Curiosity vs The Post-Truth World

Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.

We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.

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In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.

He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.

He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”

Rather, he points to a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.

Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether

individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”

All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.

I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.

I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?

Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.

It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate  about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.

If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage  a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.

It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?

This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world  – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.

Wild play: fun and freedom in cultural institutions

Choose what you want to do … dance, talk, or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

– Fun Palace draft design, 1961

It’s been satisfying to watch the message of play spread across museums, libraries, and other public institutions over the last few years.  It’s timely, as the entertainment industry, too, begins to explore participatory and immersive forms of engagement. Events like Fun Palaces remind us that play is a vital element of learning and exploration. Play in cultural spaces, public or private, can promote self-directed learning, creative development, or simply the joy of using your imagination.

Now I’m wondering if play could get even wilder.

Bode Miller, American slalom skier

I guess structured or programmed play is great, insofar as it reminds people working in museums, galleries, and libraries to offer more than just colouring-in when they provide kids’ activities. But what that programming mustn’t do is mistake itself for schooling. Play belongs to all ages, and institutions should avoid controlling play to such an extent that it just becomes formal education all over again.

Scott Eberle of America’s National Musuem of Play has blogged brilliantly about going beyond structured play, using the example of “riotous” champion skier Bode Miller:

Raised in rough country New Hampshire, homeschooled in a household without electricity or indoor plumbing, he’s at home in the woods alone with his rambling, original thoughts.[…] Miller’s goal, the personal objective that superseded all others, was to pursue speed and fun. Let the medals fall where they may; winning or losing were merely by-products of this unruly pursuit. Usually the strategy worked for him, but wipeouts, too, are quite beside the point for Miller. (“I was having the greatest time making mistakes, crashing,” he once said.) He has instead set out to explore human capability, gravity, and his equipment’s tolerances at the limits of performance—“to ski as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

Skiing on the brink this way, trading control for fun, he plunges downhill “right on the edge of what my skis and the snow will hold up to.” A brilliant French thinker, the play-theorist Roger Caillois, once looked for a name for this special joy, the dizzying pleasure of swings and roller-coasters and stunt-flying and steeplechase and skiing. “Vertigo” came close. But in the end he borrowed a Greek word that fit better: ilinx, “the whirlpool.”

Eberle’s piece resonates well with a blog post written last year by Anna Cutler, director of learning at London’s Tate Gallery. Cutler argues that cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, and I would add libraries, should not “replace or mimic school’s curricular aspirations, since that is, after all, the specialism of schools and the expertise of teachers.”

She goes on to write:

I have yet to meet a teacher who has said that they come to any cultural institution or event to create the same conditions as their classroom. In fact, they are in search of different and more expansive experiences for their students. I suggest that it is the responsibility of cultural institutions to offer ‘more than’ and ‘different from’ what can be achieved in school, to provide experiences and learning opportunities that can only happen outside the classroom and that support what the teachers do by taking a journey beyond the letter of the curriculum.

The wild ride Eberle describes on the ski slopes, the sense that you can have “the greatest time making mistakes, crashing”, can happen in cultural institutions too. Sport, art, and games all offer opportunities to go off the currricular piste, pursuing instead the dizzying pleasure “at the limits of performance.”

Fun Palaces showed how this feeling of playful exploration could flourish in communities of all kinds around the world, using partnerships to extend the reach and capacities of individual institutions. 2013’s zombie siege in Parkes, Australia – a pretty wild ride in itself – was a library event run together with local schools, cops, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. This chimes nicely with R. David Lankes’ call for public libraries to “unleash” their communities, rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

So – can we trade control for fun in arts and culture? That might be scary: when we acknowledge that everyone has some creative contribution to make in life, we surrender the old privileges of authorship and prestige along with the old constraints. But even when budgets are tight – especially when budgets are tight – we must take opportunities to innovate, whether that’s  in publishing, universities, galleries, or museums.

What would happen if these institutions went off-piste? What lies at the limits of performance?

Beangrowers, Big Brothers, Time Travel, and Play

I’ve got a few blog posts lined up over the coming weeks. I’ve just met a number of deadlines, and the break allows me to turn some of my notes into text fit for human consumption.

Big Brother Timebomb logo

Raiding TV for inspiration

Late last year, I wrote about using action-adventure stories from TV, movies, and comics to inspire new play activities. I’m a geek for old telly: the shows of the past offer great inspiration for today. The technical constraints and different pace of television from fifty years ago means that heroes often faced perils which are easy to mimic in a setting like a library or museum.

There’s no shame in plundering the past, either. Present-day TV producers do it all the time. Robert Thirkell’s excellent book on reality TV, C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T., tells us how Jane Root, an executive producer with a stellar career at Discovery Network and the BBC, drew on her own nostalgia to create compelling new formats:

You know how we came up with I Love The 1980s[?…We rewatched] The Rock and Roll Years. David Mortimer and I got Rock and Roll Years out of the BBC archive because I’d remembered it from when I was a child. A lot of the younger BBC team had never seen it and I showed it to them in my office and said, “What could we do that could bring this show back?” I Love The 1980s, the hit the team went on to create, turned out to be even bigger in America, where it ran on VH1 for years.

Get Real

I’m also a sucker for reality TV, although these days I find I’m usually too busy to keep up with it. Big Brother, with its cast of housemates trying to complete challenges, avoid eviction, and not go bonkers over ten weeks, was always one of my student favourites. I still remember characters like the drama queen Makosi from BB6 or the kilted rebel Sandy from BB3, a personal shopper who managed to escape from the house over a wall.

People get sniffy about reality TV, but it’s really no different to drama or comedy: you create a format which offers exciting situations, and then set it loose like a shark in the sea, moving forward, consuming new contestants, new scenarios. Great formats like Doctor Who, Family Feud (Family Fortunes in the UK), or Big Brother, run and run.

What’s more, reality puts people who aren’t entertainment professionals in front of the camera. For all that we might deride reality show participants as wannabes, and for all that they’re at the mercy of production teams, those contestants are also an example of the barrier breaking down between audiences and artists.

Bean Brother

When I was an infant school teacher, I worked with a class of thirty kids, most of whom didn’t speak English at home. One term, we had to grow a bean from a seed on a wad of damp cotton wool in a plastic cup. I remember doing the same when I was a pupil. It’s one of those rites of passage every British kid goes through, the foundation of natural science: infants starting to practice taking measurements and observing living things carefully.

I wanted my class’ bean experiment to be lively and fun, so we reimagined our science project as “Bean Brother”. Each day, we’d play Paul Oakenfold’s iconic Big Brother theme tune before bringing our plants out before the class.

My long-suffering teaching assistant would put on a Geordie accent to mimic Marcus Bentley, the famed narrator of UK Big Brother. Our kids would use a video camera to report on their bean’s growth in a “televised update from the Bean Brother house” before drawing, writing observations, and completing their other science tasks. They were engaging with elements of the pop culture that surrounded us, doing serious learning about science, using audiovisual equipment to record their own stories, and best of all, they were playing while they did it. Bean Brother made the daily routine exciting, incorporated modern media both as something to consume and create…and each anonymous bean took on its own life as a contestant for our class to cheer on.

This year’s UK Big Brother is called “Timebomb.” You can see the trailer here:

I’m excited, looking at the iconography lifted from Doctor Who, steampunk, and the Transformers movies. Earlier this year, Celebrity Big Brother drew on the imagery of dark fairytales, but this new series is even closer to my heart. Russell T. Davies’ superlative run on Who already featured a Big Brother episode and now I’ve started to think of the Big Brother house as a TARDIS control room.

I’m curious to see how the Big Brother production team apply the concept of “time distortion” to a reality show. It’s harder to mess with causality in a live production than a scripted, pre-recorded series. Whatever they get up to, and however well it works, I think that anyone who is interested in play, cultural programming, and community outreach should take a good look at what Big Brother producers Endemol are up to this year.

Read more about the new UK Big Brother at Digital Spy, and to see what a time travel themed play activity in a public institution might look like, go check out Auckland’s citywide 2013 heritage programme, TimeQuest.

Comic Book Dice: A Sequential Storytelling Game

Comic Book Dice is a playful 3D adaptation of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s “Panel Lottery”, a comic creation activity for all ages.

I first trialled this activity at a youth event for the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, Philippines, and subsequently ran it with high schoolers in Parkes, New South Wales, hosts of the Central West Comics Fest.

You’ll need cardboard cubes, drawing materials, and a picture featuring three character models. Abel and Madden use these figures:

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Always Blow On The Pea: Hanging Out, Problem Solving, and Action-Adventure

I’ve just finished working on a Fun Palace in Parkes, New South Wales – Australia’s first. Taking place in public venues like museums, theatres, and libraries, Fun Palaces invite people to explore art and science on their own terms. In Parkes, that meant letting the community try their hand at games devised by local kids and teens.

Much like our zombie, time travel, and giant monster events, all the effort was in the preparation. If you set up the activities right, participants don’t need much from you on the day. Their own fascination draws them in – and keeps them engaged.

Preparation for something like this includes obvious stuff – admin, logistics, testing the games. Last year, we even managed to boil down the process to six bullet points. What gets missed in that brief version is the inspiration and writing phase, which involves a lot of long walks, daydreams, and listening to music. As David Mamet once said, writing is to hanging out as tasting food is to cookery.

I’ve always cherished that line. It’s one reason why, alongside Fun Palaces, I recorded a podcast about Transformers with Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson this month. It let me hang out in the world of pop culture while planning for Parkes. That kind of thoughtful immersion is a vital underpinning of the events I run, because in many ways pop culture is the folk culture of this mediatized world. I think very hard and probably way too much about how to mine the media for ideas when creating events and opportunities to play in public spaces.

Today I want to talk about how action-adventure, that most popular and often least profound of genres, can be a fruitful source of inspiration. That’s not just because even the dumbest slam-bang narrative drips with messages about gender, society, power and culture. It’s because the very business of action-adventure is problem solving.

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