The goal of this report is to marry my empirical experiences as a film and music video producer and those of my Gen Y creator-peers with a theory of how learning happens in the digital era. What began as an observation on the changes of a pop cultural form that had migrated from the television to the Internet led quite naturally to discussing the media habits and practices of millennials and digital natives. As I found myself reading theories on digital media consumption and literacy, I felt something lacking in the conversation: not the interviewed voices of Gen Y and Gen I gamers, cosplayers, fan fiction authors, and machinimists, who have been canvassed broadly in DML literature, but a wider conversation addressing how the same practices are actively engaged by and benefit more than the hallowed “geeks.”
I have often wished I was a geek, but the geekdoms of my acquaintance were decidedly more analog or mainstream. As a teenager, I watched friends who were able to pick up any guitar or sit down at a piano and pick out a tune. I spent whole summer nights, which turned into weeks, in a haze of mystification and boredom, watching guy friends effortlessly flip hacky sacks or determinedly master a new skating trick. After college, I witnessed the friends who never stopped playing in bands, editing Web videos, or doing stand-up comedy transition almost overnight into paid professional musicians, music video directors, and sitcom writers. Digital technologies and communities absolutely helped these geeks deepen and leverage their crafts.
At the same time, however, friends who have pursued “normal” careers or lead “nondigital” lives are still availing themselves of the same digitally abetted practices—committing themselves to learning about and improving at a range of activities from gardening to triathlon to woodworking, as well as deepening long-term consumptive interests, from music to cinema to art criticism. I developed a skeptical boosterism about the geeky bias of the DML community—as someone who has experienced the changes wrought by digital technology over the entirety of my conscious life, I felt a sharp disconnect between the niche specializations being aptly described and the more prosaic ways the majority of my peers access and exploit digital capabilities. How can we use the findings of the DML community to benefit all if we are discussing an extraordinary few? Or how can the informal digital practices of two generations—at root a process of searching, and almost always a process of learning—be used to ask for new modes of formal education?
In response to these self-imposed questions, I have attempted to break down the arena of my own professional specialization into three universal modes of activity: form, practice, and literacy.
Form describes music video as a communicative object. Here the object is seen as an exteriorized product, whether it is being consumed or created; it is a product that changes according to the cultural preoccupations of the time in which it is created. The form of music video, more than many related cultural forms, has always been heavily impacted by the active media habits of its consumers. In the 1980s and ’90s, when music video was a product of an other for the vast, vast majority, the codes and rules of the form were dictated in lockstep with the production cycles of music video’s communicative relatives: the recording, television, and film industries (codification and personalization). Over the course of the nineties, as independent recording and film proliferated—as the objects of music and film were created by an other increasingly close to the self—and gained mainstream market footholds, the expectations for the form shifted and got weirder, wider, and woollier (auteurship and alternativism). The advent of P2P technologies in the late nineties, which allowed audiences to seek pop cultural interests even farther afield with greater ease, broadened this verdant rift in and draft away from the mainstream music video form (stagnation and dissent). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the ease of digital production for the average user caught up with digital consumption; the object could now, in fact, be produced by the self without specialized knowledge or technology. Commensurate with this shift, the bleeding edge of the form became less predictable, more adventurous in concept, but often at odds with the notion of an avant-garde we would usually expect to see at a time of formal innovation, attempting to appeal to as many people as possible (instability and motivated curiosity). At the time of this writing, a cultural form is still largely described as the product of its professional creators but is increasingly inflected by the productive capabilities of its consumers.
I have attempted to legitimize these productive capabilities by terming them practice. Where form describes a product external to the self, practice describes a process intrinsic to the self. As exemplified by Hiro Murai, music video makes the leap from form to practice during the sustained pursuit of its creation. This process begins in moments of motivated curiosity—the desire to learn about something, and specifically a desire strong enough that the self can absorb any obstacles to this desire as part of the process of learning.
I call the first step in this process of self-education “learning to search,” and it is achieved when learners become aware of their desire and begin to implement answers to their curiosity. Learning to search happens within the frame of a Web navigation bar, in the physical wilds of printed or recorded media, and among the expertise of interest-based acquaintances, as well as in other contexts. It connotes an openness of commitment—that the attitudes and allegiances of the searcher can remain undecided until their initial curiosity is satisfied, at which point the searcher can deepen or abandon the search. Most important, learning to search is a refinable and redeployable skill; searchers can become more proficient in searching in a given domain or can recontextualize their skill as a searcher in domains beyond their expertise.
Once learners have learned to search, they have given themselves the basis of the second step in this process: searching to learn. Where learning to search helps satisfy initial curiosities or identify paths to be explored, searching to learn uses the skill of searching in the name of deepening a curiosity or navigating farther down a path. Searching to learn often connotes an existing commitment to these interests or skill sets, a familiarity with the given domain that can now be exploited to help focus this deepening. However, like learning to search, searching to learn is necessarily a skill that can be refined and redeployed, and as such, a learner does not necessarily require familiarity with a domain to begin this process—he or she can carry over search-to-learn skills from previous domains to more efficiently plumb a new one.
