Tag Archive for 'TECH3022'

Page 2 of 2

TECH3022 Lecture Week Four: Thinking Sociologically

This week’s discussion for Advanced Social Media Production looks at how we can take forward the idea of investigating the social processes associated with the uses of social media. This means thinking about the methods and the principles that we might use to investigate in this field consistently, in a way that other people can share the data and make sense of the ideas that emerge from it.

Sociological Objectives: What Can a Sociological Outlook Achieve?

Our starting point recognises that “cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, [that] shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1). The role of the social researcher, therefore, is to “develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005 p.17).

For the research element of the project in this module we will be adopting the techniques and the approaches associated with ethnography. As Hines points out, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8). And in doing this the “goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).

Structure or Structures of Feeling?

When we look at society and start to attempt to build wider pictures about the events and routines that are happening in it, then we have to think about ways to deploy a sociological perspective that recognises the set of generic social processes that give form to our social relationships. C. Wright Mills famously called this the Sociological Imagination. A way of thinking about the processes within society and between social actors that “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (Mills, 1959, p. 5). As Mills points out: “Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure.’ This distinction is an essential tool of the sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science” (Mills, 1959, p. 8).

Hypothesising or Describing?

It’s essential to note that “Ethnographic research is fundamentally distinct from experimentations; the goal is not to determine how controlled variables account for difference, but to trace and interpret the complex currents of everyday life that comprise our collective lived experience as human beings” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).

And that sociology, instead, has an intense focus on the things that people do, as opposed to theoretical objectification. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest: “from this point of view we can say that sociology is distinguished through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: mutual dependency (dependency being a state in which the probability that the action will be undertaken and the chance of its success change in relation to what other actors are, do or may do). Sociologists ask what consequences this has for human actors, the relations into which we enter and the societies of which we are a part” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

Therefore, ad as Mills argues, “there is no ‘grand theory’, no one universal scheme in terms of which we can understand the unity of social structure, no one answer to the tired old problem of social order taken uberhaupt [in the first place]“ (Mills, 1959, p. 46). What we have to focus on instead is the small interactions between agents working in a field of operations. It is the aggregation of the many operations and interactions that form the social. As Bauman and May argue: “Thinking sociologically is a way of understanding the human world that also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-004-Thinking-Sociologically-001-2014-10-14The focus for our studies within this module, therefore, can be expressed in diagram form in which the interactions between different subjects are what give shape to the cultural frameworks. As Uwe Flick points out, the linear model of research looks for data in a sequential process, but the ethnographic process looks, instead, for data in a comparative process that is built-up over many repeated cycles of interaction.TECH3022_15-Lecture-004-Thinking-Sociologically-002-2014-10-14

Being in the Field – Observations of Lifeworlds:

“Usually ethnography is concerned with all aspects of social life, or all facets of a social setting. Broadly, the idea is for the researcher to be immersed in the setting, to generate an understanding of the context in which interaction is rooted” (MacKay in Hine, 2005, p. 134). Therefore, “when we set out to research social interactions we cannot specify in advance just what form those interactions will take, nor how we will be able to participate in or observe them” (p. 2).

Participant observation is the research process that “enables researchers, as far as is possible, to share the same experiences as the subjects, to understand better why they act in the way they do and ‘to see things as those involved see things’ (Denscombe 1998: 69, Quotes in Hine, 2005 p.17). As Judith Bell suggests, “the very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer” (Bell, 2005, p. 96).

http://wps.pearsoned.co.uk/ema_uk_he_plummer_sociology_3/40/10342/2647687.cw/content/

According to Bauman and May, “sociology is an extended commentary on the experiences that arise in social relations and is an interpretation of those experiences in relation to others and the social conditions in which people find themselves” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 180). “Because ethnographers can anticipate large amounts of data, categories for interpretation emerge from the ground up, and research questions and foci shift during fieldwork. It is thus best to categorise and continually sort and re-sort the data as these are collected” [#ref?]. Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref?].

For examples, it is “valuable to record observational fieldnotes written in the margins of downloaded data, elaborating upon subtleties noticed at the time but which are not captured in the text or data itself. These fieldnotes offer details about the social and interactional processes that make up the members of online cultures and communities’ everyday lives and activities. It is best to capture them contemporaneously with interactive online social experiences is important because these processes of learning, socialisation, and acculturation are subtle and our recollection of them becomes rapidly diluted over time” [ref?].

In addition to noting the actions and events that take place in a field of study, the researcher also has to work out what impact and what difference their own interactions in the data collection process make. This process of reflection, as John Dewey argues “involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence – a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors” (Dewey 1910 p.2). As Dewey explains “reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance” (Dewey 1910 p.13).

For the researcher, therefore, reflexivity can be understood and the “extent to which the netnographic text acknowledges the role of the researcher and is open to alternative interpretations” [#ref?].

From which a number of important questions arise:

  • What is the role of the researcher in this process?
  • What kind if assumptions do we make and what kind of bias do we retain?
  • How can we incorporate our own experience within the research process?

Empathising, Being and Participating with Others:

What, then, is the primary role of social research? According to Bauman and May both the researcher and the subject of the researcher’s attention are “both enabled and constrained in the everyday practices of freedom.” As Bauman and May point out, “at one level we are taught that there are types of desires that are acceptable and achievable within the group. Appropriate ways to act, talk, dress, conduct ourselves generally provide for the orientation that is needed to get us through life within the groups to which we belong. We then judge ourselves according to these expectations and our self-esteem is given accordingly” (Bauman and May 2001, p. 20).

