Theories for the digital age

by Steve Wheeler

Postmodernist views of society can be appropriated as lenses to analyse the personalised use of digital technology. Consumers of Web based content tend to search randomly and nomadically, due to the multi-layered, multi-directional nature of hyperlinked media and this aligns neatly with some post modern theory. The writings of Deleuze and Guattari (1980), for example, feature the nomadic thought processes that characterise contemporary perceptions, and portray the chaos of modern life. They employ the botanic metaphor of rhizomatic root systems to describe multiple, chaotic non-hierarchical interpretations of knowledge. Rhizomes resist chronology and organisational structures, thereby more accurately representing the unstructured but purposeful manner in which many people now use the Web.

Significantly, because rhizomes are open ended, the importance of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome explanation is not invested in individual components, but rather in the direction of motion the entire organism can adopt at any given time. This is reminiscent of the participatory Web, which consists not so much of the insights and offerings of individuals, but rather of what Surowiecki (2009) has termed ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ – the seemingly random folksonomic directions chosen by entire communites of users as having meaning and importance. The community decides what is important to learn, so in effect, the community becomes the curriculum (Cormier, 2008).

According to Cormier (2008) a rhizomatic interpretation of education is useful because it embraces the ever changing nature of knowledge, is open ended, and is not driven by specific curricula whilst learning is ‘constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.’  This form of negotiated meaning more clearly represents the knowledge acquisition processes that occur within the transient discussion threads and ephemeral collaborative spaces on the World Wide Web.

The colonisation of knowledge spaces by communities is self sustaining, and in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, we see individuals assuming the roles of nomads, maintaining a constant state of becoming and transformation. Again, this is reminiscent of the random searching, scanning and jumping around content through hyperlinking that learners participate in when they traverse the digital landscape. In effect, students participate as flâneurs, acting as individual agents, investigators and explorers of their own personal digital terrains. Their seemingly aimless behaviour belies their essentially purposeful wandering, as learners interrogate their environment in attempts to make sense of it, understand it, participate in it, and ultimately portray it (Baudelaire, 1964).

[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming publication entitled: Personal Technologies in Education: Issues, Theories and Debates]

References

Baudelaire, C. (1964) The Painter of Modern Life, New York, NY: Da Capo Press. (Originally published in Le Figaro, in 1863).

Cormier, D. (2008) Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1980) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Surowiecki, J. (2009) The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few. London: Abacus.

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