Thursday, August 30, 2007

146 Fantasies of Control

Message no. 146 Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Monday, January 29, 2007 4:05am Subject: Fantasies of Control

Hi class!

I'm enjoying your musings and ideas! Now that the first week of our journey is ending, I'm obligated to try and pull some threads together to put them within the frame of the discipline we are studying together.

The first thing I'm seeing as a commonality between all of your arguments, even when you have different opinions, is that they all reveal a preference for control over you surroundings. This is not surprising. It conforms to what we learn from studies in environmental psychology (you will learn in chapter 4 that people are able to put up with noise stress, for example, and don't have the same physical reaction to it, when they are given the mere option to turn the noise off. Once they have the choice, they often won't use it, but the mere knowledge changes their physiological response to the stimulus!)

We tolerate an "invasion" of privacy if we can be convinced that it will make our world "safer" (more in control); we resent it if it removes that feeling of safety and control. If we have voted for or approved the use of surveillance, we don't mind it. If it is installed without our approval, it can haunt us.

Orwell chose the word "Big Brother" with some irony when he wrote his dystopian novel in 1948. The notion of having a big brother is supposed to bring comfort. Many of you may be familiar with the "big brother" programs in the inner cities where we went in to mentor kids in communities who often didn't have father figures. They were good things. What Orwell did was to represent a figure who pretended to be a warm family figure who was really spying on you to hurt you. Big Brother was supposed to represent Stalin and the world of 1984 was supposed to represent the environment he created in communist Russia. Most people in democratic countries couldn't relate to that environment until the Nixon Watergate trial when they lost faith in a government that illegally resorted to wire tapping. The anome that resulted with that event and our disillusionment with the motives behind our involvement in Vietname were devastating. We suddenly had no map telling us reliably where we stood vis a vis our representatives in government.

In an elected government, we supposedly have control, and feel we can safely give up some of our "rights" for other gains. But the essence of democracy is that we have control -- we get to choose who gets to watch over us, and we get to shut off access to our private affairs if we no longer like the outcome. So it seems what we all crave is the ability to order and control our environment so that it reduces uncertainty but still doesn't interfere with our own freedoms.

When it is Santa Claus who is watching us, instead of "big brother" (in the Orwellian "1984" sense) do we feel more comforted? We created Santa Claus to bring joy into children's lives. Why do we endow him with ominiscient surveillance capabilities? Remember the lyrics "he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake"? Were those meant to scare children into submission or to make them feel cared for? And when we sing that song to children, what kind of surveillance technology do we suppose Santa to have? We sing that he is "making a list and checking it twice". So apparently he has distilled his information into some kind of spreadsheet or database list function (sorted alphabetically? Sorted by moral terpitude?) Do we suppose him to gain this information from spy cameras located on the sleigh, taking bird's eye view satellite images from the journeys of his flying reindeer?

I bring this up because it is a clear example of "environment and the psychology of behavior". We sing a song to children that paints a mental picture of an environment where there is a guy who lives at the top of the world who can judge us, and who travels the world through the stratosphere where he can look down upon us -- and today children for the first time can see, via Google Maps, what Santa must see, and are becoming aware that information is being gathered on them all the time and put into a massive database.

You are aware, of course, that every time you make a cell phone call, your location and the location you are calling are registered, and everytime you use your credit card not only your locations are registered, but the information of your purchasing decisions goes into a massive relational database that marketers use to figure out your preferences so they can target new products specifically to your choices, right? I imagine children now hear about Santa's capabilities and think, "that's not so special -- the Geek Squad at Best Buy can do all that, and they have neater stuff! In fact, if I am real good this year and use my Best Buy card and Best Buy rewards, I may even get free presents!"

Of course Santa Claus (Saint Nicolas) was modeled after God (hence his convergence with Christ's mass, which originally celebrated a birth that occurred in Bethlehem in the Spring Equinox, not the Winter Solstice). For billions of people the notion that God is always watching us brings a feeling of peace and satisfaction and comfort. For others it brings feelings of terror. Seems we are always both desiring and fearing a world that is ordered and known and controlled. It is built into our psychology.

How does this relate to your learning environment? And how does all this relate to virtual reality (Your professor rambles, but he always has a point to make!). Long before school existed there was only the environment. It taught us through its affordances and constraints. It was often a harsh teacher. You learned the lesson or you died (or were severely injured). Getting an education was very very dangerous. So how did large brained animals learn? What were the original schools?

It turns out that warm-blooded animals such as birds and mammals evolved a strategy for learning without having to get hurt. They created a form of "virtual reality" called PLAY. They invented GAMES. They did so long long before human beings ever appeared.

We inherited a predisposition for PLAY and GAMES in VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS from our distant ancestors. Watch puppy dogs or kittens. Watch little chimpanzees and gorillas, or little monkeys. Watch young parrots and macaws. Watch young dolphins, young lions and tigers and bears. They all play. They role play. And they don't get hurt.

Have you ever marvelled how a puppy can bite your hand without breaking the skin? How a kitten can scratch you without drawing blood? How do they know exactly how much pressure to apply? This is a questions that was pondered in Griffin's work on Animal Intelligence. What distinguishes play from serious business?

We know, from the ethology studies of Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morriss and others, that play in mammals and birds is serious business. It prepares them for survival. The patterns of play mimic the rituals of hunting and predation, killing and competition, mating and rivalry -- everything the animal must do as an adult to survive is played out as a game in childhood. But it is done in a safe environment, with the "brakes on" or with "kid gloves" so to speak. Nobody gets hurt when lion cubs or wolf cubs rough and tumble in the dirt.

