Life in the Accelerated Academy, part 3

In the previous two posts I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of the accelerated academy as a toxic environment in which an out of control metrics regime incites cognitive triage as a necessity to cope with the ratcheting up of situational demands. As things get faster, the possibility for withdrawl decreases: there’s always something else to do, providing a perpetual justification for deferring disconnection. My suggestion is that ‘cognitive triage’ involves what Jonathan Crary describes as “the incapacitation of daydream or of any mode of absent-minded introspection that would otherwise occur in intervals of slow or vacant time” (loc 1025). The greater the tracts of our lived life in which we are triaging, the less capacity we have for imagination and deliberation: we’re more prone to react to urgent situational demands rather than reflect on trans-situational concerns. We tend to accept things as they are rather than imagining  how they might be.

Physical events can be an important counterweight to this trend. However they often aren’t. They need a shared purpose and corresponding willingness to attend to the event. The event needs to be capable of synchronising attention and the broader environment mitigates against this: perhaps we should make academic workshops into ‘digital detox’ spaces and ban WiFI and smart phones? Individual habits mitigate against it as well. There will often be a reason to leave early, to zone out during talks or fail to engage in a way one otherwise might. I’m not sure what could overcome this other than commitment and the question of how to generate that in people is obliviously rather thwart. Nonetheless I’m increasingly taken with the idea of academic workshops as zones of deceleration. The annual Centre for Social Ontology workshop certainly succeeds at this but I’ve yet to encounter anything else which does so unambiguously.

I’ve often hoped that social media can help solve these problem. This seems counter-intuitive to some because of the speed at which it operates. But it is this very speed which short-circuits cognitive triage. The limited investment necessary in exploring a single idea via one blog post helps liberate the author from the need for temporal accounting. In doing so, it opens up the imagination. The limited investment necessary in a 140 character tweet does the same, encouraging conversations across disciplinary and institutional boundaries which might otherwise be deferred by parties to them, not because they lack interest but due to an inability to prioritise an extended conversation when there are so many other things to get done. My experience of blogging has been that the occasion for writing feels different for these reasons. There’s always a reason to write, as a communicative act rather than as something for oneself. It’s much easier to seize on an idea and, through doing so, enjoy experiences of writing like this:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Hommo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

For this reason I think social media can allow the imagination to thrive. Furthermore, at present it exists outside of prevailing systems of audit. This is not to say it does not come with rewards – I’ve stumbled into a whole parallel career due to engaging with social media. But these rewards are not usually those upon which progression in the accelerated academy depends. On the other hand, there are many risks, unequally distributed amongst those engaging online. The normalisation of the activity might also simply add to the ratcheting up of situational demands. If one feels obliged to blog then this adds another, potentially endless, responsibility to existing writing commitments. Perhaps then intensifying a tendency towards surface writing rather than depth writing: rearranging ideas rather than developing new ones, in the way that is far too common in an environment dominated by ‘unread and unloved’ books. The metrics inherent to social media also seem as if they’re crying out for incorporation into existing systems of audit & part of my ambivalence about alt-metrics stems from this. I nonetheless look at my alt-metrics scores and feel pleased if they’re high.

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