Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stories from things

I've just finished reading de Waal's book (see interests) and I must admit that I'm still unconvinced that it deserves so much critical acclaim. But, the quote on the dustjacket does capture its originality: 'You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.' And that's a theme that certainly resonates with me - the ways in which objects shape the stories we tell. Anyone familiar with the poetry of Seamus Heaney will know how so often it's the object that's the way in; but narrative research often uses objects in a similar way. The shoebox fad is one example, but I'm also thinking of the way in which Margaret Mackey's excellent auto-bibliography does a similar thing. Putting the object in a particular place, or a series of places as de Waal does, starts to unlock the stories. In a way our memories exist in the present, and with objects we can make the link between present sensibilities and past events, thereby opening a space for reflexivity.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


You wouldn't really be that surprised to find social identity encoded in microblogging, but then to find regional dialect and particularly from a corpus of US tweets is impressive. That's the work of Jacob Eisenstein and colleagues at Carnegie Melon which is carefully reported by Rupert Cornwell here. And the fact that they could accurately predict the regional origin of tweets to within 300 miles adds to the wow factor. I suppose that all underscores the fact that from a sociolinguistic perspective there's nothing radically new about digital literacies except for the very fact that old themes persist in what seem like radically new media.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Virtual culture

Do we have a cultural obsession with the virtual, with concerns about the boundaries between fantasy and reality, who guards them, and to what extent they are permeable? Watching Shutter Island and more recently Inception I have been tempted to think so. (Either that or else the obsession is some strange emanation of the mind of Leonardo Dicaprio who (coincidentally?) stars in both.) No. We are intrigued and sometimes repelled by the virtual worlds of gaming, uncertain whether to villify them, hold them up as educational worthwhile or admire them as works of art. This is a thoughtful exploration of some of these debates about videogaming. As gaming moves on, media rolls on with the creation of the first full-length machinima (The Trashmaster - trailler above), new advances in made-for-mobile movies and, I suppose, we shouldn't forget to add 3-D to this list. Maybe we shouldn't be surpised, given all this development in new media, that we wonder where it's all going. Perhaps our fantasies, our narratives, and our imagined worlds are becoming more real. Maybe we should be preoccupied with the virtual; after all it's all around us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mapping the territory

I was brought up in the era of the corner shop. It was predominantly a one-man operation (and I use the gendered form consciously, because male ownership was the norm back then). That was the main commercial model and so my known universe was bounded by the the names of the proprietors and their small businesses. Pegg's the butchers, Horobin's the grocers, Glandfield's for newspapers and confectionary (sweets and particularly Anglo bubblegum) and a little further afield, Applebee's with what I thought at the time was a winning combination of electrical goods and toys. They were the outposts, and my empire lay in the streets between them, through which I would wander on errands or simply for diversion. Now I was no cartographer, and in fact I always thought that geography was rather feeble, consisting as it did then of endless rote-learning punctuated with intense bouts of colouring in. But I suppose one thing I learnt though the study of geography was about the use and misuse of maps. Even now, I enjoy reading a good map, mining the information it holds, cursing what it does not tell me. Maps are put to good use by the powerful and map-makers choose what to emphasise as well as what to erase. That might all sound like a thing of the past in our post-colonial digital world. Google Earth and Street View (like all sophisticated technologies) appear to simply tell us the truth. But those applications are the long arm of the corporate digital empire that is Google. Now I quite like Google, but I think it's important to remember that it always has a point of view. I can't quite re-trace my schoolboy peregrinations on Street View. The views are limited and timebound. In the end I'm quite relieved, because the space between those now non-existant corner shops is still my dominion. Reading Jason Farman's piece 'Mapping the digital empire' was a great comfort in this respect.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The cult of the book

Defacing books still fills some people with horror. It's amazing how often people get quite hysterical about marking one's place by turning the corner of a page or scribbling in marginalia. One of the key articles of faith in the cult of the book is to create rituals to secure its power. Carefully place it on a polished shelf and make sure it keeps good company; wash your hands before beginning your reading; hold it carefully so you don't damage its spine etc etc. Many of these rituals humanise and sanctify the book. But as we know, books have a chequered history. Marginalia go back a long way and the pointing finger doodle or manicule has attracted plenty of academic interest. More recently creative types have been glueing, sawing and cutting books up to make interesting works of art (there are some examples here). In comparison Jonathan Safran Froer's 'Tree of Codes' consists of kinder cuts. If, however, you prefer wordplay that is even gentler you need stop-motion wordplay with dingbat.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Plato's invention

