Posts Tagged ‘Community’

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Class 10: Inspiration Island

April 23, 2020

In a change to the advertised class this week we visited Inspiration Island at the invitation of Lissena Wisdomseeker, the founder and CEO. When we arrived (accompanied by Sitearm Madonna, who graciously arranged the field trip) we were welcomed by Lissena, Francisco Koolhoven and Thuja Hynes.

Our gracious hosts on Inspiration Island: Tooyaa, presenting; Liss, right and Fran on her left.

Lissena told us that Inspiration Island is the home of a programme called Whole Brain Health. Their purpose is to improve the quality of people’s lives through Interactive, Innovative, Inspiring activities and programmes. The intention is to support participants in positive personal development—both in-world and outworld. The programmes are based on a scientifically-sound, holistic approach to well-being—nurturing body, mind and spirit. There are currently about forty avatar-volunteers of all ages building facilities such as a 3D Maze, an Art and Music Park, a Covid-19 Information Centre created by a member who is a medical librarian. They facilitate programmes like Muscle Relaxation, Relationships in SL and Beyond, Drum Circle, The Wisdomseekers and Hero Walk. Lissena gave us globe teleporters that contained a menu of over thirty different places to visit. The place where we had the class, called Sunvibes, was built by Szavanna who lives in South Africa after emigrating from Hungary over twenty years ago. She is a DJ here and finds little-known world music from Africa, India, the Middle East among others, for dancing every Tuesday at noon SLT. The social interaction as people use dance animations, dance at home and chat in text is a fun experience with several benefits.

The Island comprises four levels to almost four-thousand meters over four full sims. Francisco Koolhaven, known as Fran, is the estate manager, media director and all-round problem solver. He told us that during the week he had to deal with the fallout from a cut fibre cable on the internet that caused problems for people trying to log in. At such times it is important to notify visitors that programmes have been cancelled or rescheduled. Other times he might be dealing with people who are unable to hear voice at an event and need tech support. Much of his time is spent behind the scenes ensuring a seamless experience at events of all sorts so he also has a security brief which occasionally results in ejecting troublemakers, adjusting group and parcel settings to prevent outsiders from making unauthorised changes and so on. As media director he has responsibility for filming and creating videos of events held here.

Fran has considerable experience in scripting, which means programming objects in SL to do various things. He has built a number of scripted object and demonstrated a calendar that works dynamically in-world. The calendar is also available in the SL Marketplace maintained by Linden Lab for sellers to list products for sale in SL. You can see the calendar by clicking here.

Fran explained how the development of tools in SL over the last ten years has introduced the ability to bring in objects created outside the platform using 3D editors such as Blender. The ‘mesh’ items give a much more realistic look and feel to SL, making for a more realistic experience. To show the extent of what can be done with mesh he showed us two animated sculptures that produce the same movements as avatars.

Fran demonstrated his scripting skills by showing us this sculpture of Daenerys from Game of Thrones behaving as if she were a genuine avatar.

Finally, Fran gave us all a copy of the Inspiration Island map teleport which allows you to visit any part of the island simply by clicking on it in the map – how handy would that be in the physical world?!

Lissena then introduced Thuja Hynes, Associate Director, to tell us about an exciting project. Known more informally as Tooyaa, she hosts or co-hosts Drum Circle, Firekeepers, Hero Walk, Simply Impossible and Women in STEM. She has designed a number of interactive, immersive and interpretive experiences on the Island, including the Multiple Intelligence Experience and Journey to Whole Brain Health, along with a series of ‘waypoints’ which delve into aspects of wellbeing, both personal and global. Tooyaa said that SL can allow learners immerse themselves in science and maths education in an interactive environment and also allow them practise coding. She gave us a reference to a landmark paper published in 2014 Second Life as a Platform for Physics Simulations and Microworlds: An Evaluation on the topic. From this perspective SL can be seen more as a simulator rather than a game. Tooyaa said that in addition to using script functions to enrich the Newtonian physics experience she enjoys constructing working machines without scripts, simply the serendipity of unexpected consequences. For example, she re-learned recently the word ‘osculation’, meaning ‘kiss’, as in when two objects come in contact such that their point tangents are aligned. She went on to demonstrate this osculation in avatars and a range of objects located around the area, exploiting the physics of SL’s basic programming.

To close she gave us all a gift of a Brain Quester hat which floated a translucent brain above our avatar heads, and lit up with coloured bulbs when we moved! On behalf of the class John thanked Liss, Fran and Tooyaa for their generosity—it was a fascinating experience and we are all grateful to them for hosting us. John also thanked Site for making the introductions and arrangements.

We all left Inspiration Island with bigger and more colourful brains than when we arrived.

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 20, 2020

At the class field trip to Virtual Ability Island, hosted by Gentle Heron, we met residents and guests who shared fascinating insights with us.

The class field trip to Virtual Ability Island, as guests of Gentle Heron, was a real success. Unfortunately – as it was the first meeting following the closing of Universities in Ireland in response to the Covid-19 pandemic – fewer students than usual were able to take part. Some clearly had difficulty with their broadband connections (two of the six students attending dropped out as class began) which we hope will be resolved for the next class. In any case, John will survey all participants to determine if we can continue properly in SL.

