Seeing through the looking glass – The most important skill of the 21st century.

I’ve had a bit of a bad week folks… I’ve had several people tell me that I need to be more politic if I wish to succeed. In response, I’m going to write a little something about what I think is the one cure for the society that actually makes that true. Truth is… I’m not saying those folks are wrong. “Stay on message” is a tried and tested way of getting ahead. Being nice to people in positions of power is a far better way of getting them to, say, appear on your show. But. but. I look at Oscar and I ask myself, do I really want you to have to keep giving a little of that honesty “i want that banana damnit” to get ahead. I know he’ll have to do some of it. I understand we have a social contract that doesn’t allow us to simply do whatever the hell we want… but I do think that there is something that education can do to make it so that “stay on message” ends up being a little less productive, and, therefore, less used. Man would I like to see honesty popular. Even a path to success.

Stay on message
Just to make sure that everyone knows what I’m referring to “stay on message” refers to the idea that if someone says the same thing often enough, regardless of how groundless, ridiculous or terrible that thing may be, it becomes true for the person hearing it. Traditionally, this is something that has played itself out more in military situations, in torture, in places where someone has enough power to force you to listen to something over and over again. Now, as the downside of ubiquity of communication, a french fry company can say “ha, i used to think that french fries were bad for me, i was so stupid” in earshot of me thousands of times, through the radio, through TV, through the internet… anywhere. Consciously, I don’t have to believe it… but those advertisers aren’t working on me specifically, they’re working on percentages. If 75% of the people are 2% more likely to eat french fries every fifty times they hear the ad, the company makes a fortune. If, to maybe bring up a touchier subject, someone says that “we went to Iraq to get rid of a dictator, and the world is better off without him” often enough… my conscious mind doesn’t have to believe it… but it’s just close enough to the truth to cut the edge off my anger. (Well… not mine, but apply the 75% – 2% thing I said earlier) So… stay on message, things become true-er.

A quick word about this word. Media, in the sense that I’m using it here, is a particular kind of sign. It’s a representation of a product, an emotion… anything really, anything that was created with the express intent to communicating something to you the viewer, with the intent of making some kind of gain…. so

  • A movie made to get you to pay to go see it
  • An image of a poor child trying to get you to ‘help
  • A t-shirt with a logo meant to make you buy the product
  • Music

One of the reasons media works
There’s a sense in which media reflects itself back upon the viewer. While I’m writing this post (second time… had to save it and come back to it… and I’m still not happy with the way the words are coming out) I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s Desire. As soon as I say that a few things probably happen in your brain… if you’re familiar with the album, maybe a bunch of things. But I have built a little bit of my character in your mind. And we all identify ourselves to other people in the things that we do, wear and say. What I’m trying to talk about here is one step further. What happens to ME when i listen to the song. Or, even better, when i sing along. Let’s take Isis

I was thinkin’ about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold,
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold,
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.

For me, at least, there’s a certain identification that happens… a ‘getting into the story’ that i particularly like about this kind of Dylan song. I can, for a few moments, identify with the man who thinks about how reckless his journey appears to his ‘wife.’

There is a sense in which all media works this way. If I’m looking at a commercial for sporting equipment, or beer, the advertisers are creating a scenario to create the context to which they hope i wish to belong. “clean, easy drinking taste.” A woman in a cowboy hat. A bar with sports playing in the background. This what i represent when I hold some watery alcohol infused concoction with a label on it.

These things, however, are pretty easily identified. I know a commercial is a commercial… it comes between the shows I wish to watch. The internet, however, throws a whole ball of wacko into the works. Any given place, every given piece of text, all the media that comes out of it might be selling something. It’s selling ideas, it’s selling books, it’s selling ideas that might sell books. Now… brand placement in movies has been happening for years, funny how that bottle of COAK always seems to have its label pointing toward the camera. But at least when we’re watching a movie we’re suspecting it. If I see Joe Cool holding a coak, and have that sudden sense that I would be cool if I was holding a coak I can say “wait one gosh darned minute” and figure that I’ve been imprinted somehow. Or, more likely, when looking for something to drink in a store, gravitate to the coak for some reason i’m not entirely conscious of.

