This little video is my response to the Creative Task for Chapter 4 (“Inspirational Week”)
The proposition for the task was this:
Take a camera, be it you mobile phone, a webcam… Introduce yourself to the other StoryMOOCers, telling us who you are where you are from and most importantly: which works inspired your interest in storytelling most up to know. Pick out 1-3 works of art, literature, film, TV, game, a website or else and tell us what’s so special about it that you think it might help inspire somebody else anywhere on this planet.
The Eastside Culture Crawl is East Vancouver’s own open studio tour. I don’t go every year, but have gone for many years. It feels good to wander through studio space, smelling paint, sawdust, and sometimes coffee, tea, and cookies.
Wandering through a painting studio always gives me a sense of wonder, like I’m exploring a mysterious territory. It’s so refreshing to not know what you’ll see next.
Back in the 80s, as an art student, I studied some drawing and a lot of computer graphics, which was just starting to evolve into a useful medium through relatively inexpensive home computer systems. With the exception of a little ink or graphite, my hands stayed relatively clean while I drew using a mouse.
So occasionally, my curiosity would lead me to the painting studios at my art college, where I could experience colour as it was embedded in thick pigment. I could see the physicality of its application, smell the oil and acrylics, and see the splatters and splashes of physical action. Computer graphics had – and have – none of that physicality or real-space depth and reality.
This Massive Open Online Course provides a foundation in the principles of the formats and methods of fictional storytelling.
The reasons this online course attracted me are:
The topic interests me: I’m beginning to write again, and I want to learn more…
The method of access interests me: I work in eLearning, and using a new Learning Management System is fun and educational in itself.
It’s largely self-paced, and absolutely free.
The course is organized into Chapters, each containing a number of Units of instruction. The format of each Unit is the same: each unit contains one brief video presentation (usually 10-12 minutes in length) where the host introduces the Unit topic, and provides examples, animation, or brief explanations from famous works of fiction or professional writers or storytellers.
Adjacent to each video is a tiny, one or two question quiz (often multiple-choice) which you must answer correctly to “pass” the Unit.
Below the video and quiz are links to optional further readings, references to articles or books, or other supporting videos. It doesn’t get much easier than that. I think this course is a bit too easy so far, but it is also very well-designed, nice to look at, and easy to use. The videos are extremely professionally-made and fun to watch. So far, the course has been a very enjoyable experience.
Apparently, this course has over 65,000 enrollees from all over the world, and (with the exception of a technical problem in Unit 2 of Chapter 1) seems to be well-liked by its users.
My only concern is the “apparent” level of interactions online in the course’s discussion forums. I say “apparent” because in my opinion, the discussion forums in the iVersity MOOC platform don’t really seem to adequately show the amount of interaction between students, and I don’t get an obvious sense that the Instructors are online and available.
This may be unfair of me, as I admit that I haven’t spent much time in the forums for this course, but in my memory of taking a different MOOC hosted in Coursera (“eLearning and Digital Cultures”), the Instructors seemed to have a more obvious presence online in the course’s discussion boards, and in monthly Google Hangout sessions.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a term called “The Computer Widow”. This referred to the wives who hardly ever saw their computer-obsessed husbands, except from the back.
It’s a morbid metaphor, but served a purpose: obsession with computer-based work or distractions took time away from relationships, leaving wives feeling bitter, abandoned and effectively “widowed”. (This also speaks to the predominantly male-oriented computer and web culture that has more and more opened up to gender equity as the years have passed.)
I’m sure there were Ham Radio widows in previous generations, or partners of inventors or hobbyists whose work was obsessive and nature and revolved around a stationary set of tools.
Now that large desktop computers and wired network connections have been largely replaced by ubiquitous wireless handheld devices, our behaviour and expectations are different.