The repeatable and complementary processes of learning to search and searching to learn combine into a third step in self-motivated knowledge: learning to learn. This is the process of teaching oneself how to learn: how a learner identifies something he or she wants to know, how to seek out methods or information about that subject, and finally how to supervise himself or herself into literacy—and potentially fluency—in the given subject. Learning to learn connotes a commitment to knowledge in itself, beyond the first stirrings of curiosity, and farther than the continued strains of effort. Mastery and comprehension are the goals of learning to learn; whether the learner has sought the finite answer to a simple problem, a skill that can be used as part of a larger project, or a sweeping philosophy or undergirding technology, the goal of learning to learn is necessarily the initial motivated curiosity’s being made whole. Just as in the first two steps of the process, so learning to learn self-perpetuates. Literacy begets fluency, fluency begets nuance, and nuance creates curiosity.
Which leads to discussing the difference between literacy and fluency, especially in our techno-educationally excited moment. James Paul Gee’s definition of literacy is deeply useful and is a revelation that inspired much of my own thinking. By Gee’s definition, I am literate with a camera: I understand or at least feel I am capable of interpreting the communicative intent of formal and informal photographic images, and I can take pictures not just with some modicum of technical skill but in a way that can point a viewer toward my own communicative agenda. This is a worthy employment of the term “literacy,” as it legitimizes the intent and achievements of my informal efforts, which are on a par with the vast majority of those with whom I am likely to be communicating. I am not, however, fluent with a camera; I cannot, or at least don’t feel confident that I can, use complex photographic technologies or communicate complex meanings with a camera. To intervene with help from Elisabeth Soep, I am not confident of my “point of voice,” and so I am unlikely to exercise my artistic, economic, or political rights via photography.
Standardized education has long focused on literacy, because it is easy to break into rubrics: lists of skills and benchmarks that together make up competency. I argue for a distinction between literacy and fluency not because literacy is insufficient but to demarcate those skills we all take up because we are asked to and those that we take up because we ask ourselves to.
All learners understand the processes that lead them to fluency, largely because a desire to be fluent motivates us to true comprehension—and in the digital era, children, tweens, and teens have made themselves fluent, time and again, in a variety of technologies, communicative modes, interfaces, interests, and activities. The cycles of learning to search, searching to learn, and learning to learn are used universally to everyday “informal” digital and nondigital ends: music, fashion, sports, TV, cooking, travel, socializing, fund-raising, and so on. In much the same way as practice, informal activities are usually intrinsically motivated, though these motivations are often peer influenced and part of a social context of the self. Because of this intrinsic curiosity and the site for social contact these activities provide, informal activities are often more deeply experienced and explored than formal learning; compare the average teenage video game player with the average high school French student, and compare the average high school French student with the average Francophilic, Paris-besotted French student.
Educators and parents must draw parallels between the value and processes of informal activities and formal learning and working in the digital era. I propose the term “valuable” activities to denote interests that might otherwise fall outside the spectrum of formal education or prospective employment but are nonetheless the object of a learner’s sustained, pleasurable pursuit. The quotation marks remain around “valuable” to remind us of our knee-jerk response to dismiss such activities as frivolous or superfluous and thereby often miss whether they are being undertaken by our learners in a meaningful process (habituation) or with the force of a practice (holisticism)—both of which are skills, themselves literacies, that are transferrable to an infinite number of contexts and contents.
We must also give due weight to the impact of the interest-based networks that collect around “valuable” activities. Cultural capital in the home provides not only access and space for technological and expressive fluency but also models—in the form of parents and often siblings—for how to search, learn, sustain a pursuit, and develop a practice. Near peers, who fill the gap between tangible colleagues and distant idols, provide the same modeling but with the advantage of providing it in the exact domain to which a learner aspires, which may or may not be the case within the family. Near peers and learners together make up the process of apprenticeship learning, which is a dialogue with productive and reflexive value for all participants, and which occurs in informal knowledge communities more readily than in the traditional hierarchies of formal employment and education. Near peers also model more than a literacy but a method of meaningfully integrating that literacy into one’s life, which can be achieved through a livelihood but does not have to be—a state that I term lifelihood.
Near peers, apprenticeship learning, peer economies, knowledge communities, communities of practice—all derive their collective regenerative force from the same source as each individual participant. Motivated curiosity brings a learner to a community, and a community toward itself. It can bring a learner to a science lesson on wavelengths of light as easily as to a camera, to a history textbook with as much force as to a Facebook timeline. Digital technology has reduced the borders between literacies to hyperlinks and touch screens. It is our job as educators in the digital era to analogize what our learners do on their own to what we would like them to do—to understand and value what their curiosity has motivated them to search out, and to learn.