March 11, 2008

Head exploding

Sometimes it's hard to believe all the stuff you find on the Web. I like to think of my self as a cautious utopian, but some people just go a bit too far in either direction for me.

Is the Web Different? by David Weinberger

The question "Is the Web different?" is actually not so much a question as a shibboleth in the original sense: The answer determines which tribe you're in.
The Web utopians point to the ways in which the Web has changed some of the basic assumptions about how we live together, removing old obstacles and enabling shiny new possibilities.
The Web dystopians agree that the Web is having a major effect on our lives. They, however, think that effect is detrimental.
The Web realists say the Web hasn't had nearly as much effect as the utopians and dystopians proclaim. The Web carries with it certain possibilities and limitations, but (the realists say) not many more than other major communications medium.

I think that this is a pretty useful analysis, one that lets us analyse where people are coming from, including ourselves. Like I said, I tend to be a cautious utopian, but perhaps a better description is a contrarian utopian. I tend to try and present the utopian perspective to dystopians and the dystopian perspective to utopians.

Weinberg obviously falls on the side of the most starry-eyed utopians.

But I don't want to leave it at that happy, liberal conclusion because it is, I believe, incomplete. The fuller statement of the conclusion should include: It is vital to have realists in the discussion, but they are essentially wrong.

*snip*

And we need lots and lots of them. There is so much to invent, and the new forms of association that emerge often only succeed if there are enough people to embrace them.

Web realists perform the vital function of keeping us from running down dead ends longer than we need to, and from getting into feedback loops that distort the innovation process. For those services, we should thank and encourage the realists. But we should also recognize that beyond the particulars, they are essentially wrong.

The contention among dystopians, realists and utopians is is a struggle among the past, the present and the future. The present is always right about itself but — in times of disruption — essentially wrong about the future. That's why we need to flood the field with utopians so we can be right often enough that we build the best future we can.

Needless to say, as a pure contrarian I find Weinberger needlessly dismissive and antagonistic here. I firmly believe that utopians should see realists as their natural allies, not their implacable enemies. Calling people that are mostly on your side wrong all the time does nothing to build the kinds of social networks and collaborative webs these utopians seem to want us to think that they're all about. A little humility can go a long way.



We've Got a Monster on the Loose: It's Called the Internet by Dan Greenberg.

Greenberg is the science policy writer on The Chronicle's group blog Brainstorm
Has there been an uptick in bizarre and pathological behavior since the Internet became a common household implement over, say, the past 10 years? There’s no way of untangling the Internet from the many other elements of society. But one might speculate about the soaring consumption of antidepressants, a reported increase in suicides among middle-aged men, and several spectacular mass murders at universities. Violent online games, pornography, and detachment and isolation from human contact come easily to the Internet user. Is there a connection? No one can say for sure, but the possibility can’t be dismissed.

Like all technologies, the Internet is employable for good and bad, and where it is applicable to benign purposes, it can be uniquely useful. But it is easily adaptable to mischief and worse. By many accounts, it has spawned an epidemic of plagiarism among college students — and an ensuing cat-and-mouse game with professors sifting their prose online. Identity theft is another gift to online malefactors. And sheer confusion — deliberate or inadvertent — on important public matters easily flourishes on the Internet.

Holy crap. What codswallop. It's a shame that Greenberg is the closest they have to a science gal/guy. He doesn't generally seem to like science or scientists or the internet or technology of any kind. Couldn't they find, like, a scientist to contribute? Science is part of Higher Education, after all.


The Ultimate Conference Attendee by Will Richardson.
It's great that this new-fangled web can let us share our thoughts and follow the thoughts of other so easily even though they may be georgraphically very far from us. I know that there's very little I enjoy more that audio or video from some far flung conference or meeting that I couldn't attend. I do conference summaries on my blog because I think others might find them useful and appreciate it when others do the same for sessions I couldn't attend.

Now, Will Richardson is a noted thinker in edcational technology, especially in the pedagogical uses of the read/write web. I often find his highly utopian musings provocative and instructive. But...
Wondering what future conference organizer is gonna get smart and only allow attendees who:

  • Have their own Ustream channels and broadcast live facial reactions of attendees as the session is in progress
  • Can Tweet out the best quotes, engage in lively back channel repartee, and live blog the session to their own sites at the same time
  • Create a VoiceThread story of the presentation within 10 minutes of finish by incorporating photos taken during the session and uploaded to Flickr, adding voice over narration to contextualize the event, and soliciting video comments from virtual attendees
  • Put together a wiki page for the session that collects dozens of various RSS feeds compiled from keyword and tag searches on the presenter’s name, the general topic, del.icio.us bookmarks, YouTube videos and more
  • Create a Google Map that identifies where all of the virtual attendees live and helps them upload photos of themselves watching the UStreamed, Tweeted, VoiceThreaded, wikied presentation in progress.
  • Conduct a live Skype call with other experts who challenge the ideas being presented and scream out provocative and borderline insulting questions
  • Have their own conference space in Second Life where live video and audio of presentation is being streamed and where they have organized a post session social featuring virtual local microbrews and coffees

Notice how he says "only allow attendees who..." What, so my money isn't good if I'm not on Twitter? Weinberger meet Richardson, Richardson meet Weinberger.



