The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral

Opening keynote for dLRN 2015. Delivered October 16th @ Stanford. Actual keynote may have gone on significant tangents…

1 | a year in the garden

A week or so ago, I was reading about the Oregon shooting. I’m a pretty standard issue liberal and when I see things that support my liberal views I tend to notice them.

So when I see this line in an article I get all excited. This is from the CSJ:

The prevalence of gun ownership in a given state is “significantly associated with state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings, and mass shootings,” according to a study published last July from numbers compiled of mass killings in the US between 2006 to December 2013.

So the blood starts pumping. Dammit, I’m right. When will the world see it?

  via xkcd

So a year ago I would have thrown the link to Twitter with a damning summary of the study, and everyone would have known I was a good liberal and retweeted it to prove that they were good liberals and if you listened closely you could hear our collective neurons harden.

But for the past year I’ve been experimenting with another form of social media called federated wiki. And it’s radically changed how I think about online communication and collaboration.

I don’t want people to get hung up on the technology angle. I think sometimes people hear “Federated Thingamabob” and just sort of tune out thinking “Oh, he’s talking about a feature of Federated Thingamabob.” But I’m not. I’m really not. I’m talking about a different way to think your online activity, no matter what tool you use. And relevant to this conference, I’m talking about a different way of collaborating as well.

Without going to much into what my federated wiki journal is, just imagine that instead of blogging and tweeting your experience you wiki’d it. And over time the wiki became a representation of things you knew, connected to other people’s wikis about things they knew.

So when I see an article like this I think — Wow, I don’t have much in my wiki about gun control, this seems like a good start to build it out and I make a page.

The first thing I do is “de-stream” the article. The article is about Oregon, but I want to extract a reusable piece out of it in a way that it can be connected to many different things eventually. I want to make a home page for this idea or fact. My hub for thinking about this. So I make a page like so:


This is the most basic page I can imagine — it’s pretty close to a tweet, and it took about as much time. I looked through the revision history and it took me about 45 seconds to make this much of the page, about the time it takes to tweet something. I started at 6:57 a. m. and had this up by 6:58.

I wander away from it for a bit. I go and get my coffee and make sure the kids are getting ready for school. When I come back I see this page and I think, you know what would make this page better? A link to the actual study. So  I spend a couple more minutes and track down the actual paper and add it.

I add it, because this is the home page for this idea of mine on the web, and the home page for the idea should have a link to the study.

Here we note we have a link to the study and indicate the link is only available via subscription.

So far this is not terribly different than tweeting. But now I look for things to link it to. I search my wiki for articles on suicide I could link this to.

And I get really excited, because I remember the Suicide Belt article I wrote six months ago, and realize that would be a perfect link. So I link to it and read it again. And what I’m trying to do now is think about what sentence I put in front of the link. I’m thinking about how I define the relation.

However, reading it I realize it’s not the clean sort of support I was thinking about.

Why? Because when I link to it it reminds me that many sociologists believe the suicide belt is a result of the White, middle-aged demographics of the American West. Suicide rates in White populations are more than twice those in Black populations and the recent rise in suicide rates (so far) is a purely a White population phenomenon.

This punctures my simple story where more guns = more suicides because the truth is that western states full of White males are going to tend to have both more gun ownership and more suicide.

So I write up my link:

I say that there’s a regional issue, but a potential lurking variable is male Whiteness of population.

Note how different this sort of meaning making is from what we generally see on today’s web. The excitement here is in building complexity, not reducing it. More importantly note how meaning changes here. We probably know what the tweet would have “meant”, and what a blog post would have “meant”, but meaning here is something different. Instead of building an argument about the issue this attempts to build a model of the issue that can generate new understandings.

I’ve been working with Ward Cunningham, the guy who invented the original wiki back in 1995, on the educational use of this new personal wiki technology for a year and a half now, and I’ve been keeping this personal wiki, which is a collection of both my own stuff and stuff I’ve copied from other websites for over a year now.

I have close to 1,000 articles in my personal wiki at this point. I have maybe 1,000 more scattered on other sites. They are from myself and others, most simple summaries of ideas I encounter, or data, or examples of ideas. Some are the result of afternoon-long rainy Saturday coffee shop investigations, but most are like what I have just showed you here, simple knowledge that builds complexity through linking.

And when you get to that point, where you’ve mapped out 1000s of articles of your own knowledge you start to see impacts on your thought that are very hard to describe.

