On Monday I am defending my dissertation via video conference to New Zealand, a semi-public review of a five year effort. I even got written up in a tome on Internet ethics, after being interviewed on my made up on the fly research methods. Awesome. But I am a little cross about something. The examiners have an opportunity to send me questions that arose for them while reading my dissertation. There is an insistence on positing that the digital world is scary and littered with bad intentions, faulty manners, some creep-o-rama here and there, and really nothing really good at all.
I am annoyed that this is a major question that appears in both examiners' reports, amidst all the possible questions and areas of possibility and exploration, I am criticised for not being negative enough. One examiner accuses me of 'techno-optimism' or 'techno-celebration'. Therefore I have developed this statement:
Why is it considered mandatory in media studies and related disciplines to explore the dystopian perspective (see page 33 of the thesis), and why is my work considered faulty because I believe in focusing (while explaining rather comprehensively, I think) on what’s positive and possible and hopeful and different about digital spaces and my experiences within them? I in fact did review and integrate all the major 'negative' or 'dystopian' literature, as well, because my committee wished that I appear ‘balanced’, however I am in rather violent disagreement about this necessity. In fact, I think the focus on negative aspects of media culture are a bit of an albatross around media studies’ neck. I think the Internet is the most amazing thing to have happened to humanity in several hundred years. Not perfect, but amazing. I find the constant nagging to explore and predict all of the horrible facets quite disconcerting, and rather a waste of time. These aspects exist, yes, but are typically the outliers, sometimes sensational, yes, but I believe it is my right as a scholar to choose to focus on the positive aspects without being taken to task for some lack of judgment or critical thinking.
Now, if it is mandatory that scholars of media studies take these stances: ‘the media are out to get us!’, then perhaps my ultimate disciplinary home will be a different one. I understand the legacy, of propaganda, radio, Nazis, mass media, effects and impacts, and other drivers of thinking in this area; media studies considers itself responsible for informing and protecting the unassuming media consumer. I suppose this is a useful task.
But I am an unabashed techno-optimist, and I think our populous is becoming much more capable and empowered and broadly literate via these technological vehicles and venues, and I think that should be allowed with some suggestion that my decision to focus on what I believe to be the truth is somehow lacking. My focus on the positive does not mean I am not rigourous; it just means that I have dismissed the writings of pundits such as Oppenheimer as I think they are a bit crusty, certainly dogmatic and prone to fear mongering, and often have no actual experience in the areas they choose to consider so critically. In a way, I do not even believe they deserve any attention at all, however we continue to demand that their insight be heard and integrated. I am not sure this is right.
I do make a point of reading them (know your enemies, right?), but I find their scholarship typically weak and their research projects built in order to vociferously and crossly prove particular (rather negative) points. The world used to be so much better before were all interconnected. Spam will destroy us. Kids spend a little too much time indoors. So do I. Yes.
Perhaps I am guilty of this coddling of my dogma, as well, but I believe that this area needs to be generally balanced, and that is why I took the approach I did. Also, the cultures and environments I study are typically extremely positive cultures and ecosystems that thrive happily, even with some occasional ganking and bad language and homophobia (that’s gonna take a couple thousand more years to resolve, or so it seems). I am taking an inside out approach, not the outside in observation and conjecture so typical of media effects research. And as a participant observer of gaming cultures, starting at age 12 or earlier, I know intimately what I am talking about. I also know several dozen gamers personally, in addition to the 10,000 surveyed in my study. Despite some insistence that these sorts of entertainment must be folly, and that which will take all real culture down, I believe their gaming experiences constitute the development of critical and fundamental literacies that are critical to life in digital spaces, and the exploration of which is the basis of my thesis.
I hope this clarifies why I have not taken one of the more expected positions. My focus is on habits, practices and opportunities, not a limited set of concerns or visceral reactions to our changing world. ‘I dwell in possibility’, not a mere assessment of digital spaces’ less perfect or less savoury aspects. I will leave that to others more concerned than I. Change is not disconcerting to me. People do some messed up things when cloaked in anonymity. We will live.