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Mmm technology, not merely man-made, but made of men!

February 24th, 2007
Old Lady Who Swallowed A FlyI couldn’t come up with a title for this post while writing it, but kept thinking of that great line from David Nobel’s America by Design:

For technology is not simply a driving force in human history, it is something in itself human; it is not merely man-made, but made of men.” (1977, xxi-xxii

I’m indebted to John Labovitz for his comments on my wiki lament and for pointers to two articles about efforts to build a better wiki. The first, “Meet the uber-wiki”, is about WikiProfessionial’s WikiProteins, a wiki with structured data, automatic updates of related pages and alerts. The second is a piece by Tim O’Reilly about a recent NSF award to the University of Colorado to research and create a “New Generation Wiki” that goes “beyond existing wikis.” (It’s gotta be vaporware when one of the specifications is “utilize new paradigms.” As if simply “using” them weren’t enough. “Use”, “utilize,” do you know the difference?)

Even though these projects seem to respond to many of the concerns I had with wikis as groupware, for me they call to mind the children’s song about the old lady who swallowed a fly. That is, in terms of the ailment I described as wiki-mania, these cures may simply be more of the disease. The problems to which I point–of creating meaningful order collectively–are not, I think, chiefly problems of software but of socialization. From that standpoint, the fact that wikiware is the object on which the talk centers is itself indicative of the problem, namely, the tendency to see collaborative representation and storage of knowledge primarily in technical terms. There’s a saying that any problem in computer science can be solved by another layer of indirection, but this problem is simply bumped along to each new layer. Users are part of the system, you always get to them in the end, and there’s no system so robust it can’t be thwarted by ignorant armies, or subverted by clever ones. Right about now is when the techno-faithful (friends and colleagues) usually protest “but you shouldn’t have to be an expert” and I counter, “Yes, silly, but there’s a whole spectrum out there, why dash to an extreme?” Because “plug-and-play” isn’t the only alternative to expertise, no matter how those “Exegesis for Dummies” books would have it.

Focus on perfecting the wiki will not get at the concerns I was raising which were more along the lines of acknowledging that inculcating users in habits of mind and protocols is vital to any wiki project. Of course, to take that on sincerely requires swimming upstream against a strong cultural current that views meaningful social order as something that arises automagically from myriad individual transactions. Evidence of this current, as well as the social relations within which wikis work, can be found in this blog about Wikipedia edit-wars (start at the bottom).

Here, Parker Peters, a (former?) Wikipedia admin, expounds with great detail and vigor on the tactics by which, as he sees it, “Wikipedia turns ‘consensus’ into ‘groupthink’.” What interests me most is his notion that legitimate consensus is threatened the instant individuals act in concert. It comes forth most clearly in the post Lesson #3: Organize, Organize, Organize where he writes: “First of all, the idea of “consensus” is thrown under the bus as soon as an organized group shows up trying to push their own point of view.”

I understand where Peters is coming from and feel his frustration because, whatever the particulars in contention, I wouldn’t suppose that an artifact such as Wikipedia could be anything other than a social construct (with all that that implies). It’s a point Stephen Colbert gets across more pointedly and mirthfully in Wikiality, The Truthiness Encyclopedia

One of my newbie complaints of Wikipedia was, in fact, that articles didn’t include anything about who’d authored them, so that I might understand on what bases they advanced their claims to knowledge? But the aspiration to “neutral point of view” is one Peters shares with Wikipedia. His critique basically calls project admins to task for acting against values they purportedly have in common.

It is these values in which I’m interested, or rather, the conceptions of the social they bespeak. How do you distinguish between “groupthink” and shared values you do, or do not, happen to share? What are the bounds of consensus? The conditions of community? In what size and kinds of groups does legitimate discourse take place, that is, what distinguishes a cabal from a public? Though such questions may seem far afield from my complaints of wiki-mania, the connecting thread I’m tracing is a backgrounding (and even eclipsing) of the social work entailed in collecting and representing knowledge of any sort. It’s never merely a matter of technicalities, so when you background all thinking about what records or articles should consist of, or move from a world of pages, to one of feeds, without much attention, let alone discussion, of what habits of mind can be translated or rendered in the new media, you quickly run into all sorts of problems. You can throw all the “New Generation” and “uber” warez you want at these problems, but the trend toward field specific wikis (WikiProfessional) and initiatives like Citizendium which “aims to improve on the Wikipedia model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names,” indicate their deeply social and conventional nature.

Surfing the ‘awesome’ tag

January 23rd, 2007

My aggregators have aggregators and other meta matters

image of popurls.comNothing much was happening that Friday, just a couple of friends kicking back on the sectional surfing the ‘awesome’ tag on Flickr. “All the kids are doing it,” said my pal, joshing me for taking notes as she and her work buddy sat glued to a laptop in her new apartment. As usual, fieldwork was doubling for a social life, or perhaps it was the other way around. No matter, that’s the lot of a participant-observer and that night it was a particularly good one.

