I always like listening to Lisa Jardine's radio essays but this one was especially enjoyable. BBC NEWS | Magazine | Our love affair with the train. How I wish that English trains were as pleasant to ride as European trains.
I disagree with her about airports though. When I was growing up in Surrey in the early 1960s, one of our family day trips would be to Heathrow, where we would take a picnic and spend the day watch the planes taking off and landing. Our entertainment was to wonder where all these people might be going and why. When Dad flew on occasional business trips he would bring back the tiny salt and pepper sets and other airline ephemera for us to pore over, a kind of cargo cult of the future when one day we would all be frequent flyers.
Those who know my work with digital media may be surprised to read that I largely support this remark by Mark Bauerlein in his article Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind: Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming in the Chronicle of Higher Education (19 Sept 08):
---given the tidal wave of technology in young people's lives, let's frame a number of classrooms and courses as slow-reading (and slow-writing) spaces. Digital technology has become an imperial force, and it should meet more antagonists. Educators must keep a portion of the undergraduate experience disconnected, unplugged, and logged off. Pencils, blackboards, and books are no longer the primary instruments of learning, true, but they still play a critical role in the formation of intelligence, as countermeasures to information-age mores. That is a new mission for educators parallel to the mad rush to digitize learning, one that may seem reactionary and retrograde, but in fact strives to keep students' minds open and literacy broad. Students need to decelerate, and they can't do it by themselves, especially if every inch of the campus is on the grid.
I don't agree with restraining the digitizing of classrooms, which Bauerlein also calls for, but I do agree with ensuring there's a mix of learning spaces available. I also think that teachers should have the imagination to sometimes teach outside of the classroom altogether. In my own case, I teach mostly online and am constantly struggling with ways to bring that slower and more physical engagement into the learning experience.
Most of Bauerlain's approach is the same-old same-old but I do think we must pay attention to the need for slow spaces both in teaching and in life. Slowness is certainly a vital element of transliteracy.
Thanks to Mez at Facebook for the link to Bauerlain's article.
There's a quote from me in today's Independent on Sunday's Books special: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age? First, it contains a few factual errors, so here's the corrected version with some added links.
The new-media lecturer: The Professor of New Media: Sue Thomas
"The aim of my course is to produce 'transliterate' writers – ie, literate across many different kinds of media. When we think 'literacy' we think about print [insert comma] and transliteracy is about shaking off that domination of print which has, in a sense, I think, been a distraction.
"The internet has caused us to rethink what we mean by literacy: the [traditional] idea of literacy implies that before print people were illiterate – but, in fact, people simply were literate in many other things, such as oral and visual culture.
"One of the writers from my course is Alison Norrington [link to Alison's work Staying Single], a chick-lit author: she learnt how to take her stories beyond the book on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, by making little movies, by sending her heroine into Second Life. Another is Christine
WilkesWilks [link to Christine's site], who has a filmmaking background and wrote an interactive memoir using design and programming. You don't need to be able to read and write much[at all, actually!] to tell a story.
"Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel: it's such a recent medium – we've only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, 'We've always had novels.' No we have not!"
Sue Thomas teaches the world's only [online] MA in creative writing and new media [link to course website] at the Institute of Creative
TechnologyTechnologies at De Montfort University
Second, it's amazing how many people quoted in the article talk about digitisation and e-readers - that is to say an electronic version of a linear text - without any awareness at all of hypertext and multimedia. I find this both depressing and puzzling, but then what's new? I've been depressed and puzzled by it for over a decade already.
Thirdly, my comments (drawn from a much longer conversation with Kate Burt) rather imply that I don't see any value in reading and writing. Of course I do value both extremely highly. It's just that working with new media has opened my eyes to the many other kinds of literacies that I had simply ignored before when I too was fixated on print, and it is for those that I make my plea when I press for consideration of transliteracy, a concept which simply gives us even more opportunities to connect with each other's minds.
Finally, the title of the section is 'Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?'. It asks: 'Is the paper-and-ink book heading the way of the papyrus scroll? Can serious literature survive in the brave new world of web downloads, e-books and ever-shortening attention spans?'
