connections between weariness of flesh and an age of abundance

Warning – longer than usual blog post – quite apt considering the title!

These past months I’ve known information overload. The era of abundance. The smallness of my blog in the massiveness of digital landscapes reinforces my insignificance. Ionesco’s ‘God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself’ sums up my existential angst at the impossibility of finding a single phd path with my name on it. My theory has to fit. The choice is important. This summer, as well as work overload, I developed inthereority complex, suffered headaches, blurred vision and keyboarditis. It seemed everyone else had their theoretical place and I was the only one lost, still struggling to find my philosophical home. Theory envy is not a healthy place to be.

Then I came across a paper called The ‘Weariness of the Flesh’. Reflections on the life of the mind in an era of abundance *I very nearly didn’t. Biblical references don’t do it for me but it was Solomon and he was wise so it couldn’t do any harm could it? Bible texts depend on translation – much has got lost over the years – but the authors used this (unreferenced) version  ‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ (Ecclesiasts 12.12) What the old king was saying 3000 years ago, when presumably books were in short supply but who am I to be pedantic, there is certainly such a thing as having too much information.

The paper assumes internet access. Statements like ‘everyone who so chooses will be able to….’ P 44, it will be ‘technically and economically feasible for everyone [to document their existence online]. Seizing this possibility will simply be a matter of choice.’ P45 had me reaching for the highlighter pen. Then I read the following:

The issues in the first decades of the knowledge-driven era concern a new abundance and a new and perhaps growing disequilibrium between then raw materials of learning production (information resources) and the other factors [staff and their learning technologies] of learning production.’ (Gandel et al 2004: 46)

Writing pre Web 2.0 and the development of user generated content and file sharing though blogs, wikis and other forms of social media the paper calls for a more holistic approach to scholarship and learning in an internet age, one which addresses individual engagement. The metaphor used to describe this holistic approach is to view information systems as a form of ecosystem.

‘Therefore, we need to take a more holistic approach, one that recognizes the interconnection of information resources and of the individuals who create and use these resources. A metaphor that has been used to describe this holistic approach is to veiw information systems as a form of ecosystem – an information ecology.’ (p46)

I’d noted the recurrence of ecology in a number of papers (Saljo, Selwyn, Facer etc). I liked its emphasis on relationships and the interconnectedness of things. For me it’s the social relations between staff and their technology – where digital literacies are individual and personal like an extension of our personalities – which was not only an under-researched area but the one I wanted to explore through participatory action research.  What’s also missing from the research into learning technology are greater connections with the social impact of the internet. There seems a need for re-examining what it means to learn in an age of abundant information.   As Saljo says, in this new ecology of digital technology, perhaps ‘…what we need to learn and remember, and how we do it, will be different to what we are used to.’ (2009:57)

After reading about the weariness of the flesh, I felt less tired. Links began to appear. The abundance paper referenced Nardi and O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.

 ‘The word ecology is important here because it conveys the sense of urgency about the need to take control of information systems – as Nardi and O’Day explain, ‘to inject our own values and needs into them so that we are not overwhelmed by some of our technical tools.’ (Gandel et al 2004:46)

Chapter 4 of Information Ecologies can be read on FirstMonday  Location of technology is described as its habitation, its suggested the word ecology represents diversity rather than sameness (diversity being integral to inclusion) and with information ecologies, attention is less about the technology but more about the human relations the technology serves. So far, so promising. Then I noticed a reference to Neil Postman, quoted many times in these online ramblings for his suggestion the rise in ‘entertainment’ media will result in citizens amusing themselves to death – unquestioning their death by media. I don’t have a television. My small act of resistance. Postman, founder of the Media Ecology Association and influenced by McLuhan, made explicit the relationships between media and social control. He described the media as imposing certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, specifications which were more often ‘…implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment but merely a machine.’ (Postman. 1970) 

Postman says media ecology sets out to make these ideological specifications explicit. This is achieved through uncovering the ‘…roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.’

Calling for critical thinking to be taught in schools, Postman writes ‘Let us suppose as Jefferson did, and much later John Dewey, … that the best way for citizens to protect their liberty is for them to be encouraged to be skeptical.’ His five suggestions for teaching critical thinking included the ‘art and science of asking questions’ and to teach ‘technology education’ because:

‘…in the next ten years, everyone will know how to use computers. But what they will not know, as none of us did from everything from automobiles to movies to television, is what are the psychological, social, and political effects of new technologies.’ 

Reading Freiere, Giroux and bell hooks, I was inspired by idea of education as the practice of freedom. Since writing Chapter 6. Invisible Publics: Higher Education and Digital Exclusion in Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University I’ve seen higher education as a primary awareness raiser of digital exclusion with social responsibility for promoting digitally inclusive practice. I knew my approach to my phd was via critical theory but I wasn’t sure what this would look like. There have been a number of calls for critical theory to explain the gap between the rhetoric and practice of elearning (Feenberg, Selwyn, Hall, Freisen) but also calls for examining the performative nature of learning (Saljo), critical pedagogy through a postmodern lens (Giroux) and a need for redesigning the education curriculum to make it appropriate for a digital age (Facer, Saljo, Giroux).

I am drawn to the words resilience and hope. For me, the pedagogy of online learning is a Pedagogy of Uncertainty. As always, these are reflections on my reading and subject to change. What interests me is the linkages, often unanticipated and found in unexpected places. Eventually I’m sure my theoretical approach will take shape. It’s already lurking within the writings of Feenberg, Giroux, Saljo and Freisen and of course Gandel et al – without whose reflections on the weariness of flesh in an era of abundance these connections would never have occurred.


* Gandel, P. B., Katz, R. N. and Metros, S. (2004) Weariness of the Flesh’. Reflections on the life of the mind in an era of abundance Educause Review. March/April 2004:4151.

Nardi, B. and O’Day, V. (1999) Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. MIT

Postman, N. (1970) The Reformed English Curriculum. in A.C. Eurich, A. C. ed., High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education

Postman, N. (1885) Amusiing Ourselves to Death. Methuen

Postman, N. (1999) Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. Vintage; First Trade edition

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