Post-digital – an update?

Earlier this week I ran a post-digital session with Rich Hall as part of the fringe (#falt09) activities around the ALT-C conference. We had an interesting time in the upstairs room of the Lass O Gowery in Manchester debating a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, for example:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.
  • The speed of the change has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on the canvas of the digital.
  • People with educations have huge advantages over those with skills and always will.

While these did lead to a lively discussion, I was still no clearer by the end as to how to describe post-digital as a concept. For many the term seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important. It also appears to promise some sort of new world order – which is not helpful.

After the fringe session I was even more convinced that the post-digital was a useful concept but that we hadn’t found the right way of expressing it yet.

A room with a view at ALT-C 2009

A couple of days later I gave my presentation at the ALT-C conference on my ‘Visitors & Residents’ principle. I had inserted a reference to the post-digital at the end of the talk to make the point that the Visitors & Residents idea rests on issues of motivation and personal preference rather than age or technical skill. This seemed to me to be a post-digital principle but, influenced by my conversations around the subject during the conference, I suggested that the term post-technical might be more appropriate.Ok so before I continue, yes this is a kind of semantic exercise, but what we have here I think is a strong idea which is difficult to express. One of the conclusions of the fringe sessions was that the rapid rate of change in technology is causing accelerated cultural effects which we are struggling to describe. (This was echoed in Michael Wesch’s keynote at the conference.) So I think it’s important to develop our thinking in this area even if it is a bit of a bumpy ride.

I can recommend Ian Truelove’s recent post on some of the pragmatic effects a post-technical approach can have in education. As Ian points out the technical is all about learning, and then following, a series of rules. Rules that we need to grasp before we can express ourselves ‘properly’. The manual for most software is written in this style – a button-pressing, linear approach. And yet the most successful (I’m thinking here in terms of uptake) online platforms don’t seem to have manuals. This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)

Basic button-pressing, user-interface-comprehending activity is becoming culturally normalised and an ever-decreasing factor in our engagement with digital technologies (i.e. many of us are already digitally literate, if you will excuse the terminology). In effect our approach to technology need not be technical.

A simple post-technical example: the substantive effects of Twitter as a platform cannot be described by its technical functionality. Reading a technical manual for Twitter would not help a user to become resident in that online space. As Andy Powell suggests this in his ‘Twitter for Idiots’ post, individuals have to experience the culture of the groups/communities/networks/flocks/whatever to really ‘get’ what the platform is all about.

The post-technical then does not put technology second or first, it simply liberates the debate from those who build/code/provide the technology and puts it into the hands of those who appropriate it, the users, or ‘people’ as I like to call them, who write essays and poetry in Word, transform images in Photoshop, sustain friendships in Facebook, learn stuff by reading Wikipedia and express opinions in blogs.

The perspectives we are currently using, to come to an understanding of the cultural/educational influence of digital technologies and the opportunities therein, need to be reconsidered. I’m not sure yet if the answer lies in post-digital or post-technical approaches but I’m looking forward to tending these ideas over the next few months and seeing if something beautiful grows.

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14 thoughts on “Post-digital – an update?

  1. “This is not necessarily because they are especially simple to use, but because they are massively multi-user and simply by watching the behaviour of fellow users it is possible to ‘pick up’ not only how to use the platform but also why you might want to use it. This should come as no surprise as we are particularly good at learning by observing fellow members of our own species. (There will be a fancy pedagogic/sociological term for this. If you know it then please insert it here as you read.)”

    Informal learning?

  2. I liked your post (and Ian’s). They make me think of the work that has gone on the Social Shaping of Technology (from Science and Technology Studies) that tries to steer a way of understanding that isn’t trapped by social or technological determinism. This article (for the title alone) is worth a read – first link on http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENZZ339&q=The+Wrong+trousers+Williams&btnG=Search&meta=
    In writing an abstract recently, I read more into Marshall McLuhan “Marshall McLuhan’s statement “the medium is the message” is interpreted as encouraging us to notice changes that accompany a new medium, in order to shape the development of the innovation and use it effectively (Federman, 2004). “see http://francesbell.com/2009/08/04/emerging-technologies-medium-and-messages/ I read that seizing the opportunities presented by the newness of technologies to spot changes and then shape the development of the technology. For example, we can spot the impact of Twitter on conversations and sharing within networks and drive changes to Twitter (and clients) e.g. clickable hash tags, seamless links to picture uploads, etc.
    In short, pedagogy/social is co-digital rather than post-digital.

