Saturday, December 29, 2012
Sunday, December 9, 2012
If your browser doesn't render the above audio tag listen to it here.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
The book goes over ground that is familiar to many of us. Like that moment in the fall of 1993 when I first heard about the Mosaic browser. Or the time in 1994 when I downloaded Netscape and began surfing the Web. It’s often only in retrospect that we recognize what moments hold import and for me anyway this was somewhat true then. To be sure I marveled at Netscape and the way it had contracted the world. For example I distinctly remember being awed that I could instantly read a Web page that has been served up by a computer half way around the world. But I don’t think I recognized the moment’s true weight and how ubiquitous the internet would become in my life. For instance I’m sure I had no idea that I’d spend a significant portion of my working day interacting with the Web. At the time it was something I dialed into through a modem and used during one or two discrete moments of the day. In other words, I liked it. But it wasn’t yet an ambient presence that I followed (or maybe better put , followed me) everywhere and at every hour.
And that is what is interesting about Berners-Lee’s history. While he too hadn’t recognized the entire import of his creation in the early 90s, he was a lot more prescient about it’s consequences than most of us. And while he wasn’t entirely in control of how his creation would be adopted (what inventor is?) his history is important because the texture of so many of our lives have been defined by events and visions that he was closely associated with.
One way to historicize our present online life is to simply mark our current surfing selves as the present and skip back to the moment Berners-Lee launched the first Web page at CERN in 1991. That first Web page is a historical monument which deserves a place in our collective memories as much as say, the joining of the transcontinental railroad or the first telephone communication by Alexander Graham Bell. But what’s left out, and what Berners-Lee’s book helps to illuminate is that our present online life doesn’t just rest on that achievement alone but is also contingent and the product of a myriad of other successes, failures, and ongoing battles. What is often lost when we merely think of Berners-Lee as the inventor of the Web and the first person to post a Web page is that the Web wasn’t just a technological invention but an evolving set of communication practices and agreements that Berners-Lee was instrumental in forming. Berners-Lee, after all, wasn’t the first to provide a clickable GUI that people could use to get information off the internet. Those achievements were preceded by companies like Prodigy and AOL. What Berners-Lee really did was to persuade a threshold number of user to adopt a set of communication protocols that no one company (as yet anyway) has been able to monopolize and make solely their own. Today we can jump on the Web with a large number of browsers owned by a variety of different companies in large part because of Berners-Lee’s work and his belief that this was the right thing to do.
There were times in the early days of the Web when it looked like a particular company’s browser might become so ubiquitous and successful that it’s functionality would drive and define Web protocols. And Berners-Lee, had he decided to form his own browser company, or join an existing one, might have crystallized such an outcome. But Berners-Lee (at least as he recounts his story) didn’t have the same inclinations as a Marc Andreeson or a Bill Gates. His primary interest was in making the Web into a thriving ecosystem rather than in the profit and success of an individual company. It was this reason why, instead of creating a company, he decided instead to form and direct the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that would maintain and expand on the Web standards he had introduced through the introduction of his first Web site. As he puts it:
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Of course with the ouster and reinstatement of president Teresa Sullivan at UVA at the hands of a board who didn’t think she was jumping quick enough into MOOCs, we’re all wondering whether MOOCs are the next disruptive innovation that are going to turn the academy on its head. Are we about to get left behind if we don’t sally forth into this brave new world? One provisional answer to this can be found in a Times op ed piece titled “The Trouble With Online Education” by Mark Edmundson who teaches at UVA. In the closing paragraph of that piece Edmundson writes:
“You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”
An eloquent soliliquey but does Edmundson describe the student experience in a MOOC accurately? Here’s my provisional answer based on my own MOOC experience:
First I’m in agreement with Edmundson that a MOOC is lonely. This is because there’s very little two-way interaction between the instructor and the students (how could there be very much in a class where the instructor-student ratio in my particular class started at 1 to 42935?).
Second, the peer learning that is supposed to replace the lack of student-instructor interaction mitigates this loneliness to some degree but not very much. And, by way of illustration, in the P.S. to this post I include our first writing assignment, my response, and the peer feedback I received. Since the feedback is anonymous I still feel like it’s a little impersonal; no tonic for overcoming loneliness there.
