Sunday, October 19, 2008

Everything is Miscellaneous

I just finished Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. The overarching theme of the book is that all the choices we make have political implications, whether we know it or not. Even something as simple as alphabetical order can discriminate or be manipulated. Having a last name that begins with BA, I'm very aware that I end up very close to the beginning of most lists; however, I hadn't realized the extent of the controversy over the years regarding this unnatural ordering system until reading this book.

The following are a couple of quotes that I liked for one reason or another and that I was able to find again later:

College students' silverware drawers, Delicious, Flickr, the BBC, and Wikipedia are miscellaneous in different ways, except for one thing: How their content is actually arranged does not determine how that content can and will be arranged by their users.

All of the examples in the above quote were ones that the author had discussed in the preceeding pages. The author included the following by Ted Nelson, who came up with the term hypertext some 40 years ago:

People keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable, and sequential when they can't. Everything is deeply intertwingled.

Both quotes above touch on the fact that data is messy and that by freeing it from the rigid forms we like so much, it can be accessed more naturally by ourselves and by others.

For a fun example of a mashup that takes Flickr photos and combines them with chopped up corporate slogans, tied together with the tags that describe the photos, check out The Ad Generator. Some don't make sense. Some are hilarious. Overall, they are as meaningful (for better or worse) as real advertisements. They work because of all the metadata available for each picture. An interesting addition to the program would be to include location information from Flickr photos and combine that with information about where the user is located (easily gleaned from the user's IP address), and create localized ads that make even more sense for that user. Google and others are actually doing this kind of stuff when it comes to targeting ads.

Just last week, I was having a conversation about what it means to be computer literate. What can we expect students to know already when they come to USU, and more importantly, what should they know in order to be successful here? I mentioned that I thought it would be interesting to look into requiring students to show they know how to contribute to a wiki and post to a blog. The other person mentioned that they could see how the blog thing could be important, but they didn't think that being able to edit a Wikipedia page would be worth anything. If anything, I thought that would be one of the most important things we could be having students do as part of their CIL tests. By understanding how people contribute to Wikipedia, they will be able to better analyze the content of whichever Wikipedia page they find information on, since it will be the inevitable starting point for most of their papers, whatever the topics happens to be. So I really appreciated reading Weinberger pointing out that Wikipedia's openness is what makes it such a valuable resource.

In another recent conversation, it was posited that computer literacy included knowing who to go to solve a particular problem with your computer. I think it needs to go a level deeper - that technology users need to understand that everything does not always go smoothly. It's not enough to know that you can call the Helpdesk, describe the problem, and follow their directions to fix it. You have to expect that there will be problems, be prepared with a backup plan, and firmly push away the blame arrow from yourself. It's not your fault if your computer freezes up, just as it isn't your fault if you can't figure out how to navigate a company's website. It is your fault if you immediately give up. As technology becomes more and more messy, there will be issues to work through, but the results we get back will be more useful to us than ever before.

As I've read about many of the Web 2.0 sites mentioned in the book, it has been helpful that I've actually used most of them to some extent. I've generally started out skeptical with all of them. Why would I want to blog? Why would I want to upload and tag all my photos using Flickr? What's the use of bookmarking pages with Delicious? Yet once I start using each, I understand the purpose, and I connect to the community that I didn't realize was around me. It hasn't always been easy. When I first tried uploading pictures to Flickr and started troubleshooting why my appropriately tagged photos were not showing up in a conference feed like they should have, I was frustrated, but I didn't give up. I finally figured out that since my account was new, it had to be verified by someone at Flickr before my pictures would show up, and they eventually did. As I mentioned above, the key was to keep trying and not blame myself. I still haven't started Twittering yet. I don't see the purpose, but I'm getting closer to trying it. I know that at some point I'll enter the world of Facebook, but as of yet, I refuse.

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