The digital media conundrum

As I prepare a syllabus for a new class on media, I am fascinated by the ambivalence of so many who have moved transitioned from the analog to the digital age.

“On the one hand,” says MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate professor of civic media, “digital technology has been used by progressive social movements” to mobilize citizens to action. But on the other,   we have entered the era of digital media being used for surveillance, “well-funded disinformation campaigns” and extremists.

Newspapers and media organizations also wrestle with this conundrum, as this cartoon aptly captures.

From Editor & Publisher. editorandpublisher.com/cartoons

Facebook employee resignation reveals dark practices

Take a look at this disturbing resignation letter from employee, Timothy Aveni.

He says that “Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie” and that he finds “Facebook complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history.”

He says he’s scared for the US because, “social media-fueled division that has gotten people killed in the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.” 

A few days back I asked my friends (and posted here) if they could justify using this corrupt social network. But don’t take my word – pay attention to this FB employee!

And you’re still using Facebook?

This country is in flames while Facebook continues to play the game of ‘free speech’ –basically making space for hate speech. In Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia Facebook was called out for this last year – and apologized.

Zuck’s apologies mean nothing!

Today, Facebook’s own employees have called out its morally bankrupt leader on his decision to not take down the innuendo-rich Trump tweet on the “looting…shooting”  in relation to the George Floyd protests.

There’s no point hand-wringing, and criticizing, if you’re still using Facebook. It’s time to quit! The time was two years ago, actually.

Breaking news is broken. The replacement parts are not available.

Ok, I am being facetious here in my post headline. But what annoys me is how news organizations continue to parrot the ‘Breaking news…..” model, trying to get our attention, when the news is not actually breaking. It’s often late to the party, and the story is fractured.

Did you hear the one about the Nobel prize winner from Japan who claimed he had reason to believe Coronavirus was designed in a lab in Wuhan?  If you did,  I hope you did not share this story on WhatsApp because the story was a fake. Plausible? Yes.  But it was completely manufactured. 

Many acts of disinformation are manufactured on a grain of truth, but upon that grain are placed smooth pebbles of faulty data, and these support larger rocks, perilously balanced to form what looks like some pleasing artifact.

The person in that twisted story was Tasuku Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He and an American researcher had found a way to manipulate the body’s immune system to combat cancer. He had never worked in a lab in Wuhan China, and never said that “the Coronavirus is not natural. It did not come from bats. China manufactured it.”  (See professor Honjo’s statement here) And yet, it spread like wild fire. Or rather, like a virus. Jumping from human to human because we just don’t understand how to ‘social’ distance ourselves from social media and misinformation. 

Before today’s keyboard warriors were even born, countries including the US employed such tactics. In 1693 England a printer, William Anderton, was executed for publishing stories against the monarchy. In the US around 1898 another William, published fake stories about Spain triggering the Spanish-American war.  That was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst !

Today’s breaking news model, practiced by not just the large TV networks but by lazy cut-and-paste ‘reporters’ (repeaters, really!) simply recycles this model. And unfortunately it works. Even the president is doing it. 

 

My typewriter, a Corona

My typewriter shuttles between home and my computer lab. So when I brought it back from school last week I was surprised to see it was a Corona.

The company that made these marvelous machines was actually Smith Corona. This model goes back to 1935!  I love the sound of the keys as I type. Interestingly I use it in demos when introducing keyboarding in class each semester. You should see the rush of students waiting to use the clickety-clack machine –in a class filled with 34 computers!

On an interesting side note, you should watch this TED talk that I had referenced some time back. It’s how a technology innovator names Aparna Rao, hacked a typewriter to enable it to send email! Why? Because it helped her uncle feel he was typing a letter, and still give him the ability to email. Fast forward to 1 min, 14 secs for this segment.

Covid, the back yard, and a camera – Serendipitous moments

Sometimes photographs just present themselves! On Monday we got our first batch of peaches from a yard we seem to be spending more time in now, courtesy Covid-19.

Having just co-taught a photography class, I am revisiting how depth of field, and ISO settings on my trusty (old) Nikon might make a still image more interesting.

There’s also the serendipitous moment when the morning sun filters through the trees on to a beaten up old log that the Montessori kids use for woodwork.

And yes, the peaches, about the size of large strawberries, are really, really sweet.

Photoshop, Photography and Web Design in final week of school

This was indeed a weird semester! So to end it on a high note, I taught classes on image manipulation, digital photography, and Web design on three consecutive days. Using Google meet, of course.

Photoshop was something all my students had asked for. It’s an opportunity to also connect it to real-world issues such as doctored images in news –a blood relative of ‘fake news’ — digitally altering historical figures –Churchill without a cigar, MLK at a cleaned out podium on the Mall — and simply knowing how to be aware of what could be Photoshopped.