Gentle Heron, the founder of the Virtual Ability community welcomed us warmly and told us that Virtual Ability Island (VAI) hosts this module every semester to talk about ‘the glue that holds the community together’. She explained that she would be using text plus voice, the normal practice in VAI where people with diverse abilities are supported. Formerly an educational researcher before being medically retired due to multiple sclerosis (MS) she said she intended covering five topics.

Who is the Virtual Ability community?

Virtual Ability is an international cross-disability peer support community of over a thousand members. We’re international because the people in the community come from six continents. Cross-disability means our members who have disabilities may have a physical disability, a mental or emotional or developmental disability, or a sensory disability (deafness or blindness). Many of us have multiple disabilities. We offer peer-to-peer understanding, support, and education. Sometimes it’s important to communicate with people who are most likely to ‘get’ your concerns, your language, your point of view. That’s why most people with disabilities seek to relate with others like ourselves. But we don’t want to live in isolation from others who do not share our disabilities. We are not a virtual ‘leper colony’. About a quarter of our members do not (yet!) have disabilities. We call them 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. Our community has been in SL for almost thirteen years, so we have a good record of continuity. We won the first Linden Prize back in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world.’ We are one of the original Community Gateways into Second Life, authorised by Linden Lab. So we are recognised well beyond our own community. We are supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability, Inc. Our community assists people with all kinds of disabilities to enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. Virtual Ability offers various educational and entertainment activities daily. We also encourage members to explore all the fun things to do and beautiful places to explore throughout Second Life.

What is the relationship between real and virtual (online) communities?

What I want to express in terms of this question is that I have to reject 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 by realistic you mean a replica of the individual sitting at the computer operating it. But they are realistic in terms of the person who created them. Our avatars express our personal sense of self. But I have found that communities are quite similar in both venues. (more on that later)

Why is it important to consider the rules and etiquette of a virtual community?

This one is easy to answer. You should consider the rules and etiquette of any community you interact with. But a caveat, not all the rules and community standards are written down. That is why ethnographers understand that a casual observation of a community is inadequate to understand it. You must spend time immersed with the community before you will really know how it functions. If you disregard community rules and etiquette, even by ignorance of their existence, you risk having a less than optimal and limited understanding of that community.

How are online communities developed and maintained?

First, why do I consider Virtual Ability to be a community? Some definitions of ‘community’ are based on geographic proximity. That’s not us. Nor are we culturally similar. In fact, we embrace diversity! The population of persons with disabilities is the largest minority group in the world, and is the most varied. In our VAI group chats, we often hear ‘Oh, I didn’t know [people with that disability] had that [symptom] too.’ or ‘Wow, we have the same diagnosis, but your life is really different from mine.’ Our diversity is a constant for all our interactions, requiring a group value of respect and accommodation. So we aren’t ‘together’ physically, and we aren’t really very similar. However, we definitely exhibit other aspects of community:

  • Our members form both close and informal relationships.
  • We promote mutual support among members. We ask potential new members what the community can do for them, and what they can do for the community.
  • We share common values and beliefs. One important one is our emphasis on Ability, not disability.
  • We offer organized interactions and activities. Some of the most popular are campfire chats and dances.
  • Most members exhibit a strong sense of belonging to the community.

On our Healthinfo Island directly to our west, we are focusing not on disabilities and impairments, but rather on health and wellness. You will find educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities, and the Path of Support. The Path of Support lists information about the more than 120 disability peer support communities we have identified so far in SL. There is a list of the current month’s exhibits and displays on a notecard in the giver box in the centre of the cabana. Our community 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 on the public land; Cape Serenity hosts a library. In both the art gallery and the library, we offer only works that are created by persons with disabilities. That goes along with our emphasis on the abilities of people with disabilities. Another notecard in the giver box tells more about the SL islands our community maintains. You are welcome to visit our public areas any time. You can learn more about the VAI community at our website.

And how does our community develop? I would have to say it is organic, through biological-like processes of accretion and evolution. We have a niche on the larger SL ecosystem, and we specialise to fill that niche. We are maintained through the continued interest and volunteer time of so many wonderful community members. Let me introduce some of them to you now.

Q&A with VAI guests
iSkye, Suellen, James, Mook, Celene and Slatan are all going to introduce themselves to you. Then when they are all finished with introductions, you will be able to ask them questions about their experience in virtual worlds. You can address your question to one of them, or to any of them. Please type your questions.

