Libraries & The MOOC Trois: On Disruption


Although the traditional archive used to be a rather static memory, the notion of the archive in internet communication tends to move the archive toward an economy of circulation: permanent transfer and updating. -Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, p. 99.

Ernst starts out with this blazing redefinition of what an archive is, which substitutes use and reuse which essentially conflates the idea of archives with that of communication. In reference to my earlier posts, the canon has become the archive. The archive of internet communication is not an archive at all. When you “archive” a email in Gmail, it becomes a saved but inaccessible, a digital parody of a dusty box on a lost shelf. But that sense of archive is a misnomer: a body of work which stays relevant through re-circulation is not an archive. By keeping things past present, it is a canon. This is why all the talk of organizing the world’s knowledge and slapping it all online has become a quixotic project. While one can create an honest-to-god archive on the internet, the best function of the internet always will be communicative acts. That which is curatorial will usually take a back seat. The grafting of archives and other institutional models tend to follow this pattern:

Less so a library, the internet feels like a mall, albeit one with a robust newsstand (and adult video section). It’s open 24/7 and now offers same-day delivery. Less so a school, it’s a playground, equipped with a billboard for our personal brand. From this vantage point, the internet is less the revolutionary invention that it is, or can and should be, instead acting as a glorified telephone and digital, sepia-filtered distraction, one lubricated and optimized for constant, frictionless consumption. -Alec Liu, Groupon, Aaron Swartz and the Failings of the Second Great Tech Boom


It is acting as optimized. Wolfgang Ernst calls it an “economy of circulation” with certainty, but that phrase understates the nature of this massive  shiny, lubricated entertain-ucation-plex, where the hustle of self-promotion edges other things out. Trying to wade through a discussion board or a tumblr looking for something that rises above the merely interesting can be exhausting, and now it’s part of education:

Taking a cue from Twitter and LinkedIn, education online also needs to do a better job leveraging peer interaction and collaboration. Most MOOCs do already promote discussions among classmates to help with homework and grading. But the emergence of Twitter and LinkedIn (and soon Facebook) as go-to sources of professional insights shows that people want to actually learn from, and work with, their colleagues and business contacts just as much as from PhDs, editors and other experts. -Todd Tauber, The Dirty Little Secret of Online Learning: Students Are Bored and Dropping Out

Granted, learning has always been communicative, but it also requires critical thinking, time away from other pressures, and focus. Making the claim that being more like commercial, entertainment-driven websites like Twitter or Linkedin as example of how people learn now is wildly disingenuous: how we entertain ourselves and use those tools in a professional setting is not at all how “we” learn. We all learn differently, and as the industrial educational complex of the early 20th century gets dismantled, the silicon-valley wet-dream of edutainment is seen for what it is: an economic tool. It follows a new advertising narrative of disruption, a familiar call in many a educational sector that is “ripe”:

The drive to create is no different, no less human than that the urge to profit. But only recently it has taken on this sickly pallor–the desire to present itself as different… as difference. It has become a drama, a narrative of success or failure. -Adam Rothstein, Disruption


Disruption is the story of startup culture through advertising. Rothstein brings the sickly obsession to be different to the fore, as opposed to the long lines of actual institutional change which involve considerable human effort and goodwill. Disruption promises to short-circuit that, a techno-economic fix in the stead of humanity’s emotional dirty work. As they currently stand, the MOOC’s biggest supporters want to sell the disruption narrative. Less so a school, it brings the world of personal branding into the classroom. And with the work of students and teachers reformated to fit the digital insta-canon, one taken away at the end of the communicative performance, the archive dies. The cycles of knowledge get shorter and shorter, and the long memory of dusty stacks will fade. One direction out of this is a new archivist manifesto, one that emphasizes the personal ethic of care.

The current discussions on search, open access, archives, preservation of information and digital objects, often hide away the politics of individuals under the disguise of “users”. Users to technological capitalism, are consumers to consumerist capitalism. Archivist manifesto is a call for the reinsertion of knowledge and skills for developing personal archives, that on one hand, reinstall the culture of care and a technological culture; on the other hand, develop an infrastructure that allows sharing of information on individual level and bypasses marketing tools such as search engines and commercial social networks. -Yuk Hui, Archivist Manifesto

Somebody ought to add the MOOC to that last list.


DH, NA, and the Messianic Streak.

