Saturday, 30 November 2013

#StoryMooc 6 - Location Based Storytelling

This week was about location based storytelling. It was another fantastic week of subject matter. We learnt about Secret City, an interactive game/story/puzzle that takes place in real places in Berlin and which you follow via your mobile device. I have heard other examples of this before, such as Penguin's "We Tell Stories" from a few years ago, or Secret History which I talk abut below. As well as the story telling possibilities, think how good it is for your fitness walking around the streets reading stories like this!

I really liked the way they filmed the material outside on the streets of Berlin too. Both things made me think a lot about the possibilities firstly in a MOOC, and also secondly in storytelling - there are some incredible opportunities with technology and interactive media. I suppose the key thing is to make them work together without the story drifting away to nothing or the audience losing interest. A course member, John Love. had posted last week about a Google app called Google Tour Builder which lets you create a tour in Google Maps. As John says there is great potential for, "using a map or geographic structure as the framework for telling a story..."

The possibilities of location based storytelling left me excited. As soon as we got our creative task I had ideas popping in my head. I jotted them down on a sketchy sheet above (the ones by fellow course member Melanie Voß are miles better!), then I took a walk up the Royal Mile, and down to the Mound where the Christmas Markets currently are. I nipped into the National Art Gallery for a browse and voila I had my idea for a story. This week I let my friend Rudi Peters write it for me:
Finally. I want to give a nod to Gauwain van Kooten Niekerk for an idea I took from his story. Gauwain used Google Street View in his story this week, and I borrowed the idea for mine. It needed something to kick it off and I thought Gauwain's idea was great. Gauwain is from Utrecht and has been an active participant in this MOOC. I've enjoyed reading his blog which you can find below. I've also included some links to some other of the story/games mentioned in this week's topic

Gauwain van Kooten Niekerk
Secret City Berlin -
Can You See Me Now?
Ingress where city statues and landmarks come to life

And finally....what if you could guide Odysseus round the world now?

"...every time you touch a book, open it, talk about it or read it you are interacting with can explore your own adventure" So says Eli Horowitz  who has written a geo-location story in New York called "The Silent History". It's a good point. What are the implications of this? Could you use location based storytelling to explore existing novels for example? To make them "infinitely expandable" as Eli puts it? Could you imagine if the story of Dracula did not end on page 283 of the book, but carried on here and now in our day? And that you yourself could unpick the story like Jonathan Harker through an app or GPS? Or what about Phileas Fogg or Odysseus? Or how about students have to go outside and search for clues to reveal a famous local historical figure?

To listen to Eli talk about his geo-location story, there is a 10 minute interview here. You can skip to the 29:12 minute mark

PS - it was inspiring to see the range of participants in the MOOC as kindly tweeted by the course leaders this week. Well done to the team in Potsdam for creating such an inspiring and engaging course!

#storymooc week 5

What if the whole world is just a game? What if we are just a puzzle set by ourselves from the future that we are now slowly trying to work out? Each century we get a bit closer to the the end of the game, we get a new piece of the puzzle, till one day we will meet ourselves and say, "we solved it!! Now let's play again!". And the same game begins again,

Games are about stories, narratives, decisions, dilemmas, action, consequence, success, failure, working puzzles out, reward, location and so many more things. Well, that is just like your life story isn't it? When we think of the future of games as involving artificial intelligence, automated stories, characters who exist outside of the game, game worlds that react to the actions of the player, Google Glass, virtual reality etc it makes me think - when's it all going to be like Tron? Will we just end up creating our own universe online and existing there?

I enjoyed this week's module as it introduced a lot of these ideas and concepts. Games seem to have unlimited possibility for the story teller and the imagination. The more I thought about them the more exciting, creative, and revolutionary they seemed. They are also inherently fun because they are puzzles, and also have that spark of curiosity within them. I also was left wondering about games and eLearning. To be able to use that feeling you get in gaming of "I have to know what happens next", or "this next level is so cool it's beyond my imagination", or "I have to defeat this end of level boss even if I'm up till 3am!!". What if you were doing the same with your learning? eg a game that poses ethical, political, social dilemmas that you have to solve. This week I wrote my notes as an illustration whilst listening to the videos and doing laundry. All at the same time. I enjoyed the process. I was inspired by the way the excellent team on the MOOC have presented their own videos using speeded up writing. They also had a podcast lecture this week which was a brilliant idea. Learning on the go.

Apart from Sonic, Tetris, GoldenEye, Pacman, FIFA Football, and Mario I have zero experience in games beyond 1996 so I didn't do this week's creative task. Instead I preferred to focus on the futuristic possibilities of gaming as they tie in directly to my other MOOC on eLearning & Digital Cultures. And imagine a time when the following advertisement exists :

Introducing "Google Life". 
Where are you going on holiday this year? How about 19th century France to see the world through the eyes of Napoleon? Ancient Greece to walk in sandals alongisde Socrates? 13th century Italy to live inside St Francis of Assissi's imagination for 2 weeks?
In Google Life we have amassed all the writings, images, paintings, photographs, diaries, stories, and science that is on the internet. We have amalgamated everything together to let you literally see the world how somebody else saw it through their eyes. 

