Shawn Bodden PhD Researcher at Edinburgh University (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Jen Ross is Senior Lecturer in Digital Education and Centre co-director (Digital Cultures) at Edinburgh University (email@example.com)
This blog post relates to the Global Discourse article Shawn Bodden & Jen Ross: Speculating with glitches: keeping the future
It’s been a year of glitches, large and small. The glitch has become inescapable in the wake of the worldwide disruptions, failures and uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the faltering, inadequate responses of too many world leaders to its challenge in their pre-emptive drive to return to a ‘new normal’. But what is a glitch, and should we understand it as more than an error (technical or otherwise)?
Glitches are a kind of encounter, where expectations, preferences and plans are disrupted, but which thereby provoke new, previously unthought possible futures. By responding to and using glitches, we engage in future-making practices that negotiate what feels possible here-and-now. Irksome glitchy moments can lead us—grudgingly at times—to improvise creative alternatives to our original plans. Rather than seeing the resolution of a glitch as a return to a pre-existing, smooth-functioning way of doing things, speculative decision-making and experimentation involves achieving something following the uncertain situation of a glitch. Repair thus becomes a situated and practical act of reflection on how to work with a glitch: a ‘new’ normal accompanied by lessons-learned, scars, corrosion, raised insurance rates and other unexpected changes. The glitch becomes a space for practical and critical speculative thought about here-and-now possible worlds.
In a recent article, we examined two examples of glitches and their effects. For Jen, the unexpected, unrelenting chatter of a glitching ‘Teacherbot’ brought about new opportunities to discuss and reflect on posthumanism with students. For Shawn, creative appropriations of dilapidated infrastructure by Hungarian activists was also a glitchy moment—a problem followed by creative methods to make something of it. In our two case studies, glitches made new ways of understanding the teacher and the city apparent, and created new pathways for imagining the present.
Examining these glitches shows that, despite systematic bids to define the future, unruly encounters can re-draw the contours of our attention and prompt speculative problem-making and repair. Teacherbot disrupted student and teacher assumptions about the teaching environment and the possible roles a pre-programmed bot could play in communicating experiences of post-humanity, while crumbling sidewalks paired with activists’ paint create new possibilities for a city’s infrastructure and re-open the terms of urban citizenship. The uncertainty of glitches help us understand the consequences that take shape as people sense, respond to and participate in the everyday experience of ordering and re-ordering futures. In this way, the glitch serves as a navigational moment, a switch-up from the implied momentum of the present. Glitches move us from ‘one-foot-in-front-of-the-other’ to ‘finding-your-footing’.
Yet a glitchy moment is not the same for everyone involved. Relations with the glitch vary considerably for students versus teachers, and for activists versus the police. This is particularly important to keep in mind in these current pandemic times. Joe Deville brings our thinking on glitches to bear on the pandemic and its interruption of the many “usually taken for granted, tightly coupled socio-technical infrastructures” that facilitate our ‘normal’ modes of living. The range of disruptions brought on by the pandemic have reshaped many experiences of health, work, social life and space, education, loss and more. Our notions of the future and what it might come to look like have had to be reconsidered. However, the creative encounter of a glitch is not an occasion for naïve optimism: the importance of the uncertain situation of a glitch lies instead in the opening up of spaces for critical thought, grounds and resources for questioning and re-thinking the assumptions, moral norms and routines that had previously been—if implicitly—treated as acceptable enough. If we think about the Covid-19 pandemic with the concept of the glitch, we do not follow the overly optimistic accounts of the pandemic’s ‘silver-lining’ in, for instance, reducing carbon emissions. Rather, we consider how the pandemic has played a part in creating numerous ‘questioning situations’, where we have all—though each in different ways, each in different situations—had to consider what to do here-and-now.
There is value and hope in the work done to manage what Maria Puig de la Bellacasa calls an ‘as well as possible’ world in the present. The troublesome, surprising, eventful glitch is a useful concept to think with while we work. Our paper’s aim is to open space for discussion, reflection, experimentation and collaboration as we work to make something of the glitches littering our worlds.