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!

Howard Rheingold: Attention!

I interviewed Howard Rheingold about his new book, Net Smart. It was a broad-ranging conversation, which was published on PBS MediaShift. Here is what he said about the importance of attention:

You are known for giving students exercises in attention — rather than just ordering them to close their laptops during the course. In “Net Smart” you explain the importance of attention for all of us living in this era of ubiquitous computing.

Rheingold: Attention is the fundamental instrument we use for learning, thinking, communicating, deciding, yet neither parents nor schools spend any time helping young people learn how to manage information streams and control the ways they deploy their attention.

Why not include basic media mindfulness in the fundamentals that parents AND schools are expected to provide to their children if they want them to succeed in the networked society? Don’t parents need to weigh their urge to check their BlackBerry against their sons’ and daughters’ requests for their attention? Attention, and especially attention to media, is a topic that deserves a discussion more nuanced and more proactive than “multitasking doesn’t work” and “too many people are bumping into other people while looking at their smartphone screens.”

Both mindfulness meditation disciplines and modern neuroscientific study of metacognition strongly suggest that people can learn to deploy their attention more effectively. Teaching people elementary mindfulness is extraordinarily inexpensive compared to the cost of producing smart devices and deploying global broadband networks.

(Much) more on PBS Mediashift!

Amplifying my mind

Among my lofty intentions for the new year is amplifying my mind. This will be facilitated by Howard Rheingold. I really enjoyed Howard’s previous course, Toward a Literacy of Cooperation.

Introduction to Mind Amplifiers, is a five week course using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter.

Some of the texts we’ll read in the course will be familiar to the readers of the priceless The New Media Reader (MIT), like As We May Think (Vannevar Bush), Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (Douglas Engelbart) and Man-Computer Symbiosis (J.C.R. Licklider). These texts are incredibly deep and inspiring and could be the subject of whole course (we worked on them during the Digital Awakening Course, which had regular sessions in Second Life).

Howard is a master in inventing words and concepts – he is credited with inventing the notion of ‘virtual community’. In this course we’ll work on yet another of his ideas, infotention:

Infotention is a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters. The inside and outside of infotention work best together: Honing the mental ability to deploy the form of attention appropriate for each moment is an essential internal skill for people who want to find, direct, and manage streams of relevant information by using online media knowledgeably. Knowing how to put together intelligence dashboards, news radars, and information filters from online tools like persistent search and RSS is the external technical component of information literacy.

As I learned during the previous course, Howard expects his students to be very active. This culminates in the final session(s) which are prepared and organized by the participants. In this course we’re also supposed to apply what we learn by developing an attentional-informational strategy, organizing an information dashboard etc. It’s my intention to do this focusing on the themes developed in the book Race Against the Machine (Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee).

I’ll report here, on MixedRealities, about my experiences during this new course.

What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Applying Aristotle on interactions between humans and computers: it can be done. Just read Brenda Laurel about The Six Elements and the Causal Relations between them (in the New Media Reader, MIT, links and documents here) as we did in the Digital Awakening course.

Aristotle talks about drama as an organic whole. He distinguishes six qualitative elements: action, character, thought, language, pattern and enactment.

I’d like to pick out just one nugget out of this text: how we’re humanizing our tools. Once computers were being considered as big, clunky, intimidating and often maddening machines, a kind of dumb administrators.
Visionaries such as Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson saw very early on that computers could be much more.

It’s not just that the entertainment and social aspects of computers (in all their forms) prove to be so appealing. It’s that something in our relation with those devices is changing dramatically.

In her discussion of the element ’Thought’ Laurel mentions the familiar conundrum:’can computers think’ and the answer is surprisingly easy: ’computer-based agents, like dramatic characters, do not have to think (in fact, there are many ways in which they cannot); they simply have to provide a representation from which thought may be inferred.’

When you double-click on a folder of your Mac and it divulges its content, it seems as if it understood what you wanted. Does it actually understand anything at all? It does not matter; “The real issue is that the representation succeeded in getting me to make the right inferences about it’s “thoughts”. It also succeeded in representing to me that it made the right inferences about mine!”

