Comic Relief

Today we concluded the New Media Seminar with Scott McCloud’s now classic Ted Talk and a free-ranging discussion about why McCloud’s approach to “visions of the future” affords so many insights about the narrative potential of new media, and why a course on new media might conclude with McCloud’s work.  We all agreed that McCloud […]

I Need More Time to Think

Until September this year, I only thought about digital technologies in simple, practical terms: do I want it, do I need it, can I afford it, will it make some part, any part, of my life easier, better, or more fun. And I have found answers to those questions relatively easily, although at times not without frustration. I have decided against some technologies not necessarily because of the technology itself, but because of the terms under which I would be allowed to use it. Others I have chosen to use gladly, fully appreciating the benefits they bring to my work or personal life.

Then, as part of the “Awakening the Digital Imagination” seminar series, I started reading scholarly articles and book excerpts about different aspects of digital technologies and their ever-increasing role in our lives and education, and engaging in discussions with a somewhat random (but thoughtfully assembled) group of people whose different perspectives have challenged many of my pervious assumptions. Or prompted me to contemplate questions I have never given any thought to before.

Now I have a bunch of notes, quotes, questions and unfinished thoughts, some on pieces of paper floating around in my house, in my car, or on my desk at work; some in emails; some scribbled (in pencil, of course) on the margins of our book, or on printed versions of the articles. I need to make sense of them somehow, internalize them further, digest them, to crystalize and organize the thought fragments that are swirling around in my head. But I don’t have time.

So for now I’m just going to toss some of them out here, without any kind of organization, commentary or proper referencing. These are bits and pieces that grabbed my attention for one reason or another in our readings and during our discussions:

It is only very recently that the ability to forget has become a prized skill.

Our cultural concept of education and knowledge is based upon the idea of building something up from a ground, from zero, and starting piece by piece to put things together, to construct edifices. […] Scientists always marvel at nature, at how it seems to be some grand code, with a built-in sense of purpose. Discoveries are made which reveal that more and more things are related, connected. Everything appears to be aware of itself and everything else, all fitting into an interlocking whole.

program or be programmed

everything is interesting until it’s ruined for us

exclusivity of access the book afforded vs relative democratization of access

technology is not value neutral

difference between tool and idea

corrupting power of consumer

tribal / collective consciousness

New technology possesses the power to hypnotize because it isolates the senses … renders those most deeply immersed in a revolution the least aware of its dynamic

…the public became patron

the social cost of planned obsolescence

people can no longer tolerate the boring bits of conversation … especially when talking about things that are complicated and hard  … being bored never has to be tolerated; must always be stimulated

mediated existence — capture event to post on facebook… I share therefore I am

presence of another person inhibits the worst in us… anonymity disinhibits us

moments of more and lives of less

capacity for solitude — if you don’t learn how to be alone, you will only know how to be lonely 

technological affordance vs human vulnerability

the sweetness of something new coming in on the phone — not knowing what’s coming

we are not as strong as technology’s pull

neurochemical hit of constant connection

need and ability for discernment

good – intentional – appropriate – consistent

relationship of beauty and pleasure to duration in time

If the criminal appears as a nonconformist who is unable to meet the demand of technology that we behave in uniform and continuous patterns, literate man is quite inclined to see others who cannot conform as somewhat pathetic.

education/learning is community-based … happens in context

Two birthdays, an anniversary, and a brief lament

First, the birthdays.

Happy birthday to the author I’ve studied and delighted over for the last thirty-three years: John Milton, born 1608.

John Milton, busted.

I never imagined I’d spend my life reading and thinking and writing about this writer. Just goes to show. (Show what? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Happy birthday wishes also go out to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL, a fountain of wit and wisdom, and a pioneering genius of computer science. I first learned about Admiral Hopper from Dr. David Evans’ Udacity course CS101. (Yes, Udacity. It just goes to show.) Dr. Evans linked to her famous interview with David Letterman, and I was an instant fan.

“Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960.” From Wikipedia.

