Blog Post

Knowledge and Social Lives of New Media: Literary Studies and Its Place in Digital Culture

"Knowledge is inextricably situated in the physical and social context of its acquisition and use." - John Seely Brown, Learning in the Digital Age
What is the social life of media? Where in society and culture can we place new media and its transmission of knowledge? The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 states that "social media are the new laboratories of culture and knowledge making" (7). I am interested in the social, physical, and historical dimensions of new media, and last week's readings have illuminated some of the key points pertaining to these dimensions. Specifically, I am struck by the acquisition, production, and transmission of knowledge by "produsers" (to borrow Bruns and Jacobs' term), who can potentially turn the information (as opposed to knowledge, as differentiated by Seely Brown) held in space into meaningful knowledge. As a result, produsers of knowledge in new media settings are crucial in the development of the field -- they areneeded to separate "junk" from information that is important, and are vital in showing how new media can be useful "knowledge management tools" (Burns and Jacobs 3). Without effective produsers who possess and share expert knowledge, new media faces the threat of being dismissed as a time-waster; its iterative character requires that produsers allow disciplines such as literary studies to see that new media can be "used for their benefit" (Burns and Jacobs 3). Such is the humanistic dimension of new media -- the instrumental role that people have in the production of knowledge in the realm of new media is testament to the social life of the seemingly-abstract and virtual world of the Internet. 
The importance of having produsers with expert knowledge points to the growing need of collaborations among not just people in online communities, but also among institutional departments. The Digital Humanities Humanities 2.0 asks, 
do traditional departments really provide an effective means to safeguard a central role for the Humanities in contemporary society? Why, then, haven't they evolved? Why defend the very disciplinary structures that emerged in the course of the formation of modern universities in the 19th century even when the intellectual ground has shifted out from under their feet?" (11)
If we want to prevent the humanities, and specifically English literary studies in our case, from becoming a mere footnote (as John Unsworth warns here), there needs to be an implementation of active learning and meaningful knowledge production within the field itself that would warrant its necessary place in the world. In staking our rightful place in contemporary society and culture, humanities and literary scholars will gain much from utilizing new media as "knowledge management tools," and much more from contributing our specialized knowledge to the field of new media. Consequently, a renewal in methodologies and philosophies of learning within the literary academy (also suggested by Bass & Rosenzweig in their discussion of recreating the classroom as "a site of active learning and critical thinking" and utilizing technology to realize these goals so that "students can learn to become critical consumers of information") will reassert the continued relevance of humanistic and literary studies to the contemporary digital culture, rather than the other way around. 
As we look toward the future, which is in many ways already here, we can strive toward "an eventual emergence of a new, perhaps qualitatively different equilibrium," so that we can "appropriate the technology in order to do more of what they are already doing -- assimilating new technology to old roles, old practices, and old ways of thinking" (Bass and Rosenzweig 2). This is a salient point that is also asserted by Henry Jenkins in his convergence theory, and which is also illuminated in the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 when it describes Digital Humanities as a field "about convergence" (8). Tapping into our human resources and expert knowledge produsers, we join the physical and social with the virtual world of information, and actively produce and share knowledge within our field and interdisciplinarily using new media tools. 
Rather than doing away with old media, methodologies and philosophies of learning, we may perhaps gain more by rethinking and redoing our methods of learning and teaching by drawing on the vast resources of the past, using grassroots-level thinking and creating, and remixing them with the plethora of new technologies and media to produce and share ultimately richer, more superior works of knowledge. 

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1 comment

I think you're spot on, Viola, but I'm curious as to the manner of convergence between all these disparate fields (Not only the humanities disciplines themselves but also the triumverate of academic expert / technical expert / lay public that seems to define every new media project) and whether there's a new literacy necessary in the use of tools, or code, or conceptual space.  Can a scholar join in the convergence if they don't know how to use Facebook or CSS or ArcGIS or MatLab?  This seems especially pointed in the case of academics studying literature, wherein there seems to be little historical connection to alternate displays of knowledge outside of text.  Can we have a literature professor who does not dabble in other media somehow participate with the convergence?  Do they require intermediaries to 'mash up' their text into new media and if so is it the scholar participating or the intermediary?

My intuition is that the scholar needs to be software literate to be able to join in the synthetic creation of new knowledge, or maybe at least visually literate.  But maybe I'm being overly literal.

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