Too postdigital

Back in 2009 I was one of a group of men with the time and money to get together and attempt to make sense of what was going on with digital technology and the Web. What we came up with was the notion of the postdigital – the original proposition is here: Preparing for the postdigital era.  

It’s a short document which explains a simple idea: now that digital tech and the network are so prevalent our thinking should go beyond the tech in-of-itself and focus on the way our interactions are played out in/on the digital.

For me the idea was a useful counter to techno-centred narratives of the time which pushed new platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as things everyone should ‘get into’ but without really discussing why. It all felt highly uncritical and implied that the tech, rather than those using the tech, was ushering in a new era. I was bored of talking about how ‘revolutionary’ technology was and saw the postdigital concept as a good way to take a shortcut past the shiny surface of the machine to discuss what might be happening in socio-cultural terms.

At the time the idea was met with a mixture of mild confusion and ambivalence. Broadly it was misunderstood as an attempt to negate the importance or existence of the digital and just an exercise in coining a phrase. It appeared we had decided that just at the moment digital went mainstream we thought it would be radical to not-talk-about digital. There is some truth in this but things have moved on…

So now, in 2019, the notion of the postdigital has gained some ground. Not necessarily as a response to our original paper but in parallel and in a number of locations. One of these locations is the newly founded journal of Postdigital Science and Education edited by Petar Jandrić. Petar discovered our paper along with some later reflections and requested that the group revisited the theme a decade after its inception.

The group is currently posting their 2019 reflections:

Postdigital in 2019

There is much discussion of how the technology is becoming ‘transparent’ in the 2009 paper. This transparency is framed as an opportunity to be less tech, and more person-centric when considering digital. In 2019 we are unknowingly postdigital, not because our tech objects have become transparent but because the network they are part of is not, and never has been, visible. We don’t ‘see’ the infrastructure because we are still enthralled by the obscuring new-shiny surfaces of our phones/laptops/tablets/tvs. We are happy to swap understanding for ‘intuitive’, ‘frictionless’ and convenient tech. This is reasonable but dangerous.

I don’t want to return to the days when the tech infrastructure was so tenuous that I spent more time trying to get-it-to-work than doing the work I needed it for. Nevertheless, I think those moments of failure, when the connection goes down or the software crashes, are important in revealing just how quickly we pass through the digital to the postdigital. In 2019 many people are surprised when the tech stops working, whereas I’m constantly surprised it works at all, given how complex it is.

What we have failed to comprehend in the last decade (or didn’t want to think about) was the complexity, power and intention(s) of the network and those that control it. The network has never even gone through a ‘digital’ stage (in the terms of the paper) where we get over excited about its newness, it has in some sense never existed in the public consciousness even though it saturates our lives and our spaces. When we buy a new phone we are told about how amazing the camera on it is, not the fact that we are renting a node on a network which is a vast, relatively unregulated, corporate space.

Only very recently has the nature of the network appeared via stories of ‘bad actors’, the manipulation of democracy through globalised targeted propaganda and the aggressive use of ‘personal’ data to feed uncanny algorithms. In 2019 I’d suggest we need to be less postdigital about the network. There is ongoing work to reveal the network, making it un-transparent and to educate and regulate towards a place which supports citizens over and above the drive for power and capital. The trouble is that it’s super boring compared to the latest app or a few more megapixels and if you want keep a secret, don’t hide it, just make it super-dull.

While we play at being human on the surface of the network we simultaneously being dehumanized, converted into forms of interoperable data. Here is where Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto was so prescient. Writing before the Web in 1984 she highlights our rush to convert all things into the universal ‘exchange’ language of code:

“No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language. Exchange in this world transcends the universal translation effected by capitalist markets that Marx analyzed so well.”

A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Donna Haraway

There is a section in the original postdigital paper which speaks of our hope that the digital environment will be a place where we can ‘become’ in positive and connected ways. It’s difficult to retain that hope in 2019 but we know that negative stories travel the fastest. Ultimately society has moved online, and while it might seem misanthropic, I’d argue that the pettiness, hate and abuse of power is evidence that we are now postdigital and that this is what it looks like when (almost) everyone gets online. More sinister is that while this sound and fury is played out on the cultural meniscus of the Web we are simultaneously being codified in the networked waters that lurk beneath. Ironically it is this process of digitising and ‘codifying’ being which is moving us from the digital to the postdigital at such a rate we can’t even see it happening.

Some thoughts on the production of the original position paper

Looking back over the original position paper I feel a mild sense of guilt. We appear to have been naively working on the assumption that the technology was neutral. In 2009 none of us were really aware of how our data was being used and abused. If I recall correctly the principle that ‘if the platform is free to use then you are the product’ might have been starting to surface but most of us interpreted this as the risk that we might have to look at a few adverts.

Certainly my thinking in this area was still based on broadcast media and crudely targeted ad campaigns which had to scatter their messages far and wide in the hope of making a sale. We hadn’t understood the manner in which politics and ideology could be embedded in code. We were keen to develop language and models that would somehow explain what was really going on if you could pull away from all the ‘newness’ and increasing corporatisation of the Web which up until then had mainly been endearingly shoddy, slow and full of nerdy guys like us. We wanted to mansplain what was actually interesting to all these newcomers who we felt were hypnotised by the shiny tech. We wanted to own what it all meant, in the same way we had owned what it all was.

I still believe postdigital is a useful concept because it shifts emphasis away from the technocentric. I also feel uneasy about our motivations for developing the idea and the manner in which it came about. It’s fair to say that the reason we didn’t discuss the potential negative aspects of the digital is because we were not in marginal or precarious positions and so didn’t have perspectives that arise from vulnerability. (perhaps I should say ‘I’ not ‘we’ as I can’t speak for the other members of the group)