Culture Wars: when did they start?

I am not sure there is agreement on what a culture war is but for me it is not simply disagreement over a policy or idea, or even heated disagreement, but the kind of disagreement which does not allow for compromise or acceptance that the other side has a point.  As such you are not just arguing about x or y but there is something more at stake in terms of identity, including party political identification, going on beneath the surface. To be a culture war and not simply a skirmish, the argument needs to be taken up by large groups of people in society – something that tears families and friends apart. [1]

The best example, we had in UK of a full-on culture war in terms of scale and refusal to listen to the other side was the Brexit referendum. However, over time Brexit has lost its potency: many of those that voted remain have reluctantly accepted they lost the vote, and many of those that voted leave see little to revel in.  Of course, we do have culture skirmishes on topics such as taking the knee, taking down statues of civic leaders involved in the slave trade and what should be included in the school history curriculum. These are all important issues, and anyone offering forthright views might be pilloried on social media and, if high profile enough, subject to hate mail and worse, but most of these skirmishes have not really hit home beyond supporters of different positions, at least not on the same scale as appears the case in USA. Two examples of this less fevered atmosphere are vaccinations (over which there is a huge consensus that they are good thing) and mask wearing which is supported by voters of all parties in more or less equal measure, though supporters may differ a little on the reasons they do so. [2]

This talk of culture wars is by way of reviewing Jon Ronson’s new series ‘Things fell apart’. Ronson’s niche as a journalist is dealing with off the wall opinions, often beliefs in conspiracy theories. When presenting he is is ‘faux naif’; he is rarely shocked, more curious, about why people think such outlandish things with such apparent conviction. 

To give a flavour of Ronson’s earlier work, have a look at his documentary on David Icke [3]

Icke was a minor sports commentator in UK but achieved notoriety in the early 1990s when he took the mantle of ‘son of the godhead’ upon himself and made apocalyptical predictions about the disasters about to befall the earth.  Later, he offered more off-the-wall ideas including, reportedly, the idea that reptilian beings had taken over leading positions on earth. Ronson followed Icke on a tour of Canada and while his stance is not sympathetic Ronson does not mock in the way that Icke was routinely mocked by most commentators. Reflecting later on conspiracists, Ronson became more concerned by their psychopathic behaviour but this did not stop him recognising the following they attracted. Writing in 2021 he noted: 

… there was something that the mainstream media, in its hubris, failed to notice about David Icke: a growing number of people were feeling more aligned to him than to his tormentors. These were people who also, for their own reasons, felt ridiculed and shut out of the culture. And so when Icke re-emerged with his paedophile lizard theory he immediately began selling out concert halls across the world. It was an incredibly surprising and, I suspect, spiteful story born from injury: conspiracy theory as grievance storytelling. And it was a dangerous theory, with its appeals to paranoia and delusion. [4]

In this present series on BBC radio [5] Ronson is building on his work in the field of conspiracy theories to ask when did issues that should have been questions of reasonable debate become toxic, in other words when did arguments about school textbooks, abortion and today vaccination against Covid and mask wearing become part of a culture war? This leads him to the USA and in the first of his series he covered the abortion debate. 

It was surprising to me and I guess to most of his UK listeners to find that abortion was not a key concern of evangelical Christians in the 1970s or even at the time of the Roe v Wade case back in 1973.  As Ronson explains abortion was very much catholic territory but this changed and one key player in making this happen was Frank Schaeffer. Perhaps Ronson is bigging up Frank’s influence, but it is a good story nonetheless. Schaeffer produced a film for his father, Francis, to illustrate his grand opus on belief and civilisation, ‘Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture’. The film ended up as a ten-part series looking at large themes of art, history and culture. As a film it is low budget and clunky, especially so after all these years, but it has to said by and large it works. There is a lot of talking to camera but the backdrops change and documentary footage is frequently spliced in dramatic effect (not sure if there were copyright infringement here but never mind). Francis comes over as stern and unyielding as a narrator but speaks clearly; he does not rant and rave, and he has a genuine interest in art and civilisation.  What particular appealed to evangelical audiences was that he was saying it was alright to be interested in culture and so gave religious belief some gravitas and a sense of higher purpose.  That said, the films are, from my point of view, largely propagandist and the relentless message is humanism (in Francis’s view the mistaken idea is that we all have a right to express our agency, and the right to use reason to set out laws to address the problems of the day) is failing, we should get back to the word of God to regulate our affairs. [6]

Ronson is interested in these films as abortion is thrown in towards the end of the series as illustrative of the perils of secularism. Apparently, its inclusion had come about as Frank had linked the ‘pro-life (or anti pro-choice)’ argument with his own experience of having become a father, rather than any insistence from Francis.  The film was shown to large evangelical Christian audiences in USA as well as countries in Europe. Frank had a keen eye for publicity to trigger initial interest and after that it became a a word-of-mouth phenomenon. 

‘Should We Then Live’ was followed up with the much less popular ‘Whatever Happened to the Human Race?. This differed in that the anti-abortion stance was laid on with a trowel. There were repeated images of gurgling babies contrasted with gruesome images of dolls floating around in the Dead Sea to represent aborted foetuses. According to Frank he had to push and push to get evangelicals to take notice of the film and they only did so when it had generated sufficient controversy. This led Frank to take the ‘credit’ (in inverted commas as he came to regret his stance and disowned the evangelical movement) for tying in anti-abortion positions to evangelical Christianity. 

It seems clear that Francis and Frank Schaeffer played a part in making abortion a left-right issue but others point to baser political concerns. Jimmy Carter was standing for re-election. As it happened events in Iran scuppered his chances but this was not to be known at the time and opponents were looking to drive a wedge between the liberal Carter (who described himself as a born-again evangelical Christian) and evangelical voters. Abortion was the issue to do this and it was pursued relentlessly by Republican strategists iin the service of Ronald Reagan, the republican challenger who ironically had enacted some of the most liberal abortion laws as state governor in California. Increasingly from then on abortion became a toxic political issue [7].

