The presence of absence. How do we get to choose to leave online life and leave behind a clean screen if not a clean slate? Jenny Mackness has been writing about absence as an essential element of presence from many interesting perspectives – art and metaphor, for example. I am also interested in silence as part of dialogue, disconnection as part of connection. It is so easy to forget the background in favour of the foreground of the moment.
“As we bring to the foreground new structures, we focus on them to understand them or destroy them…as we assimilate the new structure without sight of the whole but just those aspects that attract or repel us it becomes ‘normal’. What was figure becomes the ground, the way things are around here. New figures come to the fore including the seeing of the old as obsolete and to be shedded. What can our actions be in that interface of figure and ground almost instant and certainly not stable shapeshifting?” McLuhan
This post seeks to bring to the foreground resonances I found when reading Jenny’s posts.
“all the ways in which we can align ideas such as invisibility, absence, silence, immaterial, emptiness, speculative, contingency, indeterminacy, invisibility and nothing, to teaching and learning, particularly teaching and learning in the online environment where it is so easy to be invisible to each other. This has often been seen as a negative aspect of online learning, but maybe this is a short-sighted view.”
She also tells us that in learning about the materiality of nothing in art she is starting to shape a sense of the space in that interface of figure and ground McLuhan speaks to in my quote earlier. She says: “It is in this middle, empty, intangible space, a space of absence, between something and nothing that creativity, new ideas, alternative perspectives can emerge”.
Within this context Jenny also raises the question: should we expect permanence in art or in any work we do? Could it be that impermanence offers a way into new ideas and creative work? Yet, if our work disappears, what remains? She says,
My question is how prepared are we to create work in any form that is only transitory, and moves from being ‘some’ thing to ‘no’ thing? Could this make us more creative? It seems that a number of artists engage in this kind of work, i.e. the here today gone tomorrow type of work, often created in the environment, but even this work is often fixed by a video or a photograph. It seems much more difficult to completely let it go and be prepared to accept the absence. On the other hand how can absence have an audience?
These are very interesting questions to me.
To start the exploration, Jenny offers as an example what I call ‘enforced absence’: Artist Dennis Cooper’s blog was deleted by Google without warning. Should we expect permanence? In this case, I say, no. Yet, so many of us forget that Google reserves the right to do what the hell it likes with our content. Just as Facebookistan does and any other of these large corporations offering the lie of free. I have always thought of my digital life as a practice in accepting impermanence. Here today, gone tomorrow. Take a deep breath and learn about attachment; but don’t ask me how I would feel if my Tumblr archive disappeared tomorrow; and I do not think that owning our own domain is the answer to enforced absence, much can go wrong with that and I assume impermanence on all my domains. I am with Stephen Downes when he says,
I have no illusion that hosting my own domain and server and all the rest of it will free from such fecklessness [of third parties]. It simply moves it back a level.
For me, it has still been useful to go through the creation process to learn how to move it ‘back a level’ even if, due to laziness, I still prefer to hangout in Tumblr until Yahoo ruins it beyond recognition. It has helped me see the ephemeral nature of the web and how much rubbish it actually produces for all the usefulness and wonder it gives us.
I have been interested for a while on the idea of digital landfills and creativity. Many focus attention on archiving or hoarding to counter the inherent impermanence of digital content. I read recently a wonderful post that spoke of the ways in which books could enhance the web by offering a print option for a website that was built for both print and digital. I see these are ways to achieve a kind of permanence and thought it was valuable as well as romantic – books can add value to the web! Yet, there is another side to this. How much digital content we leave behind uncared for, just because we can? Should we worry about digital landfills as we worry about physical ones? I think, yes. I think we need to maintain our digital footprint just as we recycle rubbish in our physical life.
This concern led me to ‘chosen absence’. What if I wanted to clean up my digital life and choose to let it all go? You would have thought there would be easy ways to do this and yet the mantra is the exact opposite of that: ‘nothing disappears on the web’. People may be easily invisible on the web, but content? You cannot get rid of the stuff, unless it offends Mark, Larry or Sergey or Jack.
So I went down a rabbit hole. How do I chose to become digitally absent?
Those who love the web talk about withering domains with sadness. Here the assumption is that we let wither that which we do not value and some websites may be a loss to others. Others who also love the web, see it differently,
“I don’t think of everything I do on the Web as perpetual. In fact I think of much as it as ephemeral. I know, I know: “Nothing ever disappears on the Web.” But, of course, that’s not true. Stuff does disappear on the Web all the time, but what remains (and what I kind of love) are the “whispers” of presence that maintain. I’ve created too much over the years on the Web to manage it all. I have a few spaces that I’m committed to sustaining. I have other spaces that are dying, slowly. (and I’m okay with that). Part of the reason I think we need to let some work on the Web be ephemeral is because I fear the alternative is some kind of paralysis. I mentioned above that some of my work has/is disappeared/disappearing. If I thought that I had some obligation to tend to all of the spaces I’ve built, I would be somewhat reluctant to build more — and try out new things. I treasure the messiness of the Web. I find that realizing things disappear makes what I can find on it even more wondrous. It’s kind of like the world, that way.”
