President's Convocation Speech of 2010 - Emily Carr University

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Guests, Grads, Colleagues, Dear Family and Friends - All —

Before I begin my formal remarks, I want to express my thanks to Dr. George Pedersen for his extraordinary work on behalf of Emily Carr. Dr. Pedersen is finishing his term as Chair of the Board of Governors. He has been steadfast, insightful and generous not only to me and to the Board but to everyone at Emily Carr. We love you George, thank-you.

I also want to thank our Chancellor for his very generous donation to Emily Carr that will support awards to graduating students in perpetuity. I also want to thank Jake Kerr for all his help in securing a new campus for Emily Carr. I look forward to working with Jake over the next few years as we realize the dream of building a 21st Century Art and Design University. Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank Monique Fouquet, our VP Academic for leading the complex transition and planning process that is transforming us into a fully-fledged university of Art and Design.

Graduations are always auspicious occasions, special moments in time for you, -- students of Emily Carr University, and for us, faculty, staff and administrators — special because this event marks the both the beginning and the end of an important period in your lives and in ours. Emily Carr as an institution is small enough that we know many of you personally and have witnessed and in some cases participated in your struggle to become artists, designers, media creators — and because that struggle is so important to the future — yours and the society we live in, my comments today will deal with the future and your potential contribution to the betterment of society.

Universities fuel social, cultural and economic growth and change. Universities are at the heart of what we mean by freedom and democracy. It is within the university context that we can freely share not only ideas, but also develop solutions to some of the challenges that we all face. To be a creative person in this context is both a privilege and a burden.

We cannot exercise our creative talents in a vacuum but must connect what we do to where we live, connect our visions to the communities we share, link our imaginations to suggesting solutions to the vexing problems of the day, explore and innovate with the hope that we will also communicate values that have an impact, values that we can believe in and support.

Over the last four years, many of you have witnessed some dramatic changes in our society. We have all lived through a major economic downturn and seen an extraordinary election in the United States. We have watched the emergence of China and India as important powers and lived through more and more examples of climate change. These are but a few of the many events during this compressed period in time. Throughout this period you have had to learn how to balance your personal lives with being a student, and to find a sense of equilibrium as our social context has become more and more complex. Whether you have desired it or not the history of this period has affected your art and it is one of our shared responsibilities as artists to understand these effects.

As creative people, we balance mastery of materials whether they are real or virtual with the creation of artifacts. When you become an artist or a designer or a media creator you commit yourself to this balance, to the shape and form of meaning, to the translation of meaning into form and shape and this commitment is sometimes difficult and other times seems to flow intuitively. The ability to balance all these elements teaches us something about balance in general, about the need to find and maintain some poise as the complex swirl of everyday life circles around us. There is an exquisite beauty to this balancing act — exquisite because we are privileged enough to be in a context where we can dream and where it is possible, even a requirement to translate those dreams into reality. Emily Carr University permits and encourages the imaginative leap from idea to reality! What an extraordinary thing! A place that actually opens up the possibilities of self, transformation and personal growth — a place that historically over 85 years has helped build the creative culture of BC and Canada —a place of freedom that has nurtured and supported some of Canada’s most important creative people.

This heritage is what we all have a responsibility to maintain, support and celebrate. This is the present and the future.

I want you to imagine yourselves inside a room with the sounds of twittering everywhere, the chatter and exchange of ideas, disagreements, agreements, information and misinformation, think of that room as a large public square where we have assembled to talk, create and talk some more. Think of that room as a studio where the smells and tastes are integral to releasing the energy of creativity. Think of yourselves during that silent moment in front of an empty canvas or a blank screen and that chance, that rare chance to create, to imagine and to produce. At each stage of your learning experience you have had to overcome that emptiness, the sense that there is meaning even if it is not immediately apparent. And each time that you have productively found a solution, you have validated your education, and reinforced the importance of what we do collectively and individually. This creative heritage is your responsibility to maintain, support and celebrate.

