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Learning, Media and Technology

Volume 37, Issue 1, 2012

‘Wrighting’ the self: new technologies and textual subjectivities

‘Wrighting’ the self: new technologies and textual subjectivities

DOI:
10.1080/17439884.2012.636366
Mona Sakra*

pages 119-123


Publishing models and article dates explained
Received: 8 Aug 2011
Accepted: 14 Oct 2011
Published online: 21 Nov 2011
Article Views: 251

Abstract

The expression of the self through multimodal texts is a central theme in education. While it has been suggested that new technologies act as important mediators in the relationship between texts and subjectivity, the mechanisms underlying such mediation has been a neglected topic of research. This paper considers the theoretical assumptions upon which speculation so far has been based and explores the methodologies that are best suited to investigating further the relationships between text, self and technology.

Keywords

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The expression of the self through multimodal texts is a central theme in education. While it has been suggested that new technologies act as important mediators in the relationship between texts and subjectivity, the mechanisms underlying such mediation has been a neglected topic of research. This paper considers the theoretical assumptions upon which speculation so far has been based and explores the methodologies that are best suited to investigating further the relationships between text, self and technology.

Keywords

From the earliest experiences of a child in the preschool setting, the textual self – the expression and construction of the self through text-making – emerges as a central theme in education. The child is encouraged to make texts that configure meaning through the use of signs – role play, music, drawing and writing. Great value is placed upon these texts as records of and testaments to the self. But given the presence and prevalence of ever-emerging new technologies that change the practices of text-making, we must ask how new technologies mediate the textual self as it develops during an individual's educational experience.
Over the last 10 years, technology researchers have been increasingly urged to examine the ‘social complexities of… use in situ’ (Selwyn and Oliver 201113. Selwyn, N. and Oliver, M. 2011. Learning, media and technology: Looking backwards and moving forward. Learning, Media and Technology, 36(1): 1–3.
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, 1). One area of fierce speculation, little research and potentially ‘excessive technological optimism’ (Selwyn 200212. Selwyn, N. 2002. Telling tales on technology: Qualitative studies of technology and education, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

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, 3) is the manner in which new technologies are mediating the action of text-making, and in turn mediating perceptions and expressions of the self. While it has been suggested that ‘different potentials for meaning-making may imply different potentials for the formation of subjectivities’ (Kress and van Leeuwen 19965. Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. 1996. Reading images: The grammar of visual design, New York: Routledge.

