Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part One)

The other day, I received a question — via tweet — from a reader: “New practices that are emerging in cyberspace: Is it more of the same? Is it capitalism in new bottles?” This is a fundamental question which anyone who has been paying attention over the past two decades of media in transition has found themselves rethinking again and again. For me, the way this question is so often framed suggests an either-or logic: either everything has changed or nothing has changed as a consequence of the process formerly known as “the Digital revolution.” And the clear sense here is that “nothing has changed” as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place. My own belief is that changes can be local, gradual, and particular, and still matter in terms of the quality of life, the diversity of culture, or the democratization of governing institutions.

Let’s stipulate, as lawyers might put it, that economic systems, understood on a grand level, are surprisingly resilient. There are relatively few models that have emerged around the planet over the course of human history and they are slow to change. So, whatever we want to say about the current economic context in the United States, it’s still capitalism.  Let’s also stipulate that within those larger models, all kinds of local changes are occurring all the time in response to other shifts on the social, cultural, political, legal, and technological levels. We have changes, say, in terms of the mode of production or the systems of exchange or the conditions of labor that matter. Some are describing the current moment as one of Neoliberalism, but I am not convinced this framing fully captures everything that is going on.

And in order for these changes to occur, there are all kinds of localized experiments through which we collectively explore other alternatives and see how they work out in practice. Many of us hoped that the web would be a place for such experimentation, exploration, and speculation, where at the local level, other alternatives might emerge. Many of us wanted to see what would happen if we expanded dramatically who had access to the means of cultural production and circulation, if we explored what would happen if more people had a creative say in the cultural institutions and practices that impacted their everyday life, if we experimented with what a more diverse and participatory culture might look like. All kinds of amazing and all kinds of deeply disturbing things have emerged as a consequence of those ongoing experiments. How could it be otherwise? And the results of these experiments have been unevenly distributed across the culture, some moving rapidly, some slowly, towards wide-spread adaption.

If we look back over those twenty plus years, what has emerged has been a mixed bag — not simply “more the same.”  I don’t think the rewards of all of these experiments can be reduced to the language of the “free labor” critique: new forms of exploitation with no real gain for the communities that are seeking to shift the conditions of their existence. Yet, I also don’t think what has emerged has been as “revolutionary” as some of us might have hoped.

One of the people I know who has reflected most deeply about these issues is John Banks, who has spent more than a decade exploring the concept of co-creation and traced its impact  within the games industry. In Convergence Culture, I had pointed towards the games industry as a key example of a creative sector which has adopted a more collaborationist relationship with its consumers, often encouraging them to build freely on its products to see what might emerge from such grassroots experimentation, and in some cases, reaching out to core groups of consumers and bringing them more directly into the production process, seeking their advice on new products and their suggestions for design decisions. Banks was a graduate student at the creative industry program at Queensland University of Technology, a program led by Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, and out of which have come such key thinkers about digital matters as Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Joshua Green, and Alan McKee, among many others.  Wanting to understand how this co-creative labor worked, Banks embedded himself as a community manager inside an Australian games company, Auran, placing himself at the point of contact between consumers and professional creators. Through this research, he has yielded some core insights into what changes — and what doesn’t change — when companies embrace co-creation as part of their production process.

In the interview which follows, Banks looks back over that decade of research. He reflects on his recent book, Co-Creating Games, but also looks beyond it, to try to assess the complexities and contradictions which have surfaced through some of these experiments. There is a degree of nuance here which we rarely see in discussions of emerging labor and business practices, a refusal to accept “either-or” answers. I think his comments provide the clearest explanation I can offer as to why co-creation is more than “capitalism in new bottles” but also not quite as revolutionary as some people might have once believed. All those we enter here, be prepared to think (and rethink).

 

You titled the book’s introduction, “Co-Creating Matters.” Let’s break it down. How are you defining co-creation and what are some of the ways that co-creating matters?

 

Co-creation concerns the practices through which users and consumers take an active role in generating value in the domain of cultural production and consumption. In the context of the videogames industry I propose in the book’s opening sentence that gamers do not just play videogames; they also make them. The boundaries between playing, producing and consuming blur as player consumers collaborate and cooperate with each other and with professional developers to design, produce, circulate and market compelling videogames. So this is about shifts in the conditions of cultural production. My starting point definition in the book is that co-creativity occurs when consumers contribute a non-trivial component of the design development, production, marketing and distribution of a new or existing product. Here I’m drawing on others work, including yours Henry on participatory, convergence cultures and colleagues such as Axel Bruns on ideas of produsage.

 

In this book though I’m less interested in a static definition of co-creation than I am in describing the processes and practices that constitute this phenomenon. My approach is ethnographic and I’m very much led in my research by that ethnographic commitment to describing the lived experiences of media industry professionals (in this case game developers) and gamers (consumers and users) as they explore and negotiate the opportunities and challenges of co-creativity. So the micro behaviours and practices are very much my focus. In the book’s introduction I refer to ethnographer Paul Rabinow’s comment in his study of a biotech company (Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology 1996:17) that ‘the anthropologically pertinent point is the fashioning of the particularity of practices’. This has been a guiding aim throughout the research that informs Co-creating Videogames – to describe the particularity of co-creative practices.

 

You ask what are some of the ways that co-creating matters. I guess that is one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out over the decade or more in which I’ve undertaken this research. The starting point is that it does matter – it is significant culturally and economically. Value is being generated through these practices – both cultural and economic. But what struck me very early in the research was the quite diverse ways in which these practices come to matter and the dynamic and conflicting relations among these ways of mattering.