In addition to tea and sandwiches, I got to witness folksonomies–the method of using collaboratively generated tags to categorize online content–in action in everyday life. Not that I hadn’t tagged and searched tags. I’d just never done it in a social context, alongside watching TV, listening to music, and playing video games while hanging out with friends. But this isn’t really so new, I thought. I mean, a dozen years ago geeks hung out, sprawled in clusters around screens, surfing the net, and there were all sorts of ranking and recommendation sites to play with, like that early classic, “Hot or Not.”

The genre of creating new value from user-input (e.g. letters to the editor) or from metadata, whether stats or votes, is an old one that’s transcended lots of delivery technologies. But I had to admit, folksonomies had something new with user-input as meta data. Lisa Gitelman writes of media working on two levels: (1) as technology that enables communication and (2) as a set of associated cultural protocols and practices. Do genres count as cultural practices that can (sometimes, always) span delivery technologies?

And what distinguishes user-input from statistics generated by use? That is, is there a meaningful difference (emic or etic) between aggregation of user stats (e.g. popurls.com) and tagging (e.g. del.icio.us) as kinds of metadata? Both seem to have uses and entertainment value for the natives, but what’s in it for Joe Social Science? What do you know when you know someone by the trails he leaves?

The popularity of aggregators puts me in mind of filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s admonition:

“it is not sufficient to present fragments of reality on the screen, to represent life by its crumbs. These fragments must be elaborated upon so as to make an integrated whole which is, in turn, the thematic reality.”

(in Jean Rouch, 1975. `The Camera and Man.’ In P. Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. Mouton, The Hague.)

Clearly Vertov, who died in 1954, would have favored directory-driven portals over aggregators, and would have sided with Jaron Lanier in the kerfuffle over Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, but maybe, just maybe, he would have been down with tags.

The Data Structures of Everyday Life (The Limits of Automagical Order)

January 9th, 2007

For about a year now, wikis have peeved me. Not the software, which can certainly be useful, but its heedless deployment as the groupware of choice. In both corporate and academic contexts, wikis are thrown up as project intranets, but in many cases what escapes attention until after the fact is the flatness of the data they tend to collect. What I mean by flatness is posts tend to accumulate as linked lists, heaped up like middens with all the latest material at the top. Of course, wikiware also offers the advantages of searchable text, change logs, and revision histories, but do these eliminate the need for logical (editorial) ordering of uploaded “items?” Or, might it be that these flat, automatic ways of setting relations among posted items, deceive us in to thinking that order arises automagically from the nodes and links of user-generated hypertext?

Image of Wikipedia on a desktop

Wikipedia, which is probably the best known wiki, is a perfect match of task and tool because the simple structure of term and entry is sufficient architecturally for an encyclopedia. But encyclopedias are a special case. And they differ markedly from the various other forms collected knowledge takes in everyday life–from that random-access classic, the book, to online databases and corporate intranets. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries and the like: these are remarkably uncomplicated instances, structure is axiomatic, everyone already knows how to play, more or less. But even here I’d venture that on projects with any longevity, wiki gnomes edit people’s edits, educate and evangelize through other channels, and chastise rule-breakers in whatever hallways those channels afford. Which is to say, even in the most uncomplicated cases, meaningful order does not turn out to be an emergent property of shared, stored communications.

My gripe against wiki-mania, as I came to call it, first became fully apparent to me last May. At the time I was preparing to teach (TA) an anthropology course with a multimedia production component through USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The professor I was assisting had planned to scan a bunch of images of art, ritual and everyday objects, and photographs from her books (it was a course on the changing image of the Pacific in the Western imagination), so I suggested it would make sense to build on that work to create a database to which students could contribute and around which they could do their projects. That way, I thought, we’d all learn together about creating a networked, multimedia resource of this kind, and we’d be able to collect material and build and refine that resource over time. It seemed to me a perfect plan and, looking back, that should have been my first clue. Such illusions are made to be shattered and, quite shortly, mine were.

To create this online, multi-author, course database, I dutifully wrote a paragraph describing what we wanted to do, listed out all the capabilities we’d need, and asked the tech folks in charge of this particular sector of the grid (by way of a managerial intermediary) what type of software they would have me use. Having run a Mac/Tango/Filmaker site in the early 1990s that shared a FileMaker Pro (FMP) database over the Internet with a community of contributing users, the functionality requested seemed reasonable to me and I’d read about several current open source content management packages what sounded like they’d work just fine. The answer that came back, however, was, “You can use a wiki.

