bags of gold

I was in the room at OpenEd 2009 when Gardner laid out the now-famous Bags of Gold manifesto. The excitement and energy in the room was palpable as he talked. His sense of urgency and agency rolled over and through us. Bags of Gold became the unofficial mantra for the rest of the conference. It became shorthand for “Open! Fuck, yeah!” What kind of closed-minded Luddite wouldn’t understand Bags of Gold? This was it. The metaphor to finally trigger a sea change in education, and in society at large. Gold. Bags of fucking GOLD, man! Can you dig it? You want some? Just reach out and grab it!

Gardner - wall of gold

But gold is only valuable because it is in limited supply, and only because not everyone can have it. Once everyone has as much gold as they want, its value as currency drops to that of paper. Bags of fucking PAPER, man! Take them. Please!

Now, so long after Gardner’s presentation, I’m struggling with the metaphor. If gold is the currency of education, what is it representing? Openness? Sharing? Managing a webserver? Installing software? Updating plugins, libraries and dependencies? Creating and publishing content? Or, is the currency of education more akin to collaborative experiences, shared exploration, and reflection on one’s own learning as well as that of your peers?

I believe that the goals of education (capitalized E or otherwise) have little to do with managing infrastructure, and everything to do with cognitive growth and exploration. I believe that we have conflated self efficacy with managing the nuts and bolts of digital infrastructure.

In Gutenberg’s day, did leading thinkers and professors talk about the need for students to craft their own printing presses? Did they take metalsmithing classes, so they could forge their own movable type and the machinery to press paper to ink? Were there paper- and ink-making classes? How far down into the infrastructure stacks do we really need to delve, in order to create and sustain meaningful educational experiences?


Does forcing students to set up their own domains, and subscribe to a commercial hosting service, and install and configure copies of various software applications really add to their ability to share and collaborate? Or does it merely add extra overhead? Is this personal cyberinfrastructure crucial to a student’s learning?

I believe that personal cyberinfrastructure (god, how I hate that clumsy manufactured word) is neither necessary nor sufficient for meaningful educational experiences.

I believe that the really important parts of education, of teaching and learning, are less effected by the location and owner of the tools, as they are shaped by the philosophical and pedagogical leanings of the participants.

A professor could facilitate an educational experience as part of a course using the Blackboard discussion board that could be every bit as engaging and powerful as one crafted out of distributed and decentralized bits of personally managed ephemera.

Another thought that struck me, when thinking about community design, is the aspect of sustainability and sprawl. The ad hoc decentralized individually crafted personal cyberinfrastructure is akin to suburban sprawl. Every individual stakes out a plot, slaps up a house, and expects people to schlep out to find them in the suburban wasteland.

Suburban Wasteland

There’s a reason people flock to services like Facebook and Twitter – everyone’s already there. You don’t have to go hunting for them. You don’t have to pack up your SUV and drive out to meet them.

And, no, I’m not saying we should be heading in the direction of centralized, corporatized, monetized services. I love running my own stuff. I love being able to have some level of control over as much of what I do online as I want to.

However, I’m also acutely aware of the drain that running this stuff can place on a person. Of the daily battle against spam. Of the need to test updates and upgrades. Of the need to run (and test) backups. Of the need to monitor your software for downtime (and then nag the service providers until it comes back online).

I think that equating that kind of control with a meaningful educational experience is a bit of a red herring. It’s a conflation of a bunch of related issues, and may be used as a shorthand for meaning “personal ownership of content” and “breaking free from institutional constraints” and a bunch of other stuff. But we also need to be aware of the demands that personal cyberinfrastructure places on everyone.

OK. Devil’s advocate hat now placed safely inside the lead box.

Given that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of this stuff long ago, and given that I take it for granted, where could this lead us? What if we table the discussions about sustainability and management. What if everyone was running their own stuff. Designing their own environments. Sharing and collaborating on their own terms (and, assuming that these are their terms and not ones just handed down from Teacher).

“We have to do things that don’t happen naturally, but once we do them, we find a bag of gold.”

— Gardner Campbell.

The real shift isn’t in publishing digital content. It isn’t in moving to eLearning.

