The context for learning, education and the arts (4)

(This entry is in five parts) One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

So why explore the intersections of human thought and computer programming? My tentative answer would be that we have not understood the breadth and depth of the relationships that we develop with machines. Human culture is defined by its on-going struggle with tools and implements, continuously finding ways of improving both the functionality of technology and its potential integration into everyday life. Computer programming may well be one of the most sophisticated artificial languages which our culture has ever constructed, but this does not mean that we have lost control of the process.

The problem is that we don’t recognize the symbiosis, the synergistic entanglement of subjectivity and machine, or if we do, it is through the lens of otherness as if our culture is neither the progenitor nor really in control of its own inventions. These questions have been explored in great detail by Bruno Latour and I would reference his articles in “Common Knowledge as well as his most recent book entitled, Aramis or The Love of Technology. There are further and even more complex entanglements here related to our views of science and invention, creativity and nature. Suffice to say, that there could be no greater simplification than the one which claims that we have become the machine or that machines are extensions of our bodies and our identities. The struggle to understand identity involves all aspects of experience and it is precisely the complexity of that struggle, its very unpredictability, which keeps our culture producing ever more complex technologies and which keeps the questions about technology so much in the forefront of everyday life.

It is useful to know that the within the field of artificial intelligence (AI) there are divisions between researchers who are trying to build large databases of “common sense in an effort to create programming that will anticipate human action, behaviour and responses to a variety of complex situations and researchers who are known as computational phenomenologists . “Pivotal to the computational phenomenologists position has been their understanding of common sense as a negotiated process as opposed to a huge database of facts, rules or schemata."(Warren Sack)

So even within the field of AI itself there is little agreement as to how the mind works, or how body and mind are parts of a more complex, holistic process which may not have a finite systemic character. The desire however to create the technology for artificial intelligence is rooted in generalized views of human intelligence, generalizations which don’t pivot on culturally specific questions of ethnicity, class or gender. The assumption that the creation of technology is not constrained by the boundaries of cultural difference is a major problem since it proposes a neutral register for the user as well. I must stress that these problems are endemic to discussions of the history of technology. Part of the reason for this is that machines are viewed not so much as mediators, but as tools — not as integral parts of human experience, but as artifacts whose status as objects enframes their potential use.

Computers, though, play a role in their use. They are not simply instruments because so much has in fact been done to them in order to provide them with the power to act their role. What we more likely have here are hybrids, a term coined by Bruno Latour to describe the complexity of interaction and use that is generated by machine-human relationships.

Another way of understanding this debate is to dig even more deeply into our assumptions about computer programming. I will briefly deal with this area before moving on to an explanation of why these arguments are crucial for educators as well as artists and for the creators and users of technology.

Generally, we think of computer programs as codes with rules that produce certain results and practices. Thus, the word processing program I am presently using has been built to ensure that I can use it to create sentences and paragraphs, to in other words write. The program has a wide array of functions that can recognize errors of spelling and grammar, create lists and draw objects. But, we do have to ask ourselves whether the program was designed to have an impact on my writing style. Programmers would claim that they have simply coded in as many of the characteristics of grammar as they could without overwhelming the functioning of the program itself. They would also claim that the program does not set limits to the infinite number of sentences that can be created by writers.

However, the situation is more complex than this and is also subject to many more constraints than initially seems to be the case. For example, we have to draw distinctions between programs and what Brian Cantwell Smith describes as “process or computation to which that program gives rise upon being executed and [the] often external domain or subject matter that the computation is about. (Smith, On the Origin of Objects, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998: 33) The key point here is that program and process are not static, but are dynamic, if not contingent. Thus we can describe the word processor as part of a continuum leading from computation to language to expression to communication to interpretation. Even this does not address the complexity of relations among all of these processes and the various levels of meaning within each.

To be continued........


