Bookmark! Our (disconnected) Selves

Nishant Shah’s fantastic podcast on our selves in an information age.

The Disconnected Subject: The Poetics and Politics of Reticence in the Age of Data Visualisation
from Diigo

Link to podcast

Lee Royal, Flickr:

This podcast has brought a lot of my half-acknowledged and rather dim thoughts up to the light. Shah draws a distinction between the Information self and the Data self, conceptions of the analogue and the digital human as philosophical understandings. The Information self describes a human still exercised by information overload and the Data self, a being who accepts this overwhelming multiplicity and submits to an ontology of the human as normatively overloaded, an atomised being comprising multiple datasets, in themselves ready to be analysed and measured and yet ultimately unaccountable.

This is interesting in so many ways, not least because this feeling of internet overload is something I fairly often experience and that I have put down, frankly, to age. Sadly, (or rejoicingly) I suspect this is still an element in the mix, but it is reassuring, nonetheless, to acknowledge myself as an analogue subjectivity, one who is not habituated to an unending parade of information and who wishes to resist a data self incarnation, not content to become a dot on an infographic.

I had been thinking about lurkers in online communities and I’d downloaded some papers to read when I had time. I was disturbed by Kozinets’ (2010) almost throw-away comment that the lurker leaves “electronic shadow trails” (p.34) and I was lamenting about how it is getting more and more difficult to be online without “typing oneself into being” (Lister, 2009, p.215) and acquiescing in the neoliberal project. I love the thought of lurkers patrolling liminal spaces like shades and was upset to think that watchful, reticent, idiosyncratic, unsociable or aberrant wanderings could be surveiled. We are all lurkers in interstitial spaces at times and I’m thinking here of when we hesitate on the boundaries of a new community of practice, before we make the first tentative steps across the threshold and test out our voice. The inevitable conclusion seemed to be to come offline, but Shah’s urgent message is that these selves constitute false polarities and that we can and must conceive of the human in ways other than these.

It must be in common with most people that I want to think of myself as a unique individual  🙂 rather than a set of common computational variables. Shah illustrates how much of ourselves we have in common with each other, but rejects a conception of the human as reducible to numbers, citing the ‘myth of the gene’ for his argument. I think of poetry and how it can be the perfect, succinct and numinous capture of a common feeling (thereby available for
re-cognition), yet its expression so much the creation of one subjectivity, bearing individual stamp. This seems to crystallise for me the tension between what is measurable and what is infrangible for the human. I might be happy with an automated teacher, but Shah’s description of a world in which the Invisible Boyfriend predominates is not for me!

Shah’s account of the representational and the simulated self is apposite for education in this information age where the student is now subject, not only to the power structures of the university, often devolved to the mooc platform or to the politics of access, but also to the data analytics trope. Whilst gathering data and understanding trend is important and useful, it can’t be our only measure nor the sole determinant of our agency.

Shah says

The data self infuses affective intimacies to technological protocols that simulate social orders that can no longer be fathomed or fashioned by human intentions or accidents

That is scary, and not just for education, but if we consider that learning happens as a contingent and erratic coming together of human intention and fortuitous accident, the data self is someone to be repelled, and one in an army of selves whose march should be arrested.

(This post is linked to this one.)

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