learning to live with digital media

Following on my last post on Horowitz's article in the Chronicle, I want to take up one of the substantive issues he raises. As he writes, and I quoted last time, "The technology issues facing us today—issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation—require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately." I would expand on this to say we face the challenge of learning to live with digital media. This is hardly surprising, is it? We face this in our daily lives. How should we limit our kids use of video games or texting? How closely should we monitor their Internet usage or social media lives? How much time do we want to devote to Facebook or Twitter or email? What should we say? When should we decide not to respond in anger to one of our online friend's comments? The questions extend variously into our professional lives. Obviously for me they are questions of how digital media should operate in my teaching and scholarship, as well as the role digital media composition and literacy should play in our first-year composition course. More broadly higher education and education in general must consider the role of digital media, just as virtually every other industry must answer these questions, as well as governments, courts, and so on. The challenge of learning to live with digital media is as varied as it is pervasive and demands a humanist perspective, in some sense.

In what might seem to be an unrelated point, I came across the other day a piece in the NY Times from last December by Andy Clark on the extended mind. The argument is one that would be familiar to this blog, as he asks (rhetorically), "Is it possible that, sometimes at least, some of the activity that enables us to be the thinking, knowing, agents that we are occurs outside the brain?" There is a lot of skeptical responses to this suggestion in the comment stream. (As an aside, I find it interesting/humorous that the same folks who want to argue that thinking is the sole province of the brain also want to argue that the Internet/texting/etc. is weakening our ability to think… Well, either our thinking is affected by the world outside or it isn't!)

To me these matters are closely related. If we recognize that thinking occurs outside the brain then we also realize that digital media plays a significant role in our capacity to think. So when we ask the question of how do we live with digital media we are also asking how do we think with digital media. The kneejerk answer to that question as been "not well." And I won't try to refute that. Instead I would say that thinking, as humans have experienced it for all written history at least, isn't easy. Unless you are a creationist, you can't believe that humans were designed to think symbolically, like we do. Symbolic behavior is just something our distant ancestors invented in a desperate effort to survive. I suppose one could say that humans have benefited from that ability, though I also suppose that if symbolic behavior leads to our mass extinction in a 50,000 year period maybe it will not have been such a great invention after all. In other words, you could say that we are still learning to live/think with symbols or at least with writing (a mere 5000 years old or so).

These are all questions of eudaimonia (a subject that often circulates through OOO conversations, btw). Derrida writes that this is a task of learning to live with ghosts as the task of learning to live cannot be undertaken by life itself but only in connection with death, with ghosts as an intermediary. If thinking is always already outside, then perhaps thought itself is a kind of ouija board. As Derrida also notes, learning to live is both a necessary and impossible task, as we are always adapting, learning, from experience and yet only through more living, where learning to live would seem to suggest some meta position, outside life. But perhaps not outside all life as Derrida suggests but rather the strange withdrawing relations among thought, body, and consciousness/subjectivity, where each is in some way spectral to the other. 

If we start to think in this directions then "issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation" start to shift. Rather than trying to imagine how we might remediate digital technologies to meet 20th century expectations of these issues, we recognize that each of these terms attempts to describe the relations among objects in a symbol-using assemblage. Rather than asking how do we secure or protect identity, we might ask what does identity become?

Hopefully many things.