Academic Torrents

The future belongs to architectures that move beyond the single-server, domain-based model towards federated solutions. More specifically, we’ll see a move from server-centered networks to content-centered networks. Both models will remain, but the pendulum will swing.

You see this in SOLID’s decoupling of data from server applications, in the InterPlanetary File Systems use of a torrent-like cloud. You see it in federated wiki’s vision of portable douments that clone freely between servers, tied together by unique IDs and common history.

But you also can see it in interest in older technologies as well. Academic Torrents made the Hacker News top spot today. A little investigation shows it to be not much more than a basic tracker (correct me if I’m wrong). Torrenting as structured is problematic for a lot of uses people want to put it to, and I think the future looks more like IPFS than BitTorrent, but even the fact that torrenting academic data sets can be seen as news is probably significant. Something is definitely up.

The Dwindling Promise of Social Media

I read this heartbreaking story today about the U.S.’s current opioid epidemic. The surgeon general was having dinner with a friend, a cardiologist. Then this happened:

“I was having dinner with him and I said, ‘Can you believe that we were taught that these opioid medications weren’t addictive in our training?’ ” Murthy told a group at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado in June.

“And he put down his fork and he looked up at me and he said, ‘Wait, you mean they are addictive?’ ” Murthy added.

Like many doctors, his friend, a cardiologist in Florida, learned in medical school and in residency that opioids weren’t addictive as long as a patient was truly in pain, Murthy said.

“He’s trained at some of the best institutions in the country. He’s one of the most compassionate doctors that you’ll ever meet,” he said.

I know that they’ve been proven addictive for quite some time now (in more than edge cases). You know that, I hope, by now. Experts know that. Professional boards and state committees know that.

The doctor: he had no clue. It so shocked the Surgeon General that he is writing a letter on opioids and sending it to every doctor in America.

But look deeper into that story and you’ll see the big problem:

Like many doctors, his friend, a cardiologist in Florida, learned in medical school and in residency that opioids weren’t addictive as long as a patient was truly in pain, Murthy said.

“He’s trained at some of the best institutions in the country….

What we come up against here is the idea that four years or six years or eight years of education is sufficient to what we do. But unless we graduate our students into a professional learning network that can get the right information to them as our knowledge evolves, tragedies like this will happen time and time again.

This is why we have to move past the infotainment model of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the like and build some real fricking professional systems that let important information and insights flow from point A to point B in stigmergic ways. Our current model, based on advertising dollars, couldn’t give a crap whether your cardiologist is tweeting the latest Clinton Body Count conspiracy or important updates to prescribing guidelines, as long as effective adverts get shown.

But we care. We care a lot.

Anyway, *this* is what drives me. This sort of story where having a simple piece of information or making a simple connection between two ideas could make us smarter and better people, in ways both small and large, with impacts big and small.

I wish I could say we’ve gotten better at building media that expands the mind in the past decade or so. But we’ve gotten worse at this.

Ten years ago I co-founded a community for progressives in New Hampshire, mostly for one reason: I knew very little about New Hampshire politics and wanted to change that. While the “blogging community” format had its challenges, it was a life-changing experience for me, where we found ways to truly tap into the power of networks to raise the collective intelligence of people, and make them better informed about their state: the political structure, the bills sitting before the legislature, the crucial races, and the history of various state debates. We taught each other and it was beautiful.

For various reasons we pulled the plug on it a couple years back, after over 10,000 blog posts by members and 100,000 comments (actually probably more than that — those are 2010 numbers). There were many reasons why the site eventually petered out. But one issue was it was already in decline was because by 2012 people had moved to Facebook for their political community needs.

And as a recent NYT article describes, that’s a huge problem. Because Facebook is not a learning community in any sense of the word. It’s an identity factory:

[T]ruly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news…This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.


