Reconstruction time again

At a loss for wordsThis week the j-school was abuzz with the conversation successfully  provoked by the publication of a detailed comprehensive report, complete with recommendations, on how to save the endangered species of professional journalists.

One of the report’s two primary authors is my professor Michael Schudson, a thoughtful scholar and a great teacher who is eminently approachable for advice. My friend Dr. C.W. Anderson was the research assistant on the project, and I know he worked pretty hard to make this happen, though he didn’t go on a world tour with the authors.

The report was solid and it managed to gain alot of attention and stir up  a bit of a ruckus. The recommendations seemed reasonable to me, though not quite as radical as I would have hoped…

I have been involved in quite a few conversations around the future of journalism this year, and while there has been a great deal of conversation around how the forms of organization around journalistic production are changing, there has been very little talk about how what’s being produced is changing too.

I am reminded of Bob Stein’s predictions about the Future of the Book. One of his central riffs is his epiphany that the digital book is much less about ebooks and multimedia, and much more about a shift away from the book as a static, finished, complete, object. He imagines a new emergent form in perpetual beta, with multiple authors, and around which revisions, annotations, and communities form. Any of his talks that from the last few years probably picks up on this theme.

While many journalists are talking about producing articles using new media forms, the discussions remind me a bit of the early days of cinema, when they used to film plays.

I’m imaging a shift in journalism towards interactive storytelling, cumulative aggregation, and  distributed collaboration. We have begun to see hints of experiments along these lines in projects like Times Topics, Swiftapp, and Mapping Controversies, but this NPR project profiled last year in CJR really hits the mark: So Cool: How an economic weather map changed the climate. I think these strategies might easily apply to prose, not just data, interactive graphics, and maps.

Comparing journalism with education, will journalism only use new media to create the equivalent of a jazzed up, one-way, lecture? What does interactive story telling even look like? How will we teach the next generation of journalists to create works that are designed to be picked up, re-appropriated, and re-mixed?

With these ideas in mind, I would have loved to see some recommendations in this report designed in anticipation of this future, not merely to prop up yesterday’s decaying models. The patchwork of the future can be best supported by encouraging greater transparency, open licensing, and a culture of collaboration.  What about encouraging open licensing mandates to this foundation support? Mandate the sharing of primary sources? Teach journalists of the future to share, and to learn from their readers? These aren’t all policy recommendations, but I think they need to be thought through and woven into this conversation.

PS – While the future of journalism may be difficult to discern, the future of newspaper suddenly seems pretty clear 😉

O.V. High

Man w/ a Movie Camera Tattoo I have to thank my friend and colleague Clayfox for comparing (positively) the vibe at this weekend’s fabulous Open Video Conference to High School. The optimism, diversity, and composition of the crowd was really inspiring.

In some ways, this conference might as well have been called the “Independent Media” conference, but of course, if it was, the right people wouldn’t have attended. Somehow they managed to attract people involved with every layer of the stack needed to create independent media.  Subcultures representing hardware, html5, metadata, content, law, production, funders and more were all represented.

To make independent new media, you either need to understand all of these details, or know someone who does.  I don’t think I have ever been in a room with this particular blend of expertise and interests before.

The networking was great, and my office was closely involved in making the education stuff at this conference happen (I have a great job). At the conference we announced the liberation of a great piece of software – VITAL is free! Run, VITAL, Run.

The highlight of the talks had to be Amy Goodman’s inspiring speech. I had seen her introduce Chomsky last week, and was left a little bummed out by his talk since it was blow after blow of what’s broken in the world, with very little vision, and no call to action. You don’t hear too many female preachers, but Goodman has really mastered an hypnotic cadence – speeding up to fit in alot of ideas, but slowing down for emphasis.  Her soundbytes are eminently tweetable (twitter essentially  replaced irc at this conference, and there was an incredibly active backchannel around the #openvideo tag/frequency/channel).

Benkler also opened with fresh material – he has clearly been thinking about journalism in the wake of this year’s collapses (and maybe even our CDPC conference?). It is amusing to think that between Benkler and Moglen (and his metaphorical corollary to Faraday’s law), it might be the sociologically-inclined lawyers who arrive at a theory of creativity (instead of the cognitive scientists).  And Zittrain covered for the missing Clay Shirky, and pulled of a funny and intelligent talk.

Many other highlights which I hope to curate once the video is all posted and I have a chance to decompress. I know I should have gone to more talks that I didn’t belong at, but I kept getting pulled in to great conversations…

Kudos to the organizers for pulling off a small miracle. I’ve been to many conferences that cost hundreds of dollars to attend, and don’t even offer lunch.  They managed to pull off a beautiful space, food, and even video djs and an open bar.

