Category Archives: Learning and training

#EDCMOOC: being human – reasserting the human

I’m horrendously behind with E-learning and Digital Cultures – I’ve not yet looked at the fourth week’s material, but I’m still hoping to get my ‘digital artifact’ in by tonight’s submission deadline. In the meantime, here are my thoughts and reflections on the week three material. The broad topic is ‘being human’ and the threats that technology poses to ‘the human’, and this week’s resources focus on re-asserting the human.

Mediation and the illusion of non-mediation

Several of the resources this week raise the question of mediation, non-mediation and the illusion of non-mediation. It’s interesting: some accounts suggest that moving images on a screen act as barriers between us and reality, while others suggest that they break down barriers.

This year’s series of Black Mirror has come at the perfect time, as many of the ideas and themes link to this course. Without wanting to spoil the story, the second episode, White Bear, looks at the way in which mediation via a screen affects our moral compass. Why do so many of us watch real things happening on screen that we’d never tolerate in person? Why are we prepared to be passive voyeurs just because there’s a screen between us and what’s happening, rather than step in to stop something bad unfolding?

It’s inevitable that brands will find the positive spin on things in their advertising (there was a stark contrast between the adverts and the short films in the second week’s materials too). But BT’s ‘heart to heart’ advert is actually closer to the White Bear position than I’d have expected. It rejects the vision painted by Corning and Microsoft of screen-based technology bringing people together, suggesting that while it’s good for immediacy it lacks emotion and truth. For quick chats and trivialities, online is fine; for the meaningful heart-to-hearts, the phone is better: it’s ‘the closest you can get to actually being there’.

Unfortunately (though not surprisingly) BT have done exactly the same as Microsoft and Corning by painting an ideal and incomplete picture. The only alternatives to phones that the advert shows are text-based online communications, when in reality screen-based technology can do a lot more than this with video chats and so on. It also uses nice filming techniques to illustrate their tagline, conveniently ignoring the fact that phone calls are still mediated communication. You can’t see what the person at the end of the line is doing, where they are, what emotions are passing across their face…

Both White Bear and the BT advert position the screen as divisive, mediation which results in something being lost: emotion, morality, authenticity, closeness. In contrast, Steve Kolowich’s 2010 article (‘The Human Element’) argues that the screen has the power to make interactions more human.

In a nutshell, Kolowich asks why distance education can be just as effective as classroom education but struggles to retain students. His suggestion is that it’s the lack of the ‘human’ in distance learning. And his solution is to add more video into course delivery. (He actually advocates audio interactions, too, but for me the bulk of his argument is centred around video.) Acknowledging that there are downsides – such as webcams or other visual engagement inviting prejudices or distractions – Kolowich argues that the illusion of non-mediation (that is, the sense of ‘being there’ facilitated by seeing the other participants) encourages increased trust and investment from students.

What is ‘the human element’?

It’s interesting that for BT that sense of ‘being there’ comes from hearing a voice, but for Kolowich it comes from seeing a face. And – as far as e-learning is concerned – this is the crux of the matter. What is that ‘human element’ that we so often seek to achieve in online learning?

When I started out in instructional design five years ago, we tried to achieve it through using photographs of people, good quality voiceovers rather than computer-generated audio, and a natural and conversational tone of voice in the copywriting. As video became more ubiquitous, this became the favoured mode of inserting the human into online learning. Unfortunately, a stilted talking-head clip of someone who’d rather be anywhere but in front of the camera reading from an autocue doesn’t necessarily cut it. Documentary-style clips of life in the workplace, interviews with employees, more sophisticated character-led dramas: all these approaches are attempts to make what we do more ‘human’.

The evolution of live online facilitation has been shaped by similar questions. The standard was once a PowerPoint slide deck, one-way audio presentation and perhaps a Q&A panel for participants; now the LPI is helping people make the most of the available technology to create a more effective – and more human – experience, incorporating webcams and freer two-way conversation via chat panels and microphones, for example.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that it’s about more than voices or faces. A human presence doesn’t necessarily equal a human experience. Haven’t we all had frustrating conversations with people in call centres? It’s a real person, you’re hearing a real voice, you’re talking in real time – and yet it doesn’t feel ‘real’. They’re reading from a script, or the discussion is driven by the boxes they need to fill in on their computer system. Likewise, most of us have experienced disappointing presentations or classroom training sessions: being in the same room as colleagues and the trainer doesn’t guarantee a good experience. If it’s not brought to life, if it’s not invested with emotion, then what benefit does this live set-up offer over a mediated or non-human offering (like an online course or a textbook)?

Insights, not outcomes

Having reached this point in my thinking, I turned to Lowell Monke’s article, ‘The Human Touch’, and found it articulated a lot of what I was thinking. In worrying about how best to use new technologies to make virtual experiences more ‘human’, we are perhaps missing the point.

There are so many things in Monke’s article that interest me. He compares the current failure of computers to improve education and attainment with the failure of motion pictures to replace textbooks in education, as was predicted decades ago. It seems we’ve always had a (technologically deterministic?) tendency to assume that each new milestone in technological advancement will revolutionise education in and of itself. Unfortunately those assumptions and predictions rarely become reality, and there has yet to be any evidence that the massive investment schools are making in computer equipment leads to higher achievement. His take on the problem is, I think, that we devote too much energy to teaching students the technicalities of how to use technology: how to use various software to speed up calculations or processes; how to use the internet to research topics. We don’t invest in teaching them how to really make the most of it – how to use it to enhance, not define, their lives and learning.

