Sunday, May 07, 2017

Doctoral literacies 

Sometimes its the smallest of comments that can stop you in your tracks. Like yesterday - the doctoral students were talking about reading in the car, and I don't mean reading in the passenger seat but reading while driving. Now that might sound downright dangerous until you realise that they were talking about using apps on their phones that would read documents out loud over a bluetooth connection. It would come as no surprise at all to the non-sighted, but you don't actually have to look at words to read them. It's hardly new, but I could feel some old-school habits of mind kicking in and saying, well that's not proper reading, is it? But it is. So I suppose you could try to marshall all sorts of arguments about concentrating, re-reading, underlining, note-taking, but I don't really think any of them are robust enough. You can read high-level, dense, complex research texts whilst driving (not that I've tried). That whole realisation chimed in with the memory of a time a couple of years back when a teacher showed me some very sophisticated writing by a seven year-old. What was really interesting about that piece of writing is that it had been entirely mediated by speech recognition software on an iPad. Writing, without the act of writing - from a traditional point of view, at least. Now I've never been particularly impressed by the tipping point idea, not just because it was over-hyped but more because it seemed so obvious. But it works well here. Small, incremental changes to audio-book technology and speech recognition software combine with access to powerful portable devices to make reading and writing something different. Something that sidesteps alphabetic encoding and decoding. Returning then to these doctoral students, it is at least theoretically possible that one could do all the background reading just by listening and then write a whole thesis just by speaking it. Maybe someone's already done it. The provocative work that this reflection does is to gnaw away at what literacy actually is and to prompt us to think about the function of those hallowed practices often described as study skills.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

iPads and digital literacy 

This new volume will be published in the summer and is the result of a collaboration with Alyson Simpson and Maureen Walsh. It's been an exciting project to work on and follows in the wake of Literacy, Media, Technology in which we attempted something similar - that is to take a number of quite different perspectives from scholars in the field in order to outline the complexities of digital technologies in the lives of children and young people, in and out of educational contexts. There are no easy answers and we'd be fooling ourselves if we said there are, and of course that all assumes that we know what the question was in the first place! In a scene-setting chapter, Cathy and I had a lot of fun exploring the whole notion of mobility, or mobilities. Obviously we couldn't go as far as John Urry does in his excellent book, but we had a good, quick stab at it. It seems very important to me to think about what's mobile and what isn't, and just as important to think about who's mobile and who's not. These are pressing issues in a world that has both wars, walls and migrant camps as well as unfettered multinationals, rampant capitalism, and mobile capital. Urry argues that mobility requires different kinds of anchorage, immobile platforms that control the flow of people, goods and information. Platforms, gateways and gatekeepers. There's a great feature by James Meek on chocolate production in the latest edition of the London Review of Books and it provides a really clear illustration of how late capitalism profits through its knowledge of these flows, relentlessly driving down the cost of raw materials, seeking out the cheapest and least disruptive labour force, and distributing to new and emerging markets. All in the name of maximising profit. And, in one way, that's all part of The Case of the iPad, too.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017


Recent interest in affect has come from a number of different directions. Sedgwick’s appropriation of Tomkins’ psychological perspective has been particularly influential, whereas Brian Massumi develops ideas that are rooted in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. In The Politics of Affect Massumi emphasises the emergent and relational nature of affect. Affect he argues is pre-personal and happens as bodies come into contact. It is interesting then, in relation to this, that some cognitive scientists are now interested in things like gut reactions, intuitions and so on. Things, you might say, that we know, but that we don't know we know. Studies of interoperception are beginning to get some empirical purchase on the mechanisms that are at play in diverse arenas - in what successful gamblers, traders and negotiators do. It also seems that our bodies are able to mirror others when we establish empathy - it's not simply a conscious adaptation, although that happens, too, but what a body can do as the pupils contract or the heart rate shifts. So as social scientists have been suggesting for a while these things happen beneath, beyond or before rationalisation or representation. The challenge, then, is how to account for things that don't yet have words but seem to be an important part of inter/intra-actions, and of making things happen. Seventeenth century European philosophy explored this territory with both Descartes and Spinoza, despite there very different orientations, sharing the view that affects, feelings and concepts could all be classed as ideas. The notion that rationality, in the form of worded conceptualisations, align with individual, social and cultural progress has carried forward into contemporary times. But perhaps that implied hierarchy can't be sustained. Not that we should necessarily begin to privilege gut feelings, intuitions and all the rest, but perhaps we should begin to acknowledge that they play an equal and important part in daily life..

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Riverine politics 

Whether it's about water rights, fishing rights, territorial boundaries or navigation there's no doubting the fact that rivers often have a political life, or at least that they are dragged into the political wranglings of humans. As we lurch into the anthropocene, or whatever word we use to describe the now established planetary dominion of humans and its associated environmental devastation, we might hope for new ways of looking at rivers. Looking after rivers might be a start. The academic trend of querying the nature/culture binary has invited in all sorts of new and creative ways of thinking, and I anticipate that the Whanganui River may well feature in conference papers and the like now that it (if that's the correct pronoun) has achieved the same 'legal rights as human being'. This follows a successful Maori court action that claimed the river as an ancestor. Will it catch on? I know there are similarly strong companion feelings among the indigenous populations of the Amazon - but what does it really mean this river-become-human thing? How will it enact its now human-like rights, duties and liabilities without the intervention of its human guardians? What if all rivers decide (?) to become human? And is it just one-way traffic? Perhaps the move is part of a much wider set of trends in how we think about the world after we've named it. Gone are the days of explorers who traversed the globe in pursuit of new ones to name. Those efforts have now turned to space exploration. Yet some ancient rivers are still associated with the divine, and some, like the Whanganui, are intimately entwined with people's sense of who they are. Dragging the river into court seems a bit like recruiting it into the human realm, to grant it rights seems anthropcentric, yet at the same time what the elders say seems to be raising its status, acknowledging the importance of rivers in their own right which is surely a good thing.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Writing the grid 

