E-learning and Digital Cultures: Week One


It pleases me to announce that I’ve found myself taking part in a MOOC at the start of 2013. The last time I smiled at such an acronym was when I discovered the meaning of RSS. Unless I’ve fallen upon someone taking the mickey, then MOOC stands for ‘Massive Online Open Course’. Yes! This is much easier to remember than MOODLE – the e-learning acronym for the software we use at the charity I work for, YouthNet. That one is ‘Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.’ And if you’re wondering, I did have to look it up again for the millionth time before typing it into this blog post.

Week one of the course is about dytopias and utopias created through technology and the materials we’re considering at this stage are films that depict them. The first film that sprung to my mind was Gattaca – I remember watching it at a film festival in Dundedin, New Zealand back in 2000 (Interestingly, the country that feels closest to my personal Utopia to date) where David Bellamy talked about the implications of such a world. In very simple terms, this certainly demonstrates how a perceive utopia for some, is a dystopia for others.

As I’m pretty tired, and I’m spending the evening of my birthday after a working day trying to improve my brain, I figured that there was bound to be others out there in this glorious internet who would sum up the utopia and dystopia of Gattaca quite brilliantly. And this is what I found:

GATTACA is a capitalist dystopia, to apply a broad term. In many ways it could be a utopian world: most people are genetically engineered to be born with no diseases, no afflictions, or tendencies towards disabilities; science and space travel seem to have more of a future in the GATTACA world, as Irene says in the film, “There must be a dozen launches every day,” as she stands next to Jerome at the GATTACA center, watching the rocket ships roar upwards. He replies, “Sometimes more.” Cars are electrically powered, and it seems that the world envisioned by Andrew Niccol is shiny, scientific, and antiseptic. Yet it is also a dystopia. A perfect world it is, yet only perfect for those who are genetically gifted. People’s success in the world of GATTACA depends not on their resumes and credentials, but a blood test or urine test.

I found the gems above in a blog called Exploring Dystopia  edited and designed by Niclas Hermansson.

So, now I must think a bit more for myself… I’m pretty sure that Cat Fish, would be another example of a Dystopia caused by technology – but I’m not sure, is this a bit leftfield? Or is it too close to reality to be seen in these terms? Catfish depicts an extreme example of a young man being lured into the fantasy existence of a woman who creates multiple characters online. Just this morning I read that they’ve furthered the original themes in the film to create a series – something I’ll definitely be interested in checking out. I was so struck by the original theme, that I ended up writing a poem about the phenomenon of people trying to ignore issues in offline relationships through the distraction of online ones. Thinking about it more, there is definitely an element of Utopia here too. The woman in Catfish who pretends to be different people to impress her potential young lover was actually really content in her fake world. As long as she could keep the dream alive. She was so immersed in her web of lies (no pun intended) that she had started to believe it was real and felt fulfilled to live in this version of her world.

I’ve noticed that a couple of people on the (MASSIVE) course have mentioned that identifying more explicit utopias is more tricky – I like the example of the Truman Show here and @astburyp tweeted: “Isn’t the entire Stark Trek Franchise based on a Utopian Ideal of human nature?” I’m determined to identify my own example now, but I admit I’m struggling a bit. So I’ll stop here, pleased to have got the cogs turning a bit at least.





12 responses »

  1. Nice initial entry Helen. I followed your Tweet here from the E-Learning and Digital Cultures feed. Looking forward to what the course has to offer though my initial thought is that the (student) offering is going to be vast and divergent! I foresee my first challenge being focus. Wish me luck.

  2. Great post. I haven’t seen any of the films you mentioned, other than The Truman Show. I’ll have to do some more reading, but for now I’m completely confused on why we are looking at dystopian or utopian societies. What does that have to do with online education? I am obviously missing something….

