Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Connections" Revisited

The above video "The Trigger Effect" is the first episode of the seminal BBC-TV series "Connections" created by James Burke in 1975, about technological change. In closing, Burke strikes the theme of his series with a quote "... Our modern world affects us all. If you understand something today, that means it must already be obsolete. Or to put it another way -- never have so many people understood so little about so much." He describes the series as "detective story" looking at selected inventions which acted as "triggers" because they stimulated the production of further inventions which cumulatively changed "the way things are".

My twenty-five year old son watches this series on YouTube in the same way as we used to read National Geographic together as a bedtime story. When I fired "Connections" up today, I too found it fascinating. For me it is a COABC nexus that supports my growing conviction about the trans-generational nature of the issues arising from the search for a balanced use of technology.

This series was first aired over thirty years ago - four years after I graduated with my first university degree, and seven years before my son was born. My son had heard about this series a few years ago, and had even priced the DVD's before he found the cost too high to request the set as a Christmas present from his dad and myself. He reports stumbling upon the series while surfing on YouTube and found this one-hour episode is now available for free.

I am intrigued. In this first show, Burke's jumping-off point is to ask the viewer to look around them where they are sitting, and to reflect upon how their lives would change if the technology around them disappeared. Then he uses re-enactments of the "technology traps" revealed by the 1965 New York City blackout to point out how dependent we are on using technologies that, as individuals, we don't understand sufficiently that we could replicate them. Over the course of one hour he brings in subjects which were, at the time, theoretical ... like the effects of climate change, water shortages and natural disasters that precipitate mass evacuations. Thirty years before Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquakes in China, this mixture of cultural theory and history also predated the Internet. When Burke creates disturbing scenarios about the losses implicit in the disruption of networks, he is talking about electricity.

Both my son and myself enjoy the combination of well-presented and disturbing scenarios with inadvertent cultural artifacts -- like the passengers stubbing out their cigarettes as their airplane, Flight 911, approached the NYC landing strip at precisely the moment the lights went out. We also agree that the questions that James Burke posed now seem prescient, and are even more relevant today for both those who came of age before and after computers.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Looking for the shift key

"Shift happens". That is the theme of the above 8-minute slide show, "Did You Know 2.0", about the pace of technological change. Aimed at American parents, educators and legislators, it makes a strong point that, in terms of globalization, we do ourselves and our children a favour by facing the fact that "we live in an exponential world".

I sent my April 17 article called "Snail mail in a post-fax world" to my ex-boss, who is featured there in my story of how, thirty years ago, I resisted his early adoption of the new fax technology. He currently teaches a course where he stresses "embracing technology", and kicks off his class with the above video.

I found myself watching it with double vision. As a parent, I am cheering my tech-savvy son on. But personally, I look at these daunting statistics from the other side of the digital divide. The video quotes Albert Einstein: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." On a cognitive level, I can see the big picture. But on an experiential level, I feel the same sort of isolation that I imagine is felt by parents who have immigrated into a culture with a different language. They moved out of their own comfort zone to give their children more advantages, but find themselves coping with communication barriers that impede their own daily life. One person described her experience of rapid technical change in terms of the experience of leaving your mother tongue behind -- with the added dimension, for her, that she had not chosen to leave home.

In my city, some newcomer neighbourhoods have bilingual street signs, just to help people without strong English skills to find their way around. I hope to be able to use this blog as a space to provide similar non-judgemental bridges for those who came of age before computers -- people I refer to as "COABC's". It seems to me that there are dilemmas being faced, even by those of us who are trying to "be part of the solution", around the new learnings implicit in retooling our skills. Many are ashamed to admit to fatigue, conflicting time priorities, lack of access, and different learning styles. In another posting here, for example, I direct parents and teachers to the British site BT Digital Champions, which gives children tools to teach digital skills to their grandparents. Shift does indeed happen. But a child grows in compassion at the same time as their granny grows in skills, when they sit together at a computer locating that key.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The "unplugged movement"- a quick blog survey

This morning, now that Shutdown Day is over, I find that their site is still not responding. Hmmmm... so I decided to look around at blog commentary about the "unplugged movement" which is related to the theme of yesterday's event. On the Reuters site I found an article called"Texting While Driving? Time to Unplug" with the subtitle "A grass roots movement has tech geeks wresting back control of their lives". Also I checked out a posting by Robert Bruce called "27 Thoughts on Blogging for the Artist", and another called"52 nights unplugged" which advocates "taking one night a week away from the digital pacifier". There is also one on the MSNBC News Site "Is there such thing as being too connected?" subtitled "The unwired think so. And they are not all sticks-in-the-mud."

