David Wiley’s Remix Hypothesis is that we won’t see the full impact of digital culture on education until we embrace the central affordance of digital media — its remixability, by which he means the ability of others to directly manipulate the media for reuse, revision, or adaptation to local circumstance. I think this is an important enough concept that it’s worth expanding on over a few posts.
To review, we’re used to conversation — that transient many-to-many chain of utterances. And with the advent of cheap books many centuries ago it became common for us to think in terms of publication, that permanent pass at a subject that rises above particular context. And we’ve played with these forms in profitable experiments, having published conversations and building conversational publications.
But what we have done only sporadically is to use the fluidity of digital media to have the sort of “conversation through editing” that digital media makes possible.
There are, of course, precedents. My sister makes her living building models of complex phenomena in Excel spreadsheets. She’s considered a bit of a rock star at this. Analytics people laugh, I suppose, at the use of Excel (although frankly, she probably out-earns them). Why would a business pay her so much money for a *spreadsheet*? There are so many sexy tools out there!
The answer is that her spreadsheets are the start of a conversation. She works to capture the knowledge of the organization in Excel and model it, producing projections and the like. But that’s only the first step. When the spreadsheet is done its handed off to people who continue that conversation not by drive-by commenting that the model is all wrong, but by changing the assumptions and the model and showing the impact of those changes. Because Excel is a common currency among the people involved, these conversations can pull in a wide range of expertise, and ultimately improve the model or assumptions.
Today I found another precursor — “critique by redesign” in the visualization arena. Even in the days before digital media visualizations were built on few enough data points that the more effective way to converse about them was to redesign them. Here’s a famous example from Tufte:
This example is meant to be an improvement over the other version, showing how damage to the space shuttle O-rings increases as temperature dips. The critique of the original graphic isn’t (purely) conversation about its flaws — it’s a revision.
Design and Redesign in Data Visualization (from which I pulled this example) comments:
But the process of giving and even receiving visualization criticism does turn out to hold surprises. It’s not just that visualization is so new, or that criticism can stir up emotions in any medium. As we’ll discuss, the fact that visualizations are based on transforming raw data means that criticism can take forms that would be impossible for a movie or book.
The authors are absolutely correct, and yet as all work becomes digitized it’s likely both print and film will add critique by redesign or revision to their respective cultures.
On the edge of networked digital media we see that permissionless remix, revision, and adaptation accomplishes what traditional conversation and publication could not. We’ll note that collaborative revision of documents has become normal in most businesses, finally unlocking the full potential of digital editing. As I’ve noted elsewhere, electronic music is undergoing a similar revolution. Wikipedia, the one impossible thing the web has produced, created the most massive work in the history of mankind using similar processes. Coders on large complex projects critique code by changing code, letting revision histories stand in for debate where appropriate.
We are educating our students in the art of online conversation and publication, and this is important. It represents the scaling of those cultures of talk and print, and maybe the democratization of them too (although that question is more fraught). And remix *needs* these skills: publication is the start of remix, and conversation around artifacts is what makes the process intelligible.
But there’s a third leg to this stool, and it’s as cultural as it is technological. Our students (and teachers!) need to learn how to supplement comment and publication with direct revision and repurposing. It’s only then that we’ll see the true possibilities of a world of connected digital media.
1. I’m shamelessly borrowing and slightly expanding David Wiley’s excellent term here. For more context and a great read, go to The Remix Hypothesis.
2. I think we do this in education, a bit. But not nearly at the level it merits, and the tools we have still mostly treat this as an afterthought.