Last year in a keynote at the Sheffield CSL conference I used a short vignette from what now seems to be becoming a series of sketches of digital literacies in the wild. Here it in list form: reading from a tablet whilst making notes on an A4 pad with green and black pens, reading a novel on a Kindle, balanced on a handbag, working on a spreadsheet on a chunky black laptop, displaying an e-ticket to the inspector on a smartphone, looking at Derbyshire whilst listening to music through headphones, reading a paperback, working with music software (wearing Dr Dre headphones). I used the vignette to pose the question of what was present and what was absent from this account of a train journey, as well as to make a more general point about the ubiquity of mobile uses of technology. As usual I didn’t offer specific answers, but one dimension I had in mind was that of point of view. The list assumes a slightly disconnected non-participant observer. But in actual fact (fact?) I was very much part of this in-train, ongoing event. Perhaps I emerged out of it, furtively, excitedly making notes on my smartphone? The railway carriage could be a particular kind of container, maybe a stage would be better description, for a peculiarly 21st Century dispositif. But also, looking down, the same goes for the laptop spreadsheet, a literacy tool so quotidian, so annoying (at least in my experience) that it can easily be overlooked. Is anyone studying spreadsheet literacies? They should. It seems to me that speadsheets so often enact the powers of surveillance and self-surveillance. They tell you what counts, and their archane formulae work it all out. They are tools of performativity. Literacy and power reworked for the modern times. Some historians argue that literacy has its origins in accounting for trade and transaction. The written record is enduring proof after all. Phoenician capitalists are the example that gets cited, but secretly I hope that we could trace a more fundamentally expressive history of literacy, back perhaps to petroglyphs. Its perhaps interesting, perhaps challenging to think that with the rise of writing associated with digital literacy, social media and all the rest, the power of aggregation, big data, monetisation is never far away. Are we all on one big spreadsheet? Would Borges wish to rethink his map as big as the territory story for our time?


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mapping as data 

A map can be very useful when you're lost - if you've got the right one, and if you can make sense of it. And pouring over maps can be quite compelling, too - imagining what it might be like to visit a place, or even to see the ways in which familiar places connect - connections that you had never before considered. But making maps is something entirely different - an artform in its own right, and its something I'm experimenting with at the moment. Trying to figure out different ways of presenting empirical materials has recently led me to think about writing otherwise, and in a number of recent publications Cathy and I have explored how storying our data, using different points of view may gesture towards multiplicity. We call this approach 'stacking stories', although admittedly we haven't yet managed to publish a full account of it. However, the shortcoming is that the story, whilst certainly capable of opening up other ways of looking, remains a predominantly linguistic medium. Cartography, on the other hand, presents different challenges, and although what to write is one of them, it only plays a small part. There has been some fascinating work on mapping as a way of tracing movement, and Abigail Hackett's focus on young children's movement around museum spaces is a great example. But after a recent research visit, I was tempted to try to map the remembered experience of the event. Not being particularly adept at mapping using paper and pencil, I looked for an online solution. It wasn't immediately apparent what would suit my needs, and there were a number of false starts. Eventually I settled on Inkarnate which is free, easy to use and has a pallette of Lord of the Rings-type icons. My original intention was to map felt experience, key moments and so on - the topography of the event, but the mapness of maps took over, and I ended up simply recasting where I'd been, as if the journeying was more significant than what happened (although, I note my stories often have a similar quality). But it's a beginning. Part of the problem is getting familiar with what this simple mapping tool can do; the bigger problem is what you might call translation. How can the territory of an event be mapped? At the moment I haven't got a clue, and maybe the map (or maps) might just end up being a supplement to the storying, but there's certainly potential here, and if not there's an engaging little hobby.

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Friday, February 03, 2017

Forests and fictions 

Now there are no forests to speak of there is nowhere to be completely lost. All we have are our own places of abandonment and enchantment - the ones that are human constructions. Once the maze of library shelves, now surfing online. Movies, stories, poetry, Zombie Apocalypse, Call of Duty, war, crime, horror...and romance. Imaginary monsters. Could it be that these other spaces, these fictional spaces began to open up just as we were embarking upon the wholesale destruction of the living world? In Europe, forests that we first stripped away along the major trade routes were tamed by a latticework of trails by the twelfth century, paving the way for the printing presses - those machines of movable type, overlords of the tyranny of words, eating away at any new growth. Where could we now lose our bearings, become enchanted, or find ourselves by finally confronting the ways in which we neither know where or who we are? For in the depths of the forest all we had was intuition and imagination, a sense of scale and of being in something much larger than we knew - seemingly boundless, full of mystery. Now we hunt and are hunted by our own fictions. Those imaginary worlds colonise and repopulate our consciousness. They pour out of our screens and leap up from the page. The forests may be reduced to words and images, but they still create places of possibility. Places to roam, to connect, to lose ourselves and through losing ourselves maybe to understand ourselves and what we have done in a deeper way. In this dense thicket of fictional imaginings we may glimpse or grasp at ideas that aren't yet fully formed, as if blindly tracing the outline of a shape or squinting to make sense of an indistinct form, something half-hidden in the surrounding darkness. And in this way we can come to understand something that we didn't quite know we knew and bring to life something that speaks to us from the depths.

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