The Digital Playground

We’re supposed to be playing games. We’re not. We’re starting a fight.

People argue and the rhythm beats against my skull. They toss ideas back and forth like a game of catch with a ball that’s easy to throw but difficult to throw back. The more that people argue, the less they mean and the more they attack one another.

I want to do something fun. That’s why I’m here—why we’re all here—to begin with. We’re supposed to learn through play. Instead, the back and forth of confrontation sails overhead, competitive, taunting, and demeaning. I put my hands against my temples, waiting for the ball, following along—annoyed but still attentive:

“I’m just sayin’.”

Someone yells, tossing the ball across the room.

I’m just sayin’!”

Louder, throwing with more force.

I’m just sayin’.”

It’s falls to the ground and someone picks it back up.

The ball passes in front of me, way above my blood pressure, making me tense. I’m not sure how to play when people fight. I’m a bigger fan of dialogue, where everyone plays along. When people contribute easily, included in the game—connecting with others as they share ideas, suspending assumptions. Playing fair and, for the most part, playing nice.

This is not that. This is people fighting over a ball…

Catch.

“But students aren’t that smart. They want things to be easy and they don’t want…”

Toss.

Catch.

“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Really, I mean you can’t honestly believe…”

Toss.

Catch.

“You can’t say that! That’s not necessarily true! Studies show that people don’t care…”

Toss.

Classes like this are ruined from the start by too many personalities pulling in every direction. Discussion is disruptive; dialogue is meaningful; but here learning is reduced to miscommunication. Though no one’s in charge, no one takes turns because everyone has something to say. And someone always gets left out.

In dialogue, when one person wins, everyone wins.

That’s just the way that it goes. I hate being the person who’s unsure if they’ll get to play. I make others know that I’m not going away. I assert my presence and take a firm stand. I struggle for attention among strong egos. The need to be hears comes before good ideas and competition trumps decorum. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m abrasive—that I get animated when I feel threatened. Motivated by malice and cursing under my breath, I look for ways to break the rules and stay involved, get my words in edgewise and find a way to throw the ball.

I get loud and speak out of turn. I interrupt just to digress. My chest is tight from my heart to my neck, suffocated with ambition, the empathy strangled out of my words. Hot with anger I hold my breath, biting my tongue in half at the sour taste as the room gets heated.

I realize that I’ve had it all wrong: This isn’t play; this is people fighting with guns

I grip my desk to control the expressions on my face. Someone takes a shot at me, pulling me into the fight. Thrust into the open, I’m mocked by a person who’s got a way with words—criticism with a real need to be “right.” On guard, I pull back, holstering hasty ideas, taking my finger off the trigger, thinking about escape and there’s bedlam in my mind, generating thoughts too raw to express, harboring words in steady production as I prepare to draw. It’s only a matter of time before things get loud and ugly and I don’t want to miss the point when I get my chance take my shot. Animosity is churned into gunpowder, held back with bated breath and the smallest spark of excitement is explosive enough set me off.

People draw and fire, the room filled with smoke—hot air pouring from the barrel of their tongues. Others take cover, taking shots at each other, not sure where their words will land. Good ideas are slaughtered and threads of conversation murdered—maimed into assertions with no conclusion or point. A few people throw out terms in a desperate measure of defense, hurling boulder-sized words like “agency” and “autoethnography,” struggling to get a grip on what they mean as they fight to survive. They kick up dust with forcible gestures, echoing no one but themselves in the absence of wisdom and commonsense.

“I can’t believe that you think this is a…”

Bang.

“You have no clue what it’s like to teach a class with a…”

Bang.

“How can you say that knowing that people don’t…”

Bang.

“That’s unbelievable! I don’t know where you get this kind of…”

Bang.

My vocal chords shake, ringing shots out like bullets, shattering broken silences with hammering arrogance, bigger and meaner than others. A shotgun loaded with aggression, blasting away, spraying everyone, everywhere, all at once, silencing the crowd, commanding attention in rapid fire, pumping out shot after shot.

“What you’re saying doesn’t actually mean anything! You haven’t said a thing this entire time! You just keep talking, over and over, repeating yourself, filling the air with noise…”

BANG. BANG… BANG.

Pairs of eyes left blinking, targeting me with uncomfortable glares, holding their ground but not firing until the smoke clears. I stare back, queer and awkward—exposed but steady and my voice reverberates in my mind, filling a moment of sudden silence as a small stream of smoke sneaks up my side. I see that I’ve missed the target. I see that I’ve shot myself.

Sigh.

For a moment, there’s silence and then calamity ensues again. Conversation buried in the sarcasm of some new untenable game. Balls fly and guns blaze, but I pay them no mind. I opt out and disengage, shut-off by the imaginary world I’m forced to inhabit in a class that’s gone wrong. It’s not a game worth playing or a fight worth fighting—not on this playground, anyway—and not with these kids.

There are other ways to learn and have fun.

