Saturday, February 9, 2013

Dare to Know and Compose Our Own Metaphors

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ::big daddy k::
This week, we are supposed to think about the power of metaphor in propagating a message of salvation or destruction about the future; what opening up education means to us, and the “Internet of Things”, when “the who” telling the story is not a “who”, but a thing that blogs, a blogject, and how its perspective circulates culture and carries ethical, social and political ramifications. 

As I read more about blogjects and their storytelling capabilities, I thought about the power we have as human storytellers. Serendipitously, visiting Amy Burvall's blog, a human storyteller, I discovered Henry Jenkins’video about convergence culture and transmedia storytelling. Through transmedia storytelling anyone can easily become an agent of social change for good or evil. Today, anyone can tell a story on the digital platform of choice; anyone can control and debunk the metaphors the media feeds us. Anyone can start a revolution.  You don’t need fatigues, or high tech weaponry, the most powerful weapon of mass destruction or salvation of the future is the power of social media and participatory culture.


Over at #etmooc I’ve been learning about digital storytelling and at #modmooc, the focus has been on What is Enlightenment? as defined by Immanuel Kant. The content of all three MOOCs blend together nicely this week because Kant encouraged people to “Dare to Know” and to “have courage to use our own understanding”.  Kant believed that enlightenment would evolve slowly, that modernity would not destroy the world as we knew it, (obviously he was right), and in his appeal to King Frederick he reassured him to not fear the people becoming more educated because in the end enlightenment would be a powerful force to "make the world more of a home for human beings through the use of reason".  What would Kant say about how we leverage technology today to become more enlightened?  What would he think of open education for the masses? What reassurances would he give to the powers that be about the average citizen’s ability to challenge the status quo through his/her cell phone? 

History teaches us that The Age Enlightenment was a period where we challenged government and social institutions, embraced reason, and moved humankind forward out of the dark ages.

Today, how are we using social media, open education in MOOCs and things that tell objective stories, blogjects, to help us become more enlightened and move us out of the dark ages where government controls our metaphors and information? Or, are we moving in the opposite direction in the name of homeland security? How are we creating a digital culture to connect and collectively participate in making the world a more hospitable place for all?  What are the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the power of transmedia  storytelling when an average person can control media to improve everyone’s life? Henry Jenkins tells us that we are no longer at the mercy of Big Brother, we can watch Big Brother and report Big Brother’s injustices to the world whenever we want, but how are we really doing this?

In the last few years, we have witnessed the rise and power of citizen journalism. Ordinary citizens who have used their hand held cameras and cell phones as weapons to expose and fight for the truth, inspiring the world to become agents of change through their social networking and media sharing sites. 

Former Secretary Clinton calls this Civil Society 2.0. Our State Department actually helps grassroots organizations around the world use digital technology to tell their stories, build their memberships, and connect their communities.   We offer experts to help organizations create digital platforms.  And we host "TechCamps" in cities around the world that provide training, support, and online resources for non-profits.  These efforts let groups reach new audiences, and they make civil society organizations more informed and more effective.  This message has been the same regardless of how big or small, how weak or how strong, a particular nation may be.  During his visit to China in 2009, President Obama defended the right to connect: the right of all people to freely access information.  - U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich's Speech at the Human Rights Law Center Melbourne

Would Kant have encouraged this type of civic action? Kant believed people have both the public and private use of reason.  Our private use of reason tells us that we must obey those who hold authority over us and give us orders, especially if we work for the government. However, as individuals with the ability to reason, in the public sphere, we have the right to think freely, and contest the logic of the orders to improve our private jobs. Kant encouraged both obedience and free thinking that freedom allows. While Kant referred to peasants and slaves when he spoke about citizens obeying, we can apply his thinking today in terms of how critical it is for every citizen to uphold the law , but to have the freedom to give voice to the voiceless when rights are being violated.  In discussing these topics with my fellow MOOCer, Angela Towndrow, shared the link to a speech the U.S. ambassador to Australia  delivered at the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne. This passage helps to provide a modern context to understand what Kant meant when he said we have both both public and private reason.  

"Those of you here who defend human rights must continue to advance the law.  
Those laws protect citizens from abuse, and they protect you from abuse.  No country can be fully free unless its human rights defenders are given their rights. The rule of law must protect an activist’s views even when they are unpopular.  Indeed, especially when those views are unpopular.  Laws must be there to allow you to ask hard questions, reveal hard truths, bring the guilty to justice, and protect yourselves from injustice."  

