Finding comfort and looking to The Light in 2021

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that this has been a funny old year. Over the festive break I have really managed to switch off, stop worrying all the time and have a bit of a rest. Of course in any year, we all need a bit of a break at mid winter, but this year I think we’ve all needed it more. The rituals of the holidays, despite the constraints of travel and numbers of people allowed to mix, can still provide some comfort.

One of my rituals, for the past 5 or so years is to re-read one of my favourite books from my childhood – The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. In fact I tend to read all 5 in the series. I know I’m not alone in this, there even is a #thedarkisreading for other who do the same.

Like any classic, every time I read it (and the others) I find something new to reflect on, and I am comforted by the power of the writing. The Dark is Rising is set around Christmas, so is of course very seasonal. At its heart is the eternal battle between the forces of The Light and the The Dark. The latter wanting to cause chaos and destroy mankind, the former to protect it.

Over the last couple of years, there have been a number of contemporary analogies to be drawn with the forces of The Light and The Dark. And of course this year, it’s hard not to see the hand of the Dark Lords in the COVID-19 virus and the chaos and death it has, and continues to wreak.

In the book, The Dark creates a huge snow storm that traps people in their houses, the menace of the storm never ending, whirling around, trapping everyone. Most humans are unaware of this battle between Light and Dark – apart from the band of children who feature in the books – but the forces of both The Light and The Dark are represented, at times amplified in human behaviour. The Dark feeding off and encouraging hate, selfishness and greed, the Light bringing care and hope.

When I see news reports of panic food buying, of the ever increasing wealth of tech billionaires, and the increasing divides in our society, I can’t help but think of the forces of The Dark. The Light fights back, but it is an uphill battle.

The books were mainly written in the 1970’s, another time of struggle for many, and this year I was struck, particularly in the last book of the series, Silver on the Tree, with a section explicitly on racism. The language of ignorance and fear it highlights is sadly just as prevalent today as when it was written, however I do hope that BLM is part of The Light’s challenge against this and language and understanding is shifting.I also discovered a fantastic Blacklisted podcast discussing the book which is really worth taking an hour to listen to too.

Now you might be wondering what is the point of this post, but it relates to one theme I that is always with us, but this year has been particularly prescient, and that is time.

This year time has really shifted. The time we spent at our screens, the times we could or could not meet with others, the time where work, family, play, everything, seem to merge into one. The Dark is Rising Sequence also has its fair share of time travel. One of the powers of the Lords of both the Dark and the Lights have is the ability to freeze people in time whilst they, for want of a better word, do and talk about “stuff”. No harm is done to those who are frozen in time, they don’t even realise what has happened and can carry on as normal.

“Normal” – now there’s word for this year! As I’ve taken some proper time out over the past week, I can’t help wishing I had the power to freeze time. I would love to give everyone particularly in education a bit more time and space to stop, breathe and think. To stop trying to carry on “as normal” when normal is still a long way off. To give a bit of time to think how to really change things to reflect our current context. To disentangle ourselves from the deeply entrenched, but now perhaps misguided rituals, for example, exams.

Some business had to shut down during the first lock down and were able to take time to figure out how to operate in a very different environment. Education hasn’t been given that opportunity – it’s had to soldier on. I’m not sure how long it can without a radical re-think. Technology can help but we have to be wary. The forces of The Dark and The Light are fighting a battle there too for equity, for freedom, for care, for access to data.

Anyway, I hope, dear reader, that you have managed to get some time to rest this festive season and have found some comfort too. I wish you a very safe New Year and let’s hope that the forces of The Light start to talk hold in 2020.

NB The first of book of the Dark is Rising Sequence I read was Greenwitch, It had a profound effect on my 10 year self So much so that many years later, I did feel a resonance of The Light when this little landscape formed in my head and onto canvas.

photograph of an artwork titled Greenwitch
Greenwitch, Sheila MacNeill, mixed media on canvas, 2019

On being (almost) a top banana and other thoughts on 2020

It’s the time of year for reflection, and boy what a year 2020 has been. To be honest I don’t think I have processed it all – not yet anyway. So, I thought I try to share a few thoughts inspired by bananas! Yes, dear reader, that’s not one of my many typos, I do mean bananas.

