Media Philosophy of Permanent Beta

I am preparing the first lectures for the two units I am teaching this semester. One is an introductory media studies unit and the other is an advanced online journalism unit. In both units I am grappling with the concept of ‘permanent beta’ for the first lectures. ‘Permanent beta’ is a phrase that I picked up somewhere, I am not sure where. Tim ‘Web 2.0’ O’Reilly discussed the concept of ‘perpetual beta’ to account for ways users were being reconfigured as co-developers. Others have picked this up and talked about ‘perpetual beta’ as a design approach for releasing unperfected products into the wild. Essentially this changes the process of satisficing (making sacrifices while satisfying basic design outcomes) to incorporate an expectation of users that while a product will not be ‘perfect’, it will be ‘useful’ and therefore can be ‘used’. There is a documentary called Life in Permanent Beta that brings together a discussion of technological developments and the question of whether technologies can serve as the locus for an ‘authentic’ life.

I am thinking about ‘permanent beta’ in slightly different way and it is essentially due to being in an educational context. I am using ‘permanent beta’ to describe a situation for preparing students for a future that is only partially defined. In the past, as is the case for most of what I have prepared in the syllabi in both units, students were taught so as to be literate in a given discipline and/or prepared for a certain workplace. ‘Permanent beta’ indicates a situation ‘to come’, one which never actually arrives, and yet affects the current situation. Why doesn’t it arrive? Because there is another situation on the horizon ‘to come’. A Derridean ‘permanent beta’. (On Derrida’s concept of the future, see this.)

For example, Jay Rosen has noted that journalism schools used to prepare students for a certain production culture (broadcast television, radio or print), where the ‘production cycle was god’. He implies that current journalism schools fail if they do not also prepare students for making news useful (and the weird ill-defined workplace of online journalism). I am taking this a step further and experimenting with helping students develop an entrepreneurial disposition to embrace opportunities that may or may not exist yet. (Some previous writing on what I mean by ‘opportunity’ here, but the everyday meaning of the word is suitable.)

Concrete example: We shouldn’t teach journalism students how to use a CMS, but how a CMS is used in different ways. They should be familiar with a range of content management systems and how these different systems afford different ways of representing and producing news, engaging with the audience and so on. Why? They will eventually use a CMS that hasn’t been invented yet, so they need to develop skills for developing best practice to incorporate the ‘new’. Or, better, they will assist the media enterprise where they work (or, better, own (or, even better, have created)) in creating a CMS that features the specific production and publishing affordances that enables them to make the news as useful as possible for the audience represented by the area of interest they are servicing.

Future utility informs current practice all the time in the media industry. Especially in negative ways where I am aware of publishers who have ‘opted up’ of updating sites because they are anxious about constant changes. Rather than developing a production cycle that can incorporate change and then developing a structured and measured approach to changing the production cycle to produce content in its most useful way, they have narrowed their markets (audience and advertisers) until the bare essentials are left, all in the name of retaining existing business models and all the while profit and audiences are rapidly diminishing.

For the media studies unit I am grappling with the question of media literacy. Part of this has been an update from what William Merrin has described as the shift from Media Studies 1.0 to Media Studies 2.0. In his journal article on the subject he describes a disjunction between the ‘world’ of the media studies academic and the ‘world’ of the current crop of students. I am half a generation younger than Merrin (at least, in relation to media engagement habits) so luckily most of what he describes as belonging to his students’ world belongs to mine. But this is not good enough for me. Updating media studies is one thing, and retaining elements of the past broadcast-based media studies disciplinary model is important, but media studies in the age of permanent beta means preparing students to be media literate not in the ‘world’ they already exist in, but for a ‘world’ to come.

It means a big shift has to occur so students can appreciate change as a necessary element of navigating the complex media ecologies of their worlds. My solution has to go with an ‘issues’ based unit design. This does not mean ‘issues’ in a normative political sense. For example, in the second lecture I discuss stupidity. Stupidity is a problem; not too many people want to be stupid. In different ways ‘the media’ has often been blamed for making audiences stupid. Why? How? From critiques of mass-culture to anxieties around social network over-exposure, the ‘idiot’ has been subject to constant critique. But surely some advertisers and media producers want consumers to be stupid, so as to not think too much about what they are about to purchase or watch? So who wants to make us stupid? I run through a history of anxieties around the media and whether it can produce stupidity or not, and if so in what ways. I identify my own stupidities.

I have tried this once before, when teaching print journalism, and it failed miserably. I only focused on the negative side of this process. My failure began with observing that very few, if any, of the students in the lecture would get jobs as traditional journalists. I did not focus on, because I did not see how it was possible myself, how the students were going to be tasked wih the awesome opportunity and responsibility of rejuvenating journalism itself. Part of the reason for framing the journalism unit in particular like this (so students learn to appreciate media-based opportunity) is so students should feel empowered when they enter the job market. I did not want to hobble students with a burden of having a skill set that managers do not have, thus making the now-worker graduates forever be the little worker bee content producers. Or inherit a dystopic view of the industry in general. I want them to be able to see and harness opportunities when they emerge. This is a question of ethics. Yes, they will need to learn the ropes and pay their dues if they work in an established media enterprise. They should also feel empowered to pitch good ideas to management and help isolate and harness opportunities when they emerge for their own survival, if not for the survival of the media enterprise.