Third, pace Edmundson, and in spite of the loneliness, there’s still some “ intellectual joy” to be found in a MOOC. The videos (check them out) are really interesting and personalize the historical development of the web in a very rich way. There’s true erudition and edification happening even if it’s not based on a lot of student-to-student or student-to-instructor interaction. Moreover, the peer feedback I’ve received on my essay isn’t that much less substantive than many comments I’ve gotten back on essays I wrote as an undergraduate. And they compare favorably (at least in number of words) to the amount of commentary I’ll give back to a student who I grade in my own online courses. The comments might be anonymous, and they might not be as substantive as they could have been, but I still experienced at least a modicum of intellectual joy in reading them.
There are no grand conclusions to draw from all of this except to say that instead of pronouncing from the sidelines about online’s relative worth, it’s helpful to actually participate in a course and use it to shed light on how serious a threat MOOCs pose to traditional forms of pedagogy in higher education. In a Tech Therapy podcast last month George Siemens (who was one of the first academics to host a MOOC) put it this way:
When you hit a time of uncertainty when you don't have an answer to a question you begin to experiment. You try different approaches to get ahold of the phenomena you are trying to grapple with. Well today the university system itself is becoming the subject of that research. Greater numbers of researchers are starting to recognize that maybe the university system isn't the optimal model. So I would say open online courses are just one attempt at trying to research what might a university look like in the future.
In other words, we need to investigate these options. But even Siemens would agree that we don't have to adopt them wholesale. Such explorations can help steer a middle ground between educational boards (like UVA’s) who might be attendant to markets but are hardly expert teachers, and professors, who know more than boards do about teaching , but are embracing change a little less quickly than many boards would like.
Faculty should take heart in the symbolic victory represented by the reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan and the fact that the views of Professor Edmundson are being given a voice on the national stage. Faculty after all deserve to set the direction of their university as much as any board does. But that victory isn’t a pretext for ignoring the way that technological innovation and market forces are challenging traditional pedagogical arrangements. To share influence responsibly means that we need to investigate these new developments first hand – by participating in their development we have a better chance of making them serve the ends of education. In charting a path forward our best counsel isn’t so different from that which was pronounced by Alexander Pope during a former revolution: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” Between a board like UVA’s and the conservatism of professors like Edmunson are a large group of people who embrace change but are interested in doing so at Pope’s pace. Discovering the virtues and liabilities of MOOCs through actual hands on practicums can help clarify what that sensible rate of change actually is.
In many ways, the Internet is the result of experts exploring how people, information, and technology connect.
Describe one example of these areas (people, information, and technology) intersecting, and how that connection ultimately helped form the Internet. Your example should be taken from the time periods we covered in the first two weeks of course (Week 1: 1930-1990).
Write 200-400 words (about 2-4 paragraphs) and keep your answer focused. Don't make your answer overly long. In your answer connect back to concepts covered in the lecture. You can also make use of sources outside the course material. If you use material from outside the course to support your essay, please include a URL or other reference to the material that you use.
I appreciated Chuck’s short history of store-forwarding which seemed (based on the presentation anyway) to eventually be replaced by packet-switching. Both of those developments seem relevant to the assessment question in that they represent examples of people (academics mostly), and institutions (universities and the national government) and technology (forwarding-computers and routers ) connecting and forming larger and denser networks in ways that seem to anticipate the Internet as we know it today.
In the store-forwarding narrative I really keyed in on Chuck’s point that universities had a financial incentive to increase their connections and that the local connections in some ways were the most fiscally rewarding to cultivate: even if academics in Ann Arbor wanted only to connect and communicate with colleagues in Cleveland, their university had a financial incentive to connect with intermediary institutions (like University of Toledo’s) because doing so reduced the cost of their leased line. I hesitate to say that this development and concomitant economic imperative formally represents an example of “experts *exploring* how people, information, and technology connect.” But the fact that it’s a story about a growing electronic network, and one that was undoubtedly supported by experts who were trying to reduce connection costs for their universities (if not formally exploring these relationships) qualifies as an example in my book.