 

I’ve tried to avoid assuming how co-creating matters and to explore how it comes to matter for and among the participants (both professionals and amateurs / users) and to describe how this mattering is negotiated. I guess this is the inquiry that orients this research, by not starting out knowing what I’m looking for or looking at. Part of all this is also seeing or trying to see the materiality, the technologies and materials, that contribute to shaping co-creative practices. This struck me very early in the research; in my first visits with the videogames developer, Auran games, and involvement with the gamer fan community forming around their games, this question of technology and tools came to the fore. The developers talked to me about game engines, code, servers, tools and so on. Their daily work practices involved all of this.

In one of my early contacts with a member of the Auran fan community (this was back in 1997), the company had just released their hit real-time strategy game Dark Reign) a member of that community, VR_Bones, contacted me. VR_Bones got on a train with his PC box and visited me at my home. It was a good 30 minutes or so train journey for him and he then walked to my home (another 10 minutes or so from the station) lugging his PC game rig. He wanted to show me some content, user created content, he and a few other members of the community had made for Dark Reign (these included user created maps and some AI routines that would modify the behaviour of in game units – so mods).

He spent a good while walking me through the challenges they were confronting in using the tools Auran provided to make this content. He also raised concerns about how Auran was not quite providing the level of support and information they needed to continue with this work. At the same time he praised Auran for the fact that they were engaging with the player community and listening. As he put it, ‘hey they are listening isn’t that great, each week they have a chat session online with us. And some of the guys, the devs, on the team, they provide us with helpful information and answer our emails and stuff when they have the time’.

 

Shortly after the visit from VR_Bones I went into the Auran studio to have a crack at my first interviews with the developers. I sat with a young programmer who was hunting down bug fixes in the final stages of a game project. He was very focused on that screen and the conversation was kind of stilted and uncomfortable. He was trying to describe stuff to me, the core of his job really, which I just didn’t get. When I raised the developers’ relationship with the online gamer fan community and the work they had been doing with them he got a little more animated, but kind of dismissed me gesturing at his screen and commenting, ‘I should be getting back to it’.

Understanding what that “it” was for him and his fellow developers and how all this played out in relationship to the activities I was seeing with the gamer fans, I wanted to understand that. This meant figuring out how to get better access to the studio, how to spend more time with the developers and so on. Back then I didn’t have a term for it, the kinds of interactions I was seeing and participating in between the developers and the players, I certainly wasn’t calling it co-creation back in 1997. I was trying to frame it then in terms of ideas of active audience and fan cultures. I first used the terms co-creation to start grappling with all of this in a book chapter I wrote back in 2001, published in 2002 (‘Games as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience – A Report from the Net Face’).

 

I think there’s a lot about mattering in this brief vignette from the early ethnographic research that I’ve been trying to unpack ever since.

 

There’s the technology question that I pursue as a theme in the book, including a dedicated chapter, ‘Co-creative Technologies’ that explores this in the context of a dialogue with actor-network theory and others who take up this question of technologies and materiality such as Ian Bogost. There’s the question of the nature and characteristics of the value being generated through these co-creative practices. For VR_bones and his fellow gamers it mattered to them, they had a lot invested in this activity and in the materials they were collectively making and sharing. For him it was also about learning by participating in these networks – learning about games development and AI.

There is also an exchange of value here between the developers and the community of players – what are the terms and conditions of that exchange, the expectations, understandings and indeed misunderstandings about these transactions. This concerns a dynamic and at times volatile and uncertain relationship between economic and commercial motivations/incentives and other non-commercial motivations and incentives.

 

At its heart this book is about the participants’ diverse understandings, motivations and incentives that collectively contribute to making co-creativity. These participants include technologies – so humans and non-humans. What also matters in this, in the negotiation of these co-creative relationships, is the different forms of knowledge and expertise.

I address this in chapter 5 ‘Co-creative expertise’. Co-creativity relies on if not requires networks of amateurs and professionals, experts and non-experts. This blurring of the professional-amateur divide, however, is never easy or straightforward. It is often contentious and conflictual. I think that comes through in the ethnographic accounts of co-creativity as it plays out in the game developer workplaces. But nor are these complex and at times quite fraught relationships necessarily an impediment to co-creativity. They are the very conditions through which co-creativity plays out.

This also brings out another issue that matters here. The everyday work practices of professional media workers are at stake in these co-creative networks. Co-creativity can unsettle the expertise, employment and identities of media professionals. The question of labour and work conditions matters in all of this as well. It is a thread that I think runs through the entire book and has a chapter dedicated to it – ‘Co-creative Labour?’. Finally another aspect of matters concerns the debates and discussions among academics as we attempt to grapple with, analyse, understand and explain emerging phenomenon such as co-creative production.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

S Is For Storytelling: A Primer for Future Activists

As the Spring term ends here at USC, and we enter into the summer months, I am being asked about my plans. While I have a few away missions, I am mostly staying in Southern California where I and my research team (Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik) are going to be drilling down on our research on Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics, a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation and part of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Our hope is to come out of the summer with a completed draft of our collectively authored book, By Any Media Necessary. If you read this blog with some regularity, you will have seen an increased focus on this work over the past year or so and you may have seen my coverage of our webinar series of Storytelling in Digital Age Civics, featuring young activists. Our post-doc Liana Gamber-Thompson, who recently became a mother, has been reflecting deeply on what we learned through those webinars and has come back with this thought piece about our research. Enjoy!

 

S is for Storytelling
Liana Gamber-Thompson

There are a lot of things you miss out on when you have a sixth month old baby: sleep, personal hygiene, eating meals with two hands. But for all the bleary-eyed diaper changes and spit up-stained shirts, there are a million moments that fill your heart to the brim, countless simple pleasures that make the daily challenges dissolve quickly into the depths of your memory. One of those simple pleasures is reading to your child.