Over time these things you write up start to form a deep network that helps you think. Here’s a representation of links to and from a page called “On Its Side” in my own wiki that details how Kandinsky invented his version of abstract art after seeing a representational painting of his on its side and not recognizing it as representational (and finding it vastly improved).

You can see this is tied via associative links to and from it to computer generated poetry of the 1980s, a “found haiku” called Haiku by a Robot (“710,711,712”), an incident on the Twin Peaks set that led to the creation of the Killer Bob character, and Stravinsky’s attraction to the player piano. Other trails branch off into the relation between early abstract art and the Theosophical Movement. Together these things have meaning far more subtle and rich than one could get from a post or paper, a knowledge keeps its fluidity and continues to generate new insights.

And weirdly, these links were compiled over the space of a year, just by noting things I learned or heard and linking them to things I’d heard before or that others had written. I created a wiki on issues of found art without even knowing it.

This experience has radically changed me, to the point I find it hard to communicate with a lot of technologists anymore. It’s like trying to explain literature to someone who has never read a book. You’re asked “So basically a book is just words someone said written down?” And you say no, it’s more than that. But how is it more than that?

This is my attempt to abstract from this experience something more general about the way in which we collaborate on the web, and the way in which it is currently very badly out of balance..

I am going to make the argument that the predominant form of the social web — that amalgam of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Reddit, Instagram — is an impoverished model for learning and research and that our survival as a species depends on us getting past the sweet, salty fat of “the web as conversation” and on to something more timeless, integrative, iterative, something less personal and less self-assertive, something more solitary yet more connected.

I don’t expect to convince many of you, but I’ll take what I can get.

2 | the garden and the stream

To talk about this effectively I’d like to introduce two terms representing different approaches to the Web: The Garden and the Stream. Each of these terms has a history that predates me, but we’re going to tweak the definitions for our own purposes.

The Garden is an old metaphor associated with hypertext. Those familiar with the history will recognize this. The Garden of Forking Paths from the mid-20th century. The concept of the Wiki Gardener from the 1990s. Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens.

The Garden is the web as topology. The web as space. It’s the integrative web, the iterative web, the web as an arrangement and rearrangement of things to one another.

Things in the Garden don’t collapse to a single set of relations or canonical sequence, and that’s part of what we mean when we say “the web as topology” or the “web as space”. Every walk through the garden creates new paths, new meanings, and when we add things to the garden we add them in a way that allows many future, unpredicted relationships

We can see this here in this collage of photos of a bridge in Portland’s Japanese Garden. I don’t know if you can see this, but this is the same bridge from different views at different times of year.

The bridge is a bridge is a bridge — a defined thing with given boundaries and a stated purpose. But the multi-linear nature of the garden means that there is no one right view of the bridge, no one correct approach. The architect creates the bridge, but it is the visitors to the park who create the bridge’s meaning. A good bridge supports many approaches, many views, many seasons, maybe many uses, and the meaning of that bridge will even evolve for the architect over time.

In the Garden, to ask what happened first is trivial at best. The question “Did the bridge come after these trees” in a well-designed garden is meaningless historical trivia. The bridge doesn’t reply to the trees or the trees to the bridge. They are related to one another in a relatively timeless way.

This is true of everything in the garden. Each flower, tree, and vine is seen in relation to the whole by the gardener so that the visitors can have unique yet coherent experiences as they find their own paths through the garden. We create the garden as a sort of experience generator, capable of infinite expression and meaning.

The Garden is what I was doing in the wiki as I added the Gun Control articles, building out a network of often conflicting information into a web that can generate insights, iterating it, allowing that to grow into something bigger than a single event, a single narrative, or single meaning.

The Stream is a newer metaphor with old roots. We can think of the”event stream” of programming, the “lifestream” proposed by researchers in the 1990s. More recently, the term stream has been applied to the never ending parade of Twitter, news alerts, and Facebook feeds.

In the stream metaphor you don’t experience the Stream by walking around it and looking at it, or following it to its end. You jump in and let it flow past. You feel the force of it hit you as things float by.

It’s not that you are passive in the Stream. You can be active. But your actions in there — your blog posts, @ mentions, forum comments — exist in a context that is collapsed down to a simple timeline of events that together form a narrative.

In other words, the Stream replaces topology with serialization. Rather than imagine a timeless world of connection and multiple paths, the Stream presents us with a single, time ordered path with our experience (and only our experience) at the center.

