Do technologies of convenience shape activity?
I work with students to rethink the concept of the ‘filter bubble’ and locate it in a much broader context of how the subject position of user is created through affordances of technologies and services. At stake is whether or not there is a new kind of audience passivity, one that is necessarily co-constituted through user activity, rather than the older notions of a passive mass audience.
In Culture + Technology, Slack and Wise (2005: 33) suggest that to be a “fully functioning adult member of the culture”:
you are likely to have accepted as necessities various technologies and technological practices that are not biological, but are rather cultural necessities.
My current students are afflicted with the generational myth of the ‘digital native’. The character of the ‘digital native’ frames engagement with technology and the capabilities and affordances expected or assumed of an entire generation reconfigured as ‘users’. The idea that, like speakers in language, there are native and immigrant users of technology. Digital natives “surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). Bennet, Mason, and Karvin (2008) argue that the discourse around “digital natives .[..] rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic.’” For Sadowski (2014) it is a rearticulation of technology discourses that boost ‘gadgets’ over people:
The larger issue is that, when we insist on generalizing people into a wide category based on birth year alone, we effectively erase the stark discrepancies between access and privilege, and between experience and preference. By glancing over these social differences, and just boosting new technologies instead, it becomes easy to prioritize gadgets over what actually benefits a diverse contingent of people.
The myth of the ‘digital native’ has been translated into an educational context with three assumptions (Kirschner and Merriënboer 2013). First, students really understood what they were doing; second, students were using technologies effectively and efficiently; and, third, it is good to design education where students can use digital technologies. What I notice with students is that they do not necessarily seek mastery over a given technology or set of skills or even competence with regards to the professional standards of proficiency, but ‘convenience’. This echoes findings from Kvavik (2005) that carried out a survey of 4374 students of the so-called ‘net generation’ to examine their relation to technology at university. Kvavik interrogated some of the assumptions that articulated a generational cohort with technological skill or capacity:
- Do they ‘prefer technology’? Only moderate preference.
- Is technology ‘increasingly important’? Most skilled students had mixed feelings.
- Do they already possess ‘good IT skills in support of learning’? No, many skills had to be acquired. Skills acquired through requirements of curriculum.
Importantly, Kvavik found that ‘convenience’ was the most common unprompted open text response to good qualities of using technology at university. Relations of ‘convenience’ reintroduce new forms of passivity, where technology use is appreciated as ‘good’ if it is ‘convenient’. What happens in contexts where technology makes a given practice too convenient?
A Case for Practicing Inconvenient Scholarship?
Students are arguably disadvantaged by the technologies of scholarship that most academics and researchers take for granted, such as Google Scholar and the more general phenomena of digitized scholarship. ‘Research practice’ in the humanities and social sciences prior to web often began with a review of literature on a given topic or area of interest. This literature search was profoundly inconvenient, and shaped by limited access and a slow temporality when physical copies of texts were moved around from location of repository to the scholar. A similar moment in current ‘research practice’ in the humanities and social sciences is now characterised by digital searches of an excess of information and the immediacy of ‘answers’ to ‘questions’ just posed. The relative ‘openness’ of with regards to access to such scholarship is a boon, but only in those circumstances where the research questions are not developed in a digitally-enabled and networked context.
The challenge with contemporary research students in particular is the number of possible sources (infinite, literal rate of publishing in some areas is quicker than the maximum rate of engaged reading) and the duration of scholarship thus afforded for developing a critical appreciation. Undergraduate students face a greater challenge in that they will likely not engage with an area of scholarship long enough to develop an appreciation of the above problems.
Previous modes of scholarship would frame this as a problem of appreciating one’s disciplinary area. Come to terms with the main names in a field and you will know the field. This response relies on rearticulating normative hierarchies of scholarship that work to counteract the benefits of ‘open’ scholarship. What is the point of open scholarship if they same institutions have their work valorised over others? This reintroduces a different set of affordances that implicate users in a different (social) technology of convenience.
I think a better way to approach this initial period of scholarship in any given project is to approach the development of an appreciation of a given field as a process and the overarching relation between scholar and field in this process is one of discovery. We all become detectives investigating comparable research problems, rather than judges lording over privileged ways of doing scholarship.