I don’t think in words

One of my personal frustrations is my inability to get my thoughts into words. What seems so clear in my head usually comes out as a jumbled mess to begin with and needs to be carefully crafted into something that can be communicated. It slows the process down a lot and an idea often has to spend months dwelling around in various forms, being nibbled at and moulded into shaped before it’s ready to come out.

I was thinking tonight that it would be great if I could write more… But that’s not really the problem. I write plenty, what I struggle with is the fact that I don’t think in words. My thoughts take a very different form and something that is a struggle to describe.

They are visual and sensory objects to me. They are often pieces that join together – not like a puzzle but as a truth. Complexity is there and can be felt rather than explained. Their is a physicality to these thoughts, a real weight and mass. They are solid rather than ephemeral and gossamer. What I struggle with is translating these truths in to words. To encode and abstract them into language and structure then in text.

An example is probably my first memory and inclination of this problem. It was back at uni and I was trying to think of a project to develop for my major work. One of the ideas I had was to map a four dimensional space. In my mind it was (and is) as clear anything but any attempt to verbalise – even to visualise it is hopeless. I spent a long time with that one, eventually dropping out of uni and heading out into the workforce. There was a number of factors in that decision, but my inability to get out an idea scared me – how could I spend time one something that I can’t quite describe?

What tends to come out is not what I see, especially in it’s initial form. The best comparison is Terry Pratchets description of the colour of magic:

It was octarine [the eighth colour], the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself. But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.

That’s what happens to my ideas when I translate them to words – they become a greenish-purple – a poor representation of my minds eye. An inferior description that does little to capture the truth and true nature of the thought.

I want to work on that this year and I’m willing to trying and be more iterative in my ideas – to put them out in various forms, remould them, change them and adapt them over time. It’s slightly scary because it’s a vulnerability I don’t usually expose… but hey lets give it a go!

Featured Image: Canvas of Clouds by Tim Klapdor BY-NC

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Explain Nothing: The Secret to Storytelling

Over a lovely summer break I’ve had the chance to watch and read a number of fantastic stories. Many of them have been kids movies and books that I’ve been watching or telling to my four year old as we’ve endured the heat and rain. Some are better than others but the good ones have something in common.

They explain nothing.

The best stories invite you into worlds, populate them with memorable characters and then take you on a journey, but they don’t explain anything. They don’t explain the geopolitical machinations, the cultural landscape, the local mythology or religious beliefs. They just tell the story.

And it works because a good story is not seeking to become part of your world – you want to become part of it.

This lack of explanation is the secret sauce for truly great movies. From those of Studio Ghibli through to Mad Max Fury Road. It’s what made the new Star Wars good and the last three suck (seriously midiclorians are the perfect explanation and why it’s wrong). It’s why you can jump from the visual polish of Pixar to the painterly style of Song of the Sea – they don’t explain their worlds – they just make them worth inhabiting.

An explanation needs to find commonality. In order to bridge realities it must relate to our actual reality – it’s culture, science and political ideologies – and in doing so it destroys the magic. It destroys our ability to suspend our beliefs and be absorbed by the fiction and become part of their world.

Don’t get me wrong, you still need to get everything else right – the world, visuals, characters and story – but it just doesn’t need to be explained. That’s what we do, that’s how we participate in a book and a movie. We explain it, we build the bridges and anchor it into our world and cultural experience. It’s how we make art our own. By creating our own explanation.

Contribution to 2016: Civitas

The start of the year sees a flurry of posts full of predictions and promises. Last year I thought that rather than do that I would post what I planned on contributing to, and I want to do that again this year.

Last years contributions went a bit like this:

  • Distributed systems – went well resulting in a lot of thinking and a number of posts and presentations and my big ideas – MYOS.
  • Customising WordPress – didn’t pan out at all. The projects I thought would relate to this didn’t really follow this path – instead I learnt Jekyll 🙂
  • Design Patterns – while I haven’t dealt with this publicly I have been working on this quite a bit in the last month or so… stay tuned.
  • Netpro – unfortunately this didn’t get up either. It’s something I’d like to come back to and might do so this year.

So a mixture of successes and failures – and to be honest that’s good because I learnt a lot from last year, met some amazing people, had some great conversations and found my ideas resonated with people around the world. A pretty good year on that front.

I also did some unexpected things and one of those was helping lead a session at the Wagga Hack4Good event. This was an event that came out of the local council and government agencies with the idea of exploring some of the social problems we have in our community and the possibilities to resolve them with technology. I was part of some of the organising with a slap together crew of interested, rather than experienced, people who were all willing to get something up and running. What exactly that was may not have been apparent in the beginning- but what emerged out of the event for me was a need for the community, and the council, to start engaging with technology.

The session I led started as a quick presentation about design – in particular user interface and user experience design. It then evolved into an ideas session, discussion and then trying to refine that down into something singular to “hack” with about 30 people in the room. We had a couple of technical guys from the uni on hand to build something – so much of the session was about outlining something for them to go away and build, but the majority of people that were attending weren’t technical at all. They were interested in the opportunity and not short of ideas, but they did lack the digital literacy and skills to really engage beyond those initial ideas.

