Discourses in Digital Culture Research


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The study of digital culture is a multi-disciplinary field that spans many different methodologies, frameworks and philosophies that explore the relationship between culture and technology. The following is a discourse in digital culture research
  Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, www.kunstgeschichte-ejournal.net STACEY KOOSEL ( ESTONIAN ACADEMY OF ARTS , TALLINN ) DISCOURSES IN DIGITAL CULTURE RESEARCH   Abstract The study of digital culture is a multi-disciplinary field that spans many differentmethodologies, frameworks and philosophies that explore the relationship between cultureand technology. The following is a discourse in digital culture research using the philosophyof scientific revolution (Thomas S. Kuhn) as a key source for understanding the current stateof the emerging field. Information Revolution, Scientific Revolution <1>Electronic technology that developed out of the 20th century, enabled the cultural prevalenceof mass media, in the form of cinema and television and later digital media which providescultural researchers and philosophers complex new frontiers to explore.   Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy  1 and Martin Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology  2  discuss the idea of media and technology as an extension of mankind that creates newcapacity and influence, both intended and unintended, and have sought to understand themin a cultural as well as philosophical context. A core philosophical problem of technology isthat, much as language transforms the world, so do the extensions of man, resulting in achange of meaning. Ernst Cassirer saw technology as an attempt at making sense of theworld through symbolism and creating meaning through spontaneous action. 3 In the digitalcontext, this changing of meaning is profound and reaches far into everyday life from thecreation of online communities to digital identities that function as citizens of the globalvillage, effectively changing the way we identity with ourselves and the world around us. AsMcLuhan predicted, the digital age has brought about electronic interdependence and achange in cognitive and social organisation including the transformation of media structures,modes of communication and identity narratives.<2>The phenomenon of digital culture is a relatively new technological and cultural developmentthat has created a new field of study. Digital culture derives from technological developments  Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, www.kunstgeschichte-ejournal.net in interactive media such as the Internet and web-platforms that enable Internet users tocreate online communities, relationships and digital identity construction and performance. 4  The study of digital culture is not limited to online analysis, but also factors in the offline user and the cultural environment. There is little synthesis (as yet), however, betweenmethodological approaches and discourses of digital culture and digital identity research.There is no single and consistent discourse or body of ideas just as there is no singlemethodology that can always be depended on for an effective research tool. 5 Digital cultureis being studied in a plethora of different fields with methodologies deriving from art andphilosophy, computer science, the humanities and social sciences e.g., ethnography(Christine Hine), psychology (Sherry Turkle), cultural anthropology (Michael Wesch), mediasemiotics (Jonathan Bignell), digital narratives (Ruth Page) and socio-linguistics (Jannis Androutsopoulos).<3>This multifarious situation has its strengths and weaknesses. There are such a variety of approaches that sometimes confusion can result. On the other hand, the digital culturalanalyst must recognise the limitations of any particular discursive framework. When there isno standard set of methods, phenomena or common body of belief to take for granted,researchers are forced to build their field »anew from its foundation« 6 . Researchers in thefield of digital culture can define their questions, tasks and objects of study to best suit their research subject. 7   Questions such as ›Is digital culture a cultural anomaly?‹ ›Is it possible to pin down this new phenomena of the digital revolution and information age in a way which will lead to a scientific revolution?‹, 8   ›Has the scientific revolution already happened with the emerging and increasingly-in- demand field of digital humanities?‹ ›What methodological practices are best used in the anal ysis of digital culture?‹ In this essay I will discuss the philosophical and methodological problems that I have encountered in my research on digitalculture and digital identity narratives.<4>The current state of the study of digital culture shows many signs of a science in its earlydevelopmental stages  – a science that has yet to build up a system of establishedmethodological frameworks and a universally accepted paradigm. Thomas S. Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolution  , a seminal work on the philosophy of science, defines afully developed science as one in which all fields have evolved to build establishedmethodological frameworks and universally accepted paradigm. Stinchcombe and Becker  further define Kuhn’s idea of ›paradigm‹ as »examp les of the   virtues scientific work might  Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, www.kunstgeschichte-ejournal.net have, in a combination that shows what work should look like in order to contribute to thediscipline« 9 .<5>It would appear, however, that digital culture is potentially on track for its first universallyreceived paradigm. An influential figure that has set a precedent for how digital communitiesand digital identity can be researched is MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who first wrote aboutdigital culture and digital identity play in 1995. Turkle conducted psychoanalytical interviewsand observed and analysed online communities with the pioneers of digital culture whoexisted on the pre-Internet, ARPANET 10   MUD’s (multi -user dungeons) which were text-based, online communities that first engaged in digital identity play in 1975. 11 An interestingchange in digital identity construction in online community and digital identity creationbetween then and now is the amount of factual information (real life facts) as opposed tofantasy-based and fictional information. Turkle explains how multi-user dungeons werethemselves fantasy scenarios that gave people the opportunity to radically play with their identity. »In addition to virtual cross-dressing and creating character descriptions thatdeconstruct gender, MUDders gender-swap as double agents. That is, in MUDs, men play women pretending to be men, and women play men pretending to be women. Shakespeare’s characters play these games as well.