Digitality: culture and foreign language education

Now – at last – the digitization of teaching and schools is no longer just a matter of policy statements and announcements. The pandemic has forced us to digitize everyday teaching. Now – finally – we are talking very concretely and practically about end devices, video tools and learning platforms, but finally also about their administration, maintenance and financing. As much as all of this was born out of an emergency, it is welcome that concrete steps are finally being taken that are overdue for 20 or more years.

The digitality of cuture

However, the pedagogical discourse keeps revolving mainly around technologies and hardware. This feeds the suspicion that the cultural impact of digitization is not really understood. Counter to this it can be hypothesized that digitization has penetrated all areas of cultural life and all spheres of society and that it has basically captured and transformed our culture as a whole. For this reason, Felix Stalder (2016) speaks of the ‘digitality of culture’. For him, one of the central characteristics of this digitality is the ‘multiplication of cultural choices’ (p. 10):

“More and more people are participating in cultural processes, more and more dimensions of existence are becoming fields of cultural confrontation, and social action is being embedded in increasingly complex technologies without which these processes could hardly be thought of, let alone accomplished. The number of competing cultural projects, works, points of reference and systems is growing rapidly, which in turn has triggered a worsening crisis of established forms and institutions of culture that are not geared to deal with this flood of claims to meaning.” (p. 11; my translation)

The educational mission

The educational task of developing a digital discourse competence therefore does not necessarily relate to the handling of digital technologies, but rather to the ability to orientate oneself in the enormously diverse cultural choices and multiplied social contexts, to position oneself there, and to communicate appropriately and in a goal-oriented manner. Teaching text production and communication in a foreign language must be prepared for this: to orient oneself in discourses, to cope with a quantity of texts and images, to recognize positions in discourse and determine one’s own position in it, to develop a discourse-related ability to express oneself – offline and online.

Digital cultural deep structures

However, Stalder also rightly points out that the advance of digital technologies, apparatuses and applications (‘apps’) is, in some way, changing the deep structures of societal, social and individual thought and action. He elaborates this process in terms of three central ‘forms of digitality’ that guide our cultural thought and action.  

Referentiality

Introducing this category, Stalder designates the frame of reference that we need (to recognize or construct) in order to “inscribe ourselves into cultural processes and to be able to constitute ourselves as producers.” (p. 95) The production of references is “one, if not the basic method by which people participate, alone and in groups, in the collective negotiation of meaning.” (p. 96) Translated into the goals of language education: Being able to engage in discourse means being able to identify discourses as thematic processes of negotiating meaning and to recognize in what way one would like to actively participate in them with one’s own contributions.

Communality

It is obvious that the digitization of all areas of life has produced new “forms of communality that develop in the ramifications of networked life.” (p. 134) Exchange and communication within defined fields of practice (video games, sports, political movements) are central to the constitution and preservation of such communities: “The individual must communicate a lot and continuously in order to constitute themself within the fields and practices, otherwise they will remain invisible.” (p. 137) Therefore, discourse competence is an indispensable prerequisite for (de-institutionalized) forms of sociality. And: “The necessary mass of tweets, updates, e-mails, blogs, shared images, texts, entries on collaborative platforms, databases and so on can only be produced and processed with the help of digital technologies.” (S. 137)

Algorithmicity

Algorithms are, so to speak, the machine-based methods for creating orders and valences in otherwise inaccessible huge amounts of data (such as those used by search engines to find websites – Big Data). They make it possible for us to find and use what is hidden in immeasurable large data networks and translate it “into those formats […] that people can understand (Small Data).” (p.96) Algorithms are thus the prerequisite for participation in a “culture based on digital technologies”. (p. 96) At the same time, these algorithms are highly problematic because they are power-based (Google, Amazon), hierarchizing and evaluative “by pre-sorting the (informational) world” (p. 96) In other words: algorithms are culturally formative.

Self-determination in the face of algorithms

As far as the educational mission of schools and foreign language teaching is concerned, this is the broadest and most difficult field to work upon. It can be conceived in the question of how individuals can maintain a degree of self-determination in the face of these omnipresent, extremely effective machine-based procedures and (political, commercial, social) controls of action; how they are able to maintain a kind of self-control that is indispensable for real cultural participation. In any case, continuous reflection on this challenging question must become an integral part of school education.

The foundations of eduation in cultural studies

Wolfgang HalletMatzina

Stalder’s cultural theory of digitality is only one of many approaches that help us understand the true nature of digitization. We depend on such findings based on culture theories and explanatory models to ensure that we do not fall short in the school subjects of language education: Digitization, it should be recognized, cannot be negotiated and processed (only) on the level of suitable end devices and the latest Edu Apps. Rather, we must understand how digitization permeates the lives of the young people whose learning processes we intend to stimulate and enhance. If we do not understand their digital practices as cultural, social and communicative practices and as cognitive imprints at the same time, ‘learner and life-world orientation’ will remain an empty pedagogical phrase.

Further reading: Felix Stalder (2016). Digitalität der Kultur. Frankfiurt/Main: Suhrkamp. | By the author: (2002) Fremsorachenunterricht als Spiel der Texte und Kulturen. Intertextualität als Paradigma einer kulturwissenschaftlichen Didaktik. Trier: WVT. | (2011). How to do things with media. Die Performativität medialer Nutzungsakte. In: Barbara Schmenk & Nicola Würffel (eds.). Drei Schritte vor und manchmal auch sechs zurück. Internationale Perspektiven auf Entwicklungslinien im Bereich Deutsch als Fremdsprache. Tübingen: Narr. 231-243.| (2020). Die Digitalisierung der fremdsprachigen Diskursfähigkeit. In: Maria Eisenmann (ed.). Sprachen, Kulturen Identitäten: Umbrüche durch Digitalisierung. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider-Hohengehren. 187-198.

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