Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Slowness: The Sense8 Potentials of Instagram

"There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting…  …A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down…"

Milan Kundera

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Bridging Across Time

A few weeks ago I met an old friend for dinner.  We walked, and sat, and talked, for hours - slowness - while the New York cityscape around us moved in Baraka-like stop frame frantic pace.  Once upon a time, in this lifetime, she and I wrote ten to twenty page letters to each other, letters that had drafts and multiple revisions, paper and ink carefully picked out, selected stamps licked and meticulously placed.  If you made a mistake you simply wrote the page again.  I never mailed anything until sleeping on it and reading it again the next day - one letter could take a week or longer.  I drafted mini-stories, parts of days, reflections on readings, music, dreams, nightmares...  I was living in Poland at the time so it took two weeks for a letter to arrive, at least six weeks before a response came, and when it did, that night after dinner, I lit a candle, poured a glass of wine, and spent time with this person, no distractions.

She lamented the insane world around us, zombies with cell phones, dopamine addicts.  I argued that our social medias were not inherently stupid, but people use them in idiotic ways, dumbing themselves down, becoming their lowest common denominator of self, but that it didn’t have to be like that.  I teach with technology, document, reflect, iterate with kids in their learning process, and I think all kids should learn to deconstruct their transmedia landscape, it’s part of being literate today.  The fact that we were even having dinner was due to our social networks placing us both in New York.  But she was right, I don’t know any twenty somethings that go home at night and work on drafts of letters, maybe they are too busy swiping left or right on Tinder, “where sadness goes to  

Our “always on” connectivity has us all skimming across rapid-fire emotive responses to images and short bursts of text that are increasingly what is happening now, less the series of events that has led up until now, and rarely a contextualized synthesis of events.  That night I biked back across the Williamsburg Bridge, thoughts suspended between now and a former way of being, on how digital technologies connect and isolate simultaneously, on how a slow exchange of text was more immersive than the encompassing sensory of a thousand swipes.  Racing the downhill slope of the bridge, back toward this Brave New World where all of us are hooked on speed, few of us feeling the drudgery of the climb, the earned euphoria of the descent, I realized that we may not just be the last generation of letter writers, we may be the end of a slow, deep, contemplative form in which two people connect and sense one another.

The Power of Ten and Our Collective Intelligence

Cultures and all the "micro-climates" within, over time, fade, mashup, remix, or get forcibly exterminated.  But what is different here is the rapidity in which cultures, languages, ecosystems, climates are being disrupted.  We were merely two people talking over dinner slowly realizing that in a small wrinkle in time, something disappeared from the world.  Zoom out a few powers of ten, extend the timeline, and there is a world trend of the disappearance of the "original peoples".  Jon Lee Anderson recently reported on the Mashco Piro, an isolated people who have rarely been seen for nearly a century, but are now initiating communication with civilization beyond the Amazon due to contact with drug traffickers, loggers, and epidemic diseases.  He reflects...

“What I felt I saw on this trip was a glimpse of the original world as it’s ending.  People in the urban world, metropolitans, Peruvians, everywhere, are losing primary experiences.  We are no longer having direct contact with the original world.  Where I was, this is still there, the very original world, before all of our history, before Columbus, before Christ, before all of that stuff, how we were when it was just us and nature - it's disappearing.  It will disappear if not in our lifetime, in our children’s lifetime.  It’s going.  The Mashco Piro are coming out of the jungle.  There’s only 100 isolated groups left in the world, 70 of them live in this area of Peru and Brazil.  This is it, this is the end, that is an extraordinary thing.”

The Mashco Piro, like the Nukak migration in 2006, stem partly from drug traffickers invading their ancestral lands and fighting with military or paramilitary groups - because of an attempt to eradicate or control the drug transport lines - because the war on drugs has made the northern routes more costly - because the U.S. does not view drug demand as a problem but instead decided to militarize zones of the world that have been demilitarized since... maybe forever.  The same systems thinking could be applied to lumber cutting, farming, strip mining, etc.  Yet this systems literacy has not evolved with our digital connectivity.  By viewing a satellite time lapse of forest cuttings, my third graders can develop an understanding that the animal species' habitat they are studying is threatened, but that is hardly "knowledge" until they can break it down into actions in their immediate environment such as food waste, material waste, or other consumptive habits.  Ultimately, it won't only depend on an individual's ability to work cooperatively with immediate community to solve problems, but will depend on developing empathy through digital medias, awareness of dispersed knowledge, and development of collective agency.

