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September 18, 2016

Lewis Carroll on where knowledge lives

On books and knowledge, from Sylvie and Bruno by Lewis Carroll, 1889:

“Which contain the greatest amount of Science, do you think, the books, or the minds?”

“Rather a profound question for a lady!” I said to myself, holding, with the conceit so natural to Man, that Woman’s intellect is essentially shallow. And I considered a minute before replying. “If you mean living minds, I don’t think it’s possible to decide. There is so much written Science that no living person has ever read: and there is so much thought-out Science that hasn’t yet been written. But, if you mean the whole human race, then I think the minds have it: everything, recorded in books, must have once been in some mind, you know.”

“Isn’t that rather like one of the Rules in Algebra?” my Lady enquired. (“Algebra too!” I thought with increasing wonder.) “I mean, if we consider thoughts as factors, may we not say that the Least Common Multiple of all the minds contains that of all the books; but not the other way?”

“Certainly we may!” I replied, delighted with the illustration. “And what a grand thing it would be,” I went on dreamily, thinking aloud rather than talking, “if we could only apply that Rule to books! You know, in finding the Least Common Multiple, we strike out a quantity wherever it occurs, except in the term where it is raised to its highest power. So we should have to erase every recorded thought, except in the sentence where it is expressed with the greatest intensity.”

My Lady laughed merrily. “Some books would be reduced to blank paper, I’m afraid!” she said.

“They would. Most libraries would be terribly diminished in bulk. But just think what they would gain in quality!”

“When will it be done?” she eagerly asked. “If there’s any chance of it in my time, I think I’ll leave off reading, and wait for it!”

“Well, perhaps in another thousand years or so—”

“Then there’s no use waiting!”, said my Lady. “Let’s sit down. Uggug, my pet, come and sit by me!”

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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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November 6, 2013

[2b2k] Is the Net shortcutting our kids out of learning?

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.

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June 7, 2012

[2b2k] The Internet, Science, and Transformations of Knowledge

[Note that this is cross posted at the new Digital Scholarship at Harvard blog.]

Ralph Schroeder and Eric Meyer of the Oxford Internet Institute are giving a talk sponsored by the Harvard Library on Internet, Science, and Transformations of knowledge.

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.

Ralph begins by defining e-research as “Research using digital tools and digital data for the distributed and collaborative production of knowledge.” He points to knowledge as the contentious term. “But we’re going to take a crack at why computational methods are such an important part of knowledge.” They’re going to start with theory and then move to cases.

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve moved from talking about supercomputing to the grid to Web 2.0 to clouds and now Big Data, Ralph says. There is continuity, however: it’s all e-research, and to have a theory of how e-research works, you need a few components: 1. Computational manipulability (mathematization) and 2. The social-technical forces that drive that.

Computational manipulability. This is important because mathematics enables consensus and thus collaboration. “High consensus, rapid discovery.”

Research technologies and driving forces. The key to driving knowledge is research technologies, he says. I.e., machines. You also need an organizational component.

Then you need to look at how that plays out in history, physics, astronomy, etc. Not all fields are organized in the same way.

Eric now talks, beginning with a quote from a scholar who says he now has more information then he needs, all without rooting around in libraries. But others complain that we are not asking new enough questions.

He begins with the Large Hadron Collider. It takes lots of people to build it and then to deal with the data it generates. Physics is usually cited as the epitome of e-research. It is the exemplar of how to do big collaboration, he says.

Distributed computation is a way of engaging citizens in science, he says. E.g. Galaxy Zoo, which engages citizens in classifying galaxies. Citizens have also found new types of galaxies (“green peas”), etc. there. Another example: the Genetic Association Information Network is trying to find the cause of bipolarism. It has now grown into a worldwide collaboration. Another: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks (SPLASH), a project that requires human brains to match humpback tails. By collaboratively working on data from 500 scientists around the Pacific Rim, patterns of migration have emerged, and it was possible to come up with a count of humpbacks (about 15-17K). We may even be able to find out how long humpbacks live. (It’s a least 120 years because a harpoon head was found in one from a company that went out of business that long ago.)