Part of our bedtime ritual includes rifling through the box of board books and choosing just the right story to tell. I often land on a small, colorfully illustrated book called A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara (it should probably come as no surprise that the son of a postdoc with a sociology degree and a high school English teacher would be gifted such a thing upon his arrival). Nagara mixes a recitation of the alphabet with explanations of different types of activism, taking his reader on a journey from A to Z with stops like “F for a feminist who fights for fundamental rights,” “G for grassroots sprouting from below,” and “Z for Zapatista (of course).”

The entry for D reads:

Little d democracy.
More than voting, you’ll agree.
Dictators detest it. Donkeys don’t get it.
But you and me? We demand equality!

The last time I leafed through the story from the comfort of the nursery rocking chair, baby boy propped on my knee, I lingered on this page. “I guess even children’s books are kind of over institutional politics these days,” I thought to myself. I thought also about the stuff that occupies the corner of my brain that’s not devoted to keeping a tiny human alive: my academic work on youth and politics.

True democracy isn’t really about voting or parties or any of the other trappings of “Big P” politics at all. That sentiment as been echoed time and again by the young people I interact with as part of my research for the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics, an effort made possible by the MacArthur Foundation’s research network on Youth and Participatory Politics.

In 2012, I interviewed young libertarians from across the country about their views on partisan politics and how their political identities connected to their digital lives and experiences online. What I found was a passionate group of young people who were interested in political issues but who were not so interested in getting involved in politics.

Part of their disillusionment stems from the perception that politicians on both sides of the aisle lack the ability to communicate effectively, compromise, or engage in civil discourse. Zachary Slayback, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and self-identified libertarian, explains:

I think people from both sides, both within and outside politics, can look at the youth libertarian movement, see its breadth of views and intellectual perspectives, and see how we all are still able to get along and have rational, civil discourse, and take that as a general lesson.

If anarchists are able to sit in the same room as classical liberal bleeding heart welfarists and have a reasonable discussion on the proper role of government, then surely two people who disagree over 2% in budget cuts should be able to do the same.

Kaja Tretjak, a postdoctoral research fellow at SUNY Buffalo Law School who has done extensive research on the student liberty movement, says that young libertarians are interested in creating a “dynamic grassroots presence to transform society…rather than using a political system that is seen, by many people in the movement, as inherently corrupt and ineffective for their purposes.”

And it’s not just libertarians who are feeling disenchanted with politics as usual; we’ve heard young people from across the political spectrum express their frustration with the seemingly limited options for effecting change through traditional mechanisms, and recent studies bear this out as well. A March 2014 Pew report on Millennials entering adulthood suggests that half of all Millennials choose not to identify with either political party and only 31% say there is a “great deal of difference” between Democratic and Republican parties.

Still, the story is not all one of doom and gloom (and besides, I’m not really in the business of inciting moral panics about the kids these days). But if young people are bypassing traditional politics more and more, how do they engage in meaningful change in 2014?

Media scholar Ethan Zuckerman has used the term “participatory civics,” the use of digital media to engage in political discussion or share civic media, to talk about the kind of contemporary engagement that continues to grow and flourish in the absence of faith in the political system. He argues, “It’s not that people aren’t interested in civics. They’re simply not interested in feeling ineffectual or helpless.” In light of that sentiment, young people in particular are turning to more “participatory” modes of engagement, relying on their familiarity with participatory media platforms to effect change.

As part of their engagement in participatory civics, young people are increasingly tapping into the power of storytelling to assert voice and influence in an age when trust in partisan politics is at an all-time low. Storytelling has become an essential tool in the era of digital-age civics.

In a recent webinar series on the topic, sponsored by our research team in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, the Black Youth Project, and the Media Arts + Practice division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, more than twenty young activists came together to think about the affordances and challenges of digital media for civic action and discuss how political narratives are created, produced, spread and recontextualized through their “digital afterlife.”

The participants in this convening showed how, even in the face of swirling public debate on young people and “slacktivism,” or “armchair activism,” the simple act of storytelling can create big change. Take, for instance, the case of Tani Ikeda, founder of ImMEDIAte Justice, an organization that provides girls with the resources and training to tell their own stories about gender and sexuality through film; or Jonathan McIntosh, a pop culture hacker who has reached a wide audience with his video remixes (like “Buffy vs Edward” and “Donald Duck meets Glenn Beck”) to spark critical conversation about topics ranging from gender representations in popular culture to politics and news media.

For many of the webinar participants, telling their stories was a way of asserting (and sometimes finding) their voice. As Zuckerman argues, “voice begets voice,” meaning that it’s easier for people to talk about tough issues or share their personal experiences when others are doing it, too. Erik Huerta, who blogs by the name, El Random Hero, describes how, after he “came out” as undocumented online, he started sharing personal stories via his blog and other social media platforms about how his undocumented identity shaped his everyday experiences. He characterized the process as akin to putting out a “message in a bottle” to reach others, and as something that, in time, gave him the confidence to get involved more actively in organizing around immigrant rights.

The reach of the storytelling practices like those employed by Huerta can also extend beyond voice; sometimes those practices lend themselves to political influence in the traditional sense as well. Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, participated in the first webinar in our series on “finding your story” and described how storytellers often start small by taking inspiration from “inciting incidents,” or small kernels of revelatory knowledge. Russell explained how his inciting incident was finding out about child soldiers in Uganda ten years ago; he went on to produce a series of films about the conflict in Uganda, including Kony 2012, the most “viral” video of all time.

Kony 2012 garnered a great deal of controversy, with critics questioning the organization itself, the potential impact of the film, and the seemingly weak level of engagement it invited. Still, despite the criticism, the film spurred the proposal of a bipartisan resolution in Congress condemning the acts of Joseph Kony. Invisible Children’s other films also sparked more instrumental change, with President Obama signing the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010.