Using the sum total of all human knowledge and the collective mind, we aim to reanimate the life of every single person who ever lived on the planet. This is part of Google's ethical drive to ensure that every single person on the planet who ever lived was valued. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

#storymooc Week 4 - Ideas & Inspiration

(Still from the film "The Illusionist" which was the director's love letter to Edinburgh)
Where do you come from? What are the stories from your home town that inspire you?

This week's creative task was very enjoyable. We watched a few videos of some of the tutors giving us their recommendations of books they find inspiring and useful, and then our task was to create our own video of some books, film, artwork etc that we find inspiring. The idea was that we would be able to share loads of amazing books and ideas between us.

For my video I chose to base my objects around the theme of "place". Place, location, landscape is so important in any story, and it can almost be a character in itself. I didn't just want to choose any random books, so I opted for ones that had a sense of place at their heart, and that had inspired me. I actually wanted to go out into Edinburgh to film it, but time has defeated so I made a boring talking head video. Hopefully the ideas still come across. I went for:

1. Poems of Ted Hughes - he wrote about West Yorkshire where I grew up, so many of the locations in his poems I can relate to. He writes about the hills, woods, and valleys, the memories of particular moments in the fields or the streets, snapshots of nature and people he observes. This is inspiring when you have a writer who has used familiar locations to inspire their own stories, images & characters. Listen to Ted Hughes read his poem "The Thought Fox" here

Q: Who are your local writers? What was it about their writing that distilled the essence of the place you grew up in?

2. Ghost stories of MR James - I chose this because a sense of place & atmosphere are essential to these stories, and James was a master.As we approach the depths of winter these stories are a brilliant accompaniment to the dark nights - sat around the fire with the wind rattling at the windows! The BBC also made several superb adaptations of the stories, many of which are available on YouTube. Look up "Whistle And I'll Come To You" for a brilliant example.

Q: What stories generate a sense of atmosphere for you? And why?

3. RL Stevenson - Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. This is a very well known story but I chose it because it sums up the city where I live, Edinburgh. Although the book is set in London, it's commonly held that Stevenson based it on Edinburgh, on the dual nature of the Old & New Town's of the city, and of real characters like Deacon Brodie - a respectable member of society by day, a thief by night. I love it because a landscape became a character and a story all of its own just through the writer's imagination. It is also a profound story about human nature which has been interpreted many times since. I love the idea of Stevenson dreaming the story up from just walking around the streets I walk down each day. Here is Alexander McCall Smith talking about literary Edinburgh 

Q: Is there a story that sums up the personality of your town or country?

4. The Edinburgh A-Z Street Atlas -
this was a bit of glib choice, but I wanted to make the point that there are stories all around us - in our cities and towns, our neighbourhoods and our streets. The most amazing stories can be right under your nose, or - like Stevenson - can be dreamt up all from a sense of place.

This MOOC has students from many towns and countries, so my challenge is to tell me about the stories and tales that have inspired you about your home town. Is there a story that sums up where you are from?

How could we share it? On a Google Map? As a Pinterest board? A Flickr group? A ThingLink graphic? A YouTube channel? Any ideas? Please share in the comments below!

Above is my video for this week's task. Please also take a look at the fantastic videos from my fellow students here on Aunt Renie's YouTube channel...

Thursday, 14 November 2013

If you want to read my #storymooc Week 3, turn to this page....

Does this book cover ring any bells?

It's one of Steve Jackson's books in the Fighting Fantasy series. They were popular children's books in the 1980's and were a mix of role playing style game contained within a story book. Page 1 of the story would give you a scenario, and at the end of the paragraph you were given 3 options on how to continue the story based on your judgement. Each option would lead to a different page in the book. For example something like, "You are at the front of the house. To knock on the door go to page 12. To climb through the broken window turn to page 74. To shout up at the lighted window turn to page 41". You would then get a new scenario, a new set of options, and hence a new story whichever option you chose. I used to think they were brilliant, and looking back they were such an interesting experiment. They came out at roughly the same time as the first computer games, but for a while they were every bit a match. Infact I used to read these books whilst waiting the 45 minutes it would take to load up our BBC Micro games!