Robert Prus outlines the associated process of interaction as Generic Social Processes. According to Prus: “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of:

(1) acquiring perspectives;

(2) achieving identity;

(3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments);

(4) developing relationships;

(5) experiencing emotionality; and

(6) achieving communicative fluency.”

According to Prus, “we may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).

As Bauman and May explain, “this overview of generic social processes is organised around three very broad concepts:

(a) participating in situations,

(b) engaging subcultural life-worlds, and

(c) forming and coordinating associations.

These three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).

“The interactionist, generally, [then] concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).

Accordingly “The very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer.” [#ref?]

The task before us, as Robert Prus argues, therefore, involves

  1. “attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish and
  2. establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.”

Importantly, as Prus points out that, even on the most basic level, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136). And that “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).

John Cresswell lists the main attributes of this process:

  1. “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
  1. Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
  1. The qualitative researcher is the primary instrument for data collection and analysis. Data are mediated through the human instrument, rather than through inventories, questionnaires, or machines.
  1. Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
  1. Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
  1. The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).

In summary then “the idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward:

  • Consider the online environment a social world.
  • Assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.
  • Treat online data as a social act.
  • Seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.
  • When appropriate, broaden the particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all” [#ref].

Netnographic Approach 001 2013-03-04And that we should consider how as “individual actors” we “come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence.” And that regardless of what we do, we should acknowledge that we are “dependent on others.” According to Bauman and May the “central questions of sociology… are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

For Bauman and May, “the social scientist who spends his intellectual force on the details of small-scale milieux is not putting his work outside the political conflicts and forces of his time. He is, at least indirectly and in effect, ‘accepting’ the framework of his society. But no one who accepts the full intellectual tasks of social science can merely assume that structure. In fact, it is his job to make that structure explicit and to study it as a whole” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 78).

Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref].

To summarise, “In our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’, how do the practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001). That will be the question for later sessions, but for now we can be satisfied that our starting point has been established.

References:

  • Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
  • Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnogrphic Research Online. London: Sage.
  • Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Prus, R. (1999). Beyond the Power Mystique. New York: State University of New York Press.

TECH3022 Lecture Week Three – Participation

In this week’s TECH3022 Lecture I wanted to introduce some concepts that would help us to situate the role of participation in the function of social and collaborative media. Our discussions are looking at developing our understanding about social media, and the way it has the potential to encourage civic or grassroots media engagement. I wanted to highlight some ideas, therefore, that have been associated with the way that public sphere has been used as a way to explain how civic discussion is understood. Coupled with this I also wanted to introduce the idea of hegemony and the critique of dominant ideas within society, and how they are controlled by ruling elites. To do this I wanted to introduce some examples drawn from DIY and alternative media, as well as thinking about the relevance of community media.

It is useful to keep in mind that despite what many voices in the mass media might want us to believe, it’s entirely possible to imagine alternative ways of communicating with media that aren’t dominated by corporate control and the dominant social discourses that define Western society. This challenge to the dominant monoculture of ideas and thinking in Western capitalism can be examined, on a number of levels. Either from the point of view of social movements and historical forces that might be argued to shape society, or, by paying attention to the daily life practices of ordinary people working on the day-to-day functions of living and interacting. In the context of social media we should remember, as Henry Jenkins points out, that “what people collectively and individually decide to do with [new media] technologies as professionals and as audiences, and what kinds of culture people produce and spread in and around these tools, is still being determined” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. xiii).

I’ve been working and researching in the field of community media quite a bit over the last ten years or so, and I’ve developed a familiarity with the way that participants in community media can find the confidence to articulate their individual voices, nurturing and developing alternative ideas and practices. Community media has the potential to offer something different for participants that is not as fixed or determined by the controlling influence of mainstream corporate media. Follow this link to listen to one of my Community Media World Podcasts.

Kevin Howley notes that “community media represent a unique site to interrogate the process of identity formation through communication technologies, and to examine the dramatic impact of social and technological change on the everyday lived experience of disparate groups within a geographically based community. Put another way, attending to the institutions, forms, and practices associated with community media provides enormous insight into the relationship between people, places, and communication technologies” (Howley, 2005, p. 38).

So, a focus on participation, and the development of social media practices that promote participation, have the potential to afford us, as Delwiche & Henderson suggest, a mechanism by which individuals and grassroots groups can challenge the domination of centralised and hierarchically organised media organisations. According to Delwiche & Henderson:

“Armed with inexpensive tools for capturing, editing, and organising, people tap into a vast ocean of real-time data and multimedia content to promote personal and political interests. Functions once monopolised by a handful of hierarchical institutions (e.g. newspapers, television stations, and universities) have been usurped by independent publishers, video-sharing sites, collaboratively sustained knowledge banks, and fan-generated entertainment” (Delwiche & Henderson, 2013, p. 3).

This notion of a usurping function for community and collaborative media is echoed by Howley, when he explains how an “emphasis on ‘social-political policies’ is instructive insofar as it highlights the constructed and contested character of media systems. In other words, rather than view these systems as the natural or inevitable outgrowth of any given technology, this perspective illuminates the social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics involved in creating a media system” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

Howley goes on to give an example and suggests that, “for instance, radio broadcasting operates in terms of a hierarchical, one-way flow of information between media producers and media audiences. This centralised form of message production and distribution positions audiences as relatively passive consumers of media messages. And yet, there is nothing inherent in broadcast technology that precludes decentralised communication between message producers and received. Indeed, in its early days, radio was a vibrant, participatory, and decidedly two-way medium of popular communication” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