Photography may not seem related to a computer class, but we all know that taking pictures, editing, and sharing is now a given in a young person’s life. Any device is now a ‘camera.’  To make it more interesting, I invited a photographer from Sri Lanka to co-teach the class. (This is distance learning after all, so what’s another 10,000 miles?) Nazly Ahmed, a photo-journalist uses various cameras, spoke of lighting and composition, depth of field, framing, why aperture settings and ISO are important.

As for web design, the goal for the class was to give students an opportunity to design a site that could be home to their digital portfolio, or even a rudimentary business.

I also added a photography contest, so that students could go and use the techniques they learned. The winners are announced on my class website, here.

Alone Together – How teachers deal with virtual school

During these days of isolating and distancing ourselves from our colleagues and friends, I have reminded of the title of one of my favorite books, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. Alone Together.

Granted the book was about technology and robotics, but also on the ‘illusion of intimacy’ as technology was slowly polarizing us. It was a contentious topic whenever I brought it up, having  having once been a cheerleader of social media as encapsulated in my 2013 book, Chat Republic.

Photo by Chris Montgomery, Unsplash.com

But today, we all turn to the very technologies that glue us to screens, to reconnect in very unusual ways. My wife, for one (who usually advocates no screen time or very limited screen time for her young preschool students) took to Zoom. To get a 3 year-old to be in on a ‘conference call’ is a challenge for any teacher, and at odds with Montessori education.  This Monday her learning packets (left outside on Mondays for parents to pick up) included seeds, a bio-degradable pot and and dirt, with instructions they will use in the Zoom class. Montessori involves a lot of sensorial learning and ‘practical life‘ – it was Earth Day yesterday, after all. Yes, we are all learning on the job!

As for me, I have had to come up with creative ways to engage my students – weekly, daily, hourly – to keep them  on track with ongoing projects. We are ‘together’ but by appointment only whether it was via Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. I’ve been using Google Forms embedded into a Google spreadsheet. (The first was about how two of Google’s ‘moonshot’ programs are being revamped as tools to assist during the pandemic.). My students are working on a COVID-19 Report, analyzing data (and thereby understanding spreadsheets) formatting the document in real-time with me during our Wednesday Google Meet calls. This requires me to have to generate PDFs and data sets on the fly, when my online explanations fall flat. Just because we all have mics and cameras don’t solve the problem of not being face-to-face.

Online education is a lonely endeavor. You get to sense it after a few weeks of not hearing voices down the hallway, not being in an unplanned meet-up over a paper-jam in the teacher’s lounge, not being asked to fix a colleagues overhead projector, and thereby seeing something on his wall that gives you an idea for next week’s lesson plan, not being at the daily school assembly and hearing something about the volleyball team that makes your heart soar.  Facebook and Instagram (in my book, Fakebook and Instabrag) can only give you so much.

My school is trying to fill the gaps. We still continue with our Benjamin Franklin Semper Sursum awards. Our weekly conference calls are lively and inspiring. I still visit the school parking lot now and then to meet a colleague and purchase free-range eggs from her farm. My wife and I one day took a long walk and made an unannounced home visit to one of her students, at whose home we dropped off some curry leaves. We both call our students’ parents, and keep fine-tuning our teaching methods to suit the moment.

On a separate note, I am also following an online class at the University of Phoenix. Being a student and a teacher at different times of the day is odd. But everything’s out of whack, and this is, to use a tired phrase, our new normal. We will survive!

Student project on ‘The Future is Now,’ a sneaky lesson plan

This semester too I have my students work on a 4-page report on the future by having  them address technologies that they believe is impacting them right now. While my present concerns include Blockchain, bio-metrics and Cube-sats, theirs includes contact lenses that  monitor health, stratospheric balloons, the ‘cyber truck,’ drones, and AI. Speaking of which, smart speakers and robots become huge topics of discussion.

So many sidebars, so many diversions, but there is no shortage of passion about these utopian/dystopian technologies. [This week I showed them a story about how Tik-Tok, an app that most teens could not seem to be able to live without, is suspected of being a ‘parasitic’ data-harvesting operation.]

Earlier this week we discussed logos, and I showed them how to create their own logo, and  insert it in the report. The goal is to treat this as a  professional report, as if they were working for a consulting company.  Our 2-week project that’s due before Spring Break, teaches them:

  • How to research five topics, beginning with Google’s Moonshot factory
  • Formatting a report using features in the ribbon of Google docs & Microsoft Word.
  • Citation of sources .

The Lesson Plan Evolves. Over the past few years I have discovered that a report like this, intimidating at first, helps students gain a broader vocabulary about technologies they are being exposed to. They also learn how to develop critical thinking about  hardware and software, which is part of the scope of this class.  I’ve revised this lesson plan many times, and changed the pace to deepen the research, and get students comfortable with long-form content.

Not reading, not writing well is becoming a default mode, sadly. As I continue to teach ‘computers’ and have students sit in front of screens, I am determined to make sure that they leave my class with much more than technical skills.