The second lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production is an introduction to the concept of digital literacies, the principle of media engagement and our capability to understand and make sense of these media engagements. The lecture discussed the underlying principle that our culture is defined by a set of ideas, routines and doctrines that people strive to make meaningful, which as a social process of sense-making, is shaped by a series of social regulations and interrelationships.
For the American pragmatist thinker John Dewey, the important to keep in mind that our culture is shaped by the people within it, some of whom are regarded as the arbiters of what is passed on in our culture. As Dewey says:
“Certain men or classes of men come to be the accepted guardians and transmitters – instructors – of established doctrines. To question the beliefs is to question their authority; to accept the beliefs is evidence of loyalty to the powers that be, a proof of good citizenship” (Dewey, 1910, p. 149).
In general terms, then, we might think of the practices and the products of our symbolic interactions, particularly when they are shaped into a common set of experience and ideas, as a common culture, and as a store-house, as Andrew Tudor points out, “is above all a repository of human value: humanity’s most significant beliefs and achievements are articulated and ‘stored’ in culture. Or, at least, this is how it should be” (Tudor, 1999, p. 23).
To demonstrate this type of thinking we watched a brief extract from the landmark 1960s British television series ‘Civilisation’, as it is a good example of a way of thinking about culture as a collation of all the ‘best’ things that we produce.
Noting, as Matthew Arnold famously points out, that culture not only acts as a store of our social values and experiences, but also as a process that changes us and works on us as individuals.
“Crucial to [Matthew] Arnold was the insight that culture fosters the internal growth of our humanity; that we have a ‘best self’ as well as an ‘ordinary self’, based on a commitment to ‘a growing and becoming’ as opposed to expressing our animality; the culture tries to develop in us that ‘best self’ at the expenses of ‘our old untransformed self’” (Kenneth Dyson in Dyson & Homolka, 1996, p. 2 ).
This is in contrast to the kind of cultures that are talked about High vs Mass vs Popular vs Social Culture debates that have taken place in Western society since the mid Twentieth century. The idea that culture is a restricted and elite enterprise has been well and truly challenged, with this challenge resonating through the popular and mass cultures associated with industrial and consumer production of media products, routines and audiences. We now have a specific view of culture that is defined through things like television, or magazines, or the internet, as opposed to the church, the state or even the Enlightened individual.
The contrast between mass media and the individual consumption of cultural products is marked out by things like the industrial process of production, something the structuralist thinkers of the Twentieth century where keen to explain, How “originality and intellectual stimulation were squeezed out by the economics of cultural production, which in turn exploited peripheral frills, novelties and stylistic variations to make cultural products appear new and different, in the process disguising the underlying standardisation” (Kenneth Dyson in Dyson & Homolka, 1996, p. 7).
As this was an introduction to some of these issues associated with cultural value and the meaningful social experience, a great deal of the nuanced discussion was avoided, but I thought it would be useful to note some of the tensions in this debate by using an example. So we looked at the seminal work by Richard Hoggart, ‘The Uses of Literacy’, and in particular the famous passage about ‘juke-box boys’, in which Hoggart says: “Perhaps even more symptomatic of the general trend is the reading of juke-box boys, of those who spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk-bars to the ‘nickelodeons.’”(Hoggart, 1957, p. 203).
Hoggart was drawing attention to a growing need to understand popular culture and to view it as something worth thinking about, particularly in the context that if society is to grow and develop then a clear understanding of the conceptual tools that meet the popular culture of each age is needed. The ‘literacies’ that each age call for have a shared and common set of principles, but they can’t be used timelessly and without a sense of struggle to understand them and contextualise them. The literacies that we need to understand our culture are contemporary, contingent, and have to fought over to make them relevant to the social world that we live in today, the technologies that we adopt and use today, and the expectations that we have about individual and social engagement with these forms of culture.
- Do we rely on certain people – men – to tell us what and how to think?
- Is there an objective position we can take on what is ‘good’ in our culture?
- How do we explain and understand popular, mass and now social culture?
- What’s our role s individuals in this process – are we merely animals?
- Where does our intellectual stimulation come from?
I thought it would be useful to mention how some thinkers are sceptical of the supposed role that new forms of cultural engagement are affording us. Andrew Keen is a widely recognised sceptic of the ‘cult of the amateur’ who argues that:
“Th[e] blurring of lines between the audience and the author, between fact and fiction, between invention and reality further obscures objectivity. The cult of the amateur has made it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between reader and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and advertisement, between amateur and expert. The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not out rightly corrupting, our national civic conversation” (Keen, 2008, p. 27).
