Big Dumb Ideas and the Archive

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Research libraries may not know as much as click-obsessed Amazon does about how people interact with their books. What they do know, however, reflects the behavior of a community of scholars, and it’s unpolluted by commercial imperatives. -David Weinenberger, A Good, Dumb Way to Learn From Libraries 

But it appears that the author wants to change that. Big data is a shorthand for actual use and understanding especially to compare across communities, which Weinenberger gets. But the man must have no idea what collections, acquisitions, reference, liaison librarians or bibliographers do. Also, he seems to have a blind spot for the common functions of library management systems. Instead he proposes spending inordinate amounts of time and money building goofy websites like Stacklife. That’s fine if you’re Harvard. But what is the point of doing all this, and asking others to devote their time to it? He says “Too bad we can’t put to work the delicious usage data gathered by libraries,” but never answers why and to whom this is important. It’s big data as the new “library 2.0″ and it is pretty cool but also pretty useless, unless you want to make your library an echo chamber. He even admits that potential for this kind of system to do this, but suggests it anyway.

I am here to defend the archive from the canon. By giving a little number to books, and ranking them that way, it will remove any need to think about what books to grab. Scholars, and students alike function on the principle of least effort for research. (Cite) By making use the main metric of books, ruts of thought will be carved out faster and faster while anything off of those paths will be ignored. Big data is statistical groupthink and it is not good for building critical thinking. We as educators and as keepers of archival forms of knowledge know this, but that doesn’t make for pitching “good, dumb” ideas.

And let’s be honest, we don’t need any more inroads for privatization. It is well and good for Harvard to make a somewhat useless website, but the private takeover in public goods is real. It’s bad enough in higher education, but this is also instructive: that pesky data protection will always be eroded in the face of business interests, laws notwithstanding. Homogenization through big data is a real danger as we try and conform to the ways of looking that are proposed by those in centers of influence and power. Consider the following cases in point:

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When I look around, I see the culture we’ve built turning from a liberating revolution into a repressive incumbency. We’ve built magical devices, but we don’t care enough about protecting ordinary people from harm when they use them. -Pete Warden, Nerd Culture is Destroying Silicon Valley

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I am over hearing from people within jogging distance of the Chelsea galleries that the whole of contemporary art is over; that art is no longer emotionally or intellectually fulfilling; that art is too expensive even for millionaires. I’m done reading articles titled “Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?,” written by people who haven’t figured out that Manhattan has bridges and tunnels and a subway. And I’m tired of pretending that a global elite has a monopoly on the expression of “ideas and feelings,” when there are thousands of people working every day outside of that slipstream as proof otherwise. -Ric Kasini Kadour, I Don’t Care About David Byrne Anymore?

The last thing that I posted was the dangers of microfascisms and what Weinberger proposes here is a real one. So yes, it’s a dumb idea, but not for the technical dumb/smart technological reasons, but because it is an idea that runs so counter to archival knowledge and the production of critical thought that is is an embarrassment to the concept or education. There is little need for more ghosts in the machines. To say that this is learning from libraries is disingenuous. This is pure resource extraction.

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Quote That: Darn Internet

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And here we come to the real crux of the matter: the less people who participate, the more people end up just becoming consumers, and if the only people producing things for these people to consume are corporate entities, then we’re subjected to an overwhelming quantity of spewed-out, predigested ‘culture’.  People have stopped participating and are content just being present, and thats a problem and whoever thinks “oh shut up dude, this happens all the time” you’re wrong, the internet leaves nothing hidden, every fuck dick can copy and paste a personality they found on the internet, and thats never been possible before.   But fuck it, who needs to actually go out and do something worthwhile IRL when you get the same chemical reaction from 100 internet strangers telling you your outfit is awesome. -Johnny Love, Subculture as we know it is dead, and its all the internets fault.

