26 February 02005

More reviews of cultural 'companions'

Here are some notes that form another instalment in my occasional series of postings about commentaries and 'making of' features that aim to help people get more out of cultural works (albums, films, books and so on).

Previous postings in this series include

These notes are about two books I've read this year: Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the new Hollywood era of films that held sway between the late '60s and late '70s; and Douglas Wolk's Live at the Apollo, an account of James Brown's career-defining album of that name. As far as I'm concerned, Biskind fails and Wolk succeeds. Here's why.

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25 February 02005

Course in Supporting Learning Relationships Online

Sometimes I miss the most obvious things to record here. For example, the one-day course Supporting Learning Relationships Online that I devised and deliver with Julia Duggleby, author of How to be an Online Tutor (among many other roles). The course is marketed and sold through the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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24 February 02005

Eno vs. Blair; Art vs. politics

This month's issue of Prospect Magazine has the story that Brian Eno is organising a campaign that targets Tony Blair personally. At the next election Eno plans to "run a 'white suit', you-lied-to-the-people, Martin Bell-style candidate against Blair in his own Sedgefield constituency". Prospect suggests his chances of success are not completely negligible.

This would be a collision between a situationist prank and the performative function of everyday electoral politics. It's one thing for Bill Drummond to distribute Tennants Extra to the homeless and burn a million quid, for Bob Geldof and Bono to talk about third world debt from the podium, or even for Bruce Springsteen and REM to seek to mobilise the anti-Bush vote by touring swing states. It's a a qualitatively different act to train your cross-hairs so acutely on one tiny part of the democratic process that could have global ramifications. Celebrity is a currency that can be exchanged, albeit indirectly, for power, and Eno is known as a supreme networker with many influential friends. Possibly he is acting as a figurehead for a large body of public opinion, but, if he does not demonstrate this, his campaign raises thorny questions of legitimacy.

Meanwhile Eno has made clear why he thinks Blair's statements on Iraq lack legitimacy.

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21 February 02005

Blogging Forced Entertainment's new show

Over the last the last three weeks, Tim Etchells, creative director of Forced Entertainment has been writing a blog of the company's rehearsals for its next show. His entry for 1 February sets the scene for the weeks of the collective improvisation from which they create their performances:

Rehearsal room activities:
Drinking coffee
Getting coffee
Wandering the studio, whilst talking
Wandering the studio, whilst listening
Throwing the craft knife that someone (Richard?) has left in there into the small table, into the floor. Dropping the craft knife into some cardboard boxes left on the table. Dropping the craft knife so that it sticks into the floor.

Then two weeks later — after a pause in the entries — "Several days of abject stuckness", evoking, for me, the knottiness of Wittgenstein's "mental cramp". Apparently every Forcedents show goes through this stage, but it doesn't make it any easier knowing that when you're in the middle of it.

This is latest instalment of several self-explications of the company's working practice, following their video and CD-ROM, as well as Tim Etchells' excellent collection of essays and performance texts. Worth keeping an eye on.

[Update, 8 November 02006: following a redesign of the Forced Entertainment website, many of the links above have been updated. They still more or less fit the context, but apologies for any non-sequiturs in your hyperlinked journey.]

19 February 02005

What's wrong with e-learning: product and process

My posting yesterday turned into a bit of a rant in places, particularly on the subject of educational games. Today's is part spill-over of that rant, and part explanation of it.

Leaving aside the disingenuous and diffident aspects of smuggling learning under the cloak of 'fun', what I really want to say is that e-learning should leave space for learners (and, where applicable, their tutors) to re-negotiate the learning process as it unfolds. Learning providers should accept the degree to which this entails some loss of control.

The prevailing model in the market for e-learning is to design it as a product rather than a process. What do I mean by this? I mean that the interaction through which people learn is coded into the bits and bytes of the learning material, rather than being formulated as more open-ended activities that allow learners and tutors to improvise and make up their own interactions. E-learning in the guise of games is one example; e-learning that aims to emulate the production values of television is another, following the Video Arts example — as though adding 'celebrity sauce', by hiring a famous face to shoot a sketch or two, makes the learning more enticing and effective.

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18 February 02005

Adoption of games and wireless technologies for e-learning

In the US, the New Media Consortium and the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative have published a 23-page report on new developments in technology that they predict will have an impact on "teaching, learning or creative expression". You can download the full report for free via Raimond Reichert's review in elearning reviews.

