Joho the Blog » education

June 29, 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or...]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

1 Comment »

March 1, 2012

[2b2k] Moi moi

Google has posted my authors@google talk. Thank you, Google!

And Steve Hargadon has posted the hour interview he did last night as part of his Future of Education series, in which we talked about knowledge and education. Thank you, Steve Hargadon!

1 Comment »

January 24, 2012

Digital humanities

Skip Walter’s post about his growing acceptance and understanding of the need for digital humanities hits on so many of my intellectual pleasure spots, starting with Russ Ackoff’s knowledge network, and including Kate Hayles and Cathy Davidson, and more and more. (Yes, he mentions “Too Big to Know” in passing, but that’s irrelevant to my reaction.)

2 Comments »

January 12, 2012

[2b2k] [berkman] Alison Head on how students seek information

Alison Head, who is at the Berkman Center and the Library Information Lab this year, but who is normally based at U of Washington’s Info School, is giving a talk called “Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students.” (I did a podcast interview with her a couple of months ago.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Project Information Literacy is a research project that reaches across institutions. They’ve (Michael Eisenberg co-leads the project) surveyed 11,000 students on 41 US campuses to find out how do students find and use information. They use voluntary samples, not random samples. But, Alison says, the project doesn’t claim to be able to generalize to all students; they look at the relationships among different kinds of schools and overall trends. They make special efforts to include community colleges, which are often under-represented in studies of colleges.

The project wanted to know what’s going through students’ heads as they do research. What’s it like to be a student in the digital age? “How do students define the research process, how do they conceptualize it” throughout everyday school life, including non-course-related research (e.g., what to buy).


Four takeaways from all five studies:

1. “Students say research is more difficult for them than ever before.” This is true both for course-related and everyday life research. Teachers and librarians denied this finding when it came out. But students describe the process using terms of stress (fear,angst, tired, etc.) Everyday-life research also had a lot of risk associated with it, e.g., when researching medical problems.


Their research led the project to come up with a preliminary model based on what students told them about the difficulties of doing research that says in the beginning part of research, students try to define four contexts: big picture, info-gathering, language, situational. These provide meaning and interpretation.


a. Big picture. In a focus group, a student said s/he went to international relations class and there was an assignment on how Socrates would be relevant to a problem today. Alison looked at the syllabus and wondered, “Was this covered?” Getting the big picture enables students to get their arms around a topic.


b. Info gathering. “We give students access to 80 databases at our small library, and they really want access to one,” says Barbara Fister at Gustavus Adolphus.


c. Language. This is why most students go to librarians. They need the vocabulary.


d. Situational. The expectations: how long should the paper be, how do I get an A, etc.? In everyday life, the situational question might be: how far do I go with an answer? When do I know enough?


Students surveyed said that for course related research they almost always need the big picture, often need info-gathering, sometimes need language, and sometimes need situational. Students were 1.5x more likely to go to a librarian for language context. For everyday-life, big picture is often a need, and the others are needed only sometimes. Many students find everyday-life research is harder because it’s open-ended, harder to know when you’re done, and harder to know when you’re right. Course-related research ends with a grade.


2. “Students turn to the same ‘tried and true’ resources over and over again.”. In course research, course readings were used 97% of the time. Search engines: 96%. Library databases: 94%. Instructors: 88%. Wikipedia: 85%. (Those are the 2010 results. In 2009, everything rose except course readings.) Students are not using a lot of on-campus sources. Alison says that during 20 years of teaching, she found students were very disturbed if she critiqued the course readings. Students go to course readings not only to get situational context, but also to get big picture context, i.e., the lay of the land. They don’t want you critiquing those readings, because you’re disrupting their big picture context. Librarians were near the bottom, in line with other research findings. But “instructors are a go-to source.” Also, note that students don’t go online for all their info. They talk to friends, instructors, etc.


In everyday life research, the list in order is: Search engines 95%, Wikipedia 84%, friends and family 87%, personal collection 75%, and government sites 65%.


Students tend to repeat the same processes.


3. “Students use a strategy of predictability and efficiency.” They’re not floundering. They have a strategy. You may not like it, but they have one. It’s a way to fill in the context.


Alison presents a composite student named Jessica. (i) She has no shortage of ideas for research. But she needs the language to talk about the project, and to get good results from searching. (ii) Students are often excited about the course research project, but they worry that they’ll pick a topic “that fails them,” i.e., that doesn’t let them fulfill the requirements. (iii) They are often risk-averse. They’ll use the same resource over and over, even Project Muse for a science course. (“I did a paper on the metaphor of breast cancer,” said one student.) (iv) They are often self-taught and independent, and try to port over what they learned in high school. But HS works for HS, and not for college. (iv) Currency matters.


