Archive: November 9th, 2008

Henry Jenkins visits LCC

[General,Talks] (11.09.08, 7:09 pm)

Renowned media and culture scholar (and blogger) Henry Jenkins visited us this past week. He gave a lively presentation on media technology as used in the election campaign, and later met up with several of the research groups. I stuck around the group meeting with Janet’s narrative schema group where we looked at some of Sergio Goldenberg‘s eTV projects, as well as Hartmut Koenitz’s Advanced Stories Group. I was at this last meeting, but was not especially conversational, as one, I don’t have a huge amount to say about the projects, and two, I did not have much completed work of my own to show. Nonetheless, there were a few very interesting bits that I picked up from both events, and I’ll try to convey them here.

Politics and Media

I’ve studiously avoided discussing politics here. This is not to say that I don’t have my own strong beliefs, but I find nearly all political discussions to be exhausting and ultimately futile. Nonetheless, there are a number of very interesting and noteworthy things discussed in Jenkins’ talk about media in the election, and in political communication in general. So, I’ll try to review what I can.

The talk opened with a review of how media has been used in previous elections. The Lincoln-Douglas debate is an example which is frequently used as a non-mediated political event. The historical debate was dry, logical, and textual. However, the situation of the debate was still at a carnival. Bands played, there were sideshow performances and greased pig chasing contests. Spectacle was still very much an issue. Neil Postman claimed that the spectacular nature of television could never match the rationality of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, but this claim misses a complex relationship between politics and media.

Media has been used by all candidates in recent past, and the skilled use of media has tended to make for successful elections. Examples are FDR and radio, Nixon and Kennedy over television, Reagan and dramatic iconography, Clinton with cable, and finally Obama and the internet. This election is marked by a convergence of media. Obama’s skilled use at weaving many kinds of media together to create a coherent and consistent message is in part responsible for his overwhelming success.

The pivotal moment to Jenkins is the CNN-YouTube debate. This is revolutionary and pivotal because it marks a return of control from an institutionalized system (television or town-hall debates) to popular control. The clash between participatory (meaning user/popular controlled) culture with the authority of mass media. There were two sets of controversies that came out of this. The first was the reaction against the legitimacy of the YouTube questions, and the second was a reaction against the authority of CNN to filter and screen the questions in the first place.

The issue of legitimacy takes a complex spin when examined carefully. one of Jenkins’ examples is a snowman, asking about global warming. The example was decried somewhat as illegitimate, because it is ostensibly not serious. Literally, the snowman is fictional, and it is at odds for a candidate to be faced with a question from a fictional character. However, a snowman asking about global warming is still apt metaphorically. Furthermore, there is a deeper thread: The snowman speaks with a squeaky voice that is reminiscent of Mr Bill from Saturday Night Live. Mr Bill was, in turn, a “user-created” tape sent to SNL. This example thus taps into a somewhat deeper set of meanings than may first appear. User created questions work beyond the questions themselves, but also pull the weight of a larger set of cultural meanings.

The YouTube debates are one example in which users were able to “talk back” to the candidates and the media, but there are also other cases. One example is the “3-AM girl” who was in some stock footage used in an advertisement by the Clinton campaign, but then was able to post a response saying that she supported Obama. All of these cases are ways in which users have taken control of media and used the internet to talk back, taking control away from the usual media authorities.

In turn, existing media still does not go away, but rather takes on a new relationship to the internet and other media sources. Television broadcasts something, and this is reacted to on the internet, and is in turn broadcast out by television. There is a feedback cycle between blogs, YouTube, cable television, and national news and television.

Other Tidbits

On reality television: This has always had to do with ethics. While reality TV always focuses on conflict, or strives to create conflict, the conflict is ultimately about ethics. Characters have different ethics, and observers project their own values onto them. Jenkins explains that this is how some theorists have come to understand gossip: people project values onto characters, and talk about those characters to communicate their ethical values. In a sense, reality television is used by audiences to discuss their own ethics indirectly.

We were still discussing the eTV projects, in terms of exploring fictional worlds, specifically as relates to convergence, and an interesting point came up. Convergence is the process of revealing a fictional world through many different kinds of media. An example of how this works is when a franchise (for example, The Matrix) splits off into several media forms (beyond films: an animated series and some games), and while watching or consuming one form of media, there is a reference to something that occurs in the others. This sort of connecting process is an active function of the viewer, and helps build a better sense and knowledge of the fictional world. Jenkins called the sort of pleasure that results from this “epistemophilia,” which is a pleasure of knowing and connecting. Epistemophilia is associated with puzzles and transmedia works.

