Archive

Tag Archives: education

In this week’s symposium, our tutor referred to ‘traditional media’ as ‘heritage media’.

I’d never heard the term used in this context and it really stood out as something quite shocking. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, I’m a print girl, true and through. I read books, tangible newspapers and magazines in hand as much as possible. But I’m also a constant consumer of news and other texts online and via my phone.

We discussed the conservative argument for free market economics which might say heritage media has an inherent ‘checks and balance’ system for quality. Theoretically, this would ensure the ‘best’ stories would go to print or air. Yet what tends to happen reflects more of a populist approach as, largely, it is the content deemed to appeal to the masses that is published and produced.

Online there is (infinite) space for diversity of content, opinion, language, perspective and debate. By coincidence, in my webscrawling today I came across a 2006 publication of Harvard Law professor, Yochai BenklerThe Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

As a side note – I love that as I’ve started formally studying more topics or subjects I am genuinely interested in, the time I spend online for pleasure is actually resonating with that guided learning.

Benkler’s work is one such example. He discusses how the internet has restructured public discourse, giving individuals greater freedom and autonomy, encouraging participation, engagement as a scale-free network. He suggests the internet provides ‘avenues of discourse around the bottle-necks of older media, whether these are held by authoritarian governments or by media owners’ (p. 271). This point is particularly pertinent in light of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Coalition’s latest tirade against (or ‘efficiency review’ of) the ABC and SBS. Of course, this is in addition to two publishing houses (or rather, two millionaires) dominating Australia’s print industry, providing the public with ‘news’ that is about as ‘fair and balanced’ as Fox News.

Benkler says ‘filtering, accreditation, and synthesis mechanisms [are a] part of network behavior’ (p. 271) and that peer production ‘is providing some of the most important fuctionalities of the media. These efforts provide a watchdog, a source of salient observations regarding matters of public concern, and a platform for discussing the alternatives open to a polity’ (p. 272).

‘In the networked information environment, everyone is free to observe, report, question, and debate, not only in principle, but in actual capability.’ (p. 272)

Perhaps most importantly, is that in today’s online, networked world, anyone can become what New York Univerrsity journalism professor, Jay Rosen, calls a ‘citizen journalist‘.

‘…the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.’

Citizen journalism, the internet and networked science are shifting power away from leaders, managers and millionaires, and are democratising the media landscape and the society in which they exist. While I will hold on to heritage media, I am incredibly grateful for the proliferation of online networks that constantly offer me new pages to view, opinions to read and thoughts to think. But still, I’m pretty excited for The Saturday Paper. Aren’t you?

The concentration penetrating the four walls – two black, two white – seeps through the fingers of those attempting to create and discover a place they’d rather be. The thoughts tick over, one by one, and the process of evolution begins in its own finite sense.

As tapping of keys resounds from near and far, the lack of verbal interaction is somewhat startling given the demographic. Young women and men trying to ‘impress’ or at least satisfy their own sense of worth and place, physical and psychological, in the confinements of the polarised space.

Eyes scan screens and subsequently, the room, when thought flow weakens. The stagnancy of fingers is barley noted by neighbours, yet the individual feels the weight of their blood, nails, pulse and bones with such urgency. Of course, the pressure is but an internal build up of anxiety; a fear of failure, within the first stages of their ‘new life’. First impressions are hard to retract, even for the most well meaning.

Grimaced features, fractured jaws and tightly pursed lips are commonplace, as unified by a common passion, the people’s nerves and anxiety rise together, as if taking a leap so great, they fail to see the ledge on the other side. That ledge is a mere 45 minutes away, but time has never passed so slowly.

Nevertheless, the concentration is likely to draw positive results, whereby way and in the face of embarrassment, each feels as though they have achieved. For some, a sense of achievement may not have come for months, where spending, sleeping and late-night taxi rides overtook such an experience.

Middle fingers reaching out to the ‘delete’ key is notable, such force and desperation can be linked to no other.

Little glowing apples peer out from silver panels at all angels, an occasional distraction at most. Cables and connections snake across the flat surfaces of tables and screens on standby present black faces, signaling their passive state.