The fact that all the above blogs are written by people who came of age AFTER computers is very interesting to me. This year, as I have been talking a lot about the theme of this blog in class, I found to my surprise that I was wrong in my assumption that my concerns are necessarily an age-related thing. A classmate, Genevieve Cloutier, interviewed me from a broader perspective for her documentary course, and we plan to do a more extended piece together about it over the summer. I have embedded her 5 1/2 minute YouTube video into my April 4 article "Making friends with my shadow." In future postings I'll be looking more into the subject here. But not today. I've organized a picnic for my family members who came to my grad, so the rest of today will be my own "digital day off".

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Please turn off this computer! Today is Shutdown Day

May 3 is a global event which is the "buy nothing day" of computers. The intention is to make people aware of how much of their best time and energy is being spent hunched over a keyboard. Sometimes you can't avoid having to be there -- in fact, if you are reading this at the kiosk at the opening night of the Emily Carr Undergrad Exhibition, 2008, I'm here at a computer myself! This one has been set to run 24/7 for the week of the show, so there IS no way to power down. If you look around right now, you will see me standing here hoping to have a conversation with you about my project, which is this blog. I'm the one dressed in black with the glasses.

But if you are at home, please bookmark this blog and come back tomorrow. Needless to say, today the website itself has been turned off. But come midnight, you could check it out to see reports coming of the many people who participated in the event by joining flashmobs being held around the world. Last year, according to reports, most people spent the 24 hours off from their computer having sex. This year, many will be doing the same, but it is nice to have an alternate. A flashmob gives the opportunity is go out and play with other people with a similar intention to risk taking the time to see how it feels to be out in a world unmediated by a computer screen. Last year I was out writing cherry-blossom haikus, as you can see in my video "Shutdown Day--One Year After" in the April 27 posting below.

2013 Update: Here is a Wikipedia article on Shutdown Day, which ended as an annual event in 2009. 

Friday, May 02, 2008

This blog is my art school graduation project

Tomorrow I graduate from Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, in Vancouver, Canada with a Bachelor of Media Arts, and I will be receiving the Governor General's Silver Medal for the best marks in the class. Our graduation project is meant to represent what we currently see as our core creative work, and after much thought, I decided that this blog best represents what I see myself doing as an artist for the near future. It gives me an opportunity to self-publish my own writing and video work, as well as to feature other videos and websites which I think are relevant to the themes I explore here.

Like any artist, I will be trying to represent my own core concerns in a way that resonates for other people. Right now, for me, that concern is about how to have a balanced response to rapid technical change. I came back to school in my mid-fifties, and this gave me a chance to see the relevance of my own work in the context of other art that is being done now. At about the mid-point of my studies I switched to a department where I could learn how to use electronic tools like digital photography and video. I also started putting my work for public view via the Internet, rather than through the more traditional gallery system. As I am about to graduate, I am glad that I have skills and experience which give me the tools and credibility to be taken seriously, as I comment upon the pros and cons of those very tools.

There is a bit of "deja vu" operating here. In my first round as an artist, in my twenties, I worked in what is now called "traditional media" - doing drawings and sculpture. But by the time I was thirty, in the early 1980's, I started to respond to what I called "the writing on the wall". I was part of a group of artists who started an artist run centre called "Toronto Community Videotex" to work together to develop skills to create content for the precursor to the Internet. I am delighted that this organization, now known as InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre, has not only survived to celebrate it's 25th Anniversary this year, but is a vibrant part of Toronto's art community.

When we fast forward to 1999, and my return to electronic media, the sad reality was that I was twenty-five years older too, and had lost my position as an "early adopter". But I had become intrigued by the City of Vancouver's Millennium Project Portrait V2K, where you can find my story if you search for "Strider". I loved the concept that a website gave them the capacity to publish every story and photo that citizens would upload, and got my high-school son to help me to scan and upload my story and photo. I was lucky that I scored on my first try. My story became one of the featured ones, silkscreened on a huge banner in the project's year-long exhibition at the Vancouver Museum.

Positive experiences like that made me open to exploring new media when I returned to art school. But initially I felt a lot of shame as I sat in the computer lab, surrounded by students who seemed to have been working with computers since the day they were born. I was committing myself to spending a lot of time in a very steep learning curve, often feeling awkward and stupid. Conversations with people who were mid-life and older made me realize that I was not alone in feeling this way. So the exploration of this "shadow" is currently my central creative theme. For now, what interests me most is an examination of the impact on daily life that results from lack of skills, access -- or interest -- in electronic tools like computers, email, and cell phones. On a broader level, I hope that readers of this blog will also find positive suggestions for using the Internet itself to facilitate a zestier engagement in the face-to-face world.