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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Writing the grid 


Last year in a keynote at the Sheffield CSL conference I used a short vignette from what now seems to be becoming a series of sketches of digital literacies in the wild. Here it in list form: reading from a tablet whilst making notes on an A4 pad with green and black pens, reading a novel on a Kindle, balanced on a handbag, working on a spreadsheet on a chunky black laptop, displaying an e-ticket to the inspector on a smartphone, looking at Derbyshire whilst listening to music through headphones, reading a paperback, working with music software (wearing Dr Dre headphones). I used the vignette to pose the question of what was present and what was absent from this account of a train journey, as well as to make a more general point about the ubiquity of mobile uses of technology. As usual I didn’t offer specific answers, but one dimension I had in mind was that of point of view. The list assumes a slightly disconnected non-participant observer. But in actual fact (fact?) I was very much part of this in-train, ongoing event. Perhaps I emerged out of it, furtively, excitedly making notes on my smartphone? The railway carriage could be a particular kind of container, maybe a stage would be better description, for a peculiarly 21st Century dispositif. But also, looking down, the same goes for the laptop spreadsheet, a literacy tool so quotidian, so annoying (at least in my experience) that it can easily be overlooked. Is anyone studying spreadsheet literacies? They should. It seems to me that speadsheets so often enact the powers of surveillance and self-surveillance. They tell you what counts, and their archane formulae work it all out. They are tools of performativity. Literacy and power reworked for the modern times. Some historians argue that literacy has its origins in accounting for trade and transaction. The written record is enduring proof after all. Phoenician capitalists are the example that gets cited, but secretly I hope that we could trace a more fundamentally expressive history of literacy, back perhaps to petroglyphs. Its perhaps interesting, perhaps challenging to think that with the rise of writing associated with digital literacy, social media and all the rest, the power of aggregation, big data, monetisation is never far away. Are we all on one big spreadsheet? Would Borges wish to rethink his map as big as the territory story for our time?

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