Category Archives: Framing

The natural logistics of life: The Internet really changes almost nothing

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Cover of "You've Got Mail"

Cover of You've Got Mail

This is a post that has been germinating for a long time. But it was most immediately inspired by Marshall Poe‘s article claiming that “The Internet Changes Nothing“. And as it turns out, I mostly agree.

OK, this may sound a bit paradoxical. Twelve years ago, when I submitted my first column to be published, I delivered the text to my editor on a diskette. Now, I don’t even have an editor (or at least not for this kind of writing). I just click a button and my text is published. But! If my server logs are to be trusted, it will be read by 10s or at best 100s of people over its lifetime. That’s more than if I’d just written some notes to myself or published it in an academic journal but much less than if I publish it in a national daily with a readership of hundreds of thousands. Not all of them will read what I write but more than would on this blog.
So while democratising the publishing industry has worked for Kos, Huffington and many others, still many more blogs languish in obscurity. I can say anything I want but my voice matters little in the cacophony.

In terms of addressing an audience and having a voice, the internet has done little for most people. This is not because not enough people have enough to say but because there’s only so much content the world can consume. There is a much longer tail trailing behind Clay Shirkey‘s long tail. It’s the tail of 5-post 0-comment blogs and YouTube videos with 15 views. Even millions of typewriter-equipped monkeys with infinities of time can’t get to them all. Plus it’s hard to predict what will be popular (although educated guesses can produce results in aggregate). Years ago I took a short clip with my stills camera of a black-smith friend of mine making a candle-holder. It’s had 30 thousand views on YouTube. Why I don’t know. There’s nothing particularly exciting about it but there must be some sort of a long tail longing after it. None of the videos I hoped would take off did. This is the experience of many if not most. Most attempts at communities fail because the people starting them don’t realize how hard it is to nurture them to self-sustainability. I experienced this with my first site Bohemica.com. It got off to a really good start but since it was never my primary focus, the community kind of dissipated after a site redesign that was intended to foster it.

Just in terms of complete democratization of expression, the internet has done less for most than it may appear. But how about the speed of communication? I’m getting ready to do an interview with someone in the US, record it, transcribe it and translate it – all within a few days. The Internet (or more accurately Skype) makes the calling cheap, the recording and transcription is made much quicker by tools I didn’t have access to even in the early 2000s when I was doing interviews. And of course, I can get the published product to my editor in minutes via email. But what hasn’t changed is the process. The interview, transcription and translation take pretty much the same amount of time. The work of agreeing with the editor on the parameters of the interview, arranging it with the interviewee take pretty much as long as before. As does preparation for the interview. The only difference is the speed and ease of the transport of information from me to its target and me to the information. It’s faster to get to the research subject – but the actual research still takes about the same amount of time limited by the speed of my reading and the speed of my mind.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And as long as humans are a part of the interface in a communication chain, the communication will happen at a human speed. I remember sitting over a print out of an obscure 1848 article on education from Jstor with an academic who started doing research in the 1970s and reminiscing how in the old days, he’d have to get on the train to London to get a thing like this in the British Library or at least having to arrange a protracted interlibrary loan. On reflection this is not as radical a change as it may seem. Sure, the information takes longer to get here. But people before the internet didn’t just sit around waiting for it. They had other stuff to read (there’s always more stuff to read than time) and writing to get on with in the meantime. I don’t remember anyone claiming that modern scholarship is any better than scholarship from the 1950s because we can get information faster. I’m as much in awe of some of the accomplishments of the scholars of the 1930s as people doing research now. And just as disdainful of others from any period. When reading a piece of scholarly work, I never care about the logistics of the flow of information that was necessary for the work to be completed (unless of course, it impinges on the methodology – where moderns scholars are just as likely to take preposterous shortcuts as ancient ones). During the recent Darwin frenzy, we heard a lot about how he was the communication hub of his time. He was constantly sending and receiving letters. Today, he’d have Twitter and a blog. Would he somehow achieve more? No, he’d still have to read all those research reports and piddle about with his worms. And it’s just as likely he’d miss that famous letter from Brno.

Of course, another fallacy we like to commit is assuming that communication in the past was simply communication today minus the internet (or telephone, or name your invention). But that’s nonsense. I always like to remind people that the “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet and fall in love online is a remake of a 1940s film where the protagonists sent each other letters. But these often arrived the same day (particularly in the same city). There were many more messenger services, pneumatic tubes, and a reliable postal service. As the Internet takes over the burden of information transmission, these are either disappearing or deteriorating but that doesn’t mean that’s the state they were in when they were the chief means of information transmission. Before there were photocopiers and faxes, there were copyists and messengers (and both were pretty damn fast). Who even sends faxes now? We like to claim we get more done with the internet but take just one step back and this claim looses much of its appeal. Sure there are things we can do now that we couldn’t do before like attend a virtual conference or a webinar. That’s true and it’s really great. But what would have the us of the 1980s have done? No doubt something very similar like buying video tapes of lectures or attending Open Universities. And the us of the 1960s? Correspondence courses and pirate radio stations. We would have had far less choice but our human endeavor would have been roughly the same. The us of 1930s, 1730s or 330s? That’s a more interesting question but nobody’s claiming that the internet changed the us of those times. We mostly think of the Internet as changing the human condition as compared to the 1960s or 1980s. And there the technology changes have far outstripped the changes in human activity.