From a user’s point of view, every share, like or comment is both an act of speech and an accretive piece of a public identity. Maybe some people want to be identified among their networks as news junkies, news curators or as some sort of objective and well-informed reader. Many more people simply want to share specific beliefs, to tell people what they think or, just as important, what they don’t. A newspaper-style story or a dry, matter-of-fact headline is adequate for this purpose. But even better is a headline, or meme, that skips straight to an ideological conclusion or rebuts an argument.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, except maybe to say that these two issues — the opioid crisis and America’s conspiratorial, Facebook-fueled political turn depress the hell out of me, rip my heart out and stamp on it cartoon-style until dust clouds billow out of it and it just expires.

I care about most of the things my readers do — corporate encroachment of education, a desire for “free-range” education, emergence, creativity, what-not. But at the root of all of it for me is a simple dream I had that we all shared, that we could use technology to make ourselves smarter and better people.  And it seemed for a while like we were heading there, until the current interests took over and turned technology into Skinner boxes for advert agencies.

I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t even give so much a crap about all Google’s data mining and analytics. I’d deal with it, if Google could just get that one fricking cardiologist a Google Now message that says “Hey dude, update: Opioids are addictive.”

But Google Now is not going to do that, because the dream of Google is not the dream of Engelbart or Kay. Those inventors wanted a world where we became better people, better doctors, better citizens, better architects. Google Now doesn’t give a crap about any of that. Google Now doesn’t want to make you a better doctor or a more compassionate human. It just wants to get AI down enough that it can sell you a Starbucks on your morning commute. And eventually, maybe opioids for your back pain too. Because it’s all just data, right?

Good job everyone. Welcome to the future.

Sorry, I’m legit sick to my stomach right now, and I have to sign off.


Slack Is All Hose And No Bucket

We love using Slack for our communications here, and I think the idea of using Slack for classroom communication is sound. Some might say it’s not open enough, but I say pshaw, some conversations are better behind closed doors. Not every statement has to be a public stand. Twitter has been a seminar in that last point over the past couple years.

No, my problem with Slack is that it is all hose and no bucket. You can search through conversations and find meaningful facts, but for us, at least, conversation is so easy that it can (and does) erode the impulse to do more end-to-end treatments of things. Community knowledge accretes but never quite pools.

I did a video on Federated Wiki Information Lifecycle a while back that was pretty FW-centric which explained how communication could move to more comprehensive exposition. But there’s a general opportunity here for someone to build a Slack-like tool that pushes users to do the harder iterative work of summary and explanation. And I expect that’s what the next iteration of Slack-like sites will be — communication sites that move fluidly and cleanly into exposition, summary, and more wiki-like modes.

FWIW, here’s the old Federated Wiki Lifecycle Video:

Beyond the Export Model


Kifi’s whole schtick is integration with Slack. That won’t work anymore, but you can export! Yay you.

Some people think that notices like this are proof we should all be running our own instances of Kifi, blogging software, or whatnot.

I’m lazy, and I don’t want to do that. I just want my data somewhere that I own, in a format any application can read. I don’t want to have to export it, I want it to be mine already.

If Microsoft Word suddenly went belly up (not Word Online, but desktop Word) Microsoft wouldn’t have to send me an email like this, because my documents would all still be on my hard drive. I could wake up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, having missed every end of life warning, and I’d still have my documents.

And if those documents were stored in a standard format, like HTML, I wouldn’t need Word to read or edit them. I’d just get a new editor and sail right on.

That’s what being a storage-neutral application and using a standards-based format gives you. It’s why I can still view my family website pages from 1997 but my Ning and Friendster posts are gone.

Ahhh.. you say, but if you had run your own version of Friendster. An open source version of Friendster!

But who the hell wants to maintain an OpenFriendster Server for a decade in order to look at old documents? (And what does it even mean to run a one person community software instance?) I just want a hard drive, somewhere on the internet, with standards-based documents on it. If your web software has a better way to make sense of some of those documents than what I’m currently using we’ll give it a go. And if you flake out, someone else is welcome to come along and fill in the gap.

