My world is now about theory, media, and learning as a result informally of my general scattershot interests and formally of my doctoral studies. I am not saying this focus on theory, media, and learning has been smooth as silk; in particular, the formal part of this equation (the doctoral part) has been at times engaging, at times underwhelming, at times disillusioning (which is part of the point). However, it still interests me, it will more than likely always interest me, and so I look for opportunities to apply theory and media towards learning at each and every occasion. Hence this post.
There is a lot of theory on this, how we engage artifacts towards learning in communities (Community of Practice, Activity Systems, Actor-Network Theory, etc.), towards learning as social individuals (Vygotsky et al), and how what learning across and with these artifacts communicates (multimodality). I will spare everyone the theory. My point here is that I am engaged in two seemingly incongruous thought processes here. Using artifacts to reflect on the past and using artifacts to shape constructs for the future. Both are limitless in their exploration; both require some framework, some container for meaningful discovery.
Artifact could mean anything, really, but in this post I am referring to artifact as media with some emotional/cultural/historical significance (more than likely all three). Artifacts in this post are irrespective of mode (although they favor image and video) and irrespective of chronological relevancy (in that I wasn’t necessarily alive when they were created nor are they presented in a linear order). What these artifacts do is frame a presentation and subsequent discussion of our future or our past. We are constantly engaging with and being mediated by these artifacts so I wanted to present two parallel discussions taking place in my head (where most of my conversations take place), one from the past and one from (attempting to influence) the future.
Artifacts from the Past: Time Capsules
Engagement with artifacts towards reflections on the past is natural enough this time of year (as we approach the New Year). It almost always happen via Flickr. One might say we are even culturally encouraged/programmed to reflect as a cultural norm. And so I do. And so I realize that 2013 will be my 20th year since graduating from high school, my 20th year of ‘adulthood’, and my what a remarkable and ridiculous journey it has been since then. Places, people, litanies of learning opportunities, failure, love, etc. These experiences have changed me, certainly, and they have also changed the way I interact with artifacts from my past. Artifacts that meant much to me in my past.
So I naturally scour music and movies from 1993, those easily accessible cultural products, and ponder where I was and what I was feeling (music in particular captures the emotional content of memory). I am in Ohio and then Pennsylvania and then back to Ohio again (my university odyssey). I am melancholy, brooding, pompous, pretentious. I am not sure, really. But I listened to this and it mattered to me.
The Breeders were of Ohio (of Dayton, actually, where I spent most of my undergraduate years) and they encapsulated something for me. This track in particular was the standout song on a memorable mixtape I received from a distant first love (she was at another university far, far away). It encapsulates love, youth, romantic notions of patience and endurance and eventual reunions. I still remember most of the tracks on that playlist. Another post for another day.
I still like the song and the album (on its 20th anniversary) but for different reasons. I like the whimsicality and the motion, the stress on the drum beat as a call to movement. I am calmed by it and a smile creeps over my face. I still reflect on the girl and the place and my past, but it is a reflection of the past being good and my present being better. I engage with the artifact much differently as I am much different, but it still means something to me. The song frames this engagement.
Casting Structure on the Future
Using artifacts for the future is a tricky business. We generally prefer things that exist to those that don’t; an “existence bias” (Eidelman, S., Crandall, C. S., & Pattershall, J., 2009). Many thanks to Hamish Macleod for pointing that out to me. However, artifacts with some embedded value or emotional content perhaps should be used to cast structure onto the future.
I used to struggle with Usability and UX teams at previous positions as they were hesitant to ask for future wants or needs from users. Marketing (my focus at the time) is more comfortable with throwing out metaphors and images and concepts all in an attempt to frame a discussion around not necessarily what we are, but what we want to be. Artifacts, especially imagery, are wonderful vehicles for casting a glance towards the future with some structure to shape the discussion.
I am working with my architect/artist sister to use images to frame a structure for an organization, to represent it visually. I am using images captured online via Pinterest to frame certain elements of that design. Mood, feel, color, shape, form, the primordial ooze of organizational development. From there, it can grow, but it will grow along the contours of this original design so design carefully.
We, my sister and I, engage in these murky, ambiguous places full of color and form and metaphor as it is the fluid space of learning, discovery, and creation. Many avoid these spaces as they are not prescriptive, they do not lend themselves to ready answers or solutions or takeaways. It is a space of qualitative chaos. But a simple image, a form, a color, begins to extract pattern from the chaos and structure emerges. There is an incredible, almost limitless, mechanism for innovation in these spaces. They are wellsprings and they produce; all they need is a primer for the pump (metaphor) and visual artifacts engage that process. They frame the cognitive exploration of chaos. They shape the flow. They will lend their energies to the eventual structure of the organization.
So my sister and I talk about what we want this organization to be. And we talk with colors and images and form. And we talk through artifacts. This is how we shape this future, this something from endless nothing. This is also how I shape my relationship to my past. This nothing from endless somethings. All through artifacts.