Last week I got a little, personalised infographic from Marks and Spencers giving me a view of my spending habits over the past year. To my surprise I was the 3 top buyer of bananas in my local M&S foodstore.

As I commented on Facebook, this was possibly the most useless bit of data ever. Oh how we all laughed! Making it to the top 3 banana buyer caused much hilarity and possibly my most popular and engaged (yes there were lots of comments not just likes and emjois) FB post of the year. I am still waiting for my end of year FB roundup – bet that will be a beauty too.

But the bananas did get me thinking and reflecting on data, numbers, customer profiling and personalisation. All key themes of 2020.

This year has been dominated by numbers. Shockingly high numbers of deaths due to COVID-19 – a series of blog post I wrote during lockdown all started with the ever increasing official UK death toll; ever increasing numbers of people made redundant due to the impacts of lock down, the profits some companies are still making, the ever increasing numbers of children in poverty, ever increasingly eye wateringly high numbers of personal wealth of the worlds billionaires, the increasing cost of Brexit, the increasing number of unelected (and at times slightly dodgy) Peers.

The divisions between the haves and have nots has become more acute and sadly the gulf seems to be getting greater. It’s all in the numbers . . .

But back to the bananas. I remember, back in the day when “learning analytics” was still just a slightly odd word combination, going to an event in Oxford where some “angel investors”, govt peeps and a few weirdos like me were invited to discuss how to save and share data (educational mainly). Some of you might remember the phrase “data lockers”. Anyway, it’s all a bit of a blur now really, but I do always remember Tony Hirst (the man who helped me really understand the power of data) commenting at the time about the lack of anyone from retail being there. I’m sure he said something along the lines of Tesco know more about us all than the government will ever do and they never share “their” data.

That’s always stuck with me – even as I swipe my Tesco clubcard, and various other ‘customer rewards cards’. Tesco are very clever about regularly sending me money off vouchers, that’s a trade off I can live with as they don’t share that data – it’s worth too much to them. However, the bananas and the infographic have got me thinking again about data manipulation, and personalisation.

At this point I need to to give a bit of context to the bananas. I like a banana as much as anyone else who likes them. I don’t eat or buy (so I thought ) an excessive amount of them. So to be in a top three buyer category did surprise me. Even more so as I don’t actually do that much food shopping in Marks and Spencers. If I had access to all my data I’m sure other non fruit food items and would top my banana purchasing – but back to that in a minute.

However, during lockdown, and particularly at the start of lockdown, I was finding it hard to get fresh fruit at my regular supermarket, but my local M&S was the exception so I did do more fruit shopping there than normal. As panic buying died down (only to reappear now!) and stocks became more plentiful, my fruit buying at M&S declined – the naughty stuff probably stayed the same, but I can’t be sure as I can’t access that data.

Now obviously M&S want to promote themselves as a “healthy” option, and appeal not only to my (completely non) competitive nature, by rewarding me with positive news about my shopping habits. Being more than content with a “bronze medal” as someone put it, I really have no intention of trying to improve that rating – or spend any more money on bananas. But I am very curious now about the data (aka my data) that M&S hold, how the decisions around what to share with me about my apparent preferences, and inferred lifestyle choices were made.

I’m pretty sure my M&S dashboard has a whole series of other views that it could have shared. And that got me thinking about how data can, and is, manipulated to provide a seemingly ‘personalised’ view of “stuff”. A view that is not actually centred on helping me maintain a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle but is actually all about getting me to spend more money in a retail outlet. And that brought me back to education, and data, and personalisation.

So many ed tech companies are selling ‘the dream’ of personalisation through their data platforms – but is it really personalisation? Or is it just a thin veil of a ‘user first name’ being placed in certain pages, some choice of colour options, in a “personalised’ way to another 3 and half million “users’ of homogenised content and quizzes? What/where is the wider context of the “user” (aka learner ) data being used?

