Pick up the phone – Gapuwiyak is calling: Aboriginal Mobile Art

Can you hear it? Gapuwiyak is calling. Pick up the phone already!

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Where is Gapuwiyak? Gapuwiyak is an Australian Aboriginal community located in north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Who is making the call? The Yolngu, a clan who lives in the region. According to the Yolngu, “Phones are everywhere. We use them out hunting, even in ceremonies. We watch YouTube, search Google, send photos, texts and video calls; we organize banking, holidays and rituals, all through the phone.”

Who are they calling? Why, you of course! They also use their phones to make mobile art. They take videos, creating new forms of song and dance. They take photos, creating a modern collages that reproduce traditional forms of art. And they want to share it with you. “We curated this exhibition to share Yolngu life. We want to show that our young people are smart. They can use phones to make us laugh—and also to strengthen kinship and culture.”

The exhibit can be seen today through Sunday at my museum, the American Museum of Natural History. It is called Gapuwiyak Callingbecause, according to the artists, “now we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us. We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things. Maybe you’ll answer us?”

When I visited the exhibit I met Warren, one of the Yolngu artists, who showed me how mobile photos combined family images with family totems, like flags and frogs (and not to worry, the children shown inside the mouth of a shark was just a construction). He showed me the black towers pictured above where you can watch how Yolngu makes videos of songs and dance to share with family and friends.

The phone is ringing but is only here on display until Sunday. It is a remarkable look into how a native people can reaffirm and transmit traditional cultural traditions through digital media.

I recommend you answer this call.

(and if you miss it, be sure to check out the Gapuwiyak Calling web site.)

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Using Games to Re-framing Our Past: an interview with 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth

When people ask me how my life led me to a career in digital media for learning, if I am feeling flippant I might say it all began when I was in second grade, in 1976, when the highlight of that year’s Scholastic Book fair was Edward Packard’s Sugarcane Island, which launched the Choose Your Own Adventure books (and for the next two decades sold more than 250 million copies).

These books taught me about multilinearity, about how to think about narrative structures, about reader agency, about participatory reading, and more – all literacies required for survival in the digital age. And while others have played with the format in the decades since, few have captured the excitement and artistry suggested by those early books nor translated them effectively for adults… until now.

This summer a new app was released: 80 Days. It is hard to say what genre it fits into. Perhaps it suggests a new one. What is clear for sure is itsstory – this is a steampunk, Howard Zinn retelling of Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 Days. Steampunk – because it imagines the Victorian era through this popular sci-fi genre, which imagines that steam-based technology introduced computers, robots and more into the late 19th century. Howard Zinn – because it takes the patriarchal, colonialist values of the Victorian era and replaces them with a shift in focus to women and marginalized groups (think The People’s History of the United States, but for the whole world). And yes, as you might suspect, the reading style is based on the Choose Your Own Adventure format, wrapped around a game (can you make the global journey in under 80 days?).

Luscious art and a lovely soundtrack (click above to play while reading this) complement what is essentially a skillfully crafted, sharply written, and brilliantly designed game. Or Book. Or gamebook. Or whatever.

megThe experience was not only deeply engaging but it left me wanting to re-read the original Jules Verne, re-watch the Jackie Chan film version, and learn more about the various points in history touched upon during my adventures. Its ability to first engage me in a fantastical world of wonder and then ignite an interest within me to learn more about the real world lead me to reach out to one of its creators, Meg Jayanth (@betterthemask), a freelance writer and game-maker living in London. I wanted to learn from her how she worked her magic and what we in the museum world might be able to learn from her process.

Meg, you have written that “Writing historically shouldn’t be an excuse to fetishize outmoded ideas, but to invent better ones.” What does that mean and how did it shape the creation of 80 Days?

The problem I have with a lot of historical fiction, with a lot of period drama and steampunk, is that it enjoys the signs and symbols of historicity. Look at steampunk – we keep the victoriana – the bustles, the elaborate upper-class courting rituals, the arranged marriages and the stiff upper-lips – and elide away all the dirt and muck. The class politics are blunted in favour of a nostalgic enjoyment of silk dresses and soirees.

It’s a nostalgic, escapist vision – I am quite happy to go so far as to call it a fetishistic one. It’s a vision that has very little room for people of colour (who very much existed in Victorian Britain!), for queer people, for poor people. If they exist, they exist as victims. That seems dangerous and broken, that this is escapism, that this is fantastical. That glittering world of adventure and courtesy is built on oppression and suffering – the slave plantation and the Georgian ballroom are two sides of the same coin, but our reproductions of history so rarely acknowledge this. Continue reading

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Youth-led “Shark Tank” at ASTC Conference

They started referring to it as the “Teen Shark Tank.” As in, “Did you survive the Teen Shark Tank?” or “I heard the Shark Tank went great.” I have NO IDEA where this came from. Certainly not the panel – we never called it that. In the ASTC conference guide it was called a “teen critique panel.” More specifically it said:

 Youth-proof Your Program at ASTC14! Get vetted by a teen critique panel.

