whirling fire at night

Risk, Reward, and Digital Writing

 Published on October 28, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Jesse Stommel /  “your fire” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  6

Autocorrect is tyranny. It is interruption of thought, of speech, of creation, a condition for — and sometimes a prohibition against — my voice being heard. When I type “phone-less” and autocorrect changes it to “phenols”, when my sister-in-law’s name, Asya, is regularly corrected to “As yet”, even the simplest communication becomes humorous at best, hazardous at worst. Because I use text message to discuss matters of pedagogy, philosophy, religion, relationship, and the running of this journal, my thoughts are often flowing faster than my fingers; and when I have to slow down to correct the correction algorithm on my phone or my computer, time and thought can be lost.

And in the process of learning to outthink autocorrect, I have relearned typing, grammar, punctuation. I write in anticipation of being corrected, like a small child speaking to a stern parent.

Algorithms control the way we write, the way we interact with one another, the way we find each other in the digital, and whether or not what we say ever gets heard how and by whom we intended. Writing and interacting to outwit the algorithm has become a digital literacy all its own, a new savoir-faire. Resisting the algorithm, on the other hand, is a minute rebellion, a disassembly, even in the smallest way, of the systems that control our words and relationships.

Tanya Sasser has written that “Digital writing is political.” She states that “From blogs to mashups to Twitter, to the greatest extent ever, we have the tools and the opportunity to write our own story, rather than suffering someone else to write it for us.” Authorship has blossomed since the dawn of social media; but even in its rise, authorship has been controlled by the platforms upon which we write. Digital pages are not neutral spaces. As I write this in Google Docs, I’m subject to the terms of service that invisibly manipulate the page; and I am also subject to the whims of the designers of the platform. By the gray background to the fonts made available, from the options I’m given for sharing to the “internal server error” that occurred just seconds ago, I am reminded that this is not a piece of paper under my pencil or wheeling about in my typewriter. The page has been built by someone. Someone with their own ideas for how writing works. Someone I must assume (must hope) appreciates all the needs a writer might have.

Digital writing is political because in every pixel, every DNA-like strand of code, we are placing ourselves into the public. Even if we are not writing for a wide audience, even if we make no plans to disseminate our work, the craft of writing now takes place within other people’s software, in other people’s houses. This page the borrowed sheets. Me the writer a couch surfer.

Owning our own homes in the digital requires an expertise that this writer does not have. I don’t own my own server, I haven’t learned to code, I haven’t designed my own interfaces, my own web site, nor even my own font. I must content myself to rent, to squat, or to ride the rails. But in this I find a certain freedom, a resistance in the willy-nilly. I cannot build my own home in the digital, but I can mark my territory.

In November, Hybrid Pedagogy — along with the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies — will once again host Digital Writing Month, a 30-day writing challenge that asks participants to create works of text, image/video, and sound. The form these works take, and what they say, do, expose, problematize, or solve, is entirely up to the author(s) and artist(s) who join the fray. The work should be challenging, inventive, and should give the digital writer a chance to do something they’ve always wanted to do.

Here, in this piece, I am offering an additional challenge: to make the act of digital writing truly political. To rouse and incite, to question and provoke, to mark our territories on the spaces delimited by their designers. By creating, hack; by writing, rebel. We must make the sites of our work little bitty Bastilles, our tweets and Vines and sound clips tiny marches on Versailles. Imagine a blog that flies the Jolly Roger, a podcast that bows to no one, a Vimeo channel that riots and runs amok. These are the ways the insurgence begins.

In this, I recognize I speak of rebellion playfully, when in truth most revolutions are terrible, bloody affairs. That playfulness, though, is the invitation. We are creating a revolution of digital handicraft, of makers and shakers. We shall not throw our bodies upon the machines, but we shall throw our words there — and our images — and our voices. The approach may look joyous and celebratory, and the fervor may delight and inspire, and the result will have meaning.

Hybrid Pedagogy has been accused of being Pollyanna, our work too blithe and easy, our seriousness not nearly serious enough. Our editors on the tenure track have been reminded to publish with traditional journals, lest their academic work wither under the glare of rigor and double-blind peer review. But there is nothing casual about Hybrid Pedagogy, just as there is nothing casual about any other digital work. What digital work does is change the landscape of all work. When we write in the digital, our words behave differently; when we broadcast our ideas, the reception re-broadcasts and re-purposes those ideas. Digital publishing, digital writing, digital humanities, digital literacy, digital citizenship — these are not terms à la mode, but rather they are new components of very real human communities, very real human craft. We may approach them with equal part suspicion and exaltation, but approach them we must.

Insisting on such requires a certain risk, especially in academia. We must be prepared to look back in the faces of those who think our digital work lacks merit and tell them otherwise. And we must do so to the ends of our wits.

To change the perception that the digital is not as consequential as work in traditional media we must participate in it. We must put our best work there, and eschew the paper-bound, readerless journals that grow mold in library basements. We must reinhabit libraries, as sites for conference and debate, crafting and creation, community and not simply curation. We must likewise redefine what matters, what has impact factor, and grow the traditional so it’s not so obsolete. We must show up in digital places in throngs and masses. No algorithms will change unless we move against them. The LMS will not die its death until we put it in the ground. Our work in the digital will not begin if we never recognize that it is work that must begin.

Digital Writing Month, and digital writing at any time, is never frivolous. In doing things differently, we sow difference. “Essays quake and tremble at the digital,” I said. “They weep in awe and fascination. And they throw themselves into the abyss … Digital writing is a rebellion. An uprising against our sense and sensibility. Différance.” By refusing to do what’s expected, we frame a space of new expectations, new possibilities. When we recognize the oppression of autocorrect, the hegemony of the algorithm, the charade of rigor, we light the fires of revolution. And though they may glow softly at first, enough of them gathered together will burn down towers.

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6 Responses
  1. Love this article and what it calls for but i have a tongue-in-cheek remark to add 😉 u can always turn off autocorrect – i have to do that for my text messages because i use English/Latin characters to write transliterated Arabic text. I guess we could view this both as an act of rebellion and violation of both languages. By turning off autocorrect i leave myself vulnerable to mistakes in “correct” language but i allow myself the freedom to make my own mistakes. I make more typos than i ever make spelling mistakes when writing by hand, but it’s worth it for me

  2. Thanks for the call to play. And given that you likely know how to turn off auto-correct already, I suspect that you are not as outraged by it as you suggest. The recent experimental writing that Maha and I attempted with some rhizomatic friends suggests to me another way to think about auto-correct: as noise, or more specifically, as a parasite as Serres uses the term. Noise was not invented by Shannon, though he did describe it in some detail, and it need not be thought of as an error to be eliminated or at least controlled as Shannon did. Rather, noise is a constant companion of communications, a parasite, as Serres demonstrates. Human communication has always had noisy parasites just as our bodies have had micro biomes. It’s part of our condition, and we rid ourselves of noise with the same peril that we rid ourselves of our microbes. They are along for the ride, and we have to accommodate them—we have to live with them. So why not engage the noise? Why not invite it in? Make the parasite a recognized, if not always welcome, guest and play with him. Look at the noise in the margins, the comments, the links—in the distortions introduced by new technological spaces. Electronic technology has introduced all kinds of new noises. Play them. Paper was noisy, too, especially when it burned.

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