[-empyre-] video games and education

What is to be done?

Hi everyone, I apologize for not having intervened for a while. But here are a few more thoughts:

If you take a look at page 97 of this month's Atlantic Monthly (January/February 2007), you will see a graph that is truly worrying: While spending per pupils in elementary and secondary public schools in the US has steadily increase in the last 30 years (in constant dollars), while the student/teacher ratio has steadily dropped, while the number of public school teachers with a master's degree has almost tripled, the results of 9, 13 and 17 years old in reading and math, are exactly the same today as they were 30 years ago. Why is that? Well the answers are probably numerous, but let me suggest here that this levelling of results can be seen two different ways:

-Education is a myth. Whatever the environment, whatever the conditions, the strong ones will always succeed and the weak ones always fail.

While this might actually be true, I will choose to ignore that possibility. I, as a teacher, must believe that what I do has a positive impact on students.

-The surrounding world has changed so much, what our children see and experience of the world has been so deeply transformed that even though great improvements in the education system have been implemented, our inability, as teachers, administrators and artists to acknowledge these sociological changes have essentially cancelled the pedagogical and financial investments of the last 30 years.

As a university professor, I strongly believe that education, and especially education through art and the humanities, has the ability to change the world for the better. As a teacher, I strongly believe that intellectual challenges will help the world become less violent and more open to complexity, both cognitive and cultural, both political and artistic. However as a prof, I also see, hear and read things that trouble me, things that might explain students' failure to make any progress.

First, is our inability, in the university system, to come to terms with how knowledge acquisition has changed in the last quarter of a century. For reasons too numerous to list here, we are, as a community, afraid to recognize that media culture, and video games in particular, are sources of knowledge and empowerment. True, we study video games, but very few actually acknowledge its ability to frame and reframe the way we think, see the world, understand its complexity, identify structures of power. Video games alter the way today's youth experience the world. Video games transform our relationship to art, both from a production and a reception standpoint. With video games, the player is also a producer. With video games, the player decides on the emotional content of the artwork, he or she decides how the artwork will crystallizes, how its different possibilities will coalesce. Not only do video games materialize fantasies (both man's and machine's), they delve into mythical realms where man's and machine's words and actions have 'magical' powers (a command, either linguistic or manual, can 'save' the player's life, make him fly, jump, swim, etc.). Video games are a completely new form of expression, they are a Schrodinger's Cat type of artwork, where the participant, along with the machine, decides, by his mere presence, the ultimate shape the artwork will take.

The failure of art and education today, to me, is in part, the inability to use video games and media technologies in ways that are radically different. Not in a master/pupil relationship where one teaches about video games theories or challenges, but in a dynamic relationship where the games itself serves as an interface between learning and knowledge, between the student's emotional perception of the world and the teacher's theoretical understanding of that same world. Our failure today is our inability to engage and use things like video games, SMS, Wikipedia creatively and dynamically in our classrooms. Why are we so helpless? Because video games challenge the way we, as artists, profs and administrators, perceive the world. Video games tell us that the realm that contains our emotions, fantasies, fear, love and desire can be both controled and produced by audiences and machines.

What is to be done? we ask. What is to be done is to take advantage of student's ability to engage visually, to solve clues and puzzles, to react quickly to challenges, in order to decipher the world more thoughtfully, in order to create more knowledge. As long as we will see classical education as the one and only route to knowledge, we will continue to lose the battle.

'But the usual critiques fail to recognize its (gaming) potential for experiential learning. Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It's learning to be - a natural by-product of adjusting to a new culture - as opposed to learning about. Where traditional learning is base on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned immediate.' (John Steely Brown and Douglas Thomas :You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!, Wired, Aprils 2006, p. 120)

Let me come back to my opening statement on this list: The world we see and experience today is radically different from we have come to know. Man's definition of himself is profoundly challenged by science's many strange discoveries (the DNA of the bacterium living in our stomach is a hundred times bigger than our DNA for example). Being human today is understanding the need to rethink and re-evaluate what we call the human condition. Being human today demand that we accept the irrational and the illogical as part of what we are. And one of the ways to do this is to rethink education, our investment in education and, mostly, the tools and the pedagogical dynamics we use with students.

