Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Two)

You see the recording industry and radio as complexly intertwined institutions which follow somewhat different logics. Can you outline that relationship for us and explain why it is key for understanding the current copyright wars?

Radio networks and record labels both evolved as natural “frenemies” in the early 20th Century. This dynamic was partially due to the technological breakthroughs of pioneering inventors like Edison, Tesla and Marconi, but it was also shaped in large part by political and economic forces. For instance, until World War I, most radio transmissions in the US were peer-to-peer, with hundreds of thousands of individual hobbyists sharing their music and commentary freely with any who cared to listen. There was no such thing as a broadcaster or a receiver; every device was capable of both sending and receiving information. This only changed after the federal government began regulating radio in the 1920s, as part of a larger quid-pro-quo deal with commercial interests.

The larger point is, neither radio networks nor record labels were necessary given the affordances of the technologies they use; they developed in contradistinction to one another, and in response to larger social forces. Record labels evolved around a retail model, controlling the distribution of music through material channels, and radio evolved around an advertising model, monopolizing the right to distribute music through intangible channels. Record labels provided royalty-free content to fuel radio listenership, and radio provided free promotion for the goods that labels sold. There were tensions over the years (for instance, periodic “payola” scandals), but this system held for most of the 20th Century, and sustained itself through legal, technological and economic developments that reinforced the initial, largely arbitrary, distinctions between the two sectors.

Given this history, it’s easy to see why the Internet poses such a threat to this complex and delicate media ecology – by altering the technological playing field and challenging longstanding legal and economic norms, it essentially erodes the wall that separated radio from retail throughout the decades. Without tangible records and dedicated broadcasting towers, how can we know whether a song file, consisting of 1s & 0s, zipping from server to client or peer to peer, should be treated more like radio or retail? We’ve developed technological formats, which we call “downloading” and “streaming,” to emulate the limitations of 20th Century distribution platforms, and developed laws, like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, to enforce these limitations, but without the complex and expensive physical infrastructure of traditional radio and retail, the old media ecology is coming to seem increasingly arbitrary, and impedimental to innovation. To put it simply, the only thing holding the old music industry ecology together at this point is a thin veneer of copyright law, enforced (literally at times) at gunpoint.

Given the history of exploitation they have suffered at the hands of the Labels, you could have imagined the interests of performers/composers and fans/audiences being aligned against the labels as these new systems of production and circulation rolled out. Why have we seen such conflict between the interests of music producers and consumers?

This is a really interesting question, though its premise is a bit reductionist. In point of fact, a great many recording artists have expressed vocal support for increased consumer power, and have embraced technologies and business models that presuppose consumers’ ability to copy and share music at no cost (examples in the book range from seeding P2P networks to crowdfunding campaigns to giving away CDs with the Sunday paper). And, conversely, a great many consumers have expressed support for paying artists, and have put their money where their mouths are, via an ever-expanding range of channels.

Yet, as you point out, there is an increasingly urgent strain of public debate that claims that artists and other creative professionals are being asked to “give away” the fruits of their labor because “consumers demand it.” While this is a mischaracterization of the actual situation, it is based around a grain of truth — namely, that it is unclear whether or how the “new economy” or “sharing economy” can compensate every creator for their work to the degree that it will subsidize the time and resources spent producing the work.

This debate is partially fueled by creative professionals who are genuinely uncertain about their career prospects. They may have developed certain forms of expertise (e.g. playing the cello, composing a photograph) under an old economic model, and perhaps even managed to eke out a living doing creative work under that model (though most did not). Now they are being told their old skills are devalued, and that they are expected to develop new additional ones (e.g. garnering social media followers) to compensate. That’s a very real problem, and should be taken seriously.

On the other hand, a great deal of the most vitriolic debate is being fueled somewhat cynically by the interstitial organizations that used to exploit creative labor in the old economy, from record labels and publishers to performing rights organizations and management companies. These organizations want to protect their cut of the money generated by creative labor, and wave the flag of artist rights in order to do so. Yet, historically, these interstitial organizations soaked up the lion’s share of the wealth, leaving only crumbs for creators – analysis by industry guru Donald Passman, for instance, has shown that for every $1,000 consumers spent on music via traditional retail, recording artists were only paid about $24 on average.

What’s happening now is that, because the shape of the music industry is in flux, not only does every stakeholder want to preserve its historical percentage, each one is also jockeying to increase its piece of the pie. Labels and recording artists want to be paid for radio – a privilege previously enjoyed only by songwriters and publishers. Songwriters and publishers want royalties for retail distribution and subscriptions equivalent to those garnered by recording artists – a far cry from the much smaller cut they previously enjoyed. Online webcasters want to pay the same royalties as terrestrial radio providers (currently their rate is much higher). Everyone wants more, more, more, and somehow it’s the consumers’ fault that they can’t grow the pie fast enough to accommodate all the larger slices. In the meantime, the Internet has drastically expanded the “shelf space” and “air time” available to recording artists, which means that instead of a few dozen or a few hundred musicians sharing the pittance that trickles down to them, now the tens of millions of recording artists available on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio each require adequate compensation for their contributions. Is the local niche artist with 1,000 streams per month any less deserving of a percentage than the megastar with millions of streams?

To make matters worse, or at least more complex, some of the new gatekeepers (mostly Google and Apple) are actually making money facilitating the flow of music across digital networks, and all the aggrieved parties count these gains directly against their own perceived losses. Never mind that whatever percentage of the music economy Google garners is minuscule compared to the labels’ and broadcasters’ traditional stake. Never mind that Spotify and Pandora are swimming in red ink from royalty payments and iTunes has always been a break-even business. Never mind that musicians have always been exploited by the very industries posing as their new BFFs, and that being a professional artist was always a risky career choice. It’s much simpler just to blame consumers and tech companies for ruining everything.

One of the key paradoxes for me here is that it is often the same Parent companies — Sony, say — which are selling us the tools to rip and remix music and also going to war to prevent us from using those tools on their own properties. Any insights on how people live with these contradictions within those companies?

The short answer is that large, vertically-integrated companies like Sony are labyrinths of contradiction. Different links in the “distribution chain” are natural competitors, and housing them under a single roof is like having both cats and dogs as pets. To make matters worse, these companies are increasingly beholden to shareholders who want to see immediate financial results (requiring that they privilege short-term tactics over long-term strategy), increasingly ruled by their legal departments (who seek to justify their own existence through litigation), and increasingly prone to executive turnover (partially as a result of the first two factors).

One of the things many of us think we know is that the music industry has suffered enormous losses as a consequence of the rise of digital music sharing. You offer a more complex picture in the book. What are some of the other forces that impacted the music industry during this period and why do they complicate our efforts to understand the impact of “digital piracy”?

For one thing, there isn’t a researcher on the planet who can honestly claim to understand what the “impact of digital piracy” is on music industry economics. Well-researched meta-analyses by scholars who have spent years examining P2P are inconclusive, acknowledging that, despite the significant volume of studies on the subject (including my own, dating back to 2000), there is no consensus. Essentially, the research serves as a kind of Rorschach test, allowing those who want to see a positive effect, those who want to see a negative effect, and those who want to see no effect at all each to cite multiple credible sources to support their preferred positions.

Another factor is that it’s not entirely clear whether and to what degree the music industry – or even the major labels – have suffered financially. Obviously, the overall sales figures are down (although by the recording industry’s own tallies, now conveniently forgotten, this trend began years before Napster). Yet there are multiple other revenue streams that have grown during the same years, from synch licensing to digital performance royalties to live events, all of which add to major label coffers, as well as other growth areas, such as independent and used music sales and device sales, which mostly don’t. And, of course, costs have been cut significantly at the majors, which means that even flat revenues would represent higher profits. As music industry ledgers are notoriously opaque, there’s no way to simply throw back the curtains and let the sunlight clear things up.

Even if we just focus on retail sales of new, major label music, there are multiple factors that have contributed to the economic transformation of the industry over the past 15 years which have nothing to do with online music sharing. These range from economic trends (two recessions, shrinking household incomes) to the transformation of the music retail industry (driven by rising real estate costs and shrinking margins from “big box” underselling) to the eradication of a nationwide price-fixing scheme at the hands of federal and state regulators, to the end of the “CD replacement cycle” which led everyone in the 1990s to replace the cassettes and LPs they already owned with shiny new CDs of the same albums, to the “unbundling” of music, allowing people to buy 99-cent MP3s of their favorite songs without also subsidizing the “filler” content on the albums they belong to. Ultimately, as I discuss in my book, an unprecedented “perfect bubble” for the major labels in the 1980s-’90s was followed by a “perfect storm” in the 2000s. Again, this had nothing to do with online sharing per se, although they share some common contributory factors, such as the digitization of content, and the evolution of consumer music listening habits and tastes.

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up (2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers, Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research, Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter
Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl, dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up, lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University.

Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part One)

Few topics generate such instant division in this town as the issue of media piracy. Half of my friends are deeply concerned that unauthorized use of media content is closing down opportunities for creative artists and the other half believe that the efforts to combat piracy are having a devastating impact on long-standing principles of fair use. Aram Sinnreich’s new book, The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties plunges right into the center of that controversy, situating the current debate in a larger historical context. I had thought I had read and learned what I could around this question over the past decade plus of post-Napster analysis but Sinnreich took me to some new places and raises a number of important insights. You will get a taste for his perspective in the interview that follows.

