A brief history of mobile devices

 

Reading elsewhere in A History of the World in 100 Objects I came across this quote from a letter by Geoffrey Chaucer to his 10-year-old son, Lewis.

I have seen that there will be some instructions that will not in all things deliver their intended results; and some of them be too hard for thy tender age of ten years to understand.

Chaucer senior was talking about the user manual for the astrolabe that he’d bought for his son. This is an astrolabe:

It can be used to tell positions of stars and planets, your latitude, and is an inclinometer. And probably a few other things too. The parallels with smartphones is obvious. A new device, that fits in the pocket, and does an amazing amount of things. And so complicated it takes a ten-year-old to understand it. The parallels with the hand axe are apparent too. Again hand-sized (pocket-sized except it was probably invented before the pocket) with a wide variety of applications.

The fascination with technology is an in-built human experience. Anyone who claims that technology is dehumanising hasn’t really been paying attention to how we evolved. Sure it changes us, but that’s a fundamental part of the human experience. And yet frequently in education I’ve come across resistance, not because it’s difficult or time-consuming (though it can be that) but because people have said they have an ideological opposition to it. Which is perhaps overstating their case. It’s more accurate to say they didn’t like it.

But look at that. Imagine you’re in 1391 – how cool would it be to own one of those? Scratch that, it’s still cool in 2016. Alone that shouldn’t be the basis of educational experience (the “cult of the shiny”) but it has to count for something.

That’s one reason why mobile devices are so loved. They are cool, and they’re always to hand, and they have a multitude of uses. Torch, satnav, book, music player, games console, text messager, internet browser, clock, stopwatch, timezone converter, camera, (still and movie), calculator, TV. About the only thing I don’t use mine for is as a phone. I wouldn’t say it was a fixed part of me (I’m always putting mine down somewhere and forgetting it). But it is an extension of my means to interact with the world. That’s my one quibble with the book. The 100th object is a credit card, supposedly being the device that sums up our time in the way that the astrolabe summed up the 14th century. I think even back in 2010 when the book came out, the smartphone was evidently the defining device of our time. And now of course it’s making the credit card obsolete.

Douglas Adams described technology as a tool that doesn’t work yet. Marshall McLuhan described a tool that becomes an extension of us as a prosthesis. So gradually there’s an evolutionary process of our devices, from technology, to tool, to prosthesis. We appropriate the technology into our sense of our own selves, so that as a prosthesis it’s part of our proprioceptive system. Once the device becomes an extension of our bodies we don’t want to be separated from it, but it becomes an ideal medium for learning, because while operating it we don’t think about how to operate it, any more than we think about how to pick things up with our hands. It’s truly an invisible technology.

This is why designers change an interface at their peril. Often people will respond to the howls of protest with derision, as if it’s just a knee-jerk antipathy to change. Sure change is the only constant, but the impediment to that sense of a device as prosthesis is real. Once you’re slowed down by having to think where everything is on the device, it starts getting in the way again, like having to relearn how to walk if you’ve had your left and right feet swapped. When it seems like the upgrade has just been for the sake of it (or worse, because they’ve come up with a more intrusive way to sell you stuff – take note Twitter and Skype) then people are right to be pissed off.

It’s also why mobile learning is so effective. Yes it frees people from being tied to one spot for their learning. I can now read anywhere I’ve got a few minutes, because I’ll have my phone on me whereas I rarely would have a book on me, as they don’t fit in my pocket. Anywhere can then become a learning space (more interstitial spaces). But it’s also because mobile devices aren’t a technology, they’re not even a tool, they’re part of us. We therefore feel connected to them in a way we’re not connected to other things, and whatever takes place with them or through them makes the activities feel more personal, and more engaging and, arguably, a more fully-realised experience, because the experience isn’t just on a screen, it’s physically engaged with. Part of The Body Electric.

