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The advent of digital technology, and of the writing-reticulated society it consists of, constitutes a new épistémè characterized by a “computational turn”, as David Berry named it (see Understanding Digital Humanities): it is the very nature of knowledge in all its forms that is affected.
This technology does to our time what writing did to antiquity. Simon Nora and Alain Minc already underlined it in The Computerization of Society thirty-five years ago:
“When the Sumerians first inscribed hieroglyphs on wax tablets, they were living, probably without being aware of it, a decisive transformation in humanity: the appearance of writing. And yet, the latter would change the world”.
It is unconceivable that the universities, as well as the large research organizations, do not put the digital transformation of knowledge and teaching at the heart of their concerns and the forefront of their priorities: the deployment in all disciplines – as in all dimensions of human existence – of what Clarisse Herrenschmidt called “reticular writing” is obviously the major issue of knowledge in the 21st Century.
After the global turmoil caused by Coursera and the American strategy of smart power, of which this initiative is a symptom, university online courses in Harvard are already becoming SPOCS, i.e. Small Private Online Courses, allowing Robert Lue to say that “we already are in the post-moocs era”. These transformations, in terms of teaching, are visible but superficial effects of the fact that the mnemonic environment of knowledge, the nature of which is currently changing, disrupts the knowledge itself, from advanced research to the most basic forms of teaching.
Whether it is thought on the basis of massive open online courses, small private online courses, or other possible or existing models, digital teaching is certainly a major issue. But it rationally comes after the one of digital research and studies. It is only possible and necessary to implement and collectively experiment the new forms of teaching related to the digital, provided that we conceive and practice them in a narrow and explicit relation with a research policy, which should explore the deep layers of the epistemic becoming and the new epistemologies of the disciplines required by the digitalization.
Without a structural and clearly claimed interface, any kind of teaching initiative will only appear as a trend or as a superficial effect, subject to all the headwinds of media which are shaking today’s world more than they ever did: they would always seem to belong to an era already outdated by the last novelty of the field – where there is no lack of imagination, sometimes at the risk of lacking distance if not knowledge.
University appeared a little more than one thousand years ago, and was then determined by the handwritten copying of canonical texts, resulting from the gloss engendered during the copying itself. It then experienced a second age with the republic of letters stemming from printing, which gave birth to the University of Berlin and lasted until the 20th century.
Since 1993, with the world wide web which made reticular writing accessible to all, University has entered a new age. This major and in some ways stunning fact requires the development of digital studies.
Whatever its form, knowledge is a memory shared by a community according to rules practiced by this community, and sometimes made explicit and theorized by the latter: it then generally consists in a community of peers. This kind of knowledge, also known as a scientific and critical one, appeared with alphabetical writing which, in all its forms, constitutes the mnemonic and techno-logical environment that determines the development and transmission of knowledge based on peers’ criticism.
For knowledge in general, and for academic institutions in particular, neither the hand-written alphabet, the printed text, nor the digital data, algorithms and networks are only simple means for education and research. They are the environments of knowledge based on an open and constant criticism of rules of interpretation, in which these knowledge-based communities of peers consist.
The digital deeply transforms knowledge, first because it is the new surface of inscription and public formalization of debates among peers, which any rational discipline constitutes through conflicts of interpretations and scientific controversies. The characteristics of the digital (automation and speed of calculation, massive and global access, cooperative networks, new formalizations, the establishment of models, visualizations, interactions and simulations, etc.) constitute new possibilities for knowledge, ones that are widely accessible to the most diverse audiences, which are redefining the terms of parity, as well as the conditions for certification and legitimacy.
Peer to peer, much talked about since the advent of P2P-labeled software and websites, appeared twenty seven centuries ago with the early Greek geometricians. The digital mnemonic milieu makes possible and requires the new heuristics, hermeneutics and epistemologies that must feed the didactics and pedagogies the aim of which is precisely to bring a maximum of pupils and students in these communities of peers.
From the infinitely large (astrophysics) to the infinitely small (nanophysics), physics is reconfigured by the digital instrumentality, in the same way as mathematics and statistics – especially by supercomputing, linguistics – by “linguistic capitalism”, geography – by geographic information systems and GPS (through which the territory becomes functionally and usually digital), genetic biology – made possible by bio-stations and scientific imagination, etc.: no knowledge escapes the new invoice of contemporary mnemonic milieu configured by these categorizing machines that networked computers are.
Digital categorization totally redefines the conditions for the production of rules of categorization that always constitute, ultimately, the knowledge based on peer criticism. New conditions of publication, confrontation, certification and editorialization of knowledge are being set up. They correspond to the new heuristic, hermeneutic, didactic and pedagogic rules and methods which arise from it and at the same time seize it, thus defining the épistémè of the 21st century in a dynamic process which must bring the academic institutions, the industry and the business community to cooperate in order to produce a long-term view, beyond the story telling which the market has become a permanent agent of. A development of these questions can be found on the video-book accessible through the link http://digital-studies.org/p/propositions-FUN/, and in the works conducted in the ANR Epistémè project.