#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.


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.


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?

Must-read information in the run-up to Learning Technologies

Whether you’re attending Learning Technologies next week or following what’s going on from afar, make sure you take a few minutes to read this invaluable blog post from Kate Graham.

In it, she’s shared a heap of useful information about the backchannel to help everyone get the most out of it – including some blog and website links you might need beforehand and a heads-up about the right people to follow on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss out.

Kate will be adding more information about hashtags, speakers and practical advice over the next few days, so follow her on Twitter and visit her blog regularly (or sign up to the LSG site where she’ll also be posting).

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