    • Hi Elaine, thanks for your compliment about the post 🙂 My understanding of why we’re looking at dystopian and utopian societies is that the technological revolution is often assumed to automatically be a good thing that will bring better things to our communities – thus there might be a tendency to embrace digital cultures for learning without questioning how they’re organised, what impact they have on individuals etc and how there’s a certain amount of human intervention needed to help them succeed. Certain technologies (or at least uses of them) can lead to quite sinister consequences if not questioned or, on the other hand, seeming scary technologies can empower the least likely beneficiaries. If we’re talking about risk, then dystopia in the modern world (and indeed our education system) is possible if we don’t recognise the importance of keeping human interactions real in online education.

      As I say, that’s my understanding so far – but I may be way off the mark! 🙂

  3. The ideas around what initially may seem utopia, and actually are dystopian based on perception has intrigued me now. Like you, I’m trying to delve further to identify utopian depictions on film. Much trickier!

    • Ah, finding uptopias on film is never an easy one. The dramatic need of film tends to make it pretty disinteresting to use of the backing of film. There’s naturally a long list of films that use apparently uptopias as a starting point but then start to peel away the layers to reveal the dystopia below. Brave New World is probably the classic example, supposedly beginning as an exploration of the benefits of eugenics before Huxley became increasingly horrified by the implications. Not to mention the long line of 70s science fiction where supposedly uptopian socities turn out to be the opposite, some where technology is the key hook, such as Westworld, and more general ficiton like Logan’s Run.

      The classic uptopia that’s worth tracking down has to be ‘Things to Come’ the adaptation of H.G Wells story. Of course, even there, the story needs a dramatic hook that creates negativity to promote the possible drama.

      But yeah, it’s difficult to divorce whether technology has a factor on dramatic media when there is such a need to keep everything moving towards a powerful conclusion. But then again the most uptopia works often have the feel of the fanatic, or on the flipside the desperate. You can find utopia works in Soviet propoganda or even the Nazi belief in technology creating the perfect weapons of war. The more terribly controlled the society the more likely the assanine media to show the future perfection headed towards.

      On the other hand a vision of freedom in a society that is heavily controlled can be really power as a form of resistance. Rock and roll wasn’t such an important part in Eastern European liberation because it sounded so good but the vision of freedom that it offered.

      But as a genuine example of how technology has been presented as providing a wonderful opportunity to liberate people from a terrible situation the take a look at ‘The Inner Light’ from Star Trek: The Next Generation – astounding work even if it’s character specifics probably make it less relevant here.

      And as a final point worth remembering why the original Star Trek was presented as a uptopia. It was made right in the middle of the civil rights movement in the USA and for that reason Roddenberry wanted to present a utopian vision of humanity united. You’ll see no bigger example of that than Michelle Nichols being encourage by Martin Luther King Jr. not to quit as O’hura. And don’t forget every series that followed has tried to pull further from this vision.

      But yeah, to sell movies you need drama and conflict so movies tend to be vastly, overwhelmingly distopian. To sell technology you need to be overwhelmingly positive – so the advertisers image, even for garbage products, tends to be incredibly utopian and based on wish fulfilment. I mean, how much fantasy goes into just selling kitchen roll 🙂

      And that just reminded me of one genuine uptopia that’s very popular and still running. The CSI series of shows all feature utterly unreal technology that is probably impossible to ever develop. So they create this insane world where all criminals are caught, all technology works, every test is instant – of course the drama is solving the crime, the upotia doesn’t create the world just the solution to the worlds problems. Of course the show is also selling a vision of perfect police and justice to help sell that warm feelng of safety. Worth comparing to the presentation of technology in The Wire.

      Phew, knew if I waffled I’d find one! Sounds like one hell of a fun course 🙂

  4. Oh. I really liked your blog and this post. I have seen Gatacca and thought of this before I read your post as a clear example of utopian and dystopian views of technology in our world.
    Looking forward to reading more post from you.

  5. Pingback: E Learning and Digital Cultures – initial insights from a metaMOOC! | Clare Rose Foster

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