Personal, Not Private

What do we know, but that we face
One another in this place?

W. B. Yeats, “The Man and the Echo”


I spend a lot of time talking to academics about social media. I field many frequently asked questions and try to speak to many frequently voiced objections. Sometimes the effort is exhausting or even exasperating, particularly when the questions are really objections in disguise. Answers aren’t much use in that case. Other times, however, useful distinctions may emerge–useful to me, at least, and perhaps to others as well.

One of the typical questions has to do with how “personal” social media are, and how troubling that can be for academics. First, I have to unpack “social media” a bit, and begin to distinguish between blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest. These are all “social media,” yes, but they are very different in practice, with different challenges and opportunities. After these distinctions, though, I’m still faced with the core question: what’s valuable about the personal element in these media? Why should I care? And why should I make myself vulnerable by sharing my personal life with the world?

There are many implications and assumptions hidden in the questions. Those who want to cleanse discourse of the personal seem to assume that “personal” means “irrelevant to anyone else,” or “ephemeral,” or “trivial.” The classic example is “what I had for breakfast.” (I’m on the wrong networks, obviously, as I myself don’t see breakfast tweets or blog posts or Facebook status updates.) Yet there’s also a thread of fear in these dismissals and objections, a fear or even a defiance that I acknowledge and take seriously. In this sense, “personal” also means “none of your business,” and “too dangerous to share.”

So I’ve begun to distinguish “personal” from “private.” The idea is that “private” means “don’t share on social media.” “Private” belongs to you, and you should always be vigilant about protecting your privacy. Without privacy, our agency is diminished, perhaps eliminated. Without privacy, we cannot generate or sustain the most intimate bonds of trust. Without privacy, our personhood is at risk.

But what of the personal, as opposed to the private? I believe the words are not synonyms. Instead, I believe private is a subset of personal.

I think those aspects of the person that are not private not only can be shared but ought to be shared. This is what we mean when we tell writers they should find their own voices. This is what we mean when we say we seek to “know as we are known,” as Parker Palmer insists. This is what we mean when we talk about “integration of self,” when we speak of our concern for “the whole person.” It is only when we bring the personal (not the private) to our discourse that we understand the rich complexity of individual being out of which civilization is built–or out of which it ought to be built. The personal keeps our organizations from becoming mere machines. The personal preserves dignity and community. The personal brings life to even the most mundane and repetitive operational tasks. We neglect or conceal the personal (not the private) at our peril.

I tell my students that I have only two rules for us in our work together: “passion encouraged; civility required.” The passion is always personal, as is the civility. The forbearance we show each other within our civility is a personal respect for the other, which also means a respect for the complexities of their privacy, complexities hinted at, though not made visible, primarily through the extent to which we share our personhood.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “person” offers many fascinating definitions, but the salient one for what I’m exploring here is definition 3a:

The self, being, or individual personality of a man or woman, esp. as distinct from his or her occupation, works, etc.

 

The personal is who we are “as distinct from [our] occupation, works, etc.” Our occupation and works are the result of effort, luck, ability, connections, a whole host of purposeful and chance occurrences. But we are not defined by our works and occupation. We are defined by something larger and more elusive, and more dynamic too. Sharing that larger, more elusive, and more dynamic aspect of selfhood is valuable, reminding ourselves and those around us that all of us are more than we appear to be in any particular transaction or encounter. Such reminders encourage humility. They also encourage a kind of exhilarating anticipation, as one never knows which humble or exalted personage may be one’s unmet friend, an angel to entertain unawares.

Sharing the personal, as distinguished from oversharing the private, means engaging with personhood in all its messy and glorious complexity, and all its potential, too. If, as Jon Udell reminds us, “context is a service we provide for each other,” the context is not merely informational, nor is it about matters that should remain private.

It is personal.

Cycle Rider

Photo by “Seb” (el_seppo).

The Road to Digital Citizenship VII: Patterns and Understanding

This post concludes the series I started publishing last Monday. I hope to write an epilogue soon in which I reflect at somewhat greater length on what I wrote two years ago. (Contrary to widespread belief, reflection often disrupts more than it consolidates–see for example Hamlet.) For now, reading over these words, I find my sense of urgency has grown, not diminished. More than ever, I believe we must empower those whom Seymour Papert calls Yearners.

More than ever, I believe that the first college or university that finds it way to a deep understanding of Alan Kay’s beautiful aphorism, “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas,” and can nurture the playfully serious courage to let that understanding pervade its communal life, will have accomplished something of extreme importance for the public good.

As for my confidence that higher education can rise with these challenges–well, it depends on the day you ask me.

I sincerely hope these thoughts have been helpful, or at least usefully provocative. My thanks once again to Virginia Tech for providing the opportunity to write them. For further context and exploration, please see the Task Force on Instructional Technologies’ full report, featuring the work of many contributors.


The task is the same now as it ever has been, familiar, thrilling, unavoidable: we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity.
–Janet Murray, “Inventing the Medium”

A pattern emerges within all this discussion, a fractal pattern of similar principles and conceptual frameworks. We can identify this pattern with the help of Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which traces significant innovation and invention over the long sweep of human history. His conclusion is that combination and recombination of what he calls “the adjacent possible” fuels growth and innovation. The principle is the same as for emergence, and as difficult to imagine: network effects that appear in a macrostate are not yet visible in a single instance or microstate. One cannot have a flock of bird. Yet knowing that, we can begin to understand the possibilities of self-stimulating, self-organizing structures, and can begin to build platforms in which the range and number of adjacent possibles are increased and best positioned for success.

wesch_rethink

Committees are often called “graveyards for good ideas.” At their best, however, committees are excellent platforms for emergence. The most exciting and productive instance of the adjacent possible is two trusting and inventive colleagues in conversation with each other. If the extraordinary success of the Internet and the Web has taught us anything, it’s that conversations within networked, interactive computing environments can scale and generate an emergent “wealth of networks” far beyond our expectations.  Going forward, we can design such an environment by awakening the digital imagination, empowering faculty, staff, and students as digital citizens, and creating “hubs” or “nodes” of conversation that are linked internally and externally in a network of innovation. Whether we call this network a “skunk works” or a flotilla of pirate ships, we must empower this network not only to invent but to reinvent. If we are to create and innovate within the extraordinary disruption of the digital age, we must not insulate ourselves from disruption, for that would be to reject the global conversation itself. We must build curricula, learning environments, learning opportunities, and organizational structures that foster the capacity for collaboration and self-surprise within a framework of shared values and goals.