Since I got my first fully web-enabled smartphone in 2009 (a Palm Pre), I began breaking a 10 year habit: instead of checking my email and surfing the web at my desktop PC each night, I began reading online news and managing my email on my smartphone multiple times per day. This has sometimes caused me to be one of those distracted people, reading my emails in the car or in bed at night, but generally, I think it’s been a huge improvement in terms of convenience and access. Now I only sit at my PC once or twice per week, and when I do, I’m amazed at how few messages come through to my desktop Inbox. I’ve been doing all my email reading, managing and deleting from my phone or sometimes my tablet. Those mobile devices have become my access points, and come with me to bed, the bathroom or in the car, and most of the time, this is an absolute convenience. I do think that my wife is feeling much less widowed in 2013, than she might have felt back in 2000. Now, we both compute and communicate wirelessly, and we can do it together at a coffee shop, chatting and commenting (or at least acknowledging each other) while we tap away at our respective work or hobby projects.
For me, mobility has definitely improved and alleviated the technology “widow” factor. Is this the same for others? Does being preoccupied in other locations or on the road make the preoccupation less of a problem? Does it allow busy people to get on with their lives, moving from task to task, or to different social situations, while staying connected or productive online?
Or, does it just allow us to be distracted by cyberspace while risking social dysfunction in real-space?
Fragmented and Unrecognizable Contexts
In the pre-mobile days, the context for an activity was largely recognizable by physical location, or unambiguous use of a particular device. In the analog world, you used a radio to listen to airborne audio, and you used a telephone for person-to-person voice communications. Other people could see that you were on the phone, or hear and see that you were listening to the radio.
Ubiquitous mobile (and soon wearable) computing and wireless communications makes this third-party recognition much more difficult: you may have to deal with lunch mates who are repeatedly distracted by their phones, or send text messages or tweets while they’re supposed to be paying attention to that fascinating story you’re relating about your dog. It’s hard to tell if someone who’s talking to themselves as they walk down the street is schizophrenic, or having a phone conversation on a bluetooth earpiece.
As ubiquitous computing and communications evolve and the boundaries between man and machine become less distinguishable, it’s going to get weirder and ore difficult to recognize when you are being conversed with or interrupted by another person.
Yeah – I’m going through a DEVO phase again. I listen to their music all the time. Their voices and sounds are familiar, like visiting an old neighbourhood.
I get emails from Club Devo,and see snippets of mutated art from Mark M., photos from their irreverent, young new wave days, and so many artifacts of their gleeful, tongue-in-cheek self-promotion. Echoes of the back-of-the-comic ad, junk culture that they enjoy.
Every 6 – 12 months, something bigger than my playlist brings the Devoids to my mind in a more significant way. Something new bubbles up in the media. This time, perhaps it was the unfortunate death of their friend and long-time drummer, Alan. A very sad loss, indeed. Their own “human metronome”, the driver of their complicated, syncopated rhythms, was no more.
Gerry Casale started following my Twitter feed the other day, and it made me feel a little closer to the source. The more DEVO videos or interviews I watch, the more I read, the more they’re like citizens of some weird hometown – the guys who struck out a few years before my generation, and who did all the cool art that I wish I’d done.
I love this passage from the book “We are DEVO!” by Jade Dellinger and David Giffels):
In his book Fargo Rock City, rock critic Chuck Klosterman wrote that “Listening to (Eric) Clapton was like getting a sensual massage from a woman you’ve loved for the past ten years; listening to Van Halen was like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freeze.” To extend that metaphor, Devo would be the equivalent of auto-erotic asphixiation, the sexual technique of partly hanging oneself during masturbation to achieve a more intense orgasm.”
(Having been to one uninspiring Clapton concert, I think that Klosterman likes Clapton a bit too much.)
Yeah, so DEVO is an acquired taste – not the flavour (or party favour) of the week.
But, yeah spuds, challenge me please. Make me think, or make me argue. If you can get me to write or think about what you’re saying, well, you’ve found that devolved nerve ending and twanged it nicely. And I thank you.
Clapton and all the 2nd-wave Brit rock gods, as incredibly talented as they were musically, never made me think about a damned thing. But the DEVO experiment got my attention, and they’re still doing it.