 

 

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Metaxis and liminality

“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey”

Just as I began to write this blog I experienced an excellent example of Metaxis – I’m sitting in the local car servicing garage, in the waiting room, but absorbed in what I’m doing. My sense of presence is removed from my immediate surroundings, my mind is entirely within the online environment, and then Beck (Loser) starts playing on the radio. Straight away I’m pulled out of what I’m doing and (3-2-1) I’m back in the room. It’s that good a song. And appropriately the garage is called In ‘n’ Out. And now it’s Guns and Roses (Sweet Child of Mine). This will take a while.

Liminality is a word that’s banded around a lot, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure people have a grip on what it is. It’s a word that starts in discussions of the theatre and has been adopted more generally by anthropologists, and has made its way into education. The limen is the edge of the stage, it’s the threshold that separates the world of the performers and the world of the audience. Liminality is then the experience of transition between two spaces. In a theatre the edge between make-believe and reality is an obvious one; there’s also an important transition between outside and inside the theatre.

“Where do we go now?”

It’s different from an interstitial space however. Interstitial is between two other spaces, true, and is unallocated, so opens up a range of possibilities. The BLTC conference is largely constructed around interstitial spaces. Corridors, bridges, studio workspaces, dining rooms, without the rules of regular spaces, other things can happen.

The learning commons type of learning environments work like interstitial spaces, they’re neither formal nor informal spaces, they’re institutional but also personal. In Oldenberg’s typology they’re both second and third places – so two-and-a-halfth spaces.

Liminal spaces describe something different than just this interstiality … interstitialness … interstitial nature. The world of the stage isn’t like the regular world. It has a narrative.

damn the Stones are on … there will be another intermission

The people on it are supposed to be people other than who they appear to be. They’re not the two actors off the X-Men movies, they’re Estragon and Vladimir, for example. To engage properly with the space requires a willing suspension of disbelief, or rather (I’d suggest) an engagement of belief.

“I saw her today at the reception”

It’s not just theatre and it’s not just space either. We’ve seen in this blog entry how music can create a separate world within another one. There can be a moment of liminality, a transition from one world to another, anywhere. I can be sitting in a room but not aware of it because the background sound is some bland pop music, and it lulls the senses. I become absorbed in the world of what I’m doing online, it’s just me and you, my audience, and then some familiar strains of a rock track starts up on the radio and I’m pulled out of the world I’m creating, and pulled into the world that the musicians create. I suppose you might not like the Rolling Stones, or Beck, or Guns and Roses (if that’s the case, you might want to check your pulse) and it might not have the same effect. You might be able to sit in the audience of a play and not get drawn into the action because Beckett’s not your thing. Engagement of belief is key.

Other spaces have the same requirement. Ritual spaces, game spaces, sports arenas. Other media create the same transition within a space, books, TV, (with narrative media it’s called the diegetic effect). You cross that limen and you’re somewhere else.

Except you’re not entirely. That’s where metaxis comes in. Your sense of location and presence is a zero sum. The more you leave one world, the more you enter the other, but you can be split between the two to various extents. Sirs Ian and Patrick might be great, but you’re aware of the pressure of the seat in front of you on your knees; you’re absorbed in the stuff you’re writing, but aware that the Cranberries have just started. Or you’re getting wound up because you’ve just landed on Yavin IV for the third time in a row, but it’s only Monopoly so doesn’t *really matter. Not really. Honest.

Virtual worlds depend on engagement of belief to be fully effective as learning environments. For students so located within the physical world, they can’t lose their sense of their surroundings, and so can’t fully engage in the belief in the virtual. I think imagination has something to do with it too. Carrie Heeter calls it the Peter Pan effect, which sums it up nicely.

So why do it if it disadvantages some students? Well one reason is that for those who can experience these liminal spaces as they are meant to be experienced, it can open up new opportunities for interaction, for expression and engagement. If you can stand on the steps of the Theatre of Dionysus, as it was in ancient Greece, and actually feel it, that’s qualitatively different from just looking at a picture. And from personal experience I’d say conveys something more than standing on those steps as it is now (though that’s impressive too).

