More Than A Two-Way Conversation

The last time I read Personal Dynamic Media, I blogged about the resonance of Kay and Goldberg’s flute metaphor for the possibilities of creating and communicating with the internet and new media.  As a recovering musician with an interest in how music is created and perceived in times of political and social upheaval, I find the prescience of Kay and Goldberg’s vision for an interactive Dynabook that instantly represents and captures a composer’s input thrilling and awe-inspiring.

Today things unfolded a bit differently.  I went to class thinking about Kay and Goldberg’s insight about the connection between media, communication and learning:

Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea.  It may be representational or abstract.  The essence of the medium is very much dependent on the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed…..the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided.  Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active — it can respond to queries and experiments — so that the message may involve the learner in two-way conversation. (NMR, pp. 393-394)

I’m a pretty enthusiastic endorser of the transformative potential of that two-way conversation with the computer as medium, but today I wanted more.  The class had just submitted another good set of posts about the Soviet experience of World War II, and the weekly edition of the blog looked terrific.  But I wanted to make sure that the class’s understanding of the big picture behind Soviet victory had not been left by the wayside of some excellent posts about battles, war-time hardships, and the origins of the Cold War.

So, using a variation of a method for “google-doc-ing discussion” my honors colloquium pioneered last spring, I set up several google docs and sent the links out before I headed to class.  I had asked everyone to bring their text book to class and to have reviewed the section that analyzes the reasons the Soviets prevailed.  (Years of teaching Soviet history have impressed upon me how resilient the old chestnuts about the war on the Eastern Front are.  I’ve learned that I can’t count on enlightenment and lecture to counter the mystique of the Russian winter or Hitler’s strategic errors as causal explanations for an enormously complicated struggle that was as much a Soviet victory as it was a German defeat.)

In the last fifteen minutes of class I had the students divide into groups, and claim a blank document.  Most of them had their laptops with them and when I asked them to outline the author’s thesis and the claims he makes in support of it, they began to talk, type, and flip through the book.  I had all seven documents open on my computer which was mirrored on the projector.  I watched as the outlines developed in real time over the next few minutes.  Some groups got it right away – setting up an outline which supported the author’s assertion that “paradoxically, the USSR won the war both because of and despite the Stalinist system.”  But most of them didn’t.  Some of them made bulleted lists of factors they deemed relevant (and yes, Hitler’s mistakes were on some of those lists…and that’s ok), and some of them found a minor interpretive point and used it to structure the main argument.  So I started typing questions on the docs. (“What is Fuller’s thesis?”  “What role does he say the Stalinist system played?” “Are you sure about that?”).  One group listed “not JUST the weather” as an important factor, which prompted me to write “YAY!”, and prompted them to laugh. And suddenly, we were all working really hard and having some fun.  The groups without the correct thesis went scrambling back to their books and started talking and typing among themselves.  The groups that were struggling looked at the projector to watch how a more successful answer was taking shape in another group, and then went back to their own document.  A few more minutes would have been really helpful, but when class ended five of the seven groups were on the right track, and everyone was still working. No packing up five minutes early, no shuffling and looking at the clock.  I could see on the google docs that everyone kept writing and working until I told them we needed to stop.  We will go back to the exercise next week to finish up, but I can tell that there will be more google-doc-ing group work down the line.

Yesterday I heard a colleague talk about how her daughter refers to her computer as an “internet machine.”  Today in class it seemed as though the computer/internet machine/medium “an sich” had transformed an ordinary exercise with group work into a multi-level conversation that leveraged engagement and communication in promising and exciting ways.

Clenched Fist

Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines reading is among my favorites in the New Media Seminar.  As Claire notes, even for the connoisseur nugget-searcher, this selection, and especially the “Dream Machines” section,  abounds in provocative, compelling morsels.  I’m going to just note one for now:

“I believe computer screens can make people happier, smarter, and better able to cope with the copious problems of tomorrow.  But only if we do right, right now.” (NMR, p. 317)

So, have we done it right?  Did we do it right now?

Computer_Lib_cover_by_Ted_Nelson_1974As a child of the sixties, I find the clenched, raised fist of Computer Lib both challenging and familiar.  A powerful gesture of resistance and unity, the raised, clenched fist has an ancient lineage in human culture and is especially associated with the protest movements of the post-World War II era.  Indeed we are thinking about the challenge of Computer Lib on the 45th anniversary of one of the most famous uses of the raised clenched fist: the silent protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on October 16 at the 1968 Olympics. Smith and Carlos shocked many, and paid a heavy price for “politicizing” the Olympic games.  Yet their silent bravery bore witness to a deep-seated disillusionment with a society whose actions fell far short of its ideals.

I’m wondering about the overtones of resistance, unity, power, and struggle in the computer lib fist and how we might respond to that fist today.  Are we “happier, smarter, and better able to cope with the copious problems of tomorrow?”

“Do Something Boring”

Oblique Strategies

This was not the advice I was looking for when I consulted my Old Media version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies this morning.  The new media version’s offering was more intriguing: “Be Dirty,” it suggested.

Oblique Strategies Be DirtyOk.

I started cleaning my office.  Boring, but not dirty.  The opposite of dirty in fact.  The instruction to “Be Dirty” made me take a mental step to the side, which prompted me to clean, which cleared my head, and brought brought the seven most important things that need to happen to today into focus: Write this blog post; find an article in Nauka v Sibiri, figure out what Dmitrii Belyaev was thinking when he started breading silver foxes for tameness in the 1950s, make pet care arrangements for upcoming travel, get ready for the NMFS, find a way to fix the broken shade in the entryway, sign-up for a flu shot, fold clothes from last week’s laundry.