Remix 06: Blending, Bending and Befriending Content

Innovative Content Development in New Media has some of the following characteristics (This is by no means a comprehensive list.):
Imaginative storytelling (Breaking the rules and building new ones)
Not derivative (but can be a copy—mush — experimental cinema and music as models)
Aware of aesthetics, form and feel (Use OF Technology — Not Used by Technology)
Creating new knowledge and information (Play in every sense of the word.)
Aware of collage, montage and other techniques of bricolage (Stories can make the impossible real — photo-realism is a dead end)
Talent (Learning and Education and Research)
Decentralized modes of information gathering, exchange and distribution (Open Source)
Interactivity (Video games create the illusion of interactivity — interactive game play should be about a complete transformation of the game by the player — interactivity becomes creativity)
Bring body movement into the video game storytelling equation (Hands are not enough — Wii)
Link popular culture, games, books, magazines, fans, television and the web into content development (Specialized studios need cultural analysts and ethnographers as much as they need creators)
Work with audiences not against them (Fan movements, fansites, fan literature)
Assume that trends will shift as quickly as they are recognized — old style marketing will not work (Time is compressed but that does not mean that clip stories will last — marketing becomes discovering stories as well as creating them)
Non-linearity, complexity and chaos are at the center of digital content creation
Simulations are only as effective as the stories that underly them — Algorithms are culture
Telepresence and visualization need haptics and vice versa (Dreams are the Royal Road into Storytelling)
Narrowcast not broadcast (P2P will become C2C)

Geographies of Dissent (Final)

Another vantage point on this process is to think of various communities, which share common goals becoming nodes on a network that over time ends up creating and often sustaining a super-network of people pursuing political change. Their overall impact remains rather difficult to understand and assess, not because these nodes are in any way ineffective, but because they cannot be evaluated in isolation from each other.

This notion of networks may allow us to think about communities in a different way. It is, as we know possible at one and the same time for the impulses that guide communities to be progressive and very conservative. There is nothing inherently positive with respect to politics within communities, which are based on shared points of view. But, if the process is more important often, than the content, then this raises other issues. The intersection of connectivity and ideas leads to unpredictable outcomes. Take fan clubs for example. They generally centre on particular stars, films or television shows. They are a form of popular participation in mainstream media and a way of affecting not so much the content of what is produced (although that is happening more and more, Star Trek has continued as a series on the Net) but the relationship of private and public discourse about media products and their impact. Over time, through accretion and sheer persistence, fan clubs have become very influential. They are nodes on a network that connects through shared interests, one of which is to mold the media into a reflection of their concerns.

More often than not this network of connections is presumed to be of greater importance than the content of what is exchanged. This is classically what Baudrillard meant by the world becoming virtual and McLuhan, when he claimed that the medium was the message. Except, that they are both wrong.

The process of exchange, that is the many different ways in which people on shared networks work and play together cannot be analyzed from a behavioral perspective. Take FLICKR for example. There is nothing very complicated about this software. It was developed by two Vancouverites and then bought for 30 million dollars by Yahoo. The software is simple. It allows users to annotate photographs that they have posted to the web site. The annotations become an index and that index is searchable by everyone. The reason Yahoo paid so much is that over 80 million photographs had been uploaded and there were hundreds of communities of interest exchanging images with each other. Most of this is completely decentralized. The web site just hosts the process of community building.

The same elements attracted the News Corporation to and Rupert Murdoch paid over three hundred million dollars for that site or should I say community. Communities become currencies because there are so few ways to organize and understand all of the diversity that is being created within the context of modern-day networks. This is not because the medium is the message; rather, it is because the media are inherently social — social media. And in being social, they reshape modes of human organization and most importantly, the many different ways in which collectivities can form and reform.

(Please note: The last three entries, Geographies of Dissent were presented in a different format at York University, at a conference of the same name.)


Geographies of Dissent (2)

There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

“One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

To be continued...


Some comments on How Images Think

Professor Pramod Nayar of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad comments on "How Images Think." This is a small selection of a longer review that appeared in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

How Images Think is an exercise both in philosophical meditation and critical theorizing about media, images, affects, and cognition. Burnett combines the insights of neuroscience with theories of cognition and the computer sciences. He argues that contemporary metaphors - biological or mechanical - about either cognition, images, or computer intelligence severely limit our understanding of the image. He suggests in his introduction that image refers to the complex set of interactions that constitute everyday life in image-worlds (p. xviii). For Burnett the fact that increasing amounts of intelligence are being programmed into technologies and devices that use images as their main form of interaction and communication - computers, for instance - suggests that images are interfaces, structuring interaction, people, and the environment they share.

