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 (3)

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

This initial creativity was soon lost in the final version of “Understanding Media published in the 1964. In the book the medium becomes the message through the operations of an instantaneous sensory recognition of meaning. McLuhan explores affect by claiming that cubism in its elimination of point of view, generated an “instant total awareness [and in so doing] announced that the medium is the message? (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, p.13.) I am not sure what ‘instant total awareness’ is, but one can surmise that it is somewhere between recognition and self-reflexive thought. In choosing this rather haphazard approach McLuhan eliminates all of the mediators that make any form of communication work.

Take the World Wide Web as an example. Few users of the web are aware of the various hubs and routers that move data around at high speed, let alone of the complexity of the servers that route that data into their home or business computers. They become aware of the mediators when there is a breakdown, or when the system gums up. The notion that we receive information instantly is tied up with the elimination of mediation. So, the arrival in my home of a television image from another part of the world seems instant, but is largely the result of a process in which radically different versions of time and space have played significant roles (the motion and position of the satellite, transmitting stations, microwave towers and so on). I won’t belabour this point other than to point out that the notion of instant recognition has played a significant role in the ways in which our culture has understood digital communications. This has tended to reduce if not eliminate the many different facets of the creative and technological process.

But let’s return to the more interesting and potentially creative idea that the subject is the message (mnetioned in an earlier post). As the sense-ratios alter, the sum-total of effects engenders a subject surrounded by and encapsulated within an electronic world, a subject who effectively becomes that world (and here the resonance with Jean Baudrillard is clear). This is not simply the movement from machine to human, it is the integration of machine and humans where neither becomes the victim of the other. As mediums we move meanings and messages around in a variety of creative ways (hence the link to speech) and as humans interacting with machines we are the medium within which this process and processing circulates. I repeat, this does not mean that we have become the machine, a concept that has inspired a great deal of criticism of technology in general, rather we end up sharing a common ground with our own creations, a mediated environment which we are explore everyday and try to make sense of the information that we are learning.

Interestingly, Derrick De Kerckhove, the Director of the McLuhan Centre at the University of Toronto who has been described as the successor to McLuhan wrote a book entitled, The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality (Kogan Page, London: 1998). He said:

“With television and computers we have moved information processing from within our brains to screens in front of, rather than behind, our eyes. Video technologies relate not only to our brain, but to our whole nervous system and our senses, creating conditions for a new psychology. (De Kerckhove: 5)

To Kerckhove, human beings have become messages (and this is different from being mediums) with our brains emulating the processing logic and structural constraints of computers. Here we do become the machine. We no longer signify as an act of will. Agency is merely a function of messaging systems. Agency no longer recognizes its role as a medium and as a result we seek and are gratified by the instantaneous, the immediate, the unmediated. Now, the ramifications of this approach are broad and need extensive thought and clarification.

The important point here is that De Kerckhove has molded the human body into an extension of the computer, because we are already, to some degree, machines. Our nervous systems, which scientists barely understand and our senses which for neuroscientists remain one of the wonders of nature are suddenly characterized through the metaphors of screens, vision, technology and a new psychology. The inevitable result are mechanical metaphors that make it seem as if science, computer science and biotechnology will eventually solve the ambiguous conundrums of perception (e.g., in the virtual world we become what we see), knowledge and learning. To say that we are the machine is a far cry from understanding the hybrid processes that encourage machine-human interactions. De Kerckhove has transformed the terrain here much as McLuhan did, so that humans lose their autonomy and their ability to act upon the world, although his is a far more sohisticated examination than McLuhan's.

As I said, this is not an article about McLuhan and so I will not explore the report that he wrote any further or the vast literature that has grown up around his thinking. As you can no doubt tell, I am concerned with the rather mechanical view that our culture has of the human mind and am fascinated with the ease with which we have taken on McLuhan’s simplified versions of affect and effect. It is not so much the behavioural bias that concerns me (although it is important to be aware of the influence of behaviourism on the cultural analysis of technology) but the equations that are drawn among experience, images and technology.

