Friday, 4 November 2016

Nous voici réunis!

Typical! Commit yourself to the gym (in this case, a thought gym) and then never go once in six months! Here I was in April promising to roll out of the blog again, and then silence ... at least over these digitalised pages. Count yourself lucky, say I!

I have not been idle though, no indeed. Apart from my exacting duties at work, and my pleasurable duties at home,  I have been swimming though seas of gripping digital reflection and wondering what it means that I would sometimes rather text than phone somebody. Am I just short of time, or am I joining the ranks of disembodied digital natives who send thousands of texts a month but cannot sustain a conversation on any subject concerning which they have not received adequate media programming?

I confess that part of my anxieties about digital culture stems directly from being responsible for the education of the students who pass before me in the lecture room. Learning and Teaching orthodoxy holds that the more we digitise our teaching, the more we are likely to deliver quality teaching and enhance learning. Our new VC, Alec Cameron, in his latest video blog, has evoked the possibilities offered by distance courses which would of course be beamed to all four corners of the planet by the marvel that is the Internet (password protected of course).

And yet, and yet (reflects your blogger through the very same medium), where will this end? Digital platforms are all very well, but like so many technological innovations, we must ask whether we have thought through all the risks. I'm not referring here to the technological risks about which I am not remotely qualified to speak. But I do wonder about the pedagogical risks and, more seriously, the cultural ones. Insofar as the Internet is but a digitised book, there is surely no harm in it. But what about the medium itself?

I suppose at the root of my question here is a distinction elucidated by French writer Fabrice Hadjadj between communiquer and communier. The verb communiquer seems to focus more on the information articulated. Communier seems to focus more on the encounter between the agents of any act of communication. Arguably, the distinction between the two is all the clearer in the domain of digital exchange where, it appears, the first thing people lose is the sense of the personhood of their interlocutor. Cue cyber-bullying, trolling and all manner of ugliness, frequently by those who, one suspects, would not dare to cross you in real life. Could this be because digital communication tempts us into communication rather than leading us into communion? The medium shapes the message, as we know, thanks to McLuhan. But to what extent does the medium also shape the messenger?

Perhaps one of the challenges of digital communication - be it long distance courses or blogspots! - lies in the imaginative effort never to forget what the interlocutor represents or, better, who the interlocutor is. Or - better still! -  that the digital representation of the interlocutor (a text on a screen, an image, a wave of digital sound) denotes a real human person. I can claim no credit for this thought. In many ways Gabriel Marcel was there before us in the 1930s and 1940s, warning constantly about this very forgetfulness of the person that seems to break over us when we are mired in our abstractions. And technology is nothing if not an abstraction.


Well, that's enough from me for one blog session. Is there anybody there, said the blogger,

Knocking at the moonlit screen?

I hope you'll join me again, dear reader, or as Baudelaire would say, 

Hypocrite lecteur mon semblable, mon frère!

Monday, 4 April 2016

On rebooting the blog

The irony of my last post in 2013 being called 'Time stands still' was purely unintentional. I had no idea it would be almost another three years before posting here again! That must be one of those 'original accidents' Paul Virilio promises are inherent to any technology. It is a thought that haunts me constantly these days …

… which in itself is the reason that I thought of coming back here. For some time now I have been increasingly anxious about what our technologies are doing to us. Talk of technology's ubiquity, its intimidating proliferation, is so banal now as to be unremarkable. At the same time, we are all of us unconscious users of technology in ways that ought to be disturbing (but mostly are not). I think both Albert Borgmann and Neil Postman have commented on the invisibility of technology; the way in which the tools we use tend to become invisible to our perception - invisible in the sense of being easily taken for granted, as unconscious as any of our closest and most intimate cultural practices. What troubles me in such a vision is the potential damage that we suffer from powerful tools that have sunk entirely below our radar. If there is anything worse than suffering the unexpected accidents of some new technology à la Virilio, it is being of a frame of mind to ignore or suppress the same.

In rebooting this blog, I am looking for a thought gym; opening up a man cave in which to ponder on some of the issues that trouble me most. I have been a mild techno-pessimist for years. This recent journey has begun, however, with several works that I have either just read, am reading or am about to read. A list of these appears below.  If you, dear reader, can suggest others, please post a comment.

I am not ignorant of the irony, the paradox, of launching a sceptical reflection on technology from the dizzy heights of a Blogspot page.  What can I say but that I am a creature of my age? I may very well end up sawing off the branch on which I sit! If that is the case ... well, so be it.

The cruellest thing anyone said about the posts on a previous blog I ran was 'TLDR'. That is text speak for 'too long, didn't read'. Someone else laughingly asked me who on earth read my long, delirious postings anyway. Charming!

If I felt a little huffy at these comments, however, I now take it all back. Long posts are basically sound. Long posts are about concentration; they are about attention; they are about mental investment. They are, in other words, about as "counter-web" as it is possible to be. I dare say a very long blog post might even come close to the cultural level of a very short, personal, hand-written letter. Or might that be over stretching the point?

In any case, my warning should be clear. If you are looking for mental shorthand, you have the whole internet at your disposal. Some sites, I'm told, specialise pretty much in nothing but images.

But if you want a longer form of cerebral engagement, then you are most welcome. The blog from now on, for however long it lasts, will be mostly about technology, with perhaps one or two other obsessions dropped in occasionally.

Here's mud in your eye.

Albert Borgmann, Power Failure

Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Everyday Life

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember

Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working With Your Hands, or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good.

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: how to flourish in an age of distraction

Marc Goodman, Future Crimes: inside the digital underworld and the battle for our connected world

Susan Greenfield, Mind Change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains

Andrew Keen, The Internet is Not the Answer

Conrad Pepler, Riches Despised: a study of the roots of religion