I abandon the group to go off on my own, resigned to keep my thoughts undisclosed. Staying quiet, I notice a few others doing the same.

This is people playing alone, together

Sliding open my computer I close my mouth. A gust of air-conditioned air cools my face and bits of imagination fill the room. My attention shifts into the virtual ether as I focus online, soothing interactions that don’t provoke humiliation.

My fingers do the talking, translating angst into social commentary. I climb over rungs of posts. I perch atop wifi bars, connecting networks of discussion in a jungle-gym of information. I peer through the glass of my screen, sanguine as others argue and fight. I reflect on my thoughts and respond at my discretion, productive as I communicate with distantly intimate others, learning to play on my own.

I open Twitter to observe the class-feed—our back channel of the discussion. I check lists of followers, scroll through posts, tweeting once every few minutes. There’s affirmation in the network; it explodes with creativity—forming scores of information that swing by my mind. I monkey around with others online, retweeting interesting links as I go, playing follow the leader as we all climb back to where we started.

On Facebook, my newsfeed rolls and I explore the slow churn of “conversation.” Others keep pace from the far reaches of my network and classmates make room for each other as they voice their opinions. They’re see-saw encounters, falling silent in-the-flesh while speaking up out of body, finding a way to collaborate and even smile.

I post comments that I overhear from the argument still going, using classmates’ words in puns and metaphors. I’m the captain of a ship that sails through cyberspace, passing by computer screens—windows into the very classroom setting on every desk. Quiet jeers of delight keep us moving as oblivious classmates walk the plank. Status updates and newsfeeds wash over them, drowning their cynicism in virtual presence. Other typed voices chime in, playfully layering intelligent anecdotes with humorous quips, cheering me on. Together we’re a crew and a therapeutic subtext, escaping a mutual dissatisfaction in the creative commons of our own devices.

Voices fade into the distance as I ascend deeper into the blue and alabaster of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, finding footing in complex thoughts, pounding out responses on my keyboard in a field of text. I swing between applications, more invloved and emphatic, each time curling my feet behind my chair and pushing myself to new heights of participation. Tweets and retweets, posts and likes, all accumulate in affinity. Digital ideas re-place verbal accusations and typed enunciations elicit response. Fresh thoughts infuse with new discoveries, engaged in intellectual contention, swinging in tandem, building a cognitive surplus of trust, feeding ambient generousity that adds value to reality—freed from the bondage of the classroom, surrendered to the digital playground.

The same people are talking but fewer are listening, and everyone’s more engaged with themselves. I can see fingers moving, smirks on faces with heads bent as they type and press and drag their ideas across a screen, exploring new worlds in parallel play, meeting others they’ve never given a chance any other way. They play on the equipment—finally unafraid to get along. Clicks and ticks welcome the sounds of silence.

Images from the past flash across my mind…

I’m in a desk, in 5th grade, staring out the window on sunny afternoon. The teacher talks about something I don’t understand, but the wind has got my attention. I don’t want to understand him so I tune it all out; I don’t want to pay attention as much as I want to play. I’m longing to be outside, where it’s warm and air is clear; where the wind blows leaves with the smell of cut grass, and ants gather under swing-sets flexing in a rhythm. Others kids fly off of monkey bars as they hit the ground running, laughing and pulling at each other. People toss a ball, seeing who can throw the hardest, impressed at how good they all are. Friends on seesaws bounce and giggle as cops and robbers run around by.

I wish the classroom was the playground, or the other way around—and I want to understand why that can’t happen.

Light floods through the window, casting networks of shadows on the floor. And there’s no need to fight, just good reasons to laugh. We play hide and seek, moving on and offline, together bringing the playground into the classroom and the classroom online. There’s so much more out in the digital wide open—so much more we can do together  because play is the deepest lesson that we can learn.

Creative Commons License
The Digital Playground by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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Value in Virtual

You walk out of the gym, satisfied with your work out. You can feel the wear in your arms, still fresh from the swim. The chlorine smell from the pool drips onto the collar of your shirt as your hair dries in the sun. Paced and calm, you enjoy the walk back to the office, taking your time, taking it all in. You love being on campus in the afternoon. Students pass by in fast forward, late for class coming from work. Some are late for work coming from class. They get nearer to the cars passing on the crosswalk—closer than you’re comfortable with. One of them, wearing head phones, holds up a middle finger as a red Sedan passes, which doesn’t  even hesitate to stop, almost hitting him. You sigh in disbelief. The ignorance of Florida drivers. Still, you don’t feel sorry for the guy with the headphones. He wasn’t paying attention, either.