As new media documentarian Jonathan Minard, among others, has pointed out, the New Aesthetic’s intrigue hinges on imagining that you’re seeing these images through the sentient eyes and mind of a robot, as though the webcam is looking back. When recalibrated as the human images which these are, we just end up with far more shitty photos and less privacy. -Whitney Kimball, Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

DH is the square cousin of NA. The main critique of NA, like my critique of What Technology Wants, is that it is an act of imagining that machines are actually sentient, not that they actually are. Still, there’s a little bit of a messianic streak that comes out of a lot of DH and NA. From the same post, Kimball’s take on NA founder James Bridle:

New Aesthetic founder James Bridle then seized the stage: wildly gesticulating, he poured forth a double-time of storytelling and slides, interjecting things like “and yet, and yet, and yet!” I get now why Bruce Sterling described the New Aesthetic as being in its “evangelical, podium-pounding phase.” – Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

So it goes. It also goes to show that whenever bright individuals cast an opinion on burgeoning scenes (both rightly and wrongly) they often use language designed to cast suspicion on any group: comparing it to religion. What greater linguistic guilt by association could there be other than implying that the interests of an entire group of people is somehow akin to the  great Satan of the unbelievers? Stanley Fish uses the same guilt by association technique that Kimball does, but instead of going after a slightly kooky but mostly harmless bunch of image-lovers, he takes a shot at some hyper-literate, theory-obsessed fellow humanists.

The anti-methodology that refuses closure and insists on fecundity facilitates — no, demands — sharing, and builds an ever-expanding community of digital fellowship, an almost theological community in which everyone explores in “the inexhaustible nature of divine meaning” (“Reading Machines”). -Stanley Fish, Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation

Not in response to Fish, but around him, Stephen Ramsay brings out the heart of Fish’s discomfort seemingly through another problem altogether:

A literary criticism that can only advance claims that are shown to be empirically valid is as deadening to the project of the humanities as a computational activity for which humanistic discourse lies permanently beyond its ambit. Risks need to be taken in both cases. In the former, the risk of saying something humanistically true but empirically false; in the latter case, of saying something empirically true that is humanistically false. -Stephen Ramsay, Stanley and Me

Depending on what frame of reference (humanities or science) you use, something can be true in one but not the other. The Foucaultian Librarian in me spots the easy binary that Ramsay drops. It is an issue that comes up with subjects and disciplines, when “(u)ltimately, we can easily end up believing in useful fictions as if they are true. In such cases we fail to recognize when the fictions take on a life of their own and we allow these fictions to separate from their own stories.” (James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Definitions and Challenges” p.84). Fish and Ramsay are locked into a real battle where the lines around academic disciplines have hardened into truth, with job descriptions, grants, fellowships, postdocs, careers, and the kinds of things we’ll teach our students on the line. To Ramsay’s point, when the dividing lines of discipline harden to such a point that two separate accounts of what is “true” are incompatible, it begs the questions of whether or not the project has the right outlook. Truth has and always be a slippery and frustrating beast, but the academic bifurcating of it will only continue to distort the usefulness of education writ large. One of the most exciting parts of DH is the ability to move between humanistic and empirical frames. Fish, it seems, is stuck on the dividing line in disciplines.

What seems to unsettle humanists is that religiosity, and it keeps things locked in the humanistic/empirical binary that holds to those “real world” factors surrounding higher education and research. The “messianic” streak found in NA and DH are both a result of both emphasizing scales and perspectives that go above or outside of the level of an individual human life (especially those which can be illuminated by empirical techniques), such are the forces that aggravate Fish, as described by Benjamin Schmidt:

Leaving individuals out of the story altogether, in other words, better acknowledges that there are other forces at work that operate orthogonally or antagonistically to human freedom. At times, that will be less dehumanizing than forcing histories that are properly about collectives to pretend that individual actors could or did make the difference. -Where are the Individuals in Data-Driven Narratives?

There are the rules and that’s fine, both the individual and large forces are part of the humanistic and empirical story of all of us. Finally, I’d like to thank Mr. Zizek for giving the whole of the United States (seems to include scholars) carte blanche to do as we like with ourselves, let alone our disciplinary frames of reference:

In Europe, the ground floor of a building is counted as zero, so the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. This trivial difference indicates a profound ideological gap: Europeans are aware that, before counting starts – before decisions or choices are made – there has to be a ground of tradition, a zero level that is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While the US, a land with no proper historical tradition, presumes that one can begin directly with self-legislated freedom – the past is erased. What the US has to learn to take into account is the foundation of the “freedom to choose”. -Slavoj Žižek, Why Obama is More Than Bush with a Human Face (Thanks to Mrs. Tsk*)

the new passivity

Well Kevin and I are best friends. We have a real disagreement. He is interested in what technology wants and I’m like, “what do I want?” In a nutshell. It is convenient for Facebook to have no privacy. Because it will allow Facebook to roam more freely. Is that good for democracy? Is that good for intimacy? -Sherry Turkle, The Internet’s Not Grown Up

