The Internet is a Human Rights Issue Except When It’s Not

Hillary Clinton, yesterday:

In a sweeping, pointed address that dealt with the Internet as a force for both liberation and repression, Mrs. Clinton said: “Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.”

Elsewhere, it’s just another Thursday in some godforsaken nation:

Verizon is terminating internet service to an unknown number of repeat copyright scofflaws, a year after suggesting it was not adopting a so-called “graduated response” policy.

While it was not immediately clear whether other internet service providers were following suit, the move comes as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America are lobbying ISPs and Congress to support terminating internet access for repeat, online copyright offenders.

All the while, the United States has been privately lobbying the European Union to “encourage” so-called three strikes policies, according to leaked documents surrounding a proposed international intellectual property accord.

Artificial Scarcities

A good friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Lanier article in the NYT. Well,  first reaction is that I’m sick of this media narrative:

“Person X was once part of the Digerati. Now they have have turned against it! The fact that they were for it before and are now against it proves something more than people just being against it!”

Blah. I’m done with that narrative. Guess what? Sometimes old people see the error of their ways, and sometimes they just get cranky. The only way to tell the difference is to look at the quality of the argument.

So let’s look at the argument:

In the book he disputes the assertion that there’s no harm in copying a digital music file because you haven’t damaged the original file.

“The same thing could be said if you hacked into a bank and just added money to your online account,” he writes. “The problem in each case is not that you stole from a specific person but that you undermined the artificial scarcities that allow the economy to function.

This is actually a quite elegant metaphor, because it gets to the point: the scarcity is artificial, a construct of law, and the reason we create the scarcity is because supposedly the scarcity results in better art being created.
He then goes on to detail what the recent lack of scarcity has broken:

Sure enough, some musicians have done well selling T-shirts and concert tickets, but it is striking how many of the top-grossing acts began in the predigital era, and how much of today’s music is a mash-up of the old.

“It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump,” Mr. Lanier writes. Or, to use another of his grim metaphors: “Creative people — the new peasants — come to resemble animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.”

Really? That doesn’t match anything I’ve seen. I’ve been a music fan my whole life, and I have never seen the array of creativity and talent that I see now in the alternative music scene.
Now does it have superheroes? The Jimi Hendrix that stands up and revolutionizes guitar? The Dave Davies fuzzbox moment? No, because we are in a postmodern era, and because with everyone more connected *more* people take part in the evolution of music. Just as safe sea travel ended the Age of the Explorers, so broadband ended the age of the music superhero. But you know what? It was the age of the music superhero that was the anomaly, not the other way around. It was a one-off. And I’m sorry for Lanier and his experimental music that he missed it, and there are no more openings for a Robert Fripp or Brian Eno, but there’s no more openings to be Sir Hilary or Henry Hudson or Marie Curie anymore either.
For those that can accept the beauty of the new paradigm, music has never been better.  For Lanier, I guess, not so much. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except of course he wants to enforce artificial scarcity to get his world of heroes back.  It sounds like a weird sci-fi plot to me, frankly, not a reasonable argument.
[Note: that sci-fi plot idea is solely my idea and my idea alone — DO NOT USE. I’m brilliant, and one day the world will pay me millions in recognition.]

Writing to Top Desired Skills in AAC&U Report

The newest AAC&U employer poll will be released next week, and the AAC&U has said that written and oral communication will, for the first time, surpass collaboration as the skill most desired by employers.

What I would love to see teased out, though, is what kind of writing employers (and students!) want. I’ve never been docked at my job for improper MLA citation. I have, at times, been accused of being too academic in tone.

So much of academic writing is driven by the need to be perfectly precise, rather than concise and clear, because the medium through which reputations are built — the academic journal — is profoundly non-conversational. Or rather, journal articles are written in precisely the way that conversations would happen if there were 18 months in between conversational turns.

I’d argue that the writing students need, both for employment and personal empowerment, has to be more conversational than that. And while that has always been true, in an age where mass communication is giving way to mass conversation, the need for such conversational skill has never been more pressing.

Stealing Whuffie

Just a short thought from the car-ride to work today.

If we are moving to a reputation based economy, where one’s ability to make a living is based on their network reputation, stealing attribution is a far greater crime than stealing intellectual property. The newspaper reporter who does not link to the blog that actually broke the story they are covering is committing grand larceny compared to the petty theft of pirating movies (all of which come with intact credits).