University of Arizona Professor of Sociology, Jennifer Earl, has suggested that it’s time scholars begin to think about what a digital “repertoire of contention,” looks like, a term Charles Tilly used to describe the set of movement tactics available to social actors in any given historical period. Based on the evidence we’ve uncovered, it seems storytelling should be included as a key component in such a digital repertoire because all signs point to the fact that young people today are particularly adept at using storytelling for change–and that’s something we can all be hopeful about.

Young people’s creative use of storytelling to enact civics—to get us one step closer to that “little d” democracy Nagara describes in his children’s book—is not only an inspiration, but a testament to the power and enduring nature of stories more broadly; it seems almost too obvious to say that stories are, at their core, elemental to the human condition.

But these stories mean nothing if they fall on deaf ears. Joan Donovan, co-creator of InterOccupy.net, observed, “Most [people] focus on social media as a way to broadcast our own lives, but these platforms are also a place to receive stories.”

One day, sooner than I can likely imagine, my baby will outgrow my lap and our rocking chair, and he’ll probably grow tired of all my stories. But I hope by the time my sixth month-old is grown up enough to be telling his own stories, I’ll be wise enough to “receive” them with an open mind. Because the most important thing we can do (as adults, as educators, as activists ourselves) when a young person says, “Let me tell you a story,” is listen. And I’m all ears.
This essay is reposted from Medium.

 

Liana Gamber Thompson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate working on the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She also facilitates the Civic Paths graduate research group at Annenberg. Her fields of interest include popular culture, identity and authenticity, and gender and feminism. She is currently investigating how youth engagement in participatory cultures, online networks, and new media leads to civic engagement more broadly. Specifically, she is looking at how libertarian youth organizations participate in these processes and their various strategies for achieving particular political goals, both electoral and discursive. Liana earned her PhD in Sociology and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2010. There, her research focused on teenage girls’ social and affective uses of popular music and the transgressive nature of fandom. She has also taught courses on popular music and cultural politics, community and social justice, the sociology of emotions, and new media and technology.

 

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part Two)

We’ve just learned that Joshua Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asia America has just been been awarded the 2014 ATHE (Association of Theater in Higher Education) Outstanding Book Award! Karen and I are so proud to be working with such outstanding scholars for our Postmillenial Pop book series at New York University Press.

KT: Your chapter, “The Nail That Stands Out: The Political Performativity of the Moriyuki Shimada Scrapbook” offers some very personal, very moving first-person accounts of your own childhood experiences with your mother as a “mixed” racialized subject, and about your own struggles with legibility coming to the fore as you confront the parable of “the nail that stands out.” Could you explain a little more to our general readership about your own relationship to performing one’s own story in work that is explicitly about racialization? How is the personal, biographical, or anecdotal a part of your methodology? And how might it stand in concert or at odds with the logics of narration in legal discourse as well as performance studies?

JC-L: I feel deeply ambivalent about the place of the personal/anecdotal in this book. The “I” in this book—with the exception of that one passage in chapter four and the dedication to my grandmother—remains at a critical distance throughout A Race So Different. I’m Japanese, Black, and white, and in some ways my relationship to the question of racial justice is shaped by this accident of autobiography, as Gayatri Spivak might call it. How could it not be?

Being a person of color can give one a particular perspective on the experiences of racialization and racism. These experience and perspectives are often ignored or debased by a dominant culture that still refuses to accept that racism continues to play a critical role in shaping of US American life. As critical race theorists like Mari Matsuda have taught us, personal narrative can be an important and useful way of disrupting the legal discourses of the dominant culture. But it also has its dangers.

Rey Chow has done perhaps more work than anyone to show us how the seeming liberation promised by the minoritarian scholar’s personal reflexivity and self-referentiality can become a cage that traps this scholar within identitarian coordinates. So while one must sometimes respond to the dominant culture’s elision and erasure of minoritarian lives by articulating and telling the stories of our lives as they are lived, I also believe that we must be strategic in how we do so. And, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t give everything away: I want to protect certain secret forms of survival and intimacies that structure minoritarian lives from a culture that so often takes such knowledge, appropriates it, distorts it, or guts it of its operative and insurgent potential.

If there’s anything I might say about my turn to the anecdotal that isn’t ambivalent, it’s this: the story I tell in chapter four is about something that my mother, Shadi, taught me as a kid in order to help me survive the racist and homophobic environment of Colorado, where I was raised. And I wanted to honor my mother, who is as much a theorist of race, sex, class, and gender, and a practitioner of minoritarian survival, as any of the famous philosophers, scholars, and artists that I engage with in the book.

KT: Finally, what are some of the broader stakes for you of doing a book like A Race So Different and situating it in a series about popular phenomena using contemporary methods in a contemporary moment? Who are some of the broader audiences you hope to reach, and what would you like some of your project’s “takeaways” to be? To what extent is this first project the foundation for some of your new work on Marxist theory and minoritarian performance?

JC-T: It was important to me to show how cultural forms (including, especially, the popular) should not be divided away from legal or political forms. This is because, as I argue throughout the book, they are inextricable from each other. When I disaggregate the parts of a system (e.g., separating the law and aesthetics from each other), I lose a more comprehensive vision of that system and become less capable of taking the system apart in order to build something better.

In this way, the mode of ideology critique that undergirds this book is largely inspired by Marxist theory. For me, Marxist theory is both an interrogation of system, capital, and labor as it is a philosophy of emancipation. It felt like a logical extension to explore more fully the relationship between Marxist theory and minoritarian performance in the next project. The law, too, will be present in that project because law plays a key role in the reproduction of the conditions of production.

