Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Immediate Gratification vs. Immediate Experience with Digital Music - Stories from the Field

One common characterization or myth of young people, in particular young people of color, is that they seek out and desire immediate gratification. This prejudice is applicable to the sphere of youth popular music listening and creation. Music listening in general is understood as an indulgence and an escape[1]. To immediately gratify oneself is to indulge oneself in something without reflection on its consequences for self and others. Escape or escapism is an elementary form of bad faith because it implies that one shirks their responsibilities and rejects the world and its demands on us. If instead we approach music as a way to cope with the world rather than reject or ‘escape’ the world, we may be able to move away from the belief that music is only an unessential leisure activity that must be curbed in favor of more productive tasks like reading, writing or literacy in general.

The very notion of immediate gratification often gets conflated with the immediate experience of music listening and creation. That children and youth play and find music pleasurable is understood as pathological. That they make appropriate music formally structured and institutional environments is rational. What often occurs is that we valorize the latter without fully challenging the hidden assumptions that music listening is purely passive consumption. In fact when encourage the latter we reinforce the stereotype of the former.

Children in general are understood to be defined by the desire for pleasure and that they satiate themselves in the moment. The logic of immediate gratification has deep implications for the interpretation of youth culture and in particular youth Hip Hop culture in the U.S. This was an implicit but common view held by some Art and Technology after school programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. In interviews with some of the directors of these types of programs, especially ones focused on music production, the tacit logic around using digital music and multimedia production as a base for an after school curriculum was the sense that students could immediately experience the output of their creative acts enabled by digital production technologies. For them this is the power of music and the music technologies they deployed. According to some, it was this feeling of immediate or “instant gratification” made possible by these technologies and music in general which was important to drawing youth into these programs. This seems relatively innocuous but when linked up with the wider discourse it condemns such practices as music listening as superfluous and unimportant. This view of music listening and making is a widely held one, not only by educators and some scholars but also by wider society as well. Aesthetic appreciation in consumption and production in the West holds this idea of immediate gratification as a 'primitive' and innate characteristic of human nature in which we all inevitably tend toward pleasure if unchecked by the rational of 'reality'. Reality requires the utilization of practical reason which curbs and bounds our desire for unending pleasurable experience. Developing children not trained to keep the passions and desires checked by practical reason will inevitably loose themselves according to this theory of human nature[2]. Abstinence from indulging in such expression could be controlled through repetitive instruction and educating our senses to the virtues of delayed gratification[3]. So in a sense to train and educate these youth as productive members of society one could exploit this view of human nature and take a negative aspect of young people which is to consume and turn it into a productive force to learn the necessary skills to become responsible and rational members of society. Ironically even within the progressive San Francisco Bay Area where the are a multitude of Art and Technology programs who openly critique the notion that youth are not just consumers but also producers there is still a sense that youth will succumb to the logic of immediate gratification. Some never fully jettison the belief that immediate gratification is universal and innate in children and youth.

In discussions with one student named Louis from Hip Hop Stories on the topic of the meaning of art and in particular music there was a sense for him that society placed arts and music in second order of legitimacy to science. Louis discussed in detail the distinction that society made between music and science, saying that “one was more of a guilty pleasure than the other”. He went on to say....

“Music is a kind of a immediate release of what ever problem you have. Music will kind of lighten the load for you, kinda like a drug. Science is a kind of a long process to find a conclusion for a theory or hypothesis, Your looking and looking and looking. A lot of hard work is put into it but not for the sake of it but for knowledge for the sense knowing, sense of self being, of being released of the question. Some people get attached to a question[in scientific method], struggle and struggle to find out but with music its like sometimes there's no question to be asked, no question to be answered, it's[music] just what it is. You can tell what it is or how it is just by feeling it just by hearing it”.

Music's meaning to us, according to this student did not follow the rational logic of scientific explanation, yet its value in society is measured by the normative logic of science. What was striking about Louis’s comments was his articulation of the immediacy of music via pathologic terms yet without condemning music listening to biology. Even more interesting was his provocative statement that unlike science, music asks no question[4] as such, that music is not structured in a way to give us explanations in the way science does. So it may ask questions but not what is normatively understood as questions that invoke a deductive method and provide an answer via explanation.

The logic of immediate gratification functions in the interpretation of music making software that these after school programs use. For example it is understood by teachers and researchers that the power of a program like Apple's Garage Band (a music instrumental making software) is that a student can instantly create and play back her sequence of a digital trumpet. How is this different than say a classically trained student of the jazz trumpet? The distinction is significant because a formally trained jazz trumpeter is taught over a significant period of time to the objective aspects of what constitutes music such as time signatures and musical notation. There is an implicit sense of delayed gratification in formal music training in which musical skill and knowledge is developed through a rigid curriculum, usually under the guidance of adults in institutional settings. Apart from playing music, a formally trained jazz trumpeter is taught how to abstractly represent music in the scientific sense. A student who plays 'head music' or music derived from auditory memory, is not taken as a disciplined and legitimate musician in this sense. Making beats or music instrumentals on music software such as Garage Band, Fruity Loops, or Reason is understood as being immediately gratifying because it doesn't consist of a trajectory of developmental learning that we assume is achieved through formal training in music. For many of the young students that I observed they possessed little or no formal music training yet their knowledge of music was vast. Therefore engagement with music making software is understood as non-musicians making music enabled by the technology itself. What this Eurocentric notion of music education cannot articulate is the varied and complex ways youth are engaged in listening and making music in their lives. For them, as for many of us we come to situations already in music. What I mean here is that we have an enormous aptitude for a general understanding of music in our lives from past experiences with and in music that we may not explicitly reflect upon but help shape what music is for us. Our horizons of musical experience are open and inexhaustible.