I wonder to what degree freeculture’s networked proximity to techies and lawyers simplifies some of the logistical nightmares that often plague organizers. It just sems like they are able to organize with relative ease, as the communications media and social capital are intuitive and readily available. Good thing for everyone they are using their super-powers for the greater good 😉

In terms of the longer term, they were consciously trying to create something bigger than a one time event. I was impressed at the purposeful scaffolding of the infrastructure meant to sustain this conversation now that conference is over.  Many gatherings only figure out at the event that they want to keep talking afterwards.  THe OVC crew did a great job of setting up, and using a wiki, and some sensibly divided mailing lists to seed a healthy after-party.

Herding Anarchists

Anarchy in the UKThere is a fascinating culture emerging around distributed version control systems (DVCS), facilitated by software, but responding to (and suggesting) shifts in collaboration styles. It is very easy to imagine these practices percolating through other areas of information production.

I am still a bit new to distributed versioning, but a primary difference between distributed versioning and traditional centralized versioning is how easy/hard it is for an outsider to contribute ideas/expressions/work back to the project. Part of what makes this all work smoothly are very good tools to help merge disparate branches of work – it sounds chaotic and unmanageable, but so did concurrent version control when it first became popular (that is, allowing multiple people to check out the same file at the same time, instead of locking it for others while one person was working on it).

This post, Sharing Code, for What its Worth, does a great job explaining some of the advantages of distributed version control systems. Sometimes you just want to share/publish your work, not start a social movement. Sometimes you want to contribute back to a project w/out going through masonic hazing rituals. DVCS facilitates these interactions, far more easily than traditional centralized/hierarchical version control systems.

Wikipedia runs on a centralized version control system, but the Linux Kernel is developed on DVCS (as Linus Trovalds explains/insists himself here). We are just starting to use github at work, and I have watched it increase the joy of sharing – reducing the disciplined overhead of perfecting software for an imagined speculative use and coordinating networks of trusted contributors. The practice really emphasizes the efficient laziness of agile programming, and helps you concentrate on what you need now, not what you think you might need later.

In some ways, this style of collaboration is more free-loving than an anonymously editable wiki, since all versions of the code can simultaneously exist – almost in a state of superposition. However, there is a hidden accumulation of technical debt that accrues the longer you put of combining different branches of work. And, sometimes you may actually want to start a community or social movement around your software, which is still possible, but is now decoupled and needs to be managed carefully.

I think we can start to see hints of this approach breaking free from the software development world in this recent piece of intention-ware described in Crowdsourcing the Filter.  (I met some of the Ushahidi team earlier this year –  -and was impressed by how competent and grounded they seemed – tempering both the hype and nostalgia). As Benkler has argued, ranking and filtering is itself just another information good, and amenable to peer production, but the best ways of organizing and coordinating – distributing and then reassebling – this production, still need to be worked out.

Giving Chickens Microphones

By now you may have heard of the innovative citizen-driven election monitoring system, Twitter Voter Report (they are getting great press cycles, with purportedly more to come).  I actually wrote up and submitted the post that appears on infosthetics.com, a wonderful blog that tracks innovations in data visualization.

This projects represents a really innovative use of Twitter as a “just-add-water” (gratis, but not truly free) infrastructure for distributed structured-data collection. It reminded me of a free platform a group at  UNICEF is building to collect distributed structured-data in the third world (for places w/out easy access to the internet, but with cellular connectivity) –  RapidSMS.

Imagine how many millions of dollars the government would have spent to build a cell-phone enabled election monitoring system (that likely wouldn’t work). Instead, a group of volunteer activists, weaned on the open-source, do-it-yourself culture of code jams, shared repositories, and issue trackers, decided less than a month ago that they could build this themselves on a shoestring.

This is definitely a big deal, and relates closely to a new tier of participatory media which I began to describe at my talk at CCNMTL’s New Media in Education conference this month. It also has everything in the world to do with the TagMaps tool I wrote about last November in my post Crowded Wisdom. Systems are coming online which are helping us synthesize vast volumes of tiny fragments of information into meaningful knowledge.

Twitter Vote Report allows anyone to report voter suppression, and problems with specific voting machines, but it support tracking wait times, which will be aggregated and mapped on the website.

Previously, when a voter had a complaint, he had to go through election officials who might have little incentive to admit a mistake – what tech executive Logan calls “a fox guarding the chickens” scenario.

