Digital landscapes – the new media playground

Mark Dudek

Editor’s introduction

Writing in 1992, architect Peter Eisenman states that since the Second World War, a profound change has taken place in the ways in which we interact with the world. He describes this process in somewhat jargonistic terminology as ‘the electronic pradigm’.1 This alludes to the shift from mechanical to electronic devices which, he stated, would increasingly dominate our lives; in this he included television, fax machines and photocopiers. What he did not predict was arguably the most profound social transformation since the industrial revolution – the advent of user-friendly personal computers, the Internet and the world wide web.

Over a relatively brief period of time, computers and related digital technology have become ubiquitous, dictating the ways in which people work and play. My personal experience of studying and working as an architect during the pre-computer era entailed long arduous hand-drawn renderings, with carefully graded shadows (sciagraphy – the science of shadows was a subject taught in my first year at architecture school), and geometrically constructed perspectives (using, I seem to remember, long pieces of string to generate converging planes). These were the main antiquated tools we employed to communicate architectural ideas. Even the photocopier, with its enlarging and reducing facility only came into widespread use towards the tail end of my studies.

Contemporary architects now have a sophisticated range of computer-aided design and presentational methods at their disposal. These can produce filmically accurate renderings of every form of building proposal, ranging from colour perspectives to fly through animations of incredible realism. The so-called information super highway, or world wide web, enables research and investigation to take place within the confines of the office or the home. A revolution has taken place which will have profound effects on the ways in which children spend their leisure time or their working time at school. In time it may even change the form the school takes completely.

This chapter is divided into two parts. The first is a comparative analysis of the way children play computer games as a result of the new culture. It includes a brief and selective history of computer games, and comments on the way these games may effect children’s culture outside of school. The second section is a summary of recent initiatives in education which have computer technology at their heart. This tentative study should be read as the somewhat personal account of a digital sceptic who observes the activities of his own children and looks back at his own childhood with a certain degree of nostalgia for a time when children were more free to create their own (more physical) games.

Introduction

The advent of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has transformed the world of work generally. In the USA it is estimated that 60 per cent of jobs now require ICT skills.2 In the UK, governments have emphasized the importance of technology skills to combat social exclusion:

‘Entrance to the new media playground is relatively cheap for the well to do, a small adjustment in existing spending patterns is easily accommodated. For the poor the price is a sharp calculation of opportunity cost, access to communication goods jostling uncomfortably with the mundane arithmetic of food, housing and clothing’.3

Whilst there is no doubting the brutal pressures placed on families by poverty, the reality would appear that no matter what their class, bright young students will develop ICT skills if facilities are provided for them in schools, libraries or commercially through high street outlets. Today it seems, the issue of education and ICT literacy is a generational problem, not just in terms of access, but also in terms of knowledge and understanding. Digital culture is central to the culture of childhood, outside and inside school.

The National Grid for Learning in the UK, which was launched in November 1998, was the initial political commitment. This investment was to help provide use of the Internet, to enable all 30 000 UK schools to be connected, allowing pupils internet access to libraries and museums and to allow parents to maintain remote communication with the school about their sons and daughters. Similarly in his 1995 State of the Union address, the then President Clinton declared that ‘every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway with computers and good software and well trained teachers,..’.4 Secretary of Education Richard Riley has stated that computers are ‘the new basic of American education’, with the Internet the ‘blackboard of the future’. Since those early days, the development of ICT as a learning tool has developed in most schools within the UK and USA.

Perhaps most profoundly, the world wide web enables children to participate in conversations instantly across geographical boundaries through its global networking capabilities. In the future, cyberspace is seen as a great social leveller, with its de-centralized structure bringing users of all media and speakers of all languages together in what Marshall McLuhan described as a ‘unified public field of awareness,..’5 or ‘the global village’.

The anonymity afforded by this digital technology has been used maliciciously: older men have posed as children themselves and lured young people into dangerous real (as opposed to virtual) encounters.6 The unregulated nature of the Internet is what makes it so attractive for children, but at the same time represents the fear adults have about their children participating freely. Nevertheless ICT in schools and at home has become fundamental to almost every child’s pattern of learning and social interaction, extending the field of communication for the new generation of computer literate learners. Here we will describe a number of educational initiatives which aim to fully exploit this, and speculate on their effect on staff and students, now and in the future as school pedagogy evolves.

Computer games also play an increasingly important role in the lives of children at home. Significant amounts of time are spent by many young people playing games with realistic animated landscapes, which can be explored. We will describe some of these games and assess their effect on the contemporary culture of childhood. To a certain extent this too is a generational issue. At least as adults we have, during the course of our lives, accumulated experience of the realities of life for ourselves (largely without the aid of computers) and hence have a perspective formed alongside the virtual realm. Increasingly however, our children’s experiences of the world are effectively second hand, communicated through a voracious electronic landscape, detached from the real physical landscapes of earlier childhood experience.

In this chapter we will explore the wider influence information and communications technology has on the lives of modern children, by way of comparisons between earlier childhoods, and reflections on contemporary use patterns. We may bemoan the lack of physical activity our children experience as they sit for hours hunched over a computer keyboard or interactive console, yet the free time parents have in return is a positive benefit, especially as they are relaxed in the knowledge that their children are physically safe, yet occupied and stimulated. Many parents are fully aware of and concerned about the possible implications of so much time spent playing computer games or working on line at school. This is the electronic landscape, and it may be every bit as important as the landscapes of childhood discussed elsewhere in this book. Here childhood, and its status and meaning within the context of an architectural milieu, will be explored in relation to this most profound material change.

Many of the observations within this chapter are framed by my own personal view of the world. I grew up in an environment which was largely devoid of electronic devices (a telephone was only installed in our home when I was 14 years old). There is inevitably a certain amount of personal mistrust of this new electronic landscape and a good deal of misunderstanding regarding its effects on the lives of children. However I have tried to be reasonably positive and open about what it might hold in the future and in this regard, two publications have been particularly valuable in balancing my personal views. They are Reading Digital Culture, edited by David Trend, and the excellent Cyber Reader – Critical Writings for the Digital Era, edited by Neil Spiller. They are both cited as key references throughout the text.