Recently, at a desk bestrewn with empty coffee cups, a half-dozen books, digital audio equipment, handwritten lists, old syllabi, and class notebooks, I’ve found myself multitasking. Similarly, my typically tidy virtual desktop has become cluttered with quite a number of pdf articles, garage band files, electronic “sticky” notes in all colors, word documents in various states of editing or abandonment, and a slew of photos awaiting sifting and sorting.
Given the mundane/virtual dust-devil of texts I’ve been interacting with and generating these days, I’m very interested in the discussion of multi-tasking I’ve been encountering in critical discussions of digital and new literacy. After all, if my desk/desktop is any indication, shouldn’t I, as a multi-tasker with a laptop at the heart of it all, be able to find myself represented in articles discussing digital textuality and new media?
Lankshear and Knobel, in their 2004 plenary address to the NRC, “New” Literacies: Research and Social Practice, commented glowingly on the work of Angela Thomas, noting her interest in the “ways in which children construct their identities in multimodal digital worlds,” and held her research up as “an excellent exemplar of how weblogs and chat spaces, among other online media, can be used as research tools.”
When I cam upon Lankshear and Knobel’s discussion of Thomas, I was drawn to the words of Violetta, one of the digital insiders interviewed online by Thomas:
I need to make a confession right now, I am talking to you but at the same time I am talking to this cool guy Matt who I know from school, and trying to do some homework – an essay for which I am hunting some info on the web – you know, throw in some jazzy pics from the web and teachers go wild about your ‘technological literacy skills’ skills. Big deal. If they ever saw me at my desk right now, ME, the queen of multi-tasking, they’d have no clue what was happening.
Re-reading Violetta’s last line gives me, a teacher and older user of technology, pause. Don’t older or less frequent user-creators of new media, many of us latecomers to the party, multitask too? Are our styles of multitasking really so different from Violetta’s?
In “Sampling the New Literacies” Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel write:
Multitasking has become ubiquitous among digital youth. Moreover, the multitasking mode is not seen simply [as] some casual kind of modes operandi confined to interactions with one’s closest friends – as when chatting, roleplaying, updating a weblog, IM-ing, etc. simultaneously . . . . Rather it is widely seen as a way of operating that applies generally in everyday life at home, at school and at play. (15)
On the basis of such input, I’m still not convinced that Violetta has anything on me. I like to sneak a text out to a friend during class at least as much (hell, perhaps more than) most of my students. And, to be sure, I’ll leave facebook open while paying bills, g-chatting, answering professional correspondence, writing for fun, emailing my parents, taking notes for a role playing game, listening to music, or playing/recording a guitar.
However, Lankshear and Knobel do have more to offer. In positioning their concept of new literacy into the discourse theory of James Gee, they cover the idea of coordinations through which our situated-selves enact literacies within discourse. This catchall phrase reminds us to consider the myriad elements bound up with incarnating literacy: thoughts, feelings, rules, institutions, tools, accessories, clothes, language, etc. “Within such coordinations,” according to Gee, “we humans become recognizable to ourselves and to others and recognize ourselves, other people, and things as meaningful in distinctive ways.”
Perhaps Violetta’s statement suggests a refined sense of how the various coordinations invoked in her digital literacy present (or interpolate, in the Althusserian sense) her as a subject, one with creative agency, but one who also may be seen, even studied, as such. After all, she casually mocks teachers for praising even a cursory expression of “technological literacy.” That is, to take up Gee’s reasoning, she has a subtle awareness of how the coordinations that frame the ongoing practice of her own literacy simultaneously enables her generative self-styling of a public persona and provides surfaces through which others may find her persona legible.
Thinking through Gee’s coordinations again, which include thinking and feeling, I’m led to consider the possibility that, even if people like Violetta and I each use some of the same technology, perhaps even in somewhat similar ways, perhaps the way we think and feel about our respective digital practices are what matter.
In Lankshear and Knobel’s charting of the ethoi underpinning the practices of typographic and digital textuality, we find a wide range of theory suggesting that typographic literacy and digital literacy carry with them a number of rather different assumptions, such as the way in which ideas are given value – such as through scarcity (typographic) or sharing (digital). I grew up in a world in which the economic model of scarcity-derived value gave ideas and academic credentials their feeling of worth; not everybody had them. This kind of thinking is of course still with us, and I hear it expressed whenever a student expresses worry that someone might “steal” his or her ” idea.”
Lankshear and Knobel quote Barlow’s perspicacious claim that “dispersion . . . has the value and [information’s] not a commodity, it’s a relationship and as in any relationship, the more that’s going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship” (11).
Perhaps this point isn’t so different from being, in the years before before GPS, lost with someone who checked a paper map versus being in the same situation with someone who was happy to ask for directions. Is it worth starting a face-to-face relationship with someone when what you want is a bit of information? (Yes, this opens a fertile line of gender-based inquiry generally absent from the more accessible layers of the theory Lankshear and Knobel cite).