These equations often reduce the creative engagement of humans with culture and technology, to the point where culture and technology become one, eliminating the possibility of contestation. In large measure, many of the complaints about digital technologies, the fears of being overwhelmed if not replaced are the result of not recognizing the potential to recreate the products of technological innovation. The best example of this is the way video games have evolved from rudimentary forms of storytelling to complex narratives driven by the increasing ease with which the games are mastered by players. The sophistication of the players has transformed the technology. But none of this would have been possible without the ability of the technology to grow and change in response to the rather unpredictable choices made by humans.

If we turn to the computer for a moment, the notion that it has the power to affect human cognition is rooted in debates and theories developed within the fields of cybernetics and artificial intelligence. The “…popular press began to call computers ‘electronic brains’ and their internal parts and functions were given anthropomorphic names (e.g., computer memory)… (Warren Sack, “Artificial Intelligence and Aesthetics pg. 3)

The notion that a computer has memory has taken root in such a powerful way that it seems impossible to talk about computers without reference to memory. So, an interesting circle has been formed or it might be a tautology. Computer memory becomes a standard which we use to judge memory in general, hence the fears about Deep Blue somehow replacing the human mind, even though its programming was created by humans! The problem is that there is a long tradition of human creativity in the development of technologies and this history is embedded in every aspect of our daily lives. Deep Blue is just one more extension of the process. The fact that we can use the computer to judge our own memories certainly doesn’t eliminate anything. It merely means that we now have a tool that we can use to examine what we actually mean by memory. In fact, recent neuroscientific research into memory suggests that we have profoundly underestimated our own minds let alone the digital ones that we are creating.

The very idea of a computer program is linked to the power to do. (Sack: 5) Again, there are certain debates that cannot be developed here, including the significant one between Daniel Dennett and John Searle, a debate explored by Stephen Pinker in his new book, How the Mind Works. Pinker is a supporter of cognitive psychology and also suggests that the brain operates like a computer. His argument is more subtle than that however, because he is quite worried about creating too great an equivalence between the brain and the mechanics of the computer. I bring this up because it is the cultural attraction of the metaphors which interests me. It is important to understand that computer programs are carefully constructed artificial languages that have great difficulty dealing with the unpredictable, with the tentative, the contingent or the irrational. Computer programs are codified according to a strict set of rules and I think that we can make the argument that common sense is not. I will briefly return to this discussion later on.

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.....


Geographies of Dissent (2)

There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

“One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

To be continued...


1st Colloquium on the Law of Transhuman Persons in Florida

Moot Court Hearing On The Petition Of A Conscious Computer

Ray Kurzweil runs a terrific web site on artificial intelligence and other matters related to technology and society. He recently provided the transcript of the court hearing on whether a conscious computer should be treated as a person.

This issue has been raging for some time. It reached its apogee with the discussion about whether "Deep Blue" the computer that (who?) beat Gary Kasparov was actually intelligent. IBM has some wonderful research on this available here.

"We have a petition by BINA48, an intelligent computer, to prevent its owner and creator, Exabit Corporation, from either turning off its power, or if it turns off its power, from reconfiguring it; and BINA48 doesn't want that to happen."

Machines attract and repel us. Although human beings are surrounded by many different machines and rely on them everyday, our culture views them with a great deal of skepticism . At the same time, the desire to automate the world we live in and efforts to link humans and machines have always been a part of the arts, sciences and mythology and have been foundational to the cultural and economic development of Western societies. Automation brings with it many attendant dangers including the assumption, if not the reality that humans no longer control their own destiny. If the interactions were between nature and humans, then this loss of control would be expected. For example, you might anticipate a tornado or a hurricane, but you cannot control them. The fact is that virtual spaces are cultural and technological and are therefore subject to different rules than nature. They are artificial constructs. It seems clear however, that the conventional meaning of artificial will not suffice to explain autonomous processes that build microscopic and macroscopic worlds using algorithms that often develop far beyond the original conceptions of their progenitors. We may be in need of a radical revision of what we mean by simulation and artificiality because of the ease with which digital machines build complex non-natural environments. (From "How Images Think")

