Cultural Production in the Digital Age // Defining a New Research Agenda

We’re extremely glad you’ve agreed to participate in our invitation-only workshops and extended, virtual collaboration. This site will offer you both the starting principles and the practical details you’ll need to prepare for and attend the first workshop. Check back regularly as we update the information.

We want to thank the Science, Technology, and Society division of the National Science Foundation for theior generous support of this project, and both Cornell University and Temple University for their assistance.

The Instigation

Ownership of production facilities, knowledge of production skills, and access to the means of distribution have been key determinants of who can produce culture and take part in public discourse, and what forms of culture they can produce. In the past, it was widely accepted that the relative scarcity of these resources and capacities meant that commercial media could offer only narrow channels by which citizens could engage in mass discourse and cultural production – and, that public discourse came to resemble those narrow channels, in sometimes problematic ways.

Today, the ever increasing ubiquity of personal computers and mobile devices, the penetration of broadband internet connections both in the United States and across the post-industrial world, the increasing ease of use of content production and distribution software, and the rise of server-side applications for circulating content to vast social information networks, all have forced researchers to reconsider this consensus. The internet has emerged as a primary tool for users to participate in mass cultural discourses by providing a venue for “broadcasting” the content they generate. Access to the public sphere is shifting from the few to the many. We face an increasingly complex ecology of digital technologies and cultural production outlets: blogs, video games, Facebook, wikis, media platforms, Twitter, etc.

Contemporary scholars have begun to identify and examine some of the dimensions of the emerging online discourse, and are finding that they present substantive challenges to our ways of understanding the workings and implications of cultural production. Will the traditional concerns for media concentration diminish as the diverse blogosphere and a “see for myself” mindset among information consumers challenge the journalistic “authoritative voice”? Is the structure of the public sphere changing, given the rise of wikis, blogs, and social network sites that allow users to participate in discourse? Will alternative voices from groups typically marginalized in media find a place within the unlimited spectrum of the internet? How does technology facilitate, impede, or enforce these emerging cultural dynamics? In the age of open source and networked collaboration, can users build their own systems of production to “circumvent” obstacles to unfettered user-centered cultural production? And, will the public discourse taking shape online come to resemble these venues, for better of for worse?

Furthermore, as new communication tools, sites, and other means of cultural production are designed and deployed, they arrive encumbered with implicit theories about the contemporary dynamics of online cultural production and collaboration. For example, Designers of these tools, whether they know it or not, are building digital citizenship itself. Alongside these massive, commercial distributors, others are designing alternatives – meant not only to host content but also to serve as proof-of-concept for alternative ways of structuring, paying for, and making available the collective intelligence of the participating public.

These are questions that humanities, social science, computer science and legal scholars have been contending with while living through the advent of the digital age. Each of these lines of inquiry has borne fruit, laying foundations for understanding the production of culture in a digital context. We have reached a point where we must understand more than the particular public controversies, or the impact of a single new technology, or a shift in a specific cultural form. The challenge we now face is understanding the qualitative, wholesale reformation of cultural production, not only with the arrival of new technologies and distribution patterns, but also as these once novel socio-technical structures rapidly fade into the background of everyday life.

What we are now dealing with is the establishment of digital culture, not just as a novelty or a challenge, but as the central means for public expression. Scholarship that is still entranced with either novelty or nostalgia, that can only see the modern formation and its predecessor in stark contrast, that assumes these new formations to be external to and impinging upon the social fabric, are insufficient. What is required is a careful, sociologically informed, historically astute understanding of the contemporary social terrain, grounded empirical research into the modern workings of cultural production in its actual contexts, and the development of theoretical insights that make sense of the thorough-going re-formation of public culture, without falling back on the shorthand of “evolution,” “revolution,” or “devolution.”

The Plan

With the generous support of the Science, Technology, and Society division of the National Science Foundation, we are convening a collaborative research group of 20 scholars from these related fields, in order to bring together, stir, and advance this field of inquiry. This collaboration includes three parts:

1. Workshop 1 (March 19-21, 2011: Cornell University, Ithaca NY)

The first workshop would allow the group to begin articulating crosscutting understandings of key issues within current research on digital cultural production. Participants will not be asked to present formal papers; rather, they will be asked to more informally introduce their work and their approaches to studying the production of culture. Through collective discussion and breakout groups over the course of ther first day, participants will identify common ground, points of rupture, and ways forward on key issues. On the second day of the workshop we will form groups around perspectives or lines of inquiry raised the previous day, in order to sketch out a research program, a multidisciplinary methodological or theoretical approach, or a designable technology that embodies, tests, or resolves issues discussed. By the end of the first workshop we hope to have a coherent set of issues defined as research topics and theoretical questions that will move the study of cultural production in the digital age forward, as well as a set of ideas for research papers or theoretical pieces that the participants, as individuals or in pairs, are eager to develop over the next year.

2. Virtual Research Group (April 2011 – March 2012)

Between the first and second workshop, the primary goal will be for all of us to develop the research sketches from the first workshop into full papers, alone or in collaboration. In addition, we will be co-contributors to a research site and blog dedicated to this effort and its theoretical aims. This site will support the conversations from the first workshop to their continuation in the second, allowing participants to seek feedback on ideas in progress, collaborators to develop their projects, and emerging lines of inquiry to cohere and develop together. The aim is for the site to become a public resource of its own: other scholars in the field will be invited to react to and build upon discussions that develop; readers will be able to comment as well. We will facilitate this process by continuing and advancing the discussion, spurring participants to add resources and insights, and setting a rhythm for contribution and reaction. The hope is that this site can serve not only to sustain and extend the conversation between the workshops, but to become one swirling center for this emerging sub-field.

3. Workshop 2 (date TBA, approximately March 2012: Temple University, Philadelphia, PA)

The second workshop will begin with presentations of the rough drafts of research or position papers that participants generated over the previous year. During the first full day of the workshop participants will present their drafts for discussion and critique. We will ask each participant to attend in their presentation to any theoretical insights, methodological developments, or possible cross over with other disciplines represented in the group. The second day of the workshop will be devoted to developing plans for how to disseminate the insights and implement the research agendas developed in the workshops, beyond what is already available on the project’s virtual research site.

The Goals

The heart of this effort is to develop a conversation between the participants that advances our thinking in this area, that helps continue to bring into focus this emerging sub-field, drawing the best from each of the disciplines that feed it. We hope it will move your work forward, and generate research opportunities for you, and possible collaborations. We hope that the online component of this project will provide a gravitational center not only for the workshop participants, but for other scholars working in this sub-field, one that, after the funded part of our efforts are complete, will live on as a sustained intellectual resource. We hope that the work that the participants produce over the course of the year will lead to publications, collected in some form, as well as additional work that you take in the directions you see fit. We hope that these gatherings will stand as a kind of landmark for the scholarship on digital cultural production that follows.