 

 

Paper: Identity, Quiet, and Power

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In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability. -Atul Gawande, Slow Ideas

Uncontrolled variability, as Gawande briefly illustrates is anathema to efficiency. However, the converse of messy and anachronistic communication through slow channels is not always the domain of the technologically disadvantaged, but it also a way to display privilege in a technologically obsessed world. Literally, to not care about efficiency in communication, to do something the old fashioned way is in some ways a projected indication of class. So, in the United States, we are what we buy. Consider the Molskine Notebook:

The  reason for the brand’s success is its unique positioning, which combines  identity and culture thanks to its high design and iconic content, as the product  satisfies a sense of belonging to a community sharing common values, rather  than just a function. This also justifies its premium positioning. -Chiara Rotelli & Emanuela Mazzoni, Moleskine: Initial Public Offering

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Paper, especially a leather-bound notebook of blank paper, is a luxury. It stands opposed to the cheap xerox stock that overflows despite the birth of the digital age, and implies a non-work time suck of doodles, drawings, notes, and mental sketches. It also implies creativity, over, and over. The kinds of notebooks alone tell a tale of the creative class in mashed fibers: passion, city, reporter, professional, creativity, black page, cover art, limited edition. This is paper for the privileged. It is messy and anachronistic, but also private. These notebooks are places for mistakes, first drafts, and experiments, only to be communicated to a few, and almost never without revision. Privacy, silence, and a lack of communication are bound up nicely in pages, blank in a discreet black book that projects a quiet power as a brand object.

This takes me back to Illich (1983) and his call for the defense of the silent commons. This call, essentially a manifesto, declared silence to be a shared condition placed under threat by new technologies and their amplificatory functions. It functions as a critique of mass media, regarded as a deeply non–convivial technology in which communication ‘machines’ provide prostheses and do so selectively, so that certain dominant groups (those who get the equipment) become louder hailers with the power to silence others. -Caroline Bassett, Silence, Delirium, Lies?

Bassett is worried about people being silenced by loud hailers, and the 21st century has proven no different. But the inverse is also a problem. More often than not, we are encouraged to participate, to make ourselves seen and known. Now to have the quiet space, to communicate slowly or not at all, but to just jot some notes and doodles is the position of power.

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Disruptor of NYC, or Why I Live in the Middle of the Country.

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We installed the ethos that pedigree was over and all money was now equally valuable. The mythology of Silicon Alley was forced to coalesce for good, with City Hall’s fervor behind it. The start-up culture wars—a fresh beef with the West Coast, except boring!—intentionally pitted us against the weirdo jerks of Palo Alto. The scrunchy-face foxy Foursquare co-founders appeared in Gap ads, clad in mediocre jeans but form-fitting venture capital. You were a good person if you were an entrepreneur. You were creating jobs, until you weren’t. The big floor-through lofts of Broadway between Houston and Spring filled up with inexpensive furniture and even less expensive young people, each with a bitter mouthful of Adderall, each office bright and identical. So far, we’ve disrupted a few things, mostly coffee-related. – Choire Sicha, Let Me Tell You About the Most Heartfelt $200 I Ever Made

EduTech and the Hipster

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6) The demand for new methods of teaching, such as flipped classrooms and blended learning, is coming from the students. Untrue.

Students are, for the most part, perfectly happy with traditional lecture courses. They know what to expect from and how to navigate courses that put no more demands on them but to reflect back the knowledge transmitted from the front of the room. -Joshua Kim, 10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning.

In this defense of educational technology, it appears that student demand isn’t driving classroom change. While being protective of educational technologists broadly, it tries to point out that educators are also driving the uptake of educational technology.  Given the precarious lives of educators, the additional need to innovate, both pedagogically and technologically is important. Taken individually, pedagogical innovation is difficult, and requires a lot of work and support. What it does not necessarily include is an expanded budget for hardware, software, and associated staff. While Joshua Kim makes the argument that:

What is so important about this transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain. Technology folks are moving from server rooms to the classrooms, from provisioning and monitoring server applications to collaborating with faculty and librarians on flipped classrooms and blended learning. -Joshua Kim, 10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning.