In many ways the Stream is best seen through the lens of Bakhtin’s idea of the utterance. Bakhtin saw the utterance, the conversational turn of speech, as inextricably tied to context. To understand a statement you must go back to things before, you must find out what it was replying to, you must know the person who wrote it and their speech context. To understand your statement I must reconstruct your entire stream.

And of course since I can’t do that for random utterances, I mostly just stay in the streams I know. To use a post-modern turn of phrase, the Stream is “inhospitable to strangers.”  If the Garden is exposition, the stream is conversation and rhetoric, for better and worse.

You see this most clearly in things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. But it’s also the notifications panel of your smartphone, it’s also email, it’s also to a large extent blogging. Frankly, it’s everything now.

Whereas the garden is integrative, the Stream is self-assertive. It’s persuasion, it’s argument, it’s advocacy. It’s personal and personalized and immediate. It’s invigorating. And as we may see in a minute it’s also profoundly unsuited to some of the uses we put it to.

The stream is what I do on Twitter and blogging platforms. I take a fact and project it out as another brick in an argument or narrative or persona that I build over time, and recapitulate instead of iterate.

3 | the original garden

I’m going to assume most people in the room here have read Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay As We May Think. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to.

If you haven’t read it I also kind of envy you. Reading that article for the first time was one of the great experiences of my life, and I think even today, after the web has made exposure to hypertext common it is still an amazing experience.

Now when people talk about Bush’s article, they are usually talking about the portion that starts around section six, which seems so prescient, so predictive of the web to come. He talks there about a machine he envisions called the Memex:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

Just to give you a sense of what that looks like in practice, here’s a short reconstruction from a 50th anniversary Macromedia piece: 

So most people say this is the original vision of the web. And certainly it was the inspiration of those pioneers of hypertext.

But in reality it doesn’t predict the web at all . Not at all. The web works very little like this. It’s weird, because in our minds the web still works like this, but it’s a fiction.

Let’s look at some of the attributes of the memex.

Your machine is a library not a publication device. You have copies of documents is there that you control directly, that you can annotate, change, add links to, summarize, and this is because the memex is a tool to think with, not a tool to publish with.

And this is crucial to our talk here, because these abilities – to link, annotate, change, summarize, copy, and share — these are the verbs of gardening.

Each memex library contains your original materials and the materials of others. There’s no read-only version of the memex, because that would be silly. Anything you read you can link and annotate. Not reply to, mind you. Change. This will be important later.

Links are associative. This is a huge deal. Links are there not only as a quick way to get to source material. They aren’t a way to say, hey here’s the interesting thing of the day. They remind you of the questions you need to ask, of the connections that aren’t immediately evident.

Links are made by readers as well as writers. A stunning thing that we forget, but the link here is not part of the author’s intent, but of the reader’s analysis. The majority of links in the memex are made by readers, not writers. On the world wide web of course, only an author gets to determine links. And links inside the document say that there can only be one set of associations for the document, at least going forward.

Going further into the document:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities…

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.

I’m blown away by the vision of this every time I read this. But not because this has happened, but because it *hasn’t* happened. I’m blown away because here, in 2015, there are elements to this vision that we still haven’t explored.

More than that, there’s a substance to the vision that you can’t help but long for reading it. Note that connections here aren’t banter, but the construction of a mental model of a subject area. And that model can be taken by someone else and extended, built on. Humanity can advance, not through argument by through a true collaboration.

It really is the ultimate garden.

4 | enter the stream

So when we look at the web today, we see very little of this original vision. What happened?

Originally I had a long narrative in this section, and the story moved between the WELL and Howard Rheingold and Dave Winer and mailing lists, and Jorn Barger’s epic goodbye to the Kate Bush news group.

Maybe we can have an outtakes section that captures that? Maybe beers tonight is the outtakes section. Maybe whether you like it or not.

But I’ll boil it down to this. It came down to who had the power to change things. It came down to the right to make copies.

On the web, if you wanted to read something you had to read it on someone else’s server where you couldn’t rewrite it, and you couldn’t annotate it, you couldn’t copy it, and you couldn’t add links to it, you couldn’t curate it.

These are the verbs of gardening, and they didn’t exist on the early web.

But what a server-centric web is really good at is distributed conversation. A bunch of people frustrated with Usenet and mailing lists and BBS culture realized this, and they created something that was half-hypertext, half forum. And it was called blogging and it was beautiful, and it turned out to be the prototypical Stream. And when they added syndication to that model it became amazing.

