Accruing Associations

Today I find this story on my Twitter Feed. A government nuclear facility accidentally sent out some “excess” nuclear material. Whoops!


The name of the facility rings a bell though. Haven’t I heard of government installation “Y-12” before? I’m pretty sure there’s been problems there before.

I search my personal wiki:


Aha! That’s right. I’d come across a different Y-12 incident about a month ago, and it seemed a perfect example of Alarm Fatigue. Here’s that page:


Notice how we put some general associations at the bottom and use the text to highlight the realationship to the current page in a very direct way.

I don’t really know where this new incident fits in, but I’d like to log it. So I go to the bottom of the Alarm Fatigue at Y-12 page and add another link.


And that’s it, at least for now. It may be that later I come by and build a new wiki page that can replace that external link, or perhaps I create a new page on Y-12 in general and move this link over there.

But what’s neat is watching your network of knowledge become more useful over time. Looking back at these pages I find the Normal Accident Theory page was added in November 2014. Alarm Fatigue (the general page) was added in January 2015, partially because of the way it resonated with and informed elements of Normal Accident Theory. The Alarm Fatigue at Y-12 page was added based on something seen last month, which ended up being a perfect example of alarm fatigue. Now this link updates the page an suggests in time we might compile more information on Y-12, a seeming case study in how things go wrong.

More amazingly. if you click through those links you’ll find we’re slowly developing a densely linked set of pages on the nature of error. Sensitivity vs. Specificity links to Safety and Reliability (which are opposed BTW) which links to Always-Never which links to One Point Safe which links to Command and Control. On a related vector, Alarm Fatigue deals with issues of signal-to-noise, bringing you to pages on Tea Kettle Tech (an Amber Case idea) and Techno-pastoralism. From there you can get to cybernetics and a dozen other things.

I didn’t sit down one day and say let’s make a site on the nature of error and digital noise. This subject emerged organically, as new stuff came in.

And therein lies a story. What I find my mind doing these days is letting go of the question “What do I think of that?” which is the primary question of the Self-Assertive Web. The Twitter response to nuclear error is “Nice! Keeping us safe!” or “Maybe Iran needs to inpect us. haha.” On the self-assertive web we don’t get past paragraph two without thinking “What is my take on this?” and constructing rhetoric in our head about it. And while that’s useful it dramatically limits what we can take away from new knowledge.

With wiki journalling, on the other hand, my first question on seeing something is “What does that connect to?” Judgement comes, but is postponed while we make connections, link up examples, and find patterns. It’s the Integrative Web and I think we need more of it.

Toward a Less Self-Assertive Web

Working on my 83rd idea for my dLRN keynote, because that’s “how I do”. (I’ve also been watching The Wire a lot).

Today via David Jones this beautiful piece on systems theory comes to me. It’s from a new book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi:

In our brief summary of the emerging systems view of life in the Preface, we have emphasized shifts in perceptions and ways of thinking. However, the broader paradigm shift also involves corresponding changes of values. And here it is interesting to note a striking connection between the changes of thinking and of values. Both of them may be seen as shifts from self-assertion to integration. These two tendencies — the self-assertive and the integrative — are both essential aspects of all living systems, as we discuss in Chapter 4 (Section 4.1.2). Neither of them is intrinsically good or bad. What is good, or healthy, is a dynamic balance; what is bad, or unhealthy, is imbalance — overemphasis on one tendency and neglect of the other. When we look at our modem industrial culture, we see that we have overemphasized the self-assertive and neglected the integrative tendencies. This is apparent both in our thinking and in our values. It is very instructive to put these opposite tendencies side by side.

They chart out these tendencies in terms of thinking and values:


And here’s the thing. The initial vision of hypertext was profoundly integrative (Bush, Nelson, etc). Read As We May Think again and you’ll see the idea in those last bits of the article is to make connection as valued as assertion, to capture intuition and synthesis via links (or “trails” in his case). Non-linearity is valued, and the holistic viewpoint — where a single node can simultaneously support radically opposing views — is privileged over the clean and linear trajectory of making a point.