This idea of making inferences about the “thoughts” of devices spreads of course as our computers become slick, small, nigh-powered devices we carry all the time with us. Increasingly, we’re no longer limited to double-clicking folders, but we can speak to those devices – humanizing them even more.

This may seem self-evident, bit it’s obvious this is a vast project and we’re just in the initial phases. Just think about how we deal with news media. Instead of searching desperately in unwieldy online newspaper archives, your smartphone – as your personal assistant – will alert you when there’s breaking news about, let’s say, Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

You’ll enter into a conversation, you’ll ask a question to get more details, a background question about someone who is mentioned in the report. Your personal assistant will use lot’s of sources, narrating the answers to your questions, indicating sources or taking into account the reputations stats of the sources. Chances are it will not be some mainstream media company developing such an assistant, but yet another young tech company.

The GigaOM Roadmap conference discussed this kind of evolution. 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? by 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.

It also has implications for our perceived identity. This could be an aspect of this remark in Clark’s above mentioned text:

In addition it may soon be quite important (morally, socially, and politically) to publicly loosen the bonds between the very ideas of minds and persons and the image of the bounds, properties, locations and limitations of the basic biological organism.

The nice thing for my course-program this Fall is that these texts and discussion allow me to “connect the dots”: Clark and his thinking about the extended mind is an important part of a previous course facilitated by Howard Rheingold (Introduction to Mind Amplifiers) which is not unrelated to his other courseToward a Literacy of Cooperation, while the discussion about Brenda Laurel and the Six Elements is part of the above mentioned Digital Awakening course. Next Wednesday we’ll meet Howard in that course (in Second Life), and we’ll discuss Sherry Turkle’s text Video Games and Computer Holding Power (documents, program and practical details can be found here). One of the aspects of Turkle’s research is about role-playing and the exploration of “aspects of the self” and seems to fit very nicely in the context of the previous discussions.

Do the G20-leaders have a wiki and other questions

I had some busy days covering the European debt crisis for my newspaper De Tijd and trying to keep up work for my online courses. I had to focus on the Toward a literacy of Cooperation course, facilitated by Howard Rheingold, as the course itself is now in its last days and we, the students, had to cooperate to create to last session, ‘The Big Picture’.

Somehow my experiences liveblogging the G20 in Cannes, France and the Cooperation course got linked together.

– As I was liveblogging the G20 (I was in Antwerp, Belgium, and my fellow journalist Peter De Groote was in Cannes), we made a very intense use of Twitter. It was remarkable how Twitter, as experienced through my list of financial journalists and commentators, became like an augmented, open, international newsroom.

Journalists in Athens provided a realtime translation of the debate in the Greek parliament, other colleagues in Cannes translated, commented and analyzed what was going at the G20 itself. They were reaching out to each other, on the ground and on Twitter, regardless of nationalities or commercial interests. I think the readers of the liveblog somehow sensed that what they were reading was a curated collection of human voices, with all the seriousness, drama and humour involved.

– While the spontaneous virtual newsroom emerged, one could ask whether our beloved world leaders are very knowledgeable in the practice and the ethos of social media. Just wondering whether there is something like a wiki for world leaders, where they can brainstorm, exchange references and ideas. The G20 wanted to discuss new ideas for a new world, but instead it was all about solving the problems of the eurozone. I have no doubt it is crucially important for world leaders to meet each other at such summits, but I can only hope they also cooperate using some kind of secret wiki, forums, blogs and mindmaps. But somehow I doubt they actually use that stuff. Maybe the dominant model of competing nation-states is not compatible with online social tools? But then again, maybe cooperation is at least as important as competition…

– Which brings me to the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation Course. One of the many discussion topics is the application of the principles for the governance of common pool recources (cfr Elinor Ostrom) on online communities. Another one is about collective intelligence. One of the leading thinkers about collective intelligence is the French scholar Pierre Lévy. Howard Rheingold had this video interview with Lévy:

 

Watching this, I had some other questions. Not only whether world leaders do use or do not use social media tools, whether or not in a confidential settings. There is an even more serious issue: do they have the framework and lenses necessary to even see the importance of the amplification of collective intelligence? Because this amplification brings along opportunities and challenges and makes paradigms shift. It demands new literacies – do our education systems provide those literacies? Do those systems change themselves fundamentally so as to be relevant in a post-industrial society? Do they understand that even the notion of “learning” itself might be changing, as is discussed in the MOOC Change11?

