Impossible Goals, or a Requiem for Hope: a Response to Kidcrooked

As I finish my first year of Masters Studies in sociology at Queen’s University, I have discovered I have learned many things besides the academic material from my courses. I am a Teaching Assistant for the first year introduction to sociology course; I am responsible for 2 tutorial groups, totaling 34 new post-secondary students, guiding them, teaching them, and marking their work. What I see from many of them is idealism and perhaps a hope that things may one day change, whether it has to do with inequality of the LGBT etc. movement, access to internet, socioeconomic status, or marginalization of particular groups of people due to their work or ethnicity. In fact, I recently learned of the new posts (here and here) while I was showing the site to one of the more inquisitive students. I agree with the position that there is an outrage or at least strong positive interest in marginalization and inequities in society.

Given my participation on this project revolved around digital pedagogy, I will try to formulate a response to the recent posts by Kidcrooked that critiques some thoughts, while also stays in the topic of digital learning. As usual, my post will remain theoretical until maybe the day comes when I want to make it into something more than a simple response.

One of the statements that stood out to me was the idea that there is always a ramp present in the digital world, for the democratization of the internet. I humbly disagree. If anything, there are rapid movements to destroy this ramp, though I would suggest this ramp is a half-baked one, under construction. They are destroying something that hardly existed. The end of accessibility before it began. The internet was not conceived under the contexts of democratization of information, it was built towards that by like-minded users who wanted to share their life. Like everything else, life itself has been given a price-tag. Many people pay to set-up their exhibits of themselves, they pay to learn what is going around them as they huddle in their homes, they pay for constant and immediate connections to the world around them. To gain access to academic journals we must pay, to go to school we pay, to utilize digital teaching tools we pay. Freedom of expense is a fantasy, one generated by hidden fees covered by taxes, tuition prices, and student levies. Corporate interest has, and is continually, taking over construction of these ramps of accessibility. A school cannot afford valuable online resources? Too bad, you must make do with what you have. I am sure some schools could hire their own students from the computer science departments to make more effective teaching tools than we currently have. We are taught from the outset to struggle and overcome inequalities presented to ourselves, making inequalities seem like something natural, that to overcome inequality makes you stand above it. Once overcome, we are often presented with three choices: to forget it in our exhaustion, to tacitly consent to reproduce it in ways we do not consider, or to place yourself back in it to help others rise above it. A difficult choice, influenced by our cultural, economic, and symbolic capital. Nevertheless, before I stray too far from my point, the ramp of accessibility is not there, rather it is a pay-to-use elevator. Welcome to the floor you can afford.

A point of contention is the idea that we will write about the internet as an “age of an equalizer.” There are fundamental powers at work in the fight for internet equities that cannot even be seen. If anything, we will write about the internet as an age of extreme symbolic violence, a clash of capital, in a Bourdieusian sense. The fight for the internet is only just beginning, and more than likely will not end favourably for the average person or academic. Attacks on net-neutrality are made daily. Bourdieu shows us with his notion of the hierarchical field that there are so many agents working against change, that even to break away from the hierarchy and start a new one causes the old order to adapt. If the internet has equalized anything, it has equalized the ability of dominant social structures to adapt equally as fast, if not faster, than innovative material can be dispersed. With the democratization of the internet also comes the availability of incorrect ideas being available, whether they are anti-progressive views, or misinterpreted or willfully twisted concepts and theories. I recently showed a video from the Feminist Frequency series on Youtube to my tutorial groups, and a large majority of the students were less than impressed as they dug down to the deeper issues. Yet for many, this is seen as the face of modern feminism, simply because it is so easily accessible. As much as we hope the internet will be what we want it to be, it is little more than an idealization, something that cannot be achieved if full democratization is enabled. To disable a full democratization is playing on the borders of those fundamental inequalities we wish to destroy.

In terms of internet being an equalizer in the educative processes, in its present shape it most definitely is not. Access gaps due to lack of infrastructure can be crippling to new students competing with those who have access to these things. Schools that are underfunded lack the resources to help their students, who again have to compete with higher funded schools which have more technological resources. The more funding available, the greater access to knowledge, and this is in a broad sense, not just a social science angle. Where money lies, power lies, and the field is reproduced.

There cannot be equality where there is always a power that creates a fundamental imbalance, even when it cannot be precisely located or hidden in a plain sight obscurity. Often we are staring at this imbalance of power. Even as I type this I know my computer is better, faster, and thus more efficient than many others. Other students are faced with slower computers, which means more “wasted time” (in the sense that you must wait for things to load, to download, etc), and less time is dedicated to actual research, merely on a technicality.

Furthermore, for every principle of inequality that is being solved, another one appears, because the roots of our problems are like a weed: deep and hard to find. Even with progressive ideas such as open-access scholarly journals, we are still faced with inequalities in terms of knowledge accessibility. If we cannot understand the material in the journals, what use is it to us? It is not even a primary matter of being “high-brow” or “well-read,” it continually goes back to fundamental inequities of economic and cultural capital that are generated and handed down in society.

In accordance to the introduction of this post, Kidcrooked discusses the introduction of gadgets, and the Canadian cultural mosaic. Baudrillard identified in 1984 that a cultural mosaic is a myth, it is artificial. It is a delusion to hide the real culture, the “capitalist centralization of value.” These gadgets, though useful, as I described earlier are niche pieces of equipment set not to benefit the people, but to gain profit. We can look to the most innovative of designs, those that can do the most, and wonder why they are suppressed, or never make it out of proto-type stages. As I discussed before in this post (and thus will not repeat myself at length), unless the gadget will turn a profit, it will not be generally available to the market. In the case of 3D Printers, it will not be long before they are entirely regulated by both government and corporative powers.

In the end you may ask, reasonably, how is it that I feel the field or dominant social structures are constantly reproduced but we are making undeniable advances in society? To this I suggest that dominant social structures integrate changes on their own terms. Every change is done with the subtle consent of power, as it learns to control and integrate the new order into the old. Technological advancements in the classroom can only be achieved with the approval of the hierarchy. What can be accessed is a matter of economic capital (power). New cultural capital values are approved or disapproved. Schutz once suggested that the fundamental anxiety of society is the fact we know our finiteness. Bourdieu continues this line of thought suggesting that we are always in a search for recognition. Inequality will be, and always has been, generated on the premise that we are better than someone else, and will take available means to achieve it. To be recognized is to surpass others, and competition, especially in this society, breeds this. There are a multitude of factors that will allow, for example, one school to get ahead of another, to get more funding, donations, better teachers, and so on. Students will always try to be better than one or another, whether it is competition for admission to a prestigious institute, or stacking their résumé for a job. Until the corporative interests surrounding education, particularly technological education, is entirely dismantled with a suitable substitute, competition and therefore inequality will continue to persist.

Perhaps I have become too vitriolic. Although yes, it is our job as scholars to respond to both the historical institution and work to change inequalities, we are pitted against a monster of enormous proportions. It is no exaggeration to say we must stand up to the very fabric of social reality. A virus so vile it infests the most miniscule and obscure vein of the social body, and readily adapts to healing processes, creating a task that almost endless, and designed to destroy all hope through displays of power, greed, and distrust manifested in the forms of institutions we hold most dear.

Works influencing this piece

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects,and Simulacra and Simulation.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man.
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers Volume One: The Problem of Social Reality.

Steering Our Own Systems: Reminding Ourselves that We Wield the Tools in Our Epistemic Culture

SPECIAL GUEST POST BY NANCY SMITH, LEARNING SPECIALIST, INSTRUCTOR, AND ACADEMIC COACH

When it comes to your credit card, has the information on the computer screen ever been believed by others over what you thought was your balance? Have you ever felt a pang of uneasiness by news about the latest lone biohacker’s breakthrough? Has the interface of a program changed without preamble so that taking time to navigate was forced on you in that moment?

In our epistemic culture – where we foreground knowledge and champion the drive to access everything, all at once, now – these experiences are common. The way in which we interact with our tools solves some problems but creates and amplifies others. The computer and related technology magnify our ability to do work.

