In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, starting a column on postdigital science and education may seem like a fool’s errand. As I write this text on 30 April 2020, while more than 2.6 million people are infected by the virus, while global death toll approaches 160,000 victims, while Trump suggests that ,’ and while Third World countries are only entering the pandemic which could easily result in many more victims than in the west, I – white tenured professor from one of the world’s most successful countries in fighting the pandemic – have decided to begin a series of articles pondering on nature of human condition in our postdigital age. As I write these words, my next-door neighbours in Italy die in thousands. My friends in the UK are either infected or have infected family members. My PhD student in Spain frantically works on her dissertation, escaping from harsh reality into her writing. My friends in Beijing and Guangzhou, whom I visited just days before the official outbreak of the pandemic, now live under unimaginable levels of electronic surveillance. My friends in the US are worried about a deadly combination of high unemployment, massive purchase of weapons, and selective access to healthcare. My Swedish friends voice their doubts about government’s laissez faire approach to social distancing. From more than 30 countries and all continents, authors of Postdigital Science and Education report one or another version of dire conditions created by the coronavirus. And this is just the first wave of the pandemic – while we all hope that the second wave will never arrive, we do need to prepare ourselves for more death and suffering.
To add insult to injury, this terrifying health toll is just a tip of an even more terrifying iceberg. In ‘free’ countries such as the US, the pandemic has caused an unprecedented growth of post-truth, fake news, and bullshit. Technologies of surveillance are causing serious concerns about the future of democracy; in countries such as Turkey and Hungary. Today, petro-companies will pay you $5 a barrel to take away their oil and free their precious storage space; the world is using less and less oil, but oil rigs cannot be simply shut down like water pipes in our kitchens. Millions of people have lost their jobs, with estimates of total corona-related job losses rising to 47 million; many of these people are, or soon will be, on the verge of homelessness and hunger. The Chinese province where the pandemic has started, Hubei, is already experiencing its first wave of massive public unrest. Covid-19 has brought global capitalist order to its knees, and has made it increasingly obvious that we will never just return to ‘normal’ – instead, we will need to collectively develop what we mean by a ‘new normal.
This, as I argue in my recent editorial in Postdigital Science and Education, is the reason why ‘[p]ostdigital researchers should read, research, and write about all imaginable aspects of Covid-19! – even if that research, at present, does not seem to offer much help in getting us through and over the pandemic.’ In this column, I will briefly introduce the concept of postdigital science and education. Based on my insights from editing a special issue of Postdigital Science and Education focused to the pandemic, I will point towards certain aspects of the concept that might help us redefine our ‘new normal.’
Postdigital science and education
At the brink of the century, Kim Cascone published the first academic article which explicitly mentions the word postdigital. This article, which focuses to aesthetics of glitch in electronic music, explores the ancient theme of borders between the human and the technological in the age of digital (re)production of arts. Soon after, the word postdigital slowly started to appear in various fields of arts, design and architecture. It quickly jumped to fields such as media studies and digital humanities before finally landing in mainstream academia. In its 20-year journey through non-academic and academic fields and applications, the concept has morphed and can be found under various names. Yet its core interest, which is fluidity of borders between human beings and technologies, has remained surprisingly stable. Frustrated by lack of nuance about these relationships in mainstream (educational) research, a few years ago I decided to try and develop a community of like-minded scholars. The core of this group wrote a mission statement article ‘Postdigital Science and Education’; soon after, Postdigital Science and Education journal and the book series commenced.
In our mission statement, we wrote: ‘The postdigital is hard to define; messy; unpredictable; digital and analog; technological and non-technological; biological and informational. The postdigital is both a rupture in our existing theories and their continuation.’ With this somewhat opaque definition, we wanted to point towards deep philosophical considerations behind postdigital theory. At the same time, we wanted to make it clear that the postdigital condition is a lived practice. The contemporary use of the term ‘postdigital’ [describes] human relationships to technologies that we experience, individually and collectively, in the moment here and now. It shows our raising awareness of blurred and messy relationships between physics and biology, old and new media, humanism and posthumanism, knowledge capitalism and bio-informational capitalism.
