Tuesday, September 22, 2009

some thoughts on what's 'new' about 'new media'

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, writing about "new" literacies, argue that the notion of "new literacies" is a useful way of thinking from a historical, but not temporal, perspective. There's no point in thinking about new literacies in temporal terms, they write, because:

Under conditions where time is increasingly calculated in nanoseconds and, as the saying goes, five minutes is a long time in cyberspace, there is little to be gained from speaking of new literacies in temporal terms. As soon as Instant Messaging appears, email seems like an “old” literacy. There is no future in hitching a research agenda to anything as fleeting as that.

Lankshear and Knobel then proceed to divide the "new" literacies into two categories: "technical stuff" and "ethos stuff." They explain the difference thus:
What is central to new literacies is not the fact that we can now “look up information online” or write essays using a word processor rather than a pen or typewriter, or even that we can mix music with sophisticated software that works on run of the mill computers but, rather, that they mobilize very different kinds of values and priorities and sensibilities than the literacies we are familiar with. The significance of the new technical stuff has mainly to do with how it enables people to build and participate in literacy practices that involve different kinds of values, sensibilities, norms and procedures and so on from those that characterize conventional literacies. These values, sensibilities and the like comprise what we call “new ethos stuff.”

This is the best explanation I've come across so far of the "new media literacies" we're all talking about so much: technical stuff and ethos stuff.

Of course, traditional literacies had their own technical stuff and ethos stuff--it's just that the stuff of traditional literacies had been around so long, and had been so relatively stable for so much of that time, that the adults whose job it was to foster skills in both categories felt comfortable doing so. The slate and chalk model was replaced by the pen and paper model, but that material change aside, writing was writing was writing. And anyway, the stuff clustered up in the ethos for traditional literacy practices really only mattered to the extent that people would be expected to engage in public conversations through those practices--and for the most part, this type of engagement was limited to a small, elite, and well-educated group of (rich white male) citizens.

It's not news that this model has been turned on its head--and this is what both makes the new literacies "new" and what makes them feel so new, so unfamiliar, so hard to teach. Normally (and by normally, I mean historically speaking), we'd have a generation or more to figure out the fallout from this changing cultural model, but this time around, the change is happening so fast, and is so complete, that we don't have the luxury of taking it slow.

The term "new media literacies," therefore, can be said to be making double use of the word "new": The media formats, and technical skills required to make use of them, are new to us all; and the literacies--the social and cultural competencies required to engage in the "ethos stuff"--are new as well. Thinking more broadly, the emergence of new media literacies has also, and at the same time, forced us to engage with a new model of expertise: The young tend to be much, much better at adopting and adapting, and therefore have a great deal to teach us about both the technical stuff and the ethos stuff. (By 'young,' I mean anyone up to the age of oh, say, 32. Ask me again next year and I'll say 'everyone up to the age of 33.')

We're not used to a distributed model of expertise in which all participants in a culture have something to teach all participants in a culture. Traditionally, older adults had a monopoly in this respect--early reports suggest the monopoly has been overthrown. It still takes a number of years to become a domain expert, of course, but even the established 10-year time frame required for expert status has been called into question by the ubiquity of learning environments and experiences.

This kind of revolution, as a friend recently remind me, doesn't lead to chaos in the streets. This is new, as well: Historically speaking, times of great cultural upheaval are generally accompanied by violence, riots, some sort of physical evidence pointing to revolution. We're all being quite calm and civilized (YouTube comments notwithstanding). This, in case you were wondering, makes it the perfect revolution to buy into.


Eduardo said...

Isn't it somewhat misleading to separate technical stuff from ethos stuff? I understand the point, but just as Lankshear and Knobel point out, it really isn't too helpful to learn the technical stuff since it passes by so fast. It is hardly about mastering any specific tool whatsoever (i.e. blog publishing or tweeting) as much as it is about learning how to choose the right tool for the job and to be able to adapt to a new tool if need be.

Of course, under this description, ethos stuff takes precedence over technical stuff. And I'm thinking very much about the hacker ethic, about hacking as a cultural institution that applies not only to code and machines but to cultural objects and discourses as well. The new in new media is what's teaching us that we're allowed, entitled and expected to hack stuff and to come up with solutions on our own (not in isolation, but in our own as part of large knowledge communities).

But knowing specific technical stuff seems to come up somewhat later in the process, almost transparently if the ethos stuff is wired correctly.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I can always count on you to offer up something smart that cuts right to the heart of the matter. So thank you for that.

I think Knobel and Lankshear would agree with you, which is why they use the term "stuff" instead of "skills" or "tools" or what have you. For them, the "technical stuff" is a cluster of new types of practices, skills, and activities that have emerged around (and as a result of) new media. They write:

"(New technologies like machinima, cheap remix software, and so on) represent a quantum shift beyond typographic means of text production as well as beyond analogue forms of sound and image production. They can be employed to do in new ways “the same kinds of things we have previously known.” Equally, however, they can be integrated into literacy practices (and other kinds of social practices) that in some significant sense represent new phenomena. The extent to which they are integrated into literacy practices that can be seen as being “new” in a significant sense will reflect the extent to which these literacy practices involve different kinds of values, emphases, priorities, perspectives, orientations and sensibilities from those that typify conventional literacy practices that became established during the era of print and analogue forms of representation and, in some cases, even earlier."

Aren't these guys cool?

Julie said...

Knobel and Lankshear ARE cool. I quoted them a hundred times in a paper I wrote last semester.

So I wonder what the "role" of the classroom should be in these new media practices. Should the focus be on the technical stuff? (Which would be a familiar territory for a traditional classroom set up.) The ethos? (A bit more challenging.) Both?


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