The End of Digirati Philosophizing

Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired published a provocative essay last week that really caught me off-guard:

The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete

I have been writing lately about the effects that technology is having on epistemology, namely, what is knowable and how we go about knowing.

But, I’ve arrived at very different conclusions than Anderson. I think that our methods for gathering evidence to support a hypothesis is changing – radically – but I certainly do not think that the scientific method (or attitude or stance, as Piet Hut sometimes puts it) is obsolete. Evolving, for sure, but I hope not in the direction that Anderson claims. Intriguingly, Kevin Kelly – who originally launched Wired, wrote an essay on the future of science that I think is much more thoughtful and prescient.

A cursory examination of the comments posted on his essay make me wonder if he hasn’t floated a straw man argument, just to be provocative. But after a few conversations with friends and colleges this week, I believe there is something important and scary in his perspective.

My thinking here is greatly informed by a book I am reading this summer by Bruno Latour – The Politics of Nature. In this book, Latour struggles to reconcile the perennial tensions between nature and democracy, science and politics, facts and values, and ultimately, objectivity and subjectivity. He critiques the veneration of facts as the penultimate authority – reminding us to always consider who gathered those facts and why. His argument is far more nuanced and complex, but I really see its re-enactment in the veneration of data Anderson naively concedes.

We must acknowledge that data itself is nothing more than a mediation with reality – and we shouldn’t confuse data with reality itself.  There are many good rebuttals appearing in the comments, but none that I have read point out that Anderson’s characterization denies the politics of instrumentation and data collection – the concepts and constructs that underlie the data, never mind the importance of stories and explanations in our politics and justifications.

This understanding is basic to the psychology of perception as well as the philosophy of science – there is no observation without pre-existing concepts and constructs – the buckets of data we are collecting (and, at least for now, some data is not being collected) are being stored according to organizational schemes – schemes created by humans.

Data isn’t sacred, and its folly to regard it as such. We need our models and the explicit self-awareness that we created them within a particular historical context and theoretical paradigm.

In the wise words of my mentor/advisor, Frank Moretti:

The problem with statistical analysis in the hands of many is that they expect the statiistics to yeild the truth and this leads into the mistake “reporting their findings” in a theory-deprived context. Whenever you are dealing with the human sciences, whether the information is statistical, visual or otherwise, you still have to build a meaningful narrative that requires that you have a point of view that has either overt or covert theoretical assumptions. Without that you are in danger of reporting your views in what Marcuse calls opreational language, a language derived from the tools of discovery rather a serious point of view.

Tigers and Teachers

Last week I went back to ‘ol Nassau and attended the annual New Media Consortium conference, held this year at my alma mater.

The conference was very engaging, especially since I don’t think I have ever attended an event geared specifically towards the kind of work we do at CCNMTL. Typically, whether its developer, librarian, technorati, activist, or academically oriented, our work shares aspects with other attendees, but usually not a similar overarching mission. I was reminded how special our organization’s niche is – we should take pride in our projects and values. I also gained a better understanding of how privileged our situation is.

While no two university’s I have ever encountered share the same organizational structure, many now support groups whose primary mission is helping the faculty use new media & technology purposefully. I was astounded at the constraints, and corresponding resourcefulness, these groups exhibit. Most of them have a much smaller staff than ours, and very few actually develop custom software. A WordPress or Mediawiki plugin is about as complicated as many of them can attempt. And yet, they forge ahead, scraping together whatever tools they can wrap their minds around – and in the era of mashups, the possibilities are growing daily.

It is interesting to contrast this resourcefulness with corporate, and even non-profit, technical efforts I have been involved with. Many of these groups have gourmet taste in technology, and initiatives are often paralyzed until the right tools are developed. The educators show how far a healthy culture of use can go in trumping system constraints.

Overall, many groups are still working with the faculty to get beyond the allure of the media, and demand a greater educational return than “mere” excitement and motivation. Critical engagement must go beyond supplemental materials, as it is decidely difficult to follow through on the promise of a demonstrated educational value. There were many projects that clearly helped the students feel good about their learning, but it is incredibly hard to design a curriculum where these new media objects become a central component in a student’s analysis. In our work we try, and occasionally succeed, to help push the faculty to design assignments where the new media elements are an integral part of the critical analysis – where the learners deeply engage with the media, and bring these elements into play as evidence in support of an argument.

These aspirations place the bar quite high, and often require faculty to develop an radically new teaching style. Additionally, none of us learned this way, though we all seem to be convinced these new styles are superior to the ways we were taught. Consequently, there is a great deal of experimentation and research involved in educational technology. It was really great having these kinds of conversations all weekend long – sharing and exchanging perspectives with the others grappling with similar concerns.

Some of the highlights I learned about included:

  • Sun’s Wonderland Virtual World – a free-software, enterprise/education-ready virtual world environment, with more of a professional emphasis than Second Life. Of Sun’s 34k employees, 50% or more work remotely or from home on any given day, so collaboration tools are very important for them. The environment supports authentication, allows for any X window to be shared w/in the world, and even has telephony bridging, so users without a client can call in.
  • Emerson’s NEA funded Digital Lyceum Project where New Media scholars Eric Gordon, John Freeman, and Aubree Lawrence are investigating the orchestration of attention during a live event. Research like this could help the backchannel transition from distracting to essential – its fun to imagine being able to cite or reference the flurry of associations, chats, and google jockeying that flow by in the stream of consciousness that live events have become.
  • The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus – Wow. Imagine this media studio on wheels pulling up to your school when you were a kid. Three hipster musician/media-mavens tour the country on this bus, sponsored and outfitted by the likes of Apple and Sony – they are rock stars without the responsibility of performing. Students on the bus come aboard without any specific skills, and leave with something they made that day. The bus sports two fully outfitted media workstations, instruments, and even a green room. Buses like this represent an incredible amount of potential, helping students understand they can produce as easily as consume.

I hope in the years to come the bus incorporates a few more Media Fluency lessons (think: MacArthur’s Digital Learning Initiative, John Broughton’s Pop Resources and David Buckingham’s Journal of Learning and Media) at touchstone moments (“Ah! so all media produced incorporates the producers perspective”), a few more lessons on the ethics of sharing (“Hey, how do I share my media with the world, and let others remix it?”), and offer concrete strategies for continuity after the bus pulls away (“I get it – all media is produced on magic buses”)…

Many NMC’ers have drank deeply at the fountain of Second Life kool-aid, and I glimpsed more variations on the educational potential of Virtual Worlds. I didn’t hear too many people riffing on the centrality of realistic memories the environment offers, so this is an idea I certainly need to develop further. I am immensely grateful to the Play As Being community for introducing me to these experiences in a very meaningful context.

Finally, I spent lots of time reminiscing about my undergraduate years. My colleges and I cracked secret codes, narrowly averted an attack by a giant tiger, revisited the Princeton Record Exchange (where I spent $20 and came home w/ 6 cds), and lamented the campus’ new density – a building has sprung up in almost every open space I remember.

Phew.

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