New technologies are not simply extensions of human abilities and needs - they literally enlarge cultural and social preconceptions of the relationship between body and mind.

The flow of information today is part of a continuum, with exceptional events standing as punctuation marks. This flow connects a variety of sources, some of which are continuous - available 24 hours - or live and radically alters issues of memory and history. Television and the Internet, notes Burnett, are not simply a simulated world - they are the world, and the distinctions between natural and non-natural have disappeared. Increasingly, we immerse ourselves in the image, as if we are there. We rarely become conscious of the fact that we are watching images of events - for all perceptive, cognitive, and interpretive purposes, the image is the event for us.

The proximity and distance of viewer from/with the viewed has altered so significantly that the screen is us. However, this is not to suggest that we are simply passive consumers of images. As Burnett points out, painstakingly, issues of creativity are involved in the process of visualization - viewers generate what they see in the images. This involves the historical moment of viewing - such as viewing images of the WTC bombings - and the act of re-imagining. As Burnett puts it, the questions about what is pictured and what is real have to do with vantage points [of the viewer] and not necessarily what is in the image (p. 26).

The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (3)

The notion of learning communities needs to be deepened through an analysis of institutions and how they function. If we are going to create a new model for learning, then it will have to stand the test of organizational restructuring and disciplinary redefinition. The latter will not be accomplished unless we take a long and hard look at the informal learning that is a part of everyone’s daily existence. The disciplines that have been the bedrock of education must incorporate the lessons of the informal into their purview. For example, the study of language and composition should not take place outside of the experience of popular culture. The study of the sciences cannot be divorced from ethical and philosophical issues.

If we are to take the effort seriously, then the creation of new learning communities will bring with it a transformation of what we mean by disciplines. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines, their function and their role within and outside of institutions has changed. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other discipline. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been completely altered. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western and non-Western societies. We are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of this transformation.

It is an irony that one of the most important of the physical sciences relating to the brain, neuroscience, has become a combination of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biology, pharmacology and genetics with a profound concern for culture, ethics and social context. Genetics itself makes use of many different disciplines to achieve its aims. To survive in the 21st century the neurosciences will have to link all of their parts even further and bring genetics, the environment, and the socio-cultural context together in order to develop more complex models of mind. It may well be the case that no amount of research will produce a grand theory. But, as the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has suggested, the most puzzling aspect of our existence is that we can ask questions about the physical and psychological nature of the brain and the mind. And we do this as if we can somehow step outside of the parameters of our own physiology and see into consciousness. Whatever the merits of this type of research, it cannot avoid the necessity of integration.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Although there has been an explosion of research and writing in the conjoining areas of Cultural Studies, Communications and Information Technologies, the various specializations that underlie these areas remain limited in their approach to the challenges of interdisciplinarity and learning. The reasons for this are complex. Among the most important, is the orientation that some of these disciplines follow and that is to develop their own language and culture of research and practical applications. The difficulty is that, as they grow more specialized, they cease to see or even envisage the potential connections that they have to other areas. They also disconnect themselves from the educational context that is after all a context of communications and exchange.

Most importantly, the research agendas in all disciplines will have to incorporate new approaches to culture and to the fundamental importance of popular and traditional cultures in creating the terrain for learning at all levels. This will be a huge challenge, but it is the most basic one if we are to create the conditions for learning communities and learning societies.




The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (2)

There is a simple definition of learning community that says, “This phrase describes a vision and model where a community's stakeholders come together and share resources?
Another definition is, “A “learning community? is a deliberate restructuring of the curriculum to build a community of learners among students and faculty. Learning communities generally structure their curriculum so that students are actively engaged in a sustained academic relationship with other students and faculty over a longer period of their time than is possible in traditional courses?

