Attention, Big Tech, and choosing to curate rather than be curated.
- Rewilding Your Attention (CJ Eller)
- “Rewilding Your Attention” (Clive Thompson)
- Increasing your ‘serendipity surface’ (Discours.es)
Attention, Big Tech, and choosing to curate rather than be curated.
A few years ago, when I was at Mozilla, a colleague mentioned a series of books by Bernard Cornwell called The Last Kingdom. It seemed an obvious fit for me, he said, given that my interest in history and that I live in Northumberland. A couple of years later, I got around to reading the series, and loved it. The quote that serves as the title for this article is from the second book in the series: The Pale Horseman.
Another book I read that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy was Ender’s Game, a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card. I was looking for a quotation about Ender’s access to networks when I came across this one from another one of the author’s novels:
“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.”Orson Scott Card
Some people say that you’re the average of the five people with which you surround yourself. In this day and age, ‘surrounding yourself’ isn’t necessarily a physical activity, it’s to do with your interactions, however they occur.
It’s easy to think about the time we spend at home with our nearest and dearest, but what about our networked interactions? For example, I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with Dai Barnes recently, so that might count as an example — and so might the time we spend on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks.
All of this brings us to an article I came across via Aaron Davis. Entitled The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, Yancey Strickler explains how we’re moving into a different era of interaction. He channels sci-fi author Liu Cixin:
Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.
Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).
These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.Yancey Strickler
What Strickler doesn’t go into is the effect that this may have on western democracies. This is something, however, that is covered by an excellent book I read last week called The People vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett. The author explains how even mainstream social networks have become fragmented:
Over the last few years… the nature of political disagreement has changed. It’s gone tribal. It is becoming hyper-partisan, characterised by fierce group loyalty that sometimes approaches leader workshop, a tendency to overlook one’s own failing while exaggerating one’s enemies and a dislike of compromise with opponents.Jamie Bartlett
Bartlett cites the work of cyber-psychologist John Suler, who theorises about why people act differently online:
Suler argues that because we don’t know or see the people we are speaking to (and they don’t know or see us), because communication is instant, seemingly without rules or accountability, and because it all takes place in what feels like an alternative reality, we do things we wouldn’t in real life. Suler calls this ‘toxic disinhibition’. This is what all the articles about ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ miss. The internet doesn’t only create small tribes: it also gives easy access to enemy tribes. I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.Jamie Bartlett
We’re witnessing the breakdown of the attempt to create general-purpose social networks. Instead, just like the offline world, we’ll end up with different spaces and areas for different purposes. Here’s a Slack channel to talk with former colleagues; here’s a Telegram group to talk with your family; here’s a Twitter account to share blog posts with your followers.
I’m not so sure this is such a bad thing, to be honest. So long as those spaces aren’t subject to the kind of dark advertising that’s led to political havoc and ramifications over the last few years, I see it as a sort of rebalancing.
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Rolin Moe is in a good position to talk on the topic of ‘academic innovation’. In fact, it’s literally in his job title: ‘Assistant professor and Director of the Institute for Academic Innovation at Seattle Pacific University”.
Moe warns, however, that it’s not necessarily a great idea to create a new discipline out of academic innovation. Until fairly recently, being ‘innovative’ was a negative slur, something that could get you in some serious trouble if you were found guilty.
[T]he historical usage of innovation is not as a foundational platform but a superficial label; yet in 2018 the governing bodies of societal institutions wield “innovation” in setting forth policy, administration and funding. Innovation, a term we all know but do not have a conceptual framework for, is driving change and growth in education. As regularly used without context, innovation is positioned as the future out-of-the-box solution for the problems of the present.
This makes the term a conduit of power relationships despite many proponents of innovation serving as vocal advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. Thinking about revenue shortfalls in a time of national economic prosperity, the extraction of arts and humanities programs at a time when industry demands critical thinking from graduates, and the positioning of online learning as a democratizing tool when research shows the greatest benefit is to populations of existing privilege, the solutions offered under the innovation mantle have at best affected symptoms, at worst perpetuated causes.
Words and terms, of course, change over time. But, as Moe points out, if we’re to update the definition of innovation, we need a common understanding of what it means.
Coalescing around a common understanding is vital for the growth of “academic innovation,” but the history of innovation makes this concept problematic. Some have argued that innovation binds together disciplines such as learning technologies, leadership and change, and industrial/organizational psychology.
However, this cohesion assumes a “shared language of inquiry,” which does not currently exist. Today’s shared language around innovation is emotive rather than procedural; we use innovation to highlight the desired positive results of our efforts rather than to identify anything specific about our effort (products, processes or policies). The predominant use of innovation is to highlight the value and future-readiness of whatever the speaker supports, which is why opposite sides of issues in education (see school choice, personalized learning, etc.) use innovation in promoting their ideologies.
It seems to me that the neoliberal agenda has invaded education, as it does with any uncommodified available space, and introduced the language of the market. So we get educators using the language of Silicon Valley and attempting to ‘disrupt’ their institution.
If the goal of academic innovation is to be creative and flexible in the development, discovery and engagement of knowledge about the future of education, the foundation for knowledge accumulation and development needs to be innovative in and of itself. That must start with an operational definition of academic innovation, differentiating what innovation means to education from what it means to entrepreneurial spaces or sociological efforts.
That definition must address the negotiated history of the term, from the earliest application of the concept in government-funded research spurred by education policy during the 1960s, through overlooked innovation authors like Freeman and Thorstein Veblen. Negotiating the future we want with the history we have is vital in order to determine the best structure to support the development of an inventive network for creating research-backed, criticism-engaged and outside-the-box approaches to the future of education. The energy behind what we today call academic innovation needs to be put toward problematizing and unraveling the causes of the obstacles facing the practice of educating people of competence and character, rather than focusing on the promotion of near-future technologies and their effect on symptomatic issues.
While I’m sympathetic to the idea that educational institutions can be ‘stodgy’ places that can often need a good kick up the behind, I’m not entirely sure that academic innovation as a discipline will do anything other than legitimise the capitalist takeover of a public good.