Ronson is a good story teller and the idea of understanding how culture wars began is a good one: we need to remember when it became normal to refuse to listen to the other side.   What we learn is that culture wars did not begin with the internet but were always there. Abortion became an issue of political identification through using old style media, interest group networks, print advertising coupled with party political manipulation. Maybe divisions later became amplified by social network algorithms and online echo chambers but the process is not inevitable. The conditions existed for abortion to be a touchstone issue in England (it remains so in Northern Ireland) but it did not happen. Of course, this might all change, but we need  sociological and political explanations as well as technological explanations to explain how and why they do.  

Notes

[1] Writing about his stint as Washington correspondent the BBC correspondent Jon Sopel started by mentioning the things he most liked about living in the USA but then commented on growing culture wars in US. He felt that the list of of no-go topics for the thanksgiving dinner table is now so extensive, that many families have simply decided it is better to call the whole thing off  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-59395804

[2] See Chris Anderson and Sara Hobolt (2020) No partisan divide in willingness to wear masks in the UK

[3] The Secret Rulers of the World – David Icke, The Lizards and The Jews – Jon Ronson was broadcast 6 May 2001 it is to that easy to find but try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBMw2QErYzs

[3] Things Fell Apart available as a podcast on BBC and other outlets https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/series/m0011cpr

[4] This is from Channel 4 in UK but not difficult to track down on YouTube and other networks.

[5] Jon Ronson (2021) Making sense of conspiracy theorists as the world gets more bizarre, The Observer, 11 April, 2021

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/apr/11/making-sense-of-conspiracy-theorists-as-the-world-gets-more-bizarre

[6] How Should We Then Live (1977) is easily tracked down on YouTube and other outlets

[7] See Luis Josué Salés (2021) Christian attitudes surrounding abortion have a more nuanced history than current events suggest, The Conversation, 13 July 2021 7]

https://theconversation.com/christian-attitudes-surrounding-abortion-have-a-more-nuanced-history-than-current-events-suggest-162560

Seeing through other eyes: City twinning

I have covered more global themes on this blog but now something local. Coventry, where I live, has been putting on events as part of its UK City of Culture status. There is very little extra money associated with becoming a city of culture but it is a good boost for community arts around the city and provides a focus for doing the city up. The programme has been delayed by COVID but you can see more here. Coventry UK city of culture 2021: https://coventry2021.co.uk

The University of Warwick, where I work, is half in Coventry and half in Warwick. It has traditionally been keener about the Warwick link probably because it taps into Shakespeare and heritage. However, the university, along of course with the city centre Coventry University, has been very supportive of the City of Culture and has sponsored various projects.

University of Warwick support for city of culture https://warwick.ac.uk/about/cityofculture/

The project I have been involved in has been about city twinning. We carried out research using archives, interviews with people who had exchanged visits and with people who had come to live in Coventry. We created a web site as a resource on twinning and we worked with local artist, Gemma Foy, to produce a short animation.

Our web site https://warwick.ac.uk/coventrytwinning

The project focused on Coventry and the story is distinctive. Twinning was a response to the destruction carried out in the second world war (1939-1945) and to a subsequent desire for Coventry to be a city of peace and reconciliation. In recent years Coventry has gone on to become an international city and some of our twinned city links reflect the diverse communities we have in our city.

Through the project we came to see how exchange can create enduring links between people and places even when national politics become fractured.

So what is the recurring value of twinning? We come back to a theme which was raised by everyone to whom we spoke– that of broadening horizons. To us as educationalists this is a powerful message as education aims not only to provide young people with skills and knowledge but a sense of curiosity as to how others live. The history of twinning gives us powerful insight into how we can see through other eyes and learn that we are all fundamentally similar when it comes to our hopes and anxieties, even if we differ according to accident of birth and upbringing.

We were funded by a small grant from the university’s City of Culture fund and from Coventry Creates, a joint Coventry and Warwick university initiative to support the City of Culture. We acknowledge the support of the Coventry Association for International Friendship.

We are talking about the work online Thursday 24 June, at 12.00 UK time.

Click here to join the meeting

Remembering school

In the London Review of Books the other day, the academic Laura Finlayson wrote a short memoir on her school days [1] . She was very far from happy and she explains:

When I was thirteen, I left school and never went back. I don’t remember much about my last day. I don’t remember what lessons I had, or what I did when I got home. I only remember trying to make a mental recording as I walked down the corridors, into the foyer, out the automatic doors and onto the bus. I’d made a decision not to tell anybody I was leaving and waited until the end of the autumn term so that nobody would know what I’d done until the new year. It would be my own secret, daunting escape. My private anti-climax.

I was jolted reading her account as it took me back to my own feelings about school, which were similarly negative, and my belief at the time that there was something going on in the everyday routines of schooling that had little to do with learning. I also identified with Finalyson’s uncertainty in dealing with authority. As she put it, she had ‘little appetite for a confrontation I knew would be futile.’

Like Finlayson I left school early (at 16) and enjoyed learning in adult education and further education. However, my path diverged strongly in that I became a school teacher, though like many of my colleagues at that time more by accident than design.  Unexpectedly, I became a fan of school. I was fortunate that in my first post I saw some excellent teaching and not the kind of arbitrary power that knocked me off balance as teenager.  I wrote about  some of these experiences in reflection on technology and teaching:

What struck me was the deep moral compass of the school.  It had, at the time, a remarkable mix of students from different ethnic backgrounds and it sought very much to create a sense of belonging for all students and for the wider community. For example, music teachers promoted a strongly inclusive steel band, ‘community’ languages were taught, some post 16 teaching was open to the community and at Christmas lunches were put on for local pensioners. Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people.  Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible.  I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a shade perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, you are pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it?”. Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However, the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling.  I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically before. 

