sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘social revolution’ Category

thoughts on creative writing, MFA programs, and the social beat

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 4, 2010

I recently participated in a local event called Ignite Bloomington, where my co-presenter, Christian Briggs, and I performed a poem we called “the social beat.”

The design of the background images, the development of the poem, and the planning of the performance were all completed collaboratively; this was by far the most collaborative creative project I’ve ever been involved in. I say that as a graduate of an MFA program who spent three years doing almost nothing but creative work. I say that as someone who intentionally moved away from what I’m coming to see as the antiquated approach to writing that pervades creative writing programs around the country.

I write more now, and more creatively, and with more enthusiasm, than I ever did during my days as a ‘poet.’ In part, this is because the primary type of writing I do these days is far more public and persistent, and more closely linked to issues that matter deeply to me, than was the writing I did as a creative writing major. But the writing I do nowadays is also more aligned with my ethos: These days, I embrace openness, collaboration, and collective knowledge-building; and producing, circulating, and building upon others’ ideas online meets these interests nicely. In fact, this “writing publicly for a networked public” thing meets my needs like gangbusters.

Creative writing, at least in the MFA-program sense of the term, never did meet my needs or interests. It felt too far out of my control. We more or less buy the idea of the “muse”–call it flow if you want, call it the zone, call it whatever you want, but what it means is that we embrace this strange idea that the greatest works emerge when you can set your conscious mind a little bit to the side and let your unconscious break through to the surface. It had to happen in silence. It had to happen alone. And you couldn’t control it. You could only control the circumstances that make it more likely to happen.

Sure, fine. We need people to make those great brilliant works by betting on the muse. But that way of thinking about writing is just not for me–it never has been. I’m more into the “how do you get to Carnegie Hall” approach to writing, which is why blogging, and the attendant potential readership, appeals so much to me.

And when it comes to creative writing, I’m kinda into this “collaboration” thing. Coordinating the partnership is tricky and time-consuming, but if you find the right partner you end up standing on each other’s shoulders, finishing with something better than any one of you could have written on their own. One thing I know for sure is that the work that came out of my collaboration with Christian is better, stronger, more powerful than anything I could have come up with on my own. I’m proud of this work, maybe prouder than I was of any poem I wrote on my own, and I’m proud to include the poem and a video of our performance of it below.

the social beat
{implosion::explosion}
Jenna McWilliams & Christian Briggs

let’s walk it backwards:
when a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
looks out at you and smiles
you think something has begun
but that’s not a smile
it’s a grimace it’s a sneer
you’ve got that camera around your face and a 21st century leer

but it’s a circle, a cycle, a snake that eats its tail
explosion, says mcluhan, split the instrument from the wail
and now we’re walking that split backwards to where the hammer meets the nail
to where the language meets its speaker and the face removes its veil

is this a flat world?
a kind world?
a world framed as a game?
what’s the win state?
who’s losing?
should we send it all up in flames?
and with every change we fight for does it all just stay the same?

explosion:
in 1984 papert blew up the school or said computers would
{they didn’t
or if they did, they hid it}
it’s a long revolution
a slow evolution
characterized by dilution and diffusion
and confusion
sometimes, but joy too, and profusion, collusion and elocution
and hope, and motion, and implosion
of space and time and multiple uses
we lifted our tech and it calmly spoke through us.

implosion: the same plane with the same name moves us and rushes us and smooshes us together
that long walkway is us walking away from the everyday pulleys and gears of our years
we climb onto the tech we climb into the sky
we can collaborate now we can elaborate now we can fly

it’s gonna crash
the school becomes a skull
its planks and its floorboards and its chalkboards and its front doors flash past us like shrapnel
as we dash past with laptops
the floor’s falling in and we have them building backdrops and stage props in woodshop.

