Joho the Blog

June 6, 2014

19 hours in the Negev

My wife and I just spent nineteen hours in Yeruham [flickr photos] in the Negev desert. We were visiting Avi Warshavsky and his family who I know through the Center for Educational Technology, an Israeli non-profit that encourages tech innovation (in Hebrew and Arabic) for schools. Avi is the head of MindCET, a remarkable ed tech incubator in Yeruham, and is a highly respected figure in the Israeli open tech field. (I was brought to Israel by Yad Hanadiv and the National Library of Israel to talk with the Library about its digital initiative. I also gave an informal talk to the Library staff, talked at a Wikimedia conference, and went to a meetup of Hasadna (a collective of open data activists), so it’s been a busy and ultra-stimulating week.)

Anyway, yesterday evening we went down to Yeruham, a town of 10,000 noted for its open-hearted culture. You come to Yeruham after a long drive through an increasingly barren landscape. Yeruham Lake announces the start of the town, which in the US might make it all the way to being a large pond, but which is the second largest lake in Israel. (I think I must have gotten that wrong since it doesn’t even make Wikipedia’s list of lakes in Israel, which is only three entries long.) The town itself is modest but full of the signs family life: playgrounds, small shops, cafes, a well-used cultural center.

That evening, Avi took us and two of his children to see "the crater" from atop Mt. Avnun. You drive up a two-way road about the width of 1.5 cars until you are on the top of a mountain. Then you walk for about two minutes to get to the edge of a cliff bounded by a trip wire pretending to be a fence. The crater is not a deep hole but more like an upside-down bottle cap, except the edges are mountains and the bottle cap would take a day of walking to cross. Also, if you or any of your loved ones get too close to the edge of this bottle cap, they will be pulled off by an invisible vortex which your host insists does not exist but you can sense through your X-Man power of Being Afraid.

It’s quite beautiful.

The next day, we started the morning by going to David Ben-Gurion‘s burial place, which is a park of green atop a bluff that looks out at a sea of bluffs. Magnificent. If only Charlton Heston were there to hold his arms out majestically.

In the park, if you go in the morning, you can see wild ibexes (ibixen?) chewing at the vegetation, birds of various sorts, and lizards scuttling about. The ibexes we saw were smaller than deer, and lovely. It was great to see the ibex outside of its usual habitat: the crossword puzzle.

Then we went to Avdat, a Unesco World Heritage site where you can wander through a mountaintop village built of stone inhabited by the Nabataeans, Romans, and Byzantines from third century BCE to the seventh century CE. It was one of 65 walled villages along the route incense caravans took to ships waiting in Gaza. It is a beautiful spot, and more of the old village remains than I’d expected. We were the only people there. (It was also the first time in my life I wished I were wearing sun glasses. After about half an hour, I had trouble seeing.)

In a total switch of context, we then went to the MindCET offices, which were closed for the Shavuos holiday. Avi and I were able to catch up on the 14 startups MindCET has worked with, the global Ed Tech competition MindCET is co-sponsoring, and more. MindCET is a great place for early stage startups, providing them with a place to co-work and mentoring. Yeruham would like to attract more tech companies, which I can see. It seems like a wonderful community.

Also, at night Yeruham has stars We should get some of those for Boston.

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June 1, 2014

Oculus Riiiiiiiiiift

At the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Center for Educational Technology, an NGO I’m very fond of because of its simultaneous dedication to improving education and its embrace of innovative technology, I got to try an Oculus Rift.

They put me on a virtual roller coaster. My real knees went weak.

Holy smokes.

wearing an Oculus Rift

 


Earlier, I gave a talk at the Israeli Wikimedia conference. I was reminded — not that I actually need reminding — how much I like being around Wikipedians. And what an improbable work of art is Wikipedia.

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[liveblog] Jan-Bart de Vreede at Wikimedia Israel

I’m at the Israeli Wikimedia conference. The chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, Jan-Bart De Vreede, is being interviewed by Shizaf Rafaeli.