Ralph looks at e-research in Sweden as an example. They have a major initiative under way trying to combine health data with population data. The Swedes have been doing this for a long time. Each Swede has a unique ID; this requires the trust of the population. The social component that engenders this trust is worth exploring, he says. He points to cases where IP rights have had to be negotiated. He also points to the Pynchon Wiki where experts and the crowd annotate Pynchon’s works. Also, Google Books is a source of research data.

Eric: Has Google taken over scholarly research? 70% of scholars use Google and 66% use Google Scholar. But in the humanities, 59% go to the library. 95% consult peers and experts — they ask people they trust. It’s true in the physical sciences too, he says, although the numbers vary some.

Eric says the digital is still considered a bit dirty as a research tool. If you have too many URLS in your footnotes it looks like you didn’t do any real work, or so people fear.

Ralph: Is e-research old wine in new bottles? Underlying all the different sorts of knowledge is mathematization: a shared symbolic language with which you can do things. You have a physical core that consists of computers around which lots of different scholars can gather. That core has changed over time, but all offer types of computational manipulability. The Pynchon Wiki just needs a server. The LHC needs to be distributed globally across sites with huge computing power. The machines at the core are constantly being refined. Different fields use this power differently, and focus their efforts on using those differences to drive their fields forward. This is true in literature and language as well. These research technologies have become so important since they enable researchers to work across domains. They are like passports across fields.

A scholar who uses this tech may gain social traction. But you also get resistance: “What are these guys doing with computing and Shakespeare?”

What can we do with this knowledge about how knowledge is changing? 1. We can inform funding decisions: What’s been happening in different fields, how they affected by social organizations, etc. 2. We need a multidisciplinary way of understanding e-research as a whole. We need more than case studies, Ralph says. We need to be aiming at developing a shared platform for understanding what’s going on. 3. Every time you use these techniques, you are either disintermediating data (e.g., Galaxy Zoo) or intermediating (biomedicine). 4. Given that it’s all digital, we as outsiders have tremendous opportunities to study it. We can analyze it. Which fields are moving where? Where are projects being funded and how are they being organized? You can map science better than ever. One project took a large chunk of academic journals and looked in real time at who is reading what, in what domain.

This lets us understand knowledge better, so we can work together better across departments and around the globe.

Q&A

Q: Sometimes you have to take a humanities approach to knowledge. Maybe you need to use some of the old systems investigations tools. Maybe link Twitter to systems thinking.

A: Good point. But caution: I haven’t seen much research on how the next generation is doing research and is learning. We don’t have the good sociology yet to see what difference that makes. Does it fragment their attention? Or is this a good thing?

Q: It’d be useful to know who borrows what books, etc., but there are restrictions in the US. How about in Great Britain?

A: If anything, it’s more restrictive in the UK. In the UK a library can’t even archive a web site without permission.
A: The example I gave of real time tracking was of articles, not books. Maybe someone will track usage at Google Books.

Q: Can you talk about what happens to the experience of interpreting a text when you have so much computer-generated data?

A: In the best cases, it’s both/and. E.g., you can’t read all the 19th century digitized newspapers, but you can compute against it. But you still need to approach it with a thought process about how to interpret it. You need both sets of skills.
A: If someone comes along and says it’s all statistics, the reply is that no one wants to read pure stats. They want to read stats put into words.

Q: There’s a science reader that lets you keep track of which papers are being read.

A: E.g., Mendeley. But it’s a self-selected group who use these tools.

Q: In the physical sciences, the more info that’s out there, it’s hard to tell what’s important.

A: One way to address it is to think about it as a cycle: as a field gets overwhelmed with info, you get tools to concentrate the information. But if you only look at a small piece of knowledge, what are you losing? In some areas, e.g., areas within physics, everyone knows everyone else and what everyone else is doing. Earth sciences is a much broader community.

[Interesting talk. It’s orthogonal to my own interests in how knowledge is becoming something that “lives” at the network level, and is thus being redefined. It’s interesting to me to see how this look when sliced through at a different angle.]

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July 19, 2009

Transparency is the new objectivity

A friend asked me to post an explanation of what I meant when I said at PDF09 that “transparency is the new objectivity.” First, I apologize for the cliché of “x is the new y.” Second, what I meant is that transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge.

Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

This change is, well, epochal.

