Tenet

The Latin word is from PIE root *ten- “to stretch” (source also of Sanskrit tantram “loom,” tanoti “stretches, lasts;” Persian tar “string;” Lithuanian tankus“compact,” i.e. “tightened;” Greek teinein “to stretch,” tasis “a stretching, tension,” tenos “sinew,” tetanos “stiff, rigid,” tonos “string,” hence “sound, pitch;” Latin tendere “to stretch,” tenuis “thin, rare, fine;” Old Church Slavonic tento “cord;” Old English þynne “thin”). Connecting notion between “stretch” and “hold” is “cause to maintain.”

1

What are the things that we hold to be true? What are the tenets of our time that arouse conviction, that we stretch towards, that we grab hold of and hold dear?

Sometimes we hardly know what we believe. The state of the world is manipulated from a village in Macedonia. Everything is crooked, and rigged. The algorithm has misled us and continue to stumble. Powerful forces. What is trustable, if we don’t have faith to guide us? Like many unbelievers I’m in the world with a compass of secular hope. I trust in the safety offered me by others, and I accept the risk that this could end poorly. I know that the life in front of me, the face that is not mine, is part of the vast archive of human data that exists well beyond our capacity to track—all life, ever—and that is what defines me as separate, myself, mostly coherent in my sense of how to proceed.

Travelling round the world I realise there are also some practical things I take as being trustable: air traffic control; the safe interval programming of walk/don’t walk; subway maps. It’s how we function at all: we flourish because we know how to learn, trusting signs and faces and evidence, and making evidence based decisions.

Yesterday in the subway I was standing with my daughter when a tiny girl came by, just learning to walk, in that bowlegged tiptoeing way, holding her tiny arms above her head to the adult she was leading by the finger. They walked on together very slowly and intently, turned back and passed us again. The astonished delight on her face at seeing my daughter’s bright yellow coat—again!  right there where it was! —that’s how humans learn, by memorising it, walking it, storing it away, coming back to it.

We all laughed.

This is the life-defining skill that we are trying to hand over to computational learning. I think it’s both possible and probable that machines will get better at something that approximates to human thought. But I can’t care about this as much as I care about whether humans will inadvertently in the process deprive ourselves of the same capacity.

It is fundamental to the joy of being human that we learn how to process the data of our world, to recall and rearrange the evidence, to think.  I am here for this. I am here for the slowness of thinking, the cognitive complexity that inhabits every gesture that we make, for the greetings, the avoided glances, the votes, the clicks, the sentences that end properly, the thoughts that half fly up.

2

I’ve been thinking this while walking the streets of Brooklyn waiting for the marathon US election cycle to finish up at last. Yesterday, in bright Autumn sunshine, New Yorkers took a breather from it all to stand on their pavements and sit on their front steps and sing in gospel choirs and wave signs and hang out of windows yelling encouragement at the other kind of marathon, the one that involves actually running.

Sport is what it is: business being made out of the spectacular performance of the most exceptional and highly developed human bodies, that are pressing right up against the skin of what’s possible, turning time itself into something measured in shavings of seconds. But what’s so great about marathons is all the rest having a go: all ages, so many different bodies, running with help, barely running at all, costumed, underprepared. It’s a camino of sorts, a pilgrimage, a passage of faith.

#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016
#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016

We stumbled into it and stayed the course, buying cupcakes from bake sales and chatting in a neighbourly way to people from all over the world. And along with these complete strangers, we ended up cheering the strangers sweating past us. “Don’t give up! You’ve got this! Go Sweden!” Runners grinned, waved, jogged, slowed to a walk uphill. Wheelchair athletes, blind runners, runners for charity and for personal bests and for each other and for the sense of being in the spectacle and just getting to the end, in any shape.

We loved the man who shuffled by wearing a sign that said “34 finishes”. That’s not competition, it’s not even sport. It’s the project of being a person, showing up, making it to the finish of the thing, and coming back next year.

3

I’m in the US because I attended the OpenEd 16 conference in Richmond VA. It’s a conference that encourages warmth, commitment and solidarity among its regular participants. “Is this your first time?” I was asked (see Sundi Richard’s beautiful post on this). It was a little disconcerting, and describing it as a family reunion didn’t entirely help because, you know, families. But there is something important to the prospect of achieving change in higher education around the world that relationships of care grow and develop over time. And until now, conferences have been as obvious as marathons as a thing that people do to express their solidarity with this ideal.

But I’m worrying more and more about the carbon cost of this, and the food waste, and the endlessly discussed problem of conference schedules being stacked with presentations so that people can attend at all, when what we most need is time to confer. There are far better ways to encounter and process other people’s research, and I think those of us who are committed to openness as a tenet need to lead on this one.

What if we shifted the content of conferences into asynchronous distribution; and treat the opportunity be in place together as the discussion, as a literal practice of conferring? What if we took out all of the sessions, and made the corridors the central venues, as many do (and thanks to Alan Levine and Sean Michael Morris for so many thoughts on this.) What if we built in time to write together, to share quick thoughts with others, to use all our networks as a central platform for conferring on key ideas and questions, not a conference backchannel? (See this link for the “big ball of conversations around OpenEd16“.)

A few things would need to happen. First we would need to acknowledge that the nature of long-term friendships within communities make it easy for cliques to form, newcomers to be missed, and sameness to roll on. Northern hemisphere events and associations of this kind in education technology and open education have a whiteness problem and a gender problem, and we need to say it this plainly. (See posts by Martin Weller and Tomo Nagashima.)

Second, we can all take a step towards undoing the cult of community stars and heroes, of deciding who matters and who is marginal. Keynote stars, corridor celebrities: none of this makes education more open. Let’s focus on the ideas whoever has them, and celebrate all the runners with the same joy. We’re in it together.

