Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Wow, the latter half 2010 was a doozy for blogging, huh? Twenty-eleven is going to be a big comeback, I think. Maybe.

I'm working on my thesis now which is taking up quite a bit of my brain power. I will write about it here when it's a bit more set in stone. I also have a bunch of ideas I've been working on about pop culture and technology, but I think those will have to be put on the back burner until I've progressed on this thesis creature.

Speaking of creatures and brainpower, I wrote a post about literature over at The Things They Read. Here's an excerpt:
You know how in the The Matrix Morpheus and Trinity strap down Neo into that chair on The Nebuchadnezzar and hook that thing up to the hole in his neck and email him into the computer program designed to simulate 21st century society in sleeping humans’ minds while the sentient machines consume their bodies for energy? Well, books are kind of like that. (Bear with me.) All 2012 robot apocalypse connotations aside, what I’m getting at is that meaningful fiction allows us to enter a kind of opposite matrix: instead of leaving a “real” world and entering a virtual simulacrum to facilitate enslavement, literature allows us to leave an experience of the physical world dominated by language to access a more viscerally “real” one constructed between our minds and the writer’s. Inside our heads, literature (and probably other creative artifacts) liberates us from the desensitized contentment of the linguistic world by warping us to psychic simulations that we feel rather than articulate. More...
Until next time, here's a picture:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Haven't felt qualified to post here in quite a while... I drafted a few things that never panned out and have since been in a state of intense but healthy disequilibrium.

Things are starting to ramp up here at school with my master's thesis impending. I might pop in and out here to think about that, but otherwise I think I'll just start posting cool things I find on the Internet that are tangentially related to anything.

Like this cyborg arboretum:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Research Methods are Complicated

This week, a study was released proposing clear evidence that face-to-face (F2F) instruction is superior to Internet instruction. Here's the excerpt from Educause:
"This paper, written by David N. Figlio, Mark Rush, Lu Yin, presents the first experimental evidence on the effects of live versus internet media of instruction. Students in a large introductory microeconomics course at a major research university were randomly assigned to live lectures versus watching these same lectures in an internet setting, where all other factors (e.g., instruction, supplemental materials) were the same. Counter to the conclusions drawn by a recent U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of non-experimental analyses of internet instruction in higher education, we find modest evidence that live-only instruction dominates internet instruction. These results are particularly strong for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students. The paper also provides suggestions for future experimentation in other settings."
I haven't read the paper yet as I am awaiting the free-ish (since your email "must be connected to a subscribing college, university, or other subscribing institution," which basically means it isn't free) paper, but I see one glaring problem right off the bat, which is this:
"...live lectures versus watching these same lectures in an internet setting, where all other factors (e.g., instruction, supplemental materials) were the same."
My issue is that these things should not be the same online as in a F2F class. I understand that this is what makes the study an "experimental design," but it reinforces a common misconception that online courses are just regular courses uploaded to the Web.

This is like saying instructors should teach a course the same way for a 7 person seminar and a 307 person lecture. They shouldn't. Each has its own set of social dynamics and pedagogical techniques, as do online courses.

This isn't to dispute the results of this study, and I will re-visit this when I get my "free" copy, but we must be mindful of these nuances when talking about computer mediated instruction and Web culture.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Facilitating Conversations through Social Networking Tools

Venessa Miemis over at Emergent By Design has been throwing around some interesting ideas about the next step for social media. She is building on an idea that networks-- the social interconnectedness between us-- are essential to the future because "networks solve the problem of complexity." Social media tools that have emerged in the past 10 years or so have, indeed, centered themselves around networks. However, an essential component to building on and utilizing our networks effectively, she writes, is a remarkably simple return to plain, old conversations:
"...the most effective means towards helping people along their path of self-discovery, or helping them redefine their mission statement for their life or their business, or constructing a vision for their future, or transcending past hang-ups and fear and illusions, is all through conversation."
I think she's on to something.