Monke notes that teenagers with access to the internet have a huge amount of power and the potential to do a lot of damage. So if schools need to teach children how to use technology, they also need to help them develop the ‘moral and ethical strength needed to resist abusing’ that power. This made me immediately think of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, a book I’ve just read after it was recommended earlier in the course. This novel is all about the damage that tech-savvy teenagers can do when they put their minds to it, because their experimentation and fearlessness means their understanding of technologies so quickly overtakes that of their teachers and the authorities. It’s a great read and – as the postscripts at the end of the book show – rooted far more in reality than science fiction.

However, Monke also rejects technological determinism and argues that we need to ‘not start by asking what children need to do to adapt to a machine world, but rather, which technologies can best serve human purposes at every educational level and how we can prepare children to make wise decisions about their use in the future.’ I do agree with this, but I think there is an important way in which we do need to teach children to adapt to a machine world. Kids are online so young these days and have only a superficial understanding, if any, of the dangers this exposes them to. I strongly believe that schools (as well as parents) have a responsibility to teach children how to use the internet responsibly in terms of keeping themselves safe.

The phrase that really stuck with me, though, was this: ‘the task of early education is not merely to prepare students for making a living; it is to help them learn how to make a life.’

In this, I saw a link to Steve Fuller’s TEDx Warwick talk, ‘Humanity 2.0: Defining humanity’, in which he establishes humanity as artifice and education as one of the most ancient forms of that artifice. He jokes that education is a dying art, which I interpreted as meaning that its original shape and purpose has changed to the point of disappearing. These days, in the Western world at least, education is imposed on the masses and is increasingly about rote-learning information. In ancient times, education was something for a select few, and it was about teaching people to live and work together – to develop skills for interacting with other people and with the world. Likewise, Monke regrets that – in part because it is allowing itself to be shaped by available technology – education is no longer about ‘wisdom, truth, imagination, creativity, and meaning’. Instead it’s about empowering students to take control of learning, setting and meeting standards, assessments and productivity.

This is something we are guilty of in corporate learning, too, perhaps. Are we (not just in online, but in all forms of workplace learning) in danger of letting outcomes replace insights? Clearly, workplace learning has a different purpose from school education, but perhaps we do sometimes forget the ‘development’ part of L&D, focusing too much on training and not enough on personal growth, learning and development. For me, ‘the human touch’ in learning comes not from a physical presence in a room or from a streamed video via a webcam, but from building a human perspective into the content, regardless of the delivery mechanism.

The other resources

There was such a wealth of resources this week, touching on so many different ideas and themes. I tried to keep myself focused on things that I could most easily link back to my work or to ideas from previous weeks, but here’s a quick round-up of the rest (excluding Neil Badmington’s ‘Introduction: approaching posthumanism’ and the short film World Builder, both of which are worth a look but didn’t quite fit in to my trains of thought here).

The Toyota ‘real deal’ advert addresses the opposition between technology and reality that’s suggested in the BT advert, amongst other resources. In this pixellated world, we are not just surrounded by but immersed in technology, and authenticity has become a black market commodity. As the main character drives the car, he starts experiencing ‘authentic’ emotion and then literally breaks out of the artificial world and into the real world (there’s also an opposition set up between the urban and the rural). Of course, his means of breaking out relies on technology – albeit not digital technology – and I also found it interesting that he doesn’t appear to become ‘real’ himself. I wonder whether this mirrors the BT advert in that they both try to present an unmediated ideal, but our reliance on technology (the telephone, the car) is such that this ideal proves impossible – and whether this parallels our attempts in education and workplace learning to inject something human into technology-mediated experiences or to create that illusion of non-mediation.

I just picked out a small moment from Steve Fuller’s TEDx talk, but his main focus is what defines humanity. He concludes that humanity is artifice, not least because there has always been ambiguity and shifting ideas about where the line is drawn between humans and non-humans, because there is such diversity in the physical and mental qualities that might define us as humans, and because not everything about us is necessary for us to be classed as human. They’re made out of meat is a darkly funny take on the same topic: what it is to be human. Initially, we assume the two characters in conversation are human because that’s what they look like – suggesting that we, at least in part, define ‘being human’ in terms of physical form. As their conversation unfolds and the situation becomes clearer, this definition of humanity collapses and lines between humans and animals (beings we’d define as non-human) becomes less clear. 

#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 3)

In 2009, Rebecca Johnston wrote a paper called ‘Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the internet’ whilst working towards her PhD. I was surprised to see a relatively old paper on the resource list for the second week of E-learning and Digital Cultures, but actually found it interesting reading. Johnston analysed a sample of editorials from 2008 in the USA, to identify categories of metaphors used for the internet, concluding that there were four main categories: physical space, physical time, salvation and destruction. The latter two clearly link to the course as parallels of the utopian and dystopian accounts of technology and digital culture that we’ve been looking at.