If it’s not true that the internet has enabled us to get things done in a qualitatively different manner on a personal level, it’s even less true that it has made a difference at the level of society. There are simply so many things involved and they take so much time because humans and human institutions were involved. Let’s take the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 in which I was an eager if extremely marginal participant. On Friday, November 17 a bunch of protesters got roughed up, on November 27, a general strike was held and on December 10, the president resigned. In Egypt, the demonstrations started on January 25, lots of stuff happened, on February 11 the president resigned. The Egyptians have the Czechs beat in their demonstration to resignation time by 5 days (17 v 23). This was the “Twitter” revolution. We didn’t even have mobile phones. Actually, we mostly even didn’t have phones. Is that what all this new global infrastructure has gotten us? Five days off on the toppling of a dictator? Of course, not. Twitter made no difference to what was happening in Egypt, at all, when compared to other revolutoin. If anything Al Jazeera played a bigger role. But on the ground, most people found out about things by being told by someone next to them. Just like we did. We even managed to let the international media up to speed pretty quickly, which could be argued is the main thing Twitter has done in the “Arab Spring” (hey another thing the Czechs did and failed at).

Malcolm Gladwell got a lot of criticism for pointing out the same thing. But he’s absolutely right:

“high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html

And while these ties can be established and maintained purely virtually, it takes a lot more than a few tweets to get people moving. Adam Weinstein adds to Gladwell’s example:

Anyone who lived through 1989 or the civil rights era or 1967 or 1956 knows that media technology is not a motive force for civil disobedience. Arguing otherwise is not just silly; it’s a distraction from the real human forces at play here.
http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/02/malcolm-gladwell-tackles-egypt-twitter

Revolutions simply take their time. On paper, the Russian October Revolution of 1917 took just a day to topple the regime (as did so many others). But there were a bunch of unsuccessful revolutions prior to that and of course a bloody civil war lasting for years following. To fully institutionalize its aims, the Russian revolution could be said to have taken decades and millions dead. Even in ancient times, sometimes things moved very quickly (and always more messily than we can retell the story). The point about revolutions and wars is that they don’t move at the speed of information but at the speed of a fast walking revolutionary or soldier. Ultimately, someone has to sit in the seat where the buck stops, and they can only get there so fast even with jets, helicopters and fast cars. Such are the natural logistics of human communal life.

This doesn’t mean that there the speed or manner of communication doesn’t have some implications where logistics are concerned. But their impact is surprisingly small and easily absorbed by the larger concerns. In the Victorian Internet, Tom Standage describes how war ship manifests could no longer be published in The Times during the Crimean war because they could be telegraphed to the enemy faster than the ships would get there (whereas in the past, a spy’s message would be no faster than the actual ships). Also, betting and other financial establishments had to make adjustments not to get the speed of information get in the way of making profit. But if we compare the 1929 financial crisis with the one in 2008, we see that the speed of communication made little difference on the overall medium-term shape of the economy. Even though in 2008 we were getting up to the second information about the falling banking houses, the key decisions about support or otherwise took about the same amount of time (days). Sure, some stock trading is now done to the fraction of the second by computers because humans simply aren’t fast enough. But the economy still moves at about the same pace – the pace of lots and lots of humans shuffling about through their lives.

As I said at the start, although this post has been brewing in me for a while, it was most immediately inspired by that of Marshall Poe (of New Books in History) published about 6 months ago. What he said got no less relevant through the passage of time.

Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet. Not what you could do, but what you actually do. You email people you know. In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t. You read the news. You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t. You watch videos. There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats. You buy things. Every store in the world has a website, so you could buy all manner of exotic goods. As a rule, however, you buy the things you have always bought from the people who have always sold them.

This is easy to forget. We call online shopping and food delivery a great achievement. But having shopping delivered was always an option in the past (and much more common than now when delivery boys are more expensive). Amazon is amazing but still just a glorified catalog.

But there are revolutionary inventions that nobody even notices. What about the invention of the space between words? None of the ancients bothered to put spaces between words or in general read silently. It has been estimated that putting spaces between words not only allowed for silent reading (a highly suspicious activity until the 1700s) but also sped up reading by about 30%. Talk about a revolution! I’m a bit skeptical about the 30% number but still nobody talks about it. We think about audio books as an post-Eddison innovation but in fact, all reading was partly listening not too long ago. Another forgotten invention is that of the blackboard which made large-volume dissemination of information much more feasible through a simple reconfiguration of space and attention between pupil and teacher.

Visualization of the various routes through a ...

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David Weinberger recently wrote what was essentially a poem about the hypertext (a buzz word I haven’t heard for a while):

The old institutions were more fragile than we let ourselves believe. They were fragile because they made the world small. A bigger truth burst them. The world is more like a messy, inconsistent, ever-changing web than like a curated set of careful writings. Truth burst the world made of atoms.

Yes, there is infinite space on the Web for lies. Nevertheless, the Web’s architecture is a better reflection of our human architecture. We embraced as if it were always true, and as if we had known it all along, because it is and we did.
http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2011/05/01/a-big-question

It is remarkable how right and wrong he can be at the same time. Yes, the web is more of a replication of the human architecture. It has some notable strengths (lack of geographic limitation, speed of delivery of information) and weaknesses (no internal methods for exchange of tangible goods, relatively limited methods for synchronous face-to-face communication.) I’d even go as far as calling the Internet “computer-assissted humanity”. But that just means that nothing about human organization online is a radical transformation of humanity offline.

What on Earth makes Weinberger think that the “existing institutions were fragile”? If anything they proved extremely robust. I find The Cluetrain Manifesto extremely inspiring and in many ways moving. But I find “The Communist Manifesto” equally profound without wanting to live in a world governed by it. The “The Communist Manifesto” got the description of the world as it is perfectly right. Pretty much every other paragraph in it applies just as much today as it did then. But the predictions offered in the other paragraphs can really cause nothing but laughter today. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” gave the same kind of expression to the frustration with the Dilbert world of big corporations and asked for our humanity back. They were absolutely right.