I was less than delighted, but that didn’t register until later because I was stunned by the curricular implications of the reply. Of course I could use wikiware to try to mimic the capabilities of a database, but why? That didn’t seem very sensible given that we were trying to teach something about the nature of records and databases, about the benefits and limitations of what Vannevar Bush called “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities…Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

How would we teach them to think about different kinds of data structures? Not as computer science students do, but in terms of the tradeoffs of involved in representing, archiving, appending, and organizing any collection of information? The wiki format doesn’t lend itself well to the model of designing records with fields and coming up with a template for records, then seeding the database with partial records to give students some examples of the kinds of media projects that would fulfill the course objectives. We wanted to create a sort of fill-in-the-blank treasure hunt which could serve students and instructors alike as a resource in which to explore relationships of general structure (i.e. categories, fields, data types, associative trails) and specific entries, thereby discovering in the collected data patterns insensible in more limited scope. Databases are perfect for this sort of thing. Moreover, it would seem to me that understanding something of the various the ways humans have represented and archived knowledge and information through the ages–which today would include knowing the difference between a database and a wiki–would be an essential component of the “multimedia literacy” we were here to teach and which, quite logically, was the subject of our first teaching assistant orientation. Of all the fancy software suites, digital video production equipment, and multimedia labs on tap at this program, there was not one networked database application to be had. It seemed an astonishing oversight to me.

Image of Braudel's bookThis was right about the time I began to find the ubiquitous wiki irksome. I began to have nightmares of Wikipedia as the deceptively attractive harbinger of that age-old (and to me most savage) dream of reason–knowledge without a knower. I began to wonder if we didn’t need some sort of later-day Braudel to make sensible to us the structures and practices of daily life in the recent past. Like back in the late 1980s when most administrative assistants had a working knowledge of some database program like FileMaker.

Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life (1979) is famous as a work of historical imagination which makes palpable the weight, number, and quotidian realities of the pre-industrial world and the capitalist system that emerged within its material order. The book I’m daydreaming about, The Data Structures of Everyday Life would be far less ambitious, but it would give some overview of the history of archives, memory machines, data storage and retrieval (álà J. David Bolter, not in abstraction, but applied in a variety of specific tasks and contexts. “Think about your email,” it might say, “how is that kind of communication structured? Do you know what ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ stand for?” And in the telling of such prosaic histories would seek to preserve knowledge of the invention of thousands of otherwise invisible wheels, pulleys, levers, and gnome systems, for the retention, retrieval, transmission and use of all sorts of shared bits and nibbles.

cybersutra #4

August 8th, 2004

don’t be interrupt driven.cyberlotusfour.jpg
of course there are times when one must be just that, but wherever possible, avoid making control flow interruptus your routine. it’s a great strategy, with myriad juicy applications, but it’s not recommended as a main m.o. for self-directed beings as it often results in a cascade of unfortunate events.

so, don’t hang by your mail queues, kiddos. structuring your daily consciousness around the in-coming.

as the little cyberlotus says, “one needs to login and logout to properly surf the flow.”

my ADD prevents RSI

July 18th, 2004

Cyber Lotus Imagecybersutra #3 / ADD prevents RSI

Where the 80s had chronic fatigue syndrome, the 90s had attention deficit disorder (ADD) and repetitive stress injuries (RSI). The former was not only preferable, but was and is, i would argue, a useful adaptation to life in these times.

When friends began to suffer the stains and arrows of shooting pain in wrists, arms, necks and fingers–the wages of logging too much time at a keyboard–i never did. my ADD prevents undue repetition and i tend away from doing the same thing the same way twice in a row. i also avoid stepping on cracks for the sake of my mother’s dorsal region, but that’s more an OCD thing.

assume the subject position

July 9th, 2004

drcooljr.jpgwhen i was young,
i thought i would
become a man,
if i learnt enough.

it wasn’t a bodily matter,
nor even the desire
to be hero of my own life.

i just wanted a speaking part.

hello hyper-infomated world

June 27th, 2004

Slide showing media changes of information society

cybersutra #2

June 24th, 2004

cyberlotus.gif

you know you’re a geek when your play is more work than your work.

cybersutra #1

June 23rd, 2004

aphorisms for the digital age

logo_fresco.gif
principle: the perfect is the enemy of the good.
corollaries:
– beware feature creep
– heed the 80/20 rule
– dilute! dilute! OK?

notes:
– explain how this is particular to the digital age.

universal solvents

June 21st, 2004

the world around,
the day begins,
with boiling water.

ablutions and solutions,
billions wake to their morning fix.
tea, coffee, cigarette, weed, or speed.

pain is a great awakener,
but pleasure too can lift reluctant spirits
to feet and into bodies for another day.