vernacular literacy

I don’t want ‘vernacular’ to become another ubiquitous adjective that I just stick in front of every ‘traditional’ cultural category, just like ‘e’ went in front of every Foucauldian discourse/institution 10 years ago (e-education, e-medicine, e-government). Especially considering that I’ve only recently added Nava’s ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism‘ to the pile of readings for my thesis on ‘vernacular creativity’, AND Henry Jenkins already uses ‘vernacular media’, PLUS what I gain from working with participants is some illumination of what a ‘vernacular theory‘ of creativity and cultural participation would look like. But in preparing my AoIR paper I’ve begun sketching out something that includes the phrase ‘vernacular literacy’. Very rough thoughts as of 5 minutes ago:

Just as it is possible to speak of ‘vernacular creativity’ as a field of cultural production that is structurally outside of, but nevertheless references and is referenced by the artworlds and commercial media, it is also possible to talk about ‘vernacular literacy’. There are two levels to this concept which follow from the duality of literacy as both a field of contestation and a site of (or means to?) practice, and which I outlined above in the more general discussion of the cultural politics of new media literacy.

First, it is possible to talk about ‘vernacular literacies’ as part of the practice of everyday content creation. That is, the range of everyday competencies that constitute what people can already ‘do’ creatively, and the local, social contexts in which those practices are embedded. Secondly, these sites of vernacular creativity are also the location for vernacular theories (cf. McLaughlin) of literacy – where transpositions of ‘official’ debates around literacy are worked through at a local level, especially at moments of perceived technological ‘newness’, such as with digital culture.

I will go away and ruminate on all that, I think. But it could be a good way into the ‘stuff’ of my case studies.

And here is what a Google search turns up for the phrase in question.

hackability and adaptive design

I sometimes talk about a tension between ‘usability and hackability‘, and somewhat pessimistically about how, most of the time, technology (in the broadest, most social sense of the word) teaches us what we should do with it, and how we should do those things. I need to get more across current thinking in interaction design/critical design theory though. This patient, careful post by Dan Hill, a transcript of an interview where he outlines his contribution to a forthcoming book on the subject, is a big help:

The discourse around hackability is often littered with “hooks, sockets, plugs, handles” and so on. With adaptive design, drawing from the language of architecture more than code, we have a more graceful, refined vocabulary of “enabling change in fast layers building on stability in slow layers”, “designing space to evolve”, “time being the best designer” and so on. This suggests that there could be a distinction; that adaptive design is perhaps the process designed to enable careful articulation and evolution, as opposed to hackability’s more open-ended nature.

However, they still draw from the same basic concepts: of design being an ongoing social process between designer and user; of products evolving over time; of enabling the system to learn across an architecture of loosely-coupled layers; of not over-designing.


My favourite sentence:
In adaptive design, designers must enable the experience/object to ‘learn’, and users to be able to ‘teach’ the experience/object.

Current thesis word count: 27,117.

the uses of participation

Ross Mayfield has made a nice graph of a continuum of participation in social software and online communities:

I use something similar in my PhD, talking more specifically about ‘creative’ and ‘network’ literacies. But I was struck by the way that the continuum moves from ‘passive’ consumption through to mastery and control. Something that I’ve struggled with all along in my research is theorising the pay-off of increased literacy and cultural participation – that is, participation in what? and what for?

So, I was thinking, what if the pay-off was something other than (or in addition to) the growth of profit for social software developers, or even ‘innovation’ and ‘knowledge creation’? What if I started again and thought about how cultural participation through consumer-created media might actually have positive implications for cultural citizenship? Would the graph look different? So I made this to try and think it through:


Current thesis word count: 25,355

‘more than a mere assemblage of moviemaking information’

Thank you Glen for sending me this little treasure which I found in my in-tray this morning – for that you are a prince among men.

I’ve also uploaded the first two pages of one of the many fabulous example storyboards that the book includes in glossy colour. It’s called ‘Laura’s Seventh Birthday’, and it’s all about making the cake with Mother, playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and having girlish chit-chat. In a very pretty frock.

Going beyond the frocks – Kodak teaches us that in home movies the ‘in-between’ quotidian spaces and practices of everyday life are interesting and camera-worthy. But at the same time, the aesthetics of home movies are to be distinguished from professional movie-and television production; and the home-movie maker is not to aspire to those.

There’s a lot here I can use in my ‘history’ chapter on amateur creativity, new technology and the construction/teaching of new media literacy.

