This blog post costs….

how i got here the old way.

A lot of things have been knotting themselves together in my head, especially the issue of being able to justify what I do with my life, I feel like pseudo-techno-metrics are creeping in.

In a post about disintermediation in “education 2.0”, Rob Tucker begins with the idea that the design of technologies often happen to us, and that the disintermediation of educators from those being educated will increase, much like it did in the travel and bookselling businesses. He proposes that “(i)f we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge, the disintermediation could be near total,” as in his mind, educators, the as “middle-men” of education take away resources from the value of the educational experience. This seems like an over-simplification of what education is. If this were “The Matrix,” his point makes sense, but there are many other reasons why we have educators aside from functioning as funnels for “knowledge” that society uses to dump stuff into people’s heads.

It’s not all bad, really. Tucker supposes that students will be “self-paced, self-directed, self-driven.” Since there still might need to be physical places, “schools will evolve into things that look more like civic centers – hubs for community involvement and rich relationship-building, augmented by more spontaneous micro-communities that span the globe, forming and bursting like soap bubbles.” This sounds like a library, but is that really a good format for schools? First of all, that’s a lot of “self” and part of education is learning about things outside of one’s own self, or at least learn how to play well with others. While he gives some primacy for relationship building, if you are relentlessly pursuing your own course, guided by AI-driven “counselors,” do you really build relationships, or do you treat others like some kind of capital investment, which you will let go of once they no longer meet your need?

The businessification of education echos the increasing role of metrics in our work and daily lives: we are all supposed to be measurable. Whereas Ester Duflo’s Poverty Action Lab recognizes the limits of measurement (specifically in using it to manage complex decisions) when it comes to people, Tucker clearly does not. The impulse being followed is that adding another person to a “value-chain” is a drain, assuming that educators add no value that cannot be embedded into some kind of automated courseware. A couple of days later, another O’Reilly blogger, Marie Bjerede wrote an entire post pointing out that “the designers can accurately predict what users will need in perpetuity and develop a static one-size-fits-all product.” Disintermediated education is a one-size-fits all concept and the idea that educators do not add value is a cost-cutting wet-dream. Education is not the grocery store checkout line or a travel agency. Knowledge is a complex thing, as is its’ transmission, and educators facilitate the learning process in a less than “one-size-fits-all” way. Tucker thinks that a business model fits completely as an educational model.

The mistaken idea that you can make education a business is chronic, and given the collapse of the University of California system, it’s getting to the red line rather quickly. In a series of posts at Art21, independent “anti-authoritarian scholar” (an oxymoron?) Marc Herbst leans into this idea pretty hard:

“Theoretically, the movements are concurrent with the critical clarifications of immaterial labor; witness how universities change policies to better commodify thought-work while streamlining and uncritically redefining education. Folks like Gigi Rogero and websites like edufactory have been creating critical theory around this phenomenon of this neoliberalization of education.”

All of this came back to mind when I saw this little post from Mashable citing that Google’s Pac-Man logo cost society (businesses, etc.) 4,819,352 hours of time, or $120,483,800 in productivity. This according to people whose business it is to monitor people and deliver optimum human capital. This they called a “tragedy“:  employees spent 36 seconds on average messing with the thing. If this isn’t a prime example goofy techno-metrics and business-think overkill, I’m not sure what is. Maybe the answer is to provide students and people with meaningful and important work, and the metrics will help measure their success.

the divide on the future of the semantic web?

Skimming the Pew Internet Report on the future of the semanic web, I noticed a divide in the backgrounds of the people who thought that it would be attainable by 2020 (if at all).

On the “Nay” team, we have:

  • Susan Crawford, Internet law professor at the University of Michigan, former special assistant in the Obama administration for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, founder of OneWebDay
  • Jeff Jarvis, author of “What would Google Do?”, associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School
  • Matthew Allen, director of the department of Internet Studies at the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts, Curtin University of Technology, and critic of social uses and cultural meanings of the Internet
  • Michel J. Menou, Ph.D, information science, independent consultant in ICT policy, visiting professor and associate researcher, School of Library, Archives and Information Services, University College London
  • Peng Hwa Ang , dean of the School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and active leader in the global Internet governance processes of WSIS and IGF
  • Roarke Lynch, Director, NetSmartz Workshop for the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children David Sifry, founder of Technorati and CEO of Offbeat Guides

On the “Yea” team, we have:

  • Bryan Trogdon, president of First Semantic
  • Esther Dyson, founder and CEO of EDventure, investor and serial board member, journalist and commentator on emerging digital technology
  • Robert Cannon, senior counsel for Internet law at the US Federal Communications Commission
  • JP Rangaswami, chief scientist, British Telecommunications
  • Ron Rice, Ph.D, co‐director of the Carsey‐Wolf Center for Film, Television and New Media, University of California‐Santa Barbara, divisional officer, International Communication Association and Academy of management
  • Joshua Freeman, director of interactive services, Columbia University Information Technology
  • Chris Marriott, Acxiom Corporation and digital marketing advisor for the Association of National Advertisers

Looking at these lists of people, I wonder two things:

  1. Those who are naysayers – are they more conservative in their nature? Since more of them are academics, is there something at the core of their understanding of information and communication that makes them skeptical of a program’s ability to sort out nonsense that we all spew? I’d bet that their experience ith the messiness of language and thought colors their view of the semantic web. Basically, since we can barely discern what we’re saying, somethign we have to “teach” to figure this out will be just as messed up. To cynical? Over-analytical?
  2. Those who are yeasayers: like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, are they too invested in what’s going on? Since a lot of these folks are gaming careers on the intenet continuing to get much better (and not just flatlining) are they overconfident in their ability to solve the problems of language and communication that have dogged us for centuries?

