Cyborg Scholar

When I refer to my scholarship, whose knowledge exactly do I mean? When I’m asked to comment on my area of expertise, who or what does the commenting?

For academics, the answers to those questions used to be self-evident. But the rise of digital knowledge production has sown confusion. Academics are undergoing an identity crisis.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Librarian” (ca. 1570)

In academia’s old regime, my authority would have derived from years of personal study, firsthand research, and peer-reviewed writing. The Ph.D. was proof that I ruled over a personal regime of knowledge. When I would comment in public forums, I would pose as sovereign over my own material and citizen of my disciplinary field. Pressure to assume those roles accounts for the imposter syndrome that still afflicts early career scholars and many established ones, too. Of course, I would acknowledge my debts to past scholars. But a demonstration of intellectual sovereignty was what qualified me for (provisional) academic citizenship.

Now, digital scholarship has revolutionized the old mode of knowledge production. By digital scholarship in the broadest sense I mean the ordinary tools and media that I use to carry out basic academic tasks: laptop computer, word processor, Internet connection, e-mail, the reference manager Zotero, Google, Wikipedia, the library master catalogue WorldCat, the article repository JSTOR, digitized archives, social media, smartphone with camera, e-reader, tablet for meetings and travel. I plug into this matrix everyday, even though I don’t work in the specific field of digital humanities. Printed books, paper archives, and other analog media remain my lifeblood. Yet those things mean nothing until I copy and assimilate them to the digital network.

Our ways of storing and retrieving knowledge differ from those of predigital scholars. What we know exists both within and beyond us: through threads and chats, in bibliographic databases, on websites, and in the cloud. As a new mode of knowledge production, digital scholarship has dispersed what we know across platforms that no longer belong exclusively to us, the alleged sovereign scholars. We depend on Silicon Valley corporations, arcane algorithms, webmasters, networks, and constant connectivity. Some have criticized such platforms as “neoliberal tools” that erode the traditional academy. But whether we like it or not, we’ve evolved into cyborg scholars.

In 1985, before computers had conquered the world, the theorist Donna Haraway wrote her famous essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” She wanted to create a myth of political identity for feminists who confronted the destabilizing effects of the new postindustrial society. “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism,” she explained, “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” Haraway believed that we had entered a new age of porous boundaries, in which technology and insecure labor conditions would disrupt old social bonds. In the process, the sovereign individual created by modernity would give way to plural post-gender, post-binary, and even posthuman beings.

Lynn Randolph, “Cyborg” (1989)

Her vision of the cyborg seems prophetic today. “Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices,” she observed about the burgeoning microchip industry in Silicon Valley: “they are everywhere and they are invisible.” Surveilled by and plugged into ubiquitous devices, humans had exited an old hierarchical society based on fixed boundaries and entered “a scary new network” of fractured identities. The separation between private and public spheres would erode, she predicted. The household economy would extend beyond the home, just as work would extend beyond the workplace.

Digital scholarship has made the fictive elements of Haraway’s cyborg manifesto all too real. For example, use of smartphones and tablets by conference attendees has become the new normal. Organizers now routinely develop apps tailored to major annual meetings, such as the American Historical Association’s. The apps provide a digitized version of the traditional program, maps, directory, and so on. Increasingly, they also include features that capitalize on the intranet of conference users. Devices do distract us. We’re all guilty of having checked e-mail during a presentation. More importantly for cyborg scholars, however, devices serve as reference tools and PR platforms. As a way of extending scholarly discussion to a virtual public, the practice of livestreaming or live-tweeting a panel no longer raises eyebrows.

Cyborg scholars are dependent on constant Internet connection, as people everywhere increasingly are. Since 2003, discussions have taken place at the United Nations about treating reliable Internet access as a human right. The digital terrain, like all social terrain, surely remains unequal. But it’s a fact that scholars today rely on constant access to notes, manuscripts, and bibliographies stored in the cloud. And for those with an institutional affiliation, that means constant access to electronic resources like JSTOR and e-book libraries.

Our screens display an ocean of information. It’s common to feel adrift, even in familiar waters. As Ann Blair has argued in Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010), this sense of information overload predates digital scholarship. But it has now advanced so far that some commentators link the epistemic crisis of digital information overload to the political crisis of democracy. Sovereign scholars used to serve as gatekeepers for private pools of specialized knowledge. Cyborg scholars now sail the high seas, where private pools have dissolved and pirates misappropriate knowledge. In her book Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (2018), for example, the scholar Donna Zuckerberg has analyzed the misinterpretations of classical texts that circulate in the alt-right “manosphere.” The present crisis of expertise reflects the downfall of the sovereign scholar.

To a certain extent, we’ve always been cyborg scholars. Recall that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the hero chastises his father, a medievalist professor, for not remembering vital clues about their quest for the Holy Grail. Dr. Jones, Sr., had written them down in his diary, which he lost. He explains to his son, “I wrote them down in my diary, so that I wouldn’t have to remember them!” The film’s representation of an anguished predigital scholar, bereft of his memory aid, hits close to home. We type things down, save them on hard drives, and sync them to our devices so that we don’t have to remember them. Now we might even skip the step of taking our own notes, trusting that the information we need is likely out there already, searchable, and downloadable. A symbiosis between humans and devices formed part of Bruno Latour’s celebrated actor-network theory, and the digital age has only deepened that symbiosis.

The field of digital humanities has formalized another, perhaps more obvious dimension of cyborg scholarship. Digital tools enable big data analysis, statistical modeling, and multimedia presentation that exceed traditional research methods and monograph publishing. Skeptics may justifiably suspect that digitalists hope to convert cyborg scholars into lab scientists. The time and skills required for the most impressive digital projects, such as Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters, outstrip the abilities of any lone researcher.

“Mapping the Republic of Letters,” Stanford University

Champions of digital knowledge production have gone so far as to subsume all individual work to the collective output of a hive mind. This vision of totally networked minds resembles the apocalyptic Singularity predicted by the AI-futurist Ray Kurzweil. For the time being, at least, we’re probably safe from the hive mind. But this scenario highlights a key aspect of Haraway’s theory, one that offers some hope. Cyborgs preserve an analog or organic component that’s irreducibly individual. Although densely networked, I retain my scholarly identity and my unique capacity for originality.

So the cyborg scholar inhabits a force field created by rapid changes in technology and knowledge production. And that has important consequences for how academia evaluates us. If the sovereign scholar is outdated, then we may need to rethink the terms of faculty employment. If the future promises ever more machinic networks and collaboration on shared projects, then the function of single-authored books and articles may well change. The tenure system is based on such typical outputs by sovereign scholars. It belongs to a passing and perhaps already obsolete mode of knowledge production. Existing academic institutions may no longer be equipped to train and employ the cyborg scholar. Changes in teaching conditions, especially the growing reliance by colleges and universities on casual or adjunct labor, also militate against the tenure system.

Given the budgetary pressure on institutes of higher education, as well as the specific crisis of the humanities, abolishing tenure would nevertheless be reactionary. Malevolent politicians and corporate managers would like nothing better than to punish “liberal professors” and cut labor costs by making all positions contingent. But the reality of cyborg scholarship should make us rethink both the social and the epistemic assumptions of tenure. Presently excluded from that system, surplus Ph.D.s are cyborg scholars, too.

This phenomenon isn’t cause for celebration. “‘We’ did not originally choose to be cyborgs,” noted Haraway. What separates my knowledge from what others know and what machines know just isn’t so clear anymore. However, cyborg scholars can choose how to face this new reality, seize its opportunities, and resist total assimilation.