Monday, 28 January 2013

Week 1 - Initial thoughts on the films...

EDCMOOC starts today! I've finally got round to sitting down and getting to grips with the material, and this is my interpretation of the "film festival" - four very good short films that give different views of Dystopias and Utopias of technology. Below I'm going to try and answer the questions posed...

This is based on my initial thoughts - I'll come to the "Ideas and Interpretations" later, and perhaps revisit some of the videos.

Bendito Machine III

What is this film suggesting are the ecological and social implications of an obsession or fixation on technology?

The film shows an exaggerated version of our fetishisation of technology, taken to religious levels. It shows that technology is bestowed upon us from up high, sometimes with us understanding very little about it. The main part of the video is taken up with television, showing us its history as a terrible "God", plactating, educating, but pumping propaganda, with an unseen agent setting the agenda. Television, and the images it displays, are both loved and feared by its worshippers, who spend so much time bowing before it that they become unthinking conduits for the message, living their lives through it. When one tribesman breaks away from the herd he does not snap out of the spell - he summons a new "God", in this case the Internet.

Do the film’s characters have any choice in relation to their technologies?

They do not seem to. They summon a "God", and are bestowed with a strange and surreal piece of technology which both baffles, amazes and terrifies them, breaking their spell of the old technology, that instant goes from being worshipped, to literally thrown on the scrapheap.

What are the characteristics of various technologies as portrayed in this film?

As I've already touched on, television fills many social needs. It placates, it educates, it informs, it terrifies. It is both loved and hates, but watched incessantly and intently by the tribesmen, becoming the cornerstone of their lives. That is until the Internet arrives, at first a more delicate contraption, quickly replaced by an all-conquering behemoth of a machine...

I enjoyed this video - it really showed our obsession with new technologies, and our instant dismissal of the old, but I did feel the metaphors were possibly a little heavy-handed. And if it needs saying - it certainly shows a dystopian view of technology!


Depending on how you interpret the relationship between the two main characters, and the ending, you might argue that this is a utopian account, or a dystopian one - what do you think, and why?

This film shows the surreality that ensues from the idea of an Internet-style relationship happening outside the digital world, via two magic, linked bags. It shows many of the things we take for granted on the Internet - such flirting through short written messages and playing games with strangers - and shows the oddness of this happening in a different setting.

It really is open to interpretation - it shows that even shy people can find each other via online communication, and the Internet has created an environment where people, who may never have met in the "real world", can make relationships with one another. Social networks can bring people together that would never have found each other in the pre-digital age. But there's also a darker side - when the male protagonist's magic bag rips, and its powers are lost, it shows a warning against the over-reliance on technology. This may be something as mundane as a power cut or machine failure, but perhaps even the fact that technology is not in everyone's hands. The film's setting in India is perhaps even telling in itself - in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is so huge, not everyone can have a "magic bag".

The very end is also not necessarily a happy ending - this is no happy ever after, leap into the arms passion. Once in the real world the relationship is stilted and awkward, with none of the flirtations of before. Perhaps it shows that, in many instances, the digital relationship is often shallow will not be instantly upgraded to a real-world one.

So Utopian or Dystopian? I'd say it doesn't swing in either direction enough to say definitively, instead it shows that technology, and online relationships, can be a mixed blessing. (I was tempted to say "mixed bag". But I didn't!).


What message is the film presenting about technology?

The film is showing that although humans create technology, they are also shaped by it. People are obsessed by technology in the film, find nature irritating, and spend their entire lives glued to screens. When the blackbird shorts out the power, people are tetchy and twitchy without a screen to watch.

When the couple ascend to view the world from space, the world below looks like a circuit board, consisting of people. Humans have become a giant machine, part of technology themselves. It's probably no coincidence that we see green writing on a screen a few times, indicative of The Matrix.

What losses and gains are described?

