teaching philosophy

On Play and the Digital

Plato countered the political chaos of pre-Socratic Athens by vilifying ancient cultural traditions and observing that it was really only the poor and the poorly educated who were still putting much faith in old-fashioned public discourse. He’d thrown together a little curriculum guide, which he’d called Republic, and included a step-by-step plan for policy–makers and citizens interested in reclaiming the agora from criminals and con artists — from all public performers, really, because you just never know.

Plato’s curriculum proved especially popular with the Church, with Renaissance banking dynasties and wealthy techno–industrialists. But his diminution of mimesis and play — relegating poetry and dance to mere shadows of the world, instead of worlds in themselves — had an indelible effect on philosophy, art, and pedagogy.

For nearly two thousand years, the West endured a kind of metaphysical Footloose. Until the first years of the 20th Century, when play — like electricity and the combustion engine — was suddenly at the heart of everything that mattered. Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Charles Ives, Max Ernst, Harold Lloyd, Grand-Guignol, Montessori pedagogy, the Harlem Renaissance, DADA.

But this brief return of play as a legitimate topic for philosophy seemed, for some, short-lived. In the mid-1930’s, the Dutch medievalist Huizinga saw Hitler’s witless pandering and violence as a threat to play’s continued well-being. He was thus moved to make an imperfect but marvelous claim: Play is not only one of the great accomplishments of a culture, it is also the foundation of human civilization. Farming, theater, literature, war, the courts: These were sites of play first, says Huizinga.

As concept, context, posture and method, play has been central to my work in the classroom: Not because I am unserious, but in part because I see new forms of play and mimesis as key to thinking about digitality on its own terms. My pedagogy draws heavily on Huizinga and other theorists of game and play like Piaget and Papert and Brian Sutton-Smith, and contemporary philosophers who are putting play to great use: Zizek, Sloterdijk, Boal, and Ulmer.

Sutton-Smith adds further dimension to my little project when he amends Huizinga to observe that not only does play explain how we got here, but it strongly suggests how we might move forward. Play is a mechanism of adaptive potentiation, he argues: An evolutionary advantage. Quirky, redundant, and outrageously inefficient, I see ludic thinking as the 21st Century analogue of Enlightenment-era critical thought.

I see play as the way we survive the Anthropocene.

Curricula

I believe higher education curricula in the humanities, media production, and computation should:

  • Emphasize four synchronous domains of engagement: Making, knowing, inquiring, and becoming;
  • Encourage students to hypothesize wildly but require them to test against those hypotheses aggressively and with rigor;
  • Encourage students to self-identify as local experts; create spaces for them to share that expertise; build assignments that require students consult with one another;
  • We have long modeled literate ideals in our courses. Now, in the era of digital networks, faculty should learn how to model our critical and productive relationship with technology, data, social media and consumer culture;
  • Faculty must acknowledge that “learning over the lifetime” means academics, too: In addition to performing our expertise, we must not shy from modeling our student-selves. We must be responsible to communities beyond our own disciplines.
  • Higher education can reimagine itself as as a well-spring of human dignity and agency in the information age by focusing on the quality of inquiry, and let other domains contend with the answers. In the course of discovering and posing questions, we are most fully human.

Pragmatism

I am an admirer of pragmatism in the tradition of Dewey, who believed that education was a social undertaking, with social consequences, and that curricula are best when they are plastic: Not a set of bullet points from a faculty meeting, or a Congressional hearing, but a dynamic body of ideas which is both subject and ground of student work. There is much to like about an approach that begins with an admission of its own contingency, and then actively recruits students as subject-matter experts.

I admire, too, the neo-Pragmatism of Richard Rorty, who rejected the absolutes of Idealism, preferring a philosophy that was not interested in Truth so much as Solidarity. Rorty argued against the Classical notion of “Knowledge” as the object of education, as it continued the Attic mania for achieving “a place beyond inquiry.” As I read him, Rorty would prefer that we abandon the exclusive pursuit of Knowledge, and embrace instead “the notion of Bildung (education, self-formation).”

Five Ways I Cultivate Student Learning

Engagement

I always try to foster a technically-rigorous, historically-situated, critically-sensitive engagement with technologies drawn from a range of industries and settings. Those technologies are often digital: In my courses on animation and computer art, for example, we have built drawing bots with stepper motors, repurposed MIDI data, and created responsive puppets with live motion capture). But older, simpler technologies are often richer for their accessibility. In Arcade Theory, for example, we spend a few weeks on chance: We cast reproduction astragali, 4-sided proto-dice made from knucklebones of quadrupeds (our first “information technology”); we conduct a session of Exquisite Corpse; review a copy of RAND Corporation’s A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates; set up an automated station to determine if polygonal dice are reliably random; and look at the code of both a pseudo-random number generator and an implementation of Perlin noise. As we grow familiar with the material-technical character of randomization, we draw on supplemental readings: e.g., Casanova’s memoirs (on probability in card games), and Hacking’s masterful account of the invention of probability.