I interviewed the author in 2010 when his previous book, Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture, came out. You can read that interview here. I wrote at the time, “The book deftly deals with the contradictory ways we think about the legal and aesthetic status of music which builds on borrowed materials, the ways that musicians are making sense of their indebtedness to earlier works, and the ways that audiences are making sense of the emerging practices of music production and distribution in a digital era.” His new book picks up where that one left off, updating his assessment of the ways that debates around intellectual property are impacting contemporary music-making– once again helping us to understand his topic from multiple angles, while leaving little question of where his own sympathies lie.

Let’s start with two words which are fundamental to the book’s project — “Piracy” and “Crusade.” Both are highly loaded, some would say inflamed, words, which give the debate around music downloading much of its moral charge. So, break them down for us. How are you using them here? What has been their history? How did they enter this debate?

I spend a fair amount of the Introduction and first chapter addressing this question. As it turns out, long before it was applied to intellectual property, the fundamental premise of “piracy” was highly politicized, and used cynically as a rhetorical tool and as a justification for political and military intervention into the commercial sphere (for an even more thorough treatment of this history, check out the excellent books by Daniel Heller-Roazen and Adrian Johns).

The concept of piracy relies on the delegitimization of certain actors, relegating them to the status of “pirates” in order to justify violence against them and to contest their claims of ownership over goods. By contrast, “privateers” who engaged in identical behavior (e.g. intercepting ships and seizing the goods they carried) operated under the aegis of sovereign states and were thus understood as not only legitimate but essential to promoting said state’s economic interests. Needless to say, in many historical cases, much like today, one person’s “pirate” was another’s champion.

One thing I learned from Johns is that the mantle of “piracy” as applied to information not only predates copyright and intellectual property laws, but was actually deliberately employed by early book publishers as a rhetorical conceit to justify their call for such laws to be passed. In other words, piracy didn’t arise in response to IP; to the contrary, IP was created in order to counter the phantom threat of piracy. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I use the term in the book’s title, and throughout the book, precisely in order to bring attention to the artifice behind this conceit. Today, as the result of a sustained, multi-century propaganda campaign by information oligopolists (e.g. record labels, print and software publishers, film studios), the conceit has taken root in public consciousness, and many of us take it for granted that sharing information without permission from rights holders is an act of piracy, plain and simple. I can’t critique this conceit without invoking it, but I do so very deliberately and carefully. Incidentally, copyleft pioneer Richard M. Stallman read some early chapter drafts, and adamantly disagreed with this tactic; to him, even using the term in a critical way gives it more strength and legitimacy. I appreciate his position, but I ultimately opted to use the term critically rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

As to the word “crusade,” I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but certainly not a novel one; according to a rudimentary Google search, it’s been used millions of times in reference to the music industry’s antipiracy efforts. And if you dig a little deeper, the reason for this becomes clear; a crusade is by definition an act of coordinated aggression draped in the mantle of righteous dogma, shaded with colonialist, or at least expansionist, overtones. In the introduction to the book, I offer a capsule history of the siege of Mahdia by the Genoese in 1390, and as I hope I demonstrate, the number of parallels to today’s “copyfight” are truly staggering.

Those of us who question current copyright regimes are often asked whether we would give our own content away for free. You have, in fact, taken some important steps to broaden access to this book. What are they and why have you taken those extra steps?

First of all, when I pitched this book to my publishers at University of Massachusetts Press, I asked them to release the full text under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial redistribution without permission or payment. I’m not the first academic author to do this, but it was a new step for UMP, and I’m gratified that they trusted me enough try it out.

Once I had the CC license in place, I was free to share the text as I saw fit. I decided to post a live draft of the book manuscript as I wrote it; each day, another 300-1,200 words would be “published” to a blog site for the book hosted by MediaCommons Press. This turned out to be a great decision, because not only did I get thousands of readers before I completed the manuscript, but the scores of substantive comments I received via the site and via email allowed me to improve the book significantly. In a sense, the paperback/ebook version is the second edition. And while I’m the nominal author, each of the commenters played a role in shaping the text. All of the non-anonymous ones get a shout-out in the book’s Acknowledgments section. The first draft is still up at MediaCommons Press, in case anyone’s geeky enough to want to compare versions.

The CC license also means that the book’s finished version is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. Again, UMP went out on a limb for me and provided me with a fully laid-out PDF a few months after it was published in paperback and ebook formats. The file sharing software company Vuze contacted me and offered to put together a “bundle” for the book, which includes both the full PDF and three videos of talks I’ve given on the subject, then seeded the bundle to BitTorrent and promoted it to their users. No money changed hands. In the first two weeks after the bundle launched, the torrent file was downloaded over 50,000 times and my Amazon author rank climbed precipitously, from a summer doldrums low of 350,000 to about 69,000. Today, almost two months after the launch, well over a thousand peers are sharing the bundle at any given point in time, and my sales rank has continued an upward trend.

As to the “why” part of your question: First of all, given the book’s general thrust, I would have felt like a hypocrite if I hadn’t released the book freely online. Second, I genuinely believed it would improve my sales, and it seems to have done just that. Third, I want as many people to read the book as possible – both because I hope it will have an impact on policy and the overall conversation about IP, and because I believe people should have access to information that’s vital to their wellbeing. Finally, as you suggest in your question, I’m frequently challenged by critics who, believing I lack the courage of my convictions, challenge me to distribute my own work freely, and I love to see the look on their faces when I tell them I’ve done just that.

Throughout much of human history, one could make the case that music was understood in terms of the relationships which it facilitated — the communities it helped to bring together, the rituals it enhanced — and not the products it produced. Yet, having turned music into an industry rather than a social practice, is there anyway back? Is the music industry “too big to fail”?

No, I don’t think there’s a way back, but I do believe in a way forward. I devote some time in both The Piracy Crusade and in my previous book, Mashed Up, to exploring music’s pre-commodity past not because I want to eradicate it from the marketplace but because I think we need to appreciate its full role in human culture and consciousness, of which the market is only one small facet. As long as there is a marketplace, I’m confident that music will continue to be a commodity, because that’s precisely the role that music always plays – as a microcosm for larger social processes and a vector for social imagination. As long as there’s a church, there will be church music, and as long as there is a military, there will be military music, etc. etc.

All that being said, I don’t think at the music industry as we currently conceive of it (major labels and publishers, broadcasting cartels, etc.) is “too big to fail” in the same way the banks are. Without the banking system, we wouldn’t have credit or currency; without labels, publishers and broadcasters, we’d still have a thriving musical culture, though perhaps not a national or global “pop” culture. Any student of media history knows that the titans of the previous century are often humbled or eradicated in the next; there’s no conceivable reason that the same fate couldn’t befall a company like Universal Music Group or Clear Channel – though neither really needs to worry in the near term, as they’re both aggressively pursuing transitional distribution platforms and business models.

 

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the
Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the
intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on
emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up
(2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications
including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers,
Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition
Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research,
Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter
Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups
and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl,
dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up,
lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from
the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from
Columbia University.

It’s in the Paint!

The following is a guest post by film scholar and journalist John C. Tibbetts from the University of Kansas.

 

IT’S IN THE PAINT!
By John C. Tibbetts

My expectations run high for Mike Leigh’s new film, Mr. Turner, a dramatization of the last few years in the life of the great British landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). During the first half of the 19th century, Turner attacked his canvases with a brutal and revolutionary zeal that virtually launched Modernism as we have come to know it. If Leigh’s other biopic, the masterful Topsy-Turvy (1991), about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece, The Mikado, is any indication of his gift for the historical/biographical recreation of 19th century England, then Mr. Turner should be something special indeed.

Meanwhile, mindful of Graham Greene’s dictum that the lives of artists are the most difficult of subjects, my thoughts turn to some of my favorite films that have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to dramatize the lives and works of famous painters. I am particularly fond of the Alexander Korda-Charles Laughton Rembrandt (1936), with its vivid dramatization of the controversy attending the unveiling of “The Night Watch” and, best of all, Laughton’s moving soliloquy on the virtues of his beloved Saskia.

Artemisia (1997), Agnes Merlet’s recreation of a scandalous episode in the life and works of the early 16th century artist Artimesia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi), is a stunning meditation on the lamentable status of women in this patriarchal world—as well as a convincing recreation of the details and processes of contemporary fresco painting.

Albert Lewin’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942), is a respectable adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel about a fictionalized Paul Gauguin (George Sanders), and if nothing else, it pulls no punches in conveying the boorish, unrelenting self-centered aspects of this particular genius. And there is Martin Provost’s magnificent Seraphine (2008), about Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), an illiterate, middle-aged housekeeper whose paintings propel her to unexpected fame, while her descent into madness leads to her demise in a lunatic asylum. Here, the blazing images of flowers, fruits, and trees, transcend her stark, grubby surroundings and lifestyle.

Not everybody shares my abiding interest in biopics of artists. For example, years ago, back in during an interview in 1991 with the late Roger Ebert, I broached the subject. Now, Roger knew a thing or two about painters and painting, was an amateur collector of British watercolors, and even wrote about it in A Perfect London Walk (1985). Hence, I was eager for his opinion. “Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”
Yes, that sort of tin-can psychology all too frequently mars biopics of every description. Yet, Ebert went on to admit that two films he had just seen, Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990) and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), had succeeded in conveying not so much a biographical but a dramatic, even artistic truth—the action of the creative process itself.