We all want the world to be better. But using Marxist notions of who dominates and who is dominated will not help us. A great number of young people today are using cultural tools to express themselves, to disseminate their cultural artefacts, to communicate with others. YouTube, Wikipedia, video games, SMS, mangas, the structure of cultural production and of knowledge acquisition is changing. To better understand this process, we must redefine who we are, what we consider knowledge, what we understand as power, powerlessness and exploitation. What is to be done? Understand that we need, as intellectuals, new ways of looking at the world; that we need, as profs and teachers, to acknowledge, understand and use the new dynamics of knowledge acquisition that our youth is already using; that we need to let go of obsolete ideas about Marxism and capitalism and realize that our youth is beyond that, that new forms of liberty, new forms of creativity, new cultures and yes, new forms of exploitation, of cruelty, of repression are emerging right now, right under our nose.

What is to be done? We must integrate the changing world into the classroom, we must integrate the changing forms of culture and knowledge into our modes of thinking, we must incorporate the new dynamics of politics, of gender, of production and distribution into our understanding of what free expression is. As long as we will disparage television, video games, cell phones, blogs, etc., we will fight a losing battle. As long as we will refuse to accept that the definition of humanity is now inseparable from that of machines, software, programming and science, we will lose the battle. As long as we will deny that art can be created by man and machines, that the emotion of art might not be something strange and mysterious but a complex mathematical structure that can be reproduce by machines and manipulate by programmers, hackers and young people of all cultures, we will lose the battle.

----- Original Message ----- From: "Melinda Rackham" <melinda@anat.org.au>
To: "soft_skinned_space" <empyre@gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Sent: Monday, January 08, 2007 3:29 AM
Subject: [-empyre-] Sense and sensibility

I have a PowerPoint mentality
Multiple choice is preferable
I read three lines per screen
I move on in 2 seconds
I am always networked
I like bytes
I want more
I want it now

The sense and sensibility of the statement ³education seems to offer one
viable alternative to the devil (didacticism, academia) and the deep blue
sea (commodity fetishism)² are both problematic. To attempt to walk a middle
ground between these two supposedly opposing cultural forces seems to be
particularly fraught.

Perhaps I¹m a little rusty (to use an iron age term ­I'm not sure what the
appropriate silicone age equivalent is) in the online arena as I¹ve been
away from it for a while doing things like developing artist skill
augmentation programs and designing projects that aspire to be
understandable by and appeal to a general public who don¹t have the benefit
of the sort of ³education² we are talking about here.

I'm afraid that the most probable outcome of alternative educative cultural
design, based on concepts accessible only to an elite, is that it will be
found to be either boring, incomprehensible, unengaging or irrelevant by a
mass audience.

What is to be done?
Who is supposed to do it?
Why should we care?

Butting in b4 I'm introduced

On 8/1/07 8:28 AM, "odyens@alcor.concordia.ca" <odyens@alcor.concordia.ca>

Thanks to all of you for your answers and comments. As you may have gathered
by reading my first post, I, like, you do not have definite answers to the
questions I asked.

Here¹s a very brief summary of what some of you have written (my apologies in
advance for what was left out):

According to Jim, machines have shown us how complex human beings are
(research in AI have clearly proven that intelligence is a much more complex
structure than first thought).

Brian sums up Bernard Stiegler¹s book in which Stiegler makes his case for a
return to what seems to me a romantic notion of humanity. Brian also asks me
to suggest some possible answers to the questions I asked.

Brett makes a crucial distinction between beauty and the sublime and suggests
that a productive strategy would be to let go of the Oour received assumption
about the ontology of both art and theory¹.

Now what is to be done? How should we tackle the profound transformation of
our world? As you know, the questions about the role of art and its
relationship to humanity, are just a symptom of a much deeper metamorphosis. I
do not use this word lightly. To me, we are in the process of a true

(there are, all around us, many proofs of that. Kurzweil¹s law of accelerating
return being just one of them.

Alexandre Leupin¹s Theory of Epistemological Cuts being another.

According to Leupin, a paradigmatic revolution can be clearly seen when words
become homonyms. Before and after Galileo, for example, the word cosmos,
though the same, does not mean the same thing. Before and after Christ, the
word God means something completely different. Today, words such as life,
death, consciousness and even art do not mean the same as they did only a few
years back).

