Realized metaphors

It seems like only yesterday we were all partying like it was 1999. Now it’s 2009 and there’s not much left but hangovers.

Yet I must in all candor report that I learned a ton in 2008, and not all of it was via cautionary tales, either. In fact, a lot of what I learned was serendipitous, arriving like unexpected good news, sometimes even like winning the lottery. When that learning occurred, it was, as Frankie sings, a very good year.

Case in point: in early November I presented on my favorite podcast, the BBC’s “In Our Time,” for a New Media Consortium online symposium called “Rock The Academy: Radical Teaching, Unbounded Learning.” I’d long wanted to do a presentation on this podcast. When I learned that the NMC symposium would take place in Second Life, I found the opportunity irresistible and just had to submit a proposal. Presenting on an intellectual history program by the venerable Auntie BBC that was delivered to me by the new media channel of the podcast and then made the topic of a talk inside a virtual world–well, the ironies, paradoxes, and juxtaposability of it all were mighty alluring. When I got the good news that my proposal had been accepted, I was elated and honored to be on the program. Just look at the range and ambition of my fellow presenters, culminating with Jim Groom and flamethrowers at the finale. Need I say more?

The experience was every bit what I had hoped for. The audience was great, the interaction was truly stimulating (and preserved in a chat), and NMC were amazing hosts. Among the splendors, though, two particular moments stand out. The first was when Alan Levine walked me through the Cooper Coliseum during a preparatory conversation. As we walked along and tried out the voice chat, Alan (or his avatar, or both?) turned to me and said, “We can make you props if you want them.” Ah. Props for a conference presentation. Suddenly it was clear to me that the very notion of argument in a virtual world was infinitely extensible, infinitely mediatable (if that’s even a word), and that the props NMC would make for me–a table, four chairs, four microphones, and a set of monuments with the titles of “In Our Time” episodes over the years–could serve as drama, as conceptual aids, as prompts for audience participation. 3D Concept PowerPoint. It’s difficult to explain the affective side of this sudden clarity, but the feeling that came over me was very powerful. I felt a little like Orpheus, or a real magician, able to make thoughts into objects and objects into thoughts. You might think that virtual objects would not cause such a feeling. But I tell you, walking around the set that day, giving my presentation and seeing the scale of my avatar against the props, felt like breathing mountain air. I could see my ideas, and I knew others could as well. And in that knowledge, I saw more of what I was thinking than I had before. Just as I (and most writers) discover what I want to say in the process of trying to say it, I could see much more clearly what I was thinking while speaking and walking through the realizations of my thoughts. I think you can hear some of my wonder in the video recording of the presentation. Truly, it was a lucid dream–and more, as I’ll try to explain below.

The second experience was even more powerful. Toward the end of the presentation (it may even have been in the Q&A), I was trying to articulate something about the way I had come upon the idea of “In Our Time” as both an example and an allegory of deep learning. I kept returning to the idea of a meta-layer of understanding, one in which the very topic of understanding itself becomes part of a complex experience of deep and satisfying learning. As usual, I found this idea, one that I keep returning to over and over, very difficult to articulate. I typically end up mouthing things that seem like tautologies, or sometimes like nonsense. I’m groping toward my own version of Derrida’s “exorbitant,” I think, but I’m not entirely sure even of that. Growing frustrated by my halting attempts, I reached for the analogy of altitude, the metaphor of going “up” a level and seeing things from an elevated perspective. Up, to where the over-all, the big picture, reveals itself in a new way. As I tried to get these ideas to form themselves into words, I impulsively hit “F” on my keyboard, the action that causes a Second Life avatar to spring into the air and hover, preparing to fly. That was the loose association: strategic view, gestalt, up a level, bigger picture, hit “F” for fly. I don’t remember analyzing the train of thought. I just remember going for the key. When I did, of course, my avatar sprang into the air and hovered there, giving my audience a dramatic (perhaps over-dramatic) portrayal of the kind of thing I was talking about. But here’s where things got *really* interesting. In that moment of dramatization, my own point of view changed. My avatar went up, and so my attached viewpoint went up as well, and what I saw on my screen as a result was a precise and startling instance of the very thing I was trying to articulate. In short, I had an idea, and words weren’t conveying it as well as I wanted, and the action my finger took before my conscious mind was aware of the motion was a revelation to me that gave me even more insight into the insight I was struggling to communicate.

Insight into the insight. Does that make sense? Can that make sense? It seems to me to be at the heart of what we want to encourage in education. Insight into the insight means we can prepare ourselves for the next revelation, and perhaps even construct for ourselves an environment and a set of strategies that will make it more likely such insights will emerge. Insight into the insight means we can understand our own powers of understanding–quirky, indirect, intuitive, labored, instant, unpredictable, whatever–and thus find our own strategies of augmentation and self-evaluation. Insight into the insight releases a beautiful fractal structure of extensibility, of scale and wonder.

Alan Kay likes to quote Doug Engelbart’s description of interactive networked computing as “thought vectors in concept space.” My experience at the NMC symposium let me see those vectors and inhabit that space. I could share (portray, enact) what I was seeing with others, and to some extent see it through their eyes as well. There’s something here I will be pondering for a long, long time. Virtual worlds are immersive not simply because they are convincing simulations of reality, though they can be, and not just because they are like lucid dreams, though they can be that too, and very powerfully. They’re immersive in particularly compelling ways because they are like comics, because they are like symbols or allegories in an animistic universe. And in this case, I found a way to think that I did not consider before I acted upon it. In the action, I found the insight. There was a physical change for me in the real world as I acted via an avatar in the virtual world, and the gesture I found was both idea and action, with insight the result.

It’s late and I don’t know how much any of the above will cohere, but it was such a powerful experience that I wanted to at least try to work through it as 2009 begins. My thanks to NMC for a great, mind-expanding symposium.

Here’s to insight into insight, and a Happy New Year to all.

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One thought on “Realized metaphors

  1. And a Happy New Year to you, Gardner! Speaking as an audience member there, at the NMC symposium, I can tell you that your “insight into insight” was mirrored in the minds of the assembled crowd. The way you re-created the In Our Time format with avatars from the audience, the way you served up clips and reproductions of Melvin Bragg’s green-room-style emails to give us the “feel” of the BBC program, and of course, your summation “F” perspective (up at the metalevel) to encourage us all to keep our eyes on the horizon. To remember that we must continually shift between “expert” and “student” in order to avoid being trapped by what we already know. Mind-expanding indeed!

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