Friday, 27 November 2009

Children of the net..

I was recently reading a blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at the Berkmen Centre for Internet and Society, which got me thinking. I normally like what Ethan has to say and I encourage you to check out his site which touches on his thoughts about 'Africa, international development and hacking the media'. In the blog post he talks a conference he attended in which Don Tapscott (co-author) of Wikinomics fame presented.

Essentially, the blog post summarises Tapscott's major argument in the book, something I've touched on in the course of teaching my Cyberculture (MAC281) and New Media & Society (MAC309) modules. I've mentioned him a couple of times on this blog. For those of you unfamiliar with the thrust of the main argument it goes something like this...

Tapscott watched his kids grow up in the 1990s and was amazed by the effortless way in which they used technology. The demographic born between 1977 and 1996 was the first to 'grow up in a digital age ... bathed in bits' (2008: 47), which Tapscott refers to as the Net Generation. This generation is distinct from previous ones due to the myriad ways in which they not only consume media, but scrutinise it, and re-purpose it. In Zuckerman's blog recounting Tapscott's presentation, the latter claims that the kids of this generation are more interested in reading web content rather than reading books (he cites Rhodes scholar, Joe O'Shea, as an example) or watching television.
We might conclude this is a problem, or we might embrace this. “If you spend 24 hours a week being a passive participant, consuming tv – as Baby Boomers did – you get a certain sort of brain.” If you spend those hours searching, researching and building connections, you get a very different brain
I feel Tapscott sets up a bit of a false argument here, which Zuckerman reiterates (nb: I'm not trying to suggest that Zukerman thinks this - he is recounting Tapscott). He claims these are not passive consumers but rather, are driven by a desire 'for choice, convenience, customization and control by designing, producing and distributing products themselves' (ibid: 52). There seems to be a dubious binary set up which equates:

old media vs new media
television vs internet
passivity vs activity

There is a wealth of ethnographic research from European Media/Cultural Studies scholars which disputes such a simplistic understanding of audience engagement - something we cover here on our Media Studies modules (MAC201). Qualitative research in this area paints a varied and complex set of cultural negotiations and competences from, say, a television audience. The work of David Buckingham, David Gauntlett, David Morley, Charlotte Brundson, Ien Ang, Janice Radway, Dorothy Hobson, etc all point to this being the case.

Overall, Tapscott's desire to challenge the assumption that the Internet is making kids dumb by focussing on the ability of young people to forge new connections, engage in distributable editing, scour and research a topic using online tools results in their being an overemphasis being placed on the power of the Internet.

I can see why he wants to embrace the optimism of the Internet especially when online behaviour seems to be coming under attack from neuroscientists like Baroness Susan Greenfield and Gary Small, as well as cultural critics and authors like Andrew Keen and Nicolas Carr (you can watch some footage of Carr below, taken from a forthcoming BBC Digital Revolution project). We can add to this the concerns of educationalists who fear that student use of the Internet is fostering an uncritical and superficial sense of engagement with information.

Implicit in this camp is the assumption that there are some potentially problematic changes occurring - the Internet has encouraged a new form of informational engagement - one which sacrifices depth for sporadic leaps from section to section or site to site. Carr fears we have sacrificed our contemplative approach to thinking. This sounds like the passivity mentioned by Tapscott in relation to TV in another guise.

I'd like to think that is a middle road here, what sociologist John Thompson refers to as an 'interaction mix' - that consumption of media is nebulous and works across platforms. Creating artificial divides between media use is misleading at best. What are we to take from Tapscott's argument: that television is a passive activity or that the reading of books is inferior to Internet-use? What do we take from the opposing camp: that new media habits are potentially changing how we make sense of information? It seems to me that this divide between old and new media is a straw man argument - one sets up the other to create a false argument that serves the best interests of those starting the posturing.

All new media forms will require new literacies - the argument over whether one is better or worse than another is misleading when taken in isolation.

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