Networks of Care and Vulnerability

This Thursday – November 6th at 1:30pm – I’m a guest in George Veletsianos’ #scholar14 open course, talking about networks as places of care and vulnerability. It’s a Google hangout, so the talk will be an informal back and forth, open (I hope?) to multiple voices if folks want to join in.

It may even be a little bit fraught, as George may have had a different concept of vulnerability in mind when he first suggested the topic. He frames vulnerability in terms of sharing struggles, which I’ll definitely talk about on Thursday; my online origins lie deep in the heart of that territory. But, the juxtaposition of care and vulnerability, as a topic, was rich enough it that it helped me grapple with some of the complexities I was trying to frame from my research study, and I took up vulnerability more through a lens of risks and costs. As I am wont to do, I ran with that lens, and ended up not only with the presentation below (liveslides from Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt’s EC&I831 class last month) but with half a research paper under that working title for my ongoing dissertation project. So. Yay for networks.

Join us Thursday for the fisticuffs over sharing v. risk. Or something like that. ;)

More seriously, I may have ended up in a somewhat different place than George envisioned, but it’s a place I think needs to be visited and explored.

The Risks and Costs of Networked Participation
I just spent a week almost entirely offline, for the first time in…oh…about a decade. Not an intended internet sabbatical, but a side effect of extended theme park adventuring with small children and a phone that turns into a brick when I cross the US border. Y’all were spared an excess of gratuitous commentary on the great American simulacra that is Disney, basically. You’re welcome.

Being disconnected from my network was kind of refreshing. No work, no ambient curation, no framing and self-presentation for a medium with infinite, searchable memory.

It didn’t mean I was magically present the whole time with my darling offspring: I remain a distractible human who sometimes needs to retreat to her own thoughts, online or off. Nor did it mean I missed out entirely on the surge of painful yet necessary public discussion of sexual violence, consent, and cultures of abuse and silence that bloomed in the wake of Canada’s Craziest News Week EVER. Still. Sometimes a dead phone is a handy way to cope with the overload and overwhelm of networked life, especially for those who both consume and contribute to the swirl of media in which we swim.

Because contributing and participating, out in the open – having opinions and ideas in public – has costs.

Participation makes us visible to others who may not know us, and makes our opinions and perspectives visible to those who may know *us,* but have never had to grapple with taking our opinions or positions seriously (oh hai, FB feeds and comments sections hijacked by various versions of #notallmen, #notallwhitewomen, and #notalltenuredscholars).

Participation enrols us in a media machine that is always and already out of our control; an attention economy that increasingly takes complex identities and reduces them to sound bites and black & white alignments.

The costs are cumulative. And they need to be talked about, by those of us who talk about networks in education and in scholarship and in research. Because in open networks, a networked identity is the price of admission. The costs are what one pays to play. But they are paid at the identity level, and they are not evenly distributed by race, gender, class, orientation, or any other identity marker. And so with participation comes differential risks. This matters.

Bud Hunt pointed out in a (paywalled but worthwhile) Educating Modern Learners article this morning that October was Connected Educators Month…and also Gamergate. Two sides of the participatory coin. Audrey Watters doubled down on that disconnect this afternoon in Hybrid Pedagogy, riffing on Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and asking edtech to take a good, hard look at what we ask of students when we ask them to work online:

“And I think you need to think about your own work. Where you work. For whom.

And then you must consider where you demand your students work. For whom they work. Who profits. Where that content, where that data, where those dimes flow.”
– Audrey Watters, 2014

So. This post comes, like Bud and Audrey’s pieces, from a growing dismay and uneasiness with what’s happening at the intersection of technologies and capital and education; a growing belief that the risks and costs of networked identity are an ethical issue educators and researchers need to own and explore. It comes from looking through my research data for what Audrey calls “old hierachies hard-coded onto new ones.”
Attending to Each Other in the Attention Economy
But it also comes from the sense that there is more; that the ties created even in the most abject, hierarchical, surveilled online spaces tend, like good cyborg entities, to exceed their origins.

It comes not just from the formal research data collected over months of ethnographic observation and conversation, but also from some deep and powerful conversations that the research process created.

I didn’t know Kate Bowles especially well when I put out the call for participants in my dissertation project a year ago today. She didn’t know she had breast cancer when she agreed to participate. Somewhere along the road of the past year, our discussions of identity and networks and academia and self and life sometimes got beautifully tangled, as ideas actually do, freed from eureka-moment idealizations of authorship. And somewhere in the middle of one of those tangles, she reminded me that my sometimes grim vision of the attention economy is not the only way to conceive of attention at all; that its origins come from stretching towards and caring for each other.

“the attention economy…isn’t just about clicks and eyeballs, but also about the ways in which we selectively tend towards each other, and tend each other’s thoughts–it’s an economy of care, not just a map to markets.”
– Kate Bowles, 2014

I don’t know what to make of all that…but there’s hope in it that I’m not willing to abandon just yet. When I think about networked scholarship right now, it’s in terms of these contradictions of care and vulnerability, all writ large in the attention economies of our worst and better angels.

