Sunday, 3 November 2019

No Sovereignty: Shakespeare’s Anarchistic Idylls

Introduction

There are around 37 plays attributed to William Shakespeare, written around 1590–1615, ranging through tragicomedy, comedies, tragedies and histories. They were produced at a time of absolute monarchy, where disloyalty to the monarch could mean death, and political censorship of the theatre was imposed by church and state. Yet within a generation, the conflicts of the English Civil War was challenging these ancient authorities, and by 1649 had deposed, tried and executed the King, disabling the monarchy for a short period.

Although Shakespeare's plays are peopled by kings and queens, dukes and nobles, they more often offer a critique of power, and particularly the flaws in hereditary rule.

The text of the plays, only published after Shakespeare's death, exists in different versions. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (ISBN-0-86288-146-3) and in some cases to BBC Television's The Shakespeare Collection on DVD (2005).

Anarchy in tragicomedy: The Tempest

Ancient and trusted advisor Gonzalo, trying to distract and amuse his apparently-bereaved King Alonzo, launches into a vivid description of how he would settle the pleasant isle on which they are stranded.

I'the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things: for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be know; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none:
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil:
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too; but innocent and pure:
No sovereignty:—…
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foizon, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people…
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.
The Tempest, Act 1 scene 2

The apparent contradiction of ruling this land-without-sovereignty is not lost on his listening critics. Yet there is safety in not rejecting kingship completely when your words are carried to your monarch. Does Gonzalo (held in esteem by philosopher-king-like Prospero) make sensible points here?

We should be clear that Gonzalo's idyll is not colonialism: there is no dispossession of others, no force, no living sweetly off the sweat of others. Nature is the provider, and his innocent and pure subjects live uncommanded in a state of Nature. The enemies of their golden age appear to be agriculture, toil, law, property, violence, coercion, corrupting luxuries, trade, need. Gonzalo's idle sketch may be an unsatisfactory model of an eco-anarchistic commune, yet his musings lead to sharper questions. For example, how can you call Elizabeth I's reign a 'golden age' if people went hungry?

Comedies

If humans are happiest in a state of Nature, are they above Nature or other animals? People are compared to animals throughout the plays, and in Two Gentlemen of Verona, servant Launce takes a whipping to spare his dog (Act 4 scene 4) (true love?) amongst other sacrifices. The forest bandits appear to be getting along fine without a leader, perhaps because they live as social animals.

But perhaps human societies should have culture to thrive, and norms of behaviour? There is a kind of levelling in the Merry Wives of Windsor, where an economy of dishonesty and errand places power in intermediaries, and the final fairy forest gathering is perhaps an anarchistic idyll of communal justice over the highest ranked but greatest offending member. Puritans seem to exclude themselves from these groups (John Rugby? Malvolio in Twelfth Night facing an anarchist group of tormentors?).

Looking at the problems of rule, Measure for Measure suggests that the corruptions of power lead inevitably to problems. A monarch cannot easily embody both terror and mercy, and the paradox of power is that false communications between ruler and ruled render unreliable worldviews. The Duke seems to achieve more by persuasion in his meddling monk guise than by command.

So here we might consider if the essence of Shakespearean drama, with human agency and responsibility, requires persuasion to move the plot and characters, rather than command. It would, after, be a dull play if people simply obeyed orders from those of higher ranks or offices.

Persuasion forms part of collective decision-making, and an essential decision is often about justice. The pro-Hero conspiracy in Much Ado About Nothing is joined by reason and compassion rather than ruled by rank or its allegiances. An interesting aspect of the play is that those elected to office by the populace seem dumber than average.

What upsets Nature in the forest of Midsummer-Night's Dream? Perhaps abuses of patriarchal power by Theseus, Egeus and Oberon. Post-ordeal, two forest couples reach a state of maturity away from oppressive Athenian law (yet still make fun of the rude mechanicals when they return, and rank and privilege are re-established).

What sets nobles above commoners? In Love's Labour's Lost, the nobles profess a meritocracy of wit, yet commoners may outwit nobles (yet we see the divisive nature of language(s)). A field-court may make up its own rules (from a Natural environment?). In their Renaissance humanities, the proper study of man is woman, and vice versa? There is equality in that.

What of the Prince of Arragon in Act 2 scene 9 of the Merchant of Venice, appearing to rail against the corrupt obtaining of estates, degrees and offices and supposing a meritocracy would raise many honourable peasants while stripping and lowering society commanders. How far might common humanity heal the divisions in the play?

What if, as Celia fantasises in As You Like It, Fortune's gifts were bestowed equally? But Nature gives and takes separately, Rosalind claims. Natural differences will have to be accommodated in society. Life in the Forest of Arden is away from the rat race (Act 2 scene 2), and provokes its banished refugees to consider the rights of animals, who they may seem to tyrannise. While there is no in-system redress against the tyrannies of Duke Frederick and Oliver, which makes the plays resolution (by strange conversion) an unsatisfactory failure to meet and match the mores of forest (Corin's Glad of other men's good) and court (Touchstone's I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways.).

In All's Well That Ends Well, the poorer born must shut up their wishes, hide their thoughts, while courtiers seem to need martial exploits or turn diseased. A hierarchical society disdains and bars merit, as even the King sees; yet he treats Bertram as a slave. The Clown thinks many rich are damned and courtiers are low-skilled. Yet the Patriarchy ends up on trial through the collaboration of women inspired by a young, title-less female doctor. Another way is possible.

Or is it? Does the Taming of the Shrew suggest that happiness must be bought with unfreedom?

Certainly patriarchal tyranny threatens happiness in Winter's Tale, although Paulina will not be ruled by husband in honourable actions. An (anarchistic) friendship group may have corrected Leontes; a healthy society must encourage making amends, turning to good.

Gender equality is raised by Adriana in Comedy of Errors (Act 2 scene 1) Why should their liberty than ours be more? yet servants must suffer unredressed beatings. The play raises some profound nature–nurture questions without, unfortunately, really addressing them.

Histories

The History plays are, on the face of it, concerned more with monarchical systems, although these vary (monarchs can achieve top spot by election, nomination, divine approval, right of conquest as well as primogeniture). Indeed, in Macbeth, Malcolm (Act 4 scene 3) tests Macduff with visions of appalling kingship based on precedent. Perhaps only the witches disdain hierarchies and property.

The King John play shows how, without a republican alternative, people turn to foreign monarchs, and opportunistic regicide.

An extreme monarchical position is shown in The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, where Richard loftily claims (during a momentary high) that:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king:
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, Act 3 scene 2

Yet all is not quiet in the garden, where the Gardener says (Act 3 scene 4):

All must be even in our government.

