Comics, Threats, Censorship, Free Speech

Having written this, I don’t think it says anything new, so let’s categorize this as a summary of recent events for convenience sake, rather than a blistering think piece.

A. The Killing Joke Cover – A recent sequence of events in the comics world:

  1. Recently, DC comics announced a bunch of variant covers celebrating the Joker, and one was released that recalled The Killing Joke, a famous if unevenly celebrated comic by Alan Moore.
  2. Some people reacted negatively to the cover, expressing their ideas that it was too far afield from the current Batgirl comic, and that it generally promoted the wrong idea about the comic.
  3. Some other people reacted negatively to the criticism, directing harassment and threats at the people who had criticized the cover.
  4. DC and the artist decided to pull the cover, citing, in part, the fact that it had generated harassment and threats.

Now various misogynist assholes are crying censorship!  But not about the company’s decision to remove its own artwork, but rather about the fact that protest got it removed.  That protest, in their mind, is censorship.

Here are two interesting and useful takes on the discussion from Shoshanna Kessock and Zac Thompson.

B. Female Thor – A slightly older sequence of events in the comics world:

  1. Marvel announced that a new iteration of Thor would be a woman.
  2. Some people reacted negatively to the news.
  3. Other people argued with them.
  4. Marvel decided to go ahead with the plan (and seems to be making a tidy sum)

Had Marvel decided to pull this comic, would they have cried censorship?  There’s no way to know, but my gut says they would not have cried censorship.

C. Threats vs Censorship – On the recent misogyny, threats, and censorship.

There’s a fascinating feature on BoingBoing about “How imageboard culture shaped Gamergate.”  It makes it much easier to understand how many otherwise pleasant people could adopt such an horrific behavior profile online.

But it’s crucial to think about different kinds of suppression of speech.

  • Censorship is, of course, when someone is kept from speaking / publishing / participating by the government.
  • Intimidation (in this case) is when someone is kept from speaking / publishing / participating by means of threats and harassment.

The enduring irony of #GamerGate and other prominent “defense of that thing I like” movements is that they cry censorship while perpetuating intimidation.  Without irony or a sense of distance.

The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Not threats, not intimidation. The marketplace of ideas needs to be won with ideas.  Any other tactics are unethical, and using them degrades the value and quality of your position.

 

 

 

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Mea Culpa

For your consideration: Apologies.

It was the third episode in this list that got me thinking about the topic.  But here are three moments in my podcast listening that struck me as interesting:

  1. This American Life – “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – After using a whole hour to explore one reporter’s experience in China visiting an Apple factory, This American Life spends a full episode retracting its coverage and apologize. (3/16/2012)
  2. Startup, “We Made a Mistake” – After slipping up by failing to inform one interviewee that they were being interviewed for a commerical, Startup did a whole episode exploring what happened. (12/9/2014)
  3. TL;DR – “Quiet, Wadhwa” – After spending a whole episode (approx 20 minutes) on how a prominent male spokesperson on women in tech is resented by some women in tech, WNYC pulled the episode because the subject of the story had not been given the opportunity to comment on the story.  (2/19/2015)
"Sorry Explored" by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)
“Sorry (Explored)” by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)

Other examples of mistakes and apologies from the last few years:

  • The Newsroom – The entire second season of the Aaron Sorkin show was about a massive error and a retracted episode of the show.
  • Brian Williams – Williams is on forced hiatus right now as his exaggerations about his experiences in Iraq have caught up with him.
  • Bill O’Reilly – After excoriating Brian Williams for his errors, O’Reilly is finding himself under fire for similar mistakes in his reporting.

It all started with Dan Rather, to my mind.  Rather’s downfall over the fraudulent Killian documents occurred in the early days of web 2.0 (2004), when crowd-sourcing was possible and the news media in general was just starting to understand what a powerful fact-checking engine the mob is (many eyeballs make shallow bugs).  Since then, news media have had to answer errors in ever-faster cycles, and address them more thoroughly.

