“This secret with no mystery”: The Impossibility of Mastery in the Information Age

After a particularly disheartening programming exercise that was part of an attempt to self-teach myself coding, I stumbled upon this Derrida quote from Paper Machine. It’s from a 1996 interview with La Quinzaine Littéraire, in which Derrida spoke about the experience of composing on a word processor:

I know how to make it work (more or less) but I don’t know how it works. […] Not knowing, in this case, is a distinctive trait, one that does not apply with pens or with typewriters either. With pens and typewriters, you think you know how it works, how “it responds.” Whereas with computers, even if people know how to use them up to a point, they rarely know, intuitively and without thinking—at any rate, don’t know—how the internal demon of the apparatus operates. What rules it obeys. This secret with no mystery frequently marks our dependence in relation to many instruments of technology. We know how to use them and what they are for, without knowing what goes on with them, in them, on their side; and this might give us plenty to think about with regard to our relationship with technology today—to the historical newness of this experience. (Paper Machine 23)

I think that part of what is so daunting—and potentially disheartening—about cultivating technical knowledge and skills for digital humanities work is this ever-increasing realization of your own ignorance, of the degree to which your interaction with technology continues to involve “this secret with no mystery” whose existence you’d all but forgotten.

For me, Derrida’s quote served as a much-needed reminder that this is not a situation that we’re really capable of studying our way out of. One can, of course, master the mysteries “under the hood” of a word processor; however, technology has developed at such a rapid rate—and technical knowledge has become so specialized—that the possibility of knowing every programming language, of completely understanding the inner-workings of every component, of “mastering” every element of computing, is increasingly out of reach even for computer scientists. Of course, computers are only one facet of the vast realm of technology that we interact with on a daily basis. It would seem that, in the information age, being a true “renaissance (wo)man” is no longer within the sphere of possibility.

As I struggle to carve out my little space of technical knowledge, I’m finding it useful to remember that this praxis is not only about acquiring skill; it’s also about coming up against a growing realization of how my interactions with information—my interaction with my own research and scholarship even—are mediated by technologies that are so complex and so rapidly changing that “mastery” is, at best, only a relative concept. Thinking about what it means to do scholarship in an age that no longer permits traditional “mastery” is, perhaps, a question that must inform any theorizing of DH.

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