The problem of our epistemic culture has never actually been our tools or technology but what gets amplified along the way. This issue is  tripartite in structure:

  1. our awareness of ourselves within our world
  2. our recognition of our power and how we exercise it
  3. and our appreciation of our resilience

When examining complex human activity systems, the observer is central, as put forward through Heinz von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics. We can all use tools. For example, we can all Google that the etymology of cybernetics is “steersman.” But how do we keep our awareness that we google (lower-case intended) the etymology of a word? According to von Foerster, the steersman sees the system he is in and watches how he steers within this system, being responsible and accountable for steering.

I would add that we are easily distracted when watching ourselves and our steering within the systems, very similar to standing between two parallel mirrors and viewing the image reflected to infinity. Caught up in the reflections, we momentarily lose our awareness that we are steering and it is our activity alone that causes the oars to move at all.

Related to our awareness of the causal relationship of our steering is our recognition of our power and how we use it. A highly illustrative example is the individual who, while travelling along the highway, set cruise control on the motor home and went back into the kitchenette of the vehicle to make a sandwich. As you would expect, the RV ran off the road. The individual successfully sued the company; the judge ruled that nowhere in the owner’s manual did the company directly state that the driver needed to drive the vehicle. We can surmise that the driver believed that cruise control was synonymous with autopilot – which is yet another example of opportunities to lose our recognition of our power and, in so doing, abnegate it. Cruise control and autopilot are merely tools we use to magnify our ability to do work.  Our ability to do work, our agency, is our ascendancy to act.

Our awareness of our efficacy and our performance of our power, in turn, help us realise and value our resilience where resilience is arguably our most definitive characteristic. Resilience includes buoyancy, elasticity, adaptability, an overall expanded comfort level with adversity, and, ultimately, an enhanced scope with knowledge within our epistemic culture. We have a matrix of strengths which includes using our tools and our curiosity to see relationships and understand them and this matrix of strengths is the very impetus to actualise our resilience.

So yes our tools are changing us and with our added resilience, we want more, demand more, and expect better tools. But make no mistake that we are the agents, each adding our contribution to our systems. We are the ones steering every moment of our day.

Editor’s note: please see Allen Kempton’s post on tech rationality that are more reflective of Kittler’s view that we do not produce technology but technology produces us for a counterpoint to Nancy’s excellent argument.

The Digital Classroom: Catering to Idealism

One more theorist inspired post from me, once more applying ideas towards technological learning environments. This time I will examine the issue from a perspective inspired by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard was a French theorist, writing in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. He covered a broad range of ideas, but some of his core themes were that of simulations, consumerism, media, technology, and signs/symbolism. His bibliography is quite lengthy, and since I can only include so much, this article will use some ideas found in The System of Objects, Simulacra and Simulation, and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Again, I must note in advance, this post will seem very non-supportive of technology in the classroom, but I want to again note that this is not my position, rather that this should provoke thought about the origins of said technology, and the political/economical/ideological motives behind equipping classrooms with technology. By understanding these underlying themes, we can have a fuller understanding of the true meanings and ramifications of technology in the classroom. It may be a harsh reality to face and some may rail against such claims, but technology in the classroom does in fact have many downsides to it, most of which are the fault of said ideological influences.

As one of the arguments for supporting digitized classrooms, technology is slated to combat boredom, to cater to new ways of learning, and create new methods of teaching. However, I want to point out the most obvious fact: teaching with technology is still teaching. It is not replacing teaching or teachers, and thus will become subject to the same miseries, or even worse distractions, than traditional methods eventually. Digital interfaces in a classroom hold the attention of younger generations and students because they are a novelty. A techno-generation of students will view digitally enhanced classrooms much in the same way rebellious children today view the traditional methods. It is a circular process. The idea of learning and the attitudes towards that is what needs to be changed to allow the full effects of technological enhancements in the classroom to be felt. We are deluding ourselves into believing that technology will save the classroom, or that the fundamentals will somehow be different and more effective. Not that this is naivety, on the contrary, that is the very goal of technology, which allows it to flourish and invade our body. But we must be suspicious.

In the mad rush to equip schools with technology, the reduction of technology to merely a sign is evident. I do not mean to deprive digital interfaces of their ability to fundamentally change the classroom, but the symbolism of a digital classroom is stronger, and arguably more important. This movement is a modernization, to pull into the 21st century one of the oldest social environments. Digital interfaces serve as a sign of modernity, of a technologically savvy and triumphant society. Traditional methodologies are not seen as rational, nor 100 percent efficient; there is always a piece of technological equipment that can be created to achieve this, though always within limits imposed by dominant social structure. In short, technologically advanced classrooms serves to further legitimize our technocratic society. It is more the idea of an advanced classroom that is appealing to many than the practical application of it. The actual implementation is a nothing more or less than a worthy goal of society, though successful integration would be a “token” of power.

Referencing back again to my first post about surveillance and data collection, we come to a concept Baudrillard detailed in Simulacra and Simulation. He believed that we bring the sacred objects in life into a scientific order, in an effort to control them. He gave the example of museums effectively “killing” Egyptian mummified corpses; that we write our own ethnographies. The world has become a museum; everything is an exhibit. Though this work was written in 1981, it has been amplified to the infinite degree by the internet today. Social media is a prime example; we build our own exhibits for ourselves, and prostitute our images. Our data is collected, and advertisers have their own museums about us, the consumer, and cater back to us so we can continue to build on our own exhibit. In a similar way, this works in the classroom as well, if the technology is set up in such a way. The statistics of how well we perform in certain areas lead to an exhibit of our academic profile and abilities. We have seen how advertisers have invaded digital academic tools such as Blackboard; theoretically they could advertise to the student particular devices or programs that best suit their academic abilities or deficiencies. Additionally, schools or programs that require applications can see a deeper/rational/synthesized evaluation of a student, or even a host of students, through simple things like data collection and analysis. An exhibit of a student or classroom can be quite revealing. Nothing is private, and everything is oriented towards efficiency and economical benefits. Schools have a vested interest in having top performing students, advertisers make money from the data, and other companies make money from people purchasing the programs. Although this idea of an exhibit of the student may seem like a logical step, do exhibits and statistics always demonstrate the potential or true abilities of a student? As Baudrillard suggests, there is more and more information, but less and less meaning.

This idea of the exhibit of the student somewhat leads into the idea that people believe technology adapts to them. Any little learning deficiency, interest, etc, is seen as an individualization, personalization, a focus on them. This is wrong: everything is coded, predicted, anticipated, and such “adaptations” are designed to dupe you into believing technology is working for you. Any “adaptation” is an orientation to a paying consumer, or creation of adaptive ideas for profit in patents. Problem with math? Try this new teaching program! I see you like science; try this new data collection program! Perhaps if a new development is made requiring non-existent technologies, it could be an adaptation, though it is not an adaptation for the sake of the person, it is for the sake of filling another gap for profit. Point is, technology is not working, or doing the work, for you. If we have digital interfaces in the classroom as an example, they cannot “work” unless we utilize them. It is what WE do that matters. We manipulate it, and it does what it is told. Ultimately it is the programmers and corporations YOU are working for, the opposite of what we believe technology is doing. Every quirk has a niche and a price; there’s an app for that.Governments and companies both are pushing for this equipment, as it benefits both of them. Given the recent revelations of widespread data being monitored by government agencies, it can be debated whether or not this is actually in the student’s best interest.

Relating to this, technology opposes progress just as much as it promotes advancements. Advancing too far, too fast will kill it; it is only logical that it organizes itself against too fast of progress. It is in its best interest to go slow, and “adapt” to situations that come up instead of preventing or pre-empting them. This is economic play. Baudrillard discussed at length in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place how speculators make money of things that never really happen, that do not catch on, take off, what have you. The same effect is being applied here. Economic powers are speculating the worth of technologically enhanced classrooms, and speculating off the students. Why else would companies be interested in equipping schools with tablets, e-readers, computers, and so on? Advertising, media, promotion, money.

Baudrillard suggested objects and technology grow like an organism; it evolves, it has waste, it has obsolescence. Technology, of course, is the exact same. Every year we see it, the new Apple products and the mad rush to purchase these expensive devices that undergo minor changes that are often aesthetic only in nature, a planned obsolescence designed to suck money out of the masses. In the classroom, this is the greatest danger of technology. It is expensive, and cannot be replaced at the consistent rate of growth it is experiencing. There will always be a school that is out of date, and then the point of digitally enhanced classrooms is lost, as methods become obsolete as fast as the technology. Again, economics are at play. We must also deal with the waste; where does all this go? The amount of waste technology produces is astounding, and is only growing.