We live in a city that by virtue of location and history extends Canada eastwards to the vast nations of Asia. We live in a city that is small by comparison to the large cities of Europe and America. Yet, we have produced some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century and hopefully will continue to produce even greater artists in the 21st Century. Perhaps it is the fact that we are the mediators between Europe and Asia. Perhaps we have always been not so much a gateway to the East as a cultural point of transition between east and west. And perhaps that hybridity has given us a unique advantage — the advantage of understanding how cultures come together and how diversity is at the very core of our identities, at the very core of most creative acts.

So, graduates!!! You now bear the burden of carrying on some great traditions. You now have the chance to become what you imagine, you can translate your hopes into action, but you will also need to relate what you do, what you imagine to who you are and WHERE you are. You will need to connect to the community and understand where you can contribute. Now more than ever there is urgency to how we interpret the present and how we see the future. And, as you engage with these challenges remember Emily Carr. We are and always will be your extended family.

Good Luck and all the best for the future. [This speech is also available in PDF.](/~rburnett/Weblog/Grad_2010_Speech.pdf)

Learning, Informal - Formal

An editorial in the April 8th edition of Nature raises some important issues about student learning experiences in the sciences. [The] "evidence strongly suggests that most of what the general public knows about science is picked up outside school, through things such as television programmes, websites, magazine articles, visits to zoos and museums — and even through hobbies such as gardening and birdwatching. This process of 'informal science education' is patchy, ad hoc and at the mercy of individual whim, all of which makes it much more difficult to measure than formal instruction. But it is also pervasive, cumulative and often much more effective at getting people excited about science — and an individual's realization that he or she can work things out unaided promotes a profoundly motivating sense of empowerment." (Nature 464, 813-814)

The same argument can be made for many other disciplines. The relationship between informal and formal learning is characterized by extreme fuzziness. As I have discussed in recent articles (particularly, The Radical Impossibility of Teaching) classrooms and formal lectures may well be the last place in which empowered and empowering learning takes place. The formal schedules of schools, departments divided into sometimes highly contested disciplines, and the credit system all discourage the value and importance of informal learning.

In fact, learning informally is at the heart of how people discover new things and new ways of understanding the world. For example, a visit to a museum combines the experiences of viewing with the challenges of interpretation. It would be difficult to summarize or quantify the relationships that viewers developed with Mark Rothko's work at a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. Something was happening, although it was difficult to know what. Many visitors sat and stared at the paintings for quite a while. Were they wasting time? Or were they exploring the canvases, their brilliant colours and careful shading?

"An Ad Hoc Committee of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching
(NARST) stated in 2003 that there are three “important characteristics of learning… First, learning is a personal process, second, it is contextualized, and third, it takes time…Learning occurs when people reconstruct meaning and understanding; a different way of thinking, perhaps, or a different way of responding to an idea or event. Learning that occurs today depends on yesterday’s learning and is the foundation for tomorrow’s learning. The cumulative, iterative process of learning emphasizes the importance of time.”. Our own research in this area reinforces the importance of iteration." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

Learning takes time and follows many pathways. A good teacher can create a map with destinations, but the routes have to be developed by the students. Those routes may meander for a while because the iterative process is not the same for everyone. Knowledge and information can be shared along the way. Wisdoms can be imparted through discussion and interaction, but these travels will always be characterized by the richness of the unexpected sometimes colliding with the expectations of teachers and other times producing engaged and engaging dialogue.

The tyranny of schedules in schools is that they artificially 'locate' learning at a time and place that may not be convenient for everyone. The schedule cannot account for iterative processes because it generates a linear type of learning that goes against its very essence.

