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Friday, June 11, 2010

Education and the New Technology in Latin America

Henry Jenkins is the most important man in "Transmedia" and teaches at USC.  Transmedia is the newest thing and involves telling a story in different media, e.g., the Movie, the TV Series, the webisodes, the 1 minute telecom, the comic book, the novel, even a painting or a song about one or more or new characters in a story.  The story might come from a famous book or movie, or might be made up by one of our own children or friends.

Anyway he was invited to speak to Latin American education leaders and I am reprinting his blog here.  Some of it may apply to our situtation with The Literacy Project.  Please go to his blog as there are pictures and art work that are beautiful.

Down Argentina Way...

If my trip to Brazil ended up focused primarily on convergence culture and transmedia storytelling, the second leg of my trip -- to Buenos Aires -- was much more directed towards my work on new media literacies and issues concerning education. I was invited to Argentina by Ines Dussel, an educator and public intellectual, who is one of the co-authors with Luis Alberto Quevedo of a new white paper exploring the impact of new media on education in Latin America,Educacion y nuevas technologias: los desafios pedagogicos ante el mundo digital. The report was being released at the VI For Latinoamericano de Educacion, hosted by the Fundacion Santilla. It was an event attended by education ministers and educational researchers/policy makers from many of the Latin American countries. I was asked to give a keynote address which shared with the group some of the perspectives on new media literacies, participatory culture, and informal learning we have developed through Project New Media Literacies, including some discussion of the curriculum we have developed around "Reading in a Participatory Culture." A key concern throughout the discussion was the distinction between introducing technology into the classroom and developing the skills which would enable young people of all economic and cultural backgrounds to participate more fully in the emerging media landscape. Ines and her associates have promised me an interview for the blog, which I hope to share with you soon.
I ended up using two examples from my family history to illustrate my key points. First, I talked about my father's tool box. My father spent much of his life in and around the construction trade. He was the son of a sheet metal worker. For both of those generations, their tools were vitally important to them, but their knowledge consisted of how to deploy those tools and could not be contained in the tools themselves. If my father sat his tool box on the table and told me to build a house, I wouldn't know what to do. Trust me, we went through this many times when he was alive. I never could think using hand tools. It isn't just that I didn't know how to use the tools well -- how to use a hammer or a saw -- but rather, I lacked the skills needed to use them effectively and I lacked the larger understanding of how a house -- or in my case, a bookcase -- would be put together. I had the tools but I lacked the competencies which would allow me to use them in meaningful ways. I lacked the sense of my own empowerment to take those tools out in the world and construct something with them.
So, we can bring computers into the classroom but unless the tools are accompanied by other kinds of knowledge -- and I don't just mean how to use the keyboard and some basic software -- then they are not going to be able to deploy those tools in meaningful ways. For some of my friends back at MIT, the key knowledge is how to code -- and that's certainly part of what I mean -- but also I think that knowledge involves how to network, how to participate in new structures of culture and knowledge, how to read a Wikipedia page, how to assess the credability of information. And a technically focused curriculum which is not met with the integration of those skills into how we study culture and society will only get us so far in terms of closing the digital divide and the participation gap. That's the heart of the white paper I wrote for MacArthur.
The second story I drew on heavily there had to do with my grandmother, who, among other things, made quilts, growing up in rural Georgia. We might think of quilting as a kind of remix practice. She took bits of cloth left over from other sewing projects, sometimes drawing on the shared reservoirs of the female community, to create new works. In doing so, she was also building on a shared tradition with its own patterns and formulas. And she was producing an artifact which was designed for sharing -- often the quilts were made as gifts to mark social occasions of significance in the life of the community. My grandmother would have known how to engage with a participatory culture.
We can imagine moving from stitching together and remixing textiles to stitching together and remixing media content. Indeed, Francesca Coppa uses the metaphors of "cutting" and "stitching" to talk about the work that goes into producing a fanvid. In the United States, these folk traditions were radically disrupted by the rise of mass production and mass media. Today, quilt making is a specialized skill, more often trained in art schools than passed along from one generation to the next. And the logic of folk production has become disassociated from our understanding of the media.
One of my speculations about digital culture in Latin America is that because it exists alongside a still vibrant folk culture, a new model for thinking about remix may emerge. And this is part of what I am trying to understand through my travels to the region. I don't want to romanticize this possibility since it is also the case that many Latin Americas worry that the web may simply open up another gateway through which North American influences will be felt upon their traditional ways of life, and it is hard talking to people there to dismiss those concerns.
These next two images suggest some of the complex ways that these two ideas -- remix as part of the logic of folk culture and the importation of Northern culture on the south -- interact on a regular basis in Argentina. My brother owes an affinity to the brand community around Coca Cola, living in Atlanta, so I was especially interested to see the many ways that Coke's presence was felt in Buenos Aires. And yet, as cultural theorists might suggest, Coke is localized -- not only by the decisions made in the boardroom but also by the ways it is inserted into a distinctly Argentinian context.

