Blinded By Science (… Science!) A few scattered thoughts on knowledge, wisdom, thinking, and acting.

I recently picked up a copy of Ellen Rose’s “On Reflection: An Essay on Technology, Education, and the Status of Thought in the Twenty-First Century” thanks to a recommendation from a colleague I see three times a year (leading to at least three extra Amazon orders a year…)

It’s a quick read, but that’s really not the point, and Rose would likely hate to know that her reflection on reflection has been referred to as a ‘quick’ read… The point being, it’s a small volume, quite accessible to the general reader, and very much worth your time (and reflection).

The book neatly draws together a number of themes that have been dancing around my head this year, especially the growing instrumentalization of knowledge (both in academia and in the broader cultural discourse) through a renewed modernist view of (capital-S) Science. Read More

On Stuff and Things: A Defense of Material Possessions

This is not a post about Marie Kondo.

This is not a post about decluttering or tidying or the things that ‘spark joy’ in my life.

Rather, it’s a post about my own relationship with material things, and the meaning created by acts of collecting, sorting, curating, displaying, using, and mastering. This is my defense of stuff. Because I own a lot of stuff, and I really, really like having stuff. Stuff is good. Stuff makes me happy.

I know the Kondo thing is working for people right now: it’s an odd blend of anti-consumerism, domesticity, empowerment, and aesthetics. Find a new way to fold your six favourite shirts, and you’ll be far richer than if you’d just left twelve shirts jammed into a drawer. You don’t need things to be happy, you need relationships and experiences.

And yes, I totally get the appeal. I like relationships. I like experiences. Read More

Citation Needed

I finally got around to starting danah boyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”.
For those who don’t know danah (yes, the ‘d’ is deliberately lower-case. Just go with it), she’s a fantastic researcher who works with Harvard, Microsoft, NYU, and others. Unlike most people who write about ‘young people and the internet’, danah actually does RESEARCH. Yeah. I know. Crazy, right? I mean, all it takes to call yourself a ‘social media expert’ these days is a goddam twitter account (and/or amazing hair: see AOL’s ‘Shingy’…) So why bother doing ethnographic work for years, interviewing teens and reading relevant literature… that’s for suckers.

I like danah’s work. She’s connected to a group of researchers that has interested me for years – the DML (Digital Media and Learning) hub.

After years of working in the area of media literacy, I’m pretty tired of seeing media researchers with zero interest in education, and education researchers who don’t give a damn about media. Both groups will enthusiastically publish papers and books on media literacy, of course. But who can be bothered to learn the terrain in more than one field?

That’s why the DML folks have intrigued me. They seem to have one foot in each field, and their focus is on LEARNING, rather than just on teaching/instruction.

So I had very high hopes for danah’s book. And I do like it. It’s a really important read for many, many audiences. If you’re a parent, and you worry about young people using the internet, please read this book. It’s thorough, well-researched, and enjoyable to read.

If you’re an academic working in education or communication, please read this book. It’s a rare example of research with actual purpose (no offense to those of you working in academia, but seriously… how many books/papers do you read each year that really don’t matter in the slightest?) In this book, danah wants to help adults understand how young people actually USE social media, so that we can actually develop policy/curriculum/practice based on reality, rather than fear, prejudice, or ignorance.

All of that said, I do want to share a minor quibble I have with the book, which is really just a way to discuss a bigger pet peeve I have from my own dissertation work.

Over the past few years, I have encountered too many academic papers and books (with danah’s book being one of them) with citations/references that drive me nuts.

Let me be really clear here. I teach first-year students about academic research. That’s my job. I do it 3 semesters a year, 500+ students a year. I teach them how and why we cite our sources.

Moreover, I take citations seriously in my own work. The idea that one of the citations in my dissertation might be incorrect keeps me awake at night. Literally. I have literally stared at the ceiling at 4 in the morning worrying that my committee will come across a single incorrect citation and decide that maybe grad school was never truly ‘for me’…

So when I read an academic essay or book in my own research, and I come across a mistake (in a published work…) it drives me insane. How did this make it into print? Did someone not notice, or did someone not care? How come you get to have an illustrious career and still be so shitty at this simple thing? (I’m looking at YOU, Chomsky…)

A few months ago, I found an indirect quote I really liked. I wanted to read the original work, to get a bit more context and understanding. The source I had available to me didn’t even include the volume/issue of the original journal article. Thanks for that, asshole. Fine. I’ll look it up. Ok. Got the volume number, got the issue number. The article was on pages 1 through 16 of that issue.

So why the hell are you quoting this passage and saying it was on page 18?

Really. I know typos happen. They happen all the time. They are in this blog post, I’m sure.

But little details like this matter. If I can’t find your sources, I can’t verify your facts. That’s kind of how this system works.

In the opening chapter of danah’s new book, there’s a rather oblique reference to the fact that Socrates once mentioned a king who didn’t like writing.