I want to be able to forget about my documents for years, and then find a reader when I need it.

I don’t want to be a sysadmin. I want to be a writer with a library.

This is what we had for a long time before we decided to put our text into databases designed for accounting. It’s what we should strive for again.

Along these lines you should also read Ted Bergeron, who I think has the right idea about formats. Combine this with something like Tim Berners-Lee’s SOLID project and we might actually spend time being productive again instead of transferring files between functionally equivalent products.



The Simple Vision

My daughters get frustrated with trying to explain to friends what I do for a job. On a daily basis it looks a bit like faculty development, a bit like instructional design, a bit like strategic IT management. But of course, that’s not the part I talk about, despite it being the majority of my job. What I talk about is the simple vision.

The simple vision is this: I think institutions of higher education should be in the business of creating the digital educational infrastructure of the future. This ties together my earliest work from the 1990’s with student-produced online encyclopedias, to my work with Cognitive Arts building simulation-based courseware for Columbia, to my promotion of OpenCourseWare and OER. It underpins my fascination with the strengths and weaknesses of wiki, with federation as model of cross-institutional collaboration, with my recent work to define the emerging practice I call Choral Explanations.

I don’t believe this infrastructure will replace face-to-face education. I don’t think it will make companies billions of dollars. This educational infrastructure is not a unicorn, or a new app.

In fact, for me, it’s not a disruption — it’s a continuation. Throughout the centuries, the problem universities have aimed to solve is how to create new knowledge and effectively preserve and disseminate it.

Ultimately, I’d like to live in a world where students, researchers, faculty, and staff all work together to build this digital infrastructure: content, tools, and new practices that could not only help us in our educational mission, but change the way society goes about its work and propel us out of our current productivity slump.

For me, the most depressing thing is that this dream seems foreign to the modern university. People act like this is an odd dream, a diversion. I feel like it’s the old dream, and it’s one I’d like to reclaim. Should we cede the digital aspects of knowledge production and dissemination to others to handle, or will we take on these technologies and methods as a continuation of our core historical concerns? Are we defined by the printed book, the lecture, and the research paper, or are we driven by a deeper and more timeless mission?



Using Simple Markdown in Wikity

In Wikity we use Markdown as our primary way of formatting things. There’s a number of reasons for that, but the summary of the “why” is that it reduces dependency on mouse use and complex editors which in turn makes things quicker and simpler in the long run.

But enough about the why. Here’s what it looks like. We write up a card or two, do some basic markup and linking, and even show you some multi-card action in the Wikity library view:


Wikity on GitHub

I put Wikity on GitHub a while ago, but I’m not sure if I announced that here. In any case, Wikity is now on GitHub.

In the past couple weeks I have also removed the reliance on WordPress’s “multisite” functionality. It was making installation more complex than it needed to be.

To install Wikity now, just get a WordPress site set up which allows you to install your own themes, then download the current theme from GitHub. Upload it and select it, like any other theme.

That’s it. Recent changes have made it so you don’t need to fiddle with the settings, activate multisite, or any of that nonsense. It’s a theme. Install it and select.

Keep in mind this is still largely alpha software (I have a day job I need to commute to in mere minutes). But if you haven’t used it in a while, you’ll note it’s changed quite a bit. It’s much more focused on being a personal wiki, with the core idea being students can use it to keep and maintain public notebooks of their personal investigations.

Here’s the new GitHub blurb:

Wikity Zero is a WordPress theme you can use to create a personal wiki for notes, bookmarks, photos, or anything else.

Unlike traditional bookmarking tools, Wikity lets you connect ideas and share your work with others while maintaining attribution. And because it runs on WordPress your work is always portable — your site can run anywhere WordPress can (you do need sufficient permissions to upload the theme).

Wikity is particularly useful for classes where students are encouraged to document and connect their learning in emergent ways. Use it as a replacement for the standard learning journal or graded notebook.