E-pedagogy, conviviality and praxis: a sketch

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POSTED: December 16, 2005

This is an essay about living and acting inside a world of visual knowledge building.

Man’s onotological vocation is to be a Subject who acts upon and transforms his world, and in so doing moves toward ever new possibilities of fuller and richer life individually and collectively.
Paulo Freire

The future isn’t something hidden in a corner. The future is something we build in the present.
Paulo Freire

The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.
Marshall McLuhan

In this essay I will look at several aspects of Marshall McLuhan’s thinking and seek to relate it to the current cultural environment: one in which information is transmitted and received instantaneously, and stored at a distance, in amounts unthinkable even two decades ago. I will briefly attempt to place McLuhan’s cultural commentary within a political framework drawn from the writings of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire.

My reasons for doing this are to attempt to construct the basis for a digital e-pedagogy that does not present itself as politically neutral but rather as a tool for the further democratisation of society. One of the fears most often expressed about the digitalisation of cultural expression and education is that it leads to passivity and a kind of dazzled bewilderment. It is important, for me, that we develop a form of e-pedagogy that has open and shared activity at its heart, and explicitly so.

In Understanding Media McLuhan argues that different technologies create conditions in which the relative values placed upon each of the five senses changes dramatically. He claims that the mechanical age was an age in which a linear visuality dominated, but the new electric age is more tactile, tribal and auditory. He says that the “aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology”. He further states that

every culture and every age has its favourite model of perception and knowledge that it is inclined to prescribe for everybody and everything. The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns. We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally.

At first sight this might suggest that we are moving away from the possibility of visual knowledge building as we move deeper into a digital world. Marshall McLuhan, however, claims that the opposite is the case. He argues that the mechanical culture, although favouring the visual over the other senses, had a much more profound charactersitic that stemmed from this sensory imbalance. It was a private culture that promoted individuality and a strict pattern of one-way transmission for knowledge and information. It was an era that developed Taylorism, the process of reducing complex industrial processes to a chain of simple, almost meaningless, tasks; and then applied the same methodology to transport, housing, education and medicine.

The electric age, the culture we now refer to as digital, generates different patterns of behaviour which are more fluid and spontaneous; and assume a level of self-learning that would have seemed laughable fifty years ago. The typing pools of the mechanical age have disappeared as executives have come to regard operating their laptops as a necessary skill. Millions of people have taught themselves to use word processors, mobile phones, email, digital cameras, and other devices and processes without even noticing that they are mastering skills which would have formed the basis of a profession a generation or two ago.

Formal education has become just one, relatively small, arena for some kinds of learning, although most people spend much of their time learning and updating an increasingly wide range of skills. Children begin to learn how to teach themselves when they get their first GameBoy or PlayStation. Every new game means more learning, either self-learning or the tribal learning of a peer group passing hard-won information between themselves.

The use of games as a primary form of learning in a digital age is not surprising. McLuhan has pointed out that games

are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions. They are collective and popular art forms with strict conventions. Ancient and nonliterate societies naturally regarded games as live dramatic models of the universe or of the outer cosmic drama… As models they are collective rather than private dramatizations of inner life. Like our vernacular tongues, all games are media of interpersonal communication, and they could have neither existence nor meaning except as extensions of our immediate inner lives.

From this perspective the movement towards learning through games is a movement towards a society based upon exploration. Exploration is the primary task of the artist, and art, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Medium is the Massage, is “anything you can get away with”.

In Marshall McLuhan’s words,

how art became a sort of civilized substitute for magical games and rituals is the story of the detribalization which came with literacy. Art, like games, became a mimetic echo of, and relief from, the old magic of total involvement… Art, like games, is a translator of experience. What we have already felt or seen in one situation we are suddenly given in a new kind of material.

He claims that most people “look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” We continue to cling to models of action that are no longer applicable, and it only is those who engage whole-heartedly in cultural exploration who can drag us into the present. Artists “know that they are engaged in making models of situations that have not yet matured in the society at large”. In their artistic play, they discover what is actually happening, and thus they appear to be “ahead of their time”. Non-artists always “look at the present through the spectacles of the preceding age”.