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.

Jan introduces himself. Besides being the chair, in the Netherlands he works on open educational resources at Kinnesnent. He says that the Wikimedia Foundation is quite small compared to other organizations like it. Five members are elected by the community (anyone with enough edits can vote), there are four appointed members, and Jimmy Wales.

Q: The Foundation is based on volunteers, and it has a budget. What are the components of the future for Wikipedia?

A: We have to make sure we get the technology to the place where we’re prepared for the future. And how we can enable the volunteers to do whatever they want to achieve our mission of being the sum of all knowledge, which is a high bar? Enabling volunteers is the highest impact thing that we can do.

Q: Students just did a presentation here based on the idea that Wikipedia already has too much information.

A: It’s not up to us to decide how the info is consumed. We should make sure that the data is available to be presented any way people want to. We are moving toward WikiData: structured data and the relationship among that data. How can we make it easier for people to add data to WikiData without necessarily requiring people to edit pages? How can we enable people to tag data? Can we use that to learn what people find relevant?

Q: What’s most important?

A: WikiData. Then Wikipedia Zero, making WP access available in developing parts of the globe. We’re asking telecoms to provide free access to Wikipedia on mobile phones.

Q: You’re talking with the Israeli Minister of Education tomorrow. About what?

A: We have a project of Wikipedia for children, written by children. Children can have an educational experience — e.g., interview a Holocaust survivor — and share it so all benefit from it.

Q: Any interesting projects?

A: Wiki Monuments [link ?]. Wiki Air. So many ideas. So much more to do. The visual editor will help people make edits. But we also have to make sure that new editors are welcomed and are treated kindly. Someone once told Jan that she “just helps new editors,” and he replied that that scale smuch better than creating your own edits.

A: I’m surprised you didn’t mention reliability…

Q: Books feel trustworthy. The Net automatically brings a measure of distrust, and rightly so. Wikipedia over the years has come to feel trustworthy, but that requires lots of people looking at it and fixing it when its wrong.

Q: 15,000 Europeans have applied to have their history erased on Google. The Israeli Supreme Court has made a judgment along the same lines. What’s Wikipedia’s stance on this?

A: As we understand it, the right to be forgotten applies to search engines, not to source articles about you. Encyclopedia articles are about what’s public.

Q: How much does the neutral point of view count?

A: It’s the most important thing, along with being written by volunteers. Some Silicon Valley types have refused to contributed money because, they say, we have a business model that we choose not to use: advertising. We decided it’d be more important to get many small contributions than corrode NPOV by taking money.

A: How about paid editing so that we get more content?

Q: It’s a tricky thing. There are public and governmental institutions that pay employees to provide Open Access content to Wikipedia and Wiki Commons. On the other hand, there are organizations that take money to remove negative information about their clients. We have to make sure that there’s a way to protect the work of genuine volunteers from this. But even when we make a policy about, the local Wikipedia units can override it.

Q: What did you think of our recent survey?

A: The Arab population was much more interested in editing Wikipedia than the Israeli population. How do you enable that? It didn’t surprise me that women are more interested in editing. We have to work against our systemic bias.

Q: Other diversity dimensions we should pay more attention to?

A: Our concept of encyclopedia itself is very Western. Our idea of citations is very Western and academic. Many cultures have oral citations. Wikipedia doesn’t know how to work with that. How can we accommodate knowledge that’s been passed down through generations?

Q&A

Q: Wikipedia doesn’t allow original research. Shouldn’t there be an open access magazine for new scientific research?

A: There are a lot of OA efforts. If more are needed, they should start with volunteers.

Q: Academics and Wikipedia have a touchy relationship. Wikipedia has won that battle. Isn’t it time to gear up for the next battle, i.e., creating open access journals?

A: There are others doing this. You can always upload and publish articles, if you want [at Wiki Commons?].

