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Wikivygotsky

December 13, 2010

Here is my final essay for my first term as at ETECer.  This research paper is due at noon on December 13th, and rather than lose it all in the few hours between now and then, I will post the draft I have on my computer on-line, so even if I sleep into the afternoon, I will hopefully be able to prove that I posted it before the deadline.

Research Assignment:

Wikivygotsky: How a Portmanteau Leads to Knowledge

In 1994, acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron reportedly took two weeks to write an 80-page scriptment of what was to become his most recent box office success, Avatar. Ten years prior, he had coined the term scriptment, a portmanteau of the word script and treatment, when working a film adaptation of the Spider-Man comic series.  His plans for Avatar were to begin filming in 1997, once he had wrapped up production on his award-winning film, Titanic.  While the production didn’t start until much later, owing to

the filmmaker’s demands for more innovative technology in order to tell his story, the 80-page Avatar scriptment was leaked onto the Internet during pre-production, thus bringing the term scriptment into public attention. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scriptment#Origin)  While there is much to learn from the technologically ground-breaking 2009 movie, the coining of this portmanteau plays a significant part in the growth of the Internet as a cultural artifact for information and communication.  As word of the next big project for James Cameron spread across the globe, starting with fans of the filmmaker’s work and fanning out to others with interests in box office blockbusters, the actual word scriptment just as quickly became adopted into the collective consciousness.  This paper will make use of this production as an example of the Internet culture and the changes it has brought not only to Hollywood films, but the fields of socio-cultural psychology and modern pedagogy, particularly how ideas defined take on a life of their own due to the technological tools.

Seventy years prior to the above event, in an entirely different world from the cultural capital of Hollywood, a great scientific contribution was achieved when Lev S. Vygotsky began to publish his psychological findings.  His main theories were concerned with the cognitive development through cultural mediation, or tools as they are often translated from the original Russian.  He furthered the field of developmental psychology by investigating the “concepts and the language that infuses and instruments them” (Bruner, 1961, p. ix) especially investigating children’s acquisition of language.  One important step forward is his understanding of inner speech as a child’s tool for understanding unfamiliar concepts, as he describes it as “thinking in pure meaning… a dynamic, shifting, unstable thing, fluttering between word and thought” (Vygotsky, 1964, p. 149) later to be internalizes as thinking.  Cultural mediation occurs through this process of internalization, inspired by the actions and speech of adults and other children who model behaviour to be adopted by the child.

In 1934 Vygotsky died of tuberculosis, and two years later his writings were banned by the Communist Party.  Western counties would not become familiar with his socio-cultural theories for another couple of decades but in 1936, a German inventor named Konrad Zuse started building “the first electrical binary programmable computer.”  Zuse’s invention, the Z1, was the world’s first computer, and was constructed in his parents’ apartment.  Within a year, Iowa State College professor John Vincent Atanasoff and his graduate student Cliff Berry collaborated on the first “digital computer” known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (Definitions found on http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/z/z1.htm & http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/a/abc.htm, retrieved on Dec 1st, 2010).  It would be difficult to prove that Vygotsky’s work directly inspired these technological achievements, yet there is the accepted tradition in the scientific community that one contribution in the fields of science and technology “raises the water level” (Suzuki in Gunnarson’s Force of Nature, 2010) for others to draw from their own ideas and inventions.  As the scientist David Suzuki further points out in the documentary Force of Nature, his study of fruit flies could just as easily helped develop a weapon of mass destruction, in a more positive way, Vygotsky’s discussion of tools and cultural mediation may have brought about the computer.  For both communication and information technology, just as much as it has become for educational technology, computers and the Internet are allowing people to expand the way things are done.

One example of this expansion comes from more recent times.  At the start of the 21st Century, and organization called New Paradigm began to investigate the Internet’s impact on businesses “to understand how the new Web (sometimes called the Web 2.0) changes the corporation and how companies innovate, build relationships, market and compete.” (Tapscott & Williams, 2006, p. 2)  Don Tapscott, the Toronto-based founder and chief executive of New Paradigm, began to collaborate with research director Anthony D. Williams, based in London, England, on a book that would describe these changes.

