When connoting the increasing synergy between digital means of “production,” “storage,” and distribution,” the phrase “new media” has circulated for at least the last two decades. (Lev Manovich “The Language of New Media,” 4) In this time, digital media theorists have come to recognize the ideological freight that comes with describing anything as “new.”
“There is a strong sense in which the ‘new’ in new media carries the ideological force of ‘new equals better’ and it also carries with it a cluster of glamorous and exciting meanings. The ‘new’ is ‘the cutting edge,’ the ‘avant-garde,’ the place for forward-thinking people to be (whether they be producers, consumers, or, indeed, media academics). The connotations of ‘the new’ are derived from a modernist belief in social progress as delivered by technology.” (Martin Lister, New Media and New Technologies, p. 11)
Lev Manovich’s autobiographical reflections on Cold-War era computer science training in both the Soviet Union and the United States offer an insightful reminder that “new” accompanies a world-orientation that brands people, places, ideas, and media as both problems and solutions. (Manovich Language, 3-6) John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination offers a historical moment where newness might be re-considered with the eyes of critical reflection.
As a budding historian of religion, I would also note that the rhetoric of newness and its intersection with technologies (not excluded to, but quite often, literacy) and social change has major antecedents in the formation of world civilizations and the enterprises often referred to as “religion.” Note the similarities between JFK’s speech and the following verses from Revelation 21:1-8, an early Christian appeal calling for a new world order to replace the Roman Empire.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God;they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” [New Revised Standard Version]
Though the following passages can now be found in the nightstand of nearly every hotel in the United States, at one time, this first-century rhetoric (with more than a few instances of “Deus ex machina”) signaled new expressions (the synergy of apocalpyticism, Christian myth, Greco-Roman rhetoric), new politics (Jerusalem, and not Rome, as the seat of mundane and sacred authority), new social promise (the end of death and suffering), and new technologies (writing represents power, trustworthiness, and authority). I mention this because the need to qualify “newness” should not only aid our efforts to cease repeating past mistakes, but should also inspire us to experiment with risk-taking efforts in effecting positive change of biblical-proportions (I mean this, not from a theological standpoint, but from a marketing one . I mean the cross has pretty impressive brand-recognition.) To take up Manovich’s prompt, how does the “rapid transformation of culture into e-culture, of computers into universal culture carriers, of media into new media, [demand] that we rethink our categories and models?”
Janet H. Murray suggests, “We may, if we are lucky and mindful enough, learn to think together by building shared structures of meaning.”(Janet H. Murray “Inventing the Medium” in The New Media Reader p.11) To me, and a host of the authors we read this week, transdisciplinary education and collaboration stands to benefit from the offerings of new media. The ability to sample a vast amount of information and quantify it in “byte-sized” (storage) pieces and “bite-sized (distribution viz. hypermedia) pieces allows for levels of knowledge and analogy that were previously hampered by various material and temporal considerations. (Manovich, “Language,” p. 28)
Similarly, the ability for persons to converse about this information in real time (i.e. “waves” and “video conferencing”) opens up intriguing occasions for synergy and contribution. Given these avenues, a transdisciplinary team of researchers or a classroom could more tenably approach the teaching-learning enterprise from a problem perspective as opposed to a disciplinary one. For instance, Mark Taylor, the chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University hypothesizes a model of teaching-learning in which problems and areas of need guide the method of investigation (discipline) instead of the more common reverse.
“Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.” (April 26, The New York Times, Op-Ed)
What if the e-classroom meant more than using a computer to distribute handouts, turn-in grades, and blogging for blogging sake?” (This would describe all of my classes with e-components, save for this one and one other.) What if the e-classroom spawned a different type of dissertation, history, science experiment, and ethnography? What if we could spend as much time studying the creation of a scholar’s publication as we do the finished product? If there’s a school that would support classrooms like that, let me know if they are hiring.