Reflections on semester one
Well, I have just completed my first semester as a MFA student of Emergent Media. I had few concrete expectations for the program, so it is perhaps not fair to say that the program has exceeded my expectations. But the idiom does begin to communicate something about my experience this first semester. Like the media ecology theory we learned in my critical theory class, Technology as a Destructive Force, the MFA program has shaped what we think about, what we think with, and how we organize ourselves.
I am approaching technology more critically, taking a moment to try to understand where it fits into a larger emerging landscape, how it interacts with the past and future and how we interact with it. I am beginning to deconstruct the language of programming, and in doing so, I am able to understand software, games, programs in a different way as well.
I am looking at my own interests in a larger context as part of this larger landscape. I am eager to continue refining, reflecting and evolving my interests, and, at this moment, I am happy to report that I have less of a sense of what I will do for my thesis and with this degree than I did three months ago. That is a good thing. If my mind wasn’t changed, if my eyes weren’t open, if my head wasn’t turned in my first three months here, then this program would have been wasted money. I’m glad to report, that thus far, my money is being well-invested, and that my future path is emerging as I go down it.
For my final project in my critical theory class, Technology as a Destructive Force, I worked with two classmates to write a manifesto on interplay. Interplay refers to the way that new and old technologies overlap, interact, change each other, influence each other, and co-evolve. As students of emergent media and as artists using emerging media to express ourselves and to try to understand the world around us, recognizing interplay is hugely importance, as it allows us to exploit and manipulate these transitional spaces, which allows us to both comment on and perhaps alter the paths of the transitions in of themselves.
In creating this manifesto, we wanted to attempt to understand how non-students of emergent media understood the idea of interplay. To do this, I interviewed members of my family and my husband’s family to try to get an intergeneration perspective on living in a world of constant change and emergence. It was a powerful experience for me, to take a moment to let my family speak to sit back and listen to their words. My mother-in-law began the interview by telling me that she had nothing to say, and then she went on to speak for about 20 minutes on how it felt to be on the sidelines of this changing landscape. The common thread for my parent’s generation was anxiety and fear around keeping up with the changes. There’s just not enough time to absorb and understand each new technology as it comes out. My eleven year old cousin had no fear, no sense of repercussion for mistakes or missteps. My grandmother mostly just saw how technology makes us seem so busy all the time. They spoke beautifully and passionately about the role technology has in their world, past and present.
They illuminated the need for illumination, the need for a guide on this journey through technology.
Needless to say, I feel passionately that understanding and recognizing interplay as it occurs is essential to be successful in a world of rapidly evolving technology and media. And I hope that as I continue with my own explorations of interplay, I can help illuminate these transition and serve as a guide for others.
on the verge…
My colleague, Rachel, and I have been running around like proverbial headless chickens, along with other classmates, in order to put together an application for Champlain College to become a Design for America studio on top of all our other projects and responsibilities. It’s been rough, truth be told, fitting a group application in at the busiest time in our semester, but in many ways, it has been a gift, conducting interviews in our community.
We have interviewed Amanda Levinson, principal of ThirdSpace Consulting, Bobby Hackney, musician, graphic designer, and youth leader, Rich Nadworny, principal of digalicious, Adam Rubin, principal of 2Revolutions and Cristy Mitchell, artist, creative facilitator of S.P.A.C.E. gallery and Associate Director of SEABA (South End Arts and Business Association), so far, with 4 more interviews to complete. The purpose of the interviews is to showcase the diversity of our community to Design for America, and to show the appetite our community has for finding design-solutions to interdisciplinary challenges faced in our community.
What I have taken away from this is that we are a community on the verge. On the verge of coming into our own, on the verge of being on the map, on the verge of being sustainable, livable, hip, edgy, happening. On the verge of…. Emerging.
Truthfully, I have always felt that way about Burlington. It’s what attracted me to this area a decade and a half ago, and it’s what has kept me here all these years. At the same time, part of my frustration with my existence here is that sense of always being on the verge of… something.
What I heard over and over in the interviews was that people live here because they want to (which as Adam Rubin pointed out, is something that can’t be said for the suburbs of New York), because it is beautiful, because it is full of good food and agriculture, because it is full of creative and innovative people. But, yet, we struggle with a lack of industry, with a high cost of living, with an average at best public education system.
