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Post-digitalism – an evolutionary perspective

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective::

Reviewing the Post-digital – five years on

When we were coming up with the idea of the “post-digital” back in 2009 the phrase that seemed to sum up the concept for me was “disappearing into use” – a phrase I heard once and have not been able to remember who to attribute it to. One quote I do know the source of is “Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet” – which is of course Douglas Adams. There’s McLuhan’s idea (which is covered in Sherry Turkle’s excellent “Life on the Screen”) that when tools become incorporated into our sense of who we are so much that they’re part of our bodies they are more like prostheses than tools. Evolutionarily, technology created the species homo sapiens as much as the other way round. Then there’s Stelarc who gave me a great quote for my last book: “humans are kind of a chimera of meat, metal and code”. If that’s true then technology continues to drive our evolution as a species.

Five years ago I was heavily immersed in virtual worlds. I’d just started finished collecting the data for my PhD about learning in virtual worlds. I was part of a community of academics within Second Life, all of whom I’d met there, very few I’d met in the physical world. I think I saw postdigitalism as the blurring of the lines between the physical and virtual, led largely by the development of Augmented Reality as a way to map the digital directly on to the physical. Many of us would spend our lives switching between the two, or having both simultaneously. I wasn’t the only one; Gartner (those of the hype cycle) predicted that 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) would have an avatar in a virtual world by the end of 2011. I had the idea that the change we’d all have to go through was to learn to blend the two, which I summarised in the phrase “mutatis metaxis mutandis”. Unsurprisingly, the phrase didn’t catch on. But neither did the technology.

We’ve passed that date and Google has just ended its Google Glass development; news reports are decrying it as a failure. No-one seem to have picked up on the value of AR overlaying information but have instead focused on the creepiness of surreptitious recording, and how nerdy Glassholes look. Many of the people I knew through SL are now gardeners, farmers, silversmiths, vicars, or working in international development. It’s not dead, but it’s not exactly thriving either. On the other hand, at every social occasion everyone gets their phone out immediately anything vaguely interesting happens, takes a photo then immediately uploads it to Facebook. They then check repeatedly on what comments have appeared and how many people have liked it. In that way at least the online digital space pervades our lives ubiquitously. On the technology –> tool –> prosthesis continuum, phones are a long way along the process becoming our physical extensions.

So I would say that the idea of the post-digital, that technology just becomes incorporated into our lives so much that we don’t notice it, is still an interesting process to look out for, and still has relevance as a term. It’s the point at which technology really starts to work, and so is unnoticeable, is when it really starts to matter to us. There are one or two technologies we can point to and say, “that’s invisible to us”, but that general transformation, to a postdigital society, or to postdigital humans, where technology truly becomes integral to us, now seems further away to me than it did five years ago.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Dave Cormier:  http://davecormier.com/edblog/2015/02/05/looking-back-at-postdigital-6-years-later

Richard Hall: http://www.richard-hall.org/2015/02/05/reflections-on-the-post-digital

Lawrie Phipps: http://lawrie.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2015/02/04/pd_review/

David White: http://daveowhite.com/post-digital-revisited/

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