To which the Queen responds with:

thou little better thing than earth

Effectively the aloof English royals appear to reject the Christian equality of soul whilst claiming divine appointment.

Yet when masters and servants keep each other's company, as in the King Henry the Fourth plays, their behaviours appear to copy and merge, even if people seek out 'inferiors' to content themselves superior.

Commoners have no redress against a monarch's wrongs in King Henry V.

Did commoners once have ancient freedoms, taken away by successive English monarchs? So says rebel John Cade in the Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, when he incites oppressed commoners to resist enclosures. The only idyll here is Iden's peaceful, level Eden which does not survive his reward for killing Cade. No rational alternative to kingship is on offer here.

Nor in The Life and Death of King Richard the Third, who seems too easily to beguile the masses.

Nor in the tyrannous King Henry VIII, for all he says:

We must not rend our subjects from our laws, and stick them in our will.

All in all, the Histories offer poor prospects for glimpsing anarchistic society, yet there is potentially an impression that a pre-monarchical society must have existed in England, or at least one where commoners had extensive rights. In other words, the Histories may be describing a long descent into tyranny, which projected far enough backwards may reach its opposite in a distant, suppressed past.

Perhaps Shakespeare's only 'good' king, Henry V (yet a scheming war criminal), relies on his ability to communicate with commoners for his success, gained from consorting with criminals and low-lifes while avoiding the corruption of the court.

Tragedies

The Shakespearean tragedies often focus on individuals standing against social pressures or norms, and pose questions for any kind of society. Only a few have anything to say about anarchism, and less about an idyllic form of it.

Timon of Athens is essentially a critique of capitalism. If everyone in Athens agreed with Timon's early contention We are born to do benefits then society may need little coercion. As shallow Timon gives benefits without receiving return on his social capital investments, he lurches from optimism into misanthropy, eventually holding that the Earth should be given to animals to save it from monstrous humans. But as philosopher Apemantus says (Act 4 scene 3):

the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends

We can only infer that a life without the corruption of gold, with the innocence of animals, away from extremes depicted, hold out some hope for the good life.

Coriolanus suggests that, at least in ancient republican Rome, anarchy would fail because the many-headed multitude of democracy and the prideful, warmongering elite need each other. The play suggests that speech leads eventually to self-contradiction, confusion, persuasion (maybe only speech-less animals can be functional anarchists, then).

It is possible for humans, away from court and living in caves, to live in anarchy, suggests the play Cymbeline, but speech creates tensions, as Belarius' tales of great deeds creates dissatisfaction with their humdrum existence in his adoptive sons, however much Belarius insists it is nobler. Humans appear destined for greater things than living like speech-capable beasts, and greater than corrupt monarchy where the law protects not commoners. The balanced human, perhaps the only real hero, is servant Pisanio (and even he is foolish in accepting the Queen's cordial). At least soldiery appears meritocratic.

Yet good soldiers can be poor decision-makers for society, a picture-lesson Titus Andronicus paints in blood, as Titus' choice of Saturninus for emperor goes immediately and spectacularly wrong. Kings will enslave you, erode the rule of law, mock your traditions and values, act in haste, be led astray (which seems to have echoes of God's warning to the Israelites). Beginning as arch-authoritarian family patriarch, Titus' remaining family is levelled by grief, and they begin working as a team. The play is full of repudiations to people who see others as inferior. Perhaps you should treat your enemies as human beings too.

King Lear also contains such repudiations of worth, as when a servant mortally wounds Cornwall in just reprimand, inspiring other servants to revolt (Act 3 scene 7). It takes Lear's fall from power for him to see from a commoner's perspective what a bad job he has done for his people as King:

I have ta'en too little care of this
King Lear, Act 3 scene 4

The question of whether animals who have developed such complex speech as humans can ever rule themselves is taken up in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a play all about communication and miscommunication. In many ways, Denmark at peace under talker Claudius may be better for the populace than Denmark at war under fighter Hamlet-senior. What kind of a world is it when corrupt and plotting diplomacy offers a better life than plain-talking warmongering? The escape from this false dichotomy may lie in the once-perfect communication between Ophelia and Hamlet, destroyed by the impositions of their differences in rank.

And there you have it. Animals without speech can live happily in a state of Nature, but humans with speech aspire to more. An aspiration to higher rank brings the abuses of hierarchy and divisive speech. But humans on equal level can achieve a more perfect form of communication, and tread a path between the savage and the corrupt, fulfilling themselves in the company of each other, and finally living to do benefits in harmony with Nature.

Conclusion

Shakespeare may have exploited anarchistic situations for dramatic reasons, but as a deep political thinker he may have been exploring alternate forms of social arrangement.

In some ways, his stages worked as alternative Parliaments, more interactive than the performances we generally see today.

Gonzalo's idle vision may have been too boring to succeed, but he may have a point about connecting with Nature, and a relaxed communal spirit that rejects the symbols and causes of division and coercion. He strongly implies equality between men and women, the importance of self-sufficiency and no-one going hungry.

The Comedies suggest an alternate lifestyle exists away from the hierarchies of the court, perhaps in one of many forests. The Histories suggest that social unity can only happen when we all speak the same language or at least communicate on a level. And the Tragedies suggest that if we do not perfect this communication we may be doomed.

It seems fair to say that the Shakespearean plays offer much political criticism but little in way of templates for success. In giving substantial roles to all ranks, anarchy is enacted rather than modelled. Yet glimpsing between the lines, peering into the negative space left by the failed social structures, we may see the faint glimmer of a community that escapes the dull living of dumb beasts and yet avoids the savage-martial/corrupt-courtierly/rank-ridden cultures exposed in the plays. A Natural leveller paradise, communication as perfect as before the Tower of Babel: an anarchist idyll, brought to you on stage.

Creative Commons Licence
No Sovereignty: Shakespeare’s Anarchistic Idylls by Sleeping Dog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Three Communisms that Shape Our Modern World: Global Science, Open Technology and the Digital Commons

Introduction

Ideas are the means of production of more ideas (💡+💡=💡💡💡), and this:

  • applies in science (hence Isaac Newton’s standing on the shoulders of giants),
  • applies in technology (most obviously in digital technology built of components in layers on top of standards), and
  • applies in the digital commons, where creative works bubble with the influences of others in shared and standardised languages (text and visual, say) and forms, freely available for all to use.

Each of these communisms is formed from a community of communities (👩‍🔬👨‍🔬👩‍🔬 + 👨‍🔬👩‍🔬👨‍🔬 + …) with a commons (📚📚), and a set of collectively-decided rules and conventions (📖) on how to use and run it (and proscriptions against abusing it).

