Blogging, social media, and ambient humanity

Tim Carmody, posting on, about Dan Cohen’s “Back to the Blog” post.

…blogging either needs its own mechanisms of ambient humanity — which it’s had, in the form of links, trackbacks, conversations, even (gulp) comments, all of which replicated at least a fraction of the buzz that social media has — or it needs a kind of escape velocity to break that gravitational pull. Gravity or speed. Or a hybrid of both.

Source: Blogging, social media, and ambient humanity

We’ve seen another way. It’s possible, and we know that because it worked for years, at internet scale. But the mechanisms of ambient humanity in the Big Silos won because most people really don’t care about the infrastructure. People just want to feel connected to people, and there was less friction in the silos – at the cost of giving up and/or losing control.

There are absolutely parallels in edtech. Instructors and students largely interact with each other online via the institutional learning management system, rather than richer distributed venues designed for each individual context. Or, rather, some courses use those interesting non-sanctioned venues anyway, because they suit their needs, but without the blessing of the institution and at risk – both personal and institutional.

Student data (names, emails, ID numbers, grades, etc) needs to be tightly managed by the institution for very good reasons – we can’t violate the privacy of our students, either through active leaks or from passive breaches due to data becoming siphoned off into other tools without our control. I get that we need to control the data. But we’re also setting up a mirror of the social-media-to-corporate-silo model, which has been shown to be harmful in so many ways.

So. How to support the decentralized needs of an incredibly diverse and interesting ecosystem of communities, while protecting sensitive personal information, without stifling the interesting and creative activities that are possible when students and instructors have more control over their own environments?

The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times

A good article by Tim Wu in the New York Times, on the effects of convenience.

Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.


Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.

(Extend that line of thought to Twitter/Facebook vs. individually owned websites distributed across the internet as a heterogeneous and diverse culture of sharing and interacting…)


We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating.


Source: The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times


This is why blogging largely died out (Alan pointed out in the comments that blogging has definitely not died out, and that there are still bajillions of active blogs. Which is awesome. But it still feels different now, to my curmudgeonish self) , replaced with tweeting. This is why RSS largely died out, (also, not so much actually dying out…) replaced with algorithmic activity streams. Because it’s easier to just numbly follow a stream. This has huge implications on how we interact with each other, and how we formalize our thoughts. It’s a race to the bottom, to the easiest possible form.

What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party – The New York Times

A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud.

Source: What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party – The New York Times

That bit resonated. Actually, the whole article resonated a bit more than I’m comfortable with. Small talk becomes a bit like navigating a mental minefield. “How are you?” is either answered with a gentle lie, or with the truth. The gentle lie is what people are usually asking for, and, frankly, is what I usually want to say anyway. The truth is brutal and scary and life-altering and nuanced and exhausting. “I’m fine. How are you?”

Birdcage liners – Joel on Software

Algorithms, tuned not to help readers but to help advertisers. Intermittent reinforcement tuned to maximize engagement/addiction. This is some scary shit, but it’s the web in 2018. We can do better.

But whereas Twitter sort of stumbled upon addictiveness through the weird 140-character limit, Facebook mixed a new, super-potent active ingredient into their feed called Machine Learning. They basically said, “look, we are not going to show everybody every post,” and they used the new Midas-style power of machine learning and set it in the direction of getting people even more hyper-addicted to the feed. The only thing the ML algorithm was told to care about was addiction, or, as they called it, engagement. They had a big ol’ growth team that was trying different experiments and a raw algorithm that was deciding what to show everybody and the only thing it cared about was getting you to come back constantly.

Source: Birdcage liners – Joel on Software

And now, Facebook has seen the light! Its former executives are lining up to denounce the horrible things that Facebook has done. Zuckerberg is now pivoting away from algorithmic news (because hey that’s evil) toward algorithmic posts-from-friends.

Good news! Except that won’t help. It will only tighten the feedback loop and prop up the bubble. If you’re more likely to see things from your friends, you’re less likely to see things serendipitously. You only see what you agree with. Therefore everyone agrees with you. Bubble intensifies

How do we Indigenize post-secondary curriculum? | UToday | University of Calgary

We’ve been learning more about Indigenizing the university, and how we might approach that as an Institute. This article by Gabrielle Lindstrom is a great overview.