The distinct tapping of the long, central ‘bar’ signifies progress, and fluidity of thoughts, as words and sentences are strung out across the makeshift page.

Ironically, without being a physical spectator across one’s shoulder I am able to gage and acknowledge the flow of ideas in each, as they type at intervals; with continuity, or with great frustration, on that irreverent ‘delete’ key.

The keys with numbers seem irrelevant. If figures and equations were an integral part of such tasks, I suspect many of us would not have made the decision to be here.

I ponder over my (excessive?) use of the ‘comma’ key, as it mocks me from just right of the ‘m’ like a little brother who just can’t cut you enough slack for making him a peanut butter sandwich, instead of the one with strawberry jam he supposedly prefers. The strawberry jam is the ‘period’ key. You know it perceives greater certainty, clarity and properties of succinct prose, yet the schadenfreude embedded within that sense of narrative choice becomes too much to throw away – just like that peanut butter does when time (and relaxation) seem displaced from your side.

Gradually, fingers leave keys and turn to hair, to chins. Others come to a halt. A sense of completion reverberates across the tables as vision and attention is shifted to blank walls, wristwatches and mobile phones. Soon after follows the relief of a time limit, conclusively reaching its parameters. The room sighs in harmony and all keys are erect, stationary, still.

 

In yesterday’s symposium we discussed narrative structure and hypertexts.

One the whole, reading is considered to be a relaxing pastime. If I sit down with a piece of creative writing or fiction, it’s pretty likely I’m seeking out a relatively passive, pleasurable experience. Generally, I want to read these types of texts when I’m after an escape, wanting to calm down or am/want to be feeling particularly lazy/blissful/at peace. Sure, sometimes I read as a distraction or when I’m procrastinating, but if I’m really needing to actively engage with a text, I’m more likely to approach it with a different mindset and with a pen (or laptop) close by.

What came up yesterday, (and as my classmate, Daniel, expresses), is that some of the ideas proposed where the more traditional ‘reader’ is instead offered to be a ‘reader-author’ – gaining agency within the fictional context – might in some cases, disrupt that peace one feels when sitting down with a more traditional narrative. When an author gives you a beginning, middle and end, you’re provided with some certainly that a conflict will resolve, or there will be some sort of logical conclusion to the drama within. Sitting down to a text with no definitive conclusion means having to be alert enough to make decisions about which path to take, and when I’m in the mood for relaxing that’d feel overwhelming.

I also have a tendency to put off making decisions until the last possible moment. For example, I received an email just two days ago asking me to ‘Please enrol in [next semester’s] courses at your earliest convenience’ as enrolment opened last November. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about what I’d like to/need to enrol in, quite the contrary. It’s more along the lines of ah, there are so many interesting subjects on offer how ever will I choose? 

In some circumstances restrictions are actually bloody helpful. Choosing subjects, working out what to wear, even choosing what book to read next. We’re living in a world with endless opportunities which don’t get me wrong, is great. I know how lucky I am to be in a position where I have so many educational and life possibilities and I am truly grateful to have such a privilege. I’m acutely aware of how many 20-something females around the world are deprived of all these chances, where the prospect of reading any kind of text, is simply (and sadly) just a dream.

But, for me sometimes being relieved of decision-making is just that – a relief.

So, I think on the whole I’ll be sticking to pre-prescribed texts, but perhaps when I’m feeling adventurous or so inclined, I will choose to be a reader-author. It seems like a pretty open invitation.

In our most recent symposium, Paul Graham’s ‘The Age of the Essay‘ came up for discussion.

What intrigued me most about this piece is Graham’s proposition that the disciplines of English literature and writing may not be synonymous. To be honest, prior to Graham’s Essay the thought had hardly crossed my mind. In high school, anything to do with, or concerns regarding writing, are matters for the English teacher.

Graham argues that the reason so many young people have become disinterested in writing (and subsequently produce poor quality or incoherent essays), is that instead of writing…

…about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, [students are writing] about symbolism in Dickens.