Speech presented at the 77th Graduation Ceremony of Emily Carr Institute

Honoured guests, Dr. George Pederson, Chair of the Board of Governors, members of the Board, Graduates, Faculty, Staff, Families and Friends, today I will speak to you about some of the challenges that we will all face in the near future and the crucial role that the graduates from this institution will play in the future well-being of our society and of Emily Carr Institute.

This is my tenth graduation ceremony since being appointed President in 1996. Each year is different and each year is special. Each year we celebrate your achievements and your successes. It is always a humbling experience for me and I hope for all of you. Over the last ten years 2800 hundred students have graduated from Emily Carr. Since 1929, 7500 students have graduated from our great institution. In other words, 81 years after our founding, over 37 percent of our graduates have come through Emily Carr during the last ten years.

Before I begin my formal speech, I want to take a moment to honour someone whom many of you have met. Rick Robinson has been working at Emily Carr since the early 1970’s and since 1974 as a core member of our technical staff. If you have ever gone into the wood workshop in the North Building, then you have met Rick. This is a man whose dedication to the job, to the Institute and to students has been total — a dedication that goes far beyond conventional norms and expectations. Rick is a gentle, wonderful person whose contribution to Emily Carr has been so very profound. Today, we are going to honour Rick with a certificate of achievement and by permanently establishing an entrance scholarship in his name. The Rick Robinson Entrance scholarship will pay the full fees of an incoming domestic student and is our way of saying thank-you to someone who has done so much for so many generations of students and who is a crucial part of the very fabric of our institution.


On the Future…
“Sometimes there are moments in human history that seem to beckon awakenings. They perturb us to reevaluate our beliefs, assumptions, and reigning cultural stories. They challenge us to synthesize and integrate seemingly disparate forms of knowledge into new relationships, new patterns, and new theories. They invite us to invent new language, new rules, and new structures. They call us to create and live into new stories of possibility. These moments grace us with enlightened insights and more soulful understanding. They fill us with wonder and amazement. They open us to life and to the invitation to reclaim the fire and light that resides within us all to change the world.

(Stephanie Pace Marshall)

Stephanie Pace Marshall who wrote those words is one of America’s most important educational leaders. Her words are very important in the context of this ceremony. As graduates of Emily Carr you will encounter a series of moral and ethical issues and challenges that will test not only the education that you have had, but also your ability to respond quickly and sensibly to dramatic change at the social, cultural and political level. Soulful understanding connects you to your role as both artist and citizen, as designer and citizen, and as media creator and citizen. We carry many labels in our lives but none is more important than the label of citizen and with that label come many responsibilities including a passion for the social good, an understanding of and compassion for those less fortunate than us and a desire to contribute to the well-being of our society.

One of your most important challenges will be to make the environment for living and working in our society a more humane one and it will be your creativity, your knowledge and your sensitivity to invention and innovation that will mark you and also separate you from other post-secondary graduates.

In this, the sixth year of a new century, your skills in advancing and widening the role of the arts as an integral part of our social fabric and as a powerful catalyst in shaping the life of our local, national and global communities will be crucial not only to your well-being but to the well-being of the planet.

You are our greatest asset. You represent the living memories of the learning experiences at Emily Carr Institute, the continuity and connections between generations and the future of the institution as well as the future of the arts.

As Emily Carr moves into its next phase with graduate programs, a joint degree with the University of Northern British Columbia and the opening of our new research studio, Intersections Digital Studio of Art, Design and Media, we invite you to stay connected with us and to always feel that we are part of your extended family.