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft — often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can. [Tags: ]

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June 12, 2009

Newsy is meta-newsy

Newsy, a project in collaboration with Univ. of Missouri’s Journalism School, pulls together a half-dozen media reports on a topic, stringing them together with their own reporter-at-a-desk commentary. The sources include mainstream news and less mainstream news. For example, here’s Newsy’s meta-coverage of China’s new Net blockage:

Newsy is a manual curation and production project. At least during this beta phase, it seems to be doing one or two a day, which means they may have more luck getting their stories embedded elsewhere than in drawing a regular crowd to their own site. In fact, the site has announced a syndication deal with Mediacom to provide stories for mid-Missouri cable tv subscribers. (The project is also probably a Fair Use lawsuit magnet, unfortunately.)

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June 10, 2009

[newmedia] Journalism panel

Dan Gillmor is not as pessimistic as many others about the future of journalism. We’re in a fertile period of innovation. But we need better audiences. Passive consumers need to be active readers, and this ought to be part of school curricula, starting in pre-school.

Jim VandeHri from Politico agrees with Dan that we’re going to end up with more and better journalism, although he has no idea what it’s going to look like and he thinks that newspapers are in much worse shape than most acknowledge.

Nick Wrenn from CNN says they use social media like Twitter both to engage the audience and as an early warning system.

David Kirkpatrick of Fortune (who’s writing a book about Facebook) is not so sure it’s a great time to go into journalism because the business model isn’t there. “I’m happy I’m getting out of it.” Yet the “number of kids who want to be journalists is astonishingly high.” He makes a few points. First, if Google gets better at its search, its ads become less relevant and valuable, and he thinks Bing is intended to force Google to get better at searching for that reason. Second, the number of minutes spent on Facebook has gone up hugely; it is uniquely influential as a media platform, both as a place where people create content and distribute others’ content.

Dan agrees that the business models aren’t there, but he’s jealous of his students because they get to invent their jobs and invent what journalism will be. Jim thinks that over time, there will be more organizations (like Politico) that can pay journalists. There will be lots of journalism, but just not dominated by the big papers and broadcasters. It’ll be non-profits, startups, etc. Politico makes money out of ads. Over the next six months, Politico will experiment with charging for some specialized content.

Q: Is it time to put the broadsheet out of its misery?
A: Dan: Print won’t shut down quickly because there’s still a whole lot of cash flow. And if you reset the debt via bankruptcies, there’s still profit to be had.
A: CNN: Newsrooms have to figure out how to deal with the changes. It’s amazing that newspapers still report on yesterday’s news.

Q: Who’s going to pay to gather dull but important information at the local level?
A: Dan: The newspapers aren’t gathering it now. No one is. We are going to lose eat-your-spinach journalism. Back when newspapers sent journalists to the boring meetings, the journalists were deterrents to bad behavior. Maybe we should hire circuit forensic accountants to work with journalists…
A: David: But now every member of the school board can be a broadcaster. So, the role of the community newspaper can be different. I am incredibly optimistic about the future of society in terms of info being distributed. But I’m not optimistic about the future of journalism.

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[2b2k] Chapter 4 – inappropriately concrete?

Chapter 3 left readers with a problem without resolution. If facts don’t provide as firm a bedrock as we’d thought, then are we left to believe whatever we want? Is there no hope? [Spoiler: No, we’re not free to believe whatever we want.]

Because Chapter 3 was pretty abstract, I want to be sure to address its question in some concrete ways. So, Chapter 4 opens with a brief scene-setter that says that we all love diversity, but when there’s too much, we can’t get anything done. I’m now at the beginning of a section that will give maybe four general rules for “scoping” diversity so that a group has enough internal difference to be smarter than the smartest individual, but not so much that they can’t get past bickering. I plan on following that with a more abstract section that asks whether the Net is making us more open or closed to other people’s ideas. At the moment, I like the idea of beginning with the concrete and moving to the abstract, in large part because I think the abstract question is pretty much impossible to answer.

I can’t tell yet if the chapter structure is going to work. There is so much to say about this topic. And I have a concern that the reader is not expecting the book to take this turn. But I won’t be able to tell that until I have enough distance on the prior chapters to be able to read them with some degree of freshness.

