April 27, 2009

Media in Transition 6… Reactions…

I attended Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission in Cambridge, MA, April 24-26. (Follow that link for a summary of what the conference was about.) Here are my thoughts about the conference after returning home.

Of primary interest to me, coming from Duluth, MN, where it was below freezing yesterday, was the beautiful weather and quaint, New Englandy setting of Cambridge. It was warm, approaching the 70s. Second after the weather and the architecture the most noticeable thing about Cambridge, coming from the Midwest and California before that, are the sharply drawn, heavily defining class lines. You can feel that it matters what your background is to people in that part of the country. While it is refreshing to be in a place where intellectualism is generally respected, it is annoying how that appreciation always seems to come with a measurement of rank (what university you’re associated with, etc.).

Walking into the Sloane building at the kickoff of the conference, what was most noticeable was the way that people looked. Black clothing, trendy eyewear, and hip messenger bags created an impression of with-it-ness and sexiness that matched the paper abstracts on the website. Beginning to speak with people personally, though, I quickly realized that, more than hip and sexy, this was a crowd of extremely interesting and dynamic individuals.

Listening to papers over a couple of days, I did notice a certain degree of academic vanity and ego that is an underlying issue in academia, perhaps more at MIT6 than in some other places, because of the sexiness of the subject matter. You could hear the effort that many of the young scholars put into stringing together impressive and artful sentences, and I felt a little embarrassed to recognize my own writing priorities in theirs (since those artful sentences could have been written just as clearly without the showiness). I think it is a rare person who pursues a profession as an intellectual who can remain uncorrupted by the issues of ego and vanity that run through academia.

The conference, since it was so much about what is new and changing, had the feel of young intellectuals staking their claims, but not everyone there was young. The inter-generational dynamic was important. There were a number of well established senior faculty who held forth and got respect, but sometimes seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace of change that younger academics at the conference were aggressively pushing forward with papers on Youtube and how it has reshaped things, etc. To get a sense of the energy of the young scholars at the conference, take a look at the action on Twitter over the past few days.

While there were a lot of women at the conference, there were few minorities, and some women noted how male-dominated the large-scale discussions tended to be. This is despite gender and multiculturalism frequently appearing as aspects of presented papers.

As a librarian, and not a professor or a grad student, and not immersed in media studies, I felt somewhat outside of the intellectual currents that flowed through the conference. Thankfully, it was an interdisciplinary-enough event that most people were less than totally familiar with the discourse that underlay most others’ papers, which put everyone in more or less the same boat, at least part of the time. That said, I definitely felt aware of my own non-specialist, perhaps dilettante-ish approach to scholarly discourse. I like having the freedom to engage in an idea briefly, communicate an original thought to someone who might make use of it, and move on. My interests are too wide-ranging to focus on a topic for years on end the way a professor is required to do. I can only admire the work that many of the academics at this conference put into developing their ideas about new media into solid works that might have an influence on the way society solves problems or navigates the way forward, but I am also glad that that is not a part of my job description. I don’t have quite the attention span or temperament for it.

One of the MIT Communications Forum members who kicked off the conference on Friday said that there were over 300 papers being presented. The abstracts and many of the actual papers are online on the MIT6 site – I encourage you to peruse them. Over the course of the weekend I found the energy and sheer volume of discussion and ideas to be overwhelming, so that Sunday morning my head was spinning, and I sat out that day’s sessions. The conference was larger than expected, and attracted so many bright, original young thinkers who want to push ahead with social research about new media and the web that I am left with the impression that this may have been a landmark conference – if not delineating then at least marking a point of fruition and maturity in studies of new, social media, Web 2.0 and the like. The conference was at MIT, and the book table showing MIT Press’ new publications in the area of new media and related topics was a further indication of the what a state of fruition this area of study is in. Take a look at the MIT Press website to see what I mean.

I mentioned that I felt somewhat an outsider at the conference because of my reading interests and work role. Making me feel further outside, or against, the current, was the fact that this conference was very much about the future – speculating about what it will be as well as creating it – while I am often more interested in what we can learn from the past. The sheer volume and energy of the ideas about the future and the rapidly transforming present made me feel my age, and I’m not that old yet.

When I go to conferences, I like to think about what questions are set to emerge but are only suggested in the papers and discussions. One set of questions that I think we will begin to face in librarianship concerns the death of the public sphere and the emergence of disparate publics, and how these relate to social media and digital archives. Many presenters worked from the assumption of a public sphere (whether their ideas concerned journalism, archives, youtube, or communities that would form around electronic books). The question of “publics” versus “the public” did come up explicitly in the question/ answer period following a session about the “new civic journalism,” where Patricia Aufdferheide and Mary Bryson debated Afderheide’s deliberate use of the term “publics” in a way that referred to an ultimate appeal to a broader public sphere were social problems can be communicated and refereed. The sheer volume of communication, and the sharp differences between potential audiences, made me wonder if such a public sphere is possible any longer (I’m very late in doubting it), and how access to discussion about texts will end up being negotiated – how social media groups will form or be formed and access to their discussions regulated.

The ideas that circulated at this conference will, I believe, eventually find their way into our smaller pond of library studies, and I believe we will have many uses for them. I recommend the MIT6 archive of presented papers as a store of ideas.

I did find myself wishing, on a number of occasions, that more LIS people were present. For example, there was a lot of interest and discussion of digital archives and the role of the archive in society, but no academics who could speak to the issues in archival theory and archival appraisal that were glossed over by speakers, who seemed almost unaware that such a discipline exists. In the first plenary discussion, for example, there was an unquestioned assumption that archivists want to keep everything, with no reference made to archival appraisal, which was very much at issue.

This conference really wore me out. I think I will pass on the next one, but I hope it is attended by more librarians and archivists than this one was.

3 Comments »

  1. Would be Digital Archivists would also do well to consider energy constraints in a post-Peak Oil world that may make the internet look a whole lot different (and less reliable) in our own lifetimes. Sadly nobody in LITA or other ALA groupings seems to have a clue about the power-down future that looms for all of us…I know this is my personal hobby horse, but I can’t help but ride it, either.

    Comment by JJR — April 28, 2009 @ 12:31 am

  2. Thanks for the report — it sounds like a fascinating conference, and I may check out some of the papers and such, in my own dilettante-ist way.

    Comment by laura — May 8, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  3. This is an excellent analysis. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Erik Estep — May 10, 2009 @ 6:40 am

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