Between Cyberutopia and Cyberphobia
Mar 7, 2019
University of Witwatersrand
Between Cyberutopia and Cyberphobia : the Humanities on the African continent in the Era of Machine Learning
This workshop takes its focus from the upheaval in popular and scholarly understandings of the intellectual (and political) prospects of the networked planet. A decade ago advocates and precocious users were celebrating the leveling, democratic and emancipatory possibilities of the Internet, and of social media platforms in particular. Today an elaborated loathing of these technologies and their political effects — succinctly captured by the UK Channel 4 series Black Mirror — has become common and politically compelling. Popular and scholarly disillusionment with the promises of the network society now seems close to self-evident, and is the subject of daily reports in the major international newspapers. Much more difficult to assess is the critical and political power of the dystopian critique of cybernetics — as the emergent field was named in 1948 by Norbert Wiener — that emerges from the humanist tradition. In this workshop we propose an assessment of these two movements, and their mutual engagement, in the special circumstances of the African university.
The combination of ubiquitous social media, feedback-centered devices and the sorting and predictive techniques of machine-learning, now released from the old constraints on data-processing, seems to present an existential shift to the human condition and certainly a danger to the long-established habits of disciplinary enquiry in the humanities. Carefully engineered features of the global network affect young and old alike. An explosion of source materials — to focus only on the most obvious problem — has been combined with a technological order of continuous distraction through technologically mediated simultaneous co-presence in multiple social sites. User-produced data (much of it in text form) has become the key profit-driver for the wealthiest firms in the world. In this new global economy, and in the simplest formulation, it is the absence of uninterrupted time that makes the cultivation of the post-Renaissance ethic of self-directed reading increasingly untenable. It is this concern that drives a deep and persuasive pessimism about the digital infrastructure and the production, consumption and meaning of digital content that now dominates the humanities.