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October 7, 2015

[liveblog] The future of libraries

I’m at a Hubweek event called “Libraries: The Next Generation.” It’s a panel hosted by the Berkman Center with Dan Cohen, the executive director of the DPLA; Andromeda Yelton, a developer who has done work with libraries; and Jeffrey Schnapp of metaLab

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.

Sue Kriegsman of the Center introduces the session by explaining Berkman’s interest in libraries. “We have libraries lurking in every corner…which is fabulous.” Also, Berkman incubated the DPLA. And it has other projects underway.

Dan Cohen speaks first. He says if he were to give a State of the Union Address about libraries, he’d say: “They are as beloved as ever and stand at the center of communities” here and around the world. He cites a recent Pew survey about perspectives on libraries:“ …libraries have the highest approval rating of all American institutions. But, that’s fragile.” libraries have the highest approval rating of all American institutions. But, he warns, that’s fragile. There are many pressures, and libraries are chronically under-funded, which is hard to understand given how beloved they are.

First among the pressures on libraries: the move from print. E-book adoption hasn’t stalled, although the purchase of e-books from the Big Five publishers compared to print has slowed. But Overdrive is lending lots of ebooks. Amazon has 65% of the ebook market, “a scary number,” Dan says. In the Pew survey a couple of weeks ago, 35% said that libraries ought to spend more on ebooks even at the expense of physical books. But 20% thought the opposite. That makes it hard to be the director of a public library.

If you look at the ebook market, there’s more reading go on at places like the DPLA. (He mentions the StackLife browser they use, that came out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I used to co-direct.) Many of the ebooks are being provided straight to a platform (mainly Amazon) by the authors.

There are lots of jobs public libraries do that are unrelated to books. E.g., the Boston Public Library is heavily used by the homeless population.

The way forward? Dan stresses working together, collaboration. “DPLA is as much a social, collaborative project as it is a technical project.” It is run by a community that has gotten together to run a common platform.

And digital is important. We don’t want to leave it to Jeff Bezos who “wants to drop anything on you that you want, by drone, in an hour.”

Andromeda: She says she’s going to talk about “libraries beyond Thunderdome,” echoing a phrase from Sue Kriegman’s opening comments. “My real concern is with the skills of the people surrounding our crashed Boeing.” Libraries need better skills to evaluate and build the software they need. She gives some exxamples of places where we see a tensions between library values and code.

1. The tension between access and privacy. Physical books leave no traces. With ebooks the reading is generally tracked. Overdrive did a deal so that library patrons who access ebooks get notices from Amazon when their loan period is almost up. Adobe does rights management, with reports coming page by page about what people are reading. “Unencrypted over the Internet,” she adds. “You need a fair bit of technical knowledge to see that this is happening,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be this way.” “It’s the DRM and the technology that have these privacy issues built in.”

She points to the NYPL Library Simplified program that makes it far easier for non-techie users. It includes access to Project Gutenberg. Libraries have an incentive to build open architectures that support privacy. But they need the funding and the technical resources.

She cites the Library Freedom Project that teaches librarians about anti-surveillance technologies. They let library users browse the Internet through TOR, preventing (or at least greatly inhibit) tracking. They set up the first library TOR node in New Hampshire. Homeland Security quickly suggested that they stop. But there was picketing against this, and the library turned it back on. “That makes me happy.”

2. Metadata. She has us do an image search for “beautiful woman” at Google. They’re basically all white. Metadata is sometimes political. She goes through the 200s of the Dewey Decimal system: 90% Christian. “This isn’t representative of human knowledge. It’s representative of what Melvil Dewey thought maps to human knowledge.” Libraries make certain viewpoints more computationally accessible than others.“ Our ability to write new apps is only as good as the metadata under them.” Our ability to write new apps is only as good as the metadata under them. “As we go on to a more computational library world — which is awesome — we’re going to fossilize all these old prejudices. That’s my fear.”

“My hope is that we’ll have the support, conviction and empathy to write software, and to demand software, that makes our libraries better, and more fair.”

Jeffrey: He says his peculiar interest is in how we use space to build libraries as architectures of knowledge. “Libraries are one of our most ancient institutions.” “Libraries have constantly undergone change,” from mausoleums, to cloisters, to warehouses, places of curatorial practice, and civic spaces. “The legacy of that history…has traces of all of those historical identities.” We’ve always faced the question “What is a library?” What are it’s services? How does it serve its customers? Architects and designers have responded to this, assuming a set of social needs, opportunities, fantasies, and the practices by which knowledge is created, refined, shared. “These are all abiding questions.”

