March 28, 2003
Mixing, Tinkering and Reusing in the Digital Age

John Seely Brown gave a keynote talk this evening at the JSchool's newmedia conference on bricolage, media and story telling.

Brown talked a lot about trusting information in the digital age, as we remove context and then recontextualize the digitial in tinkering, reusing, etc. and why it's so important to tinker in the process of learning and innovating the digital world.

Some of his ideas:

- Digital power comes from computing, communication, storage and content. All of these double every nine to 18 months, except content, which is subject to community law, where the community is 2 to the nth power. What this means is if the distance between communities goes away, the number of distance communities become 2 to the nth power, too. Ebay knows this: every auction creates a virtual niche market with a community.

-In old media, things would take years to develop, and years to fade. Now things come and go instantly.

-The need for constant learning goes up, and a corresponding need for trusted information sources goes up. This doesn't mean technological determinism. Instead, it is a complex coalition between technology and society.

-Tunnel vision leads to tunnel design. The focus is on individuals and information, but information out of context is meaningless, the same as people out of their community are meaningless. We think of context as stable, but the digital world changes the stability of context. Ex: dropping a pebble in a pond, philosophers, others, ask about the ripples, the water, etc. but no one asks about the pond. The pond = social practices. So there is the need to ask how this change brings about a clash between social practices and professional practices. It's tacit verses explicit knowledge, where the explicit knowledge is the tree without it's roots, and the tacit is robust, because it includes what lies under the tree. The digital age is tearing up social practices.

-How information takes on meaning through stories is important to examine, through story telling and story critiquing. Descartes said the "thing that matters in stories are extractions." Information takes on meaning in context. Generalities are not the same as abstractions.

-For kids: bits = oxygen. They have no distinction between social experience and computing experience. For others to understand this, they must understand the distinction between attending and attuning is critical. It's hard for older generations to understand, but for kids, computing with ten things going on is similar to when we drive along, and process ten things at once, attuning, until there is a change and the we focus, or attend, to the instantaneous context shifts. We have continuous partial attunement with many systems going at once. EX: TED9, Tina Schneider (Expal). This film with 9 windows had two windows looping in 20 second intervals, and then 7 windows looping in smaller, varying increments, so that you watch all nine windows but you also watch windows as they have a change in the loop. This style of presentation relies on the difference between attuning and attending. Question: What are the queues you become attuned to as you search on the internet?

-Tinkering with abstract, digital objects means that the objects become disconnected from their original context, and later are more and more reuse occurs, the digital becomes fully decontextualized. If information comes from the NYTimes or an academic journal, then it has an institutional warrant, but judgment and bricolage go hand in hand.

--everything has roots, but there are shorter roots than there used to be.

-Kids link, lurk and try, they have to be able to discover, experiment and try things.

-Recontextualizing is the critical element in the digital world:

--rip, mix, burn

--open source is bricolage, where they are writing code to be read, and then repurpose, redo

--the old way of learning code is that the more obscure you make the code, the better

--the new way of writing code is based on open source movement practices, where the more readable, the better.

--bricolage in code: means the truth lies in the execution, the coder must convince himself before anyone else that the code works and is useful.

-An emerging vernacular of the digital age: the music example of multimedia where the question is: what is a minor chord in the digital world?

--the screen language of cinema includes cuts, montage, flashback.

--the screen language of interactivity includes entertainment, persistence and game ecologies

-When you construction non-linear narrative pieces, you can't control it, meaning it goes all over.

-Ex: if you change the sound in movies, you change not just the meaning, but what you see in the visual part of the movie.

-Evolving forms of literacy prompt questions of whether you can really be educated with media if you haven't been educated how media works? Constructing visual arguments? How to have interplay, how does music interplay? Interplay of the concrete and abstract.

-In the digital age, the tinkering, learning and sharing means there is a yin-yang relationship between production and consumption.

-EX: Ronna Tanenbaum presented the Story Mixer ( is not yet up) which is a system that will allow people to take digital media of their own or from the, and mix it, making new multimedia pieces. She's working with the Internet Archive.

-There are kids at USC doing work, tinkering with digital objects, who make their thesis but can't take it home because of the work can't be cleared of copyright so the school sticks it behind a firewall and only allows it to be shown at school.

-The digital divide today is between today's digital kids and yesterday's analog professors and teachers.

--learning in the digital age really takes place through practice like in the opensource community, not through old methods of lecture and receive.

-The subconscious social mind is played out in communities like in the Trent Lott case. The weblogs that talked about him, before anything hit mainstream media is an example, where the connections became so dense on weblogs, that the conscious world, mainstream media, could no longer ignore it.

Posted by Mary Hodder at March 28, 2003 11:25 PM
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