Throughout the year I also took part in the People’s Panel initiative from the local council. It was a way that planners and the council could get feedback on plans and initiatives being undertaken. I took part because it was online and I wanted to participate in some kind of civic duty. At the end of the year they invited people to come and meet face-to-face and discuss the councils strategic planning. It was a great session with lots of interesting discussion but again it became abundantly clear that technology could provide some real improvements to current practice and solutions to some of the problems but there was a lack of ability to think about this, let alone push for it.

What I was left with was a feeling that there is a huge gulf between “social” or “public” and “technology” at the moment. That in many ways there really hasn’t been much innovation recently in “social technology” – stuff that makes connecting, collaborating and cooperating better, easier and more productive. Things may have improved for individuals – but getting groups together often means resorting to older technologies, and my personal bug bear – ones that aren’t mobile friendly. It seems that the only innovation that occurred in this space happened fairly early with wikis and blogs and then it all just got swallowed up social media. There’s a massive gap in the social and public spaces online that isn’t being addressed despite the proliferation of devices and access to the internet. I wrote and presented about the exploitation and enslavement that’s occurring under the guise of “social media” and even presented an alternative in MYOS because we need an better solution. But while MYOS may address an individuals needs, what about a community? What kind of solutions are out there for communities to engage with?

So that’s what I’m planning to contribute to 2016 – public and social spaces in technology. I’ve even found a word that summarises quite nicely a number of ideas I’ve had – Civitas.

Civitas is the body of united citizens and is the mixture of rights and responsibilities that create a public and social community. Civitas embodies the the qualities that generate a sense of identity, commonality and cultural relevance in the public real.

What I’d like to do this year is work on how we can embed technology into our civitas and civitas into our technology. I think there’s a real opportunity in this space – for ideas and solutions. I also want to branch out beyond education. I have a full workload planned for this year and to be honest EdTech and a singular form of technology is doing my head in. I think there’s technology that’s suitable across multiple context – so if this works at a community level it would work the same at a class, course or degree program to. Also I think there’s the possibility to be more radical and innovative without the constraints of the educational system.

My first step is to map out a couple of ideas I’ve already had:

  • To campaign for a community roll out of a domain-of-ones own program. This is kind of foundational for developing digital skills around the community and something that provides the infrastructure to move forward.
  • We came up with an interesting idea at the Hackathon for a community events app, but one that had some additional features. I’d like to push that further if possible and maybe flesh out some of the functionality we discussed on the day.
  • Developing up an app idea Civi. This is basically an App to enhance and provide democratic functions. It’s an idea I had a while ago and something I’d like to flesh out and share with you good people!

So that’s the big thing for this year. It’s singular but pretty board. It encompasses some serious ideas and thinking, some technology hacking, maybe some training, speaking and perhaps more important selling. I need to get out there an engage with people. I made a positive impact on a few people at the hackathon and so I’m keen to leverage those connections to get something up and running. I’m hoping there’s an audience open and willing to participate, as well as someone willing to put there money where there mouth is!

There’s also plenty of work to be done in this our second year of u!magine in online learning, a house to rebuild and my awesome family to hang out with and hopefully have some great adventures. 2016 is going to be good!

Listening to the Web

Ever since I started seriously studying and working with the web (way back in 2000), I’ve always struggled with the terminology used to describe the way we USE the web and what we DO with the web.

At that time it was all about “interactivity”, a term I have always struggled with and come to loathe. One of my earliest university essays was an attempt to define a taxonomy of different types of interaction in order to extract something meaningful from the word. It was messy and in the end I was never happy with the term nor the ideas I’d had to construct meaning out of it. Interactive did, and still does, grate on my nerves as it’s used so flippantly and with no consistency. Interactive is applied to a “Next” button just as easily as multi person video chat. It’s applied to the navigation of a page, the transactions carried out and the reading of text or watching a video. Interaction became a catch-all’, a terrible term to define or discuss your work.

But I’ve always struggled with an alternative. There needs to be more nuace and clarity – particularly in the area of “consumption” (another term I’d rather not use).

So what do we call the way we use the web?

Despite so much of the web being text, there’s always been an orality attached to it. In many ways text on the web has sort to replicate speech and dialogue rather than print. The immediacy and connected nature allowed text to become more transient and ephemeral within its own context. The shorthand and slang, even emojis, developed as ways of replicating the traditional context of speech – embedding place, culture and emotion.

For the “reader” too, the experience of text on the web never functioned like the printed word. Physically it required a “workstation” far removed from the portability of the book. The low fidelity screen and limited colour palette are really only now starting to disappear as a constraint and limitation on the reading experience. There is a also the fragmented, distracting and infinite possibility of the web. Rather than be a library of closed, sorted and stacked books the web is every page of those books open and on display. Hypermedia created a non-linear, non-sequential labyrinth of information that simply cannot be “read” in the traditional sense. And the text in chat, forums and comments – is that “read” in the same way as a book? Is reading text an interaction on the web?