"To summarise: learning rarely, if ever, occurs and develops from a single experience. It is cumulative, emerging through diverse experiences. It is a dynamic, never-ending, and holistic phenomenon of constructing personal meaning. Much of what people come to know about the world, including the world of science content and process, derives from real world experiences within a diversity of appropriate physical and social contexts, motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education

by Henry Jenkins, Professor at USC.

An important and timely discussion that explores the growing interdependence of learners with digital media and the need to examine how these media are working, what their influence is and how to teach in this new environment.

Jenkins interviews, Pillar Lacasa, a Spanish researcher. His first question is: "Children and young people like to spend their free time in front of the screen. Could you give us some good reasons to that could persuade educators to introduce new media and screens in schools." Read more……

Reflections on Disciplines and Their Role in Universities

This short piece is adapted from a lecture I gave some years ago about the way disciplines, in particular film studies, develop into departments within universities. How do disciplines stay alive and remain current and connected to the social and historical context of which they are a part? How do they grow and how and why do they often stagnate?

Disciplines or areas of study and research are in large measure created and sustained by the institutions within which they are taught. To my mind when I say that, I am presuming that a discipline cannot be taught without also being researched, even if that research consists of no more than just keeping up with the production of others in the field.

Film Studies for example, has always been a hybrid of many different disciplines. This, as we shall see, has had both negative and positive results sometimes leading to an expansion of the discipline, other times leading to a severe contraction. Film is both an object of study and a creative discipline although there is a tendency to separate production from theory.

The construction of a discipline is dependent upon a set of processes which are located in the structure, politics and history of institutions. This may seem obvious, but over time the processes which have produced that history are often lost from view. The struggle through which that history has been forged recedes into the background. There have been many efforts over the last 35 years or so to build the study of film into a coherent and recognizable as well as acceptable discipline. Yet, because institutions drive towards discursive sameness (and this need not be a negative characteristic) as a means of giving disciplines credibility for teaching and research purposes, the often complex and bumpy road which has been followed doesn't appear to be a part of the discipline itself.

In concrete terms it would be unusual for a university film department to offer students a history of its own construction because that might entail rethinking the very purpose of the department itself. Furthermore, questions as to how one discourse, say in film theory, has become more privileged than another, go right to the heart of how a consensus has been built in the first place. Even, for example, the presumption that film history needs to be taught in film departments, suggests a particular theoretical schema, one that needs to be foregrounded and not simply assumed.

The internal cohesion of a discipline is driven by the demands of institutions, demands which are more often than not situated in the very language of the institutions themselves. How do the conditions of knowledge production affect the goals of disciplinary development?

The daily practice of film scholarship is provided with meaning by the community of researchers and teachers who together participate in constituting, creating and maintaining it. That community, however heterogeneous, will inevitably search for, and then fix upon a certain set of primary ideas which it feels 'represent' the discipline (a canon). The creation of a specific and sometimes very powerful discourse to re-enforce the strength of that approach is perhaps unavoidable. What needs to be discussed are the assumptions which have produced that discourse and the politics which have governed the choices that have shaped the discipline.

Sometimes, the environment of universities for example tends to militate against that happening. And so students are faced, as they are in many other disciplines, with an area called film studies which of necessity presents itself as already constituted. Again, this is perhaps unavoidable, but what interests me is what is lost in the process and how institutionalization has created pedagogical and research models to support certain discourses over others.

Cinema Studies has, in a short period of time, achieved what seemed very remote in the early 1970's. There are at present many teachers of cinema and an extraordinary proliferation of film departments at both the university and college level, particularly in North America. The discipline has been fragmented into a variety of specialties with each having an internal cohesion undreamed of during the early period of disciplinary 'construction'.

The heterogeneity of approaches which characterizes the study of film, has a great deal to do with what critical theorists like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized in the 1930's. Film was then seen as the cutting edge of twentieth century culture, the practical manifestation of all that was wrong and right about the effects of new technologies upon art and audiences. If we were to reconstruct the arguments of that period we would find that the examination of film was heavily affected by debates in psychoanalysis and linguistics, as well as in literary criticism and the arts. Those debates were not seen as an infringement on the already defined territory of film studies, rather, it was if new technologies like film needed those debates and drifted inevitably towards the ideas which those debates initiated and developed.

