Moral Transformation and Digital Identity

The readings for this week leave me of two minds about context collapse. One has me not worried in the slightest; the other–well– it has me worried quite a bit about what it means not only for professional development and what it means for thinking about the relationship between privacy and the perspective that views education primarily as character formation.

Why I’m not worried at all: context collapse, as Bonnie Stewart judges, is inevitable, and I think there’s good reason to greet the inevitable with an embrace of welcome and an eye towards sifting out opportunities for transformative, sustainable change. Whether the line is invisible (as is the case for the person living with a pacemaker), or visible (consider, for example, the person who uses a prosthetic limb), or completely imaginary (as happens to many of us when we believe we are sensing our phones vibrating or or hearing them ring, when in fact they aren’t), the line between the technologies we use and the persons we are is dissolving before our eyes. (I’m also wearing contact lenses right now, which only to me reinforces the point.) Moreover, I also think that dissolving that line is exactly what all good technologies should do, or they wouldn’t be worth inventing. After all, when I write something (like this post, even), I am placing myself “in front of you” as a reader, providing a representation of myself that is inevitably stylized. This allows “me” to be multiple places at once, and–as long as servers survive–“I’ll” be alive forever. Digital presences–whether fostered by LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or some other platform–seem by my assessment to do pretty much the same thing, at least in this respect.

Now, from another angle, I think there might be some reasons to be concerned about context collapse. One is that there may be in some cases good reason for cultivating multiple, perhaps even contradictory, digital identities. One reason: the preservation of privacy. I think it’s simply the case that not everything about one’s life is relevant for people to know. In many cases, my employer should be be able to find out if I’m doing an exceptionally good job in rendering service to the profession; on the other hand, there’s no reason in hell why that same entity should be aware of whether or not I’m a nudist anarchist who makes posts to that effect on various platforms. Another reason: awareness of how social power in a racialized system punishes. It seems unfortunately true that many scholars-of-color render themselves complicit in the very academic structures that they identify as oppressive, though it might not be safe for their employers to know that they are working to dismantle those very structures.

But, the main reason why I think we should be concerned about context collapse is that I’m not sure that we can do the work of transformative learning–whether as those who undergo professional development or as those who educate others–without these sorts of private spaces.

The condition for the possibility of learning, it seems to me, is trust. Yet this is one of the crucial things that cannot be guaranteed with a credential or with a terminal degree. It can be validated only in the context of a relationship that grows over time. But if this is the case–if, indeed, education is a temporal process–then, choosing to document that process (whether we do that with discussion boards, journal entries, or some other artifact) will be a choice to document our own transformation.

Now, there will certainly be cases where this poses no major concern. A documented history of wrong answers in say, math classes, can easily turn into a badge of honor when one begins to produce the right answers. But what about courses or professional development modules where we are learning about–or, perhaps more importantly, where we are unlearning–the sexisms, racisms, and homophobias that provided the backgrounds to our intuitions about fairness, honesty, and responsibility? In these situations, the dangers of context collapse–the danger of being unable to have a cordoned-off digital identity where one is a student learning to dismantle the effects of these systemic oppressions–are most palpable.

In other words, if we are going to learn in a world like our own, where context collapse is inevitable because the lines between our digital selves and the technologies we use to mediate ourselves is collapsing, we need nevertheless to create spaces to fail, spaces without collapse. Otherwise the fear of a public dragging will lead not only to a resistance to the learning process itself, but also to the arrival of the most demonic of rationalizations for that resistance: that because we teach our students (rightly) that some of the ways in which they have been educated in the past reflect the workings of ideology, they draw the conclusion that all forms of education–even transformative ones–are necessarily ideological. That is too high of a price to pay if we want to build a better world; if we want to build a world where #blacklivesmatter; if we want to build a world where all those, regardless of gender and sexual identity, are given the most basic and beautiful gifts of pride and self-respect.

(1) Comment

  1. Thomas Bolin

    Craig, your point about reasons to have some sort of separation, to avoid context collapse, as essential in allowing people to work through and work out their moral growth is important and overlooked. We need to have some careful and detailed conversations that clarify the many multiple online vulnerabilities of people to inform our pedagogy. Thanks for this post.

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