they’re gonna fall
explode in on themselves, the freight and the chaos
beams buckling, roof knuckling under the weight
as crowds spill like kindling into the street
meeting each other again flinting and squinting again in the sun {ignite}

it’s all going under
it’s all yellow light slanting sideways across shining faces
it’s thunder
it’s traces of ozone it’s acres of blight
as we push back the night as it grinds to a crawl as the old ladies watch and wonder
they’re gonna go under

but the story’s not finished
they’re gonna defend
they’ll never give in. they learned how to stand in an age of their father’s machine.
they’re clean.
so they defend. and they default. and they defer
to the icon and its policies and its politics and its poetry
we automate the manual. now our hands are clean on the path to hell

cue eye roll.
we know how to build, we can do it again. so we build.
and we machinate. and we slap down machines to palliate the children
we fill them as if they were containers.
it’s heinous.
it took two days for those green machines to fill up with guess what? porn.

we’ve had millennia now of dissemination, maybe it’s time to change the story
to disovulation: one perfect idea at a time, sent out into the world
then we’ll let you guys fight over who gets to claim it.
or blame it.
millennia now of the Churchills the Hitlers the Gateses the Jobses the Spitfires and Messerschmittses and Habermas and Hobbeses

like a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
is still inside the lines
where something has begun

it’s the circle, the cycle, the snake has caught its tail
the explosion’s moving backward though the timid first will fail

the tots will test it, resisting with a poke, a prod, a post
the slightest and the smallest seem the most benign of rabble
filling up the tubes with what will mostly seem a babble
to defenders of the past

now they’re teens
on the street
the lines are giving way
babble turned to business
as the structures start to sway
but still defenders are within this
scene, clutching for the days….
that will no longer be..

you see…

the teens have grown and jumped the lines
we’re not walled in and not walled out
nor confined by any doubt
instead we clamber for the time
when all that’s in will all be out
a coalescing of the minds
whose synaptastics speed the time

technology will take its place
a toy a tool connecting us
aiding a collective us
crushing in both time and space
freeing up the play in us

we are those girls
in our fields
faces turned toward every one
collectively reflecting on the
thing that has begun
or is it ending as it rends us?
the scream igniting as it mends us?
unbends us and upends us:
a lick of flame, a bonfire, night brought shrieking to the sun
a slow sermon whispered softly:
there is much that must be done.

Posted in blogging, creativity, participatory culture, poetry, social revolution, writing | 2 Comments »

notes from the {computational} revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 2, 2010

As part of an ongoing effort to design a model for integrating computational technologies into the formal classroom, I have turned my focus to computational literacy. My current model already has a space for considering computational literacy, so in this post I want to spend some time exploring my definition of computational literacy. This includes a discussion of the key features of computational literacy and how these features might be taught. The models I’ve created are included at the end of this post.

I started learning to play the flute at age 8. I kept it up for 10 years. At age 15, I took a typing class and surprised myself by how easily I mastered the QWERTY system. At my fastest (in my early 20’s, when I was a reporter), I could type more than 160 words per minute. I’m a fan of languages, studied French from high school all the way through a master’s-level class, picked up enough German during a 2-week visit to Austria to order my food, ask for directions, and hold a basic conversation with a native Austrian. I studied computer science for about a minute in college –I hated it, I was no good at it–but I’ve taken to html, CSS, and other simple programming languages that support my ongoing efforts at web-based social revolution. I don’t understand, though I wish I did, the inner workings of computer hardware. I don’t understand the difference between Newtonian and pre-Newtonian physics, though I know the pre-Newtonian stuff is naive and kinda wrong. I build web pages for fun, mainly relying on templates but recently branching off into my own web design. Fairly soon, in fact, I will be leaving Blogspot behind in order to build a brand new website to my exact specifications. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with an emphasis in poetry.

I don’t understand physics. I don’t like most programming languages. I play the flute and like to tinker with language. I’m a fast typist but a slow web designer. I am a computational thinker.

Computational literacy is like all true categories of literacy: a cluster of practices whose meaning emerges as the learner deploys those practices in increasingly knowledgeable, increasingly socially valuable ways.

