The Lost Art of ‘Ars Memoria’

Image: “Art of memory by Fludd, 1621” from Wellcome Trust: CC-BY 4.0

Continuing the theme started in the Tusk of the Unicorn, exploring the boundaries and tensions between the familiar and the strange in the way we navigate our personal spaces, this section focuses more closely on the similar tensions in the digital sphere, particularly with regards to the fields of Educational technology.

Before the proliferation of print media, learning and knowledge acquisition relied on the dual skills of memorising and recitation. This supported by the ancient techniques of Ars Memoria to build a complex internal database of connections, fully categorised and cross-referenced to aid recall. Many scholars lamented the loss of these complex skills with the advent of print (Cousins, 118, 2005).

Indeed, Plato (quoting Socrates) was the first writer to attack the new technology of ‘writing’ for essentially having a fixed form, no interlocutor with which to fully shape ideas “… once it is written, every composition is trundled about everywhere in the same way”. He also criticised the detrimental effect this new technology of ‘writing’ would have on the way students’ learn:

“[writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves”

(Gee, 69, 2015)

There is a long tradition of ‘resistance and embrace’ (Bayne, 457, 2015) with emerging technologies  – from Plato with writing circa 400BC through the New York Times describing the epidemic of ‘camera lunatics’ – in 1884! To the backlash against the Google ‘Glassholes’ in 2014.

Within the field of educational technology, however, there is an acknowledged lack of academic critique of the field. A field largely considered a ‘positive project’ (Selwyn, 32, 2014)  where tools are seen as neutral, criticism as technophobia, and resistance as regressive. Even the widely used term ‘technology-enhanced learning ‘ (TEL), considered an inoffensive shorthand for the field, contains value-laden judgements and assumptions that deserve deeper analysis (Bayne, 5, 2104).

It is not just the language that is under scrutiny for its lack of scrutiny. The open education as a movement in educational technology, has also ‘acquired a sheen of naturalised common sense and legitimacy’ that renders those who critique it as technophobes, cynics and elitist (Bayne et al, 247, 2015).

This opens up real challenges for all of us who work in the field of educational technology, or TEL, where a large part of our role is to demonstrate the opportunities that educational technology can offer, to embrace the ‘positive’ , the affordances they contain. We are the custodians of the digital Wunderkammer – the cabinet of tech ‘tools’ we can offer up our audience and the world of possibilities they contain. We are potentially those who Selwyn describes as ‘drinking the Ed-Tech Kool-Aid’ (Selwyn. 439, 2015), sitting at the uncomfortable mid-point between the ‘resistance and embrace’.

Selwyn does not hold back in his open hostility to the ‘bullshit’ of ‘Ed Tech Speak’, challenging the honesty of such descriptions of online spaces as ‘hangouts’, ‘cafes’ and ‘hubs’.

This highlights the tension in the way we seek connections between the two worlds of the traditional and the digital, using metaphors, skuemorphism to make familiar the potentially new and unfamiliar, map what is known and meaningful onto what is potentially unknown. Language itself is metaphorically structured’, (Lakoff, 5, 2003) and we transcribe the language of traditional learning onto digital spaces in order to create meaningful connections with existing concepts (Cousins, 122, 2005).

That can be problematic when we select metaphorical descriptions that are culturally unfamiliar and potentially alienating. Sentences have no meaning without context and that context is different for different people (Lakoff, 12, 2003).

It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore sociolinguistics further but as Fiere describes in his work on emancipatory linguistics ‘reading the world always precedes reading the word’. But whose world? – whose social reality are we reading and describing (Gee, 88, 2015).

Selwyn’s main criticism is the lazy language, the tired buzz words and taglines, cutesy terms such as ‘Raspberry Pi’, ‘digital badges’ (Selwyn, 439, 2016). His contention is that ‘Ed Tech Speak’ is not neutral language but highly political and value-laden and that we should challenge its use more robustly.