There is another problem, regarding specificity of technology. Again, I noted in my first post that many instructors are incapable of fixing problems with the rudimentary technology in the classrooms. Baudrillard noted the increasing specialization in “gizmos” and technology in general. This is part of the plan; there are jobs out there for people who can fix these problems, so the people who really need to know (instructors) are not taught. Here is an example, though it is not exactly about learning with digital interfaces, but it paints the general picture. In my final year of high school, all of the clocks broke and everything fell out of time. All the buzzers were 8 minutes behind, and not a single clock in the school was correct. It remained this way for quite some time because apparently there was only ONE PERSON in the entire municipality that was licensed and trained (aka entitled) to fix the clocks. Great. In terms of actual classes, why do students have to wait for IT help to get the lesson going? It would be more much efficient if the instructors knew how to work these things, and then both students and instructors would not lose out on 10-15 minutes of class every week.

It boils down to this: money. Baudrillard asserted that the cultural mosaic does not exist, rather there is only one “culture,” and this one is the capitalist centralization of value. Everything can be given a price, and now that education and instructors are increasingly under the economic scope, economics are extraordinarily important, especially given the enormous focus on economics today. This centralized tendency to reduce everything to monetary value is extraordinarily demeaning, and is certainly a backwards progression. Technological advances in the classrooms are suffering from this, and as noted in this post and my last one, it is solely due to money, presumably greed.

There is a great technocracy at play here. It is evident in all of the above issues. It is also evident in the prevailing attitude about technology: if you do not have it, are not up to date, or non-proficient with it, you are socially ridiculed. Although it is not the social “castration” Baudrillard suggested happened to those who lost their driver’s licence, the principle is still applicable. It is an expectation of people today, an expectation that everybody has cell phones, social media accounts, mp3 players, and so on. Technology is not to be halted; those who have not come under technology are backwards, morally and socially. This idea allows it flourish, and continuously creates pretexts for development, pointless or not. This is one reason why we consider the traditional classroom model out of date, and legitimizes the push for digital enhancements.

The final idea I will explore about technologically advanced classrooms is that of a social paralysis. Baudrillard suggested technology does not actually create communication; I believe this to be a result of given historical time-frames (1968), and I will say technology DOES in fact create communication, but a non-standard type or form of communication. It cannot be denied that objects such as Smart phones or other media platforms are killing true human interaction and relationships. It may seem contradictory: does social media not count as human interaction or relationships? Not in my mind. Social media deludes people into believing this, but subtly we must be aware that we do not really have 900+ friends. It is merely an exhibit; social media does not give us the opportunity to learn how engage our peers in the flesh, and digital interfaces in the classroom pose the same threat. I feel that speaking with colleagues and engaging in open dialogue in seminar settings allows the best ideas to be birthed and grow. Technology cannot, and should not, be allowed to isolate students from not only themselves, but from the instructor. If indeed technology does not create or foster standard communication, this is what it should (at least in part) facilitate.

To wrap things up and keep it short, it is suffice to say that we need to really take a step back and look at digitally enhanced classrooms as something more than an educative tool. It was quoted in The System of Objects that “there is something morally wrong about an object whose exact purpose is not entirely known.” Technology in the classrooms is this. Very few people know every line of code that goes into these programs, the underlying motives, etc, for this equipment. It is a consumption of technology, and Baudrillard left us with an excellent definition of consumption: “an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs.” Technology is the sign, and there is so much at stake for all parties that everybody wants their piece of the pie, economically, politically, and so on. By considering some of the more sinister aspects of technology, and figuring out how to mitigate them as best as possible while being as open as possible, we can make progress in this endeavour.

Technological Rationality and You

The development of a highly technological academic learning environment is at once both exciting and intriguing. This exploratory post will use ideas founded within Herbert Marcuse’s work, drawing ideas in particular from One-Dimensional Man. Although it was published in 1964 and written with particular economic and cultural frameworks in mind, many of the ideas presented are still relevant to today’s world, some of which are increasing in relevance, rather than declining, possibly indicating negative or backward trends in society as a whole. This post will also examine the use of technology in the classroom, as well as the relationship of technology and the typical assignments.

A main theme in One-Dimensional Man is an idea of one-dimensional thought. It is a self-imposed limitation on freethinking, where people follow prescribed patterns of thought, are indoctrinated into specific ways of thinking, and a strong trust in operationalized definitions. We follow the definitions too closely, and this prevents a “far reaching” change in thought. People are indoctrinated in a manner that consumes the entire individual, rather than just being a set of teachings for example. Technology and mass production have enabled this method of total indoctrination.

In a broader sense of the idea of one-dimensional thought, we can look at increased issues of accessibility of knowledge. Wikipedia, although vastly improved from its previous states, presents a point in fact of the dangers of open-access material; it shows us how a database can become something of a default knowledge base people go to, and can become regarded as some sort of dogma. Due to the ease of accessibility and ease of editing, I believe this is producing what Marcuse called a self-limitation in thought. Studies have linked changing brain patterns when it comes to deciding where to find data, with the more-open internet, particularly Google, becoming a default search base instead of asking others knowledgeable in the subject, doing some hard-copy research, or accessing databanks/search engines such as EBSCOhost. I believe this contributes to a self-limitation of thought; we are thinking less and less for ourselves, instead quickly turning to search engines to see what other people think, and rely on that rather than getting multiple opinions or data; our resourcefulness has decreased. The long-term impact of self-limitation of thought is quite negative, but in the learning environment there is a two-fold effect that has to be recognized.

First is a de-skilling of learning capabilities. Many students today are lacking in understanding how to use resources, and how to really pull information from academic work. Students tend to search first, and think later. There is also the old argument of the internet creating a text dialect, a horrid shorthand of English. Digital tools such as spell-check also allow students to be lazier, although this is debatable since many students still somehow manage hand in assignments riddled with errors. Second, is the erosion of academic freedom, meaning students are not truly learning, they are being dictated to, and being specifically formed to take their place in the system. Although this is a granted and obvious effect, it is often not recognized as such because, as Marcuse points out, the system does a wonderful job of hiding this purpose within it. The lack of resourcefulness and tendencies to take information at face value without giving it deeper thought or reading supporting documents creates a flawed “learning” environment. Although this is not as bad at the post-secondary level, anything with a “curriculum” or departments/instructors that are somewhat censored are doing a disservice to academic growth.

As I noted in my previous post, there have been major calls to integrate technology in the modern classrooms of the twenty-first-century. Classrooms have been slow to adopt computerized methods of teaching for a variety of reasons, including economic factors, methodology conflicts, and general access. However, there has recently been a push to equip the academic environment with technology; again, as I noted earlier, what is the point if the technology is not used properly, faulty, or simply not effective? Marcuse made note of the “self-validating hypotheses” being “repeated hypnotically” in society, and the push to integrate technology is exactly this. We constantly hear that digital interfaces will enhance the learning environment, and it is taken for granted that this is the case. However, the consequences are being overlooked in favour of accelerated mobilization. We have heard the adverse effects on health from wireless internet in some schools, yet they decide to press on with it. The extremely rapid obsolesce rate of technology does nothing to help either. What good is it to implement a series of technological marvels if they will be outdated in a relatively short span of time? This planned obsolesce is nothing more than greed, and leads to the current problem of recycling and waste that is being experienced by the digital world.

One of the larger themes in One-Dimensional Man is the idea of a “technological rationality.” Marcuse suggested that everything in society is being operationalized, rationalized, and brought into a scientific order. However, technological rationality works to protect dominate social structures at all times. It contributes to the creation of and sustains a monoculture, a “rational” culture, where everything is accounted for, specifically defined, and freethinking is limited and discouraged. This is where our needs are defined, and our drive towards those needs created, whether or not they are Marcuse’s “true or false” needs. Everything is confined within these figurative boundaries of the monoculture. One-dimensional thought is created by this structure as well.