If we keep in mind that the choices that have been made to regulate broadcasting and media services in Western societies come from a particular set of ideological conventions and ideas, then we can start to examine how the process of organisation shapes and structures our wider expectations about media democracy. As Howley points out,  “terrestrial radio broadcasting, as we know it today, developed as a result of explicit policies – rules and regulations covering every aspect of broadcasting, from technical specifications governing spectrum allocation and transmission power, to the conditions for licensing, ownership, and financial support mechanisms – that favoured well-financed private ownership or some form of state sponsorship and control” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

Therefore, and as Howley continues, “as media and cultural historians remind us, the policies and structures that set the terms of broadcasting in the first half of the past century were the result of a series of negotiations and bitter disputes over how broadcasting would be organised, regulated, and paid for. Critically, the level of public participation was constrained by a number of social, economic, and political conditions. As a result, powerful economic and political forces, representing an narrow range of interests, prevailed and established the foundation for present-day broadcast structures and regulations” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

In this respect as Howley argues, media and political theorists would be well advised to acknowledge that “community media provide a unique site to illuminate hegemonic processes,” and that “community media demonstrate not only signs of resistance and subversion but evidence of complicity and submission as well” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). In this respect, it can be argued that “Social media breaks down the control and the hierarchy between the mainstream media and the population” (Hill, 2013, p. 53). Marking out spaces and territories that can be populated with alternative voices, contrary opinions and distinctive, and clearly non-mainstream, participants.

This argument rests on some assumptions about the role and the function of alternative and community media Firstly that the levels of control exercised by corporate media actively excludes people. Secondly, that the highly structured hierarchies that are set in place to manage corporate media encourage a largely one-way flow of information, and mark clear distinctions between producers and consumers which are absolute. All of which is held in place by state organised mechanisms and regulations that are designed to hold these economic, civic and social policies in place. What community media is useful for, therefore, is to gain some insight and sense of how an alternative model might work in practice and what it might mean when encountered in the life-worlds of different participants.

Underpinning many of the ideas and thinking about the role of community and participant media is the concept of the Public Sphere:

“The concept of the public sphere, as described by Jürgen Habermas, provides a robust theoretical framework to examine the crucial link between democratic self-governance and communication. Habermas (1993) argues that the public sphere is the foundation for civil society; it is a forum for the citizenry to reach consensus on the issues and policy decisions that affect public life. In Habermas’ formulation, the public sphere is a realm, insulated from the deleterious influence of state and commercial interests, in which citizens openly and rationally discuss, debate, and deliberate upon matters of mutual and general concern to a self-governing community. Isolated or ‘bracketed’ from both state and market forces, this public sphere is the space in which a public comes to understand and define itself, articulate its needs and common concerns, and act in the collective self-interest. In short, it is a space in which a social aggregate become a public” (Howley, 2005, p. 19).

In this sense then, “the concept of the public sphere [is] in a very general and common-sense manner, as, for example, a synonym for the processes of public opinion or for the news media themselves. In its more ambitious guise.” However, as the idea of the public sphere was developed by Jürgen Habermas, and according to Peter Dahlgren, “the public sphere should be understood as an analytic category, a conceptual device which, while pointing to a specific social phenomenon can also aid us in analysing and researching the phenomenon” (Peter Dahlgren in Dahlgren & Sparks, 1991, p. 2).

Howley points out that “according to Habermas, an effective and robust public sphere depends on two conditions: the quality of discursive practices and the quantity of participation within this discourse. The first requirement calls for rational-critical debate based not on the speaker’s identity or social standing, but upon the reasoned and logical merits of an argument. The second requirement entails opening up the debate to the widest public possible and encouraging the inclusion of competing opinions and perspectives” (Howley, 2005, p. 19).

Who constitutes a ‘public’ is one of the key questions to emerge from this line of thinking. Indeed, working out who in practice is capable or given permission to be included in this sense of civic engagement is one of the fundamental critical questions we can seek to establish.  As Habermass himself suggests: “we call events and occasions ‘public’ when they are open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs” (Habermas, 1994, p. 81). And the extent to which “the private sphere of civil society [is] no longer confined to the authorities but [is] considered by the subjects as one that was properly theirs” (Habermas, 1994, p. 89) is the foundation for much of the ethical interventions that are associated with participation.

According to Howley, however, “the threat to the public sphere, as Habermas sees it, is the encroachments of the state and commercial interests into this realm. Habermas observes that as the public sphere shrinks, there is a marked increase in political apathy, a relentless pursuit of economic and material self-interests, and a rising tide of cynicism and social alienation” (Howley, 2005, p. 19). Therefore, “the concept of the public sphere has enormous relevance for the ongoing project of building and sustaining a more democratic media culture… As the nature of citizenship changes in an increasingly integrated world, the question of who deliberates has enormous implications… There is relatively scant popular participation in this deliberative process” (Howley, 2005, p. 20).

So, to recap, the public sphere is a way of understanding the role of the media in civic spaces. Participation is at the heart of what is said to constitute a healthy public sphere. Media participation formulates ‘publics’ that challenge ‘private’ interests, and therefore the public sphere cannot be thought of as free standing – it is challenged by the state and commercial interests, and therefore the he idea of the ‘citizen’ or ‘agent’ is vital to participation because it the actions of citizens that bring about change.

Across this debate it is widely asserted that “politicians whose views and policy recommendations challenge corporate interests are rarely seen or heard in the mainstream media.” And that, “conversely, those who are sympathetic to and support corporate policy tend to receive favourable coverage in the press. As a result, alternative positions on public policy and oppositional views on corporate culture are rarely publicised, let alone opened up for broad popular debate” (Howley, 2005, p. 23).