Contemporary architects and designers are often excited by library projects because it crystallizes one of the most central questions of the day: “How do you weave together information and space?” We’re often not very good at that. The default for libraries has been: build a black box.

We have tended to associate libraries with collections. “If you ask what is a library?, the first answer you get is: a collection.” But libraries have also always been about the making of connections, i.e., how the collections are brought alive. E.g., the Alexandrian Librarywas a performance space. “What does this connection space look like today?” In his book with Matthew Battles, they argue that while we’ve thought of libraries as being a single institution, in fact today there are now many different types of libraries. E.g., the research library as an information space seems to be collapsing; the researchers don’t need reading rooms, etc. But civic libraries are expanding their physical practices.

We need to be talking about many different types of libraries, each with their own services and needs. The Library as an institution is on the wane. We need to proliferate and multiply the libraries to serve their communities and to take advantage of the new tools and services. “We need spaces for learning,” but the stack is just one model.


Dan: Mike O’Malley says that our image of reading is in a salon with a glass of port, but in grad school we’re taught to read a book the way a sous chef guts a fish. A study says that of academic ebooks, 75% of scholars read less than 50 pages of them. [I may have gotten that slightly wrong. Sorry.] Assuming a proliferation of forms, what can we do to address them?

Jeffrey: The presuppositions about how we package knowledge are all up for grabs now. “There’s a vast proliferation of channels. ‘And that’s a design opportunity.’”There’s a vast proliferation of channels. “And that’s a design opportunity.” How can we create audiences that would never have been part of the traditional distribution models? “I’m really excited about getting scholars and creative practitioners involved in short-form knowledge and the spectrum of ways you can intersect” the different ways we use these different forms. “That includes print.” There’s “an extraordinary explosion of innovation around print.”

Andromeda: “Reading is a shorthand. Library is really about transforming people and one another by providing access to information.” Reading is not the only way of doing this. E.g., in maker spaces people learn by using their hands. “How can you support reading as a mode of knowledge construction?” Ten years ago she toured Olin College library, which was just starting. The library had chairs and whiteboards on castors. “This is how engineers think”: they want to be able to configure a space on the fly, and have toys for fidgeting. E.g., her eight year old has to be standing and moving if she’s asked a hard question. “We need to think of reading as something broader than dealing with a text in front of you.”

Jeffrey: The DPLA has a location in the name — America &#8212. The French National Library wants to collect “the French Internet.” But what does that mean? The Net seems to be beyond locality. What role does place play?

Dan: From the beginning we’ve partnered with Europeana. We reused Europeana’s metadata standard, enabling us to share items. E.g., Europeana’s 100th anniversary of the Great War web site was able to seamlessly pull in content from the DPLA via our API, and from other countries. “The DPLA has materials in over 400 languages,” and actively partners with other international libraries.

Dan points to Amy Ryan (the DPLA chairperson, who is in the audience) and points to the construction of glass walls to see into the Boston Public Library. This increases “permeability.” When she was head of the BPL, she lowered the stacks on the second floor so now you can see across the entire floor. Permeability “is a very smart architecture” for both physical and digital spaces.

Jeff: Rendering visible a lot of the invisible stuff that libraries do is “super-rich,” assuming the privacy concerns are addressed.

Andromeda: Is there scope in the DPLA metadata for users to address the inevitable imbalances in the metadata?

Dan: We collect data from 1,600 different sources. We normalize the data, which is essential if you want to enable it for collaboration. Our Metdata Application Profile v. 4 adds a field for annotation. Because we’re only a dozen people, we haven’t created a crowd-sourcing tool, but all our data is CC0 (public domain) so anyone who wants to can create a tool for metadata enhancement. If people do enhance it, though, we’ll have to figure out if we import that data into the DPLA.

Jeffrey: The politics of metadata and taxonomy has a long history. The Enlightenment fantasy is for a universal metadata school. What does the future look like on this issue?