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June 9, 2009

[berkman] Lewis Hyde on the Commons

Lewis Hyde is giving a Berkman talk about the book he’s working on. The book is about the ownership of art and ideas, and argues that they should lie in a cultual commons, rather than be treated as property.

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.

Lewis begins by talk about what a commons is. The term comes from medieval property ideas, and Lewis thinks of commons as a kind of property. He asks the group for a definition of property. Suggestions from the audience: “Exclusive rights.” “Anything I can use and have some degree of control over, not necessarily exclusively.” Lewis says that a 1900 dictionary defines property as that over which one has “rights of action.” Property is a bundle of rights of action. Lewis likes this definition because it includes human actors, Blackstone defines property rights in maximalist terms: the right to exclude the entire universe. Scalia also thinks property is the right to exclude. Lewis thinks the right to exclude is one of the bundle, not the whole thing. This is because, he says, he’s interested in commons. (He notes that in medieval times, “common” could be used as a verb. E.g., “a man may commons in the forest.)

Lewis talks about Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” essay. In fact, traditionally commons had governance rules to prevent the destruction of the commons’ asset, including the right of exclusion. “Commons were in fact not tragic. They lasted for millennia in Europe. Not tragic because they were rule-governed and stinted.” Why has the phrase “The tragedy of the commons” persisted? In part, because the phrase is catchy. In part because Hardin proposed it during the Cold War and it was taken as showing that common-ism doesn’t work.

There used to be an annual ritual of “beating the bounds,” to keep any gradual encroachment on the commons. “These were convivial affairs.” Lewis wonders if there are ways we can recover this resistance to encroachment.

Applied to the cultural realm, Lewis thinks cultural products are by nature in a commons. In the 18th century you get the idea that we could own poems, novels, etc. Until then, people thought of property as applying only to land. If something is not excludable, there’s no property in it. Many argued in the 18th century that therefore artistic works can’t be property. (Lewis recommends Terry Fisher’s article on philosophies of property. Terry points to four : Labor, moral rights, commercial utilitarianism, and civic utilitarianism.)

The first copyright law was in 1710 (Statute of Anne). By giving authors and publishers rights, it removed the “in perpetuity” of the crown’s monopolistic grants. It also created the public domain by creating a clear limit on the term of ownership: After 14 years, it enters the public domain. It’s as if the commons is the default state, says Lewis.

Jamie Boyle talks about the “second enclosure” in which everything is copyrighted by default, the term is extended. The second enclosure is an enclosure of the mind, says Boyle. Lewis now thinks there might be a third enclosure: The enclosure of wilderness of the mind. Lewis agrees that it makes sense to let the creator of a work, say a novel, get rewarded for it. “I wrote it, so it’s mine.” But, asks Lewis, what does the “I” mean? What is the self? He cites a 12th century Buddhist: “We study the self to forget the self.” To forget the self is to wake up to the world around you. Creativity comes out of self-abnegation. To get to something truly new, you have to a door open to the unknown. We usually think that the outside of owned property is the public domain. But that’s a domesticated sphere, things we are familiar with. There’s a old tradition that during the period of maturation, you have to leave the known world, go away from where instruction is given, and become familiar with your ignorance. (Lewis says he’s drawing on Thoreau.)

He takes an example from Jonathan Zittrain. When the Apple II came out, there was a spurt in sales because the first spreadsheet emerged, something that had not been expected. If you want a generative Internet, you have to be careful about what you lock down. Another example: In the 1980s, San Diego cell biologists patented a sequence of amino acids. They didn’t know its biological purpose. Ten years later, other researchers think that that sequence blocks blood to tumors. The patent owners sued the researchers. The patent gums up the system. Exploratory science goes into the unknown. “To enclose wilderness means giving property rights in areas where we as yet have no understanding what’s happening.” Lewis adds: “This makes no sense.” Lewis would like us to restore the idea that there are things that are unowned.