  3. I don’t think we will ever be post-technical as technology always evolves and there is always something new – these days often quite awswome. However, post-digital might be possible in the same sense that we are post-literate. That is not to say that we are beyond literacy or it has been abolished. It is just that, in our society, literacy is a given, an unstated assumption of practically all we do. Much of what we do is based on literacy and would be impossible without it. But this is now unremarkable and unremarked. As you say “For many the term (postdigital) seems to imply a discarding of digital technologies as if they were no longer important” and this isn’t helpful. What may be happening is the emergence of a society where digital technologies and affordances become ubiqitous and will condition all our activities and experience in a way that is as unremarkable and taken for granted as literacy is today. We are witnessing the cultural shift that conditions and is conditioned by digital technologies and like the colonial anthropologists of old, we need to explore and understand it now while it is in transition, visible and still remarkable; before we take it for granted. The best history and sociology is often done when society is changing rapidly and previous ways of thinking and understanding seem to fall short, as in the birth of modern political thought and sociology in the transition from the medieval to the modern industrial world. I know Graham woudl like to see a renewal of a more relevant sociology!

  4. Thanks Frances and Terry, I feel that we are in danger of letting a significant moment of transition slip by because the debate is overly focused on the nature of the technology and not the effects of it. My reasoning for sticking with the prefix ‘post’ is because I don’t see it as ‘after’ or ‘in the place of’ I see it as a new layer of thinking or a fresh perspective. The post-modern existed in parallel with the modern, loosing the anchors of the debate and questioning given understandings within our culture.

    Having said this it is easy to interpret the ‘post’ as negating the technical or the digital which I don’t mean to do. The ‘co-digital’ is certainly a more reasonable description of what is taking place out there on the internet. Technologies are made by people not by machines which puts technological-determinism on a weak footing in my opinion. The ‘co’ also accepts the importance of those who produce the technology, a process which in of itself is often very creative. However, I continued with ‘post’ because I am becoming quite passionate about shaking up a debate which has a habit of sliding back to ‘this tech vs that tech’ which I think is self indulgent and rarely furthers my understanding of what might be taking place beyond given functionality. To draw from my original posting on post-digital I fear that unless we change the framing of our discussions then we are in danger of being pushed around by the ‘new’ and will miss our window of opportunity to influence our side of the ‘co’ in co-digital.

    It’s true that my approach is more polemic than descriptive but subtler methods have failed me up to this point. Your comments are very encouraging as they set the parameters for a debate I’m keen to pursue.

  5. It’s interesting to think about how the debate could be framed. I was wondering if it would be useful to think about, say, how Web 2.0 tools are like proprietary monolithic systems like Blackboard, since we can be pre-occupied with how they are different. I might write about that but very busy period ahead;)

  6. Yes that’s a possible approach. Big Web 2.0 systems talk about relationships, networks and communication but are often driven by the need to reap data for advertising etc. A broad view would be helpful.

  7. Very interesting discussion 🙂 Re ‘The ‘co’ also accepts the importance of those who produce the technology, a process which in of itself is often very creative.’ – as you hint in your last comment, Dave, there is surplus ‘value’ generated through people’s online interactions, which are continuously mined and track, for example, ‘your sentiment, your web clicks, your purchase logs, your geo-location, your social media history, etc.’ http://bit.ly/1znaSMm So, I think a discussion of the post-digital should take into account not only the fact that people who produce technology are ‘creative’, but also that platforms are structuring traffic, attention and behaviours in ways which are not always (hardly ever) apparent to people. If we want to be ‘co-digital’ we have to understand the structures of power and governance that determine how technologies are developed, not just how they work on a technical level. In fact – would be even want to be ‘co-digital’ if we understood these relations fully? Maybe we would want to be ‘extra-digital’ 🙂

    1. What you are proposing I think is that the pertinent aspect of our engagement with technology is to do with the manner in which our labour and identities are being manipulated in the service of economics. The way we design and interact with technology merely being and embodiment of the dominant ideology.

      This rings true for me and relates to my suspicion of those calling for ‘inuitive’ technology. If we perceive technology as simply solving-a-problem or making-more-efficent then we become blind to the socioeconomic contracts we are entering in to.

      My question would be around how we make these contracts more visible to society in a manner which is meaningful?

    1. Florian’s definitions of Post-digital have a distinctly arts atmosphere about them. Perhaps what I mean by Post is actually Trans or something that would indicate that the digital is becoming normalised to the point of cultural invisibility? Ultimately I see the realisation of Post-digital in the dropping of digital as a concept in everyday interactions. A really example is the dropping of the word ‘Smart’ as a prefix for phone.

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