All posts by Janel

Janel is a mother, writer, reader, runner, lover of outdoors, cook, friend, and dreamer. She's married to James, with whom she has three children: Evelyn (13), Charlotte (10), and Calvin (6).

Last Bastions of Read Only Culture?

“RO culture speaks of profesionalism. Its tokens of culture demand a certain respect. They offer themselves as authority. They teach, but not by inviting questions.” (Lessig 84)

Like Michael has already pointed out on his blog post, the dichotomy between Read Only and Read/Write culture Lawrence Lessig portrays in Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy is a flawed one.

For me, the final breakdown of Lessig’s definitions of RO and R/W occur when he mounts an apologia for some places in our society that necessitate Read Only content. RO culture, Lessig writes, “is critically important, both to the spread of culture and to the spread of knowledge. There are places where authority is required” (85).

So what are his ironclad examples?

Congressional laws.

Guidelines for administering medicines.

Flight plans on commercial jetliners.

Um. All of those examples, while content created by “professionals” or “authorities” in their field (84), quickly reveal the very collaborative remix qualities from which Lessig tries to protect them.

For example, what texts carry more power than legislative documents? Very few. But legislators draw up laws with input from other elected officials, advocacy/lobbyists/special interest groups, lawyers, and political constituents. Congressional law does not live “on a wiki,” but it also does not appear on stone tablets from a higher authority. Frequently it mashes up pieces of other laws piecemeal. This (often frustrating) process requires several hundred elected officials to make laws, but hardly ever original material from scratch.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The example of writing guidelines for medicine dosing seems less Read Only than Congressional law, but not for people who see the underbelly of pharmaceutical research and development. We trust the dosing information on the Tylenol bottle we give our children, but even so we must take into account what we know about our own child’s health, weight, and previous history with the drug. Additionally, the research that goes into such guidelines changes over time and medicines are frequently pulled from the market when we know more. Hardly a great example of unwavering authority.

Finally, flight plans, like Congressional laws, take into account a tremendous amount of data in order to plot an ideal route. But ultimately, pilots and flight crew can and should have the power to improvise and respond to new information. It may be tough to make that argument with the ongoing mystery of Malaysia Air Flight 370, but it doesn’t change the fact that Lessig’s three supposed best examples of firm RO culture are neither as authoritative nor as unremixed/remixable as he indicates in his book.

In short, traditional content providers and artists are already complicit in remix culture.

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By Ryan Shaw

A more compelling argument Lessig makes in Remix: we must reimagine our relationship to R/W cultural practices and habits because the change has already come. College-aged students and their younger siblings have never experienced a world without highly visible remixes. If companies and lawmakers cannot figure out how to benefit from and encourage the current and continuing trend of remix/collaboration/R/W creation, the future is indeed dire. But not for the reasons they say it is.

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Dawn Endico on Flickr http://bit.ly/1gyP3yh
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Now You See It, Now I Don’t: How Schools are Failing Our Children

My fourth grade daughter reports that of each school day, she only enjoys 40 minutes. And surprisingly, it’s not lunch and recess.

For less than an hour, she and a handful of other “advanced” students leave the regular classroom and spend time in “enrichment” class. There, Evelyn and her cohort read (more) challenging texts, debate how to solve difficult word problems, and craft creative responses to writing prompts.

“Something I really like is when we break into groups and each group has a set of algebra problems to do,” says Evelyn. “I feel like I learn better that way because I have something that I can share with the other people, and seeing what other people did helps me too.”

As far as enrichment goes, Evelyn’s teacher requires nothing remarkably collaborative, challenging, or interdisciplinary. Yet compared to how learning happens in my daughter’s regular classroom, the approaches taken by her enrichment teacher look revolutionary.

When she goes back to class after enrichment, Evelyn must then make up the work she missed in class; she often brings home a stack of worksheets and worry about whether she will earn an NP (Nearing Proficiency), MP (Meeting Proficiency), or EP (Exceeding Proficiency) on her next standardized test. (How someone can *exceed* proficiency is beyond me, but that’s quibbling over semantics.)

In other words, the learning she and her friends do in enrichment isn’t seen as replacing or even extending the regular curriculum. She still must complete every worksheet in order to ensure solid results on the standardized test that Delaware requires she take three times a year, every year.

When I talked with my daughter about some of the classroom projects Cathy Davidson writes about in her book, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, she expressed admiration and a tinge of jealousy. The process-based methods used by innovative teachers like those at Voyager Academy and Quest 2 Learn were both alien and appealing to her.

Mostly what she longs for is to learn in interesting ways. Nearly every subject–from science to social studies, language arts to math–has the potential to interest her and her classmates, but the perpetual testing cycle and limitations of time and focus discourage fun, curiosity, and questions.

The elementary-aged kids I talk to know that the system is broken; they know that standardized testing, at least in its current form, is a chain hanging around their teachers’ (and by proxy, their educations’) necks. But they’re trapped.