Output

My courses typically emphasize novel forms of output. It is one thing to “make learning visible,” but I try to foster further student engagement by organizing curated events around their best efforts. In many cases, it is as simple as keeping a portable printer on hand and creating an ad hoc exhibit from current projects during class. Exhibiting in other venues, even in a tiny coffee shop off-campus, is frequently a source of quiet, unanticipated pleasure for students. Other forms have included business-friendly white papers, manifestoes, three-minute research pitch video, industry-standard video game proposal document, and so on.

Local Experts

I encourage local expertise, and look for new ways to acknowledge student skills. When working with a student to define early research strategies, I try to include (where possible) one or two expert students in my list of “initial experts to contact.” I make a point of acknowledging student expertise, and deferring to it, in class.

Innovative Inquiry

I challenge students to discover how otherwise unremarkable technologies might be recruited for the project of critical inquiry. Within class and without, I try to call attention to sites where students can make casual use of computation and procedural literacy in their research and their daily lives. Young women, persons of color, and non-traditional students merit extra attention here, always.

Classroom Interventions1

Five Instances of Serious Play

One of the great advantages to teaching courses on procedural literacy, media philosophy, video games and simulation is that the subject matter lends itself to exciting, if preparation-intensive, scenes of inquiry. I frequently stage these for classes; in many cases, we are joined by additional students from the Program.

Goldfarming marathons. After the World Bank came out in favor of so-called “liminal ICT work” as a viable employment option among SE Asians (see, e.g., Heeks), we wanted to better understand what might be lost, and gained, in the process. We lock ourselves in the program’s cramped Studio for twelve hours or so, all of us working hard inside the World of Warcraft to meet performance quotas inferred from first-person reports. (It is worth noting that we have seldom come close to achieving those goals).

Dérive DC. Peripatetic class sessions on play, the Situationists, and the psychogeographic method. We typically work our way through the neighborhoods of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, orienting ourselves with, e.g., an 18th Century map of Paris, a map of the Death Star, and an ancient Indian plan of the circulatory system of elephants.

Second-Life Build-a-thon. Second-Life sought to afford participants ownership of their world by allowing them to create their own digital goods. One way to better understand Second-Life, then, was to encourage students to understand the virtual technology that made their Second-Life possible. Students dedicated two weeks to learning the complexities of Linden Lab’s astonishingly clunky tool, and created a fairly remarkable virtual exhibit on the history of the virtual.

MineCraft Makes. One of the remarkable things about MineCraft is called RedStone. It works like copper wire, carrying a charge at a uniform rate. RedStone torches work like toggle switches, setting the RedStone charge to either On (True) or Off (False). In addition to Zombies and Creepers, then, MineCraft can operate as a Turing-complete hardware simulator. We took advantage of this easy-to-access shared virtual space in order to collaborate on a 4-bit full adder (a very simple calculator): When complete, it occupies the equivalent of a football field in MineCraft, and it takes seven seconds for it to compute 1+2. But it was a gratifying project.

Hackathons. In my programming-oriented courses, we usually have at least one hackathon per semester. Supplied with appropriate food and drink, students choose from among several partially-built projects (video games, twitter visualizations, an so on) and work collaboratively to complete it. It allows students to bear witness to their improving skillsets, and emphasizes the social pleasure that can come with collaborative problem-solving.

Case Study: Course Relevance

Digital Research: Micro-Tasks

The Intercept reported this weekend that Google has recently made use of distributed micro-tasking to train and test Air Force object recognition AI. This news comes after the company’s recent concessions to employees who demanded that Google abandon their bids for potentially lucrative DARPA drone AI contracts.

How have my classes already engaged with students on matters like this?

We have discussed crowd-sourced research at length in my Digital Research Methods graduate course; an undergraduate version would be fairly similar. In that course, we engaged in several “citizen science” projects, distinguishing between that model of anonymized participation and the more recent “community-centered research” model: While the former tends to see participants as a source of labor, the latter sees participants as coequals in research design. Each capitalizes on an affordance of the digital, but only the latter uses the digital as an opportunity to re-imagine the relationship between the university and its neighbors.