During one of the recent Future Tense podcasts Tanja Dreher notes the work of Kate Crawford and the role of listening online.

When we think about particularly the social media environment, the online environment, it’s obviously a sort of proliferation of voices, stories, speaking, exclamations. Lots and lots of expression can seem incredibly overwhelming.

But if we take a step back and think about what we actually do, most of us still spend most of our online time listening rather than speaking. We might post a couple of Facebook updates, we might send a couple of tweets, but there’s also an awful lot of paying attention, listening in the background that’s going on.

So there’s a wonderful academic Kate Crawford who has made the argument that listening actually provides a better concept for thinking about our online participation, even though normally we focus on speaking. And she says part of the problem is that we have really undervalued the importance of the listening that we do.

A lightbulb went off at that moment. Listening! Yes!

Reading through some of Kate’s work the issues she highlights are often when the concept of “interaction” falls down or fails to capture what exactly is happening. So instead of a distinct act on the web it’s labelled as something passive like “consume”. But we’re not simply consuming, shovelling it down or burning it up, we are thinking, pondering, questioning, absorbing, agreeing, disagreeing and everything in between. We are not consumers of the web, we are listening. We listen to people tell us about their day on Facebook, not simply read or consume their posts. We listen to the discussion on Twitter, the chatter and dialogue passing us by. We don’t lurk, we listen.

As the introduction for one of her papers suggests.

much online media research has focused on ‘having a voice’, be it in blogs, wikis, social media, or discussion lists. The metaphor of listening can offer a productive way to analyse the forms of online engagement that have previously been overlooked, while also allowing a deeper consideration of the emerging disciplines of online attention.

Listening is participating. It’s not necessarily interaction, but its a conscious act, not a passive one. You choose to read, you choose to listen, it can’t happen by mistake or by accident. It requires effort. Listening is an act that goes to the heart of the web and why it actually works. Not because it gives people a voice, but because it provides a way for more people to listen. That’s a powerful thing.

Ditch the Duality

This presentation was developed for a series of Think Pieces at Charles Sturt University. I’ve nominated to do these for the last few years, mainly because it gives me an opportunity to explore issues relating to education and technology in a slightly more expansive (and sometimes provocative) way. My take on these think pieces is not for me to do all the thinking – but open up a channel to explore some different ideas.

I developed the topic for this presentation about 6 months ago – having a notion of what I wanted to discuss. What I’ve ended up with is probably not what I orginally intended but actually more cohesive. It brings together a number of ideas I’ve previously blogged about (interaction, abstraction & mediation) and ties in with some interesting pieces I’ve been reading recently – most notably this post from Nathan Jurgenson. Nathan’s post appeared at the perfect time – one where I had the ideas but not the taxonomy laid out – so I’ve borrowed quite a bit of his post.

Let me know what you think!

The Quiet Page & Linking the Web

A number of recent posts and articles I’ve read discuss the concept of linking – Will Deep Links Ever Truly Be Deep?, Beyond Conversation, Follow-up: Reader as Link Author, How we might link and The Web We Have to Save.

Each in their own way has resurfaced an idea that I had a number of years ago. The year was 2011 and I’d spent about 3 weeks in the US as part of professional experience program. I’d spent a lot of time in the company of some great thinkers and innovators. At at some point there was a discussion about books – the supposed death of print, the inadequacy of ebooks but the potential that digital technology has for rethinking what makes a “book”.

Out of those discussions and over some long days driving I started to flesh out some ideas about what could be, where could the concept of the book go once it had been made digital? I wrote it down, drew it up on paper and left it there. Knowing the idea wasn’t ready. I couldn’t see how it could be done. Not yet anyway. But I pulled that paper out over the summer and read through it. Rethought it and started to rework it. And the big idea?

The Quiet Page.

At that original point in time most discussion was around what digital could add to the reading experience. Media, interaction, social media, video, analytics, data metrics, the list was endless. I was actually draw to the simplified, the unadulterated text. To be able to experience words and language without distraction. Without embellishments. Without blue underlines, embedded video, high definition graphics, interactive elements or embedded social media – the quiet page.

Text delivered to my liking. My font, my size in my colour or screen setup. Quiet. Relaxed. Readable.

And from the quiet page we can add the ability to turn on functions. To add to the quiet page layers of functionality. To view the text in different ways. To move beyond the navigation of our magic ink, and to embed the text with additional contextual information.

the-quiet-page

  • To see it linked to other resources to show its research and context. The internal and external connections of the text itself. (Author)
  • To add richness by adding media, visual and auditory elements that help enhance the message. (Publisher)
  • To annotate it myself. To highlight underline and note. To visualise and add my experience with the text. (Personal)
  • To view others experiences of the text. To see their notes and discussions. To see their highlights and to experience the text in a social and shared way. (Social)
  • To create trails. To connect the text to other content, ideas and resources myself. To place the text in my context, my experience and my knowledge. (Synthesis)
  • And then to share those trails. To let others see how I’ve contextualised the text. To see my experience but to then be able to add to it and expand it. (Connected)

From the Quiet Page you can do all these things – because the page doesn’t change. Each layer is an enhancemennt, an addition to the text rather that part of it. The Quiet Page allows the text to be adopted for other functions and purposes. To become non-linear, lived, felt, experienced and shared. To map and chart the interactions with the text. To go far beyond the “book”.

