The WELL interviews Howard Rheingold, and maybe you should join us

There is a fascinating discussion going on at The WELL, where Howard Rheingold is being interviewed by community members about this book Net Smart.

The discussion is wide-ranging. Howard provides plenty of links to useful resources about crap detection, journalism, education, and all things helping people to thrive online. The interview goes beyond the “howto” stuff (as does the book), and interviewers also ask Howard about the vision of early internet pioneers, whether or not some of these not yet fulfilled visions are being realized now, and about the internet as an augmentation of our capabilities. There are even stories about Gorbachev at a time long before he came to power.

The WELL is one of the oldest web communities. Wikipedia:

The WELL was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, and the name is partially a reference to some of Brand’s earlier projects, including the Whole Earth Catalog.

One can read the discussion for free. I’m a member, and I find the conferences (discussion forums) most compelling – I can be found most often at the conference about virtual communities (in the broad sense of a discussion of the social consequences of online communities and networks) – and in that conference I try to contribute regularly to the topic about digital culture. The WELL is not free and members use their real names. There is an intimacy which is very special. Even though this is a text-based, asynchronous forum, I experience a certain co-presence which matters a lot to me. Anyhow, if you decide to give it a try, give me a shout!

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Playing around with Spreecast

I’m testing Spreecast, a service which allows you to run a videoshow, to invite people, to get reactions in text chat and to embed the whole thing wherever you like. Robert Scoble published an interview with co-founder Jeff Fluhr:

I’m a strong believer in synchronous communication and the co-presence it enables – whether one uses virtual environments, text chat modules, videoconferencing (such as Blackboard Collaborate or Google Hangout) or hybrid forms (video plus text chat, video plus video by guests plus chat text, podcasts with a live session).

So here I’ll embed my brandnew Spreecast-channel – and watching it myself I realize I should have looked more into the camera (and should have used a better headset) – but hey, it’s a learning experience!:

Just wondering how they will eventually monetize this – all of the video is being recorded now for free. I can imagine all kinds of ad-driven models, but then again I remember how Seesmic tried a video-chat format some years ago – and failed. Maybe we are further in the internet evolution now, with more and better connections… But then again, it’s also a matter of cultural acceptance: people tend to be shy on camera, IT-departments don’t think it’s necessary for people to have full audio and video capabilities for office computers or even have firewalls in place to prevent this kind of communication.

However, I can imagine Spreecast succeeding in the media sector – it’s an affordable way to organize talking-head kind of formats, and the audience can react using text, they don’t need to use their cameras. But just suppose it’s a success – what prevents Google from tweaking its Hangout service so that is offers the same features (recording, embedding etc)? One needs to be brave to be an entrepreneur in this industry…

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MOOCs and their differences

I started the Computer Sciences 101 course taught by professor Nick Parlante (Stanford University) as a massive open online course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform. Nick says there are not enough people on this planet with computer skills, so he hopes that this introductory course will incite some of us to deepen their knowledge and skills.

During 6 weeks we’ll do small coding experiments in the browser (using JavaScript) to play with the nature of computers, “understanding their strengths and limitations.”

My impression is that the course is cleverly designed. The lecture videos are broken into small chunks, sometimes containing quiz questions. There are also standalone quizzes and programming assignments.

The participants meet each other in discussion forums. There are discussions about the format (which seems to be much appreciated – even though some complained this first week was too basic), the assignments, introductions… Students also organize themselves in an impressive variety of study groups along national or language lines.

Coursera provides the platform for the course – it’s a “social entrepreneurship company” that partners with top universities to offer courses online for free. In fact, Coursera has been created by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng.

We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundres of thousands of students.

Coursera offers courses in a wide range of topics – not only programming and science but also the humanities. Right now they work with Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Penn.

It’s interesting to experience the differences with other MOOCs such as the connectivism courses facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. In my experience those courses are more distributed – they take place on various platforms even though the blogposts, discussions, social bookmarks and synchronous sessions are being aggregated on a site and a newsletter. They also seem to be more open-ended, every participant picks the stuff she is particularly interested in and connects with people in function of her own objectives and interests. Stephen Downes was interviewed about MOOCs by the independent journalist Kevin Charles Redmon and gives an interesting overview of the MOOC-history and the success massive open courses seem to have today.