No disrespect to Dickens, but I think Graham’s on to something.

I know very little about the International Baccalaureate® (IB) education philosophy or system, but I do know all students who take on the IB have the opportunity to research and write about an area that particularly interests them. As I’ve mentioned in a number of recent posts, education is so much more interesting when we are actively engaged, when it’s targeted towards our personal needs and passions, and when it is future-driven – namely, we can see how we’ll be able to apply what we’re learning in our future careers and to achieve life goals.

I’m lucky. As this blog makes pretty clear, I enjoy reading, writing, and interpreting. English was one of my favourite subjects at school and on the whole, I was pleased with the texts we were given to study. However, my pleasure in the subject certainly wained when we studied what to me was, a less-appealing text, and my interest in writing a chemistry report was verging on non-existent.

This holds true to Graham’s proposition that one’s ability to engage with, enjoy and actively develop their writing skill and discipline is fundamentally caught up with their interest in the(ir) subject.

Graham says:

The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association [of America] “formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course.”

To my knowledge, this proposition is globally transferable, and is certainly something I can relate to. If you want your students to look forward to writing, give them a choice of texts to study. Some kids might really enjoy watching and reflecting on action movies, others might enjoy drawing up and constructing analytical reports on climate change. Maybe you’ve got a student who is utterly obsessed with dogs, and wants to be a vet when he or she grows up. Why not work with this child to compose a task that satisfies the curriculum, and engages them, motivates them, and works with their personal curiosities? Surely this would only result in higher student attention, retention and participation. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want from and for our students?

As I’ve somewhat alluded to, as we progress through the education system, opportunities for such self-selected or self-directed tasks do increase. Not many people complete a PhD in an area of little personal interest. We are more likely to dedicate our time and efforts towards something we want to invest in. Right now, Christopher Pyne is striving – and striding – towards rewriting and (re)establishing a more uniform, national curriculum. Yet, isn’t this ‘one size fits all’ approach to education only going to lead to greater disengagement, sketchier attendance rates, and consequently (and what is surely one of two primary motivators for Pyne – the other being re-Westernising an increasingly multicultural society), poorer results?

Mr Pyne, teachers and educational leaders, take a leaf out of Logan LaPlante’s hackschooling ‘book’. Learn to work with your students rather than for a system. If they want to compose an audiovisual response to a Mahler symphony, instead of the standard intro-paras-one-two-three-conclusion essay to some politically-identified set text – and it just feels right – then I say, let them.

We need to keep personalising education, and writing, if we are to achieve better results.

Those who want to write about English literature will continue to write about English literature. And, the others? Well, you’ve got a much greater chance of students writing about something they’re interested in and handing that in, than you’ll ever have of them submitting an inspired essay about English literature, too.

Last semester I took a subject called International Human Rights and Law. While I entered the course with relatively little prior knowledge of what I imagined the subject would cover, I had actually picked the politics/economics strand of my degree as my contextual major, specifically to take this subject.

I’ve studied very little law or legal studies in any formal way. At school, in year 10, we were introduced to some of the horrific realities of honour killings, forced marriages and dowry penalties, and similar degrading practices that occur far too commonly, largely in developing nations.

I suppose that subject contributed towards me choosing to pick up Women and International Justice over the spring semester of 2012.

But, today I want to post my final essay for International Human Rights and Law.

While not directly addressed in our course, I chose to focus on the ways in which people with disabilities or mental illness are dehumanised and ‘psychosocially debased’, and how these practices are in fact, violations of their human rights.

It never fails to surprise me how much I can enjoy learning and doing ‘work’ when I’m concentrating on something of personal interest. It is with this realisation, I find even more reason for leading educators to consider the principles of Logan LaPlante’s hackschooling philosophy.

It’s a bit Convention heavy, but if you have the time to sit down and ingest the essay, I’d love to hear your responses.

***

Discuss whether the dehumanisation and psychosocial debasement of a population or a sector of a population are always leading indicators of potential human rights violations?

