Saturday, December 02, 2017

Fifteen years blogging

I thought I just might post something on the anniversary of my blog. It's exactly fifteen years ago that I registered this account with Blogger and, although the frequency of my posting and some of the old enthusiasm has waned, I still keep showing up. Why? Not for the same reasons for sure. That first day, that first post was undertaken with a particular kind of excitement. Little old me could type something on my keyboard, in Sheffield, and then, magically, there it would be on the internet for all to see! It seems rather gauche now, but back then the internet still seemed rather new and most of what you read was written by geeks or by companies that employed geeks. It felt with a blog you could get hold of the printing press and publish, just like that! But of course that feeling completely elided the fact that writers need readers - but then that small detail wasn't going to put me off either. And in fact it was only when Colin and Michele commented on my blog from Australia, Canada or Mexico, or wherever they were at the time, that I thought oh my god, people will read this stuff, too! That actually fired more enthusiasm. The posts were still highly experimental and at that stage I was more or less stringing together links about strange, quirky things on the web - a bit like the original bloggers did. Colin and Michele rather flatteringly described my blog as a wunderkammer. Perhaps that was just a kind way of calling it a mess. But all in all it meant that writing could change. Pictures, links, tags and all the rest were new. And what's more a small band of academics began exploring blogging. Working with Julia Davies, who started blogging around the same time as me, I began to write about this phenomenon. A community of literacy academics started blogging too, and there was a tangible feeling of being on the edge of something important. Then that something changed. Blogging lost its playful, experimental edge, it became popular, it became formulaic and in came the 'A-list bloggers'. Usually white, mostly male, and predominantly American, this group effectively standardised blogging. It became - dare I say it - a genre. And now commercial outfits, media companies, universities, this group, that project and just about everyone else has a blog. Slowly my own posts began to shift from that heady 'isn't the internet weird' phase into more critical and reflective pieces. I began to use my blog to try out ideas. Ideas that might later get absorbed into articles or book chapters. And that's what it has become for me - just another opportunity to write, to publish. Guess what, I'm fifteen years older and my priorities have changed! But if I've changed, so has the online environment. I care less about who reads my stuff and in that sense I'm right back to my first post. But strangely enough, I care more about what I write than I ever did before.

Friday, October 20, 2017

From Derbyshire to Alberta

I'm recently back from a week in Calgary on a fascinating project which I may write more about later.  The preparatory task was to write a 'possibility' piece, and that in itself was an interesting exercise even though, as things turned out, that got shelved. But the writing got me thinking about how meanings get made in public spaces, like those in and around the iron age sites of Derbyshire. Here's part of what I wrote: ">Various objects decorate an old oak tree. The oak, bent and gnarled juts up from a fissure in the gritstone crag. Wicker, woven into heart shapes, strips of coloured fabric, ribbon, metal rings and bells dance in the wind. The wind is an unseen force; there is no-one about. This is an ancient landscape. A stone’s throw away the Grey Ladies of Harthill Moor stand tall and serene, Bronze Age megaliths marking an enduring relationship between land and people. Now they quarry for stone here, in and around honeypot villages of the Peak National Park. Sheep snatch at the grass at the foot of the rocks, cattle graze in a field below. Each of these decorations has been crafted with a purpose in mind – recalling the life of a friend or family member, marking a lovers’ tryst, celebrating a significant date – wishes and hope, fashioned from the materials at hand. On some there is message, a name, a date, but others are read by the wind whispering to one another, then blown across the land, carried like spore. It’s not always windy up here, but the bent limbs of the oak record a century or more of turns in the weather. Unseen, far underground, its network of routes fan out, a hidden web of fungal fibres in communion with others, the thinking trees. And three thousand years ago these crags served as a look-out and perhaps that still matters. This place has a tangible, magical atmosphere. I’d expected initials old and new carved into the gritstone - that, and a good view. But I just hadn’t imagined a tree decorated in this way. Maybe there’s a sort of animism at work here, connecting the landscape, the ancient world and the intimate secrets of the people who have been here before me.' And even though that fragment of writing didn't connect directly with what we did in Calgary, it did in another way. To get another sense of the place we visited the Blackfoot Medicine Wheel on top of Nosehill, and again became part of, or witness to, meanings being made 'on the land' and making connections to other places, other times, and other ways of being.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