iSkye Silverweb is completely deaf in RL. She has worn a hearing aid from the age of five, learned to speak, and became a highly literate, and voracious, reader. Reading books, she never had to worry about missing anything anyone said. She never had to ask ‘What did he say?’ as she did about TV shows, only to be told ‘Wait for a commercial’. iSkye lost all hearing about twenty years ago, and when that happened, she got tinnitus. Her doctors don’t know the cause; they guess it was due to cochlear otosclerosis. It seemed to iSkye that a switch was flipped. Bye bye hearing, hello tinnitus. Lipreading became an exercise in frustration. Over the years she has seen ICQ, IRC, AOL, Cybertown – she’s been there, done that. Until SL. Members of the VAI community will say ‘I am more me in SL than I am in the physical world’. It is difficult to imagine how valuable that is for a Person With a Disability (PWD). Her first friend in SL was a blue-haired girl named Mucaro India. ‘Hello. Can I help you?’ Those five friendly words in text made a all the difference. At that time the voice capability had just be added to SL, where communication was through text chat. It was generating much excitment among residents who were trying it out. Great for them: useless for iSkye. But, with Mucaro’s help she made more friends – a ‘Dead Ghost’, a dinosaur named Orange, a robot named Tin Man, and Gentle. All willingly used text to converse with iSkye, who felt like an Alice in Wonderland – just a little female avatar! She learned that all her new friends have different disabilities yet Virtual Ability brings them together as a community of support. They all get disability here. The name Virtual Ability is clearly not an accident. iSkye was given, and also found, ways to be useful and to help people and made many friends along the way. Being invited to do things in spite of protesting, ‘but I am deaf!’ and being told ‘we don’t care, join us’ was empowering. SL does not cure iSkye’s deafness or tinnitus but it does provide relief from the feeling of being closed off from the worked that she knows is filled with noised and voices. SL is such a visually rich environment, and the avatars she met and the friends she has made help her cope with that isolation. She can communicate with people, do things, and create art. Members of the community can express their real selves in this virtual setting, instead of their disabilities. That is essential for iSkye’s health.

Suellen Heartsong is a member of VAI and helps out with the estate managers, participates in conferences and events by voicing for those who need that help and generally helps where needed. She is also an Ambassador for See Yourself Heath, a project that works with people dealing with diabetes. Suellen is also editor or the VAI Facebook page. She participates in many of the group events and classes and particularly enjoys Campfire hour where chat and gossip combine in mutual support. Virtual worlds open up so many things that Suellen is unable to do in RL: dancing, being a DJ, meeting her now RL husband in SL and making friends all over the world. She met James and they became immediate friends in March 2012. They traveled back and forth by train for a year between Denver, Colorado and Oswego, Illinois getting to know each other in RL. In 2013 she moved to Colorado to be with him and has lived there happily ever since. They married in RL on Leap Day 2016 so celebrated their anniversary this year. Not every relationship in SL becomes RL, sometimes people are far apart and cannot meet. Suellen is fortunate that she was able to move across the US to be married to James in both worlds. They still enjoy their SL time dancing and listening to music that they are not able to do in RL. Suellen has diabetes, a heart condition and PTSD that she and James deal with together as a couple.

James Heartsong tells us that his name in SL it Peaceful James. He chose the name as part of his personal ‘rehab’ work when he came to SL to follow up on an article in the National MS Society’s Magazine. Prior to be disabled with MS he used to work 40 to 60 hours a week at HP, teach at a martial arts studio most night and weekends and once a month he would spend the weekend with his National Guard unit (a special forces A-Team). All of this was in addition to being a father and husband. It all went away when MS came to stay. He was not exactly a ‘peaceful’ man back then. He discovered that stress was aggravating his condition so now avoids it. His name in SL and his entire approach to life had to change. He did a lot of inner work to reduce the underlying stress levels and became more peaceful, loving and kind. Since he started these holistic changes his overall health improved a lot, although his remains disabled. Changing from the inside out made him a better man and eventually brought him to Suellen. One of the things he learned in Special Forces was to help people to learn how to free themselves. Now he is not teaching people how to free themselves from foreign oppressors but tries to teach them how to free themselves from their personal concerns. He has learned also to focus on his abilities rather than being depressed by what he can no longer do. He concluded by saying that ‘I may have MS but MS does NOT have me!’

Mook Wheeler was a university lecturer in the social sciences until early medical retirement over a decade ago. Her discovery of SL was a blessing, she says, because it provides a method of interacting with people that does not carry the extreme stress that face-to-face, eye-to-eye and voice-to-ear communications do. In the physical world, social interaction always exhaust and destroy her; in SL, it often invigorates and lifts her. Like iSkye, this virtual environment is essential for her health. She says she has only been able to ‘be myself’ in SL. Until discovering SL she had no idea that she had never ‘been myself’ in the physical world. She shared two notecards with us. Worlds Apart attempts to explain why SL makes Mook more ‘normal’ than RL. It is a detailed and very well written piece that gives great insight into her experience. Regrettably it is too long to share here. The other notecard Socialising in SL is shown below.

Mook Wheeler, who has Aspergers and is on the Autism Spectrum, shared this notecard with us.

 

Mermaid Celene told us that Virtual Ability is her virtual home; the community means a lot to her and VAI has helped her through difficult times. Being able to come here allows her take her mind off the flashbacks and terrible memories of her past. She loves volunteering in whatever capacity she is needed and sees it as part of her way of giving back to VAI. She suffers from retinopathy or prematurity, glaucoma and severe PTSD and it totally blind. She used to be partially sighted so has a deep love for bright colours which she expresses with a huge inventory of ball-gowns! Her love for bright colours keeps them alive in her head because she can remember what they look like by comparing them to objects she has seen. For example, she will ask her husband what shade of pink an item is and his response is flamingo pink of kindle pink. Kindle pink refers to the baby pink cover of her old reading device. The same goes for colours like sky blue, pool blue, apple red, fire engine and home depot bucket orange. She is also lead Radegast mentor. Radegast is a text-based viewer that allows the blind to access SL. When not working in VAI she loves to fish and explore SL. Sometimes she just sits in her apartment and listens to the sounds from her bubbling aquarium which she words, or finds a quiet place near the Canadian geese in the pond at Cape Heron, the residential community apartment sim. Celene has made lifelong friends here and for her, VAI is a lifesaver.

