Friday, October 20, 2017

From Derbyshire to Alberta 

I'm recently back from a week in Calgary on a fascinating project which I may write more about later.  The preparatory task was to write a 'possibility' piece, and that in itself was an interesting exercise even though, as things turned out, that got shelved. But the writing got me thinking about how meanings get made in public spaces, like those in and around the iron age sites of Derbyshire. Here's part of what I wrote: ">Various objects decorate an old oak tree. The oak, bent and gnarled juts up from a fissure in the gritstone crag. Wicker, woven into heart shapes, strips of coloured fabric, ribbon, metal rings and bells dance in the wind. The wind is an unseen force; there is no-one about. This is an ancient landscape. A stone’s throw away the Grey Ladies of Harthill Moor stand tall and serene, Bronze Age megaliths marking an enduring relationship between land and people. Now they quarry for stone here, in and around honeypot villages of the Peak National Park. Sheep snatch at the grass at the foot of the rocks, cattle graze in a field below. Each of these decorations has been crafted with a purpose in mind – recalling the life of a friend or family member, marking a lovers’ tryst, celebrating a significant date – wishes and hope, fashioned from the materials at hand. On some there is message, a name, a date, but others are read by the wind whispering to one another, then blown across the land, carried like spore. It’s not always windy up here, but the bent limbs of the oak record a century or more of turns in the weather. Unseen, far underground, its network of routes fan out, a hidden web of fungal fibres in communion with others, the thinking trees. And three thousand years ago these crags served as a look-out and perhaps that still matters. This place has a tangible, magical atmosphere. I’d expected initials old and new carved into the gritstone - that, and a good view. But I just hadn’t imagined a tree decorated in this way. Maybe there’s a sort of animism at work here, connecting the landscape, the ancient world and the intimate secrets of the people who have been here before me.' And even though that fragment of writing didn't connect directly with what we did in Calgary, it did in another way. To get another sense of the place we visited the Blackfoot Medicine Wheel on top of Nosehill, and again became part of, or witness to, meanings being made 'on the land' and making connections to other places, other times, and other ways of being.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

21st Century Literacies 

I'm just putting the finishing touches to a co-authored book on literacy and digital media for Sage with Cathy Burnett. It's been an exciting project and one that brings recent work into dialogue with some older material. Nine years ago I wrote a similar book with Julia Davies, called Web 2.0 for Schools and I've been reflecting on the shifts in my thinking. Of course, it's partly the case that different collaborators enrich your thinking in different ways, but it's also inevitably the case that other changes occur with the passage of time. The shift from unbridled enthusiasm to a rather cautious, perhaps more critical stance to new media is clearly apparent to me, although it may not be so clear to readers - we'll see about that. Changes in digital technology itself are one cause of this, but actually that's mostly about ubiquity and the notable distribution and take up of mobile devices and apps. The more significant thing for me is what digital communication - and social media in particular, has become. Rather like Matt Haig, I think there are good reasons for taking a wider and more critical view.  I still think its crucially important for teachers to look at what literacy in everyday looks like and to adjust their own practices so that they are in step with this. And its equally important for policymakers to remove the obstacles that prevent this. But, promoting practices that help children and young people to navigate new literacies in ways that are ethical and empowering seems to be crucially important. It's actually untrue to say that was absent from Web 2.0 for Schools - it certainly wasn't - but it seems a more pressing agenda now. The current book attempts to emphasise this by exploring the nine principles of the Charter for 21st Century Literacies that we developed in New Literacies around the Globe and are shown at the end of this document. 


Saturday, September 02, 2017

Event, eventually 

Trying to think differently about literacy, emergence and potentiality (amongst other things) has led to some experimentation with the concept of literacy-as-event. Here we've been drawing on the work of Massumi who writes 'Nothing is prefigured in the event. It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity or rules into paradox.' (2015: 27). In taking this route we've stumbled rather blindly into some quite contradictory conceptions of event. Anthropological perspectives have traditionally focused on ritual events or public performances that play an important role in socio-cultural life. For example, if you take a qualification in Event Management, this, I assume, is what you end up dealing with - logistics, planning, organisation, health and safety, customer satisfaction and so on. In other words what you need to have in place to make a wedding, a concert, a carnival or a festival run smoothly. It would be based on an understanding of the predictability of events. In contrast, for someone like Derrida, event was about 'surprise, exposure, the unanticipatable' (2007:441). Events, in this view, are marked by unpredictability. An extreme form of this occurs in Badiou (2005) in which event is about rupture - Paris 1968; the Arab Spring; London 2011 - situations in which new identities and discourses suddenly become possible. But is there a smaller scale version of this, in which we can keep hold of unpredictability, possibility and intensity in a moment-by-moment unfolding of event - this is what we're working with.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017


It seems hard to believe when you're in the full beauty of the English summer that the environment is any sort of danger at all. It's in full bloom, bountiful, green, just as it should be - what on Earth could be wrong? Precarity, that rather ugly word, is at the height of fashion, and it gets used to describe the nature-culture complex in all its inherent instability. Socially, politically, economically as well as environmentally, everything can be seen teetering on the edge of collapse. As a case in point, the fragile structures of law, order and security seem threatened by terrorism. Random attacks, followed by rapid responses and shoot-to-kill policing that shortcuts the requirement for evidence, identification and prosecution seem set to engulf us. News breaks as events unfold and ideological conflict spills out over borders. The situation is fluid, mobile, precarious. Yet at the same time, there are points or places in which the very opposites obtain - stability, stasis and security seem to uphold an undisturbed order. Perhaps the same is true of the natural world. Order and chaos co-exist like the two sides of a coin. Dwelling on precarity may be important in assessing the lives of vulnerable populations, fragile ecosystems and political conflict, but it is also itself a product of highly mobile information flows. Media, in all its proliferating forms, provides a continuous stream of bad news which sometimes has the effect of rendering us helpless, flailing around in a tsunami of death, disaster and degradation. The challenge, then, is to find expression for ethico-political action (or non-action) that acknowledges what is precarious, but is not defeated by it.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Case of the iPad 