And increasingly, computational literacy is both part of and separate from other clusters of literacy practices. Computational proficiencies are similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label “new media literacies,” and they’re similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label, for lack of a better phrase, “traditional literacies.” They’re often but not always, and not fully, aligned with the “hacker mentality”: an attitude that treats nearly everything as potentially bendable to the user’s will.

Like all other forms of literacy, computational literacy can be taught–though not if we treat it, as Jeanette Wing does in her 2008 treatise “Computational thinking and thinking about computing,” as a set of abstractions. Wing writes that “the nuts and bolts in computational thinking are defining abstractions, working with multiple layers of abstraction and understanding the relationships among the different layers. Abstractions are the ‘mental’ tools of computing.”

You don’t have to be much of a hacker to know that Wing misses something essential here. It may be that the language of a program is abstract, and that programming is dealing in abstractions, but only in the sense that letters, words, and sentences are abstractions leading to language. Even fairly young children develop an innate sense of grammar and know when a speech act violates the rules.

This is to say that the elements of language may very well be abstract communicative units, but native speakers develop a concrete mastery over their language nonetheless. (Though this mastery is often belied by our near absolute inability to articulate a single grammar rule.)

Teaching in support of computational literacy
My focus is on the English / Language Arts classroom, or what I’ve lately been calling the “literacy sciences” classroom. In describing the categories below, then, I’ve included a few ideas about how these aspects of computational literacy might be fostered in the secondary literacy sciences classroom.

I believe that computational literacy is comprised of the following sets of proficiencies:


Programming skill: This may include proficiency with one or more programming languages; or it may include creativity with language (the primary programming language of our culture); or it may include mathematical or scientific know-how.

What to teach: Basic web design can help to foster some foundational programming skills. Students might start a blog or, working within a closed social network like Ning, build personal profile pages complete with modified color templates and extra widgets. For many, the notion that what users see gets controlled by a kind of puppet master can be both surprising and empowering.

Technical expertise: Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel might refer to this category as “the technical stuff.” One feature of new media, for example, is its modularity–the ease with which we can copy, remix, and move media elements. Technical ability includes facility with the tools that allow for this kind of work, as well as ease with unfamiliar interfaces and comfort with just-in-time learning.

What to teach: I’ll never forget hearing games and education expert Katie Salen talk about the approach her Quest2Learn school takes toward computer literacy. She wondered why we have computer classes where kids learn how to use word processing, spreadsheet, and similar programs instead of folding that instruction into authentic learning experiences. “Why not teach kids how to use Word in the context of having to write something for their English class?” she asked. And she’s right. Of course, this means that English teachers will need to start developing more technical know-how–we’re long past the days when facility with Microsoft Word was a sufficient condition for effective writing, even in the English classroom. Let’s start having students use email programs, work with social networks, do some basic image and video editing with the programs that come standard on most newer computer systems.

Hand-eye coordination: Another feature of new technologies is that they often stretch across the virtual and the physical. I busted laptop screens and frayed charging cables until I learned to work with the physical affordances of computing technologies; I’m graced with excellent typing skills; these make any task that requires text generation between 20 and 40 percent easier than they would be for the typist of a more average speed.

What to teach: Typing is of course an important skill, though many kids build up their dexterity through text messaging. I’m going to argue for the practice of building things in the English classroom. There is, for example, the brilliant piece of rhetoric embodied in this recent OkGo music video:

You can’t tell me that the building of that enormous mousetrap didn’t foster not only increased hand-eye coordination but a deeper sense of space and rhetoric, as well. We may not have the tools for building a better mousetrap in the typical classroom, but the building of small sets for video productions, the designing of costumes and backdrops and other visuals, can help support increased motor confidence in learners.

Visual literacy: Lev Manovich explains the visual basis for all digital media, and even goes so far as to explain that even the very letters and numbers we see on our computer screens have been converted into binary code, then converted back into visual representations so that we can easily make sense of the information. This brings a new imperative to visual literacy. Previously, visual literacy was treated as the ability to think critically about advertising, television, and films; today, we add a near-limitless number of visual media formats in addition to our new roles as producers of visual media in addition to our role as consumers.


