Hand Made With Love is my new book – an edited version of my academic research in West Africa. Part travelogue, part history of European/African relations, part philosophy of consumption and desire. It’s all about what you learn when things go wrong!
I visited Taos Pueblo this week, an adobe village belonging to the Red Willow people of New Mexico. I was following in the footsteps of Carl Jung, no less, who came here in 1924 to study indigenous people, believing them to be pure archetypes of human psyches that reside in all humanity.
Our guide was a young indian student who reeled off the fact and figures in a rapid staccato (I think the poor guy may well be doing this several times a day) but one thing that struck me was his insistence on the maintaining of their traditional way of life as being the only way to preserve their dignity, their history and culture. That meant no running water, no electricity, no heating, and preserving their indigenous religion, which is interwoven with Roman Catholicism. Several times a year the inhabitants dress up and perform ceremonies, watched by hundreds of tourists. They won’t even write down their native language, as this has only ever been an oral tongue.
There is time-honoured tradition of indigenous peoples clinging to their old way of life as a reaction to the horrors inflicted upon them, and the Red Willow are no exception. It has to be said, though, that most of the Red Willow live outside the Pueblo, in comfortable bungalows with satellite dishes, and only occupy the adobe houses during ceremonies. A pragmatic compromise.
A major platform for contemporary visual art from African and diaspora artists. Curated by Elise Atangana, Abdelkader Damani and Smooth Ugochukwu Nzewi. From the vibrant city of Dakar in Senegal.
Featuring Kiluanji Kia Henda’s O.R.G.A.S.M. an installation mocking the propaganda of western NGO interventions in Africa. The Angolan artist invents his own NGO, the Organization of African States for Mellowness, which grants aid to Europe.
I seem to have been writing a lot about the celebrity ‘push’ to save Africa, and one example I use over and over again is Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Ethical Africa’ collection, launched in 2011.
The designer is making bags in the Kibera slum of Nairobi in Kenya, an endeavour that can only be applauded for offering impoverished locals the chance to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. That must be a good thing. And yet, and yet…
A closer look at the project reveals some enduring attitudes that should have been thrown out long ago with the proverbial colonial bathwater, and not least of these is the representation of Africa and Africans as supplicant dependents. The photo shoot (and film) that accompanied the designer’s ‘progress’ was ostensibly a personal portrayal of Vivienne Westwood, literally slumming it, as she grandly pronounced on how “fashion can save the world.” But look behind her, at the faces of the people who are standing, mute as usual, and staring at several grand’s worth of haute couture prancing about on rubbish heaps. There was scant criticism of this campaign, except in African blogs, and this sublime piece by Camilla Long in the Sunday Times.
The ‘Ethical Africa’ collection (more accurately, the ‘Ethical Kenya’ collection) was launched at the gorgeous Palazzo Corsini gardens in Florence, with a host of beautiful fashion people to admire the bags, presented not within the palace, but in an old shed-like building with stained concrete walls. The bags themselves were hung from bare twigs. The message? Africa is so raw, so deliciously backward, but only western designers can recognise qualities to which the Africans themselves are oblivious.
The real question is just how much the workers in Kibera are being paid, and what profit margins Vivienne Westwood is enjoying by having her accessories made so cheaply. Even the language of the marketing leads the consumer to conclude that the makers are somehow apart from the sophisticated business of global markets. This is “trade not aid” proclaims the advertising. It seems sensible, in that case, to just call it trade. And it is all “hand made with love” apparently. The artisans, suggests this promotional slogan, are like children, who also make things for love.
This phrase subtly removes the artisan from the grubby money-making process, and characterizes these people as being so simplistic that they are unable to comprehend systems of monetary exchange.
Africa’s artisans deserve better than this.
I was invited to speak at this symposium at Central Saint Martin’s in London yesterday, and what a great experience it turned out to be. A large group of energetic, committed, articulate and passionate people who spent the whole day discussing the nature of relationships between designers and artisans from different cultures.
We started at 9am and we were still chatting away (in the bar it must be said) at 7pm. It left me feeling enthused all over again, and I know that some very interesting things will emerge from that day. Sarah Rhodes, who organised the symposium, is a designer whose doctoral project ‘The Craft of Ubuntu’ is a fascinating exploration of collaborative design,
I read and loved Sherry Turkles’s Book “Alone Together” which sets out a critique of social networks as facilitators of increasing separation and loneliness. This video is inspired by that book, put together by Shimi Cohen at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. It’s a great example of how research generates creativity.
A tussle has broken out amongst higher education teachers, and, however politely the arguments are framed, it is dividing the world of academics into those who ‘get’ the digital revolution and those who don’t.
For some, even the word ‘revolution’ is a red rag to a bull. It is almost as though they believe that the internet will somehow just fizzle out and fade away, transforming students into the passive receptors they once were. What these particular academics don’t realise is that for the first time in 40 years, young people are watching less television. They prefer to share their knowledge, play games virtually with others around the world, create websites and blogs, make objects and sell them online, make political comments and agitate in ways that were undreamed of even 10 years ago. And people who say that this is leading to a dumbing down of culture should remind themselves that 40 years ago we all sat on our sofas watching the Des O’Connor Show or the Black and White Minstrels.
What this means for education is that students expect a degree of co-creation and co-learning in their course materials and learning outcomes. This in turn entails radically re-thinking the way we deliver higher education courses; what defines an assessable outcome and how should we evaluate our students?
At some universities it is forbidden to post lectures online, arguing that they fear prosecution over copyright. Google publishes millions of images every second of every day, but do they fear prosecution? I think not. In a university copyright law allows for lectures to contain freely available materials – except from freeview TV sites and the Open University. What is not permitted is public publishing of this material. However, if you keep the lectures on the University server, accessible only by students with a password, this could be argued as being ‘fair use’ – as members of the public would not be able to view the lectures.