So practices do exist that point to an alternative way of thinking about and producing media. As Delwiche points out: “creative cultures flourished beneath the surface of the mainstream media; many of these cultures were nurtured and extended by mimeographed zines” (Delwich, 2013, p. 19). If, as Howley suggest, “corporate media depoliticises both the public and private spheres. In their efforts to deliver audiences to advertisers, commercial media socialise people to believe that health, happiness and the good life are to be found in the implacable, competitive, pursuit of consumer goods” (Howley, 2005, p. 24). Then alternative forms of media, such as zines elude to a different way of thinking about media and media participation, As Delwiche points out: “researchers have demonstrated that participatory cultures are characterised by commitment to access, expression, sharing, mentorship, the need to make a difference, and the desire for social connections” (Delwich, 2013, p. 11).

It’s worth watching each of these documentaries about zine culture to get a sense of how embedded the idea of participation is and what consequences it has for the development of a participation-based outlook.

 

If, as Howley suggests: “advertising was instrumental in engineering a shift from a producer ethic to a consumer ethic. In so doing, advertising and consumer culture divert the public’s attention, energy, and resources away from society’s fundamental needs like public education, health care, the environment, economic justice, and racial, ethnic, and gender equality that are essential to the institutions, needs, and values that are not based on capital accumulation or profit generation are all but ignored by commercial media” (Howley, 2005, p. 24).

One such example that is said to define online media and the notion and practices of virtual communities was The Well. “The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, normally shortened to The WELL, is one of the oldest virtual communities in continuous operation” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_WELL. According to Delwiche the “WELL was firmly rooted in participatory cultures, with founding principles that included self-governance, community connections, user-driven design, open-endedness, and low barriers to access. Power was deliberately decentralised and the network’s programmers carefully embedded ‘a countercultural conception of community’ into the entire fabric of the system’”(Delwich, 2013, p. 19).

This optimistic and (sometimes) utopian view of participation, as an alternative to the corporate and consumerist notions of civic engagement, presents us with a conundrum, such that as Howley argues, when all is said and done “the commodification of public communication belies claims that the information age will free the minds and liberate the spirits of the world’s people” (Howley, 2005, p. 26).  As Jenkins points out: “the growth of networked communication, especially when coupled with the practices of participatory culture, provides a range of groups who have long struggled to have their voices heard” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv). And that these “new platforms create openings for social, cultural, economic, legal, and political change and opportunities for diversity and democratisation for which it is worth fighting” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv).

To echo our starting point for this discussion, and as Jenkins et al suggest “the terms of participation are very much up for grabs, though, and will be shaped by a range of legal and economic struggles unfolding over the next few decades” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv).

So, to summarise, the terms of this discussion suggest that it is possible to challenge corporate interests through creativity. That participation that is based on access, expression and sharing will make a difference to the quality of social and civic engagement in the public sphere, and therefore the producer ethic needs to be nurtured. Self-governance, networking and user-generated content are the principles that will drive participation, and that new platforms as well as giving us a wider range of affordances also change our expectations about how, and who, can participate.

Kevin Howley uses the work of Martin-Barbero to “demonstrates how mass media are embedded in the everyday lived experience of local populations and illuminates the distinct role various cultural forms (e.g., theatre, cinema, radio dramas and telenovelas) play in the construction of national and cultural identities. In this way, the concept of mediation encourages the examination of both micro and macro level processes of cultural production from a socio-historical perspective. As such, mediation provides a valuable analytical perspective from which to consider community media” (Howley, 2005, p. 34).

According to Howley, community media is “akin to the practice of appropriation so often celebrated by cultural analysts, community media form and content is a bricolage of artefacts and routines generally associated with the culture industries. Like textual poachers (e.g. Jenkins 1992), community media producers glean bits and pieces of media culture and invest this material with their own social experience in attempts to make sense of their lives. And, like the fan culture commonly associated with textual poaching, community media represents distinctive cultural practices that create and nourish affective relations” (Howley, 2005, p. 34).

Likewise, “the culture industry’s dismissive attitude toward the technical abilities of ‘non-professionals’ and the social value of their work underscores the adversarial relationship between dominant and community media. All too often, the work of ‘amateurs’ is marked as esoteric, frivolous, and apolitical. Rarely do commercial or public service broadcasters even acknowledge the existence of community media organisations. More often than not, when community media is acknowledged, it is invariably depicted as a refuge for outsider artists, hatemongers, pornographers, and the radical fringe: a perception some community media producers enthusiastically embrace” (Howley, 2005, p. 36).

And that “community media also represents strategic alliances between social, cultural, and political groups mounting and organising resistance to the hegemony of dominant media institutions and practices. As a resource for local service agencies, political activists, and others whose missions, methods, and objectives are antithetical to existing power structures, community media publicise oppositional messages that are either distorted by or altogether omitted from mainstream media coverage” (Howley, 2005, p. 35).

“These initiatives” according to Howley, “diminish the debilitating effects of political-economic systems that cater to well-heeled special interests by enhancing the capacity of local communities to organise themselves and participate in political processes” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). And, “as a result, producers and audiences alike are complicit in accepting and circulating the notion that community media are aesthetically inferior to mainstream media form and content, and socially and politically irrelevant for popular audiences. Perhaps the reluctance of communication scholars to engage more thoroughly with the phenomenon of community media” (Howley, 2005, p. 36).

As Howley describes, “This emphasis on participation, local content, and especially the impulse to revitalise the civic life of place-based communities is the motivation behind yet another strain of the community networking movement, so-called civic networking” (Howley, 2005, p. 78). Any that of equal importance are the ‘civic networks that are “designed to encourage and facilitate discussion within and between local residents, thereby promoting participatory democracy at the community level” (Howley, 2005, p. 78).