Andromeda: “You can have extremely crowdsourced metadata, but then you’re subject to astroturfing”You can have extremely crowdsourced metadata, but then you’re subject to astroturfing and popularity boosting results for bad reasons. There isn’t a great solution except insofar as you provide frameworks for data that enable many points of view and actively solicit people to express themselves. But I don’t have a solution.

Dan: E.g., at DPLA there are lots of ways entering dates. We don’t want to force a scheme down anyone’s throat. But the tension between crowdsourced and more professional curation is real. The Indianapolis Museum of Art allowed freeform tagging and compared the crowdsourced tags vs. professional. Crowdsourced: “sea” and “orange” were big, which curators generally don’t use.


Q: People structure knowledge differently. My son has ADHD. Or Nepal, where I visited recently.

A: Dan: It’s great that the digital can be reformatted for devices but also for other cultural views. “That’s one of the miraculous things about the digital.” E.g., digital book shelves like StackLife can reorder themselves depending on the query.

Jeff: Yes, these differences can be profound. “Designing for that is a challenge but really exciting.”

Andromeda: This is a why it’s so important to talk with lots of people and to enable them collaborate.

me: Linked data seems to resolve some of these problems with metadata.

Dan: Linked Data provides a common reference for entities. Allows harmonizing data. The DPLA has a slot for such IDs (which are URIs). We’re getting there, but it’s not our immediate priority. [Blogger’s perogative: By having many references for an item linked via “sameAs” relationships can help get past the prejudice that can manifest itself when there’s a single canonical reference link. But mainly I mean that because Linked Data doesn’t have a single record for each item, new relationships can be added relatively easily.]

Q; How do business and industry influence libraries? E.g., Google has images for every place in the world. They have scanned books. “I can see a triangulation happening. Virtual libraries? Virtual spaces?

Andromeda: (1) Virtual tech is written outside of libraries, almost entirely. So it depends on what libraries are able to demand and influence. (2) Commercial tech sets expectations for what users experiences should be like, which libraries may not be able to support. (3) “People say “Why do we need libraries? It’s all online and I can pay for it.” No, it’s not, and no, not everyone can.”People say “Why do we need libraries? It’s all online and I can pay for it.” No, it’s not, and no, not everyone can. Libraries should up their tech game, but there’s an existential threat.

Jeffrey: People use other spaces to connect to knowledge, e.g. coffee houses, which are now being incorporated into libraries. Some people are anxious about that loss of boundary. Being able to eat, drink, and talk is a strong “vision statement” but for some it breaks down the world of contemplative knowledge they want from a library.

Q: The National Science and Technology Library in China last week said they have the right to preserve all electronic resources. How can we do that?

Dan: Libraries have long been sites for preservation. In the 21st century we’re so focused on getting access now now now, we lose sight that we may be buying into commercial systems that may not be able to preserve this. This is the main problem with DRM. Libraries are in the forever business, but we don’t know where Amazon will be. We don’t know if we’ll be able to read today’s books on tomorrow devices. E.g., “I had a subscription to Oyster ebook service, but they just went out of business. There go all my books. ”I had a subscription to Oyster ebook service, but they just went out of business. There go all my books. Open Access advocacy is going to play a critical role. Sure, Google is a $300B business and they’ll stick around, but they drop services. They don’t have a commitment like libraries and nonprofits and universities do to being in the forever business.

Jeff: It’s a huge question. It’s really important to remember that the oldest digital documents we have are 50 yrs old which isn’t even a drop in the bucket. There’s far from universal agreement about the preservation formats. Old web sites, old projects, chunks of knowledge, of mine have disappeared. What does it mean to preserve a virtual world? We need open standards, and practices [missed the word] “Digital stuff is inherently fragile.”

Andromeda: There are some good things going on in this space. The Rapid Response Social Media project is archiving (e.g., #Ferguson). Preserving software is hard: you need the software system, the hardware, etc.

Q: Distintermediation has stripped out too much value. What are your thoughts on the future of curation?

Jeffrey: There’s a high level of anxiety in the librarian community about their future roles. But I think their role comes away as reinforced. It requires new skills, though.

Andromeda: In one pottery class the assignment was to make one pot. In another, it was to make 50 pots. The best pots came out of the latter. When lots of people can author lots of stuff, it’s great. That makes curation all the more critical.

