Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New?

New things are exciting. For example social networking. It’s a whole new way to interact with others, a reason why society is moving online isn’t it? But how to make it useful? What can we do with this new digital tool that goes beyond chit-chat? It should be possible to use facebook and Twitter for something of value for education but which one is better? Which one is more popular? Maybe there is something new just around the corner? …What could we do with Google Wave?…

I admit that I have a habit of thinking in this manner. It’s exhausting and somehow hollow. On a bad day I get a form of techno paranoia which involves creating a profile on any number of new services most of which I never revisit. To be totally honest some of my most successful conference presentations are attended by an audience 50% of whom are driven there out of a mild form of this paranoia. I like ‘new things’ and I enjoy talking about what new developments could mean for education but at times I have been overwhelmed and lost focus.

Digital Danger

 The Dangers of Being Digital

I have been numbed by a tidal wave of the new:

“The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change.”

This quote comes from a working document outlining the postdigital. A principle which highlights the dangers of assuming the digital is the sole driver of change and makes the point that the digital as ‘new’ will quickly pass away.

As the ‘Planning for the Postdigital’ document describes all technologies go through a transition whereby they become culturally normalised. For example, the pen and the book have become ‘transparent’ tools, extensions of ourselves to be used appropriately to achieve goals but rarely discussed in of themselves. In the same way email and word processing are well on there way to becoming transparent. We now send a message or write a document. The digital is not discussed. It has ceased to be new.

“Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new.”

Electronic Calculator
An ‘Electronic’ Calculator?

Too much time is spent arguing about the relative merits of digital spaces such as Twitter and facebook. The key term here being ‘relative’. We are pitting digital against digital, new against new, a form of one-upmanship which distracts from the larger picture.

“The transition to a postdigital way of thinking allows for that previously coded as ‘digital’ to be woven into the wider discussion of social dialects that people bring to their acts of collaboration. One of the things we’ve learned from social research is that people tend to go online to find people they know and tend to replicate, at least in part, their social performances online. These performances, the communities that they occur in and the dialects that they represent and produce should be the critical loci for research in the postdigital age, not the technologies themselves.”

During the recent Open Habitat project, activity in a digital space (in this case Second Life) forced us to reflect upon and change our educational approach in day-to-day non-digital spaces. As this mirror effect emerged I became increasingly uncomfortable. We had set ourselves the goal of discovering new ways of teaching with new technologies not re-considering the nature traditional teaching. Worse than that, because Second Life supported a high level of social interaction the skills needed to teach within the digital space had a large overlap with those needed in a physical classroom. “When are you going to tell us something new” was the comment I received halfway through one presentation on the project.

I of course should not have felt uncomfortable but at the time my thinking was locked onto the digital and what it could provide that was new rather than what it brought that was of value. The Open Habitat project discovered approaches that were of relevant both online and offline. I needed to adjust my thinking to accept that this was valid, that it was ok to revisit age-old principles of socialisation and collaboration. The new technology could be a catalyst for this thinking even if it wasn’t the ultimate home for all of the what we had learnt.

The discourse that surrounds elearning (an ‘e’ which is increasingly redundant) is in danger of stagnating. As the digital becomes increasingly transparent we are likely to find ourselves squabbling over ever smaller chunks of newness. We will become like tadpoles in an evaporating pond, fighting for the last of what will inevitably disappear. Maybe it’s time for a metamorphosis in approach, away from the digital, towards the postdigital.

10 thoughts on “Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New?

  1. I’m wondering whether there’s a certain irony in the fact that I learned (!) about the postdigital manifesto – which was created on one pretty new digital technology – via another pretty new digital technology. Both of which allow modes of interaction and collaboration that were not possible a few years ago. More than that, Google docs and Twitter are among some technologies that are challenging the transparency of wordprocessing and email at we speak/chat/tweet/skype/wave.

    And I think that’s good. Technology should never be transparent. The moment we stop thinking about the tools is when you should get worried. Just look at cars or electricity. We thought they ‘just worked’, left it to a few specialists and forgot about them until after the serious consequences of using them had already happened. The web is going the same way. The wild, anonymous web of yore we used to talk about is changing into a surveillance nightmare if you care to look at how the gubbins are managed.

    I certainly see the point that talking about tools and never about practice is not good. Thing is, when I listen to _most_ (e-)learning practitioners, I hear the opposite: people don’t want to deal with the oily bits, and are scared of it as a consequence. Most of the discussion about tech is the very superficial “just tell me what tool to use” variety, where ‘tool’ is the particular brand of VLE or social network, not the genre. In short, how much discussion you hear of tools v. practice depends largely on who you choose to talk to.

    And as much as we might want to make the new tech disappear, I’m afraid there’s plenty more where that came from. As the last month or so has demonstrated, there still is genuine innovation there, and I don’t think it is going to stop. In that sense, the tech focussed debates you decry are – to me – a sign of people going through the normal process of selecting new tools and accommodating them in their practice by talking to their peers a lot. It just so happens that there’s quite a few new tools coming down the pike.

    In short, this isn’t the post-digital world, just like it isn’t the post-jet age or the post-space age. All of these technologies are not magic, they’re here, they’re real and they have real consequences. The way to deal with these changing technologies is the same as every craftsman has done since the iron age: respect the tools of your trade, without being obsessive about them (leave that to the toolmakers), and remember that any tool can be improved, and therefore will be.

  2. Firstly I’d like to make it clear that the postdigital document is still very much under consideration by the 52group. Many of your concerns are similar to those of the group but have not yet been articulated effectively.

    Rather than write a chunk of prose I’m going to respond in list form. This is not out of disrespect for your comment but because your comment has highlighted some areas which need greater clarity.

    1. The postdigital is in no way trying to signal the end of the digital, nor negate the relevance of digital tools. It is about an evolution in thinking not a revolt against the digital. As you mention the 52group has used many digital tools in communicating the postdigital, this is not an accident.
    2. There is an ongoing cultural transition in which digital tools become normalised and therefore increasingly transparent. There will we a constant flow of ‘new’ tools. The postdigital is a lens with which to view these tools (and this transition) in an attempt to assess value beyond novelty. My concern is that much of what we claim as new is merely the digital, i.e. the underlying paradigms beneath the novelty of new delivery mechanisms are well worn.
    3. There will always be a small group who will critically evaluate digital tools. This is an important part of the transition process. The key term here being ‘small’. Millions use new digital tools without serious critical evaluation.
    4. The postdigital is not an excuse for techno-skeptics to not engage or learn. Anyone who is seriously considering employing any technology should take the time to understand it properly. The postdigital does not ignore the efforts of the technologically adept in creating and maintaining important tools.

    I hope this helps.

  3. I like the general thrust of the argument that seems to make a strong case for a discursive shift. I agree with most of what you say. I like the use of the ‘post digital’ trope, however, I find myself wondering about your audience at times. This reads like an assault on the mainstream e-learning discourse. In this respect I think you engage in the creative destruction of the old to good effect. The need for an ecological turn, the emphasis you place on social practices and stress you placed on the emotive and affective implications of media change certainly strike chords. But I wonder if you could be more explicit in the final paragraph about how we start to articulate the post digital.

  4. I agree – that the ‘e’ in e-learning is a bit of a tired phrase and needs to be more than simply ‘electronic’. The ‘e’ should stand for learning technologies that are educational, excellent and effective. Now, with those pre-requisites in place, that really shortens the list of viable options for adopting new technologies to engage the 21st century learner.

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