Yesterday the unconference sessions got started. I want to record some memories and thoughts here. I hope to expand on them later, but I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t get something down right away, it will become harder and harder to get the headspace I need and the events deserve. All a longwinded way of saying “half a loaf ahead … better than none, I hope.”
Also, please note that about eight to ten concurrent sessions are typically going for each time slot. My experience, alas, will thus be a very very thin slice of the whole (half a loaf, and very thin slices as well; someone call the metaphor police, please).
SESSION ONE “Dave Winer Is Always Right.” Led by Anil Dash, one of the many folks whose name and face I recognized, while at the same time recognizing that I truly knew next to nothing about his work. I’ve had many such humbling moments at FOO Camp. I need a sabbatical or three. Nothing to do but keep working.
As I said in one of my live tweets from the session, I felt like I had just enough knowledge of Dave, his work, and the larger technical/cultural issues to be able to follow along. I was fascinated to learn more about Dave’s role in the tech community, including the way his stubborn insistence on certain core principles had earned him both respect and rejection. Personality aside (though this tribe is certainly personality-rich–I’m often reminded of the movie Real Genius around here, and one of the participants in this session looked exactly like Kevin Smith’s “Warlock” character in Live Free, Die Hard), Dave’s core principles were, by consensus, largely correct and consistently prescient, if one accepts the idea of a free and open Internet as a good thing (I certainly do, and the folks in the room did too). RSS beat Atom because RSS was good enough. While others debated standards, Dave developed RSS enclosures, teamed up with ex-MTV VJ Adam Curry, and made podcasting a vital force in the cybersphere. Dave’s idea of the “river of information” actually predicted the world in which we now live, where the experience of reading a constant feed informs the core experience of Facebook (even though all acknowledged that Facebook was not a model of a free and open Internet). The idea of a personal cyberinfrastructure (my term) that came up as a “local server for poets” went by very quickly and I didn’t get the reference, though it seems to be like the ideas Dave was expressing in his “Let’s Build A New Internet In Academia,” where he argues, correctly in my view, that “Every student should at least have a chance to manage their own infrastructure.” (I would add to this that the creation and management of that infrastructure should not only be viewed as creating and managing a tool, but envisioning and displaying a kind of cognitive architecture, a network that is also an artifact.) Two other impressions I took away from this session: this conversation has been going on a long time, and the participants were all acutely aware of the history and had in fact contributed extensively to it (another way of saying I was visiting another tribe, one I’ve tried to participate in with my distant, crab-wise, oblique strategies); and that there was a sense of nostalgia in the room for the more robust days of the late 90s through the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, a time when folks were blogging furiously about all the new modes of interaction coming online just as Web 2.0 kicked in fully. The folks in the room, most of whom looked quite young to me, talked about new developers who had “the arrogance of youth” and were busy reinventing mainstays like blogging in their own image. They spoke admiringly of this new generation, but also noted they “could teach them something, could help mentor them.” Not for the first time I was reminded how quickly Internet years pass, and how much has happened in just the nine years since I started on my own path in edtech. Part of the session’s praise of Dave Winer had to do with his stubborn persistence as a blogger–he just keeps talking, and never gives up. (I have taken this to heart.) Much more to say about this session–I felt like an elderly anthropologist, but also like a kid listening to the grownups talk about the old days. A strange mixture to be sure.
Session Two: “The Future of Reading,” led by Linda Holliday. This session was the most disturbing of the day for me, and I need to unpack it at much greater length. Here’s the short version. Many people in the group thought the purpose of reading serious nonfiction was to get the “ideas” from the text, and that books would be better if one could skip all the “narrative” parts (remember, we’re still talking about nonfiction here) and just get those “ideas.” The use case was Kevin Kelly’s new book What Technology Wants. Apparently Kevin writes his books by putting Post-It notes everywhere with his sources, ideas, etc. Then he connects those thoughts and sources with a narrative thread running through a long monograph. But wouldn’t it be better, the session asked, if we could just skip the “narrative thread” part and just get the original Post-It notes of “ideas.” I keep putting that word in quotation marks because, as I argued in that session, the notion of context-and-narrative-free “ideas” really didn’t match with my idea of ideas, which includes the richness of context and all the associative trails, as Vannevar Bush would say, that formed that web of context. There was more talk about how attention spans were shrinking and we needed ways for books to accommodate that fact. I of course think that we should be militating against shrinking attention spans (if they are in fact shrinking).