And it is through this process of facilitation that we are able to observe how communities and participants are able to underpin the “creation of new cultural territories,” and work for the “preservation of existing cultural spaces.” According to Howley, this “takes on enormous significance in light of the ease with which people, sounds, imagery, and cultural practice circulate about the globe.” Community media, according to Howley contributes to the “reterritorialization of culture by establishing new structures and creating new spaces for local cultural production. In this light, community media can be viewed as a dramatic expression of the felt need of local populations to exploit as well as contain these forces in their efforts to make sense of the dramatic, and at times traumatic, upheavals associated with globalisation” (Howley, 2005, p. 38).

The question at hand, then, is how do we build the capacity for participation? On what basis should we plan and support the necessary social and symbolic resources that extend participation as a general social process. As Christopher Keilty points out, “those who provide the capacity for participation expect something as well. Participation is now a two-way street. Government now provide participatory democracy, citizens are engaged by the government or corporations, and publics are constituted, consulted, and used to legitimate decision-making” (Kelty, 2013, p. 23).

And as such, “participation is now expected to have an effect on the structures, institutions, organisations, or technologies, in which one participates. Participation is no longer simply an opening up, and expression, a liberation, it is now also a principle of improvement, and instrument of change, a creative force. It no longer threatens, but has become a resource: participation has been made valuable” (Kelty, 2013, p. 24).

So we can see that community media is a useful way to examine how media functions. It is also a useful for building a picture of how our own social experience is essential to defining how we participate in different types of social process, both media and intersubjective. We can see this in the way that the amateur has become central to participative media, and how the subsequent resisting of the dominance of corporate culture is played out through oppositional messages in alternative and community media projects. Generally, community and participation-based media is poorly thought of, but if civic-life is to be invigorated, then participation must be given more status.

To summarise: “community media are strategic initiatives to counteract a climate of political apathy and social alienation that confounds a sense of belonging in local communities” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). “The challenge of building a participatory medium hinges upon the extent to which a diverse user population can not only access the system, but also make safe and productive use of it” (Howley, 2005, p. 250). And likewise, “without full consideration of the enormous variations within a given user population, community networks are unlikely to meet the needs, competencies, and preferences of heterogeneous users” (Howley, 2005, p. 250).

It is necessary, therefore that we take a closer look at the “institutional configurations of the public sphere” so that we can make sense of the participative phenomenon, both at the macro-level of structures and at the micro-level of structures. In this sense, and as Peter Dahgren points out, “an understanding of its dynamics requires that we also consider the processes and conditions of sense-making, whereby subjects link experience and reflection to generate meaning (political or otherwise)” (Peter Dahlgren in Dahlgren & Sparks, 1991, p. 16).

If we are to ask one question as a consequence of this process it would be, as Kelty proposes that we ask: “What is participation like today? How has it become newly important with respect to yesterday? Are participatory democracy, audience participation, user-generated content, peer production, participant observation, crowdsourcing all the same phenomena? If they are different, what characterises the difference” (Kelty, 2013, p. 23).

References:

Dahlgren, P., & Sparks, C. (Eds.). (1991). Communication and Citizenship – Journalism and the Public Sphere. London: Routledge.

Delwich, A. (2013). The New Left and the Computer Underground – Recovering Antecedents of Participatory Culture. In A. Delwich & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 11-21). London: Routledge.

Delwiche, A., & Henderson, J. J. (Eds.). (2013). The Participatory Cultures Handbook. London: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (1994). The Emergence of the Public Sphere. In Polity (Ed.), The Polity Reader in Culutral Theory (pp. 81-90). Cambridge: Polity.

Hill, S. (2013). Digital Revolutions – Activism in the Internet Age. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.

Howley, K. (2005). Community Media – People, Places and Communication Technologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.

Kelty, C. M. (2013). From Participation to Power. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 22-31). London: Routledge.

TECH3022_15-Lecture-003-Participation-001-2014-09-17

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

I’ve started a YouTube playlist of videos, talks, documentaries about the sugar and carbohydrate crisis. This lecture by Robert Lustig is very clear and well explained, and ties in well with his book of the same title ‘Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth about Sugar, Obesity & Disease‘.

TECH3022_15 Lecture Week Two: Digital Literacies

The second lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production is an introduction to the concept of digital literacies, the principle of media engagement and our capability to understand and make sense of these media engagements. The lecture discussed the underlying principle that our culture is defined by a set of ideas, routines and doctrines that people strive to make meaningful, which as a social process of sense-making, is shaped by a series of social regulations and interrelationships.

For the American pragmatist thinker John Dewey, the important to keep in mind that our culture is shaped by the people within it, some of whom are regarded as the arbiters of what is passed on in our culture. As Dewey says:

“Certain men or classes of men come to be the accepted guardians and transmitters – instructors – of established doctrines. To question the beliefs is to question their authority; to accept the beliefs is evidence of loyalty to the powers that be, a proof of good citizenship” (Dewey, 1910, p. 149).

In general terms, then, we might think of the practices and the products of our symbolic interactions, particularly when they are shaped into a common set of experience and ideas, as a common culture, and as a store-house, as Andrew Tudor points out, “is above all a repository of human value: humanity’s most significant beliefs and achievements are articulated and ‘stored’ in culture. Or, at least, this is how it should be” (Tudor, 1999, p. 23).

To demonstrate this type of thinking we watched a brief extract from the landmark 1960s British television series ‘Civilisation’, as it is a good example of a way of thinking about culture as a collation of all the ‘best’ things that we produce.

Noting, as Matthew Arnold famously points out, that culture not only acts as a store of our social values and experiences, but also as a process that changes us and works on us as individuals.