This also made me think of educational stakeholders’ struggle for reform, and the difficulty they face in exposing those hard truths. In the U.S., we see relentless attempts by free thinking teacher groups exercising their power of public reason, yet on so many occasions their protests are squashed because of the obligation to exercise private reason and often, the basic need to eat and pay a mortgage. But, how can technology and socialmedia help these groups? What if instead of human storytellers fighting for reform, we had school objects telling an objective story gathered right from the inside?   Imagine the endless possibilities to use classroom objects as guerilla warfare in the battle for ed reform collecting data about the student and teacher performances. What stories would these objects tell about how schools kill creativity and discourage critical thinking? As a former insider, I can tell you if some school walls could talk, a lot of people would be shocked to hear the cruel stories they would tell. As a matter of fact, in many schools, copy machines already speak volumes about teachers because often teachers are assigned a unique code to track the number of copies they make. If the number exceeds the limit the school has set, the teacher often looses access to copy making until another cycle begins. However, what if that teacher was making copies for a different reason. Since it’s dangerous to generalize, and we should always consider all angles, we must consider the gray area when thinking about how blogjects might change the world to improve conditions in various aspects of life. Will the stories blogjects tell be used to spy on how we impact our environments so it can then be used against us, or will the data collected be used in our favor? But who determines what’s favorable or unfavorable? Bias is inescapable even from an object’s perspective because all human stories are subjective with varying degrees of bias. The objects who become blogjects do not have agency, humans do, so what bias will certain blogjects carry, and how will those biases help or hurt us?

It is not the technology that will determine our fate of salvation or destruction, it’s our own "maturity, autonomy and ability to think for ourselves" as Kant professed. If we want reforms, perhaps the best way is not through blogjects necessarily, but through the technology we have created to connect, understand our environment, and take a more active role in the participatory culture it affords us. It is our moral obligation as Kant urged to seek balance, a middle ground to connect the ideal with the real. 

We must use participatory culture, whether it be through blogjects or social media, as Henry Jenkins explains, "to use our collective intelligence as a whole in more complex ways than any individual is capable of doing," and we are challenged to leverage its power to bring about social justice, exposing the stories of the disenfranchised, so we can restructure oppressive infrastructure, and compose our own metaphors with the greater good in mind.  Unfortunately right now, we rely too much on our politicians to  speak for us, and to do the right thing for us. We rely on them tell our stories when in reality they may end up distorting or ignoring the facts because the facts of   telling a particular human story may not be in their personal best interest. 

I have hope for humanity. Regardless of the dystopian metaphors of the future I read about and watched this week through the short films: technology for the privileged suburban nuclear family, mind control and manipulation, the privacy apocalypse, and the pros and cons of open education, I see how we are gradually moving toward a utopia of participatory culture. We are imperfect, but I see hope in open education through MOOCs. MOOCs are just one example of how we are "responding, innovating, re-contextualizing, experimenting" to have more control over how we teach and learn and in turn improve the human condition. Kant reassured the King that the effects of an educated public was nothing to fear, and these effects would be gradual. Today, we are also slowly abandoning restrictive practices, embracing transformative pedagogies that are helping us solve global problems once thought intractable. 

If Kant were alive today, I think he would probably encourage us to participate in participatory culture to express our public use of reason. You tube and other social networking and media sharing platforms, like Twitter, are being used for political activism to both call attention and end human rights violations, the Arab Spring being a prime example.  We have a long way to go, but the technology of our own making is helping us dare to know so we can compose the metaphors of our own salvation story.  



  1. Wow! Impressive blog post! Thanks for the shout out- isn't Henry Jenkins awesome?

  2. Ary, you continue to amaze me. I feel I have a good grasp on the other MOOCS that you're taking by reading this most informative and well written post. KUDOS

  3. Perfect timing for some big picture thinking. We are so immersed in digital culture, we can forget to really stand back. Perhaps we will do this in weeks 3 and 4, however, Kant and Rousseau are great to remind us that we need to look at our whole culture, and what all this intellectual and technological development means. I don't know if you have seen this before Ary, also rather timely:

  4. Ary, fantastic thinking here. Very timely for thinking my research group is dong on the role of technology in cive education. Thank you!!