What to teach: Visual rhetoric is a growing field. Many teachers are already incorporating video projects, website design, and other forms of visual rhetoric into their classrooms, and we can look to them for advice on how to proceed in this area.

Tolerance for tinkering: Pastimes like crocheting, woodworking, and gardening took up time but didn’t necessarily take up all of our attention. When we weren’t counting or focusing on a particularly difficult maneuver, we could talk or watch TV or sing a song. Coding doesn’t allow for this split of attention. Neither does building a digital scrapbook or designing a webpage or building a virtual model. At best we can devote all of our attention for a time to the code, then shift our full attention away, then shift our full attention back again. Mimi Ito and her colleagues talk about “geeking out,” and part of geeking out is hours passed immersed in one activity or another, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. As a culture, we haven’t really had much tolerance for geeking out, though that’s starting to change. What we need now is to build up a tolerance for geeking out in our learners. There are those who argue that we lost something when young people stopped reading books–that those children lost the ability to immerse themselves in an entire world. It’s possible that what’s been lost in the decline of books can be compensated for through the emergence of computational thinking–of geeking out.

What to teach: Immersive, lengthy projects. We might consider trying to turn the classroom into a structured workshop space, much as fine arts programs balance studio time with critique. We’re already halfway there with peer review and collaborative activities; if we can just shift the focus away from critique and toward construction of powerful projects, we can easily build a tinkering-tolerant learning community.

I’m not saying it’s easy to support computational literacy in the formal classroom. What I am saying is that it’s necessary.






Posted in education, Joshua Danish, literacy, reading, social revolution, teaching, writing | 5 Comments »

devising a model for technology in education: my version of writer’s block

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 2, 2010



I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.*
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

If you (a) know me, (b) follow me on Twitter or a similar social network, or (c) read my blog, you know that being at a loss for something to say just doesn’t happen to me. (On the one hand, this makes me perfectly suited to social media, blogging, and academia; on the other hand, it means I’ll mouth off about the social revolution in nearly any social situation.)

But for weeks now, I’ve been trying to devise a model to represent the role of computational technologies in education. And for weeks, I’ve been failing miserably. Here’s the closest I’ve come:

As you can see, this model is incomplete. I was in the middle of drawing an arrow from that word “technology” to something else when I realized that this model would never, ever do. So I tried to approach modelling from other perspectives. I tried backing my way in, by thinking of technologies metaphorically; I’ve tried presenting technology integration in the form of a decision tree. Which is fine, except that these don’t really work as models.

And I have to come up with a model. I do. Though I don’t often mention this, I’m not actually only a blogger. In real life, I’m a graduate student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences Program. Because I believe in the value of public intellectual discourse, I’ve chosen to present as much of my coursework as possible on my blog or through other public, persistent and searchable communications platforms.

I will, at some future point, discuss the challenges and benefits of living up to this decision. For now, you guys, I just need to come up with a goddam model that I can live with.

I tried thinking of technologies as sleeping policemen; or, in other words, as objects that mediate our thoughts and actions and that have both intended and unintended consequences. This was a reaction to a set of readings including a chunk of Bonnie Nardi’s and Vicki O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecology: Using Technology with Heart; a Burbules & Callister piece from the same year, “The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education”; and Stahl & Hesse’s 2009 piece, “Practice perspectives in CSCL.” The theme of these writings was: We need to problematize dominant narratives about the role of technologies in education. Burbules & Callister categorize these narratives as follows:

  • computer as panacea (“New technologies will solve everything!”)
  • computer as [neutral] tool (“Technologies have no purpose built into them, and can be used for good or evil!”)
  • computer as [nonneutral] tool (the authors call this “(a) slightly more sophisticated variant” on the “computer as tool perspective”)
  • balanced approach to computer technologies (neither panacea nor tool, but resources with intended and unintended social consequences)

Nardi & O’Day, who basically agree with the categories identified above, argue for the more nuanced approach that they believe emerges when we think of technologies as ecologies, a term which they explain is

intended to evoke an image of biological ecologies with their complex dynamics and diverse species and opportunistic niches for growth. Our purpose in using the ecology metaphor is to foster thought and discussion, to stimulate conversations for action…. [T]he ecology metaphor provides a distinctive, powerful set of organizing properties around which to have conversations. The ecological metaphor suggests several key properties of many environments
in which technology is used.

