They that move in the shadows

My taxi ride on the way to catch the Glasgow train yesterday turned a little surreal.

After a brief chat about the ins and outs of booking taxis using apps, the taxi driver, a chatty but slightly intense man in his fifties, announced he was a member of the Anti Technology League. He didn’t own a computer, he said. Never had. Neither did the rest of his family. He used his mobile only for calls (his refusal to engage with voicemail had led to bailiffs trying to claim a £35 debt to a company after their 13 messages went unanswered. It’s OK. That’s sorted now). He only writes letters when he needs to contact someone officially (twice, so he has a copy).

It was his membership of this Anti Technology League that really interested me. Who are they? What are their demands? What are they going to do? Why have I never heard of them? They’re not really Googleable.

I began to picture a group like the shadowy “Reality or Nothing” terrorists that Dennis Potter invented for Cold Lazarus but the truth turned out to be a little more down to earth. They campaign against any organisation, councils, businesses and so on, that pressure people to use the web to access services. They are compiling a dossier of these organisations and plan to sue them for discrimination. He was very confident of success.

We talked a little about the benefits of social media, privacy, digital literacy and the need to switch off sometimes but it was clear he was resolute.

When he proudly talked about smashing up his mobile phone when he took it back into the Vodafone shop I started to get a little nervous. I had told him what I did for a living. He said he was much happier with the deal he’d been offered by Virgin so the mood lightened.

He also said he was surprised more people hadn’t heard of them.

I wasn’t deliberately trying to be a troll when I asked if they’d considered setting up a website but the joke did fall a little flat.

But ever since then I’ve been thinking about that problem.

How would you create a campaigning organisation, spread your message, recruit members these days if one of your founding principles is based on the rejection of digital technology? It’s entirely possible at the local level or on a small scale but the Anti Technology League seemed to have loftier ambitions than that.

It was obviously possible in the pre-digital world, but are we at a point now when trying to do that without recourse to the web is nigh on impossible?

Or maybe it’s because I’m now so fully enclosed in the technology bubble I lack the imagination to see how it would work.

I might fire up the app, book another taxi and see if I can continue the conversation.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

 This wasn’t an easy read, but it was an enjoyable one. It was the other half of a 2 for 1 from Waterstones (the other was Jon Ronson’s excellent book on shaming) so I got it on the strength of the blurb rather then reputation.
It’s going to be hard to describe this book without giving away key plot points but I’ll give it a shot. The story is set in a post apocalyptic London which is a well-worn cliche but Smaill does interesting things with it. People exist in a state of musically-induced amnesia. Memories are reset during a daily event called Chimes, an almost devotional ceremony that draws on liturgical language and imagery where inescapable music seems to cover the whole country. The rare ability to remember is treated as a kind of witchcraft which adds the medieval feel.

It’s a disorienting world. Smaill writes in a way where day to day events are vivid but anything relating to the past is ambiguous and feels fragile even as Simon, the main character, gradually pieces together the past from the fragments around him. It’s his gradual awaking to his ability to remember and the reason that he finds himself away from his family in London that drives the book.

I’ve never had to draw on my ancient Grade 5 music theory for a novel before. Smaill is a violinist and music plays a central role in how the characters remember crucial information like routes and learned expertise. As a result, the text is littered with Latinate phrases. Events happen subbito and characters remain tacet. Sound and silence are almost characters in their own right. This was quite disconcerting initially and made it hard work to follow at times but after a while you become attuned to it and it has it’s own internal logic.

I did find it stretched credulity to breaking point at times. How would a society function if memory and consequently identity, reset every 24 hours? Smaill fills most of the gaps and after a while I found myself going with the flow, willingly suspending disbelief. 

One thing that resonated with me strongly was the use of objects as a way of retaining a link to the past. Characters carry round collections of keepsakes connected to past events and even if the memory they evoke has faded, the fact of their existence helps people keep a sense of self. Those that lose these objects become memorylost, stuck in a permanent catatonic state like the victims of the spectres in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials books.

It resonated because one of the warm-up activities I ask people to do on my storytelling workshops is to find a random object they’ve brought with them, a set of keys, lipstick, ticket stub etc, and use it to explain something about themselves. Usually people talk about an event that’s connected to the object and that pens up a conversation about something more fundamental. It’s a bit of a game but it’s a great way in to looking at the art of storytelling and the link between narrative and identity.

Smaill puts this at the heart of her own story which, like all the best sci-fi, makes it a parable for something more important than the familiar setting suggests.

You can read the Guardian’s review of it here.