These commons have long ago transcended national borders. From The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, Samuel Moore translation, Penguin Classics):

The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

Global Science

Efforts to create a global (unrestricted by national or imperial boundary) commons of science go back further than the Encyclopédistes of the French Enlightenment or the Translation Movement of the Islamic Golden Age.

It was the European scientific commons that gave their empires an eventually-decisive edge against those empires outside it. Global science today has its biases and controversies, but is characterised by the components of the scientific method which require open publishing.

Non-communistic or privatised science gives us alchemy instead of chemistry, astrology instead of astronomy, or (ideologically speaking) Lysenkoism instead of biology.

This kind of idea-communism should tend towards logical and testable consistency, with special attention given towards anomalies.

Open (Source) Technology

The modern world not only runs on open technologies and standards, it could not exist without them. All the proprietary attempts to build the Internet failed, and the essential interoperability of digital technology is guaranteed and underpinned by open standards.

You find notable areas of this global commons such as:

  • programming languages
  • Internet stack
  • web servers, web browsers
  • maker movement
  • web and data standards

With so many attempts to 'own' common technology (often as horrifically absurd as British Telecom's claim over the hyperlink), robust legal protection is required, for example in patent control.

This kind of idea-communism should tend towards interoperability and continual improvement of ideas, with special consideration of resolving the tension between these two aims.

The Digital Commons

There are the well-known licence-smiths like Creative Commons, the content organisers like Wikimedia Foundation and the archivists of public domain like Project Gutenberg, but digital commons are spread much more widely than these examples.

Wikipedia is now something of a battleground in the various wars of ideas that spring up globally and locally, as well as a target for the enemies of idea-communism itself.

Any high-profile digital commons based in places like the USA tend to be coy about the communistic aspect of their work to avoid drawing down the ideological lightning, but I doubt it is the general publics of the Earth they have to fear.

This kind of idea-communism should tend towards diversity of content and form, and support a multiplicity of views and approaches, while fostering critical means to assess on dimensions of quality.

The Enemies of Global Commons

While corporations, states, organised ideological groups may benefit greatly from commons, their activities are often geared towards exploiting, undermining, manipulating or destroying them.

For example, Fascists and other factional authoritarians may have an ideological concept of science that is not communistic, perhaps that scientists should serve the state, possibly not contradict government policy/religious authority, and so on. Their antipathy to global science goes far beyond resentment of any particular research finding or area. They will oppose such things as globally-focused public libraries and digital commons for the same reasons: ideas are the means of production of more ideas.

Some other groups like flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers and/or Creationists may hope to discredit the notion of public collective-decision-making, and even democracy itself. The idea of a shared, objective 'truth' outside of central/authoritarian control or overriding a preferred subjective worldview can be threatening to some, even if an actual commons reflects a plurality of worldview or beliefs.

The Dangers of Unconstrained, Partisan or Militarized Idea-Communism

With the awesome effectiveness of these global communisms of ideas comes some dangers, especially when knowledge can be weaponised. There are currently great concerns over whether DNA sequences of certain viruses should be released beyond a few researchers, since viruses can be increasingly easily be made by automated machinery.

Other risks are that an ideas community or commons becomes contaminated or manipulated by outside forces, develops its own biases, contains gaps, excludes people or ideas in way that harms the globally-beneficial intent. Nowadays, many private corporations parasitise off of the global scientific commons, and pollute it with paid-for results (suppressing research findings that interfere with profits).

And as previously mentioned, when one part of human society wields the power of an idea commons against other parts, such as happened during European national-imperial expansion, then this constitutes a threat to those who wish to live in peace.

Conclusion

Not every scientist, technologist or digital contributor is a communist. But many are part of a community of communities who contribute, run and draw from a commons of ideas and decide on its rules.

When Marx and Engels wrote "All that is solid melts into air…", they presumably did not have the digital revolution in mind, that allows their Communist Manifesto to be beamed through Wifi into your device.

However, given the revolutionary changes of the information age, and the many vast global challenges human societies face, it would be foolish a) to fail to use the greatest means at our disposal to meet these challenges, b) to fail to recognise the communistic nature of them, and c) to reject using these means because of some ideological objection to communism based on indoctrination or misunderstanding the essential nature of something which has been portrayed as a bogeyman, a Spectre to frighten children with.

Some of the most advanced privately-funded research organisations and technology corporations are joining the global community and sharing in the global commons precisely because it is the rational and responsible thing to do, and adjusting their business models accordingly. Having already profited enormously from these three great idea-communisms, it is the right thing to do in every way. Indeed, communism could become the new normal.

Creative Commons Licence
Three Communisms that Shape Our Modern World: Global Science, Open Technology and the Digital Commons by SleepingDog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Sleeping Dog's Winter Soup recipe

's Winter Soup is ideal for hungry people coming in from the cold.

Bowl of steaming orange-coloured lumpy soup.

This hearty soup should take around 15 minutes to prepare and 1 hour cooking time, for 4 large servings.

Ingredients:

  • Cooking fat (30g butter, say)
  • 1 onion (or 2 small) chopped
  • 4 carrots chopped
  • 125g red lentils washed
  • 50g or 2 small handfuls rice rinsed
  • 1 tin chick peas in water
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic chopped, squished
  • 1 litre boiling water
  • 2 vegetable stock cubes crumbled (or equivalent in stock powder)
  • pinch oregano
  • pinch chilli powder
  • shake of turmeric
  • grate of black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf

Instructions:

  1. Heat fat in large soup pot at low/moderate heat.
  2. Fry chopped onion and carrots in fat at moderate heat until softened, perhaps 7–10 minutes.
  3. Boil a litre of water.
  4. Add lentils, rice, garlic and chilli powder to pot and fry for another minute, stirring with wooden spoon.
  5. Add boiled water, chick peas, tomatoes and bay leaf.
  6. Crumble in stock cubes, stirring to dissolve, and add oregano, turmeric and black pepper.
  7. Bring to boil, stir well, reduce heat and cover pot and simmer for an hour.
  8. Serve in soup bowls, removing bay leaf before eating.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

British Science Fiction on the Sharp End of Empire

Abstract

What is it like to be invaded, conquered, enslaved, dominated, exterminated? To have your resources stolen, your cultural artefacts looted, your way of life despised, your lives considered worthless? British science fiction has envisioned answers to these questions and more.

Introduction

Nationality may not be a terribly useful delimiter for science fiction (ditto science, ditto fiction); however, the period generally associated with British Empire's decolonization affords some interesting perspectives.

