Critique by Redesign and Revision

David Wiley’s Remix Hypothesis[1] is that we won’t see the full impact of digital culture on education until we embrace the central affordance of digital media — its remixability, by which he means the ability of others to directly manipulate the media for reuse, revision, or adaptation to local circumstance. I think this is an important enough concept that it’s worth expanding on over a few posts.

To review, we’re used to conversation — that transient many-to-many chain of utterances. And with the advent of cheap books many centuries ago it became common for us to think in terms of publication, that permanent pass at a subject that rises above particular context. And we’ve played with these forms in profitable experiments, having published conversations and building conversational publications.

But what we have done only sporadically is to use the fluidity of digital media to have the sort of “conversation through editing” that digital media makes possible.

There are, of course, precedents. My sister makes her living building models of complex phenomena in Excel spreadsheets. She’s considered a bit of a rock star at this. Analytics people laugh, I suppose, at the use of Excel (although frankly, she probably out-earns them). Why would a business pay her so much money for a *spreadsheet*? There are so many sexy tools out there!

The answer is that her spreadsheets are the start of a conversation. She works to capture the knowledge of the organization in Excel and model it, producing projections and the like. But that’s only the first step. When the spreadsheet is done its handed off to people who continue that conversation not by drive-by commenting that the model is all wrong, but by changing the assumptions and the model and showing the impact of those changes. Because Excel is a common currency among the people involved, these conversations can pull in a wide range of expertise, and ultimately improve the model or assumptions.

Today I found another precursor — “critique by redesign” in the visualization arena. Even in the days before digital media visualizations were built on few enough data points that the more effective way to converse about them was to redesign them. Here’s a famous example from Tufte:


This example is meant to be an improvement over the other version, showing how damage to the space shuttle O-rings increases as temperature dips. The critique of the original graphic isn’t (purely) conversation about its flaws — it’s a revision.

Design and Redesign in Data Visualization (from which I pulled this example) comments:

But the process of giving and even receiving visualization criticism does turn out to hold surprises. It’s not just that visualization is so new, or that criticism can stir up emotions in any medium. As we’ll discuss, the fact that visualizations are based on transforming raw data means that criticism can take forms that would be impossible for a movie or book.

The authors are absolutely correct, and yet as all work becomes digitized it’s likely both print and film will add critique by redesign or revision to their respective cultures.

On the edge of networked digital media we see that permissionless remix, revision, and adaptation accomplishes what traditional conversation and publication could not. We’ll note that collaborative revision of documents has become normal in most businesses, finally unlocking the full potential of digital editing. As I’ve noted elsewhere, electronic music is undergoing a similar revolution. Wikipedia, the one impossible thing the web has produced, created the most massive work in the history of mankind using similar processes. Coders on large complex projects critique code by changing code, letting revision histories stand in for debate where appropriate.

We are educating our students in the art of online conversation and publication, and this is important. It represents the scaling of those cultures of talk and print, and maybe the democratization of them too (although that question is more fraught). And remix *needs* these skills: publication is the start of remix, and conversation around artifacts is what makes the process intelligible.

But there’s a third leg to this stool, and it’s as cultural as it is technological. Our students (and teachers!) need to learn how to supplement comment and publication with direct revision and repurposing. It’s only then that we’ll see the true possibilities of a world of connected digital media.[2]

1. I’m shamelessly borrowing and slightly expanding David Wiley’s excellent term here. For more context and a great read, go to The Remix Hypothesis.

2. I think we do this in education, a bit. But not nearly at the level it merits, and the tools we have still mostly treat this as an afterthought.

Paper Thoughts and the Remix Hypothesis

David Wiley has an excellent post out today on a subject dear to my heart — the failure to take advantage of the peculiar affordances of digital objects.

Yeah, I know. Jargon. But here’s a phrase from Bret Victor that gets at what I mean:

“We’re computer users thinking paper thoughts”  – Bret Victor

You can do a lot of things with digital media. You can chat in a forum, which is rather like conversation. You can put out a blog post, which is rather like print publication. You can tweet, which is rather like, um, conversation. You can watch a video, which is rather like publication. You can post to Instagram, which is rather like, um…publication. With conversation attached. You can put out a course framework, which is rather like publication of a space where people can have conversations.


There’s really only two modes that most people think in currently. One is conversation, where transient messages are passed in a many-to-many mode. The other is publication, where people communicate in a one-to-many way that has more permanence.

What we are seeing now in education, for the most part, is the automation and scaling of conversation and publication. And this is what always happens with new technology — initially the focus is on doing what you’ve been doing, but doing it more cheaply or more often.

But that’s not where the real benefits come from. The benefits come when you start thinking in the peculiar terms of the medium, and getting beyond the previous forms.

I would argue (along with Alan Kay and so many others) that for digital media the most radical affordance is the remixability of the form (what Kay would call its dynamism). We can represent ideas not as finished publications, but as editable models that can be shared, redefined, and recontextualized. Conversations are transient, publications are fixed. But digital media can be forever fluid, if we let it.

