Virtual is not enough

Ralph Schroeder of the University of Oxford (2008) has defined virtual worlds as “persistent virtual environments in which people experience others as being there with them – and where they can interact with them,” (p. 2). Mark Bell of Indiana University (2008) has postulated that virtual worlds are: “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers,” (p. 2). As a theatre practitioner, I am both fascinated and alienated by virtual worlds. Indeed, there are interesting commonalities as well as distinctions between the virtual world and the world of the play. It is my hope that both might be able to inform the other, rendering a richer experience both in the surrogate and the temporal world.

In a first analysis, donning a mask is not much different than adopting an avatar. Both transform the actor/player into an “Other,” rendering themselves into a liminal space where they are both themselves and not themselves at the same time. Actors in rehearsal do a sort of psychological dance when embodying a character. Jeanine’s solution to a bad situation is to walk away or find alternative solutions; but as Hedda Gabler, the only solution to a bad situation lies at the end of the barrel of a gun pointing directly at her self. How can I, Jeanine, make reincarnate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a character so unlike myself? This is where actor training comes in.

Some actors think As If they are the other character. They do a psychological mind shift, creating a history and breathing life into a fictional character and walk through rehearsals As If they really are their fictional character – to the point where if you call these actors by their real names in the rehearsal hall, they refuse to answer you until you call them by their character name. We fondly refer to this as Method Acting, and generally most actors take this approach with tenuous patience, with a dab of disdain behind closed doors. Some actors don’t really embody their characters until they have their character’s costume on; some until the set is fully realized.

I preferred the old school English training approach: I look for body posture, gestures, mannerism, vocal patterns, etc., that resemble what my character would look and sound like, using the adjustments to my body and voice to inform the psychology and affect of my character. I couple this with solid text analysis to understand why my character says what they do, what is their super objective, what tactics they use to achieve their tactics, and then find the spaces between the lines, the things that are not said – stolen looks, “unconscious” mannerism, proximity and distance to people and things – to bring a realism to my performance. As a director, I encourage my actors to think before, during, and after their lines: What does this line mean? Why are they saying that now? What is it they are not saying? Do they want to stay or go? Touch or not touch?

In this process we create the Schroeder virtual world where people experience others as being there with them – and where they can interact with them. Where we both are ourselves and yet represent ourselves as not ourselves but something other in an environment of our own creation. However, using Bell’s definition of a virtual world, we are not facilitated by networked computers, though we are supported by the technology of costumes, sets, lights, and sound. And it is in this way that the virtual world and the world of the play intersect. However, it is in how these worlds part ways that causes me discomfort and causes me to wonder if there is a way to overcome the alienation effect I feel whenever I engage in a computerized virtual world.

I suppose if I had to identify the elements of virtual worlds that disturb me, I’d have to say it is the effect of the non-gaze and the absence of touch that provoke feelings of alienation. The gaze of avatars, no matter how well rendered these avatars are, have the uncanny valley effect on me. The non-gaze of avatars are zombie like and impenetrable to me. And as for touch, well, the absence of touch, of warmth and human contact perpetuates a feeling of isolation for me as opposed to facilitating a sense of belonging or membership. I guess I just don’t see and feel the love in virtual worlds and I’m not sure how or if that can ever be remedied for me.

While I love to socialize with friends on Facebook, text and message the people I love, my surrogate self in these environments is not the real Jeanine. It’s the shadow of Jeanine, just the mask and not the substance behind it. So if I had to comment on how virtual worlds might be different in 50-100 years, I would have to say that they would likely have been able to figure out how to make the experiences more life like and less like rendered cartoon characters.

For now, no matter how great the technology or the ease in communicating through cyberspace may already be, I want the gaze, the touch.  I want the real deal and not just the virtual.

Bell, M. (2008). Toward a definition of “Virtual Worlds.” Journal of Virtual   Worlds Research, 1 (1): 1-5.

Schroeder, R. (2008). Defining virtual worlds and virtual environments. Journal of   Virtual Worlds Research, 1 (1): 1-5.


You’re the only one who knows

I am not perfect.

Don’t laugh. I’m being serious here.

Being sick for nearly a week during the holidays has made this abundantly clear to me in a number of ways. To list my imperfections, however, seems self-indulgent. They are the usual suspects. And then some (God forgive me).