In my lifetime the world population has doubled.  As a problem solving species capable of collective intelligence on a massive scale, we are often reduced to thinking of immediate gain and survival without the foresight of global repercussions, meaning more blast fishing, deep sea trolling, mountaintop removal mining, slash and burn clear cutting, destruction of mangroves and estuaries, and disappearance of our oldest surviving cultures.  Education, international/interdisciplinary communication, and yes, technological evolution could prevent this imbecilic Trump-train wreck from happening.  The land bridge between Barranquilla and Santa Marta in Colombia instantly killed an entire ecosystem of estuaries and mangroves, but if canals and waterways had been part of the design, then the spawning cradles for fish and the species endemic to the mixture of fresh and salt water would have survived.  I believe the same kind of systems thinking can be applied to the rapid growth of digital technologies and cultural evolution.  If Mayan urban planning preserved green tracts of land, and conductive thread resuscitates a new interest in the studies of ancient weaving technologies, then our social medias can incorporate endangered written and oral traditions as they innovate transmedia forms, and the decoding of the multitude of systemic factors leading to the "original peoples" leaving their homelands could possibly be prevented.

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Homo Sensorium

When Lana and Andy Wachowski with Michael Stranczynski crafted Sense8, they wanted to focus on how technology connects at a distance, but separates those in our immediate proxemics.  Straczynski used his experience with friends living in different parts of the world who would meet online to watch a film together and discuss it.  The Wachowskis wrote half of the chapters, Straczynski the other half, and then they swapped and rewrote each other’s chapters.  In describing the process Straczynski said… 

“Michelangelo said that the way you sculpt a horse is you cut off a large block of marble and you chip away whatever isn’t the horse. We start off with a block of marble, which are all the ideas of where it could go, and I’m a structure nut. I think things have to go, if you have something over here, it has to make sense down the road.”

Their narrative is complex, eight Sensates in eight different locations around the world begin to realize their connectivity, sometimes through an isolated sense, feeling what another feels, sometimes through shared physical space.  Sense8 is LGBTQ eye candy pop, and appreciating it is about engineering around the purpose and making of the series, the world building logistics of filming parts of scenes across incredible distances of time and space, and how this complex creation reflects on our own current digital connectivity.  Straczynski explains, 

“We are all our world-builders and you have to ask every single logical question to create a mythology, the history of it. Our feeling was that we actually all started off as Sensates originally and that [not being a sensate] is like a mutation.”

Photographic Networks

We, the smart-dumb-phone carriers of the world, are stuck in a crossroads, oversaturated with stimulus and choice, not sure whether to swipe left or right, caught in a strobe of inertia.  The real step in human evolution is developing purpose to our connectivity, to not sink into narcissism and individualism, but to explore another's point of view so deeply that you collect bits and pieces of what the other senses and feels.  When Flickr first came out I spent about thirty minutes a night traveling online, feeling a bit like a Sense8 in the space between my own emotive responses to image, often beyond my comprehension, and the contextualization of images into my own mythologies.  Similarly, Instagram serves that function, and because of its immediacy, creates collective digital narrative, often conflicting with mainstream reporting - like in 2014 when CNN looped footage framing tanks and flaming cars in Kiev, but simultaneously searching #Kiev showed young people riding bikes around, smiling for cameras.  

Photographs enable an empathy often not accessible in live time and drastically different than the being there sensation of film.  I wondered what I could learn from access to all these people’s streams of photos.  I found myself following people I didn’t know, and would never meet (or so I thought), and explored whether I could develop empathy for their lives.  Around this same time I was taking on online course from Project Zero called Making Learning Visible, and I gravitated toward people that were narrating a learning trajectory through Instagram - a photographer, a classical guitarist, an artist, a designer, a bass player, a dancer…  My goal was to follow them over time, watch for reflection of progress, goal setting, how community interacts through comments.  But then seeing that the photographer was in New York where I was about to spend a couple of months, I reached out and invited him to a podcast session to talk about his learning process and experience documenting it with social media.

Learning About Learning

Roy Savoy, a street photographer works across the five boroughs.  He agreed to meet me in Washington Square Park for a podcast session.  It took us a while to find each there since I had no idea what he looked like.  There are people with cameras everywhere in the park.  After standing next to people and saying, “Hey Roy,” he finally spotted me.  We took a seat on a bench and recorded the following…

After recording, we went and got coffee and talked for another hour, mainly about his process in learning photography.  I had originally been attracted to Roy’s stream of photos by the quality of the work, invoking what Barthes calls “punctum”, emotive repose, and “studium”, contextualizing images, in this case by juxtaposing them with backdrops, objects, and other figures.  There is also a chronological progression as he sharpens technique while developing style and voice.  Roy explained not just his learning journeys, but outlines a kind of blueprint for self driven learning in the digital age.  By starting from square one, creating community, researching the masters, owning the media, knowing himself as a learner, and hacking his surroundings, he designs his own learning environment.  

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As I reflect on this process, I hope to find clues in how our digital technologies potentially transform us into Sensates, how we can develop a deeper form of slow transmedia communication paralleling letter writing, and what schools can do to include the spectrum of modalities in our media landscapes.


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