But I’m interested here in the genre of the apology episode. I like to imagine that the apology episodes I’m pointing to spring from a couple factors:

First, podcasts are intimate experiences that feel more like conversations than like stage shows.  A podcaster in your ear feels identical to hearing a telephone call.  So when these intimate acquaintances let us down, it feels more personal.  We expect a personal apology.

Second, with social media, the need for public apology rises dramatically — before social media, one angry person (like, say, the soldier who posted on Brian Williams’ Facebook Page that he didn’t remember Williams being there) now has the ability to be public immediately, and the rumor spreads at the same speed it would in a crowd, but now that crowd is the whole world.

Brian Williams' Apology
Brian Williams’ Apology

Third, they create an honest atmosphere in which trust can be re-built.  The newscaster who shies away from blame makes things worse, not better, for themselves.

I’m curious about this, and have a few questions to think about as the idea continues to evolve for me.

  1. Are apologies of this size and frequency new?  I know there are and have always been retraction columns, and occasionally stories will make big news for the story itself (the Sokal affair comes to mind), but the character of these feels different to me.
  2. Does the heightened awareness among media consumers about how media is made help or hurt these apologies?  In other words, are we more forgiving now that we’re all becoming media producer/consumers?
  3. Is there a lower bar for newscasters (or podcasters) to regain the trust of the listeners than there was before?  If media makers own their mistakes quickly and try to address them ethically (as in the episodes at the top of the page), does this make it easier for them to regain the public’s trust?

 

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Empire State’s Worldbuilder

Empire State Building by Tom Simpson cc-licensed
“Empire State Building” by Tom Simpson
(cc-licensed)

When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience.  In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together.  Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations.  This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader.  Electracy changes the relationship again.  The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up.  But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth.  I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.

First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book.  Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing.  He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself.  This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast.  I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read.  It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page.  Somebody go build that!

Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State.  Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them.  At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote.  The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.

Fan art will appear.  The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work.  This is storytelling in the digital age.

On modern humor

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWVzIfUfjGk]

A few observations without a conclusion.

1. “College Kids Can’t Take A Joke” by Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune (link)
Clarence Page writes about how Chris Rock doesn’t perform for college audiences any more because they’re too sensitive. Page writes:

I marvel at comedians as varied as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Freddie Prinze and Joan Rivers who manage to make us laugh about race, gender, religion, ethnicity and politics while dancing on the edges of our touchiness.

But Rock detects a new uptightness in today’s campus audiences. He blames a social culture that has taken hypersensitivity overboard as we try to protect kids from insults and other painful realities of life — like race relations.

This reminds me of some essay I read a few days ago and can’t find in which a comedian explains how he doesn’t resent having to be more careful about what audiences will tolerate, as often the intolerance comes at the expense of lazy humor aimed at othering people.  I suspect it’s a bit of both.  But I think at the heart of his disdain for ‘over-sensitivity’ is the failure to recognize that sensitivity is a good thing — it’s often tied to empathy.  There’s a difference, of course, between being sensitive to how people feel and being unwilling to discuss difficult things.  I hope it’s the latter Rock is discussing.

2. Clarence Page part 2 – Bill Maher protests

There’s another part of Page’s essay that drives me crazy.  Page connects Rock’s lament about over-sensitive college students to this:

…the issue came up when Rock was asked about a protest that tried to cancel HBO host Bill Maher’s December commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley.

More than 4,000 people signed an online petition to cancel as a protest against his views on Islam, which, among other indignities, he has called “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.”

I strongly disagree with Maher’s smearing of an entire religion for the crimes of its radical fringes. But I also disagree with those who think silencing him would be a sensible response.

As Maher put it, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”

Page calls this censorship, to which I say “Bullshit.”  The proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Among that speech can be “Hey Institution I Like, please don’t pay someone saying odious things to come say them to my face at an event celebrating me.”   One of the results of saying controversial things is that some people will tell you to fuck off, as these 4,000 protesters did.  They aren’t saying “Bill Maher should not be allowed to write or be on tv anymore,” they’re just saying they don’t want to be there when he does it.

