Some critical thoughts about the post-digital

I’ve always been slightly sceptical of the concept of the post-digital.

Firstly, it seems to defeat its own deflationary ambitions by defining itself in epochal terms. I’m not convinced it can help us overcome hyperbole about ‘the digital’ if it’s implied that we’ve entered a new era predicated on this moving into the past. I realise the point is that it’s the hyperbole we’ve moved passed so that we can engage with the digital in the absence of this distorting element i.e. we’re grappling with the digital entanglements of the everyday, as opposed to be fixated by the ‘shock of the new’. But there’s still something dissonant about the register in which these claims are made, leaving me to wonder if the conceptual structure of digital epochalism hasn’t been transcended in the way that is claimed.

Secondly, it’s predicated on bad theories of the digital as well as hyperbolic receptions to it in politics, business and culture. I can see the significance of the latter but I think the former is a precarious base for theorising. Why should we ground our theoretical undertakings in the evident vacuity of past engagements with the object? It’s the equivalent of post-positivist movements in the philosophy of science being unable to move beyond the confrontation with a positivist enemy who is at this point largely imagined. I couldn’t agree more with the summary here from Petar Jandrić et al, even if the choice of Negroponte as an inspiration for the post-digital strengthens my conviction in the first point listed above:

Published in the influential Wired magazine, a major source of inspiration for the growing body of postdigital research is Nicholas Negroponte’s article ‘Beyond Digital’ which boldly claims: “Face it – the digital revolution is over” (Negroponte, 1998). This does not mean that the digital is not important. However, continues Negroponte, “its literal form, the technology, is already beginning to be taken for granted, and its connotation will become tomorrow’s commercial and cultural compost for new ideas. Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.” (ibid) Similarly, Florian Cramer writes: “the ‘post-digital’ describes an approach to digital media that no longer seeks technical innovation or improvement, but considers digitization as something that has already happened and thus might be further reconfigured” (Cramer, 2013; see also Cramer, 2015).

If I was being deflationary here, I’d suggest post-digital means avoiding the solutionism, determinism and epochalism which tended to characterise treatments of the digital in the 1980s-2000s i.e. it’s a brave new world, the internal logic of its unfolding will change everything and if we can harness this then it will solve our problems. However much like the post-positivist fighting battles with the shadow positivist, I think this misses the mark slightly under conditions where the ‘tech-lash’ has become mainstream and tech-critique is ubiquitous across the media. It has been problematised across social life in a way that is surely desirable, however these framings still preserve elements of the determinism and epochalism i.e. we’ve entered a dark new world where ‘big tech’ has too much power.

I’m in agreement with theorists of the post-digital (or at least I think I am? any responses here gratefully received) that we shouldn’t let these dominant framings determine our theorising, either the earlier utopian version or the subsequent dystopian iteration. However I think it’s relatively easy to purge our methodological and theoretical repertoires of these influences while nonetheless retaining these social attitudes as a valuable object of social scientific analysis. My concern is that the post-digital’s impulse to move beyond the ‘shock of the new’ risks leaving it slightly tone depth to the sociology and political economy of the tech lash, given the inherent difficulty in talking about these issues while avoiding digital terminology.

In an influential article Florian Cramer describes how the term ‘post-digital’ “can be used to describe either a
contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical”. If we take ‘disenchantment’ here in the dictionary sense (“a feeling of disappointment about someone or something you previously respected or admired; disillusionment”) then it’s an accurate description of the techlash.

However if we meant it in the more sociological sense then we certainly don’t see a disenchantment with digital technology, in fact we see an inflation of the powers which contemporary tech is understood to exercise over our lives: from social platforms ‘hacking the lizard brain’ through to algorithms silently orchestrating coups. These beliefs are not uniform but I suggest we can nonetheless see an intensification of our enchantment with technology, one which the conceptual structure of the post-digital is ill equipped to capture. In a sense I agree with Cramer’s underlying sense that we are seeing a mutation of the digital, even if I’m unconvinced by the argument this claim can be unhooked from a periodising logic, I’m just not sure that the framework of the post-digital is well designed to capture the social and cultural dimensions of that mutation.