The real shift is that of individual control over their (our) own learning.

If universities are changing – some say rendered obsolete, some say more essential now than ever – what does that mean for teaching and learning?

If the parallel is with the newspaper industry – Clay Shirky’s quote is apt:

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.”

— Clay Shirky.

Society doesn’t need universities. What we need is learning.

And if we’re all shifting to take more control over our learning, society needs individuals that want to learn.

That’s the crux. Not cyberinfrastructure. Not digital content. Not software, nor data, nor feeds, nor any of that crap.

We need to learn. We need to want to learn. And that’s the real bag of gold.

Update: I almost forgot. By way of a more conventional response to BoG, I wrote a position paper for a course I took last year. It reads a bit like an academic love letter to Gardner Campbell, if you’re into that kind of thing.

25 thoughts on “bags of gold”

  1. Great post, D’Arcy! I agree with you that the shift in perspective we need is the one that places each individual back in control of their learning and their own personal learning outcome.

  2. It may be the case that this stuff is difficult for an individual to do; but that does not mean that this stuff is difficult for a small group of people to do. So though many people like to be individualists; myself included, perhaps the fact that we have been so conditioned is what has led us to this point.

    Perhaps we need co-ops to help distribute the work load with having freedom and control of content and thereby culture; whatever of that is possible through an online medium. That the smaller the grouping, the better. Like a club of sorts. And perhaps then, the blog is a bad idea, as is a central repo of information is a bad idea. But a small group oriented website, is a better idea and should instead be encouraged.

    The analogy of a suburbs is bad, though. Even with blogs, people create small communities of interests that interact with the blogs. Also, technophilia with a grain of salt, or a chunk; depending on taste. Also goes with the impact of learning. We already know, we don’t wish to do. We are full of rice.

    1. I don’t think the suburb analogy is bad at all. The isolation means it’s more difficult to be exposed to other people. Sure, digital spaces let you curve space and time to mitigate this, but the sprawl effect is still there.

  3. What if we table the discussions about sustainability and management. What if everyone was running their own stuff. Designing their own environments. Sharing and collaborating on their own terms (and, assuming that these are their terms and not ones just handed down from Teacher).

    thank you.

  4. Thanks for this post. You have had my brain buzzing for the last hour or so, since I first read it. At first I was shaking my head in disappointment that you had so quickly shattered the gold metaphor, by stating the obvious, “gold is only valuable because it is in limited supply, and only because not everyone can have it.” and if we see gold as access to tools and technology and self-hosting, you are right we are losing value everyday, (but even this mundane look at gold still has degrees of value and we can always dive deeper to find new tools and skills that will offer value.)

    But I think we all agree that the gold is beyond the infrastructure or the tools or self-hosting or the printing press or cPanel, the gold we are all looking for is the power of human creativity, curiosity and need to share and connect and learn and grow, and this will never lose value as we can never have enough by nature, so it will always be the ultimate prize. Learning is the most valuable commodity as it is infinite.

    But I am not saying anything new, “And if we’re all shifting to take more control over our learning, society needs individuals that want to learn. That’s the crux. Not cyberinfrastructure. Not digital content. Not software, nor data, nor feeds, nor any of that crap.We need to learn. We need to want to learn. And that’s the real bag of gold..”

    Exactly. Nicely said.

  5. This post helped me take this train of thought to the next level. Thank you.

    Where I see this going is that it is bad form for institutions to choose or limit tool choice all the time. Students and faculty need to develop their own cyberinfrastructure and not rely on what is prescribed by the school or faculty. Perhaps a new generation of tools will give us more choice without requiring we know all the nuts and bolts.

    1. on the flip side – an institution can’t support an infinite number or combination of tools. It makes sense to support a few as a common platform, and allow others to go off on their own if they choose.

      1. I think that is common wisdom that institutions can’t support an infinite number of tools. I think that is partly why Gardner goes toward students having their own hosting as an example – it is much less limited in the types of tools it supports. Students can discover and run tools that the powers that be may have never heard of.

