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?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Making Literacy, Media, Technology

The idea of celebrating the materialisation of a book in print form might at first glance appear to be rather anachronistic. After all, in this era of online publishing, most of our words are 'out there' before any publishers' ink hits the page. But somehow or other receiving one's advance copy is still a rich experience. Not only does it represent completion, that it is, at least in some sense of the word, finished, that the labour is over - perhaps even, in retrospect, that it was worth it after all, no matter what one felt at the time, or at various stages on the way, but also and perhaps more importantly that it has become a thing, something more tangible, something with a particular heft, a particular look and so on. I feel the same about journal articles, and even though I have my name on a number that I've never seen as published, in amongst other contributions, or in the particular issues in which they 'appeared', I usually have a print-off, because that's the next best thing. Julia Gillen has teased me about this in private, but I suspect that she might agree that somehow online first is a bit of a shadow - more correctly a foreshadow, of the real thing. Or perhaps real is the wrong word altogether, it's maybe just that we live in a world of different kinds of objects, and that print forms have their own place in this order of things. This is a key point in the book Literacy, Media, Technology that I'm referring to. The book is an edited collection, and the subtitle: Past, Present and Future presented an opportunity for Becky Parry, Cathy Burnett and myself to interrogate that linearity, the slow and inexorable passage of time or the mad dash into the future - or whatever version of the progressive modernist narrative that you might subscribe to. Things can only get better? Maybe. But actually things co-exist, they resonate back and forth in interesting ways. And so, we take a stand against that popular phrase 'the future has arrived', opting instead for a view that it just hasn't happened yet. In a way we're more interested in the present and the way it is infused by the way things were and our ideas of what they might become. But apart from all of this, the excellent chapters, written by some of the finest academics in the field, are in conversation with one another, and in the final stages of the editing process it seemed as if they had something new to say about the inter-relationships between literacy, media and technology, at least to gesture towards a new conceptualisation of their interconnectedness, an interconnectedness that was always there but had to be found, and had never been fully articulated before. It feels good to hold on to that, and at least as good as holding the book itself, as a thing.

Monday, April 04, 2016

25 years of oppressive education policy

The cost of the latest initiative - to make all schools into academies - is likely to be £1.3 billion. That's a significant outlay on an unpopular intervention that will probably do little to improve education or raise attainment. It's the most recent ideologically-driven change that will be imposed on the school system. Parents and teachers are deeply suspicious of government motives and there is already indication of dissent. Threatened union action is set to disrupt this year's testing and marks an unhappy anniversary. It is nearly 25 years since central government first imposed its testing regime. Concerns voiced then by protesters continue. In May 1991 parents joined teachers in pointing out that workloads would increase and class time would be devoted to preparing for tests rather than teaching. It was the first time we'd thought about the backwash effect, but we're now so used to the way in which measurable pencil and paper tests warp the curriculum that we're very used to seeing classrooms full of children engaged in tedious, often meaningless routines to prepare for the annual testing ritual. In 1991 parents had a voice, there was dialogue with teachers and testing could be 'dis-applied' on the grounds that schools were obliged to provide an education 'in accordance with their parents wishes'. As a parent I exercised that right, and my daughter (centre frame) who was part of the first cohort to encounter SATs at each phase of her education, missed the lot without any detrimental effect. Parent governors were essential in negotiating parental and professional dissent and ensured that there was minimum disruption to educational provision. Good relationships were maintained throughout this campaign. I sincerely hope that this continues, but pause for thought, 25 years is a long time - we have witnessed a steady erosion of educational values and despite the hype, there is little evidence of genuine educational improvement.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Outrageous education policies

As we wait to see the real effects of the latest swathe of educational reforms, reforms that appear to completely remove all local influence and parental involvement in the running of our schools, it may be time to rethink how we respond to unwarranted political interference in public education. The problem recurs at a number of levels as well as in many different spheres of civic life. Take the health service, beleaguered and battered by government reform - actions which often provoke anger, despair or cynicism. In this case, old school activists may petition or demonstrate whilst others, imagining this is probably futile, simply wring their hands and think of early retirement. At times it may seem that these reforms, or attacks, on our once great public institutions are ridiculous, or absurd, at others  that they are simply intolerable. It's often the small incursions that are the telling ones, and these, the small movements of power without a conscience, prompt me to ask whether they are, in fact, absurd or intolerable? A story that may well get buried by the sheer scale of the next wave of education reforms concerns the sad case of the exclamation mark - yes, that humble little point, capped with its light-hearted vertical dash. In a spasm of powerful bureaucratic interference, the Department for Education attempted to legislate on its use in schools. The move provoked some derisory responses as well as some more measured explorations in the press. The guidance actually says: 'A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown above, is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation.' For the purpose of the test: 'an exclamation is required to start with What or How.' Much debate could, and probably will be had about the status of this as guidance to make an assessment workable or as an attempt to police the English language. It may be that such as small point is not worth getting excited about. It could be laughed off as simply absurd. But actually it's intolerable to think that intelligent and creative teachers will have to reign in the usually enthusiastic outpourings of young writers to teach them yet another rule which isn't really a rule, and because...? It is, to my mind, important to consider how this small intervention may ripple through classrooms and how we might read its significance in relation to large systemic change which is, perhaps, easier to see as intolerable rather than just absurd.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Social networking book