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As I traveled around the city, I was struck by the graphic arts of Buenos Aires, the expressive ways that paint -- especially bright primary colors -- was used to transform the urban landscape.
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This focus on street art carried over to a strong tradition of murals and graffiti, such as the soccer related image, which also reminds us of how intense the country's connections are to sports fandom.
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And this pub sign depicts Carlos Gardel, Tango performer who became a key figure in Argentinian cinema of the early sound era. I was introduced to Gardel's music while visiting Argentina, along with a wide array of appropriations and remixes of Tango music as it gets absorbed into jazz, hip hop, and techno/dance musics.
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Gardel remains a key figure in Argentinian popular culture -- if you look closely, you will see his image on the wall behind these contemporary street performers who were in their own ways keeping the Tango tradition alive.
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Ines and her husband took me to visit a curio market on Sunday, which is full of cultural debris, some reflecting the local traditions of Argentina, others suggesting the flow of goods and brands from the North. This still life suggests the complex assemblage of objects (and the cultural traditions they embodied) on every table.
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The one thing I was taught about Argentina growing up in American public schools of the 1960s was that it was the land of the Gaucho, so I could not resist capturing this image of a Gaucho selling ropes and bolos in the marketplace. I am sure some of this was performance for tourists, but there was still something fascinating about confronting an icon which previously had lived for me only on the pages of battered and largely forgotten textbooks. Besides, I always loved a song Lupe Velez sings in one of the Wheeler and Woolsey comedies that "You can keep Harpo and Chico. I love my Gaucho."

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And during this same trip, I was intrigued by these street performers. Like so many living statues, I have seen in the United States, they were frozen in a pose, defying the attempts of visitors to make them move from their static composition. Yet, what amused me here was the attempts to create what seems in still photographs to be a highly dynamic image -- they used a variety of illusions to convey a sense of movement, even as they remained absolutely still.
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Pardon me for what has devolved into a series of tourist snapshots which fail to capture the complex thoughts and feelings which this trip stirred within me, but part of what I carried away with me was a real affection and fascination for the kinds of folk and popular culture practices I observed in Buenos Aires.
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My Big Brazillian Adventure

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Of the foreign language editions of Convergence Culture, probably the best selling one was the version published in Portuguese and distributed primarily in Brazil. Thanks to the support of Mauricio Mota and the Alchemists, a transmedia company which works in Rio and Los Angeles, my book has stimulated enormous interest in that country, with companies such as Globo and Petrobras buying hundreds of copies to give to their employees and clients as Brazil seeks to better understand the digital age at a moment of deep cultural and technological transition.
Why Brazil? Two primary reasons: First, Brazil is at the center of the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), countries which economists believe are going to be dominant economic (and I suspect, cultural) powers in the 21st century. These are countries on the rise, countries which have embraced new media and are surfing it to gain greater influence over the planet. Much as China has gained greater visibility in recent years through the Olympics and the current Shanghai Expo, Brazil is positioned to gain wider attention by hosting the Olympics and the World Cup in the next few years. It is a country with a strong digital infrastructure and thriving creative industries.
Second, unlike the United States, Brazil has held onto strong folk and participatory traditions, despite the rise of modern mass media. Seymour Papert famously used the Samba Schools as his illustration of how informal and community based learning works and that example has stuck in my head from my early days at MIT:
If you dropped in at a Samba School on a typical Saturday night you would take it for a dance hall. The dominant activity is dancing, with the expected accompaniment of drinking, talking and observing the scene. From time to time the dancing stops and someone sings a lyric or makes a short speech over a very loud P.A. system. You would soon begin to realize that there is more continuity, social cohesion and long term common purpose than amongst transient or even regular dancers in a typical American dance hall. The point is that the Samba School has another purpose then the fun of the particular evening. This purpose is related to the famous Carnival which will dominate Rio at Mardi Gras and at which each Samba School will take on a segment of the more than twenty-four hour long procession of street dancing. This segment will be an elaborately prepared, decorated and choreographed presentation of a story, typically a folk tale rewritten with lyrics, music and dance newly composed during the previous year. So we see the complex functions of the Samba School. While people have come to dance, they are simultaneously participating in the choice, and elaboration of the theme of the next carnival; the lyrics sung between the dances are proposals for inclusion; the dancing is also the audition, at once competitive and supportive, for the leading roles, the rehearsal and the training school for dancers at all levels of ability.
From this point of view a very remarkable aspect of the Samba School is the presence in one place of people engaged in a common activity - dancing - at all levels of competence from beginning children who seem scarcely yet able to talk, to superstars who would not be put to shame by the soloists of dance companies anywhere in the world. The fact of being together would in itself be "educational" for the beginners; but what is more deeply so is the degree of interaction between dancers of different levels of competence. From time to time a dancer will gather a group of others to work together on some technical aspect; the life of the group might be ten minutes or half an hour, its average age five or twenty five, its mode of operation might be highly didactic or more simply a chance to interact with a more advanced dancer. The details are not important: what counts is the weaving of education into the larger, richer cultural-social experience of the Samba School.
My Student Ana Domb Krauskopf recently wrote a fascinating white paper for the Convergence Culture Consortium on Techno Brega, a form of popular music in regional Brazil, which operates under a radically different model of production and distribution which is being studied by many in the Free Culture movement.
If you accept my premise that digital participatory culture is what happens when we apply folk culture logic to the content of mass culture in an era where we have expanded capacities for circulation, then it makes sense that digital culture is going to take a very different shape in Brazil than in the United States. Given this history, my work seems especially resonant with Brazilian readers and I am feeling a strong tug to spend more time in that country.
I spent the last week and a half of May in Brazil, speaking with several key players there in the efforts to make the country a key digital player, including Petrobras, the leading oil company, and Globo, a key media producer and distributor. While I was there, I was interviewed by half a dozen or so of the leading print and television journalists.