21st Century Literacies

I'm just putting the finishing touches to a co-authored book on literacy and digital media for Sage with Cathy Burnett. It's been an exciting project and one that brings recent work into dialogue with some older material. Nine years ago I wrote a similar book with Julia Davies, called Web 2.0 for Schools and I've been reflecting on the shifts in my thinking. Of course, it's partly the case that different collaborators enrich your thinking in different ways, but it's also inevitably the case that other changes occur with the passage of time. The shift from unbridled enthusiasm to a rather cautious, perhaps more critical stance to new media is clearly apparent to me, although it may not be so clear to readers - we'll see about that. Changes in digital technology itself are one cause of this, but actually that's mostly about ubiquity and the notable distribution and take up of mobile devices and apps. The more significant thing for me is what digital communication - and social media in particular, has become. Rather like Matt Haig, I think there are good reasons for taking a wider and more critical view.  I still think its crucially important for teachers to look at what literacy in everyday looks like and to adjust their own practices so that they are in step with this. And its equally important for policymakers to remove the obstacles that prevent this. But, promoting practices that help children and young people to navigate new literacies in ways that are ethical and empowering seems to be crucially important. It's actually untrue to say that was absent from Web 2.0 for Schools - it certainly wasn't - but it seems a more pressing agenda now. The current book attempts to emphasise this by exploring the nine principles of the Charter for 21st Century Literacies that we developed in New Literacies around the Globe and are shown at the end of this document. 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Event, eventually

Trying to think differently about literacy, emergence and potentiality (amongst other things) has led to some experimentation with the concept of literacy-as-event. Here we've been drawing on the work of Massumi who writes 'Nothing is prefigured in the event. It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity or rules into paradox.' (2015: 27). In taking this route we've stumbled rather blindly into some quite contradictory conceptions of event. Anthropological perspectives have traditionally focused on ritual events or public performances that play an important role in socio-cultural life. For example, if you take a qualification in Event Management, this, I assume, is what you end up dealing with - logistics, planning, organisation, health and safety, customer satisfaction and so on. In other words what you need to have in place to make a wedding, a concert, a carnival or a festival run smoothly. It would be based on an understanding of the predictability of events. In contrast, for someone like Derrida, event was about 'surprise, exposure, the unanticipatable' (2007:441). Events, in this view, are marked by unpredictability. An extreme form of this occurs in Badiou (2005) in which event is about rupture - Paris 1968; the Arab Spring; London 2011 - situations in which new identities and discourses suddenly become possible. But is there a smaller scale version of this, in which we can keep hold of unpredictability, possibility and intensity in a moment-by-moment unfolding of event - this is what we're working with.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


It seems hard to believe when you're in the full beauty of the English summer that the environment is any sort of danger at all. It's in full bloom, bountiful, green, just as it should be - what on Earth could be wrong? Precarity, that rather ugly word, is at the height of fashion, and it gets used to describe the nature-culture complex in all its inherent instability. Socially, politically, economically as well as environmentally, everything can be seen teetering on the edge of collapse. As a case in point, the fragile structures of law, order and security seem threatened by terrorism. Random attacks, followed by rapid responses and shoot-to-kill policing that shortcuts the requirement for evidence, identification and prosecution seem set to engulf us. News breaks as events unfold and ideological conflict spills out over borders. The situation is fluid, mobile, precarious. Yet at the same time, there are points or places in which the very opposites obtain - stability, stasis and security seem to uphold an undisturbed order. Perhaps the same is true of the natural world. Order and chaos co-exist like the two sides of a coin. Dwelling on precarity may be important in assessing the lives of vulnerable populations, fragile ecosystems and political conflict, but it is also itself a product of highly mobile information flows. Media, in all its proliferating forms, provides a continuous stream of bad news which sometimes has the effect of rendering us helpless, flailing around in a tsunami of death, disaster and degradation. The challenge, then, is to find expression for ethico-political action (or non-action) that acknowledges what is precarious, but is not defeated by it.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Case of the iPad