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May 30, 2014

Manifest Netiny

That title is supposed to be a very bad play on “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th century American assumption that of course European-Americans will master the entire stretch of the country, transforming it according to their cultural norms. What, we’d stop in Sheboygan? Pshaw!

We have the same narrative now with the Net. Of course the Net will continue until every region is hooked up. Of course it will go beyond humans until every conceivable device is chattering over the Net. Of course! What, we’d stop with the affluent or with the human? Pshaw!

I’m not say that this narrative is wrong, just as Manifest Destiny triumphed. I’m just pointing out that it’s a narrative, and not actually a destiny.

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May 24, 2014

An Hasidic tale

For no reason whatsoever, here’s an Hasidic tale, recounted by Walter Benjamin in his essay “Franz Kafka”, in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn.

In a Hasidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-aw; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so everyone spoke in turn.

After they had finished only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. “I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in mu palace, an enemy would invade my country and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn’t have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.”

The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. “And what good would this wish have done you?” someone asked.

“I’d have a shirt,” was the answer.

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May 21, 2014

[liveblog] Judith Donath on designing for sociality (“Social Machines”)

Judith Donath is giving a book talk to launch The Social Machine. I read it this weekend and it is a rich work that explores the ways in which good design can improve our online sociality. I’m a fan of Judith’s and am looking forward to seeing what 25-minutes’ worth of ideas she selects to talk about tonight, given the richness of her book.

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.

Judith begins by saying that the theme of the book is the importance of online social interaction and designing for it. Our interfaces may look sophisticated but they’re primitive when it comes to enabling social interaction. She uses a Mark Twain story ["Was the World Made for Man?"] about an oyster’s point of view to remind us that online design isn’t really all that evolved. One big issue: We can’t see the interactions.

We like being with other people, Judith remindsd us. We like seeing how they look, feeling the energy in a room, etc. This is hard to perceive when you’re looking at screen. Our computers connect us to tremendous crowds, but we don’t see the level of activity or the patterns. She shows a work from 25 years ago when she spent a summer in Japan. Her friends were in Boston on computers. The “who” command let her see who was online and how active they were; it was an old-style computer print-out of a list. She came back from Japan trying to design a more useful display. In the early 1990s she came up with “Visual Who,” a text-based visualization of the people online, filterable by interests, etc. She shows some other ways of displaying social network maps, but such maps aren’t yet integrated into the social network interfaces. Maps like these would help manage Facebook’s privacy settings, she ways. Or we could use them as an interface for keeping up with people we haven’t interacted with in a while, etc.

Legibility is a huge issue, she says. Information is non-spatial, so it can be hard to parse. Judith points to the Talk pages where Wikipedia pages are discussed and edited. Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg did a visualization (History Flow) of the edits on the Chocolate article. This lets you see what’s controversial and what isn’t. They then took the same data and looked not at every edit, but sampled it at fixed times. It’s a much smoother diagram. That shows the reader’s experience, while the first version showed the writers’ version.

Now Judith talks about “Beyond Being There” (a paper by Hollan, Nielsen, Stornetta, et al.). We can do things with these tools that we can’t do face-to-face. (The fact that we’re in public looking at our cell phones indicates that we’re getting some meaningful social connection that way, she says.) Judith shows the interface to “Talking Circles,” [pdf] an interface for audio conferences. It consists of colored circles. When someone speaks, their circle’s inside moves with their voice. Circles that are near each other are able to hear each other. As they move away, they can’t hear each other. So you could have a private conversation over this digital medium.

These interfaces change the social dynamics around a space. E.g., the “Like” economy induces some to use Intagram to try to gather more likes. Judith points to the Karrie Karahalios and Viega’s Conversation Clock“, a table top that shows who spoke when and who overlapped (interrupted) another. E.g., the fact that we’re all being watched (or think we are — Judith references the Panopticon) shapes our behavior. She points to the EU’s decision that Google has to remove links upon user request.

