Gary King [twitter:kinggarry] , Director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, has published an article (Open Access!) on the current status of this branch of science. Here’s the abstract:
The social sciences are undergoing a dramatic transformation from studying problems to solving them; from making do with a small number of sparse data sets to analyzing increasing quantities of diverse, highly informative data; from isolated scholars toiling away on their own to larger scale, collaborative, interdisciplinary, lab-style research teams; and from a purely academic pursuit focused inward to having a major impact on public policy, commerce and industry, other academic fields, and some of the major problems that affect individuals and societies. In the midst of all this productive chaos, we have been building the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, a new type of center intended to help foster and respond to these broader developments. We offer here some suggestions from our experiences for the increasing number of other universities that have begun to build similar institutions and for how we might work together to advance social science more generally.
In the article, Gary argues that Big Data requires Big Collaboration to be understood:
Social scientists are now transitioning from working primarily on their own, alone in their officesâ??a style that dates back to when the offices were in monasteriesâ??to working in highly collaborative, interdisciplinary, larger scale, lab-style research teams. The knowledge and skills necessary to access and use these new data sources and methods often do not exist within any one of the traditionally defined social science disciplines and are too complicated for any one scholar to accomplish alone
He begins by giving three excellent examples of how quantitative social science is opening up new possibilities for research.
1. Latanya Sweeney [twitter:LatanyaSweeney] found “clear evidence of racial discrimination” in the ads served up by newspaper websites.
2. A study of all 187M registered voters in the US showed that a third of those listed as “inactive” in fact cast ballots, “and the problem is not politically neutral.”
3. A study of 11M social media posts from China showed that the Chinese government is not censoring speech but is censoring “attempts at collective action, whether for or against the government…”
Studies such as these “depended on IQSS infrastructure, including access to experts in statistics, the social sciences, engineering, computer science, and American and Chinese area studies. ”
Gary also points to “the coming end of the quantitative-qualitative divide” in the social sciences, as new techniques enable massive amounts of qualitative data to be quantified, enriching purely quantitative data and extracting additional information from the qualitative reports.
Instead of quantitative researchers trying to build fully automated methods and qualitative researchers trying to make do with traditional human-only methods, now both are heading toward using or developing computer-assisted methods that empower both groups.
We are seeing a redefinition of social science, he argues:
We instead use the term “social science” more generally to refer to areas of scholarship dedicated to understanding, or improving the well-being of, human populations, using data at the level of (or informative about) individual people or groups of people.
This definition covers the traditional social science departments in faculties of schools of arts and science, but it also includes most research conducted at schools of public policy, business, and education. Social science is referred to by other names in other areas but the definition is wider than use of the term. It includes what law school faculty call “empirical research,” and many aspects of research in other areas, such as health policy at schools of medicine. It also includes research conducted by faculty in schools of public health, although they have different names for these activities, such as epidemiology, demography, and outcomes research.
The rest of the article reflects on pragmatic issues, including what this means for the sorts of social science centers to build, since community is “by far the most important component leading to success…” ” If academic research became part of the X-games, our competitive event would be “‘extreme cooperation’”.
Tagged with: 2b2k
• big data
• social science
Date: January 2nd, 2014 dw
The history of Western philosophy usually has a presumed shape: there’s a known series of Great Men (yup, men) who in conversation with their predecessors came up with a coherent set of ideas. You can list them in chronological order, and cluster them into schools of thought with their own internal coherence: the neo-Platonists, the Idealists, etc. Sometimes, the schools and not the philosophers are the primary objects in the sequence, but the topology is basically the same. There are the Big Ideas and the lesser excursions, the major figures and the supporting players.
Of course the details of the canon are always in dispute in every way: who is included, who is major, who belongs in which schools, who influenced whom. A great deal of scholarly work is given over to just such arguments. But there is some truth to this structure itself: philosophers traditionally have been shaped by their tradition, and some have had more influence than others. There are also elements of a feedback loop here: you need to choose which philosophers you’ll teach in philosophy courses, so you you act responsibly by first focusing on the majors, and by so doing you confirm for the next generation that the ones you’ve chosen are the majors.
