All posts by Kiley Dhatt

The False “Text” vs. “Media” Dichotomy: Academic Culture as Remix Culture

In this week’s round of responses, others have (rightly) called attention to the false dichotomy Lessig sets up between RO and RW culture. But as I was reading Remix, another opposition struck me as particularly bizarre: the binary Lessig attempts to construct between text and digital media. He boldly claims that

Text is today’s Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate (look at you, reading this book). For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of “writing” are the vernacular of today. (Lessig 67)

Wait—really? Even if we narrow Lessig’s definition of “text” to “alphabetic text,” which I believe is what he means, I have a difficult time believing that “the masses” are “gathering information” about the world exclusively through these non-alphabetic media. There’s a crucial distinction to be made here: the non-Latin-speaking ‘commoners’ of the European Middle Ages did not have the literacy necessary to make use of Latin as a medium of communication; the ‘masses’ who consume other kinds of media today are generally  literate in alphabetic texts. Yes, people are watching “New Girl” on TV and streaming movies on Netflix and watching/listening to Britney Spears on iTunes/YouTube/whatever. But they are also reading alphabetic text, even if they are doing so in different ways, in different environments, and surrounded by other media. To find evidence of this, we need only look at Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely used social media programs on the web: these are absolutely alphabetic text-saturated and -reading dependent environments.

No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!
No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!

The statistics Lessig cites in the same paragraph to claim “falling numbers for text” (67) make it especially apparent that he is falsely distinguishing print alphabetic reading practices from digital alphabetic reading practices. These statistics pit the act of “reading” against “playing games or using a computer for leisure” (67). But is it really not possible that we might read alphabetic texts (both in extended and fragmented forms) while we use our computers for leisure?

What I find particularly problematic about this false dichotomy between “text” and “other media” is that it allows Lessig to then claim that digital media remixes are somehow more convoluted, entangled, or even more creative than textual remixes. Lessig asserts that the ‘quotes’ used in digital remixes “happen at different layers. Unlike text, where the quotes follow in a single line—such as here, where the sentence explains, ‘and then a quote gets added’—remixed media may quote sounds over images, or video over text, or text over sounds. The quotes thus get mixed together. The mix produces the new creative work—the ‘remix’” (69).

As an academic(-in-training), I found myself more than a little irked at Lessig’s oversimplification here of the way that texts and ideas are circulated and remixed through alphabetic writing. In academic writing, we don’t just cite quotations—we cite ideas. Sometimes those ideas get represented through direct quotation, but often they do not: sometimes we paraphrase, sometimes we borrow someone else’s approach and apply it to a new text, and sometimes we do a little thing we like to call academic synthesis wherein we effectively “layer” others’ ideas to produce something new. To borrow some terms and ideas from Joe’s Rewriting, in each of these instances of putting others’ texts in service of our own writing projects, we are effectively rewriting them to say something new—an act I think we can justly call “creative work” and “remix.” Viewed through such a lens, textual remixes seem to me to be at least as complicated and difficult to disentangle as those composed using  digital media.

I highlight all of this in order to suggest that as much as academic culture may have to learn from digital culture (and I think it’s quite a lot!), there may be something digital culture can learn from academia as well. I suspect that the academy values intellectual property as much as the commercial sector, if not more—and yet, it has managed a system of attribution and citation wherein the use of others’ texts and ideas is not just free, but encouraged and expected as a means of contributing to a diverse body of texts and ways of knowing. Citation is more than an obligatory head-nod; it represents coveted influence within the culture. People want their work to be cited, to be rewritten, to be remixed. I am not arguing that academic culture is some utopian ideal, and I recognize that there are issues of compensation bound up in this discussion—issues we’ll no doubt attend to in next week’s discussion of Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. But I still think there are values inherent to the remix culture of academia that are worth preserving, and worth trying to cultivate in the digital world.

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Compatible Specialization or Productive Friction?: Forms of Difference in Collaboration

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson demonstrates a real knack for taking 21st century concepts and terms that have received a great deal of bad press, like “crowdsourcing” and “hive mind,” and turning them on their heads to examine the possibilities they open up for productive learning and thinking. In the digital world, one big criticism of crowdsourcing is a sort of a variation on the “tragedy of the commons”: if no one feels responsible for the larger product, there’s a fear that the end results may be degraded in quality. In the world of composition studies, there is an additional fear of collaborative learning and writing: that it encourages consensus-building, which is often facilitated by glossing over dissent and difference. Marxist scholars like Greg Myers worry that collaborative learning, as it is commonly built into classroom pedagogy, simply reproduces harmful ideologies rather than calling attention to them. Davidson, however, insists that if difference and diversity are valued and emphasized, crowdsourcing has immense promise for its ability to innovate by combining the strengths of a number of individuals to find more creative, useful solutions than anyone could produce alone.