Judith points to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, who looks young in a painting done when she was 65. If you think about data as portraying someone, you become aware of the triangle of subject, audience, and painter, each with their own interests. (She says that two years ago another portrait of Elizabeth from the same time and studio shows her looking very old indeed.)

When you think about doing portraits with data, you have to ask how to make something expressive. She points to “The Rhythm of Salience,” a project she created using an existing conversation database. She picked out words that she identified as being about the individuals. At heart, a portrait takes what’s representative of someone, exaggerates it, and shows the salience. She shows the Caricature Generator by Susan Brennan. You can do the same thing with words, e.g. Themail by Fernanda Viegas and Scott Golder. People save their email, but generally they don’t use their archives. People are more interested in keeping the patterns of relationships than in the individual emails. So, Themail shows a histogram of the month-to-month relationship with anyone in your archive. The column shows the volume of messages, but the words that compose the bars show you the dominant words. [I didn't get that exactly right. Sorry]

She ends by showing Personas by Aaron Zinman (and Donath). You type in your name and spits back a little portrait of you. It searches Google for mentions of your name and characterizes it.

All of these raise enormous questions, she says.

Q&A [extra special abbreviated version]

Q: [me] Is this change good? Or pathological? You show an incredibly fluid environment; is this changing our f2f relationships?

A: Jane Jacobs wrote the Life and Death of Great American Cities not to judge cities but to make them better. My book tries to show ways we can use design to make our social relationships better. Right now we deal with one another differently f2f and in the real world. In 10 years, that distinction will be much less pronounced. E.g., as Google Glass type products and better interfaces will have much more important affects on f2f. That’s why it’s important that we think about these issues now.

Colin Maclay: And as danah boyd says, for the youth it’s not offline or online life. It’s just life.

Q: What’s the difference between info that you put up and info about you that others post and use?

A: There’s very little use of pseudonymity online. Usually it’s your real name or you’re anonymous. Judith shops online for most of her stuff, and she reads reviews. But she doesn’t write reviews in part because she doesn’t want her deodorant review to come up when people google her. That’s where pseudonyms come in. Pseudonyms don’t guarantee complete anonymity but for everyday use they enable us to gain control over our lives online.

Q: Nicholas Negroponte: You were doing social networking work decades ago. Why is it taking so long for the evolution we’re waiting for?

A: The Web set design back tremendously. The Web made it easy for everyone to participate, but one of the costs was that the simplicity of the interface of the Web made it hard to do design or to have identities online. It slowed down a lot of social design. Also, the world of design is extremely conservative because companies imitate one another.

Q: GPS is causing a generational difference in how we navigate space…

A: Tech is often designed subconsciously so that there are insiders and outsiders. [I've overly shortened this interchange.]

Q: Email vs. text messaging?

A: There are fashions. Also, IM has its uses…

Q: How can sites guarantee what they intend to provide, e.g., privacy? How can they ensure trust? E.g., people have figured out how to take screencaptures of snapchat, subverting the design.

A: Design doesn’t guarantee things. But we should have spaces where we have good enough privacy. We need better interfaces for this. Also, many things you see online don’t let you have a sense of how big your audience is or how permanent will be what you say. Some of the visualizations I’ve talked about give you a sense of the publicness of what you’re saying.

Q: Pseudonymity does reign supreme on Reddit. And whatever happened to Second Life, which seems to address some of the issues you talked about.

A: About every 7 years, a new avatar-based space comes out, so we’re about due for the next. Our original work with Chat Spaces was in response to The Palace. I’m not a big fan of that type of graphical chat space because they’re trying to reproduce the feeling of being f2f without going “beyond being there. ” E.g., a student [?] wrote a paper on why there are chairs in Second Life. Good question. Q: What about skeuomorphism? That metaphor holds things back. Is it just an art to come up with designs that break the old metaphors?