Epistemophilia is also conflicted with a different pleasure, the pleasure of immersion, even though the two are often confused. Immersion is the sense of being in a world and experiencing it viscerally. (Maybe I should call it “ontophilia”). Immersion is at odds with epistemophilia, which can be seen as a type of “spoiler” that undermines the sense of being. Immersion is normally associated with transparency and immediacy. To be in a fictional world, the media that exists between the user and the world must be overcome. On the other hand, with epistemophilia, the media is necessary. An epistemophilic desire is to take advantage of a medium in order to understand and piece together the world as an external observer. This can be done for instance with freeze frames in DVDs (to catch some subtle and impossible clue). Both of these desires relate to the relationship between the user, the medium, and the world.

Later, while discussing the advanced stories system, Jenkins warned us about the mechanics of fan fiction and interactive story systems. Character drives fan fiction. In this case, characters are used projectively: to explore values and idealizations. Branching narratives do not deal well with the complex matter of character motivation, which is what drives fan fiction. There could be branching narration (not narrative), which explores different perspectives. The culture of writing is compelled by character psychology. In rich environments and settings, the world is a character.

This last bit was somewhat troubling to me, though. My work is focused on adaptation of fiction, and is looking at Jane Austen specifically. Austen has a huge culture of recreation, and adaptation, much of which reads very much like fan fiction. However: my approach and focus has been on recreating the social world and model, rather than capturing the characters exactly. I could make the argument that real motivation is impossible without some social or cultural model (that expresses values), but I do not attempt to express the deep complexity of character. At least not yet, the essences and complexities of character are extremely hard to formalize.

Nonetheless, I did speak to him for a few minutes afterwards, in which I hurriedly (and possibly incoherently) explained my ideas, and he seemed to give me an endorsement, so that is a positive sign. Hooray!

Jean Lave: Cognition in Practice

[Readings] (11.09.08, 11:34 am)

This book is about a shift in the study of cognition into the idea of practice. Lave’s book is the construction of a complex argument to free the understanding of cognition from the limits imposed by traditional methods of study. As far as this goes, Lave asserts that the use of the laboratory and theory impose certain values into the study of cognition, classifying some uses of cognition as superior to others. Additionally, these approaches also yield incorrect results. For example, the first part of the book challenges the idea of learning transfer, which would be valid if we the functionalist theory of cognition held. Lave demonstrates that learning transfer clearly does not occur in practice.

A lot of ground is covered in this book, and Lave makes some very progressive and compelling arguments. Her work can be considered a criticism of functionalism in all its forms, which would include mental model theory. Having found model theory useful for many purposes, I would posit that practice can be understood in terms of models. This requires a subtle understanding of what a model is: a consistent system of meaning that comes with a way to interpret and translate things in the world into symbols in the model. Lave’s argument could easily be extended to argue that all theories are practices, but I would extend this further and say that theories and practices are both models in turn.

Psychology and Anthropology I

An opening example is how arithmetic is used in everyday life. Problems that ordinary people face are very unlike problems that might be specified in a classroom sort of setting. In the introduction, Lave gives an example of a shopper who is buying apples, and rationalizing how many apples to buy. As presented, arithmetic is a tool that is used in everyday life, not as an explicit approach, but rather as something like duct tape, to be used for estimations than exact calculations. Classical mathematics studies math as an artifact, a whole subject, rather than a tool.

Lave gives a solid critique of functionalist theory. This is characterized by several points (p. 8):

  • Passivity of learner: The learner is passive and receives knowledge without having an active role in its learning or use.
  • Isolation of skills: Skills may be separated and understood atomically. Separation is unproblematic, and usage is not dependent on context.
  • Leads to meritocracy: The use and adeptness at arbitrary skills leads to a value system where proficiency at one skill indicates general superiority.
  • Stress on rationality and cognitive life: This is as opposed to usage and practice.
  • Cultural uniformity: If the functionalist theory holds, then skills and functions transcend culture, meaning that culture must have uniform basis.

The book is organized into two parts: The first is a critique of the practice of cognitive theory. This challenges the functionalist emphasis on learning transfer, and the artificiality of the laboratory method. The theme of this argument is around the idea of ecological validity, where a theory is ecologically invalid if it fails to be supported in a diversity of settings. The latter half of the book explores and emphasizes the study of practice in of itself.

Missionaries and Cannibals (Indoors)

The section here is trying to understand the role and concept of knowledge transfer, the process by which knowledge from one domain is transferred to another. Presumably this happens analogically. The actual results of experiments about knowledge transfer obtained mixed conclusions. These experiments give students a math problem, which may be solved algorithmically, and give the students other problems which are isomorphic in some way. Students do not make the necessary leaps in these sorts of problems, and generally seem very confused. A functionalist theory would support a sort of reductive understanding and transfer, but this does not hold. Incidentally, this type of transfer is exactly the sort of mechanism by which Newell’s GPS worked.

