Sunday, January 31, 2010

Virtual (R)evolution

Aleks Krotoski's BBC2 documentary was everything you'd expect of old media on a Saturday night - plenty of clever eye-candy. We had talking heads, the usual suspects, glamourous locations, our presenter in slowmo silhouetted against sunsets and always with a Macbook and i-phone (was this subliminal advertising?). There was gushing enthusiasm about the 'levelling' effect of the web, promising a utopia of person-centred libertarianism, and much furrowing of brows over corporate interest and authoritarian hierarchies. But the basic and optimistic premise that new technology puts the power of self-expression, communication and information in our hands is flawed. To live that particular dream we have to be born in the right place, to have the social, cultural and economic resources not only to get a Macbook and an i-phone, but also to know what we're supposed to do with them. In other words we need to be one of the lucky (?) 20% of the world population. There was a small parallell in the way the BBC flashed a hashtag onto the bottom right of the TV screen just after the opening credits - fine if you're one of the Twitterati; meaningless if you're not. To be fair though, it wasn't all sweetness and light. There is, apparently shopping (in Cardiff), and dating (in Manchester), and pornography (in Harrogate - shock/horror) and it's all virtual, whatever that means. And then there's also the emergence of A-lists and editors - filters and blocking; but no mention of the Great Firewall of China. Apparently it's all down to a conflict between freedom and control, and you get the feeling that Aleks wants us to join in this global Last Battle - on the side of freedom and in the spirit of a particular imagining of sixties counterculture. This just goes to show that even BBC2 can fall into the trap of making the complex simple and presenting us with an either/or debate rather than a set of unresolved or unresolvable issues. Anyway, I stayed the course, I'm linking to the website and I've learnt that the blogosphere is in crisis. What blogosphere? Which crisis? And I'll probably watch Part 2 next week. Will you?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Micro co-ordination

On Friday I found myself syphoning colleagues from 3 different trains into 2 different minibuses in order to make a decent start for Seminar 3. It was really easy to do this as well as to reassure Tetra back at the university that everything was in hand! Easy because of the way in which mobile phones facilitate micro-coordination. That, and the fact that we had a presntation on phones, led me think how taken-for-granted the mobile has become. It's a potent symbol of connection (often laid on the table in face-to-face interaction as if to represent wider networks) and it's also a talisman of security (when you're alone, in the dark, or about to break down, or all three). Writing about mobile connectivity, Gergen notes how phones 'emphasise and underscore the importance of connection as opposed to autonomy, looking outward rather than inward; toward network as opposed to self-sufficiency ... With the mobile phone the relational net is always at hand ... As a material object, the mobile phone functions as an icon of relationship, of techno-umbilical connection. The Enlightenment paen to individualism, "I think therefore I am" is replaced with "I'm linked therefore I am". (Gergen 2002:109)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Layered cuts

Seminar 3 of the ESRC Seminar Series raised lots of interesting issues about overlapping 'worlds', 'spaces', or 'realities' associated with technoliteracy practices. Speakers included Christine Greenhow, Paul Coulton, and Keri Facer. Although we'd billed the session as addressing the topic of mixed reality, that term soon got pluralised, augmented and generally pulled about. I was left thinking about ways in which reality is layered with varying amounts of textual mediation, with the textual including all modalities. Now I'd normally feel more comfortable talking about multiple realities in the plural, but in this instance I am unconvinced that virtual or technosocial spaces actually constitute separate realities. So, provisionally I'll stick with the singular layered and textually mediated description. Virtually (!) at the same time we engaged in the familiar identity debates - another easily pluralised concept. Here I find myself moving away from any conception of fixity (the core difficulty with the performance metaphor) drifting ever closer towards what Gergen describes as 'relational being'. To quote: 'The bounded and centred self is undone.' (Gergen, 2002:6)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I'm losing you