Later I was involved in teacher training and what saddened me most in Finlayson’s account is that she was referring back to the late 1990s when I was regularly visiting schools and observing new teachers. This was, I firmly believed, the start of a golden age of teaching and by 2010 Ofsted (the inspection service) claimed that we had the best trained teachers of a generation; unusually I thought they were right. So I came to love many things about schools and remain instinctively defensive of teachers and teachers even though now my work has taken me into different directions. This defensive has only increased during COVID as I am very aware of the work teachers have been doing, not just to keep learning going, but to make sure children from deprived areas have access to food [3]. Yet, I welcomed Finalyson’s account and I am very conscious that schools do not work for everyone and for that matter did not work for me.

[1] Finlayson, L. (2021) I was a Child Liberationist, London Review of Books, 43, 4 [online] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n04/lorna-finlayson/diary

[2] Hammond, M. (2014) My work among the keyboards: Remembering the early use of computers in the classroom in (Eds) A. Tatnall Reflections on the History of Computers in Education. Berlin: IFIP Springer.

[3] Butler, P. (2021) One in five UK schools has set up a food bank in Covid crisis, survey suggests, Guardian, 4 March, 2021 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/04/rise-in-food-banks-in-uk-schools-highlights-depth-of-covid-crisis-survey

School closures and educational disadvantage

We are now getting a better idea of the impact of school closures on children’s education (as I write this some students are going back to school but the picture is mixed, it is still not education as normal). Many schools have been going well beyond what is formally expected in supporting access to free school meals, contacting children at risk and supporting children on-line but there is overwhelming evidence that children’s learning has been adversely affected.

I noted in my previous blog that I was struck by the growth in live classes during this period of ‘lock down’ – i.e. synchronous classes where the teacher tries to as far as possible teach over Zoom, Teams or the equivalent in a style that mimics as far as possible what they would do in a physical classroom. Before ‘lock down’ live classes were very rare though I do remember some initiatives for hard to reach children, for minority subjects such as Latin when there not the numbers to teach in school, and on-line classes for gifted and talented students across a cluster of schools. Live classes were rare in most other countries too but were, I believe, a feature of rural schools in China.  My own on line teaching during lock down is limited. I have mostly been working  one to one with research students while the university is closed but I have done some live classes.  It is quite doable but there is a sense of talking into a void which makes you realise how many signals you pick up in a face to face classroom in ways that are hard to do on-line, especially if you are working through a presentation on a shared screen. Live classes can also feel overwhelming if you try to follow the chat feedback while listening for on screen questions at the same time. I think this means there is a tendency to ‘overteach’, or less politely talk too long and ask fewer questions, especially as on-line break out groups can be difficult to set up. Of course most school teachers  have been teaching far more live lessons than I have, and have developed confidence and skills with time,  but most look on these as a stop gap until institutions re-open.

So how has online learning been going in the school sector in England? In spite of the best efforts of many parents, teachers and students, recent research is suggesting that it has not been going well. School children are not accessing on-line classes as consistently as they did face to face but more striking is the disparity – the most disadvantaged pupils are getting the least teaching [1]. This seems primarily due to absent or inadequate technology which means that disadvantaged students cannot access the lessons in the first place. It is clear too that disadvantage is self-reinforcing. Parents with higher levels of education and professional jobs are better able to support the children through the school curriculum, are more likely to have networks to support their children’s learning and more likely to have access to adequate technology. They are more likely too to go to schools in which teachers have found it worthwhile to develop on-line resources prior to school closures. In contrast, in many schools in disadvantaged areas teachers have not developed the same level of  innovation on-line as significant numbers of students could not access anything they produced. Educational disadvantage has become a live political issue due to the very visible inequalities during lock down. But, in truth, differentiated outcomes have been particularly stark in England over many years and require something more than a quick fix to address.  School closures have simply accentuated the problem.

[1] Two recent reports give a similar picture:

Lucas, M.,Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020)  Schools Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, Berkshire: NFER / Nuffield.

Montacute, R. (2020) Social Mobility and COVID-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality, London: Sutton Trust.

 

 

 

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What we can learn about technology from school closures?

Technology, Pedagogy and Education, a journal I am close to, has put out a call for papers on the Covid-19 and the role of technology in teaching [1]. The deadline for abstracts is soon, 17 April, so hurry if you are interested.  I’m not writing a paper for it but the lockdown has pushed those of us interested in technology and learning to reflect on how education is coping. Four observations:

  1. The lockdown has shown that there is no mystery, technology will be used when it serves a purpose. Researchers have always fretted that technology seems to be so under-used, but the message is clear that when teaching and institutional objectives align, technology will come into its own [2]. Though having said that I am surprised at the speed with which many institutions have responded and the willingness of so many teachers to suddenly start working online.
  2. We’ll get back into face-to-face teaching again after working online. This is not so much an issue for schools, they need to be face to face, but I think we will see the same in higher education as well.  There will, I hope, be a new flexibility around online learning but I hear from so many people that they do miss the direct contact even if the online teaching has gone better than they thought it would.
  3. Live lessons and webinars have worked. In the past live classes were always the least used of online tools within virtual learning environments, there were too many logistical demands and teachers did not like teaching to camera. Yet, when asked to, teachers have offered bursts of live classroom teaching, in some cases longer lessons.
  4. ‘How do you teach online?’ is still one of the least helpful questions about technology being asked. Instead let’s reframe it as ‘How can you be the kind of teacher you want to be when working at a distance?’. For example if you are an inquiry kind of teacher then get the learners exploring (e.g. ‘Using online and other available sources find out: Where did this Covid-19 virus start?; Why isn’t there a vaccine?; What does the future hold for schooling’ and so on). If you like group work then try asking groups to tackle one or more of the above questions together and report back (either live or by uploading a document to the group forum). If you like guiding learning then offer more input (eg lead the learners through a comparison of a false news site and an authoritative site reporting on Covid-19 and ask them to carry out a short comparison using online sources of their own). Only if that is the kind of lesson you are happy doing should you give them an hour-long live lecture!