A week in the life

What I’ve been up to

  • Catching up with my colleagues in Jisc R&D in Bristol. Got sight of their vision for HE in 2020-2030  – now you can too!
  • 6 monthly review. All seems to be going well. Good to catch up with Steve B.
  • Met up with some other Subject Specialist colleagues, Marc Dobson, Janette Hillicks and Caroline Ingram. Started to explore possible areas of crossover work but it was just good to see them. Home working is fine but it’s important to connect with people face to face. Hope we can make it a regular thing.
  • I’ve started paying attention to Instagram again. Filling the hole that my current Facebook abstinence is creating.

What I noticed

  • VR and AR are bloody everywhere at the moment! We’re getting an increasing number of questions from institutions about AR in particular. They’re technologies I’m ambivalent about and I really should get some thoughts down here.
  • This article about how an adherence to Bloom’s taxonomy is affecting fieldwork skills in Biology was interesting.

What I enjoyed

  • You know you’re into a book when you really have to stop yourself from crying while sat reading in a restaurant by yourself. Thanks for that Kate Atkinson!
  • Finally watched Locke. It’s the Tom Hardy in a car film that isn’t Mad Max. It’s basically just him as a mellifluous Welshman taking a series of increasingly fraught and personal hands-free calls but it’s utterly absorbing.
  • One more ep of Happy Valley to go. I’m going to miss it. 
  • Played the fiddle as part of a scratch band/orchestra thing on Sunday. I’m usually playing bass but this gave me a real buzz. Energising.

What could have gone better

  • Time management – never a strong suit for me but it’s starting to mean I’m not dealing with big picture stuff.
  • I’ve got a blog post sitting in draft about what uses of tech are worth paying attention to and which are just fluff. I just can’t find the right angle. It’s doing my head in!
  • Could only manage 20 mins on the exercise bike in the hotel I was staying in on Monday.

Incoming

  • I’m likely to start blogging from a more worky perspective shortly. Looking forward to it.

 

OK Go – creativity and pushing the limits of one-shot promos

OK Go have released a new video this week. It seems OK GO aren’t really a rock band now instead becoming a video collective who write their own musical accompaniments. I mean that in a good way. They seem to pour as much creative effort into their promos as they do their music.

This, in the very best sense, is truly exuberant, joyful chaos!

Update: Video removed from YouTube. Try here.

It’s a neat example of creativity meaning working within a set of constraints. What sort of video could you produce if all you had was a band, a plane, 2 acrobats, some plastic balls?

Handily, they’ve given a fascinating breakdown of what went into producing it.

If you like that…

You can see more of OK Go’s videos here. They seem to have a thing for elaborate one-shot masterpieces.

Image: By OK Go – RGM18, CC BY-SA 2.0,

 

 

Tony Visconti – Making Bowie’s “Heroes”

This is one of the best things I’ve seen on the web for ages. Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s legendary producer talks to BBC Arts about the recording of Heroes in Berlin in 1977.

Using a digital version of the master tape, he breaks down all the constituent parts from the basic backing through to the vocals.

Play the video

Aside from the geeky thrill of hearing how a song like Heroes is technically put together, it’s actually quite eerie hearing the individual performances including Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Bowie himself. It’s easy to forget, when all you know is the finished article, that there’s all this individual effort and creativity going on. Sometimes it’s buried so deep in the mix that you only become aware of it when it’s singled out or removed completely.

It’s also tempting to imagine that songs like this just magically emerge fully formed from some sort of cosmic rock egg. What you realise from this video is just how organic and serendipitous it all is (see the anecdote about Visconti’s sneaky snog).

I’m not a massive Bowie fan, but I did get caught up in the grief about his death. I just thought the world was a more interesting place knowing that he was in it.

Why do we share what we share online?

tl;dr

People choose to share certain things via social media mostly because they confirm something about their view of the world. Even if the story or image is “shocking” on one level it’s more likely it’s being shared because it fits with an existing narrative rather than disrupting one. Understanding our own narratives and those of the people around us is an important part of developing digital identities and digital wellbeing.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” Jonathan Swift

Attention in social media

This week we found out via the BBC about a 10 year old boy in Lancashire who had been questioned by police and social workers because he wrote in a school activity that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”.

As you can imagine, this become widely read and retweeted via sites like the BBC, the Guardian and social media.

I can’t link to the Guardian’s original article, though. It’s been removed pending an investigation. Lancashire police have complained about misrepresentation as the Guardian and the BBC reported later.

At the very least, and as you’d expect, the story looks to be more nuanced than the initial headline and accompanying interest on social media.

It’s a pattern that happens a lot; a story grabs attention and sparks strong emotions then a little while later either a different truth or a more complex picture emerges which gets a lot less coverage.

I’m interested in why this happens and what it says about why we pay attention to certain things online. A while ago the New York Times did a piece on this that tried to describe what’s going on and why it happens. It concludes, in relation to an unfounded rumour that a woman had had a 3rd breast implanted:

“That hoax may seem silly, but it’s instructive about the problem with rumors — they’re often much more interesting than the truth.”

