Digital Essay. January 3rd 2010.
Part 1 – The Rabbit Hole
A lifestream-based learning presence is a rabbit-hole to a wonderland, the can-opener to a madhouse. It encourages fun, playfulness – the harvesting of content and resources from previously ‘un-academic’ areas and the exploration of surprising avenues of cyberspace – a playful learning experience. But just how mad is the madhouse? And do we care?
If we are to ask our learners (and indeed ourselves) to willingly embrace a cyborg pedagogy, to jump down the rabbit hole, perhaps we need to think about ways in which we can use the affordances of the new media which can help us provide guidance and help in the new space? To provide guidance towards Haraways ‘fruitful couplings’ and away from the Tweedle-Dums and Tweedle-Dees of the internet – the voices that will talk nonsense if you stop to listen.
A digitally-mediated, multilocated cyborg pedagogy may encourage new forms of embodiment, new ontological constructions, new textual and and visual tropes by which to make the learning process more playful and immersive, but it also brings with it new challenges: a reconfiguration of ‘authenticity’, troublesome tropes, digital ticks and conspiracy winks and the dangers of a new, hydra-headed ‘grupen-think’ where the web facilitates a condition where meaning-making and authenticity become potentially hostage to a swirling sea of badly-researched, critically unchallenged assertions which masquerade as ‘facts’, repeated over and over until they are heard so often that they assume the status of authentic.
Is there a place for new forms of embodiment in supporting learners in this challenge? Is there a way to provide a digital form of what Williams and Palmer identified as the ability of a good ‘teacher to ‘enact the pleasure and seductiveness of knowing in their posture, stance, utterance, gaze, gesture as well as the written and spoken texts they generate as ‘subject content’?
How can we help the learner distinguish between well-researched, credible work and what attempts to pass as well-researched credible work?
Or is there a bigger question still? Does an application of a cyborg pedagogy render such questions irrelevant?
As part of the Digital Cultures semester, I undertook a virtual ethnography; a study of an online community of my choice, in an attempt not to decipher the truth of this community’s statements and interests but rather to try to arrive at an understanding of how this community decides on what is authentic ‘truth’ itself. I chose the 9/11 Conspiracy Theories and found myself disappearing down on of the the dystopian rabbit-holes which I had mapped in an earlier project - an entrance to a place I tentatively called ‘Disturbia’.
In this soup of paranoia and conspiracist thinking I found myself wondering about possible connections between the manner in which conspiracists create naratives of authenticity and which ‘learners’ create their own naratives of meaning from digitally-mediated online learning and wondering if there were any lessons to be learned, questions to be asked and new towns to be mapped which might help us better understand a digitally mediated learning experience.
To this end, this digital essay will explore one more conspiracy theory – often called the original conspiracy theory – and in doing so try to explore how such lies, such shoddy research, such outright charlatanry continues to be propogated and consider what this phenonmena might have to tell us about our emerging cyborg pedagogies.
The Mad Hatters
Whilst cyborg pedagogies might offer us new opportunities for learning, it’s worth noting that there are parallels between the construction of meaning from a fractured, aggregated learning stream and the manner in which a conspiracy theory seems to be put together. I would like to suggest that perhaps it’s in our interest to understand how mediated meaning-making for a learner saturated in information can lead to new uncertainties in learning – with the foundations of empirical ‘facts’ or ‘narratives’ shifting, mutating and squirming around the web.
At best this can provide a new ontology of learning – at worst the near total breakdown of critical thinking and the spreading of lies, falsehoods and the fostering of the worst kind of group-think.
A study of conspiracy theories, with their accretion-based construction, endless repetition, inherent virality and disaggregated centres can provide us with cautionary tales about the construction of learning and meaning-making in a ‘cyborg pedagogy’ – perhaps most crucially showing us the value of learner embodiment in such a pedagogy. Through the embodiment offered by a tool such as a Lifestream, learners are faced with issues around the authenticity of ’sources’, the veracity of ‘facts’ found online and the need for a heightened sensitivity around any collation of these ’sources’ and ‘facts’ into a narrative.
The ultimate purpose of this digital essay will be to arrive not at a set of recommendations for learners and designers engaging with a cyborg pedagogy, but rather to furnish them with a set of critical questions which they may apply to any narrative they encounter whilst studying or researching online.