As it happens, interactive computing was invented for that very purpose: to symbolize and share the richness of cognition. Douglas Engelbart, the father of interactive computing, wrote these stirring words in the essay that would eventually launch the Internet itself, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”:

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

No self-respecting institution of higher learning would neglect these principles, as they are the foundation of educating our citizens for maximum agency and contribution to a democracy, a form of government that is itself a model for reinvention of the kind we are discussing here.

MIT’s Seymour Papert devoted his career to the idea that interactive computing offered a new mode of experiential learning. In 1993, he published a book titled The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer. In this magisterial and also deeply personal work, Papert distinguishes “Schoolers” from “Yearners.” “Schoolers” are surprised and even indignant about the need for “megachange.” By contrast, Papert writes, Yearners “do not say, ‘I can’t imagine what you could possibly be looking for,’ because they have themselves felt the yearning for something different.” If Virginia Tech is to invent the future, it must empower its Yearners. It must help to awaken their digital imaginations, give them the tools, responsibilities, and freedoms of digital citizens, and help them build platforms to support and foster emergence despite the risks and failures along the way. Only some of the obstacles to inventing the future are technological. Most are cultural. Here too Papert’s insights are instructive:

My overarching message to anyone who wishes to influence, or simply understand, the development of educational computing is that it is not about one damn product after another (to paraphrase a saying about how school teaches history). Its essence is the growth of a culture, and it can be influenced constructively only through understanding and fostering trends in this culture.

Thus a task force on instructional technology inevitably becomes a task force on institutional mission and culture. The difference, of course, is the difference computers make. Surveying the landscape and visible horizons of a digital world as digital citizens with a fully awakened digital imagination, we may plausibly conclude that computers, properly understood, can make all the difference indeed.

The Road to Digital Citizenship VI: Organization: Small Pieces Loosely Joined

What made all these things [the emerging technologies of interactive computing] work so well is that they were empty inside. Almost skeletal. Hard to believe there isn’t more to it. I asked one of my mentors how this could be and he said it has to be that way. If it’s complex it can’t work until it’s empty. These days we have another way to describe this, my friend and former colleague David Weinberger called it Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. I’ve never heard a better description of the architecture of the Internet.
–Dave Winer,
Let’s Build A New Internet In Academia

Can we build a Meta University within universities as well as among them? Any university that wants to be a leader in the digital world must do so. The most effective contributions to this Meta University will come from those institutions that walk the walk within their own structures. That is, the organizational structures that will most effectively invent the future and lead education into a new millennium will be those in which the organizational structures are themselves “accessible, empowering, dynamic,” those that are “communally constructed framework[s] of open materials and platforms.”

We know we need robust infrastructure: high-capacity, high-bandwidth connections, both wired and wireless, and ubiquitous throughout the campus’s physical spaces; flexible, reconfigurable learning environments; support for faculty, staff, and students; easily accessible and navigable digital repositories, and so on. We can identify these needs fairly readily, even if we do not yet know how we will design or support the resources that meet them. Once again, however, the real challenge is cultural. In addition to specific goals like the ones enumerated above, the organizational subcommittee consistently uses words like “flexibility,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “integrating,” and most challenging of all, “nurture and develop.” These are words that point to attitudes and values. These are cultural words. How can we inculcate such a culture at a large research university with over 3,000 faculty and over 30,000 students, plus staff and administration?

Once again, we should look for a guiding principle to the Internet itself, in particular the World Wide Web. In “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” (www.smallpieces.com), his classic work on the design and organizing function of the Web, David Weinberger writes, “the Web gets its value not from the smoothness of its overall operation but from its abundance of small nuggets that point to more small nuggets.” The challenge for an organization, then, is to identify those nuggets, teams, and services that provide real value and organize them not into a tight structure but into a set of flexible, networked links: small pieces loosely joined.

Large organizations function in almost the opposite way: huge pieces tightly joined, or perhaps even worse, huge pieces completely disconnected from each other. The challenge is one of communication within a structure that empowers each person to create links among the small pieces loosely joined. Again we must ask, where are these conversations possible (answer: everywhere), and how can we foster them? Ironically, task forces and special committees are often the first time people from clearly interdependent areas come together to voice their perspectives and articulate common goals. Here leaders in the Registrar’s Office share their hopes and frustrations with leaders from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, or with leaders from IDDL or CIDER. Here the conductor of a laptop orchestra brainstorms with an education researcher, the dean of undergraduate studies, and the chief information officer. We must instantiate these conversations more regularly and widely. Such conversations not only generate solutions and ideas, but also identify and begin to link those small pieces loosely joined. Again, leadership is key. A task force clearly signals the priority and urgency the institution has given to the conversation. To stimulate more of these conversations, we will need more such assignments, more such signals from our leadership.

The Macintosh team, pirates all.

Macintosh Pirates

We have already seen how Google sends these signals to its employees. It’s instructive also to recall Apple’s beginnings. When it came time to design the Macintosh, a group physically relocated to another building on the Apple campus and literally flew a pirate’s flag from the rooftop. When the Macintosh was finished, the first ones included reproductions of the signatures from the entire project team inside the case of the machine.

mac_signatures

Metaphorically speaking, our approach to organizational structures for 21st- century digital leadership must be one in which talented, committed workers have the chance to be pirates (i.e., innovate dramatically, even radically) as well as the chance to sign their work, even if only they will know the signatures are there. Instead of silos, we must build platforms for invention and reinvention. The “wealth of networks” described by Yochai Benkler can emerge among us if those platforms are fundamentally platforms for conversation, and if that conversation is encouraged to imagine and embrace risk for the sake of renewal and invention.

The Road to Digital Citizenship V: The Case for Digital Citizenship

To understand is to invent.
–Jean Piaget

We rightly think of citizenship in terms of nations, but there’s a deeper meaning that’s especially important in our interconnected, global, digital world. The citizen is the one who enjoys the privileges and duties of freedom. Freedom, in turn, depends on agency, self-efficacy, a sense of one’s own power to make effective choices and realize one’s fullest potential. To do so in a digital age requires an expanded notion of citizenship. Becoming a digital citizen means one can experience effective agency and self-determination in one’s culture—and culture increasingly comes in the plural as time and distance are no longer barriers to free and fluid communication. Indeed, one’s “cultures” increasingly implies a significant portion of “one’s planet.” To have the freedom of this realm, one must become a digital citizen. Once the digital imagination is awakened, the goal of digital citizenship can be reached.