We see this in music. I’m a person who has benefitted from the crashing price of digital audio workstations and the distribution channels now available for music. These have allowed me to record things that would be impossible for a single person to record even ten years ago. Distribution channels have led to weird incidents, like having a a multi-week number one song on Latvian college radio stations in 2011 (so broadly played, in fact, that I actually made the Latvian Airplay Top 40).

This is cool stuff, absolutely. But it’s not the real revolution.

To produce music, I use Propellerhead Reason, and I suppose you could say that tools like have changed the industry at the margins. But nothing like what is about to happen to music with the new breed of tools.

The latest release of Reason, for example, doesn’t make music any cheaper than the last one. It’s big advance is a tool called Discover which allows artists to share material to a commons that other artists can mine for inspiration.

And here’s the key — the material is directly editable and resharable by anyone. It is music as something forever fluid.

This is a marketing video for the new feature, but it’s short, and you should watch it, because I think it shows the future of education as well. And because I really think you need to see it. I really, really do.

Now let me ask you — what would happen if our students could work across classes in this way? If our teachers could collaborate in this way?

This, and really nothing else, is the thing to watch. These people who are talking the Uber-Netflix-Amazon of Education as the future? That is so tiny a vision that it depresses the hell out of me. I don’t worry that education can’t catch up to industry in these spaces. I worry that we’ll be pulled down by their conservatism and small-mindedness.

You should worry about that too. Because Uber is a taxi service co-op with a services center that skims money off the top. Amazon is a very effective mail-order company. Netflix supplies video-on-demand. All of these are done in ways that are made highly efficient by technology, but not one of them taps into the particular affordances of digital media (beyond reproducibility).

We need to think bigger. What David is concerned about in terms of teacher collaboration (how do we get teachers to tap into the affordances of fluidity) is what I am concerned about with students (how do we move past the forms of conversation and publication to something truly new). We can have a future as big as we like if we can get beyond these paper thoughts. We’re starting to see this sort of thinking in the music software industry and glimmers of it in education (see, for example, the new Creative Commons-focused approaches to LORs).

These glimmers happen in a world that has been distracted with other more trivial things (Videos with multiple choice questions! Learning styles!). They happen in a world that continues to think the primary benefit of the digital world is that it’s cheap.

What would happen if we moved remix to the center of the conversation? What would happen if we stressed remix for students as well as faculty? What could we accomplish? And if a little Swedish audio workstation company can see the future, why can’t we?

Age of the Incunable

After the western invention of movable type not much changed for a very long time. It took many many years for people to realize the peculiar possibilities of cheap, printed texts.

Gutenberg invents the Western version of movable type in the 1440s, and it’s in use by 1450. He thinks of it in terms of cost, really. Efficiency.

You can print cheap bibles – still in Latin, mind you. Affordable chess manuals.

He dies broke, by the way.

For almost fifty years, change creeps along.

They have a name for books of this period, which I love: “Incunabula”. Or if we go singular, the incunable. So we could call this the “Age of the Incunable”.

Detail of a Gutenberg Bible

Detail of a Gutenberg Bible. Source.

This is what books look like at that time. Almost identical in form and function, style and content to medieval manuscripts.

Just to be really clear – this is a machine printed book here, later adorned by hand. In case you didn’t notice.

There were printed books, but there was no book culture. There were printed books but there was no shift in what those books did.

But then things change. First in the Italian presses. Bibles are printed in Italian, for example. Illustrations become more common.

Aldus Manutius creates the “pocket book” in an octavo format, somewhere around 1500. We get cheap mobility. In 1501, his shop ditches the Calligraphic font for early “Roman fonts” more like the unadorned fonts we know today.

Sentence structure starts to change. We start to develop written forms of argument that have no parallel in verbal rhetoric. Ways of talking that don’t exist in oral culture.

People learn to read silently, which is huge, at three to four times the speed of reading aloud.

And here’s the transition: We start to think the sort of thoughts that are impossible without books.

De Revolutionibus Orbium, by Copernicus, 2nd edition. 1566.

De Revolutionibus Orbium, by Copernicus, 2nd edition. 1566. Source.

And it’s almost 70 years after Gutenberg that you see a real print culture emerge. Copernicus, Luther, etc. What we start to see is how fast new ideas can spread. We start to see what happens when every believer has their own Bible in which to look up things, in their own language.

We see what happens when an idea can be proposed and replied to across a continent in months rather than decades. We start to see the impact of the long tail of the past, what happens when esoteric works of the past, long hidden away, can be mass produced. What happens when you get Aristotle for everyone. What happens when every scientist can get his hands on a copy of Copernicus.

And Churches fell. And Science was born. And Governments toppled.

But 70 years later.

It’s something worth remembering for those of us excited about the educational affordances of digital material and networked learning. For a long time I thought — well, change is faster now, right? Technological change is, maybe. But it may be the case that certain types of social change are as slow as they ever were. There are days when I think they might even be slower.

We’ll see. For the moment, whether fact or fiction, the belief that this is just a lull will power me through. We’ll get there yet.