In the spirit of the Fighting Fantasy books, I present my week 3 #storymooc review in their style

You have reached week 3 of your storytelling MOOC. To find out more, continue reading below. If you are bored, open this dusty window. If you want to sign up yourself, turn to this page

You are learning about web series this week. A woman in a green and blue shirt tells you that they can be hugely liberating, creating, and subversive. But, due to the medium they need to have more instant and memorable hooks due to people's short attention spans. If you want to see an example of a web series, open this window. To write your own, sharpen your pencil and read these tips

You have been walking around the internet for some time. You pass by a group of people from Sweden talking about a woman who has gone missing on the internet. They are trying to find her. You are amazed at the creativity of this "transmedia project" where the viewer is involved in directing the story via social media. You are also a but sad that it didn't catch on because it required too much effort on the viewer's behalf. The Swedish people rush off to find another clue. When they go you see a row of #storymooc tweets flash up on the wall. You see this one below

After reading it, do you 
- feel an epiphany that everything is actually a story, and that our whole lives are narratives that we construct in our heads? If you do enter this room here
- feel that with social media we are constantly re-inventing the medium of storytelling and pushing new boundaries. If you do, climb through this window
- cringe a little and wish that businesses and corporations would just leave us alone and stop impinging on our imagination. If you do, then react like this

You have reached the end of week three, but have encountered the end of level baddy. This comes in the form of a character you have to come up with! Aggghh!!!! What do you do?
You choose to seek advice from a person sitting next to you who has done it. Read about them here
You decide to meet a new person who is not a baddy at all. Meet them here
You take the plunge and come up with your own character. Say hello here

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Storytelling MOOC Week 2 - a "wide open frontier for creative experimentation"

This episode cropped up on my TED Talks podcast this week:

Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter fiction

This was so relevant to this course that I thought it was worth a summary of what I learnt from it. 

When radio was invented it was a new medium that defined new formats, which then defined new stories and how we told them. 

We are seeing the same in Twitter now.We have just about "settled the wild lands of the internet", and are now ready to define our own new formats and new stories. 

For example, 
1. The way Hugh Howey wrote and experimented the "Wool series.
2. Jennifer Egan wrote her story Black Box, "as a series of tweets on The New Yorker's Twitter account over nine days beginning May 25, 2012. The story is in the form of "mental dispatches" from a spy living in the Mediterranean area in the near future".
3. The phenomenon of Twitter accounts for fictional or historical characters who either engage with the real world (fictional characters), or tell us their real world (historical characters)
4. @CrimerShow. Someone creating a parody of detective TV. Every day there is a new episode.
5. Fake accounts blur the boundaries betwen reality and fiction.

In summary, Twitter is a "wide open frontier for creative experimentation"

Nicely put!

Storytelling MOOC Week 2

We also looked at daily soaps as an example of "serial storytelling" on TV. What is the point of knowing all these categories? As viewers or readers we categorise stories as we see them. So, in order to follow or break a rule you need to know the familiar formats.

The success of American series can be ascribed to finance, cultural hegemony, but also writers. They have prolific, creative, well taught writers. This quality goes all the way back to the "writers rooms" of Woody Allen's days.
What is important in successful story telling? 
1.) Emotional connection with the characters, 
2.) Audience want to lean into the screen, 
3.) Getting people's attention, 
4.) You are writing for your audience, not for yourself, 
5.) Sometimes creative process is give & take and teamwork

There are some great links in all the forums so far. Links to advice, techniques. methods from famous writers to organisations to individuals. But does anyone else feel a little overwhelmed at all the advice? Or has any of the advice really helped you? My little challenge to everyone is to try and flip this on its head and try this exercise. Imagine you had created the story of your dreams and everyone was asking you how you did it - what would your own advice be?

Mine would be that:
1. I took time to actually write on a regular basis. Only then did bad ideas get filtered out and good ideas come out of the blue
2. I got other people involved. An animator, an illustrator. Quality work came from interaction and ideas bouncing off other people
3. I took walks and made a point of noting things down every time I was out. These tiny things eventually led to much larger characters and story ideas
4. My final product was completely different to my original idea - it went through many, many stages

This was my own creative challenge of the week. Now to the one set on the course: "Please pick any existing serial protagonist that you know very well, and create a character profile. This is helpful because…
a) …you can compare this profile to that of other protagonists.
b) …you can learn how serial characters are built and why some characters work better than others."

I chose Yosser Hughes from Boys From the Blackstuff. He is the most memorable character from a TV serial I deeply love. He was probably not the best character for this assignment though, but it was good to think about the whole character, why the writers created him, and what purpose did he serve, or how did he set the other characters off. The checklist below is also quite useful when thinking about coming up with your own characters. I wonder if writers get the character first, and fit the story round them? Or whether they have the story first then flesh out the characters that the story needs? I posted this question on one of the forums, but I get the feeling it will be drowned out by the noise. How can MOOC's address this? Or is it the students' responsibility to not mass post and exercise some discretion?

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

My Storytelling MOOC

Today I began a new MOOC: "The Future of Storytelling" from Iversity. There is an emphasis on working & learning from each other and creative tasks, rather than simply just grades, which I liked. The design and delivery of the videos was really inviting and interesting. I think the format is clear, neat, and well done. They've used nice layouts, a variety of talking heads and visuals (someone sketching in a book was great!), and our main tutor Christina Schollerer is a really warm and engaging presenter. 