So in 2006 or so Twitter, Facebook and other sites move to a model directly inspired by this personal page + feed reader combination. You have a page which represents you, in a reverse chronological stream — your Facebook page or Twitter home page.The pages of people you are friends with get aggregated into a serialized time ordered feed. Your Stream becomes your context and your interface.

And we see that develop into the web as we know it today. A web of “hey this is cool” one-hop links. A web where where links are used to create a conversational trail (a sort of “read this if you want to understand what I am riffing on” link) instead of associations of ideas.

The “conversational web”. A web obsessed with arguing points. A web seen as a tool for self-expression rather than a tool for thought. A web where you weld information and data into your arguments so that it can never be repurposed against you. The web not as a reconfigurable model of understanding but of sealed shut presentations.

And a web that can be beautiful and still is beautiful on so many days. I can’t stress this enough. I’m not here to bury the Stream, I love the Stream.

But it’s an incomplete experience, and it’s time we fixed that.

5 | implications

So what’s the big picture here? Why am I so obsessed with the integrative garden over the personal and self-assertive stream? Blogs killed hypertext — but who cares, Mike?

I think we’ve been stuck in some unuseful binaries over the past years. Or perhaps binaries that have outlived their use.

So what I’m asking you all to do is put aside your favorite binaries for a moment and try out the garden vs. the stream. All binaries are fictions of course, but I think you’ll find the garden vs. the stream is a particularly useful fiction for our present moment.


Let’s start with OER. I’ve been involved with Open Educational Resources many years, and I have to say that I’m shocked and amazed that we still struggle to find materials.

We announced an open textbook initiative at my school the other day, and one of the first people to email me said she taught State and Local Government and she’d love to ditch the textbook.

So I go look for a textbook on State and Local Government. Doesn’t exist. So I grab the syllabus and look at what sorts of things need explaining.

It’s stuff like influence of local subsidies on development. Now if you Google that term, how many sites in the top 50 will you find just offering a clear and balanced treatment of what it is, what the recent trends are with it, and what seems to be driving the trends?

The answer is none. The closest you’ll find is an article from something called the Encyclopedia of Earth which talks about the environmental economics of local energy subsidies.

Everything else is either journal articles or blog posts making an argument about local subsidies. Replying to someone. Building rapport with their audience. Making a specific point about a specific policy. Embedded in specific conversations, specific contexts.

Everybody wants to play in the Stream, but no one wants to build the Garden.

Our traditional binary here is “open vs. closed”. But honestly that’s not the most interesting question to me anymore. I know why textbook companies are closed. They want to make money.

What is harder to understand is how in nearly 25 years of the web, when people have told us what they THINK about local subsidies approximately one kajillion times we can’t find one — ONE! — syllabus-ready treatment of the issue.

You want ethics of networked knowledge? Think about that for a minute — how much time we’ve all spent arguing, promoting our ideas, and how little time we’ve spent contributing to the general pool of knowledge.

Why? Because we’re infatuated with the stream, infatuated with our own voice, with the argument we’re in, the point we’re trying to make, the people in our circle we’re talking to.

People say, well yes, but Wikipedia! Look at Wikipedia!

Yes, let’s talk about Wikipedia. There’s a billion people posting what they think about crap on Facebook.

There’s about 31,000 active wikipedians that hold English Wikipedia together. That’s about the population of Stanford University, students, faculty and staff combined, for the entire English speaking world.

We should be ashamed. We really should.

Learning Design

This brings us to learning design. Dave Cormier had an interesting post a month or so ago about how “every we makes a them”. You get a large class together and it fragments, partially to protect itself from scale. Cliques develop. The cool kids table emerges. Others complain they are not being attended to, the cool kids say well sorry but we know each other and we want to sit next to one another.

It’s interesting to me that we so assume that online interaction is about conversation via blogging, tweeting, commenting — and ONLY about conversation that we assume this is the way things must be.

We and them is built into the logic of the Stream. In blogging, each person gets to define who they believe is in the conversation they are having. That’s what blogging/twitter/facebook is, by definition.

But where are the cool kids in the Memex? In the Va-NEE-var Bush scenario? I’m sure they are there — someone gets linked more than someone else, maybe unfairly. We know this sort of thing happens.

But compared to blogging, which is so personality and conversation driven, I can’t help but feel that we’d be looking at a massive improvement in bridging social boundaries.