“What this technology does,” he says, “is give the chickens a microphone.” [Baltimore Sun]

Finally, while we are on the topic, this was a great letter to the next president on what he can/should do with technology. How will President Obama utilize the historically unprecedented social networks he mobilized during his campaign?

Dear Mr. Tech President

For more information on Twitter Vote Report see their press page.

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.

Mirror, Mirror On the Screen

It’s been a few weeks since I first started experimenting with the Play As Being practice, and ventured into Second Life. I continue to appreciate the performative brilliance of utilizing Second Life as a means to study the nature of consciousness, being, and reality. I am starting to imagine a metaphysical syllabus that incorporates virtual world immersion as an instrument for laying bare the everyday assumptions we make about consensual reality.

While I am learning something about myself as I project my identity into my avatar (its almost impossible not to, as veteran SL’ers will attest), I am also learning more about this world, and its seductive attraction. Lots of Second Lifers believe that Second Life is just as real as Real Life (which, for mystics might just mean that both are illusory), but I lean more towards the cautious opinion that Second Life is a mirror, albeit one with a great deal of depth.

Mirrors are quite magical and wonderful (7 years of altered luck, and all that). They can be used to see far and deep — think reflecting telescopes or the michaelson-morely experiments — but they have also trapped a fair share of narcissuses in their alluring reflections. So does SL represent the vanity of vanities? Maybe not, but considering that the energy consumption of a typical SL avatar now exceeds the energy consumption of an average real world brazillian, it is important that folks consider their time in SL well spent.

One upside of my recent journeys is that I now appreciate the research going on in this area much better. Here are two pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Ed reporting on research going on at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interactions Lab:

The claim that a user’s avatar imprints so strongly on their psyche is much easier for me to understand after spending some time in Second Life. I would have been far more skeptical of these findings if I hadn’t experienced the power of this medium first hand.

These findings and experiences really helped me imagine the potential impact of projects like Virtual Guantanamo (which I haven’t personally visited yet). I can say, that when I stumbled across the Virtual World Trade Center I found the location distinctly eerie and spooky. Apparently I’m not alone, as the virtual storefronts on the groundfloor are vacant here too. And, as I learned recently at a symposium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SL is an ideal environment for teaching fashion and design. While SL has its share of casinos and lap dances, places like Rieul’s Zen Garden and the Interfaith Gardens show a real diversity of interest, consistent with the proposition of SL as a mirror.

As for the core experiment, sprinkling the pixie dust of reflection and contemplation throughout my day, I continue to be impressed by how malleable my awareness can be. In Pema’s words: “repetition is a powerful thing.” Over the past few weeks I have also enjoyed poking holes in reality while at the movies and travelling to foreign countries. Ideas we have been repeating and playing with regularly in Dakini’s lovely Rieul teahouse.

Jingles, Mantras, and Catch Phrases

play as beingWell, I’m on day four of our experiment with Play as Being, and have noticed subtle changes in my mood, disposition, and preoccupations. I really like the rhythm of this discipline – in Piet/Parma‘s words, this practice is an experiment in trading off duration for frequency.

Between work and school I haven’t managed to carve out significant stretches of meditative duration the past few years, but the gentle, persistent redirection of my attention is somehow more manageable, and showing positive traces. I am more confident in my decision making, better at recognizing and balancing desire and self-control, and spending more time thinking about abstract concepts and questions.

I have been very excited about this adventure, though I have self-censored and tempered my enthusiasm since I continue to be wary of the seductive siren’s song in the aesthetics of an unfamiliar media. I love learning and experiencing new things, but I sometimes have a tendency to go overboard, so I am trying to take things slow (I put myself in a lower tax bracket than my 1% cohorts – I only pause hourly, and drop by the tea house once every day or two).

With the help of a new friend that I met at PyCon, who coincidentally works at Second Life, I am appreciating the value of this type of practice in the interest of cultivating a non-judgemental awareness. Could the mainstreaming of experiences like these become the catalyst for a widespread shift in consciousness?

On the cognitive/phenomenal front, I crossed a threshold yesterday and actually experienced some SL memories. Unlike the afterimages (like after a day of playing tetris or picking mellons), these memories had a different quality. And, unlike trying to remember which page I read a story on the 2D web, these memories were vivid and real. I am realizing the ways in which an environment like this hacks my perceptual system, tuned over millennia of evolution to respond to faces and places.

This riff has me thinking alot about neural hacking, and the ways in which we all can begin to deliberately program and alter our habits and patterns of perception and interpretation (errr, I guess some people probably just call that learning 😉 ... however, the metaphor of software has perhaps pushed our understanding of flexibility and malleability farther than ever: e.g. Mind Hacks and Your Brain: The Missing Manual). I think I can make a good argument that the safest and most effective way to reprogram our consciousness is through the natural interfaces that our mind provides – namely, our natural senses.