Our mission statement was not intended to offer a long-lasting, fulsome or even ‘official’ definition of the postdigital for our journal – it merely delineated conceptual areas we found important and offered food for thought which could be used as a starting point for further inquiry. Soon after its publication, the ideas presented in our mission statement have attracted a wide range of responses. Some responses claimed that we (more or less) merely ‘rebranded’ practices and theories that have always been there; others focused on relationships between ‘digital’ and ‘postdigital’; and plenty of authors developed their own visions of the concept of the postdigital. While we do not necessarily agree with many of these responses and critiques, we are delighted with the amount and quality of attention that the statement received. We understand that our inquiries require a good theoretical backdrop, yet we were never obsessed with navel-gazing and endless theorization of the concept of the postdigital. In Postdigital Science and Education, and increasingly elsewhere, there is now a growing body of research that uses the concept for practical purposes and without (much) theorization. To each their own; for us, postdigital theory and practice are of equal importance. Three years after the publication of our mission statement, and two years after publication of the first article in Postdigital Science and Education, we can proudly say that the concept of the postdigital has attracted a growing body of theory and practical applications that forms an open, healthy and rapidly developing community.
Postdigital research in the time of Covid-19
At the beginning of 2020, the whole world – including our budding postdigital science and education community – faced the challenge of our lifetime. When I realized the historical and social significance of these events, I published an editorial, ‘Postdigital Research in the Time of Covid-19’ arguing about why postdigital researchers should urgently engage with the pandemic. I invited the community to submit long Original Papers, shorter Commentary papers and 500-word Testimonials; and to submit photographs of their workspaces. Within a month, my invitations went viral – at the point of writing this column, I received responses by more than 130 authors, in a hectic mix of styles and formats, which are now working their way through the slow academic mill of peer review and publication. While this stream of submissions is likely to continue for a while, and it will take years to make proper sense of our current situation, I believe that it is important to periodically step back and reflect on what we are doing. These intermediate steps may not lead to final conclusions, but they offer valuable guidance for our immediate plans and actions. Based on my editors’ insight into Covid-19-related writings submitted by the end of April, 2020, I will offer a preliminary classification of the themes and concerns revealed there and point towards ways in which postdigital theory could contribute to the development of our ‘new normal.’
Spaces and communities
“As of April 22, a third of the world’s population is now living under some form of lockdown due to coronavirus”. This rapid closure of schools, restaurants, cafes, and other public places, coupled with more substantial social distancing measures, has shifted a significant percentage of human interactions to the Internet. Many people have suddenly acquired hands-on experience of the mutually constitutive entanglement of the social and the material. In 2018, we opened our mission statement with the following words: ‘We are increasingly no longer in a world where digital technology and media is separate, virtual, “other” to a “natural” human and social life. This has inspired the emergence of a new concept – ‘the postdigital’ – which is slowly but surely gaining traction in a wide range of disciplines (…).’ Indeed – and without wanting to tell the world ‘we told you so’ – postdigital theory and practice has already amassed a significant body of research about the socio-materiality of contemporary communication practices.
Postdigital theory and practice cannot claim to have discovered socio-materiality. Actually, it draws heavily on older educational research perspectives including networked learning and technology enhanced learning. It also draws on traditions such as critical pedagogy, science and technology studies, postcolonial theories, feminism that address social justice, equality and emancipation. For those of us who now work online, the lockdown has provided a lot of justification for one of the core claims of postdigital theory and practice: that the physical environment and class still matter – perhaps more than ever. During lockdown, a stereotypical family of two parents and two school age children faces a nearly impossible task of cooking, cleaning, home-schooling kids and doing two eight-hour shifts within 24 hours. Being locked down in a suburban house with a large garden is a completely different experience from being locked down in a cramped city apartment! And what about more vulnerable people such as single parents, the disabled and others? Suddenly, concepts such as ‘immaterial work,’ ‘knowledge economy,’ ‘fully automated luxury socialism’ and other fancy tales offered from the radical right to the radical left lose their traction. In our mission statement, we wrote:
There is growing concern over the actual, concrete, social, and material influence of the digital, which stands in contrast to the tendency to view it as ‘virtual,’ ethereal, and without ‘real’ consequences[.…] There is, therefore, an additional and valuable meaning we might attached the to the ‘post’ of the postdigital here: a ‘holding-to-account’ of the digital that seeks to look beyond the promises of instrumental efficiencies, not to call for their end, but rather to establish a critical understanding of the very real influence of these technologies as they increasingly pervade social life.
Postdigital theory and practice thus send an important message: Yes, we can (and should) discuss the philosophical nuances of the social and the material in the pandemic, but we cannot ignore political economy.
The coronavirus lockdown has divided workers into three main categories. The first category consists of people whose physical work is necessary for maintaining basic social provisions and includes doctors, nurses, police, firemen, shop tellers, truck drivers, cleaners and everyone else who maintains our health and safety, puts food on our tables and processes our waste. The second category consists of those who perform equally important social functions such as teachers, but their work can be transferred online. The second category also includes all others who are able to work from home such as computer programmers, designers, writers and editors. At the brink of the inevitable economic crisis, the first two categories of workers can consider themselves ‘lucky’: despite various professional risks and inevitable cuts in their salaries and working conditions, these workers are likely to keep their jobs. The third category consists of workers in so-called non-essential industries such as tourism, hospitality, various personal services, the arts and so on, who have already been heavily hit by the lockdown. While some of these occupations such as hairdressers will recover soon after the lockdown is over, the full recovery of many industries such as tourism will surely be measured in years.