Kate Bowles, who graced us with her presence in both the fedwiki happenings, had a metaphor she liked for the learning environment of what we are calling gardeners here. She talked about Studio Space, the idea of working next to people while building, of looking at their stuff out of the corner of your eye. Your *work* reacts and connects to theirs, not in this disposable or reactive way, but in this iterative way.

And it’s about getting back to the idea that our Personal Learning Network isn’t just our twitter followers, but is an effort to connect work together not just people. And maybe to understand the process of connecting and building and extending the work of others is as human and engaging as the conversational Stream.


I’m not quite sure where else to put this so here we go. I’ve talked about this tool federated wiki for a year and a half. And people have nodded and said, oh OK, Mike likes this piece of software he’s working on called federated wiki. (And I do!)

But what federated wiki is the Dynabook. It’s the crazy stuff you’d see if you had walked into Xerox PARC in 1977. You’ll see some of its solutions in tools in 10 years. Documents that choose proliferation over centralization. Page and paragraph level-forking. Edit and fork trails that travel with the document. Link resolution contexts that build off those trails. Page items as JSON, with serial numbers that can be tracked across a new sort of web. Page names that form semantic networks in interesting name collisions.

But I’m here to tell you if you are a tool builder you need to start thinking how to build this into your own tools. There are ways we can hack this.

Let me give you a simple example — we just mentioned the OER problem, right? Nobody can find good OER on certain subjects. But imagine a world where you write an article named Subsidies and Local Government in WordPress, and that pings a notifier that indexes that page. And immediately you are notified of all pages named this, and presented with a list of pages those pages link to.

You look at the pages, and you pull the good ones (Environmental Concerns and Local Subsidies) into your garden. You rewrite some of the bad ones. These ping out from the notifier, and suddenly you can browse for OER across thousands of disconnected sites the way we saw earlier with the Kandinsky example.

I don’t know if I showed you this in the Kandinsky example but you can actually click links in the network and it recenters the graph. Here  we click on Objet Trouve, a backlink two degrees out and see the links from there:

Imagine that — you plug in one term from your syllabus, and you’re plugged into a rich array of content. It’s almost like hypertext, right?

If you understand what the distributed, overlapping garden looks like you can do this to your own tools. You could build these sort of systems in WordPress, Pinboard, Scalar, whatever. You could make your portfolio system more like this, your LO repository more like this.

And funders: And if there are any funders out there — fund this sort of experimentation, all of it. The potential here is huge, and the reluctance to fund tools has long been the blind spot of open education funding.

6 | green shoots

I could go into other examples — really, i could go on.  But I think it might be more productive and efficient to let you all see if the metaphor helps conceptualize your own challenges in helpful ways. We have a couple days to talk about this.

And so we come to the question of whether we are at a turning point. Do we see a rebirth of garden technologies in the present day? That’s always a tough call, asking an activist like me to provide a forecast of the future. But let me respond while trying not to slip into wishful analysis.

I think maybe we’re starting to see a shift. In 2015, out of nowhere, we saw web annotation break into the mainstream. This is a garden technology that has risen and fallen so many times, and suddenly people just get it. Suddenly web annotation, which used to be hard to explain, makes sense to people. When that sort of thing happens culturally it’s worth looking closely at.

Github has taught a generation of programmers that copies are good, not bad, and as we noted, it’s copies that are essential to the Garden.

The Wikimedia Education project has been convincing teachers there’s a life beyond student blogging.

David Wiley has outlined a scheme whereby students could create the textbooks of the future, and you can imagine that rather than create discrete textbooks we could engage students in building a grand web of knowledge that could, like Bush’s trails, be reconfigured and duplicated to serve specific classes and purposes.

And from my own perspective, the project I’m working on with Ward Cunningham, federated wiki, made zero sense to people even two years ago, but I can feel a sea change now when I describe it. I’m still starting the ball from the back of the field, but at least I’m on the field. I’ll take it.

And finally, here we are today.  My sense is that this conference is an attempt to think bigger than the next app, the next press release, the next buzzword; that what we want to do here is to seriously interrogate the assumptions that are hidden in plain sight. The fact we’re doing this, here and now — to me that’s a sign as well. And it’s promising.

There’s so much I had to cut out of this talk, about cross-institutional collaboration, about the stream and exclusion, the Garden and integrative education. I hope you’ll ask me about some of those, either in a couple minutes here or over the next few days.

But I’ll leave you with this: we can imagine a world, I think, so much better than this one, if only we can get our heads out of the Stream for a bit, and build the Garden we need. So let’s talk about how to do that.