Digital Ruins and Ghost Towns

reflections on functional realism and decay in 3D virtual worlds


Recently an article was shared by a friend on Facebook, it concerned Second Life, the article was an account of walking through Second Life (SL) empty halls and campuses, and wondering where all the hope had gone (see here). A thread developed around the post. Some noting it had not died at all, reflecting on the temporary trends that often fixate learning technology with those who chase the latest new thing often the fore. Two things struck me:

First the idea of ruins, abandoned physical appear to have an aesthetic value that these digital ones do not;

Secondly, I wondered on the relation to other legacy spaces, do we feel the same way about an old project website as a do about an abandoned virtual campus, and if not why not.

In this post I explore the implications of these questions for the design of online spaces.


Figure 1: RoughBounds Sparker on the Teen Grid in 2007, Image by Rebecca Ferguson, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Ruins in Second Life

Before exploring this I should admit I have engaged with SL but not for some time. From July 2007 to late 2008 I was part of an OU project on the Teen Grid as part of a programme called Schome, and then later as a consultant on a JISC funded project. I wrote a paper for the second SL conference based on my experiences, of feeling neither in the place nor fully at my desk at home, somehow inbetween. In particular with the arrival of sound and hearing the background noises on others audio which brought their world in, and reminded me they were not fully there either (Macintyre 2008). At the time I was thrall to Heidegger and the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Heidegger [1950] 2000) and wondered what neither dwelling in one place or the other meant for authentic learning.

While I am no longer as interested in Heidegger and dwelling as I once was, it was a formative experience, and questions of authenticity, of place making and of where learning takes place shape my design work. Therefore while it was “not for me”, I still hold onto a bunch of questions about these spaces. Perhaps this relates back to the earlier question about the aesthetics of ruins. In the physical world it is not the absence of people that signals that something is no longer used, it is the decay, the crumbling buildings, the grass and trees sprouting forth, the work of man [sic] succumbing to nature is part of the sublime, at its peak people built ruins. In his book “In Ruins” Woodward (2001) notes the importance of impermanence in Christianity, when Pope Pious II introduced a law in 1462 to protect Rome’s ruins it was to act as a reminder, a memento mori, of the fragility of human creation in the face of divineness.

Walking around SL one does not experience decay, when I logged in for the first time in a decade what I experienced on landing was a naked people. I think this is perhaps a different matter. Moving on, SL still partly remembered me and I had a list of addresses  already in place, the island’s I visited were empty, in many cases I could not tell if they were still education islands as they were filled with adverts, but not people. The buildings, hours of time rendered in digital form stood as fresh as the day they were created. It is not the decaying hope of Fordlandia, Fords experimental rubber plant and city in the Brazilian jungle now overgrown, nor is it Robert Owen’s New Lanark another Utopian vision now rendered as a heritage experience.  Though these pristine spaces do feel like a photo essay in a design magazine, and the lack of decay in a space you know to be neglected is jarring, it almost as if the idea that once abandoned it ought to fall into ruin foreshadows our understanding of these spaces.


Figure 2: A Domestic Mememto Mori, a gift from my partners mother, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Legacy Sites

Compare this with project websites, the sites often remain, mostly they still works. Do these sites feel strangely abandoned, eerily quiet? No they don’t. They are more like an unread project report that sits on a shelf, or those old files in a shared folder, one day it might be useful.  The sense of emptiness is something that only occurs when project has social presence built in. Project websites are information repositories. The lack of people is visible in SL, and the lack is different from being without people because they are yet to be inhabited and carry with them expectations like Fordlandia, and once empty the decay of unrealised hope.

In robotics people talk about the “uncanny valley”, the sense of uneasiness that comes from perceiving a humanoid robot falls in the uncomfortable position between being too real and not quite real enough. 3D virtual worlds are a long way from this level of visual realism, but designer do use functional realism, ways of knowing about spaces, of throughways, of buildings, they call to our familiarity with the built environment as cues to what one might use these spaces for. So there is an element of uncanniness, what is missing from this low resolution functional realism is decay.  This question of decay reminds of another question I had about SL, the role of forgetting. At the time I was observing, note taking, recording reflections about SL one of my colleagues suggested I could double check the SL logs in case I missed anything, and the logs might be usefully mined for insights.  It was the first time I realised how important forgetting was.

