Retrofuturist Twitter: A Ghost of the Present

Imagine the following: the Twitter accounts for the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other government entities belonging to the Interior Department suddenly stop tweeting and go silent. While, in this alternative present, we still know about some of their historical tweets, tweet battles (should they have had any), and other things that had been documented outside of Twitter itself, their Twitter accounts no longer tweet things about bobcats or bears. There is just the memory of what, historically, they had said.

While this is not, currently, the actual state of affairs*, I think we can engage in retrofuturist [retropresentist?] thought and critically ask questions about what such closures would mean. We can also take it a step further and ask the following:

If these Twitter accounts had been for community organizers, anarchists, or folks engaged in anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-____ist work, what would their closure have meant? What would it have meant for pedagogy intended to raise awareness about anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-_____ist work?

With the changeover in US leadership on Janurary 20th 2017, various websites and sources of information have been indexed or, in more polemic language, deleted and replaced with sites that, to some, are quite questionable not only in the content they have on the site, but, and in my view more importantly, for what is missing. I say all of this not to get into a manichnistic argument about the specific events noted above. Rather, the intention here is to ground a discussion about the role of the web as it relates to, and allows relations between, peoples who otherwise may never see, read, or have access to narratives outside of a certain circle and what implication this has for pedagogy and praxis.

In his 2014 article “Working openly on the web: a manifesto” Doug Belshaw makes a point about what, in their phrasing, is “control” over a section of the web. For those who are partial to “control” language, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. I, however, am hesitant to accept this language as I think that linguistically we should be skeptical of language that delineates control over, ownership of, something since, structurally, I think this plays into an “achievement” and individualistic mindset as opposed to a more malleable and open mindset of improvement and communal effort (labor?) in creating and discovering. As such, I wish to understand and parse the events (e.g., the retrofuturist twitter debacle and the indexing of various websites) not through the lens of “control of” but rather as a type of “freedom from control of”. In philosophical terms as a type of negative right as opposed to a positive one. But as I said earlier, those who are partial to “control” language can use it to understand the gist of my points below.

As Belshaw says “services change their privacy settings, close down, and are taken over by megacorps”. The events that transpired in retrofuturist twitter certainly represent a type of limitation, and for some folks perhaps censorship, on what is allowed to be shared on the web and with whom. For these reasons, Belshaw centers their recommendation to “control” part of the web to, at least in part, avoid sudden discontinuations of access. For me, this and other elements of his blog post, specifically as they relate to notions of collaboration, relate to notions found in Campbell’s and Hitchcock’s pieces. Specifically, they relate to notions of connection, collaboration, and mutual labor.

Campbell, in their 2016 piece “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning“, pulls from Kuh to construct an educational praxis informed by  improvement, as opposed to achievement, based learning. In doing so I, at least, see this an emphasis that pushes against individualistic goals and, instead, turns to focus on working with others as opposed to being in opposition, and competing against, them. To relate this back to Belshaw, a community of folks involved in collaborative work would benefit from the negative right mentioned earlier both due to I) being able to make connections and exchange ideas and II) having I without the threat of censorship or passive power limitations on conversations.

For both, the actors or agents are not limited to those with certain degrees or professions; they can be professors, students, or anyone else with access to the internet and a blogging platform. As such, to me at least, these all serve to fight back against myths of scarcity and intrinsic inability, to pull from work by Pharr. A person does not need to be an authority in their field, does not need to have access to legitimized and often corporatized lines of formal publication, to share narratives and/or to be involved in collaborative work.

To speak to the latter notion, for a number of folks, such as for trans folks as explained by Janet Mock, blogs have been an integral way to share narratives and make connections. In fact, blogs and open lines of communication have allowed for capacity building and for folks to recognize and locate others who are invested in the same types of liberatory (or other) work.

As to the former, I want to prompt with a question: What must we believe about someone to consider them to be void of meaningful contribution? While I don’t want to answer this question here, I do want to point to Eric Rofes and the collaborative work he did with school children in the creation of books on death, divorce, and parents written by and for children. What must he have believed to see the school children as creators and authors in their own right and what might this indicate about the structure of our pedagogical praxis?