Thirdly, those of us with institutional positions need to lobby hard against the hyphenation of conference presentation to research outcome to career uplift. This is doing enormous harm to the quality of thinking at environmentally costly events like academic conferences. (And don’t get me started on conferences doubling as hiring fairs. Stop with that.)

And finally, we really need to think about placedness. There is a real privilege of being in the same place as other people, but that’s not the only way to be with people. So this is a cheer to the tireless Virtually Connecting team. I’m not always on board with the way they select and promote their hallway conversations, as I’m concerned that this in itself is sustaining the prestige hierarchies that we most need to get shot of. But they have been really significant in reminding everyone that a professional conference can and should include those who don’t trash the planet to be in the room.

This really is a tenet—a stretch goal—that we can’t afford to avoid any longer.

More to read

There are many blogs coming out of this conference, and I will post the link to the David Kernohan’s archive when I find it. Update: OK, found it. What a resource this is: go there.  But if you have less time, please read this on the need to pause, from Autumm Caines, and this from Laura Gogia on stories as a way of being.

The heart of it

The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.

Akarshan Kumar, on #TwitterHeart

Here’s the thing. There is no single Twitter experience, no coherent “you” that can be better enabled by corporate tinkering within its miniaturist frame, because Twitter is just people. Millions of us use it every day—although apparently not enough to satisfy Twitter itself, or Wall Street, because Facebook. And we each use Twitter for reasons that are peculiar to us, in ways that help us make sense of the world from where we are.

We use it to listen out for things, to propose ideas, to be amongst people, to drop in on conversations, to join a crowd, to run rings around a stupid thing, to pay respects, or just to hear from one person, to mark one single struggle to make it through a sleepless night. We use it at work. We use it with our families. We use it to network. We use it to cross boundaries and make boundaries, both. And among this vast crowd with more or less nothing in common we make the best that we can of the ways in which it doesn’t quite work. We patch and customise and turn a blind eye.

Sure, promoted commercial Tweets are exasperating and often untimely. Spam, bots, fake accounts—they’re all part of what makes Twitter lively to some and trivial to others. And then there’s the ugly side, the vile and stupid things that people feel free to say because distance protects them from rebuke, and because in some mouldy basement of human nature bullying continuously reappears, but as a game.

All of that.

So why the big deal about Twitter changing a star for a heart, turning ‘favourite’ to ‘like’? If we all used the same button before, you’d think that some claim to enhanced iconic universality would go down well with us. Isn’t that what makes us a global community, a worldwide human radio station?

But it turns out this isn’t the case. For me it’s because of the way Twitter explained it. In that moment, in that truly awful blogpost, we all just learned that Twitter comes from a very specific corporate cultural place, that’s both within the US and not. It’s a faith system, a set of beliefs that may well have something in common with other tech corporates, and it enables things to be said without any sense of irony or risk.

Show how you feel without missing a beat.

No, really, Twitter, this isn’t a simple thing. Jamming the whole world of human affect into a slogan doesn’t make it so.

And what the rest of us should hear is this: whenever someone tells you that their way of seeing things is universal, it’s not.

We’ve been down this path many times. Here’s Will Hays, chief strategist and political lobbyist for the American motion picture industry, advancing the case in 1945 that Hollywood should expect to enjoy unrestricted global market share:

for through the universal language of pictures men of every race, creed and nationality everywhere have shared innumerable common, vital experiences, with mutual emotional sympathies, and in a manner to develop mutual understanding

In 1945, this vision of everyone everywhere coming to a common understanding carried weight. But Hays had built his lobbying framework much earlier, and had spoken and written consistently on this question of the universality of Hollywood’s take on things, just as Twitter is doing today. Across all sorts of changing political circumstances, Hays smoothly reminded the industry and its critics that Hollywood was above politics, and above the economy, because of the universal language of pictures in which it spoke to the world—and with which it expanded its market share.

Sometimes you really do have to stand outside of a culture—a company culture, a national culture, a zeitgeist of any kind—to see the limits of its claims.

Is Twitter naive about its claim? Is it cunning? Probably a mix of both. But the upshot is that if you’re a Twitter user who used to click the favourite button to save something to read for later, or to nod sympathetically in the direction of human distress, you’re now reduced to a gesture that comes with much narrower emotional range.

Screenshot 2015-11-06 11.39.38

Looking at this, I’ve been thinking back to the way that Twitter has brought news to me over the past few years, that I’ve marked and kept, and I’ve been wondering which of these possible meanings I could appeal to, without missing a beat.

Twitter showed me, before I could look away, the horrifying death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. Which of these responses could I have given? Twitter brought me right into the last moments, the fierce anger, of Kajieme Powell, and the desperate search for answers in the loss of Sandra Bland. In the middle of the night, with many others in Australia, I lay awake watching Twitter until the final news came from Nusakambangan that the long campaign to try to achieve mercy for Myuran Sukumaran had ended. And as the whispers went around, what could have been said? High five? Adorbs?

The Twitter star icon, and the language of “favouriting” was just as much a simplification. But no one from Twitter had thought to tell me what I meant by using it and so I used it for my own devices.

Now I’m reminded sharply that I had this privilege at all because of a US tech company’s vision of the universal, that turns out to be one I truly don’t share.

More on this

Bonnie Stewart is quoted here at Hopes & Fears and for me nails why Twitter’s gesture is such an epic fail in relation to gendered interactions among strangers in a crowd.

Laura Gogia has a really thoughtful post about how we could come to terms with this.

Maha Bali has pulled together a conversation on different sides to this.

There’s a whole lot of reaction on #TwitterHeart on Twitter.