Salvation and destruction

All the examples of metaphors of the internet as salvation (including handling information or transforming business) and as destruction (eroding revenue, supplanting mainstream media, internet anarchy) are commonplace and it’s easy to think of many more. But I wonder if this is a bit simplistic – which perhaps Johnston nods to when she references the metaphors comparing the internet to water: both life-giving and destructive. I understand the point that metaphors shape how we understand and then respond to or interact with something, but I think so many of these phrases and metaphors are ingrained to the point of not really carrying those strong connotations anymore.

One thing I do find interesting in looking at this article alongside the videos I’ve been watching for the course is the significance of dialogue – or the lack of – in the films. In the first week’s films, all but one were silent. Those three were fairly distinctly dystopian in their presentation of technology and society. Inbox was silent in that there was no spoken dialogue, but there was a written dialogue between the two characters, and this film was also the one which presented the most ambivalent account of our relationship with technology. This could be coincidence, but looking at the films from the second week there does seem to be a pattern. The two adverts are silent and towards the utopian end of the scale; the three short films include dialogue and present a more complicated view of future technology and society.

So there’s a correlation between the introduction of language and more complex, less utopian accounts. I’m wondering if the introduction of language necessarily muddies the waters and makes any simplistic description problematic – whether that’s via a visual medium such as a film or via written accounts like those Johnston looks at. She does acknowledge that destruction and salvation metaphors combine to produce an overall cultural system that expresses mixed feelings about the future impact of the internet, but I’m not even sure that many of the metaphors can be simply categorised into ‘salvation’ or ‘destruction’ in the first place.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

The cycle which Johnston describes whereby metaphors can become self-fulfilling prophecies is an interesting one. We evoke a metaphor in order to explain something new, unfamiliar or unknown. That metaphor brings with it ‘entailments’, almost cultural baggage, which shape our understanding of the unfamiliar thing being explained. That understanding obviously shapes our actions and interaction with the new thing, which in turn reinforces the notion that the metaphor has explained the thing or experience. So metaphors bring with them the risk of limiting the potential of the new by anchoring it in the old.

The example that came to mind as I read this was that of virtual classrooms. In seeking to describe the new opportunity offered by the internet to bring learners synchronously together online, we reached for the universally understood concept of the classroom. Unfortunately, the entailments of this metaphor include the chalk-and-talk approach and poorly-designed PowerPoint slides (for example). So those ingrained connotations, perhaps subconsciously, influence the way in which we began using the technology. We simply moved very average (or perhaps even poor) classroom sessions and structures online, rather than embracing the range of features and opportunities afforded by this new internet-enabled technology.

Of course, things have moved on and hopefully there are fewer and fewer virtual classroom sessions run this way, but it’s interesting to consider whether, had the technology been called something else and described via a different metaphor, our use and experience of virtual classrooms would look very different today.

Skeuomorphism: visual metaphor

Although it’s not mentioned at all in Johnston’s article, I kept thinking about skeuomorphism and its relation to this discussion. Of course, that’ll be because I just read a couple of posts about it recently (it wasn’t a word I knew at all 18 months ago!). But I think it is relevant. If you don’t know what skeuomorphism is, read this article from Scientific American, which explains the concept. Then read this post from Bianca Woods about some of the problems with it.

As Bianca says, ‘skeuomorphism works when it’s being used to acquaint people to something new by using the look and feel of something they already know’ – it’s a visual metaphor. In some cases, it’s predominantly for explanatory purposes (unless cameras themselves become extinct and forgotten, the camera icon is always going to be the best way to represent the camera feature on a smartphone). In other cases, designers are drawing more on the emotional pull of the old or familiar (such as the page turning effect on digital books). But the other side of skeuomorphism is that sometimes it damages the experience it seeks to enhance. It prioritises form over function, it references overly out-dated things, or it compromises basic good design principles.

In the same way that metaphors for the internet might prevent its being used to its full potential by anchoring it in the past, the physical and the familiar, so does skeuomorphism risk holding back brilliant digital design by harking back too often, too strongly or too unthinkingly to the physical world. This is something we in online learning need to be very aware of – skeuomorphism has been very popular in e-learning design but we need to making more thoughtful, conscious decisions about when it works and when it doesn’t.

#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 2)

In addition to the two ad films depicting visions of technology in the future, last week’s E-learning and Digital Cultures content (I’m a bit behind!) included three further short films taking different stances on future technologies, possible uses and misuses of them, and how they might shape society.

Sight

I wasn’t surprised to see this film – presumably inspired by Google’s Project Glass and similar technology – on the list, as it had already come to mind earlier in the course. I’ve watched it several times over the past few months and each time it both engages me and gives me the creeps…

Like Inbox, this film seems to slip between utopian and dystopian suggestions – though perhaps in a less subtle manner. Initially the Sight Systems augmented reality contact lens technology appears intriguing. It provides novel entertainment, useful information (such as nutritional values of available food), and convenient assistance (during cooking, for instance). In this way, the future vision proposed here is not so different from the utopian picture being sold by Microsoft and Corning in their ads. Technology is always there, always on – in a good way.

The first hint of this being taken too far is when the guy re-starts chopping his vegetables in order to get the perfect score for this activity. We soon realise how all-encompassing the technology is, as the contents of his apartment are revealed to be entirely computer-generated. And then it starts getting really creepy when he goes on the date. What I missed the first time I watched this film is that the girl references a rumour that Sight Systems use their technology to manipulate people. It becomes apparent later that the rumour was true and that the technology has reached a point where it can be used to manipulate unknowing individuals.