This post is the first in a new series of assignments for a free online course. This open course is called Why Openness in Education.
The first assignment given in this course proposed:
“Think back to a time when you learned something you really value from someone. Write a blog post in which you tell the story of that learning experience using the language of sharing instead of the language of education. What did the other person share with you? What did you share back with them? How many times did you iterate through this cycle of sharing? How was your relationship with the other person transformed (if at all) as you shared with them?”
The first experiences that came to me were from 1987, when I was in my second year of art college.
I was just beginning to see a world of computers, image-making, ideas, and visual communications opening up before me, and I wanted to learn about it. The Dean of Education at Emily Carr College of Art, Tom Hudson, asked me if I wanted to take part in special research project that would use computers to explore drawing systems for an education television series he was writing. I was eager to take an opportunity to learn something new, and to work with the head instructor on a one-to-one basis, so I said yes immediately. For an hour or so once per week, we sat at a Commodore 64 in one of the school’s small computer labs, using a small drawing tablet called a KoalaPad, and Tom tutored me.
Click to view a sample of my Visual Literacy image research.
We explored the basic elements of point, line and shape, using the relatively crude consumer tools. Tom guided me in a process of making basic marks and lines in a sequential series of developments. He prompted me to place marks on the screen and be aware of their proximity, uniformity or spatial tension. With each little square point of line placed at a particular angle, I felt like I was learning something elemental and essential.
In that exercise, he shared his intention to guide me to see and feel elements of visual language. I shared my growing proficiency with the computer and my eagerness to learn. In Tom’s earlier career as an art educator in the UK, he had been one of a few progressive art educators who had been introducing aspects of the Bauhaus basic course into British art education. Now, twenty years after those developments, Tom was exploring how computers could be used to explore the same principles. I realized that I was in new experimental territory, and I gave myself to the process of discovery, exploration and personal preference. I trusted that our sessions would lead me to some revelations.
As I became more familiar with this way of working and thinking, Tom encouraged me to experiment, explore and personalize more. We moved to the college’s Amiga computers and I used a mouse instead of a tablet. As I continued to complete hundreds of drawings under Tom’s encouragement and guidance, or on my own between classes, the digital drawings became valued research artifacts, evidence of the concepts and working process that he’d instilled in me, and also expressions of my learning and my personal explorations into digital marks and images.
Why am I taking this online course?
Partly because the theme, “Openness in Education”, is in my mind at the moment. I’m a user of Moodle, the most popular open-source LMS in the market today (as far as I know), and at Moodle Moot 2013 in Vancouver, I learned more about the Open Ed movement. I like the idea of free education, lifelong learning, and self-study, and I’ve been trying to stay abreast of the intersection between open learning and the increasingly commercial online learning market.
I must admit that I’ve sometimes asked myself a question very similar to this. I’ve asked myself “Am I losing my short-term memory?” or “Am I losing my ability to concentrate for long periods of time, or to read long passages of text in one sitting?
I do believe that over the years of web surfing (which I’ve been doing since 1994 or 1995, when the first browsers became widely available), my ability to concentrate or my pattern of reading – the way in which I consume words – has been modified by the activity of surfing online. I do feel as if the hypertext, hunt ‘n click web has modified my behaviour. I can feel that I’ve become more of a browser than a reader.
Has Using the Web Trained me to Click Instead of Read?
It’s a fair question, as if the online world of information is like an endless, all-you-can-eat buffet. I may be in line to put together a meal from beginning to end, but the act of gathering what I need comes in little chunks, with possibilities for distraction at each new connection point. I’ll take a little bit of one site, a little bit of the next, etc. etc. Skip, skip, skip. Click, click, click. It’s more like an endless stream of consciousness, and it’s easy for me to get drawn off-course from an original train of thought onto something completely different. I think it must be the combination of my own curiosity and the seemingly endless array of links to other destinations.