As to the snarky reply about hearing things that don’t upset you — they clearly already heard those things, have assessed their value in the give and take of conversation, and told Maher to shove off.

3. Leslie Hall (link)

I like Leslie Hall a lot, particularly for her powerful comedic and musical performances that both revel in and define stereotypes about her body.  I mentioned yesterday liking the song “Tight Pants / Body Rolls,” which is both a powerful claiming of herself as a musician and a self-depreciating look at her own imperfections.  Clearly much of the humor comes from Hall’s stage persona, a cuddly 80s-quaffed power diva, but her self-assured song style (as in “This is How We Go Out”) elevates her act far beyond a gimmick, even as she lovingly infuses many songs with nerdcore aptitudes (as with “Craft Talk”).

4. Jokes about Race

As the issue about Rock brought up, one of the touchiest spaces in modern comedy is in thinking about race.  The “post race” moment we find ourselves in results in an odd experience — the comedic angle that “we’re not racist so we can all laugh together at this racist joke, right?”  It’s this attitude that pushed me away from tosh.0 and makes it less fun than I’d like to play Cards Against Humanity.  I always end up with a hand full of cards playing on race stereotypes because I don’t think they’re funny.

I wonder if Chris Rock would lump me in with those over-sensitive college students he doesn’t want to perform for anymore.

 

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I want to be part of the digital revolution!

Hallie and Jim

This season’s The Newsroom has re-told the story of the Snowden leaks on a smaller scale, exploring the idea of the reporter being jailed for contempt of court on refusing to name their source.  While this has been interesting, I find the plotlines about the intersection of the Internet and the news far more compelling.

Hallie’s work for a gawker-like blog makes Jim upset because her pay depends, to a degree, on traffic.  She begins adopting a more personal writing style (including writing about a fight she had with Jim) which doesn’t seem to be about news so much as about entertainment.  But Hallie makes key points to Jim — first, that audience concerns drives television news too, and that their ability to tell certain stories depends on their audience share.  Second, she asserts that a more personal writing style will connect with the readers.  I couldn’t help but think about the fact that in the digital age, the audience must be much more concerned with the people writing its news.  The automatic credibility obtained by working for ACN, for instance, doesn’t apply to Internet writers, so by building a personal connection with her audience, Hallie is amplifying the connection she makes with them.  Jim’s luxury of being able to only write “real news” is failing, hard. (It’s in her argument with Jim that Hallie shouts “I want to be part of the digital revolution!”)

The most recent episode had two more stories focused on the Internet era.  The new owner of ACN, played with perfect arrogance by B.J. Novak, demands programming and reporting changes that have angered the ‘pure journalists’ of the show but have pulled the network’s ratings up.  At the crux of this episode is their app, ACNywhere, which allows people to post celebrity sightings.  Sloan finds this awful, and invites the arrogant man who created the app on television to eviscerate him.  The episode perfectly captures the tension between the connectedness of the modern age and the dangerous nature of big data and its affordances.

Last, in a highly charged and strongly criticized sub-plot, Don was ordered to do a story on a website where women are invited to share their experiences of sexual assault where the police or other authorities did not pursue charges against the womens’ attackers.  The sub-plot attempted to explore the dangers of unfettered publication on the web, and the possibility for people to be tarnished by that story.  But in failing to adequately address the question of how to cover rape, its real effect was to make a hash of the public debate about rape and our terrible handling of it, both legally and socially.

Sonia Saraiya at Salon makes a convincing argument that the show’s season-length plot about the role of ‘citizen journalists’ is capped by the leaker story, the ultimate citizen journalism case into which all these concerns flow.  It wonders about publicity being directed at those who don’t deserve it, worries about the unforeseen consequences of releasing information into the world, and makes us think about the nature of truth in the digital age.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Kickstarter update

I did a post about Kickstarter in September, noting which projects delivered on time and which were late. When both The Agents and Santa Vs. Dracula showed up at the same time yesterday, I thought it was time to update you.  Here’s an update, with changes marked using “strikethrough” and new notations

Here’s a breakdown of Kickstarters I’ve participated in and their timeliness:

And here are the ones that have not yet missed delivery predictions:

In case you haven’t done the math yourself, this means that 7 (roughly 40%) of my kickstarters have arrived on time.  Another 3 (or 17%) arrived within 3 months of their expected due date.

