Week 2: Metaphors, memes and mimicry? #edcmooc

Information that we copy from person to person, by imitation, by language, by talking, by telling
stories, by wearing clothes, by doing things — this is information copied with variation and
selection. This is [a] design process. (Blackmore, 2008)

This post has taken a little longer to get published as I have been down with the flu this week. Anyhow, excuses aside, we are still on Block 1 of the course, but have now reached Week 2, entitled “Looking to the Future“, which is the flash-forward perspective (or crystal ball-gazing if you will) half of the block, where the course tutors have introduced “the notion of the metaphor as another lens (like determinism) through which to look at utopian and dystopian stories about e-learning and digital cultures“.

Rebecca Johnston’s 2009 paper gives a very useful and insightful introduction to the notion of the “metaphor” and draws heavily upon the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson‘s 1980 book called “Metaphors We Live By” – a classic piece of work that has changed our understanding of the metaphor and its role in the development of language and the mind.

In addition to the readings, again I have reproduced some of them in the references section below for anyone wishing to follow them up, we were given five short videos to watch:

  1. A Day Made of Glass 2 – a video advert from Corning
  2. Productivity Future Vision – a video advert from Microsoft
  3. Sight
  4. Charlie 13
  5. Plurality

All five films, although different, share very similar themes and draw upon some very familiar science fiction (SF) tropes, like:

  • Surveillance, civil liberties and privacyCharlie 13 (an electronic tagging implant), Sight (social media data) and Plurality (biometric data) are perhaps obvious contenders here. However, the technology depicted in A Day Made of Glass 2 and Productivity Future Vision imply access to large personal datasets (based on user preferences) and geo-location tracking software. There are numerous nods to George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and the CBS TV series “Person of Interest” that was shown on Channel 5 in the UK.

    A scene from the Microsoft video advert: "Productivity Future Vision"
    A scene from the Microsoft video advert: “Productivity Future Vision
  • Hypervisuality and Augmented Reality (AR) – These technologies make an enormous use of graphical, iconic and pictorial data and rely heavily on touch and gesture-based interfaces; the devices themselves are light and flexible. This suggests that we will become highly transliterate – but what other skills we will lose in the process and are we sufficiently sophisticated enough to make sense of the imagery presented to us? Especially if the symbolism is culturally situated rather than something more universally understood.

    A scene from the Microsoft video advert: "Productivity Future Vision"
    A scene from the Microsoft video advert: “Productivity Future Vision
  • Personalisation – The ability to customise and personalise your devices, some even take on the semblance of “old world” technologies like a chalk blackboard in Productivity Future Vision. In Sight, the protangonist makes frequent use of a range of “mobile apps” that are displayed on his contact lenses. Each “app” takes on a game-like quality to such an extent that it leads him (and us?) towards the gamification of real life (see the Red Dwarf episode “Better Than Life” and the 1997 David Fincher film, “The Game“) where each little achievement (like cutting the cucumber up evenly) is awarded with a digital badge – the gamification of educational courses and the awarding of academic achievement and the development of  skills  with “badges” is something that is currently being given some serious thought. I was reminded by a “fantasy documentary” that was made by the late, great Douglas Adams in 1990 called Hyperland for BBC 2. The “documentary” was about hypertext and the surrounding technologies (like multimedia and virtual reality) – a precusor to the World Wide Web by a whole year. To access this material made use of a holographic “software agent” (played by the fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker) which could be personalised in terms of how it looked, sounded and behaved.
A scene from Hyperland starring Tom Baker as the "software agent".
A scene from Hyperland starring Tom Baker as the “software agent”.
  • Social Inclusion / Exclusion – The interesting thing about these films is that it depicts a shiny, clean, plastic and egalitarian world – a bit too perfect (a vision of utopia?). Charlie 13 is perhaps a notable exception to the other films depicting a post-industrial world (dystopian?). The people who inhabit these worlds are well-paid professionals / executives, which implies that they can afford to buy and access this kind of technology. Although not made explicit, there is an uneasy feeling of a “digital divide” happening here, a kind of “glass ceiling” between the “haves” and “have nots”.

