Levels of Mediated Aliveness, Mozilla Hubs, and 1984 – Part One

by Todd Ellis, Director of Teaching and Learning, Grayson College

This post is the first in a two-part series and is, in part, a response to last month’s post, Ready Player One, Hamilton, and Me: ‘Liveness,’ Mediated Communication, and Building Relationships in a Virtual World” by DigiTex Executive Director Judith Sebesta.

“We now live in a world that resembles a dystopian novel.” Henry Giroux, –Fascist Culture, Critical Pedagogy and Resistance in Dark Times 10/22/20

As a long-time advocate and practitioner of dialogic pedagogy including Paulo Freire’s critical problem-posing education, I’m sure I have more questions than pithy answers to offer on how mediated communication is changing higher education at this historic moment. The issue is emergent. I also think that the more I contemplate what “liveness” even means anymore, the more lost I get. Liveness has, in a sense, become deconstructed. By this I mean that I can often only bring parts of my aliveness to an instance of liveness, depending on what tool I am using and why. I have to choose which part of my aliveness I want to share: my voice, my image, my written thoughts. Zoom, for example, can enable all or some of these at the host’s and/or user’s discretion. COVID-19 is a disruption that is requiring a lot of re-thinking and re-seeing.

Maybe an emerging question is whether I want to promote aliveness or liveness in any scenario, and by aliveness here I mean vitality. For example, the social annotation tool Hypothesis brings a vitality to otherwise isolated reading exercises that aren’t possible without internet connection. It brings an aliveness in the sense of vitality to reading without any liveness in the sense of present moment spontaneity or synchrony.

I’ve been reading some insightful books on mediated communication like Personal Connections in the Digital Age, by Nancy K. Baym and what stands out to me from every page as I read through the excellent social science research is my own thought: “Yeah, but you didn’t HAVE to use this digital tool in order for you and your civilization to remain alive!” That is a context that can greatly affect research conclusions. Fortunately for Baym, her technology decisions weren’t made around her ability to remain alive as they potentially are now during COVID-19. Because whatever downsides may have been discovered in research concerning the human effects of digital mediationand there are absolutely valid downsides as well as upsides – they are temporarily obliterated by the emerging realization that “I am deeply grateful that I have this tool! Maybe my civilization and I have a chance to survive!”

I recently saw the release of gamified Mozilla Hubs advertising ways for people to have virtual Halloween parties. Since a big part of my job is to test drive new technology for faculty at our school, I thought, “Why not?” So I entered a digital haunted house and walked around as a robot wrapped in my own personalized Starlink skin. The personalized skin was under “advanced settings,” and I always click on an advanced option or two just to see if anything blows up, thus the personalized skin (that and I love Starlink so I had some visuals handy).

My superego Todd-1

To the right is an image of Todd-1 created for my personal hub. I couldn’t add my standard goatee so that really killed my liveness. But he’s bald, so I can relate to that. I wonder if the armlessness is a comment from the collective unconscious? Maybe it’s just from my own unconscious. I did, after all, have lots of avatars to choose from and I chose him. “Why the bald, armless robot?” I find myself wondering now. Mostly I guess I was drawn to how his periodic eye blinks made him seem thoughtful and sensitive.

There is no option to take a live selfie screenshot that would allow you to see “me” in the 3D field, so below I’ve added my snip of reggae dancer Todd-2 getting down on his own after entering the room from my other laptop. While Todd-1 blinks calmly, Todd-2 dances non-stop: my alter ego, my yin and yang, or maybe my superego and id. One’s virtual symbolic representations are certainly fertile archetypes for self-interpretation unless you’re a troll, of course. I could move Todd-2 around the virtual space, but I couldn’t control his/my dance moves which seriously killed my aliveness as vitality expression. He made his own pre-programmed funky moves. It was Mozilla’s attempt at a pre-programmed merging of aliveness and liveness, I suppose.

My id Todd-2: the ultimate in mediated liveness?

I thought maybe I could meet with my librarians (librarians will try anything, right?) in Mozilla Hubs to see if this might be a way to jazz up boring old Zoom meets. But alas, I realize that that’s probably not going to work well. The only standardly recognizable liveness in Mozilla Hubs is the liveness of synchronous voice from the shared mic. Of course, there’s a certain amount of live personal expression within the confines of defined avatars, personalized skins (digital fashion design?) and our freedom of movement within the digital 3D environment. However, as proudly and stubbornly introverted, I’d almost surely have ended up on the porch all evening at a “real” Mozilla Hubs digital party. I would have been live in my typical hardly the life of the party fashion.

There is no way to share screens or presentations. I know Mozilla didn’t create these video-gamified hubs for personal meetings, but my point in trying the shared space of a hub was to ask the question: what is liveness now and how does it relate to aliveness?

Most of the Ed-tech that I test drive ends up in a digital heap of junk that lies virtually next to my desk. A digital scrap heap. Probably only about five percent even make it past my five minute “What is this?” test. This is a comment on the quantity of Ed-tech tools, not the quality.

Usually we consider a face-to-face course as the definition of liveness in education. But a face-to-face course may be live without being very alive if it is overly scripted or monologic in nature. This is another way of saying that active learning is alive learning in that it’s an emerging, creative and socially dependent construct within a given classroom. Or as Freire described it “Liberating education consists of acts of cognition, not transferals of information.”

Is the ability to share screens, digital images and textual artifacts with each other the defining aspect of liveness in this emerging world? It is certainly a huge aspect of our aliveness in our socio-cultural worlds generally. Is the important question concerning deconstructed liveness “What authenticity can be shared (or risked)?” Or more specifically, “Must I display my personal home space?” And is that a “softening of culture?”

In part two of this post I will offer some final thoughts on these emerging ideas of liveness as they occurred to me during my first experience of virtual theatre. I’m especially interested in the vulnerability of liveness and its relationship to the potential softening of culture made possible by global humanity’s opportunity for solidarity surrounding COVID-19. Theatre is a great medium through which to ask these questions because it is both highly mediated human behavior and very much live. North Central Texas College drama and Grayson College Theatre together won an excellence in educational collaboration award from The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for their virtual co-production of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. I hope to hear your responses and thoughts.