Matthew Parris vs. Clay Shirky

A great piece in Saturday’s Times from Matthew Parris on the speed and ease of communication – and its possible impact on liberty.

Discussing the publication of the list of BNP members – and what bloggers have done with it:

What has changed is not the principle of what may be done, but the effortlessness and speed with which it may be done.

He argues, seemingly perversely, that the sheer effort of digging up information in the pre-internet era gave it a sort of viability – and that our personal privacy was protected by precisely this amount of effort.

Now, in the information free-for-all we live in today, the construction and maintenance of a “good reputation” is much trickier, he says. I certainly know of more than one person at my university who trawled Facebook for debauched and shameful photos – all of which went in a special folder he assumed to be of tremendous value for journalists of the future.

It all goes to support something that Clay Shirky has been saying for the last five years or so: that the ease of group-formation (and other Web 2.0 community-building tools) may be remarkable – and a potential reason for optimism – but that no moral values should be ascribed to it. The web merely facilitates previous patterns of behaviour – or even encourages “worse” patterns (as the trends in cyber-bullying, blog-defamation etc. show). He uses ANNA (pro-anorexia) forums to make his point in an interview:

I used to be a cyber-utopian. That view broke for me. I was teaching a class at NYU on social software. One of my students was a community manager for a magazine for teenage girls. They were shutting down the health and beauty boards because we can’t get the pro-anorexia girls to shut up with tips about how to avoid eating. I was thinking this isn’t a side effect of the Net. It was an effect. Ridiculously easy group forming for anorexics. Now, we have to move to a publish-then-filter world. That pattern suggests we’re moving the media world from decision to reaction. We can’t stop the pro-anorexia groups from forming. All we can do is watch and act.

Re-living Memories

Below provides some interesting empirical evidence for the elegant words of Ed Cooke, whose talk on using one’s memory for great feats can be seen here.

For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving
Excerpts from The New York Times September 4, 2008

Scientists have for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, …

The recordings, taken from the brains of epilepsy patients being prepared for surgery, demonstrate that these spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced. …

Experts said the study had all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing (at least in the short term, as the research says nothing about more distant memories).

Read the rest of the article here.

Interactive learning: always a good thing?

This is too good, not to post in full: from David Smith.

“There are 120 contributors [to a magazine feature that asked: ‘what do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?]. From these, I have selected Esther Dyson. I have her dictum, ‘Always make new mistakes’, as a fridge magnet and her Edge contribution is something every teacher should ponder. Here’s a substantial excerpt:”

We’re living longer, and thinking shorter.

[Disclaimer: Since I’m not a scientist, I’m not even going to attempt to take on something scientific. Rather, I want to talk about something that can’t easily be measured, let alone proved. And second, though what I’m saying may sound gloomy, I love the times we live in. There has never been a time more interesting, more full of things to explain, interesting people to meet, worthy causes to support, challenging problems to solve.]

It’s all about time. I think modern life has fundamentally and paradoxically changed our sense of time. Even as we live longer, we seem to think shorter. Is it because we cram more into each hour? Or because the next person over seems to cram more into each hour? For a variety of reasons, everything is happening much faster and more things are happening. Change is a constant.

It used to be that machines automated work, giving us more time to do other things. But now machines automate the production of attention-consuming information, which takes our time. For example, if one person sends the same e-mail message to 10 people, then 10 people have to respond.

The physical friction of everyday life—the time it took Isaac Newton to travel by coach from London to Cambridge, the dead spots of walking to work (no iPod), the darkness that kept us from reading—has disappeared, making every minute not used productively into an opportunity cost.

And finally, we can measure more, over smaller chunks of time. From airline miles to calories (and carbs and fat grams), from friends on Friendster to steps on a pedometer, from realtime stock prices to millions of burgers consumed, we count things by the minute and the second.