What do you take from this place? A grad project, stories, friendships, memories? Learning cannot be quantified. Hopefully you have learned some lessons about how to overcome hurdles, how to take on a challenge and succeed, how to better understand the story of your life and how to be sensitive to the stories of others. You will have brought poetry and imagination to your learning, new vision and the sense that the creative spirit cannot and should not be kept at bay. Hopefully, you will have learned how to channel your ideas into material forms but never at the cost of the passion that you have for experimentation. Some things cannot be expressed and some projects cannot fully represent the depth and complexity of your initial impulses. But, you are also part of a time when conventional notions of art, audience and display are undergoing fundamental change. It is no longer that simple to see oneself as an isolated creator. For better or worse, you are part of a growing cultural space that more and more people are noticing. You are a generation that will have a voice and with that comes even greater responsibilities to your families and to your communities.

My challenge to you is to always remember the institution that you have come from and to integrate your learning into the values of your life and to never forget that as holders of degrees from an Art and Design school, your mission is to bring the light and fire of creativity to the everyday lives of people in your communities, to inspire and be inspired, to challenge and be challenged, to create and promote and support the arts.

I will end with a quote from William Allen White who was one of the great journalists of the early 20th century:

"About all that a grad speaker can do for his auditors is to turn their faces around. He looks back upon the world as he thinks it was. Then he considers the world as he thinks it is. Finally in his receding perspective he discloses the pictured phantasm which he hopes will be the future. Thereupon his listeners may see mirrored in the gloss of his picture the world which they think they will make. It is a pleasant exercise.


Breakfast Speech on Learning, May 6, 2006 (Emily Carr Institute Graduation)

“Most people believe that it is education that will save us. But this bland, sweeping, and unexamined assertion reduces us into continuing to uncritically support and tinker with the current story of schooling. It is education that will save us, but not any kind of education—only education of a certain kind: only education that is generative and life-affirming, that invites, engages, and integrates the fullness of our children’s capacities and ways of knowing, and that nurtures the creation of integral minds committed to the creation of a truly just and wise global civilization. Only education that develops our capacity to become more fully human is truly worthy of the human spirit. Only education that invites deep learning and reconnects us to life will light and sustain the fire within?

(Stephanie Pace Marshall)

Learning is a complex and challenging subject. The learning experience both within schools and outside of them has been an area of debate and contention for centuries and we still do not know that much about the optimum conditions for learning or even how humans internalize information and process knowledge. In this context, post-secondary and K-12 institutions are struggling to respond to sometimes-excessive expectations on the part of students and their communities, trying at one and the same time to create value and be valuable.

Stephanie Marshall quotes Mary Catherine Bateson: “You can’t prepare the child for the job market that will exist 20 years from now. So how can you build a curriculum that will shape an individual to be a pioneer in an unknown land — because that’s what the future is? (Stephanie Pace Marshall, “[The Learning Story of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy? ]( The future cannot be known and we do our children a great disservice when we suggest to them that getting a degree, for example, should be connected in a linear way to their future employment. This means that a creative student exploring their often profound and sometimes confusing desire to craft or produce a work of art is has to struggle to explain both the value of their creative process and the outcomes of their creative engagement in the context of an employment picture that may not produce a simple fit. A philosophy student or even a learner with a philosophical outlook will judge speculative thought to be less than useful, largely because it cannot be connected to a clear and discernable outcome. To me, learning is as much about the practice of engaging with materials and ideas as it is about speculative thinking that cannot and should not be translated into a concrete form.

It is interesting to note that the present model for most universities is and has been a contested one. Notions of original research and inquiry only took hold in the late 19th century. Public education as we know it is relatively young with some of the biggest growth coming in the 1960’s. The idea of teaching the liberal arts in a university only reached some critical mass in the late 19th century, while in the 1930’s, research and graduate teaching were prioritized over undergraduate teaching and public service. It was only in the 1960’s that Clark Kerr proposed that a single institution “could perform multiple missions to benefit society.��? (John C. Scott, “The Mission of the University: Medieval to Postmodern Transformation,��? Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 77, No1 (Jan-Feb 2006) p. 3.) These different positions span the history of post-secondary education and learning and remain in place today with institutions bearing the weight of trying to distinguish among strategies and choices that are not well understood either by the public or by government.

