[iDC] Re(2): REFRESH! conference, some impressions (panelism + powerpoint)

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Mon Oct 24 21:34:05 EDT 2005

Hi Jon, (warning moderately long post ahead)

I recently entered grad school (McGill, Ph.D program in Communications 
Studies) after 20+ years working as an artist, journalist, curator and 
entrepreneur in digital and analogue media. I couldn't agree more with 
your assessment of the quality of knowledge-sharing in academia. 
Although my professors are smart, knowledgeable and committed to 
educating their students, the structure of that education feels 
remarkably limited given the wide range of knowledge-sharing strategies 
employed today by businesses and NGOs, let alone teenagers with cell 
phones, broadband and cable TV. In class I often find myself thinking 
back to an observation that Bill Buxton has made – pointing out that 
the design of operating rooms, boiler rooms and almost every other kind 
of room has changed drastically over the past few centuries, whereas 
classrooms have remained basically the same for hundreds of years.

IMHO, the core problem is academia's fetishization of texts at the 
expense of all non-textual forms of knowledge. Academic culture is 
literate culture, and like all bastions of literate hegemony it is 
highly dismissive of – and antagonistic towards – non-literate values 
and cultures. Digital and oral cultures share pedagogical imperatives 
such as peer-to-peer teaching, collaborative and experiential learning, 
iterative and fluid knowledge grids, and a validation of the 
epistemological validity of subjective experience. Academic pedagogy in 
the social sciences explicitly rejects each of these, instead insisting 
on strict hierarchies of knowledge, a passionate engagement with theory 
combined with a disinterest in praxis, a refusal to validate any 
knowledge claim that does not express itself specifically in relation 
to a fixed historical canon, and a deeply entrenched suspicion of 
'anecdotal' articulations of knowledge.

Additionally, many professors espouse post-modern epistemological 
theories (all knowledge is contingent and socially constructed, all 
knowledge systems false and ideological, all authoritative linear 
narratives must be interrogated) and yet adhere to an antique model of 
academic scholarship in which authoritative linear narratives (academic 
essays) are certified as knowledge by a hierarchy of 
knowledge-validators (i.e. Ph.D examining commitees, peer reviewers) 
when they adequately situate themselves within an unassailable 
canonical discourse and conform to strictly regulated formal rules. 
Depending on the size of the chip on one's shoulder this is either 
obvious hypocrisy or a simple fact of academic life (or both), but it 
can hardly be seen as a promising path forward.

I believe that it is going to become increasingly difficult for 
universities to maintain their status as society's knowledge-validators 
in the digital age. Universities were able to successfully leverage 
their position as centers of literacy in a literate culture in order to 
establish their status and economies. But with the emergence of a 
potent and popular  epistemological (and economic) challenge rooted in 
digital culture that status is very much in jeopardy. Blogs vs. Big 
Media are playing out the same dynamics. (The difference is Big Media 
is mobile and because it is profit-driven has a reason to adjust to new 
technologies. Academia is neither flexible nor motivated to make 
radical changes.)

I think universities are no different from other organizations that are 
closely aligned to literate values and enmeshed in literate power 
structures. They can either adapt to the new dynamics that are being 
imposed by the activities of a billion people online, battle those 
dynamics aggressively in an attempt to maintain their status, or hide 
their heads in the sand until they're buried. At present it looks like 
academia is going to follow the third route. I expect to be one of the 
scholar/activists attempting to rewire it.

The last point you raised, about awakening students to the broader 
political implications and potentials of everyday technologies, is, I 
think, extremely important. The danger that reactionaries see when they 
look out at the surging flow of digital data – that in the ocean of 
code all fixed meanings, all historic reference points, all the 
infrastructure of knowledge will be lost – is I think, a valid concern. 
Kids can't just be handed the keys to the future and be invited to 
write off the past. The Lord of the Flies scenario becomes a real 
danger if that happens. But neither do any of us welcome the looming 
corporate copyright clampdown. What is above all necessary from 
educators (official and non) is a commitment to bridging these 
increasingly antagonistic knowledge cultures (literate and digital) in 
a way that enables each to learn from the other. Members of oral 
cultures need to be part of this process as well. And there are very 
practical ways of doing this, but they require a willingness to be 
humble, and to admit the world is much more complex and rich than can 
be ascertained by means of any one technology (speech, text or digital 
network) or pedagogy (oral, literate or digital). Because as you 
suggest, it's less about what we are learning than about how we are 
learning. In education too, the medium is message...

My 2 (or more) cents...
John Sobol
bluesology • printopolis • digitopia
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