“Crucial to [Matthew] Arnold was the insight that culture fosters the internal growth of our humanity; that we have a ‘best self’ as well as an ‘ordinary self’, based on a commitment to ‘a growing and becoming’ as opposed to expressing our animality; the culture tries to develop in us that ‘best self’ at the expenses of ‘our old untransformed self’” (Kenneth Dyson in Dyson & Homolka, 1996, p. 2 ).

This is in contrast to the kind of cultures that are talked about High vs Mass vs Popular vs Social Culture debates that have taken place in Western society since the mid Twentieth century. The idea that culture is a restricted and elite enterprise has been well and truly challenged, with this challenge resonating through the popular and mass cultures associated with industrial and consumer production of media products, routines and audiences. We now have a specific view of culture that is defined through things like television, or magazines, or the internet, as opposed to the church, the state or even the Enlightened individual.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/cultureshow/cultureis

The contrast between mass media and the individual consumption of cultural products is marked out by things like the industrial process of production, something the structuralist thinkers of the Twentieth century where keen to explain, How “originality and intellectual stimulation were squeezed out by the economics of cultural production, which in turn exploited peripheral frills, novelties and stylistic variations to make cultural products appear new and different, in the process disguising the underlying standardisation” (Kenneth Dyson in Dyson & Homolka, 1996, p. 7).

As this was an introduction to some of these issues associated with cultural value and the meaningful social experience, a great deal of the nuanced discussion was avoided, but I thought it would be useful to note some of the tensions in this debate by using an example. So we looked at the seminal work by Richard Hoggart, ‘The Uses of Literacy’, and in particular the famous passage about ‘juke-box boys’, in which Hoggart says: “Perhaps even more symptomatic of the general trend is the reading of juke-box boys, of those who spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk-bars to the ‘nickelodeons.’”(Hoggart, 1957, p. 203).

Hoggart was drawing attention to a growing need to understand popular culture and to view it as something worth thinking about, particularly in the context that if society is to grow and develop then a clear understanding of the conceptual tools that meet the popular culture of each age is needed. The ‘literacies’ that each age call for have a shared and common set of principles, but they can’t be used timelessly and without a sense of struggle to understand them and contextualise them. The literacies that we need to understand our culture are contemporary, contingent, and have to fought over to make them relevant to the social world that we live in today, the technologies that we adopt and use today, and the expectations that we have about individual and social engagement with these forms of culture.

Recap:

  • Do we rely on certain people – men – to tell us what and how to think?
  • Is there an objective position we can take on what is ‘good’ in our culture?
  • How do we explain and understand popular, mass and now social culture?
  • What’s our role s individuals in this process – are we merely animals?
  • Where does our intellectual stimulation come from?

I thought it would be useful to mention how some thinkers are sceptical of the supposed role that new forms of cultural engagement are affording us. Andrew Keen is a widely recognised sceptic of the ‘cult of the amateur’ who argues that:

“Th[e] blurring of lines between the audience and the author, between fact and fiction, between invention and reality further obscures objectivity. The cult of the amateur has made it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between reader and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and advertisement, between amateur and expert. The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not out rightly corrupting, our national civic conversation” (Keen, 2008, p. 27).

I also thought it would be useful to contextualise this debate by quoting Raymond Williams and pointing out that these concerns, about the purpose of our culture and the processes that are going on deep within it, have been discussed and considered for many years. As Williams argues:

“Art reflects its society and works a social character through to its reality in experience. But also, art creates, by new perceptions and responses, elements which the society, as such, is not able to realise. If we compare art with its society, we find a series of real relationships showing its deep and central connections with the rest of the general life. We find description, discussion, exposition through plot and experience of the social character. We find also, in certain characteristic forms and devices, evidence of the deadlocks and unsolved problems of the society: often admitted to consciousness for the first time in this way” (Williams, 1992, p. 69).

In many way, we can think about the products and the artefacts of our culture – the media that we produce –as things that are understood through the application of a set of symbolic tools. More recent thinking about literacies, and particularly digital literacies has emphasised this. So Jones and Hafner, one of the key books for the module, are able to point out that”

“All tools carry the history of their past use. After people have used a particular tool in certain ways to perform a particular practice for a period of time, the conventions or ‘social rules’ that have grown up around the tool and the practice become ‘solid’. We call the process by which social practices and conventions come to ‘solidify’ around various technologies the technologisation of practice” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 100).

And who go on to suggest that: “Media becomes ideological when they become resistant to hacking, that is, when the affordances and constraints they embody are presented as ‘just the way things are’ rather than as ‘workable’ and adaptable” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).

And that:

“Transparent media encourage us to regard the kinds of actions that they make possible as ‘natural’ or desirable and the kinds of actions that they constrain as unnatural or undesirable. Technologies tend to become more transparent to us the more we use them” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).

Indeed, to the extent that “Many marketeers of media technology extol the value of media transparency” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).

In order to illustrate this concept in introduced the concept of Skeuomorphism, the way that we use object so of the past to make sense of the virtual and symbolic tools we have of the present. For example:

“The Macintosh user interface has been called the first ‘intuitive’ interface, suggesting that a user can learn how to use it by instinct alone without the need for instruction manuals or training. The design of the interface is based on its use of what have become known as ‘real-world metaphors’” (Feldman, 1997, p. 16).

“Steve Jobs was—notoriously, to many members of the design community—a fan of skeuomorphism, a style that relies on real-world metaphors and textures in digital interfaces. Fake leather, wood, paper and glass became commonplace in Apple applications, in addition to real-world metaphors like bookshelves, paper shredders, and even casinos” (Schybergson, 2012).

“Apps which look like old technologies such as a compass or notepad are “skeuomorphic” since there is no need to render them that way on a modern device” (Baraniuk, 2012).