There have been too many people this year to mention in this post who raise these questions in a far more informed and nuanced way, in particular Ben Williamson for keeping a constant track of ed tech investment and “innovation” and Audrey Watters for her continued role as the Cassandra of Ed Tech, and in particular the rise of surveillance in education. These methods of track and trace I approve of!

Which brings me back, not quite to the bananas, but to more numbers, data, and notions of data surveillance that the COVID 19 pandemic has raised. Again like many, I was quite skeptical of the original track and trace app the UK government had planned. One step closer to a dystopian Big Brother State loomed . . . but that hasn’t quite happened, and afaik the track and track app is quite safe to use.

But in the same way I have become accustomed/ accepted/ complied (not quite sure what the right word is here so you can choose which one you think best fits) to retail consumer profiling and trade offs, I am slightly worried by some internal conversations I am having.

Would I trade a “little bit” of surveillance in terms of data about for example being COVID tested, about when (with a big IF caveat here) I get vaccinated, to be allowed to do a little bit more for example, be able to visit friends and family who live in a different part of the country/ the world, have people in my house? Is a bit of data about my health going to be price of freedom in 2021? And who will own that data? What inferences will be made from that data? Possibly a bit much for this almost top banana to figure out. Perhaps I need to work this out in a speculative data story?

In the meantime I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a hopefully brighter 2021.

2020 in some numbers

I don’t think I have the energy to write any kind of reflection of this year, but at some point I will look over the blog posts I’ve written and try and make some sense of it. Over the year I do feel my blog posts have become more honest and personal, but I need a bit of space before I go back to them. And as you know, dear reader, 2020 has been quite a different year for everyone.

So, as a lot of people are finishing up this week for a very well deserved break, I thought I’d do a more light hearted, numbers based overview.

Now some of these numbers might not be entirely accurate. I have deliberately missed out many data collections points. Partly because this was created quite quickly by adding things up on paper, partly because some of them would be just too scary and I’m not organised enough to have any data collection mechanisms apart from the wonderful TAGs for twitter.

No AI or algorithms were used ,or caused harm, in the making of the graphic below.

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Reflecting on the “Zoom Gaze”

Like most people I know, I’ve spent a lot more time on Zoom (and a couple of other similar web conferencing systems) this year than I expected. I’m writing this post between zoom calls. I’ve also spent a bit more time supporting people in their use of zoom – both professionally and personally than I expected. In fact at the beginning of 2020 I really didn’t have any expectations of zoom at all! But from what experience I did have I knew that the ‘viewing’ experience of being in a zoom meting was very different to the “viewing” experience of a face to face meeting. Non verbal communication cues change, you spend a lot more time looking at yourself and others. Your gaze changes, it’s tiring.

Like a lot of people I know, this week I read The Zoom Gaze by Autumm Caines. If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to. It’s a really powerful piece about how technology mediates control and power of virtual spaces which impacts on behaviour, and expectations. It asks us to question just what the “zoom gaze” is.

As Zoom shifts the nature of the relationship between viewing and being viewed, it also shifts our awareness of it: It makes us more conscious of how visibility is mediated by technologies in general. That is, it calls our attention to what theorists describe as “the gaze,” which analyzes the power relations in looking and being seen and how these are consolidated in a particular way of seeing that may come to seem natural. Right now, our new conditions call attention to the different power dynamics that come into play as face-to-face interactions shift to online video spaces — what we might call the Zoom gaze (though, of course, it would apply to video telephony in general). It is critical to understand the Zoom gaze now, before it becomes so familiar that it seems immutable — just the way things are.”

Over the past 3 weeks as my local area has been in stricter lockdown measures, my life drawing class has moved to a zoom version. I was quite curious to see how/if this would actually work. I like life drawing with a real model, in a physical space. I’m one of those people who can’t really understand why some of the artists on shows like Portrait Artist of the Year, work from a photograph and at times don’t even seem to look at the sitter.