As to the question of audience: On a deeply personal level, José Muñoz was and always will be the primary audience of this book. It began as a dissertation under his care and he read it and supported it, challenged it, and thought through it with me at every stage. The fact of this book is now difficult because it is part of a conversation with and inspired by him that is left incomplete by his death.

But, obviously, one doesn’t write a book for only one person. So perhaps it would make the most sense to say that it was written for the subjects of the brown commons. It was written for all of us who are struggling to make this world better because we cannot abide the insufficiencies of the here and now. And it was written for those of us who still believe that aesthetics will play an important role in this coming transformation of our conditions of existence, as they always played a role in revolution and transformation throughout all history.

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, of course, for sharing your project through our book series. And I, personally, find your closing words about the brown commons and José—a dear friend and mentor to me as well—an especially apt, and moving way to frame our conversation, and our own scholarly intertwinement.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part One)

The following is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books in the Postmillenial Pop series which I co-edited with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. In this case, Karen Tongson did the interview and wrote everything below.

Among the most recent titles in our Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press is Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s ambitious first monograph, A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. Chambers-Letson brings together a range of cultural phenomena in the “long twentieth century”—from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to, Ping Chong’s Chinoiserie, to the contemporary, L.A. based indie band, Dengue Fever—in order to illuminate how the legal histories of Asian Americans, in the U.S. are deeply intertwined with genealogies of performance. More specifically, the law itself becomes a genre of performance in Chambers-Letson’s work, as it shapes, defines and calls into (legal) being Asian American bodies through exclusion, relocation, extradition and rendition. Trained as a performance studies scholar, Chambers-Letson is interested more broadly in how we find performance practices beyond the stage, and in the genres of the everyday, including popular culture. He took the time to speak with me about how he imagines his work on Asian American law and performance in a much broader political and scholarly context.

KT: Allow me to begin with a simple “chicken or egg” question, since our readers are always curious about what inspires the eclectic projects that have appeared in our series. In other words, when you first began to conceptualize the project, did you begin with the legal archives and debates, or did the specific case studies and performances inspire you to look deeper into the legal and archival materials?

JC-L: Rather than a sequence, I usually began with the question I wanted to explore and then followed the question to the right place. The book is trying to offer a theory of the state that makes a simple point: the law has an aesthetic dimension and aesthetic forms often mediate and transmit legal knowledge. Court opinions have their own narrative conventions (including wit and humor, rhetoric, tone and style) and court cases are often staged in a theatrical fashion or through legal ritual. In turn, a show like Law and Order is one of the prime ways that many people gain access to the law and (sometimes manipulated or mutated) legal knowledge. As such, the main thing I wanted to address was this conjunction of law and performance.

Because I was approaching the project in a fashion that blurred the line between law and aesthetics, there wasn’t really a sequence to the way I gathered material. You know, the last thing the world needed was another chapter on how racist Madame Butterfly is; so that’s not the chapter that I wrote. Instead, I started with the question: how can I think through the ways that popular works about culture mediate and disseminate legal discourse. Since so much of Madame Butterfly is concerned with questions of law, and since the legal discourse in Butterfly so neatly lines up with legal narratives that were being produced about Asian and Asian Americans in US courts at the time, it seemed like the right place to go to answer that question.

From there, I shuttled back and forth between the legal archives and the cultural site. This is cheesy, but my favorite comfort food is oyako-donburi, which is basically a rice bowl with simmered chicken and egg. There’s no sequence to it, they all happen at the same time.

KT: Not cheesy at all (I also love a good donburi), but definitely delicious! Moving on…I’d like to follow up a bit about your interest in the law and legal studies, especially since your graduate training was in performance studies. The relationship between the two can be traced to the moment when “performativity” (viz. Austin, Butler and others) entered conversations about “performance” in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And yet your work does so much more to expand the category of performance in relation to the law, since it moves beyond the speech acts that “declare” certain legal statuses into being. What were some of your larger objectives in bringing together the two categories and approaches, and how did you come up against some resistance to the idea that the “law” is in many respects, also a “stage”? I think this will be of interest to some media scholars who are also invested in the legal and political economy of their objects and how they’ve been legislated.

JC-L: By exploring the conjunction between law and performance, I was interested in exploring questions raised by Austin and Butler, as well as questions posed by Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, Louis Althusser, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and José Muñoz. There’s a funny moment in Leviathan where Hobbes makes fun of Aristotle. He goes on to lambast people who believe in the idea of a government that is ruled by law rather than by men. This is because in the final instance the law is only as good as the people that execute or perform the law’s commands.

Schmitt does a similar thing in his attack on legal positivism when he reminds us that all law is situational and it is precisely because law has interpretive gaps that it is a political—and I would also say performed or embodied—art.

Althusser asks us to consider how it is that our own everyday performances of life come to realize the ruling ideology as it is transmitted through ideological apparatuses such as the law. From Sedgwick I learned that the distinction between performativity and performance, or say law and aesthetics, is a false distinction and that we should be suspicious of the binarization of these two.

And Muñoz taught me in Disidentifications that the operative fictions and apparatuses of the dominant culture, in this case the law, can be played with through performance in order to survive hostile conditions and even survive them.

By asking these kinds of questions, I hoped to show how it is that we can better understand how the law works, how it lays claim to our bodies, and how we might be able to disrupt this claim. I also wanted to press home the point, one more time, that cultural production is as much an ideological apparatus as the law and that the conjunction of the two is central to the reproduction of our conditions of existence.

KT: As you know, our book series is interested in popular cultures and phenomena broadly defined. We were of course captivated by the expansiveness of the cultural archive in A Race So Different, moving as it does from Puccini’s (popular) opera, Madame Butterfly, to the contemporary So. Cal “Cambo-rock” of Dengue Fever. How do you feel your book implicitly and explicitly provides its own definition of popular culture? How do the objects in your book exceed their contributions to “Asian/American” performance (as some are wont to isolate texts featuring Asians/Americans) into a broader, transcultural, transmedia framework for the popular?