As a researcher it is the other side of remembering, sometimes through repetition, sometimes through their singular occurrence and sometimes through their absence you recognise and remember. In his book on remembering in the digital age “delete” Mayer-Schonberger (2011) notes the important role forgetting has in allowing people to make decisions, too much information is too much. He suggested digital memory form embarrassing videos on you tube to project files ought to have an expiration date.  You can see an inkling of how expiration might work if you wander around the UK OER site JORUM now hosted on The Way Back Machine . It is broken links and unsaved pages, the next step would be for it to slowly fade. So how is this relevant to SL. Educators and learners interest in SL is on the wane, and they are like old project sites. However, something else will emerge, we will find ourselves in 3D virtual worlds perhaps in VR worlds like Decentraland, and when we do we will need to have a sense of what happens once it is over, I am going to suggest if we are to mimic the use of physical spaces then we build in entropy,  we allow them to decay.

Conclusion and Design Implications

One of the common archetypes in SL is the garden, in her essay on Little Sparta addressing Finlay as “he” Susan Stewart (2005) opens the essay with the phrase

“He who makes a garden is own unmaking makes”,

closing with

“He who makes a garden, his own remembering makes”

Perhaps useful for the makers of 3D virtual worlds in the future, as it means attending to what happens without maintenance. Sites that are neglected but do not decay alert us to their uncanniness, as designers we need to attend to the cues we draw from the physical into the virtual and how following or disturbing the pattern alters how we experience these spaces when they are live with people and when they are dead.



Heidegger M. ([1950] 2000) Building Dwelling Thinking, in Krell D. F. Ed., Basic Writing: Revised and Expanded Edition, Routledge: London, pp343-364

Macintyre R. (2008) Inbetweenness OR in two places at once, In Peachey A. Ed., ReLIVE 08 Researching Learning on Virtual Worlds, Open University 20th -21st of November 2008,  pp208-216

Mayer-Schonberger V. (2011) delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press: Oxford

Stewart S. (2005) The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetic”, University of Chicago Press: London

Woodward C. (2001) In Ruins, Chatto & Windus: London


The Co-op Uni: From Pedagogy to Governance and Back

Despite having banked with the Co-op for most of my adult life, being a member, and using its services, I don’t know much about the Co-op Group, and as Chrissi Nerantzi and I walked to the Co-operative Quarter in Manchester it was odd to pass 1 Balloon St Manchester, whose only previous life for me was in the completion of direct debits. We were heading towards the Co-operative College along with 90 or so others to attend “Making the Co-operative University: New Places, Spaces and Models of Learning” .

selfpFigure 1: The Co-op Uni, A long time coming, An idea whose time has come, Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

I admit I struggled through the day with the question that kept rattling through my head, if a Co-op University is the solution, what was the problem in the first place. It was a question that arose from a sense that many of the people here were disaffected with Higher Education, and articulated it through the lens of losing their own jobs. A mood that obscured other problems, and for me clouded the day somewhat until, I was able to read the blog Chrissi put together, and go away and think about it. In thinking about it I pulled “Building a Co-operative: A Business History of The Co-operative Group, 1863-2013” of the shelf. Written before some of the groups recent troubles it has a tone of, this is our time, and I recollected how at the start of the day we were told the time was right for a Co-op Uni,  a tone that reminds of many struggles in a state of becoming, where success is perpetually immanent.

So, having thought about this immanence, my mind settled on the pedagogy workshop I attended, and the question of whether I attended the right one, should I have gone to governance, a thought process I tease out below.

