“Digital Future(s)” Dream Course: Engaging the Print vs. Technology Debates

I took this summer off.  As in, really took it off.  I didn’t teach, I didn’t write, I didn’t really do research, I didn’t do course prep.  I took the summer off.  In part, this was a post-graduate school, post-first year in a full-time job recovery strategy.  Last summer I spent my time graduating, having surgery, and moving halfway across the country, then began a new job in a new place and never once slowed down to take a breath.  This summer was my opportunity to take that breath, time I really haven’t had since before I started college.  So this summer, I spent my time traveling, relaxing, and reading books (mostly fiction) just because I wanted to.

As an academic, we can never really turn our minds all the way off (at least I can’t), so many of the books I read inspired thinking about research and potential course materials for my students.  One thing I have been letting simmer in the back of my mind is my current research project on technology (e-learning, the future of higher ed, new media, the language of paradigm shifts, the “digital divide”, the first allegedly “born digital” generation of students, etc.) and my role as a feminist educator.  Like many of us, I’m sure, I’m always composing not only parts of my research project in my head, but also composing many, many fabulous syllabi that may or may not ever see the light of day.  One such fantasy syllabi that emerged from my reading this summer, and also overlapped with my current research interests, was inspired by two books about the future(s) of technology and print, and the relationship between the two—Alif the Unseen and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  Both of these texts, in addition to being super fun and interesting to read, got me thinking about the (often) hyperbolic language we use to discuss technology in the academy, particularly in English departments, and in discussions of education policy.  These fictional texts, I thought, did interesting and nuanced work that negotiated print and technology, as well as tradition and innovation.  Both provided an interesting model for how to think about technology’s future(s) in relationship to “traditional” media and knowledge.

Alif the Unseen takes place in a “repressive” Middle Eastern society, and seems at the outset to be about the power of technology to foster democratic values through the globalized flow of information and hacking.  The beginning of the text draws heavily on the rhetoric of the Arab Spring, but the text eventually explores the ways in which technology can also be used to suppress speech and democratic values through the character of The Hand, an expert hacker himself, who stands in for the state by shutting down dissenting digital presences.  The main character, Alif, and his friends then find an ancient mystic text that seems to promise to break down the repressive structures of the state.  Alif encodes the text as a virus in the state computing system, but the virus is ultimately unstable and causes as many problems as it attempts to solve through the shutdown of national infrastructure.  Ultimately, it is a combination of technology and “traditional” media and knowledge that “saves the day”.  In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a similar combination is explored as an answer to the ethical and moral question at the center of the text, which is about the achievement of knowledge.  In Mr. Penumbra, visualizations and Ruby make appearances as tools to unlock very old mysteries, but in the end, it is a combination of digital tools and print that prove to be the answer to the problems the characters are seeking to solve in the text.  Neither text ends up valorizing one or the other method of knowledge formation, and both texts make it pretty clear that digital technology is not a panacea for the questions we need answered, nor is it the only cure for what ails us.

Both texts render the relationship between digital technology and print as very complex, and both make the argument that the threads that tie print technology to digital technology are not so easily disarticulated.  In both texts, digital technology is both a help and a threat, and print technology is both a valuable means to knowledge formation and a tool of repressive social formations, including patriarchy and colonialism.  Despite the fact that there has been a significant amount of work done in theoretical discourse and in the fields of rhetoric and composition about the problems with over-privileging either print or digital technology while neglecting other modes of knowledge formation and record-keeping (Diana Taylor’s work in The Archive and the Repertoire comes to mind), the discussions we have about the future of the discipline, and of higher ed more generally, seem too often to be reduced to these binary positions, where one takes a side “for” or “against”.  I’m not accusing any particular people of this sort of binary thinking (in fact I believe most of us do think about the relationship and futures of print and technology in very complex ways), but rather glossing the media representation of this debate in both trade academic publications like The Chronicle, and in more popular publications like Salon and the New York Times.  What Alif the Unseen and Mr. Penumbra do, I think, is provide those of us who are book/fiction lovers with a way to discuss these issues with students of literature and writing, and also among ourselves.

Neither text illustrates an example of the bell tolling for print technology, an argument made pretty frequently in discussions about digital technologies of reading (Kindles! Mobile Phones! The Horror! The Horror!), nor do they lament the “intrusion” of digital technology into the world of print.  Neither text argues for the ultimate “good” of either print or digital technologies, nor do they neglect or oversimplify the values to be found in multiple means of knowledge formation and dissemination.  What I think is interesting in particular about Alif the Unseen is the role mysticism plays in the text as a component of both “traditional” media, like the book or oral storytelling, and digital media and practices.  The mysticism in Alif is a bridge between these two worlds, just as in Mr. Penumbra the abstract values of friendship and collaboration are the bridge, and ultimately human experience is not reducible either to zeros and ones or to the printed page.  In my head, I’m already teaching these texts in a dream course on Digital Future(s), where the fiction complements, contextualizes, and resists other discussions in the “Print VS. Digital” debates, as well as intersects with discussions of emerging questions regarding the potential for and the risk of using digital technology as a means of activism, democratization, and educational equality.  President Obama released his education plan this week, and the appearance of terms like e-learning and MOOCs, alongside funding tied to (some definition of) “success”, should give us all pause about how those in power understand digital technology as a means of maximizing equality (if you’re optimistic) or profit (if you’re pessimistic).  Alif the Unseen and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore might give us an interesting entrance point as language and literature scholars and students for talking about the problems with valorizing a single method of building knowledge, engaging in debate or activism, and fostering equality.

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