wiki wabbit

logobugs bunnyfoia redacted

If you ever watched Bugs Bunny…

You might read the title of this posting with an echo of Elmer Fudd expressing his chagrin at one of our beloved tricksters. The relevance of this, if not immