Digital Desire

For me, as a teacher, the last couple of sessions have been somewhat of a disaster. The technology of the video conference has completely failed me. For reasons I was unable to determine, the connection broke down again and again, people couldn’t hear me, voices were put into slow-motion, videos froze, i.e.: the lot. It was frustrating for everyone. However, I felt something even stronger than frustration. I experienced an urgent desire to communicate, or rather: an unfulfilled desire to learn that my communication was successful. Do you hear me? Can you see me? DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING???

Thinking about this experience I realized that this communicative desire is a constitutive part of all my online-teaching, and not only a response to technological glitches. I feel a constant need to explain to students what we are doing and how I want to do things; I constantly write emails to my students reminding them of what to do, where, how and why; I address students directly, asking them what they think about a certain text, a format, a tool; I urge them to contribute to discussion threads and blogs. I need to see them react to what I am doing. I need them to signal: I hear you! This, really, is different to my behavior in times of co-presence. I hardly write emails to students; I seldomly remind them of their tasks. To be honest, I am quite content with seeing them once a week; we have a good discussion in class and that’s fine until next time. Why this difference?

When looking at communication in situations of co-presence, the sociologist Niklas Luhman highlights what is going on beyond communicating in words: »Compared with explicit communication (…), reflexive perceiving has specific advantages. (…) Above all, perception achieves (…) great complexity in absorbing information with limited analytical precision – thus a far-reaching but only ›approximate‹ mode of intelligibility, which can never be communicated«. In situations of co-presence, we see each other being in the same situation, the same room at the same time, we see each other looking at the same text, listen to the same words. And even though, of course, that doesn’t mean we know what’s going on in each other’s minds, the shared situation produces »great security about the commonality of an item of information (however diffuse) that one possesses«. We don’t know exactly what it is, but we share it.

But it is not only the shared context which produces a certain security of commonality that defines a situation of co-presence. Not for nothing, we call such instances face-to-face communication. As Luhmann writes, this produces “a capacity for modalizing communication through parallel processes of weakening, strengthening, and contrary utterance on a level of (intended or unintended) ›indirect‹ communication«. It’s what happens beyond mere words that makes the difference, and it’s of specific importance »for working out changes in theme or an end to contact«. Every word leads to another – and another, and another. Only a mutual gesture, a look in each other’s eyes, a nod of the head can end this. It’s okay, we can leave at that. It’s okay.

It’s never just okay on the internet, and that’s why it never ends. In fact, one might even conclude that our desire to find an end (which never comes) drives the internet. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean, an American political theorist, writes: »It’s not like cinema, where people only have to show up. For the internet to function at all (…), people have to use it, add to it, extend it, play with it. Our participation (…) drives it.« And we can’t stop participating, nothing fills the void that opens up between words and answers that never come: “In a world of code, gaps and omissions can become knots of anxiety.”

p.s.: the internet is known to be a place for self-marketing. Let me add to this and recommend my new book Digitalschatten to you. It was written before Corona, obviously, and it has nothing to say about remote instruction/online learning specifically, but it has all the more to do with desire, digital communication and the role of bodies in communication.