Ok. I’m going to stop you right there.

I’ve worked in media literacy long enough to recognize a Neil Postman reference when I see one.

Sometimes it seems like everyone who works in this field has read Neil Postman, and far too many people actually like him.

The title of his biggest book was ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. That’s his attitude towards modern media. We are using them to Amuse Ourselves… to DEATH.

Postman spoke and wrote in breathless hyperbole. We was the quintessential old man yelling at the teenagers on his front lawn.

But he’s popular. His crappy books are on countless reading lists in communication and media studies courses. I get it.

Postman famously quotes Plato’s Phaedrus, in which King Thamus worries that the new invention of writing will make men more forgetful.

I teach this stupid reading every semester.

So I read a vague reference to Socrates and writing, and I think to myself, “another Postman reader. Oh well.” I flip to the notes at the back of the book to confirm my suspicion, and what do I see?

Not a Postman citation.

Not even Plato.

Nope. I see a link to a faculty member’s course website at the University of Illinois.

Now I’m really not trying to criticize danah boyd specifically here. It’s a great book. Go read it. She does fantastic research.

What upsets me is that this is standard operating procedure in academia.

You’re citing Plato. My assumption is that you’re doing so by way of Postman.

And all we get in the notes? A link to a PDF on someone’s course website.

(Side note: for anyone who works in and around universities, answer me this: How often does your university re-build the entirety of its web infrastructure? I’m guessing this link is broken within 24 months, tops.)

If you work in education, you should know how to cite.

If you publish academic work, or if you work for a publisher, you should really know how this stuff works.

Take the extra 5 minutes. Find the book. Double-check your citation. Then you can sleep soundly at night.

Unpacking My Library (5 books at a time…)

As with many other online trends, I’m a little late to the table on this one, but here goes…

Last month, I noticed that my friend Ben had posted his ‘My5Books’ to Twitter. He challenged me to do the same, and in typical fashion, I thought about it way too much and ended up posting nothing. I actually stared at my bookshelf for a solid 15 minutes that evening. But when it came time to condense that down to 140 characters, I believe I ended up making a sandwich and watching NCIS instead. Sometimes this whole ‘life of the mind’ thing is easily mistaken for ‘laziness’…

So after a few weeks, I thought I’d return to this challenge, and post a lengthy blog entry. I’m not particularly good at following instructions.  Read More

TV is for Learning: Why Postman’s Future is so Unfriendly

Working in and around Media Literacy, as with any field, I run into a number of ideas that just refuse to go away. Bad theories and writers who practically haunt the field, continually finding new ways to make themselves relevant or hip.

Case in point: this cartoon, which pops up with a maddening frequency. I see this linked on Facebook or Twitter every few weeks, in an effort to remind the world that Neil Postman sure was a grumpy, elitist tool. Oh, wait… I mean, the cartoon is supposed to remind us that Postman was a prophet, and that our world is really quite a terrible place to be.
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Wikifreaks: Jaron Lanier and the Digital Maoists

A colleague posted a link to this article yesterday, prompting me to re-visit Jaron Lanier’s 2010 work, You Are Not a Gadget.

In the Bustillos piece – which, I might add, includes a pretty thorough discussion of McLuhan’s work – a number of authors are singled out (Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, and Malcolm Gladwell, among them) and dragged across the coals. Their crime? Questioning the infallibility of the Hive.

When I first read Lanier’s work, I found it provocative, awkwardly argued, and thoroughly brilliant. He helps bring together a number of critical questions surrounding the Internet and its ongoing development. Rather than grappling head-on with the issues he raises, however, most of the web seems content to dismiss him as yet another grouchy old man yelling at the kids on his lawn.

To be honest, I’ve used this exact imagery myself on several occasions. It’s an easy way to avoid delving deeper into serious critiques of technology and culture.
But Lanier isn’t some angry old man masking his fear and confusion behind polished arguments and a sweater-vest. He is intimately connected to the history of the contemporary web, entangled in the narrative strands that form the Internet. As an active force within technology and media for three decades, he is worth taking seriously. At the risk of offending… he is not another Clay Shirky or Seth Godin…
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Gleick and the MEA: The Medium is A BIG STUPIDHEAD AND I DON’T LIKE IT AT ALL!

Last week I finished reading James Gleick’s absolutely brilliant new book, The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood.
I really can’t recommend this one highly enough. If Neil deGrasse Tyson has taken over Carl Sagan’s project of science education on TV and the web, then Gleick is very definitely continuing that legacy in print. His writing is very accessible, but more importantly it’s interesting. He writes the story of science, detailing the process and the collaborative efforts of brilliant minds around the word. This is not a textbook, nor is it a superficial summary of only the basic facts. Gleick writes about Information and Communication studies with passion and a deep understanding of the material.

Or so I thought…

You see, it turns out that Gleick is WRONG. And STUPID. And MEAN.
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