Human rights have long been an issue of import and controversy across the globe. Within governments, industries, timeframes and communities, what constitutes a human right has been debated as cultures, generations and evolution bring new and conflicting ideas to the front of popular conversation. Despite this, it is commonly assumed, as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), that dignity features as a primary concept across legislative instruments and cultural norms. Basser (2011) considers dignity to be an attribute of each person ‘by virtue of his or her humanity’ (p. 19), independent of social status, political affiliation, economic value, gender, ethnicity, or one’s ability to reason. This paper will work with a flexible definition of dignity, incorporating three significant elements of agency, control and worthiness. As such, any attack on a person’s agency, control or worthiness is inherently an attack on their dignity and thus is a violation of their human rights.  To quote Reaume, ‘[t]o ascribe human dignity to human beings… is to treat human beings as creatures of intrinsic, incomparable, and indelible worth’ without the need for further qualification (2003, p. 675). Therefore, one’s physical or mental ability or merit should not diminish the right to dignity and one’s inherent rights to humanity.

Implicit in human dignity and the inherent value of the human person, is an acknowledgement and acceptance of human diversity and difference (Basser, 2011). This paper will address how a disregard for this notion is very present in relation to people with disabilities or mental illness, and how as a consequence, they are collectively dehumanised – deprived of positive human qualities – and debased through the psychosocial, cultural, medical and legal spheres within which we exist. On many occasions, the rights of the disabled have been violated as they are considered to be non-human and are thus de-righted (Quinn and Arstein-Kerslake, 2012). They are often denied access to jobs, services and education, as is the case when children with disabilities find their choices are limited due to schools’ reluctance or inability to provide adequate support or resources to accommodate the child’s differences.

Lawson writes, ‘[t]raditionally, disability has not been regarded as a human rights issue’ (2006, p. 462), and the characterisation of ‘disability rights’ as a social issue was largely absent from global public, political, or legal debate until the early 1990s (Perlin, 2011). Those with disabilities are commonly objectified, and are considered to be a medical ‘issue’ or problem requiring management, care or control. While people with disabilities, like all people, may need care and medical assistance, it is important to highlight that human rights are relational, and that people live together in society where the extent to which any claim to human dignity can be met will be ‘constrained by the need to give equal concern and respect to other human beings’ (Basser, 2011, p. 21). Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘All human beings… are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1), and yet many people with disabilities are denied this very first human right.

The issue of one’s ability to reason is in itself, contentious. Robertson (2012) explains the 19th century ‘rationalist fallacy’ where rights were only thought to belong to those capable of logical thought which excluded ‘women, dogs and lunatics’ from equal and professional life (p. 150). Perlin (2011) endorses this critique and locates it within a modern context, referring to it as ‘Sanism’. Perlin defines sanism as ‘an irrational prejudice of the same quality and character of other irrational prejudices that cause (and are reflected in) prevailing social attitudes’ such as bigotry based on sex, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity (p. 5). He deepens this definition stating that sanism ‘infect[s] jurisprudence and lawyering practices’ and is based on ‘largely invisible… socially acceptable [prejudices] based predominately on stereotype, myth, superstition, and deindividualization… sustained and perpetuated by our use of a false “ordinary common sense” and heuristic reasoning in an unconscious response to events both in everyday life and in the legal process’ (p.5).

The persons with disabilities most affected by such potential human rights violations are those with intellectual disabilities, mental illness or problems, or those with communicative disabilities, and it was not until 2006 that The Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability was constructed in the hope to provide a guarantee that such persons should have adequate access to community services and facilities. The 1948 Genocide Convention outlawed the attempted destruction of a race or ethnic group, yet Robertson (2012) notes the Convention makes no reference to those judged as ‘feeble-minded’ by the popular 1920s eugenics movement in the United States and United Kingdom (p. 150), a category under which those with disabilities were constituted. In what may be considered a similar vein, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made no reference to those with disabilities, until the European Convention on Human Rights took hold in 1953. After what the United Nations claims to have been ‘decades of work… to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities’ (United Nations Enable, 2006, para. 2), the urgency of a specific charter was finally met with the adoption of The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2006.

