Saturday, 23 March 2013

Conviviality and Absence: An Interactive Theatre approach

I've been playing with some interesting technology recently. Using the Wookie Widget Store from the iTEC project, I've developed an easy way to 'present' widgets (apps) to users remotely in real-time. I cobbled this out of Wookie's default 'voting' widget, and it wasn't too difficult. But the result is that participants are looking at a web page which displays a widget through an embed code, and the activities/widgets that they can engage in can be coordinated by a teacher. I first tried this out for a talk I gave in Eisendstadt - which stimulated a lot of discussion. Although there are many ways in which this kind of real-time control can be achieved these days (Google hangouts has similar functionality, for example), this works outside the Google ecosystem. It's just a web page; no login - it just does the job.

Then I thought that rather than change the tools remotely with human intervention, why not create a 'sequencer' that sits behind a video. So there is video instruction, and as the video progresses, so the tools available change. That's more interesting, because it's a bit like watching a video, but it's also a bit like engaging in a shared activity as the video runs. Trying this out in Spain and Austria a few weeks ago has suggested that in these situations of 'shared experience' something tangible happens to learners - they talk to each other about their experiences. In a quiz, for example, when everyone is asked to vote on a question, they will turn to each other and say "what do you think?".

The level of conversation and interpersonal engagement is interesting. There is a question: do learners engage more with each other when they have a shared experience and they have a shared activity, or do they engage more with each other when they are doing different things? That is an important question, because much of the pedagogy of inquiry-based learning suggests the importance of individual needs-based activity (or at least group activity only where it is appropriate to learner needs). It is also interesting theoretically, because it relates directly to the relationship between communication and reflexivity: there are some environmental parameters which can be tweaked in order to understand (for example) how Luhmann's 'psychic' system might relate to his 'social' system; or perhaps how Harre's 'storyline' relates to 'positions' and speech acts. And of course it provides a way where those (and a number of other theories) might be tested and their absences explored.

But maybe understanding the role of absence goes deeper than just the absence in the theories. I have been suggesting recently that communicating processes implicate deeper levels of coordination of absences as well as coordinations of communications. For example, we might paint 'consensus' (which is a difficult concept) as when we all agree on something that is missing for all of us, rather than something which is present (which is how most cybernetic theories of consensus portray it). With differentiable elements (individual personal environments/shared environments) we can ask how the configurations of elements produce different communication patterns. We can ask how the dynamics of communication are related to the dynamics of personhood and the dynamics of absence.

I think this important. Because if there's one thing we are learning at the moment with all the drastic institutional changes we are living through, we are interconnected in very deep ways which cannot simply be accounted for by the concrete/present acts we make with each other. Removing one person from a team (however useful or not that person may be deemed to be) has unforeseen consequences on the whole body of people. This is poorly understood, and there is no coherent theoretical explanation. And yet it appears to be the case. It means that our intellectual life may be more deeply socially entwined than we thought. It means that distinctions between electronic social media and physical conviviality are important, and that one is not equivalent to the other. And it may mean that those institutions that thrive and those that don't will be separated by the extent to which organisational change is conducted and managed in the knowledge of the deep impacts each change has.

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