Slatan Drake is Italian and a veteran who suffers from PTSD. He considers SL the best therapy he has had in years. He is an SL old-timer, mentor, linguist, artist and photographer, is endlessly curious and eager to share what he learns. His mentoring career began about twelve years ago when the programme was officially managed by Linden Lab. He is now a Mentor and Tutor in several groups but a special mention goes to Virtual Ability Group with the specific purpose of simplifying SL for those residents with different abilities to whom he gives distinct classes. As an artist and photographer some of his works are permanently displayed in popular Art Galleries around the Grid. If you meet Slatan you can right-click his avatar for more information in his Profile. He concluded by recommending a viewing of Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me a full-length feature about SL residents, including James and Suellen Heartsong.

Chenming asked if the two couples who met in SL prefer online or offline. Suellen responded that she liked both, depending on what is going on offline. iSkye, Celene and Slatan agreed. John suggested that it can be difficult to differentiate between SL and ‘RL’ as they are both so real. James responded that he enjoys SL particularly when he is suffering higher fatigue levels… but he really enjoys RL even better because he can reach out any time and touch Suellen. He added that kissing in RL is much more fun than it is in SL! On the other hand iSkye and Slatan are only a couple in SL because they live in separate countries in the physical world. They are able to spend time together in SL.

Sitearm asked if any of the guests are ‘builders’ in SL. iSkye shared a link to a video of a build she made as part of the Liden Endowment for the Arts. James has a link to a video of one of his builds in his profile and Slatan shared a link to a video of Crumbs from my Nightmares, an art installation in SL. It takes time and practice to become proficient at building in SL but all the necessary tools are built into the environment.

The final piece of advice from Gentle and all the guests is to suspend your preconceptions about SL, and virtual environments in general, and especially do not think of SL as a game. It is a platform where you can play games but it is not a game in itself. There are colleges here offering classes just like this module, communities like VAI, towns, museums and much more. Slatan explained it wonderfully saying:

Second Life offers the great opportunity to free our essence, with an explosion of feelings, socialising, activities, colours and creativity beyond our imagination. I am what I am, but in Second Life I am what I wish!

James gave an insight into how SL can actually influence people’s abilities in the physical world which is explained by the concept of ‘mirror neurons‘ and Mook shared a link to a YouTube movie about the impact on a woman with Parkinson’s.

Gentle invited the students to explore VAI and subscribe to the Google calendar of upcoming events. This may become a more significant opportunity than we might have expected as we are all confined to our homes over the coming weeks.

John concluded by saying thank you to Suellen, James, Celene, Mook, Slatan, iSkye and Gentle. ‘We are really grateful to you for sharing your experiences and stories with us this evening. It has been a privilege for us. Hearing about your community has given us new insights into the possibilities offered by virtual communities. It is particularly interesting to be here at a time when the physical world has suddenly become an unknown place for many of us due to an invisible danger. You have given us much to think about. Thank you all very much. And special thanks to Gentle Heron: in my view you are the Queen of SL!’

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

November 14, 2019

Gentle Heron and the Virtual Ability Island community hosted our class this week.

Visiting an active community in Second Life is a privilege and always an interesting and informative experience. Gentle Heron, the founder of Virtual Ability Island, hosted us along with residents James Heartsong, Sullen Heartsong, Dorie Bernstein and Eme Capalini.

Gentle told us of the founding of the community and the necessity for such an organisation. She started by explaining that they usually communicate with voice and text because there are deaf and blind community members. Gentle was an educational researcher before retiring due to multiple sclerosis. Virtual Ability (VAI) is an international cross-disability peer support community of over 1,000 members. People in the community come from six continents and may have a physical, mental, emotional, development or sensory disability, with many having multiple disabilities. Because it is sometimes important to communicate with someone who understands and ‘gets’ your concerns, your language and point of view, the community offers peer-to-peer support and education. However, the community does not live in isolation – it is not a virtual ‘leper colony’ – and about a quarter of the members do not (yet) have disabilities. They are referred to as 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. The community has been in SL for over 11 years and won the first Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’. It is also one of the original Community Gateways into SL authorised by Linden Lab. So, it is well recognised beyond its own community.

VAI is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc, to assist people with all kinds of disabilities enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. Virtual Ability offers educational and entertainment activities daily and encourages member to explore all that SL has to offer. Some of the most popular activities are campfire chats and dances. Healthinfo Island focuses not on disability and impairment but on health and wellness. There are educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about the more than 120 disability support communities that have been identified in SL so far. On Cape Able there is an art gallery and Cape Serenity hosts a library. Both gallery and library offers only works created by persons with disabilities.

