Writing, Learning and Social Media (1)

Passion is an overused word these days, but its use reflects a cultural shift in the meaning of writing and learning in the context of work and everyday life. To varying degrees, writing is THE mode of communications in the digital world. Writing overlays everything and is built into the structure of the Web as much as it is at the heart of every form of messaging. Twitter represents the most condensed form of this intense use of language, but even the most trivial of marketing campaigns tries to use words and sentences with impact and functionality. 

In fact, thinking through the use of words as descriptors and as image makers has become one of the most important parts of strategic planning. All those sticky notes that appear in workshops on vision, reflect a desire to match ambition with expression and representation. And, it is rare these days to see an image without a caption or some other linguistic means of identifying its purpose or place.

This is in part why passion is used as a motivator. Make your words as meaningful as possible. Link your intentions to what you say with enough passion so that readers will quickly and efficiently understand what you are trying to say. Dense language is out. Intellectuals who fiddle with words that are not direct are also fiddling with their readers. All texts have to reflect this move towards a populist form of expression.

Except that, sometimes and perhaps more often than not, writing and the use of language is not as easy as that. In fact, there is an inherent ambiguity in our use of words. For the most part, we rarely are able to say or write exactly what we mean. The gap between intention and communication is a broad one. The minute you go beyond a few words, you are essentially in a murky world where what you say and what you write is not only open to misinterpretation but almost always is misinterpreted. The reason we often spend so much time trying to understand each other is that it takes more than just a few minutes to clarify what we are saying. That is even more difficult in writing which does not lend itself directly to interlocutors and where readers can only 'comment' on what is said, but cannot as in a verbal conversation directly challenge the writer.

This suggests that what we describe as social media relies on the relationships among a variety of voices and forms of expression. No one message communicates in the absence of many others. This array of words, sentences, expressions and outlets creates and sustains a mosaic of potential messages and meanings. The transformative change here is in how we navigate through all of these elements, that is how we engage with the many layers of communications or better put how well we understand the layers and how we navigate through them. Part Two will appear next week.

Virtual/Real/Virtual (1)

(This is a written version of a speech given in Toronto in October at DIGIFEST)


The age of virtualization is changing. When the digital adventure began in the early 1980’s, the future of computers and hence the digital age was unclear, even fuzzy. Today, after 30 years of experimentation it is pretty clear that there have been some tremendous successes and also some clear failures.

I want to approach the issue of virtualization with great care. And, my approach will be framed by a deep concern for what is happening to our learning environments.

So, let me start by talking about space, that is, architectural and public space. The recent and continuing protests that began in New York and have spread worldwide are important indicators of what is happening to the generation that has been most influenced by the technologies we now take for granted.

Keep in mind, that technologies that virtualize break down as many barriers as they build up. So, when protestors get together in a park and create a variety of methodologies to develop consensus, to manage their affairs, to provide services, they are engaging in the type of face to face contact that completely transforms not only their perceptions of each other, but also their perceptions of the world. Virtual encounters inside and through screen based technologies permit exchanges of a similar sort, but these are qualitatively different from what is happening in Zucotti Park or Vancouver or Toronto.

The need to explore embodied relationships suggests that the increasingly complex mix of the virtual and the real will be measured against our experiences of each other in the real world and not vice versa.

The protestors in New York and elsewhere are using what to them is a novel approach to the discussions that they are having with each other. In a version of broken telephone, they are communicating their ideas to each other through individual repetition. People are transmitting the core ideas behind the protests using an oral tradition of storytelling. This is being done to strengthen their resolve and to personalize the relationships that they have with each other, but also to transform each conversation into a memorable one. In a period of history when conversations are fleeting and efforts to hold onto our memories are dictated by reminders, phones and computers, orality is both central and ephemeral to these protests. 

So it is ironic that in the Facebook age when short form communications dominate, that the protestors have turned to oral traditions that are thousands of years old, a mixture of the Greek polis and the Roman square.

Virtual communications have always seemed an efficient way of promoting interactions across numerous boundaries and this has challenged conventional forms of communications. The irony is that the virtual cannot exist without the real. The mistake we have been making has been to celebrate the virtual as an end in itself. For example, we talk about video games without talking enough about video gamers. We discuss Facebook through the interface and restrictions it provides and not about the potential shifts in human relations generated by  virtual interactions.

And, this mistake will not be very easy to overturn. Virtual spaces are just too attractive and the ease of use, the genuine feel and form of interactions, the potential to be a broadcaster with an audience, however small is a very powerful attraction. 

Part Two can be found here.