In the process, we, as authors, learned something about collaboration too.  We authored these pages on separate continents…  When we were both working on the manuscript at the same time we hooked up with a Skype connection, talking, exchanging material, or being silent as appropriate.  At times it felt like we were in the same room. (ibid, p. 3)

The project they were working on was the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, thus coining the portmanteau wikinomics, as “a metaphor for a new era of collaboration and participation” (ibid, p. 18) within economics, and expanding their vision the 2010 follow-up Macrowikinomics.  Both words are concepts that do not require a great deal of analysis to understand how the Hawaiian word for quick has been applied to many collaborative websites, starting with Ward Cunningham’s WikiWikiWeb in 1995 and continuing more recently with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks in 2006.  Although there is no website, as of December 12th, 2010, devoted to continuing Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development (yet numerous wikis created by students and teachers alike to discuss his theories), there soon may be a place which continually revises and reapplies Vygotsky’s theories which will be called wikivygotsky.  Similar to the concept behind Cameron’s scriptment, which provided filmmakers with a faster way of getting a motion picture produced, having a wiki dedicated to Vygotsky’s ideas would be an improvement to the fields of cognitive development, psychology and pedagogy.

While the Avatar scriptment may have made it easier for Cameron as a writer to create his science-fiction world of Pandora on paper, or more correctly on his personal computer, the production of the movie would create as a director was a much longer and challenging process.  As mentioned earlier, production was meant to follow soon after Titanic, already a technologically demanding film with lots of underwater photography and computer-generated imagery, or CGI, to recreate the doomed ocean liner’s maiden voyage.  The original release date for Avatar in 1999 was pushed back by a decade by even greater demands since “according to Cameron, the necessary technology was not yet available to achieve his vision of the film.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film))  By inspired Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Cameron was eager to work with the trilogy’s digital visual effects company, Weta Digital, to create the look of the alien world, with a seamless blend of live action and CGI.  Not only the Weta workshops, but “a new cloud computing and Digital Asset Management (DAM) system called Gaia was created by Microsoft especially for Avatar” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film)#Visual_effects) to allow the numerous collaborators around the world to work on the massive project.

For Vygotsky, living in an age before the prototypes for computers were invented, it is very impressive to reflect upon the theories and new understandings he created in the space of ten years, and one can only wonder what further developments would have been revealed had he lived a few decades longer.  His writing, such as Tool and Symbol and the previously quoted Though and Language, were censored by the state in 1936, and only resurfaced “with the transformations of the Soviet society after 1956 and the active promotion of Vygotsky’s name and ideas both in the Soviet Union and internationally.” (Prout & van der Veer, 1994, p. 3)  As a scientist, he was rarely working alone, and many of his collaborators, such as Alexander Luria, Leonid Sakharov and Aleksej Leont’ev, carried on his work in the field of cognitive science.  Vygotsky’s name came back into prominence much later with reasons “embedded in the history of the development of (developmental) psychology and education in different countries.” (ibid, p. 5)  To study Vygotsky necessitates a cultural understanding of one’s own country, more than the former Soviet Union, as Vygotsky asserts “this is only a way of studying a given phenomenon with its particular historic background,” (Vygotsky & Luria in Prout & van der Veer, 1994, p. 113) and translations assist in bridging the linguistic divide between Russian and English.  With the advent of the Internet the world has become a smaller place, both in terms of language and cultural understanding.

An example of this smaller world has already been mentioned in the creation of Wikinomics with the co-authors being “in the same room” connected via Skype.  Their book examines many companies and organizations, such as the Luxemberg-based Skype, whose cofounder and CEO, Niklas Zennstrom, describes the eventual demise of telecommunication companies with “the idea of charging for telephone calls belongs to the last century.” (Tapscott & Williams, 2006, p. 27)  His attitude is echoed in the remarks from 2005 United States’ Federal Communication Commission chairman Michael Powell of the inevitable change Skype has brought to the world.  This is just one of the many examples of how innovative people have used the World Wide Web to bring about the change in paradigm for international economies.  In addition to interviews with business leaders in various sectors, the authors also talk with innovators like Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux; Jimmy Wale, the founder of Wikipedia; and Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.  The authors consider the four virtues of Internet innovation as openness, peering, sharing and acting globally, and one further portmanteau they created that describes these virtues is the ideagoras, virtual places that “make ideas, inventions, scientific expertise around the planet assessable to innovation-hungry companies.” (Tapscott & Williams, 2006, p. 98)  With several websites mentioned, including their main focus on InnoCentive, there are numerous places inventors and producers can go to swap ideas, as if in an agora or marketplace.  “The Internet may have shrunk distance and time, but the world of ideas and technologies is still a vast open space.” (ibid, p. 114)