That’s fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t really explain why we find something interesting in the first place. We’re swamped with information on the web so what is it that draws our gaze and incites us to action, even if it’s only to click “share”, “retweet” or sign a petition?

I think it comes down to the narratives that we make for ourselves about the world.

Comfort and disruption

We use stories as a way of making sense of what’s going on around us. Without these structures we’d be dealing with vast amounts of data so we need to filter it and stories give us a framework for doing this.

Here’s a fictitious example to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine every morning my daughter heads off to school at around 8:00. I always say “hope you have good day”, she smiles, gives me a wee kiss and I wave her off from the doorstep.

I think this confirms for me a few things about how the world works. It means my daughter is happy to go to school and that we have a good relationship. I’ve built up a narrative around it and there’s comfort in its repetition.

Now, let’s say this morning was different. This morning, I was ready at 8:00 to say goodbye to her but she was late. She was disorganised, had to be reminded about her bag and when I said “hope you have a good day” she said nothing, leaving the house quiet and sullen without looking at me or saying anything.

How does that fit my narrative? The pattern has been broken and it feels uncomfortable. I need to find an explanation why things happened differently. It might be a momentary blip or it could be the first sign that my narrative about our relationship and how school is working out is about to change.

So, two stories. One that matches the pattern and maintains a comforting narrative; one that breaks the pattern and disrupts the narrative. But why is this relevant to sharing behaviours?

I think the reason we give our attention to things on the web isn’t just because we find them interesting. I think it’s because these things relate in some way to our existing narratives but the question is whether this is to do with comforting narratives or disruptive ones.

Looking back at the Lancashire schoolboy example in it’s original incarnation, it’s tempting to see this as a disruptive narrative. It’s quite shocking, certainly out of the ordinary but I actually think it got so much attention because it appealed to an existing narrative that people had rather than challenging the basis of one. It’s impossible to say definitively what those narratives were because they’ll vary by individual but I’ll speculate for some it will be because it confirms a narrative of an over-bearing state, unfeeling bureaucracy or maybe their feeling about schools, police or social workers.

Seeing other people share the story confirms the narrative and gives a sense of belonging and shared understanding of the world. Sharing it deepens that engagement.

I suspect that the vast majority of news items, videos, inspirational quotes  and images are shared not because they are actually shocking in any fundamental sense but because they are, at their core, comforting.

When the more complicated picture emerges later, as it did in the “terrorist house” story, in most cases (not all) it just doesn’t carry the narrative appeal. How many times do you see people saying on Facebook “that thing I shared yesterday? Turns out it’s a lot more mundane than I first thought”?

If something we see does actually shake our narrative view of the world that brings along many more complicated emotions and psychological responses. These sort of transformative events happen much more rarely and people may even choose not to pay attention to something “true” if it erodes the certainty of a prevailing narrative. The narrative shocks makes us vulnerable and I think most people would be reluctant to share anything like that openly , at least until another narrative has formed to take the place of the old one.

Digital identity and well-being

This is probably all stating the bleeding obvious but I think it’s worth thinking about, particularly if we’re involved in helping people make sense of digital identity and their well-being online.

Questions we might want to ask are:

  • How can I understand my own identity by looking at the things I choose to share?
  • How might other people’s narrative about me by affected by the things I share and does that conflict with he first point?
  • How can we understand the narratives of people in particular communities online whether they align or clash? Are there risks in trying to draw these conclusions?
  • How does these narratives shape social or political action?
  • When and how should we challenge these underlying narratives and explore what alternatives might exist as educators.

Look at your social media timeline in Facebook, Twitter or Linked In over the course of 24 hours. Pay particular attention to the more sensational posts if there are any. What can you tell about the underlying narratives at work and how are they shaping action and relationships?

Its also quite instructive to look at the language that people in the public domain use and what it tells you about the narratives they are constructing, particularly around contentious issues. Try this story for starters…

Further reading:

Baumeister, R. F., & Newman, L. S. (1994). How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences: Motives that Shape Autobiographical Narratives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(6), 676–690.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press, London.

Image: Facebook’s infection by Katie Sayer CC-BY-SA 2.0

 

 

Microsoft as a storytelling organisation

I think Steve Clayton has my dream job. I’m not a particular Microsoft fanboi but he’s their Chief Storyteller. I recently watched his presentation about “the secret to telling awesome stories” which was fascinating, mostly from the point of view of how a company like Microsoft differentiates storytelling from marketing.

Since doing my dissertation I’ve been interested in storytelling within organisations and recently I’ve been going out and talking about how it might work in the education sector (more on that soon, I hope).

