Emerging technologies: New ways for shared experiences

Victorian travel

Recently, Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian described the year 1995, as that old, slow world you could describe the way George Eliot described life before the railroad.

Solnit goes on to describe her stately 1995 routine: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected and so, behaved like a word processor on a desk.

Nowadays, her computer is more like a cocktail party full of chatter increasingly fragmented streams of news and data, leaving Solnit to feel like an anachronism in this completely different world.

As a computer scientist in 1995, my experience was quite different. I already had my first webpage: ‘Hello World!’ and felt connected. I was a graphics programmer and HCI researcher, and I loved sharing information on newsgroups or by email. I lived in Switzerland and was thrilled when the UK newspapers went online. I no longer had to wait for day old news from good old Blighty. Technology helped my research and enriched my life daily.

Ten years on, I trained to be a journalist. During the course, we were told to read all the newspapers everyday and then pitch articles which were very similar to the ones already in the paper. Anniversaries of public events and the deaths, marriages of famous people, were always good fodder to fill up the papers. And a spot of ambulance chasing could get you that human interest story.

It did strike me as all a bit old-fashioned. So, I shouldn’t be so surprised that Solnit feels left behind. This new technology is threatening her way of life when really it could be helping her. And it is interesting that Solnit compares the rate of change today with the Victorian railroads and the fast changing world back then. It is a satisfying comparison.

Alison Byerly, in her book, Are we there yet? Virtual travel and Victorian realism recently reviewed in the TLS, compares chat rooms to railway carriages, SimCity to hot air balloons, and blog links to K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She also gives a lovely example of Victorian armchair travel when she describes Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc (1851-6), which was an interactive scene of a full scale chalet exterior, a pool of water containing live fish, and ten Saint Bernards who would trot about the auditorium delivering packets to chocolate to children. Smith targeted people who would never actually go to Mont Blanc. It was too far and too expensive to travel in their lifetimes. But they could go along to his exhibition and experience the thrill of the ascent.

Today, with a click of a button, we can watch footage of people climbing Mont Blanc and eating chocolate on YouTube. Byerly mentions virtual reality (VR) as another parallel for Smith’s exhibition: but really how many people do you know have a head-mounted display and data-gloves? And really is VR what we need? After, it is a shared experience we are seeking, something we can talk about and take part in together in order to understand. Elsewhere in her book, Byerly gives examples of Victorian full-scale recreations of train crashes and other disasters.

Recently, the New York Times ran a long feature called Snow Fall online about an avalanche at Tunnel Creak, Stevens pass, Washington. There are slide shows of the deceased and their families, pictures of the history of Tunnel Pass, and a computer-generated simulation of the avalanche. It is a great piece of journalism enriched beautifully by technology. It is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian exhibitions.

According to Wikipedia, journalism began in 1400s. Italian and German businessmen wrote down the latest news and circulated it to their connections in the city. The practice grew, especially during wartime so that the people back home would know what was going on. Journalists were providing a service – informing and updating peoples’ lives.

And, now we have access to the latest news all the time. From the simple #hashtag on twitter to longer news articles which are presented in a magazine format by Flipboard. But it is not always new information that we need. Sometimes, we need in depth analysis and explanation, a shared experience, a shared understanding.

At best, journalists are recorders of our time. They bring us life changing historical events, perceived injustices, and remind us of things we should never forget. They write it down and revisit so that we don’t forget. Good journalists articulate our thoughts and connect to our minds. Now they can do this better than ever with insightful visualisation whilst connecting information to give us insight and enlightenment.

Magazine mogul, Chris Anderson, started the TED talks because he felt that television wasn’t challenging enough and he believed intellectual mobility was the future. In an article in the Guardian, Anderson talks about crowd-accelerated learning, and bringing intellectual stimulus and experience to YouTube audiences by the world’s leading thinkers.

The positive adoption of technology by broadcast media and TV networks (like OWN) and some journalists is exciting. Many broadcast and media courses now teach emerging technologies and so the potential is there to create enriching and enlightening features that educate us all.

Emerging journalism: a new way of sharing experiences.

Mindfulness: The love within your love

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And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself? –Rumi

Two years ago, I accidentally began to practice mindfulness.