A major issue with technological rationality is that it treats everything equally, that any idea or object is to be steamrolled and absorbed into the whole by totally disregarding any inequalities or differences. This is what is prevailing in the bid to equip schools with digital learning interfaces. It is often assumed that all kids these days are brought up with modern technology, or that it is “natural” to them. This is a sweeping generalization. There are often considerable gaps when it comes to access of technology, especially if we consider rural areas. This assumption also takes for granted that parents allow children to have extensive use of computers at home, or mobile technology, and more importantly assumes that the economic capital for constantly up-to-date technology is available. This is not always the case. For example, although many of my peers are quite proficient with technology and love to live connected to it, I was not brought up with it; I did not get internet until 2005 (dial-up on windows 98), and did not have a reasonably decent computer and internet until 2008, at which point I was finishing high school. Living in a suburban area with many working class families, I know many who were not brought up immersed in technology, dislike using it, and dislike seeing much of it used in classrooms. Many of my peers prefer auditory lecture styles, with slideshows being a reference point only.

How will the assignments change? We have seen how technology has created a cycle where people are bound more to work after their work hours are complete. It is possible for the same thing to happen with higher tech classrooms. For example, if the students are equipped with tablets or laptops, are they going to have to do more work outside of class than ever? Marcuse emphasized the new need for continuous, mentally stupefying labour, and wasting time on a laptop or tablet is the perfect fit. On the flip-side, what if people are not equipped with these things, but have no access to them? Way to go, technological rationality.

It is undeniable that there are issues with boredom in the classroom. Classic ways of teaching have been victimized, and it is argued that technology will make it “better.” On its face, this seems like it would be a good thing; a more interactive environment stimulates the student to pay more attention. However, there is an equally arguable point that if the student is simply not interested in the subject matter, the format of delivering the material will not matter. Statistics, taught by lecture, PowerPoint, Prezi, in a computer lab, or by workshop, is still statistics, and thus still likely bores the students. It is an issue of self-discipline; the burden cannot always be laid on the teacher or the methods of teaching. This smacks of the entitled generation, wherein the kids and students of today never seem to be at fault.

If the issue of learning is boredom, how does a technological environment solve the issue? Having access to multiple efficient resources is one thing, but what to do with them? People need to be taught how to use these things, and in turn the lesson once again becomes linear. To solve boredom, one must entertain, and Marcuse suggested “entertainment may be the most effective mode of learning,” given that we can distance ourselves from the entertainment. A digital classroom immerses us in the entertainment. This entertainment idea is dangerous, for it raises the chance of the lessons not being taken seriously, and also demeans the educative environment. Just look at how classes that bring in movies are looked at; easy, not taken seriously at all. Will digital classrooms be looked at in a similar way?

There are research projects currently being conducted that investigate the introduction of social media into the learning environment. How do we view this integration? To me this seems like a way of continuing the “happy consciousness,” that the student must be occupied at all times to make it seem like the system is working just fine. It is a problem maker that simply hides the problems. Is it really boredom, or is it an addiction, not necessarily an addiction to technology, but an addiction to being in contact with people? Perhaps we should be critiquing how traditional constructions of space and interaction have created an atmosphere of isolation, and looking at social media as a way of fulfilling the desire of interaction, since it transcends physical constructions of space. Such a desire is amplified by the fact that society isolates us from each other.

Here we look to Marcuse’s idea of a cultural diffusion. Education, historically, was a marker of class and wealth. It was only a gradual process that enabled the general population to be educated. Lower culture was readily absorbed into the process, and the higher culture aspects were brought down and blended with the lower cultural meanings to create a harmonious and smooth operation. Negative aspects of society are also absorbed into this harmonious whole. The key to the success of this idea is looking to the past, and convincing ourselves that it is better now than it was before.

As such, technology is only being integrated on the terms of dominant social structure. As we have seen here with Blackboard 9, corporate business has a strong interest in integrating technology with academia. Currently, learning with digital media can only be implemented and accomplished if someone stands to profit by it, and the results of learning with these digital tools produces a citizen that is within both societal and corporatist interests. We know corporations pay scientists or scholars to represent a certain angle of a given topic, and regular people to support it. What kind of impact can this have on a database? How can the academic community regulate itself to maintain academic freedom? The third party interests are what need addressing the most. It is essential to construct the most neutral as possible environment for students to learn, so they can think for themselves and choose their own path.

We are constantly looking for ways to do things differently from the past. I always come across self-congratulatory writing about how we have “come so far from our barbaric past,” particularly when I was doing research on mental health and asylums. Needless to say, usually a lot of the references of the barbaric past are changes that have happened within relatively small frameworks of time. It is a delusion of grandeur and egoism. Highly technical academic learning environments will be praised in much the same manner, but they will still suffer from lazy, distracted students, plagiarism, and boredom. They will still suffer from ineffective instructors and poor methodologies. Nevertheless, they will be considered much better than before, and a justification for these new methods will be always found and held onto.

Technological classrooms have the potential to entirely dominate the student. A continuous connection contributes to that absorption of the entire body I mentioned earlier. Marcuse wrote that technology shows us how unfree we actually are. We cannot disconnect from it, and it blinds us from understanding the true causes of our frustrations and oppression. Our data is collected, analyzed, and then we are sold.  The growth of technology is a constant reflection of not just advancements in capabilities in research and development, but also a growing understanding in how to cater to us better by providing a piece of technology for every purpose imaginable. We are not just connected to technology in the class, but we are connected to those who control the technology, the dominant social structure; we are surveilled, analyzed as a statistic, and understood. This is why cultural diffusion is necessary, to hide the domination of the upper strata by infusing our own meanings into technology. In the recesses of our minds, we understand how fully entrapped we are, and escape is extremely difficult, if not impossible. We find some way to justify this, and thus, in the end, we are “better off than before.” Technological classrooms are generated as a “false” need that people orient to as something rational, something worth desiring, even if it is not. This goes back to the whole idea of praising ourselves, and satisfying our “happy conscious,” and believe everything in the system is rational, working, and efficient.

As this has probably been an overwhelmingly cynical read, I must look for the positive. Through the cynicism of Marcuse’s work, he describes the “Great Refusal,” wherein he believed society could change for the better if people took an active part in resisting arbitrative change and thinking for themselves. The same thing applies to integrating digital media to the learning environment. Although it is a possibility, technology in the classroom is not necessarily a doomed idea. If it resists the operationalized, “rational,” standardized approach that is often undertaken by authority, there is a chance that digital interfaces can enhance the academic learning environment, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. Strong students and teachers can make use of extended classroom dialogue through digital media, update information as it comes out, and developing stronger ideas by encouraging stronger peer-to-peer engagement. Highly interactive interfaces that are controlled and fully understood by both the instructor and the student are something worth striving for. Technology is only what people make of it, especially in academia.

People can claim that using technology has enhanced learning. There can be no doubt that it has had great effects so far. Nevertheless, the gears of progress seem to have stopped, it is stagnate. Tradition and the economics of today are holding technology back. Progress is stalled by greed, by those who wish to profit off new modes of learning. In traditionalist terms, technology has been making learning easier, and Marcuse suggested that we strongly “militate” ourselves against any fundamental changes that make life easier, but take away traditional roles. To move forward there needs to be a break in the old, constrained modes of thinking.

There needs to be a critical evaluation of these plans to integrate technology in a classroom. To substitute one form of classroom boredom to another is entirely pointless; technological teaching can be equally or more ineffective than bad teaching in the current system. Although I believe it can be used effectively if used in very particular manners, it is not the fix that some people hope it is. The student of today is equally a major factor of failing classroom experience as inefficient teaching methods. There needs to be a shift in the way people think, and how change how education is viewed and valued rather than simply patching the problem.

Credit for inspiration and ideas, One-Dimensional Man

Panopticism in the Classroom

by Allen Kempton 

Technology for Technologies Sake?

Calls have been made to integrate technology into the classroom by both academics and students. As a result, many classrooms have been hastily equipped with sometimes faulty equipment that nobody can use, or even want to learn how to use, such as SMARTBoards. Almost every room in my school is equipped with this board, yet it is not utilized to its fullest extent or potential, if used at all. Most professors and students use it as a projector screen. This kind of defeats the purpose of such technology in the class room.