I don't get it. Does that mean that people have only been serious and intelligent since they started to read and write? Oh dear. The famously illiterate Socrates would no doubt have something to say about that, and I doubt it would be comfortable listening. In The Phaedrus we read* that in 370BC he asserted writing was an aid “not to memory, but to reminiscence” providing “not truth, but only the semblance of truth.” Readers would, he said, “be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Plus: Look out for an interview with Chris Meade in the same article. Chris is also a CWNM student, graduating this year. and Director of if:book London.
*Of course, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Plato did exactly this when he transcribed the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus as it was taking place under a plane tree by the banks of the Ilissus; Abram, 1997, p. 177.
So, Google has chosen an Earth element for its first browser. It's a pretty name, somewhat intense to articulate, and round in the mouth, forcing an O. It's designed to take browsers in a new direction in terms of design and function, but it also pushes towards a new kind of metaphor.
I've spent the summer collecting examples of nature metaphors used in the way we write and speak about cyberspace. So far I already have around 500 and I've hardly begun. Last week I started categorising them according to the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire and it became immediately clear that we favour watery metaphors - flow, stream, torrent, river etc - way above the other three. What makes Google's choice of name so interesting is that its origin as a lead-based pigment breaks away from this trend and looks to the Earth for its symbolism.
Chrome 1800 - from the Greek - so named from the brilliant colour of its compounds. Chem. 1. The metal CHROMIUM. 2. The yellow pigment and colour obtained from chromate of lead; as orange, lemon. attrib. and Comb: c. alum, a double sulphate of chromium and an alkali-metal, isomorphous with common alum; c. green, (a) the sesquioxide of chromium, used as a pigment; (b) a pigment made by mixing chrome yellow with Prussian blue ; c. orange. c. red, pigments prepared from the dibasic chromate of lead; c. yellow, the neutral chromate of lead, used as a pigment. [Shorter Oxford English Dictionary]
Just for fun, what might this mean? Well, we might think about Chrome's intention to stop the bloat that has made Firefox so sinkingly slow. Right-click on the pretty blue bar at the top of Chrome and you'll find a link to its very own Task Manager where you can watch live as it 'recycles' memory between the tabs, demonstrating a dependable foothold which treats each tab as an independent entity and protects it from any flooding memory-leak from the neighbouring tab next door. For those of us floundering in the messy primeval swamp of Web 2.0 and scared stiff by the threat of a recession it's quite comforting that in Chrome we can now be less impacted by our surroundings, that each tab can keep itself to itself.
In their well-known study Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson say that "Many of our activities are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper reality when we begin to act in terms of it."
So, what's going to happen as we float away from Firefox and IE and plant ourselves firmly in the earthy world of Chrome? Of course, lead is a very heavy metal and, more importantly, it's very poisonous, as those living in houses where their water flows through lead piping are all too aware. In fact, this browser name is loaded with metaphors, both good and bad. Were Google aware of that when they chose it? I'd be very surprised if they weren't.
x-posted from The Wild Surmise
My project The Wild Surmise aims to bring together a complex legacy of thinking and writing about the natural world with contemporary views of computers and the internet drawn from texts, personal interviews, surveys, and of course the web itself. The result will be both critical and lyrical, a creative narrative of the many ways in which we use our experiences of nature to situate and comprehend our experiences of cyberspace.
At the moment I'm collecting examples of nature metaphors used to describe cyberspace and the internet and it's turning out to be a giant task so I would really appreciate some help.
To give you an idea of the kind of material I'm collecting, here are some watery metaphors dating back to Al Gore's remarks to the National Press Club, Dec 21st 1993, when he famously introduced the concept of an 'information superhighway'. Read the whole speech and you'll see that there are quite a few watery images in there too. He said 'It's a "phase change" -- like moving from ice to water; Ice is simple and water is simple, but in the middle of the change it's mush -- part monopoly, part franchise, part open competition. We want to manage that transition.' And we're still using that same metaphor today: 'Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.' 
Tim O'Reilly uses quite a few nature metaphors in his writing, including watery ones like : 'The "blogosphere" can be thought of as a new, peer-to-peer equivalent to Usenet and bulletin-boards, the conversational watering holes of the early internet.'  and of late, many people have been swimming in the Twitter stream so I tweeted the question 'If Twitter were a landscape, what kind of landscape would it be?' J.P. Rangaswami replied: 'a collection of zillions of tiny rivers connected yet apart'  and David Terrar imagined a: 'twisty canyon with a fast flowing river '  Those are just a few examples from a huge number of images used to conceptualise the cyberspace experience, and there are hundreds more to be collected.
