Thursday 30 August 2007

Exciting times for The School of Everything

When I moved to Sheffield a few years ago, I soon discovered that the city's newsagents were more likely to stock the Morning Star than the Financial Times. If you're interested in stories with long-term consequences rather than short-term news value, either paper generally beats the rest of the British press. But when I stepped out this morning, it was in search of the distinctive salmon pink pages of the FT. At the third shop, I found a copy.

Why this urgent quest? Because today's the day the paper was to announce the finalists for Seedcamp. In fact, the article inside was mostly about Seedcamp itself - a week-long masterclass for Europe's most promising high-tech startups, with coaching from many of the leading figures in the internet scene. You had to visit for the rundown of the 20 finalists, picked from 270 applicants to participate in next week's event.

But what matters - or, at least, the reason for my trek around Sheffield's newsagents - is that The School of Everything made the list! (We'd known for a few days, but there's nothing like seeing it in print - or hypertext, as it happens...)

It's been an amazing year for Team Everything, since we quit our "proper jobs" to work on this - and the excitement has been growing over the past few weeks. We're still a little way off having a public version of the site, but making progress fast. I believe what we're building has the potential to bridge between the long-standing networks of informal learning which sit on the edge of today's education system - in areas such as music teaching or driving instruction - and the vision which many people have been reaching towards of a society in which learning is no longer thought of primarily in terms of schools, classrooms, curricula and the other structures of industrialised education.

It's a pretty grand project! You might even say we're trying to "change the world" - though that doesn't mean much until we actually do it. I wouldn't believe we had a chance, if I wasn't working with four people I trust to be good at the stuff I'm not good at. Not to mention an incredible network of older and wiser heads who've been lending us their support and credibility along the way.

Things are certainly getting exciting - but there's still a hell of a way to go before we've achieved anything substantial. Roll on next week, though. I'm looking forward to meeting all the other teams, learning from each other - and from the amazing range of mentors the Seedcamp organisers have drawn in to work with us over the week!

(Meanwhile, I'm off to spend the weekend singing folk songs and drinking good beer in a cowshed on the North York Moors...)

Tuesday 21 August 2007

In case you wondered where I've been...

Anthony and Dougald make headlinesAnthony and I spotted this outside Holborn tube while we were waiting for Andy. It was too tempting to resist.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Separated at Birth?

This blog has been lacking a sense of humour lately, I fear. Blame it on the unfunny amounts of time I currently spend living on friends' sofas. (I'm lucky to have some very tolerant friends...) Normal service should resume when I finally move to London properly.

Meanwhile, relief arrives in the form of a rather random email from a reader at KPMG (who clearly has too little work on at the moment):


I hope you are well. You bear a striking resemblance to Jordan Collier from USA cult sci-fi series 'the 4400'. Are you in fact the same person?



He even goes to the trouble of attaching pictures of us both.

Now, I must expose a lacuna in my frame of cultural reference - I've never seen an episode of The 4400. So if anyone has any insight as to how flattered/alarmed I should be at the comparison, do please share it!

Sunday 12 August 2007

Do Have Nightmares!

A couple of weeks ago, I was musing about the impact of TV on the elderly. "If I were frail and lonely and reliant on BBC news for my picture of the world, I think I'd soon be too afraid to leave the house..."

Well, my friend Lucy just drew my attention to this post from the American political reporter Rick Perlstein (via the excellent Making Light):

Shortly before she died, my grandmother — one of the people, naturally, I loved the most in the world — broke my heart. Celia Perlstein, like most of our grandparents, didn't get out much in her final years; in fact, for the last few years of her life, I'm not sure she got out of her old folks home at all. I don't think she really wanted to. She was sure that beyond its threshold lay dragons: far-far-far leftists out to steal her Social Security; turbaned terrorists just itching to fly a jet into the First Wisconsin tower a few blocks to the south; quisling Democrats itching to help them do it; grandma-gutting criminal marauders just outside her door.

I'd look out of her eighth floor picture window, down at the scene she saw every day, half expecting to find that nightmare landscape before me. Nope: same as always, the brightly colored sailboats on Lake Michigan, kids and their parents feeding the ducks (Grandma used to take me to feed the ducks), happy, strolling Milwaukee couples—paradise. Where was she getting these fantasies?

