by Ulises A. Mejias
Introduction: Why Won’t Lyotard Go Away?
As I have suggested before, we have not done enough in the field of Education and Technology to address Lyotard‘s concerns about the commodification of knowledge through the digital technologies we use (commodification means the transformation of things with no monetary value into things with monetary value —or commodities— through their subordination to the logic of capitalism). To put it in alarmist terms that are certain to catch your attention: If we are to take Lyotard’s analysis seriously, the gadgets and gizmos we are currently enamored with —edublogs, eduwikis, eduRSS feeds, and such— are nothing more than the tools of hegemonic capitalism.
Even if that sounds a bit harsh, the fact is that Lyotard provides a fertile framework for us to engage in an internal critique of our tools and methods. Only by engaging in such a critique can we guarantee the sustainability of our practice. To that end, Gane (2003) has done us all a big favor by summarizing the central concepts of Lyotard’s theory in his article Computerized capitalism: The media theory of Jean-François Lyotard. Gane describes the central themes in Lyotard’s critique as they relate to the new media, mainly:
that the computerization of society is accompanied by a new stage in the commodification of knowledge (The Postmodern Condition); that we are witnessing the speedup and extension of capitalist culture through the reduction of knowledge to information and information to bits (The Inhuman); and that new media technologies promote the streaming of culture (even oppositional culture) into homogeneous forms of capital that can be exchanged, received and consumed almost ahead of time (Postmodern Fables). (Gane, 2003, p.1)
In this post, I use elements from Lyotard’s theories to explore how the information and communication technologies that facilitate the social construction and aggregation of knowledge contribute to its commodification. I argue for a reframing of the concept of the digital divide as an important paralogical tool to resist this logic. This reframing is necessary because, currently, the digital divide is used in just the opposite way: to rationalize a model of progress and development where those aspects of our lives that are not technologized must become technologized, to the point where ubiquitous computing is normalized as the goal of innovation (and since technologizing and commodification are closely tied in capitalism, ubiquitous computing means ubiquitous commodification). In short, I attempt to reframe the digital divide as an instrument of resistance against the increasing commodification of knowledge, not as an ailment of the underprivileged.
What Is Paralogy?
Challenging the commodification of knowledge requires methods to un-think the logic of capitalism. One such method can perhaps be found in Lyotard’s notion of paralogy.
The etymology of this word resides in the Greek words para —beside, past, beyond— and logos in its sense as “reason.” Thus paralogy is the movement beyond or against reason. Lyotard sees reason not as a universal and immutable human faculty or principle but as a specific and variable human production; “paralogy” for him means the movement against an established way of reasoning. (Woodward, 2006)
A paralogy is a way to see things as more than commodities, to think outside the logic of capitalism. Paralogy plays an important role in challenging the role of innovation as it is traditionally understood (e.g., innovation as the creation of new things to consume and new methods for turning things into commodities). Lyotard sees innovation as “under the command of the system, or at least used by it to improve its efficiency” (1984, p. 61). Paralogy is diametrically opposed to innovation in the sense that it is a “creative and productive resistance to totalizing metanarratives” (Readings, 1991, pp. 73-74). Paralogy, according to Gane (2003),
concerns itself with everything that cannot be resolved within the (capitalist) system. In so doing, this form of resistance works by disrupting the instrumental logic of the modern order, producing, for example, the unknown out of the known, dissensus out of consensus, and with this generating a space for micro-narratives that had previously been silenced. (p.8)
But what ‘totalizing metanarratives’ supported by modern technologies (including technologies that facilitate the social construction and aggregation of knowledge) need to be resisted? Haven’t these technologies improved our lives by giving us new ways of re-assembling the social? Don’t they have the potential to engender more constructivist, active, distributed, connected or [insert your fav buzz word here] forms of learning? In short, what’s there to resist?