You can help with the research by contributing examples of nature metaphors, along with the context and source so that they can be referenced wherever possible. If you only have a sense of a usage but can't provide a source, please add it anyway since I may be able to supply the missing information. Please include your own personal imagery too. The list isn't public at the moment but I do plan to publish it in a year or so, when your contribution will be acknowledged if used.
Which nature metaphors have you come across? Please use this form to add your contribution.
I look forward to reading your thoughts,and thanks in advance for your help.
 Gore, A., 1993. Gore's remarks on the NII, 12-21-93. Available at: http://www.ibiblio.org/nii/goremarks.html [Accessed August 14, 2008]
 Dash, A., Blackbird, Rainman, Facebook and the Watery Web. Available at: http://www.dashes.com/anil/2007/10/rainman-blackbird-facebook-and-the-new-tables.html [Accessed August 4, 2008].
 O'Reilly, T., 2005. What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. O'Reilly. Available at: http://www.oreillynet.com/lpt/a/6228 [Accessed December 31, 2007].
 Rangaswami, J.P. 2008. If Twitter were a landscape, what kind of landscape would it be? The Wild Surmise. Available at: http://travelsinvirtuality.typepad.com/natureandcyberspace/2008/04/if-twitter-were.html [Accessed April 20, 2008].
 Terrar, D. J. 2008. If Twitter were a landscape, what kind of landscape would it be? The Wild Surmise. Available at: http://travelsinvirtuality.typepad.com/natureandcyberspace/2008/04/if-twitter-were.html [Accessed April 20, 2008].
x-posted at The Wild Surmise
Hannah Fearn interviewed me for this article some months ago and since then she has obviously been very busy raising the issue with other academics. The end result is a fascinating and pretty comprehensive piece which will, I hope, provoke plenty of debate.
Grappling with the digital divide
By Hannah Fearn
Times Higher Education Supplement, 14 August 2008
Students are increasingly 'transliterate', communicating across a range of technologies. Can academics keep up?
x-posted from www.transliteracy.com
Years ago I had a colleague who was obsessed with domain names and bought them for every member of her entire family - even the kids. She was always urging me to purchase suethomas.com but it seemed rather unnecessary. In recent years though I've come to regret it - especially since I am so often confused with Sue Thomas FBEye (although she doesn't own suethomas.com either, which is some consolation I suppose.)
So today when the new .me domain was announced I thought right, I'm having that! And when it went live at 4pm I was there, credit card poised, to buy http://www.suethomas.me . Maybe it won't catch on, but if it ever does, I'll be ready :)
Today is my 57th birthday. I'm somewhat superstitious on this day of the year and tend to seek for signs which indicate the focus I should pursue for the 12 months ahead. This morning the sign came early, over breakfast, when I read the Edge transcript of a recent talk by Douglas Rushkoff, The Next Renaissance, given at the Personal Democracy Forum 2008 in NYC. Apparently during the conference the Forum decided to change its name to the Participatory Democracy Forum. Rushkoff's talk presumably had a lot to do with that.
The reason his talk seems significant on my 'special day' is that he is outlining something about my own experience. He says that the network 'creates value from the periphery'. This is significant to me because I have lived my life at the periphery, often quite uncomfortably, but in the last few years that space has become increasingly important. Indeed, recently there have been very noticeable attempts by those at the centre to pay attention to what is going on at the periphery because they are coming to realise that this is now where the influence resides. Rushkoff observed:
The next renaissance (if there is one)—the phenomenon we're talking about or at least around here is not about the individual at all, but about the networked group. The possibility for collective action. The technologies we're using—the biases of these media—cede central authority to decentralized groups. Instead of moving power to the center, they tend to move power to the edges. Instead of creating value from the center—like a centrally issued currency—the network creates value from the periphery.
This means the way to participate is not simply to subscribe to an abstract, already-written myth, but to do real things. To take small actions in real ways. The glory is not in the belief system or the movement, but in the doing. It's not about getting someone elected, it's about removing the obstacles to real people doing what they need to to get the job done. That's the opportunity of the networked, open source era: to drop out of the myths and actually do.
I read this as a call to work at the periphery to actually get things done, rather than focus on the centre in order to create a degree of influence which may eventually, if it survives that long, make an impact at the edges.