The point was to link the text. Not just in one way, but many. Internally and externally. Personal and social. Private and shared. And to cross between those states. To make the external internal, the personal social and the private shared. To link the text to life.

This discussion around linking – in particular Mike’s contribution – has made that importance of linking clear. That it is one of the key differentiators of the digital – not just the linking itself, but what the linking enables. It allows connections to be formed – not just between data, ideas or information, but people too. They provide a way to express, to visualise and map connections. To share, create ad communicate with humanity beyond our physical and temporal constraints.

The link is unique and powerful. It drives the potentially of the digital medium and needs to be enhanced rather than killed off or replaced.

Otherwise all that’s left is the Quiet Page.

Make Your Own Slogan: MYOS and the Networked Future

When I started this post it was only a week since I submitted an abstract for the dLRN15 Conference, but the it’s taken much longer to pull this post together than I originally thought. The title of the talk that I submitted was Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure and in this post I want to begin the process of sketching out some of the core motivations and ideas I’ve been having in regards to the technology for living and working in a networked world.

This is has been a process of attempting to bring together some of the ideas I’ve been dwelling over for the last year and a half about what is happening online, particularly in the ed-tech space, and alternative ways that we could do things. The ideas are very much tied into notion of networks, in particular the concept of distributed systems. I put it down on my “year ahead” post back in January as a topic that I really wanted to explore this year, so when the call for papers, and the list of speakers/organisers came out – I figured this was as good a time as any.

In the meantime Jim Groom has published a couple of posts, one & two, that share similar ideas, particularly around the architectures around how to build alternatives. Yesterday Michael Felstein also put together this great post on the EDUCAUSE NGDLE and an API of One’s Own. Both share commonalities with what I’ve been thinking in particular around APIs and an “operating system” of sorts. It’s kind of why I decided to get this post out even though in some areas it’s still only half-baked.

So what’s the problem?

The big issue that I have with the current raft of technology is centralisation. Some of the big players are working desperately towards concentrating all your data, profiles, media and personal information into their own systems (see Facebook has officially declared it wants to own every single thing you do on the internet). Commercial social media tools have given life to the idea that networks are things that can be created, manipulated, bought and sold. However,

a network isn’t a thing, but an expression of individual nodes, how they interact with each other and the relationships they develop.
The Network & Me

These enterprises do not operate as networks, but as containers. They are an explicit attempt to seize and monetise our digital endeavour by controlling the vectors through which they flow. They are closed, controlled and centralised systems that are attempting to enclose the web, the notion of commons and the ability to connect and share. Yes it will be possible, but on their terms and in their space. As the importance for digital networks grows, the tools we currently rely on are undermining their ability to function. They are becoming a medium where networks do not grow and thrive, but silos in which they become stunted and curtailed by a simple binary choice – accept or decline.

Technologies in which digital networks can thrive don’t look like the tools available to us today, or those planned for tomorrow. Not the learning management system, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Medium.

So what’s the alternative?

I’ve been a huge fan of Jim Groom & Tim Owens’ work on developing up the literature and architecture for a Domain Of Ones Own. I think that idea – a space owned and controlled by the user – is paramount in this networked age. It forms a solid foundation from which to build networks in a distributed way, rather than the centralised silos that are currently available.

I’ve been eating up information relating to domain of ones own projects and the related technologies and concepts like Known, APIs, Docker & Containers, Federated Wiki, WordPress, JSON, GIT, node.js, Open Badges, xAPI, Blockchain – because to me they all work towards developing an idea of how a domain of ones own can be transformed into an operating system of ones own. An operating system that can drive us forward into the networked age by changing the current technological paradigm to one that seeks to empower the node rather than enclose them. “Nodeware” rather than explicit software or hardware.

This platform would aim to improve the ability for each individual to connect and share with others in truly negotiated and social ways. A platform that allows us to rethink the ways in which we learn and engage with digital networks – distributed, negotiated, social, interactive and sovereign.

Genesis

The genesis of this was an attempt to rethink the Learning Management System in a distributed rather than a centralised way. I was over bemoaning what the LMS is and was and so took it upon myself to think through the what a viable alternative might actually look like. If we simply reinventing the LMS we’d end up with something like the Learning Management Operating System that Feldstein and co developed. The central idea I was working on however was to provide students, rather than the institution, a way of creating content, recording learning, developing a portfolio and managing their online identity. The challenging component of this was to think beyond the standard institutional IT infrastructure and beyond a better centralised system but one that was truly distributed system. Domain of Ones Own showed that there was a viable alternative, and coupled with concepts embedded in the indie web movement such as POSSE (Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and the growing momentum behind APIs ideas started to form around a way to manage, mind and make your own learning:

mind-your-own-learning

That image was from about a year ago – the kernel of an idea was there but not necessarily the means to take it forward.