In a rather lengthy email earlier this week, our publisher announced that The Case of the iPad is now out. What exactly out means is, of course, a moot point. The work, also called a book, was completed about six months ago, although at that stage it was only really a document in Word. Somewhere along the line it adopted that rather quaint epithet 'manuscript', even though it was never handwritten and only ever illuminated by the thought that went into it. The publishers (Springer) have, inevitably, worked their magic on it and in doing so it has taken on the virtual form of a published volume. It's not quite clear yet, when the printed copies will roll off the press or whether that process is complete, or how much it matters but nevertheless the book is already some sense, somewhere. Things are moving. On Amazon, for example, the picture of a Union Jack t-shirt, which for some inexplicable reason had been a placeholder, has now been replaced by an image of the book, which you can metaphorically 'look inside'. You can place an order for a print copy or the Kindle version. It looks like you can have the Kindle version right away, but the print version won't itself be released for another ten days. So you get the idea that published but not yet released may have something to do with distribution, which of course is pretty much instant in digital formats. But more interesting than all of this is the fact that the book - if that word still holds any fixed meaning - is unbundled. If you are a die-hard fan of Simpson and Walsh, or Karen Wohlwend (or any other of our wonderful contributors), Springer will sell you their chapter, as a stand alone, for just shy of thirty dollars. It makes some sort of sense. If that's all you want, that's what you can get, without having to shell out for the whole volume. It probably makes sense for Springer, too. I'm sure they've done their research. For an author and editor, and possibly for a reader too, there are some down sides. People are less likely to stumble on your chapter if they take the unbundled route. One of the reasons I like edited volumes, is that you can accidentally, as it were, find yourself reading somebody or something that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. Unbundling also changes things for editorship. In The Case of the iPad we purposely gathered together scholars with different takes on mobile literacies, and we spent some time in Skype meetings, offices and hotel bars discussing what their work did, and what it did alongside the work of others. The book is an ensemble of these and I think Cathy, Alison and Maureen would agree with me, that it's greater than the sum of its parts. But that's old-school, more like a prog-rock concept album or a sampler (remember them?), when what people seem to want now is their favourite DJ using a remix of the work and artfully fading across into someone else's with approximately the same BPM. Anything really, as long as the punters come in, and the dancefloor is full. Or is that the wrong idea? Do we just become our own DJ mashing up Bergson and Baudrillard, for example? And wasn't that what good readers did best in the first place? I don't know, but something has shifted. Buy the book!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Technology and the war machine

Iraqi security forces, and Peshmerga fighters together with Sunni and Shia militia are about to take possession of Mosul, liberating it from IS. Defeat is imminent, and has been for about a week now. This part of the conflict dates back to October 2016, and the ground forces are part of an alliance that is backed by US-led airstrikes. Deleuze and Guattari seem unlikely prophets in this context, but still what they say has predictive force: 'The State has no war machine of its own; it can only appropriate one in the form of a military institution, one that will continually cause it problems.' (1987, 391). Technology and weapon-speed, which they also write about, are an integral part of this war machine. Technology may not be evil, but it has a chameleon-like nature. If you want to taste the flavour of modern warfare Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's piece called The Baghdad Road is hard to beat. You can taste the dust, sense the confusion, the weariness and the machinic quality of it all. Technology, of course, plays a massive part in the war machine, accelerating weapon-speed. One officer talked to Ghaith while he 'pinched and zoomed a satellite map on his tablet'. Later he writes how other officers have 'smartphones and tablets arrayed around them' like 'children playing a video game'. A fighter called Ali moves from building to building. If there's resistance he sends the co-ordinates and 'friendly' planes dispense heavy bombs within minutes. Slowly they inch to victory, destroying buildings, rooting out IS, injuring and killing innocent civilians. For all its sophistication it's a primitive affair.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Social media and the end of May

