Aesthetics of the Digital Landscapes: Emergent Lands of Possibility and Transformation

Aesthetics of the Digital Landscapes: Emergent Lands of Possibility and Transformation


I want to begin by underlining again the concept of the rhizome, as a root system that differs from the botanical image of the tree whose roots are connected to the trunk, with the trunk connected to branches to which leaves are connected in a linear and direct pathway that one could argue is upwards in motion and akin to a model of learning that is considered as progressional, upward, and mono-directional. The rhizome as argued by Deleuze and Guttari is multiple, evolves along ever replicating networks and angles where there is no direction or movement towards a specific end point. Instead it is a complex web of interaction, that is knotted and tangled with no specific entry or exit point just like as Loris Malaguzzi said, resembling a tangled bowl of spaghetti. It is a difficult image to comprehend in terms of children’s learning because ‘development’ is traditionally seen as this root and tree model where children are assessed in terms of rising upwards through universal bands and hierarchies of development. Indeed many methodologies of assessment are constructed on this model, where children’s experience is normalised and standardised against set progressional benchmarks.

This complex rhizomatic image can be used to describe the internet and the place(s) of the digital and offers educators working within the context of early childhood a challenge to re-see children’s meaning-making and representation as something rather more complicated than we currently consider it to be.   I write ‘place(s)’ to denote that it is both a place and places at one and the same time, it is both a thing and many things, it is not this or that, either/or but as Gunilla Dahlberg argues a state of AND, AND and AND.

10fe2d1In terms of children’s learning and making sense of the world around them, I consider the rhizome the best fit model of trying to understand the place(s) of children’s meaning-making and the role of the educator in their quest to try to understand this meaning-making. Often we try to over simplify, or to reach a single and shared interpretation of what we think is going on for the child. If we say, that we consider children’s thinking to be more complex than their vocabulary then we must also challenge ourselves to see that thinking itself is something far more complex too.


Working with young children now, I am interested and once again in a researchful and playful mode of trying to understand the landscape of the digital world in the hands and minds of children. There are many more tools in which to express oneself and to communicate with here. The digital paintbrush offers children a different way of applying paint, where paintbrushes can be loaded with self-replicating images. Scale and size can be explored, the macro and micro world, the surface of a tiny seed projected at an immense magnification where children can quite literally enter into an image blurring the physical and digital worlds. Tablets are a window upon which to see and research the world – information is out there waiting to be discovered and a critical eye is required to navigate the truths and untruths out there. Social media and digital photography offer ways to explore and manipulate identity(ies) and (re)construct knowledge whilst collaboration is increasing in potential as gamers share platforms to defeat enemies and over come problems (World of Warcraft, Destiny) and create new worlds of possibility (Minecraft, Simms, Little Big Planet).   The visual languages are expandable and sharable across time zones and continents, and images, sounds and patterns are beamed beyond our world and out into space. Where once the cave walls were our canvas of communication, now the global interface to the solar system and beyond are possible.

So where does this leave us in the classroom? From my observations and with conversations with educators across the world there is often a wide gap in terms of skills of using IT (and thus being able to see their potential) and in pedagogical understanding of such concepts as creativity, innovation, enterprise, critical thinking, imagination etc). If one still struggles to see the creative, thinking child then give that child an iPad and it will be foggier still. We jump too easily to devaluing them as mere entertainment centres, or that they are harmful to children’s communication and social skills. I challenge us all, myself included to begin to look again, at these new and emerging languages and tools, which means immersing ourselves into this digital world. We must ask ourselves what does the digital landscape mean, how does it feel in and of itself, and/or to be part of it, what can be done with it, how can we create with it, for it? Is it beautiful, ugly, worthy, worthless, how is that good or bad, how does it change us?

digital-connectivityI spend a lot of my time, training teachers and I often find myself saying ‘if you want to understand how children connect their ideas then spend your Saturday mornings watching what they watch, become immersed in the world of cartoons, animated adventures, desirable action figures and toys as then it might begin to make sense.’ I actually see this as genuine research, and essential too. At one particular school in Wolverhampton, UK, we held a pedagogy meeting to watch Ben 10 as it appeared to hold a strong identity with the children in the nursery school. How else could we begin to understand the concepts at the heart of their play, if we didn’t give value to what they found interest in?

And so the same is with the digital world. I have recently purchased Minecraft after watching a group of children engrossed in Minecraft in creative mode in a school in Singapore. I could just begin to grasp through my observation that something important was going on, but not understanding the game play itself was problematic to me being able to understand the children’s problems they were trying to solve and thus I was unable to know how to intervene in effective and beneficial ways.