However, assuming technology can and will be fully integrated into the academic learning environment, there are some things that need to be critiqued and explored. For example, how can an instructor facilitate a class that is technologically dependent? How is it accomplished? How can productive discipline with technology be created? Arguably, technology provides more distractions than one can possibly imagine in a classroom. Countless times I have seen students playing games, watching videos, talking with friends, etc, during class hours. How can we negotiate a discipline amongst students without being too intrusive? This is difficult subject to address, but it is well worth probing.

The Panopticon

Foucault’s model of the disciplinary society is the concept I will use for this investigation into the intersections between tech and teaching. The Panopticon, the architecture theorized by Jeremy Bentham, serves as a basis for the disciplinary society. In essence, the Panopticon is a structure that allows for maximum supervision, technically all-seeing, with minimal effort. The original idea was a central guard tower in a prison, where the guards could see all the prisoners at any given time, but the prisoners could not see the guards. It was always unverifiable whether or not guards were actually watching, but the prisoners had to act as if someone was watching them at all time, creating discipline. Foucault expanded the idea to work at the level of general society, termed “panopticism.” The description of how this is accomplished is deep and intricate, but for the sake of this discussion we can summarize by suggesting that society is deeply surveilled in ways we would not think possible at this moment. Our actions are monitored, our data is collected, signs of surveillance are everywhere, and somewhere all this data is analyzed and acted upon. Here, panopticism’s effect of discipline is realized. A coercive power that pushes people into doing things, to act in certain ways, and orient to the very idea that we are constantly being scrutinized and judged. With this, we can head back to the integration of technology in the classroom. Let’s stick with the classroom for now, because the effect of panopticism on publicly available digital databases is too deep for this first exploratory post.

Technology in the academic environment is also monitored to some degree. A panoptic effect, insofar as it is unverifiable by many. Indeed, most students I know were shocked to learn that instructors have the ability to monitor students’ actions to some degree on Blackboard. Recently I learned school e-mails are monitored as well. Some tech classes use classroom management software that allows the administrator or instructor to view what is happening on any given screen in the classroom, provided the computers are hooked up to the same system. In programs like Khan’s Academy, stats are collected to see where focus is needed most. Beyond the educative technologies, we are observed by video surveillance cameras in classrooms as well. Most of the time this is done without the knowledge, much less consent, of the students, although it is not like we are given a choice. Increasing awareness of the pervasiveness of marketeering in programs is causing some degree of concern among instructors (as seen with the advertisements in BlackBoard 9 - read our scathing critique of Blackboard here), and causing some people to automatically assume they are being observed while operating technology.

Although we are aware of some degree of observation, this does not mean it is approved. Often we are forced into submission: get watched or don’t get the program! In a conspiracy theorist sort of way, the possibilities of abuse of panopticism in school systems is terrifying. In America, there was a report of a student being penalized for an incident on a school supplied computer while at home; if I recall correctly, it was “inappropriate use,” but the point is that the principal could view what the student was viewing at any given moment. Schools like UOIT (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) supply school computers; do we know all the programs within them? Not likely. If current surveillance technologies in classrooms right now are an indication of anything, it is not unreasonable to predict that a more fully integrated academic environment will be even more observed. The very issue of observation must be addressed.

This point of view seems overwhelmingly negative; for the most part, this is true. However, as Foucault points out, observation can be utilized to increase efficiency. Technology provides the number one distraction because people are convinced they can get away with it. An integrated system that allows peers to see what the other is doing could possibly be an optimal solution. With an integrated system, people should be able to see who is slacking on the work at hand. In an academic space, people who are consciously neglecting their task should feel compelled to get back to work if all eyes of the classroom are on them. If all the members of the classroom have the ability to observe, this protects against a centralized, unverified power. People tend to be very self-aware of their actions on a computer if they are being watched, and so the possibility for increased focus on the task at hand is much greater. By increasing focus, more productive discourse and analysis can be made on whatever the given assignment is. Collective creativity can also produce better works, and can facilitate some interesting interaction.

A major factor in the distraction of students I believe is an unwillingness to engage in discourse with each other. A panoptic sort of idea where everybody communicates with each other can help solve boredom. Social media allows us to get to know each other better, as it acts as a disciplined partition in a sense, that we display who we are. If we have a built-in forum for students to learn about each other in the classroom, there is greater opportunity for people to get to know each other, and thus make it easier to talk to each other. Society today is very good at isolating people, but it does not have to be this way. An integrated social media forum in the classroom keeps the data relatively private, if handled appropriately, and is far more effective than the little ice-breakers some professors do, as it lasts longer and enables broader communication. Discussion where people are comfortable with each other tends to produce the best results, as people are not so afraid to state contradictory views. Technology with its panoptic attributes can help achieve this.

Implementation is the key. Panopticism in the academic environment can be either a negative or positive tool, and must be recognized as such. It must not be used as a mechanism of power; it must be able to be used and understood by all participants. One must look at surveillance technologies in a classroom beyond something as simple deterrence, and understand the true effect of the power of mind over mind. Foucault suggested that the effect of panopticism as an educative device can be remarkably effective, as with work ethics. Let us not forget the use of visibility beyond simple definitions of discipline.

Blackboard 9 or Taylorism in the 21st Century

Fasten your seatbelts: I am critically analyzing aspects of Blackboard 9. I tried to think through the positives as I use Blackboard 9 as my digital classroom. I am not convinced that universities should implement platforms like this without student and faculty collaboration prior to implementation. Overall, Blackboard 9 is not as collaborative or as pedagogically friendly as it could be but there are useful and important features. So far, the one feature I like is the wiki option, but guess what? Only one person can be on it at a time, apparently, and it’s very glitchy. Often the Java does not function well in ANY browser and so the buttons do not work or say what they should say (e.g. “submit” reads as “????wiki????” or some such nonsense). But why does the “submit” button say “submit” anyways? Why doesn’t it say what it really does, which is “save” or “save changes.” -Blackboard, I am sorry to say, has mediocre design; the functionality is clunky and glitchy; and the pedagogical choices are fair to suspect.  But this isn’t a rant without proof – read on!

In  Norman Fairclough’s Language and Power he writes that institutions are ideologically constructed by social relationships that are realized through particular discourses. In other words, social hierarchies and structures are constructed by overarching concepts, such as capitalism, that prescribe ways of behaving and thinking. In turn, these overarching concepts are the structuring principles of institutions, including educational institutions. Through this kind of analysis, we can envision the university as a workplace that places certain ideological demands on its workers, including faculty. How do these demands translate into digital spaces and what effect do such demands have on pedagogical practice?

Admittedly, Fairclough’s work seems rather out of date, with the bulk of his research published on the cusp of the digital age. Despite this fact, Fairclough’s theories are enormously important to understanding the networks of power that underpin the digital tools and user interfaces (the point of contact between human and machine) we engage with on a daily basis. Fairclough’s formulation of critical discourse analysis (CDA) is all about tracing and tracking the social relations of power that determine our social positioning. Further, Fairclough’s main purpose in using CDA is to make people conscious of the way power operates in their everyday lives, because such consciousness “is the first step toward emancipation” (Language and Power 1).

By using the loaded word “emancipation,” I mean to say that in order to use this platform and its associated tools effectively, we need to be aware of how this system is presented to teachers and students. Not to mention that through such knowledge, teachers and students can make requests of the Blackboard developers and their own institutions to improve the user’s experience.

What follows is not an exhaustive analysis, but offers a way to read the user interfaces in academic spaces that are becoming more common and institutionalized.  I know that I tend to use an interface as quickly as possible to tell the program what I want it to do. But what if we slow this process down and think about the content and form of the narrative voice that tells us how to use the interface? What rhetorical acts does this voice use and what kind of actions are we being guided towards? What are we being steered away from? These are some of the questions I am going to tackle in this post on Blackboard 9, the latest iteration of the enormously popular Blackboard learning platform. If you are a post-secondary student or teacher, dimes for dollars you have used or know someone who has used Blackboard. The latest iteration is much more 2.0 friendly, encouraging social interaction and more extensive use of popular social media tools (for more on the 2.0 functions and possibilities of Blackboard 9, please see the interview with M.J. Pilgrim). The user is invited to spend much more time within the digital space of Blackboard – so what does this mean for post-secondary education?