One of the key aspects for me from the day were the questions around co-design/production, when people talked about it I couldn’t get the sense whether it was brought up as a novel approach, or a just as good practice. I suspect the former, and this was a surprise as it has been fashionable with the Higher Education Academy and Quality Assurance Agency for some time, albeit with little traction within the academy, a thin participation I blogged about  a couple of years ago (see here ).  Where I suggest learner co-design as articulated in a context where the learner is a customer, leads to the application of co-design models from the private sector, so called Service Design Logic, which is thin participation and does not address underlying social and structural relations within education. However, that simply describes the problem, how do we move beyond that.

selfpFigure 2: The Pedagogy Subgroup Questions, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0

One view, which I have tried to explore in the past in relation to widening participation, is to see learner’s engagement as academic labour, learning involves everyone doing work, they need to have the skills to do the work, the opportunity to express that skills, and to be able to benefit from the value which accrues through this shared labour. My original analysis focussed on the barriers experienced by some learners as the look to do this work (see here ), it was really a thinly veiled Marxist analysis of adult learning. However, having attended the event I see where co-operation could lead, and perhaps unblock some of the issues which have made co-design/production in HE an unreachable aspiration.

I have long been interested in participatory design, in particular its roots in labour movements in Scandinavia, here it was called co-operative design focussed on how workers, managers and academics might work together to design work process’s (for a critical reading from OU academic and Co-op Tech person Steve Walker see here). I do not draw attention to the historical development of participatory design, or the connection to labour movements idly. Could a Co-op University be an organisation that was just as concerned with the organisation and power relations in work finally see the application of co-operative/participatory design to Higher Education. Perhaps it could. Perhaps the thin sense of this approach that has informed co-design, which takes some of the practices but filters them through a commercial logic will be undone by a co-operative logic. I take Richard Hall’s point regarding the sense in simulating a thing whose image of itself is predicated in unequal power relations. However, perhaps the co-operative model, the flattening of power relations within the whole academic community might be the thing to turn learner engagement into something more than a rhetorical device. With the flattening of labour relations within the broader academic community, i.e. a change in governance relations, ushering in many of the pedagogic ones that remain unrealised.

Clearly lots of things need to align before perhaps becomes real. Some of the things that seem to clear to me are a need to connect with Labour movements more broadly, Workers Education Association of course, but also Trade Union Learning. I would also ask those in this space to reach out to those in Open Education, not just the Open University, or those in Open Education Resources/Practices, though clearly they have much in common, in particular similar challenges.  With lessons from the former about sustainability and the latter about emerging models of provision and accreditation as organisations like University of the People and OERu  look to establish challengers as well. But also the wider Open Education movement, for example, “The Jane Austen” series by Casey and Greller (see here for a recent update) which draws inspiration from Art Schools to combat neoliberalism , or Alex Dunedin harking back to ragged schools though the Ragged University , or the miners libraries and weavers reading groups.

Talking of further reading Joss Winn from Lincoln University has produced a bibliography see here


Half Awake in a Fake Empire …

The National, Usher Hall Edinburgh, 21st of September 2017

I am half awake in a fake empire …, I could be anyone/where in the present political climate, in the UK with the neoliberals chasing post Brexit trade deals with former colonies. In the US trading insults, a dotard to a rocket man. Instead I am watching “The National” at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. With the name like “The National” one might expect them to be a political band in some way, though clearly it is not the same as the type of nationalism promoted by Trump, it is probably more akin to the constitutional patriotism suggested by writers like Habermas (see here ), the inclusive sense that looks beyond ethnicity or citizenship to pluralistic values, the nationalism claimed by people in Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Which, given the intellectualism of the band, they have probably read.

Figure 1: Matt Berninger from the National, Edinburgh Usher Hall 21st of September 2017: Credit Hollie Taylor, CC BY SA 4.0

While we waited for them to come on, the screens at the back of the stage provided a glimpse backstage, they didn’t appear to be sitting around reading the New Yorker, all was strumming, stretching and guitar picking. At the front, there was no pushing, once the band came on I didn’t feel myself pinned to the barriers at the front, and indeed the only drink that was thrown was from the stage itself. At one point I went to the bar, “IPA please”, “sorry love, sold out”. Only at something as middle class as “The National” could you go to the bar in Scotland and find the only thing left was the Tennent’s Lager.

Getting back to the front was easy, polite and without a drop spilled. If the crowd was polite, the bands carefully constructed sounds, building waves of noise seemed in rude health. As the gig progressed the drummer shed layers, his brother head down sweating the bass. With the Dessner brothers on guitar/piano watching each other cool and knowingly, as the singer become more and more of a dishevelled angry middle aged man. I note the Guardian suggested this new album was their middle aged album , to me, on that evening, it was the older ones like “Mistaken for Strangers” that seemed filled weary melancholy. And anger, the first time I saw them live (not on YouTube) was 2008 at the Green Man. I remember the musicianship, the tightness of movement, but I don’t recall the rasping anger of now.

Figure 2: The National in Full Flow, Matt has a moment by himself to scream into the mic, Credit Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

As he sang the opening lines of “Fake Empire” I was reminded of a poem I had read years ago, called the “Mushroom Gatherers”, all together in the woods, passing, not talking,  written in the 1950’s, inspired by the work of Polish poet Mickiewicz, it is often read as a comment on the performance of political process. To me it seemed to speak to the way without care we can sleepwalk through ill times.  If you scroll to 13:30 you can listen to a reading of it here.  And learn more about Donald Davie here.

Of the songs that seemed most filled with angry sadness it was “Mr November”, with the band thrashing about and Matt foetal on the floor. For me it seemed to capture this strange feeling one has these days – what the fuck is going on!?!. Mr November was Obama, and even though they claim to be not too political, Obama went to their songs time again for a bit of hope.

Now, how are we to feel constitutionally patriotic, soaked in shared values, when our systems have thrown up odd these odd replacements.


The Howling Fantods: Reading Infinte Jest

Just after the half way point in the Trans Mongolian Moscow to Beijing and just after 4000km mark I managed to complete David Foster Wallace’s Infinte Jest. It took me weeks to read. Made even longer by the long summer nights in the West Highlands keeping me away from my nightly reading routine, and the count down on the kindle. It was the first large book I read on the kindle, I had read “The Romanov’s” by Montefiore which google tells me is 736 pages, despite sometimes getting lost in the footnotes, it did follow a logical sequence and was okay. I felt lost in Infinite Jest, and recalled some research done by colleagues at the Open University (led by Anne Campbell) into e readers, which suggested that while learners appeared to find it easy to read, they also felt that “active learning”, for example preparing and evaluating discourses for an assignment, was much harder on these devices. So perhaps the sense of being lost in e ink when the reading materials demands more attention is not just my experience.


Figure 1: The 4002km Mark Through the Dirty Window

It is a poor reader that blames the medium, so back to the book. The overlapping stories Centre round a tennis academy, a drug rehab house and a Quebec separatist group. When I say overlap, let’s be clear, it takes a while for them to intersect, and in the first parts of the book it is often by indirection, through following a deep description of what appears to be a minor character, a loose thread you think you are following away from the tight story ball, or at least it seems to, or at least you thought it was the story, but in the end it folds back in. There is an elegance to it, and according to the Guardian the author says it is based on the Sierpinski Gasket. 

It is a book that demands attention. So, even though it appears on those lists of very long books, being long is not the point, it does not lull like the prose in Remembrance of Times Past, or the even longer Dreams of a Red Chamber (which I am slowly reading on paper), it jars, it celebrates its complexity. It is not just the host of characters (see the infographic here) , it is also densely written, with shifts in pace, voice, vernacular and apparently style, which through its sheer length become it’s style. Through it you identify with different characters, Don and his story of redemption, Hal the prodigy (is he?), James the father film maker, Remy and his wife, and Joelle Madam Psychosis. Did I enjoy it. Is it a good book. I admit to points where I thought it over indulged, when I recalled an article about Raymond Carver where it suggested his terse style and brevity which drew comparisons with Chekov was his editor Gordon Lish, not his. If only Foster Wallace had such an editor. At other points it felt like the drug\drunk bits were overplayed, creeping into tourism  that for me seemed to date it – do you still read Eastern-Ellis, Bukowski, Kerouac, or Burroughs in your 40s.

However, other times it felt like some of the most finely crafted prose I had ever read. The characters richly drawn and viewed from multiple perspectives layering over each other, you felt their weight. This is one of the reasons for reading, to access other lives, not to live for a moment in those lives, but through those lives to think about your experiences, to spark your own hidden life. Did I enjoy it, well sometimes, I will admit I moaned to my partner about it, I am sure she was sick of it. Is it good, not sure, it is probably better to say it is a great book, as that just about accommodates the messy flawed magic.

Back Home it is Yesterday

We arrived at Yaroslavsky station quite close to departure as my son and I had made one more pointless journey to the Airport as our luggage was apparently found – sadly it was not. We had anticipated something like this and looked around the station the day before. Across the road their are a number of shops where you can stock up on provisions. The most vital things are just add water food and drinks, toilet paper and set wipes (which are actually a form of currency on the train), sweet things. While you can acquire most  stuff on the platform when it stops I never saw wet wipes.

At the time of writing Komsomolskya Metro station is undergoing works so areas are closed off. But you exit the Metro sort of at the back of the station and you need to go right and then left to get to the front. Russian stations all have scanners and security so be prepared. We were in the 04 Chinese train, one of the older carriages in 1st class with a shared sink and shower of sorts. We had bought all sorts of things with us backgammon, go, a handpresso machine, cups, sporks, towels, slippers and sandals and a sleeping insert. We ended up with none of these. However, the only thing I missed were sandals, the coffee, and the spare battery and charger for my phone. We had ereaders, bought cups spoons and Turkish style coffee, plastic storage containers. On day one we fashioned a Go board from paper and coloured pistachio shells, we just looked out the window realised our mobiles couldn’t capture it. We read and we eat.

Figure 1: Staring out the Window

Over the 4 days we fell into a pattern quickly. Morning coffee with black bread and those strange croissants in packets, lunch black bread sweaty curd cheese and meat, afternoon the loose leaf green tea we bought by accident brewed in the plastic pots purchased last minute. We got to know people,  the journey is very socialable.  I met my shared shower neighbour through his concern for the water coming up through the shower drain and the odour, I met others through shared wonder at the view, and generally people kept their doors open. We had “people round”, someone around my age heading home to Australia the long way, a young Austrian couple on a world tour, before going to find work in New Zealand. Meanwhile the Chinese gaurds prepared amazing noodle meals for themselves most of the rest of the train lived through collecting boiling water from the samovar at the end and pouring it over dried noodles.  As we went back and forth it became like a familiar street where people know you, they stop talk, kids play, often you just stand staring out the dusty windows.

Figure 2: After the Birch, endless fields

You can easily lose yourself on the train, lulled until you arrive at Irkutsk at around 720am. Collecting hot water and visiting the bathroom we nodded and talked through the open doors. Travelling East in a train and adding +1 to local time once a day does something to your sleep patterns. In 4 days it’s 5 hours. On the last day we woke at 5am – midnight in Moscow.  It was a bright morning and we eat the last of our provisions. Going along the corridor I noted the open doors, and others also awake and wondering why. My son pointed out he was wide awake, yet back home it was yesterday.

Mind Now: this is about learning

Pete Cannell and coauthored a paper at OER17 called Mind the Gap, it is concerned with lifelong learning and the role of free open online resources in filling in and creating routes into learning for those distanced from it, and more broadly reflects on the gaps within those journeys as local authorities colleges retreat from this space and Third Sector organisations look to fill those structural holes as best they can. I selected the title for its double meaning, to be careful, and to remember and keep it in our minds. It was only when I started to listen to Rosa Murray at the recent forum organised jointly by Learning for Sustainability Scotland (LfSS) and OEPS on shared values, my use of to mind’ means ‘to recollect’ and this use is a particularly Scottish thing .

Rosa touched on her work with Rowena Griffiths, asking us to consider whether we “mind enough”; suggesting the need for us to explore what a “pedagogy of minding” looked like (here are the slides). The workshop was about sustainability, and the role of openness and open practices in supporting learning for sustainability. Most attendees were “at home” in this space and looking to learn from OEPS about openness. In the self-organised afternoon discussion groups three clusters emerged:

  • How to use openness in teacher education, how to make it meaningful and engaging in ways that align to their values;
  • How and/or will openness transform education, and if it does what will it look like;
  • How to open up content to use and reuse.