JC-L: My friend C. Riley Snorton recently released a beautiful book about the discursive circulation of the “down low” within popular culture. I see his project as being very much in conversation with my own. In that book he returns our attention to Raymond Williams’ three-part exploration of popular culture as being “low” or “base,” work that is meant to appeal to the masses, and work that is simply consumed in mass. I followed an impulse similar to Snorton’s approach, which was to break down the distinctions between a work of “high” art (like opera) and more popular forms (like melodrama or rock music), to show how they bleed together.

I also wanted to show how the daily rituals that structure our lives should be included within the sphere of the popular, as with my studies of the taking of personal photographs for a scrapbook, the mounting of a high school play, or the schoolroom performance of the pledge of allegiance (all from within the Japanese American concentration camps of World War Two).

I’m not sure if the book provides a definition of popular culture so much as it asks whose agenda is being served when we carve out certain forms of culture as “high” (opera or avante-garde performance) from the “low” material of popular culture (scrapbooking, rock music, community theater). The division between “high” art—which is often the work associated with the economic and cultural elite—and “low” or popular culture is one that we should be suspicious of insofar as it reifies a division of intellectual and cultural labor that contributes to the reproduction of class and social hierarchy.

The book focuses on Asian America in order to ground and illustrate these larger points. My hope is that it does as much work for helping us to think about the specific conditions under which racial meaning comes into being for the Asian American body as it does for thinking about the way cultural practices within the popular realm shape all of our broader material and social realities.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Three)

You write in the book about feminist uses and critiques of online learning technologies. What might the tradition of feminist pedagogy have to teach us about the limits of the current fascination with MOOCs?

The FemTechNet white paper http://femtechnet.newschool.edu/femtechnet-whitepaper/ emphasizes the fact that appeals for open access to education have a long history that go back to the settlement house movement, and this history continues through various cyberfeminist projects, so open education certainly didn’t begin with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, and feminists aren’t hostile to openness, although they do value how the embodied “live” classroom can serve as a safe space to explore uncomfortable issues.

The problems begin with the fact that the “course” part often reinforces traditional power structures, because a – usually – lone white male expert – unchallenged by any dissenting opinions and divorced from dialogue with others – transmits information as gospel to a passive audience unable really to answer back.  It’s really time travel back to the pedagogy of the nineteen fifties from before the free speech movement.  At such a “massive” scale it’s also impossible to form interpersonal relationships with students and to be accountable to their personal needs.

 

One of the more provocative passages here centers around Tim Gunn’s performance on Project Runway and its various online extensions. What might academics learn about the construction of their public personas by studying how Gunn has presented himself through this series?

 

There is a lot of talk about trying to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” in the pedagogical literature and also about project-based learning in which students need to iterate, experiment, revise, explore, deliver, and reflect.  It is hard to miss these aspects of education if you like to watch episodes of Project Runway.

It’s also the rare reality show where the hugs for a disappointed student look genuine.  I tend to like the early shows the best, from when fashion mentor Tim Gunn was still an administrator at Parsons with a much more professorial personality.

I like the fact that he displays a sense of humor – as well as empathy and high standards.  It’s a spirit that I aspire to bring to my own academic appointments, although I am a much less natty dresser.

 

You argue that the current fascination with badges often confuses notions of “earning” and “learning.” Why is this an important distinction to maintain? Why do you think badges have been so appealing to educators and funding organizations? How do they illustrate some of the limits of thinking about education in terms of gamification?

Assessment is always a challenge to educators, so I understand why instructors are desperate to find methods other than high-stakes testing at which so many talented students who are good at revised work fail or alternatives to the grades that serve as a source of so much conflict and so much labor in justifying grades rather than providing feedback that actually enlightens or changes behavior.  (However, as a rhetorician I actually enjoy reading grade complaints, because they tend to be quite well-written; students have a strong sense of purpose in approaching the task of writing a grade complaint.)

I argue that badges don’t necessarily get us out of the problems that we have with grades, and they work against holistic assessments that are easier for multiple audiences to interpret.  But, as they say, “never say never.”  Right now I am working with my colleague Wayne Yang on an interesting project that might involve badges.

In the book I criticize the general trend toward gamification in education, and I would also recommend the forthcoming volume from MIT Press that is edited by Sebastian Deterding on the subject.  Like many educators interested in digital media and learning, it’s irritating to see game formats adopted very superficially without much consideration about how people learn more deeply from interacting with the rule-based systems of games.

I also have a more specific gripe about emphasizing the goal of happiness rather than the goal of understanding when thinking about how games serve as a model for learning.  Games can be a very effective way to explore the procedural character of concepts like injustice, which is important in a well-rounded education, and I don’t have much patience for advocates for positive psychology who emphasize what I think are much more simple-minded and self-centered personal rewards.

 

In the book’s conclusion, you ask: “How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive?” In many ways, this is the central theme of the book. What do you see as some approaches to digital media and learning which might satisfy those criteria?

In the final chapter I propose six general principles, so if someone wants to give a copy of the book to a university president as a not very subtle hint about how to chart a new course when it comes to instructional technology, there’s essentially an executive summary with a list of recommendations.

In general, I think that “technology” is imagined too narrowly to mean only brand new digital technologies to be used only for formal traditional instruction that need to be purchased from instructional technology vendors.  But in our Culture, Art, and Technology program, we remind students that technology can encompass many things.  After all, windows that let in light or chairs that move are also instructional technologies.