I hope your online teaching / learning / entertainment is going well and look forward to talking about our experience when all this is over.

[1] Download here Covid special issue call for papers

[2] I write about this at more length in Hammond, M. (2020) What is an ecological approach and how can it assist in understanding ICT take‐up?, British Journal of Educational Technology, (early view).

Why do some people wear a Fitbit?

I was thinking back to a conference that took place some time ago on the theme of data capture, in particular to the presentations on wearable physical activity devices or trackers [1]. These were still fairly new at the time and I quickly picked up that the people in the audience, most of whom were much younger than me, were quite sniffy about them. This contrasted with their enthusiasm for hearing more about music streaming. We talked about this over coffee and one participant mentioned his disappointment that his partner would only listen to the same songs again and again on Spotify rather than accessing their Daily Mix (a collection designed to extend your listening based on what you had already accessed). I sympathised. In contrast there was not much talk about activity trackers; they were not cool and they were not going to take off.

Well, I don’t think trackers have turned out to be cool but they have slowly taken off, at least among certain social groups, though nothing like to the same degree as social media [2].  But it remains easier to see the limitations of the wearable devices than their advantages [3]. An obvious constraint on take-up is that users have to invest in hardware (wearable devices) to get the full benefit and this costs money and is another piece of kit you need to look after. There are doubts too about the accuracy of trackers and concerns over privacy and sharing of data.  Activity loggers can play into people’s anxiety about health and advertising can take the form of  gender stereotyping.  Ceaseless logging of physical activity can become an end in itself so that you end up gaming the system, e.g choosing your terrain carefully to increase step count. For that matter you can cheat outright – for example by attaching the device to a bike or dog! The key point, however, is that if you are comfortable about your fitness level the devices serve no real purpose; if you are naturally fairly active you just get on with it, you don’t need to measure what you are doing. This is even more the case when it comes to logging sleep activity. Those who sleep well don’t talk about it, record it or even think about it, they just do it.  In fact were they to monitor sleep they might well become more self-conscious and disrupt what was working perfectly for them in the first place.

So why trackers? They can help users who have a special need to focus on physical activity and this seems to be particularly the case as you get older and are aware of becoming less active. The evidence is fairly slim, surprisingly these are still early days in research of activity logging [4], but as Ridgers et al. (2016) put it ‘there are some preliminary data to suggest these devices may have the potential to increase activity levels through self-monitoring and goal setting in the short term’. This is not a ringing endorsement but sounds about right to me.

Aside from large scale quantitative work, we also need to know more about the experiences of wearing these devices. Again there are some papers often based on what particular types of wearer get out of it, e.g. those recovering from serious illness, using activity as part of weight reduction programme, older people. The key point made by Jarrahi et al (2018) is an obvious one, but worth repeating: if you are disposed to see wearable devices as motivating then you will find them to be, if not forget it.

Noticing gaps in the literature I spoke to people I knew who used activity trackers and asked them for their opinions. They had found the devices generally useful as they helped with focusing on activity levels. Users had particular goals in terms of improving fitness or weight watching so that if they noticed their step count was falling they would deliberately do something about it, i.e. go for a run or walk. Some spoke of friendly competition with others. The devices were worthwhile though their usefulness was linked to the short term goals they had set themselves, future use was less clear.

I don’t wear an activity tracker. However, I did once have a Garmin watch which I used for a while for tracking runs. I got some satisfaction from knowing I was improving my speed and I liked to check that I was pacing myself evenly. I got out of the habit of using the device when, as age was catching up on me, my times were getting longer rather than shorter. Of course logging might be most useful when performance is dropping but I felt knowledge of my own tail-off was only go to depress me. I also found charging the device to be a faff and worried about the power running out. At one point I was disappointed about a run because the battery had discharged half-way through and I would not get a full reading to download. This was ridiculous. Why did I need to measure it to believe I had done it and enjoyed it? However, even if I no longer use my watch, I still line up with other runners after a weekly Park Run to get my time recorded [5]. We clearly have no need to do this, so why do we do it? I found some comments by Engeström [6] useful here. Drawing on Vygotsky and Russian social constructivism, Engeström sees exercising agency (i.e. getting to do what we would know we want to do or must) as a two fold process: first design it and then do it (the execution phase). He gave the example of an alarm clock. Finding the will to get up earlier is not easy. The alarm clock helps reminds us that we must do it. However, an alarm set by someone else would not work, we need to have planned for its use, i.e. we calculate what time we need to get up and set the alarm accordingly. In fact very often the planning is enough and we wake up any way before or as the alarm goes off. I think tools to measure physical activity work in a similar way. We design the use of the tool, i.e. we personalise the device with our details, we look at captured data and we make judgments about what we need to do, and having designed it we feel encouraged to do it. We are using the device to put into effect an otherwise vague intention to take more exercise; the device is helping us do it. I don’t want to go out and buy a tracker or Smart watch but I am not as dismissive of them as my fellow conference participants once were. And I will still queue to log my time at Park Run even if the data are only pointing in one direction.

[1] Wearable devices will capture data on movement, including how far one has moved and how many steps completed. They will also do a calorie used count and may monitor heart rate, sleep length and sleep activity. Waterproof devices will do distance and strokes when swimming. Data can be shared by users.  Probably the best known companies for producing wearable devices are Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and Withings. A smart watch is not dedicated to physical activity but will include physical activity tracking. A smart phone App such as Map My Fitness can log runs,  but does less than a wearable device.

[2] Estimates of numbers of users are in the tens of millions, e.g. 30 million estimated active Fitbit users and 55 millions Apple watch wearers, 20 million Map My Fitness users, These are large numbers but not in the same league as, say, numbers of Facebook users.

