Monthly Archives: May 2006

TechKnowFile

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Today I gave a presentation with Derek Williams, a History professor at UTM, at TechKnowFile, the U of T IT staff conference. Right before this started we discovered that they had booked us into a room with a class in it, so we had a last minute scramble to a new room. And then somehow between leaving home this morning and unpacking to give the presentation at 3pm I lost my video out cable, which really bums me out. I loved that cable, man. But amazingly they found me one to use for the presentation.

Anyway, all this is to say, when we started this presentation I was a little off my game, but we picked it up again pretty fast. In the end it was a lot of fun and there were lots of interesting questions afterward. Derek Williams is an amazing guy and a great instructor, and we used this tech_know_file presentation as a moment to talk about what he did with his Latin American history class this winter term. In sum: he gave his students something beyond a grade to work for. He asked his students to improve the content of Wikipedia.

You can download and listen to the presentation here: Wikis on the Move: TechKnowFile.06 [19 meg file].

Edited to add: I found my video out cable. I was on my bedroom floor. Phew.

Radical Trust

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An idea came up at the UTL staff conference on Monday that has stuck with me; it was from Stephen Abram‘s keynote, and it reverberated throughout the day (and the week): radical trust. Stephen was evoking amazon.com and suggesting (as many people do), that we need to radically trust our users and let them add to our catalogues, add to our resources. Talking about this in terms of radical trust changes the dynamic of the conversation; rather than talking about keeping the catalogue “objective”, we’re talking about how we perceive students, what we expect from them. And I think the issue of trust is a completely relevant one. We tend not to trust students.

And it’s not just us, not by a long shot. This is the real challenge of the so-called “web 2.0”. We can’t control everything. The whole point of interactive technologies is that you can’t control them. The only way we can use web 2.0 applications is by trusting our users. We can anticipate the worst, and even have some policies in place to deal with the worst case scenario, but we have to have a general belief that students have a capacity to engage with each other, to offer something to an academic community, and that they will actually do that if we give them the chance.

The other piece of radical trust is one that shoots straight to the heart of librarianship; we need to let users radically trust us. This is the more dangerous option. In order to serve students well, the best thing we can do is let the students tell us who they are. We need to remember them, tailor our resources to their needs and interests, build on what they’ve done before. This is what amazon.com does, this is what Google does. It profiles a user and delivers customized information back to them. It profiles a user. We hate this idea, I know we do. It’s tinged with commerciality, it screams violation of privacy. I don’t even know what I think of this one, frankly. We do need real portals. We do need to customize our resources; our information landscape is so turbulent and confusing, we need to offer some support. But do we want students to let us know these things about them? Do we want to keep records on them? We don’t want them to trust us that much. We don’t want the responsibility of that trust, because we can see how easy it would be for that trust to be betrayed. Should they trust us? Can we be trusted? Can we protect them once they do?

Digital Exceptionalism

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When people stand up to speak about the “information age” we’re living in, they seem to so often jump to the conclusion that the digital world is so radically different from what came before. Digital exceptionalism, of course, does no favours to us as librarians, us as users of information technology, or us as a culture.

I’m writing from the WILU conference at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Last night the keynote speech included a video about the importance of information literacy. Within it, the narrator points out to us a “fact” we’re supposed to already know and accept as a given; a person in 1500 could get by with about the same information as someone in 1400. But now, oh this is longer true now, things change so fast! Someone in 1900 would not have survived in 2000!

The big difference with the print revolution, and the digital revolution, is not that there is more information. The possibility of concieving of more information in the universe is not linked to the technology at all. A sense of how much information there is is something that changed radically in the Renaissance, but that shift had more to do with teleological change than technological change. In a world where you believe that God created a set number of qualities, elements, creatures, and ideas, and that the great multitude existed in the garden of Eden and grows only fewer in the prelapsarian world, you cannot have information overload. It’s simply not culturally possible. The people a generation before you had access to more information than you did, and your children would have access to less than you have. The cultural shift that allowed for the creation of “new” knowledge, and for knowledge to be built, was a bigger shift than the digital one we complain about.

I’m frustrated that anyone would create an information literacy video that was so blatantly ignorant of European history and yet still invoking it. The medieval world was not any less of an information society, nor was it one with less information available. The difference is that today we keep our information in referencable resources (like books, like digital media) rather than in our heads. I’m immediately reminded of the story of Martin Guerre. In short: Martin Guerre grew up in a small French village in early modern France. He married a local girl, and then went off to war. He was gone for over a decade. Then one day he came back. He said all the right things, recognized everyone, reminisced, returned to his wife. But it turns out he was not Martin Guerre. He was Martin Guerre’s friend. He had merely gleaned an entire life’s worth of information from the real Martin Guerre, and managed it well enough to take over his life. If that’s not an information revolution right there in one person, I’m not sure who is. We talk about identity theft now on less dramatic scales. The pre-literate world did not have less information. It merely expected us to keep that informaiton in our heads, to convey it to each other in a clear and accurate way, and process and take in that information quickly and efficiently. The fact that we keep information in books or on the internet is just a relocalization of information. There’s more access to information, because we can get at the information created by or discovered by more people, but we’re also able to be more selective about what information we consult and absorb. The near-constant abuse of history in librarianship circles makes my historian self cringe.

I can’t help but think historically when people speak about ideas about privacy, information overload, surveillance. In the keynote this morning one of the speakers suggested that we’re entering a brave new world, because if she runs a red light, the system takes a picture of her. She’s now always being watched, even if no one is watching her. Of course, before mass urbanization completely took over, if you broke a law in public, you would certainly have been seen and recognized; this idea of privacy, of being completely anonymous in the world, is like a very modern notion. To talk about the tremendous newness of this surveilled society seems like another form of exceptionalism to me.

Collaborative Software Podcast

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This morning I gave a short presentation at the UTL Staff Conference about collaborative software. I recorded myself with my ipod and have reduced the original 40 meg file into a 13 meg podcast.

Now, during this presentation I was demonstrating software, so maybe you had to be there to get it. But you can download the file here.

A rough outline of what I was talking about:

1. Our UTM blog. I can’t show you that interface because it’s behind a lock, but it’s a general blog platform (written by UTM computing services) with an upload facility and comments.

2. Our UTM Library wiki. It’s a standard mediawiki like Wikipedia.

3. Writely.

4. Writeboard.

5. The jewel in the collaborative software crown: Subethaedit. This is one you really have to see to believe, I think. But if you have a mac, check it out. (If you have a mac and you want to experiment with subethaedit, ping me on IM or drop me an email! I’m more than happy to demo it with you!)

The podcast is about 38 minutes long.