But I wonder if in one or two hundred years philosophers (by which I mean the PT-3000 line of Cogbots™) will mark our era as the end of the line — the end of the linear sequence of philosophers. Rather than a sequence of recognized philosophers in conversation with their past and with one another, we now have a network of ideas being passed around, degraded by noise and enhanced by pluralistic appropriation, but without owners — at least without owners who can hold onto their ideas long enough to be identified with them in some stable form. This happens not simply because networks are chatty. It happens not simply because the transmission of ideas on the Internet occurs through a p2p handoff in which each of the p’s re-expresses the idea. It happens also because the discussion is no longer confined to a handful of extensively trained experts with strict ideas about what is proper in such discussions, and who share a nano-culture that supersedes the values and norms of their broader local cultures.
If philosophy survives as anything more than the history of thought, perhaps we will not be able to outline its grand movements by pointing to a handful of thinkers but will point to the webs through which ideas passed, or, more exactly, the ideas around which webs are formed. Because no idea passes through the Web unchanged, it will be impossible to pretend that there are “ideas-in-themselves” — nothing like, say, Idealism which has a core definition albeit with a history of significant variations. There is no idea that is not incarnate, and no incarnation that is not itself a web of variations in conversation with itself.
I would spell this out for you far more precisely, but I don’t know what I’m talking about, beyond an intuition that the tracks end at the trampled field in which we now live.
, too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: December 28th, 2013 dw
Glenn Greenwald mounts a mighty and effective defense against the charge leveled by Mark Ames at Pando.com that Greenwald and Laura Poitras are “monopolizing” and “privatizing” the 50,000-200,000 NSA documents entrusted to them by Edward Snowden.
Unlike Greenwald, I do think “it’s a question worth asking,” as Ames puts it — rather weasily, since his post attempt really is about supplying an answer. It’s worth asking because of the new news venture funded by Pierre Omidyar that has hired Greenwald and Poitras. Greenwald argues (among other things) that the deal has nothing to do with profiting from their access to the Snowden papers; in fact, he says, by the time the venture gets off the ground, there may not be any NSA secrets left to reveal. But one can imagine a situation in which a newspaper hires a journalist with unique access to some highly newsworthy information in order to acquire and control that information. In this case, we have contrary evidence: Greenwald and Poitras have demonstrated their courage and commitment.
Greenwald’s defense overall is, first, that he and Poitras (Bart Gellman plays a lesser role in the article) have not attempted to monopolize the papers so far. On the contrary, they’ve been generous and conscientious in spreading the the revelations to papers around the world. Second, getting paid for doing this is how journalism works.
To be fair, Ames’ criticism isn’t simply that Greenwald is making money, but that Omidyar can’t be trusted. I disagree, albeit without pretending to have any particular insight into Omidyar’s (or anyone’s) soul. (I generally have appreciated Omidyar’s work, but so what?) We do have reason to trust Greenwald, however. It’s inconceivable to me that Greenwald would let the new venture sit on NSA revelations for bad reasons.
But I personally am most interested in why these accusations have traction at all.
Before the Web, the charge that Greenwald is monopolizing the information wouldn’t even have made sense because there wasn’t an alternative. Yes, he might have turned the entire cache over to The Guardian or the New York Times, but then would those newspapers look like monopolists? No, they’d look like journalists, like stewards. Now there are options. Snowden could have posted the cache openly on a Web site. He could have created a torrent so that they circulate forever. He could have given them to Wikileaks curate. He could have sent them to 100 newspapers simultaneously. He could have posted them in encrypted form and have given the key to the Dalai Lama or Jon Stewart. There are no end of options.
But Snowden didn’t. Snowden wanted the information curated, and redacted when appropriate. He trusted his hand-picked journalists more than any newspaper to figure out what “appropriate” means. We might disagree with his choice of method or of journalists, but we can understand it. The cache needs editing, contextualization, and redaction so that we understand it, and so that the legitimate secrets of states are preserved. (Are there legitimate state secrets? Let me explain: Yes.) Therefore, it needs stewardship.