Although a community, VAI is not based on geographical proximity nor cultural homogeneity. It embraces diversity and recognised that people with disabilities form the largest minority group in the world, while being the most varied. This requires a group value of respect and accommodation. Members form both close and informal relationships and the group promotes mutual support. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis in on Ability rather than DISabilty.

Gentle referred to the nine elements and three principles of digital citizenship that are outlined in the reading material for this week’s class, suggesting that they apply to virtual community membership. VAI involves members in various projects and encourages them to stretch their capabilities. The community also enforces standards of virtual world etiquette while helping members understand their rights and live up to their responsibilities. This is not always simple. Sometimes the needs of community members conflict. For instance, some cannot type because they are paralysed, others cannot read due to dyslexia or blindness, and others are deaf and cannot hear. Therefore, communication often requires an intermediary, either technological or human.

The community educates beyond itself through two annual conferences. The beginning of the month saw the 8th Annual International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference.

Gentle asked the other members of VAI to introduce themselves and students to type their questions into local chat.

Suellen Heartsong helps the estate managers and supports conferences and events by voicing for those who need that help. She is also editor of the VAI Facebook page She is able to do things in SL like dancing and being a DJ that she could not do in RL and also met her now RL husband in SL.

James Heartsong is a US Army Veteran whose disabilities include MS and PTSD (from both military and civilian tragedies). He found SL after reading an article in an MS magazine suggesting that good peer support was available but was completely lost in the large world that is SL. Luckily, he met Gentle and was welcomed into the community. He also met his wife in SL and brought her to VAI. They eventually met in RL and have now been together almost seven years.

Dorie Bernstein’s avatar is a black wolf. She joined SL over 14 years ago looking for an early community of autistic individuals but never made it to their island instead finding a home at Dreams, a community started by The Sojourner. She was a speech/language pathologist who discovered that learning to use SL helped with her recovery from strokes. She was also raising an autistic son. Dorie now runs Dreams and is getting more involved with VAI. This gives her a safe place to socialise while creating and learning new skills. Her current leadership position pushes her outside her comfort zone on a near-daily basis but is as rewarding as it is challenging.

Eme Capalini has been in SL for 12 years and works for VAI creating virtual environments for the community and and for its real life clients. She finds virtual worlds a great way to connect with others socially and to engage in research.

The questions from the class came in rapidly! LouHug wondered about how safe it felt meeting somebody from SL in RL. Suellen responded that as a retired 911 supervisor she was able to do a good background check on James in advance. It is important to be as careful and responsible as possible when moving from SL to RL. Dorie added that her mom and stepdad met in a comquserve chartroom in 1995!

John told of a former participant in the module who met their partner during the final presentation of the group project and they have since become engaged. MsBenediction noted that she might not share that story with her boyfriend.

Kebab asked about finding suitable members for the community. Gentle replied that people now find VAI rather than the other way around. It is a closed group so people must apply to join. The community needs to be wary of devotees who prey on PWDs (People With Disabilities) or those who pretend to have a disability and want to role-play. So newcomers are invited to visit for a few months so that their suitability can be tested.

ChataMari wondered why VAI chose SL as a platform to connect with others. Gentle said as the largest and most active SL was the best choice.

John reluctantly drew the discussion to a close as James said he was just getting warmed up. Thanking Gentle and friends for their generosity and time he noted that students had been welcomed at VAI for many years now and TU Dublin is very appreciative of the continuing engagement.

John offered an invitation to everyone from the community to join next week’s class when guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Joseph Jacotot) will lead what promises to be a very interesting discussion on the 1973 short-story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin.

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 28, 2019

Attendance was disappointing this week but we continued with our visit to Virtual Ability Island (VAI) nevertheless. We all teleported to the Cabana Classrooms where Gentle Heron, founder of the Virtual Ability community, introduced her colleagues Eme Capalini, Stepinwolf Darkstone and Carla Broek. Eme is Vice President of Development for Virtual Ability. SL gives her a creative work outlet and a place to make friends. She says that logging in is like coming home. Stepin has been in SL since 2007 and joined the group that eventually became Virtual Ability where he now manages a virtual apartment complex on a voluntary basis. Carla is from Belgium and just celebrated her 12th rez day (as SL birthdays are known). She was drawn to SL by the opportunity to explore creative work like photography and community. She has created her own world inspired by the English countryside where people can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. Gentle explained that she had been an educational researcher before being medically retired by multiple sclerosis.

Student Rebekah Majesty with Eme Capalini, Gentle Heron, Stepinwolf Darkstone and Carla Broek at Virtual Ability.

Speaking and using text (as is the custom in VAI to support those who are deaf) she describes VAI as an international cross-disability peer support community with over 1,000 members. ‘Cross-disability’ means that members who have disabilities may have a physical, a mental or emotional or developmental disability, or a sensory disability. Many have multiple disabilities. The community offers peer-to-peer understanding, support and education because sometimes it is important to communicate with people who are most likely to understand the issues, concerns and point of view. But the community is not exclusively disabled. About one-quarter of the members do not (yet!) have disabilities. They are known as 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. The community has been in Second Life for over 11 years – and won the first Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that had a tangible impact on the real world. It is also one of the original Community Gateways into SL, authorised by Linden Lab, so is recognised well beyond its own community.