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, 39), the mechanisms underlying such fundamental shifts have been neglected. It is the right time to consider the theoretical assumptions upon which most speculation has so far been based, and to explore the methodologies that are best suited to accessing the technology-mediated subjectivities that are being hypothesised.
It is now received wisdom that the psychological self cannot exist as a single entity – instead, it is ‘distributed in action, in projects, in practice’ (Bruner 19902. Bruner, J. 1990. Acts of meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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, 117). Just as notions of literacy and technology have become increasingly situated and distributed, so subjectivity is now constructed in relation to the events and practices of the everyday. In such a model, texts become crucial tools in the collection of this disparate self as it exists in different times and places (Lemke 20008. Lemke, J. L. 2000. Across the scales of time: Artifacts, activities and meanings in ecosocial systems. Mind, Culture and Activity, 7(2): 273–90.
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). The creation of texts, and the constraints and opportunities experienced as part of this creative process, play an important part in building (or gathering) the subject.
Understood in this way, text-making is seen as a multi-faceted process involving various types of subjectivity: the self that is brought to the task, the self that is constructed as the text is made and the self that is read into the output by others. As these different types of self exist in different timescales, the textual artefact acts as a central means of finding coherence between the events, moments and behaviours that contribute to our subjectivity, ultimately enabling the individual to perceive their own subjectivity. Imposing alternative practices or incorporating new technologies into the text-making process should therefore contribute to a new sense of self.
Written artefacts represent only one kind of text and Burgess and Ivanic (20103. Burgess, A. and Ivanic, R. 2010. Writing and begin written: Issues of identity across timescales. Written Communication, 27(2): 228–55.
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) have suggested use of the word ‘wrighting’ as an alternative to ‘writing’, in order to refer to the making of multimodal texts. Mulitmodality as a theoretical framework has grown in popularity and applicability, partly as a result of the questions raised by the presence of new technologies in both the classroom and home, and the possibility that new technologies will influence the processes and outcomes of text-making. For example, Kress (20034. Kress, G. 2003. Literacy in the new media age, London: Routledge.
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) has suggested that screen technologies prioritise spatial, as opposed to temporal, configurations of information – the image over the word. Thus, computers represent a shift in the ‘communication landscape’ (Kress 20034. Kress, G. 2003. Literacy in the new media age, London: Routledge.
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, 13), but also potential shifts in expressions and perceptions of self. Arguments regarding the reshaping of information and subjectivities within new modalities and media are powerful and laden with ideological commitments. Within the multiple realities of research (Labbo and Reinking 19996. Labbo, L. D. 1996. A semiotic analysis of young children's symbol making in a classroom computer centre. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(4): 356–85.
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), new technologies exist on a spectrum – from tools of empowerment to symbols of cultural deterioration (Bezemer and Kress 20081. Bezemer, J. and Kress, G. 2008. Writing in multimedia texts: A social semiotic account of designs for learning. Written Communication, 25(2): 266–95.
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).
But beyond grand and value-laden theories, what value does the idea of ‘wrighting the self’ have for the field of educational media and technology? It seems contrary in attempting to answer this question to return to a study conducted 15 years ago, when the capabilities and constraints of computers were so vastly different to those of today. However, Linda Labbo's (1996) qualitative semiotic analysis of kindegartners’ symbol-making experiences on the computer constitutes a thorough and thought-provoking piece of social research, unique in its approach to the technological mediation of text-making within a naturalistic setting. Furthermore, the distance between the sociotechnical environment represented in Labbo's paper and more recent research may enable us to better conceive of what can be learnt from the frameworks and methodologies employed by Labbo and the assumptions underlying more recent research.
Following an ethnographic inquiry over the course of one academic year, Labbo concluded that the classroom computer offered four- and five-year-old preschoolers ‘unique support and mediation’ in their ‘construction of meaning about the process of symbol making’ (381). While the study showed some similarity in the examples of drawing and emergent writing produced on a computer and on paper, Labbo argued that the computer enabled more freedom in the processes and products of the children's text-making. Rather than restricting themselves to ‘the teacher-sanctioned view of the screen as a piece of a paper’ (377), the children constructed the computer's text-making capabilities in various ways – as a landscape, a playground, a canvas, a stage and so on. In turn, these worlds influenced the way that they thought about themselves as students, as artists or as social beings. The study did not only demonstrate shifts in text-making practices, but suggested that these could be traced back to individuals’ perceptions of the affordances of a new technology – the worlds that they believed it would enable them to explore.
Of course, Labbo's study was conducted at a time when the internet was in its first stages of development and not readily available within educational settings. Since then, research into networked texts, such as blog posts and social media sites, has rapidly increased, while research, as conducted by Labbo, into the affordances of un-networked software has been neglected and even deemed passé. But the distinction between networked and un-networked technologies reminds us of a crucial difference in the textual selves enabled by each of these situations – what Nelson, Hull, and Roche-Smith (200810. Nelson, M. E., Hull, G. A. and Roche-Smith, J. 2008. Challenges of multimedia self-presentation: Taking, and mistaking the show on the road. Written Communication, 25(4): 415–40.
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) describes as the difference between self-presentation and self-representation.
In the first instance (self-presentation), the individual can be understood as being active in ‘semiotically publicizing oneself, expressing the Self before an audience such that the representation of Self… is constituted of the public Self’ (418). The internet, and in particular, social networking sites encourage us to present ourselves through various texts – photographs, status updates and so on. In self-representational texts, on the other hand, the text acts as a form of expression that, while of course reflecting intersubjectivity, is not purely an attempt to engage with others. As a result of the emphasis on research into networked technologies, most attention has been focused onto texts that are created in order to develop a ‘public Self’ for an audience, rather than more personal examples of ‘wrighting’. It could be argued that educational technology researchers have neglected the un-networked, but still technology-mediated, texts and artefacts that contribute to subjectivity in a unique way.
The fascination with networked technologies has also been responsible for shifting focus away from textual artefacts themselves, and onto the social situations and exchanges – the networks – within which they are occurring. While the social context is indubitably central to the appreciation and understanding of semiotic texts, the focus on texts remains crucial if we are really to compare the screen and the page as forums for self. Methodologies that prioritise the text (textual life histories, semiotic analyses) remain under-exploited. Successful exceptions (Ormerod and Ivanic 200011. Ormerod, F. and Ivanic, R. 2000. “Texts in practice: Interpreting the physical characteristics of children's project work”. In Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context, Edited by: Barton, D., Hamilton, M. and Ivanic, R. 91–108. London: Routledge.

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; Mavers 20079. Mavers, D. 2007. Semiotic resourcefulness: A young child's email exchange as design. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 7(2): 155–76.
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) investigate the semiotic dimensions of texts themselves, but couple such analysis with methodologies that contextualise their production (interviews and observation, respectively).
It is an assumption of the contemporary research agenda in technology and text-making that networked texts can tell us more about expressions and perceptions of the self. But an exclusive interest in networked text-making and the public self fails to provide researchers with an opportunity to compare the self as it is constructed within various contexts – through the page or screen, through networked or un-networked technologies and in formal or informal educational settings. On the other hand, analysing multiple texts created by an individual in diverse modalities and media (textual life histories) will enable meaningful comparisons. It is through such comparisons that we will develop a genuine sense of the psychological and cultural changes that occur as a result of new technologies in education, and knowledge of the incremental mechanisms that underlie such changes.
Mona Sakr is a PhD candidate at Oxford Brookes University. Her thesis, supervised by Dr Vince Connelly and Dr Mary Wild, focuses on the role of text-making in the development of self, and the way in which new technologies are mediating this relationship.

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