Too Big to Know: Monday Morning Live Tweet Class with David Weinberger

Too Big To Know

Greetings Open Learners!

We have a late-breaking, serendipitous opportunity tomorrow morning to talk about David Weinberger’s book, Too Big To Know on Twitter. Weinberger, a philosopher and technologist who writes about the effects of the internet on human relationships, is currently a senior researcher at Harvard’s  Berkman Center. In light of current discussions about the nature of facts and their alternatives, the book’s subtitle — “Rethinking Knowledge
Now that the Facts aren’t the Facts,
Experts are Everywhere, and
the Smartest Person in the Room
is the Room.”   — is especially compelling.

Dr. Weinberger will be Skyping into Tom Ewing‘s undergraduate course on Data in Social Context at Virginia Tech  to talk about Too Big To Know with Tom and his students.

I will be live tweeting the conversation tomorrow (Monday) from 10:10 to 11:00 am EST. If you’re familiar with the book or Weinberger’s work please join us. And if you aren’t please join us anyway!  You can follow along and send questions and thoughts to #Openlearning17 and #Faccollab.

Followers of #gedivt — I will try to flag you all as well, but the best bet would be to check #OpenLearning17

Twitter Handles: Data in Social Context: @DiSCVT ;David Weinberger: @dweinberger ; Tom Ewing: @EThomasEwing

The Web We Want and the Stories We Tell

We’ve been thinking through the “Awakening” of the Digital Imagination all semester, and today the New Media Seminar concludes with Scott McCloud’s “Time Frames” and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the HTTP protocol that created the World Wide Web.  Now that the Web is in it’s twenty-fifth year I wonder how we might think about what’s behind us (there’s a cool timeline to help with that here) as well as the road ahead.

Berners Lee intended the World Wide Web to be “a pool of human knowledge, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas.” (NMR p. 792) Initially geared toward the needs of physicists and engineers, the suitability of hypertext to scaling allowed the the Web to quickly transcend the Particle Physics Laboratory where it was born and move across the internet over the entire world.  Indeed the web has become so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted.  As John Naughton pointed out in 2010: “A funny thing happened to us on the way to the future. The internet went from being something exotic to being a boring utility, like mains electricity or running water – and we never really noticed.”  Now, the web and the internet are not the same thing (internet = infrastructure, web = particular kind of freight or traffic on that highway), but Naughton’s  suggestions for how we might reflect on the great changes that the internet — and the web — have brought and will continue to bring are still salient.  There are nine of them, and of course I find those that invoke historical contingency (a popular topic this week) and frame the current transformation in terms of past revolutions (Gutenburg 1450, Russia 1917) especially resonant.

Earlier this year, the web’s inventor looked back on “the Web at 25” and proposed that we write a Magna Carta for the web.  Like Naughton and many others, Berners-Lee acknowledges the powerfully positive as well as the scarily negative possibilities for the web’s future. You can check out his short  TED talk and view the transcript here, but the nugget that seems most relevant to the kind of learning the web facilitates is this one:

What sort of web do you want? I want one which is not fragmented into lots of pieces, as some countries have been suggesting they should do in reaction to recent surveillance. I want a web which has got, for example, is a really good basis for democracy. I want a web where I can use healthcare with privacy and where there’s a lot of health data, clinical data is available to scientists to do research. I want a web where the other 60 percent get on board as fast as possible. I want a web which is such a powerful basis for innovation that when something nasty happens, some disaster strikes, that we can respond by building stuff to respond to it very quickly.

For me, a web that would serve as a really good basis for democracy would be a web of innovation, collaboration and creative exchange — a highly social, highly interactive web, where transparency was the norm, but where one would remain firmly in control of one’s digital identity and could opt out of (or into) the communities, aggregators, surveillance regimes, etc. of one’s choosing.  This web would also be the best foundation for the kinds of active co-learning and peer-to-peer collaboration we’ve been exploring all fall in the Connected Courses Cmooc.  And it would implicitly further the project of “de-Schooling” our educational institutions by networking information, artifacts, expertise, resources, and people in ways that would erode the silos or at least make them more porous.

Check out the World Wide Web Foundation’s report for 2014-15 to see how far we’ve come — but more importantly, how far we have to go in this regard.

The connection between comics and the Web We Want might not be obvious, but it’s important. In Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art (1993), Scott McCloud showed how comics use visual space to represent time and shape narrative, thus suggesting how users of the graphical user interfaces that were becoming more widespread at the time would engage the web and each other in ways that facilitate the construction of meaning and the creation of networks. Where Brenda Laurel invoked the principles of Attic drama to understand human-computer interaction, McCloud, also known as the “Aristotle of Comics” adapted the ancient conventions of analog comics to the digital medium by making the frame optional and offering the vision an “infinite canvas” which treats the screen as a window rather than page.