Current thesis word count: 20,724

the gendered act of reading

There is much to enjoy at Kristine Steenbergh’s blog Earmarks in Early Modern Culture, but today I especially noticed the gender of reading (lots of great images, too). It draws out in longhand what Jeanette Winterson sketches in breathtaking shorthand for Marylin, reading Ulysses in the sun. But I wonder how this other image of Marilyn reading (the same book?) works – are we still spying on a “moment of mind”? Or is it just the frisson of “brains + boobs” – Marilyn is so immersed that she is unaware of the camera, allowing the voyeur access to her cleavage?

post-humanism and the phonograph

I won’t even bother to pretend to rehearse the endless determinism vs. agency debate problem, but here is Nicholas Gane on Kittler on technology:

Gane, Nicholas. Radical Post-humanism:
Friedrich Kittler and the Primacy of Technology
, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 22, No. 3, 25-41 (2005)

(citations removed for the sake of nice clean copy)

Kittler observes that around 1800 a general shift took place from the closed world
of the ‘Republic of Scholars’, ‘a system in which knowledge was defined in terms of authority and erudition’ and ‘in which patterns of communication followed the lines of social stratification’, to a more open system of reading and writing based on the practice of alphabetization, which involves the translation of visible into audible language, or the oralization of culture. In the midst of this shift, the book emerged as a universal medium, one that, for a short time, remained closed to competition from rival media. Kittler explains: ‘Aside from mechanical automatons and toys, there was nothing. The discourse network of 1800 functioned without phonographs, gramophones, or cinematographs. Only books could provide serial storage of data’. This situation soon changed, however, and by 1900 the book’s position as the chief storage medium was placed under threat by ‘new’ technologies such as the gramophone, phonograph and film.

(not) like sweeping powder over glass

Some things about typewriters and the corporeality of the mechanical and the sensuality of literacy:

Typing means “taking foolish chances with words”:

Typing represents to me the work of writing, of striking the physical world, and in so doing, changing it. Writing on a laptop (as I did to write this) is like sweeping powder over glass�a breeze, even a breath, can undo all the work. While I no longer believe that what a typewriter produces is somehow more truthful, I do miss the fact that it receives no email, can�t surf the web, and will never crash.

And of course there’s a retro revival:

With a typewriter, Cupertino resident Heather Folsom said, writing is a sensory experience. Her “noiseless” Underwood portable makes a satisfying thwack when she taps the keys. She piles finished pages beside her. The ink has its own special smell.

The visceral experience of writing rescued from the unbearable lightness of the digital – or something like that…

But it all feels different when the typewriter is the “new” technology: mechanization, speed, efficiency, desensitisation, dehumanisation – it bears all the symptoms and promises of modernity. From a wonderful piece in Cabinet Magazine:

The typewriter, by definition, mechanizes writing, the way the rifle mechanizes killing. The cold metal of a rifle or a typewriter insinuates itself between a person and his or her passion.

Being masters of their machines made women cold, too:

At the Rosenberg spy trial, in 1952, the prosecuting attorney sharpened the government’s case against Ethel Rosenberg by asking the jury to visualize the female, Jewish suspect sitting behind her typewriter, “hitting the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interest of the Soviets.”

For sale by crafty virtuoso: one typewriter nostalgia love box.

Or choose your letter and hang a key around your neck.

History of the IBM electric typewriter here.
IBM typewriter ad

And there’s Friedrich A. Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (which I haven’t read, but probably will) if you like your history of new media technologies infused with Heidegger and psychoanalysis.

Also, think mobile and handheld devices are new?

Think again.

AoIR Panel

[Apologies for loooooong blockquotes]

I recently received word that the AoIR 7.0 panel I’m organising with Melissa Gregg, Sal Humphreys, David Berry and Christina Spurgeon has been accepted. The title of the panel is ‘Creativity and its Discontents: Critical Perspectives on the Cultural Economy of New Media’, and here’s the abstract:

In recent years there has been a growth in ‘cyberbole’ (Woolgar, 2002) that insists that the increased availability and power of digital technologies for production and distribution represent a revolution that will allow ‘everyone’ to be an active and creative media participant. The perceived effect of this is that media users are able to evade the ideological dominance and commercial imperatives of the mass media. However, this democratisation discourse converges persistently with emerging neoliberal business and economic models under which consumers (or ‘users’), particularly of technology, are considered to possess and exercise more creativity and agency than before. This is often combined with a rhetoric of the surge in the power of voluntary work and ‘productive’ leisure. Leadbeater and Miller view the current surge in non-professional creativity as a ‘new ethic of amateurism’ that ‘could be one of the defining features of developed society’ (2004, p. 22). In a much more general sense, Richard Florida (2002) argues that more-or-less ubiquitous creativity (ubiquitous, that is, to the ‘developed’ world) is central to the present and near future of labour and cultural citizenship.

This panel aims to provide detailed accounts of the limits of these discourses. We will examine the complexity of agency and the constraints on it within the cultural economy of new media, particularly in relation to neoliberal economics and what ‘creative industries’ and their users, consumers, or co-creators are actually doing. We deliberately choose to focus on examples within the demographics and fields of practice that are most frequently invoked as exemplary by these discourses (MMOG players and other online communities, DIY media, the ‘new economy’ worker). We critique from a number of angles the rhetoric which insists these instances are proof of the transformative effect of the convergence between the conditions of cultural production and consumption. The prevailing structures of power impose often unacknowledged constraints on the agency of the neo-liberal ‘empowered consumer’. The frictions caused by the intersection of commercial interests, citizenship, and the affective and/or creative investments made by media users must be examined.