The anniversary: 45 years ago today, Dr. Douglas Engelbart sat on a stage in San Francisco and, according to one awestruck observer, “dealt lightning with both hands.” The event has come to be known as “the mother of all demos.” There’s a very nice remembrance of Doug and his demo in The Atlantic today. I know there’s also a memorial happening right about now in San Jose, as his daughter Christina and many of Doug’s family, friends, and admirers are gathered to remember the demo and Doug, who passed away this year on July 5.

I talked to Doug for about an hour, back in 2006. I met him and shook his hand in 2008 on the night before the 40th anniversary of the mother of all demos. I am humbled to be working with Christina on a project for this summer and beyond. I am so very grateful to be linked in spirit and work with Doug’s vision. When there are dark or confusing days, I try to remember how lucky I am to have found that vision, and to have thanked that visionary, while he was still with us.

Here’s the first part of the mother of all demos:

And here’s a version my wonderful student Phillip Heinrich did for a final project in my second-ever “Introduction to New Media Studies” class, what eventually became “From Memex To YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet” (and will have another morphing this summer at VCU and worldwide–watch this space):

Phillip’s work is a conceptual mashup of Doug’s demo and Michael Wesch’s “The Machine Is Us/ing Us.” Even four years later, Phillip’s work still dazzles. Apparently Doug himself saw it at one point, which makes me very joyful.

I write these words from a hotel room in Atlanta, where I’m attending the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. I’ve heard some inspiring speakers and learned a great deal about more of the vast machinery of higher education. At the same time, I’ve seen many folks whose eyes are on fire with a passionate devotion to learning and teaching. I honor them, and salute their survival despite the vast machinery that exists, in part and sometimes ironically, to support them and their vocations.

The lament is for the ways in which the notion of “technology” that surrounds me here is untouched by the vision of either Grace Hopper or Doug Engelbart. When I hear a presenter say that a survey couldn’t include questions about “technology” as part of its core because “technology changes so rapidly,” I groan inwardly. In addition to the (typically) underthought use of the word “technology,” the speaker obviously has confused computing devices with computing. In the latter sense, “technology” has not changed substantially since the introduction of networked, interactive, personal computing, with the possible exception of mobile computing. But the confusion here keeps “technology” questions in a different survey “module,” and keeps educators from learning or even asking what they don’t know. (And eventually we all suffer.)

Similarly, when I hear another presenter say “we didn’t know technology would eliminate jobs the way it has,” then offer a list of “technology improvements” for the organization that include new computers and monitors, new office software, etc., I have to gnash my teeth (quietly, but still). How can we be in 2013 and still be so far removed from even the outer edges of the bright light shed by the visions of Hopper and Engelbart, among many others? How can we call ourselves educators and be content not only to remain in darkness, but to spread it through inaction and (I’m sorry, but it must be said) ignorance?

More than once at this conference I’ve heard presenters talk about “technology” in the same breath that they lament how old they are and how strange youth culture seems to them. Sometimes the lament is mingled with a little of that “kids, get off my lawn” curmudgeonliness. We all get to be a little prickly as we age, I guess, but methinks we do protest too much. Doug Engelbart and Grace Hopper didn’t surrender their visions as age overtook them. We do ourselves and our students no good service to remain in the shallows we have created for ourselves, the shallows we continue to excuse and extend. As Janet Murray writes, “When will we recognize the gift for what it is…?” Or as Doug Engelbart asked on that San Francisco stage forty-five years ago today:

If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?

Both Murray’s and Engelbart’s questions remain unanswered, and that itself is worth lamenting. The real grief comes, for me, because the questions are almost never asked, even among those who pride themselves on the arts of inquiry.

A sad case, but there is still hope. My students have taught me that.

Thomas Merton on Education


Thomas Merton’s hermitage.

Very salutary readings for a rainy Sunday morning at the SACS-COC conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the first time I’ve attended this annual meeting. Higher education is my vocation, so you wouldn’t think I’d have culture shock here–but I find I do. Perhaps that’s a first-timer’s gift. I must practice gratitude!

Here are some of Merton’s thoughts. These come from a man who had been educated in France, England (graduating from Cambridge), and the US (graduating with an MA from Columbia University). For a short time, he was a professor of English at St. Bonaventure. So he knows whereof he speaks.