Over the new year I participated in the first Federated Wiki Happening and the experience of not only using, but embracing, a federated, socially constructed, non-linear and cooperative environment was fantastic. It opened my eyes to what could be possible if we re-thought not on the applications but the underlying technologies we used too. I loved the open nature of the federated wiki, but what I fell in love with was the concept of being an “empowered node“. The system worked in a way that empowered the individual. It provided tools and methods to create an individual identity while at the same time allowing others to connect social and professionally.

Last year I also worked on our university Badges project, and have been thinking about the potential of xAPI to capture a more nuanced and broader spectrum of learning and so have been broadening my concept of what’s possible technically and culturally.

A fortnight ago we held a workshop on how as an institution we could support Learning Technology Innovation. One of the key areas I wanted to explore with the group was APIs. So in the process of planning and putting together a presentation for the event I’ve been engaged in that space too. Just follow Kin Lane and have a play with IFTTT and you will quickly understand the power and potential that APIs offer. (PS this video offers a neat explanation of what the hell APIs are).

Welcome to MYOS

MYOS is the name I’ve given to the concept of developing a personal and social software system that provides not only the tools and technology to empower the individual in the networked age but some guiding principles about how it should enable, enhance and empower the user.

The name came from a bit of a play around with various combinations of words to describe what it would encapsulate:

  • make your own stuff
  • mind your own stuff
  • manage your own stuff
  • my online self
  • my operating system

MYOS could simply be – Make Your Own Slogan 🙂

MYOS is very much the model the Jon Udell laid out as “hosted life bits” – a number of interconnected services that provide specific functionality, access and affordances across a variety of contexts. Each fits together in a way that allows data to be controlled, managed, connected, shared, published and syndicated. The idea isn’t new, Jon wrote about life bits in 2007, but I think the technology has finally caught up to the idea and it’s now possible to make this a reality in very practical way.

Technology Foundations

There are two key technical components to MYOS – Containers and APIs.

Containers are a relatively new phenomenon and arose as part of Docker. They allow individual applications and services to be packaged in a way that can be deployed on a single server. Apps can be written in any language and utilise a variety of databases because they are contained their own package. At the same time they can talk to each other – share common layers that allow for greater integration. Containers provide a way for a variety of “life bits” to be co-located and packaged in re-deployable ways.

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) at their most basic level allow applications to to talk and interact with other applications. APIs are the vectors through which information travels between systems. For many years they were primarily used internally with large and complex systems, but they are now emerging into the public space. They provide you the ability to cross-post between twitter, facebook, google and instagram. They allow you to push files to and from Dropbox from a multitude of applications. APIs are increasingly accessible not just to developers but to users too. Services like IFTTT allow almost anyone the ability to harness APIs to create useful “recipes” that link their own data and interactions in ways that increase effectiveness and impact.

Founding Principles

On top of those technical foundations MYOS aims to embed a number of key principles common with the Indie Web movement and help define what the system aims to do – Empower the Node:

  1. You are in control
  2. Data is yours
  3. Connections are negotiated
  4. Enhance and enable diversity

You are in control

The focus of MYOS is to empower the individual rather than re-enforce the network. Empowered nodes provide a stronger and more resilient network that is able to not only cope but thrive on change. An empowered individual is not locked in or enclosed within a single system but is free to move between them.

Data is Yours

You should always be in control of your own data. You should be able to decide who and how that data is accessed, viewed and shared. Data sovereignty is now more important than ever as we see how state surveillance and commercial enterprise has transformed private data into a commodity that is bought, sold and exploited. MYOS should ensure that any data is ultimately controlled and managed by the individual.

Connections are negotiated

In a world that relies on the network we need to ensure that democratic values are not lost. Individual choice has increasingly been eroded by the binary – Accept or Decline. We need to move beyond the autocratic rules that have come to define much of our digital lives. Connections need to be negotiated and a key way of developing that is building in a handshake mechanism that ensures transparency but also encourages users to negotiate terms that suit them. This would include being able to decide what information is shared, how it is shared, what is hidden, what is private, what is relevant, what is preferred as well as negotiating a period of renewal. This handshake could include the development of “data lifetime” clause to ensure that data isn’t kept in perpetuity, but can be removed or forgotten without the deletion or removal of the user or service.

Enhance and enable diversity

Rather than enforce a monoculture, MYOS aims to promote diversity. While there is a need for a stable core, MYOS should promote a diverse eco-system of applications. From a technical level a containerised approach enables different application built with different languages, foundations and data structures.

Making it Work

For MYOS to work it hinges on a number of cultural concepts:

Owners not Consumers

I’ve written before about my notion that society is transitioning from passive consumerism to active ownership. The current model of networks is very much on built on consumerist conventions and why much of the potential inherent in the technology has devolved into manipulative and exploitative marketing. As an alternative Ownership requires a personal investment and active participation in order to receive a reward. An owner understand that there is always risk and a cost involved, but rather than be manipulated into supporting a venture, they wish to be informed. Value needs to be demonstrated and transparent.

