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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Thursday, December 29, 2016

What technology? 

Tsering Dolma is not at home. Although the house and outbuildings are abandoned, provisions are stored away for the coming winter. So although the place has a Marie-Celeste atmosphere, there is perhaps no mystery - just a temporary absence. Water comes from a six inch pipe running all the way up to a cistern fed by a mountain stream below Shade. But the pipe has long since fractured. There is no water. Tsering Dolma's possessions remain, despite the locked doors. At first they're hard to make out amongst the dirt and mud bricks, but slowly they reveal themselves. This building is well stocked. In fact it is bristling with technology - farming implements fashioned from wands of willow - a rake, a hoe, a basket weave cradle for flattening the earth after ploughing, all carefully stowed in the roof space, or jutting out from holes in the brick work. This is the technology of subsistence farming, of a low impact bonding with the land. the only absence is Tsering Dolma herself, but you can see that she is held in a network of relationships - with locals, the monks from Phuktar, her yak, the sheep her companion species, these tools and the land she scrapes her living from. What we call technology, our phones, our cameras, and our tablets would be of little use to her. They would play no part. And besides there is no electricity, no signal, no internet. And if you imagined what might improve her quality of life it would be none of this. It would be more likely to be a pair of thick woollen socks for the winter. That and someone to fix several miles of six inch pipe. But with no utilities, public or private, that would require an attentive and caring regional authority. Or very generous neighbours with nothing else to attend to. So perhaps now that we have more or less abandoned that Victorian notion of human progress, of cultural development, of economic growth and the relentless march forwards, our place in the world in all its diversity needs to be re-thought. You see Tsering Dolma has a different relationship with the world. Better? Worse? These evaluations hardly seem appropriate. Zanskar is a very different world and one that is separated from ours by a wide margin, and this gap throws ideas of wealth, of relationship and of technology into confusion. Care has been taken in amassing a good collection of juniper that is piled on a makeshift table in a small room near Tsering Dolma's house. A celebratory light breaks through the simple window. Does anyone have what they need?

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