So you think you know how to design innovative youth-programs incorporating digital media? Then step up and prove it! Present your existing program (or one in development) to a panel of youth from museum education programs around the country and the ASTC audience for feedback.

But the two teens we brought down to Raleigh with us this past weekend – Katie and Alejandro – they loved it. And they loved working with teens from both the California Academy of Science and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. And together they were all excited to offer something unlike anything ASTC had seen before.

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The six groups who presented also seemed to get a lot out of it. As one seasoned ASTC veteran wrote me afterwards, after presenting to the teens, “It was by far one of the best museum panels I ever went to.” Continue reading

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New program launch: The Neanderthal Next Door

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Last week we launched at the Museum an exciting new youth program, called The Neanderthal Next Door. The title refers to the fact that evolution is not linear, we lived at the same time as the Neanderthal and, at least some cases, got cozy enough that we now carry a sizable percentage of Neanderthal DNA within us all.

This program will run through January, using our Sackler Educational Laboratory (for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins) within the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. As the youngest hall within the Museum (opened in 2007), it pairs fossils with DNA research to present the history of human evolution. The hall covers millions of years of human history, from early ancestors who lived more than six million years ago to modern Homo sapiens, who evolved 200,000 to 150,000 years ago.

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This new program, which will run through January, is immersing twenty students from a Brooklyn school in the Hall, the Lab, and content related to Human evolution – all with a special focus on Neanderthals.

The Lab is open on the weekends for visitors to drop by and, through hands-on activities, explore in a deeper way the content experienced within the Hall. Working with our good buddies at Geomedia, together we will explore how a digitally augmented activity guide (that is, a traditional print booklet with an associated mobile app) can engaged visitors in the Hall and motivate them to engaged within the Lab.

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This fall we will run the educational program for and with the youth, to develop the design document. In winter we will develop a public-ready prototype. And in the spring ten youth will return in a weekend internship program to facilitate the public’s use of the augmented activity guide while beta-testing its efficacy.

Watch this space for more information as the program develops. You can check out more photos from the October sessions here (or the image below produced through the new Post-It Plus app which captured the little colored squares from the word web of “Evolution” within the photo above.)

 

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Instagramming Dinosaurs: Clive Thompson on Museums in the Digital Age (4 of 4)

This is the fourth and final of my four part interview with Clive Thompson, as we sat between our T-Rex and Apatosaurus. This segment focuses on designing museums in the digital age.

Clive, we’re sitting here talking about all these ways that digital media can augment our abilities to think, to access our minds, to connect with others, think with others and have deeper understanding and reflection after the event. We’re doing this in a museum that was founded in 1869, looking at dinosaurs that are millions of years old, where the tools that we are talking about that can empower that kind of thinking are like “a blip of a blip” in the timeline.

So if this museum was created today, if you were re-designing this hall, and you were thinking about what it would mean for a Natural History Museum to create a space that could support people to use these tools, what would you do?

That’s a really good question. I’ll start off by saying I have an enormous respect and fondness for people that create museum exhibits. They’re the first people to have had to think through the implications of multimedia. When they are communicating this to the public, trying to explain dinosaurs, they use text. There’s pictures. They had to decide what physical items should we have. And then there are these sound guys, the first people to start asking, “Why don’t we have the ability to walk through here and have someone talk on computers?” So in this room there’s four forms of media, being used right now, pioneered by museum people. People in the news media didn’t have to think this way. Teachers didn’t have to think this way.  But museum exhibit people have been working in multimedia for like a 150 fifty years, frankly, so this room is already a lot richer than most other places you’d see.

If you wanted to add more to it, there are a couple of low hanging fruits. The dinosaurs are wonderful physical artifacts and it’s often startling to realize how big they are, or what their shape is. Look up there at how serrated that tooth is on that T-Rex. How big is that? Well, what would it be like if I held it in my hand? In fact one thing you can start to do is to make these physical objects shout through 3D printing. These days you have a lot of 3D printers that are becoming cheaper. This is essentially the transmission of physical piece of knowledge across the ether. What if I could go to an online site and download and print a copy of any parts of this dinosaur, because I would love one of those teeth, you know? Imagine: having just one of those just sitting on my desk would be a really cool way to reflect on the size and might of this enormous creature. So the physical sharing of these rich artifacts I think is a fantastic new form of media that’s coming along.