To get to this level, however, colleges and universities must finally abandon notions of one-size-fits-all that have dominated our notions of scaling and access for over a century. The digital age permits mass customization. The culture of a school can look much more like New York City and much less like The Mall Of America. Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and formerly of a sister school to our north, George Mason University), has argued that human behaviors exist on a continuum that can be described by three points: sleeping, eating, and bonding. Sleeping is very nearly one-size-fits-all. Eating is much more varied and personal. Bonding is extraordinarily complex, personal, and almost bewilderingly varied (as any parent of a teenager in love can testify). Dede observes that we treat learning like sleeping, yet everything we know about learning suggests it is really much more like bonding. “Yet the very best of our high-end learning environments have about as much variety as a bad fast-food restaurant,” he concludes. (An expanded discussion of Dede’s point may be found here.)

To get to the variety, depth, and complexity of true learning, then, we must commit to the mass customization that the digital age makes possible. We cannot and should not do that work for our students. We should empower their awakened digital imaginations to do that work for themselves, as a powerful opportunity not only for self-expression but also for metacognitive and critical reflections on their own identities and purposes as students. We should not hand them a portfolio made up of pre-formed data buckets. We should instead challenge them to build their own personal cyberinfrastructures, iteratively developing them as their concepts deepen, their knowledge broadens, and their imaginations flourish. We should challenge them not to “manage” their learning, as the term “learning management system” implies, but boldly to lead their learning lives within their degree work and far beyond it.

A map of the Internet. Original Image from Opte.Org (cc license), edited by www.ethicalmedia.com

We must also empower students to understand the way the global digital network operates and what it makes possible. Just as we buy our own houses without applying for permission to a state “housing management authority” (let’s ignore for the moment that a mortgage does involve an application), so we can register a domain, subscribe to a hosting service, install open-source software, and begin to publish our thoughts and dreams to the world without having to have even the FCC-third-class-license-with-broadcast-endorsement one had to have to be a disc jockey back in the day. To quote Clay Shirky, it’s as if every book came with a free printing press. Just as in the days of the printing press, there are many worries about authority, authenticity, intellectual property, and sheer volume of information. These complaints emerged within a few decades of Gutenberg’s invention. Yet we do not rely on a National Committee To Screen And Filter Books for our self-directed learning within this abundance of conversation. We educate our youth and ourselves to read and write with facility and discernment. Likewise, we must empower our students as digital citizens to make their contributions to the global conversations, and to establish the corner of the global network that will be their “Speaker’s Corner,” just like the corner in London’s Hyde Park where by tradition anyone can have their turn to speak—and thus to lead the next phase of the conversation.

It may be the case that students who are used to sitting in silence or distracting themselves with Internet snacks will be caught off guard when they are not told to put away their laptops but are instead encouraged and indeed expected to demonstrate their contributions to the digital age. They may recall that something is at stake here, and that their capacity as free men and women to create knowledge and find meaning is a privilege not lightly to be discarded. Likewise, it may be that teachers (and staff, too) who are used to captive audiences will need to realign their goals and behaviors toward the free men and women, the digital citizens, who come to study with them. The old contract in which both students and faculty pledge to leave each other in peace in complacent stasis may become a new relationship in which both students and faculty are open and eager to building together as fellow digital citizens.

Build In The Future

Such a vision of digital leadership in our students’ and nation’s future will require strong leadership now, before we have all the knowledge we would like to have to proceed. To put that another way, the leadership Virginia Tech must demonstrate to the world depends to a large extent on the willingness of its administrators, faculty, and staff to empower each other to risk failure. We all fear anarchy, and rightly so. There must at some level be the confidence that trains will run on time, for without that confidence, our lives are ruled by fear and anxiety (and our schedules are thrown into a cocked hat). Yet an on-time train going in the wrong direction is worse than useless. Likewise, a burnished and mechanically sophisticated Titanic on the bottom of the North Atlantic is a tragedy, not a monument.

From CIO magazine

The example of Google is instructive here. “Google Innovation Time Off” has become famous as a means of encouraging employee creativity and innovation (and thus leadership). 20% of the engineers’ work time can and should be spent on their own projects. Most famously, Gmail and AdSense emerged from “Innovation Time Off.” What is less well known is that Google Labs, the primary beneficiary of this innovation, courts just the kind of anarchy higher education would no doubt blanch at:

Google Labs is a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them. Please note that Labs is the first phase in a lengthy product development process and none of this stuff is guaranteed to make it onto Google.com. While some of our crazy ideas might grow into the next Gmail or iGoogle, others might turn out to be, well, just plain crazy.

Could we build a Google Labs for curriculum? For majors? For capstone or cornerstone courses (or projects, or experiences)? For departments? If our digital imaginations are awakened, if we have grown into the agency and self-efficacy of mature digital citizenship, and if our leaders are willing to underwrite (with political as well as financial capital) the failures and “just plain crazy” experiments that would result, perhaps Virginia Tech, like Google, would find itself the place where the most engaged and ambitious students are most eager to be. Google is not perfect by any means, but if you can imagine a digital environment in which we empower ourselves and our students to “launch their imaginations early and often,” to slightly modify another Google mantra, then you can imagine a Virginia Tech that can truly lead in a comprehensive, integrative program of digital citizenship.

You don’t have to believe in the “singularity” to see the wisdom and the caution in this Ray Kurzweil quotation: “I’m an inventor. I became interested in long-term trends because an invention has to make sense in the world in which it is finished, not the world in which it is started” (emphasis added). The wisdom is clear, the caution perhaps less so. But consider the second half of that second sentence. The best, most prescient, most effective inventions will likely not be completely understood or even understandable when they are begun. The true innovators among our digital citizens who invent the future will need the patronage and courage of leaders who are not afraid to confront their own lack of understanding and who can live with the paradoxical certainty that the “unknown unknown” is where the richest innovations will come from.

As a thought experiment, imagine explaining to a medieval king who prides himself on not needing to know how to read that a day will come when mass literacy empowers citizens worldwide. Imagine explaining to an alpha-male executive in the early 1960s that a day will come when not knowing at least the rudiments of typing will likely disqualify an applicant from obtaining an executive position. Imagine explaining Twitter, or YouTube, or blogging, to the world of 1995, a time when many people loudly insisted that no one would ever do something as foolish as enter a credit card number in a form on a Web page. Virginia Tech has a proud tradition of invention and innovation. We likely believe we would welcome the next Jeff Bezos and empower him to invent the next Amazon.com. Are we willing to provide that encouragement and those opportunities as part of our core curriculum? Can we imagine a Curriculum for Liberal Education that increases our students’ range of, and capacity for, sheer interest and curiosity, and empowers the exploration and expression of that curiosity within a digital context? If we cannot, we risk losing one of the most extraordinary educational opportunities humanity has ever encountered. Moreover, we shortchange both our students and ourselves. Not only our tagline but our very mission should steer us toward full and deep intellectual and creative engagement with the digital age.


