Why am I hear again?

I’ve been spending a lot time looking at stuff online lately that is “new” to me both in terms of how it is delivered (blogs, wikis, other social software) and the topics it is covering (bots, online communities, innovative educational uses of technology). The experience has been exciting. It has also been scary.

What’s scary about it is how hard it is to keep it all in my head. Quite frankly (and not to be trite), the internet is an overwhelming place. At the same time that I find myself stumbling on a new idea or a new take on an old idea, I can feel my brain resisting. My mind is saying “Okay, how do I integrate this new concept into what I already knew? Where do I file it? How do I recall it? What real connection can I forge right at this moment to make this concept more real, more easily recognizable, and more likely to inform my future conversations (both with others and myself)?” The whole experience often makes me want to turn off the computer and watch reality television. And I hate reality TV!

Occasionally, however, I’ve come across an article, a blog post, or a Web page that just solidifies something for me. That’s what happened when I came across Sue Thomas’ Walter Ong and the problem of writing about LambdaMOO at trAce.

The title of the article caught my eye at a post on Many 2 Many (a blog on social software that I had bookmarked weeks ago and just got back to visiting today). The reason the article caught my eye is because it mentioned Walter Ong. Walter Ong was familiar to me because a long time ago, in a different context, before I even knew what the internet really was, I read Ong’s Orality and Literacy for a paper I was writing on Chaucer. I loved Ong’s book and his ideas. For years I’ve been holding on to Ong’s comparisons of oral and literate societies in the back of my head; his descriptions of how the shift between these two communicative channels fundamentally altered how humans interact with each other and the world around them has always resonated with me. And probably the single most important idea that got me to “drop” a career in teaching, law, or conservation and instead pursue instructional technology was my fundamental belief that technology–and not just technology but the kind of communication that the internet was heralding–was going to cause the same kind of incredible, fundamental shift in human psychology and society. I mean, it was going to change the world, people! And I wanted to be a part of it.

It has been a while since I was inspired to embark on this path for those idealistic reasons. And in the meantime, I’ve gotten to see the mundane side of technology and education. I’ve seen the horrors of maintaining technology in an educational setting. I’ve seen the difficulties in finding great tools and then finding money to buy them and support them. I’ve worked on the “dark side” and seen the challenges of working as an administrator where you constantly have to balance the practical with the achievable with the desirable. And, quite frankly, I started to wonder if:

  1. the great “shift” was ever going to happen, and
  2. was I going to be too old to appreciate it (or understand it) when it finally occurred?

Well thank you to Sue Thomas for putting this all back in perspective. Her article deals with writing about LambdaMoo, a text based virtual community where people can interact, explore, and “live” online. But her conclusion that “LambdaMOO and places like them are unique in that although their sole method of communication is textual, the communication that actually takes place there is oral,” seems to me to apply to many online communities in general. In fact, it illuminated an experience I had earlier this year when I “virtually” participated in a discussion at Educause. A recap of that strange and unexpected event can be found on Gardner Campbell’s blog.

During a post-mortem about the experience, a few participants were debating how best to “share” it with others–much like Thomas mulls over how to share the experience of LambdaMOO with those who have never experienced it. And, I think her application of Ong’s description of oral culture describes our challenge as well: “MOO life happens, as Ong describes of a real-life oral community, ‘as it really comes into being and exists, embedded in the flow of time.’Its characteristics are therefore those of a group which shares physical space and human experience, and it is equally fractured and transient.”

Thomas’ interest revolves around the interaction between fiction and this new medium. However, I think her idea that the kind of communication that occurs in these spaces is a hybrid oral-literate communication is applicable and valuable for our own epxeriments with creating online communities for the purposes of teaching and learning. What happens when communication that “feels” oral to the participant is recorded and “psychologically locked” (Ong’s phrase, not mine) by technology? How does this alter how we use the medium? How does this alter what we take away from the experience?

I don’t have an answer to those questions, but I’m excited about starting to think about them in this new way.

(I should also mention that Nancy White, the original blogger at Many 2 Many whose post brought me to Thomas’ article also has some great insight into the issues Thomas raises. I’d go on, but I feel that I’ve gone on long enough at this point. For now.)

So Thomas’ essay resonated with me because of a specific experience I recently had, but, perhaps more importantly, her words reminded me of why I’m doing this in the first place. And, finally, she helped me to capture a feeling that I’ve always relished: that my life continues to come back around in circles. Ideas that inspired me as a 20-year old undergrad can still inspire me now, and, hopefully, ten years from now will come back to haunt me again, in new and unimaginable ways.