The second thing is you can actually do some really cool things with augmented reality. Augmented reality is the concept of being able to hold up the phone and having it overlay over what you’re seeing – information that helps you look at in a different way or learn things about it.  And by and large a lot of our augmented reality has not worked very well in the everyday world, but I think it’s because in the everyday world, we often don’t really want a huge information rich experience as we walk down the street. But I could have a little app that I can load and pull it back and forth and be able to see different parts of that dinosaur , with labels, as I move it back and forth, or see the way that the jaw moved. These are ways that would really help me get new dimensions out of what’s physically in front of me.  So there is a couple of things that I think we could start to do.

You could probably think a little bit about integrating public thinking into an environment like this.

How can I, as a visitor to this hall, know what other people are thinking here?

Well, yeah, that’s a fun question: so how can we identify the most interesting things anyone has said about this dinosaur? You know, what are the three most up-voted smartest reflections. It could be someone’s having a thought, or a visitor who had some interesting visceral reaction to this, or it could be someone know who has found an amazing quote in one of the newspapers in the 19th century when this thing was first uncorked. Those things are hard to engineer because the signal-to-noise ratio can be really high in public thinking. 90% of what people say online it pretty banal. And so we have that challenge, to find the best stuff people have said about this dinosaur, over and over again.

That’s a hard one to surmount, but pretty cool if you could do it.

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Wow, I hadn’t seen that tail before. Holy Moses, that’s long!

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Instagramming Dinosaurs: Clive Thompson on Mindfulness as a Defense Against Digital Distraction (3 of 4)

This is the third of my four part interview with Clive Thompson, as we sat between our T-Rex and Apatosaurus. This segment focuses on mindfulness as a defense against digital distraction.

Clive, let’s talk about that woman over there.

Yeah, sure. Here is a woman, right in front us, right now. She has got a tablet out and she is taking pictures. And, you know, I would hazard a bet that she is going share that with some other people later on, and get in a conversation about it, right?

Certain members in my family, who will go unnamed, if they were here right now, they would see what that woman did and say: When she was taking a photo of the dinosaur she was now no longer looking at the dinosaur. And then, if she moves on a few feet, and looks down at that tablet to send it to Instagram or write a note for Facebook or Twitter, she is now completely disconnecting with the space.  

But what you are saying is she is participating in this ability to capture and document the world around her, which is radically new in scale. Then she is able to then bring it back into her life on a later day, to reflect on what she did, maybe have a computer bring it back to surprise her with this memory from the past. And through sharing it with others she is able to create a dialog…

Yeah, get into conversation with people about these experiences and then reflect on it. She might find someone who she didn’t really know respond, “I was there last year and here is my thoughts on it.” Scientist call this “multiples,” which is the fact that people are often thinking of the same thing you are thinking about. They discovered earlier on that frequently someone would start working on a scientific problem and they would spend four years on it only to discover that someone around the world was working on the same exact thing. It’s because, you know, great minds think alike. So scientist realized a long time ago they should be thinking public because then they will be able to find each other.

But the point you raise is about relatives that worry about someone being overly mediated, not paying attention, to the world around them. I do think those fears are a little bit over-blown because we have actually done studies of people’s behavior in public places. It turns out that there is only quite a small minority of people resorting to their phones. A recent Canadian scientist gathered dozens and dozens of hours people outside in a park. And only 3% to 10% of the people were actually on the phones. I would go, “Wait a minute? Seems like there is a lot more.” Well, that’s because I’m sort of noticing the kind of annoying people who will stare at their phones and I’m not noticing the people that are just walking around looking with their eyes.

I will say one thing that I think some of your relatives might be on to, which I agree with, are the danger of our connective thinking, with connection to other people, with the fact that we have devises with us all the time. It can be a distraction. When we have all these different ways to reach and contact each other, we are social beings, so we start to build up too much of a habit of yanking our phone out all the time, just to see what people are saying. And distraction is a real issue if you want to absorb something. Now, I think that actually recording it, talking about it via your phone, is actually a way of paying attention to it.  But if you are sitting here looking at the dinosaur and suddenly feel a buzz and you pull out your phone and then see someone in Facebook talking about the party that they are going to have on Friday and you start talking about that, well, now you are in what they a call a completely different domain. You are no longer at all thinking about dinosaurs. And that is a distraction. I think that is a genuine bad thing for your cognition.

But how do you cultivate practices to distinguish between using media to augment  the way that you are looking at the world and using it in away that distracts you?

Well, this has to do with mindfulness. Our brains are very flighty, self-distracting things. Half the time when we are distracted it’s not because a phone rings but because our brains just go, “Oh, I wonder about that.” And we stop what we are doing. Monks noticed this a thousand years ago and they started developing mindfulness, which is paying attention to your attention, noticing what you are paying attention to, so that when your brain wants to go and check Twitter “just because” you notice your brain doing that.  And when you start paying attention to attention, we become much better at resisting non-productive distractions, like when I will be sitting here, looking at the dinosaur, and part of my brain will go, “Huh! I wonder if anything interesting is happening on Instagram.” If I gave into that temptation and pull it out I will be distracting myself. But if I’m paying attention to my attention, I will sort of notice where this is going and I can decide to check it in a hour when I’m having a coffee.