That — through the vision of a number of intermediaries — was one possible future for the early web.

But in the early days of the web people fleeing the self-assertive worlds of Usenet, mailing lists and the like came to the web and built something that was more integrative than those conversational forms but less integrative than the Bush version. From them we got The Stream — the hybrid of hypertext with the self-assertive culture of forums, lists, and Usenet groups. The Stream is blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook feeds, YouTube channels, etc. It made conversation better. The Stream turned out to be the web’s killer app.

But as The Stream became the dominant mode of hypertext, it also pulled the web as a whole toward the self-assertive end of the spectrum. In many ways it kept drifting back even more towards self-assertion. Early linklogs gave way to analytical blogs which gave way to persuasive writing as the norm. The follow-me-as-I-think-through-this political blogging of Josh Marshall gave way to the this-is-the-one-true-truthism of Huffington Post and Breitbart. Comments were added at some point, bringing back the group domination dynamics early bloggers were trying to escape.

In the world of the Memex your space houses things useful to you, and the space of a literate person includes many things one disagrees with but finds useful to think with. The Stream, on the other hand, is seen as an assertion of one’s self, where every post must zoom as quickly as possible to This is What I Believe. The fact people must insist that retweets are not endorsements shows the direction we have drifted. To post is to assert.

And the point is that that’s good in the right amount. Self-assertion is important. I certainly want a space to express who I am, and to a large extent that is what I do on this blog. I provide a nice linear, rational, reductionist view of current issues in order win ongoing arguments and persuade you to join my cause. A Memex would be a lousy tool for that. Don’t take my blog away!

But it is *one* side of the equation. As Capra and Luigi Luisi insist, it needs balance. We seem to have nailed tools for self-assertion over the past 20 years. Perhaps we could work on tools for integration now as well?

This Is My Point About the Stream

From Times Higher Education today:

Moreover, the thesis statement can actually be the enemy of critical enquiry because it straitjackets the writer into a line of argument that has to be defended to the death, blithely bulldozing – or simply ignoring – any tentative “yes, but…” that might get in the way. This is not a trivial issue. The tyranny of being forced to declare one’s position pervades our culture, from the school debating societies to our adversarial parliamentary system, where admitting that the opposing side may have a point is political anathema. This approach is potentially anti-intellectual – for when critical thinking is applied to most issues, it becomes apparent that there are multiple viable perspectives, which can both diverge and converge.

This is my point about the Stream. We want to promote inquiry and multiple perspectives, yet we choose formats (blogging, forums, and the like) that favor personal rhetoric, argument, and expression.

Luckily, there *is* a format that favors composing documents that present multiple perspectives, promotes not rushing to conclusions, and encourages students to embrace complexity instead of sweeping it under the rug to make a point. It’s called HYPERTEXT. We should use it.

You Get to Decide What the Big One Is: A Clarification

So I wasn’t as clear as I might have been yesterday with my post. The main change is not that we’re moving from a constricted notion of the subject being the Cascadia earthquake to a constricted notion of a Zombie disaster. The main change is that we’re broadening out the available options in the class of what The Big One is.

We had always planned to do this broadening cross-class — have different classes plug into different subjects about what “The Big One” is — see, for example, the About the Course page. But my initial thought was a more tightly constrained system where *each course* picked a relatively constrained area.

(Those that have read me for a few years may realize this is just the implementation of Water106, but with a different sort of subject, and with federated wiki as the cross-course interaction enabler. That vision remains a key piece of this).

Instead what we are moving towards is a scheme where each classroom group can pick their own definition of “The Big One”, up to and including zombies. The key reason (at least for me) is that the narrower construct does not play well enough to the strengths of the students in the context of a short class. We need more flexibility to meet the students where they are. For a number of students, where they are is zombies. As  Pumpkin Yang pointed out, these students may already have quite a lot of “real life” on their plate, and they are learning educational technology (the REAL target of the instruction) on top of that. If giving some a fantasy option helps make it more fun, then why not?

