An anti-textbook: Re-presencing culture and communication
This post introduces the anti-textbook I wrote entitled American Currents: Re-presencing culture and communication in a postdigital age.
Communication does not scale. Dialogs are work processes with systems or controls specifying interactions with users.
Generative AI will grasp and do it for you.
How to live, do, and think is becoming automaticized and you need to know how to respond.You need to understand:
- What is meant by programs and data and whether they debilitate or meet human needs;
- What is safe, privacy-respecting, lawfully right – in spirit and in letter, useful, and “good” – not dark – patterns, and how to find or build such tools;
- Where the material ends and fantasy begins;
- The cyborg perspective of how to see earth and systems ‘as-if’ from above;
- The time and space of human experience.
To see through the currents of digitally-conjured appearances to find time and space to maneuver, you need to become a communications and culture expert. Communications, to be able to listen, learn, express, and revise. Culture, to be able to interpret and make meaning together. This is an old problem, dealt with in commonplace books by authors like Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Baudrillard and approaches to culture like paideia and civics.
But it is a growing problem as domain knowledge becomes fragmented and disembodied data in the service of hyper-controlled organization and the politics of technoscientific progress.
Imagine being able to work through:
- How to improve self-determination among individuals, social groups, and our technological tools
- How interfaces perpetuate disability
- How to trace a way through messes
- How to learn how to learn disappearing domain knowledge
- How to heal mismatch between assemblages of individual and groups of humans and the tools they choose to use.
As only you know the world you want to build and inhabit, the prescriptions of a textbook would not help. Also, generative AI gets to established core questions and protocols faster. This anti-textbook, on the other hand, encourages choosing your own adventure and asking your own questions, together, as you practice open-ended tasks and create something new, supported by references and personally-generated traces of hierarchizing, classifying, and sorting. If your data is being mapped into patterns, make your own maps of understanding, together, and share them.
How the anti-textbook is structured
There are eight main sections.
- 1. Theory
- American cultural studies and why the book extends beyond that field to the current currents of the postdigital; philological-cultural approach to the code of language; language as cultural grid reference; mapping passages through this projected co-ordinate system; collaborative ‘re-presencing’ of the traces of passages and networks — to ‘re-presence’ new perspectives vis-a-vis the messes of the present.
- 2. Tools and approaches
- Topoi, ways, structure (e.g. “progress”, wiki culture, computational thinking).
- 3. Applications
- Applying the tools and approaches to re-presence traces of currents (e.g. decolonizing UX, dialogue).
- 4. Resourceful structures
- Resources for structured discovery. The structure in this section is limited to thematically-titled chapters, a few proposed key quotations, questions, and note prompts. Over 50 pages long.
- 5. Examples of discovery
- Unannotated student work from several courses as examples of applications of the ideas explored.
- 6. Dialogic interviews
- Expansion of topics covered through the words of three domain experts (no spoilers yet).
- 7. Glossary
- Keywords explained, such as “currents”, “re-presence”, “trace”, “automatization”, and “mess”, supplemented with references.
- 8. Extensive bibliography
- This completes the contribution of this anti-textbook as but one trace left by a postdigital scholar who attempted to interpret the postdigital. Over 50 pages long.
New skills and approaches needed to give a response to old problems today
- Before: While not ideal and quickly dogmatic, could appeal to the “beyond” of utopia, intuitive skills, embodied knowledge.
- Unknown capacities/capabilities of nature.
- Accessibility contextually limited.
- Integrated education.
- Now: Designed to predict what comes next to decrease uncertainty.
- Unknown capacities/capabilities of pre-built system: psychic pain.
- Decontextualized data, specialized education, loss of domain knowledge.
- Range of action narrows when people trained for consumption (Illich 1973).
- Theory: The grid of cultural currents
- Tools, approaches: Topoi, ways
- Applications: Re-presencing traces of currents
- Resourceful structures
Abridged outline of four main sections of the anti-textbook
Theory: The grid of cultural currents topBy actively interpreting the world, we can experience how meaning is assigned to reality. The polysemy of the word “power” is deliberate: in 2023, we still have some power but if this is not understood, our role in life could become increasingly and rapidly passive, subsumed to the cognitive webs of artificial networks.
A productive aspect of webs can be found in the word’s metaphoric quality. We can speak of the web of culture (Geertz 1973) or the World Wide Web. A word’s meaning is dependent on the context within which it is used (Wittgenstein 1922). The language that words constitute can signify life, designating what it means through a schematized grid of interpretation.
An example is the simplifying grid or code of a group that operates through rhetoric (maxims, slogans, lapidary formulas). That which binds the global family can be “simultaneously fiercely material and irreducibly imaginary, world-building and world-destroying” (Harraway in Gray 1995).
The traces we leave through the passage of our lives and the artifacts that we make are caught up in such webs of meaning. ‘Philological anthropology’ looks at traces and artifacts within the the context of the causal chains that gave rise to them and attempts to re-presence (bring into the present) explanations of the thing that left the trace and its relation to the thing that made it. This is creative and engaging work, a “novel togetherness” that brings something other into the present that can point to a new future (Whitehead 1929).
The grid(s) of interpretation we choose or act by can determine whether we are passive consumers or active contributors.
The book takes for its thesis that is possible for us to create our own ‘opportunistic’ maps of culture today — beyond the mapping of our the data points that we leave through our digital trails, often used to engineer someone else’s dream about us while we are awake (c.f. Plato 1921: 266d).The problem of the present and its re-presentation may not be new, but the response needs to be.
Tools, approaches: Topoi, ways topThis section of the book unpacks what was mentioned earlier about the tools of ‘philological-anthropology’. Asking questions, looking, brainstorming, inventing through ‘places where we find things’, progress, wiki-culture, and computational thinking are some of what this entails. Those are the tools with which we can find our way around in structured discovery.
Applications: Re-presencing traces of currents topRe-presencing is defined as co-participating in meaning and making space for receptivity of other voices. The tools and ways explored in the previous section can be applied to exercises that re-presence traces of the postdigital transnational currents in sections 2-4. Content areas and approaches like history or [redacted], are explored alongside extensions of mapping techniques and decolonizing design.
Structured resources topThere is little text in this section, apart from a few proposed key quotations, questions, and note prompts. It mostly contains lists of resources that can be used as further handles to use to find collective-individual ways through the abstract, virtual plane of the postdigital. Examples include search, privacy, permacomputing, and a section containing a list of relatively privacy-respecting software and alternatives to big tech platforms.
The purpose of this section of the book is for there to be empty space for readers to form their own responses to American postdigital currents while also seeking to bring structure to more difficult and frequently disorienting or emotional topics like what is real or what it means to adopt automatic procedures to label the world, whether using artificial tools or as automatic practice.
A very short and general outline of the book can be found here. An earlier post written before the book’s completion can be found here. Some autoethnography about the book’s production is covered here.
With thanks to Jenny Quillen for her review and suggestion that this is an anti-textbook and that it be positioned as a new take on an old problem.
Page generated 03R01. Updated 03R03. This draft is a trial post.