Perlin (2011) heeds the United Nations’ notion that society has an obligation to ‘remove the attitudinal and physical barriers to equality and inclusion of people with disabilities’ (p. 4). He considers the extent to which society was blind to the frequent and enduring violations of international human rights law particularly concerning the institutionalisation and legal inequities people with disabilities are so often subject to (2011).  Article 12 of The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ‘Equal recognition before the law’ states: ‘persons with disabilities have the right to recognition everywhere as persons before the law’ who are able to ‘enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life’ (The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 12). Articles 12.3 and 12.4 refer to involved parties’ duty to ensure appropriate support and safeguards are in place for helping persons with disabilities exercise their legal rights and capacity, and that these structures ‘respect the rights, will and preferences of the person’, while being free from any conflict of interest. Article 12.4 specifically states these measures will be put in place ‘to prevent abuse in accordance with international human rights law’.

Despite this, one of the first interventions denied to a person with a disability is their legal capacity to exercise their moral agency, including and especially, a right against forced treatment and an authority to give or refuse consent to various procedures, medical or otherwise (Quinn and Arstein-Kerslake, 2012). Quinn and Arstein-Kerslake (2012) cite Blackstone’s (1765) naming of this to be effectively a ‘civil death’ (p. 42), where the individual is automatically subject to being treated as ‘less than’ equal to other human beings. Medical or legal decisions are substituted to a third party, much like the protocol observed when caring for a minor. However, unlike when caring for children, it is assumed that these lost or diminished capacities will not return to those with disabilities. Quinn and Arstein-Kerslake (2012) note that ‘[t]here remain many laws, practices and policies throughout the world (including in Europe) that unduly restrict the legal capacity of persons with disabilities to make decisions for themselves’ (p. 43).

A large proportion of human rights violations of persons with disabilities are calculated through medical examinations and protocols. A significant proportion of persons with disabilities will be faced with institutionalisastion, where they are confined against their will, as a result of a ‘negative’ medical analysis that has deemed them to be somehow unfit to look after themselves. Perlin notes that despite formerly hospitalised individuals and their supporters taking an active role in advocating for mental health reform, ‘there is little evidence that these groups are taken seriously either by lawyers or academics’ (Perlin, 2003, pp. 699–700). Thus, routinely, persons with disabilities are deprived of their freedom, dignity and basic human rights in violation of Article 14.1b of The Convention on the Rights of Persons that states that ‘the existence of a disability shall in no case justify a deprivation of liberty’.

Article 5 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights condemns torture, including ‘inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. However, as mentioned above, persons with disabilities are sometimes considered to be ‘inhuman’ themselves and are consequently placed in situations of restraint or seclusion undermining their worthiness and human rights. In early 2013, United Nations’ torture Special Rapporteur, Juan E. Méndez, stated that torture is the ‘most serious violation of the human right to personal integrity and dignity’, where the victim is thought of as powerless, is deprived of their legal capacity, their liberty, and is ‘under the total control of another person’ (Méndez, 2013, p. 7). He called for ‘an absolute ban on all coercive and non-consensual measures, including restraint and solitary confinement of people with psychological or intellectual disabilities … in all places of deprivation of liberty, including in psychiatric and social care institutions’ (McSherry, para. 3).

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the improvement of Mental Health Care in 1991. Principle 9.1 mandates patients be treated in the ‘least restrictive environment’ and Principle 9.2 states that treatment shall always be ‘directed towards preserving and enhancing personal autonomy’. This, however, becomes more complex in relation to Principle 11 that deals with consent to treatment. Richardson (2011) notes standards published by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in 2004, of which paragraph 4 states ‘[t]he admission of a person to a psychiatric establishment should not be construed as authorizing treatment without his consent’ except in the cases of involuntary admissions were the person’s condition poses significant risk to their own health or to others’ (p. 140). It is imperative to remember here, that persons with disabilities or mental health problems must be considered to have the capacity or potential to make a full recovery, or to return to a place of stability in which they could regain greater agency and personal control. Richardson (2011) also highlights that ‘the intensity of some mental disorders can vary over time and a patient’s level of competence may fluctuate over the course of the disorder and its treatment’ (p. 152). Throughout treatment, whether voluntary or involuntary, the patient is to be respected and treated with dignity, and as an equal before the law. Under no circumstance should the person be dehumanised, exploited or coerced. If any of the aforementioned was to occur, the individual’s fundamental human rights will have been violated.