Imagine, though, a world where all academic lecture content was freely available by everyone. Google is currently digitising millions of books for free access in university libraries in the US. If lectures were also freely viewable, to add to this body of knowledge, what sort of experience would education become?
Lectures just might become obselete.
However, imaginations, creative juices and ideas would flow. Students would get an insight into what they want to study by virtually sitting in on courses they may never have thought they had the time and money to explore. Some lecturers would study the techniques of others and try to improve their performances. Some ideas would be stolen and passed off. Some lecturers would face derision for their incompetence. Others would gain admiration for their skill. In short, everything that already happens to the printed word would happen to online lectures.
And lectures might even fall out of use in physical classrooms, because lecturers could just direct students to their past recordings or those of others. To keep students interested in the classroom, lecturers would have to focus more on creating discussions, debates and workshops, or group projects and presentations; things that can’t be contained and rolled out in a lecture. This ‘flipping’ of the classroom is already happening across much of the US.
Such a radical change in the UK is unlikely in the short term. There’s just too much resistance. One thing is certain, though, and that is sooner or later students will start voting with their feet, by choosing universities that match their own open source, free access, co-creating ‘net native’ mentalities.
It’s not just lectures that are under scrutiny. Academic publishing is also coming under pressure to reinvent itself. The commodification of knowledge is a huge point of contention at the moment. In January 2012 a young activist, Aaron Schwartz, killed himself as he was facing prosecution, possible $1m fine and 50 years in prison for downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR for free distribution on the net. He wasn’t aiming to make a penny from his activities; just to open up knowledge for everyone.
Read this article by Martin Eve from the Guardian newspaper’s Higher Education Network, 25 March 2013, which gives an open-source academic’s viewpoint on publishing freely online…definitely food for thought.
Jason Silva. Visionary or conference troubador? The excitable ‘futurist’ and film maker is certainly enthusiastic in his fervently optimistic embrace of all things technological. Personally, I love his films (check out his website here) which are animated visual extravaganzas interspersed with philosophical asides.
In one film Jason talks about how Socrates denounced writing things down as an evil, something that destroys memory, intelligence and imagination. Not so, Jason. That would be Plato, writing a fictionalised character of Socrates in his dialogue, Phaedrus – which puts that into a slightly different context. But it’s an interesting analogy (and super ironic on Jason’s part) for today’s data-filled world, where a vast pool of ‘knowledge’ is just a click away, yet is always filtered through the perceptions and knowledge (or rather, lack of it) of others. Are we losing the ability to discern the truth from a variety of sources? Are we becoming more Wikipedic?
“Think of learning as a continuum of cognitive and expressive experiences that range from gathering data for the purpose of understanding the world; to organizing data into useful and coherent informational patterns; to applying information to real questions and problems and, in the process, creating knowledge; to developing wisdom.” Peter W. Cookson. “What Would Socrates Say?” Teaching for the 21st Century 67.1 (2009): 8-14
There appear to be two schools of thought:
Those who believe that we can blog and Twitter a path to knowledge through a democratised, collective data sharing that somehow bubbles up from the hive.
Then there are those who think that our technology is literally stupifying us, turning us into misinformed anti-intellectuals, stumbling though a new landscape of hyper-individualism.
I should also add that Jason points out the quality of information on the internet has improved – so that alongside all the trash there is a vast store of knowledge that has been collected and disseminated by experts. It’s the discernment of what is useful and what is not, as Peter Cookson observes above, that is becoming the new skill to acquire, in the context of the digital world.
A recent post in the New Scientist blog describes the phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley – the place where a robot’s similarity to a human, without being actually exactly like a human, becomes unacceptable and downright unsettling. Apparently, we like our robots small and cute, like Wall E. I know I do.
The phrase was translated from the Japanese “bukimi no tani,” coined by Masahiro Mori of the Tokyo Institute of Technology back in 1970. Mori’s theory was that realistic robots remind us too much of corpses, and that most people would be terrified if a corpse suddenly sprang into life. This feeling may also extend to artificial limbs. The running blades of a ParaOlympian seem so much more sexy than if they were a realistic pair of pinkish, human, lookalike legs tacked onto someone’s torso, running a bit awkwardly.
So why do scientists still build robots that mimic humans? It is surely the emotional response that elicits the best human-robot interaction. I’m thinking of the Tamagotchi craze, where children would become inconsolable when their little black and white pixel creature ‘died’ in real time. Tamagotchis were banned in schools because of their disruptive power. However, robots these days are more likely to be designed in a human shape so that they fit into human working environments, but with a distinctly un-human facial appearance.
Read a more scholarly dissection of the concept by the University of Glasgow’s Frank Pollick in 2009 here.
What I’m reading at the moment. Fascinating stuff. Blurb on the back says…
“Through a range of case studies from Facebook to Second Life to Google Earth, Digital Anthropology explores how human and digital can be defined in relation to one another, from avatars and disability; cultural differences in how we use social networking sites or practise religion; the practical consequences of the digital for politics, museums, design, space and development to new online world and gaming communities. The book also explores the moral universe of the digital, from new anxieties to open-source ideals. Digital Anthropology reveals how only the intense scrutiny of ethnography can overturn assumptions about the impact of digital culture and reveal its profound consequences for everyday life.”
In essence, the book describes how far from alienating or radically altering human experience, technology seems to be a reinforcing agent of that humanity, and in the contexts of different cultures. Technology merely reveals pre-existing tensions, good or bad, inherent in the human condition. Like fire, you can cook your food and share it with your neighbour, or you can burn down your neighbour’s house.