As Leupin and Kurzweil clearly show, we are right in the middle of a deep
transformation of the very fabric of life. Xenotransplantation, genetic
therapy, genetically modified organisms are not just exotic events: they are
signs of a great alteration in the foundation of life. Life is becoming one
great genetic pool out of which forms emerge. Some are Onatural¹ (i.e. age-
old), others not so (i.e. created in labs), but all are present in today¹

Here, then, are my thoughts:

In my initial post, I mentioned technological reality. Technological reality
is the human/machine perception of the world. As opposed to biological reality
(which is the physiological perception of reality, i.e. that which is gathered
by our senses), technological reality lets us see slivers of reality we are
not cognitively or psychologically equipped to see and understand (the quantum
level of reality, for example). In Consilience, E.O. Wilson wrote: The brain
is a machine assembled not to understand itself but to survive. This, I
believe, is fundamental. Biological reality is our brain trying to decipher
the world in order to survive. Technological reality is our brain trying to
cope with the world as technology sees it. But these new levels of reality are
so alien to our understanding of the world (to our brain¹s structure of
survival), that they become true fiction. We might intellectually understand
their existence but we cannot truly grasp what they mean (what does 9, 10 or
11 dimensions, as string theory suggests our world is made of, actually

Thus, technological reality offers us a perception of the world which is both
frightening and beautiful. Frightening because it questions all of our notions
of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be conscious and intelligent,
all of our notions of what the fabric of reality is. Beautiful because it
shows us that Oreality¹ is infinite, that the universe is made of strange and
exotic structures, that what we thought were the universal (and simple) laws
of physics are but a tiny fraction of the fabric of the universe. Frightening
because it suggests that the world is beyond our understanding; beautiful
because it celebrates the observer (as defined by quantum theory) as an
essential component of reality. Technological reality does not deconstruct;
rather, it fragments objects, forms, individuals into an infinite series of
layers. Technological reality folds and enfolds phenomena until the
microscopic meshes into the macroscopic. Thus, through technological reality
the world appears both beautiful and inhuman.

This is why I call our present situation, The Inhuman Condition. I do not use
inhuman pejoratively (as in horrible) but rather in the proper sense of the
word (that which is not human). The inhuman condition tells us that since our
age-old understanding of life, death, individuals, intelligence and especially
groups and families, are specific to our biological level of reality, since
these notions are only constructions of our physiology (itself build from the
challenges of evolution), we must completely redefine what it means to be
human, we must completely rethink our notions of the fabric of life. The
inhuman condition also tells us that beauty and the sublime can co-exist with
the unnatural, the inhuman. To me, the inhuman condition creates many
troubling consequences. The most obvious one is a deep malaise. According to
the inhuman condition, what our senses tell us of the world is nothing but a
familiar and comfortable fiction. We may feel human, we may feel unique,
conscious and intelligent but science (and technological reality) tells us
otherwise (as you know, Richard Dawkins has labeled living beings Osurvival
vehicles¹ for genes. Recent research has shown that the actual genetic content
of the bacteria living in our stomach is 99 times bigger than our own genetic
material (Gill, Steven R: The Institute for Genomic Research, in Harper¹s
Magazine, vol 313, no 1876, septembre 2006, p. 13). Thus, are we survival
vehicles for our genes or for our bacteria¹s? Who¹s the vehicle here?).

If humanity becomes inhuman, what, then, are the consequences on the artistic
process? But first, we must ask ourselves what, exactly, is art? We could, of
course, spend an entire year discussing it. Let me suggest my own definition
here (which is as flawed as any other). To me, art is the sensitive
questioning of metaphysics (science would be the objective questioning of
metaphysics). But since the fabric of life must be redefine, so must be
metaphysics: how can we question life, death, suffering if we do not know what
life is, when death occurs, what or who is suffering? If we don¹t even know
what reality is, where it originates, where it ends? How can we question
metaphysics if its basis, humanity, suddenly appears to be just one level of
reality (what are life and death if one is considered an colony of different
living beings, beings that can actually keep on living after the colony¹s
death? There are more than 200 different living species in each human. Death
does not occur at the same time for each of them. Further, the actual process
of life and death is quite different for many of them).

Art, I believe, must address and reflect this deep transformation. How? Well,
what the inhuman condition tells us is that the world that surrounds us is not
made of frontiers but of overlapping dynamics and levels (both horizontal,
between species, and vertical, between levels of reality). Art must then
search for beauty and the sublime within this new condition, i.e. by letting
go of the human as its founding and exclusive phenomena. How should it do
that? I¹m not quite sure but I¹ll suggest the following: By using machines as
co-creators. Not only do machines makes us see a deeper, stranger, more exotic
universe than we ever thought possible, they also help us understand the
world, make sense of it, they help us extract a new beauty, a different
sublime out of that world (e.g.: fractals). Machines are not only instruments,
they have become an extension of our senses (as McLuhan mentioned), they have
become an extension of consciousness. Thus, they play a vital and fundamental
role in art. Now, is that something completely new? Well, not really,
especially if we consider language as a machine, one that opened the world for
us, made it much richer, much more beautiful, language is a machine that
filled the world with signs, symbols and representation. The original machine
(language) is what enabled humans to create art. Today¹s machines are doing
the same, albeit with a different entity, that of the inhuman.