So, what is Storytelling? Some of the tutors gave their opinion in the opening video. Before they did this, I paused the video and tried to come up with my own definition:

It is a way to relay a moral, share an experience, tell a joke, create a sense of wonder, imagine a different possibility, or express a feeling. In my mind I always see an image like the one above when I think of storytelling. There is a sparkle in the eye, either in the narrator or the person listening. It's something we can't wait to tell someone, or something we can't wait to hear. A bit like the opening to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge - the Mariner has to tell his story, and the wedding guest can't help but stop and listen.

The tutor broke storytelling down into two parts, 1. The Story, 2. The Telling. There is a difference between the material of the story, and the way it is told. That seems quite simple, but I thought that was quite a neat distinction. We then looked at the history of storytelling - from orality to literacy. This was an interesting change; when a story is written down you don't need the rhymes, the structure, the rhythm, and climax. As a result. stories became more introverted when written down - we begin to glimpse more of the author rather than just the story itself. I wondered if we could be going back to the oral tradition now - in the sense that we are losing the voice of the individual within the digital world? We looked at the many different mediums for telling stories. I wondered if this is such a big deal necessarily, or is it simply down to the talents of the individual storyteller? So, for example, George Melles used film creatively - but was it his creativity, rather than the medium he used that made it so powerful? 

What is the difference between story and plot? The story is a linear series of events. the plot is how you tell it - the pace, emphasis, structure in which you relay these events.
We also looked at the way beats, scenes, sequences, and acts build up to create the structure of a story. It must have a hook, a hold, and a payoff. Story design can build from an inciting incident, to an object of desire, to a pursuit of the desire, to a climax. All shaped in a progressive way. The protagonist of a story must be someone we can identify with - this makes the pay off work.I liked how we looked at stories from different mediums as examples - books, movies (Pretty Woman), and computer games (Super Mario). 

Our creative task for this week:"Please think about which story you have read, seen, listened to, played or experienced has impressed you most in your life. … Which story can you still very well remember? Write down both, the summary of this story (what you remember of the story, not what Wikipedia says.. :) and – on the other hand: – what made it so special to you that you can still remember it."

This was quite hard to choose. I thought about stories from my childhood like the Just William books or the Hans Christian Anderson fairytales. Then I thought about authors whose stories I remember well - Charles Dickens, O Henry, Italo Calvino - I admire each for the breadth of their imagination, their humour, and their originality. In the end I plumped for a more recent story - the Pixar film, "Brave". It's the most recent story I've heard. I liked it very much, and it was also a glimpse into traditional storytelling mixed with modern methods and art forms. The story is of a young princess who is due to be wed to one of three suitors. She rebels against this though, and in an argument with her mother rips a tapestry and runs away from her home. She hatches a plot to change her mother's mind on her impending marriage by getting a spell from a witch. What she doesn't anticipate is the effect of the spell - it turns her mother into a bear. This is all the worse because her father, the King, has a sworn vendetta against bears, one of whom injured him in a fight many years ago. So, not only does our Princess have to fix the tapestry, and the relationship with her mother, she has to protect her mother against her father who sees her only as the bear he must vanquish. In the end she succeeds and harmony is restored. The family bonds are fixed and the story is resolved.

The reason I liked it is that it fused a lot of traditional story elements - metamorphosis, stone circles, witches, family arguments, pursuit of freedom - with modern animation, artwork, and techniques. It is also funny and moving. I listened to the DVD commentary and was fascinated by the producers talking about how they created the film - things like how they left good scenes out, changed story lines, introduced key themes early on, and played with physical humour and animation to help tell the story and advance the plot. I also liked how they used call backs and little details to help the unity of the story. And also the skill and detail that went into creating the characters and animation.

What is your favourite story? And why?

PS - here is a map with the pins of all the other MOOC participants in. Imagine if this were your visual storyboard - what tale would this tell?!

New #edcmchat book discussion - Saturday 2nd November

This Saturday we will be discussing Alastair Reynolds' story, "The Great Wall of Mars". Have you read any of his books before? What could we expect? And how does it relate to the themes of eLearning, digital cultures, and imagining dystopias or utopias which we have discussed in other books in the #edcmchat series. There is a PDF copy of the story here:,%20Alastair/Alastair%20Reynolds%20-%20Great%20Wall%20Of%20Mars.pdf You can join the edcmchat group on GoodReads here, or follow us on Twitter at #edcmchat

So, we ended up having another lively Tweet chat on Saturday. Some key themes from the story for me were the blurring of the lines between nature and technology, and in turn between emotion and reason in people. There were still people fighting and at war, there was still sibling rivalry and social factions, and there were still creatures out to kill us. The wall of the title was an interesting concept and we wondered whether it was there to keep people in our out, or to divide people? Or was it a symbol of a division that no longer applied? "The Great Wall of Mars" makes you think of something vast and impenetrable, but it was a decaying, crumbling, living object that needed humans to make it survive - perhaps an analogy then for our own earth? Here are some of the q's we discussed:

