Category Archives: Technology

Life of George: LEGO + iPhone App = a weekend’s worth of geeky fun

This weekend I spent an undisclosed number of hours playing Life of George, LEGO’s foray into iPhone-enhanced gaming. The premise is simple: buy the boxed set of 144 coloured bricks, then download a free app that presents objects which you build out of bricks within the allotted time. Fast, accurate construction is rewarded with points that are calculated when you use the iPhone to capture an image of your work.

The game is pleasingly distracting – on the difficult setting it kept me engaged long enough to complete the twelve levels. The context is straightfroward – George is a a typical office worker (think Dilber but better travelled), who takes photos to chronicle his adventures. Each page of his photo album constitutes a level, and challenges you to construct ten LEGO objects from George’s photographs. Complete each level and unlock the next (or play two player, taking turns to build as quickly as you can).

Life of George demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to ‘close the loop’ with physical toys, games and equipment. Having the device set the tasks and assess the performance while the blocks provide the means of actual ‘play’ uses both parts of the system to their best advantage, creating a seamess hybrid real/virtual experience. Having said that, where the game falls down is in the broader ‘gameplay’ – the premise of building George’s photos is simple, but not particularly engaging. The gameplay does not actually advance George’s life at all – the player has no impact on the ‘story’. To make matters worse, after twelve levels the heroic adventurer is rewarded with a screen that simply says ‘more levels coming soon’. In the age of Donkey Kong that would have been acceptable, we expect a little more narrative resolution these days.

Arriving around the same time as Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, Life of George starts to show us how mainstream the ‘real virtuality’ of play will become – particularly when we leverage existing play platforms like LEGO and well established digital platforms like the iPhone. In the near future will see a lot more of this, specifically I think that we can soon expect…

  • Something for the kids. George is targetted at… well guys like George (which I am guessing is how LEGO understand their older geek audience). It’s 14+ not for difficulty but because seven years olds might not see the relevance of building a martini from the office party, or a copy of Munch’s Scream.
  • The Life of Citizen Cane. Even if the gameplay is limited, we should be able to be more immersed in a story. The Final Fantasy franchise has finely honed the craft of gluing very limited gameplay together with long, meaningful cut-scenes – surely LEGO can learn a little from that.
  • Making a real difference. The really exciting part will be when the play activity (building objects with bricks) actually integrates with the storyline in a meaningful way. You want to get over to the other side of the river? Biuld a bridge. You want to woo the beautiful maiden? Build a rose. As our actions become more meaningful within a narrative, and as that narrative becomes one that we feel we have a stake in… well, I know I’ll be rushing out to by the next installment.

Naked Director of Technology & Innovation (getting back to my /roots)

Well, it's been an awfully long time since I've posted here hasn't it?! And that's probably because I've been concentrating on other things – mostly brand strategy, studying teaching, or this little guy. And all that has been just swell. However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit there is still a geek firmly buried in my psyche who likes the opportunity to roll up his sleeves and get stuck into emerging tech.

It's that inner geek that was particularly excited to start transitioning into a new role here at Naked, as Director of Technology and Innovation. While we are still working through exactly what that looks like, I'm thrilled to be able to focus more energy on bringing innovation, emerging technology, and world-class geek-partners to Naked – and to letting the world know about the great work we are doing.

Watch this space!

The Smithsonian Commons (through the eyes of a Primary teacher)

Last week, I had the opportunity to see a talk by Michael Edson, the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at The Smithsonian. You can see a version of the presentation on slideshare. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the challenges of taking an established and successful 'old school' knowledge institution and make it relevant and useful in the digitally connected world. One of the major initiatives they are working on is The Smithsonian Commons, an externalisation of the resources and information that traditionally reside within the institution – providing users (not just visitors) with the ability to use (and increasingly 'remix') material. So far, they have developed a prototype with a number of videos showing how inidividuals might interact with the commons. From an educational perspective it is interesting to watch the experience of a primary school teacher to see how knowledge institutions like The Smithsonian (and The Powerhouse Museum more locally) are starting to re-imagine their role in society.

‘How Tech is Making Kids Smarter Everywhere’ (Fast Company)

This month Fast Company magazine has published a cover story ‘A is for App’ on technology in (and out of) the classroom. While the article has an obviously pro-tech spin, it’s a fascinating look at several projects (mainly US) that are exploring how evolving technologies are being used to improve learning outcomes and access.

The article focuses on the technologies and the innovators, but the last few paragraphs provide some interesting context in terms of the educational environment;

“…the biggest challenge tp [personal learning devices] may not be the business model. The same possibilities that make these technologies – the sight of [kids] pushing the buttons, controlling their own destiny – make them threatening to the status quo. A system built around tools that allow children to explore and figure things out for themselves would be radical for most developing-world schools, which emphasize learning by rote. In the United States, which is currently in love with state curriculum benchmarks and standardized tests, it could be hard to sell as well.

“What is at issue is a deep cultural shift, a fundamental rethinking not only of how education is delivered but also of what ‘education’ means. The very word comes form the Latin duco, meaning ‘to lead or command’ – putting the learner in a passive position. …

“This idea [of ‘putting children in the driver’s seat’], common among these tech-driven educational entrepreneurs, imagines a new role for teachers. ‘The main transformational change that needs to happen is for the teacher to transform from purveyor of information to coach. … Up until very recently, most communications were hub-and-spoke, one to many. The Internet is a many-to-many environment, which is in the early stages of having a major impact on education. It involves a fairly major change in the concept of what education is, which is one of the reasons we use the term ‘learning’ as distinct from ‘education’. It’s student-centered and student-empowered'”

– Anna Kamenetz in Fast Company, Issue 144, p.77

‘in love with state curriculum benchmarks and standardized tests’? Makes you feel just like home 😉

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.