No so incidentally, the fact that we understand without a hiccup why Snowden entrusted individual journalists with the information, rather than giving it to even the most prestigious of newspapers, is another convincing sign of the collapse of our institutions.
It’s only because we have so many other options that entrusting the cache to journalists committed to stewarding it into the public sphere could ever be called “monopolizing” it. The word shouldn’t make any sense to us in this environment, yet it is having enough traction that Greenwald reluctantly wrote a long post defending himself. Given that the three recipients of the Snowden cache have been publishing it in newspapers all over the world makes them much less “monopolists” than traditional reporters are. Greenwald only needed to defend himself from this ridiculous charge because we now have a medium that can do what was never before possible: immediately and directly publish sets of information of any size. And we have a culture (in which I happily and proudly associate) that says openness is the default. But defaults were made to be broken. That’s why they’re defaults and not laws of nature or morality.
Likewise, when Ames’ criticizes Greenwald for profiting from these secrets because he gets paid as a journalist (which is separate from the criticism that working for Omidyar endangers the info — a charge I find non-credible), the charge makes even the slightest sense only because of the Web’s culture of Free, which, again I am greatly enthusiastic about. As an institution of democracy, one might hope that newspapers would be as free as books in the public library — which is to say, the costs are hidden from the user — but it’s obvious what the problems are with government-funded news media. So, journalists get paid by the companies that hire them, and this by itself could only ever look like a criticism in an environment where Free is the default. We now have that environment, even if enabling journalism is one of the places where Free just doesn’t do the entire job.
That the charge that Glenn Greenwald is monopolizing or privatizing the Snowden information is even comprehensible to us is evidence of just how thoroughly the Web is changing our defaults and our concepts. Many of our core models are broken. We are confused. These charges are further proof, as if we needed it.
, too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: December 1st, 2013 dw
The sociologist Saskia Sassen is giving a plenary talk at Engaging Data 2013. [I had a little trouble hearing some of it. Sorry. And in the press of time I haven't had a chance to vet this for even obvious typos, etc.]
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.
1. The term Big Data is ambiguous. “Big Data” implies we’re in a technical zone. it becomes a “technical problem” as when morally challenging technologies are developed by scientists who thinks they are just dealing with a technical issue. Big Data comes with a neutral charge. “Surveillance” brings in the state, the logics of power, how citizens are affected.
Until recently, citizens could not relate to a map that came out in 2010 that shows how much surveillance there is in the US. It was published by the Washington Post, but it didn’t register. 1,271 govt orgs and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence. There are more than 1 million people with stop-secret clearance, and maybe a third are private contractors. In DC and enirons, 33 building complexes are under construction or have been built for top-secret intelligence since 9/11. Together they are 22x the size of Congress. Inside these environments, the govt regulates everything. By 2010, DC had 4,000 corporate office buildings that handle classified info,all subject to govt regulation. “We’re dealing with a massive material apparatus.” We should not be distracted by the small individual devices.
Cisco lost 28% of its sales, in part as a result of its being tainted by the NSA taking of its data. This is alienating citzens and foreign govts. How do we stop this? We’re dealing with a kind of assemblage of technical capabilities, tech firms that sell the notion that for security we all have to be surveilled, and people. How do we get a handle on this? I ask: Are there spaces where we can forget about them? Our messy, nice complex cities are such spaces. All that data cannot be analyzed. (She notes that she did a panel that included the brother of a Muslim who has been indefinitely detained, so now her name is associated with him.)
3. How can I activate large, diverse spaces in cities? How can we activate local knowledges? We can “outsource the neighborhood.” The language of “neighborhood” brings me pleasure, she says.
If you think of institutions, they are codified, and they notice when there are violations. Every neighborhood has knowledge about the city that is different from the knowledge at the center. The homeless know more about rats than the center. Make open access networks available to them into a reverse wiki so that local knowledge can find a place. Leak that knowledge into those codified systems. That’s the beginning of activating a city. From this you’d get a Big Data set, capturing the particularities of each neighborhood. [A knowledge network. I agree! :)]
The next step is activism, a movement. In my fantasy, at one end it’s big city life and at the other it’s neighborhood residents enabled to feel that their knowledge matters.
