Saturday, September 12, 2009

new media literacy with an attitude

In an act that feels like the intellectual equivalent of flipping through old photo albums, I recently re-read the Project New Media Literacies white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.

That white paper (now, FYI, a book published by MIT Press) was the guiding force behind all my work for the two years I spent with ProjectNML, first as an education outreach coordinator and then as a curriculum specialist. Now, as an emerging learning scientist (and a kind of social justice-y one, at that), I've had the chance to reconsider the piece through a fresh, clean lens. I'm still a fan, though from my new outsider's perspective I find myself leaning on some problem areas along with admiring the core of this paper's intellectual work.

the awesomeness: a nod to open source culture
First, and to my great surprise (I had not remembered this), the white paper actually describes the new media era as "an open-source culture based on sampling, appropriation, transformation, and repurposing" (p. 20). The authors argue that "we must push further" in considering the social aspects of literacy, especially in a culture that increasingly values collaborative knowledge-building and collective meaning-making.

Readers of this blog know that I embrace the free/libre/open source movement as a crucial driver of real and lasting social change, so I'm thrilled to see this nod to open-source culture.

In general, however, I'm disappointed that this notion is not taken further. Perhaps this paper aligns more with the open-source contingent than with the free/libre contingent. The difference, briefly, is that open source adherents generally want to see better products made available to more people, and believe that opening up the source materials will support this; free/libre adherents generally believe in making source materials available so as to destabilize economic, political, and cultural institutions. As a free/libre kind of guy, I can attest that there are those who might worry that the key tenet of this white paper doesn't go quite far enough:

Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

Too often, the rules of contribution are set nearly in stone before any potential contributor comes along--which means that questions of what will be contributed, and by whom, and where, and why, and so on have been decided by some vaguely defined powers that be. In America and many Western countries, this isn't an issue of literal censorship; it's more a question of paradigm. Take, for example, the recent finding that 87% of all Wikipedia editors are male. Or consider the dearth of women in the open source movement. Or what about Anna Everett's argument that "[f]rom 1995 to the present...the structured absences of black [and by extension other minority] bodies that have marked most popular imaginings of the brave new world order were in danger of reifying [or naturalizing] an updated myth of black intellectual lag, or black Technophobia"?

on participatory democracy
Which brings me to my next point: Considering the nature of "participation." Having worked with Henry Jenkins directly for two years, I know how deeply he values civic engagement. This includes political involvement as well as the kinds of everyday interactions in which consumers-turned-producers engage. I happen to know that his current project is focused on a consideration of "participatory democracy," which good lord, I can't wait to read what comes out of the ethnographic work he and his team are working on now.

The New Media Literacies white paper doesn't go far enough in this area. It couldn't possibly, of course, since it provided the groundwork for Henry's current focus on civic participation. My concern, though, is that this paper is being taken up in so many ways, by so many different types of people, and with such great force, that it may be interpreted as the definitive argument about new media education. As such, it merits a caveat.

This paper does give a brief nod toward the notion that "civic participation" may not necessarily be about politics, by explaining that
the new participatory culture offers many opportunities for youth to engage in civic debates, to participate in community life, to become political leaders, even if sometimes only through the “second lives” offered by massively multiplayer games or online fan communities.
In the end, however, this section of the white paper asserts that the primary goal of a civics education is "to help learners to connect decisions in the context of our everyday lives with the decisions made at local, state, or national levels."

Political engagement is about more, much, much more, than elections and the law. Indeed, as Jennifer Earl and Alan Shussman argue, in a culture where corporate entities have an increasingly powerful and important role in the lives of citizens, many people "are protesting against corporations themselves in hopes of directly changing corporate policies or products." This is, as I wrote in an earlier post,

the new model of civic engagement, a type of activism that goes largely unrecognized by political scientists, cultural theorists, and pollsters but that offers a new model of democratic participation—the struggle over ownership and definition of public spaces, both physical and virtual. It's hard to identify, harder to measure, because it's deeply integrated into the everyday activities of an entire generation whose lives, identities, and self-making increasingly extend into virtual spaces.
Part of the difficulty in designing and defining civics education is that learners don't seem to care about politics--why should they care about something that Jenkins et al. rightly identify as something happening far outside of their spheres of consequence, when they have so much more power, so much greater ability to influence decision-making, within the social networks, the community spaces, that they navigate online every day? Facebook users, angry at a change in their terms of service contract, pushed back hard enough to get admins to reverse their stance. MySpace users have worked for ad-free zones. Fans of TV series have successfully petitioned to keep floundering shows on the air long past their intended expiration date.

Like it or not, this is civic engagement too, and it has its value alongside of the kinds of actions that push for health care reform, election or rejection of politicians, and the overturn of unjust laws.

...and a word on copyright, intellectual property, and breaking the law
I do not know Henry's official stance on copyright laws and intellectual property, but this white paper appears to take a fairly conservative view on these things. In addressing the new media literacy practice of appropriation, the authors write:
Artists build on, are inspired by, appropriate and transform other artists’ work. They do so by tapping into a cultural tradition or deploying the conventions of a particular genre. Beginning artists often undergo an apprenticeship, during which they try on for size the styles and techniques of other,more established artists. Even well established artists work with images and themes that have some currency within the culture. Of course, this is not how we generally talk about creativity in schools, where the tendency is to discuss artists as individuals who rise upon or stand outside any aesthetic tradition....

Many of the forms of expression that are most important to American youth accent this sampling and remixing process, in part because digitization makes it much easier to combine and repurpose media content than ever before.... Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in doing so, they sacrifice the opportunity to help youth think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content, and they often fail to provide the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process. (pgs. 32-33)

Let's take this one step farther: Sometimes, creative appropriation is mistaken for copyright violation; and, importantly, some things that would currently be considered copyright violation are simply a product of a legal system threaded through with corruption and corporate greed (cf. the Disney Corporation). Sometimes, people purposely violate intellectual property and copyright laws for political purposes. Indeed, scads of creative types oppose the current copyright system, steeped as it is in corruption and corporate domination. There is great value in teaching not only the longstanding tradition of appropriation but also the political ramifications of appropriative practices.

I was recently called a conspiracy theorist by a colleague. I wasn't offended: I am a conspiracy theorist. I believe that a deep if largely unintentional conspiracy exists whose goal is to help maintain the status quo at all costs. The institution of education is an important element in achieving this goal; it transmits a set of core values, beliefs, and discourses that allow continued cultural domination by a vastly outnumbered subset of our culture. There is deep value in challenging our culture's primary Discourse, even if a complete overthrow would be impossible (and maybe even undesirable).

About a year and a half ago, I heard Ernest Morrell call media literacy "a matter of life and death" for the urban youth he works with in Los Angeles. At the time, I thought he was exaggerating for effect. I no longer think he was exaggerating.


Melissa said...

I don't know if you know this, but this is too long to be a blog post.





anonymous said...

jk jk.

Kylie Peppler said...

You make an important point about participation in new media -- looks like new media isn't the great equalizer we had hoped for and the same old inequities persist. How depressing?! Similar to the stats you have pointed out above, it turns out the males are much more likely to post creative work as well in places like Flickr or MySpace -- a key issue in my own work. I'm not sure how this plays out in spaces like the Scratch forum but it would be interesting to find out whether younger generations of users show the same trends or if there are any hopeful signs that the participation gap may be diminishing... All forms of literacy are most certainly political -- I have some great readings that I'd love to share with you some time that get exactly at this point -- shared by none other than Ernest Morrell :)


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