The best thing about the Altman, he explained, was that it did not attempt a psychological diagnosis. “We see Van Gogh [Tim Roth] at work, not because he wanted to but because he had to. There are no explanations. It explains nothing but feels everything.” Similarly, the Rivette, Ebert continued, a four-hour film about a fictitious painter (Michel Piccoli) painting a beautiful nude model (Emmanuel Beart), is essentially one long session at the easel: “There’s this extraordinary long, long sustained passage, where he’s simply drawing her. A lot of the time the camera is simply on the paper; and he goes through pen and ink and he goes through charcoal, he works with washes, he goes on to oil. The suspense involved in watching this process taking place is actually as exciting as a thriller, I’m telling you. It’s a really good film.”

Here, I should add, the hands of Actor Piccoli are convincingly “doubled” by those of painter Bernard Dufour. Too many times, however, in too many other films, we see an actor who obviously knows nothing about painting touching an obviously empty brush to an image that’s obviously already there. And think of Charlton Heston’s impotent brush flailing at the “pre-painted” frescoes in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). The effect is rather like watching an actor who is a non-musician pretending to play a piano—think of Cornell Wilde’s unconvincing miming of Jose Iturbi’s keyboard performances of Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945)—or Anthony Perkins’s clumsy attempts to play baseball in the Jimmy Piersall biopic, Fear Strikes Out (1957). Best to stick with the tight close-ups and prolonged shots in Peter Watkins’s Edward Munch (1967) of just the painter’s hands as they assault the canvas and the etching plate in an epic battle for supremacy, establishing a compelling graphic authenticity.

A particularly wry and compelling example is found in one of the finest films of this year, Tim’s Vermeer. We watch spellbound as amateur painter Tim Jenison actually creates a Vermeer painting, “The Music Lesson”—not a copy, but an original work on its own, crafted by means of optical devices and an elaborately recreated 3-dimensional set. We gain not only an insight into how Vermeer worked, but are granted enticing hints into the life, times, and circumstances of this particular painting. As a dramatic experience, the film crosses the boundary lines dividing documentary from drama, the amateur painter from the venerable master.

Indeed, Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is the star performer of the show. Which brings to mind another star turn by Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (2003), in Peter Webber’s film of that name. The conception and execution of the painting is positioned at the center of this beautifully realized milieu of 17th-century Amsterdam and the illiterate young servant girl (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for the painter (Colin Firth).

It’s amusing to think of other paintings as actors in their own movies. A slashed canvas is a mute “witness” to the identity of the murderer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Landscape Paintings and their real-life counterparts are counterposed in the “Van Gogh” sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Likewise, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s images of Lizzie Siddal share screen time with actress Judith Paris’s impersonation of her in Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967). No single image in the succession of sketches by the titular late 17th-century painter (Anthony Higgins) in Peter Greenaway’s edgy The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) can reveal the mystery at the heart of the film; but taken together, like a succession of shots in a montage. . . they proclaim an awful truth—and lead to the demise of the hapless painter.

The colorful religious icons of the 15th century painter Andrei Rublev in Tarkovsky’s epic film (1971) are kept “offstage,” as it were, blazing forth only in a barrage of images in the final reel. Of course, not all paintings at the center of movies are A-list actors. The Technicolor portraits of Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jenny (1949) and Hurd Hatfield in Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) are strictly B-grade performers—the first a tepid Hollywood visualization of one of Thomas Dewings’s turn-of-the century vapid women; the second a schlock nightmare straight out of Hammer Films stock company.

Sometimes just a blank canvas can speak eloquently enough. In the aforementioned Rembrandt (1936), Charles Laughton’s titular hero sits at the easel as he grieves the loss of his beloved Saskia. “I have to paint her,” he whispers to the empty chair where lately she sat, “before her memory fades.”
So we wait impatiently for the holiday release of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. It is the only biopic to date about England’s most celebrated painter. What, we wonder, will Leigh make of this prickly and decidedly eccentric loner, and of what Leigh describes as his “cinematic” paintings, such as the roiling “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and the furiously grim “The Slave Ship”?

 John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at the University ofKansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. He is an author, educator, broadcaster, as well as an artist and pianist. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (Art History, Theater, Photography and Film).

As a broadcaster and journalist and scholar he has hosted his own television show in Kansas City, Missouri; worked as a news reporter/ commentator for CBS Television (KCTV) and National Public Radio; produced classical music programming for KXTR-FM radio; written (and illustrated) ten  books, more than 200 articles, and several short stories.  

His most recent books are Peter Weir: Interviews and Douglas Fairbanks And The American Century.   Other books include  The Gothic Imagination (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011), Composers in the Movies:  Studies in Musical Biography (2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

His current radio series are The World of Robert Schumann (currently being broadcast worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network) and Piano Portraits (A 17-episode series of interviews with world–class concert pianists). 

 

My Favorite Things: Bryan Talbot, Graphic Novel Man

I’ve learned through the years that you should be cautious about meeting people you admire — great artists whose work speaks to you on a profound level rarely live up to the persona you’ve constructed for them in your mind’s eye. There’s bound to be some kind of disappointment or disillusionment. So, I did not know what to expect when I took a long train trip out to Sunderland a few summers ago to meet Bryan Talbot, the remarkable comics artist and storyteller, who has been credited with producing some of the first graphic novels to emerge from the British comics scene. Thanks to a mutual friend, Billy Proctor, I had been invited to visit Talbot and his wife, Mary, a feminist linguist and cultural theorist, in their home, mostly to make contact, since I had plans (still do, alas) to write an essay about Alice in Sunderland as part of a larger project on comics and material culture.

As it happens, the day I arrived was also a day when documentary filmmaker Russell Wall was shooting a segment for a feature length film, The Graphic Novel Man, he was coproducing with James Guy. If there’s a risk of meeting your heroes, there’s also some of the same risk attached to seeing their lives and world depicted through a documentary. In this case, though, there is no disappointment.

I have had several other chances to interact with Talbot over the past few years, and each encounter has been more enchanting than the last. The Graphic Novel Man, which was released this summer, similarly, brings a smile to my face because it captures some much of what makes Talbot a wonderful, charming man and a risk-taking artist who is continuing to push himself and his medium to the breaking point.

My goal today is to offer an appreciation of The Graphic Novel Man, which you can purchase and download at Vimeo and should. But it can not also escape being an appreciation of Talbot’s contributions to the art of graphic storytelling.

Early on, Dez Skinn characterizes Talbot as the “David Bowie of comics,” describing his shape-shifting capacity: Talbot adjusts his style to the demands of different kinds of stories and has worked across the full spectrum of British comics — from early work in the underground comics through commercial work on The Sandman or Batman through to his more mature works, the Luther Arkwright saga, A Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice in Sunderland, the Grandville series, and A Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes. Taking Talbot’s virtuosity as a starting point, The Graphic Novel Man surveys his work, offering expert commentary from his contemporaries, and from time to time, giving us a chance to really focus on the complex choices he makes in the construction of any given page.

This is where Graphic Novel Man shines: It comes from a rich tradition of work by British documentarians on the visual arts, in which the viewer is assumed to be at once curious and intelligent, capable of learning to see the world through the eyes of the particular artist, and willing to pay attention to technique. So, across the film, we learn about how Talbot took influences from 1960s cinema, especially the work of Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Roeg, in order to restructure our experience of time and focus our attention on the ethics and politics of violence. Or Neil Gaiman shows us what Talbot brought to their collaboration on Sandman, stressing Talbot’s extensive research into the classical world, and the ways that this expertise influenced his use of light and shadow across a particular compelling segment.

Or we learn about the ways Talbot taps into the British “funny animal” tradition to inform the design of characters for his Grandville series and the ways that these books incorporate both broad puns and subtle visual jokes. Accompanying shorts take us into Talbot’s studio, where we get to watch him develop a page for Grandville and describe the choices he makes in its design. I’ve stood in that actual studio and seen other yet to be finished pages on his drawing board.

We learn about Talbot’s work from a broad array of his contemporaries including an introduction by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock and commentary by Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Warren Ellis, Gilbert Shelton, Ian Rankin, Kim Newman, David Lloyd, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Charlie Adlard, Carlos Ezquerra, D’Israeli, Doug Braithwaite, Andy Diggle, Simon Fraser, Al Davison, Mary Talbot, Hunt Emerson, Paul Gravett, Mark Stafford, Dr. Mel Gibson, Lee Harris, Dan Charnley and yours truly.

A key theme running across the film is Talbot’s relationship to British culture — whether the stories and landscapes associated with Beatrice Potter that inform One Bad Rat or his life-long fascination with Victoriana, which led him to be a key influence on the emergence of Steampunk in the visual arts.

This focus on British history and culture is central to Alice in Sunderland, the work of his which spoke to me the most.

Reading Alice in Sunderland is an overwhelming experience — not simply because of its epic scale whether judged by its 300 plus page length or through its historical scope, which traces the history of a town in Northwest England from the Age of Reptiles and the era of St. Bede through to the present moment and shows how it has functioned as a crossroads for many of the cultural currents which have shaped British history. But, even on the level of the single page, Sunderland is overwhelming because of the way that Talbot has built it up primarily through techniques borrowed from photocomics and especially through the use of collage. Each page may feature dozens of images Talbot has collected from archives — old photographs, documents, woodcuts, carved marble, stained-glass windows, film stills, cartoons, and printed books, all jockeying for our attention, each conveying separate bits of information relevant to the historical narrative he is developing, but each gaining far greater meaning when situated within the book’s gestalt.

