Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thinking visually

In a number of papers I've put forward the idea that digitally-mediated communication has led to the use of innovative, self-sponsored writing on an unprecedented scale. This is writing at the point of change, with new forms, structures, spellings and functions coming into being. Writing as self-expression, writing as identity performance and writing as negotiation or participation. I've argued that writing on screen is an important and ubiquitous characteristic of contemporary cultural worlds and defended this 'narrow' description of digital literacy. This has led some to assume that I am arguing for preserving the 'dominance of the written form'. This is untrue; I'm just more interested in writing, although of course I note that it often appears on screen in combination with the visual. Still I'm as sceptical about popular ways of visualising data as I am about unsubstantiated claims about visual thinking or visual literacy. It's clear that images do some things better than words. So I found this piece on visualising data very interesting. Scrolling down the comments I found one that I was about to make. So here it is: 'Just to play Devil's advocate: if visualization is so great, couldn't you have conveyed all the ideas in this article using just visualizations? Why did you use words? Specifically data visualization is good for very large quantities of data that cannot be easily interpreted or even presented in a short word format.' (Mark Krepicz). So, for the time being, I'll stick to words to develop my ideas, not because they're better or anything, but just because they work.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Tina Peterson’s piece The Zapper and the Zapped , which is a study of the role of the microwave oven in everyday life really is a thought-provoking contribution to the Vannini book. It’s a perfect example of making the familiar strange. I suppose I consider myself to be fairly reflective, particularly when it comes to technology, but I must say I’ve never given the microwave much thought. Maybe that’s because I’m an avoider: Peterson has three categories, mad scientist, reluctant habitual and avoider. But actually I’m not an avoider for any of the reasons she gives, such as health scare/moral panic or food snobbery, but because I never really got the hang of it. Apart from the intellectual analysis that Peterson applies, I learnt that heating up drinks and doing popcorn are the real culinary niches that consumers have identified. No mention then of porridge, scrambled eggs or rice all of which work well. But I thought Peterson’s typology could be generalisable beyond the kitchen. Take computers, for example. You could be a playful enthusiast (mad scientist/techie); a reluctant habitual, after all there are a lot of them around; or an avoider (in which case you won’t be reading this). I think if I was granted another academic career, I’d be into material culture. After all they get all the best topics! As it is I have my own little world. For instance, there’s this on participation and new literacies, and I think it just counts as Merchant (2009). Now, where’s that zapper?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Writing, copying, assembling

'Writing is an act of poaching: stealing phrases, words, scenes, and experiences from the world around oneself, rearranging them, and in so doing, claiming selected bits for oneself as an author. The performance of writing makes concept into material - in the materiality of process, if no longer in the materiality of print. The act of reading is writing's second material moment. Partial, arbitrary, strategic, writing is translation: it is a struggle for meaning, not necessarily the "correct" meaning, but rather the will to be meaningful and communicate with recognized authority.' This is how Kien introduces his chapter on ANT Phillip Vannini's collection called 'Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life', and it certainly is a wonderful description. It extends and repositions the idea of writing as copying or remixing; a subject that I've posted about before. The Vannini book is pretty good reading. I've been a fan of Vannini's since coming across his work on the social semiotic of the tanned body, and this diverse collection (recommended by Tetra) is certainly no disappointment. I particuarly enjoyed Noy's account of the domestication of the family car, and Richardson and Third on mobile media. If you're interested, you'll find a more exacting critique of the book here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


If you like the idea of wearing ridiculous glasses and seeing things in 3D you need some pretty expensive hardware - good graphics cards, offset projectors and so on. Wallwisher, on the other hand is free, flexible and fun (that's the three f's). But of course you can do things in a visualisation suite that you could never do in Wallwisher. But application aside, the world of 3D film can help to bring ideas about 'immersion' and 'virtuality' into focus (unintentional pun). It's interesting that 3D technology seems to emphasise the illusion of image. It's quite clearly an image but the difference is its dimensionality. I don't experience the same sense of place that I do in Second Life. Things are coming at me; but I'm not in it. The shared ground is that it's virtual in the sense that it's almost life-like. Real and not-real, both at the same time.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Losing culture