The packet switching narrative, and Chuck’s talk about Arpanet, is in many ways an example that is more germane to the assessment question (which specifically asks us to focus on the enterprise of “exploration”) since it was a formal research project about networking and connectivity and research, by definition, is about “exploration.” That example, speaks for itself; it powerfully elucidates how government sponsored research, and the appropriation of monies to expand our understanding of how best to form human connections via electronic means, were key drivers in the development of the modern Internet and all of the positive legacies that brings to us today. (Let that be a lesson to all of you Grover Norquist fans out there!). But if government was a key player (especially in the Arpanet story), the store-forwarding example suggests that markets, and the sheer desire to reduce the cost of one’s leased line, also played a role in incentivizing the exploration and refinement of electronic connection.
student1 → Great job, written with an interesting perspective. The style is a bit conversational, but otherwise it's a good paper.
student2 → Well-written and enjoyable to read. A question that I have for Dr. Chuck is whether he finds it acceptable to be writing responses as informally as you have done. That is, your response is in the first person and presents a subjective position rather than sticking to a third-person perspective with positions that are entirely supported with historical examples.
student3 → Well written piece , my only suggestion would be include a specific example from outside the covered material . Have a look at LISTSERV as an example where people information and technology was used to provide a solution to the problem of shared interest communication.
student4 → Loved this one the best of the five I was sent. I think that someone who knows who Grover Norquist was would appreciate reading this! I don't :-( ....But I will Google him and start learning. Thanks for a great read. You should submit it to the forum. I'd vote for it.
student5 → This is quite an interesting take on the classes so far and very well written. It is an interesting point where you say "That markets, and the sheer desire to reduce the cost of one’s leased line, also played a role" I had often though of the markets as companies like AT&T that had been against the idea of the internet but you make a good point that there was non-government pressure as well. Certainly made me think, well done.
student6 → Nice work
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
I'll admit that the graph has some serious limitations -- at times I'm locating authors with more specificity on these scales than is actually warranted. But the larger point is to get students to think about these frameworks and to at least ask where technology pundits fall on these scales and where in turn, they as students fall. In my experience most students are instrumentalists: the young in general tend to confer a lot of faith on free will. Curiously I also couldn't think of too many dystopian instrumentalists. Morozov might not even fall in that quadrant but I'll place him there as a way of contrasting him to Kelley who he critiques in e-Salvation. If there are authors who I've mislocated let me know. Likewise, if you know of technological declensionists (e.g. dystopians) who locate the engine of history in something else than technology let me know; I'd like to put a few more thinkers in the lower left hand quadrant.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
“using the internet has little effect on average user’s level of face to face contact….Although access to the Internet may have vastly expanded American’s acquaintances – the Facebook “friends” sort of circle – it would not have been a revolution in their personal relationships, just a nudge.” [p.96]
Here are two other really good blog posts on the subject:
Is Technological Determinism Making Us Stupid?
Facebook and Loneliness: The Better Question
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced, and debated, technology's role in shaping civilization. Some have made the case for what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed 'technological determinism': they've argued that technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man's control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.....At the other end of the spectrum are the instrumentalists -- the people who....downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.
What makes it so poignant and so weird, is the computer's emotional response to the disassembly of it's mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut -- "I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm afraid" and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Friday, March 16, 2012
Liberal education is enormously useful in its anti-utilitarianism. Almost any liberal arts field can be made non-liberal by turning it in the direction of some practical skill with which it is already associated. English departments can become writing programs, even publishing programs; pure mathematics can become applied mathematics, even engineering; sociology shades into social work; biology shades into medicine; political science and social theory lead to law and political administration; and so on. But conversely, and more importantly, any practical field can be made liberal simply by teaching it historically or theoretically. Many economics departments refuse to offer courses in accounting, despite student demand for them. It is felt that accounting is not a liberal art. Maybe not, but one must always remember the immortal dictum: Garbage is garbage, but the historyof garbage is scholarship. Accounting is a trade, but the history of accounting is a subject of disinterested inquiry—a liberal art. And the accountant who knows something about the history of accounting will be a better accountant. That knowledge pays off in the marketplace. Similarly, future lawyers benefit from learning about the philosophical aspects of the law, just as literature majors learn more about poetry by writing poems.
Friday, March 9, 2012
The question I have, however, is whether class, race and gender are the only lenses through which privilege and the distribution of power can be tracked. While they are powerful tools do their methods generate attention blindness that obscure other forms of privilege? To this point there are very insightful technological theorists who haven't placed the triad of class, race and gender at the core of their analysis. For example, Neil Postman's short address "Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change" and his "second idea" in that essay provides a really useful way for uncovering how privilege (and deprivation) are realized during technological change:
" the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.....Who specifically benefits from the development of a new technology? Which groups, what type of person, what kind of industry will be favored? And, of course, which groups of people will thereby be harmed?"
