Saturday, February 20, 2010

From the Ivory Tower to the Control Tower

There is a word-for-word transcription of Sonia Livingstone's comments here, as she delivered the closing keynote for the Digital Media and Learning Conference, so perhaps it isn't necessary to do a long blog entry, although the talk was provocative and aimed at dispelling myths about "digital natives" in ways that often spoke to my own research about the rhetoric of the "digital generation" for my next book, Early Adopters. Livingstone may not be a familiar name in the United States, but she has an international reputation as "neither a celebrator not a fearmonger," who is also known for "immersion in policy discussions, American cultural studies

As a rhetorician, I must admit that there was one aspect of her talk, "Youthful Participation: What have we learned, what shall we ask next?," which hit a wrong note with me: her use of the "R-word," so that "rhetoric" always indicated deception, emptiness, or manipulation and never had any positive value for pedagogical or civic development.

In trying to understand "different constituencies" and "how the young sustain" certain media practices, Livingstone is known for "interviewing youth in their bedrooms while they are online." She acknowledged that "media are more privatized" but they intersect "with social activities and spheres of life." She explained the large themes in her research by pointing to the work of Friedrich Krotz: 1) globalization 2) individualization 3) commodification, and 4) medialization. The last term she described as the "logic of media systems and media forms (as combination and dependence)," and her work was clearly also influenced by lifeworld theory, since she discussed "instrumental and market values," as well as "surveillance in the lifeworld." She noted also that her talk would have three parts: 1) empirical: what's going on?, 2) explanatory: how shall we explain it?, and 3) ideological: how should we react to it?

She opened by asking "What claims are being made about digital media? Does the evidence support the claims being made, and are we examining evidence that doesn’t fit?" She wondered aloud also about if there were "sufficient independent evaluations of new initiatives," such as the ones that the hosting body, the MacArthur Foundation, was known for funding.

She described a thirteen-year-old trying to find German website on food and drink in vain. "It can involve the family, and it can fail," she lamented. She also depicted the parents of an eight-year-old "information junkie" who marveled at her fast clicking that doesn’t reveal struggle. As Livingstone summed it up, "she is not the digital native" that her parents assume her to be. "If we overestimate younger people’s skills, we can underestimate their need for support," since "children are struggling and have doubts."

She shared her observations about social networking attitudes when she asked teens a simple question about "how to change their privacy settings" and recorded their befuddled answers. She insisted that "hyperbole brings questions the wrong way round," particularly when young people using technology are talked about as a "new species." For her, central to inquiry should be "not what can the digital offer to learning and participation" but rather among all the factors shaping young people's experiences, what does the digital contribute, particularly when "not all the factors are within our expertise" and it is difficult to "escape the charge of technological determinism."

She told the story of how Megan, who was eight when her observations began but is now twelve, demonstrated her facility with the story-writing option on AOL. But Livingstone discovered that a far more mundane program, Microsoft Works, was allowing this student to produce a story she was in the middle of writing that was "creative," "dramatic," and had a "fantastic vocabulary." She also reminded the digerati present that the girl also lived in a "bedroom full of books." She also described eighteen-year-old marry who found "school council more meaningful than use of Internet" to explain how "school, information, and civic" spheres" might be "three things that don’t come together."

She also spoke about the "constraining of children’s lives" that took place now that "children were getting older younger and yet staying younger" and thus "held longer in a state between dependence and autonomy," much like the one described in the book Hackers and Painters. By seeing "childhood as last place for enchantment," she warned that adult society perpetuated a "construction of childhood" as endangered and fragile in which "we may inadvertently fuel surveillance" with "digital native rhetoric." She told about Anisah, 15, who lived in a housing estate that was troubled with parents with high expectations. Although she was never to download music, she did enjoy chatting with friends late. As computational media offered a route for temporary escape, the girl still had to face a mother who wanted "to empower and yet to control" by shutting off "opportunities and escape from offline constraints." In this situation "risks lurked and yet were not spoken about." For Livingstone, they were too "tied together" to be verbalized.

As she moved out of her summary of fiedwork experiences, Livingstone offered a few generalizations:

1) Children don’t draw the line where adults do. What they call meeting up with friends, we call meeting up with strangers. They might remix forms; we worry about copyright. There are fused activities.

2) Design of digital resources confuses and brings risks and opportunities into collision. For example searching for "teens" without the safe search filter on Google is quite something. We cannot draw these neat lines in online digital worlds.

3) Learning involves risk-taking as young people try "to expand experience and expertise." Children have to push against adult-imposed boundaries.

4) With participatory genres there will always be some "playing with fire" as young people "explore what adults have forbidden" and "take calculated risks to show off to others" in "trying to work out for themselves what adults consider strange and dangerous." In Livingstone's opinion, "this is not so very new." It may "look like young people are creating, participating, but it may be playing with fire." Those adult goals are being attained, but let's examine closely the adult structures next to or imposed upon young people.

Then she displayed a diagram with "State," "School," "Parents," and "Commerce" mapped out that she described as "not an elegant piece of art." At this point, she quipped that she might "need a younger person" to create a more dazzling computer graphic. Such diagrams could reinforce the "need to focus on structure as well as agency," as she reviewed a number of dyads and connections: "create" (state and school), "subvert" (state and parents), "network" (school and commerce), and "explore" (parent/com). She made the analogy to earlier sites of illicit discovery like a "bike shed" or "World War II bomb sites." She talked further about the relationship between "political economy and popular opinion" and the disengagement (or collaboration) of critical theorists and semioticians.