A: The first part of the book deals with that question. There’s a chapter on metaphor. If your metaphors are too heavy handed, they limit what you can do. E.g., if you use folders, you have to figure out which one to put your email in. If you used labels (tags), you wouldn’t have to make those decisions. A lot of the art of design is learning how to use metaphors so you can do something more abstract while still being legible, and how you can bend the metaphors without breaking them.

Q: How does Internet balkanization affect your viewpoint and affect designers?

A: How do we use language and images to bridge cultures? Designers have to understand what images mean. It’s an enormously difficult problem. It’s crucial to try to be always cognizant of one’s own cultural issues. E.g., Caricatures look different depending on your cultural norms. In the book, I did not write about caricatures of Obama in white and black publications, butepending on what norm you use, you get different results about what’s salient.

Q: If you could give people a visualization of how they behave in negotiations, that could be useful when people get stuck.

A: The Conversation Clock’s design has done some work on this. Who’s saying no? Who’s interrupting. It’s difficult for people to notice.

Q: The iPhone has just moved away from skeuomorphism. Do you know how long it takes for us to move away from this?

A: Much of this has to do with style and fashion.

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May 19, 2014

Popup balloon help: cheap, easy, sort of working

The right way to add popup help balloons to your javascript app is to download Qtip, a jquery library that works and gives you excellent control over how your popup balloons work. I’ve used it in other apps, but last night I couldn’t get it to work with my Google Books -> Harvard Library mashup — it uses the Google Books API to do full text searching of books, and then tries to find the results in the Harvard catalog — I think because I need to use an older version of jquery because another set of tools in this app requires it. So, I decided to scribble together a very simple balloon help.

This html page demos it and contains in its source the very simple javascript and css. NOTE: I’m sure that I’ve implemented it in a boneheaded way and that it won’t actually work except under ideal conditions. Best I can do.

The basic way this works:

  • The element that will get a popup help should have an attribute called “help.” The content of that attribute will be the content of the balloon. E.g. <p help=”This is some <em> help</em>.”>

  • Declare the elements getting a balloon to be position:relative.

  • Create the help balloons using the CSS styling you’d like, but make their position absolute. Use margin-top and margin-left to position them relative to the element they’re explaining. Don’t forget about negative margins.

  • Change the mouseenter event for elements with the “help” attribute. Also the mouseleave event.

Remember, I probably did some things very very wrong. Use Qtip or some other library that works and works reliably. But, having written this for myself, I figure I ought to share it. (And, by the way, the Google Books -> Harvard Library code is here. Have pity on a poor amateur.)

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May 14, 2014

Kehyboard shortcuts for Google Chrome

An article at How-To Geek explains how to create keyboard shortcuts for Google Chrome. It explains the built-in way to assign a keystroke to an extension, and recommends the Shortcut Manager extension that lets you create shortcuts for much of Chrome’s built-in functionality.

I will take this occasion to recommend Tab Rocker, by Joel Weinberger [twitter:metromoxie]. It lets you toggle between two open tabs via a keystroke. Joel wrote the first draft of it in a Thanksgiving afternoon after I whined about not having that functionality. Shortly afterwards Joel began working at Google as a security genius (which is not his official title but should be). And, yes, he is related to me: he’s my nephew.

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May 13, 2014

Full-text searching Harvard Library: a hacky mashup

Harvard Library has 13M items in its collection. Harvard is digitizing many of them, but as of now you cannot do a full text search of them.

Google Books had 30M books digitized as of a year ago. You can do full-text searches of them.

So, I wrote a little app [Note: I've corrected this url.] that lets you search Google Books for text, and then matches up the results with books in Harvard Library. It’s a proof of concept, and I’m counting the concept as proved, or at least as promising. On the other hand, my API key for Google Books only allows 2,000 queries a day, so it’s not practical on the licensing front.

This project runs on top of LibraryCloud, an open source library metadata server created by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I co-direct (until Sept.). LibraryCloud provides an API to Harvard’s open library metadata and more. (We’re building a new, more scalable version now. It is, well, super-cool.)

