Worrying Wednesday: DATAM Conference Paper and Modernity

Over the weekend, I spent some time puttering around with a paper that I’ll be giving at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean (DATAM) conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World next week.

I prepared a first draft a few weeks ago and posted it here. The paper argues that there are several digital divides. The first is the typical one between those with access to a well developed digital infrastructure and those without (or with significantly less access to broadband, to computers at home and at school, or to the latest technology). The second is sometimes called the “second level digital divide” that distinguishes consumer from so-called “prosumers” who produce content for the web as well as consume it. These prosumers are not only more invested in the digital world, but also more comfortable with digital tools and practices. The final digital divide that my paper dissects is that between data and analysis. Data is often represented in exclusively digital ways and articulated as a raw material (i.e. “raw data”), as a natural resource to be mined or drilled into, and as something that exists outside of (or beneath) analysis and interpretation. While most critical archaeologists understand that these metaphors have limits and do not reflect the realities of practice, there is a tendency in the classroom to place data and analysis into sharp relief. I then go on to discuss how an awareness of these divides has shaped my teaching in a Scale-Up style active learning classroom.  

As it reads now, however, the paper lacks an edge and a conclusion. My instinct, at present, is to try to demonstrate how the Scale-Up classroom creates another kind of digital divide between how the students engage with their learning and how my position as instructor can see their engagement. The barrier between what they can see and do and how I can see it is essential to the rise of a digitally mediated surveillance culture. The way that social media, search, and ecommerce companies track our behavior and produce responsive algorithms that depend on obscuring not only how they collect information, but also how they shape the way that we engage with their sites.

The metaphor of the panopticon from Bentham and Foucault, of course comes to mind, and its ability to condition the modern subject through the practice of being observed. That the panopticon also describes many aspects of our digital culture which strive to make us more willing consumers of both products and experience on the web is hardly debatable. What’s more worrisome, I suppose, is the way in which this same logic has shaped educational expectations. While it might sound naive to assume that somehow education – a thoroughly modern discipline – could avoid inculcating students with the expectations of the market, I do worry that our own use of digital tools and environments do little to prepare students to resist these pressures. On the other hand, perhaps an encounter based around dissection and breaking down these digital divides at least offers a tool kit for students to expect there to be limits to practices and to engagement in the digital world. This, of course, does nothing to undermine an ironic view of the modern world where strategies of dissimulation and occlusion obscure the real function of power and the making of meaning.

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