Ultimately, The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities seeks to reverse disadvantage faced by people with disabilities through ‘empowering rather than a constraining approach to human dignity’ (Richardson, 2011, p. 155). At present, United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is calling on the 134 states that have ratified the Convention to ‘energize the international community to move from commitment to action [giving] greater recognition… to the issue of disability in sustainable, inclusive and equitable development’ (UN News Centre, para. 3). People with disabilities make up nearly 15 per cent of the world’s population (UN News Centre, para. 4), and are considered to be the ‘world’s largest minority’ (Perlin, 2011, p. 14). Fortunately, there are many established organisations and foundations worldwide seeking progress and activity surrounding disability and human rights. One such organisation is the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, that recognises the need for care and communication continues post-active treatment. Similarly, there is an International Day of Persons with Disabilities, as well as efforts by the United Nations to mainstream disability and recognise the inclusion of disability into the Millennium Development Goals as integral to their prevailing success.

People with disabilities must be given the opportunity to prosper and exercise their legal capacities through consolidated support from the global network. Sanism, discrimination and questionable treatment of persons with a disability are all undeniable indicators of potential human rights violations. It is those who are most vulnerable who face continuous denials of their agency, control and worthiness, yet they are as human and as equal, as individuals living free from disability.

***

References

Basser, L A 2011, ‘Human Dignity’, in Critical Perspectives on Human Rights and Disability Law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden, pp. 17-36.

European Court of Human Rights, 1953, European Convention on Human Rights, European Court of Human Rights, viewed 22 September 2013, http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf.

Lawson, A 2008, ‘People with psychosocial impairments or conditions, reasonable accommodation and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in Law in Context, vol. 26, pp. 62-84.

McSherry, B 2013, ‘Targeting isolation and restraint in mental health facilities’, The Conversation, 9 September, viewed 22 September 2013, http://theconversation.com/targeting-isolation-and-restraint-in-mental-health-facilities-16519?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest+from+The+Conversation+for+10+September+2013&utm_content=Latest+from+The+Conversation+for+10+September+2013+CID_a1e59d76a2229c3e1581ca325f634a89&utm_source=campaign_monitor&utm_term=Targeting%20isolation%20and%20restraint%20in%20mental%20health%20facilities.

Méndez, J 2013, Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, United Nations, viewed 22 September 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A.HRC.22.53_English.pdf.

Perlin, M 2003, ‘You have discussed lepers and crooks: Sanism in clinical teaching’, in Clinical Law Review, vol. 9, pp. 683-729.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1991, Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the improvement of Mental Health Care, United Nations, viewed 22 September 2013, http://www.equalrightstrust.org/ertdocumentbank/UN_Resolution_on_protection_of_persons_with_mental_illness.pdf.

Quinn, G & Arstein-Kerslake, A 2012, ‘Restoring the ‘human’ in ‘human rights’: personhood and doctrinal innovation in the UN disability convention’, in Human Rights Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 36-55.

Reaume, D 2003, ‘Discrimination and Dignity’, in Louisiana Law Review, vol. 63, no. 3, pp. 645-696.

Robertson, G 2012, Crimes Against Humanity, 4th edn, Penguin Group, London.

United Nations, 1948, Genocide Convention, United Nations, viewed 22 September 2013, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html.

United Nations, 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, viewed 22 September 2013, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.

United Nations, 2006, The Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability, United Nations, viewed 22 September 2013, http://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/convention/convoptprot-e.pdf.

United Nations News Centre 2013, Countries must increase commitment to rights of persons with disabilities – UN chief, media release, United Nations, Spain, 9 September, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45800&Cr=disability&Cr1=#.Uj0YkBZ7m0u.