Incidentally, if you go to that About the Course page linked above you’ll find that you all are invited to participate as well. Claiming a site and joining is easy, we just ask that if you take up a slot that you commit to the Course Charter, and produce at least 5 pages a week on a disaster related topic.

The Zombie Curriculum (a possible pivot)

I had *such* nice project planned out for my class this year. I was told I had a bunch of hard science people and history people, and I came up with this subject of disasters, with this wonderful local focus. We would work with ed tech while researching the coming Cascadia earthquake.

Well, I got to my first class, and here’s what happened. The breakdown of students doesn’t work with earthquakes. These are teachers that have a certification in a specific area, and instead of a bunch of earth science and history majors we had this breakdown:

  • Biology: 3
  • Chemistry: 1
  • History: 3
  • English: 4
  • Consumer Science: 1
  • Phys Ed: 1

Oh my. Biology and Chemistry aren’t really the core of earthquakes. And English students are a THIRD of the class, and the literature options for earthquakes were just not that compelling.

So after talking about this with the students, we’re thinking of taking this in a different direction, and I wanted to see what people thought.

The idea is this: The Zombie Curriculum. An attempt to teach multiple subjects through the medium of ZOMBIES.

This idea was mentioned in-class off-handedly by a student, but the more I thought about it, the more it dug its way into my skull. The truth is that zombies intersect with almost everything.

Take human biology. Float a couple questions like “Can Zombies Feel Pain” and suddenly you have a class researching the nervous system.

  • Chemistry? Well, Zombies get energy from some form of chemical process. What does that process look like? Is it possible they harness the energy from their own decay? How do we figure that out? And maybe Zombie-ism is chemical, right?
  • Statistics. What’s the growth model for the zombie population? How do different assumptions and models lead to different predictions for when we hit peak zombie.
  • Ecology. What’s the ecological impact of zombieism?
  • Literature. What do zombies mean? Why are we obsessed with them? What are the hallmarks of the zombie genre and how does it intersect with the language of other genres?
  • History. I have a bunch of students in class that want to look at things like the Spanish Flu, and how we react to infectious diseases. Do we end up the paranoid husks we see in zombie fiction?
  • Sociology. Who bears the brunt of the zombie apocalypse? (Spoiler alert: it’s the poor and the historically underprivileged)
  • Foreign Language and Culture: How is the concept of the zombie translated in other cultures?
  • Business: What are the good business plans in a zombie apocalypse? Can we write a business plan for a growth industry?
  • Psychology: How will PTSD affect the survivors of the apocalypse? And what does the world look like to a zombie?

Anyway, we’re looking at this option. Groups would research zombie issues and write up explanations that pulled in science, math, literature, and even physical education. We’d create a wiki on zombies that serves both as research into ZOmbies and a set of teaching materials of students.

Thoughts? Do you miss the earthquake idea? Do you like the zombie idea? Would you like to contribute to our zombie curriculum?



Quicker Site Claim Process for Federated Wiki Classes

I’ve demoed federated wiki to a lot of people now, facilitated two online happenings with it, and I am in the process of teaching my second college class with it. And I would say getting started is the hardest part with it. The big problem is that for federated wiki to act like a wiki we have to pull sites together. But the actions required of individuals to pull sites together themselves are pretty advanced. For those who work in student blogging with course hubs you can imagine the problem as this: what if every student had to build their own RSS aggregator? In the first 60 minutes of the course?

The ability to build aggregation and activity engines easily is a key strength of federated wiki, especially with the new Roster and Activity plugins. The ability to hand code, via a simple syntax, your own Activity Feed selection formula still blows my mind. But it’s still not what I want to show pre-service teachers on day one.