Aside from the obvious malicious and dangerous implications, Sight differs from the two ads in a few key ways:

  • Both ads imply a future where the technology is available to all. Everyone will have these devices and there’s a level of equality. But this film disrupts that harmonious vision, exploring what the implications would be in the far more likely scenario that different aspects of the technology will be available to different groups of people – and the determining factor won’t necessarily be money. Who holds the power and what will they do with it?
  • Following from this, the nasty undercurrent that characterises this film is at least in part due to the ubiquity of game-based badging. If scores and badges are the primary measures of success in everything you do, how soon do other drivers and motivations start becoming irrelevant? Traditional checks on our behaviour – morality, ethics – risk being sidelined by the lure of increasing digital rewards.
  • There’s no learning here – it’s all about convenience, entertainment, gaming and social interactions. This isn’t in itself a bad thing – it’s just what this short film has chosen to focus on – but it’s interesting I think that the two ads chose to show how technology can be used to enhance the serious stuff as well as the lighter side of life.
  • Having said it’s partly about social interactions, there actually isn’t any bringing together of people in Sight as in the two ads. The male character operates in his own, largely digitally-generated, world until he goes on the date. But even there, he has to be pulled away from his augmented reality and into the un-augmented real world; his attention flicks away constantly to check scores, update statuses and so on. There is no relationship being built (as in Inbox) or developed or improved as in the two ads.

I think what makes this film so disturbing to me is that it is based on technology that’s currently being developed: it’s a clearly dystopian vision by the end and yet it’s not that far-fetched. There’s a lot that’s really fascinating about its potential, but this film raises questions about how far it can be taken and the potential for more unwelcome developments with the wrong motivations behind it.

Charlie 13

Watch the film here.

This film reminds me a lot of the young adult dystopian fiction that I’ve read over the past year or so (see a sample on my other blog). A teenager (or pre-teen) has grown up largely unquestioningly in a future society, but begins to demand more in terms of answers and explanations, often in anticipation of whatever event, ritual or decision marks them leaving childhood behind. In Charlie 13, that event is the implantation of a tracking device on your 13th birthday.

I find it interesting to compare the future societies depicted in these books. In some cases, life appears completely transformed (in The Hunger Games, for instance). But in others, society remains unchanged aside from one key thing. In The Declaration, it’s that a medication has been developed which extends life indefinitely. In Unwind, it’s that abortion is outlawed but parents can give up their children at a later point. And in Charlie 13 it’s the implant which gives the authorities eyes everywhere. Aside from this, everything else looks relatively unchanged – houses, furnitures, clothing and so on all seem quite normal.

The landscape is pretty bleak, not too dissimilar in atmosphere to that shown in New Media. But there’s a difference: this isn’t everywhere. From the first moments of the film we understand that there is a clear distinction between ‘society’ and ‘outside society’, and the chain link fence raises questions about whether something bad is being kept out or whether people are being kept in. Charlie is already nervous about having his tag implanted and intrigued by what lies outside the boundaries, but it’s a brief conversation with a man outside the fence, a ‘deserter’ who is presumably Charlie’s long-lost father, that decides him.

What I like about Charlie 13 is that the technology itself isn’t presented as being repressive or oppressive (there’s a lack of determinism, I suppose). Tracking technology and all-seeing authorities are not necessarily bad things, but there is a hint that the authorities abuse it when Officer Harker tells Charlie’s mum that he and his best friend have been declared ‘incompatible’. That divide between those who have complete control over or access to the technology and those who are subjected to it is even more evident here than in Sight. It’s the human use and implementation of the technology that’s concerning.

At one point, Officer Harker tells Charlie that ‘the chip makes you part of something bigger’. Isn’t this one of the major draws of social media and technology? This is partly what Microsoft and Corning are selling in their ads, but Charlie is able to see beyond that appeal, and he tells Harker ‘it’s not real though, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be’. What Charlie is really frustrated by and resisting is the lack of information and the lack of choice. He’s smart enough to realise that – despite what the big corporations might sell in their ads – technology is more often than not divisive. It’s not equalising; there will always be people who have more access to the technology than others, and there’s always the potential that those people will abuse that power.

Plurality

This film almost takes the idea of surveillance and all-seeing authorities from Charlie 13 to another level. In this version of the future, every movement made by anybody is monitored and tracked, not via an implanted chip but via their DNA. There are benefits to this of the type promoted by Microsoft and Corning: the ease and convenience of paying, starting your car, travelling without needing cash, keys or passports. On top of this, the ‘grid’ has contributed to rapidly falling crime rates.

The added twist to Plurality compared to the other films is the introduction of time travel, which is used as a mechanism for imagining the future consequences of the grid. The authorities detect a ‘plurality’ – the same person detected in two places at the same time. During the ensuing chase, we see a society which is dramatically different from ours (unlike in Charlie 13). There’s a lot of Minority Report style technology, augmented reality, personalised adverts and digital greetings. Having caught both versions of Alana, the authorities question them until they determine which is the plurality. She confesses and says that she has come back to stop the grid because of what she knows it will lead to in the future. She tells Foucault that ‘you’ve replaced freedom with the illusion of safety, but we’re not safe’.