The Weta-world the was cloud-created for Cameron’s film Avatar represents an unexplored place analogous to the natural world that is threatened by human technology.  The Weta Workshop not only was responsible for the CGI, but also designing costumes and props to used by the alien race called the Na’vi, while Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguist from the University of Southern California, helped to develop the alien language.  The set designers along with the actress Sigourney Weaver, who plays the exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine, met with Professor Jolie Holt from University of California Riverside’s Botany and Plant Sciences Department “to talk about how a field botanist would study and sample plants to learn about their physiology and biochemistry.  [They] also talked about the idea of communication among plants, and between plants and the Na’vi, and how that might be explained.” (Holt in Kozlowsky article, Jan 2nd, 2010)  The theme all of this highly detailed and technologically groundbreaking work comes interestingly enough from the director’s “continuous sense that the technological world was overwhelming the natural world and destroying it.” (Cameron in A Message from Pandora, 2010)  His life-long concern for the Earth’s environment reverses the old biblical argument, as Bruno Latour brings to light in his lecture on ecotheology that “the opposite is now far truer: ‘What use is it to save your soul, if you forfeit the world’? …Are you going to upload yourself to another planet?” (Latour, 2009, p. 463)

Cameron’s vision of the future is set on Pandora, the populated moon somewhere in the Alpha Centrauri solar system, which is teeming with ancient life forms, older than all of human history.  Underneath its dense forests and rich biosphere is a rare element, called unobtainium by humans who come to the planet to mine the precious material.  Dr. Grace Augustine, chief scientist and something of an anthropologist (perhaps xenoanthropologist is more accurate) of the Na’vi, sees the human greed for unobtainium as blinding them to the planet’s true wealth:

What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees, like the synapses between neurons.  Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora… That’s more connections than the human brain.  You get it?  It’s a network, a global network.  And the Na’vi can access it – they can upload and download data, memories – at sites like the one you just destroyed.  (Cameron, Avatar, 2009)

Much of the story involves viewing the humans as the alien invaders, willing to devastate a planet and its indigenous population for Earthly economic purposes.  The director’s sense of technology overwhelming the natural world goes back forty years in his life, and includes the period Latour refers to in his lecture: “No one can deny the complete sea change that has occurred in the last thirty years; yet the major effect of ecology is not… that nature has made a comeback, but that we are finally ‘out of nature’.” (Latour, 2004 cited in Latour, 2009, p. 468).  And in a hundred and fifty years from now, Cameron proposes, the technology will make it possible to upload human consciousness into the avatars of alien bodies.  With the urgent warning of environmentalist David Suzuki in mind, the continual exploitation of nature will not allow for endless economic growth.  He explains the exponential growth of the human population in “a system analogous to the planet: it’s a test tube full of food for bacteria” that will run out of space and food within an hour due to the bacteria’s exponential growth, doubling the number of bacterium every minute.  At “fifty-nine minutes, the test tube is only half-full, but one minute later it is completely full” and were off the moons of Alpha Centauri.  And yet it won’t take long, given the same rate of exponential growth, to use up all the resources of four Pandoras “by the end of the second hour.” (Suzuki in Gunnarson’s Force of Nature, 2010).

Instead of this terminal solution, more of human effort and economy should be directed at understanding more about the universe, like the “magus’s highest aspiration” according to Erik Davis in his article  Techgnosis: “universal memory.” (Davis, 1993, p. 603)  The fictional Na’vi being able to upload and download memories in communication with their trees recalls the “Arbor scientiae” mentioned in Techgnosis.  “These visual charts attempted to schematize the total encyclopedia of all knowledge into a forest of trees,” not unlike Eywa and other Pandoran flora, and very similar to the more Earth-bound peer-to-peer sharing described by the wikinomists in their chapter “The New Alexandrians”.  They are more assured of the collaborative efforts of the human race “fortunate to be living through the fastest and broadest accumulation of human knowledge and culture ever.” (Tapscott & Williams, 2006, p. 151)