Six points for a blogging class

Friday Cat Blogging
Friday Cat Blogging, Hurry (by cobalt123)

I’m speaking in a class about blogging today, and feeling a bit out of my depth.  Sure, I’m a blogger. Sure, I’ve been keeping this blog for nearly a decade.  But I don’t make a living at it.  And if you’re a regular reader, you know that my ability to update regularly is spotty at best.  That said, here are my five bullet points to present to today:

1. Tie in your social media – use your blog as an archive (see below)

1.b. – Self promotion is okay, esp if you acknowledge the awkwardness of it

2. Remember the long tail – a well-crafted post can keep bringing back people

2.b. – consider ancillary visits

2.c – Targeted titles for specific purposes – a good title will bring in the nerds

3. Use regular features to spur your content making – for me: book reviews, movie doubles, comics/music roundups, book covers

4. Ebb and Flow – if this isn’t your primary thing, a natural ebb and flow in content will occur.  Don’t let an ebb become a death.

5. Good ethos via good IP practices – quote excerpts, use images you have permission to use, etc etc

The Podcast Summer

I love my music ! by Shiv Shankar Melan Palat

I have a recurring and growing struggle with myself over how to use my “listening time.”  When I’m walking to and from work, or washing dishes, or doing home-improvement projects, I like to listen to things on my iPod. I used to listen to podcasts and audio books in roughly equal numbers.  But lately, I’ve pulled a few extra podcasts into my feed, and while I’m enjoying them immensely, I now have no time to listen to audio books.

I know, “The Horror…,” right?

Anyway, this was a particularly podcast-y August and September since I had to catch up on all the episodes from July that I missed while we were traveling.  Anyhow, here’s my current podcast loadout, in the order that I listen to them:

  • Judge John Hodgman
  • Wham Bam Pow
  • Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me
  • International Waters
  • Jordan, Jesse, GO!
  • Ask Me Another
  • Planet Money
  • On the Media
  • Throwing Shade
  • WTF
  • This American Life
  • Radiolab
  • the memory palace
  • The Moth Podcast

To keep from eating bandwidth from podcasts I don’t have time to listen to anymore, I’ve stopped downloading

  • Escape Pod
  • Starship Sofa
  • The Drabblecast
  • Cory Doctorow’s Craphound

So I ask you, my loyal readers, to what do you listen, and how do you balance those competing demands on your time?

When nothing goes out of print, old and new lose much of their meaning (Lessons from The Long Tail)

Two lessons springing from the long tail (the idea that the digital age makes permanent publication of everything more possible).

ONE: Shame, public consequences, satire

Particularly interesting last week was the flameout of Pax Dickinson, the Chief Technology Officer of Business Insider.  For those who missed the brouhaha I point you to the summary at Popehat, which includes two excellent pieces approaching the scandal from opposite perspectives.

In some ways, I do not need to add to this discussion.  Ken and Clark do a great job covering both angles.  But I also want to highlight something John Scalzi wrote on Twitter (which I saw when John Walter RT’d it):

The failure mode of clever is asshole; the failure mode of Twitter satire is fired.

As Clark pointed out at Popehat, Dickinson’s Twitter feed was quote mined in the article that started the whole brouhaha.  His most infamous tweet was a direct satire of Mel Gibson’s drunken ravings to a police officer.  But out of context it just looked shockingly rude.  Ken points out the more important issue, that some of Dickinson’s tweets weren’t just bad taste, but legally troubling (such as one about hiring practices in IT departments).

For me, the whole thing reiterates two key traits for New Media users:

  1. It’s worthwhile to do research and reserve judgment until you know what the facts are.  While I find Dickinson’s satire quite troubling and obnoxious, the clear evidence of the satirical attempt ameliorates many of the more disturbing posts he’s made.  By reserving public scorn for a few days, I don’t find myself in the position to apologize or retract my writing.
  2. The long tail remains a tripping hazard.  Dickinson’s entire Twitter history establishes his intent, but it also becomes a rich vein from which quote miners can dig all sorts of terrible gold.