So I spent my weekends during the end of the summer trying to make the process easier using some basic HTML and Javascript.  What I settled on was a two pronged approach.

First I made a plain HTML aggregator and viewer, something that I’ve been calling wikity. In the past I’ve used a federated wiki site as the hub of the class, but jumping in-between federated wiki sites early on gets people confused as to where they are and bad things happen. For example, I might have a “Current Assignments” page there, and they will fork it by mistake, and now they have to always remember to check “twins” to find assignments. Having the hub be read-only with direct links to specific pages makes that easier.

The second ploy was to create a system in which would pre-create a whole bunch of empty sites with generic names, already connected in a roster and let the students claim one of these pre-connected sites. That saved us from the problem where the students needed to create the sites, we needed to compile them into a roster, and then need to feed that back out to the students. In the new system you’re connected to the class instantly. The site name problem also deals with another element, which is that when students create sites they often are not sure if they are going to want their name in the URL. This is especially true of public school teachers, whose online presence is often under a ridiculous level of scrutiny. In this claim process, the URL is arbitrary, but they can add or subtract their name from the site at will.

I think I run the class in such a way that they will WANT to associate their name with the result, but they can’t know that on day one.

In any case, here is the process. The actual claim process is the first 90 seconds of the video. The rest covers what you have to do when you switch computers, and we throw in a little sped-up editing for good measure.


A Simple Proposal for Killing Comments with Annotated Links

I would be interested to see what would happen if someone reconfigured blog comments as follows.

  1. Don’t call them “comments” call it “related pages” or “link annotations” or “Community Links”
  2. People have 140 characters and a link box at the end of the page.
  3. The way link annotation works is this:
    • You, the reader, read the post
    • You either find a related page or you write a page in your own space related to the post
    • You plug in the URL to the URL box
    • You have 140 characters to explain how the linked page responds, contradicts, or expands on the post you are annotating

Ideally you’d also have a mechanism to encourage reusable pages, e. g. instead of linking to a page that says “Here’s why Post X on CompStat is Wrong”, you’d link to a page that doesn’t mention Post X explicitly, but itemizes the reasons why sociologists no longer take the Broken Windows Theory CompStat’s model was built on seriously.

This linked page could be referenced from many articles, on other subjects, with the 140 character text of the annotation providing the localized segue, e.g. “CompStat was adopted in the heyday of Broken Windows Theory, a theory since discredited. See [[Broken Windows Theory Broken]].” where Broken Windows Theory Broken linked to your page (or the page of someone else).

The way the resuse incentive could work is this — if multiple people link the page from multiple other pages, the annotation floats to the top and a visual indicator shows that this page is in general use, not just an extended ranty reply to the post. If multiple people link it, but all form this page, it shows it’s considered a useful reply, but maybe specific. If one person links it and only from this page, it’s maybe a comment.

You could build a better set of incentives, perhaps, but that would get you started.

What would happen? I don’t know. Maybe people would still route around restrictions and find ways to use it to comment instead of extend and expand on things.

On the other hand, maybe a host of things would change, especially if the commenting had central analytics. You’d be able to generate a set of suggested reading for users based off what they had read, essentially crowdsourced. People could rate annotation links for relevance, and the results would form something close to a semantic map of the web. The 140 characters wouldn’t give you the Semantic Web, but it’d provide more signal and less noise than current approaches to linking and authoring do.

I’m focussed on federated wiki right now, so I’m not working on this — this is really just a sliver of what fedwiki does.

But I’m curious if someone has tried this. It seems to me the same way that Tumblr revolutionized blog commenting by “post-in-your-own-stream” behavior this set of small restrictions and incentives could radically reinvent the comment as a annotated, semantically dense link, which has all sorts of implications for both discourse and analytics. Has anyone seen anything like this? What am I missing?

(See the earlier post on Reader as Link Author for why reader-produced links are important.)

UPDATE: And we’re on our way!

Screenshot 2015-08-18 at 6.00.21 PM


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