Ironically, if film represented that sphere, that cross-section of interests which reflected its position as a new technology, it also pointed the way to a re-evaluation of the critical and theoretical enterprise in the arts. Its particular organization of meaning, its effective collapse of signifier and signified, its astonishing naturalization of the difference between the real and representation, all of these characteristics meant that the study of film could not proceed along conventional lines.

It is interesting to note that in each successive phase in the development of film studies, "other" disciplines have been used, as if the difficulty of finding a strategy to analyse film, meant that some kind of master code had to be found elsewhere. But as it turns out, this elsewhere suggests a division between disciplines and other areas which film studies has never been able to sustain. Film as poem, film as novel, film as text, images as sentences, as words, as frames. Film as painting, as music. Film and television, film in opposition to television and so on. I won't even begin to raise all of the comparisons with photography, the presumed interdependence, photographic metaphors, the fact that film as movement, images in movement, have always been seen in the light of images as still, photographic stills.

What we call film studies has never been able to bare its soul, to reveal, beneath of all of the comparisons, precisely that uniqueness which might distinguish it from the interlopers who camouflage it. I would suggest that film studies has been quite fortunate, because that essence just doesn't exist, and both the history of the 'discipline' and the manner in which films produce meaning, points towards the interdisciplinary as the context in which definitions of the field can best be worked out. Problems remain of course because every discipline has its own history, its own set of debates, often, its own language. But this doesn't in any way devalue the process of borrowing, albeit that more care needs to be taken with the use of other disciplines, including a more profound recognition of their boundaries and assumptions.

 

The Poet's Challenge to Learning

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore's work on education and learning (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.) is of great significance and is not as well known as it should be in the West. In keeping with the richness and diversity of Tagore's vision, I would like to comment on a superb paper (The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul) by Shilpa Jain and others that explores not only Tagore's philosophy but his impact on the essential spirit, if not the soul of what it means to learn and be taught.

I would like to recount an experience, which I had some years ago during a visit to an experimental school in California, and how it affected my own expectations about teaching and learning. I was invited to a Rudolf Steiner School to examine their approach as well as to learn more about how they hoped to change the experience of learners in a positive and constructive fashion. I have many doubts about the underlying religious foundations for Steiner education, but I saw something that really affected me that is closely linked to the spirit of Tagore's perspective on education.

My hosts took me to a small elementary school that had been built at the edge of an agricultural area. Once inside the school, I noticed that the ceilings were quite low and that the furniture was considerably smaller than I had anticipated. One classroom had a very small door built into a larger one and as I looked into the classroom, I noticed that the desks were also smaller than usual. I asked the Director of the school why this was so and she explained that they had decided to tailor the architecture to the size of the children in order to make them more comfortable with the scale of the space. This struck me as an extraordinary idea. Children see the world around them from a very different perspective. Adults can seem like giants even when they are gentle. Scale, perspective and space are crucial components of a child's world, but are often disregarded. In fact, the general architecture of schools is poor and rarely takes students and their experience as a central premise for the design process. These factors are not minor ones for learners. Why would the school system be so unaware of their importance? There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is a lack of synchronicity between the higher purpose of learning and the everyday needs of learners.