I also thought it would be useful to contextualise this debate by quoting Raymond Williams and pointing out that these concerns, about the purpose of our culture and the processes that are going on deep within it, have been discussed and considered for many years. As Williams argues:
“Art reflects its society and works a social character through to its reality in experience. But also, art creates, by new perceptions and responses, elements which the society, as such, is not able to realise. If we compare art with its society, we find a series of real relationships showing its deep and central connections with the rest of the general life. We find description, discussion, exposition through plot and experience of the social character. We find also, in certain characteristic forms and devices, evidence of the deadlocks and unsolved problems of the society: often admitted to consciousness for the first time in this way” (Williams, 1992, p. 69).
In many way, we can think about the products and the artefacts of our culture – the media that we produce –as things that are understood through the application of a set of symbolic tools. More recent thinking about literacies, and particularly digital literacies has emphasised this. So Jones and Hafner, one of the key books for the module, are able to point out that”
“All tools carry the history of their past use. After people have used a particular tool in certain ways to perform a particular practice for a period of time, the conventions or ‘social rules’ that have grown up around the tool and the practice become ‘solid’. We call the process by which social practices and conventions come to ‘solidify’ around various technologies the technologisation of practice” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 100).
And who go on to suggest that: “Media becomes ideological when they become resistant to hacking, that is, when the affordances and constraints they embody are presented as ‘just the way things are’ rather than as ‘workable’ and adaptable” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).
“Transparent media encourage us to regard the kinds of actions that they make possible as ‘natural’ or desirable and the kinds of actions that they constrain as unnatural or undesirable. Technologies tend to become more transparent to us the more we use them” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).
Indeed, to the extent that “Many marketeers of media technology extol the value of media transparency” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).
In order to illustrate this concept in introduced the concept of Skeuomorphism, the way that we use object so of the past to make sense of the virtual and symbolic tools we have of the present. For example:
“The Macintosh user interface has been called the first ‘intuitive’ interface, suggesting that a user can learn how to use it by instinct alone without the need for instruction manuals or training. The design of the interface is based on its use of what have become known as ‘real-world metaphors’” (Feldman, 1997, p. 16).
“Steve Jobs was—notoriously, to many members of the design community—a fan of skeuomorphism, a style that relies on real-world metaphors and textures in digital interfaces. Fake leather, wood, paper and glass became commonplace in Apple applications, in addition to real-world metaphors like bookshelves, paper shredders, and even casinos” (Schybergson, 2012).
“Apps which look like old technologies such as a compass or notepad are “skeuomorphic” since there is no need to render them that way on a modern device” (Baraniuk, 2012).
What this means, therefore, is that the culture that we consume and participate in is defined by a set of ideas and regulating cultural systems. When we examine these systems we can work out the process by which they are expected to operate, with as an ideology or as a set of generic social interactions. As Jones and Hafner point out:
“Anytime a person uses a semiotic system like language to make meaning they always have an agenda. We produce texts in order to get things done – whether that means achieving some kind of material gain, fulfilling an obligation to someone, or making someone do something or believe something. We judge how successful our texts are by how well they help us to realise our agendas. The first question to ask whenever we encounter a text is what the agenda is of the person or people who produced this text is” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 103).
And the reason why it is important to find appropriate tools that can make sense of this, is because our world is increasingly fragmented and our social systems are much more haphazard and ad-hoc than they have been in the past. We no longer share a strong common-culture, tied with national, religious, social or personal identities. Instead, we have become an aggregation of individualised identities that primarily find satisfaction through consumption and the pulses in the electronic nervous system of the internet and electronic media.
As van Dijk points out “Several significant cultural aspects can be perceived in the trends of fragmentation, segmentation and individualisation of social reality currently appearing at all levels of Western society. The contention is that ‘mass society’ or ‘mass culture’ is eroding and a huge increase of cultural diversity is taking place” (Dijk, 1999, p. 166).
And as Zygmunt Bauman reflects: “A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a different set of skills and a different arrangement of assets” (Bauman, 2007, p. 3).
- What happens when cultural distinctions become blurred
- What are the new relationships that are afforded by new technologies?
- How do we pull back the veil and ‘see things as they are?’
- Metaphors are replete within our culture as a way of making sense of the world.
It’s about trying to make sense of a fragmented world.