Q: If local data is being aggregated, could that become Big Data that’s used against the neighborhoods?
A: Yes, that’s why we need neighborhood activism. The polticizing of the neighborhoods shapes the way the knowledge isued.
Q: Disempowered neighborhoods would be even less able to contribute this type of knowledge.
A: The problem is to value them. The neighborhood has knowledge at ground level. That’s a first step of enabling a devalued subject. The effect of digital networks on formal knowledge creates an informal network. Velocity itself has the effect of informalizing knowledge. I’ve compared environmental activists and financial traders. The environmentalists pick up knowledge on the ground. So, the neighborhoods may be powerless, but they have knowledge. Digital interactive open access makes it possible bring together those bits of knowledge.
Q: Those who control the pipes seem to control the power. How does Big Data avoid the world being dominated by brainy people?
A: The brainy people at, say, Goldman Sachs are part of a larger institution. These institutions have so much power that they don’t know how to govern it. The US govt has been the post powerful in the world, with the result that it doesn’t know how to govern its own power. It has engaged in disastrous wars. So “brainy people” running the world through the Ciscos, etc., I’m not sure. I’m talking about a different idea of Big Data sets: distributed knowledges. E.g, Forest Watch uses indigenous people who can’t write, but they can tell before the trained biologists when there is something wrong in the ecosystem. There’s lots of data embedded in lots of places.
[She's aggregating questions] Q1: Marginalized neighborhoods live being surveilled: stop and frisk, background checks, etc. Why did it take tapping Angela Merkel’s telephone to bring awareness? Q2: How do you convince policy makers to incorporate citizen data? Q3: There are strong disincentives to being out of the mainstream, so how can we incentivize difference.
A: How do we get the experts to use the knowledge? For me that’s not the most important aim. More important is activating the residents. What matters is that they become part of a conversation. A: About difference: Neighborhoods are pretty average places, unlike forest watchers. And even they’re not part of the knowledge-making circuit. We should bring them in. A: The participation of the neighborhoods isn’t just a utility for the central govt but is a first step toward mobilizing people who have been reudced to thinking that they don’t count. I think is one of the most effective ways to contest the huge apparatus with the 10,000 buildings.
Tagged with: 2b2k
• big data
Date: November 15th, 2013 dw
I’m at the Engaging Big Data 2013 conference put on by Senseable City Lab at MIT. After the morning’s opener by Noam Chomsky (!), I’m leading one of 12 concurrent sessions. I’m supposed to talk for 15-20 mins and then lead a discussion. Here’s a summary of what I’m planning on saying:
Overall point: To look at the end state of the knowledge network/Commons we want to get to
Big Data started as an Info Age concept: magnify the storage and put it on a network. But you can see how the Net is affecting it:
First, there are a set of values that are being transformed:
- From accuracy to scale
- From control to innovation
- From ownership to collaboration
- From order to meaning
Second, the Net is transforming knowledge, which is changing the role of Big Data
- From filtered to scaled
- From settled to unsettled and under discussion
- From orderly to messy
- From done in private to done in public
- From a set of stopping points to endless lilnks
If that’s roughly the case, then we can see a larger Net effect. The old Info Age hope (naive, yes, but it still shows up at times) was that we’d be able to create models that ultimate interoperate and provide an ever-increasing and ever-more detailed integrated model of the world. But in the new Commons, we recognize that not only won’t we ever derive a single model, there is tremendous strength in the diversity of models. This Commons then is enabled if:
- All have access to all
- There can be social engagement to further enrich our understanding
- The conversations default to public
So, what can we do to get there? Maybe:
- Build platforms and services
- Support Open Access (and, as Lewis Hyde says, “beat the bounds” of the Commons regularly)
- Support Linked Open Data
Questions if the discussion needs kickstarting:
- What Big Data policies would help the Commons to flourish?
- How can we improve the diversity of those who access and contribute to the Commons?
- What are the personal and institutional hesitations that are hindering the further development of the Commons?