Indigenous pedagogy, which refers to a way of teaching using Indigenous educational principles, is grounded in creating, fostering and sustaining good relationships between student and teacher. Teaching moments are found in the human-to-human interactions which are reciprocal — my students understand that I have certain knowledge and experience they can learn from and I understand that I, too, can learn from my students.


Rather than compromising excellence, Indigenous epistemology, therefore, offers students the opportunity to strive for their full potential without compromising their human dignity or those of other cultures.

Fantastic. Indigenization is as much about shifting the power structure as it is about learning the history.

Source: How do we Indigenize post-secondary curriculum? | UToday | University of Calgary

Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can’t you put it down? – The Globe and Mail

The article isn’t as hyperbolic as I was braced for, and connects the recent spate of Facebook billionaires lamenting that they just discovered that Facebook may not be the best thing for people or society (but thanks for the $billions).

I’m not about to say that having supercomputers in our pockets, wirelessly connected to the sum of published human knowledge and to every other pocket-supercomputer, is anything but an incredible boon for humanity. But, the way that capitalism and advertising revenue combined with algorithmic distribution to maximize “engagement” and tie into the feedback loop to boost ad revenue and then tweak algorithms and then boost ad revenue etc. etc. ad nauseum? Yeah. That might need a little work.

To ensure that our eyes remain firmly glued to our screens, our smartphones – and the digital worlds they connect us to – internet giants have become little virtuosos of persuasion, cajoling us into checking them again and again – and for longer than we intend. Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day, according to some estimates, and about twice as often as they think they do, according to a 2015 study by British psychologists.

Add it all up and North American users spend somewhere between three and five hours a day looking at their smartphones. As the New York University marketing professor Adam Alter points out, that means over the course of an average lifetime, most of us will spend about seven years immersed in our portable computers.

Source: Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can’t you put it down? – The Globe and Mail

The Looming Digital Meltdown – The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci, in the NYTimes:

Modern computing security is like a flimsy house that needs to be fundamentally rebuilt. In recent years, we have suffered small collapses here and there, and made superficial fixes in response. There has been no real accountability for the companies at fault, even when the failures were a foreseeable result of underinvestment in security or substandard practices rather than an outdated trade-off of performance for security.

Source: The Looming Digital Meltdown – The New York Times

Her butler metaphor is great, too.

2018 University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants call for proposals | UToday | University of Calgary


These grants facilitate projects through three structural streams:

  • Practice grants: This stream of grants supports our pursuit of professional learning about research-informed teaching and learning. Practice grants are one-year grants, individual or collaborative and can receive funding up to $7,500.
  • Lesson study: These grants support team-based studies of a single lesson, carefully developed and studied to promote a significant learning goal. Lesson study grants are one or two year grants for teams of three to six members. Teams can receive funding up to $7,500 per year, to a maximum of $15,000 per year, for the entire team.
  • Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: These projects are formal, evidence-based studies to better understand or improve student learning. They can be individual or collaborative and one or two years in duration. Individual projects can receive up to $10,000 per year, to a maximum of $20,000 for two years. Collaborative projects can receive up to $20,000 per year, to a maximum of $40,000 for two years.

Source: 2018 University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants call for proposals | UToday | University of Calgary

The grants have been offered for a few years now, and the program is adapting to incorporate new initiatives. It’s become one of the most transformative things we do as a university to support innovation teaching and learning.

Mike Caulfield – Internet of Broken Things

When it comes to security, where will this sea of abandoned devices get security patches from? Who will write them, and how will they get paid?Like Ward, I worry that it’s not just an internet of things, but a proprietary mess of interdependent services built on the shifting sands of unstable business models. Unless we develop standards and protocols that reduce that proprietary interdependency we’re eventually going to have a lot bigger problem on our hands than Twitter outages.

Source: Internet of Broken Things | Hapgood

You Don’t Have as Much Control in Videogames as You Think | WIRED

Warren Spector on dialogue:

“It’s very easy for us to simulate the pulling of a virtual trigger, and it’s very, very hard for us to simulate a conversation. I defy anybody to show me a conversation system in a game today that isn’t identical to the conversation systems that Richard Garriott was using in the ’80s. The big innovation in conversation systems now is that there’s a timer on your choice on the branching tree. And I just don’t think that’s good enough. But again, if I knew how to solve that problem I would. I’m not disparaging everybody in the game business. What I am saying is, I wish we would spend a little bit less time on combat AI and a little bit more on non-combat AI—on creating characters you can bond with on an emotional level.”