Indeed, class matters – not only for impoverished teachers, but for many others. Just before the coronavirus outbreak, I co-edited a book called Education and Technological Unemployment (with Michael Peters and Alex Means) that explores three main scenarios for the future: ‘(1) An extreme scenario that argues jobs will disappear (‘joblessness’). (2) A hybrid scenario with human beings firmly in control […] (‘hybrid’). (3) A business-as-usual scenario […] (‘normal’).’ Looking at current economic responses to the lockdown, the world seems to be heading towards massive joblessness – at least, in the near future. Postdigital theory and practice can enable us to conceptualise and respond to the changes that are underway in the nature of work.
Biology and informatics
20th century was the century of physics: from nuclear energy and the Cold War to microchips and the Information Revolution, physics has radically redefined the human condition of our parents, grandparents, and grand-grandparents. In 1996, however, the birth of Dolly the Sheep – the first cloned mammal in history – signalled that 21st century will be the century of biology. According to Dyson
Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.
Postdigital theory does not work in either-or dichotomies and is defined by an entanglement between physics and biology, information and flesh, as it plays out in society and culture. Postdigital theory recognises its positioning in bio-informational capitalism, which is, according to Peters, ‘based on a self-organizing and self-replicating code that harnesses both the results of the information and new biology revolutions and brings them together in a powerful alliance that enhances and strengthens or reinforces each other.’
In our recent articles, Michael Peters, Peter McLaren and I ‘outlined a concept of bioinformationalism that trades on earlier work in postdigital studies to engage with the history of epidemics and the institutional response to Covid-19’ and started to further develop the concept of viral modernity:
With the advent of computers, human society has entered a new phase of development characterized by radical interdependence between previously disconnected aspects of human reality. This postdigital reality is characterized by various ‘leakages’ between the inanimate and the animate, between the world of biology and the world of information, between the Global South and the Global North.
This work is only just beginning, as our century feels its way almost blindly into the conceptual and practical thicket that is the entanglement of technology and biology.
Post-truth, surveillance and democracy
Some of the most prominent ‘leakages’ between the inanimate and the animate, information and biology, are now themes of almost everyone’s concern. The first, post-truth, needs no introduction. Much has been written about the curious relationships between post-truth, fake news, and bullshit. Yet, now, in the midst of the pandemic, Trump’s claims that the Covid-19 is just an ordinary flu and evangelical Christians’ claims that people attending religious ceremonies are protected from the virus by God have direct consequence for the health of whole populations.
One way to respond is by the application of surveillance technologies, which may indeed help us to alleviate the pandemic. Yet what price do are we willing to pay for this? Once these technologies are in place, it will be very hard – if not impossible – to prevent governments, large tech companies and others from using surveillance for other purposes and diminishing the human rights that we enjoy today.
Post-truth and surveillance tear at the very fabric of democracy – and signal the arrival of a new and very different world order. While it seems generally accepted that we cannot go back to our ‘old normal,’ our ‘new normal’ is now under swift (and often under-theorized) development. Postdigital theory and practice has a long-standing interest in the issue of living and working under surveillance that can at the very least alert us to what is at stake in the complex nexus of post-truth, surveillance and democracy that comes decisively into play in the pandemic.
As of 20 March 2020, more than 1.2 billion students in more than 120 countries were being impacted by various lockdown measures. Many of these students now learn online, and many of their teachers now teach online. The implications of this forced shift from teaching face-to-face to teaching online demands attention. It suffices to mention that those of us who are teachers, students, administrators and policy-makers will find much that resonates in what postdigital theory and practice has to say about topics such as postdigital dialogue, discussions of lectures as postdigital events, discussions of postdigital race and gender that have quickly risen to prominence under the emergency conditions of the pandemic.
At this stage, we are not too concerned whether postdigital science and education is labelled a research agenda, an approach, a perspective or even a philosophy. It suffices to say that postdigital theory and practice is of urgent relevance in our historical moment. By way of an answer to my rhetorical question at the beginning of this column, I would say that, at this historical moment, engagement in postdigital science and education is not a fool’s errand, but a necessity. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I anticipate further theoretical and practical developments in Postdigital Science and Education and elsewhere!