- What role can and should Big Data play in knowledge-focused discussions? With participants who are not mathematically or statistically inclined?
- Does anyone have experience with Linked Data? Tell us about it?
I just checked the agenda, which of course I should have done earlier, and discovered that of the 12 sessions today,
1211 are being led by men. Had I done that homework, I would not have accepted their invitation.
Categories: too big to know
Tagged with: 2b2k
• big data
• open access
Date: November 15th, 2013 dw
I gave a talk at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit this morning, and felt compelled to throw in an Angry Old Man slide about why iPads annoy me, especially as education devices. Here’s my List of Grievances:
Apple censors apps
iPads are designed for consumers. [This is false for these educators, however. They are using iPad apps to enable creativity.]
They are closed systems and thus lock users in
Apps generally don’t link out
That last point was the one that meant the most in the context of the talk, since I was stressing the social obligation we all have to add to the Commons of ideas, data, knowledge, arguments, discussion, etc.
I was sorry I brought the whole thing up, though. None of the points I raised is new, and this particular audience is using iPads in creative ways, to engage students, to let them explore in depth, to create, and to make learning mobile.
Nevertheless, as I was talking, I threw in one more: you can’t View Source the way you can in a browser. That is, browsers let you see the code beneath the surface. This capability means you can learn how to re-create what you like on pages you visit…although that’s true only to some extent these days. Nevertheless, the HTML code is right there for you. But not with apps.
Even though very few of us ever do peek beneath the hood — why would we? — the fact that we know there’s an openable hood changes things. It tells us that what we see on screen, no matter how slick, is the product of human hands. And that is the first lesson I’d like students to learn about knowledge: it often looks like something that’s handed to us finished and perfect, but it’s always something that we built together. And it’s all the cooler because of that.
There is no magic, just us humans as we move through history trying to make every mistake possible.
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: November 14th, 2013 dw
I was unable to go to our local Aaron Swartz Hackathon, one of twenty around the world, because I’d committed (very happily) to give the after dinner talk at the University of Rhode Island Graduate Library and Information Studies 50th anniversary gala last night.
The event brought together an amazing set of people, including Senator Jack Reed, the current and most recent presidents of the American Library Association, Joan Ress Reeves, 50 particularly distinguished alumni (out of the three thousand (!) who have been graduated), and many, many more. These are heroes of libraries. (My cousin’s daughter, Alison Courchesne, also got an award. Yay, Alison!)
Although I’d worked hard on my talk, I decided to open it differently. I won’t try to reproduce what I actually said because the adrenalin of speaking in front of a crowd, especially one as awesome as last night’s, wipes out whatever short term memory remains. But it went very roughly something like this:
It’s awesome to be in a room with teachers, professors, researchers, a provost, deans, and librarians: people who work to make the world better…not to mention the three thousand alumni who are too busy do-ing to be able to be here tonight.
But it makes me remember another do-er: Aaron Swartz, the champion of open access, open data, open metadata, open government, open everything. Maybe I’m thinking about Aaron tonight because today is his birthday.
When we talk about the future of libaries, I usually promote the idea of libraries as platforms — platforms that make openly available everything that libraries know: all the data, all the metadata, what the community is making of what they get from the library (privacy accommodated, of course), all the guidance and wisdom of librarians, all the content especially if we can ever fix the insane copyright laws. Everything. All accessible to anyone who wants to write an application that puts it to use.
And the reason for that is because in my heart I don’t think librarians are going to invent the future of libraries. It’s too big a job for any one group. It will take the world to invent the future of libraries. It will take 14 year olds like Aaron to invent the future of libraries. We need supply them with platforms that enable them.
I should add that I co-direct a Library Innovation Lab where we do work that I’m very proud of. So, of course libraries will participate in the invention of their future. But it’ll take the world — a world that contains people with the brilliance and commitment of an Aaron Swartz — to invent that future fully.
Here are wise words delivered at an Aaron Hackathon last night by Carl Malamud: Hacking Authority. For me, Carl is reminding us that the concept of hacking over-promises when the changes threaten large institutions that represent long-held values and assumptions. Change often requires the persistence and patience that Aaron exhibited, even as he hacked.