Q1:Thinking of the story's title, what does the wall represent? Is it civilisation,or Earth itself? Nature/environemnt? #edcmchat

Q2:"You’re placing too much humanity behind her eyes".What did Felka represent to you? Was she stronger or weaker than the others?#edcmchat

Q3:What about the idea of Transenlightenment in the story? Has the hive mind/post human improved humanity? #edcmchat

Q4:"She looked deep into his eyes & reached out a hand. But there was nothing he could do to help her" Is the story all dystopian?#edcmchat

Q5 "the walls oozed beguiling patterns as if a dark forest had suddenly become enchanted" Is there a spiritual side to the story? #edcmchat 

At the end, Anne Robertson @robeanne kindly collected them into a Storify page which you can find here

Friday, 2 August 2013

Learning about edcmooc tools 4 - Make your life easier

1. Pinterest
A quick and easy way to store things. It is visual, so a great way to quickly check back and remember things. I tend to use it as a storehouse of re-usable material (eg collecting Creative Commons images), but you can also present your work on here, or use it to archive research material.

2. Diigo
Store all those articles and webpages you have read or want to read. Diigo is a bookmarking site, you can also create a group and have multiple people post to it. My only problem is that it just adds to your workload, so to make life easier I suggest pulling out a quote from the article you are bookmarking that got your attention, or adding your comment after reading it, and why you thought it worthy of bookmarking.

3. Netvibes
I like the way this tool searches social networking sites, news, and blogs for you. I can get a quick snapshot of activity in a very short space of time. It does feel a bit incomplete though, and there must be lots missing. Why not go a step further with NetVibes and get it to write an article or summary for you? Ask it to aggregate all content on, say, "edcmooc" from the past 6 months and produce an article, infographic, and series of questions all gleaned from this content. Press "reminx" and it will do the same thing, but come up with different results. 

Learning about edcmooc tools 3 - getting new ideas

1. Twitter
A brilliant way to get ideas - using hashtags and tweetchats was the best way to generate ideas.

2. WallWisher
Writing ideas on napkins, post it's, and then pinning them to walls, tables, cork boards has always been a great way to jot ideas down quickly and take that first step to getting them organised. WallWisher is the online equivalent. I have also seeen people using it to give people virtual birthday/leaving cards when their friends/colleagues are in far flung locations.

3. Google Hangouts
Why spend ages communicating by writing alone? Use Skype or Hangouts and speak to the people you want to. When we tried it in edcmooc I found it very motivating - even though the connections were a bit shaky.

4. Facebook
This worked quite well. Probably because it was a medium people were familiar and comfortable with. The problem was that many things got lost in a sea of words. Because of the volume of people on there, it's still a good way to get instant feedback or opinion - for example by using the voting tool

5. Evernote
Get every little thought down in one place. I would love it if there was a button on Evernote that said "write up my blog post". It would take all my little notes and ideas, and present them as a weekly blog, so that I didn't have to write it. 

Learning about #edcmooc tools 2 - Presenting your work differently

1. PowerPoint, Prezi, SlideRocket
People have told me they prefer PowerPoint still, despite it being old and familiar. I still think it's a good way to get some ideas down quickly and present them easily. It's not how you present anyway, it's what you are saying. Prezi has whistles and bells, but whenever I have used it it has taken me a disproportionately long time to prepare a presentation than to deliver it. SlideRocket is maybe a nice compromise between the two. I had a try with it below (NB - I still actually prefer PowerPoint because it is so simple to use...)

2. Glogster & Smore
They could be two characters from the Hobbit, but they are actually good ways to make posters. These are interesting ways to break up your linear presentation, and present ideas a little more randomly. The danger is overkill, as has happened with infographics.

3. Quadblogging
This worked a treat. Knowing you have an audience motivates you to write in the first place, and stimulates you to improve your writing. It also touches on the next theme - "getting new ideas"

4. Storify
I really liked this tool. A nice way to make a story out of the constant stream of information on the internet. I made two stories by searching for what the Twitter world found #fascinating and #poetic. The results were quite random, but I liked it for that

5. ThingLink
This lets you add notes to your photos. Share a photo of your classroom, and annotate it with this tool. What is there to discover within a simple photo?

6. VideoScribe & GoAnimate
Two ways to quickly animate your ideas. The process of doing them is different to just writing something down on PowerPoint, or in a blog. You have to think a little differently and creatively, and I think you are also thinking about your audience reaction a bit more too. Both of which are good things when you present your ideas to others.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Learning about #edcmooc tools 1 - Creating your own online newspaper

This is part 1 in a series of 5, looking at new tools I discovered on the edcmooc course, and thinking how these could be applied creatively.