I have my doubts. And the disconnect between the formats for cooperation on the level of our world leaders and the disruptive changes caused by globalization, networks, and the amplification of collective intelligence will lead to even more upheaval.

“Yes, they are digital natives, but not tech-savvy”

I’ve been thinking about the term “digital natives”. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 Tony Bates facilitated a week about “Transforming teaching and learning through technology management“.

In a blogpost about this subject Squire Morley says:

So one of the questions Tony asks of us is whether universities can change from within or if new institutions are required for the 21st Century. Unless there is a disjuncture then there is no incentive to change. The system seems to be self-perpetuating. The training (or apprenticeships) of research graduates to become the next generation of lecturers and academics in the same ways as previously is at least partly responsible for this, as are the pressures for advancement through publication in closed, peer-reviewed journals.

But maybe one of the driving forces for change (facilitated by the use of social media) are the students? A new generation of digital natives? In my own experience, primarily among young journalists and journalism students, the fluency of digital natives in using social networks on a personal level does not really mean they “automatically” use these skills in the context of their learning or journalism. There is a subtle difference between being a “digital native” and being “tech-savvy”.

I gave a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée, Belgium and I had this video interview with facilitator Damien Van Achter:

Visitors and residents

But maybe “digital native” is too problematic a term to use. On the TALL blog David White uses the distinction between “residents” and “visitors” instead of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”:

(Hat tip to Stephen Downes for mentioning this video and blogpost). This distinction between “residents” and “natives” is not age-related nor even skill-related. Residents of the internet seem to inhabit a certain “space” and to maintain and develop a digital identity. Visitors seem to consider the net as a tool box.

This insight could be very useful. I often despaired when presenting Twitter to non-Twitter users, or Second Life for that matter: one can explain easily enough the buttons which one has to press and the basic practices (hashtags, lists for Twitter, creating an avatar and learning how to move around and communicate for a virtual world), but even then people are often reluctant to put that “knowledge” to good use.

So maybe the real issue is not the technology, but a cultural (often unconscious) choice for being a visitor and not a resident (I think active Twitter users are more like residents just as virtual world users are clearly “getting” the spatial metaphor). Which does not mean that promoting stuff such as Twitter is hopeless – it just means that the reluctance has to be recognized and addressed on the right level.

SmallTalk

I could not participate at the weekly Digital Awakening course session in Second Life, but I did my required reading: Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media“.

In that 1977 essay the authors foretell the importance of notebook computing. “While most saw the computer as a tool for engineers or, at most, businesspeople, Kay thought computers could be used even by children, and could be used creatively”, so it is explained in the MIT New Media Reader.

One of the great aspects of the Dynabook project was that it involved children as users. The kids were not just consumers or filling boxes which were provided by professional designers and developers, they were also programmers:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different
perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience. Their attention spans are measured in hours rather than minutes.

The kids used the Smalltalk-language: “Smalltalk was created as the language to underpin the “new world” of computing exemplified by human–computer symbiosis. It was designed and created in part for educational use, more so for constructionist learning” (Wikipedia)

I cannot help but contrast this enthusiasm with my experiences during a recent debate about the future of the newspaper industry. When I suggested journalism students (so university level, not junior high like in the Dynabook project) should have some basic experience with programming in order to see new story-telling possibilities, there was great indignation. A journalism instructor said that his students would not be interested in such a thing and an editor-in-chief exclaimed that such talk made him very nervous: journalists have to write stories, have scoops, not to mess around in programming languages.

Which means that more than thirty year after these Dynabook experiments, we failed to convey the message that computing literacy is not something for “the nerds in the basement”, but fun stuff which enables people to envision tasks and projects in very new and exhilarating ways.

‘Who watches tv anymore anyway among young people? Nobody’

I had no idea professor Sachs could be so angry and passionate (a big believer in social media, also saying “who watches tv anymore anyway among young people? nobody”) – I don’t know whether he’s right about this tv-thing, but his rant is impressive:

Should we apply Ostrom’s design principles to online learning communities?