This brings me back to my initial questions about the implications for social movements and pedagogy. In this blog post, in many ways I haven’t tried to answer my initial question directly and that is very intentional. While I think that pedagogy, especially that which is geared towards informing liberatory praxis, will probably include elements of collaborative learning, the negative right, a shift away from individualistic and achievement oriented goals, and ultimately connections that span both current temporal and spatial limitations, I want to leave it an open question that ultimately may include some of these elements or even none of them. I don’t think that it is a question I, or anyone alone, can answer. Rather, it is a question I think we must work together to answer or, more likely than not, continuously rework an answer to.

*While it is the case that certain Twitter accounts are no longer permitted to post about “political” issues, they are still allowed to post about bears, bobcats, and bison. I see a significant differences between a closed account vs “partial” restrictions hence it being a “retro” futurist/presentist account.

edit: fixed a date and added the * clarification.

6 thoughts on “Retrofuturist Twitter: A Ghost of the Present”

  1. I appreciate your bringing these articles into a much fuller conversation with liberation movements and pedagogies, and the forms of control such as indexing of websites that has been taken to a troubling level by the Trump administration. As you suggest, there is a tension in these readings between an individualist mindset in these readings, as suggested by Belshaw’s “control,” and a collective sensibility in the Campbell piece. Though I still question whether Campbell, Kuh, and others argument for networked/collaborative learning has really escaped the orbit of the self-made individual human agent. Campbell describes this form of learning as an “adventure in discernment and self-actualization within a deeply relational context.” So the point is solely or primarily SELF-actualization? Do they assume that self-actualization “within a deeply relational context” is equivalent to social/communal actualization that involves the freedom from control? That seems to be a rather tenuous leap.

    1. Thanks for the comment! The concern you raise is something that I’m worried about as well and I am still trying to process/blunder through what to think about it. For the most part I don’t think Campbell, or others, have the same concern about the “control” language that I do (I think that “control” language much like “power” language is a cipher of sorts) and that they probably are using it in a way that doesn’t mesh with a non-“self-made individual human agent” account or approach that is running through parts of my post.

      It may be the case that I (someone?) would have to do some work to process through whether the self-actualization of the sort I’m concerned with (namely one that requires a relational ground in keeping with some things by Buber and Irigaray, minus the phenomenology) is an emergent property from a social/communal actualization, something that happens synchronically with it, etc. and whether approaches centered on individual human narratives can still inform more alterity friendly alternatives.

  2. Lindsay, I really enjoyed reading your blog. There is definitely a lot to discuss and ponder in this post. I like that you posed the question, what must we believe about someone to consider them to be void of meaningful contribution?
    I prefer to consider things contextually, perhaps in one setting a contribution would be void of meaning, but in other settings it could be highly relevant. What do you think?

    1. Hmm…I think my first thought is both yes and no to contextual consideration. On one hand, I think that there are situations when it is likely that a person may not have something “meaningful” to add concerning the problem, situation, or question at hand. But the lack of “meaningfulness” is only relative, and restricted, to the framing of the problem. Albeit I would then want to question why there isn’t an openness and receptivity to alternative possibilities, and who exactly get to define “meaningful,” but that’s a different problem!

      On the other hand, I’m worried that too often things may *seem* meaningless and then be disregarded when in fact the contribution, in coming from a different perspective, could add something important to the conversation that, arguably, could constitute a challenge the customary mode of doing x,y, or z and that could cause other types of problems.

      tl;dr: I’m skeptical that appearing to have no meaning implies there actually being no meaning, so perhaps the middle ground would be to say that we can acknowledge that there are context specific instances when certain contributions would not be meaningful restricted to the context (albeit begrudgingly) and that seemingly meaningless contributions may in fact be more meaningful than we know or recognize (and I think that this is often the case).

      I’ll have to think about this some more.

  3. So much here — and I’m sorry this will be so brief (but brief is better than nothing, yes?). Of course now we know (and it’s only been 48 hours!) that the gag orders have been implemented and the cyber record scrubbed (I’m referring to the NLB tweets re: climate change). On a slightly different tack: I’ve thinking about how Hypothes.is might be a wonderful and powerful resistance to the retro-presentism we are likely to continue to experience….Annotations to the web – connected to but independent of the underlying URL can document what was there and clarify inaccuracies and false claims. A citizenry so armed might be our best hope.

    1. Agreed–it may be that online grassroots organizing coupled with independent writers, thinkers, and ultimately collaborators who are free from those sorts of constraints may be our best home for building capacity in the cyber world. Or “[our] only hope” if we want to be thematic.

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