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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Quote That:

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Mindblindedness dwells in the neurotypical world. It lurks on the edges of the notion of politics that speaks of democracy as though we all had acceded to the level of easy breathing. And it lurks within a macropolitical notion of ethics that seeks to place moral standards on behavior, and ethics that overwrites, that judges and sequesters into so-called intelligibility the agitation of all ecologies that do not resemble it. –Erin Manning, Always More Than One, pgs 170-171.

Libraries & The MOOC Trois: On Disruption

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

Quote That:

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But as computers become ubiquitous, we find ourselves surrounded with these things based on precision. So more and more of the things we need to accomplish are tasks defined by computers more rigidly than we as humans would define them for ourselves. We are forced to become more precise in our actions to satisfy the needs of our own systems, which we built initially as helpers and which eventually gain a kind of power over us. -Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: An Interview with Ellen Ullman

Bored in the Library, Luxury of the Mind

Stop Trying to Fill Every Hour of Your Day: Ever wonder why you get most of your ideas in the shower? It’s because the shower is among the last sacred spaces where we aren’t distracted by colleagues or technology. Our ideas need time to ferment and connect with other ideas, and being bored allows our minds to accomplish this naturally. -Sean Blanda, Five “Good Habits” You Need to Unlearn

This is not about quiet, but the idea of quiet. Libraries have always been leaders in third space, as Montgomery and Miller argue that in times of fiscal constraint, the academic library fills that niche, and further, the library is a place of individual productivity during finals. Most importantly, the library:

(O)ffers a comfortable welcoming environment for informal gathering where people come and go at their leisure and “nobody plays host” (Oldenburg 1999). The relaxed atmosphere of the third place provides users with the chance to be around others where they are not restricted by time, nor are they compelled to be there. -Montgomery and Miller, The “Third Place”: The Libary as Collaborativeand Community Space in a Time of Fiscal Contraint

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The place we are trying to get away from is a noisy one. Stuart Sim puts forth the idea that the noise we are trying to get away from is integral to the business culture of the United States, where it functions as a way to get our increasingly divided attention (Manifesto for Silence). Pushing this one step further, John Stewart connects the noise of the consumer society to an even deeper place: our identities:

It seems the attitudes toward noise are being shaped and changed by consumer society…..It also means that many people do not know life without noise; if it were not there, a void would open up in their lives. They would notice the silence. They have become oblivious to the noise. Why Noise Matters, p.9-10

The “fear of silence” is so unsettling because without the noise, our attentions have no easy external focus, no desire drive spurned on, no object or idea with which to attach. The stuff brings the noise and brings our identity additives with it. This is the place where libraries get their power, both in terms of physical space, but also the space that an instruction librarian  can bring into the classroom. Shutting down the noise and unsettling that drive allows students to really connect ideas with other ideas. Blanda may think that is because they are bored, but perhaps that is exactly the point. He equates not having to deal with the hassles of life to boredom and specifically, a lack of noise. Being able to avoid the invasion of noise (corporate or otherwise) has always been the purview of the well-to-do, and is a key factor in defining a luxury product:

Luxury vehicles make a statement — but too often, you can’t hear it over the roar of their engines. So the makers of top-line craft are dummying up the decibels, with a technological silence that’s 24-karat golden. Indeed, keeping quiet has become a science of its own. -Alexander George, The Silence of Luxury

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Libraries provide that sacred third space of silence, both from sound and from other mental distraction, much the same as what Blanda finds in the shower, and what your average 1%-er finds in the comfort of the newest Learjet. What libraries excel at is keeping down the cost. Best of all, unlike the cluttered and loud identities that can be forged through the consumption of consumer goods, the library provides a quiet place, sometimes literally, but often figuratively.