This goes to the heart of one of Tagore's concerns, which is the relationship between creativity and freedom. Schools are presently designed to teach students and are not centred on the principles of learning. The lack of a holistic viewpoint of the sort suggested by Tagore is missing. Keep in mind, that my own view of learning is that it is very ephemeral and that for the most part, schools have outlived their usefulness in their present form and need to be completely rethought. This point of view is summarized in the following quote from Jain's piece:

"…the very act of creation is freedom, for it allows human beings to discover their full potential. They have the opportunity to live what is theirs, to make the world of their own selection, and to move it through their own movement." (Page 11 of The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul)

In order for creativity to be released and for students to discover their real purpose in learning, they have to have the power to criticize and reflect upon the experiences that they are having. This is much more difficult than it appears. It is part of a double bind. If the students themselves have not learned enough to make their criticism rigourous and well-thought out, then their commentary will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if the environment does not facilitate the growth and the development of enough intellectual acuity, the quality of their discourse will be poor. This is not dissimilar to Tagore's commentary on the alienating experience that students have as they struggle with the banality of school and the lack of respect for nature and spirituality in the school system.

From my own perspective as the President of a University of Art and Design, I am most interested in the history of Santiniketan, the ashram that Tagore founded which turned into a school and now is a university. My own experience has taught me that institutions are very far away from understanding their own cultures with enough depth to engage in real change. This may seem like a dramatic statement, but the reality is that even the best of leaders tire out very quickly as they encounter increasingly complex levels of resistance to sometimes urgently needed shifts. The question is, what is it about an educational institution that breeds so much resistance? The answer is not a simple one because there are also numerous institutions in which radical thinking is taking place.

There is something fundamental about schooling that Tagore understood. In order to keep a school going the experience has to be systematized, that is, days have to be ordered and classes scheduled and marks given. Yet, it is precisely structures of this kind, which inhibit the development of open spaces and places for learning. What is unclear about Tagore’s perspective is how to ‘free’ up institutions — how to create enough of a sense of community to sustain open-ended inquiry and freshness of thinking. Tagore looked to nature as an example and in this he is quite close to the thinking of Thoreau and Rousseau. It is unclear how long that openness can be maintained without introducing some expectations both on the part of learners and teachers. In other words, there is a profound romanticism at the core of Tagore’s thinking and practice. It is a romanticism that I support, but for which there is no social, political or cultural consensus.

Even Tagore’s use of art and music mirrors many other experiments from Steiner through to Montessori. Jain’s paper explores all the facets of Tagore’s wonderful effort to build a new way of thinking about the world and about learning, but it fails to address the fundamental issues of institutional culture and institutional change. Given the large number of people are seeking to learn and the incredible investment of time and money into institutions ostensibly devoted to learning, strategies of institutional transformation seem to me to hold the key to future change in education as a whole.

The Future of Design (1)

The Design Council in Great Britain has helped develop and grow the Design Industry in the UK to the point where it is now having a significant impact on overall GDP. (11.6 billion pounds per year) At the same time, their advocacy for design learning has resulted in a revolution in Design education, particularly at the post-secondary level. "Recent research by the Design Council provides evidence of a link between design expenditure and economic performance. It reveals that for every £100 a design alert business spends on design, turnover is increased by £225, and that rapidly growing businesses are six times more likely than static ones to see design as integral, and twice as likely to have increased their investment in design."

Design has become important in large measure because of a change in the ways in which manufactured goods circulate among consumers. Personalization has become central to distinguishing one product from another. Consumers want to have an influence on what they buy and this can only be achieved through the integration of design knowledge into the manufacturing process. Design in the broader sense is also about a fuller and more complete understanding of sustainability and the application of intelligence and vision to human lifestyles in the context of technological change.

Another feature of this is the role of information in learning and human exchange. We all know the difference between a well-designed web site and one that seems to have no aesthetic qualities. What is not as apparent is the role of design in strategic planning for the corporate as well as public sectors.

In a global economy that is dominated by various forms of communications and linked through networked technologies, Design will be an essential component of the future. Students are recognizing this change. There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of design graduates in the UK and a 71 percent increase in the number of postgraduates.

