I've really enjoyed messing with our new makerbot here at Bucknell ITEC. Here's what I've printed to date!
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I've really enjoyed messing with our new makerbot here at Bucknell ITEC. Here's what I've printed to date!
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Having fun, droning on…
I am happy to announce that I'll be starting a new position as Bucknell's Digital Scholarship Coordinator in June!
The life of the contemporary academic is a migratory one, I haven't lived in the same city for more than a few years since I completed my Master's degree. However, this move is a migration in more ways than one. For the first time in my adult life I'll be leaving the college classroom, taking on a role as an organizer and developer for Bucknell's growing involvement in Digital Scholarship. This has been a difficult decision to make, as teaching has been a rewarding job. Ultimately, however, I decided it was time to flex some new muscles, and work on refining and building another set of skills.
So, I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with Bucknell to build and shape their new Digital Scholarship Center, which promises to emerge as a fascinating new hub for digital work in the humanities and social sciences. That said, I'm also of course a bit sad to be leaving Dallas. For one thing, Central Pennsylvania lacks in options for high quality tacos. More seriously, the students of UT Dallas are some of the most creative and engaged I've ever worked with. Even as I look forward to my new opportunity, I'm sad to be leaving them behind.
Still, onward and upward! I expect there will be many opportunities for new collaborations and projects in the coming weeks and months! Stay tuned!
So I was reviewing this Elinor Ostrom, trying to figure out how to fit my ideas into the larger conversation about the commons, when I had this kind of epiphany about information, embodiment, articulation, and authority. It's a half-formed idea, but it feels powerful and I want to share it here right away as a way to make a note for myself, and to see if others immediately recognize it as something well established (or perhaps refuted) elsewhere.
There is a tendency, when dealing with digital information, to treat it as sort of fungible. An arbitrarily embodied mass of ones and zeroes that is, by virtue of its near-infinite replicability, both non-scarce and non-rival. Digital information “wants to be free” in the sense that it wants to spread, it wants everyone to have their own copy.
This tends to lead to a discussion of digital information as a unique realm of abundance. Authority, which is seen as a sort of arbitrary move to limit the abundance of information, is seen as critically weakened in this environment.
The above has already been criticized, as I'm sure we're all well aware. Authorities, especially institutions like search engines, do in fact exist in the contemporary digital information environment. This is well established. Wikipedia, too, serves as a sort of authority. Wikipedians are well aware of this, sometimes even discussing the need for Wikipedia to do right by “posterity” or record information accurately for “history.”
And yet, the formation of these authorities has not been without significant resistance. Where ever centralized authorities have emerged, de-centralized schemes to combat them have also. Take, for example, the many attempts to decentralize Wikipedia, “federating” it across multiple platforms/wikis. Or the attempt to escape the singular Facebook via the decentralized Diaspora.
The conundrum, for me, is this: the attempts always seem well-grounded in the theory of digital information, and the experience of the skilled coders who propose them. After all, copying and transferring data really is fairly easy and cheap. And yet, they almost always fail. Why?
Maybe part of the answer has to do with how we treat information differently depending on what we intend to articulate it with and our embodied experience with the topic at hand.
Imagine a coder writing a project solely for his or her own personal use. Coders, of course, have a great deal of experience with code. Thus, when they encounter new code-type information, they are able to readily evaluate it for themselves, with very little need for authority. In the case of personal use, only the non-human actor of the machine will be articulated with the code, so authority is also not needed to establish trust with other human actors.
Another example of the same basic scenario would be a skilled cook making a meal for him or herself. Who cares what the source is, evaluation is easy.
Since coders are the ones who propose new digital systems, the decentralized, anti-authoritarian approach that works for code seems like it might just work for everything else. Set the information free, let everyone get it from everywhere and let them evaluate it for themselves. Why not?
However, this overlooks cases in which either embodied experience is lacking, or information must be articulated with human as well as non-human actors.
Imagine the case of the novice chef (or coder!), how can they evaluate information they encounter for themselves? In the absence of embodied experience, we may well want to rely on authority (or at least reputation) on the part of information sources.
Imagine the case of the bar bet (which, I posit, is the most frequent use for Wikipedia 🙂 ), in this case, we must articulate information with another human actor who also lacks embodied experience with the question at hand. The only answer with any value in this case is one that comes from a source that both parties trust. A source with authority.
