October 20th, 2010
Here’s the final part of the talk I gave at Queens College a week ago, broken up by its tripartite title: “What Will Happen, What Could Happen, What Should Happen.” In the previous (middle) installment, I had been speaking of the twin perils threatening our experience of the Internet: whirling chaos and corporatized control. When conjuring two evils, a standard move is to identify the lesser one. That might seem an easy call here. Why wouldn’t we prefer multiplicity, even hard-to-manage multiplicity, to the monopolistic throttle? But the proliferation of possibilities does have its genuinely pernicious side. The open web has given us viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks, and other fun stuff. One thing openness is open to is the unsafe. And one attraction of the locked-down approach is that it can lock the unsafe out.
John Zittrain is very much aware of this threat in The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It. In many ways that is what his book is about (though I’ve linked to the wiki rather than the book). While he takes the perils of malicious hacking seriously — truth to tell, he makes them seem really scary (apocalyptic doomsday stuff) — he feels openness is vital, primarily because that’s where we get what we most value: innovation. And he feels that innovation, or productive change, is so valuable that it’s worth risking disruptive change.
So Zittrain argues against the corporatized and the locked down — the equivalent of the tethered appliance (his term). He poses and unpacks a critical field between disruptive change and what he calls appliancizing: he calls this generativity, and it has five aspects: leverage (making it easy to do more), adaptability (making it easy to change), ease of mastery (making it easy to adopt), accessibility (making it easy to gain entry), and transferability (making it easy to share). To an educator no less than a technologist, these are all desiderata. Our best uses of academic technology will maximize each one of these.
I think the CUNY Academic Commons, the social network built by CUNY academics for CUNY academics, has these features – including their downsides, since they are not risk-free propositions. (We need to be wary of the downsides, but we need to embrace the generativity, so in each case I sketch the trend and the tension, indicating where we want to go, and how far may be too far.)
Leverage (enabling people to do more/other/better than before)
- Working when possible and necessary –>working whenever the spirit moves: The “anytime” nature of online interaction frees groups from need to arrange a time and get a room, but it also invites incursions on members’ time, fragmenting attention and diffusing energies.
Adaptability (structures are matters of convenience & serviceability, not tradition & governance)
- Compartmentalization –> recombination and even re-compartmentalization: Freed from those places (topoi: disciplines, departments, campuses) to which they were assigned, faculty can follow interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary interests, regroup and reconfigure. But realignments involve refocusing, choices of new alliances, even new kinds of enclosures.
Ease of Mastery (openness and adoptibility make choice, not expertise or role, the motive force)
- Externally imposed direction –> self-direction: While hardly unconstrained, deciding where to invest time and effort becomes more a matter of choice rather than assignment. Choose well. Marshaling time becomes increasingly critical, as does deciding which options to pursue or invest in, since the alternative is a scattering of attention and investment.
Accessibility (scope of activity is not dictated by rank/organizational experience)
- Hierarchical relations –> flattening and re-formation: The imposition of a social network imposed on a work culture defined by rank and position has a democratizing effect that is both liberating and disturbing: authority, once characterized by limited access, is now forged by responsiveness; leadership is gauged by helpfulness, not determined by a chain of command; expertise is demonstrated by engagement in conversations taking place across the social environment.
Transferability (the ease of sharing, of cross-fertilizations)
- Ownership –> co-authorship: The ability to say, “This is mine” is undermined by the collaboration that characterizes the new environment. Individual contributions (posts to a forum, additions or revisions to a wiki, entries on a group blog) are not hard to pinpoint, but they are contributions to a larger whole, a group effort. The individual has to give some motive force and ownership over to the group, while the effort is less malleable by individual will, more subject to group dynamics. When our best work comes from putting our minds together, academia needs to rethink rewards and promotion standards.
If you think of your own work with academic technology, whether it’s online and/or blended learning (the Big Kahuna at present) or some other aspect like work with educational gaming, open access publication, podcasts and rich media and so on, you are likely to see these features (both the benefits and dangers) reflected in your own work. But the great exemplar for me, the macrocosm of our many microcosms, is the Commons.
So the alternative to the twin dystopias is not a utopia, a no-place, but a real place. And since we’ve been talking about movement and change, it would be better to cast this place, not as a static site, but as a vessel in motion, navigating between the Scylla of monopolistic lockdown and the Charybdis of whirling change.