It is interesting what you see once you try to identify digital topologies and topographies – what the digital is connected to and, for example, the structure of the networks that deliver content. It is a ubiquitous force, and, depending where we stand, can be determinant. It is the structure of the Anthropocene.
Bernard Stiegler, whose thought greatly clarified this for me – pointing, for instance, to the systemic powers at work that led to a very particular kind of explanation for the wall street crisis in the aughts. His thought, however, is comprised of complex syllogistic chains, and once one has made use of those mental shortcuts it becomes hard to spell out all of the ideas. It is easy to forget what, in a certain context, can go without saying.
This mirrors the structure of much experience today. Adoption of technology is half conscious if conscious at all. For a society that prides itself on rationality, there are just as many unexpressed implications in choices and behaviors. An example is the network effect: where people adopt what others have adopted, making it ‘costly’ to switch to something else. To simply point this out can lead to anger or deterministic thinking (“what does it matter if I change, I am just a single person”).
Stiegler’s answer to digital automatization, which includes automatic thinking about things, where the decision making or even the potential for decision is removed, is to disautomatize. It is a very simple context – until we contend with the fact that even syllogisms are a form of automatization. …except, again, Stiegler uses them less in a rigid system than, like Plato, as a picture of the way things are.
Where each one of us as an individual finds themselves in this picture will lead to a slightly different retelling. And this is Stiegler’s point: for a more robust assemblage of people, tools, activities/outcomes, and tasks (to take a phrase from epistemic fluency, Markauskaite & Goodyear 2017), psychic individuals, social organs, and the technological tools of organization must all be contributors for full circular benefits.
Dis-automatization in the anti-textbook top
This approach coheres well with pedagogical ideals that seek to bring out the best in each individual student in their own thinking about how to assemble tools, activities/outcomes, people, and tasks – as opposed to this being suggested through centralized learning prompts. Attention to co-individuation in this way is a form of disautomatizaiton. It is the approach I take in the anti-textbook I wrote, that took as its initial idea a rethinking of François Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque in the form of a choose your own adventure. In Fénelon’s book, the hero is really Mentor, not Telemachus; Mentor stands for the value of values (also cf. Stiegler), so the book tries to identify those values.
For values, I chose to focus on Christopher Alexander and Richard Gabriel’s search to balance “overly-mechanical” outcomes that occur when everything is viewed as a problem in need of a solution, and rather champion the “beauty, liveness, and growth” (Gabriel & Alexander in WikiWikiWeb) of the human where it has a place, and is not replaced.
I had the idea as it was tied to my initial motivation to learn about the postdigital. As I was teaching a class on contemporary culture, how could I not address it? It is the most prominent cultural mediator, and people, especially the young, can benefit from skills on how to navigate it. My task was to try to describe it and to think of navigational techniques. I teach culture as an ongoing process: not a finished product but an ongoing creation that we are called on to contribute to. The techniques cluster around the idea of learning how to learn, which is useful in a rapidly changing world.
On my own journey, I was inspired by the vision of scientist Jovan Cvijic’s mother, who, when criticized for spending the last of the family money on her son’s scientific education, when this was not enough for all of the studies, replied: “it’s necessary to make a start; as for what comes later, God will help.” Another way of putting this is to say: a journey needs to begin by being made in good faith. Otherwise, there is no point in setting off. I am filled with gratitude that the hardest part of the journey is now over and that I can start to focus on my personal life now.
It was quite the odyssey to write the book: five very intense years of shifting my focus area from Victorian science to the postdigital, though remaining within an American and transatlantic context. During this time, I lost two of my closest loved ones and friends, the “redacted years” occurred, and I spent more sleepless nights trying to understand this field (that I still feel lacks an adequate name) than I can count. Even through Sunday this was the case, but last week the book finally came together.
The process raised questions of how to work during times of change. Part of the digital ethos, at least for developers and engineers, is to work in the open and/or allow for the freedom of the minimum viable product. Space for academics to grow and to experiment is also needed to match this acceleration; with the understanding that this space be appropriately labelled as such. Even writers with less experience know just how great a lesson it is to finish writing, let it sit – and then critique it with fresh eyes. That new perspective is not possible without the early draft.
Space for the writing process of Charles Dickens needs to be legitimized, in which early versions of a work are published but then edited and polished later on, sometimes leaving little trace of the MVP (see the preface to the 1848 edition).
More on disautomatizing in general topTherefore, experimentation is a generative form of disautomatization. Disautomatizing experiments and activities that helped me stay motivated in these difficult years include:
- Creative writing that was true medicine for venting frustration. I wrote The Unfinished Tool: An Unfinished Manifesto where I complained about how we are forced to use Standardized Tools (software) that is not user-friendly as opposed to software that is customizable and fun to use, and at how the conversational palette seems to be shrinking – when was the last time you read some Basho, for example? Then, I would expand on literary adventures, remembering currently-obscure literature. The manuscript is terrible but it was such relief to write.
- Running. There is nothing like running several hills away from where you began, changing landscapes several times, and often also weather, relaxing to the rhythm of cadence. I especially love running up hills and think that type of running is also a teacher.
- Looking out the window and just watching the birds, the wind move the trees, the clouds in the sky.
- Translating older languages and entering into the mindset of words that have no exact equivalent in the target language.
- Reading Plato. Revisiting Plato. I love Plato.
- Before I got burned out (here I mean staring-at-computer-screen burnout), I loved learning LaTex. Tinkering with OSes, GUIX, trying to do tasks with SQL, playing with Emacs.
- Making new friends.
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