By Caroline Kuhn and Mark Carrigan
Critical Realism (CR) and postdigital research have rarely been considered in relation to each other. These are bodies of work with seemingly different interests and approaches, with the latter starting from recognition of the constitutive role which technology and media now play within social life. If we understand postdigital research in terms of a broader realist turn within social thought, it becomes easier to see how a mutually beneficial dialogue could take place between these traditions. CR offers a rich conceptual vocabulary suited to understanding the interplay among the otherwise ‘vanishing’ borders between different categories (e.g. analog/digital, human/machine, natural/enhanced) as well as the social changes that the postdigital brings about. Generalisations about socio-technical change need to be grounded in statements about how individuals make sense of and respond to their conditions. CR allows for that, and in so doing, it offers a critical and generative engagement with the postdigital order. At the same time, CR would benefit from the empirical and conceptual themes so richly explored within the postdigital literature, challenging this body of meta-theory to fulfil its analytical potential in engaging with the pressing realities of the postdigital social order.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of realisms within social theory e.g. speculative realism, agential realism, sociomaterialism (Carrigan 2018). There is much that these approaches share with critical realism, such as the turn towards ontology and the deprioritisation of epistemology, with the most striking point of departure being their divergent orientations towards the human (Porpora 2017). There is a strong orientation towards humanism found within critical realism that sits uneasily with these other traditions, in spite of the features they otherwise share. Our suggestion is that postdigital research can be usefully understood and studied in terms of this broader realist turn in social thought in its concern for ontology, materiality and change. There is also a posthumanist impulse within significant aspects of the postdigital literature which coexists alongside threads from these other forms of realism (Savin-Baden 2021). There is a coalescence around common concerns here, in spite of substantive disagreements within this broad family of approaches, suggesting the possibility of fruitful dialogue.
We suggest in this essay that despite this apparent tension critical realism (CR) is critical to investigate and scrutinise the postdigital, particularly with regards to the questions of agency posed by sociotechnical change (Carrigan and Porpora 2021). For example, how are emerging technologies changing our nature? To what extent are we using them as opposed to being used by them? What are the respective contributions of human agency (individuals, groups, movements, organisations) and technology (devices, networks, infrastructures) to the unfolding of postdigital social life? Jandrić (2022, NP) emphasises “intermixing the analog and the digital (…) an encounter of two different worlds, and incommensurable models that describe these worlds, which happens daily and at scale”. These “Glitches and membranes are transitory phenomena” suggesting the postdigital as “a signal or a transition to something else and one of many ways of describing this transition” (Jandrić 2022, NP). CR provides a meta-theory to support and enrich the investigation of this transition, particularly through its sensitivity to how differently placed agents are caught up within yet simultaneously driving processes of transformation which exceed any one group’s deliberate intentions.
There has been a relative neglect of digital technology within CR. There are significant contributions by Archer (2015), Elder-Vass (2016), Lawson (2020) and Mutch (2013) amongst numerous others but it has remained a peripheral topic within the tradition. This is curious because the conceptual resources of CR are obviously inclined towards a sensitive treatment of questions concerning technology. There is a recognition of artefacts as having distinct properties and powers, deriving from the arrangement of parts into organised wholes. There is a sensitivity towards the meeting of entities which occurs when agents deploy artefacts for intended purposes. These could be brought together with CR’s sophisticated account of agency in order to analyse the complex interplay of factors across multiple levels involved when we talk about the unfolding of postdigital social life. Our hope is that this essay might stimulate such a mutually enriching dialogue between CR and postdigital research, perhaps even with the intention of elaborating a distinctively postdigital form of CR.
Explaining Socio-Technical Transformation
There is a widespread recognition that emerging technologies have implications for human agency, expressed in voluminous literatures on posthumanism and transhumanism as well as far wider debates about the impact of technological innovation on human nature. There are a range of technological developments which are routinely cited when accounting for this epochal shift e.g., synthetic biology, cognitive enhancement, artificial intelligence. For example, Jandrić (2021: 21) suggests “the postdigital human is a human being living in the postdigital condition defined by vanishing borders between the digital and the analog in all spheres of life, including their own body”. His point in making this claim is not to suggest that “computers, networks, and other digital devices” are universal features of human life but rather that we universally inhabit a world which has been transformed by the practices which these technologies make possible. The version of this position which concerns itself with digital technologies tends to focus on their ubiquity throughout the life world and the implications of this for human autonomy. The threading of what Beer (2022) calls ‘data coils’ through the lifeworld leaves us trapped within recursive processes of monitoring and control. If we believe there was once an autonomous subject which was the point of origin for its own actions, then it is difficult to see how it could survive under these conditions. There is a sense in which the human being has been dissolved into transactional data which is used to represent, analyse, and control what was once the individual human being (Carrigan 2018).
The ontological change in the category of the human which digitalisation brings about easily lends itself to an inflationary approach which imagines the category of ‘human’ has been left behind because of the impact of digital change. To talk of the posthuman in this sense might seem congruent with the postdigital but we suggest it reproduces exactly the ‘shock of the new’ which postdigital scholarship otherwise cultivates a healthy scepticism towards. While it is important to recognise the radical differences between posthumanism and transhumanism, they both share a propensity towards epochal pronouncements in which it is claimed we have (or soon will) move from an old order into a brave new world (Carrigan and Porpora 2021). These traditions are grappling with a range of questions which emerging technologies have opened up about human nature, but they involve a cultural politics which just as quickly shuts down these problem spaces by celebrating the imagined outcome as dethroning the liberal subject (posthumanism) or facilitating its radicalisation (transhumanism).