The line of reasoning inextricably ties consumerism to technology and pedagogical innovation, which might free people up, but still ties up more money than if the connection between them was severed. The final and most curious point is this: if consumerism is the model, and students aren’t viewed as consumers, then why does this feel like marketing? While it is proposed that businesses are “consumer driven” and schools are “student driven” then why is demand for innovation not coming from students? Marketing, the art of tell others that they need something they didn’t know existed, is at the center of the pedagogy/technology coupling’s consumerist model. Even for the pedagogically well-intentioned, the inclusion of further goods and services on behalf of the students or the school means that we as educators are selling those products to students.

Such an outgrowth of the broader cultural imperative to sell is very much the Liberal Man’s Burden taken up by technology providers: everything is fixable by technology, which you are free to purchase, but it is not your right to that solution. Government, the cash-thirsty guarantor of hypothetical equality stands directly in the way:

Eric Schnuerer writes of a world where government literally is a product you can buy, an eventuality he sees foretold in the increase in private security forces and flight from public schools. In other words, “‘Government’ is, everywhere, an industry in serious trouble,” and his remedy is to “resize,” “redesign” the “products,” and “compete effectively against new competitors and in whole new markets.”

This misconception is at the heart of Silicon Valley’s approach to politics, both at home and abroad. In Packer’s words, technology “has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.” -Kate Redburn, Google and The Liberal Man’s Burden.

The technologist approach is also marketing driven: it creates more needs than it solves in order to be financially profitable. Solving problems with existing tools, specifically through the application of pedagogy rather than pedagogy and technology, is less focused on consumption and more on hard-to-capitalize creation. The Liberal Man’s burden that technology has brought to bear in education is to make it profitable and condition the educational system to seek out profitable solutions to the human problem of educational values in the 21st century. Popular culture has a word for those who push back against the technological thrust in education based on such grounds: they are the hipsters of education:

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Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.” -Anthony Galluzzo, The ‘Fucking Hipster’ Show.

Hipsters are the fixie-mounted, left-leaning, do-your-own-canning types who accept technology with reservations, but without Luddism. This is the analogy for those who question the efficacy of the technology/pedagogy pairing, and libraries, as places where older technologies sit comfortably beside newer ones, is hipsterism par excellence. Questioning the imperative to maximize one’s own economic advantage at one’s own expense runs counter to the “self-made” maximalist culture represented by the span of men from Carnegie to Zuckerberg. When a product is made, it bears the personality and values of its maker through and through. In education, we teach people to fit in or resist culture, so it has always been the site of contests for power. Defining educational institutions as site of “transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain” will teach students not to provide, but to consume.

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Participation and Academic Exclusion

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Let’s talk about the innovation culture. Let’s talk about how to make something simple and beautiful into something ugly. The problem with many innovations is that they conflate innovation for specialization. There’s a great new skateboard that can easily ride down stairs, but you can do that and many other things with any deck.  The tools of academic publishing have run into the same problem: we have specialized journals for everything, but few places that allow for broader participation, with Aaron Swartz’s death, a lot of discussions about this came up:

To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action. -Peter Ludlow, Aaron Swartz Was Right.

But Ludlow misses another important point: for good or bad, these costs have a hidden benefit for academics themselves:

With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it. -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

Libraries and publishers have been in this system of exclusion for a long time, there’s no one side to blame. But Kendizor takes it one step further: even our language is to blame:

Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

We are living in a time where the ability to access knowledge is at an all-time high. But the structure of publishing, of tenure and promotion and our language itself have given rise to new levels of defensiveness for academics. It’s time to get to the Harlem Shake of academia, something so obvious that anyone can do it. Many academics are trying things out, from open access journals to blogs to non-academic but thoughtful sites like thestate.ae. It’s time to really put everything out there because now more than ever, we’re hiding when we shouldn’t. Open access journals are the Stair Rover to HTMLgiant‘s firecracker and it’s clear that by creating something so functional, we’ve created something ugly.