Through Michael Moorcock's writing I became aware of Britain's opium wars, much like through USAmerican Kurt Vonnegut the tale of the British fire-bombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5. Moorcock's characterisation of the evil empire of GranBretan whose hierarchies hide behind animal masks is one of the first overt challenges that I remember to the idea of the British as good guys (in The History of the Runestaff).

Doctor Who: an outsider's view

The time-travelling alien Doctor, according to original producer Verity Lambert, was "certainly not, under any circumstances, part of the establishment."
'The Doctor' on Planet of Giants DVD, 0:47

His bio is summarized by a would-be invader of Earth:

The Android Invasion, ep2. 13:51 Alien: "The data that was drained from the girl shows the Doctor's long association with libertarian causes. His entire history is of opposition to conquest."

Not all empires are evil. Well, one isn't. The Keeper of Traken bucks the trend:

ep.1 01:44 Doctor: "Traken Union: famous for its universal harmony. A whole empire held together by… people just being terribly nice to each other."

Stories from the classic era of Doctor Who pits the good Doctor against imperialists time after time.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (television, 1964)

Daleks are like British Imperialists, gliding through streets like armoured cars or sailing about in their saucers doing gunboat diplomacy. While the oppressed humans have to resort to suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices.

Anything unnecessary to the Daleks is left to decay. Unlike British imperialists, they are uninterested in cultural loot, only for some reason the molten core of the Earth.

The slain roboman (a human technologically brainwashed to serve the Daleks until killed by burnout or insanity) has an overseers' whip. Slaves work in Dalek mines.

The backstory of the invasion is revealed, including biological warfare. The Daleks are economic, efficient, ruthless: their interest in human psychology is motivated by its exploitation by means such as terror.

ep2 14:29 Dalek announcement: "Rebels of London, this is our last offer, our final warning… work is needed from you… rebel against us, and the Daleks will destroy London completely. You will all die: the males, the females, the descendants."

Not all Brits are in the Resistance. Scumbag capitalist black-marketeer Ashton is deservedly Slythered; collaborating prison-tunic-sewing hut-hags turn Barbara and Jenny in to the Daleks for a few tins of food ("they would have been caught anyway"). Only moral degeneration is allowed to flourish by the Dalek overlords.

The Power of the Daleks (television, 1966)

The Earth colony on Planet Vulcan is already split into factions (loyalists, rebels, militarist plotters) when a long-dormant Dalek spacecraft is cracked open. The Daleks inside feign an interest in servitude whilst securing a power supply.

There are similarities with the Imperial British consorting with factions like Islamic militants (Daleks) in order to crush populist uprisings in their colonies, which is a nice twist, since the Daleks are usually a dead ringer for the British. The various factions try to use the Daleks as a third force to increase their power, with only the Doctor awake to the disaster that could consume first the colony then the galaxy.

Colony in Space (television, 1971)

The Time Lords appear and explicitly use the Doctor as an unwitting agent. This is potentially the story behind a lot of the Doctor's 'random' adventures, which would explain why they almost all take the form of exciting and dangerous missions.

Settlers and a mining corporation clash in Colony in Space, with the original inhabitants of the planet dismissed as primitives. The Interplanetary Mining Corporation has raided the Scooby Doo playbook, and intends to terrorize the colonists into leaving the planet with fake giant lizards and related stratagems that obviate any possibility of peaceful negotiation.

The Mutants (television, 1972)

The Doctor says the Earth Empire is at a stage similar to that described in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Decolonisation is treated in The Mutants, where the pompous Earth Overlord Administrator's speech intended to announce the grant of independence is so long-winded that he is assassinated by a local stooge of his power-grabbing Security Chief.

Atmospheric references recur throughout. The Earth is a poisoned slag heap, its atmosphere toxic, perhaps like industrial cities in Imperial Britain.

Ky is the chief critic of empire, which plunders wealth, enslaves people, poisons the environment and destroys their culture, which again was once more sophisticated.

The Sontaran Experiment (television, 1975)

The Sontaran advance scout indulges his passion for torture and sadism whilst supposedly testing human resistance capabilities.

The Power of Kroll (television, 1978–1979)

In The Power of Kroll, displaced people known as Swampies are again threatened by methane mining corporation activities on their moon reservation.

Kinda (television, 1982)

In Kinda, the colonial types are variously portrayed as infantile, aggressive, pompous, manipulative, callous, unreasonable and destructive. The rational and inquisitive female scientist is frequently overruled. Colonize or be colonized.

Trial of a Time Lord (television, 1986)

At the end of Trial of a Time Lord, the Sixth Doctor rails against his society's corruption: Gallifrey as an apex empire.

ep.13 08:50 Doctor: "In all my travelings throughout the universe I have battled against evil. Against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here: the oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! All my conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen: they're still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power: that's what it takes to be really corrupt!"

John Christopher: masters of mind control

The Tripods trilogy (novels, 1967–1968)

In John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, the Earth is ruled by unseen alien Masters from their metal tripod machines, while humans are kept in docile backwardness.

John Wyndham: colonization from within

The Midwich Cuckoos (novel, 1957)

The alien invaders in The Midwich Cuckoos hatch a dastardly plot: invasion through artificial insemination. The children will have human bodies but alien minds, and their superiority and mind control powers give them an evolutionary edge.

Local freethinker Gordon Zellaby weighs up the threat posed by this "5th column":

p204: "On the one hand, it is our duty to our race and culture to liquidate the Children, for it is clear that if we do not we shall, at best, be completely dominated by them, and their culture, whatever it may turn out to be, will extinguish ours."

Chocky (novel, 1968)

The story prefigures the ability of strangers on the Internet to reach into homes to communicate directly with children, bypassing their parents and guardians.

Alien remotely-projected-mind-voice Chocky tells Matthew's dad that its mission is to explore worlds suitable for colonization and (as Earth is not) make contact with intelligent life, instructing it in physical breakthroughs. Not malign, but error-prone.

Jane Palmer: inferior/irritable imperialists

The Planet Dweller (novel, 1985)

In her playful novel The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer introduces us to the galactic Empire of the Mott. The Mott Empire rules a galaxy long abandoned by the advanced Old Ones and running out of living space; they prefer violent acquisition of living space and mineral resources to studying the Jaulta Code, an encrypted solution requested by the Old Ones.

Palmer considers whether Empires as embodied by the Mott, rather than being glorious and uplifting, are more realistically a result of stupidity, self-loathing, malice, avarice, lack of imagination and a fear of encountering superior beings. The Olmukes, who have eradicated conscience and banned females, are typical of their collaborationist lackey species-cultures; while only the Torrans have managed to hide, crack the Code and contact the Old Ones, who seem to have left or, perhaps like the later Iain M Banks Culture novels, sublimated out of the physical galaxy.