POSTSCRIPT 2013

Alas, Google Labs is no more, a casualty perhaps of Steve Job’s advice, in my opinion misguided, that Google needed to “focus” and not have so many diverse points of interest. “More wood behind fewer arrows,” they say. Maybe that’s wise. Time will tell.

Google X Lab goes on, however, and what’s been described as its “moon-shot” ambitions resonate deeply with the ethos behind what I wrote above, two years ago. There is one key difference, however. Google X Labs are “top secret” and have been compared to the CIA. Our moon program, by contrast, was a peacetime civilian program that shared many of its activities openly. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo had their mysteries, of course, and when it comes to governments, there’s always cloak-and-dagger. But the history of humankind’s first steps on another world contains enough openness and idealism to have inspired an entire generation. I know. I was there. I watched, following along eagerly, dreaming.

We need a Google X Labs in higher education, but it must be open. The light of that inspiration, that hopeful ambition, must be shared. We do not seek a business advantage. We seek giant leaps, to encourage us to keep dreaming, to stay encouraged about our species, a species that wreaks such havoc but unites us in a family of shared aspirations and responsibilities and beautifully crafted symbols of our puzzling, extraordinary inner lives. We must work for a greater good even as we quarrel about what that is, companions through adventure and hardship.

 

The Road to Digital Citizenship IV: Fluency, Curriculum, Development

There have been numerous welcome curricular shifts in response to emerging cultural concerns over the last forty years, but no college or university has yet had the vision or courage to answer the call sounded in 1999 by the blue-ribbon Committee on Information Technology Literacy in their National Academy publication Being Fluent with Information Technology: “the committee believes that successful implementation of FITness [i.e., fluency in information technologies] instruction will require serious rethinking of the college and university curriculum.” Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Committee on Information Technology Literacy, Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington: National Academy Press, 1999.

This committee did not advocate another set of tacked-on requirements, but instead a curriculum in which students, faculty, and staff could awaken and exercise their digital imaginations, working together from matriculation to commencement as each new cohort appeared to explore the rich conceptual possibilities of the digital age. What John Harwood (CIO Penn State) calls “Learning 2.0” is about much more than content delivery, e-books, or articulation agreements. We need to consider a world in which we can and probably will move beyond the credit hour, course and term boundaries, and geographical location into a world in which creation and learning become synonymous. The irony is that we’ve long known that creation and learning are intimately related. We’ve had to meet challenges of access and cost by scaling up along fairly crude industrial models, turning education into an assembly line. But if the Internet has shown us anything, it’s shown us that a distributed, loosely coupled model of creation and communication networks can trigger network effects on a startling and unpredictable scale.

We should learn from the Internet itself what a learning community can be like. When a small dialogue box inviting 140 characters of commentary, an affordance introduced in 2006 called “Twitter,” can play an integral role in global events ranging from a U.S. President’s State of the Union Address (Twitter hashtag #sotu) to ongoing revolutions in the Middle East beginning with Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, we are witnessing a symbiosis of creation and learning that far outstrips any vision of academic transformation based on quadrupling class sizes and outsourcing grading and instruction to poorly-compensated adjuncts and paraprofessionals. But to understand and leverage these changes, we must attain to a far deeper understanding of the computer itself than we have yet attempted. We must understand computing the way we seek to understand language itself. We must awaken our digital imaginations. If Virginia Tech seizes this opportunity for leadership in this vital area, that leadership will demonstrate that the noble democratic vision embodied in the concept of the land-grant university is the true mother of accomplishment, and a far more sustainable and equitable engine of economic prosperity than any other vision has yet realized.

How might we begin? We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests. By making that process as public and open as possible, Virginia Tech will create and share not only educational resources, but the excitement and engagement of the Hokie educational experience itself.

"What I cannot create, I do not understand." Richard Feynman, Cal Tech

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” Richard Feynman, Cal Tech

In the same way, we cannot awaken students’ digital imagination without intensive development opportunities for faculty and staff that will inspire their digital imaginations as well. Much has been written about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” While there are significant differences in experience between an 18-year-old and mature adults who are (let us say) farther along in life’s journey, labels such as these tend to pigeonhole the young and excuse their elders from the necessity of learning this new language fluently. Faculty and staff are overworked, it’s true. Demands of teaching, research, service, and continued learning are enormous and seem only to grow as the years go by. The moral is therefore clear: a university committed to digital leadership must provide time, rewards, and recognition to encourage faculty and staff to pursue development opportunities. But there must be more. There must be a clear signal of institutional priorities from the presidential level through the various tenure and promotion committees all the way down to the departmental level. And there must be a move away from “training” and workshops into deep, authentic intellectual and experiential engagement with the conceptual frameworks underlying our digital age. Faculty respond much more readily to ideas, inquiry, and discussion than they do to “training.” The training/workshop model may get us to skills of a sort, but it leaves capabilities and especially concepts almost completely untouched. By contrast, seminars and inquiry groups begin with the conceptual framework and do their work by means of deep, playful, and creative intellectual encounters. The “deliverable” should be a whole new mind, to borrow the title of Dan Pink’s book—a changed perspective on the digital world, as well as a renewed sense of curiosity and commitment to exploring its many wonders.

And what about staff development? It should be no different than the opportunities afforded faculty. Indeed, some of the richest, most diverse, most silo-busting and collaborative seminars are those in which faculty and staff learn and grow side-by-side, establishing synergistic partnerships that can transform entire schools and build strong, enduring networks of trust, respect, and encouragement.

C. P. Snow famously wrote of the two cultures of science and the humanities, and the great and widening divide between them. In many respects, the divide is just as wide between faculty and staff. Privileges rightly reserved for each community have contributed to an unhealthy and unwise separation of each group’s vital insights from the other’s. Often staff cannot understand or easily accept the flexibility of time and focus professors enjoy, let alone such concepts as tenure or “professor emeritus.” Sadly, many professors treat staff as lackeys to do their bidding, and cannot understand or easily accept the rich and essential insights staff bring to the learning community, or the intellectual weight of organizational life. Adjunct and other non-tenure-track professors seem to fall somewhere in between–or, as many would say, through the cracks entirely. Perhaps more mixed development opportunities emphasizing imagination and intelligence among both cultures can begin to ameliorate these unfortunate divisions.

