Listening to Change

Listen, by Wayne Stadler. https://flic.kr/p/qGquvE
Wayne Stadler, “Listen” Creative Commons License 4.0 Non-Commercial, No Derivatives

What are the implications for familiar genres as the mode of transmission and preservation evolves? We still talk and think about “files” within “folders” for many text documents, even though physical file cabinets and manila folders are on their way out. We process words on a simulated piece of paper and discard the rejects in a metaphorical trashcan.  And “books” now exist in a range of formats, including e-readers, paper, and audio books.  I do a lot of reading on the screen and appreciate the relative advantages and drawbacks of that mode of consumption. I love my Kindle and my Ipad for flipping through mysteries and PDFs, but paper between covers is still my preferred medium for serious reading and subsequent consultation of a text I want to know well.

I also listen to audio books while I run and have been enjoying Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind this winter. There is nothing brief about this book (the full Audible version comes in at more than fifteen hours), unless you consider the scope of the project. Harari’s provocative examination of the deep history of humanity artfully interweaves larger themes about how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet with the specifics of that story by focusing on three particular tectonic shifts in the development and organization of human societies: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. As a story of globalization, Sapiens, which evolved from Harari’s World History course, is an unusual and surprising blend of interpretation — an effort to find coherence in the story of humanity’s rise to world dominance, and of reflection on how that past might condition the future.

A couple days ago I listened to Harari’s discussion of the distinction between deterministic and humanist perspectives on historical change and possibility and nodded appreciatively at this observation in Chapter 13, near the end of Part III:

“In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a  small, radical, Russian faction. No reasonable person would have believed that in a mere four years they would take over the country.”

Since we were just getting to the revolutions of 1917 in my Soviet History course and spent most of the previous week discussing the prospects of constitutionalism in Imperial Russia after the Revolution of 1905, I wanted to use the eight minute clip this quote comes from as a jumping off point for discussing contingency and the goals of historical study in class. So how does that work logistically and how does the format of the audio book condition the way we work with this “text” in class?

Making the excerpt accessible to the class was the easy part. We meet  in a Learning Studio equipped with several AppleTVs, so I used AirPlay to send the audio from my phone through the projection system. Instead of referring the students to a text they needed to read and then waiting for everyone to finish (it’s always tricky to gauge how long this should take) we all listened at the same speed and finished at the same time.

I was curious about how well, or rather how consistently we would listen as group. Individuals latch onto different aspects of a printed text, and helping students distinguish between the morsel they find interesting and the author’s main idea or analytical framework can be challenging. In the case of the audio excerpt, however, it most of the class seemed to “get it” right away. We spent very little time establishing “what the author said” and moved quickly to the issue I wanted to discuss — that causation and contingency are not just important, but that the more you know about a particular historical moment the more complex it becomes. We seek meaning in the past and connecting the dots that are only visible in hindsight is as misleading as it is appealing. So, making sense of how the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 requires us to consider the messiness of the present of that moment — the traumas of World War I and the social and economic stresses that conditioned the series of political crises that helped position this “small radical Russian faction” for success.

It’s hard to say if this initial experiment with discussion based on listening to a text together has many advantages over more traditional modes of reading, but I will likely try something similar again soon. I think the slower “delivery” of the spoken excerpt, combined with the fact that we were all physically in the same space made it easier for people to focus on what they were hearing. I observed no multi-tasking and very little squirming. When we have a text in front of us it’s easy and often necessary to point to a specific passage. In the case of the audio book, cuing up a particular sentence is a bit tricky, but in this case I didn’t need to. Enough people remembered the main ideas pretty well and could clarify them for the folks who were confused.

I’ve noticed that more and more of my own “reading” has shifted to audio books and podcasts recently, so I’m interested in how we can use these resources in teaching. And if you haven’t had a chance to read or  listen to Sapiens, you should give it a try. Whether you agree with him or not, Harari has an important message about where he thinks our past is taking us.

Metamedium Nugget

NMR Ch. 26: Personal Dynamic Media

Jordan asked us to think about a nugget or app that best represented Kay and Goldberg’s vision of the Dynabook.  I’ve worked with the flute / pizza / Theremin metaphor before, and also thought about the dialogic qualities of personal dynamic media and their value in the classroom.  So this time I’m going with a nugget that speaks for itself:

What would happen in a world in which everyone had a Dynabook?  If such a machine were designed in a way that any owner could mold and channel its power to his own needs, then a new kind of medium would have been created: a metamedium, whose content would be a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media.

Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, NMR, p. 403

Interaction, Agency and Ants

 

ant.sim.110810-530pxThis week my post-seminar musings circled back to our discussion about what we expect of our computers and how we understand and imagine them.  I found thinking about what exactly what we mean by “interaction” pretty interesting. I’m going to duck the whole question about how good or bad Brenda Laurel is on Aristotle and focus instead on the issue that Janine raised when we were talking about agency and computers.

There’s much that resonates with me in Brenda Laurel’s definition of agents as “entities that can initiate and perform actions” (p. 569).  Thinking about my computer, or my ipad, or my Iphone, I definitely see a potential there for performing actions, a potential that is realized countless times over the course of any given day. Initiation is a bit more complex, but it seems to me that when I tell Siri to send a text to Alan, “she” initiates the action by executing the program that calls up the text window and then “asks” me what I want to say in that text.  I don’t think I have a theory of mind about Siri. I do expect “her” to interact with me so that we can successfully accomplish something I couldn’t do by myself. And at some level it does feel like I’m engaging a cognitive entity when I use my phone. But because I know that Siri is a suite of programs and technologies that can’t make associative leaps independently of what her programmers gave her, I understand that her limits are absolute – she cannot be “trained” to quit confusing “Alan” with “Ellen.”  She does know that Alan is my brother because she was programmed to ask “what is your brother’s name” the first time I said “send my brother a text.”  But when I asked her to send a text to my mother, she asked what her name was, and when I told her she replied: “there is no Bonnie in your contacts.”  I’m pretty sure that the next time Siri gets an upgrade there will be an association between “mother” and “mom” somewhere in her code, but this is not something that Siri can develop (initiate) on her own.  At the end of the day, she is the creation of her programmers and designers.  In some sense of the word she is “organic” – that is complete and more than the sum of her inter-related parts.  But she is not unique.  My Siri is just like your Siri and every other Siri out there, even if she does call me “Amy.”

But you can interact with her.  I liked Janine’s assertion that computers are technologies or tools that help humans accomplish specific tasks, but not entities with which we interact. We both thought about how the concept of “interaction” squared with what we think about humans’ use of other technologies.  I suggested cars, skiis, and a cello, and Janine proposed a broom. I agree that brooms do not have agency. But you might be able to make a case for agency and interaction with skiis, and certainly with a cello.

After class I also thought about how we understand our interactions with some animals (where the “theory of mind” issue is often invoked to deny animal agency). Dogs, for example, can certainly initiate and perform actions. They do things for us that are beyond our solo capabilities (herding sheep, finding a lost child).  And mine have never confused Alan with Ellen or not known who “mom” was. They continue to learn over the course of their lifetime, without a software upgrade. They are also unique individuals, a claim that can be made about cellos (and flutes) as well.  All flutes might have the same components, but each has its own feel and sound. Musicians make music with their instruments.  Through breath and/or touch they animate the flute to create something exquisite and unique. The performer might initiate the breath or the touch, but it is the synergy between the breath, the fingers, and the flute that creates the sound we recognize as music. Of course instruments are technologies in some ways, as are some animals at least some of the time.

I feel like I should write something about human-computer interaction in terms of ANT (Actor Network Theory) but am going to end with Sim Ant as a reminder of the connections between cognition, play and agency – as well as the generational differential we’ve talked about before in terms of how we respond to emerging digital technologies.  Here’s Will Wright’s description of the development of Sim Ant and the game’s connections to animal culture:

“The next game I did was called SimAnt; it was actually based on the work of Edward O. Wilson, who is the premier myrmecologist in the world. He had just published this very large book called The Ants18 that won the Pulitzer Prize that year. Ants have always fascinated me because of their emergent behavior. Any single ant is really stupid, and you sit there and try to understand what makes it tick. If you put a bunch of these little stupid components together, you get a colony-level intelligence that’s remarkable, rivaling that of a dog or something. It’s really remarkable, and it’s like an intelligence that you can deconstruct. Ten- and fifteen-year-olds really got into SimAnt; it was really successful with that group. Most adults didn’t play it long enough to realize the depth of ant behavior and mistook it for a game about battling ants.”