On hearing the plan that I needed six rounds of chemotherapy, I thought that it would be a great time to start all those things that I had been planning to do before my cancer diagnosis: yoga, eating healthily, thinking positively, blah, blah, blah. With hindsight, I see that me being business as usual, was actually my way of dealing with it all. I was pretending it wasn’t happening.

And then, life intervened, as the first round of chemotherapy nearly killed me. The chemo was the correct dose for my size, but my body which had been in fight or flight mode for years, held onto the chemo longer than was good for me. After a week in hospital, I came home thankfully alive but so weak, I couldn’t do anything.

I tried again to carry on as before but after a while I gave up and began living completely in the present moment. I listened to my body and accepted whatever came my way. I lay in bed a lot with a little fridge besides me so when I needed a drink I didn’t have to walk anywhere because I couldn’t spare the energy. And when I had energy, I had to spend it wisely. Life most days was a choice between having a shower, or dropping my kids off at playgroup. I couldn’t do both. I took my life moment by moment.

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine and Mindfulness, and author of Coming to our senses defines mindfulness as paying attention to being in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and with an open heart.

Chemotherapy taught me this. For the first time ever in my life, I accepted my body as it was, which at that time was bald, battle-scarred and amazing. I stopped forcing it to exercise. The chemo had severely damaged the nerves in my veins so stretching hurt my limbs. And when it came to food, I gave my body the hangover food it wanted: fried egg sandwiches and chocolate cake, instead of forcing it to eat healthy cancer-fighting food. And then I stopped worrying about not eating cancer-fighting food, as that was too stressful. And then I stopped fighting life and thinking that I should or shouldn’t do something. I started to be.

And this listening to my body, came as a bit of a relief to my mind too. For like my body, it used to hang onto to thoughts that really weren’t good for me. I would dwell on things people said, or did, or didn’t do, for far too long. I made myself ill worrying about other peoples’ opinions of me.

And when I got overtired and my mind went to the dark side and frightened me with thoughts like: What if you don’t get better? What if this is it? I was so glad to get back to the present moment and a judgement free way of living, that I became surer that being in the present moment was the only way to live. The alternative was to think positively, which was equally stressful, because each time I didn’t, I worried I might affect my chances of getting well and die of negativity, another exhausting thought.

And I realised that all my life, my mind had been so full of pointless chatter. A thought I later saw echoed by Eckart Tolle in his book The Power of Now. To counter our pointless thoughts, Tolle, recommends that we watch our thoughts as a separate thing, and with experience, we come to know that we are not our thoughts, we are the essence of what is between our thoughts.

Throughout my treatment, I looked so well, that often people would ask me to do things. One day a mum in our local playgroup asked me to take on a volunteering role. I said that I was recovering from cancer and didn’t feel that I could do it. She said: Oh! that is what they all say… someone has to do it.

That was really, the first time that I saw that mindfulness was bigger than me. Normally I would have gotten upset with this person and her meanness. Instead, I was able to observe her anger and frustration and I began to view her differently. I felt compassion for her situation. In her mind, she was stuck with a volunteering job she hadn’t ever wanted and couldn’t palm off on me. This moment wasn’t about me at all. She wasn’t bothered about me, otherwise she might have chosen her words more carefully. Why would I waste energy getting upset about what she said? She didn’t care! Why should I?

Kabat-Zinn says that wisdom and compassion are practices which you need to cultivate it and which are capable of healing unthinkable wounds, which I know now is true.

It is business as usual nowadays: I do yoga, I eat healthy, I’ve lost weight, and sometimes I even think positive thoughts, blah, blah, blah. Mainly though, I try to approach each moment mindfully, because I know that when I do, it is possible to see the good that is in everything and everyone, and that healing may only be a moment away.

Emerging Technologies: OWN the technology

Oprah Winfrey Network Pic

Back in 2008, Oprah Winfrey hosted a series of webinars with Eckart Tolle to discuss his book A New Earth.

There were 10 online sessions. Each recording was streamed live on the Internet and viewers could skype in with their questions which were answered in real time or they could leave questions on the online forum on her website. The webinars were put up on oprah.com so that people coming late to class could catch up in various formats: video, audio, and transcript. Users can still access these various formats , along with a workbook, book club discussion, and other meditation recordings at oprah.com’s bookclub.