Markets can be looked at as conversations and the internet can facilitate certain kinds of conversation. But they were wrong in assuming that there is just one kind of conversation. There are all sorts of group symbolic and ritualized conversations that make the world of humans go around. And they have never been limited just to the local markets. In practical terms, I can now complain about a company on a blog or in a tweet. And these can be viewed by others. But since there’s an Xsuckx.com website for pretty much all major brands, the incentive for companies to be responsive to this are relatively small. I have actually received some response to complaints from companies on Twitter. But only once it led to the resolution of the problem. But Twitter is still a domain of “the elite” so it pays companies to appease people. However, should it reach the level of ubiquitous obscurity that many pages have, it will become even less appealing due to the lack of permanence of Tweets.

The problem is that large companies with large numbers of customers can only scale if they keep their interaction with those customers at certain levels. It was always thus and will always remain so. Not because of intrinsic attitudes but because of configurational limitations of time and human attention. Even the industrially oppressed call-center operator can only deal with about 10 customers an hour. So you have to work in some 80/20 cost checks into customer support. Most of any company’s interaction with their customers will be one to many and not on one on one. (And this incidentally holds for communications about the company by customers).

There’s a genre of conversations in the business and IT communities that focus on ‘why is X’ successful. Ford of the 1920s, IBM of the 1960s, Apple of the 2000s. The constant in these conversations is the wilful effort of projecting the current convetnional wisdom about business practices onto what companies do and used to do. This often requires significant reimagining of the present and the past. Leo Laporte and Paul Thurott recently had a conversation (http://twit.tv/ww207) in which they were convinced that companies that interact and engage with their customers will be successful. But why then, one of them asks, is not Microsoft whose employees blog all the time is not more successful than Apple who couldn’t be more tightlipped about its processes and whose attitude to customers is very much take it or leave it? Maybe it’s the Apple Store, one of them comments. That must be it. That engages the crap out of the Apple’s customers. But neither of them asked what is the problem with traditional stores, then? What is the point of the internet. The problem is that as with any metaphoric projection, the customer engagement metaphor is just partial. It’s more a way for us to grasp with processes that are fairly stable at the macro institutional level (which is the one I’m addressing here), but basically chaotic at the level of individual companies or even industries.

So I agree with Marshall Poe about the amount of transformation going on:

As for transformative, the evidence is thin. The basic institutions of modern society in the developed world—representative democracy, regulated capitalism, the welfare net, cultural liberalism—have not changed much since the introduction of the Internet. The big picture now looks a lot like the big picture then.

Based on my points above, I would even go as far as to argue that the basic institutions have not changed at all. Sure, foreign ministries now give advisories online, taxes can be paid electronically and there are new agencies that regulate online communication (ICANN) as well as old ones with new responsibilities. But as we read the daily news, can we perceive any new realities taking place? New political arrangements based on this new and wonderful thing called the Internet? No. If you read a good spy thriller from the 80s and one taking place now, you can hardly tell the difference. They may have been using payphones instead of the always on mobile smart devices we have now but the events still unfold in pretty much the same way: people go from place to place and do things.

Writing, print, and electronic communications—the three major media that preceded the Internet—did not change the big picture very much. Rather, they were brought into being by major historical trends that were already well underway, they amplified things that were already going on.

Exactly! If you read about the adventures of Sinuhe, it doesn’t seem that different from something written by Karl May or Tom Clancy. Things were happening as they were and whatever technology was available to be used, was used as well as possible. Remember that the telephone was originally envisioned to be a way of attending the opera – people calling in to a performance instead of attending live.

As a result, many things that happened could not have happened exactly in the same way without the tools of the age being there. The 2001 portion of the war in Afghanistan certainly would have looked different without precision bombing. But now in 2011 it seems to be playing out pretty much along the same lines experienced by the Brits and the Soviets. Meaning: it’s going badly.

The role of TV imagery in the ending of the Vietnam war is often remarked on. But that’s just coincidental. There have been plenty of unpopular wars that were ended because the population refused to support them and they were going nowhere. Long before the “free press”, the First Punic Wars were getting a bad rep at home. Sure, the government could have done a better job of lying to the press and its population but that’s hard to do when you have a draft. It didn’t work for Ramses II when he got his ass handed to him at Kadesh and didn’t ultimately work for the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan. The impact of the impact of the TV images can easily be overestimated. The My Lai Massacre happened in 1968 when the war was about in its mid-point. It still took 2 presidential elections and 1 resignation before it was really over. It played a role but if the government wanted, it could have kept the war going.

Communications tools are not “media” in the sense we normally use the word. A stylus is not a scriptorium, movable type is not a publishing industry, and a wireless set is not a radio network. In order for media technologies to become full-fledged media, they need to respond to some big-picture demand.

It is so easy to confuse the technology with the message. On brief reflection, the McLuhan quote we all keep repeating like sheep is really stupid. The medium is the medium and the message is the message. Sometimes they are so firmly paired we can’t tell them apart, sometimes they have nothing in common. What is the medium of this message? HTML, the browser, your screen, a blog post, the Internet, TCP/IP, ehternet? They’re all involved in the transmission. We can choose whether we pay attention to some of them. If I’d posted somebody a parchment with this on it, it would certainly add to the message or become a part of it. But it still wouldn’t BE the message! Lots of artists like Apollinaire and his calligrams actually tried to blend the message and the medium in all sorts of interesting ways. But it was hard work. Leo Laporte (whose podcasts I enjoy listening to greatly) spent a lot of time trying to displace podcast with netcast to avoid an association with the medium. He claimed that his shows are not ‘podcasts’ but ‘shows’, i.e. real content. Of course, he somehow missed the fact that we don’t listen to programs but to the radio and don’t view drama but rather watch TV. The modes of transmission have always been associated with the message – including the word “show” – until they weren’t. We don’t mean anything special now when we say we ‘watch TV’.