Talbot insists that he is a storyteller, not a historian, yet one can not help but be impressed by the vast amount of archival research informing this book, and Alice is significant as much on the level of its historiographical construction as it is on the level of its formal execution. At the center of this narrative, as its title might suggest, is the story of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, who lived for a time in Sunderland and met Alice Liddell, his young muse, for whom his fairy story was dedicated. On the surface, the book can be read as an obsessive argument for the priority of Sunderland over Oxford as the site from which to understand the origins of Carroll’s Wonderland, yet in the process of making such claims, Talbot goes further, linking Alice and Carroll to a much broader array of stories (from ancient mythology to music hall comedy) which have sprung from the same geographic and cultural roots.

Sunderland, thus, is a project in radical intertextuality, forging links between dispersed narratives drawn from both history and fiction, mapping them onto a highly localized geography. For all of its historical expansiveness, the core structure of the book is a tour, walking up and down the streets of Sunderland, as Talbot points out various monuments and landmarks, linking them into the emerging narrative of British history. And on yet another meta-level, Talbot is trying to connect his own medium, comics, to a much broader history of artistic practices which combined words and pictures to construct narratives, including a consideration of Carroll’s relations with his illustrator John Tenniel, the Bayeux Tapestry, William Blake, and William Hogarth, as well as patches of many different comics genres.

Sunderland can best be described as a hypertext in printed form, and as such, it becomes often incomprehensible, impossible to grasp fully in a single or even multiple readings, and it is the immensity of its vision, more than anything else, which we carry away from us. The hypertext analogy is no accident since Talbot himself translated one of his earlier graphic novels, Heart of Empire, into a CD-ROM so that he could layer upon the page annotations which traced its intertextual roots. Like a conspiracy theory, everything is connected, yet for this very reason, it is impossible to fully exhaust the layers of allusions that shape this work. Such layers are only fully achievable in a graphic medium where, in this case, each picture speaks a thousand words. Unlike a conspiracy theorist, Talbot actively encourages our skepticism, encouraging us to question every statement, and at places, the artist seems to have a crisis of faith in his own project.

There’s a delightful segment in Graphic Novel Man describing how Talbot’s search for the ideal Victorian factory to use for a scene in one of the Grandville graphic novels led him around the world wide web and back again to a neighboring village. As this segment suggests, Talbot is a world-builder, someone who thinks through every element he puts on his page, and can speak about its larger implications for the society he is depicting. Yet, often, as he does so, he is drawing implicitly and often explicitly on references to the material world, places he has been, buildings he has entered, things that he owns, all of which give his drawings much of their particularity.

When I was interviewing Talbot, in the midst of a room whose walls are covered by all kinds of carved masks from around the world, he told me he was not “a collector” — simply “an accumulator” — and he pointed at one point to a cabinet of curiosity which figures in Alice, full of various pop culture icons and artifacts he had gathered through the years. Many of his books have the appeal of a cabinet of curiosities but the worlds are more systematically developed than this focus on random encounters might suggest. There is both rhyme and reason to the details he includes, and this film gives us a sense of what guides his pen.

The film ends with a focus on Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes, itself a remarkable collaboration. Bryan challenged Mary to write her own graphic novel, using as its starting point her troubled relationship with her father, a noted Joyce scholar; Dotter extends outward to incorporate a second narrative — that of Joyce’s equally problematic relationship with his own daughter, Lucia. The words come from Mary, the images from Bryan, but working together pushed the artist to develop yet another visual style, one softer, more intimate, than any we have seen before. There are few examples in graphic storytelling of husband and wife collaborations on this level — the complex conversation in Dirty Laundry between R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb comes to mind. There’s a similar fascination here in watching husband and wife work through this story together, sometimes correcting each other’s memories. Bryan appears throughout the book as a character, not always a totally sympathetic one.

Graphic Novel Man, by contrast, is very much Bryan Talbot’s story, a great tribute to a artist who has always refused to rest on his laurels, who rejected the easy path towards commercial success. Mary descibes her husband’s routine of doing a page a day, no matter what, yet also tells us that he sometimes finds himself so engaged with adding extra details that he fails to meet those goals, too much a craftsman for his own good. Graphic Novel Man is attentive to the work that came on Bryan’s slower days, when he broke with his own production regime, in order to spend as much time as he needed to fully realize a particularly detailed page, because his sense of professionalism, his artistic vision, demanded it. Such pages are pure gifts to the reader and often represent moments of virtuosity for the artist.

If you love comics, you owe it to yourself to discover Talbot’s work, and one of the best ways to do so is to watch Graphic Novel Man.

Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Three)

Another common misperception is that young people do not care about intellectual property. What did you research show in terms of the attitudes towards “free downloads”?

 

I’ll start out by saying that my chapter on property was probably the most difficult one to write – in large part because the issues around intellectual property in a digital age are so complex and contested. The ease with which we can access and remix others’ content provides an array of positive opportunities, but also raises questions and concerns about ownership and authorship.

 

In our interviews with youth, we sought to understand to what extent their thinking about topics such as music downloading and other uses of online content was morally and ethically sensitive. In other words, to what extent did youth consider near or distant effects on others associated with a decision to download a piece of music illegally, or copy and paste a portion of someone else’s writing for a school assignment? As I report in the book, youth often embraced the belief that creators had a fundamental right to control how their content was used by others. In other words, “what’s theirs is theirs.” Yet, this belief was most often linked to uses of text (books and articles) for schoolwork. When they spoke about music downloading, a “free for all” or “free for me” mindset typically dominated.

 

On the whole, youth were often quite conscious of the implications of music downloading or improper use of online textual sources. Yet, their thinking was often (and sometimes exclusively) concerned with the potential negative sanctions they might suffer for a property violation. The moral or ethical dimensions of appropriation practices didn’t surface all that often and, when they did, were often dismissed or downplayed with mantras such as “everybody downloads.”

 

Around the time that I was writing the chapter, internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I knew of him and deeply admired his perspective and courage. His activism was based on an explicit set of beliefs about open access, an ethical argument for free culture. As I pored over the perspectives young people shared with us about piracy and the like, I could see glimmers of Aaron’s beliefs here and there. Some teens and young adults pointed to the outrageous profits reaped by major record labels and the unfairly high costs that prevent low-income people from access to cultural goods. However, for the most part, youths’ thinking about these issues was deeply self-focused (“I don’t want to spend a dollar per song on iTunes”) and quite blind to the moral and ethical issues.

 

And, as with privacy issues, adult messages about property appeared to do little to encourage greater sensitivity to ethical considerations. According to youth, teachers tend to emphasize sanctions (a failing grade) for improper citation of sources over exploring the ethical rationale underpinning attribution. And none of the youth we talked with reported conversations with adults about the ethical dimensions of piracy or of unfair intellectual property restrictions.


You end the book talking about “conscientious connectivity.” How are you defining this term and what are some of the steps you are advocating towards achieving it?

 

I see conscientious connectivity as a disposition towards online life that is mindful or attentive to the kinds of moral and ethical issues I discuss throughout the book. In keeping with the work of my Project Zero colleagues on thinking dispositions, I talk about skills, sensitivity, and inclination as essential components of conscientious dispositions.

 

To be more specific, engaging digital ethical issues requires specific thinking skills. For example, the skill of complex perspective-taking – considering the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and audiences – is arguably important to engage as one considers whether or not to post on YouTube a video of one’s classmates engaged in a fight in the locker room, or engaged in a heated discussion of political issues.

 

Having the skills to consider these issues thoroughly is important, but before one can do so, one has to be sensitive to the potential for moral or ethical concerns. So conscientious mindsets are also based on sensitivity – being alert to potential adverse (and positive) implications for others that might follow in the wake of a tweet, Instagram photo, or YouTube video. Cultivating ethical sensitivity can help correct the kinds of ethical blind spots about online privacy, property, and participation that are my concern. But I’m also concerned with disconnects – attitudes that reflect a disinclination to engage moral and ethical themes. Therefore, conscientious connectivity also involves an inclination to wrestle with dilemmas, to fully reflect on and consider competing interests and implications that may flow from an online choice.

 

As noted, our educational materials co-developed with your team and with Common Sense Media have been purposively designed to support the development of ethical thinking skills, sensitivity, and an inclination to engage digital dilemmas.

 

Ultimately, though, conscientious connectivity is most powerful when it inspires socially positive online acts rather than simply preventing harmful behavior. So I also talk about the importance of cultivating a greater sense of agency in young people, supporting them to participate in active ways to create counter-narratives to the more troubling modes of discourse they may see on social media and in other online spaces. A powerful first step towards supporting ethical agency is calling attention to the exemplary ways in which some young people have leveraged digital and social media. In closing the book, I write about Samantha Stendal, a college student who was incensed and inspired to act after hearing details emerging from the Steubenville rape case. Beyond the rape itself, perpetrators and bystanders had circulated photos and video of the assault, including a 12½-minute YouTube video featuring onlookers joking about it. Stendal created a short and pointed video called, A Needed Response, that is a powerful counter-narrative to the attitudes expressed by those involved in the assault. To date, the video has over 9 million hits on YouTube.

 

Your more recent research has shifted towards a focus on youth and participatory politics. Here, again, you are developing a mixed picture of what is working and what isn’t working in the civic lives of American young people. Can you share some early findings from this research?

 

Your characterization of what we’re finding as a “mixed picture” is just right, I think. In our interviews with civically active youth, we’ve seen some truly impressive ways in which they are leveraging digital and social media in support of issues like AIDS awareness, youth violence, and marriage equality. The examples that are emerging from our work – and especially yours – have great potential to inspire other youth to participate in public life in new ways.