While Postman's approach certainly prompts us to think about race, class and gender groups, it isn't constrained by it. Other groups can also be considered. For example, in our current N.E.H research my colleagues and I are examining how digital technology is shaping and reshaping cognition. While it's certainly worthwhile to ask whether these changes privilege particular genders, classes or races, an equally salient question is whether it favors a type of person who is better able to multi-task. In creating more and more digital distractions are coders generating the social conditions in which multi-taskers will prevail? And in my open source software advocacy work one should ask whether a particular form of coding collaborative work privileges groups with a particular political and economic ideology. The same question applies to the study of growing global networks: are those networks privileging people who harbor sympathies to neo-liberalism and antipathies to more communitarian ideologies?
On a more humorous level, the Dilbert cartoons also illuminate. But his lens, more often than not revolves around the tensions between technicians and managers:
Saturday, March 3, 2012
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Segment 2: Living the Tech Life
Today’s conventional wisdom may be that a well-rounded life must include Facebook, iPhones and constant connectivity. But does technology and omnipresent media really enrich our relationships, boost our moods and enhance our intellectual capacity? Professors Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez join us to explore the question: Are machines making us stupid?
Dr. Susan Matt, Professor and Chair of the History Department, Weber State University
Dr. Luke Fernandez, Manager of Program and Technology Development, Weber State University
Saturday, February 11, 2012
He also isn't trying to dictate to anyone. Each of us needs to find our own balance between inner directed activities and outer directed ones. The way to find that balance is to examine our personal patterns of technology adoption and to identify the combination that develops this equilibrium in our selves. Diversity is good. If you don’t feel that the “world is too much with us” William Powers (unlike William Wordsworth) isn’t going to hold it against you.
Of course, in defending Powers, I'm not also trying to say that everyone needs to like his book. In fact, a portion of the students in the course I'm co-teaching this semester ( titled "Are Machines Making You Stupid?" ) took issue with Powers' claims about digital maximalism. (See footnote below.) That's fine. The larger point is that Powers visit sparked interesting conversations in our local community that complement ones taking place regionally, nationally and globally. Below are two short viral videos whose popularity suggest how salient these issues are in the zeitgeist (Powers showed them during his talk):
I. Disconnect to Connect
II. Girl Fall Into Fountain (sorry this one I can't embed)
Finally, if these issues seem present globally it's also worth noting that they are present historically. As our class is discovering, anxieties about technology are not new. We've been wondering for centuries whether our inventions are making us smarter or dumber, shallower or deeper. But just because we've been worrying about these questions since the time of Socrates doesn't mean we can stop worrying about them now. In order to adopt technologies wisely each generation needs to think these questions through anew. That's the curse (and blessing) of the "technological humanities."
For our first writing assignment we had students respond to the following question:
In Hamlet's Blackberry, William Powers asserts that "we've effectively been living by a philosophy . . . that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided this is a wise approach to life, but let's face it, this is how we've been living."
For your first writing assignment, we would like you to respond to this assertion. Do you agree with Powers's claims here? If so, why? If not, why do you disagree? You might also consider the following questions: is it truly a philosophy (or is it something else)? Do we truly value maximum screen time? Is it truly how we've been living?
A significant portion of the class questioned whether digital maximalism was as pervasive as Powers claims. They did so by referring to examples in their own lives or their family's lives in which they had been able to spend time away from screens. They also were reticent to blame technology for any pathology or addiction that might emerge in the presence of technology. To do so, in their view, would constitute an abdication of personal responsibility.
While those criticisms are fine as far as they go, I hope, as the course progresses, to encourage them to dwell a little more on this issue. In my view, taking personal responsibility and finding blame in technology are not necessarily mutually exclusive or contradictory positions. In fact, often times they complement each other. By uncovering ways in which technology encourages certain behaviours while discouraging others we're in a better position to make informed and responsible choices about how to use our tools.
Getting students to speak with nuance about the ways that we shape our tools, and in turn, how tools shape us is a perennial challenge in courses like this. Students tend to think about these things in binary categories: either we're completely free beings who must take complete responsibility for the way we use our tools or we are "tools of our tools" who therefore can't have any responsibilities. Few consider whether there may be a spectrum of states in between these poles.
Beyond the conundrum of technological determinism I also hope that we get to explore digital maximalism in terms of Neil Postman's third idea:
The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.