Have you ever wondered why educators continue to rely so heavily on lecture formats within classrooms? In medieval times, before the printing press was invented, before it was possible to disseminate ideas to a broader populace, teachers, who were generally clerics, spoke to students, read from the bible and from other available material. They read and spoke very slowly so that the students could take notes, which was the only way for learners to reproduce the ideas and information for their own personal use. The teachers of the 12th century gained great authority from this teaching strategy. It was the beginning of a process of institutionalization, which to this day remains central to the practice of teaching. But does it remain central to the practice to learning? How do we bring new insights into our understanding of learning? Have we reached the point where our institutions, their rules, regulations, policies and practices are not able to optimize the conditions within which learning can take place?

It is within the context of this discussion that I am so very pleased to introduce Chris Kelly to you. Chris’s biography is rich and varied having been the Superintendent of Schools and Chief Executive Officer for the Richmond School Board for nine years and completing his third year as Superintendent of the Vancouver School Board. As an educator and administrator, Chris’s experience includes elementary and secondary teaching, Aboriginal education, special education, curriculum development, and professional and organizational development. He is presently the President of Canadian Education Association, is on the Advisory committee to the Deans of Education and Science at UBC and a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Global Ethics.

What I have described here only reflects a small portion of what Chris does, how he interweaves his passion for learning and education with the tremendous responsibilities of managing a large k-12 system, how he manages at the same time to play a public role as an advocate for our educational system, how beautifully and clearly he articulates his concerns for the quality of learning and the needs of students. Chris and I have known each other for some years now and every time we have met, our discussions have been rich and varied. So, it pleases me tremendously to announce to you today that we have agreed in principle to explore the possible creation of a specialized high school in Art and Design in Vancouver that would be supported by and developed with Emily Carr Institute. Chris will talk a little more about this, but you can be rest assured that we intend to follow through on this visionary project that we feel will ensure a place, a strong place for the creative arts in the curriculum of young learners.

The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (2)

There is a simple definition of learning community that says, “This phrase describes a vision and model where a community's stakeholders come together and share resources?
Another definition is, “A “learning community? is a deliberate restructuring of the curriculum to build a community of learners among students and faculty. Learning communities generally structure their curriculum so that students are actively engaged in a sustained academic relationship with other students and faculty over a longer period of their time than is possible in traditional courses?

[Fanya had a good thought here, that I would like to quote from…]
Not as a 'comment' - just as a thought - learning institutions may be run and funded by the government - but their efficiency and status are a pride to the particular community where they function. It's not
only an interaction between the 'school' and the community - but a challenge to that community to
provide that institution with whatever it needs to succeed and thus provide the community with a source
of pride! This may be harder to examine in the larger frameworks - but you can see it here in the kibbutzim and moshavim - where the institutions are smaller and in many cases, self-run, if not self-budgeted.

The above two definitions are very broad, but they do point out the extent to which a ‘model’ of communications also surrounds every discussion of education and learning. And this crucial point links to another important issue, to what degree do the many shifting media and communications environments that now dominate the cultural landscape of most countries in the world affect notions of learning? Even in environments where the global media are weak, such as Nepal, radio is being used to teach and communicate. The same situation exists in much of East Africa. The fact that radio can play such an important role in the education of the community suggests how crucial the linkage is between learning, media and tools of communication. This is an area in desperate need of further research and development.

When one asks the question, how can a learning community be built? There is the potential that the question will not deal with the reality that learning is one of the most unpredictable activities that human beings engage in. This issue exceeds the boundaries and mandate of this article. But, anyone who has examined the vast plethora of informal learning contexts that people in communities create for themselves knows that the rules for learning cannot be predefined. This is why high schools remain an oppressive experience for most teenagers. They are at an age when they are actively involved in creating and participating in their communities of interest. High school often becomes an impediment to learning and trivializes the vast amount of education that goes on outside of its walls. This process is so unpredictable and the influences are so broad, that the question of how learning takes place cannot be reduced to locality or even community and especially to school itself.

