Coding and Literacies

This morning my feed is full of discussion of the coding for all movement.  Anya Kamenetz asks how long “I’m not a coder” will be a socially acceptable thing to say.  Some, including The Atlantic’s Melinda Anderson are more skeptical.  I’m not sure this is the right question, any more than teaching everyone to repair cars is necessary.  A more important issue is fundamental understanding of how systems work.

Let’s go back to cars.  I don’t know enough to repair my own car. I do on a basic level understand how cars work.  Refined petroleum is ignited by a spark from a battery in a closed cylinder, the resulting explosion moves a piston while creating exhaust gases, the moving pistons turn a drive shaft.  This commonly shared understanding of how cars work and that even providing a modest 12V requires a fairly large battery means that it is commonly understood that creating an inexpensive zero emission vehicle is a hard problem.

Contrast this with the collective understanding of digital encryption, given FBI v Apple and the preceding discussions of encryption backdoors.  I have yet to find an expert on how encryption works who believes that a mechanism which would allow law enforcement to bypass encryption without allowing hostile governments and criminal actors to do the same is technically possible.  See this summary for one example.  However, those with less technical knowledge don’t seem to share this belief.

Perhaps the key is not being able to code per se, but having enough fundamental knowledge of how computers work in order to have a shared understanding of what, for a computer, is possible or impossible, easy or difficult. The broader question when designing education is, “Which systems are important enough that we need  a shared understanding of their fundamental principles in order for society to function well?”

Blogs are blogs and wikis are wikis and never the twain….

Mike Caulfield, whose latest project, Wikity, brings to WordPress some features of federated wiki, asks whether an architecture that would allow data to flow seamlessly between blogs and wikis is a desirable thing.  In a comment, Kartik Agaram suggests that tagging makes blogs behave in a more wiki-like way.

To unpack this, I found it helpful to think all the way back to physical libraries. The whole notion of card catalogs and call numbers is a system designed to make physical objects findable. No matter how many cards referred to an item, the call number (a primary key, as it were) pointed to one spot on a shelf.  There has been a tendency to think of tagging as being fundamentally different because the artifacts are digital, but as Mike points out, the web is still location based, even if the locations are virtual.  Tagging merely allows, to extend the card catalog analogy, there to be a theoretically infinite number of “subject” cards for any given entity or entities under any given subject.

Given that the blog is clearly one person’s writing and thought, it makes more sense for it to have a single canonical address.  Wiki is more reference like and seems to lend itself better to Mike’s notion of connected copies, since the question of authorship is less important.

Now on to Mike’s actual question.  How valuable is it to be able to seamlessly move data across this divide?  I think the answer depends on how important you think the attribution chain is.  If it’s not important at all, just cut and paste.  If it is important, is it equally important in both contexts?

For the blog, some sort of attribution clarifies what is the author’s own thought versus what came from somewhere else.  However, when that somewhere else is a wiki, you deal with a source that is designed not to be static.  All of the web does that, in fact, which is why we have accessed on fields in web citations and everyone should love the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.  The vary malleability of a wiki page may lessen its value as a source. Would a wiki to blog bridge, like a fedwiki fork, pull the entire history of a wiki document up to the point of citation?  It’s with connected copies that this sort of link makes more sense. Even if the copy you originally cited has disappeared, you might find another.

Going the other direction, one expects a blog post, with it’s time and date stamp, to be a fixed oeuvre, so it makes more sense as a source or reference for a wiki document. It’s usually static nature also makes this process easier.

Having thought “aloud” through the use cases, I’m not in desperate need of a bridge. If reference by content grows in importance, it might make more sense.

Musical Theater and Transculturation

Well, I finally did it. I broke down and started listening to the Hamilton cast album. Hamilton is, for those who don’t know, the (now grammy winning) hottest thing on Broadway, a biographical musical about the founding father, duel victim and face of the ten dollar bill, which stars show creator and MacArthur Fellow Lin-Manuel Miranda.