She then reiterated a number of points that she described as "repeated findings": children engaged in online participation are generally the already engaged; they are not the newly motivated. Backgrounds of the children shape their digital use more than the digital technology affordance itself. The design of digital resources confuses and brings fused behaviors. Learning involves risk-taking, and children must push against boundaries, which involves intimacy, privacy, vulnerability. These were capped off with the inevitability of "playing with fire" when it could be "fun teasing the suspicious man in the chatroom" or trying out chat roulette where "you might be able to go and meet a rapist," much as earlier generation might have dared themselves to sleep in a park or street. She described how some of her informants even disrupted an adult Yahoo chat room for police and fire officers by pretending to be blind orphans in a home with abusive caregivers.

As she closed, she warned against the "unholy alliance" between "network society optimists and popular opinions" in which fan activities, profits, autonomous learners, and state interests might be served by "digital native rhetoric."

Of course, as some one who hands out awards for bad official websites, I was most charmed by her mockery of a government website supposedly designed for children: Producers claimed it is "about participation in the broadest sense," because services for young people "need to engage with young people in a participatory way." However, Livingstone derided the site by complaining that "such vague expectations regarding engagement contrast with the considerable planning of project funding and design." "When pressed, they could not state what kind of participation they aimed for," she chuckled. Teenagers, not surprisingly, resisted this approach and found the site "boring." Despite well-meaning statements, young people "need to know about a lot more these days to make the right choices" rathen than be talked down to by adults or appealed to as if "youth" could be treated "as single thing." (This has also been called the "creepy treehouse" problem.)

She also encouraged critical thinking about publicly funded use of technology in education. She described observing an after-school computer club in which there was a math game and how she couldn't help intervening by reading the instructions, because "neither the game nor the teacher gave instructions." In this numerical simulation "one mistake, and the boat crashes." She said that there were many instances of "the supposed fun of digital media," although she did tell about a stopped school in Denmark where all participants devoted themselves to a digital animation project successfully. But she asked that if "radical transformation" is desired, are teachers, parents, and governments ready?

She cited the excellent work of my UC Irvine colleague Mark Warschauer at this point to ask "in whose interest" such projects are undertaken, when there are "unequal power relationships that exist in society." Technology may actually "reinforce existing interests of power" in such situations, rather than overturn them.

She said that host Henry Jenkins understood that there was also a sense that our use of digital media might only foster consumerism, edutainment, standardization, and individualization, so that collective interests might be overlooked in the promotion of self more than community. We must "counter that rhetoric," she said, as the "R-word" appeared yet again. Among "transnational elites," there were "new forms of illiteracy as well as literacy," she claimed.

In particular, she attacked how the once critical field of media literacy, personified by Patricia Aufderheide and legitimated by a national report on media literacy that emphasized critical thinking:

Media literacy may be defined as the ability to access, experience, evaluate, and produce media products. Media are seen to represent actual events, but those representations are subjective and incomplete. Journalists and news producers select which stories to publish, what aspects to emphasize, and what language to use. Media literacy is necessary for media consumers to sift through the variety of presentations, including films, newspapers, Web sites, and video screens to arrive at meaning.

Eventually these kinds of statements were watered down by those with more socially conservative agendas. Ofcom (2004) reduced it to "the ability to operate the technology to find what you are looking for, to understand that material, to have definition of media literacy" when "put simply." AVMS (2007) paternalistically announced that "media literacy refers to skills, knowledge and understanding that allow consumers to use media effectively and safely." (Note the language of use and consumption not production and creation.) The Minister of State for Culture, Media, and Sport (2004) reminded one of Foucault's concept of "governmentality" with its summary definition emphasizing "personal responsibility for what they watch and listen to." By emphasizing what Ulrich Beck has called "the individualization of risk," the possibilities of citizen collective action in the digital realm are delineated extremely narrowly, according to Livingstone.

In cataloging "financial literacy, health literacy" and other literacies in which "media literacy has parallels with other skills," she reminded the audience of how Robert McChesney’s critique of "literacy" emphasizes how it "distracts from questions of power."

Livingstone expressed her concern about how "critical and state priorities are aligned for now" and the need for an "explanatory form of critique" with a "wider gaze that encompasses the structures" be they "political or ideological," as academic discourses move "from the ivory tower to the control tower."

Her call to action urged that participants "must be tougher on ourselves" and must "stop being so nice to each other." "Are we cheerleaders for change?" she asked plaintively.

Jenkins served as her respondent and repeated his self-characterization as a "critical utopianist" engaged with the question of "what kind of world do we want to live in" and "blockages and obstacles" that represent "what do we have to overcome." As remedy he emphasized that the event had brought "theorists and practitioners into the same space," even if it was impossible to represent "all voices in US much less the world" or to analyze "deeply cultural problems."

Like Livingstone, there was a lot of the R-word with Jenkins, who talked about "dismissing that rhetoric" and the "digital revolution rhetoric" in his closing remarks. As he closed the conference, he again referenced his mentor John Fiske, author of Media Matters, by quoting his line that "in early modern Europe everyone had a larynx, but not everyone could speak."

One of the most retweeted lines from the session actually came from danah boyd who said that the group needed to add "playing w/ fire" to the standard trio of "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out" as core youth practices.

Here is the formal copy of her paper.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home