Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nerds and Visions

I was invited to deliver a lecture recently for the Arts Faculty here at NUIG and my title was Learning to be Human: Why Nerds Need the Humanities. I hope my audience enjoyed it. I made it informal but tried to get across the notion that we nerds (those of us who willingly devote our lives to the pursuit of technological knowledge and seek total enlightenment and fullfillment through the deeper undersanding of technical issues) need the study of art, history, philosophy and the other humanities because without those subjects, we have no context within which to place our tech.

The talk went well and I, at least, had fun. The subject is acctually vital because our universities around the world have begun allowing satudents to focus and concentrate so much in singel areas such as IT, medicine, engineering, etc, that the students thus turned out do not have to have a braoder cultural literacy within which to place their knowledge and emotions. i would say that they were, consequently, not fully human...they have not learned to BE human. And it is their loss as well as that of the world.

My talk went round to th esubject of how you teach art, history, etc to such nerds as we now sow among our classes and culture. Given that the world truly changed 25 years ago with the invention of the personal computer, that THIS device truly CHANGES how generations of future people will view the world, then we need different ways, i contend, to teach these same old stories from history and literature.

Jane Austen doesn't work anymore for a lot of students; her novels are timeless and pertinent but not contextual enough to resonate at first blush. the movie Clueless, however, might work better.

The other aspect of this, I believe, is that our stories, our literacy, our timeless learned messages are about heores. You can HAVE stories abotu other things, but the importnat stories, the ones that teach us to be human are, interestingly enough, about heroes.

Those who know me will, by now, have figured out that I then talked about today's mythiical heroes and of course that meant Buffy, Batman, Superman, Skywalker, and the others.

Out of all this, I think there is a message evolving that I want to discuss in more depth. That is the message of how we teach and how we help students learn these messages. Not just WHAT we teach (although this is vital) but HOW we teach an what we use to teach with.

Enter a new invitation. I have been invited to present a keynote to the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) June conference here at NUIG. I've been giving this one a lot of thought in the light of this mesaage that I am evolving. That talk, Visions of a Learning Future will focus on the idea tht learnign will be continuous, technolgical, and immersive and engaging.

The nature of learning is changing. It's easy to say that no, people are the same always, therefore learning will essentially remain the same for the rest of history. but I don't think that's so.

Technology changes us. While many of our aspirations, instincts, goals, and drives remain the same over the centuries, I think others truly do change. We are NOT the same as cro magnon was. Our different understanding of the universe literally makes us different at a very low level from medeival folk. And reading and writing on papyrus makes you a DIFFERENT kind of person than if you only use clay tablets.

Of course the differences may be small at first. They may be incremental based on how divergent technologies are, how divergent knowledge is. But that's the crux of the matter. The divergence rate is accelerating. The singularity is near and as we approach teh knee in the curve of technologicla change the difference of each generation's inhabitants from those before is greater than the generational differnece before.

The effects of accelerating change like this are hard to grasp, because we want the acceleartion to only apply to a few select things. But the acceleration of EVERYTHING is increasing...better, perhaps to think of our world as existing as an expanding universe of manifold dimensions. Everyting is expanding and rushing away from what came before. Think of those metadata browsers that cluster documents or files or other objects based on some notional idea of 'proximity' . Whichever idea you choose, each generation of objects is always further away, less proximal, to each other than the previous generation .

That's actually an interesting idea. the iplication is that, past the takeoff point, we will change so rapidly that successive generations may not recognize each other as being of the same species. Charles Stross plays with this idea a bit in Accelerando.

I'll write a bit more about learning technologies and how they affect this in anothe rpost, I think.
One place where it will begin to play in the near future, however, is the migration of education into the immersive virtual world of 3d games...we'll look at how those will emerge and blend for everyday learning next time.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Illusionist -- a Study in Cinematic Language

Went to see the Illusionist today. Excellent film, a little slow starting, but the pace grew quickly. It was, of course, a bit predictable, but the story is probably a better one than The Prestige from a literary stance.

I won't give away any spoilers here, but the cinematic language used in The Illusionist is fascinating. The manner in which the plot is communicated visually, even down to some unusual costuming choices, telegraph the plot to you if you are prepared to receive it. There are, in fact, two scenes, with no dialogue, that disclose the entire plot. There are also a handful of scenes that provide more discernible clues, but the action and dialogue are very good at not giving away too much. At the same time, there is no cheesy use of cinematic special effects or illusions to hide or disguise the actual plot.

Cinematic language, from the interplay of characters in frame and out, to the precise angle of a mirror in a scene can be most telling if you learn to expect it, keep an eye out for it, and interpret it. In the Illusionist, I found the use of such language to be quite precise. it was very well done.

The hilarious bit is in one line where the lead character (Ed Norton) is taking to the Police Inspector (Paul Giamatti). Eisenheim asks, "Are you totally corrupt?" and Inspector Uhl replies, "Not totally, no". It was great.