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Cultural Identity in the Digital Age

“One of the major problems with popular debates in this field is the tendency to regard technology as the driving force of social change. Social theory of the kind I have discussed here reminds us that technological change is often merely part of much broader social and historical developments.” (Buckingham 10)

“We can understand literacy as a set of practices and values only when we properly situate our studies within the context of a particular historical period, a particular cultural milieu, and a specific cluster of material conditions.” (Hawisher et al. 646)

As we see in the quotes above, both David Buckingham in “Introducing Identity” (2008) and Gail E. Hawisher. Cynthia L. Selfe, Brittney Moraski and Melissa Pearson in “Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology” (2004) contend that social and historical conditions shape technological changes, rather than seeing technology as a one-sided agent of social change. Both authors are concerned with the impact of digital media on young people, with Hawisher taking a broader approach that compares the experience of digital literacy across generations. While Hawisher concludes that “people can exert their own powerful agency in, around, and through digital literacies” (644) and that often this agency occurs outside of the parameters of academic institutions, Buckingham seems to take this line of inquiry further in his conclusion that “Critical literacy is … about understanding who produces media, how and why they do so, how these media represent the world, and how they create meanings and pleasures” (17-18). This point seems to move beyond the more insular focus in Hawisher’s article on expanding composition instructors’ notions of “literacy” and on increasing gateways for young people to become digitally literate. Rather, Buckingham focuses on those who produce new media and the cultural changes that accompany it. He notes that there are very real social implications stemming from the emergence of new technologies and digital media, including “questions about social power and inequality” (19).

Buckingham and Hawisher are concerned with unequal access to digital media among diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, but only Buckingham gestures toward the social and political implications of this divide, and of the technology “revolution” in general. What I am interested in exploring here is the way in which the rise of digital media has also given rise to a particular ideology, or way of viewing the world, espoused most prominently by the tech innovators of Silicon Valley. The New Yorker reporter George Packer has explored this emerging ideology in his article “Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans – and its money – to the realm of politics” (27 May 2013). Packer traces both the growing wealth divide in Silicon Valley, and the attendant libertarian ethos that has accompanied the rise of wealth in the Valley, showing that as the divide grows between haves and have-nots, a libertarian-inspired suspicion of government and bureaucracy has enabled Silicon Valley executives to deflect questions of social justice and equality. The insular focus of these executives is guided by the belief that government can only impede the climate of freedom that is essential for technological innovation to occur.

George Packer, a Palo Alto native, notes that when he grew up in the 1970s, the

Valley was thoroughly middle class, egalitarian, pleasant, and a little boring. Thirty-five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis, and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Louis Vuitton. There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-percent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

This growing inequality and divide in wealth is accompanied by an ideology that seems to be shared by Silicon Valley’s elite, which holds that “collective problems are solved incrementally, through the decentralized activity of countless interconnected equals—a process that mirrors the dynamics of the Internet.” This belief might be called the myth the digital age, the notion that innovations in technology hold the cure for solving societal problems such as inequality. This myth assumes, in other words, that if tech innovators are granted the freedom to innovate, societal problems will be solved without the need for government intervention. This has fostered a libertarian outlook among many of the Valley’s tech innovators, and in Packer’s view, has enabled them to turn a blind eye to pressing questions of inequality. As Packer states:

Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests. Sometimes those interests can be aligned with the public’s, sometimes not. Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings.

It is this clash between the purported “open,” “transparent,” “egalitarian” tech culture and the hierarchies upon which it is actually constituted that strikes me as important to consider in any discussion of technology and identity. That is, we can ask what kind of cultural identity is fostered by the tech “revolution,” and we can also question how the lack of transparency that characterizes the operations of many tech companies might clash with the myth of liberation and accountability that they promote. Packer asserts that “technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.”