Johann Hari's piece in The Independent on Tuesday invites us to consider whether the 'internet has transformed the way we think about ourselves' which is an interesting question, but one that in the end treats technology as a thing that is doing something to us. But the points made about the changes in patterns of friendship and romance that have arisen with digital culture are well made. From lightweight friendship maintenance to searching for a partner online: it's clear there is a shift. I also liked the observation that rapid social networking helps the good, the bad and the silly to co-exist in an unregulated way. As for research on attention span and trains of thought, well....what was I just saying? I forget. Perhaps it helps to bring some of these issues into view in a reflective way, but personally I'm rather tired of hearing about the tyranny of ecommunication. Can't we move on? In a way the whole argument is concisely framed by the strap line 'are we losing our culture', implying that we had something worthwhile (in the last millenium) that is now in some sense under attack. Culture: is it seaping away through my keyboard or am I re-making it each time a type?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The soporific effect of phonics

Don’t ask me why, but I’m having to read lots of research papers on phonics at the moment. The only way I’ve found to cope with this is by taking a couple of them to bed with me each night. And there’s a very interesting phenomenon. It all starts off quite well; in fact I must say some of them are written quite well. You can sometimes believe that there’s a really interesting subtle problem that they’re shedding new light upon. Then the researchers begin to tell you what they did, and I notice how incredibly heavy my eyelids have become. But I push on, willing myself to concentrate. I wake up after about 10 minutes still clutching the paper; still no further on. It works everytime! Maybe I’ve discovered a cure for insomnia... but no sadly that can’t be true unless I first have a control group and a very specific treatment. Anyway I’ve tried reading them in the afternoon instead. Unfortunately I get the same effect. But today was a bit of a breakthrough. I read one in the morning. And I found myself wondering just how the learning of a symbol system invented by humans can remain such a mystery to those who invented it in the first place. And then I drifted off. Again.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Coming of age

I'm really enjoying the Boellstorff book 'Coming of Age in Second Life'. I thought that this was right on the button: 'Second Life culture is profoundly human. It is not only that virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life; virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our "real" lives have been "virtual" all along. It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human "nature" to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being. Culture is our "killer app": we are virtually human.' (Boellstorff, 2008). And that's only p.5...can't wait for the rest!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Facebook power

I learnt today that PGCE students compare school placement experiences through Facebook. Well I expect they’ve been doing it for some time, but the difference is that now the staff have cottoned on! So there’s a sort of student backchannel that exposes the wide variety of provision and experience. Ofsted would love access to this to drill through the glossy veneer of ‘partnership’ which ITE institutions are forced to present! Hearing this made me think how powerful social media can be. In earlier times ITE could operate a sort of divide and rule approach. Just as long as students were isolated in their various placement schools, they could be encouraged to get on with it and to see the local reality as the only reality. Of course they shared stories with friends, met up in pubs and commiserated with each other by phone, but the Facebook network is far more powerful. They are more widely and more publically connected and their conversations build. I expect we’ll be starting to advise students not to use Facebook soon, if indeed we aren’t already doing so. I mean if you ‘have to have a photo taken of you clutching your handbag, mascara running, asleep in the corridor when you were too drunk to make it back to your room’ (Miller, 2010:114) then what’s the point in having a reference?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


These last three posts under the title of 'Making it' are just ways of trying to figure out some connections between how stuff is produced, its history and the various roles of people and technologies. If the bookcase began with a plan, or a script, in the form of a text, it took human labour and the control of particular kinds of tools to produce. It grew out of a specific event or performance, in a particular time and now continues to perform a function. And presumably the rock band also started with plans or scripts - a number of different texts, musical, visual, gestural - and even, sartorial. Control of the musical tools is required for production as well as video tools to capture the performance. It presumably grew out of a rehearsed, a practised performance and continues to perform the function of entertainment. And so, too, the dance video, inspired by earlier texts or cultural forms, it is a performance at the practice stage. People and practices are central to all three performances, but they each involve intricate connections between texts and tools and all have there own history and temporal tragectories. The stuff we are left with seems to carry all the traces of prior activity, is conditioned by it and it turn conditions future activity.