 

At the same time, we’ve been concerned about a set of findings that suggest that young activists are increasingly cautious about using digital means to engage in political and civic ways. Emily Weinstein, a terrific doctoral student on our research team, recently published a paper that describes how civic youth in our study managed the opportunities for civic voice afforded by social media in different ways. Most youth shared their civic and political ideas across social media platforms, while some differentiated by platform, holding back from talking about civic issues in some spaces while expressing in others. But some youth bounded their civic voices entirely online – that is, while they were actively involved in civic and political life offline, they purposively sought to keep evidence of their activities off the internet.

 

The reasons why some youth decided to bound the civic voice online varied. What was most worrying to us were the cases where youth reportedly held back because of concerns about uninterested or hostile audiences. To our minds, this suggests a need for supports to help youth manage uncivil discourse rather than simply opting out of online expression about public issues. As part of the Educating for Participatory Politics action group, we are collaborating with Facing History and Ourselves to develop educational supports to call attention to the great potentials of digital media for civic engagement. Supporting strategies for productive and meaningful discourse online is an important concern in this work.

 

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Young People’s Ethical Disconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Two)


Early on, you describe some of the concerns which motivate your work: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participation, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to moral and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” What role do you think we as scholars and researchers can play in addressing those concerns?

 

Scholars and researchers in the digital media and learning space have an important role to play here. While a number of scholars attend to these issues in their work (e.g., Whitney Phillips forthcoming book), I’ve often perceived a lack of interest – and sometimes even push back – in the DML community about focusing on digital misdeeds or areas of concern. I do appreciate the importance of calling attention to the positive learning, civic, and other opportunities that the internet provides for youth. I also appreciate the need to push against media panics that often dominate the discourse around the internet.  But what sometimes feels like an over-emphasis on the “good stuff” is at odds with the reality that online spaces can be unfriendly, hostile, and aggressive non-communities for some participants (female bloggers and gamers are a case in point).

 

With those thoughts on the table, I think we can do more to support one another in doing research that attends to all sides of digital life — from the very positive, supportive, and promising to the very troubling, disconcerting, and discouraging examples, and everything in between.

 

But research is really just the beginning, or only part of developing effective approaches to addressing negative behavior online. Scholars need to make their work accessible to parents, educators, and youth. We need to support them and, when appropriate, even partner with them to raise the status of these issues on the educational agenda. Some of this work is being done as part of efforts to stem cyberbullying. However, I worry about the emphasis on bullying and cyberbullying in the strict sense, which can exclude attention to more subtle acts of exclusion and meanness often propagated on social media sites, through apps and other digital means.

 

As noted, a big part of our work on the Good Play Project has been the educational piece. We’ve collaborated with your group and with Common Sense Media in the past to develop supports for conversations about digital citizenship in schools and other learning environments. Through our Project Zero summer institutes and offsite conferences, Katie Davis and I convene educators for workshops related to this work. In these sessions, we share ideas and tools for reflection on the ethical dilemmas that often arise online.

 

One of the most common misperceptions about youth today is that they have little to no interest in privacy. Yet your findings show something different. How would you characterize the attitudes towards privacy that emerged from your interviews?

 

When we spoke with youth even as young as 10 about online privacy issues, we found that they were keenly aware of and concerned about privacy risks online. For those of us in the digital research community, this is not news. A number of other studies have shown that youth care about privacy (e.g., boyd & Marwick, 2011). The misconception that they don’t is often based on cases where privacy isn’t perfectly handled by youth. Further, there may be misalignments between youth and adults about what should be private vs. semi-public vs. public.

 

Pushing beyond the question of whether or not youth care about privacy, I also sought to understand how they approached online privacy more generally. I wondered about their mindsets about privacy and, given the focus of my book, the extent to which their mindsets were attentive to the moral and ethical aspects of online privacy given the opportunities digital technologies afford for breaching other people’s privacy.

 

The findings here were quite interesting. Nearly all the youth we spoke with conveyed support in some way for the mindset that privacy is largely “in your hands” online. That is, they argued that it’s up to the individual to adjust privacy settings, to consider audiences, and to make thoughtful decisions about what to post or not. However, many of these youth also suggested that privacy is not fully in your hands online. This argument was part of the mindset that “privacy is forsaken” in a digital age – that full privacy is unattainable online, so one must be careful about what one posts or be resigned to fact that privacy lapses are bound to happen. Both mindsets are attentive in different ways to the privacy risks that exist today, yet they also contain blind spots. The privacy is “in your hands” approach, taken in absolute terms, can be blind to the numerous ways in which one’s privacy can be broken online, despite efforts to control it. The forsaken mindset is more realistic. Yet, we also observed that it sometimes went along with an “anything goes” attitude with respect to other people’s privacy. In other words, for some youth, the fact that everyone gives up some measure of privacy online justifies looking at, circulating, or leveraging any information found about someone online.

 

Given these blind spots, it was gratifying to find evidence of another mindset that attends more directly to moral and ethical themes: the “privacy is social” mindset. Here, youth spoke in eloquent terms about the need to be vigilant about other people’s potential privacy concerns online. Some youth spoke about routine practices of checking in with friends before posting any photos featuring them on social media. Others said they developed guidelines with friends, siblings, and parents for protecting and respecting each other’s privacy online. These measures are impressive in taking seriously that privacy is a social, moral, and ethical issue in an environment in which we can search and share freely about one another. Unfortunately, the privacy as social mindset, and explicit measures to achieve it, didn’t come up as often as the other attitudes. Related to this, messages from adults about online privacy almost always supported the privacy as forsaken and “in your hands” mindsets along with individual-centered (and ultimately insufficient) strategies for privacy protection. This is a front where educators and parents could be doing much more to shift the conversation in ways that support social, moral and ethical approaches to privacy.

 Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

 

Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part One)

Today, we begin the second in a series of interviews with members of the Good Play team at Harvard, a team headed by Howard Gardner and associated with the longstanding Project Zero. The following is excerpted from a foreword I wrote for Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, and it serves as well as anything I could write here to provide a set up for the interview which follows.

 

A working-class black woman lingered after I spoke about youth and digital media at Detroit’s Wayne State University. She pushed her way through the crowd to ask a simple question: “Will my boy be all right?”

 

Her adolescent son spent a great deal of time online, talking with friends, building his home page, playing computer games, doing his homework. She had heard conflicting reports-teachers claiming Net access fostered educational growth, and media reformers warning about teens “running amok” on the Net. And now, like so many other parents, she worried that she was wrong to let her son explore cyberspace when she knew so little about computers herself. She feared that she did not know enough to give him the guidance he needed and wondered if perhaps the only answer was to unplug the expensive device she had brought into her home.

 

This is one of many such encounters I’ve had with parents and youth (of all races and economic backgrounds) through the years as people asked some core questions about whether these new media platforms and practices are helping to make us better or worse people. Many parents were asking whether their children would be alright and often looking at particular choices their sons and daughters had made online and asking “what were they thinking?”

 

I’ve often wished I could give them a book like Disconnected to read — a book which responded not with fear and panic, but spoke directly about how we might foster more responsible digital citizens, how we can encourage more participation and healthier communities. Over six years, a team of 14 researchers at Harvard’s Good Play Project has been interviewing young people — both teens and tweens — about their digital lives, the ethical challenges they face online, and the values which govern the choices they make about how to treat people they encounter on social media or web 2.0 platforms. What emerges here is a complex picture — one which sees these emerging platforms and practices as “not either-or, but this-and-that,” both a “burden” and a “blessing.” Some of what Carrie James shares about young people’s ethical choices may alarm us, some may give us hope, but most of all, the book reveals what many of us have come to recognize — the online world is neither an ideal society nor hell on earth, but a place where we go to conduct very routine aspects of our daily lives and often we think less than we should about the consequences of the choices we are making there.

 

As I’ve read this book, I’ve found myself thinking about its evocative title, about the various ways we might describe American youth as “disconnected,” even as they are more heavily wired than previous generations. Some of them are disconnected from any kind of online community, having little to no understanding of the participatory mechanisms or shared norms that apply to different forms of online social interactions. Some of them see little to no connection between what they do online and what gets valued by their parents or schools. Some seem not to be able to meaningfully connect what they do online with the consequences of their actions on others or to connect digital avatars with the flesh and blood people whose feelings may be hurt by their hateful words and actions. Some have little or no connection to adults who might provide them with meaningful insight into the situations they encounter and some have no real access to older ethical and spiritual traditions as they make decisions that can sometimes have serious implications for their lives and the lives of others.

 

Carrie James states early in the book that she is offering a “glass half empty” perspective: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participating, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to more and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” I share those concerns, even though I am a “glass half full” guy. James and I have had healthy debates through the years around many of these questions, but where we would agree is that we are still looking at half a glass and that more needs to be done to support our young people’s moral development in the digital age. Howard Rheingold warned some decades ago, “those who would prefer the more democratic vision of the future have an opportunity to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been leveled against them.” I care very much about the issues James raises here because I believe that our goal should be to expand who has access to the means of cultural production, circulation, and participation and the best way to realize those potentials is to soberly assess and meaningfully address the roadblocks we encounter along the path towards a more participatory culture.

 

 

      You open the book with a provocative quote from Neil Postman: “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.” In what senses do you think digital technologies have been both a burden and a blessing to young people?

 

In quoting Postman at the outset, I wanted to make clear my view that digital technologies are not the direct perpetrators of the ethics gaps I write about in the book. Rather, as other scholars have acknowledged too, technologies provide affordances (Gibson, 1977) – they enable certain perceptions and actions, and constrain others. The ways in which we seize their affordances – our habits and norms of use – are key. (Related to this, my colleagues Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s recent book, The App Generation, provides a nuanced account of the mixed blessings associated with digital life. They argue that the outcomes depend on how we use apps and other digital media.)