The Management of Social Knowledge
Lyotard’s critique of the new media is that it has established commodification and efficiency as the ultimate measures of the value of knowledge. According to Gane’s reading of Lyotard,
the emergence of new media has changed the form and status of knowledge, which is now judged less by its intrinsic value than by its performance, or rather by how economically valuable, efficient and programmable it is. Lyotard’s thesis then is that culture has been transformed by digital technology, which… follows the principle of ‘optimal performance’: ‘maximizing output (the modifications obtained) and minimizing input (the energy expended in the process)’ (Lyotard 1984: 44). (Gane, 2003, p.5)
The Knowledge Management movement, precursor and inspiration for the Social Software movement, sought to capitalize on knowledge that was held collectively by communities of practice. According to Chan & Garrick,
[t]his functional emphasis is traceable in its lineage to the popular belief, characterized by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), that tacit knowledge can be converted into explicit knowledge through IT systems. By capturing knowledge, it can be more widely replicated and shared. By inserting human agency into the equation, these authors see possibilities to sort, convert, retrieve, and share knowledge actively. Henceforth, knowledge is transformed into a more tangible commodity. (Chan & Garrick, 2003, p.1)
Is this not the underlying principle and unmentioned mission of social software: to convert tacit individual knowledge into explicit —and commodified— social knowledge? As I have pointed out before in the context of social bookmarking and tagging: “the aggregation of inherently private goods (tags and what they describe) has public value” (Mejias 2005). But what happens when the public value is ultimately controlled by private interests? As anyone reading the blogs when Yahoo! acquired Flickr or del.icio.us could see, the commodification of social knowledge has very important consequences for the interests of users vs. corporations.
Hence the emphasis in the Open Source / Open Content movement to ensure that aggregated knowledge remains in the hands and at the service of the “public” (however one wishes to define this loaded term). This subversive application of technology is possible because the affordances of technology can be exploited either in the interests of commodification or against them, as Lyotard himself recognized even before the Open Source / Open Content movement gained mainstream recognition:
…Lyotard states, in the final passage of The Postmodern Condition, that new media technologies can be more than simply tools of market capitalism, for they can be used to supply groups with the information needed to question and undermine dominant metaprescriptives (or what might be called ‘grand narratives’). The preferred choice of development, for him at least, is thus clear: ‘The line to follow for computerization to take . . . is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks’ (Lyotard 1984: 67). (Gane, 2003, p.9)
But the argument is larger than merely who owns the technology, and hence, who owns the accumulated knowledge. Open Source / Open content projects offer an alternative in terms of ownership (and that alternative is indeed important), but not in terms of what digitization does to knowledge. Even then, according to Lyotard, having free access to the technology would at least allow us to gather the information needed to ‘question and undermine dominant metaprescriptives,’ including the one that says that knowledge should be judged by how “economically valuable, efficient and programmable it is” (Gane, 2003, p.5). Are we in fact engaged in such questioning, or have we become distracted by the speed of innovation?
Innovation as an End
How is recognition achieved in the field of educational technology? While research and analysis are important, there is nothing in terms of generating ‘buzz’ like releasing the next big thing in educational technology: a new software program, a new platform, a new service, a new community or a new collection of content. In a system where attention has become a commodity, and the basis for a new economy, even code or content released under an Open paradigm needs to behave as a commodity in so far as it is forced to compete for the attention of users. Thus, the focus is not on questioning the logic of the system, but on creating more code and content. Even ‘successful’ blogging is characterized by a simple formula: s/he with the most content generated/aggregated in the less time wins. I sympathize with Suchman when she expressed
… hope for genuinely new reconfigurings of the technological, based not in inventor heroes or extraordinary new devices, but in mundane, and innovative, practices of collective sociomaterial infrastructure building. (Suchman, 2005, p. 11)
Instead of the slow and painful work of infrastructure building, we pursue innovation in the form of vertiginous technological and content development. As Lyotard said: “To go fast is to forget fast, to retain only the information that is useful afterwards, as in ‘rapid reading'” (in Gane, 2003, p.10). Suchman (2005), quoting Barry (1999), suggests that:
there might actually be an inverse relation between the speed of change, and the expansion of inventiveness – that “moving things rapidly may increase a general state of inertia; fixing things in place before alternatives have the chance of developing.” (Suchman, 2005, p. 11)
Gane, in his summarizing of Lyotard, remarks:
Technological development then speeds up life and culture, while at the same subjecting them to principles of efficiency, performance and control. The digital transformation of culture, however, also has a further consequence, namely that in our day-to-day processing of short ‘bytes’ of information we ourselves become more like machines. In other words, through our use of new media technologies, we, as humans, become increasingly ‘inhuman’. (Gane, 2003, p.12)
What does this increasing inhumanity look like, and where does it lead?