I’m all for exploring new forms of writing and publishing. The demo of Citia I saw was genuinely interesting: it reminded me of HyperCard and had very intriguing functionality with respect to highlighting, annotating, and storing favorite parts. Yet when the talk turned to “giving people what they want,” and what they want appeared to be a mere set of bullet points or sound bites instead of the rich experience of cognitive engagement shared by author and reader, I found myself increasingly disturbed. Skimming, sound bites, bullet points, dessicated and contextless “ideas”? At times it sounded as if I were hearing the reinvention of No Child Left Behind as a strategy for marketing books. One person (I’m not trying to call anyone out by name here) noted that she just couldn’t read the elaborate Victorian prose of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and wished there were a more modern rendering available of “just the main and original ideas.” “Like a Cliff’s Notes,” another person chimed in, without a trace of irony. I confess I was appalled. We’re talking about losing the ability to appreciate and understand a wide variety of expressive strategies in language–and treating the 19th century as if it were Chaucer’s Middle English. Another person talked about how hard it was to read Shakespeare. Admittedly, there is indeed a language barrier there, but there are also many helps to get one to a more skilled reading of the original text. This person appeared to want the helps alone, and was ready to give up on understanding the originals. I could hear Joe Friday in my mind, repeating “Just the facts” over and over, as if facts derive or communicate meaning in the absence of context. Again, I must emphasize that the platform I saw was intriguing, and I fully agree that we need multiple modes of reading and communication. The bound volume made of dead trees is not the gold standard by any means. But the argument I was hearing wasn’t so much about formats or modes of expression so much as it was about what seemed to me to be an Evelyn Wood approach to skimming rich expressivity in search of brief, declarative sentences that would fit on the electronic equivalent of an index card, all in the name of saving us time and catering to our busy modern lifestyles. One participant did ask “what about the synthesis an author provides?” but that question didn’t really get answered, at least in my hearing. Jeepers. I wasn’t the only one pushing back here, but it did seem to me that I must experience and value reading in a way that’s very different from the other folks in this session. I found that disturbing.
Lunch: I had an interesting conversation with folks about education and analogous strategies for organizational motivation and productivity. When folks at the table asked what I did, I replied “I’m an English professor.” The fellow to my right said, “are you sure you’re at the right conference?” To which the only answer is, oh yes. One very interesting fellow across from me had the Christmas Story “Fragile” leg tattooed on his arm. I found this very charming. One of the great things about FOO Camp for me is seeing how far people are willing to go to assert their status as mavericks.
Session Three: After SOPA/PIPA, what? Led by Catherine Bracy. Here the basic question emerged of whether the recent (partially) successful defense of the open free Internet should be extended to other human rights questions such as prison reform. Should we try to encourage free Internet advocates to take up other kind of advocacy as well? There was no consensus. A strong point was made that advocating freedom of speech was qualitatively different from using free speech to advocate various other policy issues. (This struck me as an interesting platform-vs.-application argument.) I found myself in sympathy with the hope that the Internet community could rally to other causes as well, while at the same time believing, like Milton in Areopagitica, that disagreements and the “hewing of timbers” were not only inevitable but desirable in an open exchange of ideas, and the openness of that exchange is a different matter from the direction or conclusions of that exchange. Still, I recognize that these are very complex questions.
At one point, I raised the question of education: I argued we should be teaching the basic architecture of the Internet, and the values that informed its development, as part of civics lessons in middle school. I challenged the group to come up with three Top Reads they’d recommend to anyone who wants to know why a free and open Internet was created and why it matters. What emerged was John Barlow’s “Declaration on the Independence of Cyberspace” and Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (I asked, “the whole thing?”). Perhaps there was one more–the discussion was getting a bit chaotic by that time, veering from lobbying to expert testimony to the question of whether democracy could really scale to 300 millions citizens. I didn’t get much traction with my challenge, in the end, though there was general agreement that a democracy depends on an educated citizenry, not just a bullied and manipulated and influenced citizenry. There were also interesting arguments about whether Congress was venal or simply clueless–many argued the latter. The limits of the apolitical and the political were also discussed, indirectly.