Davidson’s praise of crowdsourcing for “assum[ing] that no one of us individually is smarter than all of us collectively” (64) reminded me of a wildly popular TED Talk I watched several years ago, entitled “When Ideas Have Sex.” The speaker is Matt Ridley, a British journalist with a particular interest in the concept of collective intelligence as the primary engine of human progress. In the short video clip below, he explores the basic math of how different human skills can be pooled to create “combinatory” tools that both innovate new solutions and save us time. If you have the chance, watch the whole original video—it’s only a little over 15 minutes and, I think, well worth it.

There are certainly some strong connections between Ridley’s and Davidson’s arguments—connections that are particularly clear if you watch the longer version of Ridley’s talk. They are both convinced that differences in human ideas can interact and combine to create something much more powerful and interesting than can be produced by an individual.

But rewatching this video after reading Now You See It, I was reminded that simply emphasizing and celebrating difference does not guarantee the shift in our attention that Davidson so compelling argues is necessary for us to see new possibilities. Ridley’s (rather positive) take on the increasing specialization of human labor called my attention to the strangely fine line between difference as specialization that efficiently divides labor to maintain the status quo, and difference as a generator of productive friction that “distracts us” into seeing in new ways. That is, it seems to me that attention to difference is a double-edge sword: it can be employed in service of both complacency and innovation, depending on how it is mobilized. If we already account for difference in our thinking as specialization, our differences may be complementary and productive, technically speaking, but not innovative. Complementary division of labor for efficiency above all else is part of the industrial-age mindset that Davidson argues is now an outdated form of learning and creating. As she notes, ideally “crowdsourcing is suspicious of expertise, because the more expert we are, the more likely we are to be limited in what we even conceive to be the problem, let alone the answer” (64).

This fine line is something I am already struggling with in my classroom as a first-time writing teacher this semester. For Davidson, the usefulness of crowdsourcing/collaborative learning hinges on its ability to “jolt” us out of our normal patterns of seeing and doing by noticing the different ways that others see and do. Her discussion of classrooms that are using these attention-altering techniques extols the virtues of team-based learning. Partly due to their size, teams seem to provide an ideal environment for alternately building consensus (internally), highlighting difference (internally and externally, across groups), and forcing that sudden shift in attention toward new ways of seeing/doing (by seeing how others approach the same task).

Like many other teachers, I try to set up peer groups in my writing class to do just this. As students read and critique one another’s writing, I ask reviewers to try first understand what the writer is saying—to try to see through her eyes—before pushing back. Though before reading Davidson, I wouldn’t have put it this way, it’s my hope that this setup generates the most productive feedback for innovation by creating a two-way shift in attention: the reviewers are forced to see an idea through a new lens, and the author hears someone’s understanding of their ideas and then, perhaps, even some totally new ways of thinking about them.

What I haven’t done, however, is assign collaborative writing—and it is in large part due to my fear of falling into the old division-of-labor model of collaboration, where no one seems to learn anything from one another. But collaboration on a product seems to be central in all of the successful, innovative classrooms that Davidson discusses, and it is certainly a key feature of ‘real-life’ crowdsourcing in a digital environment. I’d love to hear from more experienced teachers about if and how you approach collaborative authorship in your own classrooms, and how you ensure that such collaboration really facilitates that elusive, radical shift in attention that opens minds and affords new possibilities.

Up, Down, Side to Side: Vertical and Horizontal Communication through Social Media

In Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage makes a compelling case for understanding the social media practices of ancient Rome and the web-based social media practices of the modern day as linked in important ways. Standage claims that both practices involve “two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social networks, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source” (Loc 43). Though he doesn’t continue to use these exact terms in his fascinating discussion of the historical development of social media, they underlie one of his boldest and most sweeping arguments: that social media like radio and television marked an historical ‘middle period’ of one-way, non-interactive vertical communication, while the ‘new’ social media afforded by the internet indicate a return to dynamic, horizontal, peer-to-peer interactions.

A simple graphic representation of vertical communication (a) and horizontal communication (b). (via emeraldinsight.com)
A simple graphic representation of vertical communication (a) and horizontal communication (b). (via emeraldinsight.com)

I think “horizontal” and “vertical” are potentially quite useful terms for thinking about the functions and effects of today’s digital social media practices—with one small caveat: that we don’t limit ourselves by defining these two forms of communication as incompatible or mutually exclusive. That is, Standage seems to view horizontal communication (and its dynamic possibilities) as the defining feature of both ancient Roman and modern social media environments, while downplaying the vertical forms of communication both environments enable(d). What I’d like to suggest is that both environments, and the modern digital one in particular, actually enable complex and almost dizzying combinations of vertical and horizontal communication that complicate the way information is circulated.