Safety and security is an omnipresent issue when it comes to technology, whether it’s personal Facebook privacy settings or corporate digital security. And I think what Alana means is that by tightening up security to such an extent, the authorities are not only reducing crime but also making themselves and society more vulnerable. There’s one system, the grid, which contains every piece of information about every person in the population; if that system is compromised, there’s no back-up and the consequences could be devastating. There’s perhaps a warning in here to organisations that are responding to social media and new technologies by locking things down.

I’ve not had time to read Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother, suggested by the course organisers as related reading on the educational implications of this kind of society, but I’ll add it to my ever-growing reading list. I’m also going to have a browse of some blogs by other participants in the course, because the specifically educational implications of this version of the future are not clear to me at the moment.

#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 1)

The second week of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course still centres on utopian and dystopian accounts of technology. Where last week looked at past accounts of our existing relationship with technology, the films this week explore ideas of the future of digital culture.

The first two films are video adverts setting out visions from Corning and Microsoft of how they see their products evolving and how daily life will change accordingly.

A Day Made of Glass 2

 

Productivity Future Vision

 

Countering popular complaints 

The prompt questions provided by the course were around visualisations of education, learning and teaching in these films. But what struck me more was the way in which both companies appear to be going to great lengths to show their technology bringing people (particularly families) together. The impact of technology on face-to-face interaction and family togetherness is often lamented these days. We hear stories of siblings texting one another from different floors of the same house (this phenomenon is acknowledged in Inbox), of family meals round the table being replaced by TV dinners, of spouses struggling to win attention in favour of the work email account on the BlackBerry.

Both Corning and Microsoft appear to be actively pushing back against this and describing a vision of the future where technology, and particularly mobile devices, will draw families back together. The girl at the centre of A Day Made of Glass 2 has her glass tablet at her fingertips throughout the day but the focus of the advert is on the interactions facilitated by or mediated through the tablet – interactions with siblings, parents, classmates and teachers. Likewise, Productivity Future Vision shows characters in diverse situations and locations coming together via the technology (the mother and daughter searching for interesting recipes together, but from different locations rather than huddled round a kitchen table, for instance).

There is one message here about technology (paper-thin, frameless, caseless, transparent devices) seamlessly integrating into our lives, but the real significance of the focus on people rather than tech is in its rebuttal against one of the most popular criticisms of the rapid pace of development.

Everywhere, immersive, immediate

Both films share a vision of information and education becoming portable, scalable and shareable with the help of their future products. Sadly, though, the changes and developments are somewhat superficial.

In A Day Made of Glass 2, the pupils all have personal tablets connected to the teacher’s larger-scale wall model. It looks very nice – high quality, flexible visuals which are displayed simultaneously on all screens. But in reality the school education model remains unchanged. By and large, the students sit in rows at desks while a teacher stands up front and presents information. Even when the children are experimenting with colours on a fancy interactive glass surface, it’s not fundamentally any different from kids mixing paint colours on an activity table.

While we all, as parents or educators or leaders, have a responsibility to find the best way to use new technologies, I feel slightly disappointed that the visionaries at Corning and Microsoft haven’t invested energy in imagining what more radical changes and improvements could be made to existing conventions as a result of their developing and future products.

It also struck me that there’s a real emphasis on convenience and immediacy. Real-time capture and transfer of information, intelligent syncing between devices, and augmented reality: it’s all about receiving and moving information. There’s very little focus on creativity or creation. Again, I find this a bit disappointing. I also find it strange, given that certain devices on the market today (I’m thinking of Samsung specifically) push their creativity potential as the key selling point.

A slightly hollow utopia

Both films are clearly designed to present a utopian ideal of technology: they’re selling a product and a brand. There’s an element of technological determinism here, I think, in the total adoption of the technology portrayed in both visions of the future. But, initial ‘wow’ factor aside, both visions ring slightly hollow for me – as visions of the future, particularly with regards to technology in and for learning, I don’t think they push it far enough.

 

#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 2)

As well as the videos covered in my last post, the resources for the first week of Edinburgh University’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC included a paper by Daniel Chandler about technological determinism. Ultimately the paper is a rejection of technological determinism, with the author describing the theory as ‘reductive’ and technocentric.

I haven’t done enough supplementary reading to feel well-informed about the theory and criticisms of it. But I thoroughly agree with the sentiments in Ryan Tracey’s blog post prompted by the course, and he articulates them far better than I could hope to do. So instead, I spent a bit of time revisiting the short films from last week in light of this paper.

Technological determinism appears prevalent in Bendito Machine III in a few ways. It posits technology as a prime driver of changes in the primitive society depicted: the move from individualised characters to homogeneous groups, for example, is shown to have strong causal links to the arrival of new technology. Certainly this is reductionist, in Chandler’s terms. More interesting for me is the film’s suggestion of technological autonomy: as I noted last week, the TV appears to take on a life of its own. It is not a product of society, having been sent down from the skies above, and it is not under human control. To use Chandler’s language, it is ‘independent, self-controlling … seen as out of human control, changing under its own momentum and ‘blindly’ changing society’. The film is also showing a linear evolutionary view: each new technology resolutely replaces what came before, leading to the identification of clearly delineated ‘eras’. The film shows a society moving through the age of the radio, to the age of the TV and then to the age of computers (much like technological determinists would define social progress through eras such as the machinery age, through the space age, into the electronic age). There is no acknowledgement, in this theory as in the film, of the ways in which older and newer technologies work together and complement one another as much as they replace one another.