Oblique Strategies helped me get unstuck, but I would need the internet for everything on my list except for folding the clothes.

Lateral thinking, the kind of indirect approach to creativity and problem solving that Oblique Strategies stimulates, might not be the first thing that comes to mind when reading Vannevar Bush’s, As We May Think.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bush summoned scientists to develop technologies that would make the “inherited knowledge of the ages” accessible to all.  He was particularly interested in making vast realms of information immediately available. From our vantage point today, his vision of the memex with its monoculared user and stores of microfilm seems almost quaint, and at the same time eerily anticipatory of the latest wearable computing technology such as Google Glass.

But the last sections of As We May Think suggest that Bush recognized that the real power of the future Memex depended on the process of association – not just locating bits of information, but connecting them in meaningful and unique ways.  He knew that leveraging the selection of information by association, rather than indexing, was the key to extending the power of human beings’ creative, symbolic and associative reasoning capacities.

And to me, this is the most prescient moment of the text.  Yes, it conditions the ground for the development of Oblique Strategies (Old Media).  But more importantly it suggests the power of the future we are now living, where the internet and digital media not only put infinite amounts of information at our disposal, but enable us to make meaningful associations, create new knowledge, and form networks that leverage expertise and mutual interest in ways that must have seemed truly fantastic (if not fanciful) in 1945.

Lauren talked about the connections she sees between the associative powers of new media and her work as a librarian in her post here:

“I’m really interested in exploring how the changing information/communication/media landscapes impact peoples’ access to information, their ability to learn and contribute back, and, ultimately, their understanding of the world. Library work gives me a concrete “lab” in which to explore this, and the information I find then can be directly fed back into my library work to make the library more relevant.”

I am examining a similar process with my students this semester by using a blogging project to crowd-source content for a course on Soviet History.  We are only a few weeks in, but I’ve already seen a significant uptick in the level of engagement and quality of the research students produce when they use the associative powers of the web to turn information into knowledge reflecting their unique interests and aptitudes. At the same time their work as individuals contributes to a networked and globally accessible repository of insight about the Soviet experience.  It might be a living Memex.  And it is certainly not something boring.

Late Adopter

Last January, I stumbled into a workshop on student blogging, spent the weekend revamping the course I was about to teach on the history of humans and domestic animals, and, without really realizing what was happening, fell into the slipstream of a richly rewarding, compellingly complex, and insistently dynamic network of practices and technologies.  I knew these “new media” were reshaping the intellectual and physical landscape of higher education, but had never really thought about them in any sustained or systematic way.  The opportunity to do so appeared a few days later, in the form of an invitation from Gardner Campbell (he who dispensed the student-blogging kool-aid the previous week) asking me to join the New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar.  I wasn’t sure what might be involved in such a seminar, but found its title alluring: “Awakening the Digital Imagination.”

Over the next twelve weeks I read, watched, talked, listened, blogged, and learned. I met and got to know a talented and diverse group of colleagues, many of whom had shared the university’s physical campus with me for years in that completely anonymous way that is both bizarre and completely normal at a giant institution such as this one.  After twenty years of teaching, it was incredibly fun and interesting to be a student again. Taking a couple hours a week to consider the cultural and historical context of technological change and the creative potential of new media started out as a welcome variation in the ordinary routine of the semester, but soon became much more.

By the end of the term I had overhauled my teaching, re-imagined my scholarship, and was having more fun doing both than I’d had in years.  Along with working on a book about the Soviet space dogs, the summer held out the promise of developing a crowd-sourced blogging project for my Soviet history students that would use a proprietary database of translated primary materials as well as openly accessible resources on the web.  When I heard Gardner was leaving Virginia Tech to become the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at VCU we met for a farewell lunch, where I was somewhat shocked to learn that he thought my digital imagination had developed enough for me to carry on his work as facilitator of the NMFS Seminar with new cohorts of seminarians. Over the last several weeks I’ve been working with a quietly persistent learning revolutionist and Tony Brainstorms to do just that.

But I’ve been late to start my own blog. Of course this doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging:  I have several blogs related to various courses at Virginia Tech, including the two predecessors of this one and a monster motherblog my students are using for the Soviet History project this fall. But getting to a place where I am ready to strike out on my own has taken a while.  I’ve been tweeting and tumbling and ravelrying and facebooking for years.  I’ve embraced the transformative potential of networked learning environments in my classroom and have started to imagine libraries in ways that confound my training and twenty-years of practice as a historian.  But I’m a late adopter of the personally-professional blog.

For brevity’s sake I’m laying a large portion of the blame for this on the traditions of my craft.  Where their discipline is concerned, historians are pre-occupied with time and venerate print, but tend to distrust speed.  And we all know the internet is fast. Furthermore, the solitary and painstaking nature of our research mitigates against the kind of collaborative openness that animates digital scholarship.  We like to keep our ideas and our work under wraps until we’re sure “we have it right.”  And here’s where my own temperament compounds the challenge of presenting a public, transparent, professionally-informed presence on a blog like this:  I don’t write quickly, and I like to revise and revisit what I write a lot before committing it to print or anything else, including, and by that I mean especially, the World Wide Web.

But here I am, ready to relax my grip, at least a bit, on my own predilections, and embrace, or at least try, a digital scholarly practice David Parry describes as an ongoing conversation and process of knowledge formation.  I’m starting the NEW New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar on the very edge of my comfort zone.  It’s an exciting place to be, and experience suggests that rich rewards await the awakened digital imagination.