Saturday, 16 February 2013

Week 3 - a random jumble of not very well thought out thoughts

Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives. 

I enjoyed reading this very interesting article this morning. How different languages describe things differently according to gender, vocabulary, culture, or even physical landscape. The final line which I quoted above reminded me of a drama I watched yesterday called "Black Mirror". It is online here (possibly only UK viewers, but you can try). 

I won't spoilt the plot, but the story raises some fascinating questions about what it means to be human, to have a relationship, to love. and to interact with each other in our modern world. Is the "me" on my Twitter, Flickr, Facebook timeline the same "me" who you see walk into a room? When you chat with someone online what are you missing from the subtle body language, emotion, humour, mistakes in face to face communication? I thought the style of the drama was excellent too - the advanced technology shown is ever so slightly different to our own, but it's not some exaggerated utopian or dystopian vision, it is subtle and clever and intuitive - all things which make us human.

I also liked this image from Alison Christie this week.

Image from Alison Chrstie at

That iconic image of the human handprint which is such a human thing (CF this image). Here Alison has done it as a word cloud. It's a simple but really clever image and it linked back to themes in both the article and film above

  • Are we made up of the words we speak or know?
  • Do you see someone else in terms of the language they use? Or know?
  • If you had to write down on your own hand all the words that made you human what words would they be? Would yours be the same as anyone else's?
  • Does that hand remind you of a QR code or something like that? Or how people read palms to try and predict someone's health or future, how will we "read" or "scan" people as the digital side of life develops? See also
  • What about the labels we give to people? The words we tag, group, or stereotype people with. We don't really do that to machines. Or do we? 
  • If a machine read David Copperfield to you would it have the same effect as a human reading it? What do we get from the cadence of the voice, the dramatic pauses, rise and fall of words, accent and pace that we wouldn't get from a machine? Why is this, and does it matter?
It's a bit of a trite thing to say, but there is a lot of unspoken things we convey through body language and other sense that you miss with digital communication. Have a look at Bina 48, a woman made robot currently "living" in a house in New York state. To what extent is Bina 48 a human or a robot? In the video in the link, how does the interviewer pick up her mistakes and "robot-ness" in the interview? I would say very quickly, and sometimes without even thinking. If you are speaking with someone and they so much as raise an eyebrow in a funny way it can instantly change the tone of the conversation. We've evolved this over thousands of years to learn these tiny clues - but where is evolution going to take us next in language and communication? 

Finally, I tried a little experiment this week. I was thinking about the digital human and all that this entailed; trying to think of an image to represent it as per the Flick challenge. I'd spent an hour online reading articles, watching the Week 3 videos; I'd been flipping between different social media sites and soaking up information. My mind was buzzing, and at its "buzziest" I took a picture of myslelf on my webcam. Well, I didn't look too buzzy  - I looked bored! 

I think my point with this was that on this course we've seen some visions of the future that are sleek, sophisticated, edgy and dramatic. But to my mind they miss out on what humans and life are really like. We drop things, make mistakes, get people's names jumbled up, do things like forget why we walked into the kitchen or stumble around confused if we hear an alarm beeping in a room but can't work out where the noise is coming from. Life is full of stupid, slapstick moments. Will that part of human life ever go away? As someone pointed out on Twitter last week, if in the future we are living in this slick world of glass, constantly looking at our amazing devices through our enhanced digital spectacles aren't we just going to keep bumping into each other all the time? 

To borrow an image from one of the short films this week, we're still in many ways just a block of meat gawping back at a screen. 

PS - The phrase "you really know how to push my buttons" came to mind today as well. We type on our computer, press & push buttons on machines and they do everything they are told. But it is only people who know how to push our buttons (see also this great image from lux05)

PPS - this blog post from Melissa Fortson Green on assistive technology has made me rethink a lot of what I wrote above

PPPS - This artefact from Ellie Kennedy is one of the best I've seen. 
It summed up how I feel about being online, and learning online. It is not a sleek and clear cut experience, it is completely random, confusing, and full of non-sequitars. How many websites out there tells us that they will help organise our lives better? There must be thousands, but that's not really how we think is it? We need unusual juxtapositions of images to make us think. It's like working out a puzzle - having a question to solve is more motivating than being told a bunch of answers and having to reflect on them. That's one aspect of eLearning (these "multimodal literacies") which is very, very different to traditional learning, and which I can see as a huge benefit. It gives you little neural sparks and flashes to go off and find new things out. Is it a "pop culture" learning though? Where is the real value? 

PPPPS  - in terms of utopias and dystopias, what about this from Milton, "The mind is its own place, and in itself/[Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n] "

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