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?

11 thoughts on “Paper Thoughts and the Remix Hypothesis

  1. nice post.

    i guess the propellerheads thing is propriety? so u can only edit using their programs?

    so as such allowable in the present corporate, patent and copyright environment? how can we challenge such contexts?

    the notion of the commons certainly is a powerful challenger whose revival in all aspects looms large, the most notable being the planet we share and the disastrous effects of man-made climate change

    in the education area are movements like OER strong enough and imaginative enough to do its bit?

    hmm anyway just some random thoughts maybe some of them make sense?


  2. Yeah, Propellerhead is proprietary, which is not ideal. There is maybe a lesson here though that tool compatibility (whether imposed by a single entity or through standards) may be a necessity. What was interesting is people with different skills and tools were able to move the process along.

    In Propellerhead’s case, one way they do that is through a format called REX which renders audio that can be beat-matched and stretched in a number of ways. It’s much more limited than I’d like (Give me the midi!) but have that common format lets people work on the same piece whether they have the $400 suite or the free iPhone app.

    And that’s the less obvious lesson (but one I keep coming back to) — we have been hindered by the state of our tools and formats which trade fluidity for clunky import and export cycles. If OER was really imaginative, they’d be funding the tools for extensible fluid formats.

    • It’s posts like these and discussions coming out of it that remind me why I follow ur blog so closely. I wonder what would happen if i shared the video above in a workshop i am giving next week on OER, of I emphasize the remixing aspects rather than consumption aspect. The problem as you say is that there isn’t enough investment into creating the fluidity needed to make OERs more remixable and thus more useful to different contexts. But there is a lot more to think about here. Will go read David’s post

      • +1 (“It’s posts like these and discussions coming out of it that remind me why I follow ur blog so closely”)

  3. Enjoyed this post immensely.

    My entry…

    The root of this human experience is independence.Taken to “professional” outcomes, the paradigm shift needed references the structure of labor, for our goals define our methods.#indie change and systemic change look at each other through windows today..employees play with indie ideas, but make little effort to manifest indie outcomes that scale personally within labor-defined relationships…other than to claim they are thought leaders engaging advanced ideas.

    Living indie, collaborating as indie structurally and understanding what parts of indie produce human prosperity and resilient welfare are first-person experiences. You don’t read books and blogs about it and produce it as a result…you live it and love it, full circle…or you don’t.

    The consequence of remixing at center of education can only really happen in a meaningful way if participants are structurally aligned… not equal, but aligned…self-possessed…otherwise the collaborative formula always breaks eventually, even when it persists for what seems like a good while based on individual assessment.

    The profound tendency away from indie participation and its enforcement by professional education methods produce both the need you point at, as well as its dis-abiling reality.

    That we may one day vanquish the reliance on participatory models based on labor models producing containerized outcomes for standardized goals driven by the compliance of people as Institutional property.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s