Both Buckingham and Hawisher encourage us to critique the myth that “technology [is simply] a force of liberation for young people” (Buckingham 13), a sentiment that George Packer seems to agree with. Yet as they focus on the formation of identity among young users of digital media, neither Buckingham nor Hawisher seems to shed light on the identities of those who are developing these innovations, namely the tech leaders of Silicon Valley. As a whole, this group has, as Packer shows us, cultivated an ethos of insular libertarianism that often deflects attention from broader social inequities. I would argue that we should examine the cultural identity as much as the individual identities that have emerged alongside the rise of technological innovations and digital media, as this distinctive tech identity is profoundly affecting the era in which we live.

YouTube, ITube, WeAllTube

In ‘An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube’, a team of students from Kansas State University and their professor, Michael Wesch, provide viewers with an emic account of the video-sharing site. In this, the students and professor joined their online culture of study by uploading their own videos to YouTube. It is impressive and captivating to watch the clips of their videos as they figure out the unique experience of talking to everyone and no one at the same time, and as they relate their experience to those of others.

After watching the KSU video and their use of YouTube as a field site, I am curious how this website could be used in the composition classroom. From a class of our’s recently, we know that students use YouTube for a variety of projects. These projects typically involve a remix of some kind; often, a piece of literature is transformed by a student or group of students in some way. Anyone searching can find a myriad of these videos, tackling a variety of books and readings. However, if you search YouTube for various key terms (composition, writing, classroom, revising, essays, etc.), you will not see videos of students referring to their own writings, but only videos of students repurposing someone else’s writing. So, in a writing classroom that focusses on the student’s writing and their process, where does YouTube come in?

Instead, your search of these terms will likely uncover a legion of educators sharing different strategies and instructing online. In fact, there are many different videos where teachers are teaching other teachers to teach using YouTube (how meta is that?). Indeed, we have taken it so far as to write about the ways we are using videos in the classroom. Admittedly, the instructional video route is a good racket. I watch them, I search for them, and sometimes, they are even helpful. However, very little is happening by way of writing-centric student activity on YouTube.

If you look through educational blogs, you can see a few different ways in which teachers are currently using YouTube in their own classrooms. With a large focus on watching videos for informational purposes and as a way of providing alternative examples of different topics, the way we are currently using YouTube in the classroom seems to offer the same ethos problem that an early post discusses. Sure, YouTube is flashy and fun, but if we are just plopping it in the classroom to replace video strips, are we really providing students with new ways to interact with new media?

The KSU video offers a key moment where I think we as instructors could begin to consider new ways of incorporating YouTube into the writing classroom. As the KSU video grew in popularity, Wesch looked to how their video had circulated through the internet. After being tagged on a user-generated site, moving through the blogosphere, and showing up across the web, their video hit number one. My question, for instructors near and far, is how do we use this idea of user-generated and circulated content to get students to consider the complicated audience-awareness/presentation of self and performance that YouTube so brilliantly highlights? And, how do we incorporate YouTube in a way that showcases both process and awareness in a student’s personal writing while still considering the overall ethos of new media?

If there are any interested or informed parties, please share your thoughts. In fact, you could even post a video about it.

Get Digitally Literate Quick!

The theme of this weeks reading is ‘New’ Literacies. My reading consisted of three articles titled “New Literacy” – that is three separate academic articles with the same title. So, what is New literacy? What is “new” about it?

Teaching ‘new’ literacies (that is, reading and writing activities and more that take place in digital environments) is the new trend in composition classrooms. However, when we teach ‘new literacies’ we should be careful with getting on the bandwagon without reevaluating what we actually want to teach and want students to learn.