“Standardized tests just show what you wrote. They don’t show what you actually know,” explains Evelyn. “Something like a project can show how much a student cares about their work.”

Evelyn, limited by her formal school experiences as well as by her youth, would probably admire Davidson’s idea of an “exciting end-of-grade test” (130). Davidson proposes an end of year “synthesis” that students would create that would use what they had learned that year. The project would show “each child what he or she could do in the world,” and these ideas would be on display at an “idea sale” (130).

In my searching online for a video intersecting with Davidson’s theoretical concepts and my hopes for my children, I found a video made by a class of 7th graders in Joanna Sanders Bobiash’s Grade 7 class at École Wilfrid Walker School. The video, which won the 2009 “Best in Class” Best Buy Contest, grew out of a collaborative text written by the students based on their goals for the future and the impact of technology on their lives.

See the video here (I’m having trouble getting it to embed from tubechop).

Now, there are many other more polished videos available on Youtube, even those ostensibly made by middle schoolers. This one did not stand out to me because of its professionalism; the video footage and editing is fine and the audio quality is okay.

What moved me deeply was getting to hear the words and voices of young adolescents speaking their goals and dreams. Not by themselves in private. Not to a friend or family member. But as a team, to the world (and in two languages, no less!).

One young woman says, “I want to share my work with the world and learn from their feedback.”

That simultaneous confidence in reaching out and acknowledgement of what one has yet to learn, it seems to me, are at the heart of Davidson’s manifesto: “Confidence in your ability to learn is confidence in your ability to unlearn,” writes Davidson, “to switch assumptions or methods or partnerships in order to do better” (86).

Schools that encourage and reward that simultaneous confidence (learning) and awareness of personal shortcomings (unlearning): that’s what I want for my daughters and my son.

But when another thick packet of worksheets and workbook pages land on the kitchen counter, it’s hard to feel hope that a place like Ms. Bobiash’s 7th grade class and Q2L and Voyager Academy are more than rare mirages in an educational morass.

Guess What I Just Heard?

In Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, Joseph Epstein reveals how gossip, much maligned as both symptom and cause of social ills, actually serves many important purposes in human society. For one thing, chatter about other people in our network of friends and acquaintances can serve to cement relationships and alliances with like-minded individuals. Epstein also argues that expectations and rules about human behavior needn’t be enforced by physical violence because gossip and social censure can maintain societal norms.

The idea of “social currency” is very much wrapped up in both Epstein’s defense of gossip as well as in current and past modes of social media, a world in which gossip and the latest titillating news makes the rounds instantly. Although they moved at a slower-than-digital pace, “ambitious young men” in 16th century England passed poems and texts around, and those texts primarily “served as a form of social currency that could be used to establish and maintain useful connections” (Standage 76-77).

By making themselves into creators, curators, and sharers of writing, Standage shows, up-and-coming guys could win patrons and benefactors. The best could write new materials themselves by both passing along information (read=gossip) and providing new materials that the recipient could then use to impress their own circle of friends.

Today sociable humans still feel the pull to solidify and enrich friendships and acquaintanceships by passing along valuable information and ideas, and social media provides a myriad of platforms to do just that.

For example, Twitter’s name hints at the old saying when asked where you heard a juicy tidbit: “A little birdy told me.”

When a social media user passes along a piece of information, whether it be personal, gossip about someone or something else, news about a current event, or link to something salacious/funny/inspiring/intriguing, the writer looks to add value. Simply put, she seeks to tell others in her social network something they don’t already know.

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With the arrival and spread of the Internet, more and more people have access to news, information, facts, discoveries, trivia, and humor, and the web of social connectivity used for sharing, remixing, and promoting that content expanded. It also made it increasingly harder to get payoffs for sharing stuff. People are more and more likely to have already seen that thing you tag them in or share on their wall, just by the virtue of the speed with which content spreads.

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At times, social media can feel like a series of desperate attempts to share something before it gets big—to prove that you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what others will find interesting. And that you’ve read it (and shared it) first.

This world, in which social media sites can, as Standage put it, provide “personalized and constantly updated stream of links, photos, and gossip” (231), the need individuals have for sorting and seeking content that interests them is already met instantly: by heuristics and cookies and trails of recommendations, pingbacks, likes, retweets, and browser histories.

On a personal level, I believe this has impacted friend-to-friend exchange of social capital. But the biggest impact has probably been on the companies that try to predict the next big story. On NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow (21 February 2014), a writer for The Verge talked about how it matters less and less who gets to a story first because of the speed in which other outlets skim and repurpose it for their own users. Magazines, websites, and apps scramble to keep tabs on what’s hot and what people are reading.