But There’s a Physical Difference to Reading Online too…
I have always read, and I still love to read – novels, magazines, comics and graphic novels, and now more than ever, news and current events. But, I find reading from an LCD display to be much more difficult than reading from paper. Consistently more difficult.
I read a lot of text online, but it doesn’t mean that I’m no longer capable of reading a novel 0n paper. I love reading paper books and magazines (and even the occasional newspaper) – I’m just not quite to used to it as I was before.
So, I think the physicality of reading off a back-lit display of pixels (i.e. teeny little Light Emitting Diodes), combined with the click ‘n browser nature of hypertext brings me to a McLuhan-esque “Medium is the Message” realization:
I’m not getting dumber because of the Web, but I do think that the Web itself makes me read in a shallow way.
Robbie tells the story of a space-faring android who is the last occupant of a space station orbiting the earth. I could easily tell that this film was composed entirely of stock footage, but then again, how easy would it be to shoot your movie on the space station (or a realistic, earth-bound mockup). Nonetheless, the repetitive, stock footage appearance of it put me off a bit. Aside from that, Robbie is an engaging tale about survival, loneliness and angst from the perspective of an artificial intelligence.
I don’t know if 4000 or 6000 years of feeding its neural net with information would result in an android that would have dreams – literally flights of fantasy – and not for one moment did I buy the premise that Robbie wanted to be Catholic.
I’ll say that again: Catholic. I’m not anti-Catholic or anything, but such a specific choice of religion seems out-of-place. Is the author of this piece likening Robbie the Robot to Jesus, by virtue of his symbolic impending death (and do we presume, rebirth?)
My expectation of an autonomous, artificial intelligence would be that it would be somehow more neutral, probably atheist or maybe humanist. It either wouldn’t believe a religion or perhaps it would believe in the species which created it. Okay – so, I’m an atheist and I have a hard time with that aspect. I’ll leave that point alone, and get on with it.
No – I just cannot leave the religion aspect alone on this one…
The idea that a robot with what we consider to be A.I. would care about one religion over another probably says more about the film maker’s attempt to imbue his protagonist with some kind of “soul”, so that the viewer will empathize with him. “If the robot wants to believe in God, then he must be more like me than I thought. If he could consider accepting God as his creator, then he must have a higher level of enlightenment, just like a human.”
If, however, Robbie were to possess the actual mental engrams of a former human being – if a human being’s actual thoughts and personality could be transferred into Robbie’s memory and mechanical frame – then THAT would convince me to feel sympathy for Robbie’s plight (his curse of immortality).
But so long as I believe that Robbie possesses a 21st century version of artificial rationale, I can never consider him conscious, and so I will never accept him for much more than a glorified electric screwdriver left behind by a space workman. How cold-hearted am I? I just didn’t buy into this movie’s attempt to tug my heart strings.
Gumdrop was a sweet little comedy, and a gentle visual sleight-of-hand. By substituting a young human actor with an android auditioning for an acting job, we end up starting to think about the values and hopes of the young actress, mechanical or not. Gumdrop was a light-hearted examination of the casting call too: do we treat each other like commodities or machines? Does the audition process demean the female actor? Should human actors be worried, now that we live in a world where lots of supporting and lead characters only exist in an animation database, but never in the physical sense?
Gumdrop’s vacuum cleaner gag was very funny. But, does that mean she’s really just a glorified Rosy the Robot? What happens when the acting career is finished, or when she outlives her warranty? Will she get literally dumped on the scrap heap?
For some reason, I care about Gumdrop more than Robbie. Maybe it’s the human motion and voice. She’s much more likeable than Robbie. Like they said in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way.
True Skin is an extremely well-made, and convincing film. Very Blade Runner-esque. Great Raymond-Chandler-inspired dialogue. “Their eyes burned holes in my pockets” was a brilliant line.
So, the one thing all these films have in common is that they live or die by the quality of the plot and the dialogue. Yay, human writers!
