Creating and Consuming

In light of recently attending a talk by Andrea Lunsford and reading Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command, I was somewhat surprised by a recurring conversation I found myself having with my freshman students during conferences this week. For their third writing assignment, I am having my students complete a multimedia project – students have to write a paper, but also create an “object,” such as a video, comic, website, or image, that will compliment their written work. When discussing this project with students, the word “create,” which I assumed was a self-evident term, was called into question. What exactly does it mean to create new media? What are the rules for composing, building, and authoring a digital object? Many of my students initially assumed that by “create” what I really meant was find; students thought that finding a video or a series of videos that supported their paper topic would suffice. Many students were horrified when I told them I wanted them to make their own object. Surprisingly, the majority of students that I spoke with have never used photoshop or video editing software. They know how to find, search, post, repin, and send, but not how to use the software that I associate with media creation.

Upon reflection, telling my students that they need to “make” their videos didn’t entirely capture what I was trying to say either. When I told them that if they intended to turn in a video, they had to make it, they assumed I meant “from scratch.” My students interpreted this as meaning that they had to take all of the footage themselves. But, that isn’t quite what I meant either. It’s funny that when I tell my students to go create a paper, they know exactly what I mean. Somehow though, creating digital content is a bit trickier.

Both Lunsford and Manovich focus on the type of creative agency digital media convey to users, especially young, tech savvy, users. But when I was talking to my students I was taken aback by the fact that these 18 year olds, who use their devices all the time, don’t have a solid conception of what it means to create digitally, nor do they know how to use many of the tools that I would associate with digital creation.  In Software Studies, Manovich writes about Alan Kay’s vision of the ultimate digital device, a tool that would provide users “with already-written general tools so the users would be able to make their own creative tools.” For Manovich, software, which defines our current digital age, is defined by continual acts of creation; it is constantly evolving, changing, growing, and proliferating. One of Manovich’s most interesting, and perhaps provocative, claims is that because of these characteristics, the term medium has become somewhat superfluous:

And here comes the ultimate difficulty with continuing to use the term “medium” as a useful descriptor for a set of cultural artistic activities. The problem is not that multiple mediums converge into one “monomedium” – they do not. The problem is exactly the opposite: they multiply to such extent that the term loses its usefulness.

While I can’t help but agree with Manovich’s assessment (and think that if “medium” no longer applies to our digital creations because of the way they reproduce and intertwine, perhaps stable disciplinary categorizations are themselves getting a bit outdated…) I’m left wondering how far away we are from Kay’s vision. Yes, technology allows us immense creative power, but where do we draw the line between producer and consumer? Is there a difference between building and re-tweeting, repining, forwarding, liking, etc.? How much do we need to know in order to be a creator? What does it mean that my students know how to take a video and post it to Facebook, but not how to edit a video or create a website?

While I hate to rehash the same old question, this issue of what the right type of knowledge (if there is such a thing) is, seems to tie Manovich back to Kirschenbaum. Manovich writes that we need to understand software in order to “get to what is behind new representation and communication media and to understand what it really is and what it does.” He adds, “If we don’t addresses software itself, we are in danger of always dealing only with its effects rather than the causes.” Substitute hardware for software and it sounds like Mechanisms; both make the same point, that in order to understand what is really going on here, we need to dig beneath the surface. However, the questions becomes, how deep do we need to dig? How deep is useful?

4 thoughts on “Creating and Consuming

  1. Gabi,
    I think what you’re running into is exactly what Manovich warns us about through the voices of media critics at the Wall Street Journal: our devices are not helping us to be writers or creators, but consumers and end users. Think about it: in order to write an app, they’d have to know how to write code (though I don’t know which one). What they probably don’t know is that in order to write a blog, there are a lot of hosting sites that already have servers and software that they use remotely. They never have to code on the back end. The reason that I am saying this is not because I don’t think you know it. I am sure that you know it. The problem is, our students are so used to GUI, and seamless GUI at that, they don’t understand the underlying programming that allows it to run so cleanly. Only when their iOS updates and slows down their iPhones do they become aware.

    In a way, I thought Andrea Lunsford’s presentation was unrealistic and unfair. Most of our students don’t have the background that my students had at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School–classes on Avid, Final Cut, and Adobe Premier, access to HD cameras, or editing software (there it is!) for iPhone video, ProTools, or Photoshop, or even LightBox. They also didn’t have the training that our school offered them, or the freedom to explore projects like the ones that we did at MACCS. The result: they freak out. They can write the hell out of a 5-paragraph essay, though.

  2. First, I think that I am going to engage in this conversation about our students creating media, or objects. For in my classes they have to create a short movie as a final project, usually following a hispanic legend/story or a social issue. Unlike what you describe, Gabi, I have had no problem with the assignment yet (finger crossed for next semester). Not all my students are tech savvy, don’t know how to use video editing software, etc. But I’ve found out that, as many of the authors we are reading in class say, collaboration is playing a big role in the creative process right now. Students teach each other. Usually, some are really creative and think about the story and how they can recreate, the best one in grammar helps writing the script and talks to me about it, and then a couple of them assemble the object.
    I find this collaboration the most interesting idea on the book too. Not only between humans, but between software itself: by mixing different media we get new languages and change our world. Now, I’m also worried about the effect of GUI and consumerism. I am always surprised when people tell me that I am so intelligent due to my “technological knowledge” (and, believe me, I know basically nothing yet). I know how to use a blog, Photoshop, my iGadgets for more than call/text/picture/socialmedia/music, but I don’t know how exactly they work on a software level. So, “the questions becomes, how deep do we need to dig? How deep is useful?” My naive answer: collaboration is the answer.

  3. Great post, Gabi.
    I tried to express the paradoxical separation between creators/consumers in my post, by ironically using the larger metaphore of Armstrong’s song, since my utopian side loved Manovich’s book, but my realist, perhaps cynical, side, was very concerned about how he is describing a world that does not exist – yet, or, to put it in milder terms, he is not taking into adequate consideration the problem that you describe in your post: how people, and even young people, are only being users and not creators. I am always obsessed with questions regarding language, and I wonder if we can see an analogy with it. We all know how to write and communicate, but do we all know (or try to know) language’s mechanisms and implications as we should, in order to look “at causes and not only at effects”?
    The positive note is, though, that DH seems to be really crucial, as a remedy to this dangerous split between creators and consumers, and as a fundamental and empowering act of knowledge.

  4. This is something that I’ve noticed and commented on elsewhere. And, why, I think that Manovich does not quite reproduce the historical experience of the “typical” user as much as he’d like. As a journeyman with a lot of these creative media, but not an expert, it is easy for me to think of myself as typical. Surely everyone knows how to use iMovie or Windows Movie Maker? (No.)

    It seems that the creator/consumer divide is still quite real. But we don’t quite know where it is anymore. Or, we are only sometimes creators when we consume.

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