 

In my view, digital and social media are a blessing in the expansive opportunities they provide to young people – to explore and express their identities; to maintain social ties; to forge new connections with people with shared interests and passions; to access information and cultural goods; to participate in the creation of cultural content, and so on. To my mind, though, one of the most significant blessings of the digital landscape are the opportunities afforded to youth to be active participants in the public sphere – sharing their voices, showing support for and mobilizing others on behalf of social justice issues. (Our ongoing work with you and others as part of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research network is focused on that particular set of opportunities).

 

Yet, these digital age blessings are vexed in various ways. The invitation to participate on the web can feel risky given that one’s contributions can be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and shared with a wider audience than intended. Add to this the persistent, replicable and searchable qualities of digital content that danah boyd has often written about and – per my point above about our norms of use – the ways in which employers and college admissions officers can (and reportedly do) leverage them to judge young people. These practices place a burden on young people to manage the digital trails they leave behind, as best they can.

 

As other research has shown, participation in some social media sites can feel more obligatory than engaging (Pew 2013), and can even contribute to low self-esteem, especially if one’s news feed gives the impression that everyone else’s life consists of non-stop happiness and success. Further, as I discuss in my chapter on Participation, along with the opportunity to participate comes the risk that one’s contributions will be mocked or that one will become a target of subtle or explicit acts of cruelty or digital abuse. The public or semi-public nature of digital contexts can certainly magnify the sting of a negative comment or of an embarrassing photo posted by an online contact. EXAMPLE

 

Finally, as our recent work on youth online civic expression shows, backlash and other forms of uncivil discourse may have the unfortunate effect of quieting or even silencing youth voices on social network sites (Weinstein, 2014). A Pew study published in late August showed a similar alarming “spiral of silence” trend among adults, 18 and over.

 

So there are many opportunities afforded by online spaces, but along with the promises come new risks to be managed, but also new responsibilities in relation to others. Henry, you’ve often quoted Peter Parker’s uncle Ben who said that “with great power comes great responsibility.” One of the key messages of my book is that we need to have more conversations about the moral and ethical responsibilities that go along with participation in digital cultures.

 

      You called the book, Disconnected, which seems ironic, since in some senses, young people today are more connected than ever before. In what senses do you see this word as an appropriate description of what you found through your research?

 

Yes, young people are more connected to one another than ever before. But what I found in our research is that youths’ thinking about online situations can often be glaringly disconnected from the ethical dimensions. In other words, youth (and adults for that matter) were often not alert to the distant, potentially far-reaching, implications for others of the things they post and circulate online.

 

In the opening chapter of the book, I talk about two distinct types of thinking shortfalls that often characterized youth approaches to online situations: blind spots and disconnects. Drawing from Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel’s work (Blind Spots, 2011), I describe digital blind spots as failures to be sensitive to the moral or ethical implications of one’s tweets, Facebook status updates, or uses of online content. For example, when youth spoke about music piracy, their thinking and decision-making was typically keyed to self-focused concerns: how much (or little) money they had, the possibility of getting caught or downloading a virus. While some youth engaged moral or ethical arguments about piracy (either in support of it or against it), many of them evinced a blind spot to these dimensions of property issues – they simply didn’t consider how musicians might be affected by their choices.

 

I contrast blind spots with disconnects, which involve awareness and some consideration of moral or ethical concerns, yet a conscious dismissal of their importance. For example, one might acknowledge that a friend or stranger online might be offended by a misogynist online comment or tweet, but decide that the humor that others might see in the joke – and the resulting “likes” and praise – makes it worthwhile to post. Thinking of recent events, Perez Hilton’s regrettable – and regretted – decision to circulate nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton is an example of the kind of disconnected thinking that concerns me. This case shows how disconnects aren’t just found among youth; indeed, adults’ thinking is often disengaged from ethical considerations. I emphasize youths’ thinking gaps, however, because youth were the focus of our research.

 

Certainly, I also observed, and describe in the book, mindsets about online life that are more sensitive to moral and ethical concerns. However, my aim was to call attention to and explore the nuances of gaps, shortfalls, and attitudes that sometimes thwart the development of socially positive online communities. Thus, my decision to call the book, Disconnected.

 

Can you tell us something of the context that this book came out of? What is the relationship between the Good Play Project and the earlier work done through the Good Work project? What methods have you deployed to develop a better understanding of the kinds of ethical choices young people are making in their online lives?

 

Great question. The Good Play Project was definitely informed by prior research my colleagues and I conducted as part of the Good Work Project (1995-2006). Our Good Work studies explored how professionals in different lines of work negotiated market forces and other aspects of social change impinging on the professions and strived to do work that was excellent in quality, personally engaging, and ethical. We refer to excellence, engagement, and ethics as the three e’s of good work. Our studies included young professionals and those in training to enter fields such as journalism, genetics, and theater. A notable finding from our interviews was that young people felt an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed, and often in contexts in which their peers and even their role models cut corners in order to get ahead. Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan and Howard Gardner wrote about these issues in their book, Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work.

 

As Howard Gardner and I launched our studies of youth and digital life around 2007-2008, we were mindful of this prior work and its findings. We decided to focus our studies on how youth negotiated moral and ethical issues in new digital contexts, where codes of conduct are established more informally than in fields of work and can shift rapidly, and where participants may enter with radically different purposes, values, and investments in the community.

 

Our methods for exploring these themes were largely qualitative, also continuing the tradition of our prior work. We conducted in depth interviews with young people in which we elicited narratives about their online lives – including the bright spots and points of struggle.  We asked about how they got involved in different online communities; their goals and sense of responsibility; perceived norms and violations of norms; their role models, mentors, or other supportive as well as negative influences. We also presented participants with hypothetical scenarios that contained a moral or ethical dimension, and talked with them at length about their responses and connections to lived experiences they’ve had on the web. In my book, I open each thematic chapter with one of these scenarios and describe both typical and rare responses.

 

For example, I open the privacy chapter with a scenario in which Facebook photos posted by friends reveal that a college student athlete was attending a party in violation of a sports team policy. Our study participants were asked to reflect on how they might handle such a situation. Most youth responded that they would untag themselves and perhaps even ask the friends to remove the photos from Facebook all together. While such responses are expected and understandable, we were also curious to see the extent to which youths’ thinking pushed beyond consequences for themselves. Indeed, some youth did reflect on their responsibilities to their teammates, coach, and a wider community of students. Yet, on the whole, self-focused concerns really dominated youths’ thinking. Most youth connected the hypothetical situation to personal experiences they’d had or observed among friends. So the hypotheticals really stimulated deeper discussion of dilemmas they’ve lived out online.

 

Overall, these methods gave us tremendous insight into how the young people with whom we spoke think about their online lives, the considerations that guide their choices online, and their hopes and areas of concern related to the internet and other aspects of digital life.

 

Our activities on the Good Play Project were also informed by our commitment, as part of the Good Work Project and Project Zero, to creating practical tools and supports based on our research for educators and other important stakeholders. With encouragement from the MacArthur Foundation, we joined forces with your Project New Media Literacies team (then at MIT, now at USC) to co-develop a casebook of classroom materials called Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World. Our work with your group really pushed our thinking in new directions and helped us appreciate the great learning opportunities of the digital landscape for youth.

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Three)

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression?

Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

This is a single study and we’d be foolish to draw excessive conclusions one way or the other. We very much hope that other scholars and educators, both in the US and abroad, will make use of these or similar tools and see whether they come up with essentially the same findings.

With this disclaimer, we initially shared your surprise about the creative writing findings. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from youth who grew up immersed in the extremely imaginative world of Harry Potter! But these youth are also growing up in a world of standardized testing, with its pressure to master the perfect five-paragraph essay;and in schools that, with the introduction of Common Core standards, increasingly emphasize nonfiction reading. These trends must certainly have an effect on their use of language.

Others have pointed out to us that young people may be more imaginative in the writing that they do online, for friends and in interest-driven communities, than in writing produced for school or for publication. That’s an interesting idea worth pursuing and one that Mimi Ito and colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network are shedding light on. Of course, we are talking about general trends—no one would claim that there are no young people producing imaginative works. Indeed, perhaps in other areas—ranging from the visual arts to the creation of new businesses—they are more imaginative than peers in earlier eras. And it may even be the case that we come to think differently of creativity in a digitally-suffused era.

Many of us have argued that contemporary remix practices can encourage certain kinds of critical and creative responses to the culture around them, but you seem to be siding a bit more with Jaron Lanier that such forms of creativity are limited or constrained in so far as they build upon pre-existing cultural materials. Can you explain your position here?

Early in their careers, artists are always producing in relation to the works around them and the works that are most valued—either emulating them or consciously rejecting them….or both! We see mash ups, remixing, and sampling with digital media as an extension of an age-old practice of artists. And, like you, we recognize exciting new opportunities for youth to create, share, and receive feedback on their creative productions. Indeed, we observed these opportunities firsthand in our study of young fan fiction authors on LiveJournal. At the same time, perhaps it is easier in an app world than it was before just to keep remixing, with the constraints already present in the current technologies; and if so, perhaps, fewer individuals will go out entirely on a limb.