The key event during my stay in Rio was a talk to creative workers inside Globo's Project, their primary production facility on the outskirts of the city, at the foot of a truly spectacular cluster of mountains and on the edge of the rain forest. I was consistently impressed in Rio by the ways that the natural world was fully integrated into the life of the city.
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I was able to go to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and look down on the city. Scattered throughout Rio are massive outcroppings of exposed rock -- to call them mountains, though they are mountain sized, does not really capture the oddness of these protrusions. They are much closer to Stone Mountain in my native Atlanta (of course without the carvings of Confederate generals!) than anything else I had ever seen. The city is wrapped in and around these mountains. In some cases, the Favela run up the sides of mountains. The more desirable land is at their foot. They are contained by the beaches and oceans that surround much of the city. And threaded through these pockets of development remain large forests. The effect is close to the technological utopian conception of the city as an integrated environment where nature and technology can co-exist. It is hard to go far in Rio without confronting the natural world and the companies where I spoke were very overt about their commitments to Green policies.
The event at Globo was simply spectacular. The production people had turned a soundstage into what can only be described as a set. Not only had they taken a key motif from the cover of my book and blown it up to the size of a wall, adding in massive television screens on either side, but they had taken other elements from the book's design and decorated the entire hall. It was packed with hundreds of people who wanted to learn more about convergence and transmedia. And the event was being webcast and live-blogged so the words were being transmitted to many who could not be physically present. I presented an opening talk on transmedia which drew upon my recent He-Man essay and my 7 Principles of Transmedia Storytelling paper, both of which have already been shared on my blog, and ended with some thoughts about future challenges confronting transmedia producers which I hope to share with my readers soon.

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Afterwords, I was joined on stage by Mark Warshaw, who had developed transmedia for Heroesand Smallville and now is a key partner in The Alchemists, and Florish Klink, a recently minted graduate of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program who is becoming the group's Chief Participation Officer (their expert on fan relations). And we were hit with all kinds of thoughtful questions from the audience, questions which showed just how carefully they had listened and absorbed the insights from my work and how much they were thinking through the future of media in their country. In some ways, they are a step behind developments in North America -- for example, the DVR has not yet come to Rio -- but they are learning the lessons of the early adapter countries and will be ready as they reinvent their media system for the 21st century.
Afterwards, we went on a tour of the production facilities. In many ways, they resemble the classic film studios of the Golden Era of Hollywood, except that they are managed by digital dasebases. So, there are large backlots and vast sound stages. We were shown, for example, a scale reconstruction of a Sao Paolo shopping mall which was used as the setting for a youth-oriented telanovela.
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And we were driven through a lovingly recreated neighborhood from the south of Italy which is the setting of another of their popular series. I am posing here with Mauricio Mota and Flourish Klink from The Alchemists.
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We toured a vast warehouse holding props which were in storage from previous productions and could be called up from the database when needed for new series and another warehouse where costumes were stored, organized by the decade where the stories were set. Alongside the storehouses, there was a factory of workers sewing new costumes to be used, often in just a few hours, on one or another of the projects they were filming and there were construction crews that could build and breakdown sets on a daily basis.

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We walked through the soundstages and saw Passione, a telanovela, being shot. We met briefly the young and very attractive stars Mariana Ximenes and Reynaldo Gianechinni, who have been called the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt of Brazil. And we were able to watch them shoot a scene from an upcoming episode, standing in the booth with the director as they swapped between five cameras which were filming the scene. It was one of fifteen scenes for the series that were scheduled to be shot that day amongst ten or so settings in the studio devoted to Passione's production. The scenes were shot out of sequence 4 or 5 episodes at a time to allow them to complete their needs of a setting, break it down, and make way for the next setting, all in the course of a 1-2 day period of time. The folks with us who worked in Hollywood were astonished at both the attention to detail in the production design but also the efficiency of the operation over all.
(Next Time: Down Argentina Way)
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