Post-digital revisited

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:

I was in a vexed mood when I wrote my ‘Escaping the kingdom of the new’ post reflecting on our Post-digital working paper back in 2009. The edtech community were still in a ‘Web 2.0’ fueled miasma, heralding each digital platform as the next-big-thing. It was a slavish attachment to the ‘new’ that was blind to the simple duplication of existing practice from the analogue to the digital.

Nearly 5 years on the term Post-digital is becoming accepted in Higher Education circles as describing the normalisation of the digital in almost all aspects of activity. Elearning is a good example of this and huge success in some senses. I could prove this, for example, by pulling the plug on any university’s VLE and watching a riot break out. These kinds of tech, those that predominantly use the Web as a means of shuffling content are quickly ‘disappearing into use’. They have become Post-digital precisely because they don’t challenge the underlying way we run our institutions or engage students.

A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA
A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA

Meanwhile many students themselves struggle to answer the question ‘how do you do the research you need for your assignments’ because for most it’s difficult to imagine the answer could be anything other than ‘Google’. Similarity the incorporation of the Smartphone into the fabric of how students study is already Post-digital to the extent that it’s been described as ‘mundane technology’.

And yet moves to shift pedagogy to more collaborative, peer supported or open models are still met with confusion and trepidation. We have managed to ‘disappear’ much of the technology but predominantly in the service of mediocre models, efficiency and scale (MOOC?). One simple reading of this is that practice evolves at a much slower pace than technology. Another would be that institutions incorporate the ‘new’ only to serve what they already understand.

We appear to have moved from evangelising the new and shiny to using it without question. Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that of the digital which has become ‘post’, to question the embedded and ask if it is pushing boundaries or simply ossifying business-as-usual, petrifying forms of practice we assumed the ‘new’ of digital would disrupt.

More fundamentally the move to the Post-digital is submerging ideology: big-data, search engine optimisation, learner analytics, we-recommend-this-course-based-on-your-previous-attainment-levels etc. The surface this presents is one of apparent neutrality and in our cultural naivety we don’t recognise, or are barred from seeing, that the underlying algorithm has been marinated in a bath of vested interests. The new normalcy of being connected has created a Post-digital environment in which ideology can be embodied in code – a form that most believe to be free of bias.

I believe that in the same way Media Literacy shines a light on the political, cultural and ideological assumptions shot through broadcast media Digital Literacy should make visible the the very same which is crystallised in code. It might be too late though, we may already be completely Post-digital. The code we need to ‘see’ being too many layers down from the shiny surface of the technology we barely think about anymore.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

13 thoughts on “Post-digital revisited

  1. […] David White: […]...
  2. Charlotte Reply

    I think of Rushkoff’s ‘programme or be programmed’ mantra as a key precedent for your point, but that aside I think having a critical awareness of the politics, governance and power structures that underpin platforms and their algorithms is absolutely essential for promoting healthy, insightful digital citizens. Of course, as an artist, I think that art and design can play a crucial role in revealing these kinds of relations. My question would be how to promote/embed/encourage this kind of ‘advanced’ thinking from the start of the digital literacy journey, which can be about just getting to grips with the ‘basics’ – so for example, as well as teaching students how to get a great online profile in order to be more employable, are we going to show them examples of great artists resisting and subverting the very call for a straight up online ‘identity’ as an act of resistance?

    1. David White Reply

      I certainly feel that the creative arts should be playing an active role in making visible the ‘ideology in the algorithm’. This principle also resonates with Richard’s post that highlights the dangers of what I think of as unthinking entrepreneurialism. So how do we navigate the tension between developing Digital Identities whilst subverting the environments we are using to do this?

    2. Frances Bell Reply

      That is an amazing point Charlotte – I am not an artist and it’s great to have your perspective. I did teach digital literacy (of course we never spoke its name) embedded within the curriculum for students on different courses in a Business School. A device we used for encouraging a sort of practical critique was to look at something like Facebook from different perspectives (Facebook’s, the member or product, the paying customers). I think it did encourage a few shifts in thinking but maybe not the really radical idea that ‘users’ (horrible word)can really have power or influence. I worry about postdigital if it directs attention away from questioning platforms and monopolies.