Emblematic of the third enclosure is silence. John Cage in 1952 came to Harvard to see/hear a completely soundproofed room. But Cage could hear a low rumbling and high whining. The low rumbling is the sound of your blood and the high whining is the sound of your nervous system. Silence for Cage meant not no sound but non-intention. He composed “4 mins and 33 seconds” which is a stretch of silence. The audience hears the ambient noise. In 2002 a rock group called the Planets put in a minute of silence. As a joke/homage, they credited it to Cage. The royalty-collecting societies started to send checks to Cage’s publisher. The publisher sued for copyright infringement on moral rights grounds (i.e., misattribution). They settled. But Cage held a Buddhist-like view of artistic creation. He tried to remove the self. A lot of copyright law assumes the work contains the imprint of the author’s personality. That’s one of the reasons we give a copyright. But those laws can get in the way of our ability to live in the wilderness, i.e., the third enclosure. How do you become a creator in a world in which scientists can patent unknown sequences and silence can be copyrighted?

Q: Maybe part of the problem in defending the commons is that we say we’re defending freedom, not as in free beer. Fighting for free beer is more compelling than fighting for free speech.
A: Beating the bounds was a fun event. So, yes, people have to want to do this.

Q: [me] How do we counter the fairness argument: If I did it, I ought to get the reward. How do we respond to that?
A: It’s hard to do this in political debate because it’s a long argument. I raise the question of the “I”: To what extent is my contribution really from me? With cultural works, you’re working in a vast sea of existing material. What you create is not entirely yours. Even if it becomes popular and useful, it’s other people who made it so. You can also point to the utilitarian consequences: The public interest is advanced by enabling things to enter the public domain.

Q: [jason] You’re making a creativity defense, i.e., that the commons is generative. But, if we take Cage or Thoreau to heart and say that true creativity consists of transcending the self, could we say that that leads to saying all works should be owned, so that you’re forced to create something new?
A: The puzzle is how much you can actually go to the wilderness. You can face it, but there’s no way to escape the world you come out of. Thoreau has The Iliad with him. There’s no way to escape the known. You always work from materials you’ve collected elsewhere.

Q: [ethanz] What’s so bad about private property? You’re hearkening back to a romantic conception that worked for a very small set of people. We’ve got an enormous amount of development vased on increasingly strong enclosure movements. Those movements have given us a great deal of what we love. Despite the first and second enclosures, creativity seems not to have been much hindered. Why should we worry about the third enclosure? Couldn’t we say that you’re attempting to protect and defend something that most of us have not experienced? How do we know that your romantic vision is superior to the world we’re interacting with?
A: I’m not against private property. The question is always where the lines should be drawn. I think we’ve extended the right to exclude too far. Yes, the world is quite creative. But we don’t know what we’re missing. With the enclosing of wilderness, we’re enclosing that which we don’t know about. Researchers are reluctant to do certain kinds of work, for fear of being sued.
Ethan: My diabetes medicine — recombinant DNA — exists because Eli Lilly worked within enclosures. How do we know we would have made the same progress if those enclosures weren’t there?
A: Let’s leave that hanging as a question. It’s a good question. You’re right that the existing dominant system has produced remarkable results.

Q: Michael Heller in The Gridlock Economy goes through the economic models that explain what we lose by locking stuff down. What’s the cultural loss?
A: Lessig and others write books about this… [Tags: ]

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Meaning-mining Wikipedia

DBpedia extracts information from Wikipedia, building a database that you can query. This isn’t easy because much of the information in Wikipedia is unstructured. On the other hand, there’s an awful lot that’s structured enough so that an algorithm can reliably deduce the semantic content from the language and the layout. For example, the boxed info on bio pages is pretty standardized, so your algorithm can usually assume that the text that follows “Born: ” is a date and not a place name. As the DBpedia site says:

The DBpedia knowledge base currently describes more than 2.6 million things, including at least 213,000 persons, 328,000 places, 57,000 music albums, 36,000 films, 20,000 companies. The knowledge base consists of 274 million pieces of information (RDF triples). It features labels and short abstracts for these things in 30 different languages; 609,000 links to images and 3,150,000 links to external web pages; 4,878,100 external links into other RDF datasets, 415,000 Wikipedia categories, and 75,000 YAGO categories.

Over time, the site will get better and better at extracting info from Wikipedia. And as it does so, it’s building a generalized corpus of query-able knowledge.

As of now, the means of querying the knowledge requires some familiarity with building database queries. But, the world has accumulated lots of facility with putting front-ends onto databases. DBpedia is working on something differentL accumulating an encyclopedic database, open to all and expressed in the open language of the Semantic Web.

(Via Mirek Sopek.) [Tags: ]

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