Why we need a post-digital approach to the platform university

One of the virtues of a postdigital approach to technology within higher education is that it helps us unpick two seemingly contradictory stances: marginalisation and the shock of the new. There is a tendency to see technology as a contingent part of the research process which is peripheral to its core operations. For example the voice recorder has been an indispensable part of the toolkit for qualitative researchers which they depend on to render their interviews susceptible to further analysis. In fact it can plausibly be argued that the qualitative interview has co-evolved with the technology used in the process. It nonetheless remains curiously peripheral in the methodological imagination, relegated to the contingent level of practice rather than being a central feature of professional reflection (Back 2012). This suppression of the technological reflects a broader marginalisation of the practical which is at the heart of the university’s self-conception (Hall 2016, Bourdieu 2000). We can see a contrasting tendency in which the impact of technology is proclaimed as what Vostal (2014) terms a ‘mega-force’ leading inexorably to radical change with those caught in its wake faced with the option of pointlessly resisting or adapting to the new reality. The rhetoric surrounding social media in higher education has taken this form at times, particularly when provoked by criticisms which are regarded as proto-luddite by the enthusiastic digital academics who inevitably use social media to discuss articles critical of their use (Carrigan 2019: x). It can seen even more strikingly in the (early) literature about ‘big data’ which sought to instigate a new era of computational social research which constructed the existing social sciences as legacy artefacts to be left behind (Carrigan 2014). These stances are taken by different groups, looking and sounding extremely different in practice. What they share is an inability to think of technology as a mundane factor in practice within higher education, let alone as the architecture within and through which scholarly practices coalesce with their socio-technical preconditions fading away into the background (Carrigan and Fatsis 2021). This leads Marres (2016) to call for a ‘coming out’ of technology within social inquiry, suggesting we might recover its role in a manner which move us beyond these corresponding impulses towards marginalisation and epochalisation.  

This undertaking can be fruitfully cast in post-digital terms as a recognition of digitalisation as already having taken place, as opposed to a wave which is in the process of hitting us or a marginal feature of our practice which we must avoid over emphasising. Cramer (2013: 13) suggests we use the term 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”. I was initially sceptical of this framing because it appeared to misread what the Economist (2018) described as the ‘techlash’ in which the political and economic power of the largest technology corporations became an object of widespread social contention. While the growing backlash certainly seemed to express the shift which Cramer’s intervention suggested, its underlying narrative structure (we’ve entered a dark new world in which ‘big tech’ has too much power) tended to preserve the determinism and epochalism which the post-digital literature has sought to leave behind. In fact the techlash has tended to inflate the powers of platforms by framing them as the underlying cause of a shift in the plate tectonics of political life, through the overlapping mechanisms of fake news, filter bubbles and computational propaganda (Carrigan 2020). 

Algorithms become shadowy entities widely understood to be lurking in the background manipulating events, a post-human man behind the curtain whose role is rarely defined with any technical or explanatory specificity. Even in what Arnoff and Weigh (2018) usefully describe as the tech humanism which represents the techno-intellectual wing of this backlash, we find talk of ‘hacking the lizard brain’ and algorithms silently organising coups which suggests a view of both structure and agency as susceptible to determination from below by technological factors. This sense of technology as the prime mover in social life, the underlying force which generates epochal shifts, certainly isn’t postdigital in the sense of a disenchantment with technology. In fact I’d suggest it is a intensification of this enchantment in which growing awareness of transformation and the role technology plays in its (captured in more analytical language through terms like platform capitalism, surveillance capitalism and digital capitalism) breeds a paranoid techno-determinism which retains the underlying prejudices of the techno-utopianism which preceded it. It can be seen as a form of populism in Laclau’s (2000) sense in which an external agent is blamed for disrupting ‘our’ previous harmony, calling on us to solve the problem by expelling ‘them’ so we can restore our lost order.

