Sunday, October 26, 2014


In writing about virtual worlds and video games recently, I found myself reaching deep into 'the canon'  to illustrate the enduring appeal of imaginary worlds. Using the Tempest I rehearsed the idea that dramatic performance, and the imaginary world that is conjured up by it, is an 'insubstantial pageant', with a cast of characters involved in a sequence of events that we temporarily believe in. Following this I argued that a play could be seen as a prototypical virtual world - as an event-space that is real enough, and takes place in real time with all the material supports of a theatre or similar venue. Members of the audience are embodied and present, but yet the world they are transported into is constructed in their individual imaginations, and filtered through their own particular lived experiences. Of course video games are different in all sorts of ways- ways which I won't go into here, but my intention was to argue for the familiarity (and cultural history) of what you might call imagined worlds. Attending the launch of the Reading Digital Fiction exhibition on Thursday evening, I was struck by how a different discipline works its way into the same territory. In her succinct opening remarks Astrid Ensslin reminded us how digital fiction sits somewhere between literary fiction and video gaming, as well as how print fiction lives on whilst digitally-born narrative continues to evolve.  The common thread of how new and old narratives work to engage our imaginations emerges again, along with the idea that digital technology often end up troubling existing categories such as the distinctions between games and stories, art and life, the real and the imagined. It was a successful thought-provoking event, and underscores the fact that digital fiction is now old enough to have a history.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Deep reading 

I've not been posting for a while because I've been on a long break in Nepal and Tibet - but somehow or other a complete break isn't quite as complete as you might think. Noticing the impact of the digital on everyday life seems to have become a way of life, and I found myself observing and photographing the different ways in which devices and texts are woven into lives that on the surface at least seem rather different. This is a monk at Boudanath, Kathmandu reading  a Tibetan scripture on an iPad as part of a devotional practice - one of many examples of how digital texts become absorbed into cultural practices. Reading Will Self about the impact of new technology on what he calls 'deep reading', I found myself recalling this image. Is this 'deep'...or did it suddenly become shallow because its read on an iPad? Clearly not. But of course, in an otherwise intelligent and nuanced piece, Self is actually equating the immersive experience of reading fiction with depth. Although he offers a balanced account, and is certainly not bemoaning the rise of digital text, there is a sadness in his tone. He thinks we have lost something. If he's right, though, its not depth we've lost, but a way of accessing imagined worlds.

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Friday, August 01, 2014


Social networking sites and the ways in which they are folded into the socio-technical arrangements that frame the everyday lives of an ever-growing population are situated at the confluence of new forms of social organisation and a cultural imaginary that now extends beyond the limits of nation states and jurisdictions. Although to a large extent this is attributable to the adoption and reach of technologies it is also the product of a desire for new or enhanced practices of communication and connection, in its turn dependent upon the spread of a particular ideology of connectivity in the guise of an aspiration to be always present in the lives of others, and to be continually producing a sense of identity through a sort of restless activity of consumption and self-publication. It might almost seem that to be in the 21st century, is to perform a continually present and continuously updated social identity dependent upon making visible one's connections with others (boyd & Ellison, 2000). Take Instagram as a case in point. Here the image-trail that we leave is addressed to the other, is validated by family and friends, and is wittingly enacted on a canvas that is patently larger than the connections themselves, always cognisant of the wider network in which it is located. In this sense those who participate are repeatedly improvising and embellishing the @ reference point that they inhabit, that blue dot on the virtual map, always in relation to other @s and from time to time in relation to #things, #places, and #events. This may be the brave new world that we have created, but in itself it does not give us a full enough picture of contemporary social networks, because these are inherently promiscuous and perhaps best conceived as an assemblage of activity, a restless updating of lived experience, attitude and belief in textual threads that meander across multiple sites, and platforms both on- and off-line.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Death of the book 

When asked recently about the impending death of the book it occurred to me that, just like the terms 'text' and 'literacy', new developments prompt us to rethink our definitions and terms of reference. If we think of the book as that familiar material object made up of printed paper bound together between hard or soft covers we are likely to think of the different platforms now available - platforms that turn the actual book into something like a virtual simulacrum of the 'original' object. Alternatively, if we think of the book as a particular form of writing - a reasonably lengthy piece defined by the generic conventions of literary fiction, reference and the like, we might think that the exponential growth in the number of titles available and the number of topics covered continues regardless of trends in format and distribution. In this sense, book sales remain high, and although e-book sales are rising rapidly there is no reason to believe that we are witnessing the death of the book. Take children's literature, fiction and non-fiction for young people as a case in point. These forms continue to attract some of the finest writers and illustrators, and although Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman is currently campaigning for more reading for pleasure, I don't believe that things are in terminal decline. Of course we want children to read, and to enjoy reading as a leisure activity, but we also need to recognise that new digital forms have an important a part to play in this. It's probably true to say that with the advent of widely available tools for digital communication, there is more reading and writing going on now than at any other point in our history. This means that there's more competition for our reading time, and of course narrative fiction has to compete with both film and videogaming for our attention. But, at the same time, print books continue to be popular and attractive (they gain media attention - witness the Harry Potter phenomenon) whilst on the other hand more authors and media producers are investigating what digital fiction might look like, and indeed how 'transmedia' narratives gain traction. In my own work I have shown how young children respond positively to interactive story apps on iPads and there are some great resources available - and huge potential for future development. However these developments don't sound the death knell for the book, they just provide more alternatives. Parents shouldn't be worried by the growing availability of resources like story apps - they should embrace them and allow them to take their place alongside familiar storybooks. Although school and public libraries are threatened by funding cuts, there are some compelling reports of libraries that have embraced digital media, giving them a proper place alongside more traditional forms. In short, books matter - we need to introduce children to them, celebrate them, own them, share them and lend them. But we also need to be aware of the alternatives and the exciting developments that are now possible.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Coming and going 