To illustrate the effects of technological constraints on the artistic process, we draw on the work of computer scientist and cultural critic Jaron Lanier. Lanier uses the expression “lock-in” to describe the limited range of actions and experiences open to users when they interact with computer software. As a result of a programmer’s (often arbitrary) design decisions, certain actions are possible—indeed, encouraged—while others don’t even present themselves as options.

Lanier’s primary example of lock-in involves MIDI, a music software program developed in the 1980s to allow musicians to represent musical notes digitally. Because its designer took the keyboard as his model, MIDI’s representation of musical notes doesn’t encompass the textures found in other instruments, such as the cello, flute, or human voice. Lanier argues that something important is lost when one makes explicit and finite an entity that is inherently unfathomable (or, to invoke another lexical contrast, when one seeks to render as digital what is properly seen as analogue). Moreover, since MIDI was an early and popular entrant into the music software industry, subsequent software had to follow its representation of musical notes in order to be compatible with it. As a result, the lock-in was reified. MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts.

Drawing on a well-known distinction within the study of creativity, we have suggested that there may be a new trend at work. In the past, scholars made a distinction between little c creativity (the way that most of us show some originality in how we plan a meal or a holiday) and BIG C creativity (the radical innovations that we value in an Einstein, a Virginia Woolf, a Steve Jobs). Perhaps going forward, there will be more “middle C creativity”—individuals working together online to push the envelope in certain directions, but perhaps less dramatically.

Steve Jobs is an interesting case-in-point here. On the one hand, he had as much to do with creating the “APP world” as anyone. And yet, Steve Jobs was the least likely person in the world to be constrained by the apps that anyone else had created.

You make clear by the end of the book (and now in the new preface) that you are not opposed to all apps. Can you share some of your criteria for judging what constitutes a good or bad app? What are some examples of apps which you think have indeed fostered greater creativity, more exploration of identity, and more prospects for intimacy with others?

We’re often asked for examples of apps that are enabling and apps that promote dependence. Our response is that any app can be used in a more enabling or more dependent way depending on what one does with it. Consider the drawing app, Doodle Buddy. In one setting of this app, users select a drawing implement and proceed directly to fill their canvas in a free-form way, much as they would an actual canvas. Another setting in the same app presents the user with an array of pre-fabricated images and backgrounds, which users select and arrange on their canvas in a paint-by-numbers way. In the first setting, users are encouraged to engage the app in an open-ended way, with few constraints imposed on them. In the second setting, users’ actions are highly constrained by the limited range of choices given to them.

In our review of various apps, we’ve found that many educational apps lean toward the app-dependent end of the spectrum—drill and kill apps for memorizing times tables, spelling, and state capitals that reward students with virtual smiley faces, candy, or pets that have little or no meaningful connection to the learning task at hand. So, when we judge an app—whether it’s an app used for educational purposes, self-expression, communication, or creative production—we judge it based on the degree to which it encourages users to engage with it in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible. Some promising examples of apps that promote open-ended exploration include Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes.

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Two)

You mention myself, alongside danah boyd, Cathy Davidson, Clay Shirkey, and David Weinberger, as “unabashed enthusiasts of the digital world,” suggesting that for us, “a world replete with apps is a world in which endless options arise, with at least the majority tilted in positive, world-building, personality fulfilling directions.” For the record — and I can’t speak for the others — I saw the potential and value of the web in terms of a range of different communities, which had gained greater communication capacity by their ability to create and deploy their own digital spaces. For me, the mechanisms by which Apple regulates which apps can be distributed with corporate producers and commercial logics prevailing over grassroots creators and our tendency to go regularly to apps rather than search the wider array of what’s out there on the web has made the rise of apps to be as big a threat to the generativity of the web as the decline in net neutrality. In that sense, we would agree that a defining feature of apps is the constraints they impose on human creativity. This is not really a question but Thoughts?

We both appreciate this comment and are very much on the same page. We discuss the constraints associated with apps at length in our chapter on creativity. These constraints are embedded in the coding and design decisions of app developers, the decisions made by corporate entities like Apple and Google, and laws and regulations passed by governments. While it may be true that ‘creativity loves constraints,’ we bristle at the idea of an individual’s creative expression being shaped by Apple’s bottom line or a politician’s bid for reelection.

We’ve noted that Sherry Turkle initially saw the potentials for rich identity exploration in the digital world; but with the advent of social media, she also discerned the potential for premature identity consolidation and unrealistic ‘perfect’ publicly packaged identities. All students of media, including us, need to be aware both of the changing affordances of the current ascendant technologies and the other forces in society (e.g. pressures on the educational system, invasions of privacy) that also influence the ways in which individuals think and behave and how they interact with the current technological options.

We joke about a kind of “Moore’s law” that ought to be operative among commentators on the technological scene: we need to review our examples and arguments every 18 months so.

One of the more provocative passages here centers around what today’s students expect from teachers and education. In what sense might these students be looking at the university as a kind of app store? How might we see this attitude as reflecting the expectations about learning which were imposed upon them through regimes of standardized testing — a particular kind of app — as opposed to the kinds of affinity spaces that the Digital Media and Learning community has tended to embrace?

 A point we wish to underscore upfront: while we observed specific behaviors in students—such as a tendency to seek instant, definitive answers and discomfort with sitting for a while with questions that don’t suggest an immediate solution—we are by no means laying blame at their feet. For causes, we look to broader societal trends—and not just of the technological variety. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing in schools, unfettered market forces, rising income inequality—these trends predate Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and have no doubt contributed to the algorithmic thinking we observed among young people. Therefore, while we like the image of the university as a kind of ‘app store’ from a literary point of view, in this particular case, it’s clear that the notion of the student (and parents) as customers operating in a complex market is not due to apps, or even technology, alone. Accordingly, for the analyst, it is challenging to parse out what is due to a pervasive mentality in the United States (‘the business of America is business”), the increasing ubiquity of technological solutions more generally, and the specific effects of apps.

Where the ‘app metaphor’ may be more fitting is in the way that students actually think about courses—what is offered, what is expected, and how best to pass a course and navigate the curricula en route to graduation. Nearly every informant to whom we spoke brought up the ‘risk aversion’ among today’s youth; and in the book we actually quote a student who questions the need for formal educational institutions, when, as he puts it, ‘the answers to all questions’ can be found in his smart phone.

The three of us (Henry, Katie, Howard) have all been involved in the initiative of the MacArthur Foundation to encourage ‘connected learning’. Without question, the advent of powerful, networked technologies has opened up a myriad of possibilities for more individualized learning, more integrated learning, and more creative and collaborative uses of what one learns. But the educational landscape is a battlefield and many of the most heavily armed participants do not share our educational vision.

 

You argue that the rise of social media platforms has tended to result not simply in the “performance of self” in everyday life or the identity play which Sherry Turkle wrote about 20 years ago, but rather the “packaged self” as young people see their self-representation as a kind of self branding. You also suggest that this may be one of the more isolating aspects of today’s digital culture because young people tend to read other people’s “glammed up” self-representations as reality and assume everyone out there is happier than they are. I want to push you to say more about the “packaged self” in relation to the “performance of the self.” After all, when Goffman’s consumers encounter the smiling sales clerk, they did not necessarily assume that he was actually as happy as he seemed. Is there reason to think today’s social media makes us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity? Wouldn’t a constructivist argue that having been asked to make choices from an identity tool kit, we were likely to be more conscious of how identity is constructed not less? 

We would push back a bit on the idea that people don’t assume the sales clerk is as happy as he seems. While intellectually we may know this is true, it may not necessarily feel true in the moment of our interaction with him. When we spoke with youth about the way they and their friends present themselves on Facebook and other social network sites, they told us about the “glammed up” versions that they and their peers present online—the prettiest, wittiest, happiest versions of themselves. While they know intellectually that their friends aren’t quite so attractive, happy, or social, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they themselves somehow don’t measure up. We’re not saying that social media necessarily make us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity, just that there’s an important distinction between conscious reflection and knowledge, on the one hand, and one’s immediate, gut reaction to others’ online identities, on the other.

No doubt, in every historical era and in every culture, some people are much more aware of the roles that they are assuming, the options that they have, the ways in which others react; while other individuals (probably the majority) just do what one is supposed to do in a situation and do not think about options, including the option of “no way”.   Just like ‘free will’, the notion of an autonomous agent, with genuine options from which to choose, is not a natural way of thinking—it’s one that grows out of (or is suppressed altogether by) the kind of society in which one lives and the role models that are available and emulated.

What may distinguish our society today is both the pervasiveness of social media and their widespread use by kids when they are very young. These factors probably push against the kind of autonomous self for which you are calling. But as a society, we certainly don’t have to accept that state of affairs. As parents, educators, citizens, we can model non-reliance on devices, apps, and social media, and help young people see that they do have choices—and those extend way beyond which app to use on which occasion—the lowest common denominator of choices!

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part One)

A bit more than a decade ago, I met Howard Gardner for the first time. I had been aware of his work for much longer. My graduate mentor, David Bordwell, had assigned us his book, The Mind’s New Science when I was in graduate school, and the book had such an impact upon me that I had sought out his other works. When our paths crossed in the real world, I was a first intimidated, but also fascinated to find myself part of a conversation with him about the ways digital media was impacting how we thought and lived at the cusp of the 21st century.

Gardner is of Harvard; I was then of MIT, and that sums up about as well as I can imagine the intellectual and philosophical differences through which we saw the world. What separates Harvard and MIT for me has always been more than two subway stops on the Red Line. I went to Harvard Square to buy my comics but I usually stopped short of entering its gates. It was a different world — “the other place” — and you either understood that or it was impossible to explain.

