Monthly Archives: January 2011

Intimate Discussions at School of Everything Unplugged…

The School of Everything Unplugged weekly meetup is the scene of some very interesting conversations and discussions (and I am trying to document them as a record of my learning…). One of the most thought provoking – though also ambiguous and, perhaps, inconclusive (it is the meetup’s style to leave outcomes open-ended; it is about the conversations – the process – rather than the answers!) – was about our concepts of intimacy. Actually, I say “one of the most”, but it was actually two sessions: we’d arranged for Cassie Robinson to come and lead a discussion on intimacy, but the first time around she was unable to make it, so we improvised and had a discussion about intimacy anyhow; and then, a couple of weeks ago, Cassie came and we had a second discussion.

They were very different sessions – in the first, it was the blind leading the blind as we struggled to build a mutual understanding, in the second Cassie talked about her work in this area.

“Intimacy” is a difficult subject, too. We each have our own understanding of the word, internalised, and it is hard to avoid lengthy discussions about semantics. (I thought about having a dictionary definition of intimacy here, but I think I like the ambiguity…) Everyone’s experience is different: families differ, educations differ, cultures differ. It is hard to separate ideas of intimacy from ideas of sex – never an easy topic to discuss in public, with people one barely knows. Indeed, I am writing this in a public space, very aware of those around me and conscious that some of the websites I look up have the potential to offend onlookers… (Anthropologist Kate Fox has a lot to say about the impact of English culture on our general inability to hold any kind of serious conversation in “Watching the English” – she calls it “our social dis-ease” – and has a whole section dealing with sex.)

There is also the illusion of intimacy created through our use of online social media and the internet generally. Things that were once private are freely shared – not only our marital status, for instance, but whether we are interested in seeking other relationships. Virtual worlds like Second Life add another level of illusion and complexity…

On top of which, there may be generational differences, too – societal attitudes to intimacy must have changed hugely in the last fifty years.

So: lots of big issues.

Several people at the first session had experienced living in different cultures, and brought a different perspective to our talk: we kept coming back to cultural aspects of intimacy – the way in which some cultures display friendship in a physical way.

One of the conversationalists had worked in the area of public health, and public sexual health; their take on intimacy at work was of course very different to some others’. The discussion of intimacy at work was fascinating, since different spheres create different expectations. The false intimacy created by people on the supermarket checkout being required to engage customers in conversation – the realm of emotional labour – to build customer engagement (and the discomfort this can create) compares to many corporations’ attempts to increase employee engagement. How much do we – should we – share with colleagues and customers?

Institutions and organisations aim to manage and control, often through hierarchies. This of course gives rise to consideration of power and politics. A teacher started discussing the issues faced when considering issues of intimacy in the classroom – especially in relation to physical contact between teacher and pupil.

Someone else raised the issue of intimacy between pupils: a school head had asked for advice about “sexting” between pupils, and was disconcerted by the assertion that this was simply an extension of age-old adolescent sexual exploration by new means; and probably uncontrollable.

Our discussion was very broad – we were exploring what we meant by intimacy (and I am still not sure that there I understand what we came up with). Cassie brought a bit more discipline to the conversation. She is part of a research project Our Intimate Lives, exploring intimacy in a variety of contexts. Cassie is interested in physical intimacy as an expression of sexuality and how this affects society and ourselves. (Can one have physical intimacy without emotional intimacy? Just a thought.) The increased commoditisation of sexuality and its transmission in society by the media has led to confusion in a variety of contexts. The free availability of sexual images increases this.

Cassie also believes that an open expression of intimacy and sexuality – our “true sexual identity” – is key to our eudaemonic wellbeing. This of course is – intimately – related to sexual politics. The circumstances in which one chooses to share and explore one’s sexuality – particularly whether it is something one chooses to keep private. (The recent tragedy of David Law’s resignation after he was outed by a national newspaper following an investigation into his expenses claims sprang to mind.)

This raises broader questions of identity, too: the extent to which our view of intimacy and sexuality is tied to views of our identity. There was a discussion about whether one has “one true self”, and how ideas of “self” were mediated by society and culture. In the digital world, where it is possible to have multiple (and often anonymous) personas, the public and the private is often confused or merged: we may have multiple “selves”, some of which may be public.

In different situations, we may have a different view of “self”. Many artists have shared their view of “self” – the self-portrait has been a staple of art for centuries (if only because oneself is the cheapest, most available model). But many artists choose to share themselves in a very open way – Jo Spence’s photographs documented her life with breast cancer in a raw, seemingly unedited form (though of course clearly edited and curated to provide a particular picture). [Cindy Sherman’s work may be seen as the antithesis of this, deliberately assuming a variety of anonymous identities in her self-portraits.]

These discussions raised many more questions than the answers they provided; thinking about the possible answers is probably just the start…

An evening with TEDxOrenda…

Last week, I went to TEDxOrdenda – an evening of talks sanctioned (but not organised) by TED. I’ve been to a couple of TEDx events before, and I’ve watched lots of TEDtalks. TEDxOrenda was organised by Drew Buddie (Digital Maverick on Twitter), who did a sterling job; it was associated with BETT – “the biggest UK trade show of educational technology” – and so had an education focus, though that felt co-incident rather than necessity. (Drew explained that “orenda” was a Huron native American word which means the opposite of “kismet” – that is, rather than fate, the future lies is our own hands – it is down to us and our choices.)