TWO: The strange landscape of this summer’s music

NPR’s Planet Money did a great episode (#472, “Top of the Charts“) back in July about how two of the three “songs of the summer” were old songs.  Both Macklemore and Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” and Iconopop’s “I Love It” were released more than a year ago, but they wound their way to the charts via rising YouTube fame and a key television spot, respectively.

Another popular song that has a similarly strange route to the top is Anna Kendrick’s “Cups,” which was originally performed by the Carter Family in the 1930s and updated by Lulu and the Lampshades in 2009.  Kendrick’s star power (and the song’s role in Pitch Perfect) drove the song into the spotlight and pushed it steadily up the charts.

I suspect this phenomenon, in which an old song finds a slow route to popularity and/or a regular return to prominence will only accelerate as the line between new and re-new continues to blur, and the availability of everything published continues to expand.

When nothing goes out of print, old and new lose much of their meaning.

Facebook likes for sad events: the digital condolence five

Condolence Five
Clicking “Like” on a sad Facebook update. It’s a thing.

In “Good Crazy,” a season 7 episode of How I Met Your Mother, Barney comes up with a “Condolence Five,” a way to offer condolences to someone about something sad.  He keeps saying “It’s a thing.”  Of course, in classic #HIMYM fashion, by the end of the episode it IS a thing that Barney uses to console a Japanese business man at the blackjack table.

Every now and again, I’ll see a sad post someone put on Facebook, and inevitably there are “likes” on it.  These are clearly meant to be reassuring or supportive rather than the more direct “I like that you posted this sad news” or worse, “I like this news you’ve posted.”

The parallel is inescapable. The Condolence Like is a thing.

Kickstarter results tracking

I’m a bit of a Kickstarter addict.  I particularly like comics and board games on Kickstarter.  I’m a glutton.  I’ve discovered, though, that a lot of projects are not good at delivering on time.  Here’s a breakdown of Kickstarters I’ve participated in and their timeliness:

And here are the ones that have not yet missed delivery predictions:

It seems like the big lesson with Kickstarters would be to add in extra time on your prediction so that you have wiggle room for shipping errors or whatnot.  Teramydd seems already to be off track, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

* I literally just noticed this today, so I’ve emailed to see if they can fix it. No biggie.

Insane Clown Posse showed up on The Soup last night. It’s worth a watch.

After the clip, I realized Jenny didn’t know who ICP are, and I proceeded to explain it to her.  After which she reflected that, for someone who has never listened to their music, I seem to know an awful lot about the Insane Clown Posse.  To which I riposted that ICP has had a number of high-water marks in the larger culture.  And then it occurred to me what a remarkable success they are.  Consider:

  • They began rapping casually in the late 1980s, and changed from their old name to their new name in the mid-90s (see Wikipedia for an in-depth discussion of this transformation).
  • They developed an intense following among white rap fans and professional wrestling fans.  See an early discussion of their wavering subculture/mainstream status on the Frontline special THE MERCHANTS OF COOL and a recent discussion on Wired.
  • They’ve cultivated these committed fans into a die-hard sub-culture with events like “Gathering of the Juggalos,” a yearly campout / music concert which has gained its own Internet fame for its bizarre and hilarious advertisements as well as for the voyeuristic views of the subculture itself.
  • ICP were the subject of a small meme-storm three years ago when they wrote a song called “Miracles,” which included the line “f’in magets, how do they work?”  Saturday Night Live did a very funny send up of the video.
  • And now they’ve done a very funny (if random) bit on The Soup, a touchstone for tv subculture and weirdness outlet.

One of the more puzzling things about ICP is that at least a significant portion of their fanbase take the horrifying material seriously.  And its unclear how seriously the band members themselves take their strange act.  What we can’t deny is that they’ve become masters at managing and growing a subculture, of fostering loyalty for their fans, and of using new media to do so.