Dan: the DPLA has a Curation Core: librarians helping us organize our ebook collection for kids, which we’re about to launch with President Obama. Also: Given the growth in authorship, yes, a lot of it is Sexy Vampires, but even with that aside, we’ll need librarians to sort through that.

Q: How will Digital Rights Management and copyright issues affect ebooks and libraries? How do you negotiate that or reform that?

Dan: It’s hard to accession a lot of things now. For many ebooks there’s no way to extract them from their DRM and they won’t move into the public domain for well over 100 years. To preserve things like that you have to break the law — some scholars have asked the Library of Congress for exemptions to the DMCA to archive films before they decay.

Q: Lightning round: How do you get people and the culture engaged with public libraries?

Andromeda: Ask yourself: Who’s not here?

Jeffrey: Politicians.

Dan: Evangelism

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September 29, 2015

BREAKING NEWS: The New Republic runs an article that does not bash the Internet!

Stop the presses!

The good news is that the New Republic seems to be making an effort to include articles about race that are not by white liberals — not that I have anything general against white liberals since I am one . The even better news is that that article credits the Internet with enabling a flowering of African American intellectual thought, rather than the magazine once again (and again and again and again) thinking it’s being oh-so-daring by criticizing the Net as the source of all that is dumb and crass.

In “Think Out Loud,” Michael Eric Dyson argues:

Along with [Ta-Nehisi] Coates, a cohort of what I would like to call the “black digital intelligentsia” has emerged. They wrestle with ideas, stake out political territory, and lead, very much in the same way that my generation did, only without needing, or necessarily wanting, a home in the Ivy League—and by making their name online.

He describes how “the Net enables these voices to be heard”the Net enables these voices to be heard, and how it helps them to form and pursue their ideas through community and social engagement. (It’s a great example of what some of us would describe as the networking of knowledge.)

And, in a generous way that embodies the best of the Net, Dyson in this article is using his position as a well-established voice to give a boost to the upcoming cohort—one that notably includes many women.

Nicely done all around.

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August 10, 2015

[2b2k] Sharing the credit when knowledge gets big

The Wall Street Journal has run an article by Robert Lee Hotz that gently ridicules scientists for including thousands of people as co-authors of some scientific publications. Sure, a list of 2,000 co-authors is risible. But the article misses some of the reasons why it’s not.

As Robert Lee points out, “experiments have gotten more complicated.” But not just by a little. How many people did it take to find the Higgs Boson particle? In fact, as Michael Nielsen (author of the excellent Reinventing Discovery) says, how many people does it take to know that it’s been found? That knowledge depends on deep knowledge in multiple fields, spread across many institutions and countries.

In 2012 I liveblogged a fantastic talk by Peter Galison on this topic. He pointed to an additional reason: it used to be that engineers were looked upon as mere technicians, an attitude mirrored in The Big Bang (the comedy show, not the creation of the universe—so easy to get those two confused!). Over time, the role of engineers has been increasingly appreciated. They are now often listed as co-authors.

In an age in which knowledge quite visibly is too big to be known by individuals, sharing credit widely more accurate reflects its structure.

In fact, it becomes an interesting challenge to figure out how to structure metadata about co-authors so that it captures more than name and institution and does so in ways that make it interoperable. This is something that my friend Amy Brand has been working on. Amy, recently named head of the MIT University Press is going to be a Berkman Fellow this year, so I hope this topic will be a subject of discussion at the Center.

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August 2, 2015

[2b2k][liveblog] Wayne Wiegand: Libraries beyond information

Wayne Wiegand is giving the lunchtime talk at the Library History Seminar XIII at Simmons College. He’s talking about his new book Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

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.

He introduces himself as a humanist, which brings with it a curiosity about what it means to be a human in the world. He is flawed, born into a flawed culture. He exercises his curiosity in the field of library history. [He’s also the author of the best biography of Melvil Dewey.]

People love libraries, he says, citing the Pew Internet 2013 survey that showed that almost all institutions except libraries and first responders have fallen in public esteem. His new book traces the history of the public library by listening to people who have used them since the middle of the 19th century, a bottom-up perspective. He did much of his research by searching newspaper archives, finding letters to the editors as well as articles. =People love their libraries for (1) the info they make accessible, (2) the public space, and (3) the stories they circulate that make sense of their world.