Conversely, I do work from photographs quite a lot in my landscape work. My only defence, if I need one, is that they are generally reminders of places I have been, and I often have sketches too. The weather here in Scotland can be challenging for “plein air” painting. My camera phone photo roll is a kind of digital sketch book for me now. I have incorporated that aspect of technology into my practice, I feel I am in control of that view and it’s static, one way if you like. But back to the life drawing and zoom


My tutor Ewen, worked really hard at making the classes work and was really open to trying new things and upfront about his lack of experience of how “this would all work”. Week 1, we had 4 different camera views to choose from ( we all of course had to have the same view), week 3 it’s down to one. Automatically I had my mic on mute (hello behaviourism), the others in my group don’t use zoom as much as me so didn’t. There’s not a lot of talking when you are life drawing so it’s been fine to have mics on, and there were only about 6 of use each week. We did of course have a bit of “external conversations” and “why can’t I see the model on my screen” in week one but that quickly got sorted.

The experience has really made me hyper aware of the mediation of technology on my “drawing gaze”. My gaze was restricted by having to viewing the model through my screen (a 14″ MacBookAir). The camera was fixed, the model was clothed, the lighting again mediated through technology. I was sitting at my desk not standing behind an easel, I was using smaller pieces of paper. I could almost feel a cognitive crisis seeping throughout my body.

I found the drawing hard, I had to work my way through all these changes. It was frustrating, there was an emerging foggy idea of what/how to draw in this new technology mediated way, but what my hands were actually doing wasn’t quite matching up to what I wanted – even though I didn’t really know what it was that I actually wanted to do. I was very aware of how the the screen was framing my view. Last night though I had a bit of a break through, I started using oil pastels and a bit more colour. I felt a bit more at ease, a bit more in control of my understanding of what was going on and the “zoom gaze” I was working within.

I also realised last night that what this particular zoom mediated gaze did most was to remove my emotional connection with the sitter and their surroundings. Sometimes you just get a feeling when you are drawing which guides what you do. Even though it might not be an “accurate” drawing, the overall feeling that the lines, tone and shade present make the whole thing just work. In our last pose last night our two models wore their masks (in our f2f classes we all wear masks but the models don’t) and I think that gave me a bit of an emotional hook.

Anyway it’s been a bit of minor revelation for me being able to think about many of the issues Autumm raised in the article in this context, particularly about how technology can simultaneously enable and block emotional connections. It has made me think even more about the different aspects of the zoom gaze and the need to seriously consider they way technology mediates and controls human interactions. Thanks Autumm.

photo of life drawings
sketches from zoom life drawing class 9/12/20

Saying no and the Red Queen Trap

How are you? I mean really how are you?  I’ve had so many conversations lately where people I have seen a palpable sense of relief when I have said, that actually I’m not that great.  That’s allowed them to say the same.

I cried when Nicola Sturgeon announced stricter lockdown measures here just over a week ago. Although I knew the announcement was coming, when she actually made it, I felt the most overwhelming wave of despair. I just broke down and cried and I mean really cried. I felt I couldn’t “do this anymore“. 

Those feelings have passed, I’ve come to terms with the situation, but I know lots of people are feeling the same. Tired, stressed, and in my part of the world anyway suffering from shorter daylight hours. The seasonal change to winter is even more acute this year. There might even be a hibernation analogy here. We are being forced to lock down, but we can’t sleep, we can’t properly rejuvenate ready for spring – we have to keep going. Putting Christmas light up early is just another distraction from reality. It’s going to be even darker when we have to take them down.

This image was doing the rounds last week on twitter. Where I am on the scale fluctuates wildly, but I’ve not been in that green zone for a sustained period for a while. 

A lot of that is down to my choices. I choose to be self employed so I have to live with an element of risk around paid work.  But that risk has seemed heightened lately.  I’m lucky in that I have another outlet that keeps me sane. It has its stresses too, but it has been the lifeline I’ve needed to. I know I have retreated from much of my professional network over the past months. Some days I just don’t have the energy for twitter, and when I do my posts are more irreverent.

I also have a lot of guilt too. I feel guilty when I hear from colleagues who seem to still be working 15 hour days; who don’t manage to get outside some days as by the time they’ve finished work  it’s dark, wet and cold.  Quite often I don’t do 15 hours of paid work a week! Now that’s a whole other worry for me and not for here. Many of them are spending more time checking their teams are OK  – perhaps even using that table above. That’s getting harder now too when everyone is still working from home. It’s really hard to get “out of the office” with people.  Work piles up – universities are still ploughing on with “business as normal”. And you can’t afford to say no to anything.

