January 2021

2020: That was the year that was

Looking back over the readings from the past year, there is one theme that stands out the most: that of digital imaginaries. In 2019, the reading group tended towards readings which were on-the-ground or examining an ongoing phenomenon. Works like Gray and Suri’s (2019) Ghost Work or Jurgenson’s (2019) The Social Photo examined trends already in place; whether they were about technology making individuals more visible or invisible. This reached its zenith with the idea of conducting our own walkthroughs of an app (Smiling Mind). 2019 (in retrospect) looks like the year of action and of examining what we were doing.

2020 does not appear to be that year. Whether this change would have inevitably arisen from the themes of 2019 is difficult to say. What is not as difficult to say is that (regardless of inevitability) the pandemic certainly spurred us further away from 2019’s orientation. This is not to say 2020 was a loss or negative, simply that it had a different orientation. That direction, it seems to me is not what we were doing but what we should be doing. Perhaps more specifically, how we should be thinking about what we should be doing.

Again, the pandemic was certainly a driver of this. The inherently global nature of the pandemic has forced us to take a step back and examine how a wide variety of countries have handled one central issue (or haven’t handled it, in some cases). This facilitates a move away from established norms, to at least look at what alternative could be. And I feel this was reflected in much of the reading. Works such as Kukutai & Taylor’s (2016) Indigenous Data Sovereignty; and D’Ignazio & Klein’s (2020) Data Feminism offered viewpoints away from what is often still the norm of Global North, Westerncentric, patriarchal assumptions we find in the digital. The importance of this was crystalized in an earlier reading: Zerilli’s (2005) article on the thought of Hannah Arendt.  Zerilli (2005, 178) describes the importance of a potential future (the importance of imaginaries) as they provide hope. We do not have to know what is to come from a new future before embracing it. To do so would be what Touraine (2007, 192) describes as the ‘slackness of so-called neoliberal thinking’, reducing all possibilities to adapting ourselves to current constraints.

This is not to claim that, in the past year, we have collectively managed to come up with a digital future we can all be satisfied with (or how we should get to such a place). This is not what was set as our aim, nor should it have been (after all, peace comes dropping slow). What the reading from the past year does reiterate is the importance of seeking alternatives, particularly those from outside of the traditional hegemons. Digital infrastructures and platformised pedagogies are not disappearing. In the wake of the pandemic, we are likely to see schools using more and more digital technology. Many of the issues with the increased digitalisation of education over the past year were highlighted by Williamson and Hogan (2020). Works such as Data Feminism and Dencik et al’s (2019) Exploring Data Justice become more important in light of this; refusing the slackness of neoliberal thinking and instead advocating for new ways of seeing digital realities (or, oftentimes, highlighting existing but alienated views of these realities). The importance of this (and the sense of hope that comes with it) is what I took from the readings throughout 2020 and hope will continue on in the reading group for 2021. 

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