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E-Learning and Digital Cultures January 29, 2013

Posted by adam1warren in Uncategorized.
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As one door closes, another opens… and today is the start of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, created by the University of Edinburgh and running on the Coursera platform. And I have to say it looks great: clearly structured with weekly activities that not only look achievable, but really interesting. The contrast with the MOOC I just bailed out of could hardly be stronger, and my motivation levels are sky high again. Apparently there are around 40,000 participants, which should make for lively discussion forums.

The first two weeks are looking at utopian and dystopian visions of digital culture, with special reference to education. The first activity is to watch four short films that explore this issue, and my initial thoughts on the first of these follows.

Bendito Machine III is an animation that shows a ‘primitive culture’ worshipping technologies – and when a new one arrives the old one is unceremoniously dumped on the scrap-heap. We see radio replaced by TV – and the vintage video it displays quickly veers from the naive consumerism of the 1950s to graphic footage of the Vietnam war and the violent repression of anti-war protests… all mixed in with cheerful cartoons and advertising messages of course. Turn on your state-of-the-art 50-inch flat-screen home entertainment system and has so much changed in the intervening 35 years?

The TV becomes a sinister presence, uncontrollable and damaging to the culture, but soon enough it is replaced by a new device (the computer?) which almost immediately malfunctions and is itself replaced by a huge device with tentacles (the internet?). And so technology marches on, faster and faster, taking us to an unknowable future.

There are ecological aspects to this allegory: the scrap-heap of discarded technologies finds its real-world mirror in the WEEE waste directives and the burning electronic trash fields of places like Agbogbloshie in Lagos. And also right now in my cellar, where a vast 28″ Sony Wega CRT TV (once the best that money could buy) lies discarded in favour of a brand-new Samsung 1080p HD LED flat-screen.  But it is not all minuses: the new device uses a fraction of the raw materials and half the energy and delivers a vastly superior picture quality.

What of the social implications of a fixation on technology? There is a sense that we are rushing into a digital future, pushed by the need for manufacturers to sell us new products: “Just look at all the things our shiny new phone does that the one you bought last year can’t!” So suddenly we all become faux-experts in megahertz and megapixels, gigabytes and broadband speeds. But what we don’t pay any attention to is the social impact of these new devices – except suddenly we have sexting, cyber-bullying, spam texts, phishing emails, botnets and twitter scandals. Plus pub quizzes are no fun now everyone has wikipedia in their pocket, and HMV and Blockbuster went bust because CDs and DVDs will soon be as quaint as 3.5″ floppy disks or Super-8 film.

I read a lot of SF (which I always think stands for ‘speculative fiction’) and one very relevant novel is ‘Super Sad Love Story‘ by Gary Shteyngart [Washington Post review]. In his dystopian near-future everyone can video-blog their life, turning it into an over-acted reality show, post mindless updates about their purchases to their GlobalTeens account and use the RateMePlus technology on their äppärät to check out the sexual hotness and credit-worthiness of everyone in the room. Its not so far away, that world, and companies like FaceBook, Foursquare and MindTheGap are bringing it closer by the day.

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