Session Four: Invisible Economies and the clothesline paradox. Led by Tim O’Reilly. Taking his point of departure from an essay in Stewart Brand’s “Coevolution Quarterly,” Tim asked us to help him capture examples of new monetized Internet economies as well as unrecognized economies born of the Internet whose values are not yet being tracked or measured, values that could play a role in new kinds of economies. The ideas are much more complex than I could possibly summarize here. Luckily, Tim’s been working on this idea in other venues, and Ethan Zuckerman has a very helpful and articulate account of Tim’s recent visit to the MIT Media Lab, where he discussed many of the same ideas he did yesterday at FOO Camp. Tim’s obviously stepping back at FOO Camp so this doesn’t become the O’Reilly show, and I certainly respect him for that. Still, it was great to be in that session with him and to be in contact with a mind and spirit I’ve got such tremendous respect and admiration for.
Session Five: The Quantified Mind–self-hacking to get greater cognitive gains. Led by Jeremy Howard. Jeremy told the story of learning Chinese as a cognitive performance experiment, and revealed that the CIA actually maintains a list of languages rated by their level of difficulty for Westerners. (Who knew?) In his learning, Jeremy did an experiment, and used a feedback program called Anki, a program like another, older program called “Super Memo,” to let him know what times of day, and what circumstances, led to greatest effectiveness in memorization. Also discussed: Amazon’s spaced-repetition Kindle highlights, Memory Theatre, Treadmill Desks, and (my contribution) the growing field of neuroeducation as evidenced in “Mind, Brain, and Education,” which seemed of interest to Ze Frank, which of course gave me a good feeling, being a fan of his work and all. (I really am working hard to keep up the self-confidence and not be too dazzled by all the Folks I Am Meeting In Person. Bear with me.)
Session Six: How to Build Community. Led by Hank Green (of Nerdfighters and SciShow) and Ze Frank. Issues discussed: best practices in moderating forums, encouraging followers to become mindful contributors, community-as-action and not just community-as-aggregation, the relation between online communities and communities in physical space. At one point, Kathy Sierra told the story of Java City and their policy of “no dumb answers.” The idea was to encourage community by lowering the threshold to close-to-zero for folks who wanted to pitch in and contribute answers to the knowledge community (and to keep the Java Jocks from beating up on the newbies so severely, though the newbies had to earn their way up, too.) I thought this was a fantastic idea. Note that she didn’t say “no wrong answers.” Of course there are wrong answers. But the word “dumb” means “we’ll never get anything good out of you, and how dare you speak at all.” Very easy for a newbie to get that message (I don’t think I’m just projecting here). When the idea of a “dumb answer” is taken off the table, we get to that sweet spot where we can talk about learning, about failing early and often, instead of about whether one deserves a seat at the table.
Session Seven: Debate about Academic Research. This was a corker. On one side the flip chart said “Academic Research Rocks.” The defenders: Arvind Narayanan and Hadley Wickham. The other flip chart read “Academic Research Sucks,” and the defenders were Anthony Goldbloom and Pete Warden. Issues discussed and questions entertained: Value of long-term long-range no-immediate-payoff work vs work driven by immediate competitive gains. On the other hand, value of more rapid churn vs entrenched self-certifying self-validating work that never answers to any real-world goals. The problem of academic writing (dry and colorless, with meaningless bans on using “I” that crush imagination–Pete Warden brought this up and I went into a sympathetic rant–sorry, but I hate writing pedants and the little red pens they rode in on, and hate is strong word). The problem of fear and loathing in academia, top to bottom. Altmetrics. How to recognize value of blogs, etc. One of the participants, as it turns out, was Josh Greenberg of the Sloan Foundation, who’s funding work of Altmetrics folks at UNC-CH SILS. Excellent. Need to communicate findings of scientists, etc. with public. No real mention of humanities scholars aside from Tim Carmody, who got his Ph.D. in comparative literature. (The problem of research in the humanities is a huge problem, as is increasingly apparent to me. Clark Kerr helped me understand the scientific-grant-driven multiversity, and I’m beginning to understand how humanities scholars have effectively removed their own reason-for-being by doing nothing but epistemology games. Generally speaking.)