Thomas Edison spent as much time as possible in the library. The Wright Brothers came upon an ornithology book that kindled their interest in flight. HS Truman cited the library as influential. Lilly Tomlin, too. Bill Clinton, too, especially loving books about native Americans. Barack Obama, too. “The first place I wanted to be was a library,” he said when he returned from overseas. He was especially interested in Kenya, the home of his father.

For most of its history, library info science discourse has focused on what was “useful knowledge” in the 19th century, “best books” in the 20th century, or what we now call “information.” Because people don’t have to use libraries (unlike, say, courts) users have greatly influenced the shape of libraries.

“To demonstrate library as place, let me introduce you to Ricky,” he says as he starts a video. She is an adult student who does her homework in the library. When she was broke, it was a warm place where she could apply for jobs.” She has difficulty working through her emotions to express how much the library means to her.

Wayne reads a librarian’s account of the very young MLK’s regular attendance at his public library. James Levine learned to play piano there. In 1969 the Gary Indiana held a talent conference; the Jackson brothers didn’t win, but Michael became a local favorite. [Who won???] In another library, a homeless man–Mr. Conrad– came in and set up a chess board. People listened and learned from him.

“To categorize these activities as information gathering fails to appreciate the richness” of the meaning of the library for these places.

Wayne plays another video. Maria is 95 years old. She started using the library when was 12 or 13 after her family had immigrated from Russia. “That library was everything to me.” Her family could not afford to buy books “and there were some many other servicces, it was library library library all the time.” “I have seen many ugly things. You can’t live all the time with the bad.” The library was something beautiful.

Pete Seeger remembered all his life stories he read in the library.

The young Ronald Reagan read a popular Christian novel, declared himself saved, and had himself baptized. He went to his public library twice a week, mainly reading adventure stories.

Oprah Winfrey’s library taught her that there was a better world and that she could be a part of it.

Sonia Sotamayor buried herself in reading in the public library after her father died when she was nine. Nancy Drew was formative: paying attention, finding clues, reaching logical conclusions.

Wayne plays a video of Danny, a young man who learned about music from CDs in the library, and found a movie that “dropped an emotional anchor down so I didn’t feel like I was floundering” in his sexuality.

Public libraries have always played a role in making stories accessible to everyone. Communities insist that libraries stock a set of stories that the community responds to. Stories stimulate imagination, construct community through shared reading, and make manifest moral weightings.

In his book, Wayne gives story, people, and place equal weight. “Stories and libraries as place has been as important, and for many people, more important than information.” We need to look at how these activities product human subjectivity as community-based. We lack a research base to comprehend the many ways libraries are used.

The death of libraries has been pronounced too early. In 2012, the US has more libraries than ever. Attendance in 2012 dipped because the hours libraries are open went down that year, but for the decade it was up 28%. [May have gotten the number wrong a bit.] In 2012, libraries circulated 2.2B items, up 28% from 2003. And more. [Too fast to capture.] The prophets of doom have too narrow a view of what libraries do and are. “We have to expand the boundaries of our professional discourse beyond information.”

Libraries fighting against budget cuts too often replicate the stereotypes. “Public libraries no longer are warehouses of book” gives credence to the falsehood that libraries ever were that.

He ends by introducing Dawn Logsdon who is working on a film for 2017 titled Free for All: Inside the Public Library. (She’s been taping people at the conference and assures the audience that whatever doesn’t make into the film will be available online.) She shows a few minutes of a prior documentary of hers: Faubourg Treme.

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August 1, 2015

Restoring the Network of Bloggers

It’s good to have Hoder — Hossein Derakhshan— back. After spending six years in an Iranian jail, his voice is stronger than ever. The changes he sees in the Web he loves are distressingly real.

Hoder was in the cohort of early bloggers who believed that blogs were how people were going to find their voices and themselves on the Web. (I tried to capture some of that feeling in a post a year and a half ago.) Instead, in his great piece in Medium he describes what the Web looks like to someone extremely off-line for six years: endless streams of commercial content.

Some of the decline of blogging was inevitable. This was made apparent by Clay Shirky’s seminal post that showed that the scaling of blogs was causing them to follow a power law distribution: a small head followed by a very long tail.