The Road to Digital Citizenship III: Awakening the Digital Imagination

Part three of a series that began here.  Part two is here.

This time, there’s a postscript.


[Education] ought to teach and reward initiative, curiosity, the habit of self-motivation, intellectual involvement…. Educators and computer enthusiasts tend to agree on these goals. But what happens? Many of the inhumanities of the existing system, no less wrong for being unintentional, are being continued into computer-assisted teaching.
–Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” (1974)

Alan Kay, the enfant terrible of Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center and the father of the personal computer, once observed that the best way to predict the future was to invent it. There is a promise and a warning implicit in that observation. The promise is that we can build a future together. We are not simply the victims of technological determinism. The warning is that the future we get is only as good as the future we invent. In other words, we must nurture our powers of invention, powers that depend on the depth and strength of our imaginations. How can we do this in a digital context?

We must awaken the digital imagination. Despite numerous “information literacy” or “digital fluency” initiatives, typically in the form of “swimming test” requirements or other bolted-on initiatives, no college or university has yet articulated this goal in its appropriate depth and scope. When the Committee on Information Technology Literacy published its own vision of 21st- century education in Being Fluent with Information Technology (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999), it identified computing skills, capabilities, and concepts as the three essential areas higher education should attend to in its response to the digital age. So far, higher education has ignored the conceptual level almost entirely. As a result, students, faculty, and staff are much like the fish who don’t know they’re wet. We swim in an ocean of networked computers, but we do not have the conceptual frameworks we need to understand what that means or how to invent within it.

Yet those pioneers who invented the future we now inhabit understood the crucial role of the digital imagination in achieving the ultimate goal of augmenting human intellect. Early on, Alan Kay insisted that “a computer is an instrument whose music is ideas.” Not a faster typewriter or an information appliance,  but an instrument whose music is ideas. At Xerox PARC, Kay and his colleague Adele Goldberg wrote a widely influential essay titled “Personal Dynamic Media,” in which they recorded this essential observation:

[T]he ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active—it can respond to queries and experiments—so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation…. We think the implications are vast and compelling.
Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media,” 1977

Computing as an active metamedium. Computers as as “universal machines” with the peculiar ability to simulate and model any other machine. Software, an entirely new human invention that Fred Brooks, author of the classic The Mythical Man-Month, called “pure thought-stuff.” Perhaps not everyone needs to learn to program, but certainly everyone needs to understand the implications of this invention. To read the ambitions and excitement of the history of computing, from Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” to Tim Berners-Lee’s “The World Wide Web,” is to understand just how dramatically and wonderfully new this invention is, how extraordinary its promise, and how far we have fallen short of realizing that promise.

In 2010, Apple introduced the iPad and proclaimed another revolution. Many writers compared the iPad to Alan Kay’s original conception of the “Dynabook.” Kay, however, was not optimistic that the revolution he and his colleagues had so yearned for had in fact arrived:

One way to look at what we were doing is that we were trying to make new kinds of books, and telescopes and microscopes, etc., to advance “seeing and thinking”, but if you give a microscope to a monkey they only will hold it up to admire their reflection in the shiny brass barrel. And I think this is what happened. Education never got on the bus and the “augmentation of human intellect” (which is right there) got completely overwhelmed by the mirror effect….
Alan Kay, responding to Alan Levine’s blog post “The Dynabook Pad” http://cogdogblog.com/2010/10/17/the-dynabookpad/ on October 21, 2010.

We should not let any technology make monkeys out of us or our students. Indeed, education is among other things our uniquely human culture of making the most out of our peculiarly human characteristics. Yet the augmentation of human intellect within the metamedium of networked, interactive computing has not yet become a priority in any significant way within higher education.

It’s tough to go through a paradigm shift. When the earth moved from the still center of the universe to the moving orbit of a heliocentric cosmos, massive intellectual and social disruption ensued. When Hamlet was in its first run at the Globe Theatre, no one knew that a déclassé public entertainment on the wrong side of the Thames would one day be called the primary catalyst of modern self-awareness. Note, however, that in both instances those who were agile and committed enough were able to be among the first not only to enjoy the fruits of these discoveries and accomplishments, but also those who could successfully exercise their own agency and creativity within the rapidly changing context.

Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi. Designed with Building Information Modeling software (BIM), now available for iPad. Photo contributed by Dr. Jack Davis.


POSTSCRIPT 2013: I still think that “awakening the digital imagination” is a far subtler and more complex task than is generally realized, at least on the order of discursive fluency in reading and writing. Going forward, I’d say it’s also at least that important. How long until we take seriously (and playfully, and creatively) the task of educating citizens to understand that “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas”? We will pay a heavy price for this neglect. It’s not too late to change.

Lately I tried to describe “my work,” something I always find difficult because my projects and interests are pretty diverse. To my surprise, what popped out had my digital imagination efforts front and center. Here’s how it read:

I am a teacher, researcher, administrator, writer, speaker, musician, podcaster, audio engineer, and FOO Camper. For the last five years, I have built a set of open networks of learning and metacognition, made primarily of meetings and social media, and centered on readings that trace the philosophies informing the technical and conceptual architectures of networked, interactive, personal computing. Our primary anthology is The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003). Working in fractal, recursive patterns of looping self-similarity, I have created and refined two courses of study. One is a class that has been at various times a first-year seminar, an upper-level English elective, and a cross-listed undergraduate/graduate course: “From Memex to YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet.” The Spring, 2012 class’s aggregated blogs are here: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/vtclis12. Of special note is the work of the class’s “meta-team,” who analyzed and synthesized the class’s work throughout the course. Their extraordinary final project is here: http://vtclis12.wix.com/insertcognitionhere.

The other course is a faculty-staff development seminar, “Awakening the Digital Imagination.” The aggregated blogs from Fall, 2012 are here: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/vtnmfs-f12. The faculty-staff group has the additional layer of being in a networked community of seminars at schools ranging from U.Cal.-Berkeley to Houston Community College. I have a deep slow hunch that this networked seminar—a massive open online seminar—could provide a significant part of that self-sustaining meta-experience of learning, a true “ecology of mind” as Gregory Bateson puts it, that I yearn to nurture within school. I believe this networked seminar could also be a crucial breakthrough in digital citizenship for everyone involved in higher education.