LfSS end of session whiteboard

Big questions, questions that often surface when considering open educational practices. However, the focus on sustainability and equity and social justice did draw out some different issues. In particular, there were questions around who is empowered by openness and ensuring that openness and putting stuff online is not used as an argument for withdrawing support for other activities.  For me this went back to what Rosa said about shared values, and minding.  She suggested there was a particular Scottish focus on sustainability as a question of equity and social justice. For LfSS minding is about learning to care about the world, to mind about inequalities.

Concern about the world, care for the environment, has moved from the margins to the mainstream, to a point where every pupil in Scotland is “entitled” to learn about sustainability. As a movement OER/OEP is a long way from this, more people are using open resources, but do more people care. Is it something to care about, what are the things we ought to care about, and what would a pedagogy of minding about openness look like? An approach to education that plays on the distinctive Scottish sense of minding, of saying “I mind”, a sense between remembering, caution and caring.

Honestly, I have no answers, but I think openness is at the heart of a pedagogy of minding, as both a something that goes in as a value, and is an outcome of caring. If I look at Joe Wilson’s blog post about the UNESCO European Regional Consultation on OER and even further back to the work done on the Open Scotland Declaration, I see the articulation of a particular Scottish approach to openness. As the OER/OEP community looks forward, perhaps it is useful to take a side glance at the work done on sustainability, as the focus on values, and minding, might suggest a way forward.


Ronald Macintyre

Reflecting on “The Gathering”

At the SCVO Gathering in February we had a stall where we collected information about Third Sector engagement with free open online materials, we used an interactive poster as a survey tool, with a good response rate, and we ran a workshop on day 2, which 21 people came to. A fuller report on the outcomes of this is forthcoming, but we thought it was worth sharing an impressionistic account of the workshop.

OEPS stall at the Gathering 2017

In the workshop OEPS and Parkinson’s UK shared our experience of the opportunities and challenges of working with each other to create OER (for example Understanding Parkinson’s) and we also explored Scottish Union Learn’s work supporting users of OER. We kept it brief, because we wanted to allow space for others to explore this area. We asked two sets of questions, one set were a “what if”, and the second to think about what openness might enable.

In the first set we asked people to imagine a future where education is free and open, and then reflect on what it would enable for them as an organisation that uses, or may produce, resources to support their clients. On the broader scale while people did think it might be empowering and allow some to overcome barriers, they were concerned who would be empowered, and whether it might accentuate inequalities. They saw it would give them reach as organisations and might reduce costs of delivery and development, but were worried about the ability of their organisations to cope.  While they recognised the opportunities for organisations and clients, this concern around capacity was also expressed in relation to delivery. There was a lot of concern expressed about business models of openness and how this might be supported in the long term

In the second set we asked them to dig a little deeper and reflect on what open would enable, getting them to think about what would need to happen to make it happen, what needed to change within their organisation and what it would enable them to do for their clients. There was a focus on strategic leadership within the organisation and the need for resources (both finance and people) to be allocated to the area. There were also responses around lowering the bar, with organisations feeling that developments costs and technical difficulties were still prohibitive. People felt funders would need to recognise the costs of being open and there would need to be clear and transparent ways of establishing the value for their clients. The emphasised that costs should not just be for development work or one off pilots, but also for maintaining and developing their staff and supporting clients on a long-term basis. In some ways this is a broader issue for the Third Sector, with the tendency for funding to be short term being a long-term problem. Thus the concern was not openness, which was seen as positive, but openness without long-term support.

Tag cloud of participant responses in the Gathering Workshop

The tag cloud is based on the comments on the big bits of paper on the tables.  It may appear that worries dominated hopes, however, going around the tables and in plenary people were more positive about the possibilities for them and for clients. They recognised that they needed to operate in this space in order to meet the needs of their clients in an increasingly digitised world. They were not approaching it from wide-eyed techno-utopianism, but recognised the challenges for them and their clients. Those challenges relate to open and online in a broader context, of how to support people into the digital world, and questions within the Third Sector more broadly around strategic change, and how to sustain activities. I think this is probably a question we need to ask ourselves in the OER/OEP community.  It is all very well having resource to make something open, but what about the resources to ensure it is used and that it remains useful, so asking how to enable things to be open, what openness enables, and how to ensure it is sustained.

Ronald Macintyre