Oh but the internet. Is this thingy that I’m reading really someone’s opinion? Are they being told not to say something? Who pays their salary? What job are they trying to get? What is their business model? How are they trying to make me identify with them? How does what they say make me feel and why would they want me to feel this way? Why are they doing all this anyway?

How, in effect, is the particular piece of media trying to make me do something and why did the creators of it want me to do it?

Some tools…

The neologism, as you might imagine, is one that many people have adopted. The one I’m referring to is Nicholas Carr’s idea. That is referring to all the intermediaries that come between you and something you are buying online. Here is his article from 2000 and his follow up article on web 2.0. Take a quick read over them. He does a great job in the first one tracking his way towards buying a Harry Potter novel online.

Web 2.0
Oh my… what a tangled web we weave when we use a marketing idea (web2.0) to describe marketing ideas… but here we go. Take a look at what I think is the single best educational tool on the internet right now… Amazon book reviews. At time of writing there are 51 comments on the Stephen Colbert “I am America (and so can you)”. Flipping through them you can see a bunch of folks who are part of the ‘Colbert Nation’ (CN) who have written things… “I picked up this book too fast and broke my wrist. There should be a warning label.” This, of course, written a month before the book was released, with assorted ‘CN’ signs all around it. The location of the author, for instance, is Unfiction HQ, USA. There are other folks who’ve written in saying they hated the book. But do they? Why are they writing it? Are they joking? What does the CN have to do with affecting the way that the book gets connected to other books? The comments are fascinating to me… and, I figure of the 51 reviews, there are only about 5 that are actual attempts at reviewing the book. The rest are simply performance of community membership.

What am I babbling about?
The description by Carr of shopping for the harry potter book and the Amazon book review are two examples of everyday life on the internet. We are constantly bombarded by subtle media signs that are trying to use our desire for belonging to get us to buy things, to get us to do things… If we aren’t careful, we do things to belong. I buy that MacBookPro so I can represent myself as the cool counter culture dude… not like Mr. Big Proprietary mainstream Microsoft. (Oh wait, Mac’s are the most proprietary system possible and have a fantastic grasp of marketing) That, and, of course, some people really like the product. The latter is perfectly fine, the former… not so good. The former involves us looking in the mirror that the Marketers are created for us. What we need to be able to do is see through that looking glass… see through the image that is being conjured up for us, that vision of ourselves that is being created for us to wear, to a practical evaluation of the thing that we are looking at.

Then… we need to teach it to our kids.

My challenge
This post started for me as a response to the flack I’ve received about my OLPC post from a few weeks ago. I’ve been awed… simply awed by the marketing genius that is the One Laptop Per Child project. I mean… they originally targeted $100 dollars (once the $100 dollars laptop project) because it was the price of a textbook (the youtube video describes this). Now… not so much… current price almost $200 bucks. So a new name, and brilliantly woven into the marketing. The webpage is lovely, all ‘we’re gonna save the world’ and ‘this is going to rock.’ The marketing has made me suspicious from the beginning… Do they really have a plan for teachers to teach with these? Why are they doing this anyway? Why does the 2 for 1 laptop thingy appeal to people so much? Is it just because they can then rationalize buying the cool new thing by saying they’re ‘donating a computer to the needy?’ I’ve been trying to see through this looking glass to try and find the ‘real product’ underneath. I have not found it yet.

So what now?
Well… hypermediation is something that can be practised. It’s just a question of getting accustomed to the ways that companies go about putting their marketing into things. The amazon study is a great way to get a sense of how communities work, how people’s backgrounds and ‘other work’ relate to the work they’re doing now. Nothing like finding an amazon reviewer, checking the other stuff they’ve written, and figuring out who they are and contextualizing their opinion. It’s a simple lesson plan, but i think an important one. We need our kids to be able to penetrate the pall of marketing that surrounds the internet and their daily lives so that their choices don’t get made for them too subconsciously. There’s a looking glass out there, staring back at us from most things we do… seeing through it is almost always more work… it can lead to a fair chunk of cynicism as well.

I just think that, media being what it is, being able to see through is going to be the most important skill Oscar is going to need to live in the world he’s going to find in 20 years. whatever that will be 🙂

Opensim (and soon Edugrids) – a month later… I still love it.

