Sure of inquiry, less sure of knowledge in the age of new media
This past Friday and Saturday in Sutardja Dai Hall (the home of CITRIS, near North Gate), the Berkeley Center for New Media hosted a symposium, “Digital Inquiry: Forms of Knowledge in the Age of New Media”.
True to the plural form in its title, speakers gave many visions of knowledge online and knowledge digitally-mediated, along with what I felt were exciting applications for those already-in-the-digital-know. Friday, I was only able to hear the speakers from the beginning of the day: Helen Milner of the Online Centres Foundation presented challenges and virtues of addressing “digital illiteracy” in the UK by getting millions of non-internet users online (see the recent Pew Research Center’s recent report, “Digital Differences”); then Jay Walsh of the Wikimedia Foundation showed the collective knowledge of Wikipedia at work in his narration of the 48 hours leading up to the Wikipedia blackout of Jan 18, 2012, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act. Following this, Greg Niemeyer (Department of Art Practice, UCB) demonstrated projects such as Seven Airs and Black Cloud designed to foster a sense of responsibility for the future impact of current technologies through aesthetic and reflective engagement with data. And Lisa Jevbratt presented ZooMorph, a visualization tool that allows artists/users to ‘see like animals see’ and develop new forms of “non-intentional (and inter-special, in this case) collaboration”.
Saturday I returned to catch the end of the panel on “Language and the Digital Archive” with Geoff Nunberg (I-School, UCB), Mairi McLaughlin (French, UCB), and David Ayman Shamma (Yahoo!) that showed, at very minimum, the degree to which analysis of “big data” cannot be undertaken uniformly across contexts; as McLaughlin argued with respect to the analysis of literary and journalistic texts in translation, careful interpretive framing and comparison of both “close” and “distance” reading of texts is necessary, following methods developed specifically for the genres, mediums, and questions at hand. In the afternoon I focused on the final “Technologies of Creativity” panel, where the audience heard Kimon Tsinteris and Bret Victor (formerly co-founder and designer from Push Pop Press), Scott Klemmer (Computer Science, Stanford), and Björn Hartmann (CS, UCB) discuss ways to streamline non-experts’ processes of design through the use of intelligent tutorials, adaptive templates, and other tools that flatten the distance between creative vision and its realization/materialization.
Of course, there’s a lot missing here: I wasn’t able to hear, for example, UCB Professor of Rhetoric David Bates’ talk “Understanding Insight in the Age of the Computer”, and missed the keynote address, “Lights and Shadows in the Digital Age”, by Bernard Stiegler of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation. Both of these, I think, along with others that probed processes and tools of innovation and interpretation, would have helped me walk away with a better sense of what is unique, problematic, and rewarding about forms of knowledge now. The BCNM says that all talks will be online, there’s a more detailed summary of all the talks in this post from berkeleyByte (a new blog following design, culture, and technology happenings at Berkeley), and one can also reverse-engineer selected happenings and discussions as recorded by real live tweeters from the event using the hashtag #digitalinquiry.
But still (and this ties in to lots of discussions by language educators that I’ve heard recently too), had I been there the whole time I might still have walked away feeling the way that I did: slightly unsettled by the sense that the semantic terrain of the very term “knowledge” and the reality that undergirds the term whenever it’s invoked in discourse, is continuing to shift. Watching the rise of citizen journalism outside the classroom and the critique of the “lecture” within it; seeing the genre of the unconference begin to hack away at the practice of the organized conference (and the rise of “hacking” as a cultural knowledge practice more generally); hearing in this symposium that students, designers, and thinkers in a variety of technical domains should not necessarily have their creative work processes hampered by the need to learn too much code—I hear all of these in relation to, for example, the many discussions among language educators and theorists of applied linguistics as to the nature and teachability of new forms of competence, without often engaging the institutional conditions that would render such new forms of competence ‘teachable’ in the first place. In these metaphorical websites, the user-generated tags sit in uneasy coexistence with the administrator’s categories.
The idea that learners (of all ages) know best what they want and need, and that “amateurs” ought to be able to produce with the same tools as “experts” and learn, bottom-up, from these experiences, has many merits. But as we speak in these terms, valorizing the amateur and exploring the knowledges/competences that will lead to his/her success in polycentric, often multilingual, and heavily digitized spaces of learning and work, I feel like we compromise learners’ imagination-enabling ability to think through abstraction and principle–and the ability of teachers to help students cultivate this. Language, like architecture, can probably be learned through cloning, templating, mash-ups, and tweaking. But, when knowledge in a variety of domains of life comes to be organized around practices like these, it seems to me that it’s more and more difficult to see the arbitrariness(es) and ideologies of the systems themselves—or to care that such things exist in the first place.