Of course, the mode of transmission has changed how the “story” is told. Every new medium has always first tried to emulate the one it was replacing but ultimately found its own way of expression. But this is no different to other changes in styles. The impressionists were still using the same kinds of paints and canvasses, and modernist writers the same kind of inks and books. Every message exists in a huge amount of context and we can choose which of it we pay attention to at any one time. Sometimes the medium becomes a part of the context, sometimes it’s something else. Get over it!

There are some things Marshall Poe says I don’t agree with. I don’t think we need to reduce everything to commerce (as he does – perhaps having imbibed too much of Marxist historiography). But most importantly I don’t agree when he says that the Internet is mature in the same way that TV was mature in the 1970s. Technologies take different amounts of time to mature as widespread consumer utilities. It is always on the order of decades and sometimes centuries but there is no set trajectory. TV took less time than cars, planes took longer than TV, cars took longer than the Internet. (All depending on how we define mature – I’m mostly talking about wide consumer use – i.e. when only oddballs don’t use it and access is not disproportionately limited by socioeconomic status). The problem with the Internet is that there are still enough people who don’t use it and/or who can’t access it. In the 1970s, the majority had TVs or radios which were pretty much equivalent as a means of access to information and entertainment. TV was everywhere but as late as the 1980s, the BBC produced radio versions of its popular TV shows (Dad’s Army, All Gas and Gaiters, etc.) The radio performance of Star Wars was a pretty big deal in the mid-80s.

There is no such alternative access to the Internet. Sure, there are TV shows that play YouTube clips and infomercials that let you buy things. But it’s not the experience of the internet – more like a report on what’s on the Internet.

Even people who did not have TVs in the 1970s (both globally and nationally) could readily understand everything about their operation (later jokes about programing VCRs aside). You pushed a button and all there was to TV was there. Nothing was hiding. Nothing was trying to ambush you. People had to get used to the idiom of the TV, learn to trust some things and not others (like advertising). But the learning curve was flat.

The internet is more like cars. When you get in one, you need to learn lots of things from rules of manipulation to rules of the road. Not just how to deal with the machinery but also how to deal with others using the same machinery. The early cars were a tinkerer’s device. You had to know a lot about cars to use cars. And then at some point, you just got in and drove. At the moment, you still have to know a lot about the internet to use it. Search engines, Facebook, the rules of Twitter, scams, viruses. That intimidates a lot of people. But less so now than 10 years ago. Navigating the Internet needs to become as socially common place as navigating traffic in the street. It’s very close. But we’re not quite there yet on the mass level.

Nor do I believe that the business models on the Internet are as settled as they were with TV in the 1970s. Least of all the advertising model. Amazon’s, Google’s and Apple’s models are done – subject to normal developments. But online media are still struggling as are online services.

We will also see significant changes with access to the Internet going mobile as well as the increasing speed of access. There are still some possible transformations hiding there – mostly around video delivery and hyper-local services. I’d give it another 10 years (20 globally). By then the use of the internet will be a part of everyday idiom in a way that it’s still quite not now (although it is more than in 2001). But I don’t think the progress will go unchecked. The prospect of flying cars ran into severe limitations of technology and humanity. After 2021, I would expect the internet to continue changing under the hood (just like cars have since the 1960s) but not much in the way of its human interface (just like cars since the 1960s).

There are still many things that need working out. The role of social media (like YouTube) and social networking (like Facebook). Will they put a layer on top of the internet or just continue being a place on the internet? And what business models other than advertising and in-game purchases will emerge? Maybe none. But I suspect that the Internet has about a decade of maturing to get to where it will be recognisable in 2111. Today, cars from the 1930s don’t quite look like cars but those from the 1960s do. In this respect, I’d say the internet is somewhere in the 1940s or 50s. Both in usability, ubiquity, accessibility and it’s overall shape.

The most worrying thing about the future of the internet is a potential fight over the online commons. One possible development is that significant parts of the online space will become proprietary with no rights of way. This is not just net-neutrality but a possible consequence of the lack of it. It is possible that in the future so many people will only access the online space to take advantage of proprietary services tied to their connection provider that they may not even notice that at first some and later on most non-proprietary portions of the internet are no longer accessible. It feels almost unimaginable now but I’m sure people in 16th century East Anglia never thought their grazing commons would disappear (http://www.eh-resources.org/podcast/podcast2010.html). I’m not suggesting that this is a necessary development. Only that it is a configurational possibility.

As I’m writing this. A Tweet just popped up on my screen mentioning another shock in Almaty a place where I spent a chunk of time and where a friend of mine is about to take up a two-year post. I switch over to Google and find out no reports of destruction. If not for Twitter, I may not have even heard about it. I go on Twitter and see people joking about it in Russian. I sort of do my own journalism for a few minutes gathering sources. How could I still claim that the Internet changes nothing? Well, I did say “almost”. Actually, for many individuals the Internet changes everything. They (like me) get to do jobs they wouldn’t, find out things they couldn’t and talk to people they shouldn’t. But it doesn’t change (or even augment) our basic flesh-bound humanity. Sure, I know about something that happened somewhere I care about that I otherwise wouldn’t. But there’s nothing more I can do about it. I did my own news gathering about as fast as it would have taken to listen to a BBC report on this (I’ve never had a TV and now only listen to live radio in the mornings.) I can see some scenarios where the speed would be beneficial but when the speed is not possible we adjust our expectations. I first visited Kazakhstan in 1995 and although I had access to company email, my mother knew about what was happening at the speed of a postcard. And just the year before during my visit to Russia, I got to send a few telegrams. You work with what you have.