The review itself is an excellent summary and makes some telling points. I'm very sceptical about the faddism of some of the selections.

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16 February 02005

Twelve thousand people are buried here

Quaker Gardens 020050216Until this week there was a playground here. You may be able just to make out the yellow seats of a see-saw, slightly to the left of the centre of the picture. But on Monday the sounds of innocent play mingled with the incipient bullying of older children were replaced by buzz saws and diggers.

This is the view out of my window, and over the next four months I shall have to get used to a different aural landscape. The good news is that when the work is over — in June or July — we'll have an even better public space, including a 'quiet garden' under the beautiful old plane tree (some branches of which are visible on the left of the picture). Here's a plan of how it's intended to be laid out (the window from which the picture was taken is about a third of the way up the left-hand side of the plan).

The area in the foreground has been in Quaker ownership since 1661, and, between then and 1855, 12,000 people were buried here in unmarked graves, including George Fox, founder of the movement (see more details). In fact, the area had already been used for burials before that, the name Bunhill being derived from 'Bone Hill'.

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15 February 02005

Napster, iTunes and Xdrive: multiple music models

Shortly after the launch of the Napster To Go music service, The Register published an article predicting it would flop. This was based on a comparison of the costs over three years of paying for an MP3 player and online music to put on it, comparing with Napster To Go with the iPod and iTunes Music Store.

The article attracted a lot of comment arguing it was wrong-headed, including these letters and this rejoinder from Gerd Leonhard. I'll come back to those later. First let's have a look at the comparisons.

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13 February 02005

Online Social Networks Conference (feeling overloaded)

I'm currently taking part in Online Social Networks 2005, and online conference that runs until 23 February — as the web site says, "It's not to late to register". It's organised by leading evangelists for online networking, Howard Rheingold, Lisa Kimball, and Joi Ito. Most of the proceedings are available only to people who have registered, but Joi Ito has posted an openly accessible mp3 of the opening keynote session via his blog.

It's been a long time since I participated in one of these events — the last one being Collaborate 98, produced by some of the same team, which now has its proceedings openly available for browsing online. I think the price has dropped significantly in the last seven years (Online Social Networks 2005 is $35 to register, which is just under £20).

The conference is just starting up before more focused business gets under way next week. But already I'm finding it hard to keep up with the many voices. Online networks used to be smaller and less Babel-like than this.

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11 February 02005

Shadowy music promotion in online social networks

A couple of months ago, I wrote about record labels using online social networks to promote their artists. The current issue of Music Week has a feature on this. Says the article,

Most web PRs now reject the shadowy practices of the past, when online marketeers could frequently be found taking advantage of the anonymity of the medium to sow their recommendations in chatrooms. "Having been at the frontline of that, way back when I started out, I am not really convinced of its merits," says [MD of Hyperlaunch, Don] Jenkins. "There is something a bit piss-poor about the notion of people from marketing companies posing as other people."

However, some PR agencies still inhabit the shadows, as demonstrated by this exposé of a large number of identical messages on several online forums that aimed to head off the ridicule being heaped on Ashlee Simpson (a singer, apparently) after she was booed at a broadcast performance. A dumb own goal. And an American PR agency has recently been posting job ads saying "We are looking to hire 30 Online Marketing Ambassadors to Chat and Write Message Board Messages. Multiple Shifts available…"

6 February 02005

The politics of location-based technologies

Attending the PLAN network last week, the biggest surprise for me — given that PLAN is an arts organisation — was how many of the speakers focused on macro issues of policy, regulation and infrastructure.

This emphasis led me to search out Jonathan Grudin's prescient paper from fifteen years ago, The Computer Reaches Out: the Historical Continuity of Interface Design (download as 1.1 MB PDF file). In it, Grudin charted how the focus of the 'interface' in computing extended — over the period from the 1950s to the early 90s — from the hardware, to software, through the screen, to groups and organisations. He argued that, with this shift, the duration of the events studied to design the interface increased from microseconds to days, and the methods used to study them changed from ad hoc techniques, through lab experiment, to ethnographic observation. (For a concise overview of these trends, see Figure 1 and Table 1 in Grudin's paper.) With the era of ubiquitous computing ('ubicomp'), one could argue that the computer has reached out once more: the interface is at the level of society and the public domain; the events studied develop over months and years; the methodology is historical and political analysis. Here are some examples from the PLAN event.

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