Virtual/Real/Virtual (2)

(This is the second part of a speech given in Toronto at DIGIFEST)

Virtual spaces contribute to what Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski have described as ‘dynamic density’, a lovely metaphor that describes the intense effects of all the multiple levels of communication that occur in cyberspace environments. Digital ecosystems operate at so many levels that they are almost impossible to control and regulate. A further challenge is that it is very difficult to see into and through all that density and to appreciate where the horizon begins and where it ends. This is why we have tended to see the world today through the lens of globalization which is ultimately an all too simple metaphor to describe the overall complexities of networked cultures, the manner of their interactions and the simultaneous impulse to connect and disconnect.  

It appears as if we can maintain all these forms of disembodied interaction, when in reality the complexity I am describing drives people to seek physically defined experiences in real spaces.  

Try for example to imagine Twitter as the only means of communications between yourself and your family and friends. Or imagine Facebook as the only interface between yourself and the world.

The attraction of virtual spaces is both their convenience and the imaginary environments we create with them. I will return to this point in a moment.

One of the great benefits of this density is its unpredictability. This is what makes political dictatorships nervous. It is impossible to draw a single or simple line from what people say in cyberspace to what they do. It is very hard to anticipate the outcomes of discussions that are populated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Most importantly, cyber environments don’t easily map onto conventional political processes let alone authoritarian ones. 

The Argument

I have been discussing the shifting landscape of digital environments and the implications and outcomes that are produced both culturally and politically by the density of networked connections.

Let me now turn to learning and education within these contexts.

An editorial in the April 8th, 2010 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. 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?

Part Three 

The first part of this series can be found here.