What is lost here is precisely the ambivalence which the postdigital approach is inclined to dwell within in an exploratory fashion, unpacking the patchwork of continuities and discontinuities which are inevitably found when one examines more closely a putative transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ (Crow 2005). Savin-Baden’s (2021) eclectic and thought provoking volume on postdigital humans illustrates what scholarship in this area can look like in practice. However, the immense variety of approaches collected in this volume, some of which are in obvious contradiction to each other, suggests the need for a stronger philosophical underpinning with postdigital scholarship concerning questions of human agency. The conceptual vocabulary of CR is immensely suited to understanding what Hayes (2021: 253) describes as “the multiple reconfigurations between technologies and humans that alter who, and what, humans are” because it provides a set of instruments in which we can distinguish between different kinds of causal effects operating at different levels of social reality. It is a conceptual system for analysing how configurations emerge from dynamic processes of change, including the recognition of stable forms which contingently arise before eventually coming to be transformed in turn.
From a CR perspective these questions mean attending to how transformation is unfolding at the personal, cultural, and social levels. Archer’s (2007) concept of reflexivity links together these levels through the analysis of interplay between context and concerns over time. It is through the “the regular exercise of the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their (social) contexts and vice versa” that social conditions come to be linked to agential responses (Archer 2007: 4). This involves an insistence on microfoundations in the sense that generalisations about socio-technical change needed to be grounded in statements about how individuals and groups make sense of and respond to their conditions. Archer (2007) analyses how reflexivity is exercised through internal conversation in a sophisticated account which we cannot do justice to in a short essay. The point we wish to emphasise here is that agency is essential to explaining why sociotechnical change unfolds in the way that it does, even if this approach has become unfashionable with theoretical accounts of digitalisation in recent years (Couldry 2020).
Furthermore, CR recognises the complex and open nature of the world we live in, but it does not succumb to its complexity. Instead, it seeks to create order by reducing the complexity to more manageable proportions that, following its principles, can be studied. CR develops a robust relational conception of social structures that “sacrifices neither structure to agency nor science to emancipation” (Vandenberghe 2014: 6). It proposes a model of social activity that looks at the interplay between structure and agency, rather than prioritising one element (upwards/downward conflation) or conceiving of them as tightly locked together into a ceaseless dance of co-constitution (Archer 1995). The possibility of doing this seems critical in times where it is hard to separate and thus analyse dimensions of social life such as online and offline, human and machine, natural and enhanced, biological and informational, to name a few. We believe that CR offers analytical and theoretical anchors to engage in critical work with the postdigital condition that drives actions for social change. For example, examining ‘the ideology of digitalism’ (Peters & Besley 2019) and the huge losses it entails for human flourishing entrenching digital inequality (Kuhn et al. 2023). This is grounded in a recognition that dualisms can be analytically helpful even if the messy empirical reality repudiates a straightforward division between their terms. We need to think with these dualisms in order to recognise how their components might be undergoing change.
What Jandrić et al. (2018: 895) describe as the “marriage between ‘technological and non-technological; biological and informational’” is exactly what CR is well equipped to shed light on. It provides conceptual tools for analysing entanglement in a socio-historical register, accounting for the relationship between dichotomies without collapsing them into a hybridity which, while theoretically rewarding, detracts from our ability to analyse how it has unfolded over time and why it takes the form which it currently does. There are significant changes taking place which need to be recognised at the level of social ontology but collapsing categories into each other provides little explanatory purchase upon why they are happening in the way they are. In this sense CR is not adopting a reactionary stance which seeks to reinscribe old dichotomies but simply advocating caution in how we explain and narrate their interplay, particularly with regards to the many different ways in which agents can be caught up within and/or contributing to these changes. It suggests we approach such a ‘marriage’ as an event which takes place within history: identifying the initial conditions which shaped these meeting of heterogenous elements, analysing the interaction between them in terms of these starting conditions and explaining the eventual outcome in a way which incorporates this trajectory.
It holds an analytical space open which concepts of hybridity (or its rich array of synonyms) tend to close down in their affirmation of two entities becoming one conjoined hybrid. This is not to deny the reality of assemblages in which what were once external relations between separate entities have become internal ones within a new emergent whole. It simply advocates caution in invoking these novels forms too hastily, in favour of tracing out the histories of emergence which lead the entities we are interested in to have taken on the form they do. In practice we suggest that CR and postdigital research have much in common at the level of ontology and epistemology, in spite of the fault line identified earlier with regards to the category of the human. The productive difference we are advocating for lies in the analytical register (particularly though not exclusively with regards to questions of agency) where CR provides conceptual resources and strategies fruitful for postdigital themes. In turn CR would benefit from an engagement with postdigital research to expand the scope of its engagement with the sociomaterial, particularly with regards to its curious disinterest in the full implications of digital technologies.
Our suggestion is that CR could be richly generative in explore the convergences and entanglements which the postdigital draws our attention to (e.g. digital/analogue, online/offline, biological/informational, human/machine) in terms that allow us to engage critically with the postdigital social order. If we can analyse such interplay in a way which enables us to propose for example what of the offline is shaping negatively the online, it opens up new critical perspectives which an overly hasty resort of hybridity will tend to shut down. It illustrates that things can be otherwise, that nothing is as inevitable as those with a vested interest in the status quo might lead us to believe. In turn CR would benefit from the empirical and conceptual themes which have been so richly explored within the postdigital literature, challenging this body of meta-theory to realise its analytical potential in engagement with the urgent realities of the postdigital social order.
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