The nugget that best explains why this vision for an expansive, recursive, multi-media and interactive comic art is vital to my imagining of the web and connected learning I want comes from McCloud’s 2005 Ted Talk (The Visual Magic of Comics):

I think this is important because media, all media, provide us a window back into our world. Now, it could be that motion pictures — and eventually, virtual reality, or something equivalent to it — some sort of immersive display, is going to provide us with our most efficient escape from the world that we’re in. That’s why most people turn to storytelling, is to escape. But media provides us with a window back into the world that we live in. And when media evolve so that the identity of the media becomes increasingly unique. Because what you’re looking at is, you’re looking at comics cubed: you’re looking at comics that are more comics-like than they’ve ever been before. When that happens, you provide people with multiple ways of re-entering the world through different windows, and when you do that, it allows them to triangulate the world that they live in and see its shape. And that’s why I think this is important.”

I think that’s right.  We do use windows and stories to escape, but cubing adds perspective, dimension, meaning and connection. Windows and stories also offer openings and insight. The web we want, the one so many of us engage every day, offers all of us the opportunity to make meaning, discover something new about ourselves, to work with and learn from others, and to narrate a meaningful canvas of our human experience.  It also needs the attentions of the humanists — the Scott McClouds, the Brenda Laurels, The easy, tigers, the musicians, and the librarians, (all the librarians ;-)) as well as the mathematicians and the historians of science and technology.

New Galaxy, New Horizons

We are reading Marshall McLuhan this week for the New Media Seminar, which gives us a nice pivot to thinking about how we prepare for the future and understand the past, especially in times of great change.

One of the themes of McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy is that societies on the verge of massive changes are unaware of the imminent paradigm shift. At the same time, periods of transformation often make the dynamics of the immediate past more apparent. In The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi examines the effects of the industrial revolution on the human psyche and the transformations of traditional relationships of redistribution and reciprocity into a “market society” in 18th and early 19th-century England. McLuhan leans on this analysis to develop his own argument about the mesmerizing effect of new communication technologies, insisting that their long-term significance might be inversely proportional to their perceived importance when they first appear:

“What Polanyi observes about the insentience of those involved in the expediting of the new machine industry is typical of all the local and contemporary attitudes to revolution. It is felt, at those times, that the future will be a larger or greatly improved version of the immediate past. Just before revolutions the image of the immediate past is stark and firm, perhaps because it is the only area of sense interplay free from obsessional identification with new technological form.

No more extreme instance of this delusion could be mentioned than our present image of TV as a current variation on the mechanical, movie pattern of processing experience by repetition. A few decades hence it will be easy to describe the revolution in human perception and motivation that resulted from beholding the new mosaic mesh of the TV image. Today it is futile to discuss it at all.” (New Media Reader, p. 199)

The historian in me appreciates McLuhan’s nod to historical perspective. By temperament and training historians value the analytical clarity afforded by (chronological, spatial, conceptual) distance from the events and processes we study. The familiarity of the known present brings the salient pieces of the unknown past into high relief. But anticipating the shape of things to come is another matter entirely. As we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wide Web this month I find myself drawn to assessments of the web’s influence and the essential role it has played in shaping the present. Some late twentieth-century predictions about the digital future seem remarkably prescient, including these from MIT’s William J. Mitchell and former Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow:

The body net will be connected to the building net, the building net to the community net, and the community net to the global net. From gesture sensors worn on our bodies to the worldwide infrastructure of communications satellites and long-distance fiber, the elements of the bitsphere will finally come together to form one densely interwoven system within which the knee bone is connected to the I-bahn. – William Mitchell, 1994

We’re going to have to look at information as though we’d never seen the stuff before … The economy of the future will be based on relationship rather than possession. It will be continuous rather than sequential. And finally, in the years to come, most human exchange will be virtual rather than physical, consisting not of stuff but the stuff of which dreams are made. Our future business will be conducted in a world made more of verbs than nouns. – John Perry Barlow, 1994

(both from:

Other predictions were more dire, and many of course, were just wrong. Take a few minutes to browse through the Time Capsule in Elon University’s Imagining the Internet project and you will see what I mean.

As we take stock of the Web at 25 and the internet at about 40 it is both compelling and daunting to think about where we might be headed.  One project worth investigating is Digital Life in 2025, a collaborative effort between the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Looking at the report’s “fifteen theses about the digital future,” I was relieved that eight of them are characterized as “hopeful.” These include the promise of more democratic, open, knowledge-generating and ignorance-banishing communication between individuals tapping into an enhanced global connectivity, as well as the potential for the internet of things, artificial intelligence and big data to give people more control over their health and well-being. Also in the “hopeful” category is the potential for mobile technologies to facilitate peaceful change and political transformations. The six (much) less sanguine theses about the shape of things to come focus on the potential for “abuses and abusers” to “evolve and scale,” as well as on the intensifying efforts of governments and corporations to use the internet for political and social control.  Concerns about privacy are well-founded according to the “less-hopeful” predictions, which also caution (a la McLuhan) that many of us do not appreciate the profound changes already underway that will disrupt our basic understandings of ourselves as social, political, human animals.

The fifteenth thesis comes as advice more than prediction:”Make good choices today” the report suggests, encouraging us to imagine the different paths into the future and leverage the affordances of the internet to make sure some of the more promising ones come true.  Echoing Virginia Tech’s branded slogan, the final thesis promises: “Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’”