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In the messy yet beautiful universe of data I’m searching for the “question” this time, not the answers

In my “scientific”  journey for a more sharp focus for my research en-devour, I try to be “open” for connections, for the emerging creative inquiry process. The art is now, how to define the edge (boundaries) of the circle of focus. I’m pondering on: how to be interdisciplinary in my approach without diminishing argument integrity?  Looking for a new balance between “solid foundations”  (deductive routine) and what  Feyerabend coins as “scientific anarchy” (my interpretation: new inductive chaos). I’m being pulled back and forth between the overwhelming new opportunities of new media (in this case: the possibility of abundant user-generated data) and the” back to basics” research questions. Tomorrow I will only try inductive reasoning and see where that takes me. It feels as if I have an answer, but I still don’t know what my question was in the first place. Inductive is more intuitive, it embraces complexities, it just feels right, but it is an overwhelming ride.

A quote I came across this week, when reading Bill Viola‘s essay “Will there be Condominiums” in Data Space?” for #nmfs_f11 keeps echoing in my mind:

Scientists always marvel at nature, at how it seems to be some grand code, with a built-in sense of purpose. Discoveries are made which reveal that more and more things are related, connected. Everything appears to be aware of itself and everything else, all fitting into an interlocking whole.”  (Bill Viola, 1982)

I will for now answer Bill Viola’s question he posed in 1982; “Will there be Condominiums in data space?”  with a No. Condominiums are fragmented, as he himself knew more than anyone else. I feel more for an ocean of data, where fluidity represents connectedness.  But the challenge with the more natural “everything is connected” approach is the question: from which angle do I have to look at this perpetual continuity, and what is enough for this project of mine? Or is “the ocean [indeed] without a shore” as the title goes of one of Viola’s art-projects?

Bill Viola’s “Raft” fits the feeling described here perfectly:

Questions, focus…please, do emerge soon…

Bill Viola Around the Campfire

Ariella Furman, special guest

Tonight’s Bill Viola NMFS discussion was enhanced by a special guest visitor to our Second Life group this evening.  Ariella Furman, who is a machinima artist, joined us and added her valuable insight to the seminar. The session was enhanced by multiple poster boards and media screens, compliments of Chimera, displaying web pages, video clips, and images relating to Viola’s work and life.  It was a rich conversation about data spaces, art, single event captures (versus multiple perspectives), exploration, perspective, education… whew!

Bill Viola: Video, Holism and the Exploration of Immediacy

Bill Viola

I just finished this week’s reading – Bill Viola’s Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?  I’m embarrassed to admit that, previous to this reading, I’d never heard of Bill Viola. Viola is a contemporary video artist, still living, who is apparently responsible for bringing video into the mainstream of contemporary art. His work has been exhibited all over the world and deals with the central themes of human consciousness – birth, death, relationships, emotions.

The reading sent me to Google so that I could see some of Viola’s work (worth a wander – lots of fascinating stuff). Here’s one of my favorites:  Ocean without a Shore. It’s a video detailing an installation that Viola created in a chapel in Venice with video screens mounted on alters, depicting human forms emerging from water.  Lovely, lovely.

Screen shot from Bill Viola's Ocean Without a Shore

yantra diagram

Viola’s essay did a wonderful job of putting film and video into the context of memory and the way our brains work. He must also be a student of history as his work and his writing are so richly informed by studies of ancient texts and art forms. I loved his reflections on video as an idea space and a memory system. He refers to the Greeks walk-through memory temples (interesting aside to Joshua Foer’s NT Times magazine essay on Memory Palaces).  I particularly appreciated his explorations of the connections between ancient and modern technologies… the Indian tantric doctrine of three traditional expressions of the deity – the visual depiction, the yantra (energy diagram), and the mantra (chanting).  He uses these as a basis to explore the different ways we could travel through data structures and data spaces – for instance, branching video (very cool pedagogical idea).

Much of his work seems to revolve around water.  Oceans, sprinklers, reflecting pools, water droplets. Interesting. Our most fundamental molecule. Water….drinking, sustenance, cleansing, dissolving, solvent, rinsing, baptism, drowning, equilibrium, surface tension.

But what of the title of his essay?  Condominiums in Data Space.  My take on it is that Viola is saying that there might be greater exploration, more opportunity in data space that is not broken up into condominiums.  That there is more room for unusual approaches, non-traditional perspectives, and unexpected conclusions with flexible data spaces. What do you think?

He ends the essay with a most un-McLuhan-esque thought:

Applications of tools are only reflections of the users – chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.