Well… I’ve been in and out of Opensim now for over a month. I’ve presented on it and had some pretty serious discussions with different folks about running projects with it. I’ve installed the server on XP and Ubuntu and Debian, I’ve connected to the server from XP, Linux and Mac. Truth is… I’ve installed it (if you count the upgrades) about 40 times.

I like it very much.

But it’s time for a little more serious evaluation. The project is still in alpha, the folks who are devoting their free time to developing it are saying time and time again “I wouldn’t really depend on your stuff being there from day to day.” There is no formal organization currently backing the community, nor is it super clear to the newcomer how they might get involved or what they might do to get started if they don’t know what svn is or what it means to “just run it on mono.” The current instructions on the website are not particularly designed for the newcomer… nor are they really intended to help the technologically transient. They are specific notes for those who are fairly familiar with a server or know how to create a .bat file in a folder (a surprisingly small number of people know that last one right off… i didn’t). I had to learn a bunch of things before i was comfortable working with it… and i’ve had my nose pretty seriously stuffed into servers for the last year or two… (I eventually decided that I needed to be able to control the means of production surrounding all this social software in order to evaluate it for people’s needs. I’m glad that learning part is over 😛 )

Opensim – What is it?

It is the BSD licensed server part of a Multi User Virtual Environment (MUVE) that works using the recently ‘open-sourced’ version of the Second Life client. I heard something in the IRC chat recently that they have a little over 100 of the 300+ functionalities that currently run in Linden Lab’s secondlife. There are two kinds of opensim… the ‘stand alone’ version and the ‘grid’ version. The standalone version allows you to control your own folks in your own ‘island’ or combination of islands. The grid version allows you to take it a step further… it allows you to connect your own ‘sims’ to other sims that other folks have made somewhere else.

Why should I care?

A few reasons. One of John Schinker’s students, on being asked about whether he was interested in working in an MUVE responded by saying that “he had some concerns about it if it was a public environment.” bless him. Opensim allows you to completely control the environment by limiting access to the people that you choose. On the other hand, to respond to some of the critique levelled against this kind of pedagogy it does no ‘FORCE’ you to restrict access. You could put a registration page on your website and let anyone into your grid. What it does, is offer you the choice.

The most interesting option
is the opportunity to do both. You could (soon, the technology is not quite there yet), create some of your world off your desktop in your own classroom and, when you felt like it, connect to edugrids, and meet with other students. You could then turn that off and return to the security of your own classroom. Best of both worlds, nice private place to work, nice public place to go and meet folks and show them your island.

What’s Edugrids?

Right now, Edugrids is a concept. I’ve currently been approached by two teachers who are interested in working alongside the project that we have going on here in PEI. They want to be able to bring their kids in to our opensim world and have them play along with other students. Nice safe environment, nice controlled access, but enough kids participating to have some community type stuff happen. Not a difficult concept really, but potentially very interesting… and very powerful.

How do I get involved

Give us a month or two. We’re still trying to figure out how this is going to work. We’ll get some kind of website up so that people can get a sense of what our goals are… and what they can and can’t do. To give people updates on where the software is and stuff. I’m just kinda fishing around right now trying to get the sense if this is the next personallearningspace or not. we’ll see.

habitat – a place for communities to build

I’ve always been very fond the the ‘habitat for humanity’ concept… at least what follows from the title itself. The idea that humanity thrives given the right kind of habitat… and that the bequest of habitat is a charitable… indeed a community even that should be participated in in order to support ‘humanity’ inside of every community.

In casting around last spring… looking for a way to talk about online communities and particularly looking at trying to encourage the growth of community in the variety of ways in which I participate in that quixotic venture, I came back to the idea of ‘habitat’. I settled and decided I’d found the right concept after talking to a new friend of mine who is working on tracking the density of ocean floor dwellers based on the given habitat that surrounds them. It seems that random bits of the way a place is structured has a great deal of effect on who is going to come and hang out in that particular area.