I was invited to give a talk yesterday afternoon to the faculty at Brookline High School where all three of our children were educated, and that graduated my wife and both of her parents. Furthermore, the event was held in the Black Box, a performance space I watched our youngest child perform in many times. (Go T-Tones!) So, it was thrilling and quite intimidating, even though the new headmaster, Deb Holman [twitter: bhsheadmaster] could not be more welcoming and open.
There were some great (= hard) questions, and a lot of skepticism about my comments, but not all that much time to carry on a conversation. After most people left, a couple of teachers stayed to talk.
One said that she thoroughly disagrees with my generally positive characterization of the Internet. In her experience, it is where children go to get quick answers. Rather than provoking them and challenging them, the Net lets them get instant gratification, and shuts down their curiosity.
We talked for a while. Her experience certainly rings true. After all, I go to the Net for quick answers also, and if I had to write an assignment on, say, The Great Gatsby, and I wanted to finish it before The Walking Dead comes on, I’d be out on the Net. And I’d get it done much faster than in the old days when I’d have to go to the library.
I’m still not sure what to make of this phenomenon. Did the old library experience of looking things up in the card catalog or in the Periodical Index made me any more thoughtful than googling does now? In fact, I’m more likely to see more ideas and opinions on the Net than in a trip to the library. On the other hand, the convenience of the Net means that I can just look up some ideas rather than having to work through them myself; the Net is letting student short-circuit the process of forming ideas. Perhaps the old difficulty of accessing materials added friction that usefully slowed down thought. I don’t know. I don’t feel that way about my own experience, but I am not a high school student, and I’m pretty self-deluding to begin with.
Anyway, that’s pretty much the issue the second teacher brought up after the talk. Keep in mind that BHS has an extraordinary set of teachers, always caring and frequently quite inspiring. She is in the School Within a School, which is more loosely structured than the rest of BHS. When she gives writing assignments, she tells her students to come up with an idea that will surprise her, and to express it in their own voice. Very cool.
Her concern is that jangle of the Net keeps students from mulling over ideas. Thought comes from a private and individual place, she believes, and students need that stillness and aloneness.
I can’t disagree with her. I want students to understand — to experience — the value of solitude and quiet, and to have internalized enough information that they can have it at hand to play with and synthesize. And yet…
..I’m not convinced that private thought is realest thought. I know that who I am when I’m alone doesn’t feel more real than when I am with others, and in many ways feels less authentic; I’ve written before about the inner narrator who accompanies me when I visit someplace new alone, making me feel more crazy than authentic. In a similar way, I’m not ready to accept that private thinking is the best thinking or the most authentic thinking. It has its place, of course, but personally (data point of one!) I think best when engaged with others, or when I’m writing while imagining my words engaging with others.
We have, it seems to me, overvalued private thinking, which is certainly not to say that it has no value. We have likewise undervalued social thinking. But now We think in public, out loud, with others. Most of our public engagements of course are not particularly deep or thoughtful in any normal use of the term. That’s why we need to be educating our children to appreciate thinking out loud with others, and teaching them how to do it. It’s in these public multi-way discussions that ideas and knowledge develop.
While there are many ways in which public thinking can go wrong, it has the advantage of revealing the mechanisms of knowledge in all their fallibility. We are still carrying over the cultural wish for black box authorities whom we can trust simply because they were the ones who said it. We need to steer our children away from that wish for inhuman knowledge, and thus toward recognizing how ideas and knowledge actually develop. Public thinking does that. At least it should. And it will do it more if our children learn to always wonder how knowledge has been brought forward. Especially when the ideas seem so obvious.
This is one reason I find the “flipped classroom” idea so interesting. (Good discussion of this yesterday on On Point.) I was asked yesterday what I’d like BHS to do if I could have it do anything. I answered rather badly, but part of it would have to be that students learn how to engage with one another socially so that they build knowledge together, and this knowledge tolerates disagreement, is assumed to be public, and is aware of itself as a product of social engagement. Of course that happens already in classrooms — and more so (presumably) in flipped classrooms — but we should be preparing our students for doing this virtually as well as in real space because the “real” discussions will increasingly be online where there is a wealth of sources to draw upon and to argue about.