“The danger of education, I have found, is that it so easily confuses means with ends. Worse than that, it quite easily forgets both and devotes itself merely to the mass production of uneducated graduates–people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade which they and their contemporaries have conspired to call ‘life’.”

“The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms.”

“Anyone who regards love as a deal made on the basis of ‘needs’ is in danger of falling into a purely quantitative ethic. If love is a deal, then who is to say that you should not make as many deals as possible?” [One can substitute "learning" for "love" and reach the same conclusion.]

“[A publisher asked me to write something on 'The Secret of Success,' and I refused.] If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. … If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.” [Particularly bracing words given the buzz here--and in my own title at work!--regarding "student success." Who would wish that our students would fail? Yet too narrow a view of success may be the most insidious route to failure of them all.]

And finally, in words that I would love to see above every classroom door and on the cover of every learning-related conference (my editorial material is clumsy but I want to present Merton generously):

“The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself [or herself] authentically and spontaneously in relation to his [or her] world–not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself [or herself].”

Source: Love and Living.
h/t @rovinglibrarian, @graceiseverywhere

Lost with only 2 sessions left

We’re together 12 weeks. This is week 11. I just completed (skimmed) this week’s reading,, written in 1971. Our final reading next week is from 1993. I believe next week’s reading will be the most recent reading we have for our 12 sessions. How is this a seminar on New Media, when the newest reading is from 20 years ago? On our first day, when our massive textbook was handed to each of us, I wondered why on earth we were getting a textbook for a seminar on “New” Media, but I figured I would wait and see…

So, what am I missing? A couple of the readings I’ve found insightful (Message is the Medium and this week’s reading come to mind), but other than nostalgia and, “gee, they were forward (or backward) thinkers back then,” what was I supposed to gain from reading about 40-60 year old technology and 40-60 year old technological thought?

BTW… I’ve found our discussions enlightening and enjoyable. I look forward to them every week. But mostly our discussions have not been on the readings. Maybe that’s the point? I just wonder what we could have been reading, that would have been more relevant. Or, again, am I missing the point?



Hacking the Machine

So, here are a few snaps of the resulting work. In the first image you see a student experimenting with the machine, allowing the clamped frame to loosen the styrene, and as the heat softens the material it sags and pulls away from the frame. As it cools it retains that shape. The following two images are sample pieces from the studio, after cutting and shaping.


IMG_3517 IMG_3544


Announcement re: Library Posts

Due to some weird feed issues, all my posts are going to a “mother blog” associated with the new media seminar I’m participating in this semester. So, the posts I have lined up here I’ve rescheduled to post after the seminar has completed. More on the research agenda (and other library related issues) then!

Learning as productive narcissism?

In a conversation the other day someone asked whether the fundamental way people learn has changed. The idea was that constant exposure to multi-tasking, new child rearing philosophies, and the rapid emergence of new technologies has created a perfect storm that has fundamentally changed the way that children grow up and learn.  My initial reaction was to think of a different question, which is whether we now value different skills, and our perceptions are therefore skewed towards our ability (or lack thereof) to cultivate those skills. Sherry Turkle, in ‘Video Games and Computer Holding Power’, showed that the boy who constituted her case study, Jarish, was so interested in video games that he was motivated to learn physics so that he could appropriately code the actions of a ball in a video game. This is, essentially, an interest in applied knowledge.

This interest isn’t a fundamentally different way of learning, but I think we often conflate the two in our present-day discussions of technology in education. What Jarish implied he wanted through his longing was a different way of contextualizing content for the purpose of developing particular skills. At a higher level, we could call this motivating students through biasing content to their interests. Nothing wrong with that at all, and it is a nice portrait of human psychology and the narcissism that Turkle also discusses in her piece. Her focus, of course, is more on the way in which we can become so besotted with computers that we lose ourselves, but thinking back on that conversation about human learning made a connection between the two for me – we’re motivated by seeing that perfect reflection of ourselves, so logically we’d be most motivated to learn that which best reflected ourselves. I don’t think I’d consider that new, but I think our ways of productively harnessing that narcissism have improved.  So, when we talk about problem-based learning, flipping the classroom, teaching with technology, MOOCs, or any other kind of “of the moment” educational trend, I’d argue that we’re not really talking about a fundamental restructuring of learning but of better catering to inherent human narcissism to improve a particular set of outcomes we presently value. Make the topic matter to the student, and the student is more likely to retain whatever it is we’re aiming for.