Source: You Don’t Have as Much Control in Videogames as You Think | WIRED

(via Patrick Finn on Facebook)

David Levy On the Agony Of Going Offline

David Levy, in “The Useless Agony of Going Offline“:

(He went offline for 72 hours over the new year’s long weekend. Productivity ensued.)

I didn’t miss my smartphone, or the goofy watch I own that vibrates when I receive an e-mail and lets me send text messages by speaking into it. I didn’t miss Twitter’s little heart-shaped icons. I missed learning about new things.

During the world’s longest weekend, it became clear to me that, when I’m using my phone or surfing the Internet, I am almost always learning something. I’m using Google to find out what types of plastic bottles are the worst for human health, or determining the home town of a certain actor, or looking up some N.B.A. player’s college stats. I’m trying to find out how many people work at Tesla, or getting the address for that brunch place, or checking out how in the world Sacramento came to be the capital of California.

What I’m learning may not always be of great social value, but I’m at least gaining some new knowledge—by using devices in ways that, sure, also distract me from maintaining a singular focus on any one thing.

I struggle with this (as I’m sure everyone does). “Screen time.” On the one hand, I’m shocked at how much time I spend with a magic internet device in my hand. On the other, I’m amazed at how much I read, and on such an incredible variety of topics. Pretty much instantaneous access to any current information, from pretty much anywhere on Earth. Is that a good thing? Breadth over depth? Is this mediating my experience with the “real world” – and does the “real world” mean “everything except those things that have a MAC address” (or are these things now part of the “real world” and so the either-or deliniation is false anyway)?

And, was David Levy’s sudden burst of non-screen productivity a result of non-screen-ness offline time, or was it the novelty of the situation that resulted him in doing a bunch of other things? Try it for a few months to find out… (I haven’t. I don’t think I will…)

Why Is The University Still Here? | TechCrunch

New forms of online education like MOOCs lost both forms of primacy at once. By making them free, students had few incentives to not quit any time the course materials got boring or difficult. Without a physical presence, there weren’t the social peer effects of friends encouraging us to attend our classes on time, or shaming us about our poor performance.

These products often tried to emulate the feel of a course by forcing students to take them concurrently. The effect of that model, which Coursera particularly prioritized, appears on the surface to have been unsuccessful, while also reducing the convenience that should be the hallmark of online education.

Open education is absolutely needed – course materials should be distributed as widely as possible for as cheaply as possible. Knowledge deserves to be free. But that openness also makes it hard for these materials to gain primacy in the lives of their students when they are just sitting on the web like every other web page.

Source: Why Is The University Still Here? | TechCrunch

on after-hours work email

The results were immediate and powerful. The employees exhibited significantly lower stress levels. Time off actually rejuvenated them: More than half said they were excited to get to work in the morning, nearly double the number who said so before the policy change. And the proportion of consultants who said they were satisfied with their jobs leaped from 49 percent to 72 percent. Most remarkably, their weekly work hours actually shrank by 11 percent—without any loss in productivity. “What happens when you constrain time?” Lovich asks. “The low-value stuff goes away,” but the crucial work still gets done.

via Are You Checking Work Email in Bed? At the Dinner Table? On Vacation? | Mother Jones. (via BoingBoing

I’d love to set this policy up at the office. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Update: and… 5 minutes after sending the link to the article, and we have an informal policy in the Taylor Institute to try out prohibiting work-related emails before 8am and after 5pm, and on weekends. Awesome. It’s a start.

Bill Nye and presentation zen

Awhile back Bill Nye debated Ken Ham on science vs. creationism, at Ham’s museum of young earth creationism. Nye just posted some background on the talk and his preparations, and this kind of jumped out at me:

On the slides in my “decks,” as they’re called, I do not use many words. My colleagues sent me dozens of PowerPoint slides for my use. Thank you of course, but my goodness you all, when I watch many of your presentations, it’s like reading a page of book projected on a wall. How can someone in the audience focus on what you’re saying, when there’s a blizzard of words in front of her or him?

via Bill Nye’s Take on the Nye-Ham Debate – CSI.

Desmond Tutu on Keystone XL

The taste of “success” in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth.


We cannot necessarily bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. But we can take steps to reduce its political clout, and hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess.

And the good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Young people across the world have already begun to do something about it. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is the fastest growing corporate campaign of its kind in history.

via We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet | Desmond Tutu | Comment is free | The Guardian.