Blogs could never do what I, and others, hoped they would. When the Web started to become a thing, it was generally assumed that everyone would have a home page that would be their virtual presence on the Internet. But home pages were hard to create back then: you had to know HTML, you had to find a host, you had to be so comfortable with FTP that you’d use it as a verb. Blogs, on the other hand, were incredibly easy. You went to one of the blogging platforms, got yourself a free blog site, and typed into a box. In fact, blogging was so easy that you were expected to do it every day.

And there’s the rub. The early blogging enthusiasts were people who had the time, skill, and desire to write every day. For most people, that hurdle is higher than learning how to FTP. So, blogging did not become everyone’s virtual presence on the Web. Facebook did. Facebook isn’t for writers. Facebook is for people who have friends. That was a better idea.

But bloggers still exist. Some of the early cohort have stopped, or blog infrequently, or have moved to other platforms. Many blogs now exist as part of broader sites. The term itself is frequently applied to professionals writing what we used to call “columns,” which is a shame since part of the importance of blogging was that it was a way for amateurs to have a voice.

That last value is worth preserving. It’d be good to boost the presence of local, individual, independent bloggers.

So, support your local independent blogger! Read what she writes! Link to it! Blog in response to it!

But, I wonder if a little social tech might also help. . What follows is a half-baked idea. I think of it as BOAB: Blogger of a Blogger.

Yeah, it’s a dumb name, and I’m not seriously proposing it. It’s an homage to Libby Miller [twitter:LibbyMiller] and Dan Brickley‘s [twitter:danbri ] FOAF — Friend of a Friend — idea, which was both brilliant and well-named. While social networking sites like Facebook maintain a centralized, closed network of people, FOAF enables open, decentralized social networks to emerge. Anyone who wants to participate creates a FOAF file and hosts it on her site. Your FOAF file lists who you consider to be in your social network — your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It can also contain other information, such as your interests. Because FOAF files are typically open, they can be read by any application that wants to provide social networking services. For example, an app could see that Libby ‘s FOAF file lists Dan as a friend, and that Dan’s lists Libby, Carla and Pete. And now we’re off and running in building a social network in which each person owns her own information in a literal and straightforward sense. (I know I haven’t done justice to FOAF, but I hope I haven’t been inaccurate in describing it.)

BOAB would do the same, except it would declare which bloggers I read and recommend, just as the old “blogrolls” did. This would make it easier for blogging aggregators to gather and present networks of bloggers. Add in some tags and now we can browse networks based on topics.

In the modern age, we’d probably want to embed BOAB information in the HTML of a blog rather than in a separate file hidden from human view, although I don’t know what the best practice would be. Maybe both. Anyway, I presume that the information embedded in HTML would be similar to what does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to constructdiscover the initial blog networks.

In fact, has a blog specification already. I don’t see anything like markup for a blogroll, but I’m not very good a reading specifications. In any case, how hard could it be to extend that specification? Mark a link as being to a blogroll pal, and optionally supply some topics? (Dan Brickley works on

So, imagine a BOAB widget that any blogger can easily populate with links to her favorite blog sites. The widget can then be easily inserted into her blog. Hidden from the users in this widget is the appropriate markup. Not only could the search engines then see the blogger network, so could anyone who wanted to write an app or a service.

I have 0.02 confidence that I’m getting the tech right here. But enhancing blogrolls so that they are programmatically accessible seems to me to be a good idea. So good that I have 0.98 confidence that it’s already been done, probably 10+ years ago, and probably by Dave Winer :)

Ironically, I cannot find Hoder’s personal site; is down, at least at the moment.

More shamefully than ironically, I haven’t updated this blog’s blogroll in many years.

My recent piece in The Atlantic about whether the Web has been irremediably paved touches on some of the same issues as Hoder’s piece.


June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?

Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.

So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.


June 1, 2015

[2b2k] Russell on knowledge

Bertrand Russell on knowledge for the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

[A]t first sight it might be thought that knowledge might be defined as belief which is in agreement with the facts. The trouble is that no one knows what a belief is, no one knows what a fact is, and no one knows what sort of agreement between them would make a belief true.

But that wonderful quote is misleading if left there. In fact it introduces Russell’s careful exploration and explanation of those terms. Crucially: “We are thus driven to the view that, if a belief is to be something causally important, it must be defined as a characteristic of behaviour.”

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May 23, 2015

[2b2k] Echo chambers and the importance of like-minded thinking

I’ve found the argument against Echo Chambers to be vexing.