What this means, therefore, is that the culture that we consume and participate in is defined by a set of ideas and regulating cultural systems. When we examine these systems we can work out the process by which they are expected to operate, with as an ideology or as a set of generic social interactions. As Jones and Hafner point out:

“Anytime a person uses a semiotic system like language to make meaning they always have an agenda. We produce texts in order to get things done – whether that means achieving some kind of material gain, fulfilling an obligation to someone, or making someone do something or believe something. We judge how successful our texts are by how well they help us to realise our agendas. The first question to ask whenever we encounter a text is what the agenda is of the person or people who produced this text is” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 103).

And the reason why it is important to find appropriate tools that can make sense of this, is because our world is increasingly fragmented and our social systems are much more haphazard and ad-hoc than they have been in the past. We no longer share a strong common-culture, tied with national, religious, social or personal identities. Instead, we have become an aggregation of individualised identities that primarily find satisfaction through consumption and the pulses in the electronic nervous system of the internet and electronic media.

As van Dijk points out “Several significant cultural aspects can be perceived in the trends of fragmentation, segmentation and individualisation of social reality currently appearing at all levels of Western society. The contention is that ‘mass society’ or ‘mass culture’ is eroding and a huge increase of cultural diversity is taking place” (Dijk, 1999, p. 166).

And as Zygmunt Bauman reflects: “A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a different set of skills and a different arrangement of assets” (Bauman, 2007, p. 3).

Recap:

  1. What happens when cultural distinctions become blurred
  2. What are the new relationships that are afforded by new technologies?
  3. How do we pull back the veil and ‘see things as they are?’
  4. Metaphors are replete within our culture as a way of making sense of the world.

It’s about trying to make sense of a fragmented world.

Tools:

Ultimately, literacies and digital literacies discussions come down to one simple question: How Do We Know We Have The Right Tool Kit?

As Jones and Hafner state:

“The distribution of tools, both technological and symbolic, in any society is always unequal. What this means is that the kinds of actions that media makes possible are always only available to certain people. In other words, the use of meditational means is always tied up with economic and political systems that govern the way we access to them is distributed. As a result the ways media end up being used usually support or perpetuate these political and economic systems” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 100).

So, “Learning how to use technological tools, then, involves not just mastering the range of choices they present, but also being indoctrinated into the social practices that have come to be technologized around these tools. The range of actions these tools make available not only determine how people behave and communicate with each other, but they also end up promoting particular versions of reality and making some kinds of social relationships more possible and others less possible” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 108).

Therefore, as Don Tapscott points out:

“The ability to learn new things is more important than ever in a world where you have to process new information at lightning speed. Students need to be able to think creatively, critically, and collaboratively; to master the ‘basics’ and excel in reading, maths, science, and information literacy, and respond to opportunities and challenges with speed, agility, and innovation. Students need to expand their knowledge beyond the doors of their local community to become responsible and contributing citizens in the increasingly complex world economy” (Tapscott, 2008, p. 127).

We then looked at some promotional web material for different media production courses from around the word, and what was interesting was the similarities in language, tone and intent within each of these courses. Few courses are distinctively different in ideological tone. They are mainly focussed on the need to develop ‘supposed’ industry skills, and they all seem to promise that the completion of a media production course will result in the ‘dreams’ of the students coming true.

Media Production Courses:

http://www.falmouth.ac.uk/digitalmedia

http://www.cie.hkbu.edu.hk/main/programmes_ad.php?d=COM&p=FTDMS

http://mediafilmproductionawards.staffs.ac.uk/

http://filmvideo.calarts.edu/

Recap:

  • What tools do we have to work with?
  • Who has the best tools and what do they do with them?
  • How do we learn to integrate the use of these tools into our day-to-day practices?
  • What opportunities do these new tools afford us?

So, what are the skills and mind-set that we need to thrive in the media world of the future? Should we be focussing on the literacies that people need in order to be able to make sense of the world, or do we need to think about building the capabilities that people have to engage with and change the world? This might not come from a traditional mindset, but instead is something that will come about because we listen to a different set of social and interpersonal impulses. Social media is redolent with examples of alternative literacies and capabilities. For example:

Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude. When things are treated simply as vehicles of suggestion, what is suggested overrides the thing. Hence the playful attitude is one of freedom” (Dewey, 1910, p. 162).

I then suggested that other mind-sets might be important in the future, and illustrated some potentially distinctive ways of thinking that Howard Gardner suggests might be useful in the future.

The Disciplined Mind:

“The absence of disciplinary thinking matters. Shorn of these sophisticated ways of thinking, individuals remain essentially unschooled” (Gardner, 2008, p. 36).

“Scholarly disciplines allow you to participate knowledgeably in the world; professional disciplines allow you to thrive in the workplace” (Gardner, 2008, p. 37).

“The disciplined mind has mastered at least one way of thinking – a distinctive mode of cognition that characterises a specific scholarly discipline, craft, or profession” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Synthesising Mind:

The synthesising mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesiser and also to other persons” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Creating Mind:

The creating mind breaks new ground. It puts forth new ideas, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Respectful Mind:

“The respectful mind notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups, tries to understand these ‘others,’ and seeks to work effectively with them” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Ethical Mind:

The Ethical mind ponders the nature of one’s work and the needs and desired of the society in which one lives. This mind conceptualises how workers can serve purposes beyond self-interest and how citizens can work unselfishly to improve the lot of all” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

How these things come together in our media is fascinating to trace. This clip of Paul Morley describing his experiences in popular culture is a very fertile discussion of some of the themes, anxieties and preoccupations of our contemporary mediated culture.