And in this case especially, authority is rivalrous not everyone can have it at the same time. A trusted source builds an audience, a shared reputation, at the expense of others attempted to become trusted sources as well. (This is perhaps not perfectly true, there can be communities of shared trust and reliability, but these would seem to grow at the expense of other possible networks).
Thus, the need for scarce, rivalrous authority hems in the possibilities of non-scarce, non-rivalrous information. But perhaps this tendency is overlooked by those closest to the heart of our new digital systems, the coder elite, because the form of information they are most familiar with (code) is one they both have deep embodied experience with, and one that powerfully articulates with non-human actors that don't care if the source is trusted, so long as the code works (hence the IETF slogan reference to “rough consensus and running code” and the old adage about the ultimate test of code in an open source community being “whether it compiles.”)
Just a few hastily composed thoughts here. Setting the default state for conference presentations to “do not share on twitter” is both absurd (given that the whole goal of academic knowledge production is, you know, sharing and discussing knowledge) and impractical (given the rather limited affordances twitter has built in for users to censor one another).
That said, I think it might make sense to take a step back and ask ourselves: what on earth would motivate someone to make the ridiculous and seemingly self-limiting attempt to stop others from discussing their work? Framing this as another confrontation between those who do and do not “get the internet” seems to be a limited frame, in my opinion.
Instead, I can't help but wonder if this desperate attempt to lay claim to knowledge as property is driven by fear. The act of an increasingly precarious academic population desperate to hang on to any asset, however intangible, that might give them a leg up in the dog-eat-dog academic job market. Of course people resent what looks like the “theft” of their reputation. They experience reputation as a scarce asset. One to be guarded jealously.
This attempt to hoard reputation, to hoard the fruits of our intellectual labors, makes us all poorer. In a sense, this could even be seen as analogous to the “paradox of thrift” familiar to Keynesian economists. If everyone fears for their future, and everyone over saves, the economy collapses.
But Keynes did not suggest we simply shame savers into spending. Instead he emphasized the need for collective action to drive investment. I am a strong supporter for openness, and I think it must be first among the values of our profession. If we truly want to create an academic culture of open ideas and shared information, we must take steps to secure the material conditions where people feel secure being open! I think this interpretation of openness is somewhat in contradiction to the sometimes crypto-libertarian language that often infiltrates our discussions of free information. It is not enough to “set ideas free.” We must build safety nets (with all the slogging bureaucracy that will entail) if we want people to feel genuinely free to share and to fail.
In a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education's “Chronicle Review” section, Timothy Messer-Kruse criticizes the editing practices of the Wikipedia community. He describes his attempt to correct what he understood to be a factual error in Wikipedia's article on the Haymarket affair, and argues that his experience demonstrates that Wikipedia limits the ability of expert editors, such as himself, to correct factual errors on the site. While Dr. Messer-Kruse believes his experience demonstrates Wikipedia's lack of respect for scholars, I believe it actually demonstrates that Wikipedia holds a deep respect for a collaborative scholarly process that is collectively more capable of producing “truth” than any individual scholar.
Wikipedia's privileging of the collaborative scholarly process has practical implications for how scholars should, and should not, interact with Wikipedia. Academic Wikipedia editors might have more satisfying Wikipedia editing experiences in the future if they respect this fact.
To understand how and why Wikipedia functions the way it does, we must first understand the day-to-day realities of Wikipedia's editing process. Because they have the responsibility of securing the free encyclopedia against vandals and other bad actors, editors are always on the lookout for certain patterns that, for them, indicate likely vandalism or mischief. For academics, the best analogy might be the way that we scan student papers for patterns that indicate likely plagiarism. This sort of rough pattern recognition is deeply imperfect, and in the case of Messer-Kruse's edits, Wikipedians suffer from a false positive. Nevertheless, just as teachers use rough patterns when scanning giant stacks of student assignments, so too Wikipedia editors have a clear need to be able to quickly detect likely bad actors.