But it’s hard to see how we get there so long as we continue to assign papers and reports as the primary type of knowledge artifact, isn’t it? (I’m not even going to mention standardized testing.) Doing so implicitly tells students that knowing is what you do alone: foraging sources, coming back with useful bits, and then engaging in an internal thought process that renders them into one of the conventional written forms. In that frame, the Net looks like an uncurated library, overflowing with lies, studded with occasional truths.
Instead, students could be required to explore a topic together, in public (or at least in the protected public of their class), discussing, arguing, joking, and evaluating one another’s sources. In that frame, the Net looks like a set of discussions, not an information resource at the end of the Information Highway. After all, kids don’t come into a class interested in The Great Gatsby. The teacher will help them to see what’s interesting about the novel, which is crucial and not easy to do. But primarily we get interested in things through one another. My interest steers yours, and yours amplifies mine. Our interest in The Great Gatsby is mediated and amplified by our interest in one another. We make the world interesting together. The Net does this all the time. Papers and reports rarely do.In their pursuit of demonstrating mastery, they too often drive the interest right out of the topic — less so at a wonderful school like BHS where teachers ask students to write in their own voice and come up with ideas that surprise them both.
Anyway, I came out of the session very stimulated, very thankful that so many of my relatives had the great good luck to attend that institution, and ever thankful to our teachers.
In August, I blogged about a mangled quotation supposedly from Mark Twain posted on an interstitial page at Forbes.com. When I tweeted about the post, it was (thanks to John Overholt [twitter:JohnOverholt]) noticed by Quote Investigator [twitter:QuoteResearch] , who over the course of a few hours tweeted the results of his investigation. Yes, it was mangled. No, it was not Twain. It was probably Christian Bovee. Quote Investigator, who goes by the pen name Garson O’Toole, has now posted on his site at greater length about this investigation.
It’s been clear from the beginning of the Web that it gives us access to experts on topics we never even thought of. As the Web has become more social, and as conversations have become scaled up, these crazy-smart experts are no longer nestling at home. They’re showing up like genies summoned by the incantation of particular words. We see this at Twitter, Reddit, and other sites with large populations and open-circle conversations.
This is a great thing, especially if the conversational space is engineered to give prominence to the contributions of drive-by experts. We want to take advantage of the fact that if enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert.
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: October 27th, 2013 dw
Yesterday I participated as a color commentator in a 90 minute debate between Clive Thompson [twitter:pomeranian99] and Steve Easterbrook [twitter:smeasterbrook], put on by the CBC’s Q program.The topic was “Does the Net Make Us Smart or Stupid?” It airs today, and you can hear it here.
It was a really good discussion between Clive and Steve, without any of the trumped up argumentativeness that too often mars this type of public conversation. It was, of course, too short, but with a topic like this, we want it to bust its bounds, don’t we?
My participation was minimal, but that’s why we have blogs, right? So, here are two points I would have liked to pursue further.
First, if we’re going to ask if the Net makes us smart or stupid, we have to ask who we’re talking about. More exactly, who in what roles? So, I’d say that the Net’s made me stupider in that I spend more of my time chasing down trivialities. I know more about Miley Cyrus than I would have in the old days. Now I find that I’m interested in the Miley Phenomenon — the media’s treatment, the role of celebrity, the sexualization of everything, etc. — whereas before I would never have felt it worth a trip to the library or the purchase of an issue of Tiger Beat or whatever. (Let me be clear: I’m not that interested. But that’s the point: it’s all now just a click away.)
On the other hand, if you ask if the Net has made scholars and experts smarter, I think the answer has to be an almost unmitigated yes. Find me a scholar or expert who would turn off the Net when pursuing her topic. All discussions of whether the Net makes us smarter I think should begin by considering those who are in the business of being smart, as we all are at some points during the day.