That one caught me short.  But then, at the very end of the essay, he tells this funny story, The Porcupine and the Car. A little fable, a cautionary tale, that I’m not sure how to interpret.  The foolish, puffed up attitude of the porcupine?  The overpowering hubris of technology (the car)?  The Rashomon nature of our existence?  A very strange coda.

Painfully Coming to Grips with ‘The Medium is the Message’

We are now in week #7 of the New Media Faculty Seminar. This week, there were two readings by Marshall McLuhan, an excerpt from Gutenberg Galaxy and The Medium is the Message. I found both (particularly the first one) to be particularly difficult partly due to all the references (many to writers, philosophers, or academics that I do not know) and partly due to the internal inconsistencies in his writing.  As I read, it felt like he was arguing the opposite point to his original – or maybe I just wasn’t following?  I was greatly relieved to find that my fellow NMFS-ers felt the same way.

Willow Shenlin facilitated our discussion and did a wonderful job, diligently leading us through her favorite McLuhan-isms, as well as the parts that she found particularly confusing. And that’s what is so great about these weekly meetings – not only do they provide a structure to force you to read material you normally would not, but you get a chance to wrestle with the parts of it you don’t understand and benefit from the insights of the group.

Willow Shenlin's set up for our meeting in Second Life

About mid-way through our 90-minutes, we took a field trip over to Willow’s property in SL to see a few exhibits that she’s put up, to help with the readings and bring them to life.  She’d put up a media viewer through which we watched this fondly remembered scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out to counter a blowhard who was standing behind him in line at a movie theater (god, I love that scene).  She also showed us this amazing TED talk by Nathalie Miebach (Art Made of Storms) which, as Willow put it, just make you itch to hear a Marshall McLuhan response!

Marshall McLuhan "bot", compliments of Willow Shenlin

Willow also had a Marshal McLuhan “bot” (automated character) – pictured to the right – that spouted McLuhan quotes from a menu when you clicked on him. It was hilarious – and helped me to relax and let the readings wash over me a bit more.

When I reflect on the McLuhan readings, there are a couple of “nuggets” (to borrow Gardner’s term) that are really sticking with me. The first is his idea of sense ratios.  How is information coming to us – through our ears? Our eyes?  Our fingertips?  McLuhan makes the point that people adapt to their environment by way of a certain balance, or ratio, of the senses and that changes to those ratios have consequences.  For example, with the invention of the alphabet and written communication, we shifted from a strong dependence on hearing to a more visually oriented culture.

The other McLuhan-ism that I am only now really beginning to understand is his classic “the medium is the message”.  I thought I knew what it meant (it certainly has a prominent place in our culture!), but I now realize that I didn’t. What’s worse, like the blowhard in the Annie Hall movie, I had been misrepresenting it. Oy. In his essay, McLuhan points out that we over-emphasize the importance of content.  Let’s say, for instance, that we are looking at an image of a family, sitting around the dinner table. We would argue that it doesn’t matter if the image is a photograph, an oil painting, a screen shot, or a water-color – the important thing would be the content of the image – who is that family and what is happening in that dinner scene?  The content, as they say, “is king”. But McLuhan’s point is precisely the opposite. That the way that content affects us, the way we are able to experience ourselves in relationship to it, will change depending on the medium in which it is expressed. That it matters whether it’s a drawing, a movie, a book, or a television show. He goes on to say that content actually distracts you from what happening technologically. As McLuhan puts it, “content is the piece of juicy red meat that is carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”  So, according to McLuhan, it’s vitally  important to be aware of the medium and the tradeoffs and impacts of that medium on us, every step of the way.

“It is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. We must look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.”

One of the ways McLuhan tries to make this clear is through the concept of “extension”. He explains that media is not just a tool, it becomes a part of us – an extension of what we can do.  I had a breakthrough on this when I listened to the podcast conversation between Gardner Campbell and Alan Levine for the McLuhan session of a past NMFS series, on the heels of our Wednesday session (I wish I’d listened to it before!).  Gardner used this perfectly simple and powerful example to explain what McLuhan means by “tools as extensions of ourselves”.  Here goes…

“If you pick up a hammer, and hold it in your hand, what do you have?” Gardner asks. Our answers immediately jump to capabilities (“you can build a house” or “now you need a nail”).  But Gardner urges us to, instead, think in terms of the most basic, the most obvious thing.  You have a hammer in your hand.  Simple.  And the, he says, McLuhan goes further. What McLuhan would say  is that you don’t have a hammer in your hand, what you now have is a “hammerhand”.  You’ve changed the hammer.  And you’ve changed your hand.  A new union, that neither one was before you picked up the hammer.