[3] There are several contributions on trackers and other devices to ‘The Conversation’ which are fairly sceptical of their value, e.g.:

Siek, K. (2020) Why fitness trackers may not give you all the ‘credit’ you hoped for [online]

https://theconversation.com/why-fitness-trackers-may-not-give-you-all-the-credit-you-hoped-for-128585

Duus, R. and Cooray, M. (2015) How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers

https://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-the-dark-side-of-wearable-fitness-trackers-43363

Kerner, C., Quennerstedt, C. and Goodyear, V. (2017) Young people oppose Fitbits in schools [online]

https://theconversation.com/young-people-oppose-fitbits-in-schools-84311

[4] There are several systematic reviews, e.g. Ridgers et al. (2016) and Shin et al. (2019), with most concluding that there is not much to systematically review in the first place.

[5] Park run is a free 5km run held in many parks in UK [https://www.parkrun.org.uk] and now around the world.

[6] Engeström’s key example concerns ‘cheating slips’ used by students. These are notes which student might access during an exam but Engeström argues it is the making of the notes rather than the access to them that make them effective.

References

Engeström, Y. (2006). Development, movement and agency: Breaking away into mycorrhizae activities. In K. Yamazumi (Ed.)  Building Activity Theory In Practice: Toward The Next Generation. Osaka: Center for Human Activity Theory, Kansai University. (CHAT Technical Reports #1).

Jarrahi, M., Gafinowitz, N. & Shin, G. (2018) Activity trackers, prior motivation, and perceived informational and motivational affordances. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 22, 433–448.

Ridgers, N., McNarry, M. and Mackintosh, K. (2016) Feasibility and effectiveness of using wearable activity trackers in youth: a systematic review.  JMIR mhealth and uHealth 4, 4: e129.

Shin, G., Jarrahi, M.H., Fei, Y., Karami, A., Gafinowitz, N., Byun, A. and Lu, X. (2019) Wearable activity trackers, accuracy, adoption, acceptance and health impact: a systematic literature review. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 93: p.103153.

 

 

 

 

Hunting sound

I was researching technology and international exchange the other day and came across two stories in the history of technology which were new for me. The first concerned World Tape Pals [1].  This was an organisation set up in 1950 to encourage the sharing of news and perspectives from people around the world. A kind of discussion forum before its time. The technology used was recorded tapes and members not only stayed in touch with family living overseas but linked up with people they had not previous met to share culture and languages – they were ‘sound pals’ rather than ‘pen pals’. In the mid-1960s the World Tape Pals was reported to have about 25,000 members worldwide though of course many more people would have used tape recorded exchanges in informal ways.

The story of Word Tape Pals led me on to a couple of articles on sound hunters by Karin Bijsterveld [2] [3].  Simply put sound hunting was about capturing everyday life and was popular, although always a very niche activity, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time people were asking what they could do with the new technology of the tape recorder. Suggestions from the early manufacturers included recording the gurgling of a new born baby; capturing conversations with family members; recording concerts; dictating letters and so on. Bijsterveld shows some of this in the publicity photographs which put out – a couple of them are reproduced below [4].

Ambitiously it was suggested that with these recorders you could produce  your own radio plays, complete with special effects, or record yourself singing or practising a foreign language. But one further unexpected use of the technology was to ‘hunt sounds’. Sound hunters took out their devices – quite large and heavy reel to reel machines  – and tried to record ‘how everyday life sounded’: the noise made by an aeroplane engine; thow laughter in the street; the song of garden birds; the ringing of church bells; in fact anything and everything. Clubs of sound hunters grew up and competitions, including a kind of sound hunter Olympics, took place in which international teams were given limited time to produce a fully documented sound collage around a common theme.  These competitions were judged by level of difficulty and Bijsterveld (2004: 624) explains how one contestant, a salesman in wristwatches, set out to record the sound of wristwatches, for his five-minute production ‘Insomnia’:

During the recording each separate sound had to be isolated and subsequently much amplified, in order for it to be audible as a separate phenomenon on the magnetic tape… We did not succeed in fully suppressing the breathing and background noises …We tried for months and probably needed over 100 hours of work to realize these recordings.

My interest in sound hunters came about as I was simply amazed that this went on, on reflection I should not have been but it just appeared so whacky. Sound hunting is also interesting as it was a precursor and became entwined with more mainstream use of sound collage. For exmaple, in UK radio and television history you can sense the influence of sound hunting in the early radio series Radio Ballads [5] which aimed to collect songs, conversations and sound effects in a story of everyday life, and in the seminal use of sound mixing in the first Dr Who theme tune, 1963 [6].

Another reason why I found sound hunting so interesting was that it exemplified two of the ways we still respond to technology. First, the desire to capture everything (something today we see in our preoccupation with taking photos and monitoring how many steps we take). Second, the belief, pushed by manufacturers, that technology use will be creative even if this comes up against the reality that what is simpler or more instantly appealing takes over. In the case of sound hunting there was not enough to hold the attention, and in any case cassette recorders replaced reel to reel tapes and these were so much more difficult to access and edit. A further parallel between sound hunting and our attitudes to digital devices today is our belief that technology will break down international barriers only to find that they can also be used for control and surveillance. Bijsterveld (2013) provides a timely account of the first international sound hunter competition in 1972 in what was then a Warsaw Pact country, Czechoslovakia. Here the enthusiasts came up against eavesdropping by the security services and covert participation. This was capturing sound but with malice. Imagine such a thing!

References

[1] Scribner, C. (2017) American teenagers, educational exchange, and cold war politics. History of Education Quarterly 57(4) 542-569.

[2] Bijsterveld, K. (2004) ‘What do I do with my tape recorder …?’: Sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24:4, 613-634.

