Digitization: New Territoritory 1979

Recently I disposed of a Windows 95 PC, with 95 for 1995, an operating system that overcame the surface of DOS commands in the mid-1990s and visualized the complete usage. This is worth mentioning because the popularization of personal computers and the Internet use now goes back more than thirty years without any appropriate educational-political or curricular response.

Digitization 1979

On the other hand, it can be observed that pointing out the novelty of the challenges is almost one of the standardized text modules in the discourse on digitization; and in didactics (and in curricular frameworks in particular) ‘new media’ is still a synonym for everything digital. Therefore, it seems necessary to recall some of the more historically distant reflections on the digitization of knowledge and education in cultural studies: As early as in 1979, more than 40 years ago, in his book La condition postmodern. Un rapport sur le savoir, Jean-François Lyotard diagnosed that digitization will change cultural knowledge and the way society and individuals deal with it, and will even present science with the problem of legitimization.

A report in Higher Education

It was almost completely overlooked that this was a didactic document. It was hardly received as such, although this rapport sur le savoir was commissioned by the University Council of the Canadian province of Quebec. In nuce, it contains everything that can be observed in terms of cultural transformations and effects in connection with digitization. In the first chapter Lyotard writes:

It is reasonable to suppose that the proliferation of information-processing machines is having, and will continue to have, as much of an effect on the circulation of learning as did advancements in human circulation (transportation system) and later, in the circulation of sounds and visual images (the media).
The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new search will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The “producers” and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent and learn. (Lyotard 1984 : 4)

New knowledge – new learning

It is very remarkable that here – as early as 1979 – the new, digital quality of knowledge is placed in a direct connection with learning. But beyond that, for the context of school education and foreign language learning, the questions associated with this general diagnosis can be spelled out as follows:

1 First, the question arises as to how the ‘old’, analogous knowledge relates to the new, digital forms of knowledge (‘new’ in 1979!). Will the analogous knowledge become obsolete? Or will analogous knowledge and the skills to handle it exist in a continuum together with and next to each other?

2 Is the ‘new’ knowledge merely a ‘translation’ of the old into a digital one? Or does ‘transformation’ mean that knowledge takes on a completely new, specific, digital quality? What exactly is its ‘nature’ in this case?

3 Does digitization, do digits change the acquisition of knowledge and the ways in which knowledge is generated?

4 What skills and ‘means’ must the ‘producers’ of knowledge and those who acquire and learn it have at their disposal? How does digitization change the actors themselves?

The importance of language

Some of the answers are obvious, but some of them are still waiting for more detailed didactic research – not only in foreign language didactics. In this post, it is not possible to recapitulate all of Lyotard’s writing in all its relevance for school education and foreign language teaching; in fact, Lytoard’s initial hypothesis emphasizes the paramount importance of language and of the discursivity of knowledge, the production of knowledge and its acquisition. His entire theory of postmodernism is basically based on the assumption that knowledge is linguistic.

Sociality and communication

Of course, from today’s perspective, many of the questions raised by Lyotard turn out to be more central than in 1979; some implications, such as the potential of social networking or the multimodalization of all communication, were, by their very nature, not yet fully apparent at that time. This applies, e.g., to new types of sociality constituted by the numerous so-called social networks on the Internet. More obviously and of fundamental importance for foreign language teaching, however, are the effects on the large field of communication and on the formation of discourses as well as on the power relations manifesting themselves in them. In more detail, these are some of the conspicuous effects:

  • Acceleration: Global electronic networking has accelerated communication enormously because statements can circulate synchronously around the globe.
  • The multiplication of the amount of data and information: The number of simultaneous and, above all, openly accessible utterances, available texts of all kinds (especially images) and the amount of information has multiplied infinitely.
  • The multiplication of cultural, ideological, ethical orientations, designs of biographies and lifestyles: Lyotard’s writing also deals with the fact that in postmodernism, previously undisputed great narratives such as Christianity or Marxism can no longer claim universal validity; in competition with numerous other (possibly new) meta-narratives, they must constantly re-legitimize themselves; “the binding nature of the identities, family conceptions and life trajectories they have shaped decreases.” (Stalder, p. 129)
  • The multiplication of semiotic modes: The technological possibility of translating and linking all semiotic modes, whether image, word text or audio text, in digits (i.e. ‘translation’ in Lyotard’s sense) has enormously increased the importance of individual modes, and of visual (here again: photographic) modes in particular. The possibility of linking and combining them has also helped all kinds of multimodal utterances (multimedia websites, comics, films, memes, video games, etc.) to achieve an outstanding cultural significance and effectiveness. In other words, a very large part of communication is no longer based on word texts alone, i.e. it is no longer monoliteral, but multilateral, employing other codes.
  •  Generic change: The digital environments, their operators (especially the digital monopolists) and their users are constantly creating new forms and genres of communication, some of which are becoming established, others will become culturally irrelevant after a comparatively short time.
  • Visibility: In digital environments, agents in discourses attain a previously impossible degree of individual visibility and presence, which again has a considerable impact on the processes of identity and personality formation.
Foreign Language Teaching 2020

All of these developments are at least implicit in Lyotard’s report on knowledge, epistemologies and learning. In any case,  foreign language pedagogy has long been obliged – at the latest since 1979 – to take up all these developments, to curricularize them, and to translate them into forms of teaching and learning.

Further reading: Jean-François Lyotard (1984) [1979]: The postmodern condition. A report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester UP. [French original in 1979]  | Wolfgang Hallet (2002). Fremdsprachenunterricht als Spiel der Texte und Kulturen. Intertextualität als Paradigma einer kulturwissenschaftlichen Didaktik. Trier: WVT. Ch. 1 “Lektüren, Patschwork, Hypertext” and Ch. 2, “Fremdsprachenunterricht als Spiel der Texte”. – Felix Stalder (2016). Digitalität der Kultur. Frankfurt/Main. Suhrkamp.

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