Openness

In a cultural capacity openness is still a fairly new and one that is continues to challenge and disrupt existing cultural modes, model and practices. Many aspects of Western culture are built on practices that install and maintain rigid hierarchies of power and exploitation that are achieved by ensuring knowledge is limited through secrets, lies and division. openness destroys those notions and instead requires trust to be created, managed and maintained through transparency and a shared experience. Openness seeks alignment rather than consensus, cooperation rather than collaboration – which tends to turn all processes into a “consensus engine”. Openness encourages federation rather than centralisation, a key tenet of MYOS.

Community

For MYOS to ever function it requires a community, but communities don’t just happen. They require encouragement and nurturing as well as a level of active participation and contribution. Rather than being an emergent outcome of a social environment they require the result of careful fostering and cultivation. Community is the outcome of contribution, not participation. MYOS needs to be something that works with people, not for or to, and lies in the process of reclamation and liberation.

Agnostic Appropriation

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
– Steve Jobs

MYOS isn’t a new thing. It’s an attempt to draw a line that connects a number of concepts that relate to our digital lives and the way we are increasingly living and working in this connected space. Movements (like the IndieWeb) and software (like Known) already provide aspects of the kinds of functions I see MYOS fulfilling. MYOS is an attempt to create a map of a networked idea.

Nodeware

In developing up a set of features for MYOS I started thinking about the idea of “Nodeware”. A combination of software applications, hardware and device that don’t just provide a service to the user – they empower them. They provide a rich set of tools to create, manage and maintain their online selves. Names are purely illustrative, but below is a quick list of starting features:

Identity Management – profiles and memberships
Cards – identities and personas
Keys – authorised access
Records Management – quantified self
Sash – badge display
Qualifications – certification, diplomas & degree
Shelf – web and print publications
Gallery – photos and graphics collections
Cinema – video collections
Radio – audio collections
Portfolio – assembled artefacts
Notes – ideas, notes and fragments of thought
Scrapbook – collection of the curated and salvaged

Expanded not replaced

The idea I’ve been working from is not an attempt to go and reinvent or recreate existing applications and services but to expand their features and connect them together. Open source projects make a perfect candidate for this expansion – so rather than replace Known or WordPress they can be developed in ways that integrate it into MYOS. One way that this could work is by rethinking something like cPanel and turning it into an OS level application that provides an underlying data structure and tools to connect and deploy various application via their containers.

More to come…

I’ve felt a little rushed to put this post out, but I wanted to join in the conversation not sit outside it. I’ll admit to not having everything fleshed out, or even properly specced, it’s still very much about an alternative way of thinking, designing and working with systems online. There’s a couple of posts I can see already that need to be written,in particular what the LMS and other institutional systems might evolve into when students are using MYOS. Until then I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Featured Image: flickr photo by rrruuubbb http://flickr.com/photos/rubodewig/5161937181 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Moving Beyond The Default

Default. According to Homer Simpson the two sweetest words in the English dictionary.

To me though, default is more insidious. It represents choices denied and the removal of control by eliminating the opportunity for discussion to occur at the place and time it should – before decisions are made.

This post was triggered by some fairly innocuous tweets from Rolin Moe but they struck something that had been sitting there for some time.

While on the surface these are small fry complaints they point to something big:

What are the consequences of the default?

I’ve been doing some work on designing spaces over the last year looking at spaces that promote creativity and group work. One of the key issues we are facing is that space is at a premium, so a “feature” of these designs is that they are required to have multiple configurations. They need to be able to be re-designed and re-configured to suit a range of purposes and activities.

The work has involved visiting a range of spaces across our campuses but also looking more broadly at other universities and places which enable the kinds of work we are seeking to promote.

I’ve taken a few key things from this:

  • Furniture is too often bolted to the floor and thus it actually inhibits true flexibility. Furniture needs to return to its root and once again become mobile rather than a structure.
  • Technology is still fixed. The reality is that it still requires wiring, connections, setup, support and central control. These fixtures limit the flexibility that’s possible. Wires and cables are still the reality when it comes to technology – wireless just isn’t there in any way shape or form just yet.

But perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

The Default is what defines the space. No matter how flexible the room and the furniture in it is, it has to have a default position. No matter how flexible the space is, it has to have a starting point, a point zero that it can return to. It’s this default that defines what the space is, how it is perceived, how it is defined and inevitably how it will be used.

The simple reason is that people rarely move beyond the default.

Yes, the room may have a million-and-one configurations, but the reality is people stick with what’s there. They won’t move anything because they are used to the notion that the choice has already been made. That the default isn’t a starting point, but the end of a designed process. That someone else with more skills has looked at all this and made decisions on our behalf, whether this is true or not.

I get the reasoning behind the default. It’s something that’s necessary because decisions can’t be made all the time. There’s a cognitive load related to making decisions that is often at the expense of focussing on what really matters. Yes configurations are important, but at what cost and for what benefit?

Should we simply accept the default or be actively working to change it?

