How Do You Study a Moving Object?

This morning I was reading Digitize This Book!for my side project on digital epistemology when I came across this 2001 quote from a book byPeter Lunenfeld,a professor in theDesign|Media Artsdepartment atUCLA.

A critical theory of technological media will always be in inherent conflict with the practice of creating these very media. For if theory demands from its objects a certain stability, theory is itself free to break the tethers of its objects…. The pressures of the market and the innovations of the laboratory combine to make stability impossible within the practice of digital media, however. [emphasis added]

To “pressures of the market” and “innovation of the laboratory,” Lunenfeld could also add “political contention” as a force preventing stability in the practice of digital media. For example, at one time, digital activists really did have the upper hand on the political uses of digital technology, but repressive regimes are becoming savvier to these uses and such activities as organizing online – previously safer than organizing in the street – now also entail dangers of surveillance, interception, and persecution. The practice of digital media – this case the practice of the political use of digital media – is constantly changing, never stable.

This instability is one of the of the reason I find the study of digital activism so fascinating, the practice of digital activism is constantly evolving, constantly incorporating new tools, creating and refining tactics, reacting to opponents. Yet it is also a real problem for scholars: how do you study a moving object? Once we feel we understand something about digital activism – either because practices correspond to an existing theory or because we make up a new theory to explain those practices – those practices subsequently change, upsetting the theoretical apple cart. How is is possible to make truthful statements under these circumstances? Lunenfeld has an answer: the digital dialectic.

The digital dialectic offers a way to talk about computer media that is open to the sophisticated methodologies of theory without ignoring the nuts a bolts or, better yet, the bits and byte of their production. To repeat, the digital dialectic… grounds the insights of theory in the constraints of practice.[emphasis added]

By digital dialectic Lunenfeld means that digital theory and digital practice interrogate one another such that theory frames our understanding of practice and practice informs theory in a kind of feedback loop.

I like the idea of a digital dialectic because it stresses that both theory and practice must co-exist in order to understand digital phenomena, but I don’t think it resolves the problem of the instability of practice. Even a process of constant interrogation can fail at pinning down the truth. Practically speaking, I think our best bets are to constantly collect and analyze new data about practices of digital activism: start the tape early, never stop it, and continually analyze new results. This is an appealing methodology for the Global Digital Activism Data Set, although it is an expensive and exhausting one.

Second, I think we need to be honest about the short shelf life of digital activism knowledge. We need to be explicit about the time at which data was collected and not make statements about the present with old data. How old is old? I’d say data about digital activism practice is valid for about a year, definitely outdated in five, though I’d be interested in other opinions on that figure. The constant change of digital activism make it an equally fascinating and maddening subject for study, but with a little humility and a rigorous requirement for the most recent data, we may yet be able to understand it.



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