All the same, the internet has changed the direction my life has taken since about 1998. It allowed me to fulfil my childhood dream of sailing on the Norfolk Broads, just yesterday it helped me learn a great new blues lick on the guitar. It gives me reading materials, a place to share my writing, brings me closer to people I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. It gives me podcasts like the amazing New Books in History or China History podcast! I love the internet! But when I think about my life before the internet, I don’t feel it was radically different. I can point at a lot of individual differences but I don’t have a sense of a pre-Internet me and post-Internet me. And equally I don’t think there will be a pre-Internet and post-Internet humanity. One of the markers of the industrial revolution is said to be its radical transformation of the shape of things. So much so that a person of 1750 would still recognize the shape of the country in 1500 but a person in 1850 would no longer see them the same. I wonder if this is a bit too simplistic. I think we need to bring more rigor to the investigation of human contextual identity and embeddedness in the environment. But that is outside the scope of this essay.

It is too tempting to use technologies as a metaphor for expressing our aspirations. We do (and have always done) this through poetry, polemic, and prose. Our depictions of what we imagine the Internet society is like appear in lengthy essays or chance remarks. They are carried even in tiny words like “now” when judiciously deployed. But sadly exactly the same aspirations of freedom and universal sisterhood were attached to all the preceding communication technologies, as well: print, telegraph, or the TV. Our aspirations aren’t new. Our attachment to projecting these aspiration into the world around us is likewise ancient. Even automatised factory production has been hailed by poets as beautiful. And it is. We always live in the future just about to come with regrets about the past that has never been. But our prosaic present seems never to really change who we are. Humans for better or worse.

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Poetry without metaphor? Sure but can it darn your socks?

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Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang dynasty, in ...

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Over on the Language Log, Victor Mair puts to rest that all English expressions have to be tensed and thus prevent timeless poetry. He shares his translation of a 13th century Chinese poet thus:

Autumn Thoughts by Ma Zhiyuan

Withered wisteria, old tree, darkling crows –
Little bridge over flowing water by someone’s house –
Emaciated horse on an ancient road in the western wind –
Evening sun setting in the west –
Broken-hearted man on the horizon.

And indeed, he is right. The poem exudes timelessness (if a lack of something can be exuded). It is more difficult for some languages than others to avoid certain grammatical commitments (like gender or number) which makes translation more difficult but there’s always a way.

What struck me about the poem was something different. It is so rich in imagery and yet so poor in figurative language . This is by no means unique but worth a note. In fact, there is no figurative language there at all if we discount such foundational figures as “sun setting in the West”, “broken-hearted” or “man on the horizon”. In fact, had I not known this was a Chinese poem, I could have easily believed it was a description of 17th century Dutch master‘s painting or even something by Constable.

But of course, the conceptual work we’re doing while reading this poem is not that different from the work we would do if it was full of metaphor. I’m working on a post of how adjectives and predicates are really very similar to metaphors and this is one example that illustrates the point. In order to appreciate this poem, we have to construct a series of fairly rich images and then we have to blend them with each other to place them in the same place.  We have to interpret “the broken hearted man on the horizon” is it just another image, the poet or ourselves? In other words, we have to map from the image presented by the poem to the images available to us by our experience. Which, in short, is the same work we have to do when interpreting metaphors and similies.  But the title is the clincher: “autumn thoughts” – what if the whole poem is a metaphor and the elements in it just figures signifying age, loneliness, the passage of time and so on and so forth. There are simply too many mappings to make. And there the escape from metaphor ends.

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Do science fiction writers dream of fascist dictatorships?

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This is the cover to the January 1953 issue of...

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Some years ago in a book review, I made an off-the-cuff comment that thriller writers tend to be quite wright-wing in their outlook whereas science fiction authors are much more progressive and leftist. This is obviously an undue generalisation (as most of such comments tend to be) but it felt intuitively right. Even then I thought of Michael Chricton as the obvious counterexample – a thirller writer with distinctly liberal leanings – but I couldn’t think of a science fiction writer that would provide the counterexample. I put this down to my lack of comprehensive sci-fi reading and thought nothing more of it. Now, I’m not even sure that the general trend is there or at least that the implications are very straightforward.

Recently, I was listening to the excellent public policy lectures by Mark Kleiman and remembered that years ago, I’d read some similar suggestions in the Bio of the Space Tyrant by Pierce Anthony. It wasn’t a book (or rather a book series) I was going to reread but I set to it with a researcher’s determination. And frankly, I was shocked.

What I found was not a vision of a better society (Anthony projects the global politics of his day – the early 80s – into the Solar system 600 years hence) but rather a grotesque depiction of what the elites of the day would consider ‘common-sense’ policies: free-market entrepreneurship with social justice with a few twists. It was anti-corporalist and individualist on the surface but with a strong sense of collective duty (and pro-militarism) that was much more reminiscent of fascism than communism. It espoused strong, charismatic leadership with a sense of duty and most of all a belief in the necessity of change led by common sense. The needs of the collective justified the suppression of the individual in almost any way. But all of this is couched in good liberal politics (like the free press, free enterprise, etc.)

It is not clear whether Anthony means this as a parody of a fascist utopia but there are no hints there that this is the case. The overwhelming sense I get from this book is one of frustration of the intellectual elite that nobody is listening to what they have to say and a perverted picture of what the world would be like if they only got to start over with their policies.

