Transproperty and Critical Media Literacy: two trends for the coming decade

Dann Downes's picture

Recognizing the importance of communication technologies and media practices in education has led to an important curriculum initiative in the United States. The US National Education Association (2010) advocates the adoption of four core competencies: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity as the essential skills students will need for the workplace and for full participation in the civic and cultural life of the 21st century. Jenkins et al (2006) argue that participatory culture will have long-term effects on students understanding of themselves as well as the world around them (Jenkins et al 2006: 9). This transformation is so crucial that the NEA claims, “only people who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed” (NEA 2010: 6).

To assess these new 21st century skills, my colleagues and I at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John initiated a project in 2015 called “Inspiration through Creative Expression” (ICX). We encourage students to engage in traditional media production as well as DIY practices. ICX combines critical media literacy and democratized technological practice (Tanenbaum et al 2014). Democratized technological practices are similar to the skills associated with the Maker movement: playfulness, tool use, knowledge sharing and material culture (Tanenbaum et al. 2013: 2604). Embedding these practices in the humanities and social sciences (rather than traditional sites such as engineering or business faculties) encourages our students to consider a range of insights about media and culture in the process of creation (Henseler and Riffel 2014).

Two definitions challenge a project like the ICX initiative. The first is the concept of creativity as it is used in the maker movement. The second issue is the fact that participatory culture is “mediated” by the privatization of creative work through the process of transpropertization (Downes 2016).

Often creativity is redefined (or defined narrowly) in relation to the knowledge economy. It is equated with innovation and characterized simply as problem-solving. Further, the maker movement, understood as a “second-industrial revolution” sometimes overemphasizes the economic nature of maker activities. Makerspaces are sites of informal learning which is difficult to support in many educational settings, and makerspaces often become businesses in order to sustain themselves (Pinto 2015). Many makerspace projects become unsustainable over time. Community-based projects fade as interested parties move on to other things, fablabs close when their ability to attract clients weakens over time. Yet critical making, can focus on the “relationship between technologies and social life, with an emphasis on the emancipatory potential of the making process; of the transformation that occurs between the maker and the making” (Pinto 2015).           

Transproperty affects our interactions with mass-mediated culture in the digital age in several ways. On the one hand, fans, audiences and creators use elements of popular culture as cultural material for their own projects. This is the lesson of participatory culture. On the other hand, the entertainment and information industries try to contain and capture this activity as user-generated content, which contributes to their efforts to shape and control interpretations of their own intellectual property.

Carolyn Guertin (2015) claims the privatization of creative works erects barriers to creation, not to copying, privileging “existing creators over the new. Powerful corporations over the individual, and the silencing of a generation of cultural citizens.” As copyright, trademark and celebrity rights are strengthened, lengthened and, increasingly, used in relation to the others, the objects of various intellectual property forms are abstracted from their original contexts and treated in an analogous way – as property - by the information and entertainment industries, the courts, legislators, and even the general public.

However, because IP offers partial and limited protection for information goods, and because the move to transproperty is a recent trend in the commodification of information, people still do their own cultural work with elements of the digital, cultural common, understood, in the end, as the raw material of our common cultural experience. Media texts, digital technology, and participatory culture form the basis of a global vernacular culture – a second culture that, potentially, we all share.

A sense of playfulness and inquiry, a knowledge of and appreciation of context, an acceptance that failure is an inevitable part of the process of creation. These characteristics can be learned, practiced and internalized through projects like the ICX initiative. Tempering these literacies and democratic technological practices is a trend towards redefinition that affects both creativity and our notions of property and culture.


Downes, Daniel. (2016). Transproperty: Intellectual Property and the Ideal Property form. Digital Studies Volume 6, Part 2.

Guertin, Carolyn. (2016). “’It’s Creativity Jm, but not as we know it’: Authorship in the Age of the Remix” Digital Studies Volume 6, Part 2

Henseler, C. and J. Riffel. (2014). “The maker Movement and the Humanities: Giving Students a Larger Toolbox.” httP://…

Jenkins, H., K Clinton, R. Purashotma, A. Robinson and M. Weigel. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Washington: MacArthur Foundation.

National Education Association (NEA). (2010). Preparing 21St Century students for a global society: An educator’s guide to the “four Cs” Retrieved from

Pinto, L. (2015). “Putting the Critical (back) into Makerspaces.”

Tanenbaum, J., A. Williams, A. Desjardins and K. Tanenbaum (2013). “Democratizing Technology: Pleasure, Utility and Expressiveness in DIY and Maker Practice.” CHI2013: Changing Perspectives. Paris: ACM.