Which is all fine and dandy, except the argument that precedes and follows the above quote is so tainted by mistrust and despair over the effects of new technologies that it’s hard to imagine that even Nardi and O’Day themselves can believe they’ve presented a balanced analysis. Reading their description of techno-ecologies is kind of like reading a book about prairie dog ecologies prefaced by a sentence like “Jesus Christ I hate those freaking prairie dogs.”

So the description of technologies as sleeping policemen was an effort to step back and describe, with as much detachment as possible for an admitted technorevolutionary like me, the role of technologies in mediating human activity.

But the metaphor doesn’t really have much by way of practical use. What am I going to do, take that model into the classroom and say, well, here’s why your kids aren’t using blogs–as you can see (::points to picture of speed bump::), kids are just driving around the speed bump instead of slowing down….?

This became clear as I jumped into a consideration of so-called “intelligent tutors,” which I described briefly in a previous post. Or, well, the speed bump metaphor might work, but only if we can come up with some agreed-upon end point and also set agreed-upon rules like speed limits and driving routes. But the problem is that even though we might think we all agree on the goals of education, there’s actually tons of discord, both spoken and unspoken. We can’t even all agree that what’s sitting in the middle of that road is actually a speedbump and not, for example, a stop sign. Or a launch ramp.

The Cognitive Tutors described by Kenneth Koedinger and Albert Corbett are a nice example of this. Researchers who embrace these types of learning tools see them as gateways to content mastery. But if you believe, as I do, that the content students are required to master is too often slanted in favor of members of dominant groups and against the typically underprivileged, underserved, and underheard members of our society, then Cognitive Tutors start to look less like gateways and more like gatekeepers. Even the tutoring tools that lead to demonstrable gains on standard assessments, well…ya gotta believe in the tests in order to believe in the gains, right?

So I’m back to this:

A “model,” explains Wikipedia,

is a simplified abstract view of the complex reality. A scientific model represents empirical objects, phenomena, and physical processes in a logical way. Attempts to formalize the principles of the empirical sciences, use an interpretation to model reality, in the same way logicians axiomatize the principles of logic. The aim of these attempts is to construct a formal system for which reality is the only interpretation. The world is an interpretation (or model) of these sciences, only insofar as these sciences are true….

Modelling refers to the process of generating a model as a conceptual representation of some phenomenon. Typically a model will refer only to some aspects of the phenomenon in question, and two models of the same phenomenon may be essentially different, that is in which the difference is more than just a simple renaming. This may be due to differing requirements of the model’s end users or to conceptual or aesthetic differences by the modellers and decisions made during the modelling process. Aesthetic considerations that may influence the structure of a model might be the modeller’s preference for a reduced ontology, preferences regarding probabilistic models vis-a-vis deterministic ones, discrete vs continuous time etc. For this reason users of a model need to understand the model’s original purpose and the assumptions of its validity.

I’m back at the original, simple, incomplete model because I’m not ready to stand in defense of any truth claims that a more complete model might make. Even this incomplete version, though, helps me to start articulating the characteristics of any model representing the role of computational technologies in education. I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

Ok, so what do you think?

*Note: I’m kinda rethinking this one. It reads a little too deterministic to me now, a mere hour or so after I wrote it.

Posted in academia, education, graduate school, lame, obnoxious, patent pending, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, teaching, technologies | Leave a Comment »

new technologies bore the crap out of me.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 24, 2010

Despite what you may have heard, I’m not really all that into new technologies.