• Is this push toward collaborative, interactive communication inclusive or are certain users marginalized?
• What beliefs and values are narrated via Blackboard 9?

We will find that Blackboard narrates a digital form of Taylorism. However, if the user is savvy enough, this strict, almost frightening model of clock-time efficiency can be by-passed for a more friendly experience for teacher and student.

Please don’t get me wrong – I like to be organized as much as the next person, but there are so many calendars, reminders, bells, whistles, pokes, and shoves toward academic efficiency in Blackboard 9 that the effect, I argue, is overwhelming and feeds into  concept of efficiency first brought into being in the early 20th century. In 1911, Frederick Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management in which he claimed that worker efficiency could be increased by measuring production, locating inefficiencies, and then allocating tools to improve the speed of production. Charlie Chaplin satirized what came to be known as Taylorism in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. In the scene depicted below, the main character is subjected to a feeding machine that will lessen the time that he takes to eat lunch.

I bet someone took this machine seriously.

This principle of using tools to increase efficiency over and above pedagogy is at the heart of Blackboard’s design. There are calendars, reminders, and alerts that inform both students and instructors that they have work to do – so get to it! What Blackboard offers is a means to make sure everyone is efficient over and above collaborative communication, pedagogical innovation and communal learning spaces. Welcome to Taylorism in the 21st century.

The Sandbox:

I am going to use the sandbox area of Blackboard as a case study for the whole platform since it is the space in which instructors can let their pedagogical creativity loose and design test courses. As an aside, I really doubt that many instructors outside of software development actually know what a sandbox is. When I attempted to see if this information is readily available for instructors to look up, I was met with no results in Blackboard help – oh dear. The sandbox is meant to be a space of play and experiment and this one does allow instructors to build test courses, but there are some serious issues with this area. Case in point, I was excited when I saw the link to the “course module” link (see below) where I thought I’d find some really exciting content, perhaps linked with library resources at Trent….

No such luck: imagine my dismay when I was taken to a list of modules that included content by NBC? Yes, the U.S. network provides content from their NBCLearning.com enterprise. I am flabbergasted. If you don’t believe me, check it out:

Even if this is K-12 content, it’s pretty shocking that this stuff is in a Canadian post-secondary institution. Click on the image for a surprise.

Believe me, I wanted to like Blackboard 9 and I looked forward to its release since the previous version was, for want of a better term, clunky. Unfortunately, there is little for post-secondary instructors to use in the Sandbox, unless they want to use McGraw-Hill content or material from NBC. If we consider that social interactions and structures are formed via the conventions associated with certain social institutions, then what does this sandbox offer instructors? There are no less than five different organizational tools on the homepage: Alerts, To Do, My Calendar, Needs Attention, and What’s New. Even though these tools can be removed,  because they are located on the homepage, they are given importance by default. Fairclough states that we are constructed via the order of discourses that tell us how to behave and react. When faced with an overwhelming number of Taylor-esque modes of time organization, I can only assume that time measurement and not pedagogy is the main ideological thrust of Blackboard 9. Should these tools be given primacy? Why can’t instructors be given a list of digital tools and options on the homepage?

For another approach to online course management, check out Moodle, where instructors are invited to create collaborative communities that share knowledge. While these kinds of functions are available in Blackboard 9, the impetus is, again, on time management and organization, which is not collaborative or community building.

The Rebirth of Storytelling

In Walter Benjamin’s, “The Storyteller,” Benjamin laments the gradual decline of the story as oral practice and narrative form in modern society.  He remarks, “[b]y now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling, almost everything that happens benefits information” (4).  By “information,” Benjamin is referring to the news that people receive and share through a variety of mediums.  Benjamin’s argument is that people rarely feel the need to tell stories, as modern society is more concerned with the dissemination of information, not an oral recitation of an old myth or epic, as the Ancient Greeks and other cultures used to practice and perform.  According to Benjamin, the only way a story retains its influence is by withholding key pieces of information.  Good stories, such as those given to us by ancient poets and writers, have a “geminative power” that seeds in the brains of readers, making them curious of what the true meaning of the stories is (5).  In order to do this, time is needed to allow the story to be told, the reader to be affected and interpretive, and the storyteller to perform his/her tale with effectiveness.  Benjamin laments the loss of time in the modern era and he notes how our concept of time affects how we view death (at least when he wrote this piece – ed.). He is not just being morbid, he is making a valid point that I will expand on.  Death now occupies the usual places separated from everyday life: hospitals, hospices, battlefields, the newspaper, the graveyard – and also morbid sites that post images of accidents and autopsies.  But in these digital depictions, the smell and immediacy of death is absent.  Death was an important factor in oral performance because the desire to pass on a story became similar to passing on a lineage – necessary before one dies.  However, in modern times death is viewed as an interruption to progress:

Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which people press through the wide-open doors of the death house.  In the course of the modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living.  There use to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died . . . Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs (6).

We seemingly cannot communicate death anymore.  No longer are we experiencing the desire to speak against the reality of death.  A spoken poem is in itself an art and this performance, even if the subject of the poem is death, denies death, since speech requires such life and force, especially if the poem is to be performed well.  In the absence of death from our lives the need to remember how to live becomes less important.  We are also living in an age where our existence is structured by the concept of time.  Modernity brought about clock time and along with the ever ticking clock came the invention of the modern work day.  As modernity moved forth there seemed less time for remembering myths and performance (4). As Benjamin notes, social conditions transform how and why we narrate life and its experiences.  The need for information in the modern age requires factual information, not myths about gods, the romance of the epic, or the honesty of a poem.  Industrialism led to late capitalism; hence, the story’s economic value is now a factor.  Therefore, the oral performer must have an economic worth to make capital.  The “gods of industry” hold strong sway over what we now read and watch.

Since Benjamin focuses so much on oral performance, he tends to put print stories aside.  He places the spoken word on a platform far above the novel.  The novel, he states, is a product of print culture, which parallels the advents of modernity, from the post-Medieval era to the post-modern era (2).  The novel was (and is?) the dialogic voice of an industrial age, an epic age, and an era of continuity; of non-stop action and change; of resignation to our industrious fates.  The decline of oral performance may be regarded as a natural occurrence, if one considers that time did not permit oral story telling to occur.  We are simply too busy (too “important?”) to tell stories and, hence, the art was lost for more efficient communication.  Storytelling as an oral form does not make money in the way a mass-market print text can: end of story.  As Benjamin elegantly laments, once again, even the short story – the closest successor of the oral story – has become abbreviated.

Benjamin’s essay becomes poetical when he explains the desire to renew the oral story.  He is nostalgic for orality and is troubled with the age that surrounded and the culture that expanded from the invention of the printing press and the commercial value that this invention bestowed.  It made the art of storytelling into a commodity that others, including booksellers, publishers, editors, and readers, all had equal shares in.  Whereas oral performance involved two parties, the speaker and the audience, reading, in particular reading a novel, is a silent, solitary activity.  Benjamin makes a pointed argument that storytelling requires community and builds community, as well.  It is an art that, similar to poetry, works to find certain ‘truths,’ or local values.  Hence, the storyteller becomes a sort of prophet, or, as Benjamin asserts, an “authority” over values and beliefs.  When I stop to think about it, there are so many authorities that give us information (with or without the moral of the story).  Our information age does not seek meaning, but more information.

But perhaps all is not lost. If we invoke Walter Ong’s work in orality and literacy, then we do not need to lament but consider that changes that are expected to occur when a new communicative technology comes along.  In fact, Ong states that print production requires a text be performed in many ways, not always directly to an audience.  Print culture may encourage indirect performances, such as through a taped or recorded performance, or from one reader to another.  This is where digital story-telling comes in: digital story-telling encourages oral performance and many are taking advantage of the internet to record readings and performances of texts.  Digital/social media may very well be the medium for a new era of oral performance.  Whether the performance of old epics, poems, lectures, or personal stories, digital story-telling is a new way to practice storytelling and share it with an interested audience.  What is important is that digital storytelling is encouraging the participation of individuals from every walk of life.  The individual becomes capable of sharing and, in fact, the bottom-line of profit margins do not guide performance.  On youtube, digital storytelling has taken off.  Performers get feedback and can edit or perform their stories in different ways accordingly.