So, we have a paradox here that defies simplification. The desire to create a learning community is very much about the need to create an institutional context for learning. We are talking here, in the most fundamental of ways, about the process of building formal strategies for the learning process. The difficulty is that building an institutional context for learning means redefining what we mean by students and it is not enough to just transform student to learner. It also means redefining what we mean by community since it is likely that any school is really made up of communities of learners. Some of these learners may be connected to each other and many may not be connected. The complexity of social interactions within a school far exceeds the complexity of the classroom, which is itself barely manageable as a learning environment.

To be continued……



Response to The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

Jan responds to the previous entry:

I think it is important not to limit the idea of learning community to that of 'a community that cares for the institutions - such as schools - through which people learn,' which seems to be what you are saying in this opening piece (or do I read you incorrectly). Such a notion limits the idea of learning to what a learning individual does. In my perception that is an unnecessarily reduced meaning of learning.

Learning is what we do that allows us to enhance our constructive intercation with change. That's an abbreviated version of a more detailed and comprehensive definition of learning that I once developed and that I find useful in helping me understand the idea of learning community. Just as individuals, communities, societies, nations, regions, corporations, etc. interact with change. They produce change and they adapt to change; a complex multifaceted game. Both individual people and smaller and larger social entities become better at that game by experimenting different kinds of behavior and reflecting on such behaviors. The result settles down in the individual mind of people as much as in the collective mind of those social entities. Indeed, stories and symbolism play crucial roles in shaping the mind of the community, but it's a process more complex than what you find by adding up the learning of all the individuals that are part of the community. A learning community simply learns at a higher level of complex organization than the individuals that are part of the community.

One can extrapolate form the above relationship between learning individuals and the learning communities of which they are part (often more than one, e.g. a professional community, a religious community, a community of people who engage in a particular sport, a community in, etc.). All these (learning) communities together - and together also with the (learning) individuals that constitute them - are the complex building blocks of yet more complex social entities such as entire (learning) societies.

You say that "the claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries" and I agree with your observation. Of course, we have always been learning, and so have our communities. The fact that we didn't recognize it is perhaps yet another consequence of the too narrow identification of learning with what happens inside schools.

My response:

I of course agree with you.....the challenge seems to be
in the definition of community, the boundaries and borders
of practice and learning that grow out of the experiences of working with
people (and sometimes working against them!).

People cluster together for a variety of reasons and are motivated
to continue if they feel that there will be some value to the experience.
Problem is that value tends to be seen through a very narrow lens.



The Challenge of Change in Creating Learning Communities (1)

The phrase “learning community? is suggestive of many things. It has become a catch-all for a variety of initiatives that link the learning experience to different notions of community. What are those notions? And why has it become so crucial for educational institutions to define themselves through this metaphor? If we are to answer the question, what are the key processes involved in building a learning society? then we need to examine the underlying notions of community that have encouraged people to build institutions of learning in the first place.

A community can be many things to many people. It can be the set of boundaries that a particular culture uses to distinguish itself from others and these boundaries can be physical and symbolic, as well as psychological. It can be a certain identity that has been gained over time, through historical, social and cultural processes that symbolically unite different peoples, in a shared sense of connection and interdependence.

At its most basic, community stands for common interest. But, it is not the purpose of this short piece to define the meaning of community. Rather, what is most important here, is the relationship between community and the symbols that communities use to define their activities. For example, a farming community is largely defined by a shared economic activity that is underpinned by social and cultural interaction. The people in the community don’t have to tell themselves what they share; they know what unites and divides them by virtue of their everyday lives. On a smaller scale, a kinship system brings diverse people together under the heading of family and together they form a community of interest. Some families use religion as a unifying force, as do some communities. Others may use a shared historical experience, a traumatic event or even music to bring meaning to what connects them. (See the work of Anthony P. Cohen, in particular, "The Symbolic Construction of Community.")