Ubiquitous Computing, Ubiquitous Commodification
As educational technologists, we are often invested in augmenting the application of technology, which we justify by calling attention to the enhanced learning opportunities engendered in the process. However noble the intentions, this does not detract from the fact that more technology means a pronouncement, not a reduction, of the symptoms that Lyotard describes. Augmenting the application of technology points, logically, to ubiquitous computing, which —we tell ourselves— is all about empowering humans and privileging knowledge by getting the machine out of the way. Galloway (2004) summarizes the ethos of the movement thus:
ubiquitous computing was meant to go beyond the machine —render it invisible— and privilege the social and material worlds. In this sense, ubiquitous computing was positioned to bring computers to ‘our world’ (domesticating them), rather than us having to adapt to the ‘computer world’ (domesticating us). (Galloway, 2004)
But this rationalization of ubiquitous computing is flawed because it equates invisibility with the absence of influence. It is precisely about ‘domesticating’ our behavior to conform to the machine’s rules. Conditioning ourselves to ignore the machines means that they disappear only from our perspective, not from the perspective of someone without the technology, and certainly not from the machine’s perspective. Their agency and their impact on our behavior does not vanish. On the contrary, it is when we reach this state of conditioned forgetfulness that the commodification of knowledge becomes absolute, and that the status of certain metanarratives becomes incontestable.
We should not seek to domesticate or naturalize technology. Instead, we should strive to retain its artificiality in our lives. This is not the same as prescribing a Neo-Luddism. I firmly believe, like Lyotard, that the flexible affordances of technology can open up ways for critique and introspection. But this can only be achieved if we avoid taking technology for granted to the point of making it invisible. The key is to reaffirm the differences between those aspects of our lives that we have (intentionally or unintentionally) opened up to technologizing and those that we have not, not with the intention of establishing a wall between them but, on the contrary, with the intention of mapping the tensions, influences, and overlaps between the two. This is where I believe the digital divide as paralogy can re-enter the picture.
Digital Divide Redux
Most of the discourse surrounding the digital divide (cf. Sassi 2005) centers on the ‘problem’ of those who have no access to technology, and what the role of those who do have access should be in addressing this problem. The digital divide has become a metanarrative in its own right, establishing that the inevitable goal is more technology, applied to more aspects of our lives, and available to more people. Only then will the playing field be leveled, and true progress will be achieved, we are told.
I do not mean to suggest that some of the problems of our age could not be alleviated with more technology or, more accurately perhaps, with a more even distribution of the technology we already have. But here I am interested in the discourse invoked by the word ‘divide.’ As I have summarized elsewhere (Mejias, 1999), the discourse of Modernity relies on a distinction between modern societies and pre-modern societies to establish a primacy of the former over the latter, a primacy defined to a large extent in terms of technological progress that pre-modern societies must strive to achieve. Massey (1999) has argued that this dynamic enacts in space what is assumed to be a lag in time:
When we use terms such as ‘‘advanced’’, ‘‘backward’’, ‘‘developing’’, ‘‘modern’’ in reference to different regions of the planet what is happening is that spatial difference are being imagined as temporal… The implication is that places are not genuinely different; rather they are just ahead or behind in the same story: their ‘‘difference’’ consists only in their place in the historical queue. (Massey 1999, quoted in Rodgers 2004, p.14)
However, it is not simply a matter of waiting for those ‘laggards’ to catch up. As anyone who has seriously studied the development of the so-called Third World can surmise, capitalism requires the existence of lack for the many in order to generate plenty for the few. The digital divide, in other words, is there by design. May (2004), reviewing Huw’s The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World (2003), remarks:
Huws’s corrective reminds us that the ‘freedom’ of the nomad is bought at the cost of the call-centre operatives’ lack of control over their working life (always being available for us means not being available for themselves)… [R]emember that you can only detach yourself from the real because of the continuing drudgery of the cybertariat [the cyber proletariat]. (May, 2004, p. 3, my note)
To reduce very complex political and economic processes to their most simplistic form: the wealth and materials necessary to maintain the lifestyle of the ubiquitous computing nomad are abstracted from the labor of those who are —to paraphrase Freire (1970)— objects, not subjects in the system. [The image of the nomad used here implies ‘wireless’ mobility, and is not related to the Deleuzian imagery that implies the dynamism of being, which I have referred to before.]
Thus, the current discourse on ubiquitous computing operates at two levels. At the personal level, ubiquitous computing implies a decrease of the digital divide by diminishing the demarcation between the technologized and non-technologized aspects of our lives. At the social level, ubiquitous computing implies an increase of the digital divide in the form of a greater demarcation between the digital-have’s and the digital-have-not’s.