Will be interested to hear where this piece led others in our seminar.

Doug Engelbart, transcontextualist

@GardnerCampbell's TEDx Talk: Wisdom as a Learning Outcome

I’ve been mulling over this next post for far too long, and the results will be brief and rushed (such bad food, and such small portions!). You have been warned.

The three strands, or claims I’m engaging with (EDIT: I’ve tried to make things clearer and more parallel in the list below):

1. The computer is  “just a tool.” This part’s in partial response to the comments on my previous post.

2. Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” is “difficult to understand” or “poorly written.” This one’s a perpetual reply. :) It was most recently triggered by an especially perplexing Twitter exchange shared with me by Jon Becker.

3. Engelbart’s ideas regarding the augmentation of human intellect aim for an inhuman and inhumane parsing of thought and imagination, an “efficiency expert” reduction of the richness of human cognition. This one tries to think about some points raised in the VCU New Media Seminar this fall.

These are the strands. The weave will be loose. (Food, textiles, textures, text.)

1. There is no such thing as “just a tool.” McLuhan wisely notes that tools are not inert things to be used by human beings, but extensions of human capabilities that redefine both the tool and the user. A “tooler” results, or perhaps a “tuser” (pronounced “TOO-zer”). I believe those two words are neologisms but I’ll leave the googling as an exercise for the tuser. The way I used to explain this is my new media classes was to ask students to imagine a hammer lying on the ground and a person standing above the hammer. The person picks up the hammer. What results? The usual answers are something like “a person with a hammer in his or her hand.” I don’t hold much with the elicit-a-wrong-answer-then-spring-the-right-one-on-them school of “Socratic” instruction, but in this case it was irresistible and I tried to make a game of it so folks would feel excited, not tricked. “No!” I would cry. “The result is a HammerHand!” This answer was particularly easy to imagine inside Second Life, where metaphors become real within the irreality of a virtual landscape. In fact, I first came up with the game while leading a class in Second Life–but that’s for another time.

So no “just a tool,” since a HammerHand is something quite different from a hammer or a hand, or a hammer in a hand. It’s one of those small but powerful points that can make one see the designed built world, a world full of builders and designers (i.e., human beings), as something much less inert and “external” than it might otherwise appear. It can also make one feel slightly deranged, perhaps usefully so, when one proceeds through the quotidian details (so-called) of a life full of tasks and taskings.

To complicate matters further, the computer is an unusual tool, a meta-tool, a machine that simulates any other machine, a universal machine with properties unlike any other machine. Earlier in the seminar this semester a sentence popped out of my mouth as we talked about one of the essays–”As We May Think”? I can’t remember now: “This is your brain on brain.” What Papert and Turkle refer to as computers’ “holding power” is not just the addictive cat videos (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I imagine), but something weirdly mindlike and reflective about the computer-human symbiosis. One of my goals continues to be to raise that uncanny holding power into a fuller (and freer) (and more metaphorical) (and more practical in the sense of able-to-be-practiced) mode of awareness so that we can be more mindful of the environment’s potential for good and, yes, for ill. (Some days, it seems to me that the “for ill” part is almost as poorly understood as the “for good” part, pace Morozov.)

George Dyson writes, “The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe would never be the same” (Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe). This is a very bold statement. I’ve connected it with everything from the myth of Orpheus to synaesthetic environments like the one @rovinglibrarian shared with me in which one can listen to, and visualize, Wikipedia being edited. Thought vectors in concept space, indeed. The closest analogies I can find are with language itself, particularly the phonetic alphabet.