Social Web tools available now are designed to share and filter information between people on a large scale. This in itself is highly empowering as it's a qualitatively different "way of knowing" than when institutions are filtering and disseminating information for us and to us. However, popular Web culture has not found a way to systematically turn this knowledge exchange into action outside of cyberspace. In other words, the social Web transmits information from people to people very well but does not necessarily do a good job facilitating what Jianwei Zhang calls "knowledge building," or "the sustained progress of ideas" (Zhang, 2009, p. 275). This is problematic, for what we do with the information we gather on the Internet determines whether this whole Web culture thing succeeds or not. While we have seen participatory culture pop up in small pockets here and there, especially with culture jamming and fan videos on YouTube, the average user (maybe...see below) rarely participates in the "extended, progressive inquiry and incremental advancement of ideas" necessary to have useful action or knowledge creation. (See slide 11 for participation statistics).

Here's where the conversation becomes important.

Online social tools like Twitter and Facebook are not designed to facilitate conversation. Twitter's 140 character limit is fun and useful in some cases, but not conducive to conversations. Twitter does not natively pair Tweet responses together, and so dialogic back-and-forths are difficult to keep track of. Futhermore, all utterances on Twitter are broadcast to a large number of followers. Again, this is useful for knowledge sharing, but detrimental to conversation because producing a large number of exclusive Tweets is a social taboo. Facebook has the same problem. Public utterances are confined to small boxes that rarely go beyond 3 or 4 lines of text. The one time I saw a decent conversation happening on someone's wall, he deleted it, probably because the email notifications became a burden. Even worse, the "Like" button has made it easier to respond to posts without saying anything at all. Instead, interactions are reduced to binary reactions rather than nuanced responses. (Can we even say the "Like" button is binary if there's no "Dislike" button??).

Online social interaction are increasingly moving to these spaces. Perhaps it's even replaced things like AIM instant messaging, which was a huge part of early Web culture in my peer group. In turn, synchronous conversations with real-time feedback and instant consequences (instant messaging, face-to-face interactions, phone conversations, etc.) have been replaced by small, discrete blocks of asynchronous reactions.

(Disclaimer: I know I am making huge generalizations here about what "typical" Web interactions look like based on limited data. This perspective is largely anecdotal. Further research [which I am interested in doing, myself] should focus on what typical Web participation looks like on a fine-grained level. This, itself, is paradoxical, however, because there may be no such thing as a "typical" Web user-- the Web, by nature, is fractured, diverse, and resistant to averages and generalizations. However, I need to rely on these assumptions for a minute to make my point, so bear with me).

Thinking back on my own Web participation, activities that provide opportunities for sustained conversation have been my most salient networked experiences. These experiences tended to be focused around a specific concept or idea in a relatively small-scale community, where each member was generally aware of each (or most) other members (kind of sounds like a "community of practice", maybe?). This blog, for example, has a small readership where I feel I can respond to each comment and anchor conversations to the post itself. I've had some interesting conversations through Google Wave, which is a platform centered on conversations. A small class I took last semester created a group Wave, and we had wonderful conversations outside of class. (Sadly, Wave has seemed to have fallen off the social media map recently... can we revive that now? I still think it's a great tool...). My participation in the Infinite Summer online book club and my membership to the Wallace-l mailing list have been the most long-lasting and consistent online conversation spaces. Both center around a specific topic-- David Foster Wallace and his book, Infinite Jest-- and have a cast of recurring participants whose personalities, ideologies, and idiosyncrasies are exposed. There's a sense of community and inclusion I feel on Wallace-l that I do not feel on Facebook or Twitter, even though those networks are made up of people I know in physical space and Wallace-l isn't. I think this largely has to do with the exclusivity and the conversations that occur through the listserv format that makes this so.

While I highly value both Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, the social dynamic is totally different; my interactions there are centered around small, discrete updates broadcast to a large audience of peers. These are still important tools that have important social implications. It's just that these are not designed to bring us forward in the world of Web culture. That is, they are built for sharing and filtering information, not knowledge creation.