During the edcmooc course I kept noticing in people's twitter feeds, "the Joe Bloggs daily is now out! read here..". The link went to someone's own online newspaper that they had created. They had tailored  an internet search (eg "edcmooc") and their newspaper displayed links to all kinds of articles, blogs, links on this topic. I thought it was a good way to create some momentum around a topic and keep up to date in a simple way. For an organisation it could help you:

  • automatically keep a record of articles, journals, opinions, blogs on your subject
  • Help the social media staff aggregate content without tweeting, facebooking everything individually
  • Give your followers a broad and useful summary of the field you work in rather than just information on your organisation
  • Expand your web presence and open up more debate, discussion, industry awareness
  • Improve the knowledge of your colleagues and co-workers
  • Help you find research and articles to inform your own blog posts and articles, rather than losing them in the sea of the internet.
  • Make new connections
Such website as Paper.Li, ScoopIt, Storify and Triberr provide this service. 

I shall try the website Paper.Li this week, as I liked the idea of making your own online daily paper. If you have any experience using it let me know.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


This week's #edcmchat book is Aldous Huxley's "Island".

Very loosely, it's a novel that shows the opposite side to the dystopia he wrote of in Brave New World.

The group will be discussing it on Twitter this Saturday at 21:00GMT.

Do join us at #edcmchat if you can...

"After 37 years of adult education, I'm almost human". This could be the byline for the book. It is an observation from Dr MacPhail, a doctor on the island of Pala where the protagonist of the story, Will Farnaby, washes up after being lost at sea. On the titular island, he discovers a community which is very different to the one he knows and the one he has been brought up in. The novel is Will's journey of discovery on the island, and through this, Huxley's various expositions on what he believed a utopian society could look like. It is a mixture of eastern/Buddhist philosophy and western socialism.

·           The islanders are motivated by knowledge and enlightenment, not material gain or profit. Mynah birds on the island have been trained to say, "Attention" and "Here and Now" to remind people to focus their minds on the present. Traditional religions are vilified in the novel as being dogmatic, narrow minded, and repressive, "a few gifted manipulators of artistic or philosophical symbols". Similarly consumerism is viewed as negative, and something that leads to a mob mentality with no-one thinking for themselves. Self awareness is key on the island of Pala.
·           Education is inter-disciplinary. At one point children are asked to biologically and anatomically study and draw a flower as precisely as they can. Later they take their first psychedelic mushrooms - part of all children's initiation - and are asked to draw the same flower again, and to think about the differences in observation. There is reference to the etymology of the words whole, holy, and healthy, and this links to this idea of holisitc education:"our kind of family, the inclusive and voluntary kind, is the genuine holy family. Yours is the unholy family".
·           Physical labour and activity is welcomed. It is a way to communally produce what the island needs, and a way to stamp out neuroses. Mr Menon, one of the school teachers, describes how they assess each child to see how they learn - what motivates them, how do they act physically and mentally, what are their strengths and weaknesses. Once they have identified them the teachers can help bring this out. This is Education as the word literally means, and reminds me of Ken Robinson's TED talk on "Are Schools Killing Creativity" - he makes exactly the same point.
·           Children are also given duties to perform outwith school, so they can appreciate their role in society, "Sampling all kinds of work - it's part of everybody's education. One learns an enormous amount that way - about things and skills and organisations, about all kinds of people and their ways of thinking". Is this something we can adopt in our school systems? 
·       There is a much more open attitude to sharing. People do not live their lives in private. Love and sex are to be shared, children will grow up in "Mutual Adoption Clubs" where they rotate parents as and when is needed. This is a contrast to last month's EM Forster story where people lived entirely private lives hooked up to the Machine. It recalls the utopia of William Morris though, where people share equally and achieve contentment through this.

·           The opposite to this in Island, is the neighbouring state who are oil rich and wish to industrialise their nation with their wealth. The young heir to this rich nation is depicted as naive, impetuous, child like, and obsessed with the material goods of the Sears catalogue. Huxley seems to be arguing that on the Island they have everything they need - why strive for more? Huxley is damning of societies who go down this line. There are frequent references to fascism and Nazi Germany, how they became brainwashed and automatons. The "ignorance, militarism, and breeding" inherent in the World Wars - Huxley wrote the book in the early 1960's - is torn apart. One stand out quote from the novel is, ""Armaments, universal debt and planned obsolescence - those are the three pillars of western prosperity". Another describes the local oil tycoon as, "a bomb dropping spiritual crusader under the oily name of Joe Aldehyde". Has much changed in our society now?
·           On the other hand, the islanders use "Destiny Control", a from of selective breeding. They have Artificial Insemination where couples can choose the parents of their next child. Of course, on the Island, they all choose wisely and communally - but what if this went wrong? This is not really explored in the book, and this would be one of my criticisms - there are no viable opponents to the philosophy of the Island. One character, Rani, is the main opposition. She has her own Spiritual Crusade movement but it is motivated by money and power rather than genuine enlightenment. Nevertheless she is described as having a "domineering calm" and a natural charisma and hold over people. It would have been interesting to see how the people of Pala could dismantle her ego, but there is no real battle of wits in the book. Rani is just derided as a charlatan and that is that. The Palanese people can often come across as smug, so it would have been good for them to have had a genuinely philosophical opponent.

