The Art of Conversation

Having watched Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together presentation, which included some follow-up questions from Aleks Krotoski, I went in search of more on Turkle and tripped across a brief TechCrunch conversation she had with Andrew Keen where they specifically address privacy and Facebook:

Later, watching Turkle’s TED Talk, Connected, but alone?, and noting her comment that social media draws us to “sacrifice conversation for mere connection”, I was reminded somehow of Gary Nunn who writes for the Guardian’s “Mind your language” blog. A recent post by Gary titled Small talk? It’s not big and it’s not clever prompted me to tweet a suggestion that he needed to visit Ireland where “small talk is an art form”. He was gracious enough to reply. I was being a tad flippant, but I do feel that the art of conversation, whether trivial or consequential, has long since peaked and is descending at pace towards a monosyllabic base camp.

William F. Buckley Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr.
Source: Wikipedia

On the other hand, Jeff Jarvis and his plea for “publicness”, reminds me of one of my favorite authors and broadcasters, the late William F. Buckley Jr., who once quipped “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.” Buckley, the founder of National Review, whose command of language and rhetoric is abundantly evident in his sublime essays and in his Firing Line debates, also humorously noted that he “would sooner be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard.”

Daffy Duck & Immanuel Kant

After watching several videos and reading innumerable articles this week on the themes of digital identity, the public vs the private, and the appropriate place for technology in our lives, I confess I felt somewhat overwhelmed. So what follows is of necessity a perambulation around borders.

Aleks Krotoski

Aleks Krotoski
Source: The Guardian

Aleks Krotoski, in an informative article in the Guardian, Online identity: is authenticity or anonymity more important?, compares and contrasts the “authentic identity” model being promoted by Facebook and Google with the “return to anonymity” goal of 4Chan’s Christopher Poole and the Tor Project’s Andrew Lewman. “The ability to forget, to start over is important,” argues Lewman, while Facebook’s Richard Allan believes that authentic identity provides a credibility and security that will work in Facebook’s favour.
A 2014 article in Wired, The Online Identity Crisis, comes at the same subject from a slightly different perspective. Rather than focusing on anonymity the author talks about compartmentalization and the notion of only revealing specific aspects of identity depending on the social context. This is contrasted with the “single sign-on” being pushed by Facebook, Google and others, which, whilst having obvious appeal, results in an aggregated user identity which breaks down trust relationships established between users and individual service providers, and in the end serves only to further Facebook and Google’s goal of monetizing user interactions.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that sharing is the new social norm finds a willing adherent in Jeff Jarvis, the author of “What Would Google Do?”, whose brief video, How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live touts transparency, “publicness”, and his book “Public Parts”.

Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov
Source: The Guardian

Should you be mulling the purchase of “Public Parts” might I suggest that you first read Evgeny Morozov’s scathing review The Internet Intellectual in the New Republic, which dismisses Jarvis as a lightweight and the book as a “wordy marketing brochure”. Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion” and “To Save Everything, Click Here”, is not without his detractors and is, to put it mildly, an Internet sceptic. That said, his 7,000 word excoriation of Jarvis is thorough and was welcomed by some, including Milo Yiannopoulos in The Kernel, who noted “Jarvis takes great pleasure in underscoring his academic credentials, but not all professors are made equal, and this felt like Daffy Duck being decapitated by Immanuel Kant.”

Not the filling of a pail

Sugata Mitra is not without his critics. Donald Clark has a blog post casting doubt on Mitra’s “utopian vision”. Beginning by noting the prevalence of disused or vandalised “Hole-in-the-Wall” sites,

Mitra2 Donald Clark

Source: Donald Clark Plan B Blog

Clark goes on to discuss the issue of sustainability; concerns with funding; weaknesses in the underlying research, the fallacy that schools are obsolete; the necessity for adult mediation; the low level of learning actually involved; and the real possibility of social isolation and exclusion in the self-organised environment.
Other criticisms of Mitra and his theories are even more extensive and merit a level of review not possible here. That said, perhaps the best of those I have read come from Torn Halves on The Digital Counter-Revolution blog. Anyone who titles a post “Is Sir Ken Robinson a Luddite?” is worth a look. There are several on Mitra – what follows is by no means a complete list:

Second Thoughts: Teachers

All my teachers to date have been real, not virtual. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that they were all inspirational, but I would be equally dishonest if I claimed that my behaviour in class was always exemplary. The best teachers, in convent school and later diocesan boarding school, I remember with fondness even now: Ms. Watson who taught us English; Mr. Fahy who taught us Irish and History; and Mr. Glennon who patiently labored to teach us Maths, and in his spare time how to program in BASIC on an Apple II.