        Imagine A) that an institution can offer typical web hosting to all its entire community and B) that the community is able to be trained with minimal effort in how to take advantage of it. I think A and B are both big leaps, but it is a way to start imaging a new model of internet computing at a learning institution. Without a doubt a lot of practical problems at this point, but I’m just pie-in-the-sky-ing it.

  6. The more technology progresses in whatever direction the more efficiency we need to sustain it. Because it is fragile, it breaks too easily and we have to expend yet more effort to bring it back into equilibrium. Nature does not do this, or at least it has never been fragile as the fragile parts of it long ago went extinct. The need for efficiency causes us to develop ever more centralized organizations that alienate individuals; and at the same time the individual can’t break away because he/she has to take on ever more difficult tasks to sustain the technology. The more the population grows, the more efficiency we need, the less control the individual has. Put that in the middle of corporations looking to extract as much time and energy out of the individual in terms of the money that they have and you see why the individual has no energy or time to do anything. This is a vicious circle.

    Perhaps if technology was self-sustaining… but that never seems to happen. In many ways corporations don’t work to push it in that direction because there is no money in making technology that is self-sustaining. I don’t even know whether that’s possible, but in general everything we build needs more and more resources and more and more time… just to keep it going. Which leads to more IP, more control, and less chances of ever finding sustainability or change.

  7. I like your long form thinking but afraid I have to push back a bit- it seems to me you are taking the metaphors too literally.

    The “bags of gold” was not to equate anything with the gold, but more to poke at the idea that our enterprises would actually denigrate the pursuit of something valuable that is easily reached (e.g. open content). The economic metaphor falls for information- it was in the pre-internet days that its value was ascribed to its scarcity, but now information is valuable because of its abundance (maybe, you can push back there).

    LIkewise, I see too many of us taking Gardner’s example of Cpanel as a concrete example of a cyberinfrastrcutre; it was a metaphor, not the end game, as he described it, what it represents is that ability of students to stake down their “non-trivial markers. The concept is not at all just the software, or the cPanel– if you take gander at the original paper he drew from ( and as Gardner clearly stated in his talk- it is more specific than just networks and more general than tools, or from the paper:

    “cyberinfrastructure is more than a tangible network and means of storage in digitized form, and it is not only discipline-specific software applications and project-specific data collections. It is also the more intangible layer of expertise and the best practices, standards, tools, collections and collaborative environments that can be broadly shared across communities of inquiry.”

    It is a layer of scholarly activity, not just hardware or software.

    It is the notion of a learner narrated, curated, and shared set of ideas, activities, and artifacts of their learning process.

    Yeah, I agree the term is ugly, but it is the concept that counts, and I doubt Gardner sees cPanel as THE cyberinfrastructure but a representation of the concept of the ways people can own and manage their digital locker.

    1. I agree that none of the metaphor should be taken too literally, and what (I think) he was getting at is that individuals (students and teachers) need to take more responsibility for their own learning (and the tools they use to support that learning).

      My post was coloured with my recent spate of less-than-positive experiences with hosting providers. Downtime. Slow servers. Database lockups. Memory overfull. etc… As an early adopter geek, I hate dealing with this stuff. It sucks the fun out of doing this online. I can only imagine what a novice student, who was pushed into setting up an account somewhere because Teacher Said To Set Up A Gold Farm will do in response. I’m guessing lots of these personal cyberwhatnots will wind up being abandoned and left to lay fallow. Fodder for spam script kiddies, most likely.

      1. Could Gold Farms be the new metaphor?

        I agree that watching the more novice students in #ds106 struggle with the set up of their farms is difficult to watch, there is value in doing it the right way the first time out. They would struggle with similar issues on say a posterous site as well, even thought that is much simpler to control.

        Now to totally flip-flop, I think that you are right the most important part is the narrated, curated, and shared ideas. It shouldn’t matter where or how this is done, as long as it is visible and accessible to given audience.

        So in order not to sound like a total jack ass, what I mean is that we need to engage learners who are interested in narrating, curating and sharing in as many different ways and places as possible. If we can steer them toward them personal Gold Farm that they own, great, if not let them start with the easy to swallow and get to the more complex. We do not want to lose people who want to share because they had issues with HML or cPanel.

        Every share cropper dreams of his own farm, but without the skills, they need to spend time learning first.

