By James Edmonds
I was first alerted to the existence of Dr. Juliane Schober and Dr. Pauline Hope Cheong’s project, “Asia Mediated: Interdisciplinary Curriculum Innovation at Arizona State University,” by the sudden increase in undergraduate students roaming the halls near my office. I ran into one of the undergraduate interns in the elevator and asked what was going on; she replied that they were working on the Twitter and Facebook accounts of something called “Asia Mediated.” My interest was additionally piqued when the program announced its first invited speaker, Dr. Wenhong Chen, who would talk on the topic of “Big Data in China: Big Dreams and Big Brother.”
After browsing some of the Asia Mediated literature following the announcement of this first talk, it seemed that the project’s push to uncover the multiplicity of assemblages that are transforming and are being transformed by the interplay of new media and the Asian context promised to reveal some important aspects of the world we inhabit. I was additionally struck by the project’s inclusion of undergraduate students in its work, as encouraging interested students at the undergrad level is essential for the continued advancement of the study of Asia. I decided to get a better understanding of the project and posed some questions about it to Dr. Schober and Dr. Cheong.
Editor’s note: the interview below has been condensed and edited.
What is the overarching goal of the Asia Mediated project?
Asia Mediated is a transdisciplinary project that investigates the multiple ways that new digital media is restructuring different aspects of society and ultimately shaping the way in which knowledge is constructed and produced. This reshaping of knowledge production is significantly transforming our world, and more than half the users of the internet and social media sites such as Facebook are in Asia. The project specifically studies those new media technologies operating in Asia and uses them to disseminate knowledge about the use of these technologies. New digital media is both the object of research and method for reaching a broader audience.
What was some of your initial inspiration for the Asia Mediated project?
The project started because the Center for Asian Research at Arizona State University was looking to define a transregional thematic venue for studying Asia. Media quickly emerged as a very pertinent topic. Media seemed appropriate not only because of its prevalence in Asia, but also because we were hoping to reach out to a new generation of students interested in studying Asia. We have additionally seen in our own individual work the need for an opportunity to be able to focus primarily on the influences of new media.
Dr. Juliane Schober uses an example from her fieldwork in Burma: Last January, I was in a part of Burma that was heavily agricultural and located near the confluence of two major rivers. It is not irrigated and people successfully cultivate a range of crops. Human and animal labor drive agricultural productivity in this region and one of the primary modes of getting around is by oxcart. Oxcarts have been used in agriculture for centuries, yet people riding in them now also use smartphones to communicate and that is a very recent development. Here we see an example of skipping over what might be the conventional stages of technological development. This leapfrogging effect is facilitated by the use of cell towers, solar panels, and the popularity of smartphones. These technologies are changing the way people communicate and do things, even though other agricultural and transportation techniques have not yet changed as much.
Dr. Pauline Hope Cheong reflects on her extensive work with religious and non-profit organizations in Asia: Many of the large churches and [non-governmental organizations] in Asia are using the digital technologies to construct not only local but global organizations. We are talking about daily devotionals authored by priests and clergy that are accessible through mobile apps. This is different from the televangelist phenomena as it touches even more aspects of people’s lives through their phones. One of my current case studies is based on a Singaporean megachurch that has churches all over the world. Members of the community must log on a week in advance to reserve a seat in the church sanctuary. If you do not, then you will not have a seat for the first two services. When people log into the app or website, the individuals are directed to all the other things happening in the church. Their church app can also tell you where different levels of parking are full and where there are open spaces. It’s a new level of efficiency, tracking and creating a loyal church following.
What type of funding did Asia Mediated receive?
All the activities of Asia Mediated for the next two years are supported by a generous grant from the Department of Education, the Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program (USIFL). The UISFL program and other parts of Title VI funding provide critical support for research, teaching, and linkages with Asia and other regions of the world.
What are the ongoing activities of the project?
Twenty professors at Arizona State University are developing modules for their courses dedicated to the study of new media use in specific social contexts in various places across Asia. Three ASU Barrett Honors College interns assist faculty with various aspects of implementing the project.
In addition to developing the content of these modules on digital media, the grant also facilitates a speaker series and workshops for using Scalar and other digital technologies. Invited speakers and their topics have included:
“Big Data in China: Big Dreams and Big Brother” by Dr. Wenhong Chen (University of Texas, Austin)
“Facebook for the Hotshots” by Dr. Lisa Brooten (Southern Illinois University)
“Vulnerable Victims or Empowered Agents? Performance, Digital Media, and Migrant Women in Beijing” by Dr. Cara Wallis (Texas A&M University)
What are the proposed outcomes of the project?
The most tangible outcome is the creation of an online book on the open-source Scalar platform that will be composed of twenty modules developed by different professors at ASU on new digital media in Asia. The modules will be composed of written as well as other digital content for those looking to teach about new media in Asia. It will be a text that can be used in both the curriculum of online and face-to-face classes. The work is underway, but using Scalar allows for us to remain true to the project goal of both studying new media in Asia and using it to disseminate the information. We are providing a gateway publication for helping students, educators, and the media think about the benefits and usefulness of the knowledge produced by the humanities, and the study of Asia.
The greater impact is to hopefully shift scholarship, popular perception, and knowledge production on new media towards Asia, which benefits a wide range of disciplines and provides an excellent resource for displaying the need for the humanities in the globalizing world.
How can people get more involved?