Re-presencing the postdigital trace

This post shares my NLC2022 conference presentation on Re-presencing the Digital Trace in Networked Learning Design and explains how it is related to the interdisciplinary book I have been working on for the past two years. Book progress can be followed in this atom/rss feed or site category.

The post begins with an autoethnographic narrative of the book’s progress before outlining some of its key ideas. It concludes with the NLC2022 presentation which encapsulates the central goal of the book and is the clearest section of this post, which itself re-presences a trace of (digital) traces.

On writing an interdisciplinary book

The book began with the working title Postdigital interculturality to reference the increasing ubiquity of digital culture and the differing world cultural interpretations that are interacting or converging. One of the greatest difficulties in preparing this book has been figuring out how to articulate the need for epistemic fluency (Goodyear & Markauskaite 2017) that emerges as different epistemic world views interact while also speaking to the specialized context of my own epistemic domain, philology and culture.

I have been exploring where to narrow a context – as per more recent academic practice, and where to expand it, seeking to develop a prose style that privileges the experiential and the literary. Also, contemporary thinkers differ from the 19th-century polymaths I began my academic career writing about. The polymaths shared a common classical education which informed much of their writing, which in turn, made writing about them different from writing about contemporary technoscientists. Some mistakes have been made as I learn what to accent – spoilers can be found in the work I have put out in the past two years where ideas were framed awkwardly. This also raises the question of how much one should share one’s process in public – or “with the garage door up”, to quote Andy Matuschak, when seeking practice in coordinating different epistemic domains.

Because of this difficulty, and as I wished to include different domain knowledge in the book, I have been conducting dialogic interview sections with industry experts. The purpose of this is to give a glimpse into the professional perspective and to demonstrate how “open questions” (Gadamer 2004) can help us attain new perspectives and a rudimentary foundation on which to build further knowledge.

Further, we need feedback from other domain experts to test whether we are being intelligible in conveying insight into our epistemic context. I would like to take this opportunity to thank The International Association of Privacy Professionals CEO Trevor Hughes and Hacker News’ Daniel Gackle for their early encouragement of my embarking on this endeavor. I would also like to thank Mike Johnson.

The book’s working title is now Re-presencing the Postdigital Trace, which came to me through interacting with one of his ideas in the paper I wrote for NLC2022, linked to near the end of this post in the section on Re-Presencing the Digital Trace at NLC2022.

The book’s postdigital ontology

The “postdigital” focus of the book, indicated in the current working title Re-presencing the Postdigital Trace, is inspired by Petar Jandrić’s journal, Postidigital Science and Education, with foundational articles in the first issue. Digital technology is being integrated into so many different areas of our lives that it is changing the overall context in which we live. How do we assemble and articulate, or re-presence, traces of the postdigital experience as human beings, and do so meaningfully? What about it is worth thinking about and developing (Goodyear & Retalis 2010)?

Why meta-

To be an ‘articulate’ member of society in the postdigital age (one able to connect by joints, or actively interrelate), and in response to emerging knowledge ecologies such as postdisciplinary “postdigital-biodigital” (Peters, Jandrić & Hayes 2021), one needs to develop meta-level postdisciplinary skills. These are linked “to hugely important aspects of our social lives such as freedom, justice and democracy”. They combine, for example, “the analog and the digital, the biological and the informational” while being “based on a high-order convergence between foundational disciplines, in which none of the foundational disciplines remain unchanged” (Peters, Jandrić & Hayes 2021). Models for meta-level understanding include that set out by cybernetics, systems theory, pattern design, or what Nora Bateson describes as symmathesy. The involvement of meta-level understanding also implies a need for continued learning, thus the stress on learning models and pedagogy in the book.

Through practice-based research, I experimented with how to integrate this perspective into existing syllabi. The resulting student work this past year was so good – praise which is a tribute to my students – that I hope to include some of it in the book as illustrations of what students can accomplish when this perspective is discussed and applied.

It is relevant to note that this pedagogical approach to the postdisciplinary is exploratory and thus gives experience that is not statically regulated from without but participatory, dynamic, flexible, and extensible.

Historical points of departure

History is very important to understanding the trace, as I hope to have made clear in my NLC2022 presentation. Also historical are Erich Auerbach’s ansatzpunkt which he used in his best-known work Mimesis to explore the representation of reality in Western literature. An ansatzpunkt is a point of departure from which a subject can be understood. It is a “firmly circumscribed, easily comprehensible set of phenomena whose interpretation is a radiation out from them and which orders and interprets a greater region than they themselves occupy” (1969).

Departing from Auerbach, it is notable that the world we inhabit in this chapter of human history has emerged from knowledge that a special few have derived from the manipulation of symbolic representations of the world through language (e.g. programming). The book explores ideas of how to help more people, if not most, gain training and experience in constructing reality by re-presencing the digital trace, themselves. Here, I will be invoking Wittgenstein’s language games (1953), and how rationality is a property of human action developed in practice over time.

Historical time will be compared with Heidegger’s time of care, which Ricoeur (1988) explains time we take to understand something external to ourselves, to try to figure it out. We begin in history and can grow from it so long as we do not mummify it (Nietzsche 1874).

