Books,  digital implications,  digital scholarship,  digscholbook

Living in pregnant widow times

black widow

<Image black widow by Janrito Karamazov>

For the title of his latest novel, Martin Amis borrows from this Alexander Herzen quote

“The death of contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.”

Amis is writing about the sexual revolution, but I think the same can be applied to the digital revolution. This is what causes so much angst in the popular press, and amongst society in general. We can see what is passing, but what is forming is still unclear. Clay Shirky, talking about newspapers puts it thus:

"So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don't know. Nobody knows. We're collectively living through 1500, when it's easier to see what's broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen."

We can think about some general directions of travel, we can make some guesses, and most of all, we can experiment. My interest is what the changes mean for scholarly practice, how will academics perform research, what will education look like twenty years from now, how can we best be engaged in public debates? We have a very well established set of methods for all of these currently, but it is unlikely that any of them will remain untouched by the impact of digital, social networks. And as with other industries, trying to find ways to preserve them as they are, or with a digital veneer, won't be sufficient when other find innovative ways to achieve the same ends using the new tools. If you accept the argument that we are living in such a period of change, then what academic wouldn't be interested in observing this change in any field, let alone that of their own practice.

As Amis puts it in his novel, "it was a revolution. And we all know what happens in a revolution. You see what goes, you what stays, you see what comes."

What goes, what stays and what comes – each of element of this trio is significant. Often we concentrate on 'what comes', but it's just as interesting to consider what stays. This reveals what is important to us (will journalism stay? Will universities stay?), or at least what is so ingrained culturally or commercially as to be immovable. The QWERTY keyboard has stayed thus far in the digital age, despite being an analogue solution, not through any sense of value, but because it was too entrenched to overthrow. 

What goes is equally revealing, because it demonstrates that practices and values we may have seen as unassailable are suddenly vulnerable because the assumptions they are based upon are no longer valid. The scarcity, rivalrous nature and distribution model of many goods and content is one such example. When they became abundant, non-rivalrous and freely distributed whole industries began to look weak. The 'what goes' element may also reveal to us what was important and not so important after all.

We generally assume that after a peaceful social revolution the resulting practice is an improvement for the majority of people, otherwise it wouldn't occur. Unless the revolution is imposed upon the people, then the general direction will be towards a utilitarian improvement. But this doesn't mean the post-revolutionary world will be better for everyone. There are those whose profession and identity will be strongly allied to the existing practices. There will be practices and values that are lost that we find we did in fact hold dear, but which were too closely attached to the older methods to survive. In short, there will be winner and losers. A revolution may be bloodless, but is rarely painless for all.

Which is why we see scare stories about games damaging kids health, or social networks ruining the nature of friendship, or piracy killing artistic endeavour, or the fabric of society being damaged irrevocably by the addiction to computers. We are learning what role these new tools play in our lives, and there will inevitably be mistakes, misapplication, over-use and correction. For example, many people reported something resembling an addiction to social networks when they first started on them, but these have since settled into a more controlled, regular place in our lives.

We are living in pregnant widow times, and we can see what is going, but we don't yet know what is staying and what is coming. And that's kinda fun isn't it?


  • Rebecca

    Kinda fun? A friend of mine was left a pregnant widow with a toddler, when her husband died unexpectedly. It was deep, dark misery and struggle, the much-resented junking of plans and certainties, and a lasting void. This is a strong metaphor, coined at a time when revolution involved tens of thousands of people tortured or killed.
    I’m not saying it’s an inappropriate image – just that it means some thinking through, and maybe it shifts the tone and focus of your writing. It’s not the metaphor of an onlooker and an observer as the Amis quote you give implies, it’s the metaphor of a profoundly involved participant.

  • Martin

    Yes, obviously I didn’t mean literally, that is awful. But it’s a good metaphor because it speaks of ambiguous times emotionally – there is mourning and grieving at what has past, excitement and anxiety about what is to come, and uncertainty.

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