Typically, I find out about new technologies long after they’re already old news. This is a constant source of shame for me. (‘Hey,’ I said in late 2009, ‘this cloud computing thing sounds interesting. What is it?‘) As much as I would like to join the ranks of early adopters, I simply lack the constitution. (‘Now, what’s this DROID thing I’ve been hearing so much about this year? Oh, it’s been around since 2007? Well, who makes the Droid? Oh, it’s a mobile operating system and not actually a phone? Can you tell me again what a mobile operating system is?’) My buddy Steve, who likes to find out about new technologies when they’re still in prototype form, regularly subjects me to conversations I don’t really understand about technologies that don’t make sense to me. (Here I would insert a sample conversation if any single representative discussion had made enough sense to me to stick in my memory.)

Technologies bore me. I don’t care about 3-D printers or 3-D TVs. I’m not interested in transparent computer screens. I don’t want to know how my analog watch was made, and I don’t care how light bulbs–even the new, energy-efficient ones–are manufactured.

Though I don’t care about how things are made, I am interested in finding out how things work. This is a subtle but important distinction. I want to learn how lean, mean websites are built, and I want to build some of my own, even though I have absolutely no idea how my computer is able to translate hypertext markup language (html) into artifacts that humans can interpret. I don’t know what a “3G network” is or how my new Droid phone uses it to give me constant access to its features, but I do want to know how to set up my phone so I can quickly access contact information for the people I communicate with the most. I would also like to know how to set up my calendar for weekly views instead of daily views.

It’s not the technology that interests me, but its uses. And as long as I’m thinking about uses for a technology, I might as well think about how to manipulate its features to support practices that meet my needs.

Clay Shirky, despite his recent unfortunate foray into gender politics, is actually pretty smart when he’s talking about things he’s qualified to discuss. In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, he wrote that “communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” And he’s absolutely correct: For socially interesting things to happen, widespread adoption of a technology is the first requirement, complemented by widespread use of the technology. The automobile has led to a reshaping of our roads, our communities, our attitudes toward travel–has, in short, become socially interesting–because its novelty has long since worn off as car ownership has inched toward universal. Cellphones have supported uprisings, protests, revolutions, because we’ve had them around long enough to know how to leverage them for purposes for which they were not originally intended.

In general, I’ve made uneasy peace with my apathy toward new technologies, with one caveat: It’s early adopters who get the earliest, if not the most, say in how technologies are taken up as they become more widespread. And early adopters tend to be young, white, male, college-educated, and affluent. Which is fantastic for them but not so great for people whose needs and interests don’t align with the needs and interests of the rich-young-educated-white-guy demographic.

Still, you just can’t do things your body wasn’t meant to. I don’t guess I’ll ever be able to force myself to care about 3G networks, but it’s easy enough to start thinking about the social implications of a tool that’s 3G-network enabled and pocketsized. Now we’re talking about the possibility of near-limitless access to information and communication: the building blocks for fostering and supporting civic engagement, community participation, and the chance to dance up alongside those early adopters, join them for a while, and modify the music to make a tune that’s easier to dance to.

Now we just need to figure out a way to get everyone dancing. We start by lowering the actual cost of admission (this is one way that early adopters help support the social revolution: They pay $499 so you don’t have to!), then we start pounding down the perceived cost of admission:

  • technological Woody Allen-ism, the fear of trying a new tool for fear of looking stupid and / or causing irreparable harm to oneself or others;  
  • technological Pangloss Syndrome, the perception that the uses built into the tool are the best possible uses for that tool; and 
  • technological Morpheus Syndrome, the sense that uses for a tool have already been predetermined anyway, so even if there might be better uses we might as well just stick with destiny.

And–hey!–I think I just gave myself fodder for my next three blog posts.

Posted in Clay Shirky, patent pending, social revolution, technologies | Leave a Comment »

technologies as sleeping policemen: or, how I learned to stop worrying and…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 18, 2010

Nicholas Burbules and Thomas Callister worry for us. Or, at least, they were worried, over 10 years ago when they offered up their take on new technologies in a paper called The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education. Among their concerns: that too many people adopt a “computer as panacea approach” to new technologies. This is uniquely problematic in education, they argue, where

(r)ather than acknowledge the inherent difficulty and imperfectability of the teaching-learning endeavor, rather than accept a sloppy pluralism that admits that different approaches work in different situations—and that no approach works perfectly all the time—educational theorists and policy makers seize upon one fashion after another and then try to find new arguments, or new mandates, that will promote widespread acceptance and conformity under the latest revolution.

