What Do Final Year BSc Sociology Students Actually Do? | Media & State Studies Seminar Part 1: Simulated Identities & the Digital Generation

Whether you read right-wing or “left-wing” papers, reading the mainstream media might lead one to believe that today’s universities are failing to expose students to new ideas. On the internet, with the ubiquity of white nerds with degrees in natural sciences and engineering, there is another common narrative in which humanities and social sciences are bashed for being “less scientific” than other STEM subjects. Obviously, I’m biased because I study social sciences so of course would defend them, but I haven’t always been this way.

Back when I was studying in further education (A-levels), I was a complete nerd, really into videogames and, what I then considered to be, “proper science”. I studied maths and physics almost exclusively and even joked that physics was a “harder” science than subjects like even biology, because, I previously argued, biology is reducible to chemistry and chemistry to physics. I wanted to study physics at university and eventually work developing videogames. Life certainly messed those plans up.

Years later, I’ve gone from probably being, in many respects, one of those cocky pseudo-“Rationalists” that takes pride in being a scientist despite not truly understanding what science was- I wouldn’t have ever spoken about research programmes, falsification, positivism, etc. and my understanding of the scientific method was basic at best, even if it was the same understanding many scientists graduate with.

This series isn’t going to be an explication of the philosophy of science I have since learned as I would like to write about that in full detail, either in another series or a book. For this series, I would like to give a taste of what it is sociology, as one of the most denigrated sciences online, is actually like. Hopefully this will also inspire younger generations of students to study sociology and shows them how interesting and broad yet widely applicable this subject is. Contrary to the ignorant rhetoric popular online, it will hopefully show that sociology is not some easy option compared to the natural sciences, but we are held to similarly high standards- standards which all academics and intellectuals hold themselves to, even if we often use different methodologies in our research programmes.

The plan for this series so far is that the next 3 posts will be reflections of the last few seminars of a final year BSc Sociology (Hons) module covering “media, state and society”. The structure of this assignment, which I am reproducing here mostly unedited, was quite unusual compared to most work undertaken for this subject- essays and some fieldwork- but I think illustrates the variety of ways final year study is done. The first section is a short description of the seminar content, followed by my own critical reflections of the seminar, with discussion implementing my own interests in sociology and giving reference to the literature. Note: parts of the discussion are severely limited by the word count.

 

Simulated Identities & the Digital Generation
Session Summary:
In 2001, Marc Prensky posited that the new generation of students was qualitatively different from older generations. For the first time, he highlighted, the younger generation had grown up surrounded by and submerged in a culture that uses computer technology ubiquitously (Prensky, 2001). Noting that this implies we could label this new demographic group as digital “natives”, he also theorised a transitionary group “who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). While Prensky’s work focused on how the different experiences of these groups would mean they have different brains (Prensky, 2001), Sherry Turkle’s work focused on how the different generations use the technology, and the implications for how we think about relationships, embodiment and identity (for example: Turkle, 1997 [1995]). In this seminar we discussed whether the digital generation really exists and how we, as part of it, use technology.

Critical Reflections:

“[…] by the late 1980s, the culture of personal computing found itself becoming practically two cultures, divided by allegiance to computing systems. There was IBM reductionism vs. Macintosh simulation and surface: an icon of the modernist technological utopia vs. an icon of post-modern reverie” (Turkle, 1997 [1995], p. 36).