But please note that this HOLLIS full-text search thingy is NOT a project done by our highly innovative and highly skilled developers. I did it, which means if you look at the code (github) you will have a good laugh. Also, this service will fail in dull and interesting ways. I am a horrible programmer. (But I enjoy it.)

Some details below the clickable screenshot…


Click on the image to expand it.
googleHollis screen capture

Click here to go to the app.

The Google Books results are on the left (only ten for now), and HOLLIS on the right.

If a Google result is yellow, there’s a match with a book in HOLLIS. Gray means no match. HOLLIS book titles are prefaced by a number that refers to the Google results number. Clicking on the Google results number (in the circle) hides or shows those works in the stack on the right; this is because some Google books match lots of items in HOLLIS. (Harvard has a lot of copies of King Lear, for example.)

There are two types of matches. If an item matched on a firm identifier (ISBN,OCLC, LCCN), then there’s a checkmark before the title in the HOLLIS stack, and there’s a “Stacklife” button in the Google list. Clicking on the Stacklife button displays the book in Harvard StackLife, a very cool — and prize winning! — library browser created by our Lab. The StackLife stack colorizes items based on how much they’re used by the Harvard community. The thickness of the book indicates its page count and its length indicates its actual physical height.

If there’s no match on the identifiers, then the page looks for a keyword match on the title and an exact match on the author’s last name. This can result in multiple results, not all of which may be right. So, on the Google result there’s a “Feeling lucky” button that will take you to the first match’s entry in StackLife.

The “Google” button takes you to that item’s page at Google Books, filtered by your search terms for your full-texting convenience.

The “View” button pops up the Google Books viewer for that book, if it’s available.

The “Clear stack” button deselects all the items in the Google results, hiding all the items in the HOLLIS stack.

Let me know how this breaks or sucks, but don’t expect it ever to be a robust piece of software. Remember its source.

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May 11, 2014

[2b2k] “In Over Our Heads” – My Simmons commencement address

On Friday, I had the tremendous honor of being awarded a Doctor of Letters degree from Simmons College, and giving the Commencement address at the Simmons graduate students’ ceremony.

Simmons is an inspiring place, and not only for its deep commitment to educating women. Being honored this way — especially along with Ruth Ellen Fitch, Madeleine M. Joullié, and Billie Jean King — made me very, very happy.

 


Thank you so much to Simmons College, President Drinan, and the Board of Trustees for this honor, which means the world to me. I’m just awed by it. Also, Professor Candy Schwartz and Dean Eileen Abels, a special thank you. And this honor is extra-special meaningful because my father-in-law, Marvin Geller, is here today, and his sister, Jeannie Geller Mason, was, as she called herself, a Simmons girl, class of 1940. Afterwards, Marvin will be happy to sing you the old “We are the girls of Simmons C” college song if you ask.

So, first, to the parents: I have been in your seat, and I know how proud – and maybe relieved – you are. So, congratulations to you. And to the students, it’s such an honor to be here with you to celebrate your being graduated from Simmons College, a school that takes seriously the privilege of helping its students not only to become educated experts, but to lead the next cohort in their disciplines and professions.

Now, as I say this, I know that some of you may be shaking your inner heads, because a commencement speaker is telling you about how bright your futures are, but maybe you have a little uncertainty about what will happen in your professions and with your career. That’s not only natural, it’s reasonable. But, some of you – I don’t know how many — may be feeling beyond that an uncertainty about your own abilities. You’re being officially certified with an advanced degree in your field, but you may not quite feel the sense of mastery you expected.

In other words, you feel the way I do now. And the way I did in 1979 when I got my doctorate in philosophy. I knew well enough the work of the guy I wrote my dissertation on, but I looked out at the field and knew just how little I knew about so much of it. And I looked at other graduates, and especially at the scholars and experts who had been teaching us, and I thought to myself, “They know so much more than I do.” I could fake it pretty well, but actually not all that well.