The relationship between ancient oral performance and modern digital storytelling is quite simple: digital storytelling requires the speaker to perform a native story, or scripted performance, which is persuasive and confessional.  Both rely on the creative energies of the performer and the skill of creating a narrative.  Online video, video games, lectures online, etc, all are grouped within performance.  Specifically, digital storytelling usually requires a performance of a personal piece of writing by a performer, but sometimes this is not the case; rather, the performer performs stories ancient and new.  Both Benjamin and Ong reflect on the evolutionary process of telling stories this process is continuous and a necessary aspect of human social evolution.

Edited by Sara Humphreys – all quotations have been verified and linked to a pdf file found at Slought.org, a non-profit arts oriented think-tank based in Philadelphia.

Public Feeling and Iconic Images: Mass Cultural Exhibitionism?

Co-authored by Sara Humphreys

 

“Kent State Murder”

Type it into Google and a number of images, websites, and blogs will come up, along with the Neil Young song above.   The historical moment is repeated, consistently, through images and through the circulation of these images on the internet and through other mediums.  Digital culture has canonized this moment of grief and loss.  It has canonized the moment of turmoil and fear that shook America when the Kent State tragedy was publicized in newspapers and broadcast on the news days after former President Nixon announced that American troops would be invading Cambodia, as a side mission to help “success” in Vietnam.  When students protested Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, Nixon ordered the National Guard to restore order on Kent State campus and the result was that four student were shot and killed and many more were injured (Hariman and Lucaites in No Caption Needed:Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy).  The iconic image of a young woman wailing over the dead body of her friend, who lies flat on the sidewalk, has become one of the most circulated images of the 1960s and is symbolic of this historical period.

Iconic images are felt individually, but often have a social function as well.  I was wondering how images circulated through digital media affect users differently, since digital media users are exposed to a plethora of images on the internet.  Whether advertisements (which often plague the internet), video, film, memes, GIFs, etc, images are everywhere.  I am using Kent State as an example.  In education, especially in history and historical research, photos are primary evidence that can be used to better understand a particular time.  Historical moments like Kent State resound through historical, literary, and sociological research.  Kent State is the epitome of student subjugation and the image is still circulated widely in universities.  What is more, the image also serves as an excellent example of cultural exhibitionism – something that the digital generation is very practiced at.  Since it is so circulated, does it affect us anymore?  Rather, should it affect us anymore?  ?  Sometimes the line between the real and the digital gets blurred.

The technology we use surrounds us like a fishbowl, surrounding us with a false sense of agency and knowledge.  The internet is another world, one of which, according to Geoffrey Nunberg in his article “Farewell to the Information Age,” “promises to disrupt this process [between sender and receiver]“.  It is a mediation ground that sharply increases the proportion of writers to readers.  There is far more content being produced than actually read, since it has become so easy to produce content on blogs, youtube, and elsewhere (518).  Images like “Kent State” become memes and, through this hyper-reproductive process, I wonder if they lose their meaning.  I weave Nunberg’s article in here because he talks about how the internet affects how readers use information:

“On the Web, that is, you can never have the kind of experience that you can have with the informational genres of print, the experience of interpreting a text simply as a newspaper or encyclopedia article without attending to its author, it publisher, or the reliability of its recommender.  We read Web documents [including images] not as information but as intelligence, which requires an explicit warrant of one form or another” (519-520).

So, we read the Kent State murder differently on the net than we read it in another medium (such as in the book I am reading now).  Since information on the net comes from a dynamic set of sources (some good, some bad) readers have to pry through information to find good sources.  The internet makes information casual, including something as iconic as Kent State.  I use Nunberg’s article in this post because Nunberg’s article disagrees that the internet will overtake print as the key source of information.  Although he acknowledges that we are in the digital age, he states that the information age still holds a strong influence on how we gather, share, and learn information through a variety of mediums.  In fact, without the groundwork that this age, the digital age would simply not be.  It is clear that humans cannot exist without sharing information using all sorts of language.  Digital technology simply presents a new means of sharing, one that interweaves a multitude of languages and mediums.  Digital technology shows the evolution of language technologies.   Kent State becomes a narrative that is accessible through a variety of these technologies.  We can access it through video, music, scholarly articles, and journalistic accounts.  The single event becomes accessible through the medium of choice and the reader can see how social this event actually was.

This brings me to a key point in this post.  I noticed that in No Caption Needed, Hariman and Lucaites write about iconic photographs from the early-to-middle twentieth century.  What makes a photo “iconic” seems to be linked to this age, when photos were circulated only through certain networks.  The general public was at the whim of journalists and news corporations, who presented certain images that would attract readers to a story.  In the introduction of their book, Hariman and Lucaites provide an extensive definition of what they mean by “iconic.”  I include part of this definition below:

Iconic photographs provide an accessible and centrally positioned set of images for exploring how political action (and inaction) can be constituted and controlled though visual media . . . . These images were obviously highly specific objects of memory and admiration, yet also somehow abstract representations whose value was far more symbolic than referential, and more a public art form than objects for connoisseurship (5-6).

Photojournalism played a major role in chronicling the twentieth century, the age of information.  However, we are now in the digital age.  Information is no longer as sacred, or rare, as it used to be.  We no longer share only through specific ways (i.e. phone; photograph) or through specific cultural practices (i.e. story-telling; conversation).  We now share through all these ways in a very abstract fashion.  Information is everywhere and the internet has made society a network (or networks) of information.  We are on a constant, continuous search for it.

How does this effect what it means to be “iconic”?  Is anything “iconic” anymore?  9/11 puts the concept of “iconic” into question, since 9/11 was a recent moment in history that transformed the world in countless ways.  While reading No Caption Needed, I kept thinking of the “Falling Man” image (below).  I have always had a difficult time looking at the image.  In fact, the immediate emotional response is that of nausea and vertigo.  The image captures a moment of complete loss.  An inescapable fall into nothingness.  No Hollywood ending.  The jumper could not escape the fire in the tower and was forced to make a terrible decision.  The “Falling Man”  invokes terror and pathos in those who view it or perhaps macabre glee, but in any case, affect is generated and will do so because this photo is digitally rendered – available for all to view at will.  Perhaps authenticity comes into question when something is seen so many times that the viewer is desensitized to its effect.

Yet, the “Falling Man” seems to still have an effect.   The image also functions as a symbol of national loss; therefore, it functions for nationalistic purposes.  This, according to Hariman and Lucaites, is crucial in the definition of “iconic”: its function for political gain (18).

So, is it “iconic”?  Somewhat.  The digital age, especially the advances in digital technology that were to follow 9/11, has allowed for mass circulation of images and video.  The “Falling Man” has become an iconic image, perhaps the first and last one, of the digital age.  Yet, it also remains among the company of many digitally circulated images and video which have been diluted of their meaning.  They are viewed by so many that it eventually becomes difficult to tell where and when this photo was taken.   Perhaps the image represents the subversion of political meaning.  The photo/video of the “Falling Man” transcends beyond a political purpose nowadays.  It cannot function to support a particular party, nation, or ideology.  The image transcends its iconic potential, since it deals with complete loss.  It deals with death.  In this way it is similar to the Kent State image.  Both situations show tragedy.  In the Kent State photograph, this tragedy functioned to ignite opposition to the Nixon government, the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of Cambodia.  The “Falling Man” was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2001; however, in 2012, the image is reluctant to show the support of any violence.  It is a still frame of potential devastation.  What happened to the “Falling Man” is not known.  The “Falling Man” does not bestow a nationalistic identity, even though it brings together a nation in trauma.  Due to its mass circulation – a symptom alone of how fascinating, yet ubiquitous, the image is – the “Falling Man” is an image of an uncertain fate, which America faced at the time and still faces.  Perhaps an uncertain identity is the new identity of the digital age.

Twitter Me Impressed or Why We Are Not the “Dumbest Generation”

One of the most intriguing faculties in the realm of the Digital Humanities I’ve discovered is that this loose and baggy discipline seems to span an innumerable number of disciplines. Today in Toronto’s Public Reference Library, I sat in a cubby with a stack of no less than ten books, spanning New Media Studies, Literature, Philosophy, and even pithy dentist-office-sensational-titled nonfiction studies like The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Why you shouldn’t trust anyone under 30), by Mark Baurlain. But I’ll get to that piece of…”writing” later.