But I’ve got Big Love, a wicked quick mind, uninhibited laughter, and Crazy-A$$ed Kitchen Dance Moves that I’m sure my neighbors will cash in on one of these days.  That stuff, I’ve got in spades: Perfectly uninhibited imperfection.

So as we end this year and anticipate the next one, here’s my proposition: Let’s Do This.

No fear.

Cause Time is not, nor ever will be, our friend.

Soon it’s gonna rain

Renowned American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, noted that a person’s final level of psychological development is achieved when all basic and mental needs are fulfilled and the “actualization” of a person’s full personal potential takes place. Examples of self-actualization include the ability to express one’s creativity, pursue spiritual enlightenment and knowledge, and contribute meaningfully to society. In order to achieve this self-actualization, however, one’s basic needs – food, security, shelter, belongingness – must be first met. When we live lives that are different from our true nature and capabilities, we are less likely to be satisfied as compared to those whose goals and lives are in harmony.

I have always been partial to the idea of striving for self-actualization as opposed to seeking some abstract notion of happiness. Happiness, as far as I am concerned, is fleeting. It is unsustainable in an ever-changing world with constant demands. In this way, my objective in relationships has never been to be with someone who has made me happy per se. Rather, the litmus test includes: Is there mutual passion and desire to understand? Can we see the beauty and potential in each other? Do we seek to own the other or can we love so fiercely that we can set each other free to choose rather than bow down to obligatory actions?

This is a complex analysis, no doubt, fraught with potential pit falls. For example, it leaves me vulnerable to affective forecasting error: the belief that future positive and negative effects will have a bigger impact on my future happiness than they actually will. Essentially, there is no way to guarantee that my future self will be happy with my present self’s decision making. But I take solace in Maslow’s belief that ultimately people are essentially motivated to realize their full potential. It’s what drives them to make the day-to-day decisions, and dream about future goals. And to this end, if I can be in a partnership with someone who also seeks to realize themselves completely, who allows me to do the same, I think that is the beginning of the greatest love story ever.

But what does it mean to live a life seeking self-actualization? Researchers say it includes the following: being able to judge situations correctly and honestly; accepting mine and other’s shortcomings (with humor and tolerance); relying on my own experiences to form opinions and not being swayed by questionable cultural values; embracing a spontaneous way of living despite what others may want; finding tasks that take me beyond myself to contribute to a greater good; striving for autonomy in thought, deed, and word; appreciating the world around me; finding comfort in solitude while being socially compassionate; nurturing close relationships; and lastly, forging deep, loving bonds.

This last one — the development of loving bonds — for me requires kindness and intelligence, both on my part and in my beloved. When those two elements are absent, suspicion, hostility, and anger invariably rear their ugly head despite our best of intentions. I really believe that kindness goes a long way in staving off broken dishes, slammed doors, cold shoulders, and lonely nights.

Ultimately, I may not always have made the best choices for my future happiness, but prescience about our future selves is a complicated, if not impossible matter for most people. However, I am hopeful if I start from a place of kindness and intelligence, I can, to paraphrase Tom and Schmidt:

Find four limbs of a tree,

build four walls and a floor,

bind it over with leaves,

and run inside with you to stay.

Then we can let it rain,

we’ll not feel it

nor complain

if it never stops at all.

We’ll live

and love

within our own four walls…

I know that the question of “Does this person make me happy?” is a much simpler analysis. And perhaps if I were a simpler person, this would satisfy me. But it doesn’t. And honestly, I’d rather be alone in a corner with a puppy and a goldfish then deny my chocolaty, complex, actualized-seeking spirit.

Youth, technology & civic education

Civic engagement is a normative concept. This is particularly salient when we consider what are valid and viable civic actions in a digital age. User-generated content sites expand the opportunities for young people to connect, engage and create. Rooted in social relations, young people’s civic identities, political views, and values are driven by the digital media. Youth and digital media disrupt the traditional power relations between adult authority and youth voice. Recognizing this disruption is an important one. In addressing how to promote democracy and a culture of democratic practice, we must first recognize that our current political system no longer has a stranglehold on how we engage in meaningful dialogue about ideas and policies. Indeed, youth who are tethered to online communities also engage in the discussion of important ideas, but a mere cacophony of opinions does not in and of itself contribute to the progressive development of a democratic society.

