Category Archives: Technology and the Self

Some Assembly Required – Teaching in a Constructivist Context

This morning, my son Jem walked – arguably for the first time. By this I mean that he confidently took several steps in succession without our intervention. It won’t go down in his baby blog however, because it didn’t meet the exacting standards of ‘first steps’ that stipulate no supporting devices – he pushed his little block cart which provided enough resistance to allow him to walk.

Watching this reminded me that walking is not something we do by ourselves (and I owe a debt here to Andy Clark amongst others). When Jem walked this morning, it was actually an ‘assemblage’ that did the walking;

  • the particularly cute little boy
  • the shoes his grandmother gave him yesterday that have nice, large, flat soles
  • the cart with its handle at just the right height, and
  • the rough, uneven stones in the backyard. Only within the balance of this whole system could ‘walking’ occur.

This was emphasized when we came back inside and the kitchen floor was too smooth, allowing the cart to roll away from him. I took a screwdriver and tightened the wheels until they would not turn, and once again he was able to ‘walk’.

This broader perspective of walking is not only relevant to those of us learning to walk. We all believe we can walk, but how many of us can walk in ice skates, or on top of a moving train. It’s easy to forget that everything we do, we do as part of a larger assemblage of parts that include not only ‘ourselves’, but other objects and other people.

Taking this perspective raises questions about how we should teach. If we (as pure individuals) never do anything, except in association with other elements, how does this change what we should do ‘in the classroom’. Some of the answers are obvious – there are certain partial assemblages that are socially important, such as using a pen or pencil, and we spend time building those connections through rehearsal.

Beyond the purely physical, the idea of assemblage can be extended into social and academic spheres – and here we arrive at something very close to constructivism (which progressive educators since Dewey have been espousing). Our notion of the lone scholar, independent of any external resources, may be exactly what our ‘exam culture’ focuses on – but it is a completely unrealistic depiction of any reality!

The work we do in life – from physical to social to intellectual – is always done as part of an transitory assemblage of heterogenous parts. Just as important as building any ‘internal’ skills within the individual is nurturing our ability to engage and articulate with other people and things in order to create and maintain productive assemblages. This should be a focus for our teaching.

Two simple examples of this are optional resources and project based group work. The former involves setting tasks (often in mathematics) and providing various aids (from physical blocks to drawing apparatus to calculators, as is appropriate) that students are encouraged to access if they wish to. By placing the onus on the student (rather than dictating what tools must be used) students learn to create assemblages that are most suited to arriving at a solution.

The second example involves bringing together small groups (about four students in the case of primary aged students) for defined projects. By doing this repeatedly, students build their understanding of assemblages that include other people. They learn about the kind of people they work well with, and what types of productive output will be created by engaging with different people in different ways.

While these are only two very simple examples, they point to a type of fluid, student-focused classroom that spends less time putting knowledge into kids’ heads, and more time letting them discover, experience and learn from new ways of coming together with other students, tools, and bodies of knowledge. In this process of forming, maintaining and dissolving assemblages, they will be developing critical competencies for existing in our complex, heterogeneous and interdependent world.

Virtuality and Scientific Method

In reading philosophers who discuss 'the virtual' (and don't mean the digital space, but a far stranger realm of conceptual potentiality), it is very tempting to think, 'well that's all very nice, but it's not real is it. by definition the virtual is something we can all waffle on about because it's, you know… virtual'.

DeLanda (primarily in the dense and wonderful 'Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy') talks about virtuality in a scientific and concrete sense that makes you wonder if perhaps the virtual may be amenable to more traditional approaches of scientific inquiry – hence this paper. It draws on scientific methodology and ideas of disciplinarity and politics to suggest how investigation into ideas of virtuality may yield practical and powerful insights into our reality. In many ways 'Virtuality and Scientific Method' suggests that incorporating progressive philosophies may be a interesting adjunct to current developments in the sciences.

Notions of Subject, Technology and Self

 “[T]echnological machines of information and communication operate at the heart of human subjectivity, not only within its memory and intelligence, but within its sensibility, affects and unconscious fantasms.” (Guattari 1992: 4)

The self “plays a singularly important role in the ongoing cognitive economy of that living body, because, of all the things in the environment an active body must make mental models of, none is more crucial than the model the agent has of itself.” (Dennett 1991: 426-427)

The self is a multiple and heterogenous cognitive model at the core of individual subjectivity, facilitating interaction with a complex environment. Recent developments in technologies that mediate our experience may have fundamental yet unanticipated effects on the processes by which the self is produced.

