Making Media Studies: What kinds of knowledge do we need now?

In a chapter of my new book Making Media Studies, published March 2015, I have asked people to send me questions for a ‘crowdsourced’ interview. On this blog, I am occasionally posting extracts from the book, so here is one of the questions and answers. This question was sent in by Graham Meikle, who, as it happens, is nowadays my colleague at the University of Westminster.

Here’s a question I’ve always liked but rarely find the right time to ask. This seems like a good time. What kinds of knowledge do we need now?

Oh that is a good question. I expect there are many elaborate ways to answer this, and it deserves a lot of thought. I’ll assume the question doesn’t mean ‘in general’ – to which the answer would, I guess, have to be ‘all kinds of knowledge’ – but in terms of media, communications, and digital culture. And then, one obvious answer is ‘All the things we don’t know that we don’t know’ – because every so often, as with the Edward Snowden revelations about mass surveillance, we discover that there are huge things about modern technological life that we were just not aware of.

But, sticking closer to the themes of this book, here are the three things which came to me straight away. The three kinds of knowledge that we need now are:

→ How things work (technical and economic knowledge)
→ How things feel and fit (emotional and embodied knowledge)
→ How to make a difference (creative and political knowledge)

These three are in ascending order of importance, but build on each other. So knowing how to make a difference is more important than knowing how things work, but if you don’t know how things work you’re not really going to know how to make a difference. (Incidentally, I’m not saying these are three kinds of knowledge which I have myself. This is much more aspirational!)

Let’s take them one by one:

How things work (technical and economic knowledge): This is the basis for all critical understanding. You need to know what technological and/or economic systems make possible, what you can and can’t potentially do with them, if you’re going to develop any kind of really informed critique of how things are currently done and the ways in which they should be done. Obviously one person is unlikely to understand the ‘how it works’ of everything, but when you are making arguments about things it’s really important to try to understand how those things actually work.

This point is, I suppose, a transplant of my longstanding bugbear about academics writing about online culture but not playing any kind of creative role in online culture, and (consequently) getting things wrong. The situation was probably worse when I complained about it in Web Studies, 15 years ago, but it’s similar today (see remarks about critical-but-ignorant scholars in chapters 8 and 9).

How things feel and fit (emotional and embodied knowledge): This is about the need to build knowledge about the relationship between physical and material things, and digital items (content and software), and human ideas and feelings. The connections between these things are far from simple or straightforward. The physical and material things are important because although many things are now intangible and digital, many more things are not, and we still live in our physical bodies in a physical world – but this is thoroughly entwined with our experience of digital content and services, and our personal feelings and experiences – and all of this is mixed together in complex ways.

How to make a difference (creative and political knowledge): Then, on top of those two bodies of knowledge, you need the ability to come up with brilliant ideas and implement them effectively in the actual world that we live in. That may sound more like a ‘skill’ than a kind of ‘knowledge’, but really, knowing how to make things, and to make things happen – to organise, orchestrate and lead creative practices effectively – is a vital and uncommon form of knowledge.

This body of knowledge includes all kinds of things: How to make things; How to collaborate effectively; How to organise events; How to create a movement; How to lobby governments, companies and organisations; How to work with organisations which are not like you to make things happen; and several more.

It’s much easier to create lists like this than to actually do stuff; but thinking about these things is an important step on the road to getting things done. So thank you for that question.

Tree image by Flickr user Drew Bandy (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

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2 Responses to “Making Media Studies: What kinds of knowledge do we need now?”

  1. Richard Stevens

    Hi David, I guess I feel that we need now is wisdom. We know a great deal about the world (although there is much more to discover, particularly about consciousness) but having the wisdom or emotional intelligence, or the range of qualities associated with these terms,to make decisions in our lives and make decisions with a global impact, that is the “knowledge” that is most needed. We have incredible knowledge and astoudning technology yet still live in a a world of terrible poverty injustice and conflict. If some of the power of technology could be harnessed to solve some of these problems rather than generate relatively trivial forms of escapism and entertainment (oh OK we can do both!). Anyway… just a few thoughts, thanks for the site. Richard


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