People have lost their connection with nature - while walking through a rare green space in the city, the female protagonist cannot take her eyes off her smartphone, and the male protagonist is irritated by sunlight as it obscures his view of his screen. There are some gains though - technology allows communication between the couple, allowing them to locate each other on a busy street, and allows them to go on a date to the edge of space. However these benefits are short-lived before they are "brought back to Earth".

Who or what has ‘agency’ in this film?

Largely the human characters are seen as parts of a giant electronic circuit, part of the machine itself. If there is any agency I'd say it is nature itself, represented mainly by the blackbird, although even it is starting to mimic machinery in its song. However in its sabotage of the power to make its nest it brings the series of events into place - the female character breaks away from her day to text the male, arranging a real-world meet and a date in the space lift - where they very briefly "rise above" the humdrum of technology, a metaphor for the need for real human interaction, which (we presume) culminates in a night of love-making, before the drudgery continues.

Clearly a dystopian view of the future but with a glimmer of hope - nature will always be there, even if we don't always notice it.

New Media

NEWMEDIA from MOLI on Vimeo.

A very short film!

There are definite visual echoes of “Bendito Machine III” here - what similarities and differences can you identify between the two films?

While "Bendito Machine III" showed the technology as god-like and worshipped, here it seems the machines are invaders, destroying the world as hostile aliens while subduing the populace with media, distracting them with images. This is a similar central metaphor to "Bendito Machine III", but it shows the media as more actively destructive, and uses the machines to represent all, rather than a specific, medium.

There are many utopian and dystopian stories about technology told in popular films from Metropolis to the Matrix. Can you think of an example and describe or share it in the discussion board, on your blog, or on Twitter? 

Now there's a question! One for another blog post, methinks...

Monday, 19 November 2012

How many web apps?!

twitter cat 
Pic by Sòlveig Zophoníasdóttir, used under CC BY-NC-SA licence.

So to prepare for the forthcoming E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, students have been asked to sign up for a number of web apps. I use most of them already, partly because of my job, and partly because I'm a massive nerd, but there are a couple that I haven't tried before. I'm hoping these all meld together nicely - I can definitely see the point in them all to some degree - but I'm hoping it all doesn't seem too spread out, and that students who may not be so familiar with them all don't feel a bit bewildered by signing up to so many new things at once.

This is what we've been suggested to use.

Twitter (Microblogging)
Already, Twitter has proved to be useful in pre-MOOC discussion and introductions, with all on the course discussing it under the hashtag #edcmooc. Already it's been useful to see how many people there are waiting to start the course, and a community of learners starting to build. Twitter is a pretty easy thing to get your head round, even for newcomers, and I can see it being one of the most useful tools we have for general discussion and updates. Specific tasks are also promised using Twitter.

Flickr (image hosting)
It sounds like we'll be creating images, and Flickr has been suggested as the place to share these. Again Flickr's fairly simple to use, and anyone with a Yahoo or BTInternet account can sign in (tip for UK learners - if you pay for a BT phone line sign up with your BTInternet email address and you'll get a free Pro account, meaning you get extra storage and other perks). There are other image hosting sites out there, but Flickr's a good one, and has really active communities on there. It's a good site to join anyway if you're interested in sharing and viewing photos.

YouTube (video hosting)
YouTube is the king of video hosting, and a site most people will be familiar with, as a viewer at least, if not for hosting their own videos. It's a pretty simple process to upload videos, it will also allow for comments and a social aspect to this too. If learners already have a Google account they don't need to sign up for anything new. Synchtube is a suggested site that allows people to watch the same video simultaneously and comment on it as it happens, which should be a very useful tool.

Wordpress and Blogger (blogging)
It's been recommended that learners start a blog for the process. Wordpress and Blogger are the biggest blogging sites, and they're both really good and pretty simple to use. Both have pros and cons - I often use Wordpress because it's easier to make better-looking blogs, but Blogger has an advantage that it's easy for anyone with a Google account to follow and get updates. Blogger also uses a Google login, meaning you don't need to sign up for something new. (I've done this blog on Blogger).