Defaults aren’t bad, and they can actually be sweet, but we have to start questioning the consequence of them:

  • What it is they entrench?
  • What do they avoid?
  • What do they hide?
  • What do they improve?
  • What do they enhance?
  • What to they leave behind?

And more importantly WHO?

  • Who it is they entrench?
  • Who do they avoid?
  • Who do they hide?
  • Who do they improve?
  • Who do they enhance?
  • Who to they leave behind?

Questioning the defaults is perhaps really interesting when applied to opt-in/opt-out scenarios. Take organ donation. It’s an area where the default has a significant effect on the outcome (It’s also one of the few occasions where I can mention the work of my brother!). Changing the default organ donation setting from opt-in to opt-out increases the number of transplants. You don’t remove or deny choice – it’s just switching the default position. It speaks to the power of The Default. It sets the agenda, it defines the space, it changes the argument and resets the tone. It’s the kind of trigger needed to move beyond the ‘gift of life’.

So perhaps we just need better defaults?

It’s important to note that the default often hide difficult and complex decisions. Those PowerPoint templates? Well they hide a huge range of design choices about fonts, line heights, placement, styles, colours, look, tone and feel. The problem is that PowerPoint hides all those decisions by not exposing you to them. There is just the default. You don’t find out about them until you actually sit down to develop your own template and you realise how messed up the system is. The Default is the choice because there are few alternatives. Customisation is a chore, or more realistically something closer to a layer in Dante’s hell, and what are consequence of changing the default?

But if you take that lack customisation into something like an LMS? Well the stakes get a lot higher. The consequences rack up quickly when you’re talking about the cost of a course and the potential impact on a life! Bad design when it comes to learning has real and definite impact. There are consequences. Big ones.

Better defaults, better modifications

I think we need to start questioning the default. Yes they’re necessary, but we need to better understand what their impact is. Simple defaults in PowerPoint effect the look and feel, but are how consequential are they? Complex defaults, like those employed in an LMS or a course design, can and do effect lives. We need to question the assumptions they make and the impacts they have.

The other area that needs considerable work are the tools that allow us to customise. At the moment they tend to suck, badly. They’re either too light weight to just too complex. This points to a design problem, one that is built on assumptions about the consequences (or inconcequences) of the default. Making customisation not only accessible, but transparent as well, is vital in enabling accountability but also encouraging learning and improvement. It provides a way for us to not just accept the default, but to move beyond it.

One way I’ve been thinking about this, particularly in the educational context is through the development of patterns and blueprints.

Patterns & Blueprints

Patterns are ways of defining components relating to structure, tone, material and activity. They are abstracted so that they do not define the entirety of a design, but make up the pieces through which it is constructed. They are multifaceted which allows them to be reconfigured in a variety of ways to suit specific applications.

Blueprints on the other hand provide a way of sharing a design. They show how various patterns fit together. They highlight areas where adjustments needs to be made but essentially what they allow is for design to be communicated and shared. They bring transparency to the process by providing insight into the design. You can see how the default has been made, what decisions have been made and what areas could be changed.

In many ways Patterns are like Lego pieces and Blueprints are the instructions.

Watching Amy Colliers videos at the end of her awesome blog post Not-yetness was an interesting way of thinking about this analogy. Blueprints can suck the creative joy out, but at the same time they provide a default. They specify the patterns required and usually in the box are multiple variations of the blueprint on the front of the box. The Blueprints provide a marketable and packagable default, but the underlying point is the Patterns they contain are able to be re-formed and re-constructed.

Remixed.

I’ve used the terminology patterns and blueprints very specifically. I don’t want to talk about templates, learning objects, learning designs, OERs, LAMS etc – because they don’t do what I think they need to do.

They lack a form that enables remix. They are like wooden blocks rather than Lego. Yes you can build similar structures, but you lack the ability for those components to be integrated. Blocks tend to sit on top rather than connect and integrate into the structure. They’re often too big and cumbersome to be shaped into exactly what you want. This leads to a compromised, rather than customised design.

What we need are ways of working that not only embrace the remix, but enhance it.

Reactive Ideas

The next three posts that will appear on the blog have been worked on concurrently for the past couple of weeks. They started as ideas and thoughts that grew out of what I saw and felt was happening around me. They’ve lived in draft form since their inception, not quite finished enough to let out as they weren’t really clear in my head, let alone as text.

Over the last week they’ve coalesced into something more solid – solid and connected.

Working on these three seperate topics – enclosure, innovation and exploitation – at the same time has been an interesting experience. Phrases that started in one post drifted into another. Concept that didn’t work in one would work in another. They fed each other and it’s been a strange experience to be part of. They aren’t a series as such but definitely share an origin and a process.

I’ve tagged them as Reactive Ideas because at their heart was a pure reaction to the world around me. A mental and physical reaction to events going on around me. Nothing in here is revolutionary or new – in fact there’s an increasing sense of history repeating itself. They are of their time and place and triggered by social happenings but they have forced me to ask bigger and deeper questions. About our society, what we value, where we are going and in some ways what we are destroying and willing to destroy.