Last week as I was contemplating on a few conversations I had been having, Kate Bowles share this post The Red Queen Trap,  by Teodor Mitew.   It’s a really insightful piece about organisational chance, and how organisations adapt  (or don’t)  to change.  The piece proposes that the more hierarchal an organisations the harder it is for it to adapt to any changes in context.  As the Red Queen explained to Alice,  “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”  Remind you of anywhere you know?

It seems to me that over the past 9 months that’s exactly what HE (and in fact the whole education system ) has been doing  – running to stand still.  And doing that has used up a huge amount of energy. I wonder if anyone will do some kind of cost benefit analysis of the time staff have spend in online meetings with productivity (whatever that actually might mean in an educational context)?  I suspect there might not be a direct correlation. 
Anyway as the post so elegantly explains this is where the Red Queen paradox comes into play again:


In the absence of surplus  energy and provided there is no energy transfer from the outside, it must somehow free up energy from within its internal state in order to adapt.  The question is, which internal elements should be sacrificed to free  up that energy? This is where the Red Queen Trap’s simple elegance is  fully revealed.
Essentially, there are two options – a seductively easy one and an  unthinkable one. The seductively easy option is to sacrifice the  periphery, or elements of it, and preserve the decision-making center.  It is an easy choice for the center to make because it naturally sees  itself as the key element of the system and this choice allows it to  remain intact. It is a seductive choice because the center suddenly  finds itself with a flush of spare energy which it can use to maintain  the pseudo-equilibrium and often even to grow itself at the cost of the  periphery. Alas, the elegance of the trap is in the fact that the seductively easy option removes the center even further from external conditions; less  periphery equals less opportunities to observe and react quickly to  external reality, thereby further magnifying the initial conditions that  brought the system to this state in the first place. By making that  choice the center sinks further into the trap.
By contrast, the unthinkable option is to sacrifice the center and preserve the periphery, thereby flattening the internal structure of the system into a less hierarchical form. It is an unthinkable option for the center to make because, as pointed out above, it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice forces it to sacrifice itself. It is also unthinkable because it involves a thorough rethinking of the internal structure of the system, which until that moment was organized entirely around vertically integrated decision making, with little to no autonomy in the periphery. The centre must not only sacrifice some of itself, but also reorganize the periphery in such a way so that it can now perform those functions in place of the center. This would allow the system to free itself from the trap”

The “traditional” curriculum has been tweaked not changed, face to face is still the holy grail for delivery. The economic realities of maintaining almost empty physical spaces is taking its toll. So the apparent logical solution is to cut at the periphery – get rid of staff, keep the centre safe until everything is “normal” again. Don’t stop to really engage with the realities of our context, and leave the staff (who are left), those who are actually keeping things going even more stressed out with endless meetings, developing new strategies to delivery ambitions from a defunct reality, and no time to breathe and think. No meetings/ email Fridays sound great in principle but the reality is that they just give you time to catch up on the rest of the emails that have piled up during the week.

Why are we trying to do another “normal” semsester when actually we all know it’s not going to be “normal”? Why can’t we take time to spend a couple of months really engaging with digital capabilities and our wider context? To learn and share from the changes that have been made? To help us think about how we are going to be able to cope with the mental health pandemic that is going to hit us next year. That might actually let everyone escape the looking glass. But hey, what do I know.

And that’s another worry of mine. Because I’m not in “the belly of the beast” so to speak, am I becoming irrelevant as I haven’t worked in a university through that covid/lockdown experience? I don’t really understand what it has been and continues to be like.

In a number of keynotes this year I have argued for the need to give time to rethink what and how universities are doing in terms of curriculum delivery, and completely rethink at the very least the way first year is delivered. Of course, no-one is really going to listen to me, but being on the outside I can perhaps see more clearly the whole system and everyone everyone caught up in it running to standstill. . .