Media in Transition 5 – Overview and First Plenary

The theme of the MiT5 conference was creativity, ownership and collaboration in the digital age. All I can say is “wow.” This was a terrific experience from start to finish. I was there in my role as rapporteur for the MIT Communications Forum and so wrote summaries of two of the plenary sessions (one on copyright and fair use and the other on learning through remixing). I also moderated two panels – one on disruptive practices and the other on brand.

I had intended to share everything in one post, but 16+ pages seemed like it ought to be broken up into smaller sections and so that’s what I’ve decided to do.

Let me begin by saying – as I have to anyone whose come near me since – that we have only the most superficial understanding of the impact of new communication technologies and behaviors. By we I mean communicators and PR people. I tend to look at communication as a tool and try to choose the one best suited for the task at hand. My determination of which tool to use is usually based on past experience or on the experience and advice of colleagues. This is an effective way to work but it is not an effective way to develop an understanding of the media, how it is changing and what those changes mean. For that, this conference was an effective and eye-opening experience.

When I arrived on Friday morning, the first person I saw was Jim Cypher. Jim and I went to college together, and, as it happened, he was also on one of the panels I was moderating. It was nice to see a familiar face from the past so soon. The overall event attracted some 400 people from all over the world. There were academics, students, business people, film makers, writers, advocates and activists, artists and people who were just plain curious.

Henry Jenkins
, the head of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program, got things started by discussing just what was transitioning in the world of media. He talked about how the face and nature of media and content had been changed by ongoing advances in technology and went on the show some examples of media that is being created today – discussions of which would be central to the conference.

When he finished, the first plenary – Folk Cultures and Digital Cultures – got underway.

What was the most interesting thing to me was Thomas Pettitt’s discussion of the “Gutenberg parenthesis.” This is the idea that it has only been since the rise of printing that the written word has assumed a canonical place in Western thinking. Before Gutenberg, Pettitt suggested, content was regularly borrowed from multiple sources, was not necessarily the same twice, varied based on its context and was generally unstable and open to borrowing, being borrowed from and reinterpretation.

According to Pettitt, we are entering a post-parenthetical period where content is again being thought about and used in fresh and exciting ways. He cited a number of examples – including sampling, remixing and mashing various content types and presenting them in new and unexpected contexts. It was a well developed idea and one that I found myself applying to other sessions I attended.

Craig Watkins, from the University of Texas, reinforced many of Pettitt’s points during his discussion of black orality and cultural practices. He described rap and hip hop culture as being only the latest in a long history of creativity through appropriation.

The third speaker on the panel, Lewis Hyde (who actually went first by the way), talked about Benjamin Franklin as a pirate for his willingness to encourage (and even institutionalize) the violation of then existing copyright laws for the public good.

What was the most interesting to me about this panel was the idea that the written word has only gained its status relatively recently and that it is now being challenged by the rise of new technologies. It was an exciting and refreshing conversation.

[tags]MIT, MIT5, Media, Henry Jenkins, Jim Cypher, Thomas Pettitt, S. Craig Watkins, Lewis Hyde, folk culture, digital culture[/tags]

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2 thoughts on “Media in Transition 5 – Overview and First Plenary

  1. Greg – I absolutely love that you are into this type of thing. If only we had discovered it a few years ago when we worked together! There are so many changes in media and PR, too much to put here as you know. Who has the answers? Anyone? Will we have jobs in five years? I am talking about the typical angency jobs we have now. I can’t possibly imagine that all of this will NOT affect our industry. It’s extremley exciting and very scary at the same time.

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