Tuesday, August 23, 2016

7 FAILS in the way we practice 'failure' in learning

Failure, as we know, is a fundamental part of learning which I have explored elsewhere. Yet failure, in practice, is often used in learning to hinder rather than help learning. It too often becomes defined in practice as a deficit technique, rather than a formative feature of progress. Here’s seven examples of how failure can fail learners.
1. Language of failure
Far too much emphasis is put on final, summative assessment, at the expense of formative assessment, confusing and importing summative habits into formative processes. The summative language of ‘pass’ and ‘fail’ is a mutually exclusive opposition that makes little sense in formative assessment. We take a dualist attitude and transfer it, mistakenly, back across to the entire process of learning. Too many teachers and online learning programmes default to the language of failure, rather than the language of learning. The fact that you have yet to know or master something is a state of ‘not yet knowing’ not failure. Yet the red pen culture and lack of knowledge about feedback, deliberate practice, memory and the role of failure in all learning is endemic.
2. Language of gifted and talented
My heart sinks when I hear parents use these terms about their kids. Even worse, are schools and teachers, who should know better, using a whole raft of terms associated with these fixed ability terms. Attributing success to ‘talent’, ‘ability’ and being ‘gifted’ is disturbing from a head teacher or teacher. You don’t have to be a Dweck freak to realise how destructive this language is in learning. It fixes attributes and therefore demotes effort and practice. It also gives learners a get out clause. Even the learners who succeed with high marks stop at the pass mark and ignore the remainder. The rest, if they are branded as failures (not talented or gifted) will make less effort and many will drop out
3. Hands-up anyone
A good example of awful teaching practice is the ‘hand up anyone’ technique, beautifully exposed in Ferris Beuller “….anyone, anyone.”. The teacher asks a question. This is good as it forces the learners to try to recall the answer but only the ones who know the answer put their hands up and the rest feel deflated. The introverts are excluded, tehre's not enough time for true reflection. It makes no sense. The process of learning needs to be kept positive at this level, not some lazy ritual where people are embarrassed, even castigated for not yet knowing.
4. Whole task assessment
Rather than create, active, effortful learning experiences, where failure is part of the learning process, we set whole tasks and simply repeat those tasks. You don’t learn to write by simply writing, you learn hundreds, indeed thousands of small rules around spelling, sentence structures, punctuation, style and so on. It’s lots of tiny acts of failure and correction that lead to success. The ‘whole language’ movement, for example, led to decades of bad teaching and poor literacy, as it failed to recognise the role of failure in the learning process. Whole task teaching and assessment is the route to self-doubt and failure.
5. Essays
The ‘essay’ is a lazy and vastly overused form of assessment. A Professor of Pharmacology once complained to me that her University forced her to set essays for her Pharmacology students, which she found ridiculous. Smart students simply memorise essays for exams, so they are far from being an adequate form of summative assessment. Hand written essays encourage this as it is difficult to engage in critical writing, which always involves redrafting, structural change and rewriting. Waiting for weeks (the norm) to get a grade back (with scant feedback) on an essay, is a ridiculous form of formative assessment. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across parents writing essays for their kids at school and, unbelievably, University. Then there’s the simple fact that you can buy them. Encouragecheating and you’ll get cheats.
6. Marking as end-point
Unnecessary marking is another technique that confuses summative with formative assessment. Professor Black rightly criticises teachers for being over-zealous with marking, when they should be promoting learning. His advice is to drop marking during the formative learning as it does more harm than good. Let’s say a few get a pass by crossing some threshold, let’s say x%. Even with these learners this will act as an end point, leaving 100-x% of the knowledge or skills absent. That’s not good in healthcare, where that 100-x% can kill. It also demotivates those who ‘fail’, so that more damage is done to the whole cohort. For a more detailed account of why marking sucks, see here.
7. Deficit model
The education system is too often seen in terms of a deficit model, a dangerous conceit. Structurally it is layered like rock and the learner has to punch up through these layers while many fail to punch through at each stage. This deficit model, where the system is always failing, with failed schools and failed standards, pushes politicians and professionals towards a deficit model that defines the domain, policy and practice. The glass is always half empty as the language of failure is allowed to dominate. League tables, winners and losers , do little other than promote a culture of failure.