Inbox, on the other hand, appears to be less deterministic. I suppose the technological imperative is there in that Priya and Karthi communicate through this new means of technology simply because it presents itself to them and they can. But it never becomes an end in itself: the human aspect of the interaction is very much the driving force after the initial impetus presents itself. There is much more interplay between the technology and the people using it than suggested in Bendito Machine III. I already noted last week that this film was harder to categorise as either utopian or dystopian, and it seems there is a connection here. The films that are more firmly in one of those camps also tend to display a more deterministic perspective. Inbox, which is more ambiguous and open to interpretation, takes a more neutral view of technology. It is neither good nor bad in itself. There is the potential for Priya and Karthi to use it in a variety of ways, some harmless and others harmful. The way they choose to use it is what’s important and what shapes their experience, just as the way we choose to use technology on a larger scale shapes its impact on society.

The arguments behind technological determinism seem fairly flimsy. While we all have moments of anthropomorphising machines (Chandler uses the example of not letting the photocopier know how urgent your need is because that’ll make it break down), the idea that technology is self-controlling seems fairly absurd. As Ryan says, ‘any given technology – whether it be a tool, a gadget or a methodology – is merely a thing. It can not do anything until people use it.’ Similarly, the whole deterministic theory seems destabilised by the fact that numerous technological ideas and inventions fall by the wayside. It may be true that smartphones and tablets, once a fantasy, quickly embedded themselves in our lives to the point of now feeling indispensable and influencing and changing our habits. But for every technology that makes such an impact, how many more have failed to reach the marketplace or, once there, have failed to make any kind of impact? Social change is not driven purely by technology; it’s driven when need or appetite coincide with the right technology. Again, I defer to Ryan’s phrasing: ‘Technology is a driver of change in society, but not always, and never by itself. In other words, technology can change society when combined with social demand.’

#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 1)

Last week, I enrolled on Edinburgh University’s Coursera MOOC called E-learning and Digital Cultures. I did this partly out of curiosity about MOOCs generally and partly because this particular course sounded like it might be interesting. There’s been a lot of debate on Twitter and elsewhere about the merits of this course – the organisation, the language used, the subjects up for discussion. But for the time being I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and exploring the content to see what I can take from it.

The first two weeks of the course explore how digital culture and digital education are often described as either utopian or dystopian, with week one focusing on past accounts. We’ve been given four short films to watch and think about, and some early examples of writing on e-learning. I haven’t yet read the suggested articles, but I’ve watched all of the films twice through now and spent some time thinking about some of the questions posed by the course.

Bendito Machine III

The story of technological development in this film is not particularly subtle: what is presented as a primitive community worships each new and more sophisticated technology unquestioningly, immediately throwing out whatever came before. Things don’t end well, and this is clearly a dystopian view of our approach to technology. An ecological impact of so readily abandoning existing technology when a new one appears is also suggested, with a landfill site piling up with rejected devices and machines. But I watched it again and thought about it more deeply, and some different aspects of the film stuck with me.

The key message seems to be about the extent to which each new technology pervades our lives. Initially, the characters are gathered around the cow/radio which remains static. Although they appear to worship it, the assumption is that they could walk away and do other things. Indeed, even while gathered around the radio, this is a group of individuals each doing something different, beyond simply listening: some are dancing, others playing musical instruments and so on. With the arrival of the TV, this changes. The TV is very different from the radio – it conveys picture as well as sound, it introduces colour into a fairly monotone landscape, and it moves itself around. It’s visually and audibly engaging, flipping through adverts and music and film clips, and so the characters’ heads are quickly turned. But while it’s engaging, the characters start to lose their individuality. We see them moving in groups as they follow the machine around, and respond to or imitate what they are seeing. At around the 2.20 mark, possibly just before, a voiceover on the TV can be heard saying ‘think up more yourself’, which I found ironic given that by now the characters seem to have stopped displaying any sign of thinking for themselves. Shortly before the next new technology arrives, the characters appear blurry-eyed, further highlighting the loss of individuality and independent thought.

There is also a suggestion that new technology can be dangerous in a more fundamental way than encouraging a more sedentary, less individualised lifestyle. The TV takes on a life of its own and starts harming some of the characters, with a menacing face appearing on screen with increasingly frequency. But more than this, there is a warning against allowing technology to distract you from other priorities. This is made fairly explicit when a couple of the characters are so focused on the TV that they are knocked over by a car. Despite the harm being caused directly and indirectly by the TV (and the subsequent technologies), they keep turning it back on and continue to follow it.

So this film presents a dystopian account of our relationship with technology, acknowledging the ease with which we have our heads turned by the new and engaging but warning against such ready and unquestioning acceptance of each new development. The warnings cover the ecological but more thoroughly the social implications of such fixation or obsession, suggesting that it leads to the loss of individuality, a less active lifestyle, and the dangerous potential for distraction from other priorities and goings-on.