Oprah ended The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, and inspired by her New Earth webinars and using lessons, revelations and aha moments from the show’s history, began Lifeclass in the same year. Oprah had been inspiring viewers to be their best selves from her TV show, and technology had caught up with her.

Season One Lifeclass aired weekdays on her wonderfully named TV network: OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) with nightly webcasts on oprah.com to complement each on-air lesson. She was joined by spiritual teachers and self-help experts. Viewers would skype in. Previous guests of The Oprah Winfrey Show sometimes appeared to share their life learning. And Oprah would read comments and questions off her facebook wall or oprah.com online. It was a completely new way of broadcasting and interacting, especially since the emphasis was on the self-actualisation of viewers.

Lifeclass went on tour for Season Two so that most of the webinars were filmed in venues with enormous studio audiences. Season Three took place in Chicago and Texas. And Season Four Lifeclass debuted The Social Lab website online community. It is an example of directed learning with questions and journals for viewers who can then connect to the broadcast as usual live via skype, facebook, and twitter with the discoveries they have made about themselves already shaped ready for them to communicate. And if something they have written resonates with a topic on Lifeclass, then a producer may get in touch with them to be on a class, or to use the words they have written.

OWN’s other uplifting show, and the heart of OWN, is called Super Soul Sunday. Viewers can tweet Oprah when it airs and it is filmed for TV and is available on the Internet on-demand for a period of time. This is a direct TV extension of her radio talk show on Oprah & Friends, Radio Sirius XM called Soul Series, where she talks to spiritual writers and teachers to discuss the big questions in life: Why are we here? What is it all about? The archives are amazing and available to download to listen as a podcast.

Sometimes one of the teachers, as in the case of Dr Maya Angelou, is profiled at the same time in her O Magazine which you can read online, on your ipad subscription, or in print. And throughout the program whether on OWN TV, or on the Internet, or on-demand on the web, Oprah invites viewers to tweet or facebook her and to watch the movie shorts provided by Soul Pancake which started life as a website for users to create and think on life’s big questions.

If you follow Lifeclass, or belong to Oprah’s online community, OWN will send you email to invite you to the next class, or Meditation Challenge, or read a blog about what’s in it for you, or preview content which will be broadcast on OWN. Follow her on twitter, and you get lots of interesting links there. And best of all, when a program airs, Oprah will be tweeting along, giving her opinion, and responding to the opinions of others.

OWN is demonstrating how to collect and use the various strands social media at its best. It is a masterclass in participation, openness, conversation, community, and connectedness whilst giving people something good of which to be a part.

Online doesn’t get better than this.

The view from my yoga mat

The view from my yoga mat

I have done yoga on and off now for over a quarter of a century. I do yoga for several months and swear when I am healthy (and annoying) that I will never stop because it makes me feel so good. But, then life happens and I stop.

This time, I have been doing yoga daily (well, near enough) since the start of 2013. I feel stronger and fitter and happier.

I once heard Rodney Yee say to his students: If you are not getting down on your mat everyday then find something else to do. And, I almost believed him.

Now, I think, yoga – like life – is something you do one day at a time. And, I know for sure that life is more complex that a make one decision today just ‘cos you didn’t do something yesterday. Our mind-body-soul interaction is not that simple. And, we are not that simple. Just because you are not there -wherever you want to be – yet, doesn’t mean you will never get there. As they say in Galaxy Quest: Never give up, never surrender.

I love yoga and it is something I will always come back to. Always! But over the years, there have been times when I wanted to get down on my yoga mat and I couldn’t. Sometimes, there were big reasons, other times there weren’t – I just couldn’t. But, I didn’t want to try to find something new because whether I was doing yoga or not doing yoga, I know, I love yoga. Noodle, don’t noodle. Yoga, don’t yoga. And don’t get me wrong, I tried other things, but ultimately, I just didn’t want to do anything else to the extent that I wanted to do yoga even when I couldn’t.

Lately, I love and do yoga daily (well almost) and because it is hot and I have been going outside with my yoga mat, yesterday, I snapped the view. And today I snapped it again. So, I am going to see where this goes. And should the time come again when I lose the will to get on the mat, I will have a collection of images of all the times I got on down on my mat and made myself feel better.

It also means, that after lurking on twitter for a very long time, I finally have something to offer:

The view from my yoga mat: