Social media and improvising our careers

The familiar repertoires of scholarly interaction are called into question by the emergence of social media. One way to grasp their routine character is to consider notable exceptions in which networks, projects and fields emerged in unfamiliar and exceptional ways. Pickering’s (2010) accounts of the emergence of British cybernetics provides a fascinating example of this, detailing  how a field coalesced without any institutional home; the vibrancy of which clearly reflected the heterogeneity of the scholars who came together under this banner. As he puts it,  it “emerged from nowhere as far as established fields and career paths were concerned” and the “cyberneticians and their projects were outsiders to established fields of endeavor” (Pickering 2010: 55). Though too did its weakness, as the freedom this distance from institutions afforded went hand-in-hand with the absence of the familiar means of intellectual reproduction which disciplinarity provides. It’s interesting to consider this as a predicament for individual cyberneticians who, as Pickering (2010: 60) describes them, were left to “improvise careers much as did the founders” because of the inability of cybernetics to “impose standards on research and to establish career paths for new cyberneticians”.

My suggestion is that social media expands the range of tools which can be used for improvisational career work, providers scholars with a wider range of options which can be used with lower costs of time and energy than would be involved in their analogue equivalents. Consider Ashby’s letters and the form that might take in a contemporary context. Not only would it be much quicker to identify relevant people and send them e-mails, it would be mediated by an intellectual apparatus of webpages, blogs and social media feeds. Problems undoubtedly flow from this as well, with the low cost of making contact potentially inducing a lack of care. Even if we can’t quantify it precisely, it seems to be a common experience for those with an extensive digital footprint to receive questions and requests with only a passing relationship to their expertise. If you assume that most requests will go unrealised, it makes sense to cast the net as wide as possible in the hope that at least one will respond, even if this leaves the overall search looking distinctly scatter gun. But what we want to get across is that the almost feral sociality we can see in a figure like Ashby, roaming around increasingly unconstrained by convention and searching for others with whom it would be possible to explore conjointly, finds itself increasingly supported by a knowledge system which is both digitalised and platformised. It is simply much easier to work like this, not least of all because it no longer presupposes the clarity which clearly animated the British cyberneticians in their improvisational work and searching for interlocutors. At various points Pickering (2010) describes this as a chancey mode of transmission, subject to uncertainty and reliant on luck in a way that the familiar mechanisms of disciplinary reproduction simply are not.

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