This amateur linguist has developed an interest in collecting the expressions we use when technology interrupts the anticipated smooth flow of events. Take phone conversations as an example. Mobile reception is notoriously patchy on trains as they weave their way through tunnels into cuttings and alongside tall buildings, so you’ll regularly overhear high-powered business conversations or the more informal everyday domestic exchange interrupted with 'I’m losing you' or 'You’re breaking up'. These are interjections which in another context might seem rude, incongruous or even incomprehensible. Another example is when colleagues are giving a presentation at a conference or seminar and their slideshow suddenly goes pear-shaped and delivers the wrong image. Some complex and abstract theorizing will be abruptly juxtaposed with 'That shouldn’t have happened' or 'Oops! I’ll just go back'. These disruptions have a humorous dimension, but the mere fact that we don’t usually laugh or take umbrage when they occur reveals something important. That is, they are so common place that they have become quite unremarkable. No-one I know has misinterpreted 'I’m losing you' (it's not a life or death matter or a signal that a relationship is about to terminate) or I’m sorry I’ll have to go back' (back where - step backwards, go home, go back to basics?). There is in fact a shared understanding that these things happen. Things go wrong. And these represent the moments when the transparency of technology shifts and, perhaps only for a moment, the medium itself comes into focus. Talk shifts from the mediated topic to the topic of mediation. I’ll be cutting out in a minute...I just missed the nail and hammered my thumb... Am I losing you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

A virtual perspective

Connotations of 'nearly', 'as if', or 'almost' readily associate with term virtual. Although the word has some more specific dictionary definitions as well as some more recent technical ones I think these everyday uses are a good starting point for theorising the virtual. Reflecting on the Avatar experience, I’ve been thinking how the whole way in which flat representations take on the semblance of 3D is an important aspect of the virtual. So the mathematical calculation of perspective, the idea of the vanishing point - in fact the whole history of representational art from the Renaissance onwards is conjured up. Culturally we have adapted to representing and reading space in a particular way. It seems perfectly natural to perceive depth of field - but is it really culturally acquired? We readily assume the first person point of view of the artist, the photographer or the camera. And at that point is what we see virtual? Does the medium become transparent? Bolter and Grusin (2000:25) when talking about this suggest that: 'If executed properly, the surface of the painting dissolved and presented to the viewer the scene beyond.' The project could be seen as one of becoming immersed in an alternate reality by forgetting that it is mediated in the first place. That's my experience of good theatre - I begin to forget the audience around me, that actors are just doing their job and so on - I'm temporarily 'in' the world that is unfolding.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Social media

What do we actually mean by social media? It suggests, I suppose, a certain level of participation - but then aren’t all media social? I realised this week that it’s another ill-defined term, used interchangeably with Web 2.0. At least that’s the way I’ve used it in a chapter called 'Social Media in the Primary Classroom' for Cary Bazalgette’s forthcoming book 'Teaching Media in the Primary School'. I argue that there is plenty of evidence of educators experimenting with sites like Cooliris, Voicethread, Bubbleshare and Glogster - and I suggest some issues that teachers may wish to consider when planning to use social media in the classroom. These are framed in terms of six key questions (a list is always good).

1. What kinds of learning are intended?
2. What sort of understandings does the social media site assume?
3. What will need to be taught or explained before children get involved?
4. How easy is it to access the site?
5. How easy is it to register/set up accounts?
6. How can safety issues be addressed?

For more, you’ll have to wait for the book!

Saturday, January 02, 2010


The Avatar film will no doubt bring the contemporary avatar concept more squarely into the popular imagination. Certainly in 3D, the film gives a heightened sense of motility and presence, but one is also struck by differences in control in comparing this to a 'real' avatar experience in SL. In SL your intentionality is expressed through keyboard and mouse and in this sense you are more active; in the 3D movie it all happens to you. That said there is of course more action. More things happen to the avatar in the movie. Apart from the occasional push script in SL, you navigate your way around a comparatively static world. I’ve yet to try Avatar the game, but I am tempted. I left the cinema with a little disappointment with the plot (I didn’t expect a lot) but also the idea that we now should be able to have a similar visual experience with our own avatar. That would be nice.