More on this in my next post…

The context for learning, education and the arts (5)

(Please refer to the previous four entries for this article. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

My point here is that although computers are designed by humans, programmed by humans and then used by humans, this tells us only part of the story. The various dimensions of the experience are not reducible to one of the above instances nor to the sum total of what they suggest about computer-human interaction. Instead, most of what makes up the interaction is not predictable, is full of potential errors of translation and action and is not governed by simple rules of behaviour.

Smith puts it well: “…what was required was a sense of identity that would support dynamic, on-the-fly problem-specific or task-specific differentiation — including differentiation according to distinctions that had not even been imagined at a prior, safe, detached, “design time. (Smith: 41)

“Computational structures cannot be designed in anticipation of everything that will be done with them. This crucial point can be used to explain if not illustrate the rather supple nature of machine-human relations. As well, it can be used to explain the extraordinary number of variables which simultaneously make it possible to design a program and not know what will be done with it.

Another example of this richness at work comes from the gaming community (which is different from the video game community). There are tens of thousands of people playing a variety of games over the internet. Briefly, the games are designed with very specific parameters in mind. But what gamers are discovering is that people are grouping themselves together in clans to play the games in order to win. These clans are finding new ways of controlling the games and rewriting the rules to their own specifications thereby alienating many of the players. In one instance, in response to one such sequence of events, a counter-group got together and tried to create some semblance of governance to control the direction in which the game was headed. After some months the governing council that had been formed grew more and fascistic and set inordinately strict rules for everyone. The designer of the game quit in despair.

This example illustrates the gap, the necessary gap between the “representational data structure (Smith: 43) that initially set up the parameters of the game and the variables that were introduced by the participants. But it also points out the limitations of the design process, limitations that cannot be overcome by increasingly complex levels of design. This is in other words a problem of representation. How can code be written at a level that will be able to anticipate use? The answer is, that for the most part, with great difficulty. It is our cultural investment in the power of the computer that both enhances and changes the coding and the use. We have thus not become extensions of the machine but have acted in concert with it, much as we might with another human being. This is hybridity and it suggests that technology and the practical use to which we put technology always exceeds the intentional structures that we build into it.

It is within and through this excess that we learn. It is because of this excess that we are able to negotiate a relationship with the technologies that make up our environment. And it is the wonder, the freshness, the unpredicability of the negotiation process that leads us to unanticipated results, such as, for example, Deep Blue actually beating Kasparov!

The context for learning, education and the arts (4)

(This entry is in five parts) One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

So why explore the intersections of human thought and computer programming? My tentative answer would be that we have not understood the breadth and depth of the relationships that we develop with machines. Human culture is defined by its on-going struggle with tools and implements, continuously finding ways of improving both the functionality of technology and its potential integration into everyday life. Computer programming may well be one of the most sophisticated artificial languages which our culture has ever constructed, but this does not mean that we have lost control of the process.

The problem is that we don’t recognize the symbiosis, the synergistic entanglement of subjectivity and machine, or if we do, it is through the lens of otherness as if our culture is neither the progenitor nor really in control of its own inventions. These questions have been explored in great detail by Bruno Latour and I would reference his articles in “Common Knowledge as well as his most recent book entitled, Aramis or The Love of Technology. There are further and even more complex entanglements here related to our views of science and invention, creativity and nature. Suffice to say, that there could be no greater simplification than the one which claims that we have become the machine or that machines are extensions of our bodies and our identities. The struggle to understand identity involves all aspects of experience and it is precisely the complexity of that struggle, its very unpredictability, which keeps our culture producing ever more complex technologies and which keeps the questions about technology so much in the forefront of everyday life.