From the very opening line, it’s clear that this is not a period piece. Hip-hop and rap influences are immediately apparent, and I found that just a bit off putting at first hearing.  Then I thought about why I found it off putting.

Douglas Hofstadter uses the word transculturation to refer to the process of replacing cultural references when translating a text to a new language.  That’s sort of what’s happening here.  I’m sure that the founding fathers didn’t rap.  If you watched the performance of the show’s opening number on the recent Grammy telecast, there was an interesting juxtaposition.  Although the musical style is contemporary, the costumes are period, so you see the eighteenth century and hear something much more modern.

Of course Hamilton is far from the first show to do such a thing.  In West Side Story, Bernstein completely transculturated Romeo and Juliet in Verona to Tony and Maria in New York City.  Shows like Candide and A Little Night Music juxtapose modern music with older settings.  There’s (so far, I’m only a few songs in) one moment in Hamilton that evokes actual 18th century musical style, Samuel Seabury’s1 half of  “Farmer Refuted”.  I wonder if Miranda is contrasting Loyalists and Patriots by having the former sing music that sounds eighteenth century and European, while the latter sound hip, modern, and American.

This sort of approach has some benefits. A noticeable spike in Google search volume for the term “Alexander Hamilton” followed the Grammy performance. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly encourage one to consider an event in its own historical and cultural context. What do we gain and lose when we retell an historical story through a modern cultural lens?


1Students of religious history will recognize the name. Seabury was later the first Anglican bishop in the United States.

What should be the age of digital majority?

Last week Jessica Reingold of the University of Mary Washington  suggested that educational institutions committed to personal student domains should make students’ development of such spaces a gradual process.  I asked how such a process might apply to younger netizens, since I have a couple at home and have been thinking about this.Jessica made an argument that surprised me.  I’d summarize it thusly, although by all means go read Jessica’s post and make up your own mind as to how shoddy a job of summarizing I have done.

  1. Adolescents say, write, and express many things they later regret (sometimes not all that much later in the grand scheme of things).
  2. Between the Internet Archive , Google and like entities, everything published to the public web is both public and permanent.
  3. Therefore, putting stuff on the public web before you are, say, 20, is a bad idea.

It struck me how Jessica’s suggestion puts “first blog post” in the same age range as “first vote” and “first (legal) alcoholic beverage” as the sort of event that goes along with no longer being a minor.  Tim Berners-Lee referred to the notion of an “age of digital majority” in a 1996 speech.  To the extent there is an age of internet majority, existing law sets it much lower.  Current US law allows a 13 year old to sign up for a website without written parental permission. My kids are about that age, which is why I’m thinking about this issue now. Even setting aside the many children younger than 13 who have all sorts of social media accounts, this raises some questions.

Jessica suggests that young people should wait to have a permanent web presence until after society has judged them to have enough judgement to drive a car, vote in elections, or join the armed forces.  Why set the bar so high?  She writes:

Adolescents are still developing and discovering who they are (I’m still discovering who I am and i’ve finished my undergraduate degree!) and I’d imagine it’d be difficult to develop a digital identity without some sort of foothold on what you’d want that to be and if you’d want it to mimic your in-person identity or not.

Even though I’m middle aged by most measures, I know that my identity is still developing.  How does one decide one’s identity is stable enough to document?

When the notion of personal digital identity is introduced can also have an effect on the digital habits a person develops.  Jessica asserts that for new college students, “Sticking them with the task of trying to create a digital identity that’s not in the form of preset social media norms is like asking them to have multiple existential crises.”  Perhaps the difficulty she mentions here happens because, by the time we discuss with a young person the notion of digital identity, they are well trained feeders of the Facebook, Twitter and Google data mines.  Is there an opportunity to start the process earlier so that a young person learns the habits of digital identity building , even if they are highly scaffolded, instead of those of preset social media norms?