[Fanya had a good thought here, that I would like to quote from…]
Not as a 'comment' - just as a thought - learning institutions may be run and funded by the government - but their efficiency and status are a pride to the particular community where they function. It's not
only an interaction between the 'school' and the community - but a challenge to that community to
provide that institution with whatever it needs to succeed and thus provide the community with a source
of pride! This may be harder to examine in the larger frameworks - but you can see it here in the kibbutzim and moshavim - where the institutions are smaller and in many cases, self-run, if not self-budgeted.

The above two definitions are very broad, but they do point out the extent to which a ‘model’ of communications also surrounds every discussion of education and learning. And this crucial point links to another important issue, to what degree do the many shifting media and communications environments that now dominate the cultural landscape of most countries in the world affect notions of learning? Even in environments where the global media are weak, such as Nepal, radio is being used to teach and communicate. The same situation exists in much of East Africa. The fact that radio can play such an important role in the education of the community suggests how crucial the linkage is between learning, media and tools of communication. This is an area in desperate need of further research and development.

When one asks the question, how can a learning community be built? There is the potential that the question will not deal with the reality that learning is one of the most unpredictable activities that human beings engage in. This issue exceeds the boundaries and mandate of this article. But, anyone who has examined the vast plethora of informal learning contexts that people in communities create for themselves knows that the rules for learning cannot be predefined. This is why high schools remain an oppressive experience for most teenagers. They are at an age when they are actively involved in creating and participating in their communities of interest. High school often becomes an impediment to learning and trivializes the vast amount of education that goes on outside of its walls. This process is so unpredictable and the influences are so broad, that the question of how learning takes place cannot be reduced to locality or even community and especially to school itself.

So, we have a paradox here that defies simplification. The desire to create a learning community is very much about the need to create an institutional context for learning. We are talking here, in the most fundamental of ways, about the process of building formal strategies for the learning process. The difficulty is that building an institutional context for learning means redefining what we mean by students and it is not enough to just transform student to learner. It also means redefining what we mean by community since it is likely that any school is really made up of communities of learners. Some of these learners may be connected to each other and many may not be connected. The complexity of social interactions within a school far exceeds the complexity of the classroom, which is itself barely manageable as a learning environment.

To be continued……



Response to The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

Jan responds to the previous entry:

I think it is important not to limit the idea of learning community to that of 'a community that cares for the institutions - such as schools - through which people learn,' which seems to be what you are saying in this opening piece (or do I read you incorrectly). Such a notion limits the idea of learning to what a learning individual does. In my perception that is an unnecessarily reduced meaning of learning.

Learning is what we do that allows us to enhance our constructive intercation with change. That's an abbreviated version of a more detailed and comprehensive definition of learning that I once developed and that I find useful in helping me understand the idea of learning community. Just as individuals, communities, societies, nations, regions, corporations, etc. interact with change. They produce change and they adapt to change; a complex multifaceted game. Both individual people and smaller and larger social entities become better at that game by experimenting different kinds of behavior and reflecting on such behaviors. The result settles down in the individual mind of people as much as in the collective mind of those social entities. Indeed, stories and symbolism play crucial roles in shaping the mind of the community, but it's a process more complex than what you find by adding up the learning of all the individuals that are part of the community. A learning community simply learns at a higher level of complex organization than the individuals that are part of the community.

One can extrapolate form the above relationship between learning individuals and the learning communities of which they are part (often more than one, e.g. a professional community, a religious community, a community of people who engage in a particular sport, a community in, etc.). All these (learning) communities together - and together also with the (learning) individuals that constitute them - are the complex building blocks of yet more complex social entities such as entire (learning) societies.

You say that "the claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries" and I agree with your observation. Of course, we have always been learning, and so have our communities. The fact that we didn't recognize it is perhaps yet another consequence of the too narrow identification of learning with what happens inside schools.

My response:

I of course agree with you.....the challenge seems to be
in the definition of community, the boundaries and borders
of practice and learning that grow out of the experiences of working with
people (and sometimes working against them!).