Today, these cultures are still at war for market dominance however with new consumer preferences to battle over. For example, arguments that this competition is based purely in consumer preferences, including usual factors like value, are confounded by “Veblen Goods”. Veblen Goods, are commodities consumed conspicuously- in order to show status- and there are arguably many technological products of this sort (Wright, 2008). Another related confounding issue is the politics of desire and sexuality, as some research shows, conspicuous consumption is linked to male mating strategies (Janssens, et al., 2011).
Most products today cater foremost to the postmodern preference for transparency, in terms of usability rather than the transparent aesthetic Turkle explains, which is actually technically more opaque. With most modern operating systems, users are able to have both, the postmodern ease-of-use Macintosh surface and the modernist in-depth tinkering options available underneath for those who want it. In a way, this means that the postmodern aesthetic has won, because it has won on the surface and the surface is all that is required of it. This however, means that for the majority that do not learn the in-depth tools, they are dependent on experts when things go wrong.
Another possible implication of this new reliance, hence, for the masses, vulnerability, on experts follows more loosely from the extended mind thesis (Chalmers & Clark, 1998). This thesis in extended cognition posits that mind is not limited to the embodied space to which subjective experience is anchored. This means external objects are part of mind such that, for example, our memory is extended to objects which store information. Recall is not limited to retrieving items from our own cognitive hardware, but includes externalities such as paper notes, physical hard drives and even the memories of other people, which we might call socially extended cognition. In our technology dependent culture, following this, we are dependent on experts to maintain our external cognitive resources and this might explain why interferences with technology can manifest in ways near indistinguishable from psychosocial pathologies (Wang, et al., 2016). Similarly, Turkle’s elaboration of the duality of identity, along with some psychological theories of the self may explain these pathologies as the removal of access to a major part of the individual’s self-concept.
Considering the demographic bifurcation of Prensky’s digital natives hypothesis and McLuhan’s elaboration that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan & Lapham, 1994) perhaps we can predict homogeneities of the digital native cohort according to the medium in which they are native. With the postmodern aesthetic dominating the marketplace, the medium is technically opaque, the message is a normalisation of the dependence on experts and a furtherance of the division of labour. Furthermore, considering Levi-Strauss’ concept of “bricolage”, the process of theoretical and abstract thinking schema intuitive to the digitally native generation, implicitly accepts the vulnerability caused by the dependence on experts.
This vulnerability however, also allows for the furtherance of the division of labour, freeing up those who defer to experts to focus on developing their skills in other areas. This paradox I compare to Adam Smith’s paradox of opulence causing mental stagnation, however some theories suggest that this freeing up of our time to become experts in other fields and the digitally native bricolage makes systematic thought more intuitive for the digital generation (Johnson, 2005). Another issue with our dependence on technology experts along with the increasing digitisation of knowledge, is that those experts become an increasingly privileged strata with respect to access to knowledge. As I have argued elsewhere, this could lead to the development of a class of “knowledge-capitalists”, as knowledge is increasingly centralised and exclusive, and accumulates in a way similar to capital accumulation (Feynman, 2015).

 

References:
Chalmers, D. J. & Clark, A., 1998. The extended mind. Analysis, Volume 58, pp. 10-23.
Feynman, T., 2015. On Makhaevism: knowledge capitalists and authority-discourses. [Online]
Available at: https://unwelfarestate.wordpress.com/2015/09/06/on-makhaevism-knowledge-capitalists-and-authority-discourses/
[Accessed 25 May 2016].
Janssens, K. et al., 2011. Can buy me love: Mate attraction goals lead to perceptual readiness for status products. Journal of experimental social psychology, Volume 47, pp. 254-258.
Johnson, S., 2005. Everything bad is good for you. How popular culture is making us smarter. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
McLuhan, M. & Lapham, L. H., 1994. Understanding media: the extensions of man. 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Prensky, M., 2001. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 2: Do they really think differently?. On the horizon, 9(6), pp. 1-6.
Prensky, M., 2001. Digitial natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), pp. 1-6.
Turkle, S., 1997 [1995]. Life on the screen. Identity in the age of the internet. London: Phoenix.
Wang, Y. et al., 2016. Altered gray matter volume and white matter integrity in college students with mobile phone dependence. Frontiers in psychology, Volume 7, p. 597.
Wright, B., 2008. Everyday sociology blog: Conspicious consumption and your iphone. [Online]
Available at: http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2008/09/conspicuous-con.html
[Accessed 2016 May 25].


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