  8. I tend to agree with Alan that the metaphor for personal cyberinfrastructure equated to a web host and a domain is too literal, and in someways I am responsible for that gien the way I have intrepeted this for my class. I see the playing with a web hosting space and domain as useful exercise in geeking out, and making the simple point that doing all this stuff, managing their digital content online, is not all that hard. Can they do it, blogspot, etc. Well, yes, to a degree, but they can’t play with the themes, plugins, and even break stuff. The breaking stuff is crucial, and when someone else is doing all that, there is a divorce happening. I don;t think it is the end of the road, but it is a way of introducing this discussion, some possibilities many of us take for granted, and making their ease and pwoer apparent to someone who wouldn’t dream of doing something like this just a week ago.

  9. Darcy, thanks for this post and for attempting to focus the discussion where is rightly belongs. Years of technology/digital fetishism has unwittingly shifted attention away from the ‘why’ and ‘what for’ of education, and while our backs of been turned and our how-tos perfected, our institutions have slipped away from us and been denuded of meaning – or at least the meaning that we, as educators, wish to imbue it with and with which, historically, they have been imbued. I think it’s an open question as to whether society needs universities, at least universities in their present guise, and I am wondering whether ‘collaborative experiences, shared exploration, and reflection on one’s own learning as well as that of your peers’ is not being totally skewed by the corporate makeover of all learning institutions as well as our technologies. Individuals who want to learn? Well, in N. American at least, we’re coming closer and closer to demonizing intellectual pursuit as a public sport. But Henry Giroux, from your side of the border, says it so much better than me:

  10. I would push back a bit on the printing press analogy. Part of what’s critical, IMHO, to Gardner’s argument (and to the activity that is blossoming in ds106) is the recognition that a “regular person” CAN, for a fairly modest outlay of money, create their own cyberinfrastructure. That was never the case with the printing press. Manufacturing and/or running a press was a privileged activity — requiring a much larger outlay of money and a particular status in society.

    That all changed, of course, with the advent of personal publishing devices. . .the mimeograph, the copy machine, the word processor, the personal computer. And now Web publishing software.

    I still remember getting a program when I was about 10 for our Commodore 64 that allowed me to do basic desktop publishing — complete with fonts AND clip art! I was in heaven. The notion that I, a 10-yr old in suburban Virginia, could create a publication and then print copies of it on my parents dot matrix printer was mind-blowing.

    The tools people are using in ds106 are also privileged, but not nearly to the degree that a printing press in Gutenberg’s time was. Part of what I see my job as is to get students to recognize that the thresholds are lower than they think, and that you don’t have to be rich land-owner (or media mogul, or politician, or Fortune 500 CEO, or University IT department) to build and publish in your own kingdom.

  11. There’s a lot of gold in them there hills, no? And I hope that at least some of it involves a currency that doesn’t derive its value from scarcity, artificial or otherwise, because that’s a kind of currency that not only doesn’t trend toward being paper but in fact increases in value when there’s more of it. What if a whole lot of what matters about education is less like gold and more like fire, the kind of stuff that becomes ever more powerful as it is passed from one person to another?

    I’m not much of a religious person, but I’m exceedingly fond of a version of a passage from Luke that would have god saying “I came into this world to light a fire… what should I want but that it burn?”

    I don’t think people are giving Lanier and Turkle and others enough credit for the complexity of their arguments– I think there is a lot to fear from this fiery stuff– but part of the wonder if the way technology is evolving is that whole thing about resonance and sympathetic vibrations that allow the fire to pass from A to B without either necessarily being aware of each other. There’s surely some connection informing this currency, but it’s so far advanced from our primitive representations and analytics that it might as well be magic. But how amazing when it happens, whether we understand how or not (which reminds me of a poem by Ilya Kaminsky, in which he writes “thank you for my deafness, Lord, / such fire from a match you never lit”) and how painful when it is turned against us.

    I should be blogging this crap on my own site, but I’m too tired to work my own fields so I’ll sharecrop here instead. It just strikes me that the Bags of Gold metaphor is really a pointer to all this anemically understood realm where the currency isn’t devalued by duplication, but quite the opposite.

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