Getting ready for a second session of Howard Rheingold’s course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation. Today we’ll study Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

As is explained on The Cooperation Commons, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:

1. Group boundaries are clearly defined.
2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
5. A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
6. A graduated system of sanctions is used.
7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

What interests me is that those rules could be used for the management (or facilitation) of online learning communities. Most of the time rules for online learning communities have already been established by the organizers of the platform, but it would be interesting to let the community somehow devise rules and monitor them.

How would that work with large online learning communities? One of the problems would be the boundaries of the group and the monitoring of behavior: can we really identify members (not necessarily by ‘real names’ but by online reputation and persistent avatar identity?).

It seems being part of a group, working together durably so that issues of reputation become relevant, enhances reciprocity and cooperation. I guess that is also the way communities of practice work.

However, how close-knit a group has to be? Is antagonism with other groups desirable because it probably even increases this intra-group cooperation? Is it not a bit suffocating to belong to a community of practice which tries to uphold a certain tradition, a hierarchy of members? (E.g. a group of media professionals, ‘accepting’ student journalists in order to ‘teach’ them the proper principles of journalism – with the best intentions and probably good results… )

The question (and I don’t have the answers yet) I ask myself is whether we can go beyond communities of practice. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 the learning&teaching experience is based on the connectivist philosophy/practice. This is what Wikipedia says about one particular aspect of connectivism:

One aspect of connectivism is the use of a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning. In this metaphor, a node is anything that can be connected to another node within a network such as an organisation: information, data, feelings, images. Connectivism sees learning as the process of creating connections and developing a network. Not all connections are of equal strength in this metaphor; in fact, many connections may be quite weak.

So connectivism is allowing for weak ties, which often turn out to be quite interesting, as those nodes may provide new insights from other perspectives, even though they are not high-level members of some formal or informal group hierarchy.

There is also a price to be paid for the connectivist approach: could there be a higher risk that the principles of cooperation and reciprocity are lost in a connectivist approach? That we’d all end up as lurkers, not contributing anything and just attending silently several meetings or courses, without really engaging ourselves? (In this sense, lurkers would be ‘free riders‘).

In fact, I think there’s not much of a problem. Lurkers do not contribute to the discussion, but they are not harmful as ‘consuming knowledge’ is non-rivalry: the knowledge available for all does not diminish because some people listen without intervening actively.

It appears that even in the absence of “the real possibility” of punishment for non-cooperation people act as if that possibility somehow functions – so lurkers should be given the benefit of the doubt: maybe that mysterious push to contribute will manifest itself once they start attending sessions on a regular basis.

But maybe the problem is not so much ‘free riders’, but participants who contribute negatively. In the case of trolls monitoring and gradually sanctioning can help. But often the problem is not so clear-cut: what if one wants an in-depth discussion, and too many participants add just noise – without really transgressing the boundaries of civil discourse?

Typically learning communities ask their members to do some required and/or recommended reading, so as to ensure at least a minimal common background. While this may be common practice for academically inspired communities, it’s much less self-evident for newspaper discussion groups for instance.

An interesting experiment for media could be to organize discussion groups for specific topics, with the aim to learn stuff or to formulate solutions for certain problems, enabling the members to define rules and expectations, to monitor and sanction the behavior of participants. Such groups would use synchronous (web conferencing, virtual meetings…) and asyncrhonous (forums) communication tools and/or a blogging platform. Gradually more challenging tools could be introduced such as collaborative mindmapping and wikis.

Journalists/bloggers would be facilitators of the interactions and would help introducing the tools. This is one of the major lessons I learn by participating in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11): how tools have to do with augmenting our humanity.

As became clear during this week’s discussion of Augmenting Human Intellect (Doug Engelbart), introducing a new tool such as a computer (or a portable, a smartphone or tablet) requires careful consideration of the many ways in which a new tool can change our practices. All too often people use new tools with the mindset of a previous phase: using a desktop as a typewriter, a portable as a desktop etc. The same applies for online social tools: social networks risk being used as just the continuation of the office or pub conversation, while they could also empower people to reach out and explore new possibilities. So maybe that’s yet another thing to take into account when designing online learning communities.