I believe, as does each and every person I interviewed, that the Queen City is truly and finally on the verge of a transformation. And I believe that technology and, dare I say, Emergent Media, are going to catapult Burlington, and Vermont, as a whole, into the global scene. As the Internet comes of age, it is slowly figuring out what it does best. The first round of the Internet was dictated by old understandings of communication, as postured by libraries, databases, old ways of marketing and communication (i.e. broadcasting). But Internet 2.0 is all about creating communities, conversation and user-generated content. This is what Vermont does best- we create, connect and discuss with our neighbors and our community. Now, that the Internet has shed it’s old expectations about how it “should” behave, I look forward to seeing how our small state can use it to help Burlington emerge as a cultural, creative and innovation capital of the country, if not the world.
The search for authenticity
Last week I attended the first presentation by the Native Creative Consortium, group of design, marketing and communications professionals from around Vermont (Champlain College and Burlington City Arts are also affiliated). Their mission, as stated on their website, “to unify the energy of Vermont’s creative community, amplify its potential to create positive change and build awareness of Vermont’s creative distinction.” Nathan Shedroff spoke about Experience Design and Making Meaning. I had never heard of him before a couple of weeks ago, but was assured by a professor that he was quite brilliant.
I had never really thought much about “experience design” before, if I had ever heard the term, I think I assumed that it was about installations and physical spaces. But, according to Shedroff, everything is an experience of sorts. He defines Experience Design loosely, stating,
“Many see it only as a field for digital media, while others view it in broad-brush terms that encompass traditional, established, and other such diverse disciplines as theater, graphic design, storytelling, exhibit design, theme-park design, online design, game design, interior design, architecture, and so forth. The list is long enough that the space it describes has not been formally defined.
There are, at least, 6 dimensions to experiences: Time/Duration, Interactivity, Intensity, Breadth/Consistency, Sensorial and Cognitive Triggers, and Significance/Meaning. Together, these create an enormous palette of possibilities for creating effective, meaningful, and successful experiences.
The most important concept to grasp is that all experiences are important and that we can learn from them whether they are traditional, physical, offline experiences or whether they are digital, online, or other technological experiences. In fact, we know a great deal about experiences and their creation through these other established disciplines that can-and must-be used to develop new solutions. Most technological experiences-including digital and, especially, online experiences-have paled in comparison to real-world experiences and have been relatively unsuccessful as a result. What these solutions require is for their developers to understand what makes a good experience first, and then to translate these principles, as well as possible, into the desired media without the technology dictating the form of the experience.”
I like his acknowledgment of the failure of digitally to successfully create engaging and meaningful experience. It reminds me of discussions we’ve been having in my class at school, “Technology as a Disruptive Force,” about authenticity in the digital age. In “Better Than Free,” Kevin Kelly addresses a similar problem with digitally. He writes about the disruptions to the underpinnings of our economy due to the ease with which technology allows us to create free, unlimited reproductions. “Why would we ever pay for anything that we could get for free?” he writes. “When anyone buys a version of something they could get for free, what are they purchasing?” I would argue, and I think both Shedroff and Kelly would agree, they are buying the experience. And, hopefully, that experience was designed to be meaningful.
Kelly explores eight “uncopyable values” or “generatives” that give value: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability. The clearest overlap between Kelly and Shedroff is in what Kelly refers to as “authenticity” and Shedroff as “meaning/significance.”
I’m holding onto that overlap right now. Shedroff compelled us to make sure that everything we make has meaning, and is created to allow others to experience meaning through our work. That is perhaps more difficult than it sounds. I am searching for authenticity and meaning in my work right now. I’ll let you know what I find.
The quarter-million dollar pair of socks
I just read an article today that appeared in the NY Times. ( I read it online, of course. I can’t actually remember the last time that I actually held a copy of the Times in my hand. Incidentally, I found out about the article because a “friend” of mine shared it via Facebook, and after I read it, I shared it with my own “friends” on Facebook as well.) The article was called, “At Waldorf School in Silicon Valley Technology Can Wait.” And let me tell you, it paints a sexy picture (at least if you are a left-leaning parent concerned about all your child is not learning in public school). For a mere $24,000 a year (which for two children adds up to more than half a million dollars for their primary education alone), your children can knit their way through mathematics by making socks, and learn fractions by cutting up and eating cake. Without ever looking at or touching a screen. The students interviewed for the article are well-spoken, grounded intelligent young people. They certainly are deriving more value from their education than my daughter is from hers. (At least from a certain perspective. My daughter’s school certainly is way more socio-economically and culturally diverse than any Waldorf school. And, there is much to be learned from sharing a classroom with people different than oneself.)
