Boldly Go: An Essay on Technology and Reflection

When I close my eyes, and picture what reflection looks like, I imagine time and quiet solitude, much as Ellen Rose (2013) describes in her book on reflection. I picture myself sitting by a window on a summer afternoon, gazing outside.

I would not last long beside my window. I would move into my garden, to listen to the wind and birds, smell the lavender, feel the cool grass, and the warmth of my cat against my shin. Under the shade of the ‘Hobbiton’ tree in our backyard – like the tree under which Bilbo Baggins’ long-expected party takes place[1] – I might recall how it was this tree that sold us on this house seven years ago, after seeing the bald lots of so many new-build homes. Listening to the nearby seed-cleaning mill, I might think about how much farmland surrounding my town has been lost to residential development, whether the seed-cleaning mill will soon be displaced, and what all of this means for food production and timber consumption. I might recall the clear-cutting I’ve observed driving through Swan Hills, Alberta. Is that timber used in Canada, or is it exported? Is it the same in New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies were filmed? In these adaptations of Tolkien’s work, director Peter Jackson infused a critique of New Zealand’s deforestation (Jackson, Osborne, & Walsh, 2003). What do we lose in exchange for (perceived) progress? I might wonder if the Hobbiton tree had to be CGI’d[2] into the LOTR movies. I have my tree, in my backyard, and it’s the real thing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos preserve my tree, along with the context of each moment. Would a virtual reality (VR) rendering better preserve, or change, these for me? What if I created/programmed the VR myself?

In contrast to Rose’s (2013) description of sight separating observer from what’s observed and thereby creating a space wherein reflection may occur, my reflective experiences are typically immersive. All four of my senses are catalysts for reflection, opening pathways to meander and explore. For me, reflection would be diminished without the sense of hearing, in particular, complementing the sense of sight.

In an EDDE 801 forum post, I shared my idea of “hyper-symbolism”, imagining how 3D/4D[3] VR could change the role of symbols in human-object-knowledge relationships. Rose (2013) describes how advances in spoken and written language translated knowledge into abstract symbols, enabling people to imagine, reflect and communicate, disconnected from concrete experience (p. 47). With advances in VR technology, I speculate knowledge is being repositioned to reside within high-fidelity proxies of objects, still abstracted, but providing richer data to inform experience and reflection. Would a VR garden provide more paths for me to explore, versus the garden imagined in my mind? Would the enriched data experienced in a VR garden foster an extended and semantically deeper reflection?

I agree with Rose’s assertion that reflection is in decline, relative to the rise of industrialization and specialization, and advances in computer-based technology. I agree hyper-attention, and the distractions posed by connected technology, in particular, threaten reflective engagement, and its semantic quality, for many people (Rose, 2013). Rose (2013) shares an excerpt from one of her student’s papers, illustrating this threat (p. 88). I offer a counter-narrative:

I’ve been working at my desk for two hours, deeply focused on a task. I hear a tribble[4] coo, alerting me that my husband has sent a text message to my iPhone, which is on my desk beside me. I scroll ahead in the PDF document I’m reading, seeking a natural spot to pause for a break. When I reach that point in my reading, I take my eyes off my computer screen, pick up my iPhone and read the text message. I check my email, and the app where my daughter’s teacher posts daily updates. I engage superficially in these activities, and continue thinking about my work task, pausing periodically to type some ideas into a Word document open on my computer. I check my Twitter feed, retweeting some poignant items. One item seems relevant to an academic paper I have to write, so I follow the link and read the full blog post. I consider how I might synthesize this source into my paper. Then I have an aha! moment: Reflecting on the blog post has changed my perspective about part of my work task. I return to my work task with a fresh lens and new insights.

In contrast to Rose’s student, I am a highly self-regulated worker and learner. I use distraction strategically to create space to reflect and refresh. Though I’ve had these meta-skills for as long as I can recall, they were refined through cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques I’ve studied and applied in my life[5].

Similar to the study participants Rose (2013) describes on page 92 in her book, whom she concludes are reconceptualizing distraction, the distractions of (connected) technology that  I experience create a space for reflection by cuing me to detach cognitively from deep focus on a work task. Within this space, I reflect on my work task independent of direct engagement, as I meander down pathways that the distractions – visual, auditory, and tactile, as in my garden narrative, above – provide, stumbling across catalysts for innovation that I synthesize into my work task. Sometimes this space does span only 20 minutes (p. 92).

Unlike Rose, I view the challenges posed by hyper-attention and distraction as part of the process of collectively negotiating new relationships with technology and new habits of self-regulation. Technology may return to us the time, space, and quiet solitude necessary for reflection, semantically enhanced by access to richer data (experiential knowledge), and enabling reflection to become a more democratic (and interdisciplinary) pursuit. In imagining how artificial intelligence (AI) will change our work lives, for instance, many experts envision AI will free humans to undertake work that is wholly reflective, creative, and strategic (Reddy, 2017).