Speaking of perverted. Through all of this is woven a bizzare and disturbing mix of patriarchy and progressive gender politics. On the one hand, Anthony is strongly against violence against women and treats women as strong and competent individuals. But on the other hand, his chief protagonist is an embodiment of a philanderer’s charter. All women love him but understand that he cannot love just one! The policies are there but what is to prevent any man from feeling that he is the one exception. So despite the progressive coating one is left feeling slightly unclean.

Now, is Anthony the exception I was looking for years ago? I don’t think so. First, I think he would fall in the liberal to libertarian camp if asked. But second, I don’t think he’s any exception at all. I recently reread some SciFi classics and found hints of to full blown monuments to this rationalist yearning for control over society – the “if they only listened to us” syndrome, also known as the “TED syndrome”. We understand so much about how things work, so now we have the solution for how everything works. That’s why we should never seek to be ruled by philosopher kings (Plato, Hobbes, and any third rate philosopher – more likely to be fascist than liberal). Classics like “Mote in God’s Eye“, “Starship Troupers” (the movie was a parody but the book wasn’t), “Foundation” or less well-known ones like “The Antares Trilogy” or “The Lost Fleet“. They all unwittingly struggle with the dilemma of we know what to do but we know it can’t be achieved unless we have complete control. I found echoes of this even in cyberpunk like Snowcrash.

So am I seeing a trend that isn’t there? I’m not as widely read in SciFi as other genres so it’s possible I just happened on books that confirm my thesis (such as it is). Again, the exception I can think of immediately is Cory Doctorow whose “For the Win” is as beautiful and sincere a depiction of the union movement as any song by Pete Seger. And I’m sure there are many more. But are there enough to make my impression just that? (Of course, there’s SciFi  where this doesn’t come up, at all.)

But this tendency of the extremely intelligent and educated (and SciFi writers are on the whole just as well versed in anthropology as they are in science) to tell stories of how their images of the just society can be projected onto society as a whole is certainly a worrying presence in the genre. It seems to be largely absent From fantasy, which generally deals with journeys of individuals within existing worlds. And while these worlds maybe dystopic, they generally are not changed, only explored. Fantasy has a strong thread of historical nostalgia – looking for a pure world of yore – which can be quite destructive when mis-projected to our own world. But on the whole, I feel, it contains less public policy than the average science fiction novel.

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The most ridiculous metaphor of education courtesy of an economics professor

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Acclaimed academics have policy agendas just like anybody else. And often they let them interfere with a straightforward critical analysis of their output. The monumental capacity for blindness of highly intelligent people  is sometimes staggering. Metaphors and analogies (same thing for metaphor hacking) make thinkers particularly prone to mis-projection blindness. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics prof, is just the latest in the long line of economists and blowhards, who think they have the education system licked by comparing it to some -free market gimmick. They generally reveal that they know or care precious little about the full extent of the processes involved in the market and Glaeser is a shining example of this. His analogy is so preposterous and only needs so little thought to break down, I can’t believe he didn’t take a few minutes to to do it himself. Well, actually, I can believe it. It’s pretty,  neat and seductive. So who cares that it is pure non-sense. Here’s what he said:

Why Cities Rock | Freakonomics Radio: I want you to just imagine if for example, instead of having a New York restaurant scene that was dominated by private entrepreneurs who competed wildly with each other trying to come up with new, new things. The bad restaurants collapse; the good restaurants go on to cooking show fame. You have these powerful forces of competition and innovation working. Imagine instead if there was a food superintendent who operated a system of canteens where the menus were decided at the local level, and every New Yorker had to eat in these canteens. Well, the food would be awful. And that’s kind of what we decided to do with schooling. Instead of harnessing the urban ability to provide innovation, competition, new entry, we’ve put together a system where we’ve turn all that stuff off, and we’ve allowed only a huge advantage for a local, public monopoly. It’s very, very difficult to fix this. I think the most hopeful signs, and there’s been as you know a steady stream of economics papers on this, the most hopeful signs I think are coming from charter schools, which are particularly effective in urban areas. And it’s not so much that the average charter school is so much better than the average public school, but rather that in charter schools, because they can go bankrupt, because the can fail, the good ones will succeed, and the bad ones will drop out of the market. And certainly we’ve seen lots of great randomized studies that have shown the ability of charters to deliver great test score results.

As we know, metaphors (and their ilk) rely on projections from one domain to another. Generative metaphor (of which this is one) then try to base a solution on a new domain which is the result of the blending of the source domain.

So this is how Glaser envisions the domain of New York restaurants: there is competition, which drives up the quality of the food (note that he didn’t mention driving down prices, lowering expense per unit, and other tricks used by ‘wildly competing entrepreneurs’). Restaurateurs and chefs must strive to provide better food than others because there is so much choice, people will flock to their competitors for the better food.

This is how he wants to project it into schooling: give people more choice (and means to exercise that choice by using the intra city’s short commutes) and this will result in competition, the competition will increase experimentation and as a result the quality of education goes up. He also mentions test scores at the end but these have little to do with education (but why should somebody at Harvard know that?).

Of course, he makes most of the argument through a reverse projection, where he asks us to imagine what the New York restaurants would look like if they were run like a centralized public school system. He envisions the end process as similar to Apple’s 1984 commercial: a sea of bland canteens with awful food. But this is just so much elitist blather. Glaeser should be ashamed of himself for not thinking this through.

First, what he describes is only true of the top tier of New York restaurants. The sort of places the upper-middle glass go to because of a review on Yelp. The majority of places where New Yorkers (and people everywhere) eat their lunches and the occasional dinner are either real canteens, some local greasy spoon, or a chain that makes its consistent prices and dining experiences possible through resolute mediocrity. The Zagat guide is for special occasions, not daily nutrition.