Barlow’s idea, that information is conceptualized differently by practitioners of differing literacies, helps me to infer a possible difference between my own approach to the web and that of someone like Violetta. Let me illustrate the point with a problem that came up during a recent period of multi-tasking heavily weighted toward my current academic commitments.
A few days ago, I encountered a problem using a forum a professor had set up using SFSU’s ilearn for a class. I’d asked my professor to modify the default settings for the forum. One of the side effects had been that all of the group members ended up locked out from posting to the forum. Before alerting my instructor to the problem, I tried to query ilearn’s online help several times, and quickly came up against an electronic brick wall, a invitation to search that kept resulting in: “There are currently no QuickGuides in the system that match your search criteria. Please try again.”
Reflecting on the matter now with Barlow’s statement in mind, I realize that I tried to solve the ilearn problem from a scarcity-model informational standpoint; the smart money would have been to solve it relationally, to find someone who could help me step by step through the situation, perhaps through the obviously displayed email or chat support options. Seeking that kind of help isn’t as comfortably in my playbook. Looking back, I realize I also have a few people in my networks (both professional and social) with whom I might have interacted in order to solve my problem.
Why didn’t I? I bet that, in terms of digital literacy, I am several, even 10s of thousand of hours short of Violetta’s time online. If indeed, as Walter Ong famously wrote, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Violetta and I may very well negotiate such problems differently. I bet she would have gotten the results, and probably through a more social source than the help files I looked at, which are simply digital analogues of mundane owner’s manuals — a typographic solution. A digital insider might ask: why open the manual when you can instant message an expert? Perhaps Violetta might have started by asking that “cool guy Matt” she was already chatting with, and he might have had the answer.
I think that we might be in the midst of a social change that dethrones, or destabilizes, our traditional view of a narrowly defined executive function as the preeminent organizational skill. It may be that this concept was formulated in an era of, or under the influence of values generated by, typographic literacy. Perhaps collaborative function, an ability to effectively access collective sources of knowledge, is a more apt descriptor of the underlying capability for problem solving in the digital era.
Lankshear and Knobel note how wikipedia, for example, “leverages collective intelligence for knowledge production in the public domain.” The literature on digital literacy that has come across my workspaces of late suggests that some kind of collaborative function will increasingly trump the sort of executive function that typically is associated with students’ ability to focus. If we fail to recognize this, we not only impair our own digital literacy, and misunderstand the classroom presence of our students, but also, even while using digital and new media, stage our attempts at problem-solving with a scarcity-based model of information lurking in the wings.
Given the frequency with which New Media theorists invoke Jameson, Derrida, and other postmodern luminaries, it has become difficult to disassociate digital textuality from postmodernity itself. Lankshear and Knobel note that the 2.0 digital mindset may be seen “as an aspect of the postmodern spirit.” In “Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola contrast, in a line of inquiry somewhat parallel to the scarcity/dispersion dichotomy, the private linearity of printed consciousness and the spatialized intertextuality of digital thinking.
Perhaps the world where the full implications of “an unseen network of reference” that is “visible, navigable, writable and readable, on our computer screens” is also the world of collaborative function, where users not only see/access links between texts, but are much more free to see/access the social relationships based upon textual exchange, the affective and informational networks through which texts, reified artifacts, useless in themselves, are transmitted and granted meaning.
Where Violetta and I may well overlap, in terms of our digital-literary consciousness, though, would be in our appreciation of fan-generated media. Consider this fan-generated video of a Star Wars space battle, which reveals the fervor and technical prowess of the normally faceless imperial pilots that form part of the menacing backdrop of the films.
Although my information-seeking instincts may be still been conditioned by a youth of scarcity-consciousness, at least I’ve come this far – I can admire fan-fictive remixing, and don’t want to see either Lucasfilm (or Sleigh Bells, which someone other than the fan-author added to the vid as a righteous musical backdrop) pull down the video by flexing their scarcity-derived intellectual property rights. I’d go further, and assert this fan-creator’s right to draw upon these sources to make new texts. Many of you are probably already familiar with Larry Lessig’s TED talk on Read/Write culture, so I won’t belabor the matter.
One last takeaway from Violetta’s statement, I think, is that we don’t want, by studying digital and new medial literacies, to fetishize their demonstration. Users like Violetta are aware that their practices are the subject of academic/pedagogical inquiry and appropriation. They may know all too well that scholars like Lankeshear and Knobel dedicate works like “Sample ‘The New’ in New Literacies” to “the young (and not so young) digital insiders who inspire people like us.” In that spirit, let’s make sure we do our best, then, to listen to what student-users have to teach us about working collaboratively with new media.