Now, that’s not really as clear a distinction as I’d like. It’s possible to argue that the Net’s made experts stupider because it’s enabled people to become instant “experts” on topics. (Hat tip to Visiona-ary [twitter:0penCV] who independently raised this on Twitter.) We can delude ourselves into thinking we’re experts because we’ve skimmed the Wikipedia article or read an undergrad’s C- post about it. But is it really a bad thing that we can now get a quick gulp of knowledge in a field that we haven’t studied and probably never will study in depth? Only if we don’t recognize that we are just skimmers. At that point we find ourselves seriously arguing with a physicist about information’s behavior at the event horizon of a black hole as if we actually knew what we were talking about. Or, worse, we find ourselves disregarding our physician’s advice because we read something on the Internet. Humility is 95% of knowledge.
Here’s a place where learning some of the skills of journalists would be helpful for us all. (See Dan Gillmor‘s MediActive for more on this.) After all, the primary skill of a particular class of journalists is their ability to speak for experts in a field in which the journalist is not her/himself expert. Journalists, however, know how to figure out who to consult, and don’t confuse themselves with experts themselves. Modern media literacy means learning some of the skills and all of the humility of good journalists.
Second, Clive Thompson made the excellent and hugely important point that knowledge is now becoming public. In the radio show, I tried to elaborate on that in a way that I’m confident Clive already agrees with by saying that it’s not just public, it’s social, and not just social, but networked. Jian Ghomeshi, the host, raised the question of misinformation on the Net by pointing to Reddit‘s misidentification of one of the Boston bombers. He even played a touching and troubling clip by the innocent person’s brother talking about the permanent damage this did to the family. Now, every time you look up “Sunil Tripathi” on the Web, you’ll see him misidentified as a suspect in the bombing.
I responded ineffectively by pointing to Judith Miller’s year of misreporting for the NY Times that helped move us into a war, to make the point that all media are error prone. Clive did a better job by citing a researcher who fact checked an entire issue of a newspaper and uncovered a plethora of errors (mainly small, I assume) that were never corrected and that are preserved forever in the digital edition of that paper.
But I didn’t get a chance to say the thing that I think matters more. So, go ahead and google “Sunil Tripathi”. You will have to work at finding anything that identifies him as the Boston Bomber. Instead, the results are about his being wrongly identified, and about his suicide (which apparently occurred before the false accusations were made).
None of this excuses the exuberantly irresponsible way a subreddit (i.e., a topic-based discussion) at Reddit accused him. And it’s easy to imagine a case in which such a horrible mistake could have driven someone to suicide. But that’s not my point. My point here is twofold.
First, the idea that false ideas once published on the Net continue forever uncorrected is not always the case. If we’re taking as our example ideas that are clearly wrong and are important, the corrections will usually be more obvious and available to us than in the prior media ecology. (That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of getting facts right in the first place.)
Second, this is why I keep insisting that knowledge now lives in networks the way it used to live in books or newspapers. You get the truth not in any single chunk but in the web of chunks that are arguing, correcting, and arguing about the corrections. This, however, means that knowledge is an argument, or a conversation, or is more like the webs of contention that characterize the field of living scholarship. There was an advantage to the old ecosystem in which there was a known path to authoritative opinions, but there were problems with that old system as well.
That’s why it irks me to take any one failure, such as the attempt to crowdsource the identification of the Boston murderers, as a trump card in the argument the Net makes us stupider. To do so is to confuse the Net with an aggregation of public utterances. That misses the transformative character of the networking of knowledge. The Net’s essential character is that it’s a network, that it’s connected. We therefore have to look at the network that arose around those tragically wrong accusations.
So, search for Sunil Tripathi at Reddit.com and you will find a list of discussions at Reddit about how wrong the accusation was, how ill-suited Reddit is for such investigations, and how the ethos and culture of Reddit led to the confident condemning of an innocent person. That network of discussion — which obviously extends far beyond Reddit’s borders — is the real phenomenon…”real” in the sense that the accusations themselves arose from a network and were very quickly absorbed into a web of correction, introspection, and contextualization.
The network is the primary unit of knowledge now. For better and for worse.
Tagged with: 2b2k
Date: October 23rd, 2013 dw
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