Technology is both constructive and destructive

“If we examine technologies honestly, each one as its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions, for good and bad. There is no powerfully constructive technology that is not also powerfully destructive in another direction, just as there is no great idea that cannot be greatly perverted for great harm. The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well”

Kevin Kelly, wrote this in What Technology Wants, where he advances a great argument that, ultimately, resistance to a new technology is futile, in spite of concerns that the new tech is dangerous, or has too many possible consequences, still unknown, and should be legislated out of existence. He writes that prohibitions are in effect just postponements, because inevitably new technologies will be adopted, no matter which Shogun bans guns from his beautiful, elegant, and ritualistic samurai sword fights.

Good, interesting, thought-provoking stuff.

Tinkering as Learning

John Seely Brown, who was the director of the amazing Xerox Parc for many years, and whose book The Social Life of Information was hugely influential in the tech industry in which I work, has a new book coming out soon, The New Culture of Learning, which looks great. You can download the first three chapters from the site.

He talks a lot about one of my pet subjects, Community Mentoring, the apprenticeship model of education:

Where traditionally mentoring was a means of enculturating members into a community, mentoring in the collective relies more on the sense of learning and developing temporary, peer-to-peer relationships that are fluid and impermanent. Expertise is shared openly and willingly, without regard to an institutional mission. Instead, expertise is shared conditionally and situationally, as a way to enable the agency of other members of the collective.

…as well as a dozen other favorite topics of mine: play as a means of learning, constraints as a stimulus for, rather than an inhibition of, creativity, and so on. I wish I could figure out how to get my hands on the whole book. There is a great page of resources on the site as well, for further exploration.

Here is an interview with John from the site, talking about tinkering as a mode of knowledge production, an idea reinforced by my recent visit to MakerBot.

(Thanks for the head’s up, Scott!)

Mark Mothersbaugh meets Richard Branson

Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO tells a story:

Wow, was it ’77 or ’78? I remember it because Northeast Ohio was under a blanket of snow about 30 inches deep. At that point, everybody in the band had quit their day jobs just to be totally dedicated to the band, so people were letting us sleep in their living rooms or wherever we could sleep. We got a call from Richard Branson — we were all in our 20’s back then. He says, “Hey, wanna come down to Jamaica?” And I’m looking outside at the snow — I’m wearing a winter coat to try to eat breakfast in this cold apartment — and I said, “Yeah, I’ll come down to Jamaica.”

So Bob 2 (Bob Casale) and me went down. To make a long story short — I’m trying to think of how to paraphrase this — he had a bunch of guys from Virgin Records with him. We were in this nice hotel room. They brought out all this Jamaican marijuana. In Ohio, we didn’t have drugs at all. Instead of the summer of love, we had the summer of agony over and over again.

And they were asking us what we thought of the Sex Pistols, and we said, “Oh, we really like ’em. At their last show in San Francisco we were there, and they came to our show, and it’s a shame they broke up, blah, blah, blah.” “And what do you think of Johnny Rotten?” “Oh, we think he’s great. We think he should totally change what he’s doing and do something new.” And they go, “Well, that’s great, because Johnny Rotten wants to join Devo and he’s in the next room. And we have members of the press from all over England with us here, and I’d like to take everybody down to the beach and make the announcement that Johnny Rotten is joining Devo.”

And when he said that, I remember looking at Richard Branson, and I realized he had the mandible and these protruding teeth of a brain-eating ape. And I became scared of him after that.

Cheating vs. Learning

Photo via Flickr:
Photo via Flickr:

I’ve never understood cheating, probably because I never cared much about my grades. I instinctively knew that the grades didn’t measure anything meaningful — usually just my ability to quickly memorize information I’d just as quickly forget. I was good at this, and so did well on tests when I bothered to try, but I didn’t have any truck with them after a while. My test scores were highly variable as a result, and I didn’t want or need go to Yale. But I loved learning, which was different from doing well in school.