Inbox

I really love this film, and I think it’s more open to different interpretations than Bendito Machine III.  For me, it’s a lightly cautionary tale – neither utopian nor dystopian. I think it reflects back reality in such a way that most viewers would recognise aspects of themselves or their experiences in it.

My first reflection, I think, was that this film conveys the ability of technology to help us forge new relationships. For me, this is one of the biggest plus points of something like Twitter. I have many professional relationships and even friendships which began on Twitter, based on nothing more than a photo, a name, a two-sentence bio and a couple of 140-character messages. Being towards the introverted end of the spectrum, I find it much easier to start chatting to people via tweets than I would at a party, for example. So I can sympathise when I see Karthi looking nervous and lacking in self-confidence as he enviously observes a happy couple in the department store. I can see why conversing with someone new via the medium of short messages appeals to him. His sudden desire to get dressed and check his reflection in the mirror is an indication that the emerging relationship (which we can all appreciate feels just as real and significant as an in-person relationship) is building up his confidence; this could also be a reference to the way in which we can choose how we present ourselves when communicating online, putting forward the best version of ourselves.

On the flip side, there is something here about the ease with which we enter into relationships – of any kind – online. Priya, the female character, reacts with visible discomfort when men in the department store smile at her or give her attention. She even appears reluctant to chat online with what are presumably existing male friends. Yet she very quickly and willingly interacts with the faceless stranger sending her messages via the new medium of the red bag. She agrees to meet him in person despite knowing very little – if anything – about him, and neither she nor Karthi have any hesitation about giving out their names (and I also wonder whether the receipts stand for additional personal data). While this story has a happy ending in this respect, the contrast between Priya’s response to male attention in person versus via ‘technology’ certainly raises questions about our willingness to trust online acquaintances, often based on very little.

The demands and fragility of online relationships are both referenced. Online experiences can become all-consuming, and digital communication is no exception. We see Priya, who started off out-and-about, lounging around her home once she has started talking to Karthi. In ‘real life’, if the person you were chatting to needed to leave for a while, you’d find something else to do; because the conversation is online, Priya doesn’t do anything else when Karthi disappears to get dressed. She just sends the odd impatient message asking where he is, and waits for his assumed return. When Karthi’s bag is damaged, the relationship – which moments ago felt so meaningful and full of promise – collapses: there is no back-up when the connection is lost.

Despite this, the story takes a happy turn when Priya and Karthi find each other in person, recognising the red bags they have in common. But as always there is another side to this: their reluctance to speak to or touch each other appears to be more than just nerves. It is as though they have become so reliant on the technology that mediated their relationship, that they now can’t do without it. Even standing inches apart from one another, they resort to the notes they’d previously been using to communicate. Anyone who has ever emailed someone they could see from their desk will recognise how easily this reliance on online communication develops – perhaps seeing it in this film in a different context just highlights how ridiculous that might be.

So I don’t think this is particularly dystopian or utopian in its presentation of technology and online communication and connections. I think it acknowledges the way in which technology can be a positive mediator, building and enhancing relationships, while at the same time gently warning against becoming too consumed by or reliant on it at the expense of face-to-face interaction, other communication methods and life in general.

Thursday

Whereas the first two films focus primarily on technology and people, this film brings in nature as well, with the bird motif appearing throughout. I’m not entirely sure I ‘got’ the nuances of message of this one, to be honest: the suggestion seems to be that technology has a damaging effect on the natural world, but it all felt a bit superficial to me with no real argument.

I suppose there are two ways in which machines and technology are shown to be impacting on and harming the natural world in the first minute of the video: the mother bird, searching for food for her hungry babies, finds a discarded sandwich only to have it swept away by a road cleaner; subsequently we hear her birdsong change to imitate first the beeping of the road cleaner and then the ring tone of a mobile phone. Obviously the first example is fairly straightforward: we all know the potential and real environmental impact of technological development. But the second example – of the bird changing her song in imitation of the sounds of modern life – is less clear to me. Maybe it’s just another, more artistic, way of showing that advances in technology are impinging on the natural world.

These ideas continue throughout the film, but there are also suggestions of the power and agency of nature. In her quest for food, the bird cuts through cables and disables an entire office block. At this point there are echoes of two risks highlighted in Inbox: the fragility of technology, and our reliance on it to the point that we don’t know what to do without it.

For me, this film feels quite superficial. But it’s equally likely that it’s actually rather cryptic and there’s more to it than I’ve seen! It gave me some pause for thought but I really couldn’t draw out any other messages than these. In terms of utopia versus dystopia, I suppose it falls more towards the dystopian end – but in a less sophisticated way than Bendito Machine III.

New Media

Watch the film here.

Again, this film didn’t do much for me compared to the first two. It’s very short, and visually it echoes many popular films that draw on the image of the deserted cityscape. This does interest me actually: I read a good article (years ago, so haven’t a hope of finding it now) about why this deserted cityscape idea is often more chilling and frightening than more explicitly ‘scary’ film concepts, and since then I’ve watched and read a number of films and books that draw on this (think 28 Days Later, Blindness and so on).

So this film takes up an idea that’s visually recognisable, but with the twist that this bleak urban landscape has been transformed through our own doing. In most other examples, it’s nature or the supernatural that causes the change but here it’s technology which we’ve created ourselves. As in Bendito Machine III, the technology seems to have taken on a life of its own, and there’s also a suggestion that the human inhabitants have accepted this without question or resistance.