People cluster together for a variety of reasons and are motivated
to continue if they feel that there will be some value to the experience.
Problem is that value tends to be seen through a very narrow lens.



The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

The phrase “learning community? is suggestive of many things. It has become a catch-all for a variety of initiatives that link the learning experience to different notions of community. What are those notions? And why has it become so crucial for educational institutions to define themselves through this metaphor? If we are to answer the question, what are the key processes involved in building a learning society? then we need to examine the underlying notions of community that have encouraged people to build institutions of learning in the first place.

A community can be many things to many people. It can be the set of boundaries that a particular culture uses to distinguish itself from others and these boundaries can be physical and symbolic, as well as psychological. It can be a certain identity that has been gained over time, through historical, social and cultural processes that symbolically unite different peoples, in a shared sense of connection and interdependence.

At its most basic, community stands for common interest. But, it is not the purpose of this short piece to define the meaning of community. Rather, what is most important here, is the relationship between community and the symbols that communities use to define their activities. For example, a farming community is largely defined by a shared economic activity that is underpinned by social and cultural interaction. The people in the community don’t have to tell themselves what they share; they know what unites and divides them by virtue of their everyday lives. On a smaller scale, a kinship system brings diverse people together under the heading of family and together they form a community of interest. Some families use religion as a unifying force, as do some communities. Others may use a shared historical experience, a traumatic event or even music to bring meaning to what connects them. (See the work of Anthony P. Cohen, in particular, "The Symbolic Construction of Community.")

In other words, every social formation has a variety of communities within it and an often-unpredictable way of portraying the ways in which those communities operate. The best way to understand community is to examine people’s experiences within the communities that they share. And one of the most important activities that communities concern themselves with is learning. It doesn’t really matter what form that learning takes, or whether it is formal or informal. The important point is that learning is seen as a central activity. It is also seen as a crucial example of whether the community has the vision and organization to communicate its historical, technical and cultural knowledge to its citizens. I would strongly argue that even in those communities with highly developed formal educational institutions, learning takes place in so many different venues, that it would be wise to examine this context with great care.

How then does learning take place within a community? The most obvious example is the school system. But how does one build, nurture and sustain learning experiences that are both growth-oriented and community-based? For the most part, even traditional schools make a valiant effort to “teach? their students. Is the notion of a learning community or a learning society all that different in intention from what communities have tried to do in creating their schools and funding them? I ask this question because it is all too easy to dismiss the heritage of the last one hundred and fifty years of experimentation in education.

The claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although it is true that education as a system has been run by central governments in most countries, it is also important to recognize that without local help and local commitment, it is unlikely that a school could survive. Even in those countries with the most highly developed and centralized curriculums, it is not easy, and may even be perilous, to ignore the needs of the community. So, we need to extend the definition of learning community to include the broader social context within which learning institutions operate and this brings us closer and closer to the idea of learning society.

To be continued.......

Paradoxes of New Media (3)

(From Part 2)

There is another important question here. What makes a medium specific discipline
a discipline in any case? Is it the practice of the creators? Is it the fact that a heritage of production and circulation has built up enough to warrant analysis? I think not. Disciplines are produced through negotiation among a variety of players crossing the boundaries of industry, academia and the state. The term New Media has been built upon this detritus, and is a convenient way in which to develop a nomenclature that designates in a part for whole kind of way, that an entire field has been created. But, what is that field? Is it the sum total of the creative work within its rather fluid boundaries? Is it the sum total of the scholarly work that has been published? Is it the existence of a major journal that both celebrates and promotes not only its own existence but also the discipline itself? These issues of boundary making are generally driven by political as well as cultural considerations. They are often governed by curatorial priorities developed through institutions that have very specific stakes in what they are promoting. None of these activities per se may define or even explain the rise, fall and development of various disciplines. But, as a whole, once in place, disciplines close their doors both as a defensive measure, but also to preserve the history of the struggle to come into being.