The idea that games are models, and that art is such a game, was not an entirely new idea when Marshall McLuhan propounded it. Similar thoughts had occurred to the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who had suggested that the acquisition of almost all human knowledge, including mathematics, is achieved by a process of ?diagrammatic modelling? in which one area of experience is deliberately mapped onto another. At the root of these arguments is an idea that is vital to the development of a successful e-pedagogy. Both Peirce and Marshall McLuhan argue that learning is achieved through a mapping process that is game-like and uses game-like tools. Whether explictly designed as such or not, these tools are learning objects that function as overlays. Placed over, mapped onto, an area of life, they offer a new perspective, a different view, that encourages the development of skills – including the skills of analysis, reflection and autonomous learning.

Both children and adults are daily using learning objects created by artists and designers without even having to recognise them as such. The point of most Super Mario games is to work out the nature of the rules and the nature of the course to which the rules apply. The player has to work out, by methodical exploration, what the purpose of the mushrooms and the gold coins are. There are an increasing number of adult entertainments that follow this model of artistic learning objects. Both The Sims On-line and Second Life are game-like structures that have no purpose and no conclusion. There is no winning or losing, just the possibility of endless exploration. In both games there are detailed accounts, in user blogs and forums, of the ways in which ?players? use the game to map elements of the real world in order to learn about it, about their reactions to it, and about strategies for improving them.

However, this approach is not without its critics and its dangers. Ivan Illich stated the dangers very succinctly in Tools for Conviviality.

The vision of new possibilities requires only the recognition that scientific discoveries can be used in at least two opposite ways. The first leads to specialisation of functions, institutionalisation of values and centralisation of power, and turns people into the accessories of bureaucracies or machines. The second enlarges the range of each person’s competence, control, and initiative, limited only by other individuals’ claims to an equal range of power and freedom… The illusion prevailed that the machine was a laboratory-made homonculus, and that it would do our labour instead of slaves. It is now time to correct this mistake and shake off the illusion that men are born to be slaveholders and the only thing wrong in the past was that not all men could be equally so.

The danger we face, then, is in believing the hype and assuming, along with Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelley, and the other members of the Californian Utopian Club, that technological advances are inevitably good, and will bring about happiness for all without any need for political or cultural intervention. As Illich points out, a “convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others.” This is not necessarily the primary goal of either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. As we design learning objects for mapping, we must ensure that we are producing tools that genuinely allow for autonomous action. This is much harder than it might appear at first sight.

SimCity provides a useful example of the difficulties. When this first appeared many educational institutions began to use it as a teaching tool, a learning object that students could use to explore the complexities of politics and economics. Only later did people begin to realise that the structure of SimCity was based around a very specific, profit-driven theory of economics, and that keeping your city thriving meant unconsciously adopting a very specific economic point of view. What was actually being learned was not what appeared on the surface to be being taught!

As we have moved from the mechanical, linear age, we have entered an age that Marshall McLuhan claims is more nearly tribal. We have re-entered a time of dialogue, in which artists / explorers engage our attention and we, increasingly, talk back. We have moved away from instruction and towards discussion as praxis. As Paulo Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “there is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to
transform the world.”

Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. Hence, dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming: between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them. Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word must first reclaim this right and prevent the continuation of this dehumanizing aggression.

The words of Freire and Illich do not contradict Marshall McLuhan, who himself held strong views about what he was observing: views which he sought to dismiss as unimportant in terms of his mission to conduct cultural ?probes?. Rather they strengthen his insights by providing a framework within which comparisons might usefully be made. If Marshall McLuhan stands back and reports, somewhat detachedly, about the historical processes he believes that he can observe, Illich and Freire offer us guidance as to how we should act within these processes to facilitate democratic human growth.

Marshall McLuhan says that ?in the electric age, the closing of the gaps between art and business, or between campus and community, are part of the overall implosion that closes the ranks of specialities at all levels.? Illich and Freire suggest what we might do about this and, from our perspective, offer valuable suggestions about the criteria we might employ building visual learning objects that favour conviviality over passivity.