In other words, every social formation has a variety of communities within it and an often-unpredictable way of portraying the ways in which those communities operate. The best way to understand community is to examine people’s experiences within the communities that they share. And one of the most important activities that communities concern themselves with is learning. It doesn’t really matter what form that learning takes, or whether it is formal or informal. The important point is that learning is seen as a central activity. It is also seen as a crucial example of whether the community has the vision and organization to communicate its historical, technical and cultural knowledge to its citizens. I would strongly argue that even in those communities with highly developed formal educational institutions, learning takes place in so many different venues, that it would be wise to examine this context with great care.

How then does learning take place within a community? The most obvious example is the school system. But how does one build, nurture and sustain learning experiences that are both growth-oriented and community-based? For the most part, even traditional schools make a valiant effort to “teach? their students. Is the notion of a learning community or a learning society all that different in intention from what communities have tried to do in creating their schools and funding them? I ask this question because it is all too easy to dismiss the heritage of the last one hundred and fifty years of experimentation in education.

The claim that the linkages between learning and community mean fundamental change, ignores the fact that links of this sort have been the defining ideology of most learning environments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although it is true that education as a system has been run by central governments in most countries, it is also important to recognize that without local help and local commitment, it is unlikely that a school could survive. Even in those countries with the most highly developed and centralized curriculums, it is not easy, and may even be perilous, to ignore the needs of the community. So, we need to extend the definition of learning community to include the broader social context within which learning institutions operate and this brings us closer and closer to the idea of learning society.

To be continued.......

40.5 M for Canada's first Digital Media Graduate Program

Vancouver - The Province of B.C. has allocated $40.5 M in one-time funding for Canada’s first professional digital media master’s program, at the Great Northern Way Campus (GNWC) in Vancouver, to help ensure that B.C. students can access employment opportunities in this rapidly growing sector, says a leading force behind the initiative.

“There is no other graduate program like this in the country and only a few in the world? says Bruce Clayman, President and CEO of the GNWC. “Funding this program will ensure that students have access to world-class education right here in B.C. and our close partnership with industry, through New Media BC, will result in valuable job opportunities for our graduates. We are grateful to the Province for providing this critical support.?

The Great Northern Way Campus is a unique partnership of SFU, UBC, BCIT and the Emily Carr Institute. The collaboration allows creation of programs that leverage the strengths of all four institutions. The one-time government funds will help attract the best faculty members in the world, meet the capital costs of constructing labs and classrooms, and create an endowment to help meet ongoing operating costs. The first intake of students is slated for September 2007. Approximately 200 students are expected to graduate by 2010.

Dangerous Ideas (2)


I liked your idea regarding the obliteration of
classrooms as we know them today - and this has been
an idea that has been bantered around for probably as
long as 'classrooms' have existed, but it seems that
regardless of different experiments and forms of
teaching/learning - open universities, internet
studies, and there are many new innovations that I
find amazing, the same classroom structure remains!
Only in the lowest grades do you now find a different
classroom set-up - why shouldn't it work for the
higher grades? Could the sheer number of students to
be taught be the reason? More and more people today,
and it's very popular here, are learning thru the
'open universities/high schools' and doing well - this
is a good sign of change. Also your idea of the
student input has become more popular - something that
didn't exist on such an advanced level in my day...

Dangerous Ideas (1)

Jan's comment:

I agree.

In fact, you mention of course but a few of the alternative scenarios possible. As soon as one drops the idea of the classroom, even as a metaphor, a guise in which it is, for instance, still very prominently present in online learning settings and other forms of distance education, then there is hardly a limit to the number of alternative spaces, situations, and modalities one can imagine in which one learns.