Facebook (social networking)
It's been recommended we use Facebook as a communication tool. I'm torn about this - It certainly is a brilliant space for creating groups and discussions (sometimes we forget the reason Facebook is so huge is partly because it's very good at what it does). But I personally use Facebook purely for people I know in real life, and only very rarely add strangers as "Friends". And Facebook is one of those things that's so ubiquitous that if people don't have a Facebook profile, it's often because they have reasons for choosing not to. However, saying that, the course is about exploring digital spaces, and it's hard to see how you can do this without experience of using Facebook, the biggest and most influential digital space of them all.

Meetup (networking)
I've not used Meetup before, but it is a network of local sites, linking people together by interest for real-world meets. There is a channel already for Coursera learners, so it could be useful for meeting people for real-life study meets. However currently the Coursera community for Sheffield (where I'm from) is only nine people strong, and previous meets seem to have not actually got off the ground. I do know of many people where I work who are doing the EDC MOOC, so perhaps this will become more  useful as more Sheffielders get involved. 

Google+ (social networking)
The organisers have set up a Google+ page for the course. Google+ was launched as rival to Facebook, and although it is growing has yet to get close to topple it. I use Google+ for work as it just seems a more professional and less personal space than Facebook, but this may change if more "real people" adopt it.

So is this the best stuff for the job?
There's no doubt that all the sites above will do the jobs they're supposed to do, and are arguably the best for their jobs. But looking at some comments on the Twitter feed so far, there seems to be some reticence among some about signing up for so many new services at once.

I wonder if all this could be done with one sign in - Google? After all...

  • Microblogging could be done via Google+ status updates.
  • Image hosting could be done via Picasa, Google's image hoster.
  • YouTube is a Google product.
  • Blogger is a Google product.
  • Social networking could be achieved via Google+.
  • Real-world meets could be arranged via Google+ events.
This would significantly simplify things, and reduce the amount of new sign-ups students had to make to external companies. However is this really the spirit of the course? Surely exploring the Internet, and all it has to offer, and learning various tools from various places is all part of the topic and the learning experience? If you've never used Twitter, Facebook, Flickr or YouTube, and are hostile to trying them, can you really say you fully understand the digital landscape? Isn't it supposed to be an adventure?

So to conclude, will we find all the different web apps we use and sign up for bitty and inconvenient? Or will it actually, as well as being part of the learning experience, be an excellent way of exploring what the web has to offer? I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to finding out...

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

And so it begins...

Start your engine
(Pic by Norlando Pobre, used under CC BY licence)

Recently I signed up for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), for the first time. This one's via Coursera, and run by the University of Edinburgh, and the topic is E-Learning and Digital Cultures. In their own words:
The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology.
Sounds interesting, doesn't it?

Today I received an introductory email for the course, and following the links to the Google+ page and the Twitter hashtag, which revealed there is a small army of enthusiastic learners, from all over the world, and from many different walks of life, eagerly awaiting the course. It's a good start.

And one of the suggestions was to start a blog for the experience. So here it is.

I must admit I have some reservations, which I hope to be won over on. Not least of all is my own attention span - the course will take up a good few hours a week, and will a course I've paid nothing for, and which has no accreditation at the end, spur me on to make time for it in my busier, or indeed lazier, moments? I'm hoping the subject matter and the enthusiasm of my "classmates" will quickly obliterate this slight doubt once I've started.

The course email also suggests we use Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Synchtube, blogging software (Wordpress or Blogger) and Meetup, as well as there being a G+ page for the course. Will this all meld together into a seamless learning experience, or will using so many web apps seem bitty and confusing? How appropriate will all this seem? Will the spread of services, some of which will be new to them, be a bit overwhelming to some?

I'm approaching this with an open mind, however. Plus, as well as looking forward to learning the topic, I'm also very curious about how MOOCs work, and their effectiveness, and so this will an excellent way to find out.

The course starts in January - see you all then!