Dystopias and Utopias: looking to the future #edmooc

This week the E-learning and Digital Cultures course continued to explore the topic of dystopias and utopias. Again we were given four short films to watch (1). The theme of the week was popular cultures and the films all focused on the blurred line between the real and virtual worlds. Through the readings (2) we branched in to looking at the impact of technology on education and specifically the emergence of MOOCs.

Cate’s not around this week so it’s just my response for now:

With the video A Day Made of Glass I felt I’d seen something close to my first vision of utopia. When I realised it was an advert I understood why – of course it’s going to depict something close to perfection in order to sell a product! Nevertheless I felt that this world wasn’t so far removed from the one we’re already living in with our smartphones and tablets giving access to information anywhere and anytime. In the discussion group this week (which doubled in size from 2 to 4 members) we talked about how access to the kind of technology visible in the forest in this film, something akin to augmented reality as far as I could see, would change what knowledge meant. No longer would we be required to remember information or use our imaginations. What would it do to conversation or discussion if we outsourced our memories for knowledge storage?

The technologies on view in Productivity Future Vision and Sight quite frankly put the fear of God into me. Productivity showed me information overload in the extreme with a world where we are constantly connected. Sight was just creepy. Both raised serious questions about what would happen to relationships and social interaction in worlds where life was so driven by technology.

One concern I had after viewing all of these films was “what is going to happen to our eyesight?” Will viewing the world through a screen 24 hours a day change our physiology? What if technology advanced but our bodies didn’t and we all ended up reliant on this technology but unable to use it? Scary.

So then we shifted gear quite dramatically to focus on MOOCs. As a group we discussed our personal experiences of this new way of learning. I think we all agreed that we were taking part in this particular MOOC to challenge ourselves and to expand our knowledge in an area that interested us and was aligned to our work; but that we were not necessarily participating for work. Personally I’m not sure whether I’m participating in the spirit MOOCs are intended – I engage with the content, but not the people. I find that there is too much noise in the discussion and other online forums. It actually clouds my ability to engage in the topic and with the resources because there’s too much information and not enough space to think.

Reading Clay Shirky’s article about MOOCs I found myself by and large agreeing with his viewpoint: MOOCs will change the understanding and practice of education. I am very interested in the idea that the disruption (whether it’s in relation to music or education) is in the stories being told, not in the activity or its outcome.

Update 27/2: Cate’s now back and here’s her response

Having been reminded of Orwell’s ultimate technological dystopia in week 1, I was motivated just after week 2 of the MOOC to pick up a copy of 1984. In hindsight, this was not fantastic timing.

I watched the first two video clips for this week without having read the descriptions. When afterwards I spotted the word “advertisement” below, I certainly had a surprise! The first two clips, it transpires, are advertisements for Corning (a speciality glass manufacturer) and for Microsoft, which give us a peek into the world they see for us in the future. Both companies rely largely on touchscreen technology and both bring technology into most aspects of day to day life.

So the day after peering into these futuristic, glass-based, technology dominated worlds, my first adventure into Orwell’s dystopian description of London in 1984 had some uncomfortable similarities. I can’t help but see echoes of the ‘telescreen’ in both the Microsoft and Corning visions of the future. For Wilbur Smith, the telescreen pumps in enforced exercise routines in the morning, and propaganda throughout the day. In the Corning video as soon as one character wakes up, she springs out of bed to choose her outfit on her touch screen. Later the only aspect of play that we see involves a small practical joke played on her father using her glass tablet. At school (even on a school trip the educational activities the class take part in are all delivered through yet more glass interfaces. Even if not overtly controlling, the frequency of the interfaces Microsoft and Corning suggest makes them feel quite invasive.

In 1984 the ubiquitous Big Brother can also use the telescreen to check your compliance with the strict rules that govern every day life. Corning and Microsoft are less forthcoming when it comes to explaining who designs their overruling systems, and whether there is a built in element of surveillance. If we take Google’s current modus operandi as an example, it is perhaps inevitable that where data can be mined, and used for a commercial advantage, Microsoft would be unlikely to miss out on the opportunity. If the systems they design are embedded so far into every element of day to day life then that gives a lot of possible data about a wide range of our preferences or routines. I’m pretty sure Orwell would have something to say about these these fresh-faced, smartly dressed characters, smilingly introducing these ever present and covertly controlling technologies.


  1. A Day Made of Glass, Productivity Future Vision, Sight, Charlie 13
  2. Shirky, C. (2012). Napster, Udacity and the academy. 12 November 2012.
    Bady, A. (2012). Questioning Clay Shirky. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012.