(Part 3 begins)

I am not suggesting by any means that things have not changed. I am not saying that digital media are simply extensions of existing forms of expression. I am saying that the struggle to define the field or discipline of media studies has always been an ongoing characteristic of both artistic and scholarly work in media. The permanence of this quasi existential crisis interests me. For the most part, for example, media studies ran into a wall when cultural studies appeared as an extension of English Departments, and when Communication Studies grew into an important discipline in its own right in the late 1950’s. Why? Suddenly, everyone was studying the media, commenting about popular culture, appropriating (mushing and mixing) intellectual traditions in a variety of different and often anarchic ways. But, somehow, the discipline as such grew into further and further levels of crisis. Which intellectual model works best? Does one use structural or post-structural modes of analysis? How can we factor in the linguistic, semiotic and ethnographic elements, and also bring in the contextual, political components? So, this is where I return to vantage point.

Juxtapose the following: The film, The Polar Express by Robert Zemeckis, which bridges the gap between digital worlds and the human body and tries to humanize an entirely artificial world; The American election of 2004 which relied on the Internet both for information and misinformation; the spectacular growth of web sites, like, which extend the way humans interact, communicate and develop relationships; the growth of Blogs, which have pushed publishing from the corporate world to the individual; the growing importance of search engines and popular discussions of how to engage with a sea of information; and finally, the spectacular growth of games, game consoles and on-line gaming.

Together, these and many other elements constitute image-worlds, which like a sheath cover the planet, allowing and encouraging workers in India to become office employees of large companies in the West and Chinese workers to produce goods and manage inventories on an unimaginable scale. These image-worlds operate at micro and macro levels. They are all encompassing, a bath of sounds and pictures immersing users in the manipulation of information both for exchange and as tools of power.

Picture these image-worlds as millions of intersecting concentric circles built in pyramidal style, shaped into forms that turn metal into messages and machines into devices that operate at the nano-level. Then imagine using a cell phone/PDA to call up some information that locates humans on a particular street as was done during the crisis in Louisiana and you have processes that are difficult to understand let alone see without a clear and specific choice of vantage point.

Can I stand, so to speak above the fray? How do I escape from this process long enough to be able to look back or ahead? Does Google represent the vantage point? Since historical analysis is by its very nature retrospective and since time is at best an arbitrary metaphor for continua, am I left with a series of fragments, most of which splay off in different directions? It is an irony that the thrust of this conference has been so archeological, trying to pick up the pieces, show what has been missed, connections that have not been made, as if retrospection is suddenly adequate irrespective of politics, conflict and ethics. Most interesting from my point of view is the use of the cognitive and neurosciences, dominated as they are by positivism and empiricism. Even more to the point, and to give you a sense of how important vantage points are, take the best example of all, the computer sciences which until very recently had transformed subjectivity into that insidious term user and for whom the cybernetic dream of linking input and output has determined the shape and form of most computer programs.

The digital age or perhaps better put, the algorithmic age, makes these issues all the more urgent because if the fundamental tropes for human subjectivity can so easily be reduced to terms like user, then not to understand the origins of the research in engineering that went into the trope pose many dangers. Tor Norretranders' brilliant book, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (1998) investigates this problem in great depth and it is clear to me that richer paradigms of computer/human interaction are needed if we are to move beyond the limitations of mechanical modes of thinking about digital technologies and their impact on human consciousness. Yet, “user��? is also an outgrowth of devalued models of subjectivity within media studies itself, a confluence of the media’s own evaluation of its viewers (ie the couch potato metaphor) as well as the challenge of studying viewing itself. This is perhaps the greatest irony of the ebb and flow of analysis in media studies. At times, particularly in the early to mid-seventies with the advent and growth of feminism, subjectivity became a site of contestation with a variety of methods from psychoanalysis to sociology to linguistics used as avenues into analysis, criticism and interpretation. All of that heterogeneity is now built into the analysis of new media with varying degrees of success and often with no reference to the historical origins of the intellectual models in use. Subjectivity remains a site of contestation as a concept, explanation and framework for understanding what humans do with the technologies and objects they use.