However Cramer makes a statement about media and aesthetics which appeals to me a lot: “the term ‘post-digital’ in its simplest sense describes the messy state of media, arts and design after their digitisation”. This sits uneasily with his rejection of a periodising logic, though it helps capture a sense of the object of the post-digital. The world after digitalisation? The world as we find it rather than a world undergoing transformation? In this sense, I think I’m objectively a post-digital thinker even if I remain cautious about the rhetoric itself for the reasons I outlined at the start of this post. This impression deepens when I consider Cramer’s contrast between art world which resits acceptance of digital art while its own infrastructure has been transformed beyond recognition. It highlights the relationship between how ‘the digital’ is culturally constructed and the post-digital reality of the media infrastructure through which things come to be constructed:

Contemporary visual art, for example, is only slowly starting to accept practitioners of net art as regular contemporary artists — and then again, preferably those like Cory Arcangel whose work is white cubecompatible. Yet its discourse and networking practices have been profoundly transformed
by digital media such as the e-fux mailing list, art blogs and the electronic e-fux journal. In terms of circulation, power and infuence, these media have largely superseded printed art periodicals, at least as far as the art system’s in-crowd of artists and curators is concerned.

In this sense, the literature on platforms has an inherently post-digital orientation. Even in its most synthetic and grand register (e.g. platform capitalism and surveillance capitalism) it’s still concerned to (a) historicise the platform (b) recognise differences between platforms (c) explain outcomes through the interaction within and between platforms. In common with the post-digital, as described by Cramer, “it refers to a state in which
the disruption brought upon by digital information technology has already occurred”. But it does so in a way which gets beyond the epochal baggage which the terminology of the post-digital carries with it, helping us focus on configurations of the social and technical operating in specific ways within concrete contexts. It invites us to follow the platform in a way that helps trace out connections across different social scales and systems. It’s orientated towards a world in which ‘the digital’ is already mundanely entangled within the social, rather than being a novel element intruding from outside. For example as Petar Jandrić et al describe the “messy relationships between pre-digital understanding of intellectual property and digital ways of creating and disseminating content” which is generating a crisis in scholarly publishing.

I wonder if we could see the post-digital in terms akin to the natural ontological attitude: a plea to get beyond the exaggerated claims made about technology by utopians and dystopians in order to retrieve the core fact of our technological entanglement which both parties agree to. The comparison to the realism/antirealism debate only goes so far and there’s much more here but I find it useful in order to see how we might think of the post-digital as an ontological orientation and methodological attitude, rather than a social theory in the strict sense. As I’ve tried to articulate this in the past: decentering technology in social explanation without abandoning it. If we see it in these terms it’s something shared, I think, by Digital Sociology, Digital Anthropology and Digital Geography in spite of the apparent terminological conflict between them. So too with platform studies. This opens up an approach to ethical and political questions that could be detached from the baggage which tends to accompany the politics of platforms, as described by Petar Jandrić et al:

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, perhaps captured effectually by this year’s ‘Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency’ conference, focused on understanding the ethical and moral dimensions of socio-technical systems. There is, therefore, an additional and valuable meaning we might attached the to the ‘post’ of the postdigital here: a ‘holding-toaccount’ 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.

However I also wonder whether there’s an element of avant-garde theorising in the post-digital. However that’s a topic for another blog post….

3 thoughts on “Some critical thoughts about the post-digital

  1. Hi Mark

    This is spot on – I don’t see the postdigital as a social theory in a strict (nor non-strict) sense, but as a philosophy, epistemology, ontology, of course as a methodological attitude, and much more. I find your reference to the natural ontological attitude very interesting; need to look it up in more detail.

    Thanks for this great reflection! It really helps me think though the concept of the postdigital in a fresh way.

  2. Thanks Petar. It was actually our recent conversations which led me to write this. I’ve been aware of the post-digital for quite some time but your work has made me want to seriously engage with it. This post is my first attempt to seriously think through my relationship to it and work out where I stand in relation to this body of work. I think there’s definitely a post-digital ethos underlying my approach to platforms within higher education & these initial engagements have helped me articulate that properly for the first time.

  3. I recognized bits and pieces of our conversation but the text is much more than that… so exciting to see things develop. I am aware of the postdigital aspect of your work, and glad to see it explored here. Postdigital body of work rapidly grows; there is so much postdigital work to do in relation to platforms, HE, and other aspects of your work. I am really excited to see these developments, and curious what they may bring about :).

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