While youth have access to digital media tools to build social and personal identities, they lack the skills to communicate their common concerns in effective ways to larger audiences. An informed opinion — clearly expressed, and rooted in history and philosophy — is key to meaningful civic participation. But how do our youth learn to become democratic citizens in a society where civic education is disappearing from our public learning institutions? The withering away of civic education in our public education system should be a trend reversed and revised. Part of this revision must include a consideration of how technology can and should contribute to a more fully realized democratic society worthy of the root meaning of “civic”.

“Civic” comes from civis, or “citizen,” and the corona civica denoted a garland of oak leaves and acorns given to ancient Romans who had saved a fellow citizen’s life. With this in mind, then, to be civically engaged and promote a civic education means to engage in life promoting acts rooted in ethics and morality. And perhaps this is one of the sticking points as to why addressing a civic education in the public school system has become so problematic: how does one maintain a separation of church and state when on the tightrope of discussing ethics and morality? I think the answer comes in embracing the power of inquiry as a means of instruction as opposed to didactic instruction. We need to educate our youth to ask important questions and discover meaningful answers for themselves – not spoon-feed them with standardized, limited answers.

I believe the new millennium will come into politics but in a manner different than their parents and grandparents. Enabled to be both producers and consumers of information with unprecedented speed, online networks can be galvanized at critical moments and not merely employed at yearly election of representatives who may or may not be responsive to radical decision-making when necessity dictates. But in the absence of a formal digital civic education agenda that can support the development of effective and meaningful civic participation, it seems that educators should integrate across the curriculum principles of a civic education framed within the trends and potential of our current technological landscape. Much in the same way that socio-emotional learning is increasingly being incorporated in traditional learning domains, civic education should similarly be incorporated to support the development of the well-informed, online, civically engaged problem solvers of tomorrow.  And doesn’t the world need better problem solvers? I know I do.

Frustration and desirable difficulties

I find it only a little ironic that some of my most recent research tasks include devising interventions for GIFT (Generalized Intelligent Framework for Tutoring) based on the affect frustration, important when one considers how frustration is negatively correlated to learning gains. Post the heyday of Behaviorist research, Amsel (1992) proposed a theory of frustration as it relates to learning. In this theory, he identified how frustration in achieving a goal can be overcome in partial reinforcement extinction conditions when the outward manifestation of conflict disappears after overcoming emotional conflict in circumstances and the subject reengages in approaching a goal even in the presence of anticipated frustration. One idea in regards to devising an intervention to overcome frustration is in providing the frustrated learner with a meaningful factoid that provides information that should motivate the learner to reengage with mastering their goal task, encouraging the learner to push through frustration and reengage with achieving their goal.

While the Behaviorist approach to learning has fallen out of favor amongst educational psychologists, what’s old is what’s new in Bjork’s theory of desirable difficulties (1994). Bjork has demonstrated that certain difficult training conditions that would seem to impede performance actually yield more significant benefits than easier training conditions. The objective in this condition is not to ameliorate the frustration of the learner through reducing the level of difficulty in a task, but rather support conditions that would have the learner push through the difficulties in achieving their goal contributing to greater long-term learning.  Think of weight lifting to build muscle, and you’ll get the general drift.

I suppose the layman’s interpretation of these two approaches is essentially what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And so in these frustrating times, here’s a little factoid to keep you warm at night: Keep Calm and Drink Scotch (we will find our way).

Deliberation and discord

According to deliberative democratic theorists, deliberation is when individual behaviors and perspectives are transformed through collective action to achieve mutual understanding and agreement. A utilitarian approach to informing action, John Dewey notes deliberation is hallmarked by its restorative social quality: “It is to resolve entanglements in existing activity, restore continuity, recover harmony, utilize loose impulse and redirect habit.”

However, these efforts are not mathematical nor objective, nor rendered valid by merely weighing the ends against the means.  Rather, deliberation is chiefly a process through which people make choices, based on social ethics proscribed by institutional arrangements, to enlarge their mutual understanding and sympathy.

This deliberation, according to Dewey, requires improving the means of communication among and between citizens that provide a depth and range of domain expertise, as well as being informed by scientific discoveries. Dewey believed democracy was the social embodiment of intelligence informed by mutual understanding and respect of all — towards all — citizens.

Yet, more times than I care to admit, I find myself in situation replete with unresolved entanglements, discontinuity, discord — usually a result of unharnessed impulse and stubborn habit.  In those moments, I’ll just blame it on the night and the wine. I would like to think Dewey would understand.