At an Oakland Hip Hop dance class I observed young students engage the unity of sound in music in various ways. Most compelling are songs and music that these young dancers are already familiar with. For example during one class one of the instructors was test playing different music tracks on the studio sound system for the class and happened upon the rap song “Fasst Like a Nascar” by Kafani featuring Keak Da Sneak. Immediately all the dance students began to dance regardless of where they were in the studio or what they were doing. Some students were sitting down resting, others standing, and a few were stretching and socializing with one another. In all their varied positions in the room once they all heard the music they all were immediately into the song dancing a specific dance for that specific song --- “Fasst Like a NASCAR”. This meant that they mimed driving a NASCAR, holding an invisible steering wheel and moving with the beat and the hook of the song. It was clear that most if not all were familiar with the song and the appropriate dance associated with the song. In fact what signaled its familiarity was that the dance was specific to the song. Furthermore reinforcing that dancing and music are synonymous to Hip Hop, in that the two expressive forms are mutual to one another. Unlike European classical music, Hip Hop has not jettisoned dance as an integral part of its musicality. This particular song wholly grabbed these young dancers in this particular situation. We cannot wonder if this would have been other than the case at a different place and time but the unity of music and dance was most evident. A psychological explanation does not serve us well in this case in explaining private affect because experience is shared in a unified way. An anthropological understanding helps us even less because the dancing was not comprised of collective representations or beliefs about music. Certainly past listening experiences of “Fasst Like A NASCAR” are important to subsequent ones yet we would be mistaken if a present experience of listening is simply a function of calling up a past one as the formula for meaning. There is a synchronicity between body and music thus it was not that the song was the cause of the dancing but each coincides with the other. The song did not represent for them certain movements in which the students mimic driving a NASCAR but the dance was itself the song and the song the dance. Later I asked one of the dance students, a fourteen year old boy named Charles, to show me the moves to “Fasst Like a NASCAR”, he told me unequivocally, “I can’t show you unless I hear the song”. This is further evidence that the essence[5] of Hip Hop is dance. What is critical to observe about this experience of music and dance is that the song was not an aesthetic object; meaning that the young dance students do not step back and deliberate over the music as an object of inquiry in this case but rather wholly engage it through bodily movement. This was no music appreciation[6] in the classical sense. This was a pre-reflective experience of music. Normative values however do not place this type of music experience in the realm of the space of learning and knowledge. In fact more than likely a phenomenon such as this will be understood as yet another example of immediate gratification.

The significance of music when we listen is its immediate and manifest meaning to us. This immediacy has nothing to do with gratification, as a senseless devouring of something for pleasures sake. What is manifest in the familiar shape of a song we know through our body is that we need not reflect on the music in its totality. It is not necessary that we hear the entire piece from beginning to end for it to have meaning for us. It is also not necessary that for it to be meaningful we must furnish the experience with predicates such as 'sublime', 'melancholy', 'ecstatic' etc.... We need not represent something for it to be meaningful and in this sense music listening already is meaningful. Listening and making music cannot be understood as a way to exit the world and avoid others, on the contrary it is another mode of engaging and interpreting our world(s), even in the case of private or group listening. Music is not simply a text we read but a wholly distinct way of disclosing truth for us that is not a cognitive process but the inexhaustibility of bodily perception.


[1]Richard Stivers writes “Some forms of music appeal to our emotions, some to our reason; however, rock appeals to our instincts” He goes on to write about his undergraduate students saying “They admit that although at times they listen to music to appreciate it, often they use it as a form of escape” He goes on to say referring to Hip Hop and Rock music “vulgar music is by definition escapists music, music designed to produce a momentary high, an ecstatic state”. (“Vulgar Music and Technology” Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society Vol. 27, No. 2 April 2007 133-135)

[2]See “Delay of gratification in children” W. Mischel, Y. Shoda, and M.I. Rodriguez

Department of Psychology, Columbia University Science Vol 244 Issue 4907, 933-938, May 26,1989

[3]The idea of immediate gratification has been a deeply racialized notion in what it means to be respectable and contributing member of society for example in Milton Gordon's text Assimilation in American Life Gordon takes the negation of this peculiar behavior as the corner stone of success of European Jews who immigrated to the US during early waves of migration in the 19th Century. Gordon writes “Thus the Jews arrived in America with middle-class values of thrift, sobriety, ambition, desire for education, ability to postpone immediate gratifications for the sake of long-range goals, and the aversion to violence already internalized.......It is these cultural values which account for the rapid rise of the Jewish group in occupational status and economic influence” taken from Stephen Steinberg's The Ethnic Myth: Race Ethnicity, and Class in America, Beacon Press , Boston MA. 2001.

[4]R.A. Sharpe in Philosophy of Music writes “music itself asks no question that could be put into words” referring to Beethoven’s last quartet (pp. 86).

[5] Even musical genres that have historically lost the index of dance, have within in them the possibility of dance not as a historical revivalism but as the essence of music as rhythm synchronized to the body.

[6] Music appreciation is the reflection of music as an object in which an aesthetic relation is formed. The aesthetic relation is one which a subject reflects or deliberates over a musical object and represents it. Our everyday music listening does not have this ontology of subject over object in which music becomes objectified as a collection of predicates, time signatures, notations etc… Everyday music listening does not delineate a subject/object relation or scientific relation to music but an embodied one.


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