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?

Eyes to the front – policing behaviour in a laptop-based classroom

Amongst many sensible things they bring up in their 'Discussing New Literacies', Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear relate an anecdote about 'multitasking' in the classroom. They tell the story of Zoe, a digitally empowered student who, while her teacher is managing a class reading and discussion of a poem by Robert Frost, is surreptitiously reading other people's (unrelated) blogs, and writing blog posts of her own. While the 'formal classroom' frowns upon Zoe's behaviour, Knobel and Lankshear applaud her 'multitasking'. They suggest that the workplace values this ability, and that there is no 'disrespect' in Zoe's behaviour as "she was able to provide at least as much attention to the tasks specifically associated with the official learning of the classroom to perform them adequately." (p. 83) 

This all seems like a bit of a utopian, rose-tinted view of things. For one thing, many would argue that multitasking, simply, 'isn't'. As David Weinberger suggests in 'The Cluetrain Manifesto' (a text I hope would be progressive enough for Knobel and Lankshear);

"Humans can't multitask – we can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You can multitask? Fine. Then read a book and write one at the same time. No, multitasking is really just rapid attention-switching. And that'd be a useful skill, except it takes us a second or two to engage in the new situation we've graced with our focus. So, the sum total of attention is actually decreased as we multitask. Slicing your attention is less like slicing potatoes than like slicing plums: you always lose some of the juice." (p.50)

Beyond this, its worth looking at their suggestion that multi-tasking is valued in the commercial sphere. Without doubt, the ability to successfully manage (or 'juggle') a variety of tasks can be a boon in the workplace. In terms of 'multi-tasking' however, it is more relevant to ask what the reaction is when one takes a Blackberry into a meeting, or continues to write an email while conversing with a colleague. As in other areas, the general belief is that attending to multiple tasks simultaneously is achieved by diminishing the quality of attention to each task.

Looking at Zoe's situation, if we assume that this is time set aside for her education, then even a die-hard anti-establishment liberal like myself would suggest that her focus be split (if it is to be split) between tasks related to her schoolwork. This feels less like a flaw in her teacher's understanding of her capacity to manage multiple tasks, and more like a flaw in their ability to inspire interest and enthusiasm around the topic at hand. If Zoe were more engaged by the material, she would perhaps still be 'multi-tasking', but would be pulling up imagery, analysis, and so on, around the Frost poem in question.

The situation does raise the question of how best to police behaviour in a laptop-based classroom. On the one hand, I believe there should be (at least at certain times) significant freedom to choose different applications, resources, destinations etc. to achieve the objectives of a learning exercise. On the other hand, it is perhaps unrealistic to assume that a class will operate without a degree of oversight. The solution that springs most readily to mind would be a capacity by which the teacher could view the screens of the students in the class at will. While this has some echoes of the Panopticon about it, it really strays no farther toward 1984 than the teacher who wanders up behind you in class while you are carefully sketching what your girlfriend would look like without skin.   

Technology as a force for better or worse

In his short paper ‘The Paradoxical Future of Digital Learning‘, Mark Warschauer highlights three areas where the implications of digital technology on education are not as straightforward as many have assumed. Essentially;

  • new (multimedia) literacy seems to be making traditional literacies obsolete, BUT traditional literacies seem to be necessary to be ‘scaffolded’ by new literacies
  • technology gives us the ability to learn autonomously, BUT we learn to do so best within a supportive face-to-face environment
  • life-long self-managed learning outside of the classroom holds great social promise, BUT the impact of formal education on our lives is increasing not decreasing

Warschauer distinguishes two perspectives on digital technology, drawing on Andrew Feenberg’s book ‘Critical Theory of Technology‘;

  • technological determinism – technology itself will inherently bring about change
  • technological instrumentalism – technologies are tools with which we can bring about change

To these he adds a critical view, which sees technology as (yet another) contested site for “struggle between social forces” (p.47). His aim appears to be to encourage us not to take digital technology (and its impact) for granted, but to realise that this is part of a broader, complex process of becoming which we can shape – but only if we appreciate the many forces at work.

This view of technology seems to echo Felix Guattari, in ‘Chaosmosis‘, when he suggested that the impact of technology on society “can work for the better or the worse” (p.5);

“It’s impossible to judge such machinic evolution either positively or negatively; everything depends on its articulation within collective assemblages of enunciation [in short, ‘what we do with it’]. At best there is creation, or invention, of new Universes of reference; at worst there is the deadening influence of the mass media to which millions of individuals are currently condemned.”

Guattari has a fairly negative view of (mass) media (he is writing in the early 1990s here), but a clear desire for how media can be a force for good;

“Technological developments together with social experimentation in these new domains [in short: the new possibilities opened up by technological evolution] are perhaps capable of leading us out of the current period of oppression and into a post-media era characterised by the reappropriation and resingularisation of the use of media.”

If we are to embrace Guattari’s vision of a more individual and empowered relationship with media, is gives us some direction as to the way that it must be incorporated into educational environments. This would suggest a much more critical approach to media, and one that depositions media as something for students to ‘consume’, instead empowering them with the means of media production (for an interesting take on what this might look like, check out etoy.CORPORATION’s e-toy.DAY-CARE project).

Gosh, I came over all pseudo-Marxist there. Well that’s Felix for you.