We also built and tested some basic micro-tasks using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (likely more difficult for an undergraduate class, and probably restricted to in-class demonstration). The affordances of the tool are many, but the complexity of effective research design is a high barrier to entry that will restrict the tool to specialists for the foreseeable future, ironically rendering “the wisdom of crowds” as an elites-only resource.

We have discussed the problem of ethical oversight in the context of new research methods like the one Google used. The course observes that traditional failsafe mechanisms like university IRBs will respond to requests more slowly, and with greater likelihood for misunderstanding some aspects of the request (we see this with virtual world research frequently).

For this reason, and half a dozen more, we speculated that part of higher education’s reform should capitalize on the work that the university (philosophy, “the Queen of the Sciences”, in particular) used to perform on behalf of the public: Helping human beings live better, more circumspect lives. Not instrumentally, through the work we do for pharmaceutical companies and policy-makers and warfighters, but for individual human beings, most of whom likely still think of “personal data” as their Social Security Number and their iTunes userID. We should encourage our neighbors to ask not only “what does it mean to live well?”, but also “how can I better know and care for my data-selves?”2

One possibility, explored at the end of a previous iteration of the course: We ought seriously to consider ideas like creating massive, interdisciplinary “digital ethics” working groups that work like problem-based consultancies both on-campus and off-. All disciplines until now have had their own proprietary applied knowledge about the ethical use of specialized data-types: An English major understands how to select and attribute a line from a poem by Keats; an Art History major knows that a specific Attic black krater is part of a collection; an Anthropology major devotes a lot of time to preserving information shared by informants. But there are now myriad issues in the digital infrastructure both above and below data of the kind mentioned above. Given this weekend’s revelations about Google’s micro-tasking and the Facebook Research app3, among others, we are pressed to ask: If not us, who?

References

  • Fang, Lee. 2019. “Google Hired Gig Economy Workers to Improve Artificial Intelligence in Controversial Drone-targeting Project.” The Intercept online. February 4.
  • Tiffany, Kaitlyn. 2019. “Facebook has been paying teens $20 a month for access to all of their personal data.” Vox online. January 30.

Five Successes

During my time at Catholic University of America (as a TA) and Georgetown (as a member of the core faculty), I was lucky to work with some extraordinary students, educators, and administrators. Where I have succeeded, it is invariably thanks to the supportive nature of those environments, and the generosity of colleagues and students.

Grants. Over the past six years, I have been PI (or co-PI) of three modest technology and pedagogy grants totaling $20,000. The largest grant (on technical standards and university curricula worldwide) was via NIST; the other two were through the Provost’s Office at Georgetown.

Consults. At Georgetown, I consulted for three years on the design and implementation of the library’s $50k maker hub and their $8k gaming hub, both of which have proven popular with students and faculty. I also lead the committee charged with reimagining our program’s Media Research and Design Studio (approx. $50k).

Firsts. At Georgetown, my course offerings included the first graduate-level humanities courses to feature programming; game design; development for mobile platforms; data science.

Scholars. Over half of the dozen MA theses and capstone projects I have advised were awarded Honors by the Graduate School. Some of my advisees have gone on to pursue their PhDs at Penn, Clemson, Oxford, Berkeley, Pitt, Duke, MIT, and Michigan.

Diffusion. My Expressive Computation course has introduced nearly 100 graduate students in the humanities to procedural literacy; 98% of these had no prior background in programming, and 95% did not expect to take programming courses in grad school. Of these, at least 9 former students make daily use of code in their careers; of these, I know of four students who have adapted elements of Expressive Computation to new situations: A mobile maker hub for young women, sponsored by the Guatemalan Population Council; a private school in Argentina; a workshop series for employees at startups in DC and San Francisco; and public workshops offered in the Beijing suburbs.

Bibliography

  1. The term intervention comes from Stuart Moulthrop’s essay “Rethinking Scholarship in the Days of Serious Play.” He calls it “a new genre of formal academic work” that is contributes “to pragmatics as well as abstract understanding.”
  2. Research interests and classroom work are are reciprocally-determined here. This course was prompted by an eye-opening experience I had working briefly with a Dept. of Education-led group charged with helping communities exploit massive datasets across various agencies to better foresee the needs of at-risk youth. It was a well-intentioned initiative funded by President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program: For the young men about to be “helped” by this program, it could have been rechristened “My Keeper, Big Brother.”
  3. Beginning in 2016, Facebook encouraged users 13-35 to opt-in to a research study by downloading a VPN app. It gave that company’s research arm unfiltered access to participants’ email, messaging, browser history, and so on, paying subjects $20 a month. Facebook also paid those users to recruit their friends to the program.