Rule 34

Rule 34
Rule 34

Rule 34
by Charles Stross

Stross’ follow up to Halting State walks the precarious line between being a too-close sequel and different enough to be entertaining.  Rule 34 follows the continuing adventures of Liz Kavanaugh, former homicide investigator for Ediburough CID whose career was derailed and has landed in the Rule 34 squad, charged with finding and stopping the worst of Internet crimes in North Scotland.  Along comes a complicated case involving 3D printers, complex money-schemes, high-end organized crime, and a series of murders perpetrated against spammers all around the world.  Also, did I mention the psychopath MBA crime boss? A few thoughts:

  • I’m still not convinced that the second person gimmick adds anything to the book.  Especially given the large number of characters in the tale, it seems like an unnecessary contortion that just gets in the way of the storytelling.
  • Stross has expanded (if that was possible) the role of the heads-up glasses and the reality-augmentation scheme COPSPACE in this book, further highlighting how pervasive he believes the information sphere will become.  The panoptic nature of the world in the story is nearly as terrifying as anything the murderer does.
  • Once again, arcane actions by remote entities make up much of the crime in the book, giving Detective Kavanaugh a strange role as one of many blind men holding onto the elephant, trying to determine its final shape.  In this tale it feels like we got a better view of the elephant, but the final solution is pretty complicated nonetheless.
  • As with most Stross novels, the way technology has worked its magic on society seems like both a foregone conclusion and a natural fit.  He does a great job making you believe in the 3d printers, the ubiquitous VR, the complex anti-spam software, and more.
  • Once again, this novel makes me wish that all police had to wear cameras and record every moment they are on duty.  The notion of he-said/she-said disputes in this day and age is just stupid.

An enjoyable novel, but not better or worse than Halting State IMO, and still not as good as Accelerando.

Stross’ follow up to Halting State walks the precarious line between being a too-close sequel and different enough to be entertaining.  Rule 34 follows the continuing adventures of Liz Kavanaugh, former homicide investigator for Ediburough CID whose career was derailed and has landed in the Rule 34 squad, charged with finding and stopping the worst of Internet crimes in North Scotland.  Along comes a complicated case involving 3D printers, complex money-schemes, high-end organized crime, and a series of murders perpetrated against spammers all around the world.  Also, did I mention the psychopath MBA crime boss? A few thoughts:

·         I’m still not convinced that the second person gimmick adds anything to the book.  Especially given the large number of characters in the tale, it seems like an unnecessary contortion that just gets in the way of the storytelling.

·         Stross has expanded (if that was possible) the role of the heads-up glasses and the reality-augmentation scheme COPSPACE in this book, further highlighting how pervasive he believes the information sphere will become.  The panoptic nature of the world in the story is nearly as terrifying as anything the murderer does.

·         Once again, arcane actions by remote entities make up much of the crime in the book, giving Detective Kavanaugh a strange role as one of many blind men holding onto the elephant, trying to determine its final shape.  In this tale it feels like we got a better view of the elephant, but the final solution is pretty complicated nonetheless.

·         As with most Stross novels, the way technology has worked its magic on society seems like both a foregone conclusion and a natural fit.  He does a great job making you believe in the 3d printers, the ubiquitous VR, the complex anti-spam software, and more. 

·         Once again, this novel makes me wish that all police had to wear cameras and record every moment they are on duty.  The notion of he-said/she-said disputes in this day and age is just stupid.

An enjoyable novel, but not better or worse than Halting State IMO, and still not as good as Accelerando.

It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.

Pre-reading:

Monkey with glasses
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy.  In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion.  These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers.  By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.

At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model.  I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.

1. Lectures, information, and syllabi

For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.”  We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests.  Hopefully some of it sticks.  This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied.  Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.

The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity.  Information is no longer rare.  It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed.  On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either.  A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.

As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time.  For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.

2. Convenience

It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study.  They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.

Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon.  And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.

But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.

3. Credentialling

The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist.  By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer.  As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well.  Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future.  Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.

These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions.  As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.

In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.

Read more: We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4