If we look at Messer-Kruse's first interaction with the Wikipedia community, we can see some of the patterns that likely flagged him (incorrectly) as what Wikipedian's sometimes call a “POV pusher.” That is to say, a person with an ax to grind, looking to utilize Wikipedia as a free publishing platform for their own particular pet theories. He starts his engagement with a post to the article's talk page (a special Wikipedia page that permits editors to discuss the process of creating and revising a particular article), writing:
The line in the entry that reads: “The prosecution, led by Julius Grinnell, did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing…” is inaccurate. The prosecution introduced much evidence linking several of the defendants to the manufacture of the bomb, the distribution of the bombs, and an alleged plot to attack the police on the evening of Tuesday, May 4. An eye-witness was put on the stand who claimed to have seen Spies light the fuse of the bomb. Police officers testified that Fielden returned their fire with his revolver. Now these witnesses and this evidence may be disputed, but it is historically wrong to claim it was not introduced. For more specific information, see http://blogs.bgsu.edu/haymarket/myth-2-no-evidence/ (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Haymarket_affair&diff=prev&oldid=265725190)
By starting with a post to the talk page, Messer-Kruse follows good Wikipedia etiquette, which encourages new editors to discuss substantial changes they wish to make to pages before making them. (Those who wish to review the full record of Dr. Messer-Kruse's Wikipedia activity may do so, here.)
However, in crafting this talk message, Messer-Kruse has unintentionally engaged in rhetorical patterns that flag him as a potential bad actor in the eyes of experienced Wikipedians. His most significant error is citing a self-published source, his Bowling Green State University blog, in support of his desired changes to the article. This is, as several Wikipedia editors quickly point out, in violation of Wikipedia's reliable source guidelines.
In Messer-Kruse's defense, the tone taken by some editors in these early exchanges represents a serious misstep on their part. They tended to engage in what is known as “wiki-lawyering,” simply spitting the Wiki-shorthand code for the policy he has violated (WP:RS) at him, with little attempt to explain why he has made an error, and no attempt to offer constructive ways in which a compromise solution might be reached. These editors have since been called on the carpet for being unnecessarily hostile to newcomers, or “Biting the Newbies” in Wikipedia-speak, on the article's talk page.
Messer-Kruse, for his part, does not seem to absorb the reason why his blog is unacceptable as a source. After being directed to the reliable source policy by one editor, he retorts, “I have provided reliable sources. See my discussion of the McCormick's strike above in which I cite the primary sources for this information. By what standard are you claiming that http://blogs.bgsu.edu/haymarket/myth-2-no-evidence/ is not a 'reliable source.' It clearly cites primary sources in its rebutal of this myth. Perhaps its [sic] not 'reliable' sources you want but ideologically comfortable ones” (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Haymarket_affair&diff=prev&oldid=265740457).
What Messer-Kruse is missing is how the reliable source policy allows Wikipedia to use the larger scholarly process of peer review for its own benefit. By preventing the use of self-published sources, and preferring secondary sources to primary sources, Wikipedia attempts to ensure that information has been subjected to the most vigorous review possible by scholars before being included in the encyclopedia. Does Messer-Kruse really believe that we should abandon this process, and simply allow any individual scholar to make novel claims about truth, regardless of their ability to convince scholarly peers? It is not some faceless herd of editors that Wikipedia defers to when evaluating truth-claims, it is the scholarly process itself. Even now, discussion is unfolding on the Haymarket affair article talk page concerning the larger scholarly response to Messer-Kruse's book. At issue is whether or not, in the eyes of the experts, this very recent book has indeed significantly revised our understanding of the Haymarket affair.
Wikipedia's policies here seem to have frustrated an attempt to add well-researched points to the encyclopedia, which is unfortunate. However, it is important to understand that Wikipedia editors are, every day, confronted by vast numbers of self-styled experts, many claiming academic credentials, referring to a blog or other self-published source that purports to upend this field or that based on a novel review of primary evidence. Climate science, evolutionary biology, and “western medicine,” are all particularly common targets, though I have also witnessed claims to such unlikely discoveries as a grand unified field theory. While Messer-Kruse's claims are not outrageous, his use of a self-published source, and claims to a unique interpretation of historical events flag him in the eyes of Wikipedia editors as a potentially disruptive editor. They thus use the reliable source policy to defer the responsibility for deciding whether or not his claims are true to the larger process of scholarly peer review.