These are questions worth mulling over, and remind me of some research by danah boyd, showing how teens define privacy in networked publics. As it turns out, teens have a nuanced understand of privacy because they live in social situations that have unequal transparency. Calculated understandings of privacy enable them to perform  in social spaces, fitting messages to the technological medium and selecting which media to use depending on how private things need to be. Following that, statements like the one below make a lot of sense. It is the issue above, but writ large:

The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties it officially celebrates. While interactivity can be imagined as the “like” or “retweet,” it also encompasses the “agree to terms” button. The supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation can turn sour when people have good reasons and desires to retreat. -Jonathan Sterne, What if Interactivity is the New Passivity?

Often, non-participation isn’t desirable, so strategic publicity is a useful option, which is the response boyd sees in teens. Sterne’s tougher point is that “interactivity” has become as coercive as the “passivity” of media of old (TV, Radio). Again, it’s a question of uneven transparency, so the call to engage which can’t be ignored has to be shunted to the side. If the internet wants to grow up, it needs to be put in its place, such that the medium is no longer the message, which is handier for us than it is for the makers of communication technologies:

Slow Media are discursive and dialogic. They long for a counterpart with whom they may come in contact. The choice of the target media is secondary. In Slow Media, listening is as important as speaking. Hence ‘Slow’ means to be mindful and approachable and to be able to regard and to question one’s own position from a different angle. -Benedikt Köhler, Sabria David, Jörg Blumtritt, The Slow Media Manifesto

This is the opposite of the McLuhanistic arms race that is the primary driver of information technology today. Increasingly, the medium has become the message, and as a result, the target media has gained primacy, making content conform to the medium. If we are serious about information literacy, it is not acceptable to only teach critical thinking about content, but also the content packaging. Interactivity is the new passivity, and if we are going to help people make sense of it, then it’s time to slow things down when it suits us.

Quote That:

But, we need stories in order to understand the past and move into the future; otherwise, we’d only live in the land of sensation. Stories give us the sense of possibility, and what’s powerful about making up stories is if you don’t like one, you can make up another. We’re born with certain personality traits, but we make up a lot of who we are. So, to be able to question your story is really being free.

-Laurie Anderson & Sam DeLeo, Laurie Anderson Talks Boulder Communikey Festival, Dirtday, More.

Quote That:

Furman makes two crucial suggestions for reorganizing French studies that apply as well to some other disciplinary formations. She recommends that literature and cultural studies departments cease relying on exclusively sequential, chronological, cumulative models in which acquisition of knowledge begins with the beginning and moves forward through time, and shift instead to problem-based learning that entails identifying salient lines of inquiry, or what she calls “virtual sites,” and teaching students how to analyze backward from and across those specific sites. In my view, there is no need to oppose sequential, chronological knowledge to the analogic or diachronic. Problem-based interdisciplinary inquiry is essential, however, and there is no reason to believe that the knowledge it produces is less sound than more traditional disciplinary approaches.

-Biddy Martin, “Success and Its Failures”, in Women’s Studies on the Edge, p.170

Bibliographies and Curation

Memes are transient and formulaic. Horse_ebooks, on the other hand, is like the ultimate meme black box. Its output might be imitated, but the underlying logic responsible for that output will likely never be duplicated to a T. Could there be an actual human being on the other end of the horse, hand-picking the text and conning us all? Absolutely. But honestly, we shouldn’t want to know. Unless something tragic happens, Horse_ebooks, as far as we’re concerned, will simply remain a neutral, unfeeling robot regularly delivering fragmented pieces of ourselves. And that’s something the Internet truly needs.

-Joshua Kopstein, Why the Internet Needs Horse_ebooks

The taking of someone else’s stuff and making it one’s own is a key feature of the internet and has spawned much discussion of the term “curation.” I’ve argued that it is at the heart of librarianship. Horse_ebooks turns the idea of curation on its head, that in order to “curate,” all that might be needed is an algorithm, or someone cutting and pasting snippets of ourselves and throwing them back at us so we can force meaning into it, even if there is none intended.  But curation is taking on its own life online, but needs to be distinguished from mere sharing, a mistake I made and would like to correct.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush argued that the work of navigating the world’s information would one day fall to a professional caste of hardy souls “who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Google rendered that profession unnecessary, but not obsolete; our current obsession with online curation has only begun to fulfill this prediction. What is an anthology if not trail-making?