It is useful to know that the within the field of artificial intelligence (AI) there are divisions between researchers who are trying to build large databases of “common sense in an effort to create programming that will anticipate human action, behaviour and responses to a variety of complex situations and researchers who are known as computational phenomenologists . “Pivotal to the computational phenomenologists position has been their understanding of common sense as a negotiated process as opposed to a huge database of facts, rules or schemata."(Warren Sack)

So even within the field of AI itself there is little agreement as to how the mind works, or how body and mind are parts of a more complex, holistic process which may not have a finite systemic character. The desire however to create the technology for artificial intelligence is rooted in generalized views of human intelligence, generalizations which don’t pivot on culturally specific questions of ethnicity, class or gender. The assumption that the creation of technology is not constrained by the boundaries of cultural difference is a major problem since it proposes a neutral register for the user as well. I must stress that these problems are endemic to discussions of the history of technology. Part of the reason for this is that machines are viewed not so much as mediators, but as tools — not as integral parts of human experience, but as artifacts whose status as objects enframes their potential use.

Computers, though, play a role in their use. They are not simply instruments because so much has in fact been done to them in order to provide them with the power to act their role. What we more likely have here are hybrids, a term coined by Bruno Latour to describe the complexity of interaction and use that is generated by machine-human relationships.

Another way of understanding this debate is to dig even more deeply into our assumptions about computer programming. I will briefly deal with this area before moving on to an explanation of why these arguments are crucial for educators as well as artists and for the creators and users of technology.

Generally, we think of computer programs as codes with rules that produce certain results and practices. Thus, the word processing program I am presently using has been built to ensure that I can use it to create sentences and paragraphs, to in other words write. The program has a wide array of functions that can recognize errors of spelling and grammar, create lists and draw objects. But, we do have to ask ourselves whether the program was designed to have an impact on my writing style. Programmers would claim that they have simply coded in as many of the characteristics of grammar as they could without overwhelming the functioning of the program itself. They would also claim that the program does not set limits to the infinite number of sentences that can be created by writers.

However, the situation is more complex than this and is also subject to many more constraints than initially seems to be the case. For example, we have to draw distinctions between programs and what Brian Cantwell Smith describes as “process or computation to which that program gives rise upon being executed and [the] often external domain or subject matter that the computation is about. (Smith, On the Origin of Objects, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998: 33) The key point here is that program and process are not static, but are dynamic, if not contingent. Thus we can describe the word processor as part of a continuum leading from computation to language to expression to communication to interpretation. Even this does not address the complexity of relations among all of these processes and the various levels of meaning within each.

To be continued........

 

The context for learning, education and the arts (2)

This Entry is in Five Parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

Let me begin by quoting the head of IBM, Lou Gerstner in reference to Deep Blue, the computer developed to play chess at the grandmaster level:

“Deep Blue is emblematic of a whole class of emerging computer systems that combine ultrafast processing with analytical software. Today we’re applying these systems to challenges far more vital than chess. They are used for example in simulation — replacing physical things with digital things, re-creating reality inside powerful computer systems? (“Think Leadership? Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998: 2)

Now, what is important here is not only the references to Deep Blue and very fast computer systems, but the assumption that the replacement of physical things with digital things re-creates reality inside computer systems and by extension in reality itself. This may well be true and may well be happening, but we need to examine the implications of the claim and locate this claim within a cultural, social and economic analysis. And we need to become quite clear about the meaning of the term simulation which is used most often to refer to an artificial environment that either replaces the real or in Jean Baudrillard’s words become the real. Simulation as I will use it refers to the creation of artifacts, their use and their integration as well as co-optation into an increasingly digital culture.

“And soon we’ll see this hyper-extended networked world made up of a trillion interconnected, intelligent devices — intersecting with data-mining capability. Pervasive Computing meets Deep Computing? (Gerstner: 3)