Failure is the end point for too many in this process. To promote and see ‘failure’, not as a means to an end (learning) but an end in itself, is to misunderstand its fundamental role in learning and memory. Sifting, sorting and ultimately abandonment, is to fail to understand the true joy of education and learning. For too many the end point is being branded as a failures. Turn this on its head and see failure as a state of becoming and you turn a fixed entity into a dynamic process and opportunity.

 Subscribe to RSS

Friday, August 12, 2016

5 levels of FAILURE used to succeed in learning

Peter Thiel, in his excellent Zero to One, warns us about fetishizing failure. He hates the old mantra about entrepreneurs having to fail to succeed. Failure, he thinks, can hurt those that fail, as well as the collateral damage that failed businesses bring – job losses, people not getting paid, suppliers with unpaid bills and bankruptcies. He has a point but in the learning process, failure that is limited to the individual, is most certainly a good thing. This blog is called PlanB, in recognition that we have a lot to learn from failure. In fact, it is an essential and, some would argue, necessary condition for learning.
Critical thinking
This may be a bit non-PC but what made Europe a dominant force in culture, commerce and science, was the critical thinking that developed in Ancient Greece. This continued, with a long Dark Ages interlude, when religion all but extinguished this mode of thought, to the development of the scientific method and the idea that all knowledge should be seen as subject to scrutiny, tested, and even then still open to future challenge. Quine applied this to all knowledge. It has held us in good stead.
Learning through failure
Learning is cognitive improvement. It is all about moving on from one mental state to another that improves performance. These small steps forward are, in fact, built on many of small failures. You learn to drive a car by adjusting thousands of small acts of over-steering, going too fast, too slow, taking the wrong line on the road, braking too hard…. You learn by building on many, many small acts of failure. Learning to write means making lots of spelling, punctuation and stylistic errors, eventually getting there over many years. The feedback loop try-fail-learn-repeat lies at the heart of the learning process. Unfortunately there is often a fear of failure in education and training, sometimes even a blame culture around failure. As an antidote to this, here are five levels of failure that one can use when learning or designing learning experiences.
Level 1. Failure recognition
We have all experienced those small, sometimes big, sometimes catastrophic experiences of failure, even humiliation. The teacher that told you that you’d never amount to anything, the exam failure and so on. Actual failure is compounded by the fact that the learning game is soaked in the language of innate ability not development and learning. From ‘Gifted’ children to ‘Talent management’, professionals use the bizarre language of fixed ability, often without realising the consequences.
The first step on the failure curve, therefore, is to recognise and encourage what Dweck calls a growth mindset. This does NOT mean endless praise, which can seem inauthentic and get counterproductive. It does mean encouraging learners to strive for improvement and, importantly, not let failure be the road-block it so often is at school or in other areas of human endeavour. The simple recognition that failure is normal, happens to everyone, and, when seen as the natural step towards improvement, can be turned from a negative to a positive, is a mainstay of good teaching and learning.
Level 2. Tons of tiny steps
Mathew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking draws on many examples of successful learning through failure. One stands out. When David Brailsford announced in 2009, that Team Sky would win the Tour de France ‘within five years’ no one took him seriously. Within three years Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the race. Sure, he had a goal but that is never enough. A focus on ‘leadership’ and ‘goals’ is never enough. It is all about what Brailsford calls ‘marginal gains’, tons of tiny steps, all adding up to bigger success.
In any learning domain this is all about breaking things down into their constituent parts, mastering identifiable competences, and getting them right. So much education and training remains aloof in high levels of abstraction, hazy platitudes and generalities. What is often needed is attention to detail. This is now commonplace in sports’ training but not so common in education and L&D. It should be. In teacher training, for example, far more attention should be paid to specific things one can do to improve your performance as a teacher, through mentors or video captured performance and feedback. If it’s about actual practice, lectures on learning theory are not enough, deliberate practice and improvement really do matter.
Level 3. Deliberate practice