Bowman, Shane, and Willis, Chris (2003) WeMedia: How Audiences Are Shaping the Future of News and Information, Reston, Va.: The Media Center at the American Press Institute.

Florida, Richard (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic Books.
Leadbeater, Charles, and Paul (2004) The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts Are Changing Our Economy and Society, London: Demos.

Woolgar, Steve (2002) ‘Five Rules of Virtuality’, In Steve Woolgar (Ed.), Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality (pp. 1-22), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

And this is my own abstract – I’d be grateful for any comments that come to mind:

DIY, the Digerati and the Digital Divide: The Cultural Politics of New Media Literacy

In cultural and media studies, it is becoming orthodox to say that content creation is as essential to higher orders of new media literacy as writing was to print literacy. Content creation is also seen as key to ‘voice’ in the digital mediascape, and to participation in the networked cultural public sphere. Indeed, Sonia Livingstone (2004) has recently argued that attention to content creation as a component of literacy is ‘crucial to the democratic agenda’, positioning new media users ‘not merely as consumers but also as citizens’ (p. 11). In this paper, I am specifically concerned with interrogating the idea that everyday creative uses of digital technologies are a freely available point of access to such participation. On the continuum of participation, why is it that most Internet users are still lurkers rather than creators?

It is a fact that easier-to-use and more powerful tools are, in theory, available to anyone with physical access to a PC (or, increasingly, a mobile phone); but creative consumer hype, invoking the technological sublime, constructs the tools themselves as reified ‘magical solutions’. This shallowly utopian perspective correlates in philosophical terms to the model of lack represented by technologically deterministic ‘have-or-have-not’ concepts like ‘the digital divide’. With Warschauer, I argue that ‘digital inclusion’ is a much more useful term of critique and analysis than ‘digital divide’, which implies a binaristic and linear model of access, rather than a complex ecosystem of privilege, access and participation. Secondly, it is not possible to understand the unevenness of active and effective participation in digital culture without a critical and empirically grounded theory of literacy and the way it articulates to the dynamics of cultural capital, education, and class.

Livingstone (2004) proposes that most discussions of new media literacy are characterised by historically unresolved tensions between ‘critical’ or ‘enlightenment’ views of literacy – polarised philosophical positions that see literacy as a normative and exclusionary construction on the one hand (the ‘critical’ view); or as an aid to progress and equality that we should aim to extend to all people on the other (the ‘enlightenment’ view). In this paper, I propose a position that critically evaluates and balances these two available approaches. Drawing on cultural and media studies perspectives and methodological concerns, the paper will analyse the emerging patterns of cultural competencies and cultural value that work to construct new media literacy for cultural participation; and evaluate the potential and limitations of programs (such as the Digital Storytelling movement and classroom blogging) that aim to address the unevenness of access to new media literacy.

Using textual analysis, ethnographic and interview data, I demonstrate that, on the one hand, the ‘digerati’ – A-list bloggers, for example – share a particular class location, and that the emerging aesthetic and ethical norms of online ‘DIY culture’ map onto the tastes and values of this demographic. Equally, it is undeniable that the tools for democratic participation in new media are in fact available and at least theoretically accessible to a much broader demographic; and the pragmatism of participatory ethics dictates that it is urgent that non-elite members of society learn to use them in the effective service of diverse social and developmental goals. Such a view is represented by work such as that carried out by community Digital Storytelling programs and the emphasis on ‘creative literacies’ in e-learning. The paper ends by assessing the potential for such interventions to work effectively in the service of digital inclusion.

Livingstone, Sonia (2004) ‘Media Literacy and The Challenge of New Information and Communication Technologies’, The Communication Review, 7: 3-14.

Warschauer, Mark (2003) Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

on having nothing to say

I’ve been in one of my quiet moods lately – plenty to think about and contemplate, but nothing pressing to say. But if you have a blog (and a million emails to answer) it is hard not to feel pressure from the imagined audience or potential respondent to say something, just to mark presence (kind of what I’m doing now, using my favourite cure for writers’ block – writing about why writing seems difficult).

Which got me thinking again, if not talking, about the idea of ‘presence‘ or of ‘becoming real’ as a key element of social communication. Offline, some of the greatest communicators are great not because of their verbosity, but because of the sheer energy and warmth of their presence: online, the only way to mark presence in both the temporal and [meta]physical sense is to talk…and talk, and talk, and talk. For the last few weeks, my students have had to engage in a class discussion via a chatroom, which seemed to encourage the reticent to speak, but by the students’ own admission led to a whole lot of talking without a lot of listening – participation for participation’s sake. Which in turn reminds me of an ongoing worry I have about where and how and for whom the read-and-write (as opposed to read-only or write-only) literacies are going to emerge in new media. Where ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ are not to be taken literally [pardon the pun] but are metaphors for catching and leaving traces of all kinds.