After all, steal a man’s fish, he goes hungry for a day. Steal a man’s ability to fish…

Adding: When students write for an audience of one (e.g. the teacher) they aren’t really stealing whuffie if they don’t attribute correctly. They have nothing to bestow, so they haven’t really robbed reputation (in the way that the article of a journal article might). Which means (I’m sure you saw this coming) that getting them to understand attribution requires they publish for a real audience….

PLN and Media Literacy at Age 10: What’s There (and What’s Not)

I thought I’d put this up a year ago, but it looks like I never did.

Basically I filmed my daughter talking about this game Castle Crashers she plays and how she uses the web to figure things out about it.

A bit of background — Castle Crashers is a side-scrolling beat-em-up game that is playable in solo or co-op mode. One of the main attractions of the game is the amount of hidden functionality — the secret combos, weapons, and gameplay-paths that are the currency of gamer culture.

Anyway, here’s my daughter a year ago talking about how she plays it. I’d actually given her no guidance on how to use the internet to help her with this at all, this is all pretty native stuff:

Here’s some stuff I found interesting:

1. I have said it before and I will say it until I am blue in the face: you can’t tell if gameplay is educational simply by looking at the game. Katie is playing a game which on the surface appears to have all the educational worth of a Tom and Jerry episode. But she has developed rudimentary search strategies, she’s grasped that the answer is likely to be found in the network (not a book). She uses (as a consumer) screencasts, wikis, google, and other tools to solve problems (in a way that should make less tech-literate people a bit ashamed).

2. But there’s a lot of stuff missing here. She’s not really sure how people put stuff up on the wiki, for example. She’s not using a personal network to filter through information. She gets that anyone can do it, but doesn’t necessarily know the mechanics. If she had to sort through *unreliable* information on Castle Crashers or to receive the very latest information she’d have to tweak her strategies.

3. Still, she’s 10 years old and she knows that rather than find a Castle Crashers site and then try to navigate down to a weapons submenu you type “Castle Crashers weapons” into Google. If you’ve ever had the experience of someone complaining they can’t find something on the college website but you ask them whether they used the search function and they say no — then you have to appreciate this.

4. This isn’t shown in this video, but she is a creator/contributor as well, and much of that ability came out of gaming. During her Castle Crashers stint she started making fan videos of games. Here’s the father’s day card she made me last year (Because we both like playing the Wallace and Gromit XBox game and we both like the band The Submarines):

And here’s a project she moved onto last September. Her little sister (age 6) had made up a silly song. Katie’s response? Let’s make a video for your song!

So that leads me to I think point #5: These skills continue to develop outside the gaming realm, and point #6: Typical evolution of a creator starts with co-opting content (video of video game, another’s song as soundtrack) and moves from there to original production — if you crack down on that initial step, you risk killing a kids potential.

What’s the takeaway for us in education? Above all, I think we need to see that our focus on games and other activities as content rather than ecosystems is reductive and unhelpful. Castle Crashers is in many ways a fast paced and mindless game, but the activity around it takes focus, strategy, and creativity.

What an object is is defined by the interactions with it and around it, and video games are no different. If the environment around the Castle Crashers is good, it can be as instructive as a history class.

The reverse holds true as well (A history class in a bad environment can be as junk food as the worst video game), but we’ll deal with that later…

The Mystery of Self-Esteem Part II

Thinking about the Murder Mystery study (below) and technology… and maybe about self-esteem in general.

We knock the focus on self-esteem now, because we confuse it with the specific practice of telling kids that they are smart at every opportunity and expecting that to make them smarter. So what passes for debate on “The Self-Esteem Question”  is really debate on how often we should say nice but somewhat unwarranted things to kids, and whether bad grades and red pens are a demotivator.

But the fundamental insight — that those who take failure as a lesson rather than a character judgement succeed — is not talked about much in that “debate”, even though it should be central to it.  You can watch children respond to failure at a problem, with one child saying “I’m sooooo stupid. I can’t figure this out,” and another kid simply remarking the problem is really tough, and you know which kid will plow through to the solution.