It was a very interesting, mixed evening; some of the speakers stayed close to a motivational model, others had more content to share. Despite the pleasure I take from TED, their model is very much about content delivery: it is people standing up on a stage, talking to others in an auditorium. I understand it explicitly excludes debate and discussion (I might be wrong!), and speakers rarely take questions. Despite the varied programme Drew put together, I think I would have benefited from an opportunity to engage more – either with the speakers through questions or with those around me through discussion of the ideas raised.

There were five speakers I really appreciated. First of these was Vinay Gupta, who raised some important and challenging questions about the way our society uses its resources and our place in the world. What does poverty look like? Despite downturn and recession, for most people in the world Vinay asserts that it is whether one can access water without fear of disease: lack of simple infrastructure kills 20m people a year. Our “failure of governance is killing the planet”, despite the availability of solutions to many of the world’s problems. (For instance, Vinay described how a bucket filled with alternating layers of sand and grit – I think! – can be used to purify water.) Vinay can be confrontational, but we probably need to be confronted by these issues; the thing is, how do we actually bring about change as a result? And – more fundamentally – how much do we – I – want to change?

Sydney Padua covered lots of geek bases in her discussion of her online comic, 2dgoggles, featuring the crime fighting due of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. In an alternate universe, naturally. All the ideas in her comic are based on ideas and beliefs that Lovelace and Babbage held or that were extant in their 19th century mileu – just abstracted and warped slightly…

Building on the “fun” aspect of Lovelace and Babbage, Alex Fleetwood of Hide & Seek described the role of novel games in learning. When people talk about games in education, I tend to think of complex eLearning environments – a World-of-Warcraft for learning. All the games that Alex described were shocking in their simplicity. Tate Trumps sounded like the most technological, a way to create interaction with the pictures at Tate Modern. The others were based more accessible technologies – a board, a playground, a piece of paper – and engaged users to think about the issues (such as what a Norman battlefield was actually like).

Simon Raymonde of Bella Union Records (and late of the Cocteau Twins) talked about his philosophy around running a record label – kind of how he got here. It was an interesting story. Simon invited questions after his talk – the only speaker to do so (and presumably moving off the TED script!), leading to a discussion of the role of a music industry in the digital age. (Simon was pro (free-)downloading, reckoning that it created demand for paid for music.)

Last up was Lloyd Davis, discussing various aspects his role as “social artist” and serenading us with his ukulele and singing. I’ve worked with Lloyd and he’s cropped up a fair few times on this blog. He’s preparing to cross America in the hands of his social media network. An interesting prospect – more kismet than orenda, perhaps!

Playing with photographs at the Natural History Museum…

I went to the Natural History Museum at the weekend, to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. The exhibition was excellent – I’d recommend a visit – but that’s not what I wanted to write about.

But there was one small bit of technology used in the exhibition that struck me as being a great use of the internet, and served to make users advocates and advertisers of the show – willingly. Innovative, too – I’d not seen it used before.

At the end of the exhibition was a desk with a touch-screen, where one could select pictures from the show – and have them emailed to you (or any other email address).

This was very simple to use – more or less drag and drop.

My favourite picture from the show - Light projection, by Michal Budzyński (Poland)

I picked several pictures – it didn’t seem as if there was a limit (if so, it was quite a large one) – and emailed them to me. And of course, I could forward them elsewhere – sharing them (and publicising the exhibition and its photographers).

This simple bit of tech just seemed so neat: I get to look at my favourite photographs later, I can share them. And talk about them! It really engaged people. Whoever thought of this at the Natural History Museum deserves a medal – I wonder if it will catch on at other exhibitions? (And I’m sure you’ll let me know if it is already widely used around the place!)

Back in, front out, by Esa Mälkönen

“Learning Unplugged!”

This week, there seem to be lots of education conferences in town. There’s Education without Frontiers going in the City, BETT over in Olympia, and Be BETTR – a fringe event about “hacking education” – in the Conway Hall on Friday.

You won’t be surprised that Be BETTR sounds most like my kind of event, though I can’t make it…

But David, one of the organisers of the Wednesday morning learning meetup, is giving a talk there, and he decided to pull together his interviews on “agile learning” in paper form. Many of these interviews were done at the Wednesday sessions, and several of the regulars there helped David rework and edit the interviews and write further content; I did some sub-editing.

It was an interesting experience – and, necessarily, a learning one, too. It was good to have some concrete outcomes – to actually produce something from our sessions, albeit paper. It felt like creating something substantial. In these days of online content, it was also salutary to produce something readable on paper: it made me rethink what writing – be it in blogs, on twitter, or on paper – is actually for.

It also forced me to think hard about some aspects of our discussions: as I said before, we each come to the Wednesday morning sessions from different perspectives, and here we were trying to produce a document with a unifying vision and theme.

Reading "Learning Unplugged!" at Tuttle (photo: David Jennings)

David and others will be distributing copies over the next couple of days, but you can also read it online at David’s blog or read or download the PDF version.