The machine is us/ing us

I found this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE&eurl= which Sara de Freitas showed at Beyond the Search Engine in Oxford yesterday, moving.

But at least one technically-gifted and endearingly cantankerous friend didn’t: http://www.fatsquirrel.org/bologs/veghead/?vm=553

Easy for him to say – he’s been ‘generating content’ for years and anybody who knows him could guess he’d feel this way. There isn’t any disconnect between the way he communicated and represented himself say five years ago and the way he communicates and represents himself now. For him, these technological advances constitute a continuum – but only because he has been close to the centre of developments most of his professional life and motivated to observe and apply them. So it’s easy for him to object to the idea of a radical “switch” but for many people who aren’t as technically gifted it is just that – a switch, a swerve, a significant change in their way of doing things, or a part of their way of doing things, and from these new behaviours comes a new perspective – hence Wesch’s observation that “We’ll have to rethink a few things”.

Most people have seen IT developments in the same way as they might notice a remote younger relative at family gatherings – taller every time, one year acne and a surly demeanour, next time mascara and a body piercing, next time gained 2 stone. And one year suddenly the two of you have a wonderful conversation, and a relationship is formed that is based on affinity rather than merely being around each other. So with so-called social software: online communities, weblogs, wikis.

Wesch made a dramatic piece and, in a very journalistic way, imbued it with a hecticness and mounting sense of urgency about rethinking, well, everything. Yet as Veghead says, from an accomplished technician’s perspective things move almost imperceptibly and there is no disconnect or ‘switch’. Even where a big change happens, it’s surprising how quickly it is absorbed into the habitual, recedes into the past and ceases to be discussed (until the retrospectives). But Wesch is an anthropologist and I imagine he is more interested by individual responses than by what we might call ‘developments’. Maybe Wesch finds Web2.0 interesting because it enables populism through which individuals can with unprecedented ease ‘appropriate’ (as Kris Cohen observes) the public sphere and, through this, experience a mass of personal disconnects, personal changes in perspective.

And the consequences for academics, who have traditionally been custodians of truth, wisdom and, as yesterday’s Beyond the Search Engine debate would have it, ‘integrity’ and ‘rigour’, are far-reaching too. For academics, the proposition of this populism is that their role will change – they must inculcate these values in not just the most promising research students, but every student. That’s a difference in practice (will teaching-only contracts interfere with this; are the postgrad students who take on increasing amounts of teaching equal to this?) if not in theory.

Cohen, K (2006). A welcome for blogs. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies;20:161-173.

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