As pundits and politicians reflect on surprising gains in Labour support in the recent election, many sense the emergence of a new style of political campaigning. Whether the unpredicted swing marks a resurgence of interest in the politics of the Left, a lean towards social democratic egalitarianism or a more general thirst for a progressive political agenda is hard to tell at the moment. Disenchantment with the ruling elite and uninspiring leadership clearly played a part, but high on everyone's watchlist now is the youth vote and the role of the media. It has to be conceded that mainstream media, including those more traditionally aligned with the Left had shown little support for Corbyn's leadership both before and during the election campaign. In fact, from this quarter, Corbyn has had nothing but bad press. So what? By all accounts the social media story looks rather different, in fact it seems quite likely that Labour's social media strategy worked extremely well for them. We should take note. Obama's electoral success in 2008 was orchestrated in part through social media. Two years later in the Arab Spring, commentators were quick to draw attention to a similar phenomenon. However, it doesn't all cut one way. I just don't buy into the communitarian, wisdom of the crowds story. It might of worked for earlier notions of the Internet, but we've outgrown that now. Put simply good and bad things happen in new media, it just depends which things, ideas, experiences, events they connect with. If the present and future political debates are conducted online we need to know how users assess credibility, how they critically evaluate what is fed to them and on what terms they participate. Informed by this, we might envisage more informed and politically active communities. Without this, political victories will simply be won by those with the better strategy rather than the better ideas.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Doctoral literacies

Sometimes its the smallest of comments that can stop you in your tracks. Like yesterday - the doctoral students were talking about reading in the car, and I don't mean reading in the passenger seat but reading while driving. Now that might sound downright dangerous until you realise that they were talking about using apps on their phones that would read documents out loud over a bluetooth connection. It would come as no surprise at all to the non-sighted, but you don't actually have to look at words to read them. It's hardly new, but I could feel some old-school habits of mind kicking in and saying, well that's not proper reading, is it? But it is. So I suppose you could try to marshall all sorts of arguments about concentrating, re-reading, underlining, note-taking, but I don't really think any of them are robust enough. You can read high-level, dense, complex research texts whilst driving (not that I've tried). That whole realisation chimed in with the memory of a time a couple of years back when a teacher showed me some very sophisticated writing by a seven year-old. What was really interesting about that piece of writing is that it had been entirely mediated by speech recognition software on an iPad. Writing, without the act of writing - from a traditional point of view, at least. Now I've never been particularly impressed by the tipping point idea, not just because it was over-hyped but more because it seemed so obvious. But it works well here. Small, incremental changes to audio-book technology and speech recognition software combine with access to powerful portable devices to make reading and writing something different. Something that sidesteps alphabetic encoding and decoding. Returning then to these doctoral students, it is at least theoretically possible that one could do all the background reading just by listening and then write a whole thesis just by speaking it. Maybe someone's already done it. The provocative work that this reflection does is to gnaw away at what literacy actually is and to prompt us to think about the function of those hallowed practices often described as study skills.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