But also liminality isn’t just about the experience of presence in those spaces, it’s also about all the other things that transform when we’re in those imagination-dependent spaces (which I call 4th places for short – extending Oldenberg’s typlogy by one more). Identity, roles, rules of behaviour, community, all are transfigured by stepping over that limen. Some people would argue that the rationale for creating those spaces is that those things are transformed. Turner talked about the sense of communitas in a theatrical experience, fellowship and agápē are often words to describe the feeling of ritual spaces. Bernard Suits suggested that attending sporting events isn’t really about whether your team scores a goal or not, it’s about that feeling of camaraderie that occurs when the goal is scored. Because metaxis-wise there’s always the small voice at the back of your head that says this God doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t really matter whether my team wins, those two guys aren’t really waiting for Godot, the actual world outside the 4th places  intrudes to some extent but is suppressed to make the space you’re in work properly.

As far as education goes, these spaces can be enormously valuable, but I’d say that we’re still working out how they work, and what they mean. Looking for commonalities between them can also be instructive. They can also be difficult spaces to set up and support, but you know, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.

 

 

 

 

Interstitial and liminal spaces

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the BLTC planning and the themes identified, have coincided with an online discussion group that I’ve recently joined on the subject of inbetween spaces. It’s been mainly an email discussion group, but we’ve also met up online in a Google circle. The video of that first meeting is here:

 

You can see here evidence of the strength of the written word over spoken in my case. A combination of lack of sleep (insomnia could be an upcoming blog post) and the mania that comes with being exposed to a mass of interesting ideas from interesting people rendered me almost unintelligible at moments, but I think the others make plenty of sense, so the video is well worth watching.

Liminal spaces is one of the themes of Making Sense of Space; a book I worked on with my friend Iryna Kuksa. The book proposal was hers, and she invited me to contribute to it. I was stuck for what to contribute, then decided to rework a proposal I’d made for a Marie Curie Fellowship, which had fallen through. It was an excellent complementarity between Iryna’s work and mine; she’d got a monograph on design of spaces in virtual worlds, I’d got my stuff on the experience of spaces in virtual worlds, we put them together and co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. I’d also got a couple of chapters’ worth of work that was on work I’d collaborated on in both education and performance in virtual worlds, and it all fitted together really well – after Iryna had honed out many of my off-topic musings (I managed to persuade her to leave some in).

One thing that helped me pull my bit together was a model I’d come up with a few years earlier, which is an extended version of Activity Theory. Activity Theory has evolved over the years; starting with Vygotsky, then reformulated by Leont’ev and extended by Engestrom. To that illustrious list you can now add Childs :-p

I like activity theory as a description of what goes on when activities take place. It’s pretty simple to get hold of once you realise it’s not really a theory. It simplifies quite a complicated process by breaking it into its component parts, and enables you to singly consider the connections between those parts. It usually gets represented as a triangle, like this:

 

Obviously it’s just a representation – reality is what Adams once described as a WSOGMM (whole sort of general mish-mash) – but that’s too messy to really get a handle on.

The problem with activity theory is that it misses out two factors that a elemental in understanding activities and that is the participants’ sense of presence, with the space and with each other, and their identity, as learners, teachers, whatever. Now it’s fair to say that identity is probably already in there, it only makes sense in terms of community, or in the roles that we’re assigned, or I’d say it’s actually a tool we use in interaction. But anything that’s smeared across so many other categories just adds to the messiness of the analysis, so it’s simpler to just add it as another category.

What we then get is a triangle with identity and presence on either side – which actually looks like this when made a bit more regular:

activity theory

These eight categories then give a useful way of breaking down the specific characteristics of liminal spaces.

That’s a lot to go into here (plus, you know, buy the book) but I’ll talk about just one of these, in the next post; presence.