The MOOCs organized by Downes and Siemens leave it to the student to define what counts as success. This does not mean that Stephen is not interested in assessment. He explains what the two basic approaches are:

The first is the Big Data approach – instead of using a few dozen data points, which is what the testing regimen does, you track a student’s activities and construct a profile from the full spectrum of his interactions with the material and other learners. This is the work of a field called ‘Learning Analytics’ (which should be ‘discovered’ by the Stanford-MIT nexus any time now). The second, which is my own approach, is a network clustering approach – the idea is that in a network of interactions in a community, expertise constitutes a ‘cluster’ of activity, and a person’s learning can be assessed as a form of proximity to that cluster. The Learning Analytics and Network Analysis approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Ultimately it’s about empowerment:

It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices. We (those of working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. And it’s not just about ‘flipping’ courses. It’s about reducing and eventually eliminating the learned dependence on the expert and the elite – not as a celebration of anti-intellectualism, but as a result of widespread and equitable access to expertise.

None of this happens by magic. There isn’t some ‘invisible hand’ creating a fair and equitable education marketplace. The system needs to be built with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.

It could very well be that participants at the Udacity and Coursera-courses discover this along the road. That some of them will return – even after having completed the program – to help out others. This will be more like a process of self-discovery – I’m sure that right now people participating at the CS101 course just want to learn about computers. But maybe they’ll end up realizing it’s actually about teaching yourself and the others.

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Big Data and Cyberpunk

Monday afternoon: while I’m in a chat session on one screen, I watch my finance twitter list  on the other screen. The tweets about Europe are rather apocalyptic, like this one by the investment banker Dan Alpert:

 

It reminds me of cyberpunk – a sci-fi genre which combines hightech with low life – the collapse of the social order as we know it. The story is in the near-future, or even in the here and now – but told in such a way that it seems like the future. After all, the famous movie Blade Runner is situated in Los Angeles, 2019:

 

We are mostly very positive about technology because it seems to empower us as individuals. From mainframes we went to personal computers, from desktops to laptops and now to smartphones and maybe even more transparent wearable devices. Those devices provide us with enormous computing power because they are part of a worldwide network of very powerful computers.

‘A new Renaissance’ it is often said, and once again the individual is in the center. But then again, that same individual can abuse this new power for mass destruction. There will always be groups of young males – ambitious terrorists so often seem to be both young and male – who feel their purpose on earth is to provoke mass destruction and generalized mayhem.

Well, it seems that they have increasingly the means to do so – a rather unintended consequence of this empowerment of the individual.

On the other side we have the authorities, linked with corporations which are useful for their needs. Splunk had an impressive IPO. The company collects and analyzes massive amounts of data. In this Big Data industry we also find a company such as Cloudera, and one of the investors is In-Q-Tel – which was created to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the Intelligence Community and new advances in commercial technology.

Big Data often means running software on hundreds and even thousands of servers, looking for patterns and visualizing economic and financial trends, but also possible criminal and terrorist threats or the outbreak of infective diseases.

The financial crisis is, in a way, a data crisis – money after all travels as bits and bytes. But other layers of the massively increasing data traffic are potentially about life and death of world cities. Big Data and the dystopia of cyberpunk are not that far apart.

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‘This is my cybernetic organism: the Internet’

I just finished reading William Gibson’s Distrust that Particular Flavor. Gibson is the man who gave us the notion of ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 story “Burning Chrome” and popularized by his 1984 novel Neuromancer.
Here is his formulation of “cyberspace” in Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in het human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

To be precise, it’s not necessarily Gibson who says this. It’s a voice-over in the device the protagonist is using, calling it “kid’s show”.

For those who never read any of  Gibson’s books, do not fear, he explains some of his key ideas in the last chapter, such as the ‘cybernetic organism':

There’s my cybernetic organism: the Internet. If you accept that “physical” isn’t only the things we can touch, it’s the largest man-made object on the planet, or will be, soon: It’s outstripping the telephone system, or ingesting it, as I speak. And we who participate in it are physically part of it. The Borg we are becoming.’

The interface evolves toward transparency, so he explains. The one you have to devote the least conscious effort to, survives.
So the sci-fi cyborg with brain inserts and bolts in the neck already looks slightly quaint. It’s a kind of steampunk version of what actually develops. Even Vannevar Bush, the author of the 1945 article As We May Think in The Atlantic Monthly, did not see this coming: that we would create libraries in common by linking up what Bush called “memex” and what we called later on “personal computer”.
The real cyborg is a global organism and it’s so invasive that the bolts in the neck look medieval.

The real-deal cyborg will be deeper and more subtle and exist increasingly at the particle level, in a humanity where unaugmented reality will eventually be a hypothetical construct, something we can only try, with great difficulty, to imagine – as we might try, today, to imagine a world without electronic media.

Which reminds me of the other book I’ve been reading, Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation by Beth Coleman, in which she explains her notion of “pervasive computing”:

(…) I use the term pervasive media to describe a global culture that engages a spectrum of networked technologies. I am speaking of technical affordances of platforms such as virtual worlds, voice-over-Internet protocol, mobile rich-media and texting, and microblogging formats such as Twitter.