I also think that we define learning far too narrowly to focus only on objectives from courses listed in catalogues and ignore all of the other things that students learn not only in college but also in many other contexts in which people interact and communicate. In Sixth College we emphasize “experiential learning” and encourage students to learn from faculty in settings other than the classroom, such as laboratories, field sites, clinical settings, or community centers.  That’s the place for exercising all those so-called “soft skills” valued by employers that higher education can develop.

If we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to digital technologies, experiment ethically, pay attention to failures, avoid fetishizing novelty, and most of all listen to our students, I think there is actually tons of hope for doing great work generating new knowledge together in the university setting. 

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

 

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Two)


You reference two different analogies which are commonly used to describe the “crisis” in higher education — that of the health care system and that of the newspaper industry. All analogies foreground some factors and mask others. What do these metaphors allow us to see or prevent us from seeing about higher education today?

I think both of those analogies involving how traditional institutions are being transformed by so-called “disruptive” technologies emphasize different aspects of the college experience, since faculty both nurture and inform students.  In the case of newspapers, technology supposedly lowers costs, while in the case of healthcare, technology (and patients’ dependence on increasingly specialized expertise) raises them.  With the rise of telemedicine and smart phone applications for health, supposedly technology can lower costs as well, but we aren’t yet seeing any reductions.

Many of the arguments both for and against technology that I deconstruct in this book rely on metaphors and logical comparisons of various kinds.  For example, Henry Eyring and Clayton Christensen go on and on about the “DNA” of innovative universities.  Anya Kamenetz has so many metaphors per page in DIY U  that I couldn’t even analyze them all.

My general rhetorical strategy tends to be to emphasize narrative rather than metaphor to persuade my audience to think critically about the instructional technology movement.  I tell stories with descriptions and plots and characters that I hope can counter some myths.    

 

What are some of the ways that classroom practices that claim to increase student engagement and provide opportunities for greater participation actually limit student voice and agency?

Student engagement is a buzzword often used by vendors to mean command and control.  The idea is that students are disengaged because they are multitasking with texting or web surfing, and we need to keep them busy with relevant tasks that are so demanding that they are forced to pay attention to the instructions from the podium.

The technology that I probably loathe the most is the clicker.  Certainly, these handheld response systems provide short-term behavioral rewards to students who click in the right answer promptly in large lecture halls, although I wonder if they can apply that knowledge to real world situations or retain it for a lifetime.

I will admit that really good teachers know how to use clickers as a way to stimulate discussion and explore assumptions and raise questions.  But if you have really engaged students by learning their names and recognizing their faces, you can get the same results by just asking them to raise their hands.

Certainly just giving students an identifiable serial number tied to a device that can be tracked instead doesn’t do much to reduce lecture hall anonymity.  Being surveiled is different from being validated.  At their worst clickers can push the idea that higher education is just a matter of choosing the right answer on a multiple choice quiz.

 

Throughout, you take a strong stance against those who want to “blow up the schools” or advocate various forms of unschooling practice. What do you see as some of the core arguments against this recurring theme in popular discourse about pedagogy which seems to want to abolish formal instruction?

I am particularly concerned about how already constrained community colleges that do an amazing job with very limited budgets could receive even fewer public dollars when taxpayer money gets diverted to service loans for distance learning at for-profit institutions or gets spent on gizmos destined for the dustbin.

I am a big advocate for community colleges.  They respond to the concerns of local citizens.  They offer courses at night.  They educate high school students and senior citizens.  They serve students planning to transfer to research universities and those needing vocational education.  I used to take a course or two at a community college every year.

James Paul Gee also makes a great argument in The Anti-Education Era about what he calls the problem of “the school of one.”  If we only have autonomous learners racking up their college credits like points in a video game from home, they may not develop the collaborative and communicative capacities needed to solve really complex problems collectively.

The Kansas Board of Regents recently imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by their faculty. How might the debate around this policy shed light on some of the fault lines you discuss in your book — particularly around assertions of academic freedom and efforts by universities to shape public perceptions?

In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use.  Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice.  Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.

We’ll see.  It probably depends on getting scholarly professional associations interested, which they already are to promote new forms of communication, particularly when so many academic presses producing print monographs are unsustainable.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

 

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she’s definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh’s partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we’ve discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She’s someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We’ve written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here’s what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: “Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.”

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh’s use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like Turnitin.com to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.

 

You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?

 

As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.

 

You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

Videos from The Women Who Create Television Conference

Last week, I shared the videos from our Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television conference. This year, we had a pre-conference event hosted at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and sponsored by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of its Geek Speaks series. We brought together a diverse set of women who have been showrunners, creators, head writers, and/or executive producers on television series, examining both the challenges that still confront these women working in what remains a male-dominated space and their creative contributions to the current state and future direction of this medium. The conversations which emerged were lively, provocative, and substantive: they gave us lots to think about. Thanks to all of the participants, but especially to Sophie Madej from the Annenberg Innovation Lab staff for all of her work in making the conference possible, and to Erin Reilly and Francesca Marie Smith for serving as moderators.

Geek Speaks: The Women Who Make Television (Part 1) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Panel 1 Creative Process (Moderator: Erin Reilly, Annenberg Innovation Lab)
Melanie Chilek, The Ricki Lake Show, The Dating Game, Judge Hatchet
Felicia Henderson, Moesha, Gossip Girl, Fringe
Alexa Junge, Friends, United States of Tara, Best Friends Forever
Julie Plec, KyleXY, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals
Stacy L. Smith, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Geek Speaks: The Women Who Make Television (Part 2) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Panel 2 Creative Products (Moderator: Francesca Smith)
Jenny Bicks, Sex and the City, Men in Trees, The Big C
Meg DeLoatch, Family Matters, Brothers, EVE, Single Ladies
Winnie Holzman, My So-Called Life, Wicked, Huge
Robin Schiff, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Down Dog

Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television Conference Videos (Part Two)

Last time, I shared videos of the opening sessions of the Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television conference, recently hosted at UCLA, and organized by myself and Denise Mann (UCLA). I am grateful to David McKenna for his epic work in editing, mixing, and uploading these videos so quickly.