VAI is supported by Virtual Ability Inc, a US nonprofit corporation. The community assists people with all kinds of of disabilities to enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. It also offers various education and entertainment activities daily, encouraging members to explore all that virtual worlds have available. On this island the community provides educational exhibits and displays, health information, information on research opportunities and details of over 120 disability peer support communities identified in SL so far. The community also hosts the Cape Able Art Gallery and Cape Serenity Library.

The population with disabilities is the largest minority in the world and is the most varied. VAI members are neither geographically proximate nor culturally similar. In fact they embrace diversity. This requires a group value of respect and accommodation. The other important value is an emphasis on Ability and not DISability.

The students joined the discussion with some interesting questions. Hummish opened by asking about protecting oneself from cyber bullying, online theft and so on. Gentle replied that there is little help from SL itself but the community provides help as it can by banning griefers. Carla told us that there is a reporting tool provided by Linden Lab but it is not a direct support. John told of the retired Miami Dade police officer who headed up security in Virtual Dublin and kept the community safe and peaceful.

Coldteosies asked about anonymity and whether virtual friends met IRL. Gentle said that people may retain as much anonymity as they wish. For instance she had met all three colleagues IRL and they were exactly the same as the people she knew from SL! Stepin added that he was glad to find that Gentle was very much Gentle IRL. John added that he had many many friends in SL, some of whom he eventually met IRL and some not.

Aestheticant asked if people who are differently abled need extra digital protections, within the broader sense of digital citizenship. Gentle explained that while VAI did not have a constitution it has an informal set of principles that are enforced, along with the SL Terms of Service. Stepin added that on Cape Heron they have a covenant and a Rental Agreement which spell out a lot of expectations.

This led on to some interesting observations about how we might identify with our avatars (which also emerged during Class 6 last week) and how that can affect behaviour. Some of us have avatars that look like ourselves IRL but Rebakah said hers doesn’t look anything like her. Gentle suggested that the sense of embodiment takes a while to develop and explained the concept of mirror neurons – the same parts of your brain fire when you see an avatar doing something as if you were doing with your physical body. We also learned that some people on the autism spectrum find SL a comfortable place to meet others because they can retain control of their interactions. Some of them don’t use human avatars but use, furry animals, fruit, or even a simple metal sphere.

Eme shared some links to VAI’s projects:

Gentle offered explanatory notecards to us, giving more details about VAI and the community and invited everyone to visit again anytime we wished. John thanked Gentle, Eme, Stepin and Carla for hosting us and being so generous with their time, knowledge and experience.

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Class 9: Walking away…?

November 29, 2018

Ursula K Le Guin, author of The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, 1973. Photograph by Benjamin Reed in 2008 from the obituary by Margaret Atwood in the Guardian 24 January 2018.

 

Glenn Loughran, lecturer in Fine Art and Programme Chair of the BA in Visual Art on Sherkin Island joined us this week. He took us through Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas in a way that gradually revealed the rich ideas contained in the story. Glenn suggested that there are many questions to work through in the text but began by asking for  reflections on the first part of the story and the sense of the world presented by Le Guin. What is the atmosphere, the underlying theory presented? It was agreed that it is a happy and peaceful world; it feels like a fairytale and has an old-fashioned quality. The community lives a simple life but could have technology if it wanted to – it seems to have consciously rejected that option. Did anything in the description give a sense that it is too good to be true? What is the philosophy of the community? Glenn suggested that it could be seen as an expression of Utilitarianism described by 18th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and developed in the 19th Century by John Stuart Mill.

The relationship between the narrator and the text in the story is not fixed, with the narrator seeming to slip in and out of the story. This literary technique keeps the timeframe ambiguous: it could be past, present or future while also not revealing who the narrator is. It even sets up an ambiguity about who the reader might be. Why does the narrator say that the people are happy but also sophisticated? They are not banal but complex human beings living in a highly-developed society. Some of you felt that Omelas is a fake perfect world because it is one-dimensional but it was agreed that it is a society that has determined its own way of being.

Then Glenn asked what the turning point of the story is, suggesting that the community is conditioned by something. It took a while to arrive at the conclusion that the introduction of The Child turned the utopia into a dystopia. The child is kept in a degraded way and its situation never changes. Most importantly, everyone in Omelas is aware of the child’s existence. This is the condition on which the perfect society is founded. While everyone is shocked initially they eventually come to accept the condition. Why do they accept it? The Deal.

The moral dilemma at the heart of the text is how the community resolves the condition of the child on which its comfort is based. If we review this element of the story as an analogy to the world in which we live today the child becomes, for example, the slave labour that produces the commodities we use daily. They are frequently manufactured in conditions of oppression and dejection by what Marx described as alienated labour.

Are we aware of this? Do we know? Should we know?

On another level the analogy may be read as the dominance of one country over another or one continent over another – the Western World over Africa, for instance.

In conclusion, is it wrong to walk away? Many of you felt it is wrong and suggested it is refusing to take responsibility. The story makes you ask yourself if you would stay or walk away. It is not an easy decision. Nor is is easy to consider the consequences of either action.