** what dave’s been doing professional while not blogging — skip if not interested **’
I’ve been working on the Virtual Research Environment at UPEI, trying to do a little training on community support. We got our heritage canada grant for working with students… detailed in last grant. Working with a variety of people to convert some nice open source tools into nicer tools for kids. Working with the folks at edtechtalk to make the umbrella organization pay for itself. Am building an ‘enterprise’ server at work. I have three articles i need to write. I’m looking very hard at a few Phd programs. for personal stuff see bon’s blog
** end of catching up with dave **

This, then, in simple terms in what I’ve been trying to do with communities. I’m trying to figure out how one goes about creating a ‘habitat’ that will make it more likely for community to form and more likely that that community will do the kinds of things that were intended… that prompted the creation of that habitat. I realize that it is not exactly a mind numbing concept. But at this point I’ve been a part of the attempted creation of… oh… probably 50 communities online and have seen a few successes and by far a larger number of communities that failed to thrive over the long haul. There are several personal factors that lead to the successes of those communities… One particularly charismatic or talented or famous individual is enough to hold a community together for a while… but, I’m coming to believe… the ‘way’ that the habitat is structured has a far greater effect on the success of that community.

We’ll take a little trip here… to try and identify the things that I’m talking about. When i first started exploring MUVEs I’d been astonished at the desire to replicate the real world in the construction of buildings. If, in Second Life (curse them) for instance, you are trying to attract people to drop by your building… why would you put glass in your windows? Glass servers a great practical purpose in my house… keeps out the cold while allowing me to see out. In second life, however, it could be seen to server a ‘security’ purpose… to allow you to see out without allowing people to come in… but if you are actually trying to let someone in, I can’t imagine why you’d do it. So, putting the glass in the window frustrates me… it will not, probably, frustrate someone else who’s thinking is more in line with the creators of that building. They might very obediently drop to the ground (assuming they were flying in the first place) open the door and walk into that building to look at how much it resembles the real world. They might feel comforted by this. They might return to this feeling of comfort and find that the types of people who end up in this building have similar outlooks to them.

This is habitat in action. It’s the same way that the ‘look’ of a coffee shop, or bar or store attracts likes… or at least attracts people to what they think they should like… which is an entirely other conversation. 😛 But as we take this little nugget of information and turn it back to a specific study of community what have we learned. They way a ‘home’ for a particular community is structured could be important to the types of people that turn up there. Again… we’re not exactly breaking the Senator Stevens barrier here.

If we were then, to list the types of things that are going to effect the amount of traffic, the recurrence of traffic, the ‘qualities’ of that traffic, the number of times people break the boundary between casual membership and membership, the direction in which the work done at a particular community follow the intentions of the drivers of that community, we’re going to find that a great deal is going to depend on how that particular habitat was structured.

So… as many of us agree that communities can create very nice results… and most of those who agree with that also agree that communities are extraordinarily difficult to ‘create’ (if it even makes sense to say ‘create a commmunity’) I’m arguing that a careful attention to the construction of habitat can increase the chances of a community forming. This post is starting to stretch out… but lets try following an example for a short while and see how that would work.

I want a community to study Aberlard with. (just the book I happen to be reading)

1. Find an existing one. This is much much easier than starting your own.
2. Join some other communities (if you’re not part of one now) get a sense of what ‘membership‘ means.
3. Decide who you’d like to have in your community… describe that person or those people
a. Like my friends X… she’s studious, but doesn’t take herself too seriously. She likes to ‘build’ knowledge as a partnership with other people and doesn’t feel the need to ‘own’ ideas. Ask her how much time in a week she might devote to such a community. Ask her what kinds of communities (if any) she’s currently part of.
4. Ask yourself how those people need to be supported. Some people need a clear description of things like posting policies… others find this restrictive and overly authoritarian
5. How much to show and not to show. Some people are intimidated and irritated by a cluttered work space. Others find simplicity overly trying. (in that… why can’t they just put the @#$%ing links on the front page where i can find them. The difference between a tumblog and a wordpress blog is a good example of the difference.

tired now…. there are a bunch of other issues, but this should be enough to illustrate what i mean. The thing is… community building through careful attention to habitat is a very simple idea. It’s just that it never occured to me that that was what I was doing. And now that I’m starting to pay attention to it… I’m noticing that my builds are going better. Thought I’d pass it on 🙂

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