Settling into a new location involves many small adaptions; adjustments that we make in order to stabilise the disturbance caused by the inconvenience of travel, the sudden breakdown of familiar routine, the disorientation that results from the disappearance of familiar landmarks, and all those major and minor details that when combined together have a tendency to make us recoil from the change we encounter. But with experience and perseverance I think we learn to cope. In fact we do surprisingly well. Our capacity for adaptation feels like a sort of survival instinct, and what's more, it seems to be written deep into the psyche. It appears, for instance, as if a territorial sensitivity has been awakened in us, as we attempt to read our surroundings in ways that will aid our navigation to avoid becoming lost. A keen attention to signs and landmarks springs up. Conscious noting of changes of direction are temporarily anchored to particular occurrences as we map our immediate location. In new urban contexts I invariably find myself walking in short bursts, building up an impression, staking out the territory, initially within something like a quarter of a mile radius of my temporary home, hotel or wherever I might be staying. Only when this is done, can I venture further afield daring, perhaps, to be temporarily lost until the familiar re-emerges once again in its reassuring way, like the shoreline out of a sea mist. Cussins (1992) calls this phenomenon perspective-dependence. He argues that we understand where we are, in other words the territory, by making 'cognitive trails'. This is our way of achieving stabilisation. And what's even more interesting is that this activity can work as a metaphor for learning in a more general sense. Although Engestrom (2009) applies this theory to mobile learning, surely it applies to all learning. We need to work out the territory, the key landmarks, the junctions and distinctive features. The quirky features, the dangerous areas, places that are under construction - they are all part of the jigsaw. Our cognitive trails are not like maps, although maps may be helpful, the key thing is inhabiting the space, albeit temporarily, but at least until navigating it becomes embodied. At that point, perhaps, it might be admitted that we have learnt something, even if our sense of territory is only modest, temporary or provisional. Then, of course, on our return, the familiar is re-awakened once more as we rapidly remember things that had been temporarily shelved away. The detail begins to fill in, just as it can 'rez' in a virtual world. And so it is that even though we can't go back in time, we can, as it were, go back in space; go back thanks to the cognitive trails we have blazed and the perspective-dependence we have achieved, the sum total of our prior learning. And that, it must be said, is very comforting indeed, and  perhaps one reason amongst many, why we call it home, sweet home!


Monday, June 16, 2014

Embodied expertise 

Over the last couple of weeks I've been involved in a lot of discussion about how teaching and learning get conceptualised in the on/offline blend. Sometimes that has involved avatar instructors organising a kind of cybergogy, at other times the idea of heutagogy and on a more fundamental level the differences between VC delivery and face-to-face teaching. What becomes clear is that there are all sorts of different blends and possibilities for creative learning designs, and although institutional systems tend to be a bit primitive (with the exception of thin VLEs) there's plenty of ways to enrich the student experience. But in a discussion with Masters students, what impressed me most was the value they placed on the 'tutor in the room'. Here you got the sense that what I called embodied expertise has a significant, affective impact. Watching the expert, who is perceived as being at the cutting edge, thinking on her feet, responding to questions, outlining the dilemmas live and unplugged as it were, was still one of the most valued experiences. So, in situations in which this is still possible the real challenge is how to make other modes work effectively and creatively to free-up live performance. And of course, the related to challenge is to find the kinds of online experiences that could be the next best thing to witnessing embodied expertise.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Last week at the University of Greenwich I talked about new technology and the commodification of literacy. I used digital apps and playthings - aimed at very young children and their parents - as a way of exploring the tension between the opportunities and attractions of the digital, and the corporate interests that package and sell them. Erica Hateley in Children's Literacy, Learning and Culture expresses something similar when she writes that: 'As children are inducted younger and younger into particular modes of literacy, and particular dispositions as 'consuming citizens', researchers committed to learning from and contributing to young people's agency and social opportunities need to pay attention to what is happening culturally when reading and playing and literacy and learning means tapping, touching, swiping, and scrolling and combining online and offline activities.' (2013:39). I also pointed out how some of what is available carries an implicit message for parents - these are the sort of literacy routine that are important. This has been called the discourse of the 'good parent'. But this tension runs through everyday and institutionalised uses of technology at all levels - its potential both to free us and to enslave us.

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