Contrast this approach with the crude and barbaric attempts to modify mood and behaviour through pharmaceuticals. And compare this approach to the Mind Habbits “game”, which begins with the design question “Can we design an interactive multimedia experience designed to make people feel better?”

My work and studies have been conditioning me to be more deliberate and purposeful in my use and design of technology. Second Life continues to present affordances and opportunities for learning and growth, but I still haven’t heard that many stories of this kind of targeted exploration, which specifically leverage’s the unique advantages of an immersive experience. There must be conversations like this happening in serious gaming circles, though in many ways, this project demonstrates that it isn’t the game that needs to be serious, rather the attitude, approach, and context that the participants bring to the table.

Finally, here is an enumeration of some of the networks of concepts that this project has activated for me:

Quite a fun web of ideas to be snared in.

/play as being

Feeling the Sqeeze

Contrary to some of the disappointment chatter slithering around the blab-o-sphere, I had a phenomenal time at PyCon ’08. While it is obvious that the conference (not the language 😉 ) had some scaling problems this year, I am confident that our community is self-reflective and humble enough to constructively digest this feedback and heal itself.

This year’s conference had over 1k attendees (up from last year’s ~400), including 270+ sprinters who coded throughout the following week. The attendance, as well as the sponsorship exceeded all expectations, and there was a bit of awkwardness around the feeling that attendees captive attention was for sale. I thought the keynotes were solid, though a clearer system for indicating sponsorship will help next year. Lighting talks, usually my hands-down favorite, were a bit of a disaster – sponsors (many with nothing more to contribute than a hiring announcement) were promised priority and on Saturday some attendees were bumped off the schedule. I would also have appreciated a really inspirational keynote speaker, as well as additional efforts to raise awareness around the range of social justice issues our craft impacts.

For me, this conference provided an opportunity to cut through traditional hierarchical communication channels and interact directly with senior developers across a wide variety of sectors. I spoke to people working in leading organizations servicing education, libraries, non-profits, journalism, scientific computing, desktop computing, mobile computing, embedded computing, enterprise consulting, interactive marketing, entertainment, defence, gaming, and many more. I spoke to systems administrators, language designers, programmers, architects, computer scientists, project managers, educators, and entrepreneurs. And all of this diversity was united by the common programming language we all use and love – Python.

Python, the language, is itself open-source, and many projects written using python are free and open as well. The language, and its surrounding ecology has a distinct personality, and some of its normative values (at least its aesthetic ones) are captured in these principles, known as The Zen of Python. Approaching this conference from the sociological vantage point of a freshman doctoral student in communications, I certainly paid more attention to the reinforcement of cultural practices at this gathering than I used to. Many of the talks actively encouraged respect, sharing, playing nicely, and coding responsibly. In some cases these topics were the topic of the talk, not even the subtext.

But the best part certainly had to be catching up with old friends and making new ones. For those of you that don’t know developers well, our craft involves the invention of the prototypical abstractions, the perpetual refinement of analytical distinctions, and the endless quest for their elegant synthesis. It only takes the slightest verbal nudge to shift the conversation to a metaphysical or theological domain, brining to bear the full brunt of these analytical methods on age-old questions. Maybe its just the developers I hang out with, but they are unquestionably a wise and philosophically-minded bunch.

They also tend to love technology, python or otherwise, and are an incredible source to tap into for discussing and speculating emerging trends – from storage to cloud computing, from the browser wars to singularities, this crowd has knowledgeable opinions on them all.

And as for the future of Python… well, I know that every year for the past ten have been the year of the linux desktop, but Python is incredibly positioned right now. There aren’t really that many contenders poised to displace Java, like Java displaced C/C++ (or Cobol, in the enterprise), but Python is going strong. From Sun’s and Microsoft’s very serious commitments to jython and IronPython, to Google and NASA’s commitment to Python, to MIT’s recent selection of Python as the language that CS 101 is taught in (and a robust educational community w/in the Python world) , we better figure this conf scaling thing out quickly, because next year is sure to be even bigger.

Nostalgia Train

nostalgia_train.jpgYesterday I took a ride on the the S train – not the shuttle, the special. The MTA conducted a vintage run of some 1930s trains this month, including many of the original advertisements and maps.

Amazingly, these trains were not replaced until the late 70s… I must have ridden on some of these as a child. I definitely remember the lights flickering on and off and the wicker seats.

More pictures here.

Pedagogical Sofware

Literally. See my post on The Plone Blog:

Plone University

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