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for example, the picture of a Union Jack t-shirt, which for some inexplicable reason had been a placeholder, has now been replaced by an image of the book, which you can metaphorically 'look inside'.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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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Doctoral literacies 

Sometimes its the smallest of comments that can stop you in your tracks. Like yesterday - the doctoral students were talking about reading in the car, and I don't mean reading in the passenger seat but reading while driving. Now that might sound downright dangerous until you realise that they were talking about using apps on their phones that would read documents out loud over a bluetooth connection. It would come as no surprise at all to the non-sighted, but you don't actually have to look at words to read them. It's hardly new, but I could feel some old-school habits of mind kicking in and saying, well that's not proper reading, is it? But it is. So I suppose you could try to marshall all sorts of arguments about concentrating, re-reading, underlining, note-taking, but I don't really think any of them are robust enough. You can read high-level, dense, complex research texts whilst driving (not that I've tried). That whole realisation chimed in with the memory of a time a couple of years back when a teacher showed me some very sophisticated writing by a seven year-old. What was really interesting about that piece of writing is that it had been entirely mediated by speech recognition software on an iPad. Writing, without the act of writing - from a traditional point of view, at least. Now I've never been particularly impressed by the tipping point idea, not just because it was over-hyped but more because it seemed so obvious. But it works well here. Small, incremental changes to audio-book technology and speech recognition software combine with access to powerful portable devices to make reading and writing something different. Something that sidesteps alphabetic encoding and decoding. Returning then to these doctoral students, it is at least theoretically possible that one could do all the background reading just by listening and then write a whole thesis just by speaking it. Maybe someone's already done it. The provocative work that this reflection does is to gnaw away at what literacy actually is and to prompt us to think about the function of those hallowed practices often described as study skills.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

iPads and digital literacy 

This new volume will be published in the summer and is the result of a collaboration with Alyson Simpson and Maureen Walsh. It's been an exciting project to work on and follows in the wake of Literacy, Media, Technology in which we attempted something similar - that is to take a number of quite different perspectives from scholars in the field in order to outline the complexities of digital technologies in the lives of children and young people, in and out of educational contexts. There are no easy answers and we'd be fooling ourselves if we said there are, and of course that all assumes that we know what the question was in the first place! In a scene-setting chapter, Cathy and I had a lot of fun exploring the whole notion of mobility, or mobilities. Obviously we couldn't go as far as John Urry does in his excellent book, but we had a good, quick stab at it. It seems very important to me to think about what's mobile and what isn't, and just as important to think about who's mobile and who's not. These are pressing issues in a world that has both wars, walls and migrant camps as well as unfettered multinationals, rampant capitalism, and mobile capital. Urry argues that mobility requires different kinds of anchorage, immobile platforms that control the flow of people, goods and information. Platforms, gateways and gatekeepers. There's a great feature by James Meek on chocolate production in the latest edition of the London Review of Books and it provides a really clear illustration of how late capitalism profits through its knowledge of these flows, relentlessly driving down the cost of raw materials, seeking out the cheapest and least disruptive labour force, and distributing to new and emerging markets. All in the name of maximising profit. And, in one way, that's all part of The Case of the iPad, too.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017


Recent interest in affect has come from a number of different directions. Sedgwick’s appropriation of Tomkins’ psychological perspective has been particularly influential, whereas Brian Massumi develops ideas that are rooted in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. In The Politics of Affect Massumi emphasises the emergent and relational nature of affect. Affect he argues is pre-personal and happens as bodies come into contact. It is interesting then, in relation to this, that some cognitive scientists are now interested in things like gut reactions, intuitions and so on. Things, you might say, that we know, but that we don't know we know. Studies of interoperception are beginning to get some empirical purchase on the mechanisms that are at play in diverse arenas - in what successful gamblers, traders and negotiators do. It also seems that our bodies are able to mirror others when we establish empathy - it's not simply a conscious adaptation, although that happens, too, but what a body can do as the pupils contract or the heart rate shifts. So as social scientists have been suggesting for a while these things happen beneath, beyond or before rationalisation or representation. The challenge, then, is how to account for things that don't yet have words but seem to be an important part of inter/intra-actions, and of making things happen. Seventeenth century European philosophy explored this territory with both Descartes and Spinoza, despite there very different orientations, sharing the view that affects, feelings and concepts could all be classed as ideas. The notion that rationality, in the form of worded conceptualisations, align with individual, social and cultural progress has carried forward into contemporary times. But perhaps that implied hierarchy can't be sustained. Not that we should necessarily begin to privilege gut feelings, intuitions and all the rest, but perhaps we should begin to acknowledge that they play an equal and important part in daily life..

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Riverine politics 

Whether it's about water rights, fishing rights, territorial boundaries or navigation there's no doubting the fact that rivers often have a political life, or at least that they are dragged into the political wranglings of humans. As we lurch into the anthropocene, or whatever word we use to describe the now established planetary dominion of humans and its associated environmental devastation, we might hope for new ways of looking at rivers. Looking after rivers might be a start. The academic trend of querying the nature/culture binary has invited in all sorts of new and creative ways of thinking, and I anticipate that the Whanganui River may well feature in conference papers and the like now that it (if that's the correct pronoun) has achieved the same 'legal rights as human being'. This follows a successful Maori court action that claimed the river as an ancestor. Will it catch on? I know there are similarly strong companion feelings among the indigenous populations of the Amazon - but what does it really mean this river-become-human thing? How will it enact its now human-like rights, duties and liabilities without the intervention of its human guardians? What if all rivers decide (?) to become human? And is it just one-way traffic? Perhaps the move is part of a much wider set of trends in how we think about the world after we've named it. Gone are the days of explorers who traversed the globe in pursuit of new ones to name. Those efforts have now turned to space exploration. Yet some ancient rivers are still associated with the divine, and some, like the Whanganui, are intimately entwined with people's sense of who they are. Dragging the river into court seems a bit like recruiting it into the human realm, to grant it rights seems anthropcentric, yet at the same time what the elders say seems to be raising its status, acknowledging the importance of rivers in their own right which is surely a good thing.


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