Anders Ericsson studied the role of practice in sport, music, medicine and other domains, where learners move from being novices to experts. He identified several characteristics that distinguish ‘deliberate’ from simple ‘repeated’ practice. First, concentrate, as there is no real learning without attention. Second, break down the task or skill into its constituent parts, so that one you build positively on failure at this micro level, rather than get discouraged by massive failure at the macro level. Third, focus on feedback from failure, either by yourself or by a coach or teacher, as conquering many small failures is the engine at the heart of learning. Fourth, increase the challenge to accelerate the rate of progress. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, accept the fact that you will fail but embrace this as the price you pay for progress. This is called deliberate practice and upward trajectory based on overcoming failure.
Level 4. Catastrophic failure
Let’s up the stakes once more. Safe failure in dangerous or lethal tasks is the most obvious examples of failure as a means to a good end. Pilots can crash and burn on flight simulators. Doctors can train on surgery and other simulators without harming or killing patients. Emergency service personnel can deal with fire and other incidents without anyone getting hurt or dying. Why do all pilots do simulator training? They go down with the plane. Maybe we should see most, if not all competences, in that light. We should be allowed to push ourselves and accept that safe, catastrophic failure is a force for good.
Simulations, boosted by cheap, consumer price AR and VR will happen over the next decade or two. This will bring realistic, contextualised, learn by doing, attentive learning, that allows as much failure as is necessary for effective and speedy learning, way beyond most classroom training. This is a fantastic opportunity to push learning away from its current theoretical bias towards more realistic practice and success – real performance.
Level 5. Reboot
Let’s push this to one more level. An even stronger form of failure is Reboot failure, where you identify failure, stop and send the learner back to the start of a level or learning experience. This is the secret sauce in successful gaming. You shoot away, get killed, get sent back to the start of the level and try again. Why is this such a successful and addictive feature of gameplay? It’s all to do with accelerating learning. You, in effect, learn how to learn. Being subjected to failure checks your progress (constant assessment), sends you back (repetition) and motivates you to try again with greater effort or knowledge (learning). It’s a virtuous cycle.
This is the one feature of gamification that I like – Reboot failure. Forget all of that Pavlovian froth – collecting emeralds, silver coins and running around pac-man mazes, and focus on risk-reward failure within levels. Allow the learners to try things and fail. But when they fail, the equivalent of being killed in a shoot ‘em up’ game, send them back to the start of the level to start again. Don’t be scared to punish failure as it not only delivers repeated practice but the learner comes back eager to overcome that failure.
There is even a games’ genre that takes this Reboot failure to another level – survival games. In No Man’s Sky, procedurally generated, never-ending, you explore a vast universe of planets but if you die, you get reset back to the start of the game. Get the right balance between challenge, failure and success and you have a multi-million dollar game or a brilliant learning experience.
The most spectacular successes in human progress have been grounded in the recognition of failure. From the critical thinking of the Greeks – pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others – through to the scientific revolution, where we see the world as something to be subjected to challenge, testing and falsification. Potential failure or falsification has led to astounding advances in art, medicine, engineering and technology.
The airline industry is an admirable example of the relentless pursuit of safety and quality through learning from failure. It’s in their DNA. If only that attitude and process could be applied to education and training. Yet the opposite seems to true. We wallow in the world of gifted programmes, summative assessment for selection, lectures, essays, talent management…. The world of learning is a failure factory, not in the positive sense of learning from failure, second chances and progress but one of selection, road blocks, disappointment, discouragement and real failure. As professionals, we seem to have lost our critical faculties, stuck in a time warp of old theory and models that were never verified in the first place; lectures, hands-up anyone, Maslow, Myers-Briggs, Learning Styles, Piaget, NLP, Kirkpatrick. This is not good enough. It introduces certainty where there is nothing but ideological belief and unverified theory and practice. We need to think critically and see failure as part of what it is to learn.
Thiel P. (2015) Zero to one. Virgin Books
Syed M. (2016) Black Box Thinking
Ericsson, K. Anders, Krampe, Ralf Th. and Tesch-Romer. Clemens (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Ericsson K.; Prietula, Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). "The Making of an Expert". Harvard Business Review (July–August 2007).
Ericsson, Anders K.; Roring, Roy W.; Nandagopal, Kiruthiga (2007). "Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance". High Ability Studies.

