Seeing the obvious

I have been living in the digital world for some time, but have only just realised it!  I have three children, who think that it is all totally normal, and who have guided me into the wider aspects of this world.  From the early monochrome games that tested their visio-spatial skills, via the exploration of increasingly sophisticated virtual worlds involving collecting and bartering goods, destroying the undead in post-apocalyptic landscapes, or driving around various US cities, to the current social interactions they have with people around the globe whom they may never physically meet, they have educated me to a world that is wholly new. 

My wife, who a few years ago would have approached a computer with gritted teeth, but who now communicates with her friends through texts and e-mails, who runs a small business with its own website, who knows that the best way to find information is to type a word or phrase into Google and who satiates her nostalgia with YouTube, has also re-acquainted me with the joy of curiosity.  We have all learned that the old, linear world cannot drag us back to its slavery, that we can watch any television programme when we want, and pause when we choose, that we will never again argue pointlessly over whether that word is allowed in Scrabble.  We have understood that knowledge is complex, that following one thread of discovery will lead us to information that we wouldn’t otherwise have looked for, and that communication takes many, many forms.

I probably could have worked that all out for myself at some point, but last Monday afternoon, I got an instant education and with it, the insight into how much my world has changed.

I had been invited to take part in a panel, part of a workshop to mark progress of eight projects that were part of a Knowledge Exchange programme between the BBC and the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council).  I am not really sure what prompted them to invite me, but I really learned from the experience.  I was late – the inevitable meetings in Swindon delayed my trip to London – but joined them at Wallacespace for lunch.  Luckily, one of my colleagues had been there since it started so I got a quick update and was able to look through the morning’s presentations.  There was some real insight and a moderate amount of categorisation; having spent many years as the subject of organisational psychologists, I am really looking forward to the correlation of behaviour on Twitter with Myer-Briggs personality type!!

What I did see was work on children’s engagement with virtual worlds – specifically the Children’s BBC Adventure Rock.  It catalogued the difficulty of getting it right first time, but also showed the willingness of those involved to listen to the research and implement ideas based on the resulting extended understanding.  There were some unanticipated problems – the reporting of the world as “Facebook for Kids” – and some ideas which seemed difficult to implement – “make everything chocolate” – but mostly the research showed the importance of asking an array of questions without too many preconceived ideas.

The panel was chaired by Bill Thompson and consisted of four people who knew what they were talking about, and me – or at least that is how it felt at the beginning.  As the discussion progressed I began to see the point of my inclusion.   Although the world of media is superficially very different from the world of physical technology that I am more familiar with, the challenges and opportunities had a curious resonance.  The BBC is a large organisation at the end of a supply chain.  It needs suppliers, but it doesn’t always know what it wants from them.  It sometimes doesn’t recognise good ideas that don’t fit with its framework of understanding.  On the other hand, the academics involved are largely unfamiliar with the time and cost pressures on the BBC to deliver and so are disappointed when the interesting side issues are viewed as “rabbit holes” by their collaborators.  The power of keeping your mind open to new ideas came up time and time again – examples from iShed added to those from the BBC.  There was a great story about the BBC engaging the guy who hacked their iPlayer!!

I used the comparison between the BBC and the NHS and some examples I have collected from others about how one form of digital exclusion is caused by advancing years, and the consequent lack of manual and visual flexibility.  A discussion on intellectual property was the closest to my own experience.  When setting up the eight projects concerned there had obviously been some tense times, with BBC lawyers negotiating with university lawyers about who owned what and what they could do with it.  Some was over real issues – should a paper criticising the sponsor be published? (been there, done that!) – but other examples – such as the attempt to own the output of children’s activities in support of the virtual world projects - brought many close to tears of laughter.  That said, although recounting these stories brought back an edge of frustration to the storytellers’ voices and made the BBC people wince, the fact that it was a source of good-humoured banter was evidence that it was all behind those in the room, and they were now proud of their mutual achievements. 

Other problems that sounded horribly familiar concerned changing roles of people on both sides of the relationship – the movement of senior sponsors in the BBC obviously caused concern to those in the projects.  My overall impression is that this group of people have made great progress in working together, but could benefit from seeing and learning from similar problems in other areas.

My time with them made me think about what I actually knew of their world, as a user – hence the beginning of this post.  We (the Technology Strategy Board) have realised that opportunities in this new digital age are pervasive and involve both delivery mechanisms and content – and that these two are inextricably linked.  I learned a lot, and hope they invite me back again.


Last updated on Friday 31 July 2009 at 09:43

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