Huxley himself though the book, "a disbalance between fable and exposition, The story has too much weight, in the way of ideas and reflection, to carry". I would agree. Some chapters are devoted to the plot of Murugan and Colonel Dipa, others are just long vehicles for Huxley to put across his philosophies. However, this is a utopian novel so it is the ideas, perhaps, that matter most. The ending of the book I took to reflect this. Will has the option to listen to Murugan and the Colonel's plans for invasion. Instead he shrugs him off, considering his moksha medicine trip more important. In this regard, Will becomes personally enlightened - but is this at the expense of Pala? The final line is ambiguous. The Mynah birds are still calling, but "a semitone lower".

I also read "Brave New World" to compare the two books. In "Brave New World", society has created what it thinks is a utopia, but it is actually more like a dystopia. "Everybody's happy nowadays...but wouldn't you like to be free to be happy in some other way? In your own way, for example, not in everybody else's way". 

"I'm claiming the right to be unhappy" says the Savage character near the end. It's a novel about what it means to be happy. Do you accept someone else's definition of happiness, or do try and work it out yourself - but suffer in the process? It is fascinating because a society has been created that aims to please everyone; the individual is no longer relevant because humans have understood what it means to be happy and can create a world without old age or ignorance or unhappiness. Isn't that a good thing? This is the philosophical dilemma in the book. It is brilliantly written, and the themes and issues raised are profound and unsettling. I liked this passage below. It is poetically written, but also contains the crux of the philosophy within the book. 

How similar to you does this passage sound to our digital age today? Are we heading into a Brave New World, and what are the implications if we are?

(the characters are contemplating....) "the lovely music that came out of a box, and all the nice games you could play, and the delicious things to eat and drink, and the light that came when you pressed a little thing in the wall, and the pictures that you could hear and feel and smell, as well as see, and another box for making nice smells, and the pink and green and blue and silver houses as high as mountains, and everybody happy and no one ever sad or angry, and every one belonging to every one else, and the boxes where you could see and hear what was happening at the other side of the world, and babies in lovely clean bottles–everything so clean, and no nasty smells, no dirt at all–and people never lonely, but living together and being so jolly and happy, like the summer dances here in Malpais, but much happier, and the happiness being there every day, every day"

At around this time, I have also been looking into buying a smartphone. Browsing around, I was struck by how similar the advertising language sounded to passages from Brave New World or other dystopian fiction. Have you noticed too? And isn't it a bit chilling how easily these soundbites could be switched around without you really noticing? For example:

1. Current advertising slogans from technology companies

  • "Redefining how your memories live on" - HTC One
  • "Inject life and emotion into your memories" - HTC One
  • "Life companion...Make your life richer, simpler, and more fun".
  • "Each feature was designed to simplify our daily lives.Furthermore, it cares enough to monitor our health and well-being." Samsung Galaxy S4
  • "The Samsung GALAXY S4 is all about ‘togetherness’. It brings people together when they’re apart"
  • "It can suggest TV programs based on what you like....the ultimate productivity device"
  • "Get the current status of your surroundings for your activities with the Samsung GALAXY S4’s Comfort Level. It shows your comfort level based on temperature and humidity".
  • "sound that comes to life" Bang & Olufson

2. Quotes from Brave New World.

  • "every one belongs to every one else" 
  • "No pains have been spared to make your lives emotionally easy" 
  • "Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache" 
  • "Everybody's happy nowadays"
  • "progress is lovely"
  • "people never lonely, but living together and being so jolly and happy"
  • "O brave new world,"

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The imponderable bloom

Today on #edcmchat & the edcmooc Good Reads group, we discussed EM Forster's short story, "The Machine Stops". Very briefly, this story is about a future society where people live in pods underground, connected to each other through the "Machine" of the story's title. Devotion to the Machine, and the pursuit of ideas, is seen as a good thing. There is no longer any need or desire from people to venture out in to the world since the machine provides everything for them. Infact, they are proud that they have advanced beyond reliance on physical needs, and can exist in their world of ideas. The tension in the story comes from a character who wishes to break free form this, and to see the world as it is in all it's physical reality. It is a brief story, and is available to read online here.