iPads and digital literacy

This new volume will be published in the summer and is the result of a collaboration with Alyson Simpson and Maureen Walsh. It's been an exciting project to work on and follows in the wake of Literacy, Media, Technology in which we attempted something similar - that is to take a number of quite different perspectives from scholars in the field in order to outline the complexities of digital technologies in the lives of children and young people, in and out of educational contexts. There are no easy answers and we'd be fooling ourselves if we said there are, and of course that all assumes that we know what the question was in the first place! In a scene-setting chapter, Cathy and I had a lot of fun exploring the whole notion of mobility, or mobilities. Obviously we couldn't go as far as John Urry does in his excellent book, but we had a good, quick stab at it. It seems very important to me to think about what's mobile and what isn't, and just as important to think about who's mobile and who's not. These are pressing issues in a world that has both wars, walls and migrant camps as well as unfettered multinationals, rampant capitalism, and mobile capital. Urry argues that mobility requires different kinds of anchorage, immobile platforms that control the flow of people, goods and information. Platforms, gateways and gatekeepers. There's a great feature by James Meek on chocolate production in the latest edition of the London Review of Books and it provides a really clear illustration of how late capitalism profits through its knowledge of these flows, relentlessly driving down the cost of raw materials, seeking out the cheapest and least disruptive labour force, and distributing to new and emerging markets. All in the name of maximising profit. And, in one way, that's all part of The Case of the iPad, too.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Recent interest in affect has come from a number of different directions. Sedgwick’s appropriation of Tomkins’ psychological perspective has been particularly influential, whereas Brian Massumi develops ideas that are rooted in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. In The Politics of Affect Massumi emphasises the emergent and relational nature of affect. Affect he argues is pre-personal and happens as bodies come into contact. It is interesting then, in relation to this, that some cognitive scientists are now interested in things like gut reactions, intuitions and so on. Things, you might say, that we know, but that we don't know we know. Studies of interoperception are beginning to get some empirical purchase on the mechanisms that are at play in diverse arenas - in what successful gamblers, traders and negotiators do. It also seems that our bodies are able to mirror others when we establish empathy - it's not simply a conscious adaptation, although that happens, too, but what a body can do as the pupils contract or the heart rate shifts. So as social scientists have been suggesting for a while these things happen beneath, beyond or before rationalisation or representation. The challenge, then, is how to account for things that don't yet have words but seem to be an important part of inter/intra-actions, and of making things happen. Seventeenth century European philosophy explored this territory with both Descartes and Spinoza, despite there very different orientations, sharing the view that affects, feelings and concepts could all be classed as ideas. The notion that rationality, in the form of worded conceptualisations, align with individual, social and cultural progress has carried forward into contemporary times. But perhaps that implied hierarchy can't be sustained. Not that we should necessarily begin to privilege gut feelings, intuitions and all the rest, but perhaps we should begin to acknowledge that they play an equal and important part in daily life..

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Riverine politics

Whether it's about water rights, fishing rights, territorial boundaries or navigation there's no doubting the fact that rivers often have a political life, or at least that they are dragged into the political wranglings of humans. As we lurch into the anthropocene, or whatever word we use to describe the now established planetary dominion of humans and its associated environmental devastation, we might hope for new ways of looking at rivers. Looking after rivers might be a start. The academic trend of querying the nature/culture binary has invited in all sorts of new and creative ways of thinking, and I anticipate that the Whanganui River may well feature in conference papers and the like now that it (if that's the correct pronoun) has achieved the same 'legal rights as human being'. This follows a successful Maori court action that claimed the river as an ancestor. Will it catch on? I know there are similarly strong companion feelings among the indigenous populations of the Amazon - but what does it really mean this river-become-human thing? How will it enact its now human-like rights, duties and liabilities without the intervention of its human guardians? What if all rivers decide (?) to become human? And is it just one-way traffic? Perhaps the move is part of a much wider set of trends in how we think about the world after we've named it. Gone are the days of explorers who traversed the globe in pursuit of new ones to name. Those efforts have now turned to space exploration. Yet some ancient rivers are still associated with the divine, and some, like the Whanganui, are intimately entwined with people's sense of who they are. Dragging the river into court seems a bit like recruiting it into the human realm, to grant it rights seems anthropcentric, yet at the same time what the elders say seems to be raising its status, acknowledging the importance of rivers in their own right which is surely a good thing.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Writing the grid

Last year in a keynote at the Sheffield CSL conference I used a short vignette from what now seems to be becoming a series of sketches of digital literacies in the wild. Here it in list form: reading from a tablet whilst making notes on an A4 pad with green and black pens, reading a novel on a Kindle, balanced on a handbag, working on a spreadsheet on a chunky black laptop, displaying an e-ticket to the inspector on a smartphone, looking at Derbyshire whilst listening to music through headphones, reading a paperback, working with music software (wearing Dr Dre headphones). I used the vignette to pose the question of what was present and what was absent from this account of a train journey, as well as to make a more general point about the ubiquity of mobile uses of technology. As usual I didn’t offer specific answers, but one dimension I had in mind was that of point of view. The list assumes a slightly disconnected non-participant observer. But in actual fact (fact?) I was very much part of this in-train, ongoing event. Perhaps I emerged out of it, furtively, excitedly making notes on my smartphone? The railway carriage could be a particular kind of container, maybe a stage would be better description, for a peculiarly 21st Century dispositif. But also, looking down, the same goes for the laptop spreadsheet, a literacy tool so quotidian, so annoying (at least in my experience) that it can easily be overlooked. Is anyone studying spreadsheet literacies? They should. It seems to me that speadsheets so often enact the powers of surveillance and self-surveillance. They tell you what counts, and their archane formulae work it all out. They are tools of performativity. Literacy and power reworked for the modern times. Some historians argue that literacy has its origins in accounting for trade and transaction. The written record is enduring proof after all. Phoenician capitalists are the example that gets cited, but secretly I hope that we could trace a more fundamentally expressive history of literacy, back perhaps to petroglyphs. Its perhaps interesting, perhaps challenging to think that with the rise of writing associated with digital literacy, social media and all the rest, the power of aggregation, big data, monetisation is never far away. Are we all on one big spreadsheet? Would Borges wish to rethink his map as big as the territory story for our time?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mapping as data