I lead Virginia Tech’s Center for Innovation in Learning, funded by the offices of Undergraduate Studies, Graduate Studies, Newman Library, and Learning Technologies. (Another network.)  Current projects include the faculty-staff seminar above, the Honors Residential College blogging initiative (aggregated at blogs.lt.vt.edu/hrc), the VT Distinguished Innovator in Residence Program (see blogs.lt.vt.edu/innovator), an NSF grant exploring engineering as a liberal art, and separate faculty projects on altmetrics for scholarship, MOOCs, integrated science, and learning spaces.  I also direct the VT Faculty Development Institute, which I am trying to shift out of a computer training paradigm into a paradigm of computing as intellectual growth. I serve on the Advisory Board for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, and have served on the Advisory Board for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative as well as the Board of Directors of the New Media Consortium. I have an active public speaking schedule, averaging twenty-four major presentations per year over the last four years. And I continue to work as a scholar of John Milton.

You can see what drives my work, what forms its character, on my blog, “Gardner Writes” (www.gardnercampbell.net). My blog also contains the fullest record and best expression of my ideas and experiments in educational reform and innovation.

I believe that Alan Kay is correct that “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas.”  I seek to build what I call “real school” with that instrument and that music.

Alan Kay signs my New Media Reader

Alan Kay signs my New Media Reader. Instant preserved by Chip German.

 

The Road to Digital Citizenship II: The Case for Change

Second in a series begun here.


We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race.
–Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations (2008)

My personal view is we are observing the early emergence of the Meta University: a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced.
–Charles Vest, MIT, 2006. For an example of Vest’s vision, see the National Science Digital Library, as well as the Computing Portal.

We live in extraordinary times. The Internet began as a communications link to enable information-sharing and collaboration between universities, research centers, and other institutions of higher learning. The World Wide Web began for many of the same reasons. Both are now the primary means of communication on the planet, with an unprecedented speed, reach, and multimodal capacity born of the computer’s inherent property as a “universal machine,” a machine that can simulate or model any other machine. These advances have come within an astonishingly short time frame. Interactive computing is about fifty years old. The concept of personal computing emerged a little less than forty years ago, at a time when the notion of a personal computer seemed to many people as laughable and irrelevant as the idea of a personal Saturn V.  Within the last thirty years we have moved from slow desktop computers with dual floppy disk drives to powerful laptops to sophisticated smartphones that are essentially full-featured, always-connected pocket computers that also do telephony, audio-video recording and editing, and geolocation.  Adrian Cockroft (http://perfcap.blogspot.com/) believes that soon we will be carrying web servers around in our pockets, context-sensitive machines that can seamlessly link us to varied peripherals in settings ranging from offices to trains, planes, and automobiles—and everywhere in between.

This recent presentation by Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, makes the elements and character of these changes very clear:

 

As both Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) and W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology) have recently argued, the pace of technological innovation, and the often disruptive change it brings, will continue to increase, and the rate of increase will also increase. This now-familiar “hockey stick” graph is born of the essentially combinatorial nature of technological innovation. If we appreciate the implications of this rate of change, we can see that, barring a major global disaster and a concomitant loss of records and knowledge, we face both extraordinary challenges and unprecedented opportunities. Our challenge and indeed our duty as educators is to do the very best we can to help our students thrive as citizens of this new digital world, equipping them with skills and learning, yes, but also with the meta-tools of rich, flexible habits of mind that will enable them to face the challenge of adapting to these changes as well as to develop their own capacities of creativity, problem-solving and problem-finding, and persistent, rigorous inquiry for a lifetime of learning.

There is one analogously dizzying and wonderful rate of change in our experience: the everyday miracle of human intellectual development. With more potential neural connections than there are particles in the known universe, the human brain has evolved to be, in Norman Doidge’s words, “the brain that changes itself.” The brain’s meta-ability of self-shaping, of employing meta-cognition to direct its own growth and development over a lifetime, is even more remarkable than the technologies our brains have invented. Yet those technologies are now strikingly similar to our brains in their growth and, according to many thinkers, in their very nature. As Kevin Kelly writes, “Our technological creations are great extrapolations of the bodies that our genes build. In this way, we can think of technology as our extended body…. If technology is an extension of humans, it is not an extension of our genes, but of our minds. Technology is therefore the extended body for ideas.” Certainly that “extended body” has implications for our bodies as well as our minds. Our senses are extended and enlarged by instrumentation and by telecommunication technologies. Yet such extensions and enlargements emerge from conceptualizations, and inevitably privilege mentation (albeit embodied mentation).

Ray Kurzweil’s provocative graph of computing vs. neural capacity and power.

Given this increasing resemblance between our neural networks, our communications networks, and our technological networks, as well as the computers that have propelled our world into its increasingly complex and varied digital future, what we call “instructional technology” has become a medium of understanding and invention at the very center of the educational enterprise. What used to be supplemental devices are becoming as fluid and essential as language itself. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to say that we are witnessing the emergence of a new language, metaphorically speaking, a new meta-mode of representation as important as the emergence of the phonetic alphabet. As Ed Fox astutely observes:

A key part of going digital is using computing approaches along with enhanced efforts to build more complete, comprehensive, and useful models in all other disciplines, so we can represent processes, phenomena, and other aspects of reality. Having representations allows us to discuss, analyze, simulate, integrate, and engage in all types of related processing. (Unpublished correspondence.)

How then should we prepare students to engage with these possibilities and thrive within them as productive citizens in a digital age? We can and should survey technological trends. We should carry out the most intensive and imaginative research to discover how our learning environments can most effectively support not only current modes of learning, but modes we can only imagine. More than anything else, however, we must think carefully and creatively about what computers represent as tools for thought, to use Howard Rheingold’s phrase. We must build a curriculum and organization that are answerable to the cultural moment we have before us. Given our heritage as a public, land-grant university, we have a special mission to provide access to the resources of a digital age for as many learners as possible, as well as access to the high-quality education that will equip them to take full advantage of these resources as participants in a democratic society.

Virginia Tech’s tagline is not a description or a wish. It is an imperative: invent the future. What are the conceptual frameworks in our cultural moment that will best answer that imperative? How can curriculum, leadership, and organizational structures and practices prepare us for what we can see ahead as well as what we cannot? Current learning technologies as well as the technological landscape we see before us inform this consideration, but the focus is on underlying conceptual frameworks and organizational practices. Lists and inventories are helpful, of course, but the real challenge, as always, is cultural much more than technological—unless one considers culture a technology as well, one we can shape, like our brains, to permit and encourage further growth and development.