Therefore, facilitating conversation rather than discrete reactions is crucial. Junto, an open source project that Venessa Miemis is working on, seems pretty cool. I love the idea of bringing video chatting into the equation-- as Chatroulette has shown us, our faces and voices bring a totally different dynamic to social Web tools. But I think other social networking tools (particularly educational course management systems) should think about the media ecology and criteria of tool use that makes conversations happen.

Anyway, I pass the conch shell to you all. Where have you had full-on conversations on the Web? About what? Have these interactions been meaningful to you? What were the contexts or circumstances? If you've never had a full conversation via the Internet, why not?

Be sure to also join the conversation over at Emergent By Design.


Zhang, J. (2009). Towards a creative social Web for learners and teachers. Educational Researcher, 38, 274-279.

"Conversation: 6/365" photo courtesey of Ame Otoko via Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Little Brother:" Chicken Soup for the Hacker's Soul

I just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel Little Brother (a little late, I know), and it's a pretty solid read. I would expect nothing less from Mr. Doctorow, a great advocate for all things Internet-ey. It’s a book about hacker culture and privacy in the networked world which chronicles the life of Marcus, a rebellious techno-tinkering high school student living in San Francisco. He and his friends get nabbed as suspects by overzealous Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers after terrorists blow up the Oakland Bay Bridge. Marcus is eventually released, but the suppressive and surveillance-happy DHS is given free reign over the city. In response, Marcus helps organize peers on an anonymous Internet service dubbed the Xnet to subvert the DHS's futile attempts to protect San Francisco by any means necessary.

Sound familiar? It should. Although slightly embellished for comic-book-esque drama, the novel is a great conversation-starter for the world’s reaction to terrorism. While the DHS are allegedly trying to protect citizens from violent terrorism, the Xnetters struggle against them to defend the ideological freedom of the same citizens. Are these two conceptions of freedom dependent on each other? Is one more important than the other? If the Xnetters are subverting the DHS’s safety tactics, do they become the new terrorists? What about the original terrorists? The book makes no mention of who actually bombed the bridge, but perhaps that’s the point-- our reaction to terrorist attacks determines if they succeed or not; terrorists catalyze a virus of fear that feeds off itself and snowballs from within the culture they target. Is this a fair representation of the so-called “Global War on Terror?” In this story, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Aside from the political themes, this book is also important as a book about hackers. Marcus and his friends hack into technology to make it do things it’s not intended to do; they make free Xboxes run user-created games and connect to the Xnet; they code programs on their school-issued laptops that let them secretly run chats and other programs over the closed operating system they are “supposed” to be using; they lock their Web interactions behind improvised cryptography. In short, they are controlling technology so that technology doesn't control them.

Similarly, Marcus and the Xnetters are hacking culture by questioning the ideologies they are “supposed” to live by. The students put rocks in their shoes to trick the gait-recognition cameras keeping track of them in the hallways; they skip school to play a collaborative scavenger hunt involving augmented reality, pop culture and math. They use the skills they learned from gaming culture to organize demonstrations challenging the DHL’s authority to surveil their families. They are controlling culture so that culture doesn't control them.

A central theme to much of Doctorow’s work is that the Web gives us the power to do this on a large scale. The ability to create and share perceptions of the lived world rather than being told what and how to think is a qualitatively different way of being for people in the information age. While Little Brother is aimed at young adults, it’s a fairly quick read and relevant to readers of all ages. It’s a good introduction to Web culture and important themes that will ultimately define our super-connected, DIY generation.

Also, while you are weaning yourself off Facebook, check out my profile on GoodReads, a neat little social networking site for books (via @myarbrough). I see a future in conglomerations of interest-based social networking (SoundCloud, Flickr, etc.) rather than these one-profile-fits-all kinds of things. Perhaps someone should start working on a way to link them all together with open standards and a global interface?

