Skip to content

Two: Beyond the digital dichotomy

Deep in the edtech sprawl, where daylight only rarely penetrates and you can hear the constant hum of servers being cooled, there is writing on the wall:

Is digital better?
Is a computer better?
Is AI better?

Passers-by hurry past these words, but they still read them. In those words they hear the deep thumping beat of the march of the machines. That sound is never absent from the edtech sprawl, forever thriving to mechanise, industrialise, to cut costs and increase profits. ‘Better’ may look glossy, sexy, new… but usually it is shorthand for something more, for devaluing labour for example. Deep in those dark and dank streets, there is a constant race to keep up, to remain relevant, to be employable. There is a competition to answer those questions about what is better, who is better. A machine or a human being.

Fortunately, we are making a map (with small moving footprints on it like the magical map in Harry Potter, only that the footprints on this map glow briefly in different neon colours… it is the Neon Flaneuse we are following after all) that will lead us to think about things in a different way, beyond the ‘digital dichotomy’. Beyond, to a more helpful and interesting part of the sprawl, where we can sit on a bench and watch the world go by. A bench which is still wrapped in the grey fog of the metropolis, but where the daylight sometimes penetrates. The bench has a plaque which reads: In Memory of Lilac and Flag.

There are two things I want to think about:

Creative professional practice, the way artists and designers work, which often blends different modalities of working, analogue and digital. Their approach provides a different starting point for thinking about the relationship between humans and machines or humans and data, more integrative than adversarial.

Also, experiencing art in person, rather than looking at a (digital) representation of or reading about it, may point in the same direction. May help our thinking take a step away from which is ‘better’, take a step back from the human versus machine narrative and get us to a more interesting place… .

Let’s think about art first. Many artworks are now catalogued online, and I can even take a virtual stroll through a museum or exhibition. The experience of reading about and looking at digital representations isn’t the same as experiencing a painting or a sculpture in person. Even if I wore a VR headset, and the recording or scan was extremely high resolution, it would be different to my first hand experience. It may be amazing, but it’s not the same as being there. It’s hard to articulate those different experiences I find because usually the language we use to talk about experiencing things through machines or the way in which machines function humanises technology. We use phrases like ‘the camera sees’ or the ‘the computer thinks’ or ‘the robot cares’ and that confuses the issue. So articulating the difference between what a human being does and what a machine does is tricky unless you are expert enough to use technical terms. Yet encountering art, a sculpture or a painting for example, is different for a human than it is for a machine. Obviously. 
There are many variables between an object, a person and a situation, that combine to create the experience. All of which contribute to the meaning that particular work of art may hold for the individual. Nothing holds meaning for a machine.
Some elements of that meaning may be shared, like feeling small when encountering a large installation. Others may be so specific that they are singular. Some art or architecture is so spectacular that it is easier to engage with it because we know we should – we should look for meaning. But it can be hard to find, and taking a selfie, having a record, has become the predominant mode of engagement.

I like to imagine that with the Neon Flaneuse any museum I went to would suddenly be quiet, that people would magically melt away. All those labels and descriptions would also disappear and we would just follow our feet and stop and pause whenever something really captured our imagination. I went to art school for six years and yet never developed an interest in reading about art in museums. I still hardly ever read the labels. I know that I can remember enough about it to look it up in a book or on the internet later. But when I’m there in person, I want to really pay attention, to notice what I get from the experience. 

Many people don’t feel that they really understand art.
So they read the information provided in order to do so. It helps make sense, explains why something is important or what others feel was special about it.
But if the museum was devoid of such clues, if there were no markers to tell you which one to pick, what would you go by?
How would you know which one to like?
Which one to take a picture of?

For me, personally, encountering art is all about the moment. There are artists whose aesthetic, ideas, style or mastery I admire. There are types of art of which I like the medium. There is art that I like because of its role in history. But for that I can buy a postcard or read a book. I don’t need to necessarily go to see Marcel Duchamp’s urinal or Rachel Whiteread’s house. 

Instead, I want to focus on what I feel drawn to. A tortoise would be a good museum companion, making her way slowly and steadily through the levels. She could potter on whilst I stood still. People usually find that annoying. After all, there is always more to see, guides to follow.

A few years ago I spent the morning at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh and the visit had two real highlights. Walking up to the museum I saw a big neon sign spelling out the words: everything is going to be alright. It really meant something to me that morning. It was just the message that I needed to see light up in bright lights. It made me smile despite being wet and cold. 

I went to see the Ed Ruscha exhibition they had on and some specific artworks I’d never seen before in real life. It was interesting but also what I had expected. No surprises, even though I learnt a lot. But in the last room of the exhibition I came across a painting that made me stop in my tracks. I sat down in front of it for so long that the school kids with their sketch pads were jostling me as they made their drawings and the security guard gave me funny looks. But that day this particular painting made me feel that sitting and staring at it, really drinking it in, was just what I wanted to do. It inspired me. It made me think and feel things I hadn’t felt before. Looking at it now on the Tate website I don’t connect with it in the same way. I still ‘like’ it and I get echoes of how I felt that day in Edinburgh but it’s different. The moment has passed, it’s become part of my story. 

Coming back to those words on the wall, to the adversarial “which one is better” narrative… I don’t think it’s helpful to think in terms of which one is better. How we perceive the world isn’t better or worse than what we can measure or capture with tools and machines. Technology is useful. It enables me to learn all about that painting I saw in Edinburgh, to show it to you, to reference it and so forth. There is no competition as to what is better. Each type of experience, different ways to relate to and interact with the world have a different purpose and meaning. Both have value.

Creative professional practice has a long history of making use of technology. Digital technology has expanded the toolbox significantly but physical objects and other forms of knowledge are no less important. It seems perfectly logical to combine using original archive materials with digital sources to create physical models which can then be used to create a digital version and so forth. All have their place in the creative process.

There’s an interesting documentary series on the art of design that gives insight into this beautifully, but I’d guess talking to most creative professionals or visiting an art school or studio will highlight the same. The point is that we use whatever is the most useful without creating a hierarchy of what’s better. There is a joy in creative practice which I feel is absent in much of the work in educational technology. 

So instead of asking which is better, a print maker or a printing machine, a teacher or a teaching machine, we ask different questions. We don’t set up a dichotomy which focuses on measurable indicators rather than purpose and meaning. We move beyond the digital dichotomy and we keep walking and go to the museum. Pick something and spend some time sitting with it. You won’t need to take a selfie. You will remember.

At the museum

Soundtrack for this post:
Our Day Will Come by Amy Winehouse