Digital Cultures

June 16, 2011

A student is reading a book. A message beeps from an iPhone. Eyes flick to the screen in curiosity. During the glance from paper to screen, an iPod continues to shuffle a soundtrack.

From screen to sound, from paper to pixels, digital cultures accompany, replace and cannibalise earlier platforms and meaning systems. In Digital Cultures, Milad Doueihi probes these accelerated movements, migrations and manifestations. First published in French in 2008 as La Grand Conversion Numérique, the book's English-language version has not been updated. As a result, social networking is underplayed.

But while it may seem unwise to leave the text unchanged considering the rapidity of software and hardware transformation, Doueihi's argument remains revelatory and important. He presents the diversity of digital practices and the importance of digital literacy in an increasingly complex textual environment. Moving beyond basic functional literacy, Doueihi asks how digitisation configures a meta-literacy, "of what it means to be literate".

The book's four sections - "Digital divides and the emerging digital literacy", "Blogging the city", "Software tolerance in the land of dissidence" and "Archiving the future" - align to investigate new relationships between the production and communication of knowledge and the transformations of past modes of reading and thinking.

The innovative concept created and developed throughout the book is "anthology". Doueihi defines this as "constituted by assembling various pieces of material under a unifying cover, and for the use of an individual or a group brought together by a common interest". Such a mode of reading is comparative, collaborative and decontextualised. A wiki-enabled form of bricolage, the "new sociability" through social networks gathers references into an innovative anthology.

Anthology is an effective metaphor and model, offering a description of the changing space between authors and readers. This is a powerful and useful concept for literacy theorists, built on the disconnection of text, authorship and intentionality. The rapid re-contexualisation of information can create redundant repetition, digitised gossip or innovative alignments between old and new knowledge. This is an "assembly model of leadership", with collaboration enabling convergence.

Doueihi is not a computer scientist. He is not a lawyer. He is not a technologist. He describes himself as an "accidental digitician". This "unauthorized position" enables a freedom to watch technology and log the changes. This positioning is ideal for an intellectual historian, assessing information and literacy, information and knowledge. It is a reminder of the value gained by incorporating voices from the humanities into discussions of technology. It is a way to remember "forgotten histories".

Digital Cultures is neither a book of celebration nor one of denial. The anthological is fragmented and therefore constructs and migrates an incomplete and often unsatisfactory history into the present. The modifications to identity, community, location, ownership and preservation create new relationships between access and surveillance, freedom and censorship.

The ambivalence of the book emerges when trying to understand the social, cultural and legal legacies from analogue frameworks. Confirming that the division between analogue print and digital text does not have to result in conflictual literacies, the challenge for library and information professionals is how to align different representational structures for organising knowledge on- and offline. In building new links between literacy, privacy and the archive, preservation becomes the key challenge. With the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine offering one option and Google another, the role of corporatisation in the preservation of knowledge is a challenge to resolve.

Digital Cultures is well written, engaging, interdisciplinary and evocative. The theoretical configuration of "the anthology" is profoundly useful for media, communication, cultural and internet studies, offering an opportunity to create new ways of thinking about old knowledge.

Digital Cultures

By Milad Doueihi,Harvard University Press 208pp, £14.95,ISBN 9780674055247,Published 31 March 2011

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