The conflation of user with experience, the reduction of subjectivity to action and reaction, is only possible if theory and analysis put to the side the far more complex side of human thought and that is the imagination. Digital experiences are highly mediated by technology but imagination, fantasy and daydreams increase the levels of complexity and add many more levels of mediation to the rich interrelationships that humans have with their cultures. All of these levels need to be disentangled if a variety of vantage points are to be constructed. Perhaps then, media studies can begin to make some claims about a paradigm shift of enough strength to warrant the use of the term new…..


Paradoxes of New Media (1)

The continuum that links real events with their transformation into images and media forms knows few limits. This is largely because of the power of digital media and digital mediation and is something that has been commented upon in many different contexts. It is perhaps not an accident that terrorists, governments and corporations all make use of the same mediated space. We call this the Internet, but that now seems a rather quaint way of describing the multi-leveled network that connects individuals and societies with often-unpredictable outcomes. Networks, to varying degrees, have always been a characteristic of most social contexts. But, the activity of networking as an everyday experience and pursuit has never been as intense as what we have now, nor have the number of mediated experiences been so great. This may well be one of the cornerstones of the new media environment. However, new media as a term, name, or metaphor is too vague to be that useful. There are many different ways of characterizing the creative process, many different methods available to talk about the evolution of networks and technologies and the ways in which creative work is distributed, and the extraordinarily intense way in which communities and individuals look for and create connections to each other. The activities that are encapsulated by the term media are broad and extend across so many areas, that the danger is that no process of categorization may work. Typologies become encyclopedic so that what we end up with are lists that describe an evolving field but no vantage points to question the methodological choices being made. What distinguishes one list from another?

To understand why New Media may have been convenient for both scholars and artists one need only look at the evolution of media studies. Although humans have always used a variety of media forms to express themselves and although these forms have been an integral part of culture, and in some instances the foundation upon which certain economies have been built, the study of media only developed into a discipline in the 20th century. There are many reasons for this including and perhaps most importantly, the growth of printing from a text-based activity to the mass reproduction of images (something that has been commented on by many different theorists and practitioners). The convergence of technology and reproduction has been the subject of intense artistic scrutiny for 150 years. Yet, aside from Museums like MOMA the disciplines that we now take for granted, like film, photography, television and so on, came into being in universities only after an intense fight and the quarrel continues to this day.

To be continued......


From Community Media to International Networks

This blog entry proposes to briefly explore the transformation from the local context of community media to the creation of national and international information networks. This move from traditional community-based forms of media expression to digital, computer mediated communications systems foreshadows not only a shift in social processes, but a profound change in social structure. My objective will be to suggest possible approaches to research in the transitional areas that encompass what we now describe as virtual communications and for which neither our governments nor our lawmakers have developed clear policies. I believe that we need to develop a new agenda of research about exemplary community-based communications systems (of which FreeNets are excellent examples). The research has to be historical, theoretical and pragmatic in orientation. We need to account for the synergistic relationship between the history of people’s lives in communities and their use of a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and with the outside world. This research agenda should combine an intimate knowledge of the social and interpersonal processes that have made it possible for members of different communities to work together, with an analysis of the political context of participatory democracy.

I would like to propose that urban (and in many cases, rural) FreeNets and community-based networks, of which there are many in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe, have generated a radically different public sphere, whose structure and organization presage a profound realignment of what we have traditionally understood as community and as local communications. Shifts of the kind that I am discussing here are never as dramatic as one would assume from the more general claims made about the technology itself. To translate the potential of locally-based digital forms of communications into action and to have some effect, requires the same kind of time and commitment which has always been a characteristic of earlier forms of community activism with and without the media. However, the potential for inter-connection is now so much more developed and profound that the orientation of community activism is more directly linked to the use of media and communications tools.

The effects of this change on the policy environment and the ways in which citizenship is defined in an information-oriented society, will have a significant impact on the democratic rights of individuals and communities to pursue their visions for the future. Conventional notions of advocacy, community work and planning will alter as the practices and efforts of community activists become more and more dependent upon a variety of digital and virtual tools of communication. It will be essential to both recognize and analyze the fact that community activists are making use of a variety of mediums and that each of these mediums has a set of characteristics that both influence and shape the nature of the communications process.