Denis Glennon

Denis Glennon
Source: The Longford Leader

I suspect that Mr Glennon was a little ahead of his time in 1982 – and certainly ahead of Mr. Mitra’s – in introducing a computer into a 4th year classroom. It was W.B. Yeats who, echoing Plutarch, noted that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” For better or worse Mr Glennon is one of the reasons I went on to study electronic engineering.

From White to Walls

The concept of “Visitors” and “Residents”, posited by David White while at the University of Oxford, seems to me a better way of looking at how we engage with the web. An introduction by White to the Visitor and Residents paradigm is available in video form:

The abstraction is detailed in a First Monday* paper and opens with a critique of Prensky’s Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.
In addition to using “tool” and “place/space” metaphors to represent engagement with online technology, White explains the Visitors and Residents typology as a continuum rather than a binary choice. Instead of placing each of us at a particular point on that continuum White suggests that our interaction with the web might mean alternately assuming the role of Resident and Visitor depending on context e.g. private vs public life.

Before I move on briefly to Sugata Mitra and his “Hole in the Wall” and “School in the Cloud” projects I might add a closing thought or two on Marc Prensky.

In the introduction to his book of essays, From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom, Prensky states that “students are stuck … with a curriculum that is highly outdated.” I cannot entirely agree with this blanket dismissal of the past. Ask my brother, a lecturer in the Department of Early and Medieval Irish at UCC, if he wishes Latin were still part of the secondary syllabus. The answer would assuredly be in the affirmative.
Prensky goes on to list the essays in his book – I despair of some of the titles – including one called “The True 21st Century Literacy is Programming”. I must demur. As a former programmer I see development environments advancing to the point at which anyone with a modicum of understanding can input the most general of parameters and output perfectly functional (if not necessarily efficient) code. The true 21st Century literacy will be literacy itself. Not just the narrow ability to read and write but, as Aristotle said, “to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I fear, to quote G.M. Trevalyan, that education “has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.”

From his 2007 TED Talk, Kids can teach themselves, through his 2010 Talk, The child-driven education, and culminating in his 2013 Build a School in the Cloud, where he discusses Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs), Sugata Mitra’s themes are easily understood.

However I find the notion of a teacher as being surplus to requirements somewhat contradicted by the level of their involvement in classrooms such as this where Mitra’s methods have been adopted.

*First Monday is an open-access peer-reviewed journal for articles about the Internet, hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A small aquatic bird of the family anatidae

The PBS interview with Marc Prensky regarding his “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” concept reminded me that no discussion of technology can truly be said to be complete without mention of Douglas Adams. “The Salmon of Doubt”, published posthumously, included his set of rules describing human reactions to technologies:

The Salmon of Doubt

Source: Wikipedia

“1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

In the PBS interview Prensky makes several throwaway remarks about the future which go unchallenged: we might have less privacy but that we’ll grow accustomed to it; we’ll lose some things, like “flowery writing”, but we’ll gain others; Google search is wonderful but “the next thing that comes along will be even better”. Prensky’s Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants classification has been much criticized. Several of those criticisms, ranging from mild to severe, are referenced in The Digital Natives / Digital Immigrants Distinction Is Dead, Or At Least Dying. Mark Bullen’s blog, Next Gen Skeptic, points to several studies that contradict Prensky with hard research concluding that the next generation’s use of digital technologies is more complex than characterised and certainly not homogeneous. The argument that there is as much variation within the digital native or net generation as there is between generations is noted in an article in The Economist, The net generation, unplugged, which makes telling points about superficiality in respect of student familiarity with digital tools and the nature of online youth activism.

Second Thoughts: Language … again

In looking at Prenksy’s website I see that he refers to himself as a “Practial Visionary”, “World Influencer” and “Thought Leader”. Immediately I thought of this:

Shing & Berners-Lee

Source: Karen Twomey (via Twitter)

The inclination to excessive self-promotion online is pervasive. And unnecessary. Let the work speak for itself. Or at a minimum consign the more narcissistic twaddle to the back cover of the next book. Mind you I suspect it has been ever thus and the internet simply acts as amplifier and repeater.
Perhaps I am misconstruing biography as braggadocio. There I defer to the aforementioned Mr Adams: “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.”