Disposable thinking? Tangled in the metaphors

An oasis of modernity

Maybe I was feeling a little buzzed by the subject matter of my previous post, or maybe I was just feeling info-logged, but whatever it was about forty-five minutes ago I could tell that my brain was not operating properly. So I took a sanity break for a quick walk along the wooded Pacific coastline that is less than ten minutes on foot from my office. I gave thanks not only for working on such a stunning campus, but also for having a work environment humane enough for me to wander off freely when I need to (most of them haven’t been).

I didn’t really get anywhere thinking through the relation between physical, emotional and intellectual well-being, or about information overload, or about the full implications of an impending energy crisis (like I said, my mind was all over the place). I was just starting to head back to the office when Stephen Downes’s formulation of information as a flow popped into my head — not artifacts that you collect but a torrent that you try to navigate and redirect. There’s a lot I like about his comparison of information to electricity and water, it intuitively fits with how I feel when I’m on top of my info-streams, and I have taken to quoting that riff regularly during presentations and workshops. Downes returned to this theme yesterday in challenging the “premise …that campus computing is contributing to information overload, and that the solution is to turn off the computer once in a while,” arguing that “this just makes information overload worse, because the information doesn’t stop piling up just because you’ve logged off. The key (in my mind) is to stop treating information like a thing, stop treating it as though it were a pile of required reading, but to sample and filter and redirect, to taste and digest and manipulate as needed. Information management is a skill, like kayaking, and needs to be practiced.”

Maybe it was the forested path and the coastal view, but only then did it fully occur to me that a natural consequence of de-objectifying information is to think of it as disposable. Now, “disposable” is not a word that has positive connotations for me — when I hear “disposable” I think about plastic and styrofoam clogging landfills, or vast aisles of heavily-packaged goods in soul-shattering big box stores. I think “waste”. Does conceptualising an ephemeral stream of collective consciousness render individual intellectual work as at best insignificant, or even laden with toxic byproducts? Or do books and paintings and all of the other physical artifacts (and attendant institutions) give culture an illusory sense of substance and permanence? And maybe that illusion is being flushed away by digital culture… (Note to self: read Benjamin again.)

Maybe I should look closer at Downes’s metaphor, focus on the comparision to water and energy part, and think of information not as disposable goods, but as something that is always readily available (at least for now, and only to those sufficiently privileged to be connected, but never mind). Something that is managed, delivered and maintained by experts, a resource that can be conserved (and polluted and thoughtlessly squandered, but never mind).

I recognise that I am indulging in fallacy here — metaphors are only metaphors, and just because two things resemble one another in a certain respect does not mean that they are identical in every way. Then again, I wonder to what extent tensions between higher ed and digital cultural might be exacerbated by the status of intellectual aftifacts in the age of digital (re)production. Anybody know something I should be reading?

Posts like these happen when I take walks in the afternoon. Please refrain from sending missives to my boss demanding that she chain me to my desk.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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