Rose (2013) describes a return to reflection as crucial if young people are to imagine “new possibilities for themselves and their world” (p. 99). Even with hyper-attention and distractions, however, unsatisfied young people are forging the future they desire. Job mobility, for instance, is becoming normalized, as young workers prioritize meaning and self-actualization over job stability (Lyons, Schweitzer, & Ng, 2015).

Social media may help return to us the habits of reflection, as we negotiate mutually constitutive public and private spaces, the substance of each informing the other. We create pathways, for instance, to translate products of private reflection to collective imagination within the public sphere, towards the creative, innovative, and strategic pursuits the AI experts envision.

Perhaps I watch too much Star Trek! Though, it was Start Trek creators[6] who imagined the connected handheld devices that Apple Inc. has realized in the iPhone and iPad, which have sparked monumental shifts in our relationships with technology (and each other).

Rose (2013) challenges that “technology become not the means of instruction but its subject” (p. 104). I think, however, technology could be both, especially considering the distinction Rose draws between education and schooling.

To me, instruction means primarily one-way transmission of knowledge, a functional and instrumentalist process. This is consistent with definitions and etymology provided in the Oxford English Dictionary (“Instruction”, 2017), and aligns with Rose’s (2013) conception of schooling being “to inculcate the information and values that individuals will need in order to function” (p. 99).

Star Trek film director J.J. Abrams (Abrams & Lindelof, 2009) depicts schooling on the fictional planet Vulcan, showing students interacting with adaptive, VR-based learning technology in individual pods. I doubt Rose imagines something like this when she thinks about technology being a means of instruction. But, what if schooling on Earth came to emulate Vulcan-style schooling? If we imagine machines (computers, artificial intelligence, etc.) responsible for instruction/schooling, perhaps this would return teachers to teaching/education, to mentor and foster student creativity and discovery, to translate the subject of instruction to become the subject of reflection and imagination (Rose, 2017, p. 99).

Though, technology may also have a role in education. People who don’t code don’t realize that computer coding is immensely reflective, creative, exploratory, and slow. As “writing discovers as much as it communicates” (Moffett, quoted in Rose, 2013, p. 63), so does coding. Failure is normalized, and essential to success. Doing coding teaches that perfection is a paradox, and teaches how to make meaning from failure. Coders frequently take a step back to ponder, as they construct. Creativity and reflection are connected times/spaces, and are mutually accountable. Coders discover the creative affordances of technology as they create, and, in response, re-imagine what they wish to create. These are not the problem-solving applications of reflection that Rose critiques as contradictory to her conception of reflection (p. 103), but rather expand the possibilities for coders/creators “synthesizing their dreams, fantasies, with their actual experiences” (p. 47).

As an adaptive technology, VR offers similar reflective extensions as coding (especially for coders who create VR!). User-technology relationships of the future will move beyond the pages of the reflective journal, integrating richer sensory data that create exponential garden paths to explore, carving out space for and deepening our capacity for reflection.

References:

4D film. (2017, October 22). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4D_film

Abrams, J. J., & Lindelof, D. (Producers), & Abrams, J. J., (Director). (2009). Star trek [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Four-dimensional printing. (2017, August 28). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-dimensional_printing

Four-dimensional space. (2017, October 10). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-dimensional_space

Instruction. Def. 3a, 3b, and 4. (1989). In Oxford English dictionary online. Retrieved from http://www.oup.com

Jackson, P., Osborne, B., & Walsh, F. (Producers), & Jackson, P. (Director). (2002). The lord of the rings: The two towers [Blu-ray]. USA: New Line Cinema.

Lyons, S. T., Schweitzer, L., & Ng, E. S. (2015). How have careers changed? An investigation of changing career patterns across four generations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(1), 8-21. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-07-2014-0210

Reddy, R. (2017, October 11). 22 experts predict how artificial intelligence will impact the  enterprise workplace. Retrieved from http://acuvate.com/blog/22-experts-predict-artificial-intelligence-impact-enterprise-workplace/

Rose, E. (2013). On reflection: An essay on technology, education, and the status of thought in the twenty-first century. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

 

Footnotes:

[1] In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit.

[2] CGI = computer-generated image.

[3] 4D adds sensory elements, time and spatial elements, as well as capacity for manipulation (4D film, 2017; Four-dimensional printing, 2017; Four-dimensional space, 2017).

[4] A fictional invasive species in the Star Trek universe.

[5] The Athabasca University course BEHV 655, for which I undertook a self-change experiment using CBT.

[6] Gene Roddenberry, and others.

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Filed under Mobile and Emerging Technologies, Research and Perspective on Technology in Education, Virtual & Augmented Reality

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