But I'd like to add another step. Rushkoff's comments assume that there is only one periphery. In fact, there are millions. So I'd like to recall Ron Burt's work on structural holes, and my own development of the concept of the transliteracy which takes place there, and propose to those working at the (many) peripheries that they draw upon the resources of transliteracy to support their efforts to understand each other and to collaborate. The way this might work is explained here so I won't repeat it in this post, but suffice it to say that in some cases the periphery is still too familiar, and maybe we need to move beyond it and into the wild to really appreciate its benefits.
So that's my 'lesson learned' for this year's birthday I think - a reminder that peripheries will continue to grow in currency this year and that a lot of people will be actively seeking guidance on how to operate on those margins and how to benefit from the transliterate spaces which connect them. Where my birthday focus comes into that picture is that I want to continue to be involved in the process in a pro-active way. As Rushkoff says: "Change does not come from the top—but from the periphery. Not from a leader or a myth inspiring individuals to consent to it, but from people working to manifest it together."
Tomorrow my first-ever PhD student, Jess Laccetti, will graduate at De Montfort University. Not only is she my first PhD student, she is also the first to graduate through the IOCT. She's so busy that's it's hard to keep up with everything she does, so I stole this list of current projects from her website:
Update: Spring/Summer Term: *** Supervising a Master's Thesis for the IOCT MA in Creative Technologies. *** Creating second installment of Education Pack for Inanimate Alice *** Writing journal article on narrative possibilities and links in web fiction *** Writing Curatorial Essay for Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media Salon/Presentation Event (marking 2 years of the course) *** Managing the Online Identity of a few online gaming companies ***
-- and that's just in the last few months! Jess is multi-talented and has a wonderful future ahead of her so watch out for her name..... (I stole this photo too)
I'm delighted to announce that on Wed 16 July (which also happens to be my birthday) Howard Rheingold will be awarded an Honorary Degree at the Institute of Creative Technologies at DMU. I'm proud that my university takes social media so seriously. Bravo! Read Howard's blog post.
As everyone knows, Howard is often to be found testing out the latest applications, and tonight I found a rather good app on his site - Sprout. Here's one he made earlier:
Atlantic Monthly magazine has been around for a long time, and it was the platform for one of the most important articles of the 20th century - As We May Think, by Vannevar Bush, published in 1945 as a call for scientists who had collaborated so well during wartime to maintain that momentum and use their skills to solve the peacetime problems of humanity. The specific issue he concerned himself with was how to manage the growing amount of knowledge that was being accumulated:
Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual. // There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends.
In the 1960s and 70s many believed that the internet would be the answer to Bush's problems. But has it just made them worse? This summer Atlantic Monthly has published Nicholas Carr's cry from deep inside the mountain of info-stuff we now wallow in. Is Google making us stupid? he asks.
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
We are now not so much bogged down, as in Vannevar Bush's day, but skimming across. Carr writes "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Read Carr's article. It's a powerful admission of something we all need to face.
Jim Hendler and his colleagues recently announced a new future-gazing project The Tetherless World , based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I'm looking forward to meeting Jim when he visits us at the IOCT in a few weeks' time.
The new Tetherless World Constellation focusses on "increasing access to information at any time and place without the need for a “tether” to a specific computer or device. Researchers envision an increasingly Web-accessible world in which personal digital assistants (PDAs), cameras, music-listening devices, cell phones, laptops, and other technologies converge to offer the user interactive information and communication." This notion fits in very nicely with my work on cyberspace and the natural world.
However, sadly, I myself am currently extremely tethered. For over a month now I've had no broadband (and therefore no wireless) access at home. Thanks to Plus Net I can get to a free dialup line while it is being fixed, so at least I get to hear once again the dulcet tones of the connect, causing me to reminisce on some intense moments from a very long time ago, but that's hardly compensation for the fact that Googledocs is now completely unloadable; I can't watch any movies; can hardly stagger onto Flickr; can't upload large documents, and am condemned to Basic HTML view of Gmail. Usually I would pop in and out of Blackboard to work with my MA students but now I have to wait until I'm in my office. My connection is currently running at 41.2 Kbps and just like in the Olden Days I'm writing this in Notepad in case I lose anything. At this moment, I don't know how long it will take to actually upload this post into Typepad.