She goes on mentioning YouTube, Facebook and blogs. Her assessment is that networked media, as a whole, simulates presence.

If a medium has a message, as McLuhan famously pronounced, then the message of the increasingly real-time, visual and locative media we engage is: “I am here”‘

She is not saying that a lived, bodily experience is the same as our experience of being filtered through an avatar (who are not just virtual world phenomena, but “our networked proxies”). Coleman is arguing for recognition of porous spheres of engagement that meet across a continuum of the actual.
And here is what Gibson says when he discusses the meaning of “the physical”:

The physical union of human and machine, long dreaded and long anticipated, has been an accomplished fact for decades, though we tend not to see it. We tend not to see it because we are it, and because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that “physical” has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen of the wooden television (RL: he refers to television sets of the fifties) are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that child’s optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit, here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked nervous systems. Invisible. We cannot touch it.

Watch Gibson reading from his new book:

Now let’s switch to co-presence in yet another sci-fi masterpiece,  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.. One of the most fascinating appearances in this book is the Rabbit, a person (or an AI entity) taking part in a conversation in Barcelona in the form of a rabbit. Others can see him – as a rabbit – and he (she?) can look around. Also featuring in this quote is effortless instant messaging:

The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to
scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. “Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the
bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? (…) ” He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp’s
nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, “But then again, maybe you two are
thousands of kilometers away.”
Keiko laughed. “Oh, don’t be so indecisive,” she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. “I’m quite
happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: In fact, I’m in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.
The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: “Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting
here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you’re really from, and modern security to disguise what we
say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping … unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board.”
Mitsuri –> Braun, Vaz: Well, that’s one third of a correct guess.
Braun –> Mitsuri, Vaz: Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance. An EU real-time estimate hung in the
air above the little creature’s head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.

Now connect this with a non-fiction setting, the GigaOM Roadmap conference. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:

Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.

In Natural Born Cyborgs professor Andy Clark the author says:

Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.

Of course, we generally don’t like being assimilated by the Borg. But then again, this is not what seems to be happening. The connectedness of our extended minds does not lead to an organism which obeys one set of rules and follows one single common belief system. As one of the participants at a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) said on Twitter, MOOCs are communities with smaller communities within. We do connect beyond geographical limitations of course, and it seems we respond to affinities. Beth Coleman in Hello Avatar:

The Pew Internet study tells us that affinity groups are thriving, but the connections are configured along new lines that often defy the demarcation of territory or blood. We find the dissolution of traditional frames of community and society, even as we relocate ourselves across networks of affiliation. The critical aspect to grasp is the value of networked engagement in moving toward a better understanding of society in the twenty-first century.

Fandom culture is a very interesting topic to study in order to understand this “networked engagement”. I’m reading Fandom Unbound now (see my previous post) and Lawrence Eng, in his contribution about Anime and Manga Fandom as Networked Culture, explains about radical fandom (“otaku” in Japanese):

Contrary to the stereotypical image of the otaku as socially isolated, anime fan communities are highly social and networked, relying on a combination of online and offline connections.

Just consider the possibility of amplifying the concept of “otaku” to the curation practices we talks so much about these days, and one can easily understand these studies are relevant for web culture as a whole, while web culture studies are not just about “the web”, but about where humanity is going.

Also read Pagan Kennedy in The New York Times: William Gibson’s Future is Now, and one of my earlier posts about this subject: What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

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Mind-blowing books, interviews about Avatars, Otaku

Professor Henry Jenkins published the second part of his interview with his colleague Beth Coleman about avatars and the x-reality (the thing we live in when we constantly switch back and forth from digital space to what we used to call the ‘real world’). I also read Coleman’s book Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation.

About everything in the interviews and the book is very important to me (also have a look at my Storify of the interview). It’s a deep meditation about the power of co-presence in participatory culture:

Telepresence, or what I am calling copresence (the sense of being present with someone via mediation), is huge for participatory culture. We are moving unerringly toward a more graphic and increasingly real-time mediation. One of the things I underscore in the book is the idea that people in their everyday engagement of networked media create all kinds of innovation and intervention.

Beth Coleman puts all the stuff I care about in a very rich context of the history of gaming, virtuality, but also of cultural studies and philosophy (yes, even the French philosopher Jacques Derrida is mentioned as is the French thinker Jean Baudrillard).

I was just recovering from the book and the tremendous interview when I noticed that Jenkins posted yet another fascinating post, about Otaku culture:

(…) the culture of a technologically literate segment of the population which is characterized by their impassioned engagement, skilled reworking, and intellectual mastery over elements borrowed from many aspects of popular culture, including not only anime and manga, but also games, popular music, digital culture, even history or trains.