 Subscribe to RSS

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Little tribute to Tim Berners-Lee from the learning community

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and published the first web page on this day 25 years ago. Truly remarkable things have happened since then. His gift to the world of learning was a virtual world in which teachers and learners could have unlimited access to knowledge and use the network, that is the internet, to do things that were scarcely thought possible. It is one of the greatest of all inventions and human achievements and of unimaginable importance for the future of education and learning.
He wrote his proposal in 1989, redistributed it in 1990, when it was accepted and the first website, at CERN, was up and running in 1991. With three simple standards HTML (write your letter), HTTP (delivery of your letter) and URLs (postal address), he invented a way to use the internet to publish, distribute, send and receive information. This, for learning, was an invention on a par with writing and the printing press.
Web of people
From the very start the web was used to share academic knowledge and collaborate on learning and research. It was, in effect, a knowledge sharing network. Berners-Lee understood that he was creating a web of people, connecting people and so creating a social effect. Beyond this his vision was also of the intelligent analysis of the data that the web creates. He looks forward to the emergence of a true semantic web, which should make this possible. In this sense the web, for Berners-Lee is always a work in progress.
Enables online learning
Without the World Wide Web there would be no search, web content such as Wikipedia, open educational resources, online learning, online games, online book stores or social media. With the humble hyperlink it changed forever the way content is written and read. We can move through content, drill down into content, get help and learn in a way that was difficult with largely flat, linear media. Of course, media other than just text was shared as images, audio, animation, video and now 3D worlds became available.
Open learning
An important principle for Berners-Lee, is Open Educational Resources. Berners-Lee favours Net Neutrality and defends the position that the web should not be controlled by companies or governments. Some open educational initiatives have become major forces with hundreds of millions of learners using their services, such as Wikipedia, Khan Academy, YouTube and MOOCs. The promise of free at the point of delivery learning has already emerged with new business models, new forms of delivery and new forms of pedagogy.
Billions are online and almost all learners who are online use the web to find things out or to enhance their learning. We have seen the web evolve from websites to knowledge bases (such as Wikipedia), rich media (YouTube), self-paced online learning and social collaboration. Artificial intelligence through adaptive learning promises to make further advances in personalising learning and VR will bring us a new medium for learning. We are only at the start of a process where new forms of learning and pedagogies will emerge.