Three black guys coming your way are elated in conversation, smiling and joking, taking up a lot of room and making a ruckus. You smile behind your sunglasses, remembering college and recalling two friends you’ve lost touch with completely. You feel a twist of longful nostalgia, envious of a carefree sensibility that you’ve lost. A feeling of freedom absent in a space leftover from a not-so-distanced youth. You catch a bit of the conversation as they pass: “Nigga, shut up! You don’t know what she said wh-” The words echo in your head. You can’t get past “Nigga” and you think about the power of words that construct reality. You wonder why so many people struggle with difference. You can’t help but think about how some words stay in use long after they should. You know that there’s a cultural identity tied up in certain labels, which have been purposed and re-purposed, but you’re not sure that some will ever be completely free of stigma. Your body gets tense when you hear  certain language and you wonder if other people have the same reaction. You try to recall the last time you let your lack of cultural sensitivity get the best of you but you can’t. You decide to omit the word “gay” from your vocabulary. You’re pretty sure you won’t be completely successful with that. Still, it’s worth trying.

Ahead of you is a series of waist high boards, propped up and lined in a row next to a table. Some sort of campus group set them up in the green, no doubt. Maybe protesters. Maybe street preachers. Who knows. You guess names as you walk up, thinking up possible student groups: Students for Social Change…Young Democrats of Tampa…Occupy USF…Campus Coalition for the Homeless. You hope it isn’t anti-abortion propagandists from last week.

Turning the corner, you see that the boards are yellow with a big, sloppy number painted on the front of each. The first one says “US Total Debt.” The number is in the trillions. Silly. You keep walking. Then you stop, take out your camera and kneel beside the last number, snapping a few pictures, taking a shot of the whole thing. You think about how ridiculous money really is, how the national debt is merely an indicator of a government’s inability to play by their own rules. Laughing, you resist the urge to go ask the student standing at the booth if he realizes that money has become less and less real. You want to know if he sees the irony in the whole display, which uses large, physical objects to, quite literally, make money real for us. Money that is rarely represented by dollar bills. Money that’s no longer in our pockets as much as it’s in our clouds. Money that you can spend on Google Checkout. You realize that you’re probably the only one reading into this so deeply, so you keep moving. You check around, but no one was staring.

You head in the direction of the cafe in the basement of the business building. You don’t even notice that you failed to catch the name of the student group responsible for what turned out to be a clever political statement about capitalism, systems of exchange, and material culture. When you get to the cafe, you order a Tuna sandwich, wondering if it’s healthier than roast beef. You decide that you don’t really care. The workout was a good one. Looking through the pictures on your phone of the giant, wooden numbers, you think about your morning. You see yourself sitting in the communication building performance lab, surrounded by colleagues and mentors, listening intently to Mary Catherine Bateson talk about learning. She’s disarming, almost prophetic.

She leans forward in her seat, sculpting the air with her hands, looking at you, then past you, then next to you, then the other way. She talks about the importance of play and improvisation. You shake your head in agreement. You shift your weight. You lose track of the room as you zero in, focused. She answers questions with adapted lecture notes that come out like mini-seminars, genuinely honest and spontaneous, yet authentically true to her thoughts. Old thoughts. Thoughts  she’s mulled over and adapted for years. You realize this is what she means when she says  “we’re all making it up as we go along.” She says we need to spend more time being reflective—that all wisdom is derived from thinking about thinking. That “thinking about thinking” is the same as “learning.” She insists that we should find a way to dictate our actions as they’re happening, not just talk about them after the fact. If we can do that, we’ll reveal that we don’t really learn in the “now” but that we’re always making reality out of things that we already knew.

Mustard farts out of a bottle. You look at the women behind the counter as you grab your sandwich and ask for a pickle. You decide that Bateson’s “now” has got to be connected to Micheal Heim’s “virtual,” which he says is another word for “as if.” You hand over your card to pay. “$8.50” the cashier tells you, handing it back swiped. You don’t get a chance to process the information but you think that $8.50 is too much for lunch, especially considering the quality of the bread. You try to recall the last time you paid with cash, thinking about how your sense of money and value has shifted in the last decade. When did everyone start paying with plastic? When did  that become normal? You can’t seem to pinpoint it.

Moving toward the plastic silverware, you steal more than your share of knives and take a handful of napkins. You briskly open the door with your back, hands full of food and utensils, hoping no one will yell at you. As you scale the steps of the building, you move toward the sunlight, heading for your building. You talk to yourself out-loud, unaware that someone’s coming down the steps: “Virtual is the moment we reflect on what we think. The moment we make reality in our own words. It’s a reality out of nothing but what we remember from our experience. And our experience is only what we make of it.” You think that’s pretty clever, but know it needs some work.

The woman coming down the steps makes awkward eye contact. You stop talking, not sure if she heard you. You’re pretty sure she speeds up as she passes. You wonder why you’re so weird. You decide that when you get to your office, first things first, you’re going to start writing. Get it all out. At the top of the steps you breathe in the sunny Florida air and you ask yourself: Is all thinking virtual? Is money only a thought? If so, what’s the value in thinking? And what’s the value in virtual?

Creative Commons License
PLE's Value in Virtual by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.