In all of this I ask, what is the beauty in the digital that is harmonious with other aesthetic approaches and also those that offer something that is becoming something new. We need to begin to become familiar with these ideas if we are to understand how the digital landscape can be of benefit in the ECE context. The Digital world offers a new consideration of aesthetics, some of which I outline below.

digital-brain-1Network Culture

This is a relational concept, where individual and individualistic methods are relegated to the back of the cupboard. Relations are everything; it is what makes things happen. Relations between people, groups, materials, devices. It is a world of connection and mobility with those connections. It is no longer the world of the individual desktop computer plugged into its own dialup network, where one user inputs to their own system held on that computer. This is the world of DropBox and Google Docs with its abilities to construct and work upon things together, to share, and to collaborate. Connection is now more important than division; we can do more together than competing as individuals against each other. We connect through shared ideas, through people and via machines that move, are mobile, and are portable.

The Internet is a place of discovery of knowledge, where knowledge is connected, sharable, and transformable. Take a look at Wikipedia, a place of knowledge about people and places, or theories and experiences written by a network of people, who have not and will not meet in the real world. Knowledge is shared, cited by others, peer reviewed of sorts, amended and transformed with immediate affect within the Wiki community. With each click on a page, there are links that take you elsewhere, to other thoughts and theories that are connected. It holds the very possibility to become lost, and this becoming lost is not considered as a bad thing either, it is what it is, a tangled web of spaghetti like information and knowledge to be dived into at any given point. The network and community of Wikipedia enables you to jump out of that network and into the world of other networks that interweave and connect, orientate and disorientate as you seek understanding. Network culture allows you to collaborate when not even sat around the same table.

Collective Intelligence

The ability to be able to work not just collaboratively but as a collective group from diverse fields, in infinite ways and multiples of. An interdisciplinary approach that values the shared growth of knowledge of the collective rather than the individual. It can be understood as an outcome of the synergy between data-information-knowledge), the software-hardware, and experts i.e. those with insight as well as recognised in their field). The collective continually learns in a reflective and symbiotic feedback loop to produce immediate ‘just in time’ knowledge that is greater than what could be produced by any of the 3 elements working alone.

Crowd Sourcing

A way in which companies, institutions, organisations offer out an open call for help, opinions, or for tedious tasks to be done by a collective. A recent example I came across was for Cancer Research. An App was developed that appealed to gamers. It was based on the identification of emergent patterns. The gamer progressed through levels based on identifying colours, amounts and shapes in a given ‘slide’. The slide was in fact a growth pattern of cells from the urinary tract of people with cancer. The gamer was identifying patterns in the cells that helped to determine what would be the best treatment for the cell growth. It was a skill that could only be done by the human eye (and not the digital one). For the gamer, the benefit was interesting game play that was entertaining and valuable in terms of relaxation. For the outsourcer i.e. the cancer researcher, it enabled a process of ‘reading’ medical/biological microscopic slides that was unable to be produced in the digital world, and too costly to employ human endeavour. It is also another example of the blurring of digital and physical worlds identified below.)

Open Sourced

Refers to the design and distribution of digital tools that are free to use by others to share and contribute to the greater knowledge/experience of others. You are reading this blog on an open source coded program ‘WordPress’ which enables me to write and publish work without the need to know how code a program to chronologically order posts, keep text inline with images, create ways of enabling others to share what I write on their own blogs, or in different open source contexts such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google and Twitter.

From a workshop in Reggio Emilia.  Light, projection and video camera - materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital/virtual and multiple/real selves
From a workshop in Reggio Emilia. Light, projection and video camera – materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital/virtual and multiple/real selves

Digital and Physical World Relationships

The blurring of the digital world and physical world (often referred to as the New Aesthetic) e.g. Google Liveview maps, a digital resource and tool but blended with the real and very physical world. 3D printing transverses the two planes by creating a physical and real object that came from the digital world. Possibilities exist to print your own medicines (not prescriptions), print working guns, bone sections for medical grafts after accidents, skin.

For the early childhood educator there is much to consider. The landscape is complex. Emma Mulqueeny coined the term ‘the 97’s’ a generation born into the world of open source, collective intelligence and social media networks. They think different to us analogue types…in 3-4 years time they will be our new teachers and will approach things so differently. It requires for us now to become acquainted with this new landscape and for our children we cannot afford not too.

The digital landscape offers so much, digital projection, immersive environments, green screen transformation, networked global platforms, connectivity across continents and time zones with other children, in other classrooms. Communication is vast, viral and rhizomatic in form. It is more apparent and economical to write an email, to Skype than to write a traditional letter. The days of writing a letter and posting it in the postbox are long gone. I cannot remember the last time I licked a stamp. Gaming is play, we value play, we value traditional games but maybe we are reticent in our thinking about the value of Minecraft, Destiny or other collaborative game play. The hashtag is new symbol of the alphabet, a communicative code of itself that connects. Our challenge as teachers, educators, leaders is to see how the digital landscape can create new ways of expressing and constructing knowledge rather than replicating current ways of communication and expression. I for one am keen to explore these possibilities with our youngest of children, for they are born into it and cannot afford to wait for the generation of the 97’s to qualify as teachers.

More to follow on the digital aesthetic and the world of ECE as I begin to delve deeper into practice.

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