Friday, July 27, 2007

conversation and expertise in a flat but wrinkled world

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
...
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
...
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin',
Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin',
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin',
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,
...
- Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
It's better that everyone has their own interactive medium and chaos reigns, than the alternative of Big Media or traditional School alone. If we want radical change in the media and education then there is no alternative but to go through chaos. “Web 2.0” won't change School dramatically if it doesn't also change society dramatically.

The technology that is popularly but problematically named web 2.0 is, unfortunately, also a trademarked O'Reilly marketing slogan. Paul Graham provides some clarity here in his interpretation of the phrase:
  1. Ajax - JavaScript works, eg. Google Maps, web based apps are getting better
  2. Democracy - amateurs can sometimes surpass professionals (wikipedia) and deciding what counts for news (reddit, delicious)
  3. Don't maltreat users - avoid heavy handed branding, signing up procedures, offer free services where possible
We don't have to use the phrase “web 2.0”; the read write web is a satisfactory, albeit less hip alternative.

The social optimists' hope for web 2.0 is that it is disruptive and corrosive to the hierarchical way of doing things, enabling the active participation and empowerment of those formerly known as the audience.

The pessimistic or realistic problem with web 2.0 is its tendency to overreach itself and the inevitable fact that as it grows (a new blog every second), the quality must decline.

My own blog was initially more intended as an easily searchable online notebook than anything else. I was initially surprised at the number of other people who read it and it took me a while to take the conversational aspect of it seriously. I've learnt a lot from some other bloggers (eg. artichoke) in the way they nurtured their comment threads – and eventually through thoughtful comments received on my own blog.

One possible downside to being noticed is that I might end up wanting to please those readers rather than representing my own thoughts (self censorship). The upside is that knowing there are readers persuades me to express my thoughts more clearly, partly for the readers' sake, but that is a huge benefit for me as well. There is positive pressure to make your thoughts clearer for a real audience, especially a critical audience who can respond.

But not all blogs or discussion groups are like this. Web 2.0 can also be a game that people learn to play in an attention seeking economy. Global village idiocy, banalisation, hive mind, self censorship and chasing popularity are all real problems.

I also need time alone to read books, for slow, deep thinking, for reflection, to get away from the business and shallowness of much of the web. Now I think it's more about exploring meanings, I never thought that meaning was so complicated but blogging has gradually changed me. If there is a real struggle to express ourselves more expertly through language then that recreates who we are.

However, the notion of using “web2.0″ tools to expand expertise (certainly possible) is different from the notion of bloggers already being experts. The internet has certainly blurred the lines between expert and amateur. But as well as some amateurs displaying expert knowledge there are also lots of amateurs pretending to be experts when they are not. For me the important question is not web 2.0 as such but how do we work out who an expert is? Expertise is special IMO and ought to be valued. I’m critical of theories that just emphasise the importance of connection without saying much else.

Paul Graham makes a point about Democracy. Amateurs can sometimes surpass professionals (wikipedia) and deciding what counts for news (reddit, delicious). Unlike blogs, the sites mentioned here have quality control mechanisms. Collectively, the blogosphere is doing the filtering for us. But of course these sites are still evolving, they have not solved the issue of expertise.

Computers and the internet do have a disruptive effect on School, Media and many of our ideas, including our idea of expertise. I think it is the disruptive potential that makes the system and some teachers (many follow the lead of the system) hesitant.

The bible writing monks were experts at all things involved in being a bible writing monk. But that didn’t make them experts in all things involving printing. I wonder how many made the transition?

So what is our notion of expertise? How do we recognise a powerful idea, how do we recognise an expert? For me, this is the question that the “web 2.0” movement needs to answer.

Alan Kay's remarks about our lack of computer science could also be applied to web 2.0:
"Computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were. So I think the lack of a real computer science today, and the lack of real software engineering today, is partly due to this pop culture."
references:

The title includes a reference to Tom Friedman's well known book, The World is Flat. Thanks to durff for the insight that it is also wrinkled.

Web 2.0 Paul Graham analysis of Web 2.0

economics-of-information-resources
the comments contains a dialogue between artichoke and myself, which helped clarify some of my views

teachers are experts Comment I left at Graham Wegner's blog contradicting the thesis that teachers are experts

That's Hot - Web 2.0 and the Empty Vessel Sylvia Martinez, Web 2.0 is often little more than a marketing slogan

Ten Things Radical about the Weblog form of Journalism Jay Rosen
This reference and the next one draws attention to the fact that thoughtful commentators from the beginning have understood that blogs have both a radical and conservative nature

Ten Things Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism Jay Rosen

Debate between David Weinberger and Andrew Keen (video)
There is a great discussion, towards the end of this debate, about the nature of expertise. I liked Andrew Keen's approach about the historical importance of the nation state, democracy and authority, that it is a debate that we have to have, although I thought that the audience did very well in challenging Keen (eg. the guy from Canada, the guy from wikipedia), perhaps more so than David Weibberger did.

What are we going to say about 'Cult of the Amateur'
Clay Shirky went along to a forum to criticise Andrew Keen's book about “The Cult of the Amateur” but ended up saying that it made some valid points against some more one eyed blog evangelists

Andrew Keen: Rescuing 'Luddite' from the Luddites
A follow up more effective effort by Shirky to refute Keen

1 comment:

Graham said...

I for one am glad that you have taken the time to expand your thoughts here in this post. Judging by the comments (or lack thereof) it obviously pays to be controversial or unintentionally offensive to get people responding which is a shame. Leigh has at least highlighted this post on his blog - does Blogger give you trackbacks? Your point about expertise is important and perhaps I do need to expand on what that word means to me on my blog sometime because it could well be a different twist on what your thoughts are. For me, as a primary school educator, never before have I had the opportunity to look over the virtual shoulder of teachers who I consider to be exceptional and have them explain in words what they were doing and what their intent with their students was. That has helped me to reconsider what I do in my classroom - sometimes, it has been confirming of what I already did or their ideas have given me new paths to follow. If "expertise" is what I bring daily to my job working with kids and teachers in terms of skills, initiatives, directions etc., then yes, Web 2.0 has enhanced and improved that expertise. You tend to look broader than just the education sphere so there are issues you are seeing I am not aware of, but being connected to a network means I can benefit from your web meanderings.