The alternate book cover spread above was created by Emerson College student Jeannie Harrell. The interrogation illustration and alternate cover image below are by Richard Wilkinson. Pretty cool, huh? All derivative fan art is made possible by Creative Commons licensing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

An Awful Lot Of 'Us'

Here are a couple cool things I found on the Internet today that I think, put together, make a nice little found narrative:

>> How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet
excerpt via Jason Kottke from a piece written by Douglas Adams in 1993:
I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.
So people complain that there's a lot of rubbish online, or that it's dominated by Americans, or that you can't necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can't 'trust' what people tell you on the web anymore than you can 'trust' what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can't easily answer back -- like newspapers, television or granite. Hence 'carved in stone.' What should concern us is not that we can't take what we read on the internet on trust -- of course you can't, it's just people talking -- but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV -- a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no 'them' out there. It's just an awful lot of 'us'
Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

>> Cyberbullying 2010: What the Research Tells Us, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project:
Basically, these statistics show that lots of students are spending lots of time on the Internet (slides 3, 4 &5) and a small percentage of these students are experiencing bully victimization in cyberpspace. A larger percentage of students report abuse from peers in school than on the Web (slide 15). Although the report considers cyberbullying especially dangerous because of persistence and spreadability, this supports my thesis that cyberbullying is not just a cyberproblem (slide 9).

>> Venessa Miemis
' "Life Manifesto," AKA “My Human Life Manifesto As Of Today, Which I Have The Right To Modify, Edit, Discard, Or Recreate At Any Given Time Should New And Relevant Information Come To Light Or At My Discretion Without Explanation” via Emergent By Design:

And so, in one of humanity’s greatest displays of ingenuity, we have created the Web.

It is not a destination.

It is an interface between minds that transcends space and time.

It is not a solution in and of itself, nor a savior.

It is an opportunity and a tool to find our tribes and ourselves.

It is an environment and an ecology where communities can emerge and unite.

It is a training ground in which to experiment with what might happen if we learn to open our hearts, to trust, to share, to be authentic, to engage in discovery, embrace uncertainty, and allow ourselves and each other to grow.

The Web will not save us.

It can only show us that we already have everything we need in order to heal, and it’s not located out there.

It’s in here.

It always has been.

The solution is us.

We can only save ourselves.

Carry on.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Film It, Dude

A few posts ago, I embedded a short documentary I made with a friend called "Central Square." Here it is again so you don't have to scroll back:

A Google Documents clean-out session turned up the tape logs from Sully's interview that cold, February day on the cobblestone sidewalks of Cambridge, MA. I'm posting them here for two reasons. First, I am re-amazed at how keenly aware and reflective he was about contemporary urban life in his drugged-out swagger. Expounding on the old days, his son's tour in Baghdad and his personal ethics, he shows a deep understanding of the fuzzy tensions between Boston's homeless and swanky college students; between urban apathy and "the brilliancy of the youth"; between modernity and postmodernity. In his soliloquy, he very poignantly states:
"Listen dude. I am covered man. I am bulletholed, shrapnell, I dont give a flip about nothin for nothing, but what I do appreciate is when I saw a war dog going like this. hey shit bum. get over here. Stand in front of the camera, give me your personal opinion."
It would have been very easy for Sully to write us off as some white kids whose parents sent us off to an expensive college to trade imaginary numbers around on Wall Street. But instead, he recognized the power of the camera as an opportunity for social empowerment.

Second, I want to illustrate that in the process of editing, Sully's story becomes partially our story as filmmakers. What made it into the film and how vs. what was left on the cutting room floor is a powerful reminder that what we see on our screens is not the capitol-T-Truth, but rather, "a truth."

So here are the transcripts from Sully's interview. Please excuse the spelling errors... Final Cut does not make logging easy.

These are the kinds of diverse insights we can find with more accessible production tools and the digital literacy skills to use them. Going into our communities with a camera, tripod, and open minds can be a profound opportunity for perceiving the world on our own terms, no matter how rough the final product is (and this short is rough)

But who cares? In the words of Mark John Sullivan, "...look, film it, dude."