 

The Road to Digital Citizenship I: Invent the Future

Three sections follow, all related, implicitly.


Shakespeare often seems to me to be quoting himself. I once saw a stunning performance of The Tempest in which the director made certain scenes especially resonant by pointing out, in every way one can on the stage, the layers of internal reference, even obsession, this play demonstrates as it effectively ends Shakespeare’s long career.

Yet The Tempest is hardly unique in this regard. Many other Shakespeare plays pick up ideas, problems, hopes, and tragic repetitions in their corpus mates. One that’s always struck me comes in King Lear 5.2.8-12:

GLOUCESTER  No farther, sir: a man may rot even here.
EDGAR  What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on!
GLOUCESTER                  And that’s true, too. Exeunt

“Ripeness is all”: a compact, beautiful utterance in poetry. The note in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition, the edition from which I’m quoting, says “Compare Hamlet 5.2.160.” Let’s do that now.

HORATIO  If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
HAMLET  Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be.

For Hamlet, readiness is all, because of special providence–a divine care over even the tiniest of events, like the fall of a sparrow. His defiance is complete, stated in prose, ironclad. For Edgar, written into being by Shakespeare about four years after Hamlet, ripeness is all. Endurance is essential. Yet that defiant poetic ripeness, no less than Hamlet’s defiant prose readiness, is a call to action. “Come on!” And Gloucester replies, “That’s true, too.”

Why the too? Perhaps Shakespeare has Gloucester, a foolish but ultimately loving elder, affirm the mysterious blend of readiness and ripeness in any meaningful action. Perhaps this internal reflection, if it is one, can align with Doc Searls’ lovely and loving words at Aaron Swartz’ memorial service last week, as reported today by Dave Winer:

When you’re young you think life is a sprint.
When you’re older you see it’s a marathon.
And when you’re mature you see it’s a relay race.

To which I respond, in the spirit of Gloucester and the poet who brought him to life, we must be young, we must be older, we must be mature. Life is a sprint, and it is a marathon, and it is a relay race. All.


Almost two years ago, I arrived at Virginia Tech and was invited to contribute to the Task Force on Instructional Technology that had been meeting for several weeks already. My assignment was to provide a central statement that could serve as a spine, or a point of synthesis, for the work the committee was engaged in. Over the next seven days, I will be sharing the statement I wrote. Although the statement went through a vetting process and was formally accepted by the Dean of Undergraduate Studies and the Vice-President for Information Technologies, the two administrators who had commissioned the Task Force, the words are mine (aside from the people and materials quoted, of course), and I take responsibility for the ideas and their expression here.

I offer these words in the spirit of the #pdftribute that sprang up following Aaron’s death, as well as in the spirit of Dave Winer’s wise and troubling reflection “Why I Write.” The ideas will be familiar to those who have been following my work for some time. What’s different in this series is that I put many threads together in writing for the first time. I’m confident I’ve grown and learned a great deal since I wrote this. As time permits, I may offer additional commentary along the way. But the original words are here, just as they appear on the official Task Force site.

My thanks to Virginia Tech for the opportunity to write this statement.


The will to learn in an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its reward in its own exercise. The will to learn becomes a “problem” only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where a curriculum is set, students confined, and a path fixed. The problem exists not so much in learning itself, but in the fact that what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning–curiosity, a desire for competence, inspiration to emulate a model, and a deep sense of commitment to the web of social reciprocity. Our concern has been with how those energies may be cultivated in support of school learning.
–Jerome Bruner, Toward A Theory of Instruction (1966)

The aims and purposes of education demonstrate our most deeply cherished values, as well as our collective understanding of what it means to be human. Such values and understandings are no less powerful for being largely tacit. When we design our schools, however, we inevitably find that these values and understandings lead to conflicting ideas of how best to proceed, and with what ends in mind.

No single vision can decide these inevitable conflicts. Nevertheless, the guiding vision of a participatory democracy, our nation’s flawed and uneven and inspiring experiment in self-government, may at least suggest that maximizing human potential within a framework of tolerance and civic commitment can guide our many efforts to build the best educational experiences we can imagine. In The Culture Of Education (Harvard University Press, 1996), Jerome Bruner describes “mutual learning cultures” organized around principles of community and freedom, liberal learning and the specific competencies required to participate in the world of work:

Such classroom cultures are organized to model how the broader culture should work if it were operating at its best and liveliest and if it were concentrating on the task of education. There is mutual sharing of knowledge and ideas, mutual aid in mastering material, division of labor and exchange or roles, opportunity to reflect on the group’s activities. That, in any case, is one possible version of “culture at its best.” School, in such a dispensation, is conceived of both as an exercise in consciousness raising about the possibilities of communal mental activity, and as a means for acquiring knowledge and skill. The teacher is the enabler, primus inter pares.

Such a vision of “culture at its best” informs the founding of this nation at a very deep level.

Benjamin Franklin

One of the most important participants in that vision was Benjamin Franklin. A printer, publisher, artisan, scientist, writer, diplomat, and politician, Franklin was also, in biographer Walter Isaacson’s words, ““a consummate networker with an inventive curiosity” who “would have felt right at home in the information revolution.” Franklin also stands for the fascinating blend of worldly success and innovative genius that our schools seek to empower among our citizens. To have “Benjamins” on hand is a necessary part of American life. Work and success are important, to be sure.

BenjaminsYet it is even more important to be a Franklin, metaphorically and etymologically speaking:

OED_Franklin As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, to be a “franklin” is to be a freeholder, a liberal host, a citizen with the freedom of the domain. The digital age offers opportunities of unprecedented depth and reach for participation in global innovation and conversation, for employing and weaving a World Wide Web of “social reciprocity,” to use Bruner’s term in the epigraph above. We owe it to our faculty, staff, and students to empower them all with the concepts, skills, and experiences that will make them free and full citizens of the digital age.