A Call for Slow Writing by Lindsay Waters.
I sort of have the impression I should be agreeing with Waters on this one, but ironically this is one of the most scrambled and unfocused "essays" I've read in a while.
What I’m saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes — and here I’m going global — a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand. The humanists of the Renaissance knew the Romans had the ability to put sentences that had concinnitas, but that their ancestors in what we call the Middle Ages had lost that ability. When the Ancients constructed the Arch of Constantine, it stayed together for centuries, even though neglected. Concinnity — what a splendid word!

*snip*

What an outrage! I remember the would-be contributor whom we were demanding more of who said “But I’ve written the perfect New Historicist, feminist, deconstructionist essay. You dare not tamper with my very self and voice. And we dared not tell Professor Polonius that he did not have any writing voice at all. You cannot be comical-pastoral-tragical (I am playing on what Polonius says at Hamlet 2.2.397.) and speak in any tongue in which humans have spoken. We nearly turned down an entry by one of the chief editors of that book. With the Marcus/Sollors I confess to having stacked things towards readability by making one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone be one of the two editors-in-chief of the volume. Guilty as charged. The way I have set up the Marcus/Sollors is all around the essay. The book is a collection of 220 essays that resonate in surprising ways so that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, but each individual part is a free-standing essay.In the making of this book I have pursued the essay so strongly that I have made it function in a new way like an individual instrument in Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

I know I'm only a simple science type, but, Huh?


My apologies for the crankiness of today's post. The snow must be getting to me.

4 comments:

waltc said...

Thanks for reading those things so I don't feel the need to... I feel your pain. Weinberger: No big surprise there. Richardson (and the comment stream): Maybe I'm glad I'm not on the "speaking circuit" these days...

And Waters... Well, when I quote stuff from blogs, I just fix up typos and obvious grammatical errors without (sic) or any of that, with one exception: the writer who's an Author and Proud Of It. In this case, someone arguing for superbly-written essays should at least be able to put together a stirring, or at least interesting, first couple of paragraphs. Let's just say I didn't bother to finish the essay: When it comes to arguing for Deep Style, if you can't practice, you probably shouldn't preach. (Of course, I'm only a simple humanities guy, but "huh" sounds about right to me too.)

John Dupuis said...

Thanks for the comment, Walt.

As for the Weinberger, I find it particularly frustrating because I feel I should mostly be agreeing with him but I find the tone and approach so off-putting that I just can bring myself to go along.

davidjoho said...

John, thanks for the disagreement. (Really.) But the part you snipped in your excerpt from my longish article was precisely where I qualified the sense in which I meant "essentially wrong," including pointing out some of the ways that realists are right and are important contributors to the never-ending conversation. So, I do come out in your re-presentation as more hostile and one-sided than I at least intended to be.

Here's the beginning part of the snipped section:

I am using the word "essentially" carefully here. Web realists are often right in their particular arguments, demurrals and corrections, and the utopians and dystopians are often wrong in their predictions, readings, and even facts. That matters. Yet, the essence of the utopian and dystopian view is that the Web is truly different. About that they are right.

Why? I am enough of a McLuhanite to believe...


Anyway, it's clear I didn't communicate what I'd wanted, and, of course, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong anyway...

Best,

David Weinberger

John Dupuis said...

David,

Thanks for dropping by.

I guess the point of a "Head Exploding" post is to be equally unfair to all the authors I'm selectively quoting ;-)

But seriously. I do acknowledge that your post is most balanced than I make it out to be. On the other hand, I think the fact that you use the phrase "essentially wrong" three times indicates to me that message you want to convey is, well, wrongness.

And I'm not sure I disagree with the "essential wrongness" of realists anyways, only the way you frame the relationship between utopians and realists as antagonists rather than allies.

After all:

"Web realists perform the vital function of keeping us from running down dead ends longer than we need to, and from getting into feedback loops that distort the innovation process. For those services, we should thank and encourage the realists. But we should also recognize that beyond the particulars, they are essentially wrong.

The contention among dystopians, realists and utopians is is a struggle among the past, the present and the future. The present is always right about itself but — in times of disruption — essentially wrong about the future. That's why we need to flood the field with utopians so we can be right often enough that we build the best future we can."

Is pretty strong in the way it privileges the utopian discourse rather than an enlightened path of happy coexistence.