« 12   Turkle discovered that the ›MUDders‹ play with identity had therapeutic benefits with regard to building social confidence and discoveringdifferent aspects of themselves. »Online personae have something in common with the self that emerges in a psychoanalytic encounter. It, too, is significantly virtual, constructed withinthe space of the analysis, where its slightest shifts can come under the most intensescrutiny.« 13  <6>The MUD communities and identities that played with online environments, communities,identities and relationships are in stark contrast to the social media platforms of today suchas Facebook that base themselves on the premise of sharing factual, real information fromthe user. These platforms are driven, at least in part, by the lucrative industry of gatheringand selling personal information on the Internet known as data mining. Data gathering andmining is used by many online businesses and is itself an emerging interdisciplinary field of computer science. »Data mining is the task of discovering interesting patterns from largeamounts of data, where the data can be stored in databases, data warehouses or other information repositories. It is a young interdisciplinary field, drawing from areas such as  Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, www.kunstgeschichte-ejournal.net database systems, data warehousing, statistics, machine learning, data-visualization,information retrieval, and high performance computing.« 14  <7>The early developmental stages of a discipline are also characterised, according to Kuhn by»continual competition between a number of distinct views of nature, each partially derivedfrom, and all roughly compatible with the dictates of scientific observation and method« 15 . Anexample of competing methodological practices that use very different approaches to thesame issue in digital culture is the search for meaning through analysis of the online textitself versus the analysis of how individuals interact with and create online text. The analysisof the digital media text or cultural artefact is usually studied within a semiotic, literary andlinguistic, structuralist framework. The study, however, of the individual who creates andparticipates in digital culture (for example the creation of digital identity narratives, sharingstories about the self) is often carried out using a psychoanalytic profile of the author of thetext (pioneered by Sherry Turkle) and the field of cyber-psychology, anthropology andethnography.<8>It may be too simplistic to define one analytical method as structuralist and the other as post-structuralist, as the particular paradigm used by a practitioner within their field is notheterogeneous or static and there is a lot of overlap e.g., structuralism in psychology andpost-structural media semiotics. »In the contemporary diversification of audiences broughtabout by the proliferation of media and the new ways of interacting with them, there is atemptation to be over-optimistic about the extent to which individuals make meanings on their own terms and for their own individual purposes. It is tempting to assume that individualusers of the media, simply because they are all different and belong to different sub-culturalgroups in society, can subvert the meanings of media texts in ways that some audienceresearchers and other academic critics would like to value as radical or even revolutionary.This optimistic view is important because it challenges the assumptions of structuralistsemiotic research that posits that fixed meanings are structured into texts and signs byuniversally known codes and a fixed repertoire of positioning the audience. It does not,however, challenge the more recent semiotic approach (progressively adopted in this book)which assumes that signs and texts have several meanings at once (polysemy), a kind of excess of proliferation of meanings which enables them to be used by audiences in differentways (multiaccentuality).« 16    Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, www.kunstgeschichte-ejournal.net Methodological and Philosophical Problems <9> Analytical methods for studying digital culture are constantly adapting to accommodate thechanging demands of digital media texts and cultural artefacts. As the study of digital cultureis in its early stages, researchers in the field struggle with using shared terms and conceptsin addition to research methods, scientific structure or agreed upon paradigms. The term ›digital culture‹ refers not only to the study of information age culture and the sociology of  theInternet, the same term is also used for very different fields of study under the umbrella term, ›digital humanities‹, which lumps together research in any field of the humanities with computers and computing (not just the Internet and computer network s). ›Digital heritage‹, meanwhile, deals with museums, libraries and archives, digitizing information and creatingmeta-data using computer technology for information presentation, storage and analysis.<10>There is a difference, however, between computer scientists and social scientists, sometimes referred to as ›digital humanists‹. »This has led to some difficulties in communication that have not yet been fully resolved. By and large, those doing informatics have not had practicalhumanities backgrounds (there are, of course, exceptions to this) and humanists, to a largeextent, have used computers only for word processing and e-mail.« 17 The confusion arising from using the term ›digital culture‹ to refer to completely different areas of research is only the tip of an iceberg of problems. »Everyone working within the new paradigm is marginalbecause there is not yet an established discipline and more mainstream sensibilities haveusually been drawn to less chaotic intellectual fields.« 18  <11>The information age has triggered many innovative research methods and perspectives todevelop theories, critiques and understandings of digital culture. New developments havebeen made in many different established fields to respond to the changing context of mediause and cultural transformation. What was once studied and understood as the mediaproducer and the media consumer (or audience) is no longer applicable following theintroduction of Web 2.0 (user created Internet content). Interactive and social web-platformshave turned the once passive media audience into active media producers themselves. 19  »Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that human beings, since ancient times, have felt the need tomake marks to represent their lives and experiences, not simply as a reflection of privatedreams or to communicate instrumental facts about survival, but as a kind of necessary
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