What’s the most difficult step? 1. Getting started 84%. 2. Defining a topic 66%. Narrowing a topic 62%. Sorting through irrelevant results 61%. Task definition is the most difficult part of research. For life research, the hardest part is figuring out when you’re done.


So, where do they go when they’re having difficulty in course research? They go to instructors, but handouts fall short: few handouts the project looked at discussed what research means (16%). Six in ten handouts sent students to the library for a book. Only 18% mention plagiarism, and few of those explained what it is. Students want email access to the instructor. Second, most want a handout that they can take with them and check off as they do their work. Few hand-outs tell students how to gather information. Faculty express surprise at this, saying that they assume students know how to do research already, or that it’s not the prof’s job to teach them that. They tend not to mention librarians or databases.


Students use ibrary databases (84%), OPAC (78%), study areas (72%), check library shelves (55%), cafe (48%). Only 12% use the online “Ask a librarian” reference. 20% consult librarians about assignments, but 24% ask librarians about the library system.


Librarians use a model of scholarly thoroughness, while students use a model of efficiency. Students tend to read the course materials and then google for the rest.


Alison plays a video:



How have things changed? 1. Students contend with a staggering amount of information. 2. They are always on and always being notified. 3. It’s a Web 2.0 sharing culture. The old days of dreading group projects are ending; satudents sometimes post their topics on Facebook to elicit reactions and help. 4. The expectations from information has changed.


“Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not hyperlinke.”

[I moderated the Q&A so I couldn't liveblog it.]
TAGS: -berkman

3 Comments »

January 8, 2012

[2b2k] Why Is Open-Internet Champion Darrell Issa Supporting an Attack on Open Science?

I’ve swiped the title of this post from Rebecca J. Rosen’s excellent post at The Atlantic. Darrell Issa has been generally good on open Internet issues, so why is he supporting a bill that would forbid the government from requiring researchers to openly post the results of their research? [Later that day: I revised the previous sentence, which was gibberish. Sorry.]

Rebecca cites danah boyd’s awesome post: Save Scholarly Ideas, Not the Publishing Industry (a rant). InfoDocket has a helpful roundup, including to Peter Suber’s Google+ discussion.

1 Comment »

December 17, 2011

D is for Digital

D is for Digital

I’m enjoying a book by Brian Kernighan — yes, that Brian Kernighan — based on a course he’s been teaching at Princeton called “Computers in Our World.” D is for Digital is a clear, straightfoward, grownup introduction to computers: hardware and software, programming, and the Internet. [Disclosure: Brian wrote some of during his year as a fellow at the Berkman Center.]

D is for Digital is brief, but it drives its topics down to the nuts and bolts, which is a helpful reminder that all the magic on your screen is grounded in some very real wires and voltages. Likewise, Brian has a chapter on how to program, taking Javascript as his example. He does not back away from talking about libraries and APIs. He even explains public key encryption clearly enough that even I understand it. (Of course, I have frequently understood it for up to fifteen minutes at a time.) There are a few spots where the explanations are not quite complete enough — his comparison of programming languages doesn’t tell us enough about the differences — but they are rare indeed. Even so, I like that this book doesn’t pander to the reader.

D is for Digital would be a nice stocking stuffer with Blown to Bits by Harold Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry R. Lewis, which is an introduction to computers within the context of policy debates. Both are excellent. Together they are excellent squared.

1 Comment »

November 7, 2011

Avi Warshavsky on the future of textbooks

I’ve posted a brief video interview with Avi Warshavsky of the Center for Educational Technology, the leading textbook publisher in Israel. Avi is a thoughtful and innovative software guy who has been experimenting with new ways of structuring textbooks.

Be the first to comment »

November 1, 2011

Eric Frank on Creative Commons textbooks

Eric Frank is the co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, a company that publishes online textbooks that are free via a browser, but cost money if you want to download them. It’s a really interesting model. I interview him here.

Be the first to comment »

October 17, 2011

[2b2k] Why this article?

An possible explanation of the observation of neutrinos traveling faster than light has been posted at Arxiv.org by Ronald van Elburg. I of course don’t have any of the conceptual apparatus to be able to judge that explanation, but I’m curious about why, among all the explanations, this is one I’ve now heard about it.

