Thursday, 6 November 2014

'Post-digital' provocation #1: mode of production

I've been asked to provide a 'flipped keynote' for the SEDA conference 2014, which this year is called 'Academic Development in a Post-Digital Age'. You can find the abstract for my keynote and more about the conference here.
As homework for the live keynote - and for interest if you have arrived here and don't plan to be at the live session at all - I will be posting three short slide sets with audio and notes. These will follow the three ideas I outline in my abstract: that we can understand 'post' to mean in the wake of the digital event, whatever that is/has been, in response to the digital, and/or in recovery from it.
Malene Thyssen,
By way of an introduction, today I want to examine my own assumption that the 'digital' (as in 'the Digital Age') is a mode of production. Economic theorists have coined the term 'cognitive capitalism' to distinguish today's economic relations from (say) mercantile or industrial capitalism, when - respectively - trade and conquest, and advances in industrial technologies, were the drivers of profit. Today, they argue, in a globalised economy and at an advanced stage of technologisation, innovation and information technologies are key. The same ideas may be more familiar as the 'knowledge economy', though I would question the optimism with which this term has generally been used (see for example this interview with Keri Facer from 2010). Whether or not we accept these overarching accounts of our C21st economy - which after all still has to produce real means of subsistence and shelter and good health as well as good ideas - still it seems to me beyond argument that digital technology is changing modes of academic and intellectual production. Research, sharing and disseminating ideas, putting ideas to use, teaching and developing new thinkers and innovators - none of the core functions of academic labour has failed to be radically changed.

These changes in the mode of academic production are accompanied by many social and organisational changes. I have argued before that digital technologies have been complicit in various political agendas for higher education and therefore in the present crisis of legitimacy that we face. Without digital systems, politicians might aspire to (but surely could not deliver) the degree of academic surveillance, rational planning, the obsession with metrics, or the casual assumption that our best measure of success is how well we provide 'skills for a knowledge economy'. (David Kernohan has blogged persuasively about this recently). Without their ease with just-in-time, just-for-me digital information, I wonder whether students would have been as quickly persuaded that higher education is essentially another customer service? These are the outcomes of policies, not technologies, but changes to the mode of production makes new kinds of policy possible. (New kinds of radical thought and action are also of course more possible, though I have deliberately chosen an article about the use of social media that is equivocal in its conclusions.)

I suppose what I am confessing to here is that I am a materialist. I'm still not sure exactly what that means in relation to a mode of production that is manifestly immaterial in most of its actions and effects. But I think it's to do with avoiding both idealism (thoughts and ideas exist independently of the medium in which they are expressed) and technological determinism (access to the internet will overturn educational disadvantage). It's attending to the specific technologies of this revolution, and the specific new educational arrangements and relationships that they are bringing about.
If we are 'post-digital' that cannot mean that the digital mode of production is over and done with, any more than industrial technologies are over and done with. We continue to depend on fossil fuels and mass production, even if they are deployed largely in distant lands, and we continue to increase our  reliance on digital networks and devices in everyday life. Perhaps, though, we are at the end of the beginning of the information age, equivalent to the point in the industrial revolution (about 1860?) when technologies that were no longer alarmingly new were adopted at scale (railways, electrification, production lines). Perhaps the first extraordinary digital wave has rolled over us and as we surface and catch breath we can see that this turbulence is the new reality - it is still rolling us forwards - and we have to find some other way of characterising what is new.

There will be more about academic development specifically in what follows, so please don't be put off by the theoretical flavour of this provocation. I'm just confessing my biases before I start. I welcome comments, contributions, tweets and emails, which I will incorporate into what follows. In particular I'd like to ask you: what do you understand the 'digital' in the 'digital age' to be?
Key influencers - though in no way responsible for my views - include Manuel Castells, Richard Hall, Laura Czerniewicz. Since first posting I've had my attention drawn to a recent SRHE conference on 'The Digital and the Material' - this twitter stream by Ibrar Bhatt references work by Martin Oliver, Donna Lanclos and Lesley Gourlay (among others) and considers how virtual technologies constraint/structure behaviours in the material world.


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