In a rather lengthy email earlier this week, our publisher announced that The Case of the iPad is now out. What exactly out means is, of course, a moot point. The work, also called a book, was completed about six months ago, although at that stage it was only really a document in Word. Somewhere along the line it adopted that rather quaint epithet 'manuscript', even though it was never handwritten and only ever illuminated by the thought that went into it. The publishers (Springer) have, inevitably, worked their magic on it and in doing so it has taken on the virtual form of a published volume. It's not quite clear yet, when the printed copies will roll off the press or whether that process is complete, or how much it matters but nevertheless the book is already out...in some sense, somewhere. Things are moving. On Amazon, for example, the picture of a Union Jack t-shirt, which for some inexplicable reason had been a placeholder, has now been replaced by an image of the book, which you can metaphorically 'look inside'. You can place an order for a print copy or the Kindle version. It looks like you can have the Kindle version right away, but the print version won't itself be released for another ten days. So you get the idea that published but not yet released may have something to do with distribution, which of course is pretty much instant in digital formats. But more interesting than all of this is the fact that the book - if that word still holds any fixed meaning - is unbundled. If you are a die-hard fan of Simpson and Walsh, or Karen Wohlwend (or any other of our wonderful contributors), Springer will sell you their chapter, as a stand alone, for just shy of thirty dollars. It makes some sort of sense. If that's all you want, that's what you can get, without having to shell out for the whole volume. It probably makes sense for Springer, too. I'm sure they've done their research. For an author and editor, and possibly for a reader too, there are some down sides. People are less likely to stumble on your chapter if they take the unbundled route. One of the reasons I like edited volumes, is that you can accidentally, as it were, find yourself reading somebody or something that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. Unbundling also changes things for editorship. In The Case of the iPad we purposely gathered together scholars with different takes on mobile literacies, and we spent some time in Skype meetings, offices and hotel bars discussing what their work did, and what it did alongside the work of others. The book is an ensemble of these and I think Cathy, Alison and Maureen would agree with me, that it's greater than the sum of its parts. But that's old-school, more like a prog-rock concept album or a sampler (remember them?), when what people seem to want now is their favourite DJ using a remix of the work and artfully fading across into someone else's with approximately the same BPM. Anything really, as long as the punters come in, and the dancefloor is full. Or is that the wrong idea? Do we just become our own DJ mashing up Bergson and Baudrillard, for example? And wasn't that what good readers did best in the first place? I don't know, but something has shifted. Buy the book!

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Technology and the war machine 

Iraqi security forces, and Peshmerga fighters together with Sunni and Shia militia are about to take possession of Mosul, liberating it from IS. Defeat is imminent, and has been for about a week now. This part of the conflict dates back to October 2016, and the ground forces are part of an alliance that is backed by US-led airstrikes. Deleuze and Guattari seem unlikely prophets in this context, but still what they say has predictive force: 'The State has no war machine of its own; it can only appropriate one in the form of a military institution, one that will continually cause it problems.' (1987, 391). Technology and weapon-speed, which they also write about, are an integral part of this war machine. Technology may not be evil, but it has a chameleon-like nature. If you want to taste the flavour of modern warfare Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's piece called The Baghdad Road is hard to beat. You can taste the dust, sense the confusion, the weariness and the machinic quality of it all. Technology, of course, plays a massive part in the war machine, accelerating weapon-speed. One officer talked to Ghaith while he 'pinched and zoomed a satellite map on his tablet'. Later he writes how other officers have 'smartphones and tablets arrayed around them' like 'children playing a video game'. A fighter called Ali moves from building to building. If there's resistance he sends the co-ordinates and 'friendly' planes dispense heavy bombs within minutes. Slowly they inch to victory, destroying buildings, rooting out IS, injuring and killing innocent civilians. For all its sophistication it's a primitive affair.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Social media and the end of May 

As pundits and politicians reflect on surprising gains in Labour support in the recent election, many sense the emergence of a new style of political campaigning. Whether the unpredicted swing marks a resurgence of interest in the politics of the Left, a lean towards social democratic egalitarianism or a more general thirst for a progressive political agenda is hard to tell at the moment. Disenchantment with the ruling elite and uninspiring leadership clearly played a part, but high on everyone's watchlist now is the youth vote and the role of the media. It has to be conceded that mainstream media, including those more traditionally aligned with the Left had shown little support for Corbyn's leadership both before and during the election campaign. In fact, from this quarter, Corbyn has had nothing but bad press. So what? By all accounts the social media story looks rather different, in fact it seems quite likely that Labour's social media strategy worked extremely well for them. We should take note. Obama's electoral success in 2008 was orchestrated in part through social media. Two years later in the Arab Spring, commentators were quick to draw attention to a similar phenomenon. However, it doesn't all cut one way. I just don't buy into the communitarian, wisdom of the crowds story. It might of worked for earlier notions of the Internet, but we've outgrown that now. Put simply good and bad things happen in new media, it just depends which things, ideas, experiences, events they connect with. If the present and future political debates are conducted online we need to know how users assess credibility, how they critically evaluate what is fed to them and on what terms they participate. Informed by this, we might envisage more informed and politically active communities. Without this, political victories will simply be won by those with the better strategy rather than the better ideas.

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