Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

the costs of ideological amplification

Lisa Galarneau has recently completed a doctoral dissertation on (I think — some broken links prevent me from being sure) the culture of video gaming, and she’s not happy with her defense committee: some of them think she’s too purely celebratory of online/digital life, and want her either to be more critical or to take potential criticisms into account. So she has “developed this statement” in response:

Why is it considered mandatory in media studies and related disciplines to explore the dystopian perspective (see page 33 of the thesis), and why is my work considered faulty because I believe in focusing (while explaining rather comprehensively, I think) on what’s positive and possible and hopeful and different about digital spaces and my experiences within them? I in fact did review and integrate all the major 'negative' or 'dystopian' literature, as well, because my committee wished that I appear ‘balanced’, however I am in rather violent disagreement about this necessity. In fact, I think the focus on negative aspects of media culture are a bit of an albatross around media studies’ neck. I think the Internet is the most amazing thing to have happened to humanity in several hundred years. Not perfect, but amazing. I find the constant nagging to explore and predict all of the horrible facets quite disconcerting, and rather a waste of time. These aspects exist, yes, but are typically the outliers, sometimes sensational, yes, but I believe it is my right as a scholar to choose to focus on the positive aspects without being taken to task for some lack of judgment or critical thinking. . . .

But I am an unabashed techno-optimist, and I think our populous [sic] is becoming much more capable and empowered and broadly literate via these technological vehicles and venues, and I think that should be allowed with some suggestion that my decision to focus on what I believe to be the truth is somehow lacking. My focus on the positive does not mean I am not rigourous; it just means that I have dismissed the writings of pundits such as Oppenheimer as I think they are a bit crusty, certainly dogmatic and prone to fear mongering, and often have no actual experience in the areas they choose to consider so critically. In a way, I do not even believe they deserve any attention at all, however we continue to demand that their insight be heard and integrated. I am not sure this is right.

(Since someone else is bound to say it, let me: if you want people to believe that the populace is becoming more literate through digital technology, you need to be sure not to misspell “populace.” It would be good to avoid frequent comma splices as well. But let’s not make too much of that. I misspell words on my blog too. Also, I haven't read Galarneau’s dissertation and I haven't seen the comments of her committee members, so I can have no opinion about their disagreements. She may have dealt properly with technophobes, she may not have. She is certainly right that a scholar doesn't have to be “balanced” in the sense of treating all views as equally valid.)

What I find interesting about this “statement” is this: Galarneau has chosen to explore a phenomenon — the world of online play — that is socially quite controversial, and hotly debated, but she has no tolerance for controversy or debate, at least on that subject. I think that’s problematic. Galarneau is welcoming what Cass Sunstein calls “ideological amplification” when, in my view, it’s the duty of the scholar to resist it. Galarneau may be right that her thinking is sufficiently rigorous, despite her unabashed techno-optimism, but if she follows the path she articulates here it soon won't be. Rigor can't survive, over the long term, a determination to avoid dissenting voices.
It strikes me that this is one of the most important lesson to be learned from the recent scandal over leaked emails from climate scientists. Those emails show what happens when, instead of engaging with your critics, you mock or ignore them. Some climate scientists haven't figured this out, but some have: see the incisive comments by Judith Curry and Mike Hulme here. The model Curry and Hulme advocate is one that should be followed by all scholars, but especially by scholars working in fields that have generated significant debate in the larger culture.


  • Galarneau's statement sounds like the typical college student pressing for grade review by stamping her feet and demanding rights. I don't quite see how she can admit and even celebrate her bias (techno-optimism), dismiss her detractors as crusty (among other things), and still insist on scholarly rigor. She's refusing to learn the rather obvious lessen the dissertation committee is giving her. Maybe she would be better served by developing opinion pieces for the MSM rather than being a real scholar.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't really want to defend Garlarneau, but it seems to me that some version of her position is defensible.

    It looks to me like she's not saying she doesn't want to engage with opposing views. Rather she's saying that the particular kinds of opposing views her committee wants her to take into account are not worth engaging with.

    She sounds a little like a biologist who doesn't think she should be required to take creationism seriously or spend time trying to refute it.

    Whether it's true that the "dystopian" perspective she complains about is not worth refutuing, I don't know. But a dissertaion defense seems like a particularly bad place to try to make that claim. The whole point of having a dissertation committee is to get a group of experts who can help you determine where those boundaries are in your field, what are the controversies and questions that a scholar in your field needs to engage.

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