    A scene from Sight
    A scene from Sight
  • Technological Dependency – In my previous post, I resisted the urge of using the word addiction, preferring to use dependency instead. The dependency on these technologies at a societal, culture and individual level is quite staggering. Every aspect of human life, experience and endeavour is dependent on us being able to carry out our little mobile devices twenty-four-seven. Do check out the Charlie Brooker TV anthology series “Black Mirror” that starts on Channel 4 in the UK soon (11 February 2013 I believe).

If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone. (Brooker, 2011)

In a brief 5 minute talk for the Google I/O 2011 conference, the journalist Annalee Newitz gives her top four themes that links the current activity in social media with that of science fiction (Newitz, 2011):

  1. Hive Mind (or AI):  Smart of Stupid?
  2. The Proverbial Privacy Apocalypse – i.e. state-controlled surveillance
  3. Mind Control – i.e. catches “viruses” with brains plugged into social media
  4. Instant Social Revolution

Some of these “classic SF” themes (or metaphors) are present in the short films. They tap into our collective, cultural psyche and touch upon our most base and primeval fears of the unknown and the uncanny. The metaphor becomes a way of articulating these physical, cognitive and emotional responses.  As Rebecca Johnston points out:

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argued that our speech, thoughts, and actions are based upon metaphors. These metaphors are so entwined in our lives that they are invisible to us; however, since our conceptual system defines our reality, we only understand reality through metaphor. (Johnston, 2009:1)

Though what Susan Blackmore, author of “The Meme Machine“,  has to say with regard to “memes” is quite, literally, frightening and chilling to comprehend. The “meme”, abbreviated from the Greek word “mimeme“, is as Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling book “The Selfish Gene“, defines it as “that which is imitated“. Blackmore takes this concept a stage further:

Language is a parasite that we’ve adapted to, not something that was there originally for our genes, on this view. And like most parasites, it can begin dangerous, but then it co-evolves and adapts, and we end up with a symbiotic relationship with this new parasite. (Blackmore, 2008)

We will soon discover what metaphors, memes and mimicry will have in store for online learning and digital education as  Higher Education steers ever closing to the coming edupocalypse (or so the naysayers will have us believe!).


Adams, D. (1990).  Hyperland. BBC 2 Television, 21 September 1990. Available in 5 parts on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Anderson, N. (2012). “Elite education for the masses”. The Washington Post, 4 November 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/elite-education-for-the-masses/2012/11/03/c2ac8144-121b-11e2-ba83-a7a396e6b2a7_story.html [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Bady, A. (2012). “Questioning Clay Shirky”. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012. Available at: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/06/essay-critiques-ideas-clay-shirky-and-others-advocating-higher-ed-disruption [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Blackmore, S. (2008). “Memes and Temes”. TED Talks, February 2008, Monterey, California. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes.html [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Brooker, C. (2011). “The dark side of our gadget addiction”. The Guardian, 1 December 2011. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Campbell, G. (2012). “Ecologies of Yearning”. Keynote at Open Ed ’12, 16 October 2012, Vancouver BC. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIzA4ItynYw [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Carr, N. (2012). “The Crisis in Higher Education”. MIT Technology Review, 27 September 2012 . Available at: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429376/the-crisis-in-higher-education/ [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Johnston, R. (2009). “Salvation or destruction: metaphors of the Internet”. First Monday, 14(4), 6
April 2009. Available at:  http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/rt/printerFriendly/2370/2158 [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Newitz, A. (2011).  “Social media is science fiction”. Google I/O conference, 10-11 May 2011, San Francisco.
Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52Ml_zax4A0 [Accessed 3.2.2013].

Shirky, C. (2012). “Napster, Udacity and the academy”. shirky.com, 12 November 2012. Available at: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/ [Accessed 3.2.2013].

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