Community oriented digital networks developed as a response to the lack of access to traditional broadcast media provided to community members, but also because of a desire to increase the quality of communication between citizens of different communities who shared similar interests. However, the process moved far beyond its initial objectives into political engagement, as community networks became the home of activism and information exchange about social, political and cultural issues. This has implications for how we think about structuring the policy and regulatory environment. The issues of political and commercial control as well as the ability of community members to freely engage with new forms of communication and emerging technologies of information and interaction means that conventional regulatory policies will have to change. How does one respond to material that may be controversial? How does one define local and national interests in the light of community needs? What are the boundaries between regulation, freedom of expression and the priorities of the community?

Community-based networks are defined by a spirit of volunteerism and a dedication to the common good. There are similarities between radio stations on university campuses, community television channels, cooperative radio stations and computer-mediated forms of communication such as FreeNets. In Canada, electronic bulletin boards evolved out of the first thrust of Internet development in the middle of the 1980’s. FreeNets developed from bulletin boards and now a variety of web-based interfaces exist alongside previous efforts to promote grassroots participation in the community. In general, regulatory bodies in Canada have been running behind the rather fast-paced evolution of these networks. In particular, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has tended to see the use of emerging technologies for communications from the rather jaundiced eye of regulatory policies that are based on broadcasting models. Although the CRTC has recognized the fundamental redefinition of communications processes brought about by technologies such as the Internet, it remains focused on issues of globalization and Canadian content. “The advancement of communication technologies, along with the abundance of information in today’s knowledge-based society, is creating a new, integrated ‘global’ information society. While globalization offers vast opportunities for marketing cultural products, it also provides regulatory and policy challenges that demand new approaches to support domestic cultures. Achieving a successful balance between the demands of the open market, and the need to maintain and promote cultural sovereignty and national identity, reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity and linguistic duality, will be key to maximizing gains from the global information society.

Yet, the community-based use of digital forms of communications is not necessarily in competition with global interests. Nor is the orientation of these networks defined by commercial gain. The CRTC tends to bundle the entire communications infrastructure into one rather homogeneous whole. The assumption of convergence, in this case, the combination of a variety of different communications industries, obscures the urgent need for the grassroots to define its own mode and modality of interaction. The CRTC is a good example of what can go wrong with regulation in the Internet age. Its policies reflect a desire to sustain and encourage the development of Canadian content. At the same time, it has no understanding of how digital forms of communication transform content and introduce new and unpredictable political and social alignments. These cannot be defined through the use of the traditional parameters of nation and locality. Community in an information-oriented environment can mean people getting together from many different nations through common interest and common cause. It is about spontaneous linkages that create networks. Some of these networks sustain themselves over time and others disappear. The underlying policy framework for this process has to be defined by a recognition of its fluidity. We have also have to recognize that the freedom to communicate does not come without costs. In saying all of this, I am not advocating a free- for-all strategy. I am suggesting that the conditions upon which new kinds of policies can be devised are being changed on a continual basis by the activity of networking. At the most fundamental of levels, the Internet should allow if not encourage the continual development of innovative approaches to communication and policymakers will have to reflect this level of innovation in their efforts to create flexible regulations. To do this, they will have to alter their research agenda. They will have to ensure that the “freedom to communicate" is not decided upon by the telecommunications giants while at the same time encouraging more and more communities to take responsibility for what they say and how they use the networks they are building.

Social Networks and Virtual Communities

Virtual Communities as social networks

There are some basic characteristics of virtual communities:

* Virtual communities need to know that they can multi-task and stay connected at all times;
* They need to know that they have something in common with each other and that even though identities can be played with and distorted, the foundations of communications are based on common understandings and truth;
* And that commonality has to significantly distinguish them from other groups;
* Virtual communities are about relations of an internal and external nature similar in form and substance to conventional communities;
* They are also about the establishment and maintenance of boundaries;
* Nevertheless, there is tremendous elasticity to the process of boundary creation and maintenance;
* Virtual communities break down conventional social and economic barriers.