Perhaps cultural advancement tends towards transcending the merely physical? Should we expect empires or civilisations existing on an ethereal (or more likely digital) plane, immune to crude weaponry but able to influence with near-universal soft power?

The novel compares and contrasts the microcosm of contemporary English village politics with the galactic social macrocosm (of which the former is blissfully unaware when the story begins). Bullying and eviction exist in both; however, the old empire is declining while young Earth is only just reaching modernity.

Summary

Imperial themes in British science fiction are wide-ranging. Treatment varies in depth. Often there is impotence in face of technological/military/psychological/informational superiority. Television loves mind control because it is cheap and actorly. Perhaps there is a sense of dealing with unresolved issues, even guilt. Often there are warnings: we could become these imperial monsters (again).

Conclusion

They're not here for your freedom.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Failed Regeneration of Doctor Who?

A comparison of the classic and modern Doctor Who television series.

Abstract

Has the value of Doctor Who declined since its reboot?

Introduction

This article breaks down the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who into three periods as follows:

  • Classic Who: Doctors D1 (William Hartnell) through D6 (Colin Baker)
  • Transitional Who: Doctors D7 (Sylvester McCoy) through D8 (Paul McGann)
  • Modern Who: Doctors D9 (Christopher Ecclestone) through D12 (Peter Capaldi)

Warning: there may be spoilers, although I hope to keep it brief with minimal detail.

What is covered

Without going into what is canonical, here I will cover only the televised series in its recorded or broadcast formats (DVD, VHS, digital download); where these are not available in full, substitutes like audio books or novelisations were used, as well as some isolated episodes and animated reconstructions. It took me about 18 months to view (or listen to or read) the whole body of work, from An Unearthly Child (1963) to The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016).

I will explore what makes Classic Who so valuable. On the way, I will evaluate whether Modern Who succeeds or fails to retain or build on this value.

I will not make any general evaluation of Modern Who, which I think has both good and bad points. And I will start with the…

Time Lords

Where does the Doctor come from? If it takes a village to raise a child, or a society to create an ‘individual’ mind, what social background formed the character of the Doctor?

The Doctor and granddaughter Susan begin their story as fugitives, fleeing Time Lord society on Planet Gallifrey in a stolen time capsule they call the TARDIS, and the Doctor generally remains an exile, only occasionally returning.

Perhaps the Time Lords are best seen as akin to a possible far-future human civilization which has come to terms with and resolved most of its problems on the way, giving it great perspective. The have made mistakes in their earlier history, such as their disastrous intervention in the Mineon civilization. See also Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Time Lords preach non-interference with rare exceptions, but allow/guide/set up the Doctor to act as their usually-unofficial agent, nudging the TARDIS to adventurous destinations in Classic Who.

The Classic Who period ends with D6 railing against corruption in Time Lord society.

In Transitional Who, they are largely absent, resurfacing in backstory in D8’s Movie.

Their initial absence from Modern Who raises problems: who is the Doctor defining himself against, where does his moral compass come from, what is their history of intervention? D10 is left to describe their society, and eventually a childhood experience shared with the Master. With the Modern Doctors’ freedom to roam, their journeys seem less meaningful and more touristy, the TARDIS reduced to a taxi service between exotic parties (or even a ‘snog-box’).

The absence of Time Lords in Modern Who also makes the Doctor’s meddling more dangerous, as when Rose resurrects her father, because they are not around to heal breaches and so forth.

By the final story of D10, the for-a-time-returning Time Lords are unrecognisable, led by Rassilon (who was a semi-mythical being to Classic Doctor, regarded as fighting exploitation and corruption) and bent on universal destruction.

Rassilon plans the final sanction, the end of time, the destruction of the physical universe, and for the Time Lords to ascend to become creatures of consciousness without physical form or cause-and-effect: a plan the Doctor stopped during the last days of the Time War.

Perhaps in our Modern fantasy of hyper-individualism, it doesn’t matter where you came from, you just invent yourself endlessly through cultural appropriation and peer mirroring.

No such thing as Society?

Classic Who used a form of shorthand to represent entire civilisations, so that characters typically represented larger factions or world views within them. Modern Who is more obsessed in the minutiae which prevents conveying a broad picture of societies and their concerns, composition and qualities.

Classic Who commonly presents us with societies other than our own: familiar, strange and alien. The story could involve a fresh look at Earth’s past (with or without aliens), or Earth’s future, or some off-world and possibly alien civilization. Appearances may be deceptive, and the viewer has to construct their own mental models, abstracting the principles such societies run on, work through moral relativism, use empathy. These societies are rarely monolithic: they have factions, castes, hierarchies, made up of different cooperating or competing groups.

One such Classic story is The Web Planet: what is going on here, what has happened since the Doctor’s last visit? There are at least four types of intelligent life, competing, dominating, serving, worshipping. The typical Classic longer format of 6 episodes draws the viewer progressively into the social dynamics.

Modern Who seems to be written by Margaret Thatcher’s children, unable to sketch any different or alien society. In the whole of Modern Who, I was unable to find an actual non-human/Earth society fairly sketched. These were more common in Classic Who.

Whenever there is an Earth-historical-past story in Modern Who, there is some alien lurking in a volcano or canal. Therefore there is precious little time devoted to that ancient society, whereas in Classic Who there were historical episodes about old times, without aliens and with those societies front and foremost.

Is it a monster? Monsters vs Aliens

In Modern Who, aliens are commonly portrayed as one-dimensional terrorists rather than as thinking parts of greater social fabric, which at least some Classic Whos showed (Draconians, Sensorites, Thals, the failing society of Robots of Death etc.) (Modern Who does, however, introduce an alien crime family in the form of the Slyveen).

Monsters do not require much thought or moral deliberation. Thus categorised, their threat should be neutralised, themselves preferably eliminated. There is no weighing up conflicting rights, no investigation of hidden agendas or false flags, no abstraction of their values and customs. In short, this is the kind of demonisation commonly used by our governments and media today to categorise official enemies; when clearly we have monsters in our midst at home, in positions of power and authority, hiding behind masks of respectability.

In fact, Modern Who hardly seems alien at all.

The Human Condition

Doctor Who, at its best, throws up a mirror or lens by which we can see ourselves better, filtering out prejudices and tribal allegiances, and judging by timeless standards.

It is therefore problematic when stories involve alien influences (Daemons, Nemesis comets and so forth) which are often used to explain and exculpate human wrongdoings (war, persecution, aggression and so forth). However, since all eras of Who from time to time fall into the problematic temptation of writing a “this changes everything!”-type plot (which often involves a new explanation for the start of life on Earth, or wiping out the dinosaurs, or humankind’s development in culture, science and technology to further some alien agenda), I will leave this out of our discussion.