Lave gives a critique of the method by which students were presented with problems in the learning transfer studies. “A number of problem characteristics are common to all four papers and by extension to the genre more broadly. The puzzles or problems are assumed to be objective and factual. They are constructed ‘off-stage’ by experimenters, for, not by, problem solvers.” (p. 35) Thus, the problems are presented as tests, and come replete with the values of producing a correct solution. These have an overall trend of disempowering the subjects, depriving them of suitable context or situation.

The learning transfer experiments rely on a sense of knowledge as component based or modular. In this point of view, knowledge is put into domains, which function like disconnected islands. However, this point of view, and the problems themselves, are cultural artifacts.

Life After School

To find an alternative to traditional problem solving, Lave conducted a study called the Adult Math Project, which studied how ordinary people use mathematics in everyday life, and more specifically, grocery shopping. This study found that people are remarkably successful at math problems, (framed both on paper, as well as in the store) but they use dramatically different methods than those taught in school.

A problem I found with her study, though, is that it is placing supermarket decisions primarily in terms of cost. This relates back to the fallacious idea of the rational consumer. Supermarket choices may factor in cost, but also have a great deal to do with social and class awareness and attitudes, preferences, and identity.

Psychology and Anthropology II

Lave is attempting to undermine the false dichotomy of scientific and “everyday” thought. This descends from dualism and cultural colonialism. The central theme in this is that science itself is a practice, and that it is culturally constructed.

Inside the Supermarket (Outdoors) and From the Veranda

The goal in this section is to develop a theory of practice. The first part of this is to distinguish between practice and formal knowledge domains, or conceptual spaces. A primary difference is that practice occurs simultaneously within other activities, and may be synchronized with them to some degree. An example of this that Lave gives is knitting and reading. Instead of taking place individually, they are situated within each other and affect each other.

There is a concern over the form of scientific inquiry. This may be seen as a concern over model building. How do we decide what to model, or decide what is important or relevant? This is an authorial judgement, and comes in part with judgement of value. Lave asks, “Further, who is to decide what cognitive phenomena are significant objects of study, and how? Are guidelines to be found in normative models of cognition, in an investigation of the activities of peoples’ lives, in some combination, or in other sources altogether?”

To address this concern, she introduces the idea of ecological validity. Experiments are ecologically valid if they get the same results regardless of situation. This is important for the study of cognitive science, because the way people think within a laboratory setting may be different in some ways than how they think outside. If a cognitive experiment yields one set of results within the laboratory, but totally breaks down outside, then the theory on which that experiment is based must be questioned.

An experiment that Lave critiques a great deal in this section is another supermarket math experience, conducted by Capon and Kuhn. Their experiment is intrinsically biased towards the knowledge domain understanding of math. The experiment was set at a grocery store, but still carried the structure of laboratory problems: answers were right or wrong, and the type of reasoning was intended to be proportional. Instead of asking “what sort of math occurs in grocery shopping?” they tested whether subjects could perform a certain kind of math.

Out of Trees of Knowledge into Fields for Activity

This chapter frames the complexity in problem solving. Instead of problem solving existing at one small and discrete domain, it is situated within a broader context. “People experience ‘problems’ subjectively in the form of dilemmas and, so motivated, ‘problem-solving’ actively often leads to more or less enduring resolutions than precise solutions.” (p. 124)

An example that Lave focuses on is a study of practitioners of Weight Watchers, who incorporate the goals of Weight Watchers into their daily routines of shopping and food preparation. Thus, these activities are recast with a new set of motivations. I would argue that these practices are totally consistent with model theory. Weight Watchers has a model with one underlying principle: the quantization of food. This causes activities involving food to be understood as systems of quantities. These models and motivations are necessarily in conflict with others.

Outdoors: A Social Anthropology of Cognition in Practice

In the opening to her concluding chapter, Lave overviews some of the elements of her study of practice (p. 171):

  1. The context of a study is important, (for example, in the supermarket), but the context surrounding the situation is also important. The supermarket is also contextualized in peoples’ lives, in which the shoppers’ dilemmas are construed.
  2. Conventional premises and analytic questions must be understood critically. This book can be seen as a project which makes these assumptions to be objects of study.
  3. The study focuses on “whole-person activity” rather than attempting to understand cognitive functions in isolation. This places cognition as dependent on on time and setting, within culture.
  4. Accepting that activity is situated, then those activities are placed within some point in history and culture, and must be understood in that context. Thus, the dilemmas of the shopper (and hence the form of math and cognition used) in 1950s America may be different from those found in contemporary Beirut.

Lave’s final conclusion has a good review of her project as a whole: “I have tried to move the investigation of ‘cognition’ outdoors in several senses: out of the laboratory, out of the head, out of a confusion with a rationalistic ‘culture,’ out of conflation with conventional ‘knowledge structures,’ and out of the role of order-producing, primary constraints on activity in the world.” (p. 189-190)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorLave, Jean
TitleCognition in Practice
Tagsspecials, anthropology, psychology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon