Archive for March, 2021

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Class 8: Walking away…?

March 25, 2021

Guest speaker Glenn Loughran aka Feilimy joined the class to lead the discussion on the short story which you were asked to read in preparation. Here is his summary.

view of the classroom through the windows.
Feilimy introduces Ursula K Le Guin’s story ‘The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas’.

The session began with brief introductions in the class, focusing on the different disciplines that participants are working through. After this Ursula Le Guin’s text ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas‘ (1973) was introduced and contextualised. Emphasis and discussion were given over to the form of the story which is ‘allegorical’.  As Walter Benjamin has suggested, the allegory is a particular kind of literary trope that often emerges at times of crisis or political unrest. This is because the form of the allegory (part for whole) enables a reduction of complexity, making crisis more manageable and visible. A key allegorical trope is the figure of the Island because it represents a fragment of the whole. It is often understood is a microcosm of the world. These reflections then fed into a discussion about the text, the narrator of the text and importantly, how the narrator constructs the image of Utopia, with the reader. Incrementally, the narrator of the text asks the reader to contribute to the image of Utopia, ‘if they are unsatisfied with the one being described’. All in the class agreed that this is a strategic device to include the reader in the narrative, to make them co-constructors and potentially, co-conspirators. From this analysis, there was brief reflection on the conceptual nature of this strategy, commonly understood as ‘breaking the fourth wall’, which was developed by theatre practitioners in the early 20th Century, such as Bertolt Brecht. As the students proceeded through the text the discussion turned toward the moral dilemma at the heart of the text, its ideological presuppositions and the redemptive quandary that defines the ending of the story. This led to a very vocal and heated debate around the idea of a social contract vs individual agency. Some students pointed out how the allegorical nature of the story enabled it to be used as a tool to understand geopolitical structures of oppression. Interestingly this also led to analogies drawing out the relationship between cheap technological apparatuses and platforms being used in the class and the alienated labour that produced them, touching also on fast fashion and Virtual Reality. After this a very novel suggestion was made, which highlighted the relationship between the natural environment and modernity, suggesting that the environment could be understood as the oppressed child, subject to the hedonistic society of industrial progress. Some participants in the class could not comprehend lack of action or intervention into the situation by the citizens of Omelas, while others contemplated the possibilities that might emerge from walking away. As always, there was very little agreement on the dilemmas presented in the text and that is as it should be. Its aim is to foster debate, discussion, and imagination which it certainly did in the session.

John rejoined the class towards the end to thank Feilimy and remind you that the next class will be in three weeks, following the Easter break.

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Class 6: My Avatar and Me – Virtual Identities

March 18, 2021

Due to the re-scheduling of last week’s class we met for class six this week. John began this discussion by asking if everyone had viewed the TED presentation by David Chalmers and the interview with Daniel Dennett. The topics were complex and required several viewings for some of you. It was agreed that consciousness is not easy to define. In fact, it was not so much defined in the material as spoken about. The manifestations of consciousness were considered in different contexts. Everyone recognised Chalmers’ description of a movie playing inside our heads: the narrator in our lives. You also suggested that the use of multiple personas is common. We behave according to the company we are in; family, friends, strangers and so on, but it is not clear whether this means we have one personality with different sides and layers to it or multiple personalities.

This led to us considering the nature of our avatars here in SL. Do we present ourselves in virtual worlds as we are in RL? For instance, last week many of the residents of VAI referred to the refreshing nature of SL where they are not subject to being identified with their disability. You may be confined to a wheelchair in RL but your avatar can walk, run and dance in SL. Is identifying with our avatar in SL very different from identifying with our physical body in RL?

John told the story of the the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus about a lesbian living in Syria during the 2011 uprising that arose from the Arab Spring. The blogger, Amina Arraf, came to worldwide attention after apparently being abducted by authorities. She wrote about the dangers of being gay in the Middle East and developed a large following ranging from those interested in her demand for sexual freedom to the supporters of the political cause espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. The demands for her release eventually led to the revelation that Amina was actually Tom MacMaster, a US postgraduate student in Edinburgh. For the purposes of our discussion the interesting thing is that Amina formed several close relationships while presenting as a gay girl. She was utterly convincing for over a year.

Free Amina Arraf.
When Amina Arraf was supposedly abducted there was an international effort to secure her release before it emerged that the blogger was in fact Tom MacMaster and the photo of Amina was really a Croatian woman.

This raises the notion of ‘truth’, or at the very least, our expectation that others do not attempt to deceive us. But what happens if one of our individual personas does not match the expectation of somebody else? At what point might we be considered to have moved from a genuine attempt to present ourselves honestly as possible to becoming deceivers and liars?

Your generation has grown up with social media and you are familiar with how we present ourselves in that virtual space. You have become adept at deciphering profiles and cautious about revealing too much. It is unlikely that Amina’s blog would convince people today… or is it?

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 11, 2021

Even though this is only week six it was necessary to cover the content for Class 7 due to scheduling issues. So, we visited Gentle Heron and her team at Virtual Ability Island, with Sitearm Madonna in support.

Class at VAI
Gentle Heron welcomed the class to Virtual Ability Island.

With over twenty participants it took a little time to arrange handing out Landmarks (LM) to everyone and ensuring you all knew how to Teleport (TP) to the location. But, eventually we all gathered in the Yellow Hibiscus Cabana and were being warmly welcomed by Gentle who gave a brief outline of the history and development of Virtual Ability Island. She noted that in addition to speaking to us her talk is given in text chat also so that those who are deaf can participate. She asked us to use chat in addition to voice also, adding that the community tries to be inclusive at all times. The role of Virtual Ability (both the community and the island) is to provide a place where people with disabilities can find others like themselves with whom to relate. But, they don’t want to live in isolation from others who do not share their disabilities: they are not a virtual ‘leper colony’. About a quarter of the members do not (yet!) have disabilities and they are called TABs, (Temporarily Able Bodied). They may be a parent, spouse, child, or friend of a person with a disability; a professional or non-professional caregiver; an academic researcher, medical professional or an educator. They have been in SL for over thirteen years and is widely recognised for its service to the community, winning the inaugural Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’.

The community is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc. and is probably the first SL entity to be given legal real life (RL) nonprofit designation. However, Gentle rejects the term RL for ‘real life’ when it is used to distinguish the physical world from the virtual world. Some avatars may not be realistic if one means they are a replica of the individual sitting at the computer operating it but, they are realistic in terms of the person who created them. Their avatars express their personal sense of self.

The community embraces diversity. In fact, the population of people with disabilities is the largest minority group in the world and is the most varied. It is common to hear that even people with the same diagnosis have very different life experiences and symptoms. The diversity is a constant for all interactions, requiring a group value of respect and accommodation. Just as in other communities the members form both close and informal relationships and promote mutual support among members. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis is on Ability not DISability.

The development of the community has been organic and it is now recognised within the larger SL ecosystem. It is maintained by the continued interest of members who volunteer their time to support initiatives like the HeathInfo Island where the focus is on health and wellness rather than disabilities and impairments. There are also many educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about more than 120 disability peer support communities so far identified in SL.

The community also has three residential islands, with private properties around the edges and public land in the central area. On Cape Able there is an art gallery where the current exhibitor, Tucker Stilley, controls the computer with his eyes. Cape Serenity hosts a library with works by VAI authors and other well known writers who you may not have realised have a disability. The art gallery and library offer only work created by people with disabilities.

Gentle then divided the class into two smaller groups, one remained with Gentle and John at Yellow Hibiscus and the other departed for the nearby Blue Pavilion with Sitearm. Gentle introduces Suellen and James Heartsong. Suellen has diabetes with related neuropathy issues in her feet. After a career as a 911 dispatcher serving over thirty years and being used to a microphone she has naturally become a DJ here. She and James are married in both SL and RL. She is editor of Virtual Abilities Facebook and also backup estate manager for the VAI residential islands. Suellen also acts as a Virtual Ability Ambassador with a group doing diabetic support. She said that the campfire sessions, dance parties and just chatting to others are her favourite things to do here.

James has Multiple Sclerosis and arrived in SL after reading about the virtual world in an MS magazine. But, he found it too complicated and didn’t hang about. A few years later he tried again and discovered Virtual Ability. The welcome he received and the support for PWDs (Persons With Disabilities) led him to join the community where he was completely accepted for who he is. He believes the community helps people with disabilities regain a sense of self worth and seek out better ways to improve their lives. James concluded ‘I may have MS, but MS does NOT have me! Here is where I belong.’

Gentle opened the discussion for Q&A by reminding us to type our questions into chat in addition to speaking them. Kevin asked if it was difficult to trust people in the environment when first joining? Suellen answered that it wasn’t difficult for her because she figured they couldn’t hurt her here but, she didn’t reveal any personal details. Gentle told us she originally came here with people she already knew and they stuck together so that helped. Fiach said that although he was aware of MS he is not sure what it entails? Gentle explained that it is a neurological disease that causes brain cells to die and scar. Different symptoms arise depending on which cells die: they can include physical, mental, emotional or sensory symptoms. This can lead to diverse problems from balance to swallowing. Hazzible wondered about a treatment he had heard about called Neuralink which is considered to resolve important brain and spine functions? Gentle said that since it is unknown what causes the disease it is not possible to cure it; only the symptoms can be treated. Neuralink is a brian-computer interface which is cool if your brain is normal but, as MS causes brain damage, she is doubtful about its potential to help with MS. James added that as a former martial arts instructor he also found that Chinese medicine arts were helpful where western medical options don’t exist.

John asked Suellen and James if they were married first in SL or in RL? Suellen replied that they first married in SL before she made the physical journey of over one thousand miles to live with James in RL. John also wondered how much time community members spend in SL? It can vary from an hour to twelve hours a day for Gentle but not all that time would be spent in Virtual Ability Island. Suellen spends a lot of her time at Health Info Island or at the residential sims. Hazzible asked what other activities are possible for fun? Suellen has taken up photography lately and she loves to go dancing in SL. She enjoys shopping for shoes that don’t hurt in SL, as they might do in RL due to her condition. James adds that there a lots of live performers in SL. Gentle takes classes as she loves to learn new things and VAI puts on two professional conferences annually that take a considerable amount of time to prepare for and organise. James says that they can also attend church safely in SL as there are no COVID-19 related restrictions! While they can log into their RL church via Zoom the SL church gives a greater feeling of community. As Gentle says: you can meet people from lots of different cultures in SL and, as long as you are respectful, it is a great way to broaden your perspectives. James reminds us that if you are rude you can be booted out! The conversation concluded with a reminder that although people cannot be physically hurt in SL and can always return home with a single click, people can be hurt emotionally because there is always a real individual person behind every avatar.

The other group then rejoined us and John thanked Gentle, Suellen, James, Slatan Dryke, iSkye Silverweb, Stepinwolf and Sitearm for their generosity and sharing their experiences and knowledge with us. Gentle invited the students to remain here and explore or feel free to return any time and said they enjoyed chatting with the students, who joined in with thanks and clapping.

Then we were treated to a unique performance of Riverdance by Slatan and iSkye who have small avatars known as Tinys. This dance defies description and needs to be seen to be believed!

Hazzible'e new slippers.
Hazzible acquired some new and distinctive footwear.

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Class 5: From hammer to pixel

March 4, 2021

John opened the class with a request for contributions to a discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas informed by your interpretation of the reading and viewing material prepared for the class. He suggested basing the discussion around the three questions posed in the introduction to the reading:

  1. What impact did McLuhan believe mass media was having on 20th Century Western society?
  2. Why are his theories relevant to our online digital environment today?
  3. How do you respond to McLuhan’s ideas and how might they influence your behaviour, if at all?

You noted that McLuhan suggested that the infrastructure of a medium had a greater impact on us than the content of any message that might be conveyed. For instance, the effect of television on families and society led to a change in family dynamics – the tv set came to dominate the house and captivate attention in a way that hadn’t happened before. However, as there would have been only a single set in a household it also brought families together – gathered around it as they might have previously gathered around the fire in the hearth. We spoke about the difference between a largely oral culture that existed before the development of the written word and the gradual shift that took place following the development of printing: reading became a solitary exercise and led to the emergence of the individual. We became a society of individuals rather than social groupings. Electric media, as McLuhan called tv, was closer to oral culture than written and as such harkened back to the time of villagers gathering to tell stories and listen to fables. Hence McLuhan’s reference to the Global Village.

The emergence of the internet, as predicted by David Bowie during an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999, has led to even more change:

The potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we are actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying

This ‘alien life form’ has facilitated the emergence of the phone as we know it today: a totally different beast from Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. You noted that the ‘always on’ feature of instant communication with anyone, anywhere has now become a feature of physical social engagement – you can sit in company comfortably not talking to one another, just using your phones.

Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.

 

Bowie also spoke of the importance of the public in the creative process, referring to the prescience of visual artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, in the early part of the 20th Century he said that:

the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st Century is going to be about.

We tried to envisage how the impact of the internet as a ‘medium’ might continue to impact society. You spoke of issues around the changing understanding of privacy, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), the changing nature of work and jobs. This reminded you of McLuhan’s suggestion that we create our tools and thereafter they shape us. The approach to understanding tools as an extension of our selves, a mechanism for interpreting and negotiating our environment, where everything from language to the computer chip is seen in the context of human nature, provides a different lens through which to see possible futures. With the numerous threats to the future of our planet as a result of our developing technologies it is important to try and be more aware of the possible outcomes from our inventions.

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