Here are a few themes that crop up in the story, which I would say are relevant to our times and which Forster was very prescient about

1. People are brainwashed by technology
The Machine serves them with everything they need, but they also serve it to the point of being brainwashed. There are two telling passages which symbolically reflect this. One where someone drops a book, and rather than pick it up they just walk over it. And another where a character is flying over Greece and rather than look at it says, "These mountains give me no ideas". Rather than observe things and think for themselves, it is better to stay in their pods and believe a version of reality which they, and by extension, the Machine is telling them. How similar is this to our lives now? Smart phones, social media, obsessions with technology etc. The people in the story are also vain and proud of their "ideas". Forster mocks their social snobbery and pomposity regarding this. They are so blinded by the Machine that it has become a social faux pas to speak against it. Society has re-conditioned itself. This is another central theme of the story

2. Original thought is frowned upon
There is a passage in the book about a revered lecturer who speaks of the virtue in studying the French Revolution not as it happened from eyewitnesses, but from 8th, 9th, and 10th hand sources, so that eventually they might see the French Revolution as it might have happened had it happened in the age of the Machine. Once again, there are parallels with our own lives & how we consume news & opinions online. I actually think the pluses outweigh the minuses on this, but in Forster's story it is much more insidious. "Direct experience" is viewed as irrelevant, and it is socially unacceptable to speak out against it. This relates to a third theme

3. Man has become the Machine
Not a super intelligent hybrid, but rather the humans in the story have created a piece of technology that has outsmarted themselves. When the Machine begins to break, no-one can remember or understand how to fix it. Instead of acting on an original idea, they limply fall to their doom. There are also undercurrents of how the Machine is like a cult or religion that they blindly worship.
There is a lot of language in the story about "mechanical" being good, and "naked humanity" or physical muscularity being bad. However, Forster's central message is that we need to rediscover this. In one passage one of the character's speaks of how, "we only exist as the blood corpsucles that course through its arteries", but we need to get back out into the world and rediscover our physical relationship with it. This takes us to theme four.

4. Nature and Technology
Forster was reacting in this story to the idealistic technological utopias in some of HG Wells' stories.  In "The Machine Stops", nature and the natural world are powerful & positive forces. The civilisation he describes have lost touch with the physicality of both themselves and the natural word. Infact, the society practises euthanasia against strong people considering that they would be ill-suited and troublesome to a passive life in the Machine. The hero in the story however wishes to re-connect with this; to see the stars, and the "muscular" hills, as his ancestors once had. There are parallels again with our own lives - our over reliance on technology to tell us how to get to places or to actually go out and experience the world as it is. Or, to use my favourite phrase from the story, to marvel at "the imponderable bloom" of the natural world in front of us.

There is some excellent "double speak" in the story, and there are many echoes with Orwell's 1984.  Take this passage:
"I found out a way of my own."
The phrase conveyed no meaning to her, and he had to repeat it.
"A way of your own?" she whispered. "But that would be wrong."

Isn't that just like Winston Smith's rebellion against Big Brother? Incidentally, there is a "Central Committee" in Forster's story who are similarly all controlling and bureaucratic as in Orwell's book. Finally,. there are other themes in the book which reminded me of other Forster novels. Namely, the young protagonist who rebels against the overly-formal environment he is in and does something rash, impetuous, and impulsive - reacting from his heart rather than his head. The following passage for example could have come straight out of "Where Angels Fear To Tread", "what was the good of going out for mere curiosity...? The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connection with the habits that really mattered"

Overall, this is a story well worth reading. There are many themes that are relevant to our times now, and if nothing else you can just admire Forster's imagination, flair, and skill in writing. Having spent far too long online this year, it was a delight to go off, read and re-read a book, and then discuss the ideas & language within it. Next time, you can join too. Start now by joining the group here:

Image from Feltrinelli Publishing House. Thanks Neon Neon for raising awareness

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

#edcmooc poem

In the final TweetChat of the edcmooc course, one of the questions we asked was, "describe your edcmooc experience in 3 words". There followed some interesting tweets. As they were flowing in, to my mind it started to resemble a strange poem being written out live, by many hands. When the TweetChat was over, I collected all the 3 word Tweets in Storify so I wouldn't lose them. The next day, I would sift through them and re-arrange them into a real poem. A few months passed in fact & I never actually got round to doing it.

Until today.

Here is the finished poem. I couldn't think of a title, so I just fed the three most common words in the poem (enlighten, connect, learn) through a random anagram scrambler. Here is the original Storify collection of Tweets:

Nontechnical Green Lent

Personal learning network,
Connective learning support.
Powerful authentic global,
Created better teacher.

Sift through knowledge,
Reflect reassess relearn.
Connect create question,
Connect brainstorm learn.

Can't do that,
Need more words.

Deep connectivity, contemplation.
Constructive self-driven, diverse.
Exciting dynamic chaotic,
Connecting discovering learning. 

Addictive altruistic enlightening,
Live-giving exciting growing.
Experimental addictive confusing,
Awesome enlightening utopia.

Fraingers mind-expanding connecting,
Eye-opening massive future.
Buzzing learning enlightening
Stimulating surprising hectic.

Empirical dynamic creative
Entertaining diverting, cor...! 
Amazing learning experience
Maddie Moocing More!

Invigorating refreshing hopeful!
Bloody brilliant BOOM!

Expensive buying teabags,
Very big class.
All good karma,
Winter of content.

Exhausting but exhilarating,
Want somethinglikethis again.
Interesting, unexpected, rollercoaster. 
Eureka! Disraeli Confucius Goodnight.


Glad it's over.
Miss it now.