Individualism versus Collectivism

In Classic Who, the Doctor understands that to make decisions that last the test of time is to often override current emotions: to be not provoked, or lured, or bribed, or tempted, or coerced. Where there are grounds for intervention (like existential threats to the universe, mucking about with time experiments or meddling with history, an advanced culture invading a world unable to resist, or the threat of genocide) the collective is valued over the individual. In many stories, the companions and the encountered contribute as much or more to their own salvation than the Doctor, who may be little more than a knowledgeable and friendly catalyst.

The theme of self-sacrifice is common, and fates worse than death (oppression, slavery, extreme injustice, lack of freedom for a people to control their destiny) are shown.

It’s all about Me

The modern Doctor, cut off from his society, lacking a clear purpose, has become the ultimate individual egoist, whose current feelings matter more to him than all others throughout time and space: the perfect sociopath. The show is now about the character, rather than those he and his companions encounter.

Individual death becomes something not only to be avoided (nobody dies today!), but even sometimes portrayed as unnatural (in one story about the Viking-who-calls-herself-Me he bestowed everlasting life on, D12 says “Every single death is a tiny fracture in reality”). What?! Clara rejects Danny’s death, D12 rejects Clara’s death.

Many Modern Who stories tiresomely dwell at length upon the Doctor’s own apparently imminent death, which contrasts the Classic Doctor’s often selfless and good-humoured plunging into personal danger.

Sex and the single Doctor

Classic Who dealt with gender issues, but not really until Transitional Who did the Doctor D8 have an on-screen romantic love interest, which greatly diminishes his alien perspective.

In Modern Who, the show is far more interested in the attractiveness of physical appearance (to the detriment of other qualities). There is frequent and unnecessary innuendo, flirtiness and what one commenter called “gay-friendliness” which may make the show fit better into the BBC’s Saturday night line-up, but detracts from opportunities to address important social issues. Such issues as tolerance and diversity are possibly better addressed in a science fiction show by analogy and the opportunity to abstract principles from unfamiliar examples.

Child endangerment

D1’s granddaughter Susan attended Coal Hill school, but young children rarely featured as characters in Classic Who. It was not necessary to have children to appeal to children.

Transitional Who featured juvenile delinquent Ace, whose predilection for explosives was an odd accompaniment for the Doctor preference not to carry weapons.

Modern Who is remarkable in having many instances of children’s bedrooms being invaded by strange adults, who often get them to do strange things based on improbably explanations, and tell them things like the monster under your bed/in your closet is real and will get you unless you do as I say. Red flags, anyone? Combined with the celebrity-importing and sexualised themes and styles, it should make the average child quite uncomfortable, I guess.

The Companions

Classic companions

There were often multiple companions, giving the TARDIS crew a group dynamic. For example, the growing mutual respect of Zoe and Jamie shows their empathy of common ground despite differences, surely a valuable example to kids.

The dysfunctional crew of D5 may have put the Doctor off, though.

Transitional companions

Explicit human romance for the Doctor begins with D8 although the female medic he engages with is not a TARDIS fellow-traveller.

Modern companions

A major problem with many of the Modern companions is that they are now special, instead of being a bridge between viewers and the alien, extraordinary Doctor. Rose/Bad-Wolf, the Doctor-Donna, Amy the girl-woman-mother at the heart of a conspiracy, Clara the impossible girl.

The next major problem with Modern companions is River Song, her marriage to the Doctor, and her parentage in Amy and Rory. River’s out-of-sequence relationship with the Doctor (possibly inspired by a novel/movie) binds a large arc of Modern Who to this soapy, flirty narrative which puts all four characters centre stage, squeezing out others, increases complexity and continuity/logic problems, and adds little to the programme’s traditional strengths.

The stories become just a flimsy backdrop to the domestics.

You got no Respect

Modern Who cannibalises many of the successful components of Classic Who, but other cultural phenomena are granted scant respect.

Alien encounters are now often reduced to throw-away anecdotes or passing gags, often involving partying and narrowly avoiding marriage to some creature.

The history and culture of China is used as throwaway packaging for a time message in one story, and historical characters are often little more than celebrities.

Don’t know much about History

In Modern Who, history appears often as wallpaper or, I suspect, is suggested by other BBC dramas in current production to borrow sets and costumes from.

A knowledge of history also offers suggestions for future stories. Sadly, in Modern Who there is little sense of scholarship.

A propensity for Violins

Swelling music, lots of running and shouting, hardly a single TARDIS journey can be undertaken without the crew pinging off the control room rails like a break of pool balls. My suspicion is that Modern Who is often trying to inject empathy and excitement with stylistic flimflam to cover up superficiality and lack of engaging storyline.

London and Cardiff

Anglocentricity dominates Modern Who. The entire Season 1 is on or orbiting Earth. Almost always in an English-speaking corner (London, Cardiff, USA, Scotland). And very often in the current time of the companion, who keeps in regular touch with family and friends.

The Christmas specials further reinforce a very narrow view of Earth.

A lot of the cultural references (gameshows, even the Benny Hill theme tune that the Doctor knows) are horribly British and dated.

How many times have we seen the Blitz, but have we seen anywhere the British bombed?

Even when the story leaves Earth, there is usually an alternate or future Earth, or a human colony or outpost or space station or England-in-space.

Even Imperial measurements exist in the Modern future.

And so, so many aliens/robots in Modern Who wear the form of humans: even Daleks now for chrissake!

The Doctor

The Doctor’s character varies throughout his reincarnations, but there are some significant changes in Modern Who.

The First Doctor (D1) is elderly in body and often in mind, prickly and devious, self-described as brilliant but actually leaves a lot of the problem-solving to his companions, relying on his unreliable but vast experience and technical ability.

I will draw on one authoritative external remark to clarify how the Doctor was conceived:

Verity Lambert, original producer, on casting the Doctor: "And certainly not, under any circumstances, part of the Establishment."
The Lambert Tapes, “The Doctor” at 0:47 on Planet of Giants DVD

Yet in Series 8 of Modern Who, the Doctor is inducted as Earth President, which is about as Establishment as one gets.

During the Classic Doctor’s exile to Earth (D3), the stories are often both explicit and implicit critiques of Earth culture and society: war, imperialism, consumerism, superstition, greed, oppression, militarism, authoritarianism, scientific recklessness, environmental destruction, sexism, elitism, bureaucracy, fanaticism, factionalism, mass media and propaganda, and fundamentally a difficulty in just all getting along. All those peace conferences under siege. Home and returning home are also strong themes.