Aha. The penny dropped for me. And my next immediate thought was how very wrong I’ve been in a key element of my thinking about new media technology (this is the painful, blowhard part). In my work, I spend a lot of time with teachers and students, talking with them (coaching them) about the use of new media as it’s applied to teaching and learning.  What I regularly say, in an attempt to soothe and reassure them, is that all of these wonderful web tools are just that – they are tools.  Not unlike a pencil or a chalkboard or a microscope.  What you do with the tool is what makes it worthwhile.  What you plan, create, devise is what has meaning.  Gawp.  Exactly the opposite of what McLuhan is saying.

As I sit here and type on this computer  (and create this blog entry), the computer (and the blogging platform) have become an extension of me. We are now united to do something that I (or the computer, or the blogging platform) could not do without each other. The computer and the blogging platform are not just tools. They have changed my thinking and the very way I interact with the world.  We are united and have moved together to a different understanding.

One of the McLuhan quotes that I’ve always loved (and used quite often) is his lament that man is “shuffling toward the 21st century in the shackles of 19th century perceptions”.  In his lifetime, he didn’t see the laptop computer, the cell phone, or the tablet – but he did give us a way to think about them, a way to make sure we are in right relationship with our tools and the way we use them.

“Yes, they are digital natives, but not tech-savvy”

I’ve been thinking about the term “digital natives”. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 Tony Bates facilitated a week about “Transforming teaching and learning through technology management“.

In a blogpost about this subject Squire Morley says:

So one of the questions Tony asks of us is whether universities can change from within or if new institutions are required for the 21st Century. Unless there is a disjuncture then there is no incentive to change. The system seems to be self-perpetuating. The training (or apprenticeships) of research graduates to become the next generation of lecturers and academics in the same ways as previously is at least partly responsible for this, as are the pressures for advancement through publication in closed, peer-reviewed journals.

But maybe one of the driving forces for change (facilitated by the use of social media) are the students? A new generation of digital natives? In my own experience, primarily among young journalists and journalism students, the fluency of digital natives in using social networks on a personal level does not really mean they “automatically” use these skills in the context of their learning or journalism. There is a subtle difference between being a “digital native” and being “tech-savvy”.

I gave a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée, Belgium and I had a video interview with facilitator Damien Van Achter in which he explained that yes, his students are digital natives, but not necessarily tech-savvy.

Visitors and residents

But maybe “digital native” is too problematic a term to use. On the TALL blog David White uses the distinction between “residents” and “visitors” instead of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” (watch the video!).

(Hat tip to Stephen Downes for mentioning this video and blogpost). This distinction between “residents” and “natives” is not age-related nor even skill-related. Residents of the internet seem to inhabit a certain “space” and to maintain and develop a digital identity. Visitors seem to consider the net as a tool box.

This insight could be very useful. I often despaired when presenting Twitter to non-Twitter users, or Second Life for that matter: one can explain easily enough the buttons which one has to press and the basic practices (hashtags, lists for Twitter, creating an avatar and learning how to move around and communicate for a virtual world), but even then people are often reluctant to put that “knowledge” to good use.

So maybe the real issue is not the technology, but a cultural (often unconscious) choice for being a visitor and not a resident (I think active Twitter users are more like residents just as virtual world users are clearly “getting” the spatial metaphor). Which does not mean that promoting stuff such as Twitter is hopeless – it just means that the reluctance has to be recognized and addressed on the right level.


I could not participate at the weekly Digital Awakening course session in Second Life, but I did my required reading: Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media“.

In that 1977 essay the authors foretell the importance of notebook computing. “While most saw the computer as a tool for engineers or, at most, businesspeople, Kay thought computers could be used even by children, and could be used creatively”, so it is explained in the MIT New Media Reader.

One of the great aspects of the Dynabook project was that it involved children as users. The kids were not just consumers or filling boxes which were provided by professional designers and developers, they were also programmers:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different
perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience. Their attention spans are measured in hours rather than minutes.

The kids used the Smalltalk-language: “Smalltalk was created as the language to underpin the “new world” of computing exemplified by human–computer symbiosis. It was designed and created in part for educational use, more so for constructionist learning” (Wikipedia)

I cannot help but contrast this enthusiasm with my experiences during a recent debate about the future of the newspaper industry. When I suggested journalism students (so university level, not junior high like in the Dynabook project) should have some basic experience with programming in order to see new story-telling possibilities, there was great indignation. A journalism instructor said that his students would not be interested in such a thing and an editor-in-chief exclaimed that such talk made him very nervous: journalists have to write stories, have scoops, not to mess around in programming languages.

Which means that more than thirty year after these Dynabook experiments, we failed to convey the message that computing literacy is not something for “the nerds in the basement”, but fun stuff which enables people to envision tasks and projects in very new and exhilarating ways.