As problematic as the “computer as panacea” approach is, it pales in comparison to the relativistic “computer as neutral tool” approach, the one that has people saying that any technology can be used for good or for evil. Burbules and Callister explain that:

this technocratic dream simply errs in the opposite direction from the first. Where the panacea perspective places too much faith in the technology itself, the tool perspective places too much faith in people’s abilities to exercise foresight and restraint in how new technologies are put to use; it ignores the possibilities of unintended consequences or the ways in which technologies bring with them inherent limits to how and for what purposes they can be used. A computer is not just an electronic typewriter; the World Wide Web is not just an on-line encyclopedia. Any tool changes the user, especially, in this instance, in the way in which tools shape the conception of the purposes to which they can be put. As the old joke goes, if you give a kid a hammer they’ll see everything as needing hammering.

They prefer a middle approach, which assumes that a simple cost-benefit analysis fails to account for the possibility that benefits and costs are highly dependent on perspective. They offer as proof the history of antibiotics, which through widespread use greatly decreased humanity’s likelihood of dying from bacterial infection but in the process led to the emergence of drug-resistant forms of bacteria. (“That is a very bad thing,” they write.)

Though it’s fairly simplistic to compare new information technologies to antibiotics, I’ll go with the analogy for now, mainly because I agree with the authors’ effort to problematize attitudes toward new technologies. It’s perhaps more accurate to consider the social effects of antibiotics: they have led to a general increase in life expectancy, but in the process have enabled imperialistic societies (cf. the United States) to effectively colonize cultures, communities, and countries worldwide. In the same way, new technologies offer unprecedented access to information, communities, and tools for mobilization, but they simultaneously support new forms of colonization, both across and regardless of national borders.

Which brings me to the metaphor of technologies as sleeping policemen.

The sleeping policeman: In America, we call it a “speedbump.” It looks like this:

The speedbump’s intended effect is to get drivers to slow the hell down, and it’s commonly used in neighborhoods and suburban areas with lots of kids. And it does get people to slow the hell down, primarily because they have no choice. There are also tons of unintended effects: Parents feel more comfortable letting their kids play outside. And, as this post points out, kids playing outside tend to get to know each other better. They–and, by extension, their parents–connect with other neighborhood residents, and everybody feels more connected: “Parents come to know the nearby children. And, inevitably, they come to know those childrens’ parents. They begin trading favors like driving children around. They become neighborly.”

There are potential negative effects, too. Using sleeping policemen to slow drivers down changes driving practices in unintended ways. When a driver hits the last speedbump, she hits the gas and jets on down the road. This might increase the risk of an accident just beyond the range of the speedbumps. Drivers may choose to avoid areas with speedbumps, thereby increasing traffic through other areas–even, potentially, nearby neighborhoods whose streets lack speedbumps. And when a driver is not forced to monitor her own driving practices, the decision to simply drive more slowly in neighborhoods is taken away from her, thereby increasing the possibility that she will not adopt slower driving as a general practice.

Still, I think we can all agree that the benefits outweigh the costs. Nobody sees the speedbump as a panacea, and I don’t imagine many people see the speedbump as a neutral technology.

So why do we worry so much more about the emergence and increasing ubiquity of new media technologies than we do about sleeping policemen or antibiotics?

One reason is that it’s easier to see new media technologies as actors that shape our practices than it is to see how speed bumps and antibiotics have shaped us.

Actors: Any person or tool that exerts force upon any other person or tool, thereby shaping its use or practice. In Actor-Network Theory, everything is a potential actor, everything a potential actant.