 

Keith Richards on Writing as Performance

I’ve just finished reading Life, Keith Richard’s memoir, for the first time. It’s a book to cherish, a wild ride, an endlessly fascinating tale of Keith’s endless fascinations and adventures and very narrow scrapes. It’s also a wonderful extended meditation on creativity. Here’s Keith’s description of composing songs while standing in front of a studio microphone:

Composing a song like that, in front of a mike, is like holding on to a friend in a way. You lead me, brother, I’ll follow behind and we’ll sort the bits out later. It’s like you’ve been taken for a blind ride. I might have a riff, an idea, a chord sequence, but I’ve no idea what to sing over it. I’m not agonizing for days with poems and shit. And what I find fascinating about it is that when you’re up there on the microphone and say, OK, let’s go, something comes out that you wouldn’t have dreamt of. Then within a millisecond you’ve got to come up with something else that adds to what you’ve just said. It’s kind of jousting with yourself. And suddenly you’ve got something going and there’s a framework to work with  You’re going to screw up a lot of times doing it that way. You’ve just got to put in on the mike and see how far it can go before you run out of steam.

Kind of like jousting with yourself. Kind of like holding on to a friend. Kind of like blogging, actually. Something comes out you wouldn’t have dreamt of. Something I’m trying to find my way back to, myself.

Keef: thanks.

The teacher I’ve lost … and never knew

Would that I could, now.

Words at the bottom of Aaron’s blog posts. Would that I could, now.

I woke up Saturday morning full of plans for the trek to Charlottesville. It was the day we’d take our beloved Jenny back to school at the University of Virginia.

I checked my New York Times feed on my phone and learned that Aaron Swartz was dead. The headline identified him as one of the key developers of RSS, the web info-feed architecture that has been, literally and metaphorically, both the glue and the fuel for most of my professional and intellectual development over the last decade.

I hadn’t heard of Aaron Swartz. And now, many of the RSS feeds I read at breakfast were lighting up with news of his death, with grief, with information, with analysis. I felt three essentially conflicted emotions. One was grief and sympathy for those who had lost a friend and loved one. One, strangely, was the intellectual rush I always feel when I find a new thinker whom I suspect, deep within my soul, I will learn a great deal from. And one was the deep, deep sorrow that I had not found him before, and now I would never meet him and be able to say “thank you” for what would clearly be the gifts that would enrich me immeasurably.

Since Saturday morning, I have been reading the memorials written by those who knew Aaron. They are emotionally and intellectually complex. Rather than describe them here, I’ll simply link to a few I found particularly resonant:

Dave Winer’s “Online Grieving,” the first memorial post I read, a wise and troubled meditation on the strange and shocking complexities of grief.

Cory Doctorow’s memorial on BoingBoing, an insightful and moving account of the extraordinary (and difficult) man Cory knew as a friend and fellow activist.

Larry Lessig’s passionate, precise denunciation of the shameful prosecutorial bullying that Aaron was trying to live through.

Quinn Norton’s deeply moving post on the love she shared with Aaron, and her publication of the post in which Aaron described his love for her. Love: made of hunger for conversation and delight in finding a partner whose stride matches yours. The fourth and fifth paragraphs of Aaron’s description of their meeting match my own experience of love so intensely and perfectly that I cannot stop thinking about them.

Matt Stoller’s post over on Naked Capitalism, one that makes me grieve even more for the deep, sophisticated faith Aaron retained in the power of organizations and “social institutions” to do good, even the world’s mightiest government was bearing down on him. (When I read the stories last Saturday, I realized I had heard of Aaron after all, though I didn’t remember his name, for of course I’d read about the JSTOR downloads at MIT. Odd that the story didn’t lead me farther, then. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.)

An elegy for Aaron, and a lament for those who left behind, from the man who invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee:

Via John Naughton

Via John Naughton.

John Naughton’s initial post on Aaron’s death linked to the memorial that moved me the most: Aaron’s own words in a talk he called “How To Get A Job Like Mine.”

How To Get A Job Like Mine

It’s an extraordinary document in every way. I’ve read it over and over in the last 48 hours, thinking hard about the five stages he outlines:

1. Learn. 2. Try. 3. Gab. 4. Build. 5. Freedom.

This is a story of education. This is a curriculum. This should be the foundation of all curricula. Anything that interferes with any of these stages, or with their fruitful combination, should be abandoned, destroyed. And because these stages will look different for every learning, should look different for every learner, we must learn how to embed these practices within every course of study in a way that responds to, and nurtures, those differences.

His meditation on freedom also makes it clear that Aaron had learned Pete Townshend’s lesson: “no easy way to be free.” That one of the projects Aaron once considered was reforming higher education deepens my grief, and our loss. His single paragraph about his time at Stanford echoes in my mind over and over, in a shattering kind of mental/emotional feedback loop:

"profoundly unconcerned with their studies"--a phrase to ponder.

“profoundly unconcerned with their studies”–a phrase to ponder.

And then I left it all and went to college for a year. I attended Stanford University, an idyllic little school in California where the sun is always shining and the grass is always green and the kids are always out getting a tan. It’s got some great professors and I certainly learned a bunch, but I didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies.

That last sentence has sparked some intense meditation in me, especially the last phrase. More on that another time.

Aaron closes his talk with three rules:

Aaron Swartz's three rules

  1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
  2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
  3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

At this too-late date, then, I find another kindred spirit, a person to admire and emulate. An unmet friend. A teacher. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. That’s often true, and a greatly hopeful thing, one that encourages readiness above all. Today, though, it feels like the student was ready and the teacher disappeared.

I know there’s still a world of Aaron online to explore and learn from. I echo Dave Winer’s hope that the web Aaron created, the words and images and links, the look of the sites themselves, will persist: “maybe we can do something to make sure that his blog remains online as long as there is a web, which hopefully is quite a long time.” I am very glad to see a memorial archive is already underway. The archive is within the Internet Archive itself, where on the front page of the Aaron Swartz Collection we read these small, poignant words: “This is a new thing for the Internet Archive: a memorial archive collection.” The location is just and right. Like Christopher Wren, whose tomb lies in the crypt of the St. Paul’s Cathedral he designed, Aaron Swartz can receive this epitaph within the awe-inspiring home for spirit he helped to build, a World Wide Web: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

As I thought about what I wanted to say here, I thought about George Steiner’s haunting words in Lessons Of The Masters, words I blogged about many years ago that express my grief today:

We have seen that Mastery is fallible, that jealousy, vanity, falsehood, and betrayal intrude almost unavoidably. But its ever renewed hopes, the imperfect marvel of the thing, direct us to the dignitas in the human person, to its homecoming to its better self. No mechanical means, however expeditious, no materialism, however triumphant, can eradicate the daybreak we experience when we have understood a Master. That joy does nothing to alleviate death. But it makes one rage at its waste. Is there no time for another lesson?

aaron twitter-cropped