As mentioned below, I recently attended the inaugural meeting of the International Media Literacy Research Forum . I've worked on the borders of media literacy for a while but this is the first gathering of media literacy theorists that I've attended, so it was extremely interesting to hear their points of view. Since there is no single agreed definition of media literacy, John Pungente, representing the Canadian organisation CAMEO, had been asked to provide one to act as a touchstone for that day only, so as to avoid much time being taken up by attempts to agree on a definition. It did not *sound* like a definition to me, since it comprised simply a list of words, and ones which could be applied to just about anything, but here goes anyway:
For me, the most memorable presentation was by Ofcom's Fiona Lennox, who presented a series of excerpts from video interviews from her research. It seems that the main catalyst for changing media use comes from changes in lifestyle, both personally and professionally. The interviews took place across several years so we were able to witness those changes in some people such as the Irish student who talked about her obsession with Bebo, then the following year described how one day she realised it was dominating her life so she 'just deleted it'. Someone else described himself as a 'weekend Facebook user'.
In transliterate terms, the most interesting interviews were the two people who did not like to shop online because they enjoyed the human contact of physical shopping and bartering. There was an elderly woman who likes to take the bus every day to go shopping 'because it gets me out', and a young Asian man who likes to barter when he shops, and get some human interaction. The web, he says, 'strips that out'. This connects well with my recent thinking about the limits of emotional intelligence in the online environment, and with the notion of transliteracy as a fluid literacy which changes with need and platform. Neither of the two disliked using computers, but they both had made decisions about their preferences in using them.
Other interesting points included the fact that apparently the 'creative community' who use computers for creative pursuits (not defined) remains a 'motivated minority', and that many people play the role of 'family technician' - being seen as the expert who helps everyone else with their computer problems. This reminded me of the teacher role in oral communities such as the Asheninka tribe in Brazil, discussed in our paper, where knowledge is passed on via everyday interactions rather than formalised schooling. There's a divide here between those family technicans who teach, and those who just fix things, but this is an interesting area to explore, not least because most of them will themselves be good embodiments of the 'self-taughtness' of many transliterate people.
A thought that kept running through my head throughout the day was that the digital has taught us a great deal about human connectedness and now it can be used as a vehicle to remind us of the importance of connectedness between the digital and the analogue; the virtual and the physical; the material and the spiritual. I was also struck by the problem of the missing definition, described above. There was a suggestion that Ofcom gather all the many definitions, from every country in the world, into one place. I think that's an excellent idea and I look forward to reading them all.
Then I suggest we all get together in one beautiful place with gardens, eat nice food, maybe sing a few songs and dance a few dances, and remind ourselves of what the web strips out before we get down to the serious business of finding the One Great Definition of what it means to be <trans>literate today.
I was intrigued by an invitation to attend the inaugural meeting of the International Media Literacy Research Forum to be held 14-16 May at Dali Universe, London, which looks like a pretty transliterate venue!
According to the website, the aim of the event is to provide a platform for professional researchers and practitioners from across the world to share knowledge and expertise in the field of media literacy research.
The delegate bios are varied and fascinating and I look forward to meeting lots of interesting people and engaging in some challenging discussions. Not sure if Dali's personal universe includes wireless or not, but I'll blog from the event if I can.
On 27th March I caught a discussion on Melvyn Bragg's BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time about the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I studied this period when I was at university as a mature student in the mid 80s but I have hardly thought about it since. This week, with my head full of social media as usual, I saw synergies that I'd not been able to make twenty years ago.
Consider the parallels: in the Middle Ages the monasteries were major international corporations, generating wealth, education, law, and power. Everything was lodged in, or connected to, an enormous European business / social network maintained by an ecology which combined stable stewardship of institutions with travel and learning undertaken by well-read and multilingual men and women. Their common languages of Latin and Greek enabled them to share ideas and co-create with ease, and they pretty well controlled all modes of communication and dissemination since in that pre-Gutenberg era the only way to publish was via copying in monastic scriptoria. These highly-networked institutions set the standards for pretty much everything from economics to social control.
The forces which led to their dissolution are many and complex, and I direct you here for that kind of detail. What I'm interested in is what happened after their dissolution, because I suspect some if it echoes with the impact of social media on our existing corporate structures today.