I was pleased to be asked to contribute to Kurylo and Dumova's volume Social Networking: Redefining communication in the digital age and flattered to be in as Chapter 1, apparently acting as a 'launching pad' for the rest of the book. In my chapter Together and Apart: social and technical works, I attempt to locate social networking in the much larger network of material, discursive and semiotic practices in a way that some have suggested is more like actor network theory. In fact I draw on Latour's work to make some points about the wider ordering of things in which social networks, and particularly online social networks, sit. But I'd shy away from calling that an ANT approach, but let's not get into that here! Anyway there's some great chapters in the book that explore a range of contemporary social networking issues including self-disclosure, social movements and networked activism. This makes this whole topic area very live and very relevant, and as far as I'm concerned - the more scholarship on this, the better. Buy the book!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Straight carrots

A while back there was a spontaneous outcry about what was happening to our vegetables. Through some sort of consciousness-raising process, people had noticed that all the carrots in the supermarket were getting to be more or less the same length, the same colour, clean from soil and so on. What had happened to the earth, to the dirt that usually clings to them? And more importantly where were the misshapen ones? Well they just didn't fit, did they? Given a choice of vegetables Deleuze and Guattari would have favoured the mushroom because of its rhizomic character, but the fate of the misshapen carrot would I'm sure have worried them too. In fact it is carefully described in AntiOedipus. The misshapen carrot is in fact 'trapped within the residual or artificial territorialities of our society' (p. 37), referred for therapy or simply consigned to the mixed vegetable soup factory. It is surplus. Let's face it, supermarkets are homogenising the food shopping thing. Tesco is anywhere; just like Whole Foods Market and all the rest. Everything looks the same. A carrot is a carrot  wherever you are. And is it such a leap to think about how this sort of conformity, this market standardisation or whatever applies to us, too? Does the architecture of social media force us all to be certain kinds of carrots on display - and if not carrots, shiny aubergines, or even 'exotic fruit' of a certain size and shape (and country of origin). It doesn't stop at social media, though. Time and again we are required to perform certain kinds of identities and not others. And certainly not troublesome ones. Heaven forbid! But slowly though, we reach our use-by date. We become reduced. That is if we have not already been removed!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Slippery subjects

It must be symptomatic of something that the most searching questions that one can ask can often be met with a dismissive cynicism if not outright derision. Dan Fox, in a new book, nails this as the prevailing climate of anti-intellectualism or dumbing down (see here for a review), and he could well be right. So that makes me all the more determined. Determined to return to the identity topic, and turn to the picture next to this and ask 'is this me'? Not, I hope, to provoke the reaction that by opening the topic I'm engaged in some sort of pretentious navel-gazing - although perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all?  But to interrogate what all this activity of capturing images, taking selfies and textualizing these online is all about. Really. This is not me. It's as if layers of difference have been tightly pressed together, fusing them in a process you could call lamination. Whilst there is resemblance or representation, there are also bits, bytes, and pixels. There is framing not to mention posing, cropping, colour enhancement and so on. The result may be an image of me, but that's all. Here, it's recontextualized. It enters another space, another time, juxtaposed with writing, squeezed into a template, worked into a particular form and recruited in a particular way for a particular purpose. Showing the image here becomes part of a performance, a performance that may be read off by an audience. But this me business is slippery. The image holds all sorts of other resonances, an affective dimension, a motley collection of shifting memories, the sharpness of the air, the Himalayan rock beneath my boots, the paucity of oxygen and so on - all of which may or may not be me. In current social theory this could all be seen as an emerging entanglement of affective, socio-material and discursive practices - a mouthful I know, but a sort of flowing together of bodies, things and ideas. A state of affairs in which constructions of me-ness are always contingent. If we live in times of space-time compression, of context collapse or whatever, it seems to me that we have also become slippery subjects. But perhaps I should just speak for myself, because that's what it looks like from here. I'm also aware of power geometries at work, creating conditions that allow for or provoke this slipperiness (a certain age, class, gender configuration for example). And that leads me to wonder whether some subjects are more slippery than others?

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Personal, colonial

I'm back! Back from what friends fondly refer to as my gallivanting, which roughly translated means making the most of my time to explore new places, or places that interest me - alternatively rendered as going to warm and exotic locations just because I can.  This time Sri Lanka. And from my humble iPhone snaps this Hillman was the best, parked up on a sidestreet it strongly resonated with my 1950s boyhood whilst also being totemic of the whole colonial legacy. Corny as hell, I know, but cars seemed so important to me back then.  That beige two-tone was the colour of my childhood and the taste of milky tea all wrapped up in one. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as we then called it, was something we did in geography as a prelude to getting on with life. So much for innocence. In Sri Lanka the communication system, both road and rail, put in place by the British, constituted an elaborate net to capture the country, to suppress resistance and to strip the hillsides first for coffee and later, when that failed, for tea. The road system is still there, you can see some well-preserved classic cars and tea is still big business. But amongst all that are centuries of culture, a whole history of art and architecture as well as an exquisite and diverse natural habitat. Returning to work might seem dull in comparison if it weren't for the enthusiasm of colleagues, the promise of new projects and the slow closing stages of previous work, all of which may well get reported on here in due course. As a corrective, before I stop for a cup of tea, I do want to make it clear though that I am not remotely interested in classic cars but it's just that I learnt at quite an early age that my father earnestly believed that owning a Hillman would make him happy, that it would be a step up in the world. That was abandoned when he splashed out on an MG in cream and British racing green...and just as I know Sri Lanka as Ceylon, these sorts of things remain with you.