 Subscribe to RSS

Saturday, August 06, 2016

40,000 years ago media was 3D - it’s making a comeback

At the dawn of media, 40,000 years ago, sculpture was 3D. Prehistoric sculpture was voluptuously 3D, wallowing in the grace of the human and animalform. Our ancestors’ brains understood that re-presentations of the 3D world should be in 3D. Even cave paintings took full advantage of the rock shapes and contours. Recent research shows that cave art may not have been ‘art’ at all but a more utilitarian tool – the cave as classroom, where we learned to be a predator and avoid being prey. It would seem that the images had real narrative purpose, showing the actual appearance and hunting habits of animals.
Media is 2D
Around 3400 years ago, we invented writing upon 2D surfaces; clay, papyrus, bark and paper. This form of semantic communication has remained a powerful, flexible and dominant force. Painted art on 2D walls and 2D canvases also came to dominate domestic decoration and art.
Writing, print, black and white photography, colour photography, black and white movies, colour movies, back and white television, colour television, green computer screens, colour computer screens, HD TVs, tablets, mobiles – what do they all have in common? They are all 2D.
TVs have been getting bigger and with higher and higher fidelity. Indeed we are capable of creating fidelity beyond that which the human eyes can perceive. This attempts to recreate 3D immersion in 2D by increasing the field of view. It also increases suspension of disbelief by bringing the immersion of cinema into the home. It is 2D that strives to be 3D.
The battle of mobile screens has led to a battle between mobile and tablet screens. Phone screens got smaller, then bigger, eventually settling on screens large enough to satisfy viewing needs but small enough to hold in the hand and put in one’s pocket. Phablets essentially outgunning the tablet market. All of this has taken place within the 2D paradigm of flat screens. Even the 3D worlds in gaming, where players moved around within 3D environments were still 2D.
McLuhan and Baudrillard reflected on these changes and the shift from the real to simulated and hyperreal. As the consumerist world of communications, art, entertainment and work become more virtual, we spent more and more time in this new realm. Yet it has remained stubbornly 2D. This is because the technology we invented and made available was limited.  Black and white photography, movies and TV existed, not because we loved the ability of that medium to represent essence – we had it because silver nitrate and limited broadcast technology was all we had.
Yet human perception is 3D
But here’s the thing, contrast our media with the reality of human perception. We see in 3D, we hear in 3D. We have stereoscopic vision and hearing which creates enough data for the brain to recreate 3D worlds. Our two eyes recombine two separate data feeds to recreate in out brains the 3D world we perceive. Our two ears are subtly folded to create sound shadows and catch the exact location of sounds in 3D space. We feel, smell and touch in 3D, even our balance and sense of direction are in 3D. Consciousness itself is in 3D. Yet our media are still largely 2D.
Media now 3D
This brings us to the here and now, and a break point in the evolution of media, where AR and VR have emerged as viable consumer technologies. Our media now match perception and deliver data that can be seen as we see the real word – in 3D. We can now experience 3D media that truly match our human needs and 3D consciousness. That word ‘experience’ is important, as it is the distribution, decentralisation and democratisation of ‘experience’ that is now possible. So let’s explore the several levels and layers of re-presentation in 3D media.
AR (Augmented Reality) as 3D