Returning to the opening question of the text – can we escape technology? Again, many of you felt we are too used to it and would be reluctant to give it up. But, you did go on the demonstrate an awareness the impact of digital technology and, indeed, are taking action to limit your engagement. You talked of taking deliberate breaks from your phones, closing down computers so that you can read undisturbed and free from distraction, and you spoke of being aware of the influence of technology over your emotional state.

Glenn explained that many digital devices have inattentiveness built in. They are designed for a certain kind of hyper-attention which is why they can be difficult to turn them off. He referred to Stiegler (who we met in class 4) and his proposition that technology is both a poison and a cure, describing it as a pharmakon. The point is that technology is inherently neither positive or negative: we negotiate this position on an ongoing basis through our choices on when to engage and disengage.

After thanking Glenn for leading a very stimulating discussion and complimenting you all for engaging so thoroughly John suggested that it would help inform your preparation for the project. There were some questions about how the project might be presented. It is entirely your own choice. You may have your avatars present verbally, as we do in class; or through a written text; you may take us all to any other location in SL or use the classroom; you can direct us to a slideshare webpage or even produce a YouTube video. It is also possible to bring images into SL to support your presentation. It was agreed that we will devote next week’s class to discussing your options and describing how to achieve some of the effects you might want to try out.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. Read: the summary of last year’s class discussion on this story and some insightful analysis by Mook Wheeler.
  2. Work: on the presentation for your Group Project.
  3. Write the eighth post: to your blog describing your final plans and preparations.

ADDITIONAL READING:

  1. For some context on Karl Marx’s theory of alienated labour read Anatomy of an AI System, by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler. Their essay uses the Amazon Echo to describe an anatomical map of human labour, data and planetary resources [accessed on 29/11/18].
  2. To read more on the effect on attention by digital devices see Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes by N. Catherine Hayles in 2007 [accessed on 29/11/18].
  3. Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon, 2012, by Bernard Stiegler is a good introduction to the author’s ideas.
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Class 6: Opacity

November 15, 2017

We don’t often see class participants on horseback at DIT…

 

Following on from last week’s discussion about the project Glenn introduced one of the text‘s from the reading list. Édouard Glissant is a poet from Martinique, a small island in the Caribbean, who in the late 20th Century formulated a demand for the right to opacity – ‘We clamour for the right to opacity for everyone’. He was writing from the context of a small island community where residents’ privacy is often violated – a perspective that will resonate with the Visual Arts participants from Sherkin Island. In addition, Martinique is a former French colony and Glissant is acutely aware of the post-colonial discourse. However, his thoughts are finding a new audience with the rise of social media and its implicit demand for transparency. Glissant suggests that the process of ‘understanding’ people from the perspective of Western thought is based on the requirement for transparency. Of course, total transparency is not possible and, according to Glissant, not even desirable. Difference must be recognised and opacity acknowledged. The opaque is not the obscure though, it is that which cannot be reduced.

This apparent conflict between transparency and opacity is also explored in the TEDx talk by Tranberg and the film by Krotoski also.

This led to a very lively debate with a range of views expressed and many concerns about the quantity and nature of data gathering by social media corporations such as Facebook, Google, YouTube among others.  We talked about how easily we gave away our rights in exchange for the convenience of using online apps, frequently without even reading the terms and conditions before ticking the box. We need to be careful because if something appears to be free then it generally means we are the product.

Glenn referred to a symposium After the Future…of Work and a presentation by his colleague Conor McGarrigle in which he explores how we are training our own AI (artificial intelligence) replacements in the workplace by using digital applications.

We also touched on the generational difference in response to these issues; the notion of data in a ‘cloud’ whereas in reality it is stored in very grounded physical locations; the range of legislative jurisdictions versus the ubiquitous internet and the impact on governance and oversight; the use of anonymised big data versus data on specific individuals.

THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE NEXT CLASS:

  1. Read: Digital Identity Development is a Process. [Accessed 17 November 2017.]
  2. Read: Syrian lesbian blogger is revealed conclusively to be a married man. [Accessed 17 November 2017.]
  3. Read: Your Employee Is an Online Celebrity. Now What Do You Do? a Wall Street Journal article about employees developing their personal brand and implications for their employer. [Accessed 17 November 2017.]
  4. Look at: the infographic Personal Branding: 10 Steps to a New Professional You. [Accessed 17 November 2017.]
  5. Write the fourth post: to your blog describing your contribution to bringing the group project team together.
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Digital Utopia: the show

May 17, 2017
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The class photo, with everyone in their finery!

The joint show between DIT students and artists from Virtual Ability Island was a great success. There was so much work exhibited that it burst outside the gallery walls to the surrounding spaces. Turnout for the opening was also great with many friends from VAI coming along to see the work and party afterwards.

As part of their final assessment for the module the DIT student groups spoke about their collaborative artworks, introducing them to the assembled guests with confidence.

John and Glenn thanked you all for your enthusiastic engagement and hard work over the course of the semester. We also thanked Gentle Heron and everyone at Virtual Ability Island for their support.

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Students presenting their work.

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DIT individual student work is on show also. The exhibition continues throughout May.