As a multifaceted and dynamic construct, the self plays a key role in our phenomenological experience of being. It also contributes to our operational capabilities – social, mental, and physical. The implications of engaging with mediating technologies depend on both the nature of the technologies in question, and the mechanisms responsible for the production of the self.

This project aims to present a model of the self, and to explore the potential repercussions of these technological engagements.

Notions of Subject Technology and Self‘ was the draft of the second chapter of my PhD thesis.

The Ultima Online Avatar (as a cultural object)

One of the less brain-melting moments of my experience pretending I was going to write a doctoral thesis at UNSW was a unit of ‘cultural studies’. On the one hand, the mixed candidature of the course meant it was pretty entry level, on the other hand my background meant I had never had that introduction to the field. The text we used was Paul Du Gay’s ‘Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman‘ which provided a very accessible approach to looking at cultural objects through various lenses to build up an understanding of these objects.

Unsurprisingly, our major assignment was to choose an object and follow this methodology to document it – examining how it was produced and consumed, what codification and commercialisation it underwent, and that kind of thing. Not having a burning passion to dive into cultural archaeology of the humble thong or Hills hoist, I elected to write about ‘The Ultima Online Avatar‘.

The most interesting aspects of the avatar were its nature as a service rather than a product per se, the way it was continually becoming, and the complex engagement it has with the identity of the consumer. Looking at the avatar through a commercial lens was interesting, and naturally I also took the opportunity to recast the whole discussion within Deleuzian language to explore issues of manufacturing hyperreality and becoming-cyborg.

People of the Oak

One of the pieces of work I enjoyed most at UNSW was what ended up being ‘People of the Oak‘. Our challenge was to create a new media work. Given the daunting challenge of actual artistic production, I wanted to try something more existential. In the end I created a ‘virtual religion’ – a belief system within the Ultima Online world. The paper then presented key tenets of the religion as the core text and used extensive footnoting to provide rationale. I don’t know what others thought of it, but I had a lot of fun.

The Materiality of the Digital

One thing that intrigued and frustrated me about a lot of new media theory was the way ‘cyberspace’ was put forward as a completely new and distinct space, unconnected from physical space. Populist synthesiser (love that term thank you Gillian – has a real disco ring to it) Margaret Wertheim compares cyperspace to the ‘space’ of heaven in her ‘Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet‘. Until Newton, we saw Heaven as a very real space, distant from but somehow contiguous with own, having its own nature. When Newton argued that everywhere in the universe had to obey the same physical laws, and we had to remove heaven from our universe altogether.

With ‘cyberspace’ we again have a realm that seems to be completely unconnected to our own in the way it operates, and yet you can get there from here. Works like Neuromancer (and more recently The Matrix) suggest that this transition will become increasingly more experiential.

I wrote The Materiality of the Digital to explore the fact that while cyberspace seems disconnected, it is nothing more than a complex interpretation of computational states that are absolutely real. In the simplest sense, if you were to destroy every computer on early, cyberspace would also cease to exist. What implications does this have for th e’nature’ of cyberspace and our experience of it?

Identity Market

What do you get if you throw a little sociological thought on the fragmentation of identity in late/post-modernity (Agger, Gergen, Giddens, Lyotard) together with some social movement attitude (Melucci), some digital thinking (Castells, Ayers) and wrap it all up in some Deleuzian terminology?

A bit of a mess really, but some interesting thoughts on how we create identity through alignment with digital collectives in the digital Identity Market.

Re(g)ifying Lord British

One of the most interesting sites I looked at while studying was MMPORPGs, primarily Ultima Online which was popular and accessible at the time. Something that has always intrigued me about the Ultima series is the way that their creator Richard Garriott built the character of Lord British within the Ultima universe, and then took on that role himself.

While I was studying, Garriott left the franchise. This raised some interesting questions about what would happen to Lord British within the game world. I found the discussion fascinating as it raised broader questions about exactly what type of identity Lord British was – something that I took the opportunity to explore in this short paper, ‘Re(g)ifying Lord British‘.