Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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an archeology of the future
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reading Alex Galloway’s “Cybernetic Hypothesis”

23 March, 2015 - 14:39

This is an article that came out last year in Differences (25.1), but my library doesn’t have access to the most recent issues, so I’m catching up. I’m writing here about it in part because it connects with my recent post on reading practices, as well as more generally with interest in digital matters. In the past I’ve certainly taken some issue with some of Galloway’s arguments, though I regularly use his Gaming book in my course on video games. Here, I think my overall reception of his argument is more balanced.

Galloway begins by noting that in the contemporary humanities one finds a wide range of methods: “methodology today is often more a question of appropriateness than existential fit, more a question of personal style than universal context, more a question of pragmatism than unwavering conviction.” He applies this observation equally to quantitative investigation and ethnographic interviews as he does to the “instrumentalized strains of hermeneutics such as the Marxist reading, the feminist reading, or the psychoanalytic reading.” However, “such liberalism nevertheless simultaneously enshrines the law of positivistic efficiency, for what could be more efficient than infinite customization?” I think he has a point here, but it’s a curious one.  On the one hand, there’s the defense of academic freedom that insists on allowing for this “liberal ecumenicalism” as he terms it, but then perhaps also the realization that such a position might undermine the critical-oppositional effect one might hope to have. I think Galloway is accurately pinpointing a site of consternation for many humanists here, but let me bookmark that thought for a moment.

The main interest of the article is Galloway’s titular cybernetic hypothesis, which he describes as “a specific epistemological regime in which systems or networks combine both human and nonhuman agents in mutual communication and command.” I find this reasonable though I probably need to think through the particulars of his argument more thoroughly. Presumably, one can examine any cultural-historical moment and find one or more “epistemological regimes” at work. I would certainly argue, and I imagine Galloway would agree, that this cybernetic regime begins in particular places and spreads unevenly, so that not all humans (or nonhumans) are equally invested in this regime. I was particularly interested in his observation that

This has produced a number of contentious debates around the nature and culture of knowledge work. Perhaps the most active conversation concerns the status of hermeneutics and critique, or “what it means to read today.” Some assert that the turn toward computers and media destabilizes the typical way in which texts are read and interpreted.

As I wrote in a recent post, I share this interest in the shift in reading practices (which, I would add, are interwoven with a shift in composing). At it turns out though, the crux of the matter seems to lie in how when values this shift. Following his historical investigation Galloway writes, “The debate over digital humanities is thus properly framed as a debate not simply over this or that research methodology but over a general regime of knowledge going back several decades at least. Given what we have established thus far—that digital methods are at best a benign part of the zeitgeist and at worst a promulgation of late twentieth-century computationalism.” I don’t have much of an issue with this either, Presumably we can say essentially the same thing about the pre-digital or print humanities–that they were at best a benign part of the zeitgeist of the early-mid twentieth century and at worst a promulgation of industrialization and nationalism.

Right? I’m less certain Galloway would agree here. And here is why, and here is also where I disagree. Galloway contends that “the naturalization of technology has reached unprecedented levels with the advent of digital machines,” by which he means that they operate invisibly in our lives. I’m not sure that’s true. Like most middle-aged Americans, I certainly feel like my life is more technological than ever: my smartphone, the Internet, all these media devices, everything has got a computer chip in it (even the dog), etc. But it doesn’t seem “natural” to me, and it certainly isn’t invisible. Technology probably seemed more natural and invisible to me 30 years ago. Are our lives more technological and less natural than those of Native Americans in the 17th century? How about factory workers in New York in the 1880s? For Galloway’s argument it is necessary to be able to answer Yes to those questions. He wants to be able to argue that increased technologicalization means an increased ideological-hegemonic power that we, especially we in the humanities, must resist.

This leads to a second point of disagreement. He writes, “Ever since Kant and Marx inaugurated the modern regime of critical thought, a single notion has united the various discussions around criticality: critique is foe to ideology (or, in Kant’s case, not so much ideology as dogma).” My disagreement here is more subtle. I agree with the history here, and it’s probably also accurate to say that those who engage in critique view it as a “foe to ideology.” However, to return to where we started, if we view “theory” as a toolbox of methods, as Galloway puts it “more a question of pragmatism than unwavering conviction,” then how is it really a foe to ideology? Isn’t it just ideologies all the way down? Like many others, Galloway wants to connect interest in the digital humanities with the effects of neoliberalism on higher education, such as the adjunctification of faculty. However, significant interest in the digital humanities is really just a decade old and those neoliberal effects started in the 80s. If we really wanted to play the historical coincidence game, didn’t the rise of cultural studies and critical theory begin in the 80s? Critique and theory may claim to be a foe to ideology just as technologies may claim to liberate us, but I would suggest skepticism toward both claims. I would hypothesize that the institutional and disciplinary operation of critical theory is just as complicit in the neoliberal transformation of the humanities as digital technology has been, and moreso than the fledgling digital humanities.