So, I want to reassure those of you who feel the way that I did and do, I want to reassure you that that feeling of not really knowing what you should, that feeling may stay with you forever. In fact, I hope it does — for your sake, for your profession, and for all of us.

But before explaining, I need to let you in on the secret: You do know enough. It’s like Gloria Steinem’s response, when she was forty, to people saying that she didn’t look forty. Steinem replied, “This is what forty looks like.” And this is what being a certified expert in your field feels like. Simmons knows what deserving your degree means, and its standards are quite high. So, congratulations. You truly earned this and deserve it.

But here’s why it’s good to get comfortable with always having a little lack of confidence. First, if you admit no self-doubt, you lose your impulse to learn. Second, you become a smug, know-it-all and no one likes you. Third, what’s even worse, is that you become a soldier in the army of ignorance. Your body language tells everyone else that their questions are a sign of weakness, which shuts down what should have been a space for learning.

The one skill I’ve truly mastered is asking stupid questions. And I don’t mean questions that I pretend are stupid but then, like Socrates, they show the folly of all those around me. No, they’re just dumb questions. Things I really should know by now. And quite often it turns out that I’m not the only one in the room with those questions. I’ve learned far more by being in over my head than by knowing what I’m talking about. And, as I’ll get to, we happen to be in the greatest time for being in over our heads in all of human history.

Let me give you just one quick example. In 1986 I became a marketing writer at a local tech startup called Interleaf that made text-and-graphic word processors. In 1986 that was a big deal, and what Interleaf was doing was waaaay over my head. So, I hung out with the engineers, and I asked the dumbest questions. What’s a font family? How can the spellchecker look up words as fast as you type them? When you fill a shape with say, purple, how does the purple know where to stop? Really basic. But because it was clear that I was a marketing guy who was genuinely interested in what the engineers were doing, they gave me a lot of time and an amazing education. Those were eight happy years being in over my head.

I’m still way over my head in the world of libraries, which are incredibly deep institutions. Compared to “normal” information technology, the data libraries deal with is amazingly profound and human. And librarians have been very generous in helping me learn just a small portion of what they know. Again, this is in part because they know my dumb questions are spurred by a genuine desire to understand what they’re doing, down to the details.

In fact, going down to the details is one very good way to make sure that you are continually over your head. We will never run out of details. The world’s just like that: there’s no natural end to how closely you can look at thing. And one thing I’ve learned is that everything is interesting if looked at at the appropriate level of detail.

Now, it used to be that you’d have to seek out places to plunge in over your head. But now, in the age of the Internets, all we have to do is stand still and the flood waters rise over our heads. We usually call this “information overload,” and we’re told to fear it. But I think that’s based on an old idea we need to get rid of.

Here’s what I mean. So, you know Flickr, the photo sharing site? If you go there and search for photos tagged “vista,” you’ll get two million photos, more vistas than you could look at if you made it your full time job.

If you go to Google and search for apple pie recipes, you’ll get over 1.3 million of them. Want to try them all out to find the best one. Not gonna happen.

If you go to Google Images and search for “cute cats,” you’ll get over seven million photos of the most adorable kittens ever, as well as some ads and porn, of course, because Internet.

So that’s two million vista photos. 1.3 million apple pie recipes. 7.6 million cute cat photos. We’re constantly warned about information overload, yet we never hear one word single word about the dangers of Vista Overload, Apple Pie Overload, or Cute Kitten overload. How have the media missed these overloads! It’s a scandal!

I think there’s actually a pretty clear reason why we pay no attention to these overloads. We only feel overloaded by that which we feel responsible for mastering. There’s no expectation that we’ll master vista photos, apple pie recipes, or photos of cute cats, so we feel no overload. But with information it’s different because we used to have so much less of it that back then mastery seemed possible. For example, in the old days if you watched the daily half hour broadcast news or spent twenty minutes with a newspaper, you had done your civic duty: you had kept up with The News. Now we can see before our eyes what an illusion that sense of mastery was. There’s too much happening on our diverse and too-interesting planet to master it, and we can see it all happening within our browsers.