This deference may indeed, as Messer-Kruse points out, render Wikipedia resistant to change. It can also, as I have argued in my previous case study of Wikipedia's coverage of the Gaza conflict (see chapter 6 here for more detail), privilege points of view with greater access to the means of producing “reliable sources.” This is an important potential problem for Wikipedia. It is an even more critical problem for a web-using public that too often allows Wikipedia to serve as their primary, or only, source of information on a given topic. More must be done to ensure the greater visibility of minority opinions on the web, and to prevent so-called “filter bubble” effects that may prevent web users from consuming a diverse set of information sources.
However, I don't think that Messer-Kruse's critique of the “undue weight” policy of Wikipedia, which holds that Wikipedia should base its coverage on academic consensus on a given topic, is the best way of correcting for this potential problem. It is interesting to note that Messer-Kruse himself, in discussing a related edit to the Haymarket affair article, makes a sort of “undue weight” argument of his own. He argues that the article's casualty count for the McCormick riot (an event that would help set the stage for the later events at the Haymarket) should be changed because, “The claim that six men were killed at the McCormick riot is inaccurate. This claim comes from the report written for the anarchist newspaper by August Spies. Chicago cornorer's records and all the other daily newspapers finally settled on two deaths as the correct number” (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Haymarket_affair&diff=prev&oldid=265729292). Here, Messer-Kruse is effectively arguing for the exclusion of a fringe opinion, in deference to the weight of consensus found in other sources.
Consensus, then, is an important mechanism by which we judge the validity of certain truth-claims. I believe that one reason academics, like Messer-Kruse, and Wikipedia editors may not see eye to eye is that they have been trained to evaluate consensus in very different ways. Academic training, especially in fields that stress the production of mongraphs like history, tends to privilege the scholar's own individual judgement of the consensus of evidence. Wikipedians, by necessity of the situation Wikipedia finds itself in, understands consensus to be an ongoing process involving a vast number of both scholarly and non-scholarly actors. Rather than asking Wikipedia to hew closer to any one academic's evaluation of “truth,” I would posit that we can more readily improve Wikipedia's accuracy and respect for evidence by engaging with and respecting this ongoing process. By offering our scholarly findings to the Wikipedia community as peers in a larger process of negotiating the truth, we have the best chance of helping to build a Wikipedia that truly reflects the fullest and best picture possible of the always fraught and diverse process of establishing what we know.
So, a few weeks ago, as the Occupy Wall Street movement started picking up steam and spreading beyond the initial occupation site at Zuccotti park, I noticed that news about the various occupations, which was predominantly being spread via social media channels, often seemed fragmentary and hard to get a hold of in any sort of holistic way. This, it occurred to me, was basically an aggregation and meta-data problem to be solved, so I suggested as much to a group of fellow academics with an interest in the digital humanities. Sadly, we're all busy teachers and academic professionals, and only one of us was an experienced coder, so we didn't produce the grand aggregation of public data on OWS I had imagined. We did, however, start to collect a database of tweets that will hopefully become a fruitful source for future research.
In the meantime, however, others have done what I suggested. This is the Web 2.0 version of the “procrastination principle,” if you have a good idea, just wait. Someone else will implement it. In this blog post, I attempt make my own (very) small contribution to this process by providing an annotated list of the available aggregation projects: a sort of meta-aggregation, if you will.
When I was a younger man, I used to fancy strategy wargames. I thought I was pretty good at them too, until I played Stea. Stea was a hacker's hacker, the man who first taught me Unix, a person for whom logical forms of abstraction and analysis were as natural as breathing. By the time I started my second turn of our game, I had already lost. There were better moves I could make, and worse moves, but all the moves I could make lead to me losing. That, I learned, was what the art of strategy was: the practice of giving your opponent only losing moves.
To me, that's what Netflix announcing it will be spinning off its DVD-by-mail service looks like, a losing move made by a desperate player. The best analysis I've seen as to why Netflix would take this seemingly counter-intuitive move argues that Netflix is intentionally throwing by mail DVD distribution overboard, ridding itself of the expensive baggage of distribution centers, warehouses and (paging Nicholas Carr) workers to move forward into a future dominated by digital streaming. Discs are dead. Burn the boats.