Unfortunately, this carries over into how we think and plan: Businesses focus on short-term results; politicians focus on elections; school systems focus on test results; most of us focus on the weather rather than the climate. Everyone knows about the big problems, but their behavior focuses on the here and now. …

How can we reverse this? It’s a social problem, but I think it may also herald a mental one—which I describe as mental diabetes. Whatever’s happening to adults, most of us grew up reading books (at least occasionally) and playing with “uninteractive” toys that required us to make up our own stories, dialogue and behavior for them. Today’s children are living in an information-rich, time-compressed environment that often seems to replace a child’s imagination rather than stimulate it. I posit that being fed so much processed information—video, audio, images, flashing screens, talking toys, simulated action games—is akin to being fed too much processed, sugar-rich food. It may seriously mess up children’s information metabolism and their ability to process information for themselves. In other words, will they be able to discern cause and effect, to put together a coherent story line, to think scientifically?

I don’t know the answers, but these questions are worth thinking about, for the long term.

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… one of the brilliant inventions of the paper bureaucracy was the idea of the margin. The margin is a place on a paper form, which is designed for writing things down that are outside, both physically and conceptually, the form that “the system” expects. The thing about the margin is that it is connected to the form in such a way that the form carries the stuff that goes beyond the form along with the form.

Austin Henderson, quoted in chapter 4 of Software Design & Usability (Klaus Kaasgaard): ‘Beyond Formalisms: The Art and Science of Designing Pliant Systems’.

Link via David Smith

Literary historians get excited about the margins from writers’ own book collections – and rightly so. Geoff Dyer is surely right that the most interesting critics are writers themselves:

On the other hand, it’s really, really exciting reading what other writers have said about Lawrence. It seems to me as well, that is the kind of thing which would encourage people when they have left university to go on to be writers as opposed to going on to be academics.

It’s part of GD’s wider criticisms of academia, which reach a frothy rant in Out of Sheer Rage:

Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because academics are busy killing everything they touch.

Some of the most poignant (and famous) marginalia are Sylvia Plath‘s on her copy of The Great Gatsby. They range from the banal (‘good’) to the majestic. When Nick leaves the Buchanan house, passing Gatsby in the driveway, Plath underlined the final sentence in the chapter (“So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight watching over nothing”), and wrote in the margin:

knight waiting outside dragon goes to bed with princess

A melancholy comment.

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Smart guy

David Miliband grows and grows in my estimation. First there was the interview with the FT; now, I’ve just come across this speech thanks to David Smith’s blog:

To quote David Smith’s post in full:

In two recent speeches, UK politicians are beginning to show they understand the web. First, George Osborne. And now, David Miliband:

When we think of education, we tend to think of formal teaching in classrooms by teachers. This remains important. But the range of resources to support learning is far wider than that – from workplaces and museums to individuals with skills to contribute, and passions to share. They lie beyond the school gates and they are 24/7. And the key to genuine educational transformation is inspiring children and adults to learn more for themselves – what Yeats called ‘lighting a fire’ as opposed to ‘filling a pail’. So the challenge is to connect people with skills and time to give, from university students, part-time employees and people in retirement, to others with similar passions and interests. ‘Every citizen a teacher’ may be a bit of a stretch, but it is not impossible to imagine an educational world where a large minority of citizens play an active role, either on a voluntary or paid basis in supporting learners as personal tutors, running after-school clubs, or integrated into the curriculum and the classroom. The web can create the potential to aggregate the dispersed supply of citizen-teachers and connect them to learners with particular interests. It can also help learners filter the good from the bad through peer to peer recommendations and make sense of a world where educational resources are much more diverse.

And much more besides: ‘I believe the businesses and government that succeed in the future will be those that give people greater power to shape the future of their individual lives and greater capacity to collaborate. A sense of I can and we can.’

Exciting stuff

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The awakening of my e-consciousness

I have just come across the phenomenal blog belonging to David Smith, a teacher at St. Paul’s. Found here. Just the notion of a Head of English at one school, re-launching himself as Director of ICT at another is a wicked one – especially in the English private school sector. But, more than that, he seems to have a real passion for pushing the – for want of a better word – Web 2.0 agenda into his kids’ line-of-sight.

He’s also ex-tutor to friend and all-round hero, Ed Cooke.

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