notice that the NYT article fails to illuminate the important work that youth engage in during all this time that they are “connected”. They are engaging with a great variety of texts, and all kinds of modes of information representation–visual, auditory, etc. They’re writing fanfiction and participating in online communities of practice. They are doing important identity work using blogs, IM, and social networks. They “geek out” as Ito’s study puts it, exploring highly specialized content. They are shaping their own realities. I think that kids do need balance and everything in life should be in moderation. But these articles that vilify technology use and express horror at changing times have a huge blind spot.

The new literacy student

October 24, 2009

I think a lot of the talk about digital literacies and literacy teaching in the 21st century in general focuses on the new texts/media and required skills themselves and thus the conversation fails to adequately acknowledge the student. In my research, I’ve focused some on how the social subject (simply: a person within society) changes from oral to written culture. And thus now I turn to how we have changed from a written culture (thinking mostly in terms of print-based texts) to now this technoculture. We are connected to the knowledge, power and environment of our current historical situation. From Manovich (2001): “As distribution of all forms of culture becomes computer-based, we are increasingly ‘interfacing’ to predominately cultural data–texts, photographs, films, music, virtual environments. In short, we are no longer interfacing to a computer, but to culture encoded in digital form” (p. 70). What I’m interested in is how the social subject has changed psychoanalytically, especially in terms of the way they approach communication. How are our students conceptualizing reading and writing in this new technoculture in ways that are different from, say, the ways I conceptualized literacy during my own education?