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.

The Value of New Literacies in the Composition Classroom

We’ve all been there.  At least once in our academic careers we have spent the first 20 minutes of a class period watching the teacher or student presenter battle it out with the technology they were dependent on for that days lesson.  Does the occasional misfire of technology signal its unwarranted place in the classroom?  Are we wasting our time, or are we wasting the potential of the tools we have before us?

You have also very likely sat behind (and quickly learned to sit in front of) this guy:

who has been perusing his Facebook and email while typing a paper on the effects of Hurricane Katrina all throughout the lecture on poster propaganda in Berlin.  Bravo on the multi-tasking skills, but will he be fully present for the ensuing group work?  I’d rather not take my chances.

While these are two examples of many unfortunate drawbacks to technology in the classroom, they certainly cannot justify excising technology from schools.  Not only that, but they bring up very important questions surrounding digital literacy and our own agency.  What is the current role of technology in the classroom?  Is it effective?  Should we throw it out, work within it, or transform it to what we need it to be?

In “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of  a New Media Text Designer” Cynthia Selfe points out that English comp teachers are becoming more and more interested in new media texts because not only do they see more of them and have more access to reading and authoring these texts themselves, but their students are paying noticeably more attention to these texts as well.  Selfe argues here that teachers should be paying more attention to them, as well as using them systematically in the classroom to teach about new literacies.  In the chapter Selfe uses the technological and traditional literacy narrative of one student to explore how this contested landscape effect students working in specific English comp programs, the role new media literacies play in the negotiation of new social codes, and what English comp teachers must do with this knowledge to squelch the risk of composition studies becoming increasingly irrelevant (or politicized as such).

As hard as it is to believe that something so absolutely necessary for the educational (read: professional, personal, future) career of American students (read: communities, future leaders, country) as the critical thinking skills learned through composition could be devalued by anyone with the power to support it, the sub-topic of the use of technology in the classroom comes with a built-in debate which could serve to bolster a positive view of the necessity of comp studies or derail it.  David Buckingham explains in “Introducing Identity,” how the long debate on the impact of media and technology on children has always served as a focus for much broader hopes and fears about social change.  The idea that technology is transforming social relationships, the economy and sprawling realms of public and private life is recycled in popular debates, drawing on its long history of public opinion ranging from celebration to paranoia.

Research like that of Kristen Drotner, who believes that schools need to more directly address the new forms of competence needed today and is concerned with the implications of young people’s emerging digital cultures and the role of schools, along with the digital literacy case studies carried out by Hawisher and Selfe can help us put together an informed picture of how new literacies can or should play out in the composition classroom; one not overburdened by celebration or paranoia, but balanced by the real emerging needs of students.  Though Hawisher and Selfe are (rightly) hesitant to apply their ethnographic research to form a larger narrative, their approach points out how little English teachers know about the numerous literacies their students bring to class, and calls on them to seek out and embrace a broad understanding and valuing of multiple literacies in schools to cooperate with those at home, in the community and in the workplace; the literacies their students shape and are shaped by in other (social, professional, educational) aspects of their lives.

Of course this “unique position of the teacher to make a difference in the literate activities of students” requires an aspect of pioneering bravery on the part of teachers (especially those who do not consider themselves tech savvy), and it will certainly include a learning curve (occasionally we will spend some of our precious class time searching for a dongle).  Introducing the specific strategies and activities she suggests to take this road, Selfe explains that these strategies will depend on the teacher’s willingness to: experiment with new media compositions, take personal and intellectual risks as they learn to value different types of texts, integrate attention to such texts into the curriculum, and engage in composing such works themselves.  Not to mention on computer resources, tech support and the professional development that they have available at their specific institutions.  This is clearly a risk for teachers, not only in their own dynamic with their students, but in breeching this learning curve quickly and smoothly enough to justify the value of new literacies in the composition classroom while the composition classroom itself is still in the process of being contested, questioned, and possible threatened.  The successful use of a range of literacies in the classroom may keep composition studies relevant to students, the students’ skills relevant to future academic and professional work, and therefore the composition classroom relevant to the university.