In terms of the humanity proposition of this week, I think this film does the best job of articulating some major issues:
If there comes a time when we can no longer define or recognize humanity by its fleshiness, will it still be considered human? Is a cyborg who is less than 50% flesh and bone still a human being? Maybe the more metallic and less meaty we become, the less human we will be perceived to be. Ben Kenobi said of Darth Vader: “He’s more machine than man now, twisted and evil.”
On a personal level, if a friend of mine had their thoughts transferred into a little computer, and I could interact with them (either text, or maybe Max Headroon style on a display screen), would I still consider them human? Probably not, if I could put them into Standby Mode, or turn them off, like any other device. So, maybe autonomy and self-preservation are other key aspects of being a sentient being?
I loved Avatar Days. The simple concept of transplanting a fantasy persona into the owner’s real-world life and society is an extremely powerful thing. It’s done so matter-of-factly and carefully that it becomes a real artistic social statement. Coolest of all, it’s contemporary. You can get immersed in World of Warcraft or Second Life and become a sword-swing, spell-packing nerd of Azaroth today.
I’ve played around in Second Life a bit in the past (reporting as “Earnest Oh”), so I can appreciate the appeal of being able to put on that second skin and walk around (or remove it and assume the position, in a lot of people’s cases… yeesh, people). It makes you wonder about the boundary between fantasy and reality for one thing. I read somewhere, that internally, your brain does not distinguish the difference between a memory of a real event, and a memory of a dream. They’re both equally valid as memories, even if one of them didn’t occur in the physical world. So, if our brains are already wired to accept dream-memories as valid, why wouldn’t we send coma victims to Azaroth to kick some goblin ass as part of some cognitive stimulation therapy? At least they’d have something interesting to do.
What about The Matrix as Long Term Care Facility? Let me extend that interesting idea into my personal life experience…
My Mother was a long-term care resident at our provincial mental health hospital for many years. I’m willing to bet that if my poor Mum were able to choose between (A) stay in a semi-vegetative state with little physical activity and not much on TV, or (B) Be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (her favourite movie), she’d have gone for Option B and never looked back. And if I could have visited her on the yellow brick road instead of in the awkward, cold silence of a hospital visiting room, I know which choice I’d have made too.
This blog post and the embedded video, form my Digital Artifact , my personal response, to the MOOC “eLearning and Digital Cultures”. In this post, I’ll try to respond to the propositions it has put before me, and to the methods and patterns I’ve observed in it and in myself.
About the Video…
I didn’t set out to emulate “The Machine is Us” or any of those first-person, typing-on-your-screen responses to modern tech, but in retrospect, my video kind of looks like one of them.
But, the way it looks came about purely practically:
I wanted to use my voice. Maybe this was because the vastness of the MOOC classroom made me feel like it was difficult to be heard.
The MOOC is a heavily visual experience (all those videos, and scrolling of screens to read things), so my response had to be full of images and motion.
I knew it would be made up of some kind of collage of images, but I didn’t know I’d be sampling my own web surfing so directly. This was like a riff on the act of doing web-based research.
I wanted the video piece to look and feel a bit obscure, rough or hand-rolled, not perfectly trim and clean. Plus, time would be an issue, so I had to figure ways to do things live, and to move things around on the screen in real-time. Time was my enemy. I’d probably need to work fast.
I had a rough script, but was ready to improvise if need be.
How the video was produced:
The video came into being through a combination of digital and online resources, and coincidental, guerrilla production methods.
I’d originally thought about doing a Prezi or a slideshow as the format for my final piece, but after thinking about it for a while, I decided that those formats would either be too restrictive, or too over-used. I would definitely record something off my computer screen though – maybe using Jing…
My next concept was to create many little graphical clips – little cutouts – in Photoshop, and move them around on Photoshop’s artboard, like little 2D puppets on a digital “stage”. (Maybe the “Bendito Machine” video had influenced me subconsciously?)
As the deadline approached, the prospect of capturing and clipping dozens of graphics – maybe even one hundred – seemed hugely impractical. I needed a more immediate, more rapid way to get my idea across. I decided to try to stay with the “stage” idea, but move bigger and fewer pieces of art around.