I have talked to a lot teachers who train their kids, saying, “Hey, you have a brain. Don’t be a slave to where your attention goes. Just pay attention to it.” If you just spent 10 minutes a day practicing it, it starts to become a habit and a really good habit. So it’s something that can be taught.

I’m not even vaguely a meditation person. I joke I’m the least centered person I know. But the truth is, even when I started learning about this, I started paying attention. And it really worked. If I’m out at a museum and looking at the exhibit here, looking at this fossilized head of a T-Rex in front of us, and part of my brain goes, “There is an email coming in!” instead of just being a slave to that I’m like, “I’m aware that my brain is trying to do that to me.”

So mindfulness is the key to using media in a way that augments and enriches your thinking in a way that doesn’t distracts your thinking.

The funny thing is, when I started researching my book, the more I looked at it the more I realized there is no magic bullet here. There really is a human problem here we’ve being dealing with for a long time. Every new technology that offers us new media has always sort of freaked us out; we’ve had to make our peace with them. When glass became cheap in the 19th century and windows suddenly emerged, writers like Virginia Woolf sort of panicked because it was actually distracting to have this window next to you while you worked.  I mean it sounds funny but it’s true. I like to joke, We have lot of windows on our computers and on our phones, but those are the original windows.

On my Mac I use the app Time Out. I have it set so every fifteen minutes my screen fades and for a few seconds I can’t interact with anything on my screen. It’s a reminder to take a break, shift my attention, or just notice when I am thinking or feeling. Then my screen returns and I have to decide how I want to return to work, with – I hope – an increased awareness.

Oh, that’s cool.

One thing about our computers and our phones is that they are wretchedly designed right now. It’s just a horror show of bad user interface. But I don’t think there are any technological magic bullet partly because, as I like to say, your phone is not your phone but it is also a portal to which six multi-national corporations are trying to grab your attention so they can sell to you, right? So you have billions of dollars being spent to try and distract, so it’s no wonder you’re having trouble.

One of my favorite tricks when I was writing my book was that I used word processor called Scrivener. It’s a good database that lets me collect together my thoughts in ways that would be frankly very, very hard to do with just paper or with just Microsoft Word. When you start writing you can choose to just fade the rest of the background on your computer to black. I realize the key thing was I didn’t even want to see another screen in the background because that would make me think about what’s happening in that screen, right? So some of this is really about trying to achieve states where you’re using tools to help you to do the healthy ignoring of the world that you need to do to get deep, long-form thinking done.

I will point out, when you look around the room here, you see some mediated stuff going on but, by and large, people are basically acting like normal human beings and looking at stuff with their eyes. This is why I say the acts of recording public thinking that we do are powerful but they don’t seem to actually crowd out every day life and real observance.

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Instagramming Dinosaurs: Clive Thompson on Public Thinking (2 of 4)

This is the second of my four part interview with Clive Thompson, as we sat between our T-Rex and Apatosaurus. This segment focuses on public thinking.

As we are sitting here on a Thursday morning, the initial school groups that we saw have moved on, and now the tourists are coming in, the adults. And they are not only taking photos, they are doing something else on their phones. We can’t see what they are doing, but we can make some guesses.

They are probably posting publicly what they are doing, right? This is one of the great shifts in our behavior. We are now engaging in a lot of what I call public thinking: when something interesting occurs, you now have the ability to broadcast that to the world, to interested friends, to interesting strangers, and to share what you are thinking or seeing.

I actually did see, as I was walking in here, someone making a Facebook posting. Just as I was approaching the museum. There was a group of college students, and two of them were taking a picture of the other ones in front of the Teddy Roosevelt statue upfront. And one of them was writing a little note about it. I couldn’t read the note (I wasn’t being that naughty) but they were writing some notes about it.

And so this shift is very interesting because, for a long time, the average person didn’t really do much expression at all, and almost no public expression. You basically went through high school, you finished college if you went to college, where you sort of wrote papers where you tried to formalize your knowledge or share that knowledge with someone else, but once you finished college or high school that was basically it. You didn’t really write anything down, you didn’t express your ideas because there was no venue for it. There was no way to publish what you were thinking about. And this is always something very hard for journalists and academics to understanding, because we spend our lives constantly writing and writing and writing and putting things before audiences, but for the average person this was simply not a common experience at all.

So we have in the last 15 years this sudden vertiginous shift to where people routinely are writing down their experiences, their thoughts, and putting them out for other people. If you talk to psychologists about what happens inside your head as you do this, as you are here in the museum and you are looking at the dinosaur and you are taking a picture and you are writing a note about it, a couple of interesting things happen.

One is what’s called the audience effect, Continue reading

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