Let me continue with a caveat that is big enough it probably should have been at the top of the post rather than buried 500 words down. The questions I’m asking and Jessica is, to her credit, trying to answer are not questions I had to deal with as an adolescent.  I was over Jessica’s suggested age threshold at the dawn of the public web, and was over 30 before I made my first blog post.

Even so I wonder if Jessica’s cautious approach may unintentionally limit the extent to which a young person internalizes digital identity building. Alan Kay is reported to have said , “Technology is everything invented after you were born.” Does waiting until someone is 19 or 20 make it more likely that digital identity tools will feel like technology per Kay’s definition?

Unlike Jessica, I’m not sure to go about all this.  The model she proposes has, I think, a good sense of progression from simpler to more complex tasks.  I do wonder how well tying the process to formal entities like majors and courses will hold up in the long run.  As I’ve worked on my digital footprint, I’ve consciously kept it disconnected from institutional affiliations.  As one moves through life, these come and go, and I worry that content tied closely to an affiliation long past will be effectively orphaned.

Looking back at this, it reads much more like a rebuttal than I intended it, but I’ll leave it out here anyway, hoping it will expand the conversation.


Some Thoughts on Web Annotation

Yesterday, Mike Caulfied pondered how one might replace blog comments with something more connective by replacing them with annotated links, I think he was being purposefully provocative since he titled it a “…..Proposal for Killing Comments….”  Neverthelss, I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea that publishing platforms should encourage less dialogue and more broad conversation.  This goes back to Mike’s thought about tools that help people “geek out” virtually.

His choice of the term “annotated links” was important because it made me think of another annotation project that I played with yesterday ,, which counts Jon Udell of elmcity fame among its team members.  Collaborative annotation of the has for a long time been a feature just on the verge of changing everything, even before it was diigo’s killer feature.

At first glance hypothesis has much to recommend it.  There’s already a github repository, and the software is designed to run in a docker container, so running one’s own instance on a VPS should be straightforward, an important thing for anyone who lived through the life, death, and undeath of delicious.  Hypothesis is also working on Browsertrix, software that archives a web page when it’s annotated.  After all, your brilliant annotations aren’t much use if the page disappears. Federation is further down the roadmap, but a self hosted annotation server that would archive annotated documents and communicate with other servers that were doing the same thing looks to be not too far off.

This isn’t quite what Mike is talking about, but I wonder, based on the maxim “Don’t re-invent the wheel unless you have to,” how the two might fit together. Hypothesis,especially if you imagine a single user instance, seems very close to a recreation of Vannevar Bush’s memex, with electronic storage replacing microfiche.  It also shares characteristics with fedwiki, a project Mike has championed for a couple of years now, with the added benefit of maintaining copies of the source materials. I can imagine a research workflow where high level idea processing , outlining and drafting, happened in fedwiki with links to hypothesis annotated, browsertrix archived web pages (digital notecards) for documentation. Build federation into both ends and you could allow individuals and groups to create and document research publicly all the way through the process.


Education and the Future of the Internet

I just read Jennifer Granick’s Black Hat keynote.  I highly recommend it.  I want to focus on one thing that Granick unpacked.  In discussing the history of technology law, she mentioned numerous instances from the present and past where policymakers propose and make law and/or policy even when their understanding of the technology and its history is poor.

A particularly salient example is the renewed call for law enforcement encryption backdoors.  I  have yet to find any technical experts who even think such a thing will work, never mind be a good idea.  Unfortunately, many of the policymakers who will decide this issue are not known for their technical acumen.

Looking at the big picture, the question is something like this: “In a democratic society, how much do policymakers and the public at large need to know about technology in order for society to make informed decisions about the policies and laws that govern it?” Unless the answer is “almost nothing,” we aren’t doing what we need to do.

Consider computer survey courses for undergraduates.  They are almost always tightly focused on technology as tool.  How do you send an email or make a spreadsheet?  As I think about it, this makes quite a bit of sense.  One must understand at least what a piece of technology can do before one can have a very thoughtful discussion about what it ought to do and not do.  Unfortunately, that second discussion is rare.