On the one hand, I of course agree that it’s bad for us all when we only hang out with people whose views we share, because this tends to confirm us in our beliefs and even makes those beliefs more extreme.

On the other hand, I disagree with our Western liberal assumption that a genuine conversation is one in which we encounter radically opposite viewpoints with an open heart and mind. No, when I want to understand the meaning of, say, a court ruling about gay marriage, I’m not going to go first to a site that thinks homosexuality is a damnable sin. I’m going to go to my nearest local “echo chamber.” Understanding is incremental. It fits the new into our existing context. That’s how understanding works.

I find a great deal of truth in a passage sent to me by a friend of mine. (I’ll replace that phrase with his name once I’m able to reach him to ask permission). It’s a passage by Swami Vivekananda, “from his book Raja Yoga, a modern study of the founding text of yoga (India, approx 400 CE).” My friend continues, “In it S. Vivekananda is commenting on one of the first of the yoga sutras, which outlines the path the prospective adept must walk.”

“What is meant by study in this case? No study of novels or story books, but study of those works which teach the liberation of the Soul. Then again this study does not mean controversial studies at all. The Yogi is supposed to have finished his period of controversy. He has had enough of that, and has become satisfied. He only studies to intensify his convictions. Vâda and Siddhânta — these are the two sorts of scriptural knowledge — Vada (the argumentative) and Siddhanta (the decisive). When a man is entirely ignorant he takes up the first of these, the argumentative fighting, and reasoning pro and con; and when he has finished that he takes up the Siddhanta, the decisive, arriving at a conclusion. Simply arriving at this conclusion will not do. It must be intensified. Books are infinite in number, and time is short; therefore the secret of knowledge is to take what is essential. Take that and try to live up to it.

There is an old Indian legend that if you place a cup of milk and water before a Râja-Hamsa (swan), he will take all the milk and leave the water. In that way we should take what is of value in knowledge, and leave the dross. Intellectual gymnastics are necessary at first. We must not go blindly into anything.

The Yogi has passed the argumentative state, and has come to a conclusion, which is, like the rocks, immovable. The only thing he now seeks to do is to intensify that conclusion. Do not argue, he says; if one forces arguments upon you, be silent. Do not answer any argument, but go away calmly, because arguments only disturb the mind. The only thing necessary is to train the intellect, what is the use of disturbing it for nothing? The intellect is but a weak instrument, and can give us only knowledge limited by the senses. The Yogi wants to go beyond the senses, therefore intellect is of no use to him. He is certain of this and, therefore, is silent, and does not argue. Every argument throws his mind out of balance, creates a disturbance in the Chitta (consciousness), and a disturbance is a drawback. Argumentations and searchings of the reason are only by the way. There are much higher things beyond them.

The whole of life is not for schoolboy fights and debating societies. “Surrendering the fruits of work to God” is to take to ourselves neither credit nor blame, but to give up both to the Lord and be at peace.” (Raja Yoga, ch 2, comment to verse 1)



January 25, 2015

[2b2k]’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism? is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all? has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.


Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …


A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet. hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide,’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.


December 13, 2014

[2b2k] The Harvard Business School Digital Initiative’s webby new blog

The Harvard Business School Digital Initiative [twitter:digHBS] — led by none other than Berkman‘s Dr. Colin Maclay — has launched its blog. The Digital Initiative is about helping HBS explore the many ways the Net is affecting (or not affecting) business. From my point of view, it’s also an opportunity to represent, and advocate for, Net values within HBS.[1] (Disclosure: I am officially affiliated with the Initiative as an unremunerated advisor. Colin is a dear friend.[2])

The new blog is off to a good start:

I also have a post there titled “Generative Business and the Power of What We Ignore.” Here’s how it starts:

“I ignore them. That’s my conscious decision.”

So replied CV Harquail to a question from HBS professor Karim Lakhani about the effect of bad actors in the model of “generative business” she was explaining in a recent talk sponsored by the Digital Initiative.

Karim’s question addressed an issue that more than one of us around the table were curious about. Given CV’s talk, the question was perhaps inevitable.

CV’s response was not inevitable. It was, in fact, surprising. And it seems to me to have been not only entirely appropriate, but also brave… [more]


[1] I understand that the Net doesn’t really have values. It’s shorthand.
[2] I’m very happy to say that more than half of the advisors are women.


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