I built a simple Photoshop project that used a soft-edged rectangle, like a soft viewport or blurry camera iris. I decided that the first few moments of my story could represent a frame of my expectations – the fuzzy edges might stand as a visual metaphor for the uncertain boundaries of my expectations, or the blurry boundaries that I perceived to be the student parameters of the MOOC itself.
Beyond that, I had a number of concepts that I’d thumbed into my smartphone during a coffee break. I knew the story would trace a line through the content that I’d experienced thus far, and through my reactions to being a MOOCer, in general.
I set up a small 640 x 480 rectangular area on my screen to record, and I abandoned Jing in favour of its “big brother” app, Camtasia Studio.
This became as much of a temporal collage as it was a spatial collage.
As soon as I got to record the first web page in the video (in this case the front of edcmooc), I decided to abandon the Photoshop artboard “stage” altogether, and just grab whatever I could online to tell the narrative I had sketched out in Notepad. I would just capture whatever I could in my browser (making elements bigger so they better filled the screen and the user’s field of view), and use whatever images I could find on the fly from the web.
I began recording, and would pause from shot to shot, to change what content would appear in the little 640 x 480 capture area. This allowed me to create the whole sequence in chunks of one minute or so, or sometimes as brief as a few seconds. This gave me the freedom to work rapidly and change things on the fly, spending 10 or 15 minutes between “takes” to select and compose what would go in the next little sequence, or consult my little script (which you see me doing in the video), and practice or re-do my audio narration.
The music track was from a creative commons source, and any coincidences of images and sounds (like when an image appears right in time with a strong drum cue or something) is purely and wonderfully coincidental.
So, there was some predetermined design, and there was some random chance, and some on-the-spot improv, which felt very liberating. There was a logistical framework in some of the preparation, and most especially there was a definite mental framework in all the concepts which had been interconnecting in my mind over the past few weeks.
But it was truly recorded as a sequence of brief little live performances. Recording and editing the initial 12 minute “draft” version of the video probably took me five or six hours. The next day, I emailed and tweeted the YouTube URL around to get some feedback, and then spent another hour later that night tightening up the editing, adding graphics, and refining the music volume.
Then, I spent another few hours working on this blog post, in order to try to explain (and rationalize) it all…
What my Digital Artifact probably says about my experience…
…is that after the first few weeks, I think I responded more to the process of MOOCing, of being a student in a MOOC, than I did to the actual propositions put to me by the course facilitators and the course content. I always have been a bit more interested in process rather than product. I think that working in relative isolation, with only a vague feeling of online “connectedness” to instructors or colleagues, tended to make me turn inward more and more. Instead of reaching outward to collaborate with my online classmates or facilitators, I turned inward and did a more personal analysis of the internal learning and thought processes which had been triggered – some of which from twenty five years earlier! I think that’s what my artifact communicates: my reactions to the process in which I was immersed.
I enjoyed creating something that moved and contained more than one mode of apprehension (i.e. voice + video + music). I think that I ended up responding to those same qualities in the MOOC content…
The little animated chunks of video, which delivered little windows into someone else’s world.
The relentless reading and scrolling and clicking to get from idea to idea (an animated experience in itself).
What does my experience reflect? Is it useful to the MOOC itself?
A friend and fellow classmate in this MOOC told me that being in it felt a bit like being in art college all over again. I must totally agree with that statement: that is very much how it felt for me as well. And for me, that’s a good thing.
But, is it useful information to the facilitators of this MOOC or to the developers of the versions of it that will come after it? Just what kind of teaching and learning have we been undertaking here in MOOCland, and what are those Masters students in the U. of Edinburgh getting from studying this massive online learning experiment? And what does Coursera get out of it?
What is a MOOC, after all?
Is it just Edutainment, as some people fear?
Is it a new excuse for more web surfing and social media?
Is it actually some yet-to-be-validated form of social learning?
Those questions will take me much longer to answer.
Explorations in learning, ideas, and design by E. John Love