This logic makes sense, but can Netflix survive on the ground it is moving forward onto? As a distributor of physical discs, Netflix enjoyed the protection of the first sale doctrine, which holds that purchasers of books, video cassettes, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, or other tangible copies of media, have the right to do as they please with that particular copy. The first sale doctrine meant that Netflix was free to rent the same discs sold to consumers, and that publishers couldn't easily stop them from running a rental business without withholding content from the general public. In a sense, Netflix got its start by being a bit of a clever hack, leveraging the first sale doctrine and business reply mail rules to build an innovative and inexpensive way for consumers to access a vast library of video recordings.
In the streaming environment, things are different. Netflix must obtain permission from publishers to stream movies to consumers. If it wants, say access to NBC Universal content, it has to deal with Comcast. Why should a vertically-integrated entity like Comcast allow Netflix to take a piece of the action for streaming content it owns across a network it also owns large pieces of (and which it has already attempted to limit Netflix's access to)? I don't see how that equation works. All Netflix has to bring to the table here is the good will of its customers, good will it hasn't exactly been cultivating of late.
That said, they may retain me, at least, as a customer for a little while longer. The reason? They are keeping the envelopes red. The other thing I learned, all those years ago, watching Stea march his armies toward me across the game board in impeccable order, is that I am a hopeless romantic. I was too busy building beautiful bomber formations to bother with actually winning the game. As long as I can get red envelopes in the mail, I'll probably stick with Netflix (or qwickster, or whatever) until the end of their losing game.
An article in yesterday's New York Times reports on recent advances in using software to automatically generate sports reporting. The software, created by a firm called Narrative Science, reportedly generates human-like text, and has already had one big operational success:
“Last fall, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games. Those reports helped drive a surge in referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, which highly ranks new content on popular subjects, Mr. Calderon says.”
The role of Google here cannot be stressed enough. Once again, the preferences of the search engine giant are shaping our contemporary media environment in profound ways, perhaps without much conscious reflection on our part.
My biggest anxiety in cases like this is always the one expressed by Norbert Wiener at the close of his 1947 volume Cybernetics:
“The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy.”
A while ago I wrote a blog post expressing my frustrations with the available definitions for the collection of disciplines known as “the humanities.” You can read it on TechStyle, the group blog for Georgia Tech's Brittain Fellows, here. I explained how I didn't think defining the humanities in terms of the canon of “literature,” the method of “reading,” or the advancement of “values” could adequately provide a framework for an academic discipline. Today, briefly and humbly, I would like to propose a definition I think could serve as a framework for the humanities.
The definition I propose is quite simple: the humanities are the disciplines concerned with the production, distribution, and interpretation of human readable texts.
I'm borrowing my use of the term human readable from the Creative Commons project. Creative Commons builds on the distinction, likely familiar to digital humanists and computer scientists alike, between machine readable codes, which are designed to be interpreted by a computer, and human readable codes, which are designed to be interpreted by a person. Creative Commons, for example, creates a machine readable version of their licenses, designed to permit search engines to automatically discover works that have been released with particular re-use rights, and a human readable version of their license, designed to permit “ordinary people” to understand the terms of a particular license and what these terms mean. However, Creative Commons further distinguishes the human readable version of the license from the technical legal code of the license itself. This legal code has sometimes been dubbed the “lawyer readable version.” To fully appreciate the difference between human readable and lawyer readable, you can compare the human readable version of the Creative Commons Attribution license to the full legal code of the same license.
My suggestion then, is that the humanities should focus on texts that are human readable in the sense that Creative Commons human readable licenses are intended to be. That is to say, texts that are written to be read by a varied audience, rather than a narrow group of professionals with intensive and explicit training in interpreting these texts. Texts that are meant to serve as contact zones, where a variety of constituencies might negotiate common understandings of shared issues.
I propose that we focus on the human readable, but not that we limit ourselves to it. Clearly the human readable is always deeply interlinked with a wide variety of other actors: legal and machine codes, media technologies, economic entities, human biology. I only suggest that we make the human readable our point of entry. I believe it is an important point of entry. After all, for all of the specialized knowledge produced by our highly technical and segmented culture, we still rely on human readable texts to build political and economic coalitions that span these specialized forms of knowledge. The science of climate change, for example, cannot impact the political and economic processes that shape the human influence on the climate without the production of human readable texts that explain the significance of the science. Furthermore, these texts do not operate in a vacuum, rather their reception is shaped by earlier texts.
So, that is my modest proposal. The humanities as the study of human readable texts. What do people think?