Ultimately, literacies and digital literacies discussions come down to one simple question: How Do We Know We Have The Right Tool Kit?
As Jones and Hafner state:
“The distribution of tools, both technological and symbolic, in any society is always unequal. What this means is that the kinds of actions that media makes possible are always only available to certain people. In other words, the use of meditational means is always tied up with economic and political systems that govern the way we access to them is distributed. As a result the ways media end up being used usually support or perpetuate these political and economic systems” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 100).
So, “Learning how to use technological tools, then, involves not just mastering the range of choices they present, but also being indoctrinated into the social practices that have come to be technologized around these tools. The range of actions these tools make available not only determine how people behave and communicate with each other, but they also end up promoting particular versions of reality and making some kinds of social relationships more possible and others less possible” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 108).
Therefore, as Don Tapscott points out:
“The ability to learn new things is more important than ever in a world where you have to process new information at lightning speed. Students need to be able to think creatively, critically, and collaboratively; to master the ‘basics’ and excel in reading, maths, science, and information literacy, and respond to opportunities and challenges with speed, agility, and innovation. Students need to expand their knowledge beyond the doors of their local community to become responsible and contributing citizens in the increasingly complex world economy” (Tapscott, 2008, p. 127).
We then looked at some promotional web material for different media production courses from around the word, and what was interesting was the similarities in language, tone and intent within each of these courses. Few courses are distinctively different in ideological tone. They are mainly focussed on the need to develop ‘supposed’ industry skills, and they all seem to promise that the completion of a media production course will result in the ‘dreams’ of the students coming true.
Media Production Courses:
- What tools do we have to work with?
- Who has the best tools and what do they do with them?
- How do we learn to integrate the use of these tools into our day-to-day practices?
- What opportunities do these new tools afford us?
So, what are the skills and mind-set that we need to thrive in the media world of the future? Should we be focussing on the literacies that people need in order to be able to make sense of the world, or do we need to think about building the capabilities that people have to engage with and change the world? This might not come from a traditional mindset, but instead is something that will come about because we listen to a different set of social and interpersonal impulses. Social media is redolent with examples of alternative literacies and capabilities. For example:
“Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude. When things are treated simply as vehicles of suggestion, what is suggested overrides the thing. Hence the playful attitude is one of freedom” (Dewey, 1910, p. 162).
I then suggested that other mind-sets might be important in the future, and illustrated some potentially distinctive ways of thinking that Howard Gardner suggests might be useful in the future.
The Disciplined Mind:
“The absence of disciplinary thinking matters. Shorn of these sophisticated ways of thinking, individuals remain essentially unschooled” (Gardner, 2008, p. 36).
“Scholarly disciplines allow you to participate knowledgeably in the world; professional disciplines allow you to thrive in the workplace” (Gardner, 2008, p. 37).
“The disciplined mind has mastered at least one way of thinking – a distinctive mode of cognition that characterises a specific scholarly discipline, craft, or profession” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).
The Synthesising Mind:
“The synthesising mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesiser and also to other persons” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).
The Creating Mind:
“The creating mind breaks new ground. It puts forth new ideas, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).
The Respectful Mind:
“The respectful mind notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups, tries to understand these ‘others,’ and seeks to work effectively with them” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).
The Ethical Mind:
“The Ethical mind ponders the nature of one’s work and the needs and desired of the society in which one lives. This mind conceptualises how workers can serve purposes beyond self-interest and how citizens can work unselfishly to improve the lot of all” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).
How these things come together in our media is fascinating to trace. This clip of Paul Morley describing his experiences in popular culture is a very fertile discussion of some of the themes, anxieties and preoccupations of our contemporary mediated culture.
- Which is more important, playfulness or disciplined thinking?
- How can we learn to deploy and use different thinking skills?
- To what extent are competing or are we showing solidarity and respectfulness?
- What do we need to think about that goes beyond our own self-interest?
To wrap-up this somewhat scatter-gun discussion I left learners with a quote from Zygmunt Bauman, in which he suggests that whatever we think we might desire, we have to employ an objective assessment of our realistic ability to achieve our aims. If we don’t have the facilities to achieve, then no end of wishful thinking will make it happen.
“It is therefore, one thing to have the ability to change or modify our skills and quite another to possess the capability to reach the goals we seek” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 18).
- What skills and capabilities do we need to be:
- How will we know we are reading others correctly?
- Is literacy something imposed upon us, by others, or something that emerges from the things we do for ourselves?
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