After seeing today’s XKCD (above) I sort of wish I had written all of my digital dualism posts as an easy-to-read table. I generally agree with everything on there (more on that later), but I’m also pretty confused as to how Randall Munroe got to those conclusions given some of his past comics. I can’t square the message of this table with the rest of Monroe’s work that has maligned the social sciences as having no access to The Way Things Are. The table is funny specifically because the social scientists he pokes fun of, did a lot of work to make those answers plainly (painfully?) obvious. How does someone with an obvious resentment for the social sciences, also make a joke about how we were always already alienated?
I don’t expect an artist to never contradict herself or himself, nor am I expecting some kind of universal and all-encompassing Theory of XKCD that would put each comic in relationship to the other. But, to my mind, I have a hard time believing that someone can believe all of the following to be true (in no particular order):
It doesn’t seem as though Munroe is a reader of social theory or cultural criticism. If anything, he seems to be an ardent critic of the “soft sciences.” Lots of his comics (especially those last three) imply that while scientist are quirky, sometimes to an obnoxious fault, social scientists and humanities scholars are consistently bullshitting their way through the profession. And yet, Munroe seems to value the observations of, and even engage in popular sociology of technology. I’ll admit I’m not an avid reader of his blag, but my keyword searches haven’t come up with something approaching an answer. I’m certainly not looking to dedicate an entire blog to critiquing XKCD I have secretly always resented physicist for making a community around, among other things, poking fun at my chosen profession.
Given his seemingly contradictory work, I (and many STS scholars) would be really interested to know Munroe’s thoughts on The Science Wars. Were you unaware of an entire shadow war that took place across multiple disciplines’ journals for several years in the mid 90s? Well that’s disappointing, it was really exciting. Thankfully, Wikipedia has a really excellent summary of the whole war, but here’s the really short version: As soon as sociologists and philosophers began to suggest that objectivity is a social construction, scientists began to push back claiming that postmodern theory was useless to society. The war hit its peak in 1996 when Alan D Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote some nonsense
under a pseudonym and got it published in Social Texts. On the day of publication they also released a public letter exposing their work as a hoax. Derrida got really angry and said some mean things in his book Paper Machines.
Randall Munroe’s work seems to both represent the most hardline Sokal supporter, while also making the social critiques of a postmodernist. The carefully cultivated “view from nowhere” of the scientist certainly supports the notion that mathematics are “pure” and sociology is superstructure, but where does the critique of alienation come from? Is it through sheer force of intuition and observation? Or has Munroe slipped into the same kind of privileged and myopic vision of society that N+1 editors periodically fall into? A perspective that projects one’s own wit and cutting criticism onto the world writ large; thereby simultaneously demanding that those witticisms go away while also demonstrating that they are more necessary than ever. In other words, Munroe utilizes critical sociology to make the point that critical sociology is useless.
It would be silly to demand that someone who draws comics should start reading social theory to do their job better. But we’re not talking about Garfield here, we’re talking about a comic that sits at the overlapping center of nerd culture, big science venn diagram. XKCD is just as much a part of young engineers’ and scientists’ training as Calculus 101. The comic needs to take social science seriously not for the sake of social scientists, but for the mutual advancement of all professional fields.
Also, it would just make for a better comic. Like I already said, I generally agree with the sentiment of today’s comic, technology does not unilaterally “make us” anything, but that’s a rather prosaic observation. It says more about the the sorry state of technology writing to think that this table is witty. Sometimes teens won’t have sex with a technology. Sometimes they will. The point of smart critical theory about technology is seeking out causal factors, making observations about the mutually shaping relationship of the social and the technical, and sometimes providing prescriptions for a better sociotechnical world. Munroe is having it both ways: laughing at the people that deconstruct science and technology while doing it himself and claiming its nothing more than common sense. The problem being, common sense is constructed, and its heavily influenced by the critics of culture, society, and technology. If Munroe wants to make these jokes, he should at least pay a little gratitude to the profession that works to make those jokes possible. Or, at the very least, stop pretending that we’re all just making this stuff up.
EDIT: This post originally said Sokal and Bricmont published under a pseudonym. They actually used their real names and their status as prominent scientists to get it published.