The larger point is now at the ready: in fullest practice and perhaps even for best results, particularly when it comes to deeper learning, it may well be that nothing is just anything. Bateson describes the moment in which “just a” thing becomes far more than “just a” thing as a “double take.” For Bateson, the double take bears a thrilling and uneasy relationship to the double bind, as well as to some kinds of derangement that are not at all beneficial. (This is the double-edged sword of human intellect, a sword that sometimes has ten edges or more–but I digress.) This double take (the kids call it, or used to call it, “wait what?”) indicates a moment of what Bateson calls “transcontextualism,” a paradoxical level-crossing moment (micro to macro, instance to meta, territory to map, or vice-versa) that initiates or indicates (hard to tell) deeper learning.

It seems that both those whose life is enriched by transcontextual gifts and those who are impoverished by transcontextual confusions are alike in one respect: for them there is always or often a “double take.” A falling leaf, the greeting of a friend, or a “primrose by the river’s brim” is not “just that and nothing more.” Exogenous experience may be framed in the contexts of dream, and internal thought may be projected into the contexts of the external world. And so on. For all this, we seek a partial explanation in learning and experience. (“Double Bind, 1969,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, U Chicago Press, 2000, p. 272). (EDIT: I had originally typed “eternal world,” but Bateson writes “external.” It’s an interesting typo, though, so I remember it here.)

It does seem to me, very often, that we do our best to purge our learning environments of opportunities for transcontextual gifts to emerge. This is understandable, given how bad and indeed “unproductive” (by certain lights) the transcontextual confusions can be. No one enjoys the feeling of falling, unless there are environments and guides that can make the falling feel like flying–more matter for another conversation, and a difficult art indeed, and one that like all art has no guarantees (pace Madame Tussaud).

2. So now the second strand, regarding Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” Much of this essay, it seems to me, is about identifying and fostering transcontextualism (transcontextualization?) as a networked activity in which both the individual and the networked community recognize the potential for “bootstrapping” themselves into greater learning through the kind of level-crossing Bateson imagines (Douglas Hofstadter explores these ideas too, particularly in I Am A Strange Loop and, it appears, in a book Tom Woodward is exploring and brought to my attention yesterday, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. That title alone makes the recursive point very neatly). So when Engelbart switches modes from engineering-style-specification to the story of bricks-on-pens to the dialogue with “Joe,” he seems to me not to be willful or even prohibitively difficult (though some of the ideas are undeniably complex). He seems to me to be experimenting with transcontextualism as an expressive device, an analytical strategy, and a kind of self-directed learning, a true essay: an attempt:

And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers–whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years.

A list worthy of Walt Whitman, and one that explicitly (and for me, thrillingly) crosses levels and enacts transcontextualism.

Here’s another list, one in which Engelbart tallies the range of “thought kernels” he wants to track in his formulative thinking (one might also say, his “research”):

The “unit records” here, unlike those in the Memex example, are generally scraps of typed or handwritten text on IBM-card-sized edge-notchable cards. These represent little “kernels” of data, thought, fact, consideration, concepts, ideas, worries, etc. That are relevant to a given problem area in my professional life.

Again, the listing enacts a principle: we map a problem space, a sphere of inquiry, along many dimensions–or we should. Those dimensions cross contexts–or they should. To think about this in terms of language for a moment, Engelbart’s idea seems to be that we should track our “kernels” across the indicative, the imperative, the subjunctive, the interrogative. To put it another way, we should be mindful of, and somehow make available for mindful building, many varieties of cognitive activity, including affect (which can be distinguished but not divided from cognition).

3. I don’t think this activity increases efficiency, if efficiency means “getting more done in less time.” (A “cognitive Taylorism,” as one seminarian put it.) More what is always the question. For me, Engelbart’s transcontextual gifts (and I’ll concede that there are likely transcontextual confusions in there too–it’s the price of trancontextualism, clearly) are such that the emphasis lands squarely on effectiveness, which in his essay means more work with positive potential (understanding there’s some disagreement but not total disagreement about what “positive” means).

It’s an attempt to tell more of the the whole truth about experience, and to build a better world out of those double takes. Together.

Is Engelbart’s essay a flawless attempt? Of course not. But for me, Bateson’s idea of transcontextualism helps to explain the character of the attempt, and to indicate how brave and necessary it is, especially within a world we can and must (and do, yet often willy nilly) build together.

Not perfect; just miraculous.

More on this anon!