Instead I’ll point to the article that came out this week in EDUCAUSE Review, which definitely falls in that not-planned-but-done category.
The gravity of these events and our larger cultural moment leave me struggling to figure out how to put this: I am worrying a bit about how widespread the use of “white supremacy” has become when used to talk about obviously racist mass shootings. Because I’m convinced that the mainstream white-supremacist Right is starting to find an out in the term. Something as horrible as El Paso is so beyond white supremacism that Ted effing Cruz and whatsername the orange one’s daughter can use those very words in tweets and yet distance themselves from their larger import. So when we talk about voter suppression, about redlining, about the million microaggressions that people of color face every day, they will have created ground on which to say “ONLY THAT qualifies as white supremacist, you are trivializing the concept by using it to refer to (X thing I regularly do but know I shouldn’t).”
“The notion that intelligence is a personal endowment or personal attainment is the great conceit of the intellectual class, as that of the commercial class is that wealth is something which they personally have wrought and possess.” John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems
The project has as its working title We Have Never Been Social: Rethinking the Internet. It revisits the history of the Internet’s development and, in particular, the rise of the social media structures that have come to dominate so much of our experience of networked communication, arguing that a significant part of what has led us to the mess we find ourselves in today — with corporate entities tracking our every move while ignoring (or abetting) the growth of violent radical movements just under the surface, undermining not just how we interact with one another in casual ways but the very organization of our formal, public, political lives — is a desperately flawed model of sociality, one that is in fact not just un-social but anti-social. These structures allow us to talk to one another and to form connections with those who share our interests and concerns, for sure, but they are predicated on a hyperindividualism that is not just contrary to but actually corrosive of the kinds of deliberation necessary to a productive public life. (You might begin to see some of the ways in which this project grows out of ideas I developed in the course of Generous Thinking; the Internet, like the university as it exists today, is not conducive to generosity, and imagining how a more generous Internet might be developed requires thinking through its present and potential structures of reward and relation.)
I imagine that the first part of this project will focus on how it got to be this way, what got missed or ignored in some of the early warnings about what was happening online and how those warnings were swamped by the hype depicting the Internet as a space of radical democratization. But then I want to turn my attention to where we might go, whether there are possibilities for building an Internet that would be more genuinely social. Some argue that a more decentralized web — a web in which we manage the platforms through which we interact with others, or what Wired recently referred to as the soothing promise of the artisanal Internet — would allow us to control the ways that our data is used, as well as to control the terms of our engagements with the broader network. There is no small irony in the suggestion that what has been termed the IndieWeb could actually turn out to promote a deeper sociality, of course, and the vision of a distributed, self-hosted, self-controlled Internet would be a real challenge to achieve. But as I see it, the desire to pull our efforts at creative production and connection out of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and, commit to more distributed platforms like Mastodon or return to blogging and its micro-blogging relatives focus not on the goal, but instead on a means to an end. Because the problem is not that our platforms haven’t been sufficiently individualized; despite — or more truthfully because of — being under ravenous corporate control, they cater to our worst individualist instincts. Contravening that force is going to require something more than personal control, promoting something other than atomization.
That is to say: if the problem has not been the centralized, corporatized control of the individual voice, the individual’s data, but rather a deeper failure of sociality that precedes that control, then merely reclaiming ownership of our voices and our data isn’t enough. If the goal is creating more authentic, more productive forms of online sociality, we need to rethink our platforms, the ways they function, and our relationships to them from the ground up. It’s not just a matter of functionality, or privacy controls, or even of business models. It’s a matter of governance.
So this is where some older paths-not-taken, such as Ted Nelson’s original many-to-many, multidirectional model for hypertext, and some more recent potential paths, such as Herbert van de Sompel’s decentralized, distributed vision for scholarly communication, might come in. But this is also where I want to turn my attention to the arguments I raised in my plenary talk at the Spring 2019 CNI meeting about the relationship between sustainability and solidarity. Because this, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, “is not a problem for technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics” (Lower Ed 182).
That’s where I am in the project: re-reading a lot of early writers on the rise of the Internet and social media, including the techno-utopians, those who got dismissed as Luddites, and the wealth of critical thinkers that fall somewhere in-between. And I’m reading a lot of recent work that looks at the mess we’re in and how it got to be this way. And I’m reading some key texts in social theory that will help me envision potential paths forward. But what else? What are the crucial texts and ideas I should be engaging with? Where are the new movements in rethinking the Internet that I shouldn’t miss?
The transition from spring into summer has always been a bit of a challenge for me. On the one hand, there has often been this sense of my calendar opening out into vast stretches of unscheduled time — freeing, but with the seeming result that I go to bed one night in late May and wake up the next morning in late August, with the stretch inbetween passing in a dream-like blur.
On the other hand — and particularly in periods like now when some significant percentage of my time is dedicated to administrative responsibilities — there is also this sense of the spring and fall terms creeping like kudzu into the summer: just one more set of meetings, one more report, some final paperwork, and then perhaps we can start taking up planning for next year.
Last year I handled the spring-to-summer transition brilliantly, if a bit by accident: we left town as soon as finals week was over and spent two weeks in a lakeshore cabin. That two weeks was designed to allow me to jumpstart the revisions of Generous Thinking that I needed to get through in short order, but it had the knock-on effect of clearing my head and jumpstarting the summer, a clean transition into a different mode of being.
This year, we’ve scheduled the summer’s travel differently, with the result that the transition into summer isn’t as clean. Last week — the first week after finals — was filled top-to-bottom with meetings. This week’s schedule is less full but still contains a few stragglers. So I’m having to bring a somewhat more purposeful attention to the transition into summer work. Hence this post.
My goals this summer include both some exciting Humanities Commons-related developments (about which more soon!) and some preliminary work toward what may or may not turn out to be a new book project.
That last is potentially the most important, but also the easiest to defer, interrupt, or otherwise sidetrack: mostly what I need to do is to Sit Still and Read Things. Lots of things. And it’s hard to convince my spring brain — jumping from one thing to the next, with a long list of tasks in hand — to slow down and take the time to focus.
In any case, a post to remind me to do so. And the promise of more posts to share how it’s all going: I’ll post on significant ideas as they develop, but I’m also going to try to post a more general weekly roundup as well, just to keep myself on track. (We’ll see how that goes.)
Happy summer, in the meantime!
Again, how I know it’s almost summer? Last night I dreamed that I was moving out of my apartment in the morning, but most of everything was already gone, and I was looking around thinking “all I need to do is pick up a few boxes; there’s not much to do here!”
Maybe this summer I’ll actually have dreams that aren’t about my administrative unconscious.