A map can be very useful when you're lost - if you've got the right one, and if you can make sense of it. And pouring over maps can be quite compelling, too - imagining what it might be like to visit a place, or even to see the ways in which familiar places connect - connections that you had never before considered. But making maps is something entirely different - an artform in its own right, and its something I'm experimenting with at the moment. Trying to figure out different ways of presenting empirical materials has recently led me to think about writing otherwise, and in a number of recent publications Cathy and I have explored how storying our data, using different points of view may gesture towards multiplicity. We call this approach 'stacking stories', although admittedly we haven't yet managed to publish a full account of it. However, the shortcoming is that the story, whilst certainly capable of opening up other ways of looking, remains a predominantly linguistic medium. Cartography, on the other hand, presents different challenges, and although what to write is one of them, it only plays a small part. There has been some fascinating work on mapping as a way of tracing movement, and Abigail Hackett's focus on young children's movement around museum spaces is a great example. But after a recent research visit, I was tempted to try to map the remembered experience of the event. Not being particularly adept at mapping using paper and pencil, I looked for an online solution. It wasn't immediately apparent what would suit my needs, and there were a number of false starts. Eventually I settled on Inkarnate which is free, easy to use and has a pallette of Lord of the Rings-type icons. My original intention was to map felt experience, key moments and so on - the topography of the event, but the mapness of maps took over, and I ended up simply recasting where I'd been, as if the journeying was more significant than what happened (although, I note my stories often have a similar quality). But it's a beginning. Part of the problem is getting familiar with what this simple mapping tool can do; the bigger problem is what you might call translation. How can the territory of an event be mapped? At the moment I haven't got a clue, and maybe the map (or maps) might just end up being a supplement to the storying, but there's certainly potential here, and if not there's an engaging little hobby.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Forests and fictions

Now there are no forests to speak of there is nowhere to be completely lost. All we have are our own places of abandonment and enchantment - the ones that are human constructions. Once the maze of library shelves, now surfing online. Movies, stories, poetry, Zombie Apocalypse, Call of Duty, war, crime, horror...and romance. Imaginary monsters. Could it be that these other spaces, these fictional spaces began to open up just as we were embarking upon the wholesale destruction of the living world? In Europe, forests that we first stripped away along the major trade routes were tamed by a latticework of trails by the twelfth century, paving the way for the printing presses - those machines of movable type, overlords of the tyranny of words, eating away at any new growth. Where could we now lose our bearings, become enchanted, or find ourselves by finally confronting the ways in which we neither know where or who we are? For in the depths of the forest all we had was intuition and imagination, a sense of scale and of being in something much larger than we knew - seemingly boundless, full of mystery. Now we hunt and are hunted by our own fictions. Those imaginary worlds colonise and repopulate our consciousness. They pour out of our screens and leap up from the page. The forests may be reduced to words and images, but they still create places of possibility. Places to roam, to connect, to lose ourselves and through losing ourselves maybe to understand ourselves and what we have done in a deeper way. In this dense thicket of fictional imaginings we may glimpse or grasp at ideas that aren't yet fully formed, as if blindly tracing the outline of a shape or squinting to make sense of an indistinct form, something half-hidden in the surrounding darkness. And in this way we can come to understand something that we didn't quite know we knew and bring to life something that speaks to us from the depths.