But these themes are often soft-pedalled in Modern Who, in spite of being mostly set in current Earth, and often aliens not humans are to blame.

It gets to the point where Clara is apparently more important to the death-intolerant Doctor (D12) than the rest of the universe. Thus the Doctor proves to be more dangerously deranged than his worst foes. Is this the insane culmination of individuality and ego? Megalomania and psychopathy.

Sadly, the question of "what would it be like to be corrupted by the power to travel in time and space" is a far less interesting question than "what would it be like not to be corrupted by the power to travel in time and space". By making the Doctor ordinary, even petty (or his companions extraordinary) you kind of lose the point of Doctor Who.

Summary

In this article, I have painted a picture of Classic Who, where the Doctor is an alien man of science, driven by curiosity and sense of justice, from an advanced civilisation he not always agrees with. With the uncertain navigation of his TARDIS through time and space, he often gets caught up in events, and works with any being willing to aid the causes of liberty, justice and knowledge. He does not respect unearned authority, but has made friends (as well as enemies) throughout the universe.

His Classic Earth/human companions form a bridge between the Doctor and us viewers. They are not special, but have recognisable professions, talents, qualities.

Transitional Who introduces more mysticism and eventually a romantically-entangled Doctor.

Modern Who reboots with the Doctor as an isolated individual, his people lost in the Time War. His companions are often special. Neither are clearly role model material.

The Modern Doctor is more powerful, with almost full control of the TARDIS, no Gallifreyan Time Lords to keep him in check, and becomes gradually more corrupted by his contact with Earth. The show becomes steadily smaller in focus, more egoistic than individualistic and the collective fades in significance. The show becomes about the main characters, with hardly any alien or historical insight beyond excuses for fighting monsters or flirting or turning the Doctor into an implausible fearsome warrior.

The Classic Doctor was our sympathetic guide to the wonders and perils of the intelligent and sentient universe. The Modern Doctor has become a petty, self-pitying, antisocial and dangerous shadow.

I will leave for another time the question of why the show might have changed this way.

Monday, 25 July 2016

That's me in the picture: personalisation of Open Learning Resources vector graphics

This post is one of a series on a proposal for an Open Educational Resource vector graphics library, and builds on the post on customisation and localisation.

Abstract

Here is a discussion of how learners may create personal representations (avatars) that could appear in their open learning materials.

Introduction

The history of digital avatars is widely known. At the simplest level, users might choose between a handful of icons or other representations to express their identity. Or they might upload a picture to do the same thing. Or, in more complex cases (typical of some computer games or console frameworks) they might spend many minutes browsing through many sets of choices to create a highly individualised representation.

Here, I will be exploring the possibility of using such avatars within learning material graphics, to literally put the learner in the picture. It may be useful to read my previous posts on OER graphics libraries for more background.

Demonstration

First, it might be helpful to work through this simple customisation/personalisation demonstration. I will only cover the personalisation part here.

Probably within a settings page of a VLE, a learner might encounter options to set up their own avatar. Here we have just five settings, each with only four options, for simplicity:

  • Skin tone
  • Hair colour
  • Head style
  • Headwear colour
  • Clothing colour

Changing these should reflect in the front-back-right preview, and also in the first example ("interview") image. Note: if the page gives an error, it may have timed-out, in which case it can be reloaded. The code was still pretty crude as I write this post, and in production would have to be somewhat more advanced.

Why do this?

In addition to reasons shared with previous posts, like increased user engagement, you may reflect on some reasons why avatars are successful elsewhere.

Self-inclusion lets the learners make themselves the heroes (or at least protagonists) of their own learning stories. This might be particularly helpful for vocational courses, but may also have a slight positive effect on raising confidence and esteem.

Screenshot of avatar in interview drawing.
The interviewee is personalised using Sienna skin tone, HeadScarf head style with MediumOrchid colouring and SkyBlue clothing.

Because the construction of the avatar is component-based, it can be posed, articulated and have parts swapped out for others (in my simple demo, all head styles are actually present at once, but all but the selected one are hidden by the styling).

Other examples

You may use your imagination as to what may be achieved using web graphic format SVG, or check out some examples like this Character Generator, which I believe is currently in the alpha development stage according to its designer.

Summary

Because the use of avatars is well-known and popular, I will assume that there is potential for their use within learning material graphics: not to identify the learner to others, but to create a personal representation of their character that takes on the role of protagonist within the learning story they are presented with. Rather than simply accepting a representation depicted by others, this form of self-inclusion may be of some value in fostering positive identification with learning outcomes, especially in vocational, social skills and/or self-development learning.

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To the extent possible under law, Sleeping Dog has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the text of That's me in the picture: personalisation of Open Learning Resources vector graphics. This work is published from: United Kingdom.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Customisation and localisation of Open Learning Resources vector graphics

This post is one of a series on a proposal for an Open Educational Resource vector graphics library.

Abstract

Vector graphics can be structured to identify sub-components which can be altered or replaced. It is therefore possible to customise vector graphics used in open-licensed learning materials automatically using sets of alternate "parts".

Introduction

There has been some discussion recently about the representativeness of graphic libraries like Unicode emojis (such as skin tone and gender), and about the customisation of games character appearances like those in the Sims. Historically, there has been a representation bias in the tech world, which is being addressed over time with internationalisation and equality efforts, which should see more inclusion and diverse cultures.

Beyond that, there are issues of engagement with students, who may respond to:

  • favourite characters from various media
  • people, objects and places that appeal to or are culturally appropriate them
  • the ability to choose styles of pictorial representation

Authors, editors and adapters of (any contributors to) learning materials may also prefer to use libraries and tools for graphics that are component-built and can be easily customised (or automatically overridden). I specifically cover Open Educational Resources here, which are intended to be open-licensed, based on open formats and practicably editable.

I will cover personalisation a future post. I will not talk much about technology or tools here either, although I plan to build a demonstrator and document it later. Neither will I talk about text customisation (which is certainly possible, as you might know if you have used a tool like Adobe FrameMaker with conditional text features).

In this post, I will describe a scenario that takes us through the stages and roles to achieve the goal of customisation and localisation of vector graphics in learning materials:

  1. the developer of a standard set of vector graphic components
  2. the author of an Open Educational Resource
  3. the administrator of a virtual learning environment
  4. a student taking an online course

Scenario and assumptions

This scenario is set in the near future where an extensible basic standard set of vector library components has been established, to the point where it has been implemented by several key organisations and taken up by influential champions, even as discussion and disagreement are ongoing.