Yet, for all of his enormous accomplishments and intellectual rigor, Gardner is also an incredibly modest and generous man, someone I love to bounce ideas against, someone with whom I frequently but always productively disagree, someone who is connected in his personal biography to some of the great thinkers who passed through Harvard in the second part of the 20th century, and someone who has the vision to think through what it means to continue that great humanistic tradition into the 21st century. Over the past years, I have had many chances to collaborate with Gardner – first as a contributor to a book he was editing (and a conference he was hosting) with Marcelo Saurez-Orozco, Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millenium, then as collaborators (along with our entire teams) on the development of OurSpace:Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World, a curricular guide designed to help foster serious reflections on ethics in the age of participatory culture, and most recently, as fellow members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network.

I have always resisted trying to put a label on the various points around which we disagree. We wrote about it some in the introduction to OurSpace. But both of our thinking is too complex and layered to be easily described and to much at risk of being caricatured by those who only partially understand where we are each coming from. You will get some suggestions of points of convergence and divergence from the interview which follows, but you will also get a sense of the challenge we each have in putting the other in a bottle, since we are both prone to actively think and rethink our core assumptions on a regular basis, and open to being persuaded by new developments. What I hope you also will see is the tremendous respect and affection we have for each other.

Along the way, I have come to know many of the younger members of Gardner’s research team, including Carrie James and Katie Davis. I knew them as part of the “Good Play” and “Good Participation” projects, funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. They were part of the team that worked alongside my research staff and graduate students at MIT as we developed the OurSpace project, an effort led on the MIT side by Erin Reilly. I’ve watched James and Davis emerge as serious thinkers about youth, digital media, and learning in their own right, each carving out an identity for themselves as researchers, and each producing and publishing  significant scholarly works.

Over the next week and a half, I want to showcase some recent works to emerge from this remarkable research team, two books, both relatively new, each speaking to key themes of the Digital Media and Learning movement: first, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, which was released this month in a revised paperback edition, and second, Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and The Ethics Gap, which came out only a few weeks ago. Gardner, Davis, and James have offered up thoughtful and substantive responses to my sometimes challenging questions, in the process offering us insights into the thinking behind these two books. The books are, as Gardner noted to me in a recent email, very different projects, and yet, each in their own ways shows the legacy of a particular way of thinking through problems  I associated with Project Zero.

The App Generation starts with a deceptively simple consideration: the ways that apps may be pre-determining what we do with computers and mobile devices. But, the focus on apps on the most literal level turns out to be a point of entry for what is a deeper mediation on the current state of education, curiosity, and creativity, in a world where such digital devices are taken for granted and often provide the most compelling models for how our minds work and how we relate to other people around us. Like a good conversation with Gardner and his team, the book shifts layers, sometimes expressing concerns or worries about the state of our world, yet never giving up hope; sometimes asking very pragmatic questions while at other times digging deep into their philosophical implications; all the while writing in simple, straightforward prose that can communicate effectively with a concerned parent, a dedicated teacher, a perplexed policy maker, or an overloaded undergraduate….

WE START OFF BY THANKING YOU, HENRY, FOR POSING THESE THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS. WE’VE LEARNED FROM PONDERING THEM AND BELIEVE THAT OTHERS WILL ALSO PROFIT FROM THE EXCHANGE HERE.

 

You end the book with a provocative sentence, “For ourselves, and for those who come after us as well, we desire a world where all human beings have a chance to create their own answers, indeed, to raise their own questions, and to approach them in ways that are their own.” How do apps fit — for better and for worse — into the world you desire?

We are enthusiastic supporters of a liberal arts education, but we recognize that it is currently under severe pressures in the US for various reasons, including growing costs and competition from online education services. Analogous to our arguments in other parts of our book, we see technologies as having both the potential to be a handmaiden of liberal arts education (as in a well run flipped classroom) and as an obstacle (e.g. students sit in class and pay only partial attention to the instructor and their classmates as they update their Facebook status, browse pictures on Instagram, and scroll through their Twitter feed).

Turning specifically to apps, they can certainly help students do research efficiently, collaborate with fellow students, and frame cogent answers to certain kinds of questions. But, consistent with our discussion of ‘the app mentality,’ apps may also convey the misleading impression that everything has a quick, definite answer and therefore nudge students to avoid issues that are complex and apparently not susceptible to app treatment.

We can also make apps themselves the focus of education. Apps are part of a broader technology landscape that requires a new set of literacies and skills, including computational thinking. An education in our time should help students understand how apps work, what they can and cannot do, how they may nudge you in certain directions and not others, and how to make your own apps or tweak those designed by others.

 

A striking feature of this book is the ways you draw on the life experiences of Howard and Katie, the two authors, and Katie’s sister, Molly, who each came of age during different moments of media evolution. What role do you see such autobiographical reflections playing in relation to the other kinds of research deployed in the book, whether focused interviews from your field work or larger statistical data sets?

As social scientists, we are well aware that anecdotes, no matter how powerful, are no substitute for, and do not add up to data. Most of our book is quite data driven, we have a methodological appendix in which we outline our methods, and we have also published several related papers in peer-reviewed journals or posted them on appropriate websites (e.g. here , here , here).

Except for scholarly monographs, books by scholars are meant to convey ideas and findings to a broader public. We hoped that, in addition to scholars of youth and/or digital media, our book would speak to educators, parents, and to that elusive category “the general educated public.”   For this kind of communication, stories, anecdotes, biographical reflections are often the most effective way to communicate the importance of the questions being raised and the nature of the ideas, frameworks, and explanations at which the authors have arrived.

In the particular case to which you refer, we did not have the idea of a trans-generational conversation until we were close to writing the book. The conversation with Molly, which allowed us to span three generations, elicited many useful points about the ways she and her peers use media; the story about the senior girls ‘marrying’ the freshmen boys on Facebook was an unanticipated bonus, since it offered a comfortable and vivid way of introducing the three Is of Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination.

The conversation with Howard’s grandson Oscar occurred even later, when the book was largely drafted. Again, what Oscar said captured beautifully the strengths and opportunities of digital media, as well as the distinct challenges they pose. And since Oscar represents the future, the conversation provided an opportunity, in the final pages of the book, for us to state—looking ahead– what we admire, and what causes us serious concern.

There are times in the book where you seem to be using “apps” metaphorically to identify and describe certain dimensions of the current generation’s cultural and social experiences and other places where you seem to be making causal claims, suggesting that the presence of apps have result in certain shifts in social behavior. You also make clear that demonstrating causality here would be difficult if not impossible. So could you say a bit more about what status apps hold in your argument?

We should perhaps have made it clearer when we were talking about apps literally—for example, what it means when a young person has never gotten lost. We should have specified when we were talking about apps metaphorically—what we call an app mentality (expecting everything to be slick, efficient, and branded) or a Super-App (the belief that life can or should consist of ‘one damned—or glorious — app after another’).

You and we both point out that one can never attribute a certain outcome confidently to the proliferation of apps or, indeed, to the effect of digital technologies more generally. We can’t do the experiment and we can’t eliminate the effects of other factors (e.g. the move toward high stakes, standardized testing in the U.S. and its possible effect on young people’s literary capacities, or the impact that economic uncertainty has on youth’s willingness to take risks in their education and career trajectories).

But an important goal of social science is to create terms, frameworks, and theories that help us to make sense of our time—and, in this particular case, of the minds and behaviors of young people. This is what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson did when he wrote about the identity crisis; it is what sociologists David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny did when they were writing about ‘the other-directed generation.” Less grandly, our goal has been to help readers understand what might be distinctive about young people in the early years of the 21st century.

While we do not see ourselves as techno-determinists, we do call attention to the distinct qualities of apps and various other digital media, such as round-the-clock connectivity and the public, searchable nature of networked communication. These qualities do not in themselves cause people to behave in certain ways—the introduction of the first transcontinental railroad did not cause Americans to move Westward in the late nineteenth century, but it did facilitate this trend. When the distinct affordances and constraints of digital media play out in specific social contexts—with their own set of norms, values, and practices—we believe the interaction between technology and society encourages certain forms of behavior, self-expression, and communication at the same time as it discourages others.

 At other places, you seem to imply that we are making choices about what role we allow these apps to play in our lives, distinguishing for example between “app-dependent” and “app-enabled” activities. To what degree are these choices under our control? What factors help to determine what choices individuals make in their relationship to these technologies?

This question gets to the essence of our inquiry and our concerns. Howard is a strong believer in “free will,” but he does not believe that people are in any sense born as free agents. It’s the messages in society—personal but also technological—that determine whether we live in a relatively free society (to which the United States and many other countries aspire) or in a totalitarian society where free will is the enemy (the totalitarian societies of the 20th and earlier centuries, and also the dystopias portrayed by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Dave Eggers and other well- known literary figures).

The particular habits and practices that emerge in a society shape our relationship to other people, to ideas, to ourselves. In our research, we observed closely young people’s habits and practices around their use of technology and identified two distinct patterns. The app-enabled individual uses technology as a starting point, an introduction to new experiences, modes of expression, and social connection. App-dependent individuals, by contrast, look to their technologies first instead of looking outside to the non-technological world or examining their own thoughts and imaginative powers for a path forward—for these individuals, technology has become in effect a starting point, midpoint, and endpoint. We have the ability to shape our habits around technology and decide its role in our lives. But we must be deliberate about it, or we run the risk of abdicating our agency by outsourcing more and more of ourselves to our devices.

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.