In a recent post I mentioned the process of semantic memory. I was again reminded (pun unintended) of this neurological remembering mechanism when reading about the emergence of hypertext navigation, an idea coined by Theodore (Ted) Nelson in the 1960s.

Nelson characterises hypertext as non-sequential writing ‘that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen’. Text chunks offer the reader different pathways through which they may follow their interests or current train of thought. Hypertext allows for the reader to follow their intuition and pursue one thought at one time, and then to return to their prior position and pursue another thought, sprung from the same original trigger, at another time, and again, and again.

Most importantly, hypertext ‘allows us to create new forms of writing unrestricted by sequence which better reflect the structure of what we are writing [or thinking] about’. Furthermore, hypertext enables multiple users to contribute to a discussion on a single topic at the same platform, and the initiatives of many are assumed to be worthwhile.

Hypertexts offer ‘new pluralistic styles based on many people adding to the body of writing’, which is something we will be exploring in the coming weeks of Networked Media. As part of our assessment, our class has been divided into small groups to research and develop a hypertext on assigned topics of relevance. Utilising knowledge gained from readings, class discussion, research and brainstorming (which I’d like to think perhaps presents as a hypertext itself), we will contribute a collaborative work to be published on our class’ dedicated wiki, called ‘niki’. What’s pertinent about this project though, is that we are able to contribute to, and edit, the contributions of other class members, following Nelson’s idea that different contributions by different people are important. Furthermore, we will be able to alter and add to our niki entries continually, without restriction. Once we’ve produced some content for the niki, I’ll be sure to post a link on countingletters.

Hypertext will represent the true structure of information will all its intrinsic complexity and controversy, and provide a universal archival standard worthy of our heritage of freedom and pluralism. – Nelson 

What I found most intriguing about the Nelson reading (an except from Literary Machines 91.1: The Report on, and of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, And Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom. Sausalito: Mindful Press, 1992) apart from the extreme long title of his publication, was the way the prose is structured.

Nelson has presented his (printed) book as a work of hypertext, itself. He explains this as following the ‘pretzel’ or ‘infinity’ model, and hopes that by constructing his prose in this way, he will be able to communicate some of the benefits of doing so.

Image

Hypertext allows the reader’s own freedom of association, being able to decide for themselves what their next move shall be. It allows for easy revisiting of older or previously read material, and facilitates the sharing of knowledge through associative indexing, rather than a system of alphabetical or numerical filing.

I came to this understanding of hypertext after reading Vannevar Bush’s proposition of the ‘memex’, a name he gave an imagined (and possible) ‘mechanised private file and library’ system which stores a person’s ‘books, records, and communications, and which is mechanised so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility’.

To me, this sounds awfully like the system we know as the world wide web, or the internet. But, Bush publicised these ideas in 1945, in response to physicists who, coming out of the war, were wondering what next to pursue.

Bush recognised and identified the problems with what were at the time, current mechanisms of recording and retrieving data. He acknowledged the economic constraints of the time but was certain these would relinquish their hold over technological production and advancement in due course. He noted that ‘If a record is to be useful to science it must be continuously extended, stored and consulted’. Referencing methods of writing, photography, printing, film, wax disks, and magnetic wire, he writes, with foresight, that ‘Even if utterly new recording procedures do not appear, those present ones are certainly in the process of modification and extension.’ He continues to project ahead and highlights the rapid development and constant improvement of recording mechanisms, but says there is an ineptitude present in ‘getting at the record… largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing’.

It is here, Bush proposes the memex, as a physical, mechanical representation of the way the human mind works and process information. Its basic idea, he says, will be ‘a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another’, where any item can be associated with numerous trails, and what is important is the association between the two items, or ‘tying two items together’. This then allows for a more natural, a more human storage process, dependent upon our semantic memory which is an inherent part of human neurology, rather than a process that is rather foreign, unintuitive, and to the human brain, disorderly.

Nelson envisions the world at 2020, which in the late 1980s, was (obviously) a lot further away than it is now. He says that despite environmental destruction and unsolved poverty, ‘there is some hope in the realm of human mental affairs, upon which the survival of humanity and the better parts of human culture depend’. Nelson says facilities to share products of the mind will have ‘reached a new richness’, and claims two hopes for the future, for this time.