In this sense I suggest it can be located within a broader crisis of liberalism as history returned with a vengeance following 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2007/08 (Zizek 2009). It’s far beyond the scope of this paper to locate this narrative about technology driving populist insurgencies, with its ironically populist framing of the platform, within a broader genealogy of anti-populism. But following Frank (2020) we should note the historical tendency for anti-populism to be an elite movement, driven by those whose interests are threatened by politico-economic upheaval which goes some way to explaining why a preoccupation with ‘fake news’ and computational propaganda features so heavily in print and broadcast media. Cramer (2014: 12) is certainly correct that objection to the digital has “grown from a niche ‘hipster’ phenomenon to a mainstream position” which is “likely to have a serious impact on all cultural and business practices based on networked electronic devices and internet services”. In fact the prediction has aged extremely well in the eight years since publication, as the techlash has become the defining challenge for tech firms who have massively increased their public affairs and lobbying operations to meet the threat of regulation head on. The problem I’m suggesting concerns the underlying structure of feeling this implies and whether it can be meaningfully characterised in terms of disenchantment. Upon closer inspection it appears to be a paranoid and inflationary orientation towards digital technology rather than the critical and deflationary orientation which the post-digital perspective would suggest.  

This is why I think we need a postdigital reading of the role platforms played in higher education during the pandemic and what this means for the emergence of the post-pandemic university. I suggested at the start of the section that a postdigital perspective helps us get beyond parallel tendencies towards the marginalisation of technology and its epochalisation, suggesting it’s either a trivial and contingent factor or the defining feature of a brave new world. The reason for my note of caution is that it risks obscuring the growth of paranoia at the expense of criticality, to use Sedgwick’s (1997), instead of the disenchantment which theorists of the postdigital expect. In what follows I stress the significance of academic agency in establishing collective responses to changes which are underway, mediated by technological factors but not determined by them. If paranoia goes unrecognised and technology comes to be seen as the shadowy man behind the curtain, orchestrating events in a way that defies resistance, this agency has no room in which to breath. I share Jandric et al’s (2018: 2) commitment to 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”. The point I’m making is that if, with Cramer (2013), we concern that digitalisation has *already happened* we remain sensitive to the obscure psychological costs of that process and what this means for people as they orientate themselves towards the possibilities for action in the current landscape. How we act has never been more important after two years of a crisis which has entirely disrupted our repertoires of routine behaviour, with technology acting as both a medium and a constraint upon what we now do. 

The focus of my own work in this area has been on how academics use social platforms in a professional capacity, a category which includes but extends beyond what Weller (2011) calls digital scholarship. To cast the net widely in this way opens up a range of sociological questions, given academics are only one of multiple groups within a university who are routinely active on social media. If we see institutions as constituted, at least in part, by the relations between social roles with them then increased use of networking technologies within this sphere has the potential to significantly reshape the institution (Porpora 1989). Once we recognise the use of social media as something which, as Crammer (2013) would put it, has already happened then then it becomes easier to attend empirically to changes which are already underway, observable in different user groups (academics, students, managers etc) and  institutional actors (departments, research groups, projects etc) and the interactions between them. These are by their nature studied across a range of fields and disciplines, spanning from Science & Technology Studies and Higher Education Studies through to Computational Social Science & Data Science, with little prospect in sight of an integrated field around which this activity could converge. 

The postdigital could for this reason operate usefully as a meta-theoretical framework to inform and guide empirical research in this area, with the potential to integrate findings across diverse fields of inquiry into a broader picture of a institutional change underway within universities. This would be meta-theoretical in the sense that there is unlikely to be ontological, epistemological or methodological agreement between such a diverse range of fields and disciplines. It could provide a set of overlapping themes to guide investigations with the potential to establish a common object of research to support the increasing integration of research across these areas. This would provide a frame of reference in which the outcomes of research can be incorporated into a broader horizon which is more than the sum of its individual practice. The risk is that without this common (or at least converging) frame a great deal of potential insight is lost as research into social media within higher education continues to be conducted within intellectual silos. This is problematic from a scientific perspective given we wish to gain robust insights into the transition in formal and informal mechanisms of communication demonstrably taking place within universities. There is a great deal of potential knowledge being lost due to this fragmentation in knowledge production. 

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