But for that to be possible, we must abandon our notion of humanity, of what
it means to be human, we must accept that today¹s humanity is shaped by a new
reason, by a new rationale, one which might seem irrational to our age-old
notions of what it means to be human (humanity is now a colony of bacteria,
genes and memes; it¹s a swarm of many collective intelligences, themselves
part of larger collective intelligences; it¹s a mass of many different
survival vehicles, themselves feeding larger collective intelligences such as
civilization). Once we are able to do so, we will see the rise (I believe) of
a new form of art, one that seamlessly integrates the inhuman into its forms
and content. What is the inhuman in art? It¹s the sublime that emerges through
the combination of both man¹s and machine¹s languages. It¹s the sublime in the
intertwining of forms and contents (the rational with the irrational). Machine
and humans will feed off each other and produce art forms that reflects each
other¹s needs and questioning (can a machine have a will? Well, not in the
human sense of the word, but a Owill¹ to survive, spread and disseminate? Yes,
I believe so. Machine are survival vehicles for memes, they belong and are
intertwined in the planetary fabric; they thus obey the structure of

By the way, digital art, and especially database art, are already a sign of
these new, emerging art forms, one closer to the inhuman condition than to the
human one. Digital art show us a different side of metaphysics, where to be
human is not to be enmeshed in story telling, is not to belong to a linear
evolution, but to be intertwined in an imploded notion of time, space and
narratives, where to be human is to be a receptacle of data, is to be an
ephemeral form, produced by the convergence of different languages (machine¹s
and well as man¹s) and levels of reality, where to be human is also to be
everything but a unique individual, where to be human is to be both Oread¹
and Owritten¹ by machines, where to be human is to be inhuman.

Quoting Brian Holmes <brian.holmes@wanadoo.fr>:

odyens@alcor.concordia.ca wrote:
  What is to be done with a process that helped create our
perception of the metaphysical, but whose operations, whose forms and
sometimes even content are now within the control of machines? When most of

what art produces today ignores humanity¹s need for the transcendent, when

what most of what art produces today responds to machine¹s perceptions of

This is a great text, with interesting references and a clear relation to present reality. But I think the onus is on you to give some initial ideas of what is to be done. There is, effectively, nothing in the Western philosophical tradition that will help respond.

I am currently reading a philosopher from that retrograde country,
France, one who writes in the minor imperial language most of them still
use over there, his name is Bernard Stiegler. He thinks that the entire
European production of technological writing machines in the enlarged
sense - the kind of machines with which we cultivate ourselves, along
the lines sketched out by Foucault in his text "writing of the self" -
should be reoriented so as to basically save the inhabitants of Europe
and perhaps elsewhere from a threatening reduction of human singularity,
and with it, of any possible ethics. He thinks that capitalism, in the
advanced economies, is now primarily cultural, focused around the
different devices whereby memory and creativity of all kinds is
exteriorized into objects and traces. He thinks such machines are
essential, a basic part of the human experience in time, but that care
needs to be taken with their production, so that persons can go on
becoming individuals ("individuating") in a relation of creative tension
with societies which are also constantly individuating. If this care for
the social and psychic self cannot be translated into a change in the
kinds of machines which are produced, he believes that a generalized
disenchantment with democracy will grow more widespread, leading to a
collapse of desire into gregarious, instinctual outbursts of destructive
violence. His latest book, Reenchanter le monde: La valeur esprit contre
le populisme industriel, begins precisely with a chapter entitled "What
is to be done?" However, if I have understood the post you sent, this
whole approach and anything like it is already obsolete. So I am quite
curious what you think is to be done.

all the best, Brian Holmes

empyre forum

Dr Melinda Rackham Executive Director

Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT)
PO Box 8029
Station Arcade
South Australia 5000
ph: 61 8 8231 9037; fax 61 8 8231 9766

Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) is supported by the Visual
Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and
Territory Governments; the Australian Government through the Australia
Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the South Australian
Government through Arts SA.

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