Digital Literacy and the Generational Gap



In reading the case studies from Hawisher and Selfe’s Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology, I became reflective of my own digital literacy practices as well as those around me.  The two research study participants, Melissa and Brittney, separated by an age gap of over 20 years, show the advantages of a “digital native” (someone who grew up surrounded by technology) over someone who had to acquire the skills later in life.  Both participants came to age in a time when the digital culture was undergoing a radical transition.

I can’t help but be reminded of the frustrating hours spent helping my mom on the computer.  My mom, who is part of the Baby Boomer Generation, sees computers as a foreign concept.  As an elementary school teacher, she wasn’t required to use computers for her day to day job beyond taking her class to the “technology lab” twice a week (where there was a dedicated librarian/lab technician to answer student questions and troubleshoot any network errors).  She has only recently discovered the virtues of email, but hasn’t quite mastered the distinction between the reply and reply all functions.  It was an inside joke between my brothers and sisters when our inboxes became flooded with chain letters and “true” stories verified by snoopes.comuh-oh, mom has discovered the fwd button. I once received a panicked call from her because she couldn’t access her bookmarks, only to have to explain that bookmarks did not transfer from browser to browser and computer to computer (she was at a friends house trying to access her own bookmarks).

I find myself repeating the mantra of “patience” in my head when it comes to helping my mom navigate her computer troubles.  I’ve come to realize that maybe there is somewhat of a generational gap, or at least a gap in experience.  And it isn’t just my mom–frighteningly enough, many of her coworkers are the same when it comes to the uses of computer technology–and when I help them with a simple task like uploading a picture, they see me as a technology guru, though I am far from it.  I’ve noticed that the knowledge that many of us who grew up using computers would consider intuitive (links and search engine functions), aren’t so intuitive for people like my mom.  For her (sorry mom, hopefully she never reads this), technology is just a big enigma, shrouded in mysterious powers.

Circling back to Hawisher and Selfe article, it points out that “people are constrained by any number of influential factors: age, class, race, gender, handicap, experience, opportunity, and belief systems” (667).  How do these factors conflict with our notion about an open, universally accessible world wide web?

What good is identity?

Reading about the various methods of identity construction people use has been perplexing. I have a tendency to try and directly apply what the theory we are studying to a hypothetical classroom, and it was initially difficult to see the specifics of how knowing students’ histories will change the types of assignments I would give or the teaching approach I would take; how would I move beyond the problem of just having students type a five paragraph essay on Moby Dick on a computer instead and declaring them to have technological literacy.

I’m not sure I have a good answer yet. But to start, although this may be too simplistic, I see identity and literacy issues as fodder for the types of class discussions about situatedness that we have read about from many different theorists. I used to see my own reading and writing practices apolitical and closed for debate. I never used to think that my appreciation of classical Western literature was informed by any specific value system; Shakespeare was simply what I should be studying; Watchmen was just for fun. But graduate school has forced me to change my world view and start looking at the ways everything I do carries some sort of loaded meaning, and our job as teachers may be to get students to understand this. This brings students personal histories into the mix, and technology is an increasingly important part of most students’ personal histories.

Learning to see this way is It seems like demonstrating how these experiences are value-laden is the window into using students’ understandings of technology and identity. I may be speculating wildly here, but it seems likely that until they are questioned about it, many people may not see technology use as something that carries “values” with it. Knowing how to appropriately respond to your friend’s Facebook status and embed videos in the comment sections of blog posts doesn’t seem like it has any relation to a debate on health care reform. But examining how you respond to your friends, what kinds of videos you post, and how your economic, social, and historical situatedness has allowed you to do engage in those activities can make connections in ways that our students may not have seen before. And it is seeing literacy as Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe define it, something where “the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices–cultural, social, political, and educational” are relevant, that can help us to use this. Continue reading