There was also considerable discussion of whether researchers should be teachers, or whether there was any relationship between teaching and research. Andrew Downey of Olin College observed that undergraduate education was in a parlous state. Point well taken. Was tenure to blame? This is less clear to me. Again, the humanities simply did not figure in the argument in any meaningful way. Yet the humanities, among other things, help us understand the history, process, and possibilities of making meaning. I do not agree with my colleagues at Baylor University (most of them in the Great Texts program) who believe that scientists are soulless mechanics who desperately need a grounding in philosophy, ethics, and religion (presumably this would keep them humble? from doing science if it seemed irreligious? I never could figure this out). At the same time, the humanities do seem to me to have an important contribution to make to the ongoing process of human ingenuity in the sciences. I think poetry is exceptionally important in this regard, largely for the same reasons Bret Victor explores visual representation at his astounding website, though Bret’s work is so far beyond anything I can execute that I can only stand back and point, usually slack-jawed. Even with a slack jaw, though, I sense some resonances. I hope so.
At the end of the session on academics, I delivered myself rather strongly of my rather strong opinion that not only were most structures, processes, and practices in education ineffectual, but also that many of them were in fact unethical. The leaders of the session adjourned on that note–to my chagrin.
One thing that must be said: I think Hadley Wickham is exactly right to say that the onus is on the tenure candidate (or academician generally) to see to it that his or her work is maverick enough to be personally satisfying, no matter what the consequences–while at the same time trying one’s best to make it understandable to those who would like to support it. I could wish for much more collegial support, especially when the project doesn’t make sense; as I re-read The Dream Machine, I’m reminded of how many mavericks in the early computer age were simply blocked, stymied, or otherwise thwarted by dimbulbs and hostile forces in the academic bureaucracy above them. I cordially despise the ritual hazing and obligatory snarky adversarial interaction that characterizes much of academia (I’ll be taking up that topic in a subsequent blog post, now in draft). But Hadley’s right. Academics shouldn’t claim to be victims when the opportunity to do great self-defining work is theirs, at least for awhile. Many people don’t get that much of an opportunity. I’m reminded of my dear colleague Shelli Fowler’s beautifully relentless emphasis on agency. We do get to choose. Yes we do.
I then had a very stimulating dinner conversation with Stacey Aldrich, state librarian of California. Ridley Scott, prison libraries, futurists, archives. She approached me by saying “you’re the teacher, right?” Yes, I am. A lovely talk ensued. I hope our paths will cross again. The world needs (many) more futurist librarians, and librarian futurists. That Stacey was at FOOCamp gives you an idea of how eclectic and farsighted the roster can be–though of course that also means at least one runt may get in (namely me).
Ignite FOO Camp followed dinner. You can see a 360 panorama of some of the attendees by Rachel Sklar here. There were inspiring, funny, provocative talks on taxes, financial meltdowns, Boxie the robot, Einstein’s Brain (Steven Levy), and turning aid to Africa into Made In Africa. The whole thing was streamed live on Google+. It was great to be there, but I would have had a better seat in front of a PC/Mac screen–that’s me on the floor in Rachel’s photo, looking thoughtful and trying to see around a column.
I was psyched to attend the session on MOOCs planned for the 9 p.m. slot after the Ignite talks, but the room was dark when I got there. Seems that Saturday night was calling. I did get to meet Andrew Ng and speak with him briefly. I am deeply curious about Coursera and will be following its progress closely. (It was an honor to meet Andrew–I wish I’d had a chance to hear him talk.)
Two other bits of serendipity. I got to meet Bret Victor, whose worrydream.com site is one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen on the web, ever. Jon Udell turned me on to this wonder, and I felt very fortunate indeed to meet Bret and shake his hand there on the breezeway of the O’Reilly campus. It was hard not to gush so I didn’t even try. He was shy but very cordial and asked about my work as well. I hope there’s a longer conversation in our future. I’d love to bring him to Virginia Tech for a talk. Stay tuned.
The other bit was that Dave Winer himself tweeted something kind about FOO Camp, and I responded immediately with a “wish you were here!” He seemed to appreciate that. It was great to make contact, however briefly, with someone whose work has informed everything I’ve tried to do over the last eight years in the edtech domain. I felt I had been able to say “thanks,” and being able to do that always means a lot to me.
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