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Posted by on Jan 28, 2013

Artifacts vs. products in new media: unfinished and incomplete

Zork Lives


What will Zork as an artifact say of us? Will it interpreted by future societies as a rather obvious and clumsy attempt to insert Zork into a blog post because the author may or may not have been playing it the other day? You be the judge.

I passively accepted the use of the term ‘artifacts’ when referring to knowledge constructions and only now have I paused to think of why I was so accepting of it. Why not use the term ‘products’ or even ‘constructions’ or the increasingly unwieldy “knowledge representations”? Why not ‘writing’ or ‘digital essays’ or any of the other variants? Why specifically ‘artifacts’?

This term first came into my elearning vernacular through the MSc in Elearning at the University of Edinburgh and specifically through the Elearning & Digital Cultures course as part of the programme. This is the course that the current #edcmooc is built from (to some degree). In that course, we weren’t submitting essays or finals or other traditional modes of academic communication, but rather constructing digital artifacts. The farther one would dig into the theory, artifacts were everywhere. From Vygotsky to Community of Practice (even to Multimodality), the term appeared and reappeared and I accepted it blindly. All of these theories were built on the social construction of knowledge so perhaps I just took it for granted that much of the terminology was consistent.

Artifact implied different constructions for me and much of that had to do with discovery (ancient artifacts unearthed in some far archaeological dig) and appraisal (sifting through the wreckage and the context to determine the artifact’s function and cultural significance). Artifacts were at the receiving end of learning, clues from a larger puzzle. All situated well within the past, all destined for interpretation.

This is a slight paradigm shift and a good indication on how these tools change thinking. Using artifacts to signify objects to be constructed, rather than merely interpreted, was a significant step in the process of developing a broader picture of learning. An object is constructed, then interpreted, then reconstructed, then reinterpreted. Built again and again. Yet I still had this notion of artifact as something constructed then buried in the sand to be discovered again. And it is to some degree. It is buried in the ether of the internet, hidden in plain view. Waiting for a culture or community or someone with a specific construction of what is significant to find it. And build again.

Artifact works better than product. Product signifies completion. Products can be artifacts, but not all artifacts are products (no, wait, that is too simplistic). In referring to the concept of “produsage”, Bruns (2013) states that this process “does not work towards the completion of products; instead, it is engaged in an iterative, evolutionary process aimed at the gradual improvement of a community’s shared content.” Artifacts are never meant to be finished. Products are meant to be finished and distributed. This is a significant difference in this vocabulary, one which frames our thinking around the subject matter. Nothing earth-shattering in my analysis here; just an observation that the implicit significance of this term had me thinking (in the past) of finding rather than creating. Discovery over construction. Once I connected the two ends of the spectrum (creation and discovery/analysis), I crossed a threshold into a different plane of understanding. Artifacts are active constructions of meaning in a shifting community; ‘discovering’ them in a later age or altered context increases their impact on learning.

And yet I think of how others in some other time might discover our words and our constructions and impose structure and meaning on them. They might think how quaint this artifact is or how simplistic or how revealing. The multitude of these artifacts will only be unlocked through a framing of the search and discovery and serendipity. We see meaning where we are looking for it. And media and their assemblies are the artifacts of our day; the Rossetta Stones to unlock meaning on our past in their future. We still dig endlessly through all the rubble and reuse what we can.

* The quote is taken from Frontiers in New Media Research (2013). Routledge, if interested.

Sifting through the rubble and endless artifacts framed by this bizarre concoction of social connection.

Sifting through the rubble and endless artifacts framed by this bizarre concoction of social connection.

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