The 2006 mystery story research seems to support the self-esteem relation — people with high self-esteem *enjoy* being proved wrong, people with low self-esteem dislike it. And since so much of education is based on learning from failure, it’s not a big jump to figure out who will be a better learner. So no matter what Mark Bauerlein might think about how hugging kids led to low literacy rates, there’s still an important piece of the learning puzzle here to be sorted out…

Self-esteem and Murder Mystery Resolutions

Fascinating psychological study:

To investigate determinants of mystery enjoyment, a short story was manipulated to produce different levels of uncertainty regarding two suspects’ criminal involvement (low vs. high uncertainty) and to create different resolution types (denouement, confirmation, and surprise). Participants’ (N = 84) reactions and enjoyment were ascertained via questionnaires after reading the mystery development and after the mystery resolution. Moreover, personality assessments were administered. Results show that enjoyment of the mystery reception was greater when participants were highly uncertain regarding the culprit and experienced high levels of curiosity. As hypothesized, resolution enjoyment depended on type of resolution and self-esteem. A resolution that confirmed respondents’ suspicion was disliked by persons with high self-esteem, whereas respondents with low self-esteem disliked a surprising resolution. Enjoyment of a general denouement, when participants had not held specific expectations, was not affected by self-esteem; high self-esteem participants in the “surprise” condition and low self-esteem participants in the “confirmation” condition experienced comparable enjoyment.

OER and Pragmatism through the Overton Window

Was going to write a screed here on ideology and pragmatism when I realized I was looking at the recent Siemens piece all wrong.

I can’t get into the debate about whether it’s appropriate to advance open education by using tools from Google. It’s a debate without a bottom (and one I’d argue ignores the different environments at different institutions). For anybody in progressive education, the fight is one hard slog after another, and if you choose to fight on the front of project-based collaborative learning and to do so you make an alliance with the Great Crayola Satan, I commend you. I’ve done the same in some situations, and will continue to do so as the situation dictates. If you are fighting the battle successfully on the open source front, then I commend you as well. On the ground, progress is measured in inches.

But I do think George has made an extremely valuable point.  The question is not whether we should be pragmatists or rigid ideologues. It’s about what happens to a movement when you don’t have both.

There is a name in rhetoric for describing the way which the extreme unbending views at the edges of the debate shape — or more correctly, place — the conversation at the middle. It’s called the Overton Window.

The concept was developed by a free market think tank to explain, in part, why think tanks advocating politically untenable positions were of the utmost importance. The basic idea is that at any given time there is only a small range of options that are politically tenable. As much as we demand courage from legislators and leaders to choose options outside that window, we know, as a fact of history, that change does not come from leaders — the system is just not set up that way.

So how do you expand what is possible? Most people see the window of possibilities as a “middle road” between two extremes, or more exactly, a compromise between radical but presumably untenable positions. To enlarge or shift the window of possibilities you do not want to argue forcefully for things already in the window of possibility — you want to argue for things outside the window, things that are too radical for the moment.

Take copyright. On an objective scale, we can see two ends of the spectrum. On one side there might be copyright anarchism — a position that all copyright is immoral. On the other side of the debate, objectively, is perhaps the notion that copyright is absolute, that companies and individuals can license copyright on any terms they wish, and the government will treat each and every “copy” of their work as if it were a physical object wholly owned by the creator.

Where are the extreme but politically untenable edges of this debate though? What’s politically tenable right now is that de minimus non-profit users should not be prosecuted excessively. On the other side, what’s politically tenable is pretty close to the extreme side of the debate: Bono saying methods of investigation used to crack child pornography cases should be used to crack down on casual file-sharers.

In other words, using the invaluable graphic from Corrente:

If you call the current position R2 (which is generous considering where we are on the absolute spectrum), we can acheive postions all the way from R1 (let’s not prosecute casual file-sharers) to R3 (let’s appy the techniques of child pornography investigation to prosecuting file-sharers).

The job of pragmatists is to make arguments in this range, because the job of pragmatists is to get things done.

But if everyone is a pragmatist, the window never moves. Worse, if the people on one side of the issue are solely pragmatic, and the people on the other side of the issue consist of both pragmatists and people willing ot get on TV and argue positions outside the window the window will invariably slide towards the side with the ideologues. As one diarist on DailyKos pointed out, if you have people willing to get on TV and say “We should nuke the Middle East.” everything moderately to the left of that starts to sound like a reasonable compromise.

When the record industry first started prosecuting users, they excluded de minimus users — it was too hot an issue. But there were people willing to say they should prosecute them. There were people willing to say that the government should in fact have law enforcement that jail people for thsese crimes. An FBI of copyright. Jail time.

What did the figures on our side argue? Well, many of my present readers excepted, we argued that innocent people were being charged, that there wasn’t true due process. We argued that the de minimus exception should be substantially enlarged and the damages reduced. We argued the stuff on the edge of the window, but nothing beyond it.