William Gibson, the author who coined the word ‘cyberculture’, writes in Distrust That Particular Flavor:

Understanding otaku-hood, I think, is one of the keys to understanding the culture of the Web. There is something profoundly postnational about it, extra-geographic. We are all curators, in the postmodern world, whether we want to be or not.

Jenkins now reports the publication of Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, and bringing together works by leading Japanese and western researchers interested in Otaku culture as both a national and transnational phenomenon.

I’ve the impression many people who are knowledgeable in all kinds of web and mobile technologies often are no longer aware of the culture and literature of  ‘cyberspace’ – which is a shame, as I think it’s crucial for creativity to combine technical expertise with in-depth knowledge of the humanities (literature, philosophy, sociology, anthropology…) as it relates to the disruptive change toward a networked society. Not just creativity in the sense of inventing yet another location-based social network, but the kind of creativity which gave us the iPhone and the iPad.

Anyway, here is a nice video about Otaku which you can also find on Aca-Fan, Jenkins’ site:

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MOOCs in Space

Over at the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) A Virtual Worlds, Games and Education Tour people seem to have a really great time. I’m just lurking at their P2PU site, but go there too and have a look at pictures about the game EVE Online which is a a player-driven, persistent-world Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) set in a science fiction space setting.

Also have a look at the slideshow on Flickr.

Interesting stuff I noted: the MOOC uses Google+ for orientations in Second Life and MMORPGs. Google+ is also being used by the community of co-learners around Howard Rheingold and even though there are limitations (one cannot participate in a Hangout with more than 10 people), it’s really a very interesting collaboration platform, enabling audio, video, screen-sharing, text chat… for free.

Read also: Virtual Worlds, Games and Education (another MOOC!)

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Where is your avatar, anyway?

These last few days were very rich in eye-opening news events and posts – enabling us to get a better view on fundamental changes in media and technology. An overview:

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The Daily State Of Disruption: Design Principles, Project Glass and Its Discontents

An overview of some major discussions about the internet and technology during the last few days. About technology and ideology, big internet corporations and their doom, project glass and its discontents.

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Virtual Worlds, Games and Education (another MOOC!)

There is a true explosion going on in open online learning. I don’t know whether it’s always “massive” as in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), but anyway, there is a lot happening out there.

I don’t have statistics about how many projects there are, nor about the total number of participants and how many “succeed”. One of the issues here is that the definitions are not obvious. When do we say something is “massive”? What does it mean to “succeed”? The other issue is that I don’t care. I just feel that there is so much going on that I cannot find the time to blog about it all. For instance, I did not yet find the time to report about the MOOC  A Virtual Worlds, Games and Education Tour.

You’ll notice that the above link directs you to a site on P2PU, which is The Peer 2 Peer University:

a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities. P2PU – learning for everyone, by everyone about almost anything.

The participants conduct virtual world tours and exploration, study and experiment using machinima, World of Warcraft and discuss about the bleeding edge of these technologies.

Of course there is a lot of Second Life in all this, which is normal because it really is a world where about all content is being created by the “residents”, using 3D building and scripting techniques. However, the course also discusses Inworldz and New World Grid – virtual worlds based on the OpenSim software (and as such very familiar for those used to Second Life), the games EVE Online and World of Warcraft (WoW), and I guess other virtual or game environments will be discussed as well (Minecraft).

The course is very distributed, participants work in the virtual environments but also on a number of social media platforms, while the whole things is organized and commented through the P2P U site and a WordPress blog. Also have a look at the social bookmark collection at Diigo.

Lack of time prevented me from participating in this course, but I did read posts on the forums. Subjects being discussed:

– How games such as WoW manage to make missions difficult enough to be interesting but not so difficult as to chase the players away.

– How games incite players to analyze situations and to work together in teams (for raids) and in larger groups (guilds). Leadership skills are being learned and practiced which can be useful in the “real world”.

– How can sophisticated virtual world Intelligent Agents (NPCs or BOTs) be used in learning environments?

– Practical stuff about screen capturing and making video in virtual environments, and about the educational application of these practices. (In general: even for those not participating in the course, you’ll learn a lot just browsing through the posts and bookmarks, watching the videos. One also discovers tools such as Livebinder and in Livebinder this collection of tools about screen capturing and video producing in virtual and gaming environments… )

– Interesting discussions about how educators try to use and promote cutting edge technology in their work, which is not always appreciated by everyone in the institutions.

This MOOC follows on a three-day conference  about best practices for virtual worlds in education (VWBPE).  Here is the video announcing the  VWBPE conference – I like it because it illustrates how original and creative gatherings in a virtual world can be. Which makes me believe that even the further expansion of affordable and free videoconferencing will not make such virtual meetings obsolete.

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