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?