And just to make sure that nobody gets hurt, adults of the species keep a watchful eye on the play, and intervene if the young get carried away (I observed this recently among apes at a German Zoo).

Your textbook, in Chapter 1, mentions the landmark work of a German psychologist named Wolfgang Kohler, who was instrumental in getting GESTALT ideas of psychology into the mainstream. Kohler worked with Chimpanzees and their abilities to problem solve (see your text). He looked at how they form cognitive maps of their environments.

Play requires sophisticated cognitive maps. You need to be able to judge distances and pressures and cause and effect. It takes a lot of intelligence to play. You need to always be aware somehow that you are behaving in a "virtual world" that follows different rules than the "real world". It is as if every animal that plays knows the difference between real and virtual. If not, your hand would have been bitten off by your dog a long time ago.

And I posit that play also implies a desire for surveillance -- a rule keeper, and justice of the peace, a judge who is always watching to keep things under control so that we can safely play and test our limits. (See my wife's course on Sport's Psychology for more on this!)

This hypothesis is what makes me blend the issues of virtual reality, gaming and the learning environment. I believe that school is the evolutionary offspring of mammalian play environments -- we create structures for learning where we get to explore new environments and test out skills in a "virtual world" so that we can develop them safely until we are ready to try them out "in the real world". In school, supposedly, we do not have to fear failure. We can do as Thomas Edison claimed when he said, "I failed my way to success" or Einstein or said, "if you are not making at least 10 mistakes a day you are not trying hard enough." Only in a safe environment can you keep falling down and getting back up and following the motto "if at first you don't succeed, try try again!" Away from the comfortable surveillance of your parents and family's watchful eyes, out in "nature", the motto would be "if at first you don't succeed, die. Die. Never again."

Safety requires surveillance. Play requires safety.

Why are the new generation of children so absorbed by video games? I suggest we look around at the "real world" for clues. Imagine an organism that demands safety and surveillance and control that is made aware that the external "real" environment is very very dangerous. Car accidents claim more lives than the Vietnam War (here in Sonoma California the other day 12 people died in a flaming nighttime car crash that was all over the newspapers and on every TV channel; a baby pulled out of the wreckage was the only survivor and is in critical condition); so children spend hours racing cars around virtual tracks and getting into flaming wrecks that they can safely walk away from. Thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis are dying every day in combat and roadside bombings and terror attacks and air attacks, to say nothing of Sudanese, Somalis, Afghans etc. -- so kids get obsessed with "Call of Duty" and "Halo" and all the other Ego-shooters and war games (When I lived in Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war my cousins and their friends, who were in the army, would go out at night and drive 100 miles an hour recklessley to the video parlor and push little kids aside so they could spend an hour playing arcade video games about war. Why? They said to me, "this is training. We are learning to lose our fear. And in the video game there is always hope. Game over is not a permanent condition!"

In a frightening world all mammal children need to play away their anxieties. I think they also want our surveillance and approval, whether they know it or not. They want to feel that someone is watching them make their mistakes and get carried away and lose, so that we can say "it's okay -- you are training, and when you are ready to enter the real world, we will be there to guide you and make it a safe transition." In the days of board games it made so much sense -- as many of you point out, we were all together as a family, and the harsh lessons we learned when we lost real estate in Monopoly could be laughed away -- Mom and Dad or Aunts and Uncles would tell us how to deal with buying and selling real assets when the time came...

Now, I submit to you, we have become parents and we have abandoned our children for the most part. They are dealing with their dark fears the only way they know how -- in environments that seem hyper real, but which they know are not real. Just like the puppy dog that has an instinct telling it that the environment of play is different than the one of "attack", our kids know instinctively (for the most part) that Playstation or Xbox are not "real". If they were, they wouldn't want to play them (or so the kids tell me!). They want to LEARN.

Will kids abandon the commercial games if a better game comes along? I believe so, but I am a scientist and this would have to be empirically tested. Maybe some of you can test the hypothesis. My hunch (unproven) is that children will play whatever they need to in order to learn the appropriate lesson. My experience tells me that we are instinctively hungry for a real education and that means meaningful play.

My INTENT in this course is to explore those hypotheses with you, by trying to co-construct the safest learning environment possible, using whatever technologies we have available. Since the intent is to make it safe, you determine how much control you want to have or are willing to give up to make the ride thrilling yet enjoyable and at all times meaningful. For we are all "children" when we are learning. We become "adults" when we face the uncompromising and unsafe "real world" that offers no second chances. Lifelong education is about giving us the chance to be children then adults then children then adults over and over again. In the environment of our ancestors that luxury didn't exist -- once you grew up play time was over and you had to do or die. Thankfully those days are over for those of us in technologically advanced rich democratic countries (you must meet some of the kids I work with in Egypt who are child laborers. Sadly play ends for them after the age of 8 or so!) .

So here was my last lecture of the first week of class, and an attempt to start synthesizing what we may be learning on our journey.

This week we will start really engaging with the textbook and try to map out the relation of these ideas to one another. So start reading, reading reading!

I'll check back with you tomorrow. Remember -- your basic obligation in this course is to engage with all the ideas and write your insights and ideas. It is a safe place -- don't worry about "making yourself look good". Just as you don't have to worry about your physical appearance, you needn't worry about your textual appearance. Just write, write, write!



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