The Evitable Future of the Digital

I don’t think anyone will be surprised that I agree to a large extent with Virginia Heffernan that education needs to prepare contemporary children for the world of work and citizenship as it is and will be rather than as it has been, and that this primarily involves new engagements with digital media as tools and publishing platforms.

There’s an interesting paradox embedded in Heffernan’s essay that applies to educators, though. She runs through a long list of careers and activities that rely upon skills in digital media or with information and communications technology that already exist, and uses them as a signpost for the unknown careers of the future that will require students trained in today’s cultural and knowledge-producing environments.

The paradox is that somehow we got to this point without our education system having that orientation. That’s a lot of content, work and invention without the training that Heffernan suggests we’ll need for tomorrow’s world. So the trick for educators is not arguing about what we’ll need to operate at all, but about what kinds of improvement and range a “new culture of learning” could achieve, or what kinds of still-unseen practices we might engender. And that is indeed a tricky business: most of the people who try to envision the practices and careers that might come into being succumb quickly to goofy utopianism.

We can start smaller. I think the term “digital native” is basically nonsense. Young adults are not intrinsically and universally gifted users of digital media and online communication simply because they were born in the right generation. They are more accustomed to certain kinds of practices than many older people, sure, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot left to learn, lots of untapped possibilities. Moreover, the distribution of skill with digital media and online communication is uneven even in young people. I see a very wide range of know-how and comfort with new media in our population of highly selected students and elsewhere. So educators can argue that their immediate job is to ensure an even distribution of experience with new media practices and a richer exploration of interpretative and expressive work in those media.

Of course, to do so, educators themselves would have to have widely distributed skills and be practiced in those richer possibilities. This is not my sense of the current norms in higher education in the humanities and social sciences, nor do I necessarily see incoming faculty as being markedly closer to that goal, only that there are tendencies in that direction.

But the silver lining here is that what will most improve or sharpen practices of new media creation and interpretation is not technical skill with hardware and software nor is it being the most brave-new-worldish professor on the block. What would most dramatically improve or transform existing digital practices of cultural interpretation and information literacy would be the extrapolation and extension of many of the existing and long-standing strengths of humanistic inquiry. Note I do not say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” New media environments are new, and the jobs and practices which extend from them are also novel. Sometimes in little ways, sometimes in very big ways. But intellectuals have followed culture and ideas into new spaces and modes of expression before and accepted that in that journey, much of their own practice would have to change. This is just a bigger and more dizzying expedition. We need to be able to envision something like the transition between the spread of print culture into coffeehouses and public spaces in the 17th and 18th Centuries and the disciplined improvement and wider distribution of print communications and print-based knowledge production in the 19th Century through dictionaries, encyclopedias, public education, and the like.

The key thing, however, is that academics don’t have very long to figure out how they’re going to describe the ways in which their skilled guidance will significantly improve existing practices and professions involving information, knowledge, and representation. If we can’t demonstrate what better ideas and more ethical approaches will look like, rather than complain querulously about how nothing has really changed, stop fiddling with this new-fangled shit, young people these days are so clueless, then we really are going to be in trouble. Higher education (and K-12, for that matter) is going to have to really show what value-added work looks like in a 21st Century world, what better cultures and ways of reading and understanding cultures might be. Pure rejection, unless it seems truly aware of what it’s rejecting isn’t good enough. But neither are blank checks written to supposedly inevitable futures in which everyone is required to be a digital native, as if merely deciding to be digital sufficiently explains what the average skilled, educated digital practicioner of the future will be. If we don’t have any sense of what it is that we lack, given how much has already changed, we can’t make a convincing case for why or what we’ll need to teach.

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3 Responses to The Evitable Future of the Digital

  1. GaborPor says:

    distribution of skill with digital media and online communication is uneven even in young people

    That’s a key insight, IMHO. See (some of) the research done by supporting this observation.

  2. Jay Scott says:

    I agree. I want to add that education is a also tool of cultural continuity, so it’s deliberately conservative in some aspects, and I think one of the problems is that that conservatism is prone to leak into other aspects.

  3. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Capitalists do not like uncertainty. They want Congress, the Fed, or anyone or anything else who can, to guarantee them a certain future. The market, they say, does not like uncertainty. But our education is supposed to take a group of youngsters today and train them so that they will fit into the very uncertain world of tomorrow. Big problem. Capitalists don’t do it, but teachers must. Them that has the gold makes the rules.

    So, our education system needs to be changed so that it shapes the world of the future. It needs to be changed so that our children, day in and day out, year in and year out, carry out tasks that teach them and, at the same time, build the future. So when our students finish their schooling they enter into a world that they helped build. This may sound easier said than done, but it is not. It is not hard to do at all. All it takes is a little systems work.

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