On the long journey to New Zealand I detailed in my previous post, I had some time to read a novel given there was no internet for most of the 36 hour journey. I’ve been looking forward to reading Giorgio De Maria’s 1975 novel The Twenty Days of Turin since reading the LA Times Review of Books piece on it by Peter Berard:
This is a book written in 1975 and featuring no technology more advanced than high-end analog audio recordings, yet it grasps the implications of social media in ways cyberpunk never did. It’s a book steeped in the idiosyncratic culture of Turin that speaks to psychic elements of crises now gripping much of the world. The Twenty Days of Turin depicts how the past overflows the feeble efforts of the present to make its own future; in that, it may be the novel that foreshadows our moment more accurately than any number of speculative fictions.
That paragraph of Berard’s review was the hook that got my interest, and Paul Bond and I were planning on doing an online book discussion, but time and travel got in the way. I’d like to return to that discussion with Paul, but in the interim I plan to integrate a piece of the book into my presentation here in Auckland. So, this post is an attempt to feel some of that out in anticipation of the talk tomorrow at THETA 17.
I’ve been working on my talk pretty diligently today. It’s both an amalgamation and distillation of the talks I gave at the NEXA Center in Turin on visions of an integrated domain and the presentation at Karlstadt University in Sweden about the Next Generation Digital Learning Environments. I’m using pieces from both talks, but I have re-organized them into two distinct sections. But before I even get there I’m opening with a tangent about the UMW Console in order to discuss a technologically mediated vision of the future before the web. We’ll see how this tangent goes, but I really enjoyed talking about the UMW Console at Coventry last April and at Amical in May. I think framing visions of the future through a recreation of the past can playfully challenge the often ahistorical and uncritical assumptions surrounding technological innovation—but we’ll see.
The first section of the talk is titled “Vision I: Data, Power, Surveillance & Privacy.” This part of the talk will start with a discussion of technology as will to power framed by Bruce Sterling in his introduction to Ernst Jünger’s novel The Glass Bees back in 2000 (in many ways the companion piece to De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin). This is also a throwback to thw EDUPUNK-inspired post I wrote in 2008 that ignited a discussion around corporate power ed-tech that has only intensified over the last decade. The crux of this section pivots on Sterling’s quote “technology is pursued not to accelerate progress but to intensify power.” In particular, the intensification of power has come though an accumulation of vast amounts of personal data by large technology corporations, which explores yet another theme in The Glass Bees—unchecked corporate aggresssion. Audrey Watters over the last 6 years has taken this theme to the next level by deconstructing the Silicon Valley myth system used to frame the historical inevitability of the consolidation of power through social disruption dressed up as educational innovation. The endgame of that narrative is the extraction, accumulation, and marketing of personal data through surveillance capital, a trend so dangerously consolidated in a few companies that even a staunch neo-liberal champion such as The Economist is having second thoughts.
This bit leads into a discussion of EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) and the Finnish white paper, MyData, which focuses on a human-centered personal data management.
This all may prove a bit of a Crime and Punishment appendix wherein the Lazarus-inspired resurrection of hope at then end of this section is not nearly powerful enough to battle the eroding moral infrastructure—but you gotta try.
The Second part is titled “Vision II: Creativity, Fluency, Empowerment & Control” and this section is where I will try and both mirror and update the example of The Glass Bees with The Twenty Days of Turin. But first I need to provide a brief plot summary, so here’s a good one from the publisher:
In the spare wing of a church-run sanatorium, some zealous youths create “the Library,” a space where lonely citizens can read one another’s personal diaries and connect with like-minded souls in “dialogues across the ether.” But when their scribblings devolve into the ugliest confessions of the macabre, the Library’s users learn too late that a malicious force has consumed their privacy and their sanity. As the city of Turin suffers a twenty-day “phenomenon of collective psychosis” culminating in nightly massacres that hundreds of witnesses cannot explain, the Library is shut down and erased from history.
This collective psychosis and subsequent amnesia De Maria writes about in the mid seventies can certainly be understood for the political unrest and regular violence in the Nation’s big cities between warring paramilitary factions of neo fascists, communists, and cosa nostra. Between 1969 and 1981 there were over 2000 politically-motivated murders around Italy, giving that time period the nickname “The Years of Lead” (Anni di piombo). Possibly the most notorious politically motivated murder of this era inItaly was the assassination of prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 by the Red Brigade. It was a dark time in Italy, and it is by no means a leap to see the horrors of political terrorism allegorized by a band of competing giants that sap your worst fears and desires viz-a-viz a communal front called “The Library.” What’s more, the information collected is used against the population, turning them into a collection of amnesia-ridden insomniacs whose bodies are used as clubs to destroy each other with. Not a huge jump to see how De Maria might be grafting the political events of Turin throughout the 1970s onto the soulless giants destroying Turin over the course of 20 days in this novel.
But the resurrection of the novel in 2017 is fascinating because the clean-cut young boys organizing “The Library” and taking all your personal information in order to use it against you in the most horrific of ways in the near future could just as well be a parable of the handful of internet tech giants collecting all our personal data right now. De Maria’s sets the novel ten years after the violent outburst during the 20 days of Turin, but it seems to be a future beyond the 70s. One hint at this is the hippie protestors known as the Millenarists are said to have had their hey day 30 years prior to the action of the novel, dating the novel to the late 90s early 00s. In fact, the Millenarists are interesting because they represent the public memory of an event that no one else in Turin cares or dares to discuss. In one scene they are seen demonstrating and handing out pamphlets warning the end is nigh, and trying to remind the city’s residents that the 20 Days of Turin was just the first of many episodes demonstrating the Lord will have his revenge for the population’s backsliding. The protagonist takes one of the pamphlets while leaving the gathering and reads the following bit:
Among the cardinal sins, after “sensuality” and “disbelief,” it mentioned an “inattentiveness” toward “that which seems invisible around us, but is no less worthy of our concern.”
And it’s this idea of inattentiveness, the absence of any real vigilance as to the invisible forces that determine the dynamic of power that pushed me to use this quote as the frame for the second part of the talk. Couldn’t it be argued that the sin of higher ed over the last 10-15 years with the explosion of the social web has been inattentiveness—a general disregard for those invisible forces that everywhere frame the geo-political world we currently live in as told by Twitter? Like in the novel, it may be too late, but the idea of understanding and contending with the forces that brought this nightmare to bear seems the only way forward, and this will lead to a discussion of ds106, student empowerment, a vision of digital literacy/fluency, and Domain of One’s Own. Much of this work has been about the attentiveness to who we are online and what it means to read and think critically about the platforms that everywhere attempt to determine us.
So, that’s what I am gonna try and talk about in less than four hours, wish me luck.