The concept of Information Overload comes from that prior age, before we accepted what the Internet makes so clear: There is too, too much to know. As we accept that, the idea of mastery will lose its grip, We’ll stop feeling overloaded even though we’re confronted with exactly the same amount of information.

Now, I want to be careful because we’re here to congratulate you on having mastered your discipline. And grad school is a place where mastery still applies: in order to have a discipline — one that can talk with itself — institutions have to agree on a master-able set of ideas, knowledge, and skills that are required for your field. And that makes complete sense.

But, especially as the Internet becomes our dominant medium of ideas, knowledge, culture, and entertainment, we are all learning just how much there is that we don’t know and will never know.

And it’s not just the quantity of information that makes true mastery impossible in the Age of the Internet. It’s also what it’s doing to the domains we want to master — the topics and disciplines. In the Encyclopedia Britannica — remember that? — an article on a topic extends from the first word to the last, maybe with a few suggested “See also’s” at the end. The article’s job is to cover the topic in that one stretch of text. Wikipedia has different idea. At Wikipedia, the articles are often relatively short, but they typically have dozens or even hundreds of links. So rather than trying to get everything about, say, Shakespeare into a couple of thousand words, Wikipedia lets you click on links to other articles about what it mention — to Stratford-on-Avon, or iambic pentameter, or about the history of women in the theater. Shakespeare at Wikipedia, in other words, is a web of linked articles. Shakespeare on the Web is a web. And it seems to me that that webby structure actually is a more accurate reflection of the shape of knowledge: it’s an endless series of connected ideas and facts, limited by interest, not an article that starts here and ends there. In fact, I’d say that Shakespeare himself was a web, and so am I, and so are you.

But if topics and disciplines are webs, then they don’t have natural and clear edges. Where does the Shakespeare web end? Who decides if the article about, say, women in the theater is part of the Shakespeare web or not? These webs don’t have clearcut edges. But that means that we also can’t be nearly as clear about what it means to master Shakespeare. There’s always more. The very shape of the Web means we’re always in over our heads.

And just one more thing about these messy webs. They’re full of disagreement, contradiction, argument, differences in perspective. Just a few minutes on the Web reveals a fundamental truth: We don’t agree about anything. And we never will. My proof of that broad statement is all of human history. How do you master a field, even if you could define its edges, when the field doesn’t agree with itself?

So, the concept of mastery is tough in this Internet Age. But that’s just a more accurate reflection of the way it always was even if we couldn’t see it because we just didn’t have enough room to include every voice and every idea and every contradiction, and we didn’t have a way to link them so that you can go from one to another with the smallest possible motion of your hand: the shallow click of a mouse button.

The Internet has therefore revealed the truth of what the less confident among us already suspected: We’re all in over our heads. Forever. This isn’t a temporary swim in the deep end of the pool. Being in over our heads is the human condition.

The other side of this is that the world is far bigger, more complex, and more unfathomably interesting than our little brains can manage. If we can accept that, then we can happily be in over our heads forever…always a little worried that we really are supposed to know more than we do, but also, I hope, always willing to say that out loud. It’s the condition for learning from one another…

…And if the Internet has shown us how overwhelmed we are, it’s also teaching us how much we can learn from one another. In public. Acknowledging that we’re just humans, in a sea of endless possibility, within which we can flourish only in our shared and collaborative ignorance.

So, I know you’re prepared because I know the quality of the Simmons faculty, the vision of its leadership, and the dedication of its staff. I know the excellence of the education you’ve participated in. You’re ready to lead in your field. May that field always be about this high over your head — the depth at which learning occurs, curiosity is never satisfied, and we rely on one another’s knowledge, insight, and love.

Thank you.

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