In a properly working knowledge ecology, the most plausible explanations would garner the most attention, because to come to light an article would have to pass through competent filters. In the new ecology, it may well be that what gets the most attention are articles that appeal to our lizard brains in various ways: they make overly-bold claims, they over-simplify, they confirm prior beliefs, they are more comprehensible to lay people than are ideas that require more training to understand, they have an interesting backstory (“Ashton Kutcher tweets a new neutrino explanation!”)…

By now we are all familiar with the critique of the old idea of a “properly working knowledge ecology”: Its filters were too narrow and were prone to preferring that which was intellectually and culturally familiar. There is a strong case to be made that a more robust ecology is wilder in its differences and disagreements. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be clearly true (i.e., I’m not going to present any evidence to support the following) that to our lizard brains the Internet is a flat rock warmed by a bright sun.

But that is hardly the end of the story. The Internet isn’t one ecology. It’s a messy cascade of intersecting environents. Indeed, the ecology metaphor doesn’t suffice, because each of us pins together our own Net environments by choosing which links to click on, which to bookmark, and which to pass along to our friends. So, I came across the possible neutrino explanation at Metafilter, which I was reading embedded within Netvibes, a feed aggregator that I use as my morning newspaper. A comment at Metafilter pointed to the top comment at Reddit’s AskScience forum on the article, which I turned to because on this sort of question I often find Reddit comment threads helpful. (I also had a meta-interest in how articles circulate.) If you despise Reddit, you would have skipped the Metafilter comment’s referral to that site, but you might well hae pursued a different trail of links.

If we take the circulation of Ronald van Elburg’s article as an example, what do we learn? Well, not much because it’s only one example. Nevertheless, I think it at least helps make clear just how complex our “media environment” has become, and some of the effects it has on knowledge and authority.

First, we don’t yet know how ideas achieve status as centers of mainstream contention. Is von Elburg’s article attaining the sort of reliable, referenceable position that provides a common ground for science? It was published at Arxiv, which lets any scientist with an academic affiliation post articles at any stage of readiness. On the other hand, among the thousands of articles posted every day, the Physics Arxiv blog at Technology Review blogged about this one. (Even who’s blogging about what where is complex!) If over time von Elburg’s article is cited in mainstream journals, then, yes, it will count as having vaulted the wall that separates the wannabes from the contenders. But, to what extent are articles not published in the prestigious journals capable of being established as touchpoints within a discipline? More important, to what extent does the ecology still center around controversies about which every competent expert is supposed to be informed? How many tentpoles are there in the Big Tent? Is there a Big Tent any more?

Second, as far as I know, we don’t yet have a reliable understanding of the mechanics of the spread of ideas, much less an understanding of how those mechanics relate to the worth of ideas. So, we know that high-traffic sites boost awareness of the ideas they publish, and we know that the mainstream media remain quite influential in either the creation or the amplification of ideas. We know that some community-driven sites (Reddit, 4chan) are extraordinarily effective at creating and driving memes. We also know that a word from Oprah used to move truckloads of books. But if you look past the ability of big sites to set bonfires, we don’t yet understand how the smoke insinuates its way through the forest. And there’s a good chance we will never understand it very fully because the Net’s ecology is chaotic.

Third, I would like to say that it’s all too complex and imbued with value beliefs to be able to decide if the new knowledge ecology is a good thing. I’d like to be perceived as fair and balanced. But the truth is that every time I try to balance the scales, I realize I’ve put my thumb on the side of traditional knowledge to give it heft it doesn’t deserve. Yes, the new chaotic ecology contains more untruths and lies than ever, and they can form a self-referential web that leaves no room for truth or light. At the same time, I’m sitting at breakfast deciding to explore some discussions of relativity by wiping the butter off my finger and clicking a mouse button. The discussions include some raging morons, but also some incredibly smart and insightful strangers, some with credentials and some who prefer not to say. That’s what happens when a population actually engages with its culture. To me, that engagement itself is more valuable than the aggregate sum of stupidity it allows.


(Yes, I know I’m having some metaphor problems. Take that as an indication of the unsettled nature of our thought. Or of bad writing.)

1 Comment »

October 7, 2011

[2b2k] How we assess credibility

Soo Young Rieh is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. She recently finished a study (funded in part by MacArthur) on how people assess the credibility of sources when they are just searching for information and when they are actually posting information. Her study didn’t focus on a particular age or gender, and found [SPOILER] that we don’t take extra steps to assess the credibility of information when we are publishing it.

2 Comments »

« Previous Page | Next Page »


Switch to our mobile site