Coalescing between these multiple disciplines is the differentiation between the cultures of reading & critiquing (consuming) more situated in the 20th century, and the building & making (producing) of the 21st. It is not my attempt to set up a dichotomy, rather acknowledge a difference social participation congruent throughout many texts and theorists speaking to the Digital Age.

In his introduction to a digital humanities reader, Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold references three-minute plenary speech by Stephen Ramsay at the Modern Languages Association Conference in 2011, that would go on to spur controversy.

Ramsay stated that those who are truly involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) needed to construct and therefore had to know some sort of coding or programming language. I am not sure how in-depth he meant (how about rudimentary HTML, Steve?), but the point was that digital literacy in the humanities means more than knowing how to use MS Office. But Ramsay’s speech (what is it with people named “Ramsay” and controversy?) brings up an interesting questions for the directions DH research needs to take.

Gold goes on to provide an introduction with plenty of probing questions for DH scholarship. Has what was formerly New Media Studies become the Digital Humanities? Does the Digital Humanities need theory? Does the Digital Humanities have politics? Is it accessible to all members of the profession? Do social media platforms like Twitter trivialize the Digital Humanities professional discourse?

I’m going to pause and address this one, because I have seen it surface again and again, as a quipping newspaper headline quivering in its ad revenue boots from the threat that ‘print is over’, to thinly veiled patronizing head pat-ernalism from a clumsy radio commentator, to all varieties of dress up dress down entry points to discussion ‘this young generation’.

As a literature major, and someone not quite 30, it irked me to hear a CBC program discussing the nomination of the graphic novel Essex County in Canada Reads 2011, wherein a participant in the broadcast chuckling reflected on the genre of the graphic novel as something of the ‘Tweet of literature.’ Turning two emergent genres and platforms for narrative and theorizing against each other in such a belittling, unintelligible fashion, is an increasingly common grating of gears meddling with the media presented to our younger generations.

But where exactly is all this coming from? In a body of worked entitled “Technoromanticism‘, (a term coined by Stephen Barron) Richard Coyne explores the pragmatics of cyberspace by discussing the ways in which narratives derived from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods speak situationally; how “every attempt is being made to consign the Enlightenment to the realms of the other, to render it strange and unfamiliar” (180).

In Bauerlein’s sensationalizing study, he balks at a hypothetical ‘Susie’ and her proud parents, beaming with her ability to navigate a multiplicity of media concurrently, but failure to exact the knowledge of what the Soviet Union was. He examines with a quick brush and silver hair ‘the minds of youth’ as negatively influenced by the fleet of digital media that clutter our bedrooms, with the presence of books themselves merely being bookends. Our intellects (assuming we have any) and our physical spaces are a set up of distraction. He attempts to explain in his interview with reason.tv, his distrust of the younger generation as something of a failure on our part, to utilize ‘technology,’ to return to these ideas of mastery, connected in former assemblies of knowledge. However, in his explanation, he demonstrates in himself instead a lack of understanding of the technological objects he (at times improperly) names. At 1:05 seconds he begins to explain that these tools are not used to ‘progress’ ourselves, to go to museums, to learn, to engage. He explains Facebook as something of a Lyceum, where we’d all rather smoke pot and compare hairstyles. But what about our education in school – are we directed to the Smithsonian Institution website? Or has he actually been to Buzzfeed? There’s smart stuff on there, Mark, mixed in with news about “catz.” In other words, maybe this is a failure of the classroom and not so much the user?

Through my apparently feeble-minded Facebooking fingertips, I  turn your attention to the Twitter account of Kim Kierkegaardashian, and reflect on what we’ve already introduced here on the work of Don Tapscott.

There is a fear that is permeating, not strictly located in older generations, but among common publics discouraged by technology and digital media, and that is a fissure, or “trauma” as Coyne posits, from this shift in the comfort of understanding time through a past and future. A ‘networked self’, Papacharissi explains, is always all the time negotiating sites of production and construction of self, and the suggestion of Facebook as a ‘distraction’ is a myth.

Digression: Dr. Strangeblog – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Media

Have no fear, Dave is here

I have been a fan of the films of Stanley Kubrick since I was a teenager.  I loved how Kubrick seemed to be a mystic of sorts.  He relied on the susceptibility of the audience to be entertained while also being convinced that what they were seeing was reality.  Kubrick constructed a fourth wall using meta-film.  To a critical viewer, his films showed the process of film making and showed how films were central to our understanding of what it means to be human in modern times.  2001: A Space Odyssey has always been a personal favourite of mine because I love to question the film’s symbolism and how it pertained to the Kubrick’s world and how it pertains to mine.

I think Kubrick and I thought similarly.  Would humans become so reliant upon technology that they would forfeit trusting their own instincts?  The black obelisk: it is terrifying, yet powerful.  It symbolism transcends its physical usage and prompts early humans to act on instinct.  Are we controlled by these instincts?  Or does something else – our technology – control these instincts?

The film brings up many questions, some of which I would like to apply to my first digression on this blog (there will not be many of these, since it is quite, ahem, unprofessional (;D).  Yet, it sheds light on an issue that is important: my initial fear of writing about technology.  To be honest, when I started out on my posts, I needed to update myself with the tech knowledge that comes natural to many of my peers.  My innocence, or perhaps it was ignorance, did come in handy.  My lack of knowledge on the subject made me seek it as much as I could this past summer.  Libraries, academic journals, scientific studies, and, most importantly, communicating with my peers, provided me with some excellent background information.  The posts have gradually become more creative and innovative.  I enjoy writing them now since I feel like I can finally swim through this knowledge; my grasp is getting stronger.

What did I have before?  Technophobia.  Perhaps.  Only a technophobe would take Kubrick, yet another tech skeptic, so seriously, right?  A motif has cropped up.  A very interesting one at that: how much the medium truly is the message.  Technology is the word; it is the language.  When we use it we are learning how to use that language.  We can look foolish.  We can use it incorrectly.  However, we also can shape it.  The blog allows for sculpting.  It becomes an art when you do not feel like you are working but creating.  I love to write creatively, so, my best pieces usually seem to come out of thin air.  They are seamless and, since I write poetry, the only source of their origin I attribute to a muse, or an inspiration.  Ideas for the posts have started to come from these inspirations; these muses.  One has been my concern for marginalized groups, another for the digital divide that I have personally witnessed in class.  Yet another post was developing on these ideas and proposing solution.  There will be more posts on these themes, however, I believe that the post will now explore the very essence of the medium: innovation.

Fear of anything is provoked my lack of knowledge of its essence [Aside: did that sound like Yoda?  Or perhaps Lao Tzu? Well read, I am ;)].

[Another Aside: Hal wasn't actually evil.  It was merely Dave's understanding of evil and, thus, his displacement of his irrational, human fears on Hal.  Dave was fearful of the unknown, so he made an irrational judgement - completely human].

The innovation will come from recent interviews with some very interesting, wonderful academics and digital media experts.  The research that I have done so far is very human focused.  The technology these people are using becomes a means for them to express their ideas; to express their humanity.  To follow their lead, I would also like to delve into my ideas for this technology.  Digital media has made me ponder how and why technology can help people communicate in ways they have never done before.  I tend to look at horizons: I like the future day that is coming.  The horizon begins to light up a world that will be more communicative.  It will share more – maybe even care more.  Not in a mushy way, but in an imperative way.  With digital technology in education students are able to progress much faster and easier than in previous generations.  The actual structure of education is changing.  Curriculum is changing.

Structure is changing.  Through language.  The semiotics that structure our online world are affecting our real one in ways never expected.  With this knowledge students can go into a world and build upon the logistics of communication.  A more communicative world is, hopefully, a less violent one.  With more communication, there is less misunderstandings and a desire to connect on deeper levels.

7 billion in this world.  Near 2 billion live in poverty.  Another several billion do not have fair access to technology and the internet.  It seems like we have a problem, Dave.

Really, we have a resource.  Infinite resources.  One medium: digital technology.  Before becoming afraid of this technology – and I am sure there are many of my peers who still will be – we need to see its benefits as they apply to our greatest needs and desires.

Ciao for now, Sara