-Robert Moor, Bones of the Book

Anthology is very much about trail-making, but the question is: does the trail go somewhere I want to go? Google cannot do that for anyone because it presents no trail, just a list of destinations, many of which have been bought and sold, SEO’d beyond recognition as actually being useful. In the face of Google’s destinations and Horse_ebooks’ funny but nihilistic joke about curation, we can look at the production of pathways and anthologies as original thought. Consider this pairing:

But we should not delude ourselves for a moment into bestowing any special significance on this, because when we do this thing that so many of us like to call “curation” we’re not providing any sort of ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire.

I don’t know what sort of addled reading of Barthes it must’ve taken to get here—to employ phrases like the “creative and intellectual labor of information discovery” and “a form of authorship”—but the often tortuous act of writing compared with the reading of someone else’s writing are two vastly different things, not just simple variations of unicode runes.

-Matt Langer, Stop Calling It Curation

We might, for instance, find our values shifting away from a sole focus on the production of unique, original new arguments and texts to consider instead curation as a valid form of scholarly activity, in which the work of authorship lies in the imaginative bringing together of multiple threads of discourse that originate elsewhere, a potentially energizing form of argument via juxtaposition.

-Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence, p79.

What Fitzpatrick proposes here is what Langer considers to be curation, the provision of ” ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire,” and that is what libraries (in collections) and librarians (in guides and bibliographies) do. Langer is right to keep a firm separation between the acts of reading and writing, and as he points out elsewhere, curatorship and scholarship are tightly linked. So keep it old school, even with digital tools: curate.

Serendipity, Looseness, and the Creative Turn in Libraries

Perhaps the books have outlived their original intended purpose, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to use them.

You could pull almost any image in the library out of its context and it would probably be nearly impossible to identify its source or its meaning. In other words, the bizarre quality of the images might not necessarily be a function of the texts that they live in.

I wouldn’t want to prescribe a particular approach. I think that books are really interesting objects in part because they are relatively stable. Unlike electronic information, books are relatively difficult to change and revise.

-Zach Friedman and Anrew Beccone, Bomblog: Reanimation Library

In the face of the eroding perceived value of books, this lays out an interesting proposition, which relies on the strange combination of durability and the ability to be lost. Much of library practice relies on the idea that we need to keep information from getting lost, but as the reanimation library demonstrates, this is sometimes necessary for continued creation. Despite the increasing availability of full-text searching in ebooks, access to the ideas in books are heavily dependent on how they are represented in various titles, or, for the more cautious researcher, by the author and her affiliations. The upside of this being, you are more likely to read something that isn’t exactly what you were looking for. Conversely, the same looseness exposes the author and their work to unintended audiences. The Reanimation Library thrives on a more extreme version of this mechanism:  As a result of this serediptious proccess, the creative, unintended uses come to the fore.

Groups like the Library as Incubator Project and discussions by PublicPraxis move one step beyond this by shifting the definition of information, opening up new possibilities for libraries. About a breakdancing competition in a library:

We talk about how libraries have the ability to change the world for their users by providing access to information. Information is conveyed in many forms, not just the printed word or digital content but also via workshops and classes and exhibitions. A breakdancing competition won’t work in every library, nor need it. -Laura Damon-Moore, Elizabeth Hough, and Sharon Grover, Collaboration, Innovation, Incubation 

Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo.

By organizing a group around the bikes they own, they promote creativity (they style their bikes, they make their own music), education (both formal K-12 and P2P), responsibility, self-respect (you must ride in style), community–and together they’ve created a world for themselves that meets important needs. All of these needs can be understood as information, as can all of the resources that fulfill those needs. So this is not some lofty far-out library moon colony, this is library terra firma. The way that Scraper bikes engage the members opens up knowledge, values, and opportunities that individually, these Oakland kids may not find widely accessible. -Meg Backus, Alternative Libraries

Both of these examples expand the definition of information, and by doing so expand the role of the library in the world. This is a much more aggressive tactic than what Reanimation Library employs, but the end results reach for the same goal: the breaking down of traditional understandings of what counts as “useful” information. They do this successfully be demonstrating that truly useful information is that which is put into action in a community. All of these projects demonstrate by freeing information from the constrictions we as librarians put on it, it has the chance to become something more–knowledge. For a more formal argument, consider this paper by Jennifer Nutefall and Phyllis Ryder. Serendipity, not a practiced lack of information control,but a openess to the rough edges of it, is actually a method that students and scholars use. Serendipity has always played a key role in learning about the world.