One evening's visit, all became clear. She gestured at the blaring TV set. The excruciating grandma-volume was even more excruciating than usual, because she was visiting with her best TV friend. She told me how much she adored Bill O'Reilly. My wife and I cringed. Watching our latter-day Joe McCarthy on TV every night, she had learned, late in life—for this development was entirely new—how to hate her fellow Americans. I almost cried, because one of the people she was learning how to hate was me.

Over here in the UK, broadcasting regulations mean we have (thankfully) no equivalent to Fox News. So for me to pick on the BBC may be a case of not knowing how lucky you are. (It was also kind of a self-criticism, since I used to be a BBC journalist - albeit a fairly lowly one.)

Yet, powerful as I found his post, I wonder whether Perlstein isn't merging two issues? Bad journalism and outright propaganda deserve censure. One consequence of this, however, can be to present "good journalism" in an uncritical light - and overlook those structural issues which affect the news industry as a whole.

I suspect that even in the UK there are elderly people afraid to leave home because of the picture of the world they get from the news. Maybe we can blame this on the Daily Mail - or the influence that papers like the Mail have over the news agenda of the broadcast media. But can we imagine a sort of "news" which did not consist largely of the misfortunes of people we do not know - misfortunes which affect us little, except (by their retelling) to raise our general level of anxiety?

I'm reminded of a programme I haven't seen for years, but which is still a regular in the BBC1 schedules. 'Crimewatch' specialises in reconstructions of unsolved crimes, while a team stands by to field calls from viewers who think they may have information that will solve them. In a sense, this is the rebuttal of my argument - some, at least, of the misfortunes that make up our news diet are retold because someone out there might be able to help.

What comes back to me, though, is the catchphrase with which the presenter would end each show, as if to counteract the effect of the preceding 29 minutes. "Remember, the crimes featured here are rare," he'd say as he turned to the camera, "so sleep well - and don't have nightmares!"

And I wonder, isn't that just what the news industry does to us all - makes us sleep less soundly in our beds?

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

What did you learn today? It's a question plenty of kids get asked when they come home from school - but maybe one we don't ask ourselves so often as grown-ups...

Well, in the past twenty four hours I learned at least two things. One is that the word 'serendipity' comes from an old name for Sri Lanka - Serendip. For a word of such a vintage, its origins can be dated with unusual precision, to the 28th of January, 1754. It was coined by Horace Walpole in a letter, referring to a fairy tale called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'. These princes 'were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'. Hence, serendipity.

My second learning of the day was that serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) 'Zemblanity' is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina - which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design" is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when "learning outcomes" are specified in advance.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Will Davies is concerned that "Web 2.0" threatens to eliminate serendipity from whole areas of our lives, in the pursuit of more efficient ways of finding music we'll like or people to whom we're indirectly connected:

Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us.

But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering. ...when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.

That reminded me of an experiment by Matt Jones (who's on our advisory board for the School of Everything). A few years ago, he asked the readers of his blog to help him make contact with Brian Eno - a quest in which he succeeded within two days. Afterwards, he reflected (in a less apocalyptic tone than Will) on the unsatisfactoriness of social networking tools which leave no room for serendipity:

...the goal of all the 'Sters is to collapse our social web to a surveyable size, bringing our friends and connections close enough to see beyond them to new people. A little like glancing over the shoulder of someone you’re talking to at a party in order to see who’s coming through the door.

The picturesque and playful exploring of our social connections is sacrificed. The mathematics of coincidence are intruding on the delusions we enjoyed every time we exclaimed to a new acquaintance the reassuring cliche “what a small world!”.

Where’s the business model in social networks? The same as email and other generators of information overload: the new luxury of meaning. I will pay to sustain the space, the silence and the signal. Give me privacy and anonymity, but also possibility. Extend my connections, but don’t collapse them.

I share Will's concern about the ways in which the tools we use shape us - deform us, even. There is too much hype about Web 2.0 and that means not only that its strengths are over-rated, but that its more troubling aspects are overlooked. Yet compared to the compulsory zemblanity of the education system, my meanderings across the internet continue to be spiced with serendipity...

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