In today's web-based social media, vertical and horizontal communication converge in complicated ways. (Graphic also courtesy of emeraldinsight.com)
In today’s web-based social media, vertical and horizontal communication converge in complicated ways. (Graphic also courtesy of emeraldinsight.com)

For me, one of the most interesting features of new social media is the increasing frequency with which texts and narratives move in the opposite direction of what we might have previously expected. That is, rather than being distributed vertically en masse and then moving horizontally across a smattering of peers through face-to-face or phone conversation, we see that many texts are distributed in exponential peer-to-peer sharing before they are finally picked up, reframed, and redistributed in vertical ways. That is, they “go viral” horizontally before news outlets or other central distributors of information are able to co-opt them.

As an illustration of this ‘backward’ movement from horizontal to vertical: I’m sure most of you have heard of “Don’t tase me, bro!”— if only because the meme has been so persistently recycled online since it emerged following the initial incident in 2007. This was the episode at a John Kerry forum event at the University of Florida, where senior undergraduate Andrew Meyer became agitated that he was denied the ability to ask his question, and after a loud and very public struggle, was tased by the police. Here’s a short clip of the struggle and the line that made Meyer (in)famous. (Original video by Kyle Mitchell, 2007.)

This event had minimal press in attendance; the reason the incident came to such public visibility was a number of attendees who uploaded videos of the scene to YouTube and shared it peer-to-peer. One video reached 7 millions views—quite a bit by the internet standards of 2007. The story raised issues of free speech and excessive force by police, and was quickly thereafter picked up and reported by the mainstream press. The phrase “Don’t tase me, bro!” has since become a well-known trope on the web, and has been transformed endlessly into memes like the one below. Meyer even apparently registered the phrase as a trademark, and tried (unsuccessfully) to publish a book on the coattails of this insta-fame. In any case, it’s clear that Meyer’s narrative developed within a horizontal media sharing environment before it was captured and re-distributed vertically—an interesting early reversal of the expected vertical-to-horizontal pattern that dominated in Standage’s ‘middle period’ of radio and television, before the internet age.

Meow! Don't tase me, bro! (via cheezburger.com)
Meow! Don’t tase me, bro! (via cheezburger.com)

But beyond reversing our temporal expectations for how narratives circulate vertically and horizontally, I think we have started to see evidence that these two forms of communication are converging and playing off each other in more complicated ways. One of the simplest illustrations of the way new social media integrates vertical and horizontal communication is the share + comment maneuver we see so frequently on Facebook. This is where someone shares a story, video, or other kind of text that was composed by a professional writer for vertical, one-way, mass distribution (often from news outlets)—but frames it with their own commentary before sharing it horizontally with peers. Here’s a recent example from my own Facebook newsfeed:Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 11.35.01 AM

The information and the video itself were produced/compiled by WATE-6 News, an ABC affiliate out of Knoxville, TN—presumably, an example of Standage’s vertical communication from an “impersonal central source.” But in the very act of sharing this with peers, the communication begins to move horizontally. Even more interesting is the framing of the narrative by my friend: he sets his peer readers up to process the “vertical” information through his personal (political) lens.

So fine: we’ve got a source that was once distributed vertically and now begins to distribute horizontally. But it’s actually even more complicated than that if we look closely: the original video that was packaged by the news source was shot by some Joe Shmo in his car, and was shared peer-to-peer until it “went viral” and was picked up by the news outlet. And what happens if someone shares this video without adding their own commentary? With a link directly to the original, isn’t it essentially the same as going directly to the “impersonal central source”? Or perhaps not, since in the very act of sharing, the person is framing the narrative for his/her peers in the context of assumed approbation or disapproval? In these messy layers of vertical and horizontal communication, which are not even easily defined in temporal terms (first vertical, then horizontal, etc.), lies a peculiarly modern pattern of communication—one in which it is often not easy to draw straight lines, identify a source, or define authorship.

Okay, I didn’t get around to making the case for this convergence of vertical/horizontal communication in ancient Rome. Maybe we can talk about this in class, if anyone is interested?

Why Did I Click That? Time as Investment in Digital Reading

In the context of discussing how notions of authorship have morphed in the digital age, Dennis Baron notes: “Any scribbler with a computer, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks has immediate access to the universe of plugged-in readers, many of them eager to devour all manner of digital text they would never touch in printed form” (Loc 2389*). While Baron cites this as evidence that opportunities to write for an audience have exploded through the affordances of the web, I find the latter portion of the comment suggestive for thinking about how conceptions of readership have changed in new media.