I came across this video in my travels around the web. It is a video of Professor Richard Quinn of University of Central Florida telling his class he has discovered that many — it turns out more than a third! — cheated on their exam. In an article in Inside Higher Ed it says “Experts in cheating and testing security have said the UCF incident is generally no worse than what takes place in many universities” and this doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve said before that entrepreneurship, one of my primary interests, is something that flourishes under an apprenticeship and not a factory model of education. I’m not sure what the business students in the UCF class were aiming for. The lecture usurped by the cheating conversation was meant to be about “Mergers and Acquisitions”.

Quinn was accused by the students of being lazy, and offering a ‘test bank’ test offered by the textbook publishers. Teaching from a textbook is almost always crappy teaching, so the whole system is flawed. It seems to me that cheating is the almost inevitable consequence of test-giving and test-taking. It doesn’t have to be this way. The best method for assessing learning progress is self-assessment, with the input of someone passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. This would require a lot of trust in the student, but also more work on the part of the teacher — who would not really be a teacher at all, in the traditional sense, but a person in love with a certain topic, probably a practitioner of the subject in question, maybe retired, maybe active.

Here’s my idea of what an ideal school would be like, borrowed from David Albert’s book And the Skylark Sings with Me a book about a family’s experience in home and community based education. It’s how I’ve envisioned, but never articulated, my own perfect school.

Wikileaks and Free at the New Museum

Free, Lauren Cornell’s prescient show at The New Museum in New York, is the museum show of our times, presaging the whole Wikileaks dustup, and showing the shifting power dynamics and the glimpse of the human in a world of flowing data.

The show assembles works with insight into the current digital and data culture; as Cornell says in her essay written for Free “The internet is not just a medium, but also a territory populated and fought over by individuals, corporations, and governments; a communications tool; and a cultural catalyst.” The quintessential example of this tension is the work by Trevor Paglen who exhibits photographs of secret military operations, military satellites, and observatories that serve as spy stations. These have been discovered by collaboration with amateur astronomers and other internet denizens, using a combination of government-supplied and individually assembled data, then photographed and published, revealing the hitherto hidden.

Jill Magid’s work, Becoming Tarden, emerged out of a collaboration with the Dutch Secret Service (the AIVD) in which she met with 18 agents, who did not reveal their identities to her, and of whom she drew textual portraits. Around 40% of the text was censored by the AIVD, and the original, uncensored work, exhibited at the TATE in London in an enclosed glass case, was confiscated by the Dutch government, who subsequently forbade the show to travel to other venues. The red-covered paperback exhibited at Free publishes the censored version, including blank spaces where the texts have been deleted.

Lisa Oppenheim gathers the photographs American soldiers stationed in Iraq have taken of Iraqi sunsets and posted on Flickr, prints them, and then holds them up, re-photographing against her own, local sunsets in an act of tribute and attempt at communal experience. The gulf yawning between her experience and theirs is thus demonstrated. The sense is that their lives in a war zone cannot be known, and only a gesture made to demonstrate fellow feeling.

Pervading the show is this sense of how the ‘data’ – the ‘facts’ if you will – tells us something, but fails to capture the human drama, the story, the suffering, the lived lives behind the information gathered and arranged. Images of people caught on Google Maps “streetview” appear in Jon Rafman’s work, Martijn Hendrik shows texts of people responding to the video of the Saddam Hussein execution; Joel Holmberg asks earnest questions on Yahoo! Answers – all show the gap between the impassive data-gathering technology, human inputs and the strange hybrid that is result of those interactions. The final quote in Magid’s Becoming Tarden is from Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit, where the character “Tarden” appears:

All that time and trouble, and still the record is a superficial one: I see only how I looked in the fraction of a second when the shutter was open. But there’s no trace of the thoughts and emotions that surrounded that moment. When I die and my memories die with me, all that will remain will be thousands of yellowing photographs and 35mm negatives in my filing cabinets.

As Julian Assange’s defense against sexual assault in Sweden shadows his defense of the release U.S. diplomatic documents on Wikileaks; as the human and the data combine; as we appear in surveillance cameras, and leave behind traces on the internet, we find ourselves in a discomfiting alien netherworld well demonstrated by this exhibit.

Free will be up until January 23, 2011 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY

Hollis Frampton's Friend's Dream

Years ago I had heard, second hand, about a dream recounted by Hollis Frampton, the experimental filmmaker, that fascinated me. I’ve referred to it many times in posts on this blog, but hadn’t found the text of it until a few weeks ago when I started working on an essay for the acclaimed show FREE at The New Museum, curated by Lauren Cornell. It comes from an essay he wrote called A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative (.pdf). I will be referring to this text in my essay, which will be published on the Rhizome site, and hopefully here as well. This is the dream:

Lately, a friend has complained to me that his sleep is troubled by a recurrent nightmare, in which he lives through two entire lifetimes.

In the first, he is born a brilliant and beautiful heiress to an immense fortune. Her loving and eccentric father arranges that his daughter’s birth should be filmed, together with her every conscious moment thereafter, in color and sound. Eventually he leaves in trust a capital sum, the income from which guarantees that the record shall continue, during all her waking hours, for the rest of her life. Her own inheritance is made contingent upon agreement to this invasion of privacy, to which she is, in any case, accustomed from earliest infancy.

As a woman, my friend lives a long, active, and passionate life. She travels the world, visits the moon, marries three men (amid scores of erotic adventures), gives birth to a daughter…becomes a Nobel laureate…In short, she so crowds her days with experience of every kind that she never once pauses to view the films of her own expanding past.

In extreme old age – having survived all her own children – she makes a will, leaving her fortune to the first child to be orn, following the instant of her own death, in the same city …on the single condition that such child shall spend its whole life watching the accumulated films of her own. Shortly thereafter she dies, quietly, in her sleep.

In his dream, my friend experiences her death; and then, after a brief intermission, he discovers, to his outrage astonishment, that he is about to be reincarnated as her heir.

He emerges from the womb to confront the filmed image of her birth. He receives a thorough but quaintly obsolete education from the films of her school days. As a chubby, asthmatic little boy, he learns (without ever leaving his chair) to dance, sit a horse, and play the viola. During his adolescence, wealthy young men fumble through the confusion of her clothing to caress his own unimaginable breasts.

By the time he reaches maturity, he is totally sedentary and reclusive, monstrously obese (from subsisting on an exclusive diet of buttered popcorn), decidedly homosexual by inclination (though masturbation is his only activity), hyperopic, pallid. He no longer speaks, except to shout, “FOCUS!”

In middle age, his health begins to fail, and with it, imperceptibly, the memory of his previous life, so that he grows increasingly dependent upon the films to know what to do next. Eventually, his entire inheritance goes to keep him barely alive: for decades he receives an incessant trickle of intravenous medication, as the projector behind him turns and turns.

Finally, he has watched the last reel of film. That same night, after the show, he dies, quietly, in his sleep, unaware that he has completed his task … whereupon my friend wakens, abruptly, to discover himself alive, at home, in his own bed.


Mamihlapinatapai is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”, and is considered one of the hardest words to translate. It describes “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that they both desire but which neither one wants to start.”

(sent to me by my friend Maura)

By coincidence I happen upon a list of 20 untranslatable words and wonder where that Dutch word for “place-replacing shame” is, the feeling of being embarrassed on another person’s behalf.

Notes from Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

  • When the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch…the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of school time; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, rendering every interval the same as any other…bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference. (p. 6)

These days SMS messages, alerts, email arrive every moment on our phones, in our inboxes. We’ve become so acclimatized to interruption we invite it into our lives and don’t see how it trivializes everything we do.

  • …Reading, writing and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. (p. 12)
  • School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life — in fact, it destroys our communities by relegating the training of children to the hands of certified experts — and by doing so it ensures our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being. (p. 13)
  • Where meaning is genuinely to be found: in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built. (p. 15)
  • Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone. (p.16)
  • School children…cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come. They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are, for we have divorced them from significant parental attention; they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction. (p. 17)
  • Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent: nobody talks to them anymore, and without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. (p. 21)
  • The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thing in the presence of intimacy; so intimate relationships have to be avoided.(p. 28)
  • Networks don’t require the whole person, only a narrow piece. If, on the other hand, you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part — a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to. …If you enter into too many of these bargains, you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human. (p. 48)
  • Mass commercial entertainment, as addictive as any other drug, has blocked the escape routes from mass schooling, blotting up any attention spared by school. (p. 49)
  • A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: the good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation….An example might clarify this. Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave, or Marty — a community will call its bums by their names. (p. 51)
  • Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that htey can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot. Even associations as inherently harmless as bridge clubs, chess clubs, groups of social activists will, if they maintain a pretense of whole friendship, ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Belonging to many networks does not add up to having a community, no matter how many you belong to or how often your telephone rings. (p. 53)
  • In the growth of human society, families came first, communities second, and only much later came the institutions set up by the community to serve it. (p. 55)
  • Networks…isolate [people] by some limited aspect of their total humanity — their age, in the case of compulsory schooling (p.56)