Some of the key points Steve made that really resonated were about how often it’s the small side stories of a project that are the most engaging (see his anecdote about the development of the tech for Kinect), that stories and case studies aren’t the same thing, that the point is to focus on change and impact. He also talks about the power of images and how stories (or “narrative” more accurately) aren’t just about what you write or film, they’re built by the way you behave.

You can see all the stories on microsoft.com/stories.

So, if your organisation had a “Chief Storyteller” what stories would you want them to tell?

Image: Microsoft sign outside building 99 by Robert Scoble https://flic.kr/p/4s8vqM CC-BY 2.0

Geography – so much more than the sum of its parts

It’s a bit of a stereotype that the main transferable skill you learn as a geographer is how to colour stuff in.

Ordnance Survey has latched onto the trend for colouring-in for grown-ups and released a set of lines-only PDFs of some of its city maps for that very purpose. So grab your felt-tips and get colouring!

My main degree is in geography and I’m proud of it so my reaction to this partly giggle and partly groan. Anything that gets people interested in maps and places gets a thumbs up from me, even if it subtly reinforces that old image of geographers.

Despite it not being directly related to my day job I still find what I learned impacting on my understanding and appreciation of the world. As students, we were accutely aware that some viewed geography with suspicion; neither a fully fledged science nor a proper “art” – the spork of the academic world.

For me, that was always its strength. We could study a part of the globe like Southern Africa and begin to get an understanding of how the interplay of geology, economics, history, demographics and anthropology shapes a region like no other discipline.

So, it was with a certain sense of glee that I saw this Guardian editorial on how geography is the must-have A level for that very reason.

Image credit: © Copyright Siobhan Brennan-Raymond and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

“More UKIP seats” is not a good enough argument against electoral reform

So, that was the election. Aside from the disbelief/rejoicing (delete as appropriate) there have been calls to look very closely at our creaking electoral system and replace it with something more representative.

Why bother?

It’s probably summed up best in this tweet:

I’ll declare an interest. I’m a Green Party member so I have a reason to be unhappy. The fact that a nationwide surge in voting resulted in exactly the same number of Green MPs as 2010 doesn’t make sense. The same is true of UKIP. The Lib Dems have also faired badly according to this so it’s not really a partisan issue. Both Natalie Bennett and Nigel Farage have called for electoral reform in the last few days which is likely to lead to a very odd-looking single-issue alliance.

The Independent attempted to demonstrate how the House would have been divided up under PR (which system isn’t clear) and you can see that UKIP would likely come out as the 3rd largest party by some distance.

For many people, that’s a reason to feel anxious.

But…

Are more UKIP seats an argument against PR?

Well, no. It isn’t.

The first thing to point out is that this is not a reliable way to determine what the results would have looked like under PR. These were votes cast under a different system, where people’s voting intentions are inevitably going to be shaped by the first past the post rules. Under a different system, with different expectations of the vote value, a large number of people would have voted differently. I can’t prove that, but it’s enough of a reason to be cautious about the speculation.

But that’s not the point

Just because some of us might not feel comfortable with the idea of a party like UKIP getting more seats, that is not a good enough argument for an unrepresentative system.

I disagree with UKIP on just about every issue on which they stand but it’s important that the outcomes of an election are just and seen to be fair.

If anything, it’s a reason to demand much fairer representation. Farage has made much of the fact that he is not, as he claims, an establishment figure. His success is partly down to the fact that a certain portion of society feels alienated from politics. Along comes someone saying that they will give the Westminster Elite a bloody nose and it’s no wonder people vote for him.

But if the system was fairer in the first place, if more people felt their vote counted, then some of the millions that stayed away from the ballot box this time round might see more reason to vote.

Consider that 66.1% of registered votes turned out this year, meaning 33.9% didn’t, a little less then the entire Conservative share of the vote (36.9%).

Tactical voting makes less sense under PR and if you encourage more of the non-voters to turn out with higher expectations of their voice being represented, the political landscape could look very different.

Ensuring a fair democratic system is much more important than concerns about whether this or that party will end up with more seats.

Let’s see the quality of these MPs; UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru, NHA and the rest. It benefits all of us if their ideas are open to greater scrutiny and debate.

Is reform likely?

I doubt the current government would consider changing the system. Why would they? Labour have less to gain from it than the smaller parties and the Lib Dems tried and failed to get a compromise AV-based system through a referendum in the last parliament and are probably still licking their wounds.

If anything, though, It’s now more obvious than ever that reform is needed. It’s down to those of us who want it to argue for it and persuade others. I started with adding my name to the Electoral Reform Society’s Make Seats Match Votes petition. My next step is to write to Cath McKinnell MP (Lab), my current MP. Small gestures, but at least it’s a start.

It might be naive of me to hold out hope for change, but I’d rather be naive than despondent.