[3] Bijsterveld, K. (2013) ‘Eavesdropping on Europe: The tape recorder and East-West relations among European recording amateurs in the Cold War era’. In (Eds) A. Badenoch  and A. Fickers Airy Curtains in the European Ether, pp. 99-122. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[4] The source for the first is given by Bijsterveld as Grundig Radio Handelmaatschappij J.N.J. Sieverding N.V., Amsterdam 1962. The source for the second is the Photo Archives NVG, Wassenaar Courtesy Grundig Benelux. I believe I can reproduce these photos but apoligise for any inadvertent breach of copyright. The first is an early advertisement, the second shows a sound hunter in an air field.

soundhunting1                               soundhunting2.

[5] A brief description of Radio Ballads can be accessed at the BBC site

https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/radioballads/original/ but to be honest the Wikipedia entry is fuller https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_ballad . It is not difficult to track down programmes on You Tube.

[6] The story of the theme tune is again covered by both the BBC but quite fully in  Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who_theme_music

Book of the year

I spend so much time picking apart books and articles that it is a release to look back and think about what I had enjoyed reading this year, not necessarily something published in 2019 but just something I happened to read.

In respect to big ideas I went back again to Michael Polanyi’s ‘Personal knowledge’ [1]. Above all I like to read commentators who are trying to balance the idea of social research as something personal (i.e. we need to bring our own ideas to the research and as Polanyi would have it our passion) with something ‘objective’ (i.e. you cannot make it up, you can only say what the evidence let’s you say) and for me Polanyi (at least his earlier work) occupies this middle ground.

In the field of technology research I did not find anything quite so engaging but I did appreciate one article on city life that, in the words of the authors, provided,

‘a case study of informal learning and lifewide literacies amongst Glaswegian adults using three distinct approaches to data collection: a household survey capturing rich data on learning attitudes, behaviours, and literacies; GPS trails that track mobility around the city; and the capture of naturally occurring social media’ [2].

It was the work using GPS trails that I found interesting – volunteers used trackers as well as life-logging cameras and in this way researchers could see how their volunteers moved around the city. Thus they were able not just to understand attitudes to learning but they could access and to some extent observe what individuals were actually doing. In particular researchers saw an association between deprivation with reduced learning engagement (this was not surprising), but physical movement played a part too and could arguably assist in learning engagement as well as be an outcome of such engagement.  There is much hype about the use of digital devices in social research but in this case their use worked and I expect there will be much more on the study of movement in the years ahead.

But in looking for a book that I really enjoyed reading it would have to be something more literary. One contender was Gavron’s ‘A Woman on the Edge of Time’ [3] in which the author tries to understand why his mother committed suicide, aged 29, when she had just had her first book published and had a career as a social scientist stretching out in front of her. Gavron looks for answers by tracking down the people in his mother’s life (not easy after so many years) and considers both internal make-up (e.g. his mother’s volatility) and external environment (e.g. the difficulties of forging an academic career in 1960s male-dominated academia). Gavron is not able to reach any definitive conclusions but at least he is able to make sense of his mother’s action. Thus the book is not only about a social scientist (his mother) but it is also a piece of social research (though I doubt if Gavron would accept the label) as it is asking questions about agency, gender stereotyping and how society both provides and limits opportunities.

I liked Gavron but my book of the year is Lily King’s fictional account of Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in New Guinea [4]. Mead was steely and consistent in challenging what US society took for granted and looking again at her book Coming of Age in Samoa [5] I saw more clearly that this was a comparative study of adolescence in USA and Samoa rather than a study of Samoa itself [6]. During her career Mead drew the ire of the Right for, as they saw it, undermining social conventions but she, or perhaps the tradition of anthropology she helped develop, became critiqued by the Left (and now by decolonising methodology[7] ) for doing research on people, rather than for people or with people and indeed some of her work feels very uncomfortable today (see an earlier blog on photography). We all need to find our own stance on this but I think Mead’s argument would be that she had come in good faith to describe what she saw and to talk about how her own society could learn from cultures which were much less known and so much less accessible than they are today.

Anyway to get back to the book, Lily King’s Euphoria, is about doing field work in New Guinea in 1933. Mead is working with her second husband, Reo Fortune – names have been changed (Mead becomes Nell and Fortune, Fen). Things are not going well when they meet fellow ethnographer Gregory Bateson (Bankson) at a Christmas party during a break from their work. Fen and Nell have been unable to complete their field work and Bankson, a lone researcher in another village, is lonely and out of his depth, so much so that he had already attempted suicide. Their encounter somehow spurs them, Mead and Fen find a more congenial village to research and Bankson sparks into life when he realises he is in love with Nell.

I really liked the book as it was about the doing of research. To be clear it is about privileged people, not the indigenous people, but it turns the tables by treating the researchers themselves as objects for analysis. In this way you can see Nell, Fen and Bankson’s strengths and weaknesses very clearly. For example, Mead comes over as an obsessive documenter of data and as someone who struggled with local languages so that she may have missed realising when the wool was pulled over her eyes. I particularly liked the figure of Bankson (I have presented the book as one about Mead but Bankson/ Bateson is a really important part of the story) with his buttoned up Englishness and moral seriousness.

I had some reservations not least as ethically it straddles a difficult space; it is clearly about Mead, Bateson and Fortune but names and settings have been changes and Lily King provides a very different ending for Nell (which I won’t reveal) than there was for Mead. This fictionalisation presents a particular problem in respect to Reo Fortune whose character Fen comes over as abusive in his relationship with Mead and an egoist or worse when carrying out a disastrous raid on another village in search of an artefact which would, if he could get his hands on it, make his reputation.  I don’t know what Fortune was really like but this seems to be having it both ways, i.e. you can say things like this might well have happened but hide behind the fiction if challenged.

I also had a problem with the key passage in the book when the three ethnographers were actually doing some theorising about the cultures they were studying. The original section is too long to include here but one reviewer summarises it as follows:

‘In one frenzied night the trio put it all down on paper: an exhilarating scene of creative and intellectual gestation that captures all the excitement of discovery, and the promise that we might find a way to better understand humankind. Here is the euphoria of the title; that breakthrough in understanding – a moment of sudden and exhilarating clarity in the life of the artist or scientist. Nell, with her lyrical, near-poetic field notes, is as much artist as scientist, with an infectious capacity for liberating passion in those near her’ [8].