One law for lion and ox is oppression — William Blake

  • Nearly a century ago a French sociologist (?) wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, NOT to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. …It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expandinto an institution for the protection of teachers, not students — that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly. (p. 58-59)
  • Sixty-five years ago Bertrand Russell…saw that mass schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent, that it was a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating human variation and by eliminating the forge that produces variation: the family. According to Lord Russell, mass schooling produce a recognizably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking self-confidence, and having less of what Russell called “inner freedom” than his or her counterpart in any other nation he knew of, past or present. They [held] excellence and aesthetics equally in contempt; were inadequate to the personal crises in their lives.(p. 70)
  • In Colonial New England Each town was able to exclude people it didn’t like! People were able to choose whom they wanted to work with, to sort themselves into a living curriculum that worked for them. The words of the first Dedham charter catch this feeling perfectly; the original settlers shut out “people whose dispositions do not suit us, whose society will be hurtful to us.” So in a funny way these early towns functioned like selective clubs or colleges, like MIT and Harvard do today, narrowing human differences down to a range that could be managed by them humanely.
  • …If you have to accept everyone, no matter how hostile they may be to your own personality, philosophy, or mission, then an operation would quickly become paralyzed by fatal disagreements. …living dialectically as the New Englanders did produces spectacular accomplishments and brings out strong qualities of character but isn’t possible to manage where the whole catalogue of human beings is thrown together haphazardly or forced together, as it is in government monopoly school life. To prevent chaos in these places, management must aim to make everything — time, space, texts, procedures — as uniform as possible. (p. 78-79)
  • “The capacity for loyalty is stretched too thing when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race. It needs to attach itself to specific people and specific places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general.” (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven) (p. 79)
  • People are less than whole unless they gather themselves voluntarily into groups of souls in harmony. Gathering themselves to pursue individual, family and community dreams consistent with their private humanity is what makes them whole; only slaves are gathered by others. (p. 87)

LinkedIn’s Pace is Just Fine

In her piece on LinkedIn in PEWire, Connie Loizos writes about Jeff Weiner’s talk at Web 2.0 Summit this week and exhorts him to pick up the pace at LinkedIn — using Reid Hoffman’s reluctance to introduce photos to LinkedIn as an example of an essential conservatism in the company. I have to completely disagree with her analysis, as I’ve been watching LinkedIn since its inception, and have been impressed with both their willingness to change, as well as their actual implementation of new UX, features and especially experimental features. Their rapid implementation of Groups, Answers, their search refinements, integration with other social networks, etc etc has always been rapidly executed. Their Chief Scientist, DJ Patil and his team are especially agile innovators, with an incredible fund of data to work with and many experimental features cooking in their labs.

I have to especially agree with Jeff’s assertion that the lack of Kegstands and hot tub photos on LinkedIn is one of LinkedIn’s key distinguishing features. It should be preserved and defended at all costs. In building a social network, the standards and mores of a community are its lifeblood; one does not lightly ‘experiment’ with these and LinkedIn is exactly right to defend them. I think Loizos’ article mistakenly conflates the company’s defense of LinkedIn’s culture with conservatism. It’s just not so.

I’d also take issue with the assertion that they haven’t made any “high profile” personnel changes. Weiner coming in as CEO is as high profile as you could hope for, and I believe that hiring name brand talent isn’t as successful of a strategy as hiring great engineers and developers, which I have seen them doing again and again. They should know, they’re a company that specializes in employment and hiring. 🙂