It is in this sense that I argue for the need to reclaim the digital divide as a paralogy to resist the ‘rationality’ of capitalism and ubiquitous computing: At the personal level, the digital divide can help us question the ontological assumptions we make with each new introduction of technology into our lives. At the social level, the digital divide can help us disrupt the narrative of underdeveloped digital have-not’s that need to ‘catch up.’
Bridging Divides Through Reconfigured Nearness
By this I do not mean to suggest that we embrace the paralogy of the digital divide as a way to protest the supposed separation that technology effects between us and reality. For example, I begin to suspect a move in the wrong direction when Gane writes:
The point here is not simply that machines are taking over operations that used to be performed by human minds, nor is it that information is evaluated according to instrumental principles of ‘use’. It is rather that the digitalization of data tears both cultural artefacts and sensory experience from their moorings in physical time and space. The result is what Lyotard terms a ‘hegemonic teleculture’, in which writing, the memorization or inscription of culture, and even events themselves take place at a distance. And this situation demands, in turn, that the very idea of experience in the ‘here and now’ be rethought. (Gane 2003, p.13)
Indeed it needs to be rethought, but perhaps Lyotard did not go far enough in reconceptualizing nearness when he wrote:
What does ‘here’ mean on the phone, on television, at the receiver of an electronic telescope? And the ‘now’? Does not the ‘tele’-element necessarily destroy presence, the ‘here-and-now’ of the forms and their ‘carnal’ reception? What is a place, a moment, not anchored in the immediate ‘passion’ of what happens? Is a computer in any way here and now? Can anything happen with it? Can anything happen to it?’ (Lyotard 1991, p.118; in Gane 2003, p.13)
According to Gane, Lyotard “argues that these combined processes ‘abolish local and singular experience’, hammer ‘the mind with gross stereotypes’, and leave ‘no place for reflection and education’” (Lyotard 1991, p. 64; in Gane, 2003, p.14, my emphasis). Here I must take exception with Lyotard. The splitting of reality into two —one local reality, one online— is unsustainable, as it leaves us with a ‘virtual’ reality that we have no way of transforming with the tools of our ‘real’ reality. It also ignores the multiple and complex relations between the online realm and the local (starting with the human body itself!), connections which must be critically explored in order to reaffirm technology’s potential to facilitate “reflection and education.” Not only is the computer indeed here and now, but it serves as a plane in which other here and now’s are actualized. This is the reconceptualization of nearness that we must undertake, in light of the new —and not always unproblematic— dynamics of telepresence and telepistemology. [I am attempting to do this, as well as deal with the misconception of virtuality (using the work of Deleuze and others) in upcoming work.]
Technology And Choice, And The Choice Not To Choose Technology
What will a reconceptualized theory of nearness, a theory of nearness that takes virtuality and telepresence into account, give us? For one thing, it will open up ways to use the paralogy of the digital divide in redefining our relationships with technology. We know that humans do not exclusively determine technology (social determinism), and that technology does not exclusively determine humans (technological determinism), but that both mutually determine each other. But, as Suchman (2005) argues, “mutuality does not necessarily imply symmetry… persons and artifacts do not constitute each other in the same way” (Suchman, p. 5).
The acknowledgment of this asymmetry, engendered by the paralogy of the digital divide, is important because it can help us realize the ways in which technology cannot improve us. According to Rivers (2005), technology can’t improve us not because technology is evil or biased or anything like that, but because from an ontological perspective, it is we who improve technology:
The assumption that technology is innate in humans implies that it may lead to improvements in ourselves, but this assumption is untenable. The reverse is true: it is we who help to improve technology. It would be naive to suppose that technology is capable of improving us ontologically. It cannot be used to improve and perfect our own being. (Rivers, 2005, p. 3)
Rivers means that, although Being is fluid and dynamic, ontologically Being is what it is, and cannot be improved into Being Plus, or Super-Sized Being. Technology and science can make our lives easier, or laden with commodities (usually at the cost of making someone else’s lives less easy and less filled with commodities), but they cannot really change the nature of our being.