Recap:

  • Which is more important, playfulness or disciplined thinking?
  • How can we learn to deploy and use different thinking skills?
  • To what extent are competing or are we showing solidarity and respectfulness?
  • What do we need to think about that goes beyond our own self-interest?

Conclusion:

To wrap-up this somewhat scatter-gun discussion I left learners with a quote from Zygmunt Bauman, in which he suggests that whatever we think we might desire, we have to employ an objective assessment of our realistic ability to achieve our aims. If we don’t have the facilities to achieve, then no end of wishful thinking will make it happen.

“It is therefore, one thing to have the ability to change or modify our skills and quite another to possess the capability to reach the goals we seek” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 18).

Critical Questions:

  • What skills and capabilities do we need to be:
    • Sociable?
    • Critical?
    • Producers?
    • Attentive?
  • How will we know we are reading others correctly?
  • Is literacy something imposed upon us, by others, or something that emerges from the things we do for ourselves?

References:

Baraniuk, C. (2012). How We Started Calling Visual Metaphors “Skeuomorphs” and Why the Debate over Apple’s Interface Design is a Mess.   Retrieved 16th October 2013, 2013, from http://www.themachinestarts.com/read/2012-11-how-we-started-calling-visual-metaphors-skeuomorphs-why-apple-design-debate-mess

Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. New York: D.C. Heath.

Dijk, J. v. (1999). The Network Society. London: Sage.

Dyson, K., & Homolka, W. (Eds.). (1996). Culture First – Promoting Standards in the New Media Age. London: Cassell.

Feldman, T. (1997). Introduction to Digital Media. London: Routledge.

Gardner, H. (2008). Five Minds for the Future. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.

Keen, A. (2008). The Cult of the Amateur. London: Nicholas Brearley Publishing.

Schybergson, O. (2012). Skeuomorphism is (finally) dead: So what is Apple’s next design move?   Retrieved 16th October 2013, 2013, from http://gigaom.com/2012/11/03/skeumorphism-is-finally-dead-so-what-is-apples-next-design-move/

Tapscott, D. (2008). Grown Up Digital – How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. London: McGraw-Hill Professional.

Tudor, A. (1999). Decoding Culture – Theory and Method in Cultural Studies. London: Sage.

Williams, R. (1992). The Long Revolution. London The Hogarth Press.

Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Hoggart, R. (1957). The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto & Windus.

 

What’s the Matter with Sugar?

How can we harness social media for the public good? That’s the question I asked today when I introduced the module I’m teaching this year, TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production. Across Western society we are facing a whole series of pressing issues that don’t get a lot of coverage in the media, but which are important to people on a day-to day-basis.

As issues of social justice, there is growing concern that we take for granted some key aspects of our daily lives, and indeed what amounts to some of our most personal and intimate moments. There is, I believe, a growing awareness that we are no longer in control of ourselves, or able to make sense of the way that we think about some of the most basic issues that we have to deal with, especially as we try to cope with the demands that are placed on us by large corporations, marketing campaigns, governments, the medical profession, the health industry, and even pressure from our families, our friends and our fellow citizens.

I’m talking about sugar, and the mass delusion that carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet. In the Western world we are part of a culture that views the mass production and processing of food as an essential way to obtain nutrition. To put it simply, mass produced and processed food is said to be good for us, but increasing evidence is telling us that it’s not.

In the Western world we are experiencing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that is costing our health services billions of pounds to deal with. Why are people getting fat and fatter? Is it because they are greedy and lazy? Is it because they gorge themselves on cheap food and don’t do any work? Are fat people just moral shirkers who can’t exercise self control? The answer to each of these questions is no, it is not the fault of individuals that they can’t stop putting weight on or making bad choices about their diets.

Many of us, like myself, exercise intensively on a regular basis, but still don’t see any benefit on the bathroom scales, so something else must be going on. And after reading books by Michael Poolan, Gary Taubes, John Yudkin and others, I’ve come to see that food and the way that we package and process food is essentially exploitative.

The Western industrial food production model does a number of things. It exploits the animals that it turns into burgers. It exploits the land that the cattle and crops are grown on by decimating their nutritional value. It exploits the workers who are attempting to make a living and demonises their trade unions, making people work in harsh and insecure workplaces, while accepts little responsibility for the welfare of those employees. Lastly, this system exploits us, the consumer.

As consumers we are said to have almost limitless choice, but the truth is that we have few alternatives to the carbohydrate rich food model. We have to go with the flow and accept what the major food producers, drinks manufacturers and supermarkets want to foist on us. Try telling your friends that you are having a high fat diet and they will insist – mostly because they are concerned – that you are deluded and that you can’t possibly expect a diet without starchy food to be good for you. The peer pressure that we face is immense, the limited range of choices that we have are getting narrower, and the whole system of food production is designed around the carbohydrates that the food industry churn out, but which are doing so much damage.

So in my lecture today I asked learners to think about the way that their food is replete with carbohydrates and sugars, and to think about how they are sold to us as if they are automatically healthy, i.e., sunshine in a glass! How much sugar would we expect in our food, other than that which we add directly ourselves?

Over the next few months, we are going to look at this in some detail, and we are going to experiment and test out some ideas about how social media can be used to spread the message that the levels of sugar that we have in our diet are going to kill us. I’m going to keep a regular blog about this, hopefully a couple of times each week. I’ll post my lecture notes and any links to sites and stories I think are interesting. Let me know what you think about this on Twitter, it would be great to read about your experiences of giving up sugar and getting off the processed food treadmill.

What are the pressing issues of social justice in society?
What are the challenges of living in our modern society?
What do we need to think about and understand about ourselves in order to solve some of these social issues?

TECH3022_15-Lecture-001-Processed-Media-2014-09-17