Second, Glaser never asks how this maps onto schooling or education, in general. Probably because the answer would be that it doesn’t. Glaeser certainly refused to say anything useful about his analogy. He went far enough to promote his shallow ideology and stopped while the stopping was good. Let’s look at a few possible mappings and see how we fare.

So first we have the quality of the food. This would seem to map quite nicely onto quality of education. But it doesn’t. Or at least not in the way Gleaeser and his like would like.  Quality of the food that can impact on competition is a surface property. We cannot also always trust people that they can judge the quality apart from the decor of the restaurant or its reputation – just like with wine, they are very likely to judge the quality based on a  review or the recommendation of a trusted acquaintance. In Glaeser’s analogy, we’re not really talking about the quality of food but the quality of the dining experience. And if we project this onto the quality of a school, we’re only increasing the scope of the problem. No matter how limited and unreliable, we can at least judge the quality of the overall dining experience by our own reaction to our experience. But with schools, the experience is mediated through the child and the most important criterion of quality – viz an educated human being at the end – is deferred until long after the decision on quality has been made. It’s like judging the quality of a restaurant we go to for an anniversary dinner by whether we will be healthy in 5 years. Of course, we can force such judgements but arbitrarily ranking schools based on a single number – like the disastrous UK league tables that haven’t improved the education of a single child but made a lot of people extremely anxious.

The top restaurants (where the competition makes a difference) don’t look at food from the perspective of what matters for life, namely nutrition. It’s quite likely the most popular restaurants don’t serve anything particularly healthy or prepared with regard to the environmental impact. Quality is only important to them as one of many competitive advantage. They also use a number of tricks to make the dining experience better – cheat on ingredients, serve small portions on large plates, etc. They rely on ‘secret recipes’ – the last thing we want to see in education. And this is exactly the experience of schools that compete in the market. They fudge, cheat and flat out lie to protect their competitive advantage.  They provide the minimum of education that they can get away with to look good. Glaeser also conveniently forgets that there is a huge amount of centralized oversight of New York restaurants – much more, in some ways, than on charter schools. Quality is only one of the results of rampant competition and oversight is necessary to protect consumers. This is much more important in schools than in restaurants (but it almost seems that restaurants have more of it, than schools – proportionally to their importance).

But that is only one part of this important mismapping, which is the process of competition. Many economists forget that the market forces don’t work on their own. They work off the backs of the cheated and underserved. Bad restaurants don’t go out of business by some market magic. They go out of business because enough people ate there and were cheated, served bad food or almost got poisoned. And this experience had to have been bad enough for them to talk about it and dissuade others from visiting. With restaurants the individual cost is relatively minor (at least for those comfortably off). You have to contribute one or two bad meals or ruined evenings a year to keep the invisible hand doing its business among the chefs of New York. (This could be significant to someone who only goes out once every few months but still something you can get over.) Also the cost of making a choice is virtually nill. It takes no effort to go to a different restaurant or to choose to eat at home. Except for the small risk of food poisoning, you’ve made no investment in your choice and the potential loss is minimal.

However, in the case of schooling, you’re making a long-term commitment (at least a semester or a year but most likely at least four years). You can shrug off a bad meal but what about a wasted half-a-decade of your child’s life? Or what if you enrolled your child in the educational equivalent of Burger King serving nothing but giant whoppers. Everything seems fine all along but the results are clogged intellectual arteries. Also the costs of a school going out of business (and here Glaeser is one of the honest few that admit to bankrupt schools as a desirable outcome of competition in education) are exceedingly high. Both financial and emotional. Let’s say a school goes out of business and a poor parent has invested in books, school uniform and transportation choice only to have to start this again in a new school. Or how about the toll that making new friends, getting used to new teachers, etc. takes on a child. How many ruined childhoods is Glaeser willing to accept for the benefits of his ideology? As far as I know, the churn among New York restaurants is quite significant – could the education system sustain 10% or even 1% of schools going out of business every year.

And more importantly what about great schools going out of business because of financial mismanagement of capitalist wannabes? Not all market failures (maybe even not most) are due to low quality. Bad timing, ruthless competition, impatient investors and insufficient growth have killed many a great product. How many great schools would succumb to one of these? And won’t we see the same race to mediocrity once the ‘safe middle ground’ of survival is discovered? How many schools will take on the risk of innovation in the face of relentless market pressures? For a Chef, one bad recipe is just a learning experience. For a school, one unsuccessful innovation can lead to absolute disaster.

But all that is assuming that we can even map the “quality of education” onto quality in any sphere of commercial activity whatsoever. What business do you get a product or service from for four or eight years that requires a daily performance of a complex and variable task such as caring for and educating a young person is? Not your electricity provider who provides a constant but a non-variable service, nor your medical care provider who offers a variable but only periodical service. Also, “the consumers of education’s” requirements keep changing over time. They may have wanted a rounded and fulfilling education for their child at the start but just want them to get to university at the end. You can measure quality by test scores or graduation rates but that still doesn’t guarantee success for roughly 10-20% of students even in the best of schools.

To conclude, fine food plays a role in the prosperity of restaurants but so does convenience and habit. The quality of education is too complex to map successfully on the quality of food (and possibly any single commercial product). And even if that was possible, the cost of making the market forces work is incomparably higher in education than in dining. Glaeser’s proposed model for reform is just as likely to produce pinnacles of excellence as ruthlessly competitive MacDonald’s-like chains of garbage.