I will return to the implications of this quote through a variety of different routes. Historically, the advent of new technologies in the 20th century has generally been paralleled by claims of social effect and cultural transformation and these are synoptically represented by the continued influence of Marshall McLuhan on present thinking about technology and its effects. I will not examine McLuhan’s ideas in great detail, suffice to say that many of the assumptions guiding his cultural appropriation by a variety of writers, commentators and politicians do not stand up to scrutiny of a rigorous kind. For example, McLuhan’s famous statement that “The Medium is the Message? grew out of a report that he wrote in 1959-60 for the Office of Education, United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was entitled, “Report on Project in Understanding New Media? In it McLuhan analyses media such as television using the tools of cognitive psychology, management theory and economics. For McLuhan, media include speech, writing, photography, radio, etc.. And he is puzzled by why the effects of these media have been overlooked for as he puts it, “…3500 years of the Western world? (McLuhan, 1960: 1)

McLuhan searches for an explanation and much of the research for the project is prescient and fascinating as well as a precursor to the publication of “Understanding Media? in 1964. When it comes to the famous aphorism about the medium and the message, McLuhan reveals a rather interesting foundation for much of his later research.

“Nothing could be more unrealistic than to suppose that the programming for such media could affect their power to re-pattern the sense-ratios of our beings. It is the ratio among our senses which is violently disturbed by media technology. And any upset in our sense-ratios alters the matrix of thought and concept and value. In what follows, I hope to show how this ratio is altered by various media and why, therefore, the medium is the message or the sum-total of effects. The so-called content of any medium is another medium? (McLuhan, 1960: 9)

It is clear from this statement that the medium is actually the subject, that it is human beings whose sense-ratios are altered by participating in the experiences made possible through the media. It is not the content of the communication, but the encounter between the medium and subjectivity that alters or disturbs how we then reflexively analyse our experience. Although the medium is the message is generally interpreted in formal terms and although it has been appropriated as a generalization used to explain the presence of media in every aspect of our lives, McLuhan is here playing with cognitive and psychological research as it was developed in the 1950’s. More importantly, at this stage, he is avoiding a binary approach to form/content relations. He is effectively introducing a third element into the discussion, namely, the human body.

The context for learning, education and the arts (1)

This entry has five parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

The context for learning, education and the arts has altered dramatically over the last few years as has the cultural environment for educators and artists/creators. Part of what I would like to do here is examine the intersection of a number of crucial developments that I think have transformed the terrain of technology, education, art and culture.

This is a grand claim and I would be the first to admit that we are being incessantly told that change has become the major characteristic of the late 20th century. But, I do think that we are witnessing shifts which will have a profound effect not only on the social and political structure of Western countries but on the ways in which In which we see ourselves, act upon and within the communities of which we are a part and how we create meanings, messages and information for the proliferating networks that now surround us.

The one important caveat here is that although I am concerned with the transformations we are experiencing, I will in no way claim that we are undergoing a revolutionary change. I tend to see history as evolutionary, which in no way precludes dramatic shifts from occurring. As intellectuals, artists, technology developers and educators, I believe it is our responsibility to become active within this environment and to develop the critical and creative tools to respond to the ongoing evolution of an emerging aesthetic of interactivity in which aesthetic goals are linked with ethical goals and are based on a perspective of caring for both the individual and the larger economic, political, ecological, social and spiritual circumstances that create contexts for the individual. (Carol Gigliotti;Bridge to, Bridge From: The Arts, Technology and Education? Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 2, April-May, 1998 p.91)

Our cultural claims about the various factors that produce change tend to be linear, the line being one that moves along a fairly straight, if not narrow trajectory from the less complex to the more complex. The approach that I will take looks at the displacements that are created by the movement from one phase to another, movement in this instance being more like transportation framed by what Bruno Latour has described as connections, short circuits, translations, associations, and mediations that we encounter, daily. (Bruno Latour, Trains of Thought, Common Knowledge, Vol. 6, # 3, Winter, 1997, p. 183.)

So, I will begin by exploring the various conjunctures and disjunctures created by the presence of digital technologies in nearly every aspect of the cultural context of the early 21st century. My goal, however, is not an overview, but rather, to raise as many questions as I can in order to introduce increasing levels of mediation both to our understanding of the digital and to our creative transformation of the digital into various media of communication.

To be continued.....