They may seem a little bit off topic from what I’m usually banging on about in regards to edtech – but I can assure you they are linked. They explore ideas that are fundamental to the role and force that technology plays in our world and the trust we place in it. Maybe drawing more explicit links is another set of posts.

Subconsciously there seems to be a bit of Marx embedded in these posts. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed emerge from the process of writing, editing and rewriting them. I’ve been exposed to more Marxist critique and ideas recently mainly because I find them exceptionally relevent. His critique of capitalism is extremely insightful and the hype around Picketty’s book and the coversations stimulated by Stiglitz has revived a lot of the concepts and solutions that link back Marx. There’s a global discussion about what global capitalism is doing and the problems that it not only created but continues to exacerbate rather than solve. I think there’s also a deep concern for the lack humanity built into to the discussion going on around us. The ease that people can be abstracted from situations is deeply concerning and I wonder if empathy is being drained out of society.

It might explain why this resonated so much:

The other influencer on these subconscious thoughts was McKenzie Wark’s work on the athropocene and probably more directly his essay on 21st-Century Marxisms. Both of these broad topics have exposed me to many new ideas and thinkers including CSU colleague Clive Hamilton.

It feels good to get these three posts out. It’s been a challenge and an interesting experience – hence this post – and something a little unique to how I usually work. It will be interesting to see if they resonate with anyone else 🙂

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/pVSiLo

Riffing off Remix

I’m feeling a little inspired after reading David Wiley’s The Remix Hypothesis and Mike Caulfield’s Paper Thoughts and the Remix Hypothesis. That’s on top of putting together an application for a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship where I’ve applied to carry on doing work around adaptive digital publishing. (The pitch video outlines a lot of what I’m going to describe in a pretty simple way – so if you want to know more have a watch and I’m happy to answer any questions). One thing I’m particularly keen to explore in this space is how to improve sharing, collaboration, reuse and remixing – is it possible to build that kind of functionality into a system so that is built for and with open content at its heart?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been playing around with the concept of Adaptive Digital Publishing. A group of us wrote a paper and developed a proof of concept. We shopped it around for funding but other people had other priorities.

Conceptually I think it stands up as the most effective way to publish materials across multiple platforms. It bought together ideas that are only now starting to emerge into the mainstream – e.g., in srcset and picture in HTML – where content is adapted depending on attributes set by the device & browser. The Adaptive Media Element we worked on did that – but in more complex ways and for all types of media – from video, data, images to audio and across print, web and eBooks.

The proof of concept we developed was built on WordPress and used the PressBooks plugin to provide many of the features we required, an easy to use interface and a solid foundation to work from. The ideas were executable more easily within an existing framework, so rather than attempting to build everything from scratch we could focus on our innovations – the AME and the corresponding Publishing Profiles.

Ever since we built that initial proof-of-concept I’ve been toying with how to make it simpler. How can we make it easier to share, collaborate and remix content? Our initial concept didn’t really think about those areas, but they’ve been bugging me ever since.

How to Support Remixing?

One way would be to expose the WordPress system via JSON. This would allow other systems to pull content in to display, but also to commingle, re-contextualised and retooled. My experience over the summer with Federated Wiki has challenged many of my preconceptions about how content, and indeed publishing can look like in a purely digital sense. I’m enthused by the concept of a JSON based system but there are plenty of dependencies and technicalities required to develop things this way.

My other idea is to go simple by removing the need for a database by abstracting authoring into a simple files & folders structure, and then focussing on developing a “generator” to the publishing. So rather than create a contained system we could build something that can be plugged into a file system and live separately locally or online. This idea builds on those already in use in a range of static site generators that leverage markdown, scripting and something like GIT to manage the whole workflow.

By simplifying the system down to the bare minimum the potential is to make content more “forkable”. You reduce the need for specific software in the authoring but also open the process to powerful versioning and management technology. In this way remixing is encouraged but with the ability to merge back the potential is a truly inspiring. This would ensure that the remix doesn’t become another standalone piece of content, but a connected component that might be co-opted back into the main branch. It enables localisation, translation and adaption to specific contexts not just to be made, but tracked, traced and attributed.

The other attraction to this more simplified model is that it also reduces the technical overheads required. It could be run locally or over a simple network. It could run offline and allows for asynchronous editing and collaborative authoring in a manageable format. I’m not sure if this will provide the simplicity or granularity of that the federated wiki has, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

This flat file model also means that content can be openly hosted using repository sites like GitHub but also almost any online space, and for educational and research publishing this could be a huge boon. Being openly hosted means that access is greatly improved. The ways that Mike describes data models being accessed and modified could be achieved this way.

The final plus is that switching to a flat file generator model means that there is less reliance on single technology or system . While GitHub, WordPress and certain programming language are the choice today they are also dependancies in the long term. Not relying or depending on certain technologies means that we’re creating more sustainable content that is open to change and evolution as technology and trends change.

Publishing in the digital age needs to embrace the concept of remix as it’s the most significant affordance of being digital. I’m in a state now where I can see that the technology required is getting closer to realising that idea. Once it does we’re going to be in for a ride.