I have asked a lot of people about theorising and yes this captures the sense of release when it all comes together but Lily King makes it look much more like the kind of brainstorming that comes in at the start of a project, not at the end. But who knows perhaps she is being faithful to Mead’s own descriptions.

However this is to quibble. The book is well written and that rare thing edited with discipline so that you end up wanting more. The sections in which the characters express their thoughts in diary format work really well as it is natural that as researchers they would do this. The problems with classical ethnography or anthropology are there to see (the danger of exploitation, the privileged standpoint, the capacity to be hoodwinked, the loneliness and destabilisation) but this is not a simple put down, there is something admirable, at least in the case of Nell and Bankson, in their commitment to understanding other cultures and the critical distance they try to put between themselves and the societies in which they have been brought up. They come over as serious and humanist in their intentions. The point is that researchers are rooted in time and place as much as the people they research.

 

[1] Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago, USA, University of Chicago Press.

[2] Lido, C., Reid, K. and Osborne, M. (2019) ‘Lifewide learning in the city: novel big data approaches to exploring learning with large-scale surveys, GPS, and social media’, Oxford Review of Education, 45, 2: 279-295.

[3] Gavron, J. (2015) A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother. Scribe Publications, London.

[4] King, L. (2014) Euphoria, London: Picador.

[5] Although I have cited Mead a lot during research methods course and had read ‘Growing up in Samoa’, I had not followed all the discussion around her work and the novel filled some gaps and pushed me to read further. There is quite a lot of video footage of Mead for example this BBC programme comes from 1976.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZDQSNkplTM

[6] Mead, M. (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa, New York: William Morrow. (This is accessible in the Internet Archive as well as via other web sites: https://archive.org/details/comingofageinsam00mead

[7] e.g. Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books.

[8] Gibb, C. (2014) Euphoria by Lily King – the colourful love life of Margaret Mead, Guardian, 24 December, 2014 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/24/euphoria-lily-king-review-margaret-mead-new-guinea

 

The ethics of social research

I teach research methods courses and when it comes to sessions on ethics we normally go over the classics: Milgram’s experiments with obedience; the Stanford prison experiment; poor Alfred and the white rat [1]. All very startling but on the whole students do not get as excited as I do. I think this is first because most have heard of these stories before and second they know they could never do something as off-the-wall as these researchers. So they don’t always see the point in talking about them. Well the point, as I try to make clear, is that however extreme we find these cases today they did not seem so when they were carried out. For example, Milgram’s experiment in obedience became championed in counter cultural politics of the 1960’s and 1970 but as far as I know few people at the time said, ‘Hey wait a minute you cannot ask people to believe they are inflicting electric shock treatment just because you want to find out if they will do it!’.

So I don’t want to throw out the classics, but I would like to broaden my examples and find something a little less obvious. So it was that the other day I looked up Garfinkel’s reporting of experiments ‘in trust and stable actions’ in the early 1960’s [2]. First thing to say is that Garfinkel’s work was insightful. His career long research theme was the maintenance of order in social interactions and the role that conversation played in keeping a tight hold on the roles we could play and how we played them. To illustrate this passion we had for order in our relationships he asked (and it is not clear whether he merely suggested or told) his students to act in unexpected ways in keeping with the old adage, ‘if you want to understand something then try to change it’.

One of his examples was asking students to enter a store (or shop), to select a customer and treat the customer as a clerk (shop assistant) while giving ‘no recognition that the subject was any other person that the experimenter took him to be and without giving any indication that the experimenter’s treatment was anything other than perfectly reasonable and legitimate’. In the examples he describes the ‘subjects’ (or, let us be honest, the duped customers) becoming ‘nervous and jittery’, one was ‘flushed with anger’ and another ‘stalked out of the shop’. For good measure one volunteer student had a friend ‘a professor emeritus of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology’ (so that is alright then) who ‘begged to be allowed to accompany the student’ and joined in an experiment of his own.

Garfinkel followed these relatively mild and short term experiments with a more well-known one in which students were asked to spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their home acting as ‘if they were boarders (lodgers)’; by this he meant they should act the role of being ‘circumspect and polite’, using ‘formal address and speaking only when spoken to’. He writes that out of 49 students, five refused to do it and 4 ‘were unsuccessful’ (i.e. they were willing but the circumstances did not seem right). But four fifths of the students did try the experiment and Garfinkel reports that family members were ‘stupefied’ and ‘vigorously sought to make the strange actions intelligible and to restore the situation to normal’. He elaborates that students’ reports were ‘filled with accounts of bewilderment, shock, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and with charges by various family members that the student was mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite.’

There were however  no cases in which the situation was not restorable after the student had explained what they were doing, but family members were angry. As for the students, they did not for the most part did not find the experiment difficult to carry out or particularly taxing.

For Garfinkel these examples worked, i.e. they showed we were made uncomfortable when what was taken for granted was disrupted. But were they ethical? No I don’t think so. They may have been comparatively mild cases but this was reckless for the families and for the students concerned and I would say that family members had it right when they complained that the students were ‘mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite’.  And this actually makes me question the conclusions to be drawn from the experiments, people may have been angry, not so much because they were over-committed to the maintenance of social order, but because the student volunteers were taking the piss; as one family member said to a student ‘we are not rats’. But my overarching complaint is why would you ever want to do social science in this way? Yes, if you want to understand something then do try to change it, but why not try to change it for the better. For example, there is all manner of research into what goes disastrously wrong in families and relationships and really worthwhile attempts to explain what helps in redressing an imbalance [3]. Ethically this seems where social research should be positioned.