Speed bumps act upon cars, drivers, kids, parents, neighborhood dynamics. Antibiotics have acted upon people, policies, government spending, and attitudes. We live longer now. We therefore reshape our lives, our goals, and our relationships to others. It’s all very chaotic and complicated, because our reshaped attitudes in turn act upon our use of antibiotics. Everything mediates everything.

Because new media technologies have emerged and been adopted so quickly, their role in reshaping thought and action–and even, it’s becoming clear, physiology–is clear, even if the outline of how this reshaping is shaking out remains quite fuzzy. New technologies as sleeping policemen: They shape not only how we drive, but how we think about driving. We move them, we reshape them, we add more or take a few away, we develop cars with better suspension…and it goes on down the rabbit hole.

Posted in academia, education, learning sciences, new media, participatory culture, pedagogy, philosophy, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution | 3 Comments »

on Cory Doctorow on how to say stupid things about social media

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 5, 2010

Originally posted at http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

“There are plenty of things to worry about when it comes to social media,” says writer Cory Doctorow in his fantastic Guardian piece, “How to say stupid things about social media.” Social media environments, he continues,

are Skinner boxes designed to condition us to undervalue our privacy and to disclose personal information. They have opaque governance structures. They are walled gardens that violate the innovative spirit of the internet. But to deride them for being social, experimental and personal is to sound like a total fool.

Yet plenty of perfectly smart people who should know better say exactly the foolish kinds of things Doctorow rightly decries in his post. Mainly, lately, the stupid things have been leveled at Twitter: It’s trivial. It’s banal. It’s too voyeuristic, or it’s a weak imitation of real relationships, or–and this is the one that really gets me–I try to use it in smart, deliberate, consequential ways, even though lots of my followers don’t.

Partially, people who take stances like the above fail to see that the majority of the communication on sites like Twitter falls into the category of what Doctorow calls “social grooming.” He writes:

The meaning of the messages isn’t “u look h4wt dude” or “wat up wiv you dawg?” That’s merely the form. The meaning is: “I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well.”

Doctorow compares the “banality” of conversations on Twitter and Facebook to the conversations we have with coworkers. We ask a coworker if she had a good weekend, he writes, not because we care about how her weekend went but because we care about developing bonds with the people around us.

Yes, though that’s only part of the answer. In choosing to communicate via Twitter, I’m not only saying “I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well,” but I am also publicly announcing: “I am thinking of him, I care about her, I hope he is well.” These announcements are interspersed with my Twitter interactions with
people who are not close friends or even necessarily acquaintances–people I care about only in the most abstract sense. I follow just under 350 people, after all, and am followed by around the same number–a far higher number than I am equipped to develop deep relationships with. And lots of people follow and are followed by far greater numbers than I.

The creaming together of the personal and the professional, the public and the private, means that ‘trivial’ social interactions in online social networks, however much they seem to replicate those that pepper our physical interactions, actually represent a new social animal whose form we have yet to fully sketch. We’re all kind of blindly feeling our way around the elephant here. We who embrace social media technologies can scoff at the person who says an elephant is like a water spout after feeling only its trunk, or the person who has felt a little more and argues it’s like a moving pillar topped off by a shithole, but we would do well to remember that in this parable, everyone who tries to describe the elephant, no matter how much of it he has touched, can only describe it by comparing it to objects he has previously encountered. Twitter is similar to a lot of things, but in the end it’s its own elephant, identical to nothing else we’ve seen before.

This is why, as Doctorow points out, people rely on personal experience and therefore read Twitter and similar networks as trivial and banal instead of deeply socially meaningful. But it’s also why we need to take care to treat the social meaning as different from that which emerges through other types of (digital or physical) social interactions.

Posted in Facebook, participatory culture, social media, social revolution, Twitter | 2 Comments »

the pedagogy of the oppressed in action, via Dr. Who & the BBC

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 14, 2009

“you don’t just give up / you don’t just let things happen / you make a stand / you say no//”

Here’s what a pedagogy of the oppressed can do for us all, starring Rose Tyler as my new hero:

Posted in human rights, Paulo Freire, pedagogy, social revolution | Leave a Comment »