For example, a discussion of remote device kill and wipe functionality points out their value if keeping sensitive data out of the hands of bad actors is more important than recovering a lost or stolen device. It does not, however, address the question of whether the device manufacturer, the wireless carrier the device uses, or the government should be capable (by design) and/or allowed (by law and policy) to trigger a kill or wipe without the device owner’s consent and/or knowledge.

A discussion of the history of the Internet leads Granick to the almost inevitable comparison of “hacker” culture, with its emphasis on tinkering and openness, and the expectations of safety and turnkey operation that more recent Internet arrivals expect.  As this year’s Beloit Mindset List points out, traditional college freshmen don’t remember a time before online shopping at Amazon. Accordingly, Internet culture for a large subset of the population is about viral videos and Facebook memes, not free software and innovation at the edge.

This conversation has been going on and off at least since Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost. (text) (video) Is the gentrification of the Internet inevitable — perhaps even desirable?  If not, how do we teach about historical online culture to encourage thoughtful discussions about what aspects of that culture are worth preserving and how we might preserve them?

Alfie Kohn on Growth Mindset

Recently, Salon published a critique of growth mindset by Alfie Kohn. Laura Gibbs is skeptical.  Rather than try to navigate Blogger/Google’s comment system, I’m posting my comment here.

I don’t particularly agree that Kohn is trying to lump together growth and grit.  My sense of his concern is that he worries that growth mindset can be easily co-opted because of the focus of modern education on external evaluation.  Given that emphasis, Kohn suggests two bad things that can happen.

  1.  Improvement becomes about going from “bad” to “good” in the eyes of some external authority,  Given Kohn’s longstanding belief that all external evaluation and praise is harmful because it pulls the learner to the wrong goal, he sees a danger that growth becomes mostly about better meeting others’ expectations.

  2. Kohn considers how growth mindset, which is very much an individual response, matches up with another mindset, the one that suggests if things are going badly in my education/life/etc. I as an individual can improve them by changing my attitude.  This focus on the individual which in many ways pervades American culture is one, Kohn argues, that makes us less willing to consider the role systems, either because they are poorly designed or because they are seeking the wrong ends, have when poor outcomes happen.

Mindset is, after all, only a mechanism that is more effective or less efffective in helping one meet goals.  Kohn seems to believe that without a careful look at systems and structures, growth mindset becomes merely a more efficient path to a bad end.

Different Ways of Fixing the Web

Several articles in the last several weeks have bemoaned the decline of the web. Yesterday, Alan Levine linked to several of them but then  suggested that the web feels fine to him, and Mike Caulfield commented that many of the features we now view as integral to the open web owe their existence to people who perceived problems with the way the web worked and tried to fix them.  Mike notes that comments and RSS and WordPress were all attempts to fix something about the web that was not quite right.  I’d add Facebook to that list.

( I’ll give you a moment to recover from your swoon or fit of rage)

Just as the comment box tried to solve the problem of conversation or RSS tried to solve the problem of curation, Facebook tried to solve a problem, “How do I use the web to connect to a group of people that is important to me?”   For lots of people, especially non-early-adopters, this is a more important to solve than how to curate information.  There’s a reason Facebook has billions of users. For many people, the ease with which the web allows them to connect to other people is more important that the ease with which it allows them to manage information.  People like Alan have, for a long time, reminded anyone who would pay attention of the importance of story, even on the web.  What makes a story uniquely compelling?  The characters.  Story is so important and so powerful because it puts people (or aliens, or anthropomorphized animals, you get the idea) at the center.  Something like Facebook or Google+, in its own convoluted way, is an effort to put personal connection at the center of the web.

So, why do most of the people I know love RSS and hate Facebook?  Because Facebook did its problem solving in a non-open way, encouraging people to trade their data for “free web hosting and PHP doodads,” as Eben Moglen put it. To anyone who can install fedwiki on a VPS using npm, the bargain Moglen describes seems as bad a deal as he says it is.  To people without those skills, the deal doesn’t seem as bad.  Companies like Reclaim Hosting and Known are doing great work lowering the entry threshold so that more people can manage their own digital identity and realize how bad Facebook’s deal is.