[1] In Milgram’s experiment volunteers were told they were assisting in a learning experiment and told to administer an electric shock every time a learner made a mistake in a test (in fact there was no shock and the ‘learner’ was playing a part). The shock generator was marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). The study was about how far volunteers would go. See:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOUEC5YXV8U

In the Stanford prison experiment the psychology building was turned into a mock prison and 24 paid male volunteers were assigned roles of guard or prisoner in order to explore the impact of taking on a role on otherwise well adjusted men. Some got carried away in their role. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4txhN13y6A

The third example concerned Watson and classic conditioning. Little Albert was around 9 months old and exposed to different stimuli and showed no fear of any of small animals including a white rat. However the next time Albert was exposed to the rat the researcher made a loud noise and thereafter the child associated the noise with the rat and would cry on seeing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hBfnXACsOI

[2] Garfinkel, H. (1963) ‘A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions’, in O.J. Harvey (ed.) Motivation and Social Interaction: Cognitive Approaches, New York: Ronald Press.

[3] As one example, Yoshihama, M. (2002) ‘Breaking the web of abuse and silence: Voices of battered women in Japan’, Social Work, 47, 4: 389-400.

Academic writing retreats: are they worth it?

The university in which I work puts on two-day writing retreat events – these are not residential but just an opportunity to work on something in a dedicated space, in the presence of colleagues all doing their own writing. I try to go to these when I can, I find I can concentrate better in a room in which everyone else is writing too. For that matter there is nothing else to do except write, so you write.  I notice too that people tend to come back to follow-up events so something is clearly working.

In addition to these internal events I have been three or four times to a week-long residential writing retreat. This is organised independently and it attracts some academics but probably the majority are working on fiction – poetry, novels, short stories. A lot of colleagues have asked me if going away like this is worthwhile and yes I would say it is. But before saying more, the concept of writing retreat needs some clarification. Some universities put on focused, structured events – they are called retreats but they are really organised residentials – around writing for publication. It seems from reviews carried out [1] that what academics like about these events is protected time, having other people around and getting some input from mentors. There is little negative comment  in the literature but I would guess that you need to make a residential voluntary as anyone who has to go, rather than wants to go, is likely to be very grumpy. The advice given for those organising a residential is to think of it as a process, rather than a one-off. In other words: prepare; run the event; follow up with participants afterwards. This means getting participants to work something up in advance, let them discuss work in progress with mentors at the event and, crucially, go back to participants afterwards and monitor what they have done and offer more support. Little to argue against here and the kind of thing that is organised from time to time for students as well.

But what about the unstructured writing retreat, the type where people go away somewhere quiet and simply get on with it, what do people get out of them? Like the structured ones earlier I think the main attraction is protected time to work on some writing. However, there are some fairly obvious reasons why they do not appeal to many academics, in particular:

  • if you are short of time to write it may not make sense to spend any of the time you do have in travelling to a retreat.
  • some academics have very comfortable arrangements for writing at home.
  • money – if it is not organised by the university then you will need to pay for yourself, and to be honest it feels like paying for the privilege of doing your job, no matter how pleasant the surrounding are.
  • squaring it with others –  if you are away a lot for your work your family will not react kindly if you go away for another chunk of time especially if out of term time.

Added to all this, I would say that for myself a writing retreat sounded really self-indulgent and I think a surprisingly large number of colleagues would feel the same way. This raises a larger question of academic identity; being an academic is supposed to include writing but this is very hard to prioritise given all the other demands on our time.  Writing is in any case so uncertain (you don’t know for sure if it will ever be published and who will ever read it?) but teaching and administration is not (you get it done and it is there for all to see).  Certainly, I would not have gone on a retreat if I did not have some teaching award prize money I could use. It was not the money, but the legitimation I needed.

It tuned out that I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the retreat- it was a small group with masses of room in the house where we stayed – and the routine of early morning walking, breakfast, lunch, cake, dinner broke up the writing really well; instead of thinking I had a whole day in front of a screen I could work around two hour blocks. I liked the mix of writers and the thing I was most worried about (there might not be other academics, or at least no academics in my field) turned out to be the thing I most liked. I got a lot of work done, much more than I thought I would, and much more than I had succeeded in doing anywhere else. I did feel undeservedly cossetted from everyday concerns but, hey, it is surprising what you can get used to. I have been back since, I try to do so once a year in order to reinforce some of the helpful habits for writing I picked up. However I would not want to do more than that as I want it to be a bit special.

So perhaps you might want to give writing retreat some thought. If so, first work out if it is an organised or non-organised event, or perhaps something in between that you want. Sometimes organisers will suggest you share your work in progress but I don’t think that will ever happen unless expectations are clear in advance.  Plan what you want to get done. If you could really prepare thoroughly then I expect you are so well organised there might not be much point in going away to write. So realistically for most people planning will mean finding a moment to decide beforehand if you want to use the time to [a] get your head around a topic by reading around it and note taking; [b] complete a draft of something that you have already started; or [c] focus on something that has been hanging around for some time, perhaps something that is especially taxing and the retreat is a reward for getting it done.

I would also advise to ask yourself if you are really looking for a holiday rather than a writing retreat. In fact, there are many summer writing retreats on Mediterranean islands and in idyllic Nordic forests advertised on the web, these are fine as holiday destinations but if you want to go on holiday then go on holiday and if you want to write then write, both are fine but not at the same time. Finally, don’t worry about anyone else. The point of a retreat is that other people have their own things to do, they are not really interested in you or your work; you can look vacant and lost in thought but that is OK as they are similarly distracted. They won’t mind it if you talk about your work, and they might talk about theirs, but only at the right time.   I suppose good advice is finally to research places to go as far a you can – actually I did not but it turned out fine.

[1] Rowena Murray amongst others has discussed retreats over a number of years as well as issues of academic identity e.g. Murray R. (2008) Writer’s retreat: reshaping academic writing practices. Educational Developments, 9(2):14-16.