This Giant Sea of Information

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” ~Roger Ebert

Tonight I watched Life Itself, the documentary film on Roger Ebert. I’m a sucker for old photos, Werner Herzog anecdotes, and incredible film clips, so it’s a good documentary in my book. I learned quite a bit. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched a film, but I’ve thinking about writing a lot today. How much I miss it. How I write plenty of words throughout the day– it’s just not the same as telling one story. Sitting with one idea.

During the documentary, Ebert describes how blogging helped him retain his voice in the last years of his life. The epigraph above stuck with me throughout the film–especially his mention of a machine that generates empathy. It’s such a lovely way to describe film. Writing. Stories. Teaching. Learning.

Prior to heading to work today, I decided to read and comment on one blog post. It was a radical act of self-care on my part to just read and think about one thing. I was reminded of my experience with writing with the Federated Wiki and the post brought some thoughts together for me.

Here’s the thing.

Without realizing it, I use music as an example when I explain open education to folks who are new to the idea. As much as I love the open education community, I’m most interested these days in the people who are new to conversation. When I try to teach them how it all works, I find it’s easiest to talk about music. I can be quite the broken record (yay puns). I think it works because everyone understands bands who cover songs. They understand that a band can at once attribute the origin of the song while they aim to make the song their own.

A year ago, I  wrote a post titled Creating our own personal little lakes. Or ponds. Or puddles. It’s a monster post full of digressions about my experience  about the smallest federated wiki. Allow me to quote the best part as it relates to explaining cover songs. I started with describing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs singing “Old Salty Dog Blues.” Then I move on to Doc Watson’s version. This is an American folk song from the 1900s, and I wrote:

Check out the folks dancing in this video. I am totally busting those moves on New Year’s Eve! Those cats know how to party—check out the skirt on Doc’s daughter and the champion step dancer’s shoes. Pay attention to how he breaks it down at the end–style, my friends, is dying art.

Now check out Cat Power’s version from her Covers Record. Critics diss on her for this album because it’s not original (note the album title, Sir Geniuses). I beg to differ–it’s such a creative album. All of these songs are her very own.

I might have a hard time stepping to this tune, but I love Cat Power’s version all the same. Just for another reason. I don’t always feel like stepping. 

People practice by imitating songs they love—that’s how they learn how to play. Art students practice by imitation. Knitters follow patterns created by somebody else. Cooks follow recipes written by others.

Maybe I just have fun talking about music, but I think this framework can work. By the time you’re ready to talk about platforms, licensing, customizing, etc. folks new to open education already understand the concept of adapting and adopting. Just as a band adopts a song to cover.

I recently shared another new set of songs with somebody new to open education yet very familiar with Cat Power covers. Buddy Holly’s-Crying Waiting Hoping is perfection pop and the origin of the song’s lyrics. It impressed me that the person knew about the Buddy Holly song. Even The Beatles got in on a cover with an early demo, he told me. 

My favorite iteration/adoption/remix of this song is Cat Power’s.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic for a southern voice. Maybe I’m crying, waiting, hoping that we’ll live in a world where people won’t kill other people. Crying, waiting, hoping that my queer friends will be safe. 

In the blog post I mentioned above, I asked how we can take this giant sea of information to create our own personal little lakes. Or ponds. Or puddles. It’s an idea that I can’t let go of yet I don’t think I quite articulate it well either.

I started this post with a quote from Ebert because I was so smitten with the idea that film can be “a machine that generates empathy.” Maybe how we teach and learn with this giant sea of information needs to have a machine that generates empathy to empower us to create our own little lakes. Or ponds. Or puddles.  

[Something that] lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
This entry was posted in All The Things and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to This Giant Sea of Information

  1. xolotl says:

    Maybe shuffle play is the good version of a broken record. I want to play this post over and over! Thank you for the cover song analogy for open and this opportunity to exercise a bit of my own self care.

    Not to get all theorhetorical on you, but “machines for generating empathy” reminds me why I find the ideas of Deleuze/Guattari such valuable tools for ponderation. Film (or music) as a machine, connected to, processing, generating, amplifying, (sometimes inhibiting?) libidinal flows like empathy. And other flows, of values, money, power, more.


    • Thanks, Nate! I appreciate the use of “not to get all all theoretical on you” over your “studies show” comments–so good on you. Deleuze/Guattari’s quasi-virtual world connects a bit to the documentary where Ebert was forced to use a machine to speak towards the end of his life. He more or less gave up when he could no longer type. Some of the scenes were horrific to watch. Honestly, I’m still recovering from learning that Gene Siskel ran with Hugh Hefner! The photos of Siskel at the mansion with Hef and bunny friends made me laugh so hard. Who. Knew. That documentary helped me forgive Ebert for his anti-feminist/conservative take on Blue Velvet and Isabella Rossellini. That’s a broken record for another post. Thanks for reading:)


  2. awritersalchemy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this quote and these thoughts.


    • Thanks for reading, Bethany. I don’t always comment on your blog, but I read. You make retirement look pretty good. I use “retirement” loosely since you seem to be more prolific than ever. I sometimes dream of that little backyard cabin of yours. Should you come the Portland area, please let me know. I’d love to see you.


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