To keep our social media lives from, as W.J. Stillman wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, turning into “an agency for collecting, condensing, and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence” (qtd. in Standage 185), people need to add value to content not simply by forwarding or posting preexisting text and images. It is through *doing* something with them, putting things in new contexts, adding a personal or philosophical spin, and converting them  into something new that we provide a social service to our followers, friends, and readers. Otherwise, gossip is just gossip, and a link is just another link.

Tracing Fingertips

My mother yelled down that all four of us kids were to come upstairs immediately. Her face, normally placid and loving, showed signs of irritation and anger. As we gathered in the kids’ shared bathroom, she leaned forward, directing our attention to the mirror over the sink. Someone had made, in the shower steam, a drippy print: “Clean Me Off.” Mom wanted to know who had authored the bathroom command.

Since the advent of writing, readers have sought assurance of the identity of the person who is “speaking” to them. In moving from receiving news and information through oration to getting it through written language, readers lost the physical assurance of the speaker as originator (or at least replicator) of the words being communicated.  Readers who lay their own hands (or eyes) on a text have a strong drive to know whose fingers carved, scripted, painted, typed, or handwrote the words. “Whose words do I read?” we ask. 

In A Better Pencil, Baron shows how each step forward in technological innovation brought with it unsettling anxieties. The process of authenticating texts—confirming and assuring readers of the author’s identity—lagged behind each new innovation in composition. As the users of new writing technologies increased, the rogue quality of possible anonymity was eventually mitigated as each era found its own ways of determining authorship. 

As anyone who has ever lost control of an email or social media account or caught a computer virus knows, it can be highly embarrassing to have your byline attached to a fraudulent email or link. Baron’s assertion that “all new writing technologies bring with them the potential for fraud” (120) is certainly true, but the probability of encountering fraud and untrustworthy content is the necessary flip side of increasingly democratized access to composition and publishing.

It seems that charges of fraud (may frequently, though not always) disguise an unwillingness to relinquish control of content and publication now made more democratic than any other time in history. In the cases of unlicensed printing presses up through unsigned blogs, new writing technologies enable people to “bypass many of the long-established winnowing and qualifying procedures that we have come to associate with writing” (Baron 163). In other words, a widely (though far from universally) available means of writing and reaching an audience reroutes texts past traditional monitors/arbiters of taste, quality, and accuracy. We now have a “cyberworld of writers without borders” (163). To the masses for whom publishing through traditional avenues isn’t possible, the internet offers a free–both monetarily and ideologically–place to share ideas and respond to the ideas of others.

Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (Flikr through Creative Commons)
Graffiti on mirrors in NYC. (by Joff Hopkins on Flickr through Creative Commons)

While celebrating this in the abstract, those who previously controlled the means of publishing (if not producing content in private) now face a digital world in which anyone who wants to can find a platform to speak/write. As Baron puts it, new technologies help “upstarts” “take advantage of the destabilization produced by new communication machines in order to take text and talk in new directions” (162). Those previously in positions of power have the most to lose when so-called “upstarts” challenge the status quo, and so critiques of new writing and printing technologies as fraught with fraud danger may hold both truth and occlusion.

After all, part of the compulsion to know who wrote something is to understand their ethos as well as to judge their work. Readers mete out punishment or heap reward on the writer based on what we think he or she deserves, and online anonymity creates a readerly/writerly breech.

Back to the bathroom mirror writer, who created his or her own huge and highly visible paper: I understand my mom’s irritation about the writing on the mirror. The writer left an unsigned mess(age), in smudges and markings. But I also must point out that my mom’s encouragement to express ourselves through writing implicitly carried with it very specific (and themselves unwritten) rules about where, how, and what to write. And ultimately, when it came to reading the writing on the mirror, the message itself mattered to her much less than the author’s identity. (And I swear, it wasn’t me.)

Scrapping Facebook as Family Scrapbook

In the past 7 years I have gotten onto Facebook (in2008), gotten off (also in 2008), gotten on again (in2010, on orders from my publisher to promote my book), gotten off for short intervals, and now left again (this time for good, I swear) in late 2013.

The things that I miss most about Facebook are its usefulness as a means of passive communication/networking with friends and family far afield, but MOSTLY its function as a microblogging site with a friendly audience.

As a mom to three children, I realized that scrapbooking and babybooking as my mother and her mother did it, recording children’s heights and weights alongside photos and filling in the blanks of Baby’s first bath _____ and Baby’s first words _____  were not for me. Too hard to keep up, too time consuming. When my kids (now 9, 7, and 3.5) say something  funny, I am just as likely to forget it as I am to remember it to write down in some pastel colored baby book gathering dust in the guest bedroom.

Facebook provided an accessible and easy to update forum or platform for me in which to record and instantly share my progeny’s funny, witty, poignant, or curious statements and questions.

One thing I didn’t like about Facebook’s pervasive reach into my life is that I started hearing snippets and planning to put them on Facebook, rather than sitting in the moment and hearing / responding to my child’s words and thoughts. This, in part, is why I am finished with Facebook.

Facebook-goodbye