Those are arguments implementers and politicians have to make, because they work in a world constrained by the window. 

[The saving grace here is (surprise) the Free Software Foundation, a think tank and advocacy group, who by presenting views outside the window probably did more to slow the slide than anybody. But the scale of that organization is dwarfed by the scale of those on the other side…]

But what’s the takeaway here for OER? Is it David Wiley should be pushing legislation to require all educational materials funded by tax dollars (including Pell Grants) be made freely available to the American public? Or asserting that private intellectual property does not exist?

No — that’s not what David does.

But someone should be doing it. Because even if the effort does not succeed, it will move the window, and make David’s job easier.

In a typical political ecosystem, the job of moving that debate, of pushing radical options to move the center, falls to think tanks and foundations, who due to the nature of their funding can be free from the pragmatic constraints of the window. The problem here is not that people are  doing their daily jobs in a pragmatic way — they have to. The problem is the foundation and think-tank money in this space is arguing at the center of the question when they should be arguing beyond the edges.

Imagine a well-funded campaign to make all educational materials produced by even a single dollar of federal money free — in fact, to *require* that these materials be posted somewhere. Imagine what that would do to the debate. Is it reasonable? Maybe not. Will it succeed? Probably not.

But suddenly David Wiley and Creative Commons and Connexions and the OCWC would be seen as the moderates — after all, they are proposing things much less radical.

That’s the lesson of the Overton Window — that the people *outside* the deal-making process should be arguing beyond the edges, because that’s how you help your pragmatists *inside* the deal-making process win victories. Until we understand that, every battle the pragmatists fight will be a hard-won slog, and that window of possibility will remain fixed, or worse, slide out from underneath us.

Where are the Literature Miniseries?

I’ve been thinking a bit in the past week about whether novels can be more like the modern TV series.

Over the past two decades TV has evolved from a purely serial art form (see, for example, Law and Order)  to an art form that operates on both an episodic and a series level (see, for example, Heroes, The Office, Fringe, Rescue Me, Californication, Glee, well — at this point, basically anything worth watching). The modern TV series is a series of broadcast events, often with self-sufficient episode plots, tied together by some seasonal arcs, and often with a finale that focuses primarily on the arc that has been developed over the season.

Comic books, of course, do this as well (and have been doing this longer than TV).

And novels? Well some do this sort of thing too, but the time scale is different. Sure, a detective or sci-fi series might be a series of books — but whereas a comic book author or a TV show’s writers  might produce anywhere from six to twenty-four small episodes in a year, tied together in a story arc, novels do series basically the same as they’ve done for quite some time — one big book every year or so, containing one large story.

That’s great, and I love reading novels in that form. The Jonathan Stroud trilogy I’m reading right now is extraordinary, and a masterpiece of that form.

But why not an alternate, complementary form as well? History proves that installment writing can rival more traditional forms. There’s Oliver Twist, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge as well as dozens of other Victorian examples of novels originally published in installments, none of which were doing exactly the episode/series structure that has become common recently but all of which certainly had elements of it.

The introduction of the paperback novel killed much of installment fiction — a lot of the rise of serialized fiction was about the economics of a mass audience, not about the experience of serialized fiction. But I can’t help but wonder, in this age where so much entertainment uses these sorts of structures, why there isn’t something parallel to comic and TV series structure available in literature, where a writer full of small ideas for stories could write stories that weren’t novel length, but tie them together in a series story arc, the way that comic books do.  Imagine a world where an author has ten small publishing events a year instead of one big one — events and  release dates that fuel the fanatical devotion one sees in the comic book and TV series crowd. Literature series where you could read the first episode over your lunch break, with a 70-page book that costs you about a buck and a half — one that has a full plot and story, but introduces enough series momentum that you go home and mark the release date for next month’s volume on your calendar.

I think it would lead to more adventurous behavior, both on the part of readers (who could try series at very little risk) and on the part of authors (who could publish that odd episode they believe in but others think is too weird — they could bury it somewhere mid-series, knowing that if one issue flops people would still come back to the next issue).

I love coming home knowing that the recent episode of Misfits or Torchwood or Battlestar Galactica is queued up. I love hearing the new Warren Ellis is out. I love the event-ness of comic books and serial drama and sci-fi.

So why can’t we have at least a piece of literature that operates like that. Am I missing something?