Media Literacy Debate

My brain hurts. Dana Boyd gave the keynote speech (1 hour) at SXSWedu (an annual media conference with an educational add-on). I first caught wind of the controversy through Stephen Downes’ blog. I read Dana Boyd’s original post, and a response by Benjamin Doxtdator.

Before reading Dana Boyd’s follow-up on Medium, I decided to watch the video, the whole hour. This is where I am now. She has raised issues that I had not considered and am still working on integrating into my framework. A challenge. The reason this is so important is that I teach English in Tokyo and use a lot of tech doing so.

Slide from Dana Boyd’S SXSWedu Keynote of web page by Elita Saulle at teachingrocks.ca

Moreso, this year, I am concentrating on providing a wide range of online opportunities in most of my classes this year.  I have added a series of activities (self-evaluation, introspection on motivation, communication, and learning, along with goal setting and planning) to give students both more freedom and more autonomy, and make sure they have the tools to handle it. Then I let them loose (well, with a semi-curated set of content) to explore and work with the results of those first few activities.

I am not so sure I can do that, now. I really need to rethink how I approach my use of online materials. I have moved away from teaching English directly as a subject, and promote self-learning of English by using it as a thinking tool. I can get away with this because most of my students are solid intermediate level and above. But the concerns she raises mean I have to look at how a non-native speaker should treat the media landscape (ie the web). In some ways, my students and the culture in Japan can (and have) teach me about how to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time and not go crazy. The problem is that this ability is not usually applied to content and interaction on the web.

Discounting everything is the road to nihilism. Blind belief is the road to becoming a patsy. But foisting your opinion, even with scientific evidence, is also not an answer. Recognizing that individuals and institutions such as shock vloggers and Cambridge Analytica play the media regularly to their own ends, and more important work to devalue the media and all other forms of authority is becoming an indispensable skill. This is Howard Rheingold’s crap detection on steroids and taken to another orbit.

One of the keys is being able to recognize toxic information and walking away. Ignoring things is something I have been taught is completely wrong. But now, with manufactured content designed to create a visceral gut reaction and a response, realizing the Buddhist idea of impermanence may help. Lots more thinking to do first, though. And learn how to discuss with people who disagree with me while avoid being gaslighted.

Altered Carbon: Bad Good SciFi

Netflix continues to push the envelope, with a greater variety of TV that appeals to a wider audience, especially one that has tired of typical fare. It is another golden age of TV, now called streaming video.

One example of this is Altered Carbon.  It is cheesy. The plot is a mess. It is a tale as old as the hills, set 350 years in the future. A world where your mind (and soul?) are downloaded and you use “sleeves” until they die. But you get put into another.

The story starts with an insurgent getting reawoken after 250 years on a hard disk, doing time. Oddly enough, he can operate and understand everyone without a hitch. There is gratuitous sex, lots of violence, way too much chop-sockey. And yet, it all hangs together.

Part of the charm is the cast, a very multi-national group. Long stretches of dialog occur in Spanish, German and other languages. One “sleeve” of the main character is the Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (the assistant detective in The Killing), and his sister (as an adult) is one of my favorite actresses, Tibetan/Australian Dichen Lackmann. And a host of other not-so-well-known actors who try to breathe life into the weird script that is all over the place (sci-fi allows for lots of inserted backstory).

The other part is the worldbuilding. It is an interesting world that has consequences. That is an extremely hard thing to do, as Charles Stross points out. Even though he is an SF author, one of the reasons he no longer reads much SF is that the worldbuilding is not consistent. I don’t mind a few inconsistencies, if they propel the plot forward, as is the case of Altered Carbon, in its exploration of how death makes us human.

Cormac McCarthy on Language

Cormac McCarthy, author of novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, is, believe it or not, interested in physics and complex systems. Writing in Nautilus (great publication), he muses on language and the unconscious in The Kekulé Problem.

The shoehorn into the discussion is that people solve problems when they are asleep. Kekulé is only the most famous for this; falling asleep and solving the problem of the chemical structure of Benzine. The point is that the image he saw, that revealed the structure, did not contain any language. That is because it is from the unconscious.

Read the article to find out why the unconscious and language are separate. Is it biology, did it evolve, or are they simply incompatible? McCarthy jumps between psychology, biology, philosophy in his quest for an answer. He gets help by discussing with his friend and colleague David Krakauer, both from the Santa Fe Institute (home of really smart people). He ends up solving the problem after a ten-hour lunch with Krakauer and yes, some sleep.

This article reminds me of two other books. The Third Culture was the first collection of essays I read by John Brockman, a literary agent. He assembled a collection of scientists (Gould, Dawkins, Minsky, Schank, Pinker, Penrose, Smolin, Kauffman, and especially Gell-Mann, also at Santa Fe) to answer questions usually reserved for theologians and philosophers. C.P. Snow postulated that Science and Literature would merge into a “third culture.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. Brockman puts a similar book out each year, addressing a new question. Find him at the Edge.

Language is metaphor, and that is what makes us human. China Mieville writes of an alien race inhabiting a trading outpost at the edge of the civilized universe in Embassytown. The heroine watches as the Ariekei try to lie and fail, repeatedly. They are not built that way. Their Language requires people to speak in two voices at the same time. Humans that are conjoined twins fill the role of Ambassadors. When a linguistic “virus” invades, all hell breaks loose.

Which brings us back to language. It language itself just a virus, a parasite, riding on the cerebellum and medulla, causing the cerebrum to develop grotesquely large? Read McCarthy.

Interactive Fiction and Time Travel

I have been delving into Interactive Fiction lately, becoming more consumed by both reading (watching, playing) branching fiction stories (Choose Your Own Adventure, or CYOA) and the like. Zork is probably the first digital instance of branching fiction. There is an annual competition of IF stories (record 72 submissions) you can try out if you like.

I also read a lot of science fiction, the latest being D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson (my favorite author) and Nicole Galland, collaborator with Neal and 4 others on The Mongoliad Trilogy (another kind of interactiveness). D.O.D.O. is a story about magic, and its recursive recovery and application in modern times through time travel. A very complicated treatment of time travel, with varios threads of the story intertwining like the infinite branches in the universe.

I teach a course that uses Twine for students to create their own interactive fiction. I find it the easiest of the different story engines (word processors for branching fiction) out there.

So when I saw this video, it made me happy to see a physicist treat the plots of time travel movies in such a logical way. This is important to both Interactive Fiction (IF) and storytelling.