Last week, I had the pleasure to attend the NMC Black Swan Ball.  I had been looking forward to this event for months.  It’s not often that I get invited to spend a few days at a 4-star resort to contemplate the impact of emerging technologies on higher education along with about 100 rock stars from around the world. Um, actually, this was the first time that’s ever happened to me. 🙂

The New Media Consortium organized this retreat in support of the Horizon Report, an annual publication that identifies major technologies anticipated to impact formalized learning institutions. The first Horizon Report was published in 2004 and since then, the reports have taken a multidisciplinary approach by looking at the topic through the lens of higher education, K12, museums, and libraries in international contexts.  I think I read my first Horizon Report in 2007. After that, I’d look forward to each one like a big geek.

At the Black Swan Ball, we were tasked to contemplate a series of technologies or technological concepts and examine them in ways that stretched our thinking. Taking a page from Taleb’s book, our goal was to challenge ourselves and move our conversations into unexpected contexts, seeking and exploring ideas through our multidisciplinary experiences the highly improbable, or black swan. This approach was initiated to try to move away from a centrist way of locating impactful technologies, which is really the outcome of bringing a series of people together to discuss “what we expect to happen” in edtech.  In other words, if we only discuss what we expect to happen, we are risking the discovery of something amazing.

One of the topics we discussed during the retreat was The Quantified Self.  This was a topic that resonated with me in some pretty unexpected ways.  Yes, I have a Jawbone Up that counts my steps and buzzes each time I am idle for 45 minutes. Yes, I have lived in horror of my scale — the displayer of those damn numbers that mean so much (especially to a woman) in our society.  But I’ve also experienced a number of medical procedures in my life that have placed me front and center with quantified reflections of my experience as a human. And they leave me empty.

I have written here and here previously about a journey I had in 2006 with open heart surgery. After a routine echocardiogram on my heart (for a congenital heart disorder), I had learned that I had an aneurysm in my aorta.  Aneurysms in aortas are bad, let’s just say that. In a whirlwind two week span, I had a series of tests, each more invasive than the last, and each one resulted in a quantified measurement of my aorta. I heard “4.2 cm” and then “4.8 cm” and then, finally, “5.2 cm.”  During this time, I met with a surgeon who said, “We typically want to operate at 5.0 cm, because that’s when risk of rupture is highest.” Fun times.

Here’s the thing though. When I was in the recovery room after the last procedure that discovered the 5.2 cm measurement, I was also shown an image of my aorta that was taken during the procedure. That blurry, black-and-white image changed everything for me.

I heard to the data. But I felt the image. When I had the opportunity to “see” the bulge in my aorta, I could simply relate to what was happening in a different, more connected way.  The way I felt about the surgery that was ahead of me changed.  I looked at it as something that I must do, as opposed to something I wanted to find a way out of. A sense of commitment came upon me that is difficult to explain. No, the fear did not go away, but I related to the journey ahead of me in a very different way.

Now, my background is in art history. I’ve taught visual classes for more than a decade. Yes, I have a bias about images and the importance of them in our lives. But sometimes it’s really important to look back on our history.  Before we could write, we would draw and paint and sculpt. Images are in us. Images impact us as humans on an entirely different level than numeric data.

Images are powerful. Images tell stories. Images make us feel. Images are like qualitative data.

I am engaged in quantifying my experiences. But I will never let go of my qualified self and I hope you won’t either.

(Credit for these reflections goes to my “Wolverine” superhero group members: Jason Rosenblum, Malcolm Brown, Terra Graves, Joan Lippincott, and David Thomas.  Check us out on Twitter @NMCWolverine.)

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