For Vygotsky, who seemingly lived and wrote on the cusp of this “Age of Collaborative Science” (ibid, p. 156-7), there seems little more that he has to contribute, and more technologically advanced scientists will find it easier to complete his studies in cognitive development.  Yet after some eighty years of his writing being published, educators and psychologists alike seem to just being scratching the surface of the knowledge he and his colleagues wrote down.  He and Luria started off their research into the construction of knowledge, in their work Tool and Symbol, interestingly enough having a “comparison with botany” and child psychology.  The “branches of psychological investigation” stems from “the botanical, vegetable character of child development” and is rooted in the still-current idea of “kindergarten as a system of early-age upbringing.” (Vygotsky & Luria in Prout & van der Veer, 1994, p. 99)  Instead of continuing with this flowery language to describe how children grow and develop, they look at the animal nature, mainly primates that are genetically closest to human beings.  Their investigation considers a child’s development in relation to the inherited qualities “from former animal forms of thought” and proposes a

… new type of attitude towards environment, typical of man, the new forms of activity which led to the development of labour as the determining form of man’s relation with nature, the connection between use of tools and speech…  (ibid, p. 106)

which can now be considered as information and communication technologies.  The tools humans have developed within the last century may make necessary our visits to other planets in the next century or so, but it is the cultural-historical tool of speech that interest Vygotsky, Luria and other constructivists.  It is ominously appropriate for Vygotsky to write about the “temporality of life, cultural development, work – in short, everything that distinguishes man from animals in the psychological field – all of this is intimately related to the fact that, parallel to his conquest of nature over the course of his historical development, man also mastered his own self, his own behaviour.” (ibid, p. 165)

It is no hyperbole to state that James Cameron has mastered the latest film-making, or rather communication, technology with his movie Avatar.  After completing a novel adaptation of his movie, expanding his scriptment into a more convential literary form, he intends to write and direct two sequels.  “It is a rare and remarkable opportunity when a filmmaker gets to build a fantasy world, and watch it grow, with the resources and partnership of a global media company,” Cameron said. “With two new films on the drawing boards, my company and I are embarking on an epic journey”.  (Cameron in McClintock article, Oct 27, 2010)  The New Alexandrian entertainment he creates is very mindful of the self-mastery advocated by Lev S. Vygotsky, and has come up with a new term to further elaborate upon the combination of technology and spirit suggested by such terms as techgnosis, ecotheology or even wikivygotsky; in a supplemental featurette on the latest DVD edition of the Avatar, Cameron describes the need for humans to become techno-indigenous.  Humans must transform into “something that have never existed on this planet before… the next stage of evolution that we have to reach.” (Cameron in A Message from Pandora, 2010) Not much is yet known about what he means, and so far there is not even a page on Wikipedia to describe it, but there is a sense that the more human beings learn thought and cognitive development, the more in balance the species will be with the rest of nature.

References

Cameron, James, writer and director.  Avatar.  USA: 20th Century Fox, 2009.  See also A Message from Pandora featurette on the Extended Collector’s Edition DVD of the same movie, and related websites for more on:

scriptment, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scriptment#Origin;

the creation of his film, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film);

and visual effects. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film)#Visual_effects

Computer Hope.  Definitions of Z1 (http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/z/z1.htm) & Atanasoff-Berry Computer (http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/a/abc.htm).  Retrieved on December 5th, 2010.

 

Davis, Erik.  Techgnosis: Magic, memory and the angels of information. South Atlantic Quarterly, 92(4), 1993.

 

Gunnarson, Stula, director.  Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie. Canada: Entertainment One, 2010.

 

Kozlowsky, Lori. ‘Avatar’ team brought in UC Riverside professor to dig in the dirt of Pandora. Los Angeles Times: Hero Complex article, Jan 2nd, 2010.  Retrieved from: http://herocomplex.latimes.com/2010/01/02/avatar-team-brought-in-uc-riverside-professor-to-dig-in-the-dirt-of-pandora)

 

Latour, Bruno.  Will nonhumans be saved? An argument in ecotheology.  Journal of the Royal Anthropologic Institute, 15, 2009.

 

McClintock, Pamela.  James Camerson’s 5-year Plan.  Variety article, Oct 27, 2010.  Retrieved from http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118026416

 

Tapscott, Don & Anthony D. Williams.  Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.  New York: Portfolio (Penguin Group USA), 2006.

 

Vygotsky, Lev S.  Thought and Language.  Ed. by Eugenia Hanfmann & Gertrude Vakar.  Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1962.

 

Vygotsky, Lev S. et al.  Vygotsky Reader. Ed. by Rene van der Veer & Jaan Valsiner.  Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994.

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