Maybe on Thursday, in the #scholar14 hangout, we’ll figure it out together and I’ll know how my paper should end. ;)

13 Comments Networks of Care and Vulnerability

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    Of all the things I would not want to uses as an academic counter, but here I sit in BC, by virtue of those connections that came from sharing, watching of all things for the first time “Hunger Games” and Donald Sutherland’s sneering president tells us that “hope is the one thing stronger than fear.”

    That’s cheesy. But there are things stronger than fear. Hope is pretty passive in my book, but care… now that is something. Your story of Kate moves me; I too have had loose caring vibes from a person I have not met. I’ve made it my own hobby to collect those experiences, they are my counter weight to all the heaviness we find in these times.

    I have never even met you, but am assured that when it happens, it will be as genuine as a friendship as others I have cultivated this way.

    Care. Fear. Care. Fear. Care. Fear. We operate in both spaces.

    And what an honor to have made an appearance inside your slide deck ;-)

    1. bon

      Alan, smiling at the Hunger Games reference and wondering if “I Volunteer as Tribute” is a good thesis title?

      and yes. care and fear. such is life. this space – if it IS a space which is a whole other conversation – is not removed or sheltered from the complexities of human existence, even where its affordances may make those complexities visible in new or different or particularly troubling ways. the power relations underneath them aren’t new.

      i wonder, sometimes, if maybe the sense of loss i sometimes feel for the nostalgic good ol’ days of open is more about the way in which those early networks were more idealized, removed from the norms of human interaction, rather than reflecting it? i liked those idealized spaces, but then i wonder about who they excluded by their own power relations…and stuff. i wonder.

      1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

        (getting a torrid visual of a remix “Thesis Games” with all the pomp and violence and…. maybe not)

        I picked up some powerful insights in Paul Ford’s piece on “networks without networks”

        “I don’t remember what I said; I just remember being heard. That’s the secret to building a network. People want to be heard.”

        “Many roads going back through computing history lead back to Steve Jobs, or pause along the way at his office. But they don’t stop there… And further back still: To people reviewing each other’s album collections, back to the post office, the railway systems, radio networks, sporting events. People building roads. Networks are natural things.”

        And then a stuffed teddy bear,

        And porches.

        Front porches.

        The internet has too few front porches.

  2. Luke Hokama

    I love that there are thoughtful people such as yourself taking a good hard look at networked life, especially in the context of education. I can’t think of anyone who participates in online networks and spaces that doesn’t struggle with the issues you raise here, and I think we all benefit from this sort of “thinking out loud.”

    1. bon

      Thanks, Luke. I know I benefit from it, at least, and always appreciate the choral sense of “thinking together” that emerges, sometimes.

  3. Muireann O'Keeffe

    “Because contributing and participating, out in the open – having opinions and ideas in public – has costs”

    I agree! I am an academic developer based in Ireland, for almost 3 years i have grappled with short term contracts in higher ed (HE) interspersed with time off (unpaid) out of the HE, where I tried some different types of work. during these times I took up different activities including my EdD, and spending more time with family.
    During this time I found it disconcerting to Tweet or contribute to social media as I didn’t not feel truly part of the formal systems….. during my period of unemployment. I curtailed my authentic feelings about education and online presence during this time….I felt that if I wanted to be re-employable I had to show face as an employable professional. I felt vulnerable and probably needed ‘care’ from others in the community that I shared a professional interest with but I felt I could not share this online. I would think that many academics are vulnerable in this way, with short term contracts, not quite feeling like part of the academic space, not alone in Ireland but else where I’m sure, I think this example of vulnerability is a barrier for holistic and authentic participation ( for me anyway!) I hope this makes sense ?

  4. Neil

    I think I also offer a new wrench into this discussion, which is almost the opposite of Muireann’s concern. I am an online friend of Bon who I met in an arena completely outside of her academic world. Now normally, I wouldn’t show much interest in her career, but since so much of her work is online, and not behind the ivory tower, I am privvy to see what she writes, and gradually I have started to understand what she — and her cohorts — are talking about? Since we are all for openness online, what is the role of those outside academia who start to nudge their way into your conversations, much as people get photobombed in selfies. While Murieann might feel vulnerable about her role in the formal system, I just jump in with lack of knowledge. This is both good and bad. It opens up learning to those outside of the system. On the other hand, any idiot can now fight with experts with years of experience on Twitter. The doors have been opened to Pandora’s box and we have let everyone have a voice. So, by the way, what time is that Google Hangout tomorrow, Bon?

  5. Simon Ensor

    Glad u survived disneyland qfest too.
    Once u realise u are not alone in caring, the network connection may be cut but you are changed.

    The taste of freedom is powerful and uncontrollable. I prefer angry hope rather than desperate resignation.
    Cf. Blog post No future? Rise up.

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