There is a Waldorf School in Shelburne, and I know in the recent past, parents and children were contractually obligated not to use any screens, both at school and at home. (My friend, who sent her son to the third grade there, cheated by allowing him to watch Red Sox games. If she were a better parent, she would have made him listen to AM radio, so as not to risk tainting his educational experience… Yes, I think Waldorf to be a bit rigid.) The Waldorf of Silicon Valley, where apparently many executives from companies like Google send their children, “strongly discourages” the use of screens at home, but shies away from banning screens out right (could you imagine?!).
I was struck an article I read for my Technology as a Disruptive Force class, by Sharon Stoerger, “The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide.” As many of you know by now, I am deeply interested in the way we as a culture integrate technology into education. My interest in this subject, while fueled by the experiences of my own children, is deeply rooted in my role as an artist and educator, which I believe is to help create students that are engaged in the world around them, and able to think creatively to solve problems and pose questions (which is the role of an artist in society, even if the artist is disguised as a businessperson, or doctor or some other equally “non-arty” occupation).
I am especially interested in some of her conclusions around the problems that stem from the way the assumptions we make about the generational divide around technology. She reminds us that “just because students can open up Google in their Web browser does not mean that they know how to find quality information resources.” In fact, she points out that “the technology the digital natives use did not appear from nowhere. Someone had to design, build and upgrade the technologies that have evolved into the electronic spaces that the natives now inhabit. Interestingly, very few educational technology advocates mention that the digital immigrants were the creators of these devices and environments.”
There was an interview on Spark Radio this weekend with Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book, Program or be Programmed. He argues that kids (and adults, incidentally) should “learn to code, not for their careers, but so that they can understand the bias of digital technology.” It is a powerful argument, one that is substantiated by researchers, as noted in Stoeger’s piece, that have discovered that college students have little understanding of how computer technology actually works.
Alan Eagle, who works in executive communications at Google, sends his kids to the Waldorf school. He doesn’t worry that his kids don’t use technology yet. He says, “It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste. At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.” Hmmm…Yes, I am sure his children, with all the luxuries afforded by a quarter-million-dollar primary education, will “figure it out.” But if Google is really trying to “make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible,” then very few of us will need to “figure it out,” and we’ll be at the mercy of the creators of this “simple” system. What about the other 99%? The ones who go to public schools, the ones whose parents did not create the technology (or maybe even use it), the ones who may not yet have access to the Internet at home. Will they just “figure it out?”
I don’t think so, and nor does Stoerger, who notes that we need to find ways to teach “information literacy, visual literacy, new media literacy, information fluency, and information competence skills” to our young people. Many of whom “have not learned about the new media literacy skills— play, multitasking, collective intelligence— at school. Rheingold and Young believe that we need to “expose students to “‘participatory media’ in order to promote civic engagement.” And Stoeger also quotes Wesch, who writes “educational changes should be about the social spirit enabled by new technologies— collaboration, interaction, and participation — not the technologies themselves.”
The parents who send their children to the Waldorf of Silicon Valley are right. We do not need to teach our students how to do a google search. But, we do need to teach them about the biases inherent in that google search, which is not nearly as transparent or obvious as Eagle might have us think. Unfortunately, I don’t see technology being used in any meaningful way in most schools right now. I see it as window dressing. Throw a couple of computers in the corner, send kids to the lab once a week, give them an IPad to play with- this does not teach our students how to “collaborate, interact, or participate.” It also doesn’t teach our students how to problem solve, or think creatively. Writing code, blogging, making animations and playing games might. As does knitting. The problem I have with the Waldorf parents solution to the dilemmas inherent in the integration of technology of education, is that their solution doesn’t solve the digital divide. It ignores it.
About Me:Robin Perlah is a professional photographer and educator, living and working in the greater Burlington, Vermont area. She teaches college classes, adult workshops, and works as a consultant at the high school level, in addition to providing private tutoring.
Skills and Services:
- Wedding Photography
- Portrait Photography
- Photo Retouching
- Fine Art Photo Printing
- Private Tutoring
- Workshops and Classes