But if we improve technology, and not the other way around, how do we realize technology’s potential for reflection and education? Not through technology itself, but through the choices we make about the use of technology in our lives, choices that can become clearer if we keep the paralogy of the digital divide in mind. Rivers explains how, on the positive side, technology shapes the world by offering us more possibilities to act upon it, while on the negative side, technology often presents us with the illusion that the only way to change the world is by choosing technology:
Technology influences the manner by which we express ourselves in the world, and it does this by creating possibilities. These possibilities exist in a relationship to technology which makes them possible; that is, technology gives rise to possibilities that did not exist before. Yet these possibilities have a direct bearing on how we act. The world is continually shaped by technology because it is one of the several conditions that allow us to choose. But technology also gives the false impression that it is the only possibility, especially the only solution to problems, which either ignores or distorts the diversity of options. Although technology increases some possibilities, its success suppresses others; that is, increased technology reduces alternative possibilities. (Rivers, 2005, p. 9)
In other words, more technology (à la ubiquitous computing) reduces alternative choices. The digital divide as paralogy increases our awareness of the diversity of options, in the sense that it introduces the possibility not to use technology in some aspects of our lives, or to choose to use it purposefully by thinking about how the technologized parts of our lives should relate to the non-technologized parts. As Suchman argues, citing Barad (1998), it is in establishing these boundaries that we create meaning and assume accountability:
As Barad points out, boundaries are necessary for the creation of meaning… Because the cuts implied in boundary making are always agentially positioned rather than naturally occurring, and because boundaries have real consequences, “accountability is mandatory” (187)… As Barad puts it: We are responsible for the world in which we live not because it is an arbitrary construction of our choosing, but because it is sedimented out of particular practices that we have a role in shaping (1998: 102). (Suchman, 2005, p.10-11)
The Digital Divide, Technology, and Openness To Being
Establishing the digital divide in our lives is not about drawing a clean boundary that delineates mutually exclusive realms of action (the digital and the non-digital). On the contrary, the digital divide is a fuzzy, permeable, ever-shifting boundary that calls attention to the fact that we are constantly negotiating how meaning is created across these two realms. Thus, drawing the digital divide at a personal and inter-personal level implies making a series of conscious decisions about the extent to which, for example: our participation in online communities is balanced with our participation in onsite communities; the knowledge gained online is applied onsite, or vice-versa; social agency is delegated to code in order to create new social formations; etc.
To Gochenour (2006), for instance, it no longer makes sense to talk about online communities versus onsite communities. Instead, he talks about distributed communities that encompass both online and onsite elements. These distributed communities are assemblages of digital and non-digital actors where the boundaries of the digital divide are constantly having to be redefined, and this is in itself a form of reflection and action, a praxis:
In the realm of distributed communities, we engage in daily acts of bringing forth new worlds with others, we recognize others as human subjects with whom we wish to co-exist, and who have equal rights to realizing their individual becoming… We do this not in an immaterial realm devoid of relation to the real [‘cyberspace’, or ‘virtual reality’], but in a concrete world of community, where the linguistic worlds that we bring forth with others have the potential to bloom into worlds of action. (Gochenour, 2006, p.16, my note)
Or as Rodgers (2004) puts it:
There is no such place as ‘cyberspace’. Rather, there a millions of on- and offline spaces, frequently intersecting and each having an impact on both the user and non-user in how space is constructed and how it evolves. (Rodgers, 2004, p. 15-16)
To become aware of the intersections we have come to occupy, and to become involved in critically asking how our choices about technology have given shape to those particular intersections, is to use the digital divide as a paralogy, and to create opportunities for authentic reflection and education.
However, the increasing presence of technology in the world, its move towards ubiquitousness, can make it more difficult to engage in this critical exercise. Technology is an expression of our openness to being (Rivers 2005), our freedom to choose even against freedom. Because technology simply mirrors and amplifies the context and conditions that have given it shape, it can result in less freedom, not more. Thus, in order to change technology we need first to change ourselves: “If we change present conditions and the demands they make upon us, then we can change technology (Rivers, 2005, p. 3-4).” This process is, however, sometimes made more difficult by technology. To quote Rivers again: “although technology increases some possibilities, its success suppresses others” (Rivers, 2005, p. 9).
For a long time, educational technologists have put their faith in technology as a way to change education, and even the world. But meaningful change cannot come from the technology as long as the technology contributes to the commodification of knowledge. Thus, if we hope to change technology we must change “the present conditions and the demands they make upon us” (Rivers, ibid) first. This might not require something as dramatic as a revolution or the overthrow of capitalism, but a ‘simple’ reaffirmation of the digital divide: a critical awareness of what aspects of our lives have been commodified by technology, which ones we want to reclaim, and the tension which results from this division. Recognizing this divide is key to challenging the logic of ubiquitous commodification.
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