Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Digital Impact

I'm growing increasingly uneasy about the way the concept of "digital media" is almost invariably associated with the notion of "broader impact". A recent post by Jessie Daniels provides a typical example of the rhetoric:

Higher education is changing because of digital media technologies. How we do our work as scholars, how we create knowledge, is changing because of digital media. And, increasingly, academics want to know their work has an impact in the world beyond the Ivory Tower. Yet, digital media training for academics is still missing at most institutions.

That post was inspired by Kevin Anselmo's post at the LSE Impact blog titled "With academia moving in a digital direction, sustained investment in media training would benefit all." The post talks mainly about "social media" and even "traditional press", but it does seem to be built on the underlying idea expressed in the title, namely, that "digital" means "exposed to broader society". As Daniels puts it,

The ground beneath us is shifting. How we do our work as academics is already different because of digital media technologies. Card catalogs, anyone? No, of course, not. We expect our libraries, our search strategies, and our results to be available digitally.

Because of these transformations, 21st-century scholars are much more enmeshed in the world around them than previous generations who may have envisioned an academic life sequestered from the turmoil of the everyday world. Scholars today see themselves as part of the world around them and want their work to have some kind of impact on that world. For now at least, digital media training in how to use these tools and navigate this landscape are still missing at most institutions.

I've bolded that characterization of "previous generations" because it makes a telling point. It says that technological change, and in particular the "digital" world of the Internet, has made it less realistic to "sequester" the academy from the world. The change, on this view, is mainly within the academy, or at its boundary [or even beneath its feet, where "the ground is shifting"!]. But we have to keep in mind that Internet has changed everything, not just the university. The Internet is very much a part of the general "turmoil" and the academy is just as much in need of keeping it at arm's length. It's not really that "scholars are more enmeshed in the world" but that everything in the world is more enmeshed in everything else.

Moreover, as Daniels points out, there are perfectly "digital" advances that have nothing to do with having "an impact in the world beyond the Ivory Tower". Many of the advances in information storage and retrieval will remain useful only to traditional academics in traditional ways. In that sense, the Internet is just part of a much better library (and a better observatory and a better laboratory). Moreover, it is too often forgotten that even "social media" like blogging and tweeting don't necessarily involve a "broader public". It is true that they are little more "out in public", but not really much more than a published book is. These communications don't have to be any more accessible to the public outside the Ivory Tower than an email from a colleague.

By "accessible", here, I don't mean that they might be "private" or "by invitation only" or require a password. I just mean that a blog post and even a tweet may be entirely incomprehensible to someone outside the academy, even just outside a particular discipline. That's entirely fine. And it's also entirely "digital". Most of the impact of "digital media" has been, should be, and hopefully will continue to be, to make traditional scholarship easier to communicate to other scholars. A hundred years ago essays and books could also be used to communicate with either the broader public or more narrowly with one's peers.

It's very tempting to point to "digital media" as a game changer that we all have to get on board with. It's not a game changer, and certainly not one that shifts the ground towards the public. It is wrong, and a bit dangerous I think, to tell academics that this development forces them to abandon traditional values because, you know, "like it or not", they now have to deal with the twitterati. They don't. They can if they want, but they don't have to. And if they really want to "have an impact beyond the Ivory Tower", they should have the courage to consider actually leaving it. And the decency of leaving the stuffy academic use of the new media to scholars who are interested in using the relative economic security of tenure to conserve knowledge, rather than spread ideology.

P.S. The point deserves a post of its own but, as I say in the post that I link to at the end, we need to remember that the most important impact academics can have on the world is mediated (if you will) by the impact they have on their students.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post makes me feel ancient, even anachronistic. I am content in the knowledge that I do not wish to substitute social media use for time that I have been spending preparing and sharing with students in the formal classroom and in graduate research supervision and that I have been spending in that old-fashioned Ivory Tower research. The opportunity cost of twittering is too high.