Augmented reality retains our 3D vision as its backdrop. It places 3D images into that already perceived 3D world. This can get quite complex, as it blends different realities. Pokemon Go, for example, presents layers of reality. Let’s start with consciousness (in itself a complete re-presentation of reality), it recreates the real world as you walk around in that 3D world looking for your virtual Pokemon. There’s maps (an idealised mapped representation of reality) where you as a represented avatar walk around and encounter Pokemon and Pokemon stops and gyms. The camera view (a photographic representation of reality), Pokemon and all the other imagery (superimposed upon the other realities), are all eventually framed back within your conscious view of these realities. And don’t forget the internet (itself a created reality) and GPS (a created dynamic co-ordination path within both the virtual and real). One could add a social reality. It all comes back to your conscious mind simply bringing them together into one conscious, blended reality. This is heady stuff. 
The augmentation that Microsoft’s Hololens brings is to create 3D holograms within your perceived 3D world. These appear as if being there and are even persistent – if you come back, they’re still there. With Magic Leap, based in Florida, the direct projection of 3D images onto your retinas brings with it remarkable levels of seamless 3D augmented realism. It’s potential is reflected in the largest round of C-funding ever, at $793.5 million. It has raised $1.4 billion and is valued at $4.5 billion – and here’s the rub – it doesn’t have a single developer company or customer. This is a pure tech play. What Magic Leap does is play to the 3D capabilities of the brain and present data that allows the brain to seamlessly integrate projected images from the goggles to your retina. This is blended reality is s like “dreaming with your eyes open”.
VR (Virtual Reality) is 3D
VR offers total 3D immersion, where you really feel as though you are in another place – that feeling is called ‘presence’. It gives you full 3D experiences of games, entertainment, locations, imaginary worlds, education, training – anything – in your mind. It is this access to 3D ‘experiences’ that makes it so compelling. When you first try VR, you get an ‘aha’ feeling. Wow – I’m in a created world that feels real. That’s because ALL media you’ve ever tried before has been in 2D. We’re so used to being presented with 2D print and screens, that it comes as a real shock to see the represented worlds as they really should be – in 3D. The epiphany is that we can now experience experiences as they are meant to be experienced.
Within a $99 Samsung Gear or even cheaper Google Cardboard device, we can use our mobile phones to deliver full, stereoscopic, 3D virtual experiences that make you feel as though you are in a different reality . These can be captured as 360 degree photographs, 360 degree video or completely built as graphic worlds. We can move around within these 3D worlds, manipulate build and take apart objects within these worlds, even interact with other virtual (created avatars or avatars that are real people. We can even hybrid the experience by, for example, sitting in a real roller coaster feeling the real G-forces, while seeing a thrill ride that goes through space. The only limit to what can be built and experienced is our imaginations.
Brain appeal
Like AR, the thing about VR and 3D experience is that it speaks to our brains in a way that resonates physically, emotionally, even sub-consciously. It literally becomes an extension of consciousness, where all distance is eliminated. In my own field, education and training, the promise of full attention (a necessary condition for all learning), emotional input (important in learning), learning by doing (very important in learning), relevant context (proven efficacy in learning), transfer (proven in flight sims) and therefore faster learning with higher retention and recall, is now a reality or virtually a reality.
New media rarely completely knocks out old media and we have had 40,000 years of evolved 2D media from cave art to screens. But are we at the start of a new era, where media actually deliver what our brains expect – 3D realities, artificial realities, mixed realities, augmented realities, virtual realities? This is as it should be. We are being taken back inside the cave and out of the dark emerge 3D images that are exciting, terrifying and new.
Sound is 3D
Interestingly, radio, talkies and the telephone are of another order, as they are not flat and were 3D from the start, with a different technological trajectory. Music as distributed on wax, vinyl, tape, CD and now digital was always disseminated in 3D, for the obvious reason that the physics of sound is 3D – it can only be 3D.
Sculpture and iconoclasm