The idea that we are willing to read in pixels what we would never read on paper caught my notice because, somewhat embarrassingly, it’s quite true to my own habits as an internet user. Though painful to admit, when I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone, I’ll find myself clicking on stupid links from Buzzfeed or Upworthy. The content is almost never satisfying—most of the time, it barely scrapes the surface of “entertaining”— and one would think I’d learn from those mistakes. Moreover, I would feel like an idiot browsing through a whole magazine’s worth of “The Top 10 Best Things About Your Thirties.” But I think I continue to read this content online because there’s something about the stakes of the commitment that feels lower when reading online—it doesn’t feel like an investment in the way that it does to pick up a newspaper, magazine or book. (And, of course, because there’s an element of self-deception involved: this post might actually be good!)

I can't imagine picking up a magazine with this headline...
I can’t imagine picking up a magazine with this headline…

Part of this is an issue of literal monetary investment, since there is simply much more free reading material to be found online than there is in print. But when so much of the content is free, as it is on the internet, it seems that we move from thinking of reading text as an investment of money, to thinking of it as an investment of time. On my computer, it is easy and quick for me to click 15 links in a row, lining up a series of tabs in my browser of reading material. I’ll scan the opening lines of each to determine my level of interest, and the second I decide it’s not worth my time, I simply click that little “x” in the top righthand corner of the tab, and the material literally vanishes. No lugging the magazines or books back to the shelf, and if I have turned on the “private browsing” setting, no record of my ever having looked at “10 Ways To Make Over a Cardigan.” The sheer immateriality of the medium makes texts incredibly easy to access and subsequently to discard. As Baron notes in his discussion of “teknophobes” and neo-Luddites, critics of the computer have argued that the increased speed afforded by new technologies makes writing “too easy,” “becom[ing] so effortless that writers don’t bother to think about their words” (Loc 1839). Similar arguments disparage how we read now for the web. Internet readers are accused of being “A.D.D.,” spending too little time with each text, and degrading the quality of both reading and writing from a better, earlier age—when people spent time with texts.

Yikes, that's embarrassing.
Yikes, that’s embarrassing.

Yet when we consider the long history of evolving writing technologies as laid out by Baron, it seems to me that this is not actually some sudden and unprecedented change in the way we read, but is in fact a shift that has been in progress for quite a long time. Each innovation in writing technology—from clay tablets, to quill and parchment, to the Gutenberg printing press, to the web, to name a few— has made the production and dissemination of texts cheaper. As a result of increasing affordability, texts become of course more accessible, but also more discardable. Prior to the print revolution, when books were rare because the cost of production and labor investment was so high, it is easy to imagine that the few texts to which any person had access would be read again and again. As the printing press took hold, and text became cheaper and more widely available, people likely read more texts, perhaps reading a new book or magazine instead of re-reading an old one. In the internet age, when there are so many texts available at no cost, it’s hardly surprising that we might spend less time with each text on average.

Even so, I also think it’s a bit of a logical leap to assume that because we spend less time on most of what we read, that we spend less time on every piece of digital reading. Though I may spend 30 seconds or so on the stuff I’d “never touch in print,” there’s also a good deal of web content out there that is designed to hold our attention, and I often find myself reading articles or essays to the very last line. And above all, I’d argue that the world is still full of curious, thoughtful humans—we can enjoy the immateriality and ephemerality of some texts, while maintaining a desire to think through complexities in sustained ways. The web gives us access to so many texts that for me, much of the pleasure is in casting a wide net and sifting through the content—both to enjoy the little textual blips on my radar before I close the tab, and to find something worth reading to the end.

*NOTE: Because I have the Kindle version of A Better Pencil, I unfortunately can’t share page numbers, so I’ve given the “location” number instead. Supposedly page numbers are now available for some eBooks, but apparently this isn’t one of them. Although I love that I don’t have to tote around all of my books this semester, I’m finding that the inability to reference page numbers is one major failing of using eBooks in an academic context.

Authorship in Digital Age Fastwrite

The topic that came most readily to mind for me is how authorship has changed in the digital age. It’s pretty incredible that there are sites out there that are so intensely collaborative that they do not bother to distinguish between the texts that users produce—and it would be impossible to do so in any case. I’m thinking of Wikis, produced, revised, and edited constantly by a practically anonymous group of strangers. What’s particularly astounding is that this “crowdsourcing” can produce excellent and accurate texts—I’m thinking of Wikipedia, which has a comparable number of errors per entry to Encyclopedia Britannica.

There is also a strange, schismatic relationship that we have developed to the texts we produce and distribute via the web. On the one hand they have come to seem rather ephemeral—especially with digital “streams” and “feeds” taking over a lot of the web content that is accessed daily, things seem to come and go at lightning speed. But on the other hand, there’s this idea that whatever we put out on the web is destined to be there forever, that once it’s put out there, it’s permanent—there’s no way to fetch it back, that it no longer belongs to you.