It is a very short film, so perhaps there’s not any more to it than that. Or am I missing something?

Assumptions about attentiveness: is eye contact engagement?

WitthayaPhonsawatAt BP’s Future of Learning event in November, we were lucky enough to have the fabulous Crystal Washington as our guest speaker at dinner (follow her on Twitter @CrysWashington).

Crystal delivered one of the most dynamic, engaging and passionate presentations I’ve seen for some time. Keeping the attention of a room full of people when you’ve got the after-dinner slot and everyone’s been at a conference all day isn’t easy! But that’s not the only reason why Crystal’s presence had us all talking throughout the next day.

Crystal gave us a whirlwind tour of social media: the dark side, the war stories, the lessons learnt the hard way by big businesses and unwitting individuals; the generational advantages afforded to both those young enough to have been using technology since infancy and those old enough to have experience of networking and business etiquette to inform their (strategic) use of it; and tips for how to make sense of the web of social networks out there and use them to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

During the Q&A time, someone picked up on the theme of generational differences and Twitter in particular, asking Crystal how she feels as a presenter if she’s in front of a Gen Y audience whose heads are down over their phones. Despite confessing that she doesn’t appreciate her siblings using their phones during dinner, Crystal replied quite firmly that this Gen Y audience scenario doesn’t bother her. She understands that these people are paying attention, they just do it in a different way from what speakers might be used to; this is their way of working and learning. Incidentally, Justin Mass asked the same question of Richard Culatta at Learning 2012 and got the same response: ‘nope, normal.’

Some people didn’t seem to believe Crystal, though: the next question was less of a question and more of a challenge. A lady at the next table pointed out, quite rightly, that I’d been on my phone almost the entire time Crystal had been speaking. She also said that she’d bet any money that I hadn’t been tweeting or taking notes.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. In fact, it’s what I’d been doing all day. Crystal had been following our backchannel throughout the event and immediately came to my defence, pointing out that she’d have been more concerned if I wasn’t typing away on my phone while she was talking, as it would suggest I was less interested in what she had to say than I had been all day. After dinner, Crystal thanked me for being a perfect embodiment of one of her key points. Different generations (whether defined by age or by use of technology) have different ways of engaging and learning. This lady looked at me and made an assumption that I wasn’t paying attention – perhaps shopping online or browsing Facebook instead. By contrast, I was absolutely more engaged with Crystal’s content than I would have been had I not had my phone there.

Another aspect to this is the value of the tweets being shared. I found some of the comments on Justin Mass’ recent blog post about real-time activity switching interesting. Melissa Daimler says that she’s observed a move back towards low-tech experiences, towards people abandoning live-tweeting in favour of face-to-face conversation and then tweeting later. She says ‘the tweet is usually more thoughtful since they can give more context around it after having sat with the idea for a little.’ Actually, for me it’s the other way around. I think there is equal value in tweet-reporting (as it were) the content of a session as it happens, and then adding my own thoughtful context later in whatever format or medium is appropriate. I’m a fairly reflective person; I prefer to have time to think before I draw conclusions or make plans. So it suits me to contribute something in real-time, and this rapporteur-style of live-tweeting works for me, and then contribute more fully later if and when I feel I’ve got more to add from a personal perspective.

I’m not by any means saying that, if you aren’t live-tweeting or taking notes on a tablet or phone, you aren’t paying attention. That would be a ridiculous claim to make. I’m still partial to a beautiful notebook and still turn to my trusty pen and paper to take notes during meetings, when jotting down thoughts for my next book review, and in numerous other situations. But my experience over the past few months has been that live-tweeting does enhance my attention and focus in a seminar or conference situation. If I’m on Twitter (or even using a notepad app) I’m not able to easily flit between different apps, whereas if I’m taking paper notes it’s very easy for my attention to switch to my email or other things on my phone. I also have a tendency to doodle in the margins of my notepads which, though not always a sign that my mind has wandered, probably doesn’t convey engagement and interest.

A while back, when Craig Taylor was subject to similar cynicism, I declared myself firmly in the pen-and-paper camp. And I would still today choose to make paper notes rather than digital notes (using a notepad app on my phone or tablet). I prefer paper note-taking for the reasons I mentioned before: it caters better for my personal brand of shorthand, and so on. But live-tweeting is something different. Knowing that my notes are going to be read immediately by others enforces a certain level of discipline; it keeps me focused and concise, and totally engaged. So when it comes to a conference or similar event, I find myself increasingly choosing live-tweeting over paper notes.

Another commenter on Justin’s blog post, Travis Cunningham, says: ‘People are engaged in an activity when you mix feedback, friends and fun … Most trainings lack all three. Twitter adds all three.’ Thinking about it, Travis has pretty much got it bang on for me. Live-tweeting absolutely does not diminish my engagement; if anything it improves my focus and attention. And I enjoy it; it enhances the conference experience for me.

The day after the dinner with Crystal, several people thanked me for helping them see Twitter in a different light. I think if those people now don’t pass immediate judgement when they see someone tapping away on their phones, and perhaps even give some thought to what engagement with a speaker or session really is, then being singled out at the dinner was worth it! 

Image: Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net