#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?

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4 thoughts on “#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 1)

  1. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 2) | Good To Great

  2. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 1) | Good To Great

  3. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 2) | Good To Great

  4. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 3) | Good To Great

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