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The evening ended with a party and dancing.

 

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Class 9: Assessment

April 5, 2017

Glenn and John took the class through the requirements for assessment, which is divided into two parts. Firstly, the group project and secondly, the individual blogs.

Firstly, each participant will be producing a series of digital paintings as part of their main module. For the SL module you will produce a large-scale group canvas (in the groups given in week 3). We are asking you to collaborate on a canvas to give you the experience of working on an online collaborative project. You will bring the finished canvas into SL for a group crit and exhibition.

The exhibition will take place in Cape Able Gallery on Virtual Ability Island in May (provisional dates are 17 or 24 May). A team from the class (burnsygirl, freddymcfreddy and whatyamacallit) will coordinate the exhibition with the curator of the gallery and will also invite residents of Virtual Ability Island to take part.  Part of your learning in this module is figuring out how to work virtually with people you have never met in RL.

Each group will give a short talk to present their work and discuss the experience of working in a team, virtually, collaboratively. This will be followed by a crit.

There will be a dry-run in DIT on 26 April. You will show your work in progress more to get a feel for exhibiting in SL than anything else. John suggested that you should review the module website to see how past student groups have presented their work.

Secondly, you will be assessed individually on your blogs. You need to ensure that you have made the five mandatory posts as described in the ‘Things to do before next class’ section of each class summary. Following that you should have at least five more posts describing your engagement in the group project.

Finally, 50% of the marks for this module go on the group project and 50% go on the individual blogs. For full details see page 6 module assessment.

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Class 7: Akron Island

March 22, 2017

The class visited the University of Akron island in Second Life this week. We were hosted by Prof Dudley Turner (aka Dudley Dreamscape) who took the module some years ago and then co-taught it with DIT for a number of years. Many of you also met Dudley at the seminar for National Digital Week in the West Cork Arts Centre last November. Unfortunately the problems with voice in SL have persisted so the class was conducted in nearby chat text.

Dudley described the origin of the island. When it was planned the faculty wanted to make sure there were a variety of areas for small group gatherings. These are scattered around the island. Originally there weren’t any big classroom spaces but Dudley built the larger lecture hall type space for larger meetings as the requirement grew. The learning spaces include a tree house and a glen with its own waterfall. Glenn noted that the rural design was reminiscent of the hedge schools that sprang up around Ireland under the Penal Laws.

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Akron Island with the life-size pie chart maker in the foreground.

We moved to the life-sized pie chart maker for a discussion on virtual identity. As we were forced to chat through text this was a useful to device to encourage debate. The facilitator (me, in this case) asks a question. Participant avatars then move to the appropriate section: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree and a pic chart is built in the centre. We worked with the following questions:

  1. Do you think you share too much online?
  2. Do you know who is watching you online?
  3. I would be happier not to have social media apps
  4. I keep my business and personal stuff separate online.

The second question resulted in discussion around free apps and the ‘price’ we may unwittingly pay. Chip Van reminded us that if it is free we are the product. In response to John’s question if people feel in control of their online information Inchydoney suggested we tend to throw caution to the wind for the sake of convenience. However, there was an acknowledgement that different age groups are behaving in different ways online.

The discussion around social apps resulted in many comments about ‘addiction’ to the buzz from them. Yet everyone agreed they were useful for keeping in touch when physical distance is an issue. Once people have met in RL the online engagement can be more satisfactory.

The class meeting finished with thanks to Dudley for hosting us at Akron Island and an invitation for him to join us in Dublin anytime.

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Class 6: Discussion

March 15, 2017

Following on from last week the group discussed the visit to Virtual Ability Island. It seems that this experience had a deeply affective impact on most of the group and for whom the second life environment has taken on a whole new meaning. There was a lot of discussion about the benefits of the virtual world for individuals with disabilities, how the community has created a social space that supports engagement with others, conversations, showing art, providing information and to move about freely. Whilst many in the group felt that Virtual Ability Island was like a utopia for the community that engage with it, it was also suggested that it could be seen as sad that the participants needed to create an alternative social life due to the limitations in real life. Another way to think about this issue might be that instead of feeling sorry for themselves or complaining about their limitations or lack of access the community has been affirmative and residents get on with their lives creatively and constructively in SL as opposed to accepting limitations. In many ways, this might be one of the most therapeutic aspects of Virtual Ability Island, that it is an active creative space, a space of human subjectivity and agency against the odds.

Within this discussion, the group touched briefly on the possibility that the aesthetic dimension of SL might also have a complex sensorial value for the Virtual Ability community, and it was on the back of this conversation that the group proposed a brief exhibition of their Digital Skies work in the Gallery in Virtual Ability Island. John has agreed to discuss this possibility with Gentle Heron and it would be a great event to share with that community. Burnsygirl, freddymcfreddy and whatyamacallit volunteered to liaise with the community and see if artists from Virtual Ability would like to take part also.

Finally, the group briefly discussed Richard Noble’s Lecture: The Politics of Utopia. Some of the key discussion points revolved around the tensions in utopia artistic practices between autonomy and instrumentalisation, which provoked questions concerning the use of art as a social-political form and the function of art and aesthetics as political in and of itself.

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