The story of Socrates and the slave boy in which the latter learns some basic geometry has an almost iconic status amongst educators. It is a key illustration of the Socratic method in which the questions that the philosopher asks illuminate the boy's understandings as he draws abstract shapes on the sand with a stick. Attention is usually fixed on the way in which Socrates coaxes understanding out of the learner but what if we broadened our focus? If we did I think we would have an early glimpse of educational technology in which the surface of the sand prefigures the slate, the page, the board or the screen and the stick the stylus, pencil or keyboard.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dealing with ghosts

After several years of teaching in synchronous environments in which participants are geographically dispersed you get accustomed to the problems of bandwidth and connectivity that cause fade-out, freeze-up and sequencing problems. These like other digital phenomena are wonderful ways of reflecting on taken-for-granted encounters in face-to-face interaction. I don't think I'm the only one who actually experiences bandwidth and connectivity issues in offline communication! In last night's teaching session there were a couple of ghosts in the room. I heard their whispers, but were they really there? Or were they actually more there than I was (after all I wasn't there at all)? I wonder how much our years of familarity with so-called RL settings help us to smooth over all the false-starts, non-sequitors and random noise to present an illusory experience of a seamless and fairly predictable world?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Networks of the world

As a way of describing social interaction, the metaphor of a network is appealing in a number of ways - after all, it suggests connection between points, as well as a sense of fluidity; but it also invites a sort of abstraction of the social which is perhaps best captured in the diagrams that are a common characteristic of network analysis. It is also a peculiarly 20th century metaphor, one that readily associates with the network, itself synonymous with the online world of digital connection. The concept of a social network reduces the human social actor to a point, not even a point of view, but a point that connects in various ways to other points and in this way it speaks to the patterning and flow of communication and interaction by drawing attention to relationships, social groupings, friendship, intra- and inter-group behaviour as they are enacted in and across different geographical locations and over time. It has become quite common to use the term 'social network' to describe online social networking, and to assume that they are the same thing. Of course, they co-exist and overlap but I think its important to make a distinction, and that's what I've been writing about recently. In this post I commented on the mistaken idea that Facebook was connecting the world, but Vincenzo Cosenza's world map of SNSs quickly illustrates its broad appeal as well as its limitations in the global market.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thinking of stuff

Classrooms, like many institutional settings, are full of stuff. Visit an empty classroom and there is the furniture, the instructional equipment, the stack of text books and in surroundings redolent of freshly-sharpened pencils, the janitor’s disinfectant (and much worse), are the traces of those who have inhabited that place - the abandoned writing tools, the forgotten schoolbag, the unfinished project and so on. Although we are by now accustomed to talking about classrooms as social spaces, they are constituted as much by the arrangement of things as they are by the social beings that inhabit them. And in some ways the contemporary classroom with its educational apparatus, its purpose-built teaching resources and its technological infrastructure remind me of the Marx’s notion of “frozen labour” – the labour that is embodied in objects with a global circulation that enter the increasingly commodified spaces of schooling.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


I've had a few days of boxing in piping, boring holes into walls and fitting doorhandles. In between times I've been reading 'The Hare with Amber Eyes', which is OK ... but the author is clearly in love with words. One of his favourites is flaneurial which makes me laugh out loud each time I read it. I've never seen it as an adjective before, so that's a first. Also, in my spare time, I've been thinking about thinking. It came to mind how Borges in that wonderful story 'Funes, his memory' says that 'to think is to ignore (or forget) differences....' Now there's a thought!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Raw or cooked?

I finally managed to finish writing about SNSs. Towards the end I started dwelling on the network metaphor itself. It's a distinctly 20th century metaphor which easily connects with the idea of networked computers and the world of digital connection even though social networking is itself a broader concept in the social sciences. In some ways the concept of a social network reduces the human social actor to a point, not even a point of view, but a point that connects in various ways to other points. Reading Wilcken's fascinating biography of Levi-Strauss made me see it as a structuralist concept, one that in extreme leads to an erasing of subjectivity and a reification of abstraction. Interestingly the small stuff, the detail in SNSs, maybe banal and largely regulated but the grander aspirations of the social graph pull in another direction altogether.