There’s nothing wrong with using metaphors to try to look for ways to improve education. But generally, these should be very local rather than global and always have their limits carefully investigated. That means detailed understanding of both domains and meticulous mappings between them as well as the relationships between them. Not all mappings need to be perfect and some need not be there at all (for instance, computer virus is still useful metaphor even though it doesn’t spread through the air), but this should be done consciously and with care. Steve Jones once said of evolution that metaphor is to it like bird excrement is to statues. The same often goes for education, but it doesn’t have to.

Finally, this analysis didn’t necessarily imply that the current system is the best there can be or that it is even any good (although I think it’s pretty good). Just that reforming it based on this cock-a-maney metaphor could be extremely dangerous. New solutions must ultimately be judged on their own merit but with the many market metaphors, very many their merit is irretrievably tied to the power of the initial metaphor and not any intrinsic solution.

UPDATE: It seems I may have a been a bit too harsh on Glaeser. Obsevational Epidemiology posts this quote form his book (the one he was promoting on the Freakonomics podcast):

All of the world’s older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting things as they are or by mindlessly relying on the free market.

Ok, so he’s not just a mindless free-marketeer. So why on earth would he suggest the above as a suitable metaphor to base educational reform on?

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The Tortoise and the Hare: Analogy for Academia in the Digital World?

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A mash-up of two images to metaphorically depi...
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Dan Cohen has decided to “crowdsource” (a fascinating blend, by the way) the title of his next book with the following instructions.

The title should be a couplet like “The X and the Y” where X can be “Highbrow Humanities” “Elite Academia” “The Ivory Tower” “Deep/High Thought” [insert your idea] and Y can be “Lowbrow Web” “Common Web” “Vernacular Technology/Web” “Public Web” [insert your idea]. so possible titles are “The Highbrow Humanities and the Lowbrow Web” or “The Ivory Tower and the Wild Web” etc.

via Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog » Blog Archive » Crowdsourcing the Title of My Next Book.

Before I offer my suggestion, let me pause and wonder how do we know what the book is to be about? Well, we know exactly what it is to be about because what he has in fact done was describe its contents in the form of two cross domain mappings that are then mapped onto each other (a sort of a double-barrel metaphor). And the title, it goes without saying (in a culture that agrees on what titles should be) should as eloquently and entertainingly point to the complex mapping through yet more mappings (if this was a post on blending theory, I’d elaborate on this some more).

We (I mean us the digitized or unanalog) can also roughly guess what Dan Cohen’s stance will be and if he were to be writing it just for us, we’d much rather just get it as a series of blog posts, or perhaps not at all. The paragraph quoted above is enough for us. We know what’s going on.

So aware of the ease with which meaning was co-constructed, I would recommend a more circumspect and ambiguous title. The Tortoise and the Hare with a subtitle:  Who’s Chasing Whom in Digital Scholarship or possibly The Winners and Losers of Digital Academia. Why this title? Well, I believe in challenging preconceptions, starting with our own. The tale of the Tortoise and the Hare (as the excellent Wikipedia entry documents) offers no easy answer. Or rather it offers too many easy answers for comfort. The first comes from the title and a vague awareness of the fact that this is a story about a speed contest between two animals who are stereotypes for the polar opposites of speed. So the first impression is “of course, the hare is the winner” and this is a book about the benefits of digital scholarship, so the digital scholars must be the hare. Also, and also digital equals fast so that means the book is about how the hare of digital scholarship is leaving the tortoise of ivory-tower academia in the dust. And we could come up with a dozen stories illustrating how this is the case.

Then we pause and remember, ah, but didn’t the tortoise win the race because of the hasty overconfidence and carelessness of the hare? So that means that perhaps the traditional academics, moving slowly but deliberately, are the favored ones, after all? Can’t we all also think of too many errors made on blogs, crowdsourced encyclopedic entries and easily make the case that the deliberate approach is superior to moving at breakneck speed? Aren’t hares known for their short and precarious life spans as well as speed while the tortoise is almost proverbial in its longevity?

But the moral of the story is even more complex and less determinate. If we continue further in our deliberations, we might be able to get a few more hints of this. In particular, we must ask, what does this story tell us about speed and wisdom? And the answer must be: absolutely nothing. We knew coming into it that hares were faster than tortoises over any distance that can be traveled by both animals. We’re not exactly clear why the tortoise challenged the hare. Unless it had secret knowledge of its narcolepsy, it couldn’t have possibly known that the hare would take a nap or get distracted (depending on the version of the story) in the middle of the race? So equating the tortoise with wisdom would seem foolish. At best we can see the tortoise as an inveterate gambler whose one-in-a-million bet paid off. We would certainly be foolish (as was noticed by Lord Dunsany cited in the Wikipedia entry) to assume that the hare’s loss makes the tortoise more suitable for a job delivering a swift message over the same journey the following day. So the only possible learning could be that taking nap in the middle of a race and not waking up in time can lead to loosing the race. Conceivably, there could be something about the dangers of overconfidence. But again didn’t we know this already through many much less ambiguous stories?

What does that mean for the digital and traditional scholarship? Very tentatively, I would suggest it is that we cannot predict the results of a single race (i.e. any single academic enterprise) based purely on the known (or inferred) qualities of one approach. There are too many variables. But neither can we discount what we know about the capabilities of one approach in favor of another simply because it proved to be a failure where we would have expected success. In a way, just like with the fable, we already know everything about the situation. For some things hares are better than tortoises and vice versa. Most of the time, our expectations are borne out and sometimes they are not. Sometimes the differences are insignificant, sometimes they matter a lot. In short, life is pretty damn complicated, and hoping a simple contrast of two prejudice-laden images will help us understand it better is perhaps the silliest thing of all. But often it is also the thing without which understanding would be impossible. So perhaps the moral of this story, this blog, and of Dan Cohen’s book really should be: beware of easy understandings.

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