So it seems that the only way to chose absence is to slowly wither and leave whispers of presence. Some see this as a poetic illustration of the impermanence of life, others see it as digital landfills full of rotting links, others do what they can to preserve even what has been left behind by their owners. This seems straightforward; let it wither or preserve it and get on with your life. If you are thoughtful, leave a message saying you are no longer maintaining your work as this may help those who land on your outdated content.
This is practical as far as it goes. But I am tidy. What if I wanted to clean up my domain like the image I started this post with? Mine but clean. It is harder than you would think to achieve absence of this kind online. And even then, the whispers continue.
This is where I learnt about 410 Gone. I love the idea of 410 Gone.
What is it? An HTTP error code. When do you use it?
The definition tells us that it “indicates that the resource requested is no longer available and will not be available again. This should be used when a resource has been intentionally removed and the resource should be purged. Upon receiving a 410 status code, the client should not request the resource again in the future. Clients such as search engines should remove the resource from their indices. Most use cases do not require clients and search engines to purge the resource, and a “404 Not Found” may be used instead.”
So, I can intentionally remove a resource (a website I no longer want to maintain, for example) and the web is set up to clean itself up of that resource. Why do we not use this as a matter of course? Why has nobody offered me this option when I ask about tidying up my digital life? I suspect it has more to do with ideology than technology.
Let me tell you Mark’s story, the owner of the blank screen this post starts with. His site may be clean and empty but the whispers are still loud and clear 5 years after his ‘infosuicide’. It also seems that all the pronouncements about web freedom and domains being my own fall down if I go down the route of chosen absence. I am free to do anything I want with my content, so long as I chose presence and commit to fight link rot. I am likely to be hunted down by the digital mob should I send a ‘410 Gone’ if people like my content. We like it, and you can’t delete. Back to Mark.
Mark decided to leave and delete his content intentionally. His ‘fans’ were not pleased. He had a fairly philosophical take on the old 410 Gone,
“Embracing HTTP error code 410 means embracing the impermanence of all things.”
—Mark Pilgrim, March 27, 2003 (diveintomark.com)
So he cleaned up all his stuff and returned a ‘410 Gone’ to all who looked for him. And people looked for him. They looked for him so much that after a while he sent a message via somebody else: “Mark Pilgrim is alive/annoyed we called the police. Please stand down and give the man privacy and space, and thanks everyone for caring.”
What was interesting to me when researching this story was the number of polarised opinions about his behaviour that were expressed at the time and some even had decided he was selfish and disrespectful. How could he decide to leave and take his content with him? There were people who found it useful and were rather miffed at its disappearance.
They ignored his request to be 410 Gone and made mirrors (copies) of his work available. Five years on, all the stories are on the web as is his content.
“Do we have the right to control, and ultimately remove our content? Surely. But to put so much information out and to remove it seems unnecessary. Is it too much to ask to maintain one’s own archive, if only for a little while?”
Scott Haselman’s post is interesting; oscillating between critique and wishing him well. The comments are also fascinating. Clearly 410 Gone touched a nerve. Everyone had a view. Scott speaks of infosuicide and it was the first time I heard that term. Mark clearly made his presence felt by his absence. He never came back (as far as I could find at least). The story of _why is similar, but perhaps uglier. He chose absence and yet was not left alone to choose either absence or anonymity. He had wanted to remain anonymous but the digital mob outed him and again views on his actions and his rights abounded. As did views on whether it was ethical to name him. I read this old comment thread and was left speechless by the self righteousness and personal nature of the comments – it seems for some he not only did not have a right to chose absence but also had no right to privacy…and the anger was extreme from others. Anyway, Jonathan (if that indeed was/is his name), unlike Mark, is back online.
Someone commented that Mark’s presence may be gone but his work is not lost, as it had been mirrored. I have mixed feeling about the ethics of this, but I am also interested in how it highlights that in-between space of absence/presence. Years on, a clean page and no Mark. Yet his work and story keeps on whispering across time on the ephemeral web.
What is the materiality of nothing, indeed? Is content presence? Is the web and its kind of permanent impermanence the place for new ideas and creativity? Or is it just the place where we keep recycling old content (un)knowingly? Do these ideas in any way help us get some kind of grasp on what role absence may play in presence in the online teaching environment?
I look forward to continuing my conversations with Jenny on these ideas.
A recurring theme weaving through our talks so far seems to be about the suitability of some digital spaces for encouraging the emergence of new ideas. Many theorists speak to the need for this clean slate without expectations for new thinking to emerge, and many observe that this is just the opposite of what society is reinforcing and foregrounding right now. Jenny highlighted the following quote by M. Meredith discussing Ursula Franklin’s work,
A view through Franklin’s lens reveals that, as a “byproduct” of what we call progress, we have created societies easily ruled and monitored— and accustomed to following orders whose ends they don’t question.
We have started to talk about open education via the web in the context of the quote above.
For example, if not knowing and risk taking are essential for the kind of learning spaces where soul making can happen, how does performing to an audience (real or imagined), as is the case in open online spaces, affect that space? Success in the shape of likes and comments, in these same spaces, makes for a very clear set of rules that have to be complied with if we are not to be invisible in the network. How does playing to these rules in order ‘to be seen’ constrain the creation of spaces of absence for learning?
To be continued…