Roland Legrand

Are we building a new grand narrative, or are grand narratives things of the past?

Cross-posting from MixedRealities – trying to connect the dots between various online courses:

At our latest live session of Howard Rheingold’s course Introduction to Cooperation Theory we discussed about narratives in the US and Europe about competition and cooperation. A European participant suggested that the narrative in the US is about competition, while in Europe cooperation is a more common theme. The American Howard Rheingold expressed doubts about this opposition: the US and Europe are big places with huge internal differences, and where different narratives co-exist.

We also discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement and how it spreads worldwide. There is a sentiment that the world leaders fail in addressing the problems and opportunities caused by worldwide disruptive forces (related to technology, globalization, changing preferences etc). My first question is whether we can reasonably expect that world leaders constitute a platform or world government for worldwide cooperation tackling the ecological, social and financial problems.

I’d like to refer to what Elinor Ostrom describes as polycentric governance of complex economic systems. Maybe the definition of the problems, the study of possible solutions and the implementation of those solutions have to take place at different levels. In the European Union we have a lot of experience with “polycentric governance”: there is not one obvious center (the European Commission is rather different from the federal administration in the US), and we try to allocate tasks and decisions to appropriate levels of governance. However, confronted with world financial markets, it seems this model has at least one important shortcoming: when optimal decisions should be taken on the top-level, the decision-making process is very slow.


We also discussed the importance of narratives supporting cooperation. It was claimed that president Obama fails in delivering a mobilizing grand narrative, contrary to FDR (or president Reagan – whether one agrees with the narrative or not, at least there was a big narrative about markets, deregulation etc). My second question relates to this issue of “grand narratives”: is it a coincidence that leaders worldwide fail to provide a convincing grand narrative (do they even try)? Or is this a structural phenomenon, that the era of grand narratives is behind us? After the demise of communism, of social democracy (debt crisis) and of free market ideology (inequality, rogue banking and housing industries… ), what is left to believe in? It seems people distrust even the structure itself of a “grand narrative” – as postmodernism demonstrates, grand narratives can easily be deconstructed, and this not only on an academic level, just look at the news to see how shaky the certainties of the big ideologies have become.

So the third question is whether the cooperation studies (in biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, pedagogy, learning theories etc) could lead to a new grand narrative. If so, would this new narrative fall apart just like the older stories, or can we construct the cooperation narrative in such a way that it would be a fundamentally different kind of narrative, more flexible, adaptable, convincing and relevant than other narratives? Do we need such a narrative, and if so, what are criteria to judge it?

The thinking of such a new grand narrative has its own history of course, with people such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, J. C. R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson among the Philosophers of our Daily Disruptive Digital Revolution (have a look at this site of the Digital Awakening course).


Last week we discussed Ted Nelson in Digital Awakening, and one of the texts which provoked the most emotional reactions was No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks (in Computer Lib / Dream Machines). In this text from 1974 Nelson is highly critical of the education system:

Some premises relevant to teaching
1. The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in
varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone
or severely diminished when we leave school.
2. Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting. Schooling systematically ruins
things for us, wiping out these interests; the last thing to be ruined determines your profession.
3. There are no “subjects.” The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative
4. There is no natural or necessary order of learning. Teaching sequences are arbitrary, explanatory hierarchies philosophically spurious.
“Prerequisites” are a fiction spawned by the division of the world into “subjects;” and maintained by not providing summaries,
introductions or orientational materials except to those arriving through a certain door.
5. Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources.
6. Most teachers mean well, but they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes and style of order that very little else can
be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively.

Is Connectivism, as practiced for instance in the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 more than a practical answer to contemporary challenges for the educational system? Could it also be part of an emerging new grand narrative, together with related components from network theory and cooperation theories? Learner Weblog gives some insights in the discussion about the practical and theoretical merits of connectivism.  In the embedded presentation Frances Bell claims that connectivism has far more impact as a practice than as a theory. Then again, we should reflect on what “a theory” is, and whether our notion of “theory” is changing, just as maybe our notion of “narrative” is being transformed.

Roland Legrand

Gardner Campbell Visits NMFS in Second Life

Gardner Campbell Visits the Second LIfe NMFS Group

Today’s meeting of the SL NMFS group was devoted to a discussion of the Ted Nelson excerpt –great ideas and insights shared by all.  Gardner Campbell joined us for the last half hour, fresh from his own face-to-face NMFS group at Virginia Tech. He shared some of the discussion points on the same reading from his group and then gave us some insights into how the idea for these faculty seminars came to be.  Here’s an audio recording of that last half hour:

Gardner Campbell NMFS 10.12.11