However, despite these disagreements, in the end, I find myself in agreement with much of Galloway’s project which he describes as “a multimodal strategy of producing academic writing concurrent with software production, the goal of which being not to quarantine criticality, but rather to unify  critical theory and digital media.” I’m sure we have different ideas of what that would look like, but that’s OK too. I have no more invested in promulgating some corporate view of a pseudo-technotopia than I do preserving some disciplinary vision of a fading print culture, so I am interested in studying the ways emerging technologies shape rhetorical practice without taking as an assumption either that a) those technologies uniformly represent the imposition of some evil hegemonic power or b) that print technologies were better. Nor do I think the only other available position is technophilia. If we want to hold media technologies accountable for the nasty things done by the cultures that use them then… Is it really necessary to finish that sentence?

So, to end with the “reading” issue. Yes, reading practices have changed with the media ecology in which they operate. I suggest that we try to understand those changes, that we invest in exploring, experimenting with, and establishing digital scholarly and pedagogical practices as we did with industrial-print practices a century or so ago. Will we end up with something that can operate in opposition to the dominant ideology? I’m sure we will… at least as much as we did in the past.

Categories: Author Blogs

the “adjacent possible,” capacities, and How We Got to Now

16 March, 2015 - 11:20

I read Stephen Johnson’s How We Got to Now this weekend, a book that examines six technological trajectories: glass, cooling, sound recording, clean water, clocks, and lighting. These histories cut across disciplinary and social areas following what Johnson calls the “hummingbird effect” (after the co-evolution of hummingbirds and flowers). These are not technological determinist arguments but rather accounts of how intersections among innovations open up unexpected possibilities. This is the “adjacent possible,” a term Johnson borrows from biologist Stuart Kauffman, though here Johnson is applying it to technological rather than biological evolution. If there is a central thesis to Johnson’s book it is “the march of technology expands the space of possibility around us, but how we explore that space is up to us” (226).

Overall, it’s an interesting book, well-written as you’d expect, with many curious narratives. I was especially interested in the glass chapter. However, I was taken from the start, where Johnson begins with a reference to Manuel DeLanda’s robot historian from War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, where DeLanda suggests that a robot would have a very different perspective on our history than a human. Johnson agrees and takes up this challenge, writing “I have tried to tell the story of these innovations from something like the perspective of DeLanda’s robot historian. If the lightbulb could write a history of the past three hundred years, it too would look very different” (2).  In other words, Johnson suggests something that is akin to a kind of alien phenomenological approach. I can’t say that he necessarily delivers on that. I’m not sure that silicon dioxide’s view of its becoming glass through its interactions with humans over the past few thousand years would make much, if any, sense to us. However, the speculation could be interesting.

The glass chapter offers a couple interesting twists. It addressing the development of optics–reading glasses, microscopes, telescopes. It jumps to the industrial development of fiberglass as a building material, and then joins the two in fiber optics. However, Johnson takes a sidestep back to mirrors, where he takes up Lewis Mumford’s argument that the mirror initiated a new conception of the self and self-consciousness among Europeans. Again, not determined, but opened an adjacent possibility space.

You can see how all of these innovations come together in social media spaces. No server farms without cooling. No computer chips without super clean water or quartz timing. No Internet without fiber optics and digital audio communication. Throw in the mirror effect and one gets Selfie City, for example.

Johnson’s use of the adjacent possible works well enough for him, but for me it still leaves too many agency questions open. I prefer the more DeLanda-inspired notion of capacities or the Latourian idea of how we are “made to act.” Still Johnson does make a convincing argument for the ways in which seemingly unrelated events conspire to create a new opportunity, where a “slow hunch” (to use a term from one of his earlier works) suddenly becomes realizable because of a discovery somewhere or a change in economic conditions somewhere else. I suppose one might think of it as a nod to kairos.

I want to keep this in mind for the particular questions that concern me around the intersections of digital rhetoric and higher education. Maybe I have a slow hunch too, which does seem strange in the rapid turnover of digital innovation. (And when I say “I have” I don’t mean to suggest others are not seeing something similar, either.) Johnson points out how Edison at first imagined people using the gramophone to record audio letters to send to one another and Bell imagined people using the telephone to listen to orchestras play live music. The reversal seems funny from our perspective, though today, the process of “softwarization” (to use Manovich’s term) means that we have smartphones that combine all of these activities. Watch a video or video chat or watch a live event or record a video and share it with others. What happens when classrooms become softwarized, which they obviously already have? Are there analogous misunderstandings?

The slow hunch relies on a rather subtle misunderstanding about the kind of people that digital technologies mediate. Our expectations about digital learning presume interiorized subjects of the sort that occupied the possibility space of modern life, maybe starting with the mirror.  Our dissatisfaction with digital pedagogy fundamentally lies in our awareness that we do not act the same way online as we do in class, and we don’t even act the same way in class anymore because of digital media. We put the lion’s share of our energy into trying to make digital pedagogy conform to its predecessor, in part perhaps because we share in the rather fantastical belief that the virtual world is immaterial and can be made to be like anything.

I share in Johnson’s rejection of techno-determinism, though I have a more complex vision of agency than he is willing to share in his book. It does make sense to me that we need to explore the possibility spaces here. As with many of the stories in this book, what comes about will likely be shaped by economic realities as much as anything else.  However, if we start by investigating the different kinds of subjects we might become and then imagining how those subjects would learn, we start to illuminate those capacities, those possibility spaces, in ways that might be taken up more materially and economically.

Categories: Author Blogs