  1. To have our everyday lives made simple and flexible by the computer as a personal information tool (which requires good design).
  2. To be able to read, on computer screens, from vast libraries easily, the things we choose being clearly and instantly available to us, in a great interconnected web of writings and ideas, (dependent upon a rebirth of literacy, a new richness and freedom coming to the human experience, and the cornucopia of ideas and writing pictures).

Nelson says at his time of writing, ‘Neither of these is happening’.

However, his call for a New Age changed by a universal repository hypertext network where stored text and graphics, ‘called on demand from anywhere, [have become] an elemental commodity, like water, telephone service, radio and television’ has, in the developed world at least, become a reality.

Now, if that’s not one ‘hyper’ demonstration of the value of design fiction, then I don’t know what is.

As a side note, Nelson also calls for an educational curricular structure that promotes initiative and understanding. I wonder what he would think of Bantick’s antics or LaPlante’s hackschooling philosophy?

And, check out my classmate Kimberly’s predictions for our world, one century on. Our future’s in your hands.

In today’s workshop our class engaged in a symposium on the broad topic of design fiction.

It’s taken some time for me to understand how to differentiate between what might be considered or categorised as design fiction, and material that better meets the definition of science fiction.

Granted, I have had relatively little exposure to science fiction in the popular sense of the genre, as I prefer to read biographies, memoirs, and like, and watch kitsch rom-coms and dramas, rather than your Matrixs and Blade Runners. I must admit, I haven’t even seen all the Star Wars films, nor Avatar. Perhaps – in fact I’m sure – I’m missing out, but at this point in time, that’s how the grass has grown.

However, during our discussion I was reminded of a book I read and loved, in my younger years. The novel Will Buster and the Gelmet Helmet by Australian-born author Odo Hirsch, (real name David Kausman) is about a boy who’s chosen as part of an educational experiment run by Professor Alphonse Gelmet’s Academy of Leadership Excellence. The story is set in the future, where ‘the Wizard Wars of the 21st century’ are part of a ‘dull history lesson’, and Will gets around in a HoverPod, a kind of flying car (while being much more advanced than The Flying School Bus).

It turns out Will Buster is now the protagonist of a three-book series which goodreads files under the genre of ‘speculative fiction’. (As a side note, our tutor remarked that the most notable work of literature in this genre is likely to be George Orwell’s 1984.)

Hirsch is quoted to have said, ‘For me, writing is great fun. I get to make up a world and I get to look at that world with freshness and curiosity.’

In our class symposium we decided the fundamental distinction between design fiction and science fiction is this: science fiction is narrative-based. It relies on one key event or technological development that drastically changes the environment. On the other hand, design fiction’s focus is on creating a world or furthering the world through a multiplicity of developments that lead to more realistic and imaginable social changes. Design fiction is less prescriptive, and its concepts and inventions invite a variety of futures through acting on the world in a particular way.

While the Will Buster trilogy is a) a children’s series and b) could simply be dismissed as such (fiction), today’s discussion has left me wondering whether Hirsch really might be channeling something which is more intrinsically in keeping with design fiction. From memory, I recall Will living in a world where education is fed to students through digital devices, teachers are effectively defunct, and technological advances have led to greater independence and autonomy for pre-teen children.

In teachers’ notes written by Kevin Steinberger, he too suggests Will’s life ‘unfolds in a futuristic Orwellian world of social engineering, state institutions, public surveillance, robots and hover vehicles’. In its most basic sense, it is a story of good and evil and Steinberger advises teachers to ask their students to consider ‘what is life like in Will Buster’s time? What does the place look like? How different is it from the world as we know it?’ For our purposes, to this I would add; what developments or technological advances have led to this reality, and what have been their social implications?

Some may argue that many of Orwell’s portentous moralisings have evidenced themselves. If this is the case, maybe too, Hirsch’s fiction holds somewhat dim prospects for the future of our education.