I tend to be in the first camp (also by my nature). Then again, I certainly don’t know everything, and getting wordpress to work is a major technological achievement in my life. Being of small brain, I give Matthew Allen some room to speak:

“Alas, the semantic web is an idea that owes more to the desires of computing scientists and information theorists for a world of perfected knowledge and processed reason than to reality. The semantic web is like the Encyclopaedia of the Modern project: an ideal whose existence enables us to make progress but that can never be achieve because it fails to account for the cultural malleability of knowledge, the political economy of information, and – ultimately – the agency of humans, with their machines, in subverting the ideals of pure reason to the partial ends of personal gain.”

But that really is too cynical for my taste. It reeks of that fear that smart people have that normal people will always meddle in the affairs of people trying to do everyone more good. Some of the other “Nays” echo this sentiment in one way or another. The one that stood out amongst them was Jeff Jarvis, who summed it up this way: “Life’s Messy. So’s the internet.

So yes, the semantic web will have an uphill battle against the mess. Perhaps, like libraries before them, they will come to the realization that we can only do our best to curate (yes, writing programs to organize things by relationship is still a form of curation) the mess, and perhaps best its’ forerunners by embracing all that is goofy and idiosyncratic about us all.

on the way we communicate.

“Imagine going back 20 years and telling people they won’t make voice calls, but instead they’ll be sending tiny messages (SMS). It would sound insane. And these things cost $0.20 each! That’s an interesting question — why is this popular? It’s because it’s so lightweight, and it doesn’t have to interrupt you. We’re going to see more of that. It’s the pattern of Facebook and Twitter.” (via techcrunch)

That was Paul Buchheit; from Friendfeed on why lightweight is the future of “a lot of communications.” It’s like the telegraph or the calling card never existed. Sure, we never use them, but it still functions in largely the same way–a small, asynchronous, communication that acts as a link to another, more time-intensive activity (or, in the case of some, a series of small-intensive activities that could be mediated by actual face-time). The issue here is that we have always needed short and long form communication. Being able to determine which is the most appropriate for a given situation has become more complex, and being able to change how we communicate depending on the format is key. Clive Thompson’s article in Wired on the “new literacy” highlights the fact that “the kids” are writing more and more these days. As his resource, Andrea Lundsford points out, they’re better than ever at “what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.” To those in the survey, good writing had to do with how well the point was made, and they felt that in-class writing “had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.” This startled me a little, being way to huge of a research nerd thanks to over-education, I thought back to Barzun, who reminded us to not start researching until you know whom you are writing to.

So what? It sounds like a disconnect in educational values. Students can’t fathom why teachers want them to write elaborate essays only for them, and teachers can’t understand why students don’t realize that they are trying to teach them how to communicate in particular brands of scholarly discourse, to practice writing for that particular audience. Critical literacy, anyone? Academic guerilla professor Christopher L. Schroeder takes critical literacy up several notches, but still gets tripped up by his own programme: he tries to deconstruct the academy before his students understand what the academy is and their role in it. Even his emails read like papers: has the man learned no kairos from his students?

But has Buchheit? Mostly, yes. He’s qualified himself by saying mostly, but of course the guy from Friendfeed is going to tell us that lightweight is good, that it doesn’t “interrupt you.” The problem is that we want to interrupt ourselves and our students. We need to demand attention. That is how we learn. In those “contact zones” where we create new meaning and understanding, there’s a lot to take in, otherwise no real understanding comes out of it. Relying on too light a medium probably won’t work, and who better than library-types to help people understand how the media we communicate with affects how people understand us.

Digital books and our attention, please.

Since the Ipad has come out as the thing to beat in 2010, I was reminded of Andrew Fitzgerald’s contribution to the New Liberal Arts: Attention Economics. With the general hue and cry being that now reading has to compete with email, internet, etc, all on the same device, publishers need to bring their A-game. To that end, there has been a lot of discussion about what readers want. Alain Pierrot has one solution for helping readers manage their attention to texts by essentially using XML to monitor their time spent reading and supplying rough estimates on how much more time they should expect to take, giving them a handy metric for managing their precious reading time. Somehow, this reeks of micromanagement, and kind of makes me reflect back on apophenia’s post about “big data“. Scary that we need to remind people that they should behave ethically when toying with other people’s stuff.

Pierrot contends that book publishers aren’t very good at giving their readers what they want. This is somewhat suspect to me, I know publishers are going through a crisis, but I don’t think by measuring reading times (and possibly skimming that information for corporate gains) the web-based world will do much better. While we all have a mania for personal statistics and self-measurement, the assumption that we all clock our time that closely is kind of like introducing management techniques into our daily lives. Sure, it’s handy to know how long it will take to finish a chapter of a book, but being able to manage one’s time (or mis-manage it, god forbid) is what such a program would try and erode. Life, after all, is a liberal art.