Traces of historical coding and their pharmakon

The book will attempt to identify the postidigtal ansatzpunkt not of literature but of forms of coding perpetuated through publication and education (Stiegler 2018). It will then attempt to diagnose them, as Stiegler urges we do in his work on the pharmakon (e.g.).

Technology is a test of whether we have learned, historically, to seek holistic health in what we do and make. Can we take a moment to consider what traces we are leaving behind, both individually and collectively?

Such consideration brings up the problems of planned obsolescence and no-longer maintained repositories which lead to environmental waste and software bloat. In the 21st century, it is naive to be careless of the design of our tools, and not just because of environmental factors. Above all, more attention should be brought to what Jeff Atwood (2007) has called the software imprinting dilemma, which is to say, the difficulty of exploring software we are not already using because of the effort involved in learning something new, even if the other software is radically better. Additionally, we should consider the fallacy of one tool (e.g. hyperlinks are useful until they handicap deep reading), whether it makes sense to expect people of different profiles and work habits to use one type of software or service as a software substitute, and whether the protocols and source control systems in use are a help or a hindrance. Is it easy or difficult to begin a conversation about software use, task-at-hand, and what is valued as “good”? As I show in my NLC2022 presentation and paper, there are myriad experiments people are making with tools and efficiency that can easily be incorporated in the classroom in order to teach something about the digital tool in general instead of dependency on one specific tool.

Education as coding and participatory therapy

In the context of the trace, education plays an important archival role – even if the narrative set by the archive is periodically rewritten. As education is restructured to assemble technology more meaningfully as a pedagogical tool, it is important that it not lose sight of the “deep continuities beneath the surface of change” (Goodyear & Retalis 2010). For example, teaching rhetoric remains as important as ever at a time where some digital traces represent “fake news”. The book will revisit and outline such thinking tools.

Yet, as Jean Piaget noted decades ago now, new logico-mathematical constructions both open the possibility for and require new knowledge. For example, Donald Knuth recommends teaching children to recognize algorithms. More urgently, as we face what are known as “wicked problems” today (Rittel & Webber 1973), i.e., complex problems with complex solutions, the bid to develop new knowledge of epistemic fluency (with its classical roots) can increase the chances that we can solve these problems well, together. In this context, we can also talk about a further need to cultivate creative, collaborative learning and the importance of decolonizing design (Tunstall 2019).

With an eye to promote a hermeneutic practice that is more engaging than narrow horizons and bias, learning design can promote a broad understanding of the transgenerational knowledge that we are born into, which is to say, the other forms of coding perpetuated through publication, training, education, and so forth (Stiegler 2018). This is important at a time when artificial neural networks are being trained on data sets containing or referencing much of that knowledge (to reference an idea in my FSF editorial on the need for free software education now).

As I explain in my NLC2022 paper, we can gain strength and inspiration by learning to re-presence our own digital traces even as we observe algorithmic governmetnality processing the digital traces we leave behind (Stiegler 2018).

The book’s dialogic components and related participatory prompts further aim to inquire into the resources available to us by considering expert knowledge ranging from digital privacy to esoteric programming. Understanding how to identify resources can help us improve our experience of guiding ourselves through the postdigital age; assembling knowledge, tools, activities people, and outcomes such that they care what is worth caring for (Markauskaite & Goodyear 2017).

For example, we need a shared solution to how to make better use of technology in the classroom and how to promote organizational strengths (Vivian & Hormann 2013) in an increasingly networked world. The solution I designed for my own digital classrooms makes use of free software.

Re-Presencing the Digital Trace at NLC2022

At NLC2022, I presented a paper at a symposium entitled, Networked learning and phenomenology: a found chord. My paper is called Re-presencing the Digital Trace in Networked Learning Design. It unpacks what I mean by the digital trace and stresses the need for a pattern design approach to teaching (Alexander 1977, Goodyear & Retalis 2010), which organically points to meta-level cognition. Further, it shows how taking a pattern design approach can be used as a tool to promote epistemic fluency by gaining insights into other disciplines by taking a problem-solving approach. To “have a pattern”, to cite the early Wiki Wiki Web, is to share a solution to a problem, like the problem of how to make the best use of technology in teaching that can also be inspired by care-ful participatory and ecological practice.

The paper can currently be downloaded here. The paper contains the references in this post not linked to above. A low-res rendering of the video can be watched or downloaded (right-click) below.

An audio file of the presentation is also available:

The accompanying slides:

NLC2022 Slides Re-presencing the digital trace in networked learning design _Goetz

Reference to this material should be attributed to: Goetz, G. (2022). Re-presencing the digital trace in networked learning design. In Jaldemark, J., Håkansson Lindqvist, M., Mozelius, P., Öberg, A., De Laat, M., Dohn, N.B., Ryberg, T. (Eds.), Proceedings for the Thirteenth International Conference on Networked Learning 2022. Sundsval: Mid-Sweden University.  

With thanks to the inspired NLC2022 Symposium that came into being through the hard work and inspiration of its organizers Mike Johnson and Felicity Healey-Benson.

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