I am not sure, though, if the simple elimination of the idea of the classroom would as such alter out conceptions and pre-conceptions about learning, though I recognize that it might help.
Some tough thinking is required to rid ourselves of such ideas as that learning ought always to result in an increase in one's store of explicit knowledge or our abilities to perform particular well-defined actions at a particular level of competence. Important aspects of what one can become, such as a wiser person, have little to do with these changes. Yet, learning, in a way different than normally defined, is important for becoming wise. The fact that wisdom occurs, and often prominently so, among people whom we call illiterate, shows that important aspects of learning have neither to do with the classroom, nor with the processes that normally happen in the classroom.

I guess that the reality is that the classroom is not and never was 'the main site for learning.' The problem is rather that the classroom has become overvalued in the minds of most people as a site for learning and that therefore we do no longer see learning when it happens elsewhere.

Dangerous Ideas

For those of you that may not know about the Web Site run by John Brockman, connect here to THE EDGE, which, as its title suggests is about "edgy" thinking. At the beginning of each year, Brockman invites readers to contribute to a debate through a question that he poses. This year's question goes as follows:

"The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

In the spirit of Brockman's approach, I would like to pose the following question:

What dangerous idea do you have that would alter our conceptions and pre-conceptions about learning?

Keep in mind that the idea need not "realizable" but should be provocative.

Here is mine:

Lets get rid of classrooms as the main site for learning at the K-12 and Post-Secondary level. Once we do that, or before, lets redesign the architecture of schools and universities to reflect and encourage more common areas through which learners and teachers can "meet" and learn from each other. The classroom model, both physically and as a learning environment needs to be rethought. The teacher as the main source of knowledge, as the centre of attention needs profound rethinking. Another way of debating this point would be to ask, What would happen if the student were to speak from the position of the teacher? Would the student organise the material in the same way? Would she set the same goals? Would she need to make a moral judgement about what should or shouldn’t be known or understood?

And while we are at it, lets recognize the importance of auto-didactism to the process of learning. We are all auto-didacts and bring a vast heritage of learning to the schools that we attend.

Over to you! Please feel free to email me directly. Alternately, place your dangerous idea into the comments section and I will move it from there to the main page. And send me the email addresses of people who may wish to read this Blog.



Transdisciplinary Thinking and Learning

I have been an educator, administrator, writer and creative artist for over thirty-five years. During that time, most of the disciplines with which I have been involved have changed. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines (of both an artistic and analytic nature), their function and their role within and outside of institutions has been immeasurably altered. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other disciplines or practices. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been transformed. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western Societies. However, we are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of these social and cultural shifts.

From a cultural point of view, the impact of this process of transformation first appeared in the early 20th century when the cinema became a mass medium and accelerated with the advent of radio and then television (although there are many parallels with what happened to literature and photography in the 19th century). Networked technologies have added another layer to the changes and another level of complexity to the ways in which ideas are communicated and discussed, as well as learned. The conventions that have governed communications processes for over fifty years have been turned inside out by the Internet and this has led to some fundamental redefinitions of information, knowledge, space and time.

Time, for example, does change when the metaphors that we have available for explaining temporal shifts are no longer rooted in conventional notions of seasonal shift and measurement of incremental change. Technology plays a role, but it is not the only player in what has been a dramatic move from an industrial/agrarian society to a mixed environment that is extremely dependent on cultural activity, networks and information.

The disjunctures at work in our society and the upheavals caused by profound cultural and social change have begun to affect the orientation, direction and substance of many different academic and art-related disciplines. Some of these disciplines have been around for a long time. I would suggest that most disciplines have been under extreme stress for the better part of the 20th century.

We are very likely in the early stages of a long-term shift in direction and it may take some time yet before that shift is fully understood. One important way of understanding this shift is through the an examination of what has happened to learning in the digital age and the role that technology has played in sustaining and sometimes inhibiting changes in the way learning takes place both inside and outside institutions.