We should re-conceive ‘new’ literacies as not just a new label, a new term to sum up a cool new way to write online, but as a new way of thinking, of creating agency, of performing  and of creating an identity and composing meaning. In their introduction to A New Literacies Sampler, “Sampling ‘the New’ in New Literacies.”  Lankshear and Knobel refer to new digital environments as “techno stuff” and the way in which we use and engage with them, “ethos stuff.” Teaching new literacies needs to be more than just introducing an online reading and writing forum. Something is only a new literacy when it engages with “ethos stuff” –“[which] are more “participatory,” “collaborative,” and “distributed” in nature than conventional literacies.” (NLS 9). Techno stuff is the new medium, new blogs or videos or memes; ethos stuff is the way we engage with that new techno stuff. New literacies are only new, Lankshear and Knobel argue, when we engage with both new forms and new ways of using the forms.

For example, If a student writes a standard five-paragraph essay and puts it on a blog, there isn’t anything ‘new’ about that literacy. This pushes us past just using digital environments to interacting and engaging with them. So, as compositionists, how we do we foster this? A new lesson plan on blogs?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their other new literacy article, “New Literacies: Research and Practice” state that “we would like to see a moratorium on research that ‘delivers’ activities and modules and professional development ‘tricks’ designed for classroom application” (Lankshear and Knobel 3).


New literacy is not a ‘get quick rich scheme.’ Putting a standard essay online doesn’t make it innovative. Similarly, equipping instructors with lesson plans that claim to create or enable new literacies in their students doesn’t get at the goal or heart of new literacies, that is, the ‘etho stuff.’ Instructors need to be equipped with not just the tools, but the ways to use those tools in meaningful and engaging ways. Something only works when it works.

For, when we engage in new literacies in a non-productive way, we are continuing the thought that new media is only a medium, not a new way of engaging and thinking.

In “Blinded by the Letter” Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola warn against pasting the label of ‘literacy’ onto new digital environments. The term ‘literacy’ often evokes a neutral association to the ability to read and write. They argue, however, that if literacy is just a discrete set of skills to master, those who do not have it are somehow lacking or deficient (723). When we then use this term in conjunction with digital literacy, ‘we ask them, by using a conception of literacy that allows us to ask them, to blame themselves.’ (723). If we think of technological literacy as an ‘skill’ rather than, like print literacy, ties to power, agency, and class inequity, we assume that those who don’t have it have failed, are not adequate. Wysocki and Johnson-Eliola push, then, to connect digital literacy with the same powers we attribute to literacy for they do, especially now 12 years later, increasingly have ties to.

(disclaimer: this meme is for example only – to show the innate ties literacy can have to power, agency, and class inequity.)

They then posit that we should move our definition of literacy to one that embodies a spatial relationship, not temporal or linear. I’m reminded of Nicki’s description of her many screens open “deftly maneuvering between my laptop’s split-screen (Google Chrome on the right, displaying a pdf along with numerous tabs of research material, and on the left, Microsoft Onenote.” It is easy to forget that when this article was written, 1999 , the so-called ‘information super highway’ was still a burgeoning idea. Now, we flip between screens like nobody’s business, deftly moving from one application to the next, scrolling and refreshing, while often also simultaneously looking at our phones or iPods. I’ve seen people out with a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone. One screen, or one application, is not enough anymore. But how we do we tap this resource in the classroom?

***

Reflecting back on Lankshear and Knobel’s “New Literacies” we want to do more than show our students these cool new interfaces or demonstrate how to flip between programs. Instead, we should strive, as Cynthia Lewis describes in another reiteration of “New Literacies” from  Sampling, that “ we need to know what writers of new literacies do when they write—what they think about and how they negotiate the demands of new forms and processes of writing (NSL 229).

“What they (students who are being introduced to a digital literacy discourse) all have in common is the belief that true agency is arrived at through a mixture of process and product, learner control and imposed limits. The most important ingredient, however, is a meta-awareness of how the domain works and how one might work the domain” (Lewis 231). The question then, is how do we invoke this? How do we implement actual ‘new literacies’ in our classroom that are not “get digitally literate quick’ schemes. We want students to engage with not only the ‘techno stuff’ of new digital environments but also the ‘ethos stuff’ – how, why, for what purpose and to what extent are they using digital environments.