      1. Charlotte Reply

        Hi Frances – thanks very much for this! I think that framing this as an issue of agency is a good way forward. The Facebook exercise sounds great. I also love Colleen Reilly’s work with students on comparative search engine results, which I *think* came out of her work at the Digital Methods Initiative on ‘Moralgortihms’ I also think Olia Lialina’s concept of the Turing Complete User is relevant –

        1. Frances Bell Reply

          Thanks for those two links. Orla Lialina’s article has blown my mind and I will have to read it several times. There is a rich and long literature in Science & Technology Studies that unpicks the relation between users and designers. Users’ contribution to innovation was underplayed long before Silicon Valley. This is my favourite article I think you might like the idea of domestication of technology.

  3. Frances Bell Reply

    I remember discussing some of this with you at the time Dave 🙂 Yes I am with you about the need to look at ideology embedded within code but if we focus on this to the exclusion of lots of other really important issues, we are missing a trick. You know that I am just a crotchety old woman so it is safe to ignore me 🙂 but has it occurred to you that if your 52group had been a bit less – well- ‘pale and male’ + working in tech-related areas you might have come up with a different manifesto/ position statement.
    I don’t believe that Mark Zuckerberg lay in his student room at Harvard (or wherever he was) and planned the huge networked vacuum cleaner of data that is concealed beneath the increasingly less shiny surface of Facebook. Even if he had that vision he probably wouldn’t have believed that would happen. To achieve our current position required a ever-morphing lash up of tech wizards, enthusiastic FBers, Venture Capitalists, media outfits, digital marketers, snake oil salespeople of various hues, other connected and growing digital monopolies, etc., etc.
    So the questions that we should be asking are ongoing , historical and eternal and one of the most important reasons for becoming literate.

    1. David White Reply

      It’s a little awkward that we are such an homogeneous group but I don’t thing we are diverging from your point. I’m not suggesting that we always explicitly infuse code with ideology but it’s obviously always there I’m the thousands of decisions that are taken when building digital platforms. My concern is that the digital pushes much of this out of view as compared to other forms such as film or music.

      I seem to recall you being extremely pleasant and not crotchety at all. 🙂 Either way I’m sure the point you are making is just as valid.

  4. […] David White: […]...
  5. Paul Hollins Reply

    As ever Dave, a thought provoking post and equally provoking responses ;yes my mind went back a few years to the 2009 “post-digital” conversation . As I progress in years and become a “crotchety old man” I fear I become more sceptical about terminology and categorisation broadly; perhaps it’s a reflection of my punk youth (Thank god “Edupunk” seems to have died as a term!) and my dislike of being coded.

    From my perspective I’m not even convinced that we ever reached “digital” or at least the fuzzy construct of what “digital” is in my head so being post-digital is a difficult construct to acknowledge. Challenging the inbuilt “coding” behind human activity has always been clouded by conscious and (often) unconscious political, economic and prejudicial coding “twas always the case” moreover I’m not convinced that , as you suggest, digital pushes this more out of view than other forms. I might even push that “digital” pushes this implicit coding more to the fore (evidence here in this discussion thread of your blog) and our , and those that code us, thinking and actions are exposed to a much wider audience and subject to arguably greater digital scrutiny !

    My primary concern in respect of challenge and subversion relates more to the physical than the digital world , Do those in the establishment draw comfort that challenges (at least in the West) and subversion are more likely to be on the keyboard (or touchscreen) of our digital devices than the soapbox or street . Although I am heartened by the recent political change and challenge occurring in Greece.

    There is some evidence that the digital sphere is being used increasingly to question and challenge the digital determinism referred to in this thread ; If thats what we mean by being “post-digital” Ill reluctantly go with the term!

    1. David White Reply

      I like your interpretation of the term. The notion of using the digital to question and disrupt the structures we find ourselves in, as a ‘canvas’ for social, civic and political engagement, is positive. My point would be that to do this successfully we need to understand the thinking behind the digital environments we are using to gain a voice. This doesn’t, in my opinion, involve learning code but it does mean understanding the manner in which the platforms have been put together, the various motivations and business related aspirations that underpin most of our digital spaces. Agreements between Social Media platforms, advertisers and data middle-men all become embodied the in algorithms that create the stage for our voices. We should be questioning Twitter in the same manner we might Fox news or the BBC. The challenge as I see it is that the way digital platforms proliferate of censure our thoughts is less culturally obvious than say the bias we have all come to understand in red top newspapers or leftist periodicals. We need to make this visible and culturally relevant as we move into the Post-digital era.

  6. Frances Bell Reply

    I broadly with you there Dave but I still have a problem with the term post-digital. It’s probably linked to my anathema of all staged models and trajectory approaches. I have been thinking again and will try to blog a more comprehensive response.

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