…or is that the un-education of the technologist?

Uma Descida ao Maelstrom

Uma Descida ao Maelstrom

Amidst the tumult, the academy appears oddly complacent. Open source technology, open access publication, open education have all had their successes, but none of these movements could fairly be described as having transformed practice. Models of publishing, reviewing and assessing research have not fundamentally changed. Innovation in teaching is at the margins, the essential structures of curriculum and assessment wholly unchanged. Educational technology, far from revolutionizing practice, seems primarily dedicated to perpetuating it: “clickers” provide a sheen of interactivity in the cavernous lecture hall; “learning management systems” promise to protect its users from the raging uncertainties of the digital chaos.

We have been cursed to live in intersecting times. The fundamentals of networked communication have changed so rapidly that even an educational technologist cannot help but take notice. Access to powerful servers and effectively limitless bandwidth can be had virtually for free. More ambitious hard-core web-heads command multiple-domain online empires managed by intuitive graphic user interfaces, at the cost of a daily cup of coffee. Open source software places sophisticated, supple and customizable tools in the hands of anyone willing to take the time to learn them. Creative types leverage viral media platforms to find vast audiences for artifacts created on laptops and cameraphones. There are ample examples of Yochai Benkler’s model of commons-based peer production producing epic outcomes. To suggest we live in an age of unprecedented information abundance is an obvious platitude, yet somehow understates the reality as well.

Across the cultural landscape, we see media shaking practice into near-submission. The music industry in freefall, the newspapers in meltdown, book publishing in crisis. Broadband eats everything.

To further complicate matters, it is almost certain that the happy development curve that has accompanied the nexus of innovation referred to by that obnoxious label “Web 2.0” will soon drop off a cliff in at least some respects. As this article goes to press in the early months of 2009, a global economic storm continues to build, and surely it would be an act of reckless, feckless lunacy to presume that the shiny, “we just wanna build cool stuff and make the world happy” ethos will prevail. The efficiency gains in cloud computing models for work are evident, yet only a fool would not expect those clouds to dump some hard rain in the days ahead.

The curators of this collection do not pretend to possess a synthetic theory to conceptualize this state of affairs. Though the instant transmission, unlimited replication, and prospects for remix inherent in digital media sends them with unkempt enthusiasm toward personal publishing tools, models of self-organization, the abuse of copyright restrictions, embedding distributed media, and syndication.

The model of presentation reflects a process of necessary un-education. We appropriate the method of Marshall McLuhan articulated in his preface to The Mechanical Bride. McLuhan noted that when he wrote that book “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Alan Poe kept coming to mind. Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and cooperating with it. The present article likewise attempts to set the ourselves and our readers at the centre of the evolving picture created by digital media, where we might observe the action that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. From the analysis of that action, it is hoped, many individual actions may suggest themselves.

Poe’s sailor says that when locked in by the whirling walls and the numerous objects that floated in that environment:

I must have been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.

It was this amusement born of his rational detachment as a spectator of his own situation that gave him the thread which led him out of the Labyrinth. And it is in that same spirit that this collection is offered as an amusement.