Even so, the open web tools are great for digital homesteading, and not as great for networking.  Tools like Known or other IndieWeb implementations are focusing on POSSE (Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and trying to leverage the network effects of proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than supplant them.

The existence and success of those proprietary platforms is an effort to solve another “problem” with the web, how to make money off of it. The Vox article to which Alan links addresses this issue directly.  Most web users seem unwilling to pay for content or for their own hosting.  Ergo, we end up with the system of data harvesting we have.

Would the web be better if the problems of social networking and monetization were solved in an open way?  Of course it would.  Goodness knows people have tried the former. Remember friendica, diaspora, appleseed, etc. Sites like ChangeTip are trying to solve the latter   Hopefully someone will succeed eventually.

My sense is that most of the distress over the decline of the web is actually well founded concern that the key problems of the web in 2015 are being solved in proprietary ways that create huge walled gardens rather than with open federated protocols.  That is, in fact, the key problem to solve.



Personal Cyberinfrastructure for Middle School?

I have a pair of tweens at home. The younger one went to a 100 girls of code workshop this week. Since the focus of the introductory level is putting together a web page, I decided it was time to unpark domains for her and her brother that I’ve been sitting on for about a year.

This raises the question, “What do I want my kids to know about digital footprint/ cyber infrastructure /etc?” I threw this out into social media and haven’t gotten much response yet, so as an exercise I’m imagining what a MOOC on these topics, designed for middle school age students, might be like.

I imagine three sections

  1. Why

I like Gardner Campbell’s (in)famous “bags of gold” presentation and Eben Moglen’s warnings about PHP doodads to introduce this, but I’m not 12. Perhaps there are gentler introductions.

2 What

At this point I see the MOOC becoming more rhizomatic. Each participant needs to decide what they want their digital identity to represent. Family history buffs might install a genealogy web app. Students might have a bookmark manager, and so forth.

  1. How

Finally, learners put their plans into action. They choose their tools and learn to use them.

This is a very rough first outline. I’ve posted it at my fedwiki site, so you may fork there or comment here. What did I forget? What would you use to deliver such a thing?

Geeking out as instructional model?

Mike Caulfield has the wonderful habit of, about once a month, posting something that makes you sit up and think.  Last week he did it again, discussing “Geeking out as a conversational paradigm.”  Learning that Mike did grad work on conversation analysis illuminates many of the things he’s written recently and his work on Federated Wiki.

The specific thing that Mike’s post has set me to thinking about is to what extent geeking out is like and not like various dialog-centered instructional models.  My off the cuff response is that geeking out is a sort of socratic method inter partes, where rather than a single leader/teacher asking most of the questions, everyone is socratically questioning everyone else. That feels different to me than Mike’s description of a database synchronization operation, but this may be because the terms come from different domains and not actually mean that the two things are different.

I also think the inter partes  part is important.  Does a geek out work differently when there are big differences between the background knowledge of the various participants (when the databases are way out of sync) or does the connectivist nature of the enterprise allow each participant to plug in where they can and extend the conversation with whatever knowledge they can bring to bear? I look at Mike’s carefully described geek out and wonder, ” What happens to a person at the table who knows nothing about the Joss Whedon oeuvre?”  By #6 (singer/songwriters) we have reached a different and broader topic, which doesn’t require Whedon awareness. This suggests to me that geek outs, because they tend to be wide ranging, can include people with diverse knowledge sets.

Coming back to my first question of how this could be an instructional model, geek outs seem to push against the prevailing educational model of disciplinary silos that focus on deep knowledge in narrow domains.  If your classroom default was a geek out, what would that look like?  Is it amenable to meeting a pre-specified set of learning outcomes. or is the potential for the conversation to go anywhere (think rhizomatic learning) part of the point?