Another exception to the dominance of 2D media was sculpture, embraced by most ancient civilisations. In China, Egypt, Greece and Rome, 3D sculpture was revered. Only Islam rejected sculpture and representation of animal and human form as idolatrous. Yet 3D representations have always eventually become objects of idolatrous or sexual suspicion. Throughout history iconoclasts have repeatedly attacked 3D representation. Worship of 3D objects was seen as idolatry in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of these religions would periodically purge themselves of 3D representation. Perhaps the most sustained attack on 3D representation is in Islam. Although not in the Quran it has roots in the removal idols from the Ka'ba in Mecca and Islamic iconoclasm has endured to this day, extending to the destruction of ancient sites by the Saudis and ISIS. In Christianity, the Byzantines and then the Protestant Reformation saw the widespread destruction of statuary. Iconoclastic riots were common throughout the 16th century in Europe. They invoked the Commandment that forbade graven (sculpted) images. Political movements, both Communism and capitalists have also destroyed each others’ statuary. The symbolic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue was a memorable moment in the Gulf War.

 Subscribe to RSS

Friday, August 05, 2016

Baudrillard – virtual reality philosopher

Neo, in The Matrix, carries a copy of Baudrillard's Simulcra and Simulations, that's Jean Baudrillard the French philosopher, who examines technology, or more accurately its virtual outputs, in culture. More than this, he has created several concepts and theories that redefine what technology is in our lives and culture, beyond face-to-face and print media. His focus on the idea of ‘simulations’ is a break with the past, disassociated from reference to the reality it pretends to represent. This is illustrated in his infamous book, ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’. His core idea is that the virtual world(s) we have created are now more important cognitively and culturally, that their supposed referents in the real world. More than this, he thinks the virtual has cleaved away from this assumed real world. He took an even more controversial position on 9/11, seeing it as a defining event is a clash between two globalisised perspectives.
He rejects traditional Marxist descriptions and explanations of economics, with its focus on ‘production’, constructing a new era of consumerist culture, based on consumerism, communications and commodities. ‘Hyperreality’ is the new state, free from the anchors of reason and materialism. For Baudrillard, consumerist communication has it’s own set of codes related to the desires of the consumer. This new form of living has demoted the idea of people as producers.
‘Consumer Society (1970) rejects the Marxist (and Freudian) ideas of the free agent. The conspicuousness of consumption, he thinks, is far more complex. Malls have their perpetual springtime and perpetual shopping. Our created needs, all the possibilities of pleasure make us not producers but consumers with a huge capacity for consumption. Prophetically, he saw the real role of credit as lubricating this desire and its excesses. His critique of Marxism reaches its peak in The Mirror of Production (1973), where each of the major elements in Marxism are demolished – dialectic, modes of production and so on. Indeed, he turns Marxism on its head, as he thinks it is a justification for the system it purports to destroy. For all its machinations around labour, production and value, Marxism has no distance.
In what he calls the ‘code’, floating signifiers, ads, virtual experiences and so on, we live within a system of signs. As his leftism gave way to fatalism in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), death is the only escape. But death confirms the absence of relevance of the system in which we fund ourselves trapped. In On Seduction (1979), he renews his broadsides against Marx, Freud and the structuralists, opting for a Nietzschean view of perspectivism. It is a blow to glib liberalism and Marxism. Citizens are not a community, they are consumers.
Simulcra, simulations, virtual reality
He picks up on Nietzsche’s rejection of oppositional thought, to move the debate beyond appearance and reality, subject and object, oppressors and oppressed – to a world of Simulacra and simulations (1981) – ads, TV news and soap operas. Even in the realm of divinity the battle between sumulcra and iconoclasts, who conformed the power of ‘icons’ shows that our concerns are in this battle of signs. Representation first reflects a reality, then masks and perverts that reality, masks the absence of that reality and finally bears no relation to reality. This is pure Nietzshe. There is a brilliant passage in this book on Disneyland. You will never see that place in the same light after reading this critique of the US ‘embalmed and pacified’.
Yet despite writing all of this in the era of traditional broadcast media, his work has gathered strength as, what he calls the ‘virtual’ world, has grown to immense proportions. With the advent of the internet and web, along with social media, augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, his theories have gathered strength as the world he has described has come to be. The ‘virtual’ moves us further away from and exists outside of reality. Clay Shirky quantified the astonishing amount of time we as a species have spent passively watching TV but makes a distinction between this and active, creative participation in online activity. I’m not sure that Baudrillard fully grasps these differentials.
In any case, he has been using the term ‘virtual’ for 25 years and in The Gulf War Did Not Exist (1991) he shocked traditional commentators by claiming that the war, as shown through media, was not grounded in the Gulf War but a created reality. History itself collapses through dilution, as we move beyond an ‘event’ based culture to a non-historical state.
Twenty five years later, we see this code of signs, simulations and virtual experiences, often as an end in itself. ISIS are more virtual than real, with real acts being epiphenomena, beheadings fodder for social media, murder as media. Brexit was a virtual battle, an internal party dispute played out but disengaged from reality. Trump plays the Baudrillard game perfectly, recognising that these signs need not be grounded in reality. His soundbites and Tweets are virtual, in a self-contained world of cage fighting with other media messages. These are virtual bombardments that promote ideas, with historical events and fixed viewpoints playing a minor role. Wars are created to be filmed, now Tweeted, Facebooked and YouTubed. Wars are virtual.
But Baudrillard took an odd position, which has puzzled many – that the best reaction to this all-consuming storm of simulacra and simulations is ‘silence’. This, many argue, is inappropriate, as technology can be a force for good. But Baudrillard’s challenge is to take the debate beyond good and bad. It is an existential, not moral, position.
In The Conspiracy if Art (1996) he trounces modern art, as no longer relevant and part of the very system it pretends to critique. It is the art of collusion and has no special status. Art is everywhere and nowhere, part of a consumerist nexus with its careers, commerce and tawdry fame. Worse, it has become mediocre, worse still - null. Adored by the art world after Simulacra and simulations, he came back to destroy its view of itself as superior, even relevant.

It is difficult to grasp Baudrillard’s key concepts and constructions without abandoning traditional oppositional modes of thought and fixed Marxist, Freudian, Liberal, Historicist and Structuralist narratives, but this is the only way to understand his theories. Like Wittgenstein, he pushes us to the limit of language and thought. He also sees himself and his own theories as being part of the virtual simulations. I warn you now, these are not bedtime reading texts. They take time, reflection and persistence – not such a bad thing in the era of instant, virtual gratification, his target. Never easy, always challenging, certainly original – Baudrillard is a philosopher for our age.

 Subscribe to RSS