Developing a set of standard vector graphic components

A developer with a strong vector illustration skill set has been commissioned to produce a themed set of graphic components.

She downloads the latest template, reads the guidance, and checks out both exemplars and real-life samples. Each set comes in the form of a web page with a layout of inline Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) shapes. This is handy because the same format is:

  • human viewable
  • machine importable
  • search-engine friendly
  • compatible (in the SVG section) with template and drawing tools
Screenshot showing a featureless humanoid shape in front, back and right views.
Sketch of part of template showing front, back and right views of person-1. Note for economy and efficiency that missing elements can be automatically replaced by symmetrical components. In the case of deliberately missing limbs, an invisible part can be inserted to prevent such replacement.

She completes and submits her set design, which is entitled Rollergirls.

Authoring an OER graphic

An author wants to illustrate a resource on village cricket. He uses a Cricketers graphic library (with players and equipment). His drawing tool allows him to drag, drop, pose and position graphical components, and import or draw his own. He is well aware of and approves of the customisation feature built into the graphical system, which he feels is useful in keeping students engaged.

An illustration of village cricket. Note that the figures of people are default size (1 cm per pixel base) for illustrative purpose here; they can easily be scaled, automatically respond to window size and be zoomable. The people are articulated on joints and can be posed in simple ways.

The author uploads his resource into his organisational VLE.

The VLE administrator

The administrator comes into work and finds six new graphic library set requests. She rejects one as not in keeping with policy, and another after it fails a validation check. A third one throws up a security warning about potentially problematic content: she can choose to automatically strip out that content, accept or reject it entirely. She rejects it. She then looks over the three submissions viewing them in sheet mode, which is like looking at an array of emojis, and rejects one on quality grounds. She then accepts two sets and imports them into her VLE. One of these is the Rollergirls set.

Students taking an online course

Students using the VLE have a customisation page where they can find a range of options, and when a new option is added, can choose to be notified. One student, learning about rustic games, finds that the Rollergirls set has been added, and chooses this option before proceeding to that week's material. Because he follows some religious strictures, he has also chosen to filter out references to alcohol.

Now, thanks to the automated transformation stylesheets, his view of the original image is transformed.

01 01
The original image has been automatically transformed. Any matching graphical component has been replaced by its counterpart in the new set. Also, any graphical object marked as 'alcohol' has been removed for this student's view, so the wine bottle and glass have disappeared from the table. Note: because I am showing both versions of the image in the one HTML page, I have made some code adjustments but there will still likely be minor interference in styling.

Some other possible case scenarios:

  1. an old but popular set is forked to meet the requirements of students unhappy about the lack of representation of their ethnicity/gender/interests;
  2. creative studies students produce their own set as a project (based on ancient Egypt, modern celebrities, geek culture);
  3. a homesick student is cheered by seeing visual reminders of his homeland;
  4. a student wants to see his comic book heroes in learning resources, and their outsized geometries can still be accommodated…
  5. …as can the anthropomorphic/anthropometric cartoon animals favoured by his younger sister.

Why do this?

There are a number of reasons why I think this sort of thing might be a good idea.

  1. student engagement: giving learners control over the appearance of their educational resources is (within bounds anyway) a good thing if it increases their engagement with topics;
  2. customisation for diversity: this can be because institutions wish to accommodate a wider range of visualisations, without necessarily having some kind of quota system house style, and the default graphical design can be neutral (like crash test dummies or prototyping symbols) if necessary;
  3. cultural requirements and localisation: this need not be the same as diversity, some requirements will be to constrain visuals, like the alcohol example, and if necessary, replace human depictions with geometric symbols, although sometimes you just want to replace broccoli with green peppers otherwise people will not get the joke;
  4. cultural buzz: you might unleash local creativity, attract a guest artist, create talking points around openness and inclusion;
  5. the technology and techniques are likely to bring other benefits, like easier to use graphical tools, and faster to download graphics that work better on mobile phones (if this is done properly);
  6. separation of concerns: this approach allows parallel working;
  7. continuous improvement: content components as open source software, version control, automatic updates;
  8. digital literacy: improvements all round;
  9. accessibility: done correctly, high-visibility styles, zoomable graphics, descriptive metadata in the markup (such as names of objects and preset poses) may make graphical content more generally accessible (and searchable);
  10. student expectations: I think that students, used to games and avatars, are simply going to expect and want to customise their learning materials, especially if they are not appreciative of the depictions therein.

Challenges, problems and contraindications

Here I mull over possible objections.

I have used a wide range of SVG authoring tools, and although each have had their advantages, none I used was really code-friendly, so I don't think it is as simple as handing out an Illustrator template (good candidate, expensive licence). I had quite a difficult time working up a prototype, mostly due to editing problems and refactoring designs rather than complex coding. I plan to write up part of a requirements document if I have the time. Custom, possibly browser-based tools will very probably be required.

The technology may move on quicker and bypass efforts in this sphere (although that applies generally and is seldom reason not to make an attempt).

Standardisation is hard. Yes, but easier than all the combined effort producing a myriad of graphic house styles.

People are rubbish at putting in metadata. Which is why experts will probably be needed to label all those bottle of wine as "alcohol" and so forth.

Only a very small percentage of learning materials would benefit. I think this might be the case, but there will be some areas, like vocational studies, where there could be a concentrated benefit.

It would be a distraction from more pressing issues. Maybe, but I think the benefits of working smarter are many.

Vector graphics are boring/look like clip art/are awful when clashing styles appear in the same diagram. Well, I am not an illustrator, but real illustrators can do wonderful things with vector graphics, they are widely used, and some consistency can be created with graphical style guides.

The scale of an undertaking might mean relying on commercial organisations to develop the technology (who would want to place their characters and products within learning materials for free as advertising and brand development). As long as the technology and standards were all open, and supported open choice and user creation, then I do not see that as necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think probably all of the technological and design problems have already been solved in the creative industries sector, so I would welcome their expertise added to an open design process.

Offensive or subversive content may be smuggling into VLEs. I dealt briefly with some of the security, validation and visual checking steps that may be required. Because my model requires administrator approval, and then opt-in from a user, there are immediate safeguards. Many graphical depictions may be offensive to many people; this way, learners might be able to chose a depiction more to their taste.

Code and examples

I have now produced a simple working demo which also supports my next post on personalisation, which continues this series on an OER vector graphic library. There is some code in this oer-vector-library project on Github.

Summary

It might be cool if people could change the graphics in their open learning materials. Also, it might not be practical or desirable.

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To the extent possible under law, Sleeping Dog has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the text of Customisation and localisation of Open Learning Resources vector graphics. This work is published from: United Kingdom.