Today, I am sharing the video from the final two sessions of the conference — including my one-on-one exchange with Sleepy Hollow‘s Orlando Jones around the ways he has been using social media to interface with his fans and the politics of diversity and creativity in the contemporary television industry.

TMH5, Panel Four: Indie TV – Where Creators & Fans Pilot New Shows from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers on this panel contributes to this new vision of television by producing series for the Internet that are being shaped for traditional TV as well; (several of these web series are being developed for HBO). Issa Rae created The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign. Rae went on to produce additional series, including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles, which Rubin released via her own Barnacle Studios. In the process, Little Horribles has become a hit with fans and with critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series The Couple, and releasing additional series created by other emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, which prompted viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series to follow characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. Raising tens of thousands of dollars from fans, Adam Goldman created and wrote two critically-acclaimed dramas, The Outs and Whatever this is, exploring the realities of being insecure in New York City. After showrunner Brad Bell co-created Husbands with Jane Espenson, the indie hit caught the eye of CW executives, who used the series to launch their new online network. As these examples convey, the Internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web creators and web celebs, who, in combination with fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor, Northwestern University

Panelists: Brad Bell, co-creator and star, Husbands
Jay Bushman, producer and writer, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
Adam Goldman, writer and director, Whatever this is
Numa Perrier, co-founder, Black & Sexy
Issa Rae, creator and star, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
Amy Rubin, creator and star, Little Horribles

TMH5, Panel Five: Discussion on fandom and the future with Orlando Jones, the star of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Fandom and the Future of Television Orlando Jones, Star, Writer, Producer, Sleepy Hollow with Henry Jenkins

At the opening of the panel, I share the story of how I first connected with Orlando Jones. Orlando, who is ever-present on Twitter, had referenced my book, Textual Poachers, which seemed to be a ready invitation to engage. I wrote back to say that I was following his new series, Sleepy Hollow, closely and enthusiastically. A few minutes later, I wrote back to see if he might be willing to visit my PhD seminar on fandom, participatory culture, and Web 2.0 the next time he was in Los Angeles, and within the course of 30 minutes, we had met, shared our mutual admiration, and he had agreed to do a guest lecture (already had his people working with me to pull this off). And of course, fans online were already speculating about whether there might be a Henry/Orlando ship forming (Horlando, perhaps?) and the answer is wouldn’t you like to know. His visit with my USC students was captured on video and today, I am finally able to share it with you also, so for my fellow Sleepy Hollow fans out there, this is a double dose of Orlando’s magic. And for everyone else, I hope you will agree with me that he is an extraordinary individual — deeply respectful of his fans, outrageously funny at the drop of a hat, and deeply thoughtful about his craft and about the changing media environment a second later. I’ve learned so much from my two conversations with him so far and am very happy to be sharing these exchanges with a broader public via this blog. Enjoy!

Orlando Jones from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television Conference Videos (Part One)

Today, we are releasing the first batch of videos from our April 4 conference, Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television, jointly hosted by Denise Mann (UCLA) and myself (USC) and held in UCLA’s James Bridges Theater. Special thanks to David McKenna for his epic work in editing, mixing, and uploading these videos so quickly.

PANEL 1 Virtual Entrepreneurs: Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future

In Fall 2011, Google announced plans to invest $100 million dollars to forge original content partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creators in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: Individual web creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCN), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek & Sundry), Freddie Wong (“Video Game High School”) and Dane Boetlinger (“Annoying Orange”), each of whom has catapulted themselves into the top tier of web celebs with huge fan followings. Many of these entrepreneurial web creators have sought out deals with MCNs such as Fullscreen, Maker Studios and Machinima in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside long-term contracts with MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms — the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or if they are transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.

Moderator: Denise Mann, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / associate professor, head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Panelists: Sheri Bryant, partner/co-founder, Geek & Sundry
Allen DeBevoise, chairman and CEO, Machinima, Inc.
Amanda Lotz, associate professor, University of Michigan
George Strompolos, founder and CEO, Fullscreen, Inc.

TMH5, Introduction & Panel One: Creators Who Are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

PANEL 2
The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers

As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblr and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution — the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner), satellite carriers (DirecTV, Dish) and telcos (AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sitcoms — behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers. These policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place at over-the-top (OTT) premium video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and YouTube (as well as among other players such as Microsoft Xbox), as each makes moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming (Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black; Amazon’s Alpha House and Betas) — the OTT services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood’s premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the OTT services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell.

Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief, digital, Variety

Panelists:
Belisa Balaban, senior vice president, alternative and live programming, Pivot/Participant Media
Jamie Byrne, director, content strategy, YouTube
David Craig, clinical assistant Professor, USC, and producer, Media Nation
Joe Lewis, head of original programming, Amazon Studios

TMH5, Panel Two: The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

PANEL 3 Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding and Social Media: Re-imagining Television

Consumption As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to ensure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as ABC’s Scandal, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and BET’s Being Mary Jane. Second-screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators or series. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being underrepresented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / provost professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, USC

Panelists: Ivan Askwith, lead strategist, “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter Campaign
Vicky L Free, chief marketing officer, BET Networks
Stacey Lynn Schulman, senior vice president, chief research officer, TVB
Sharon L. Strover, professor, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

TMH5, Panel Three: Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.