Thursday, October 18, 2007

Civics Lesson

Tarleton Gillespie is one of the few academics worth seeing twice in the same week. In my case, this happened at separate conferences in Montreal and Vancouver. His current work on industry-sponsored pedagogical materials designed to teach children about copyright made for a vastly entertaining presentation, since many of these campaigns more closely resemble fifties social hygiene films rather than media that anyone would take seriously.

And yet the author of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture had a serious message to make about how the rhetoric of unintentionally comic anti-file-sharing campaigns like "What's the Diff?" used code words to propagate particular ideologies about intellectual property. He pointed out the comic book logic and the centrality of the idea of "respect" in these campaigns as meaning both "to take seriously" and "to obey," as one respects one's elders. In addition, he examined the portraits with which children are expected to identify in these campaigns and the way that "computer users," which they all inevitably will be, are depicted as unthinking space cases.

Gillespie's close reading emphasized how the rhetoric of "cybersafety" functioned in these discourses as well. He interrogated the false equation of that which is free with that which is illegal. Often, he argued, these campaigns promulgated a false causality in which -- because fair use was "ambiguous" -- it must be unsafe for citizens to engage in any fair use practices at all. Certainly, his research has shown the damning disingenuousness of these campaigns' creators when it comes to admitting their close relationship with the RIAA or the MPAA in serving as the real content creators. For example, Gillespie showed how the term "songlifting" strangely appeared in two supposedly independently developed campaigns. Yet Gillespie argued that the very pedagogical framing of these materials for teachers will inevitably produce some counter-discourses in the classroom.

Update: Sara Grimes would later at the conference point out another insidious way that the discourses of children are constrained in relationship to their media consumption. In her work on the evolution of branded children's advergames into massively multiplayer online games, she showed that kids are often limited in what they can say in these virtual worlds. In Nicktropolis, young people have 634 pre-constructed sentences, 237 of which praise Nickelodeon. In GalaXseeds, they only have 17 catch phrases, all in the interest of supposed cyber-safety but convenient for cyber-brand loyalty as well.

Update: In response to this reader comment from Julia Lupton that looks closely at the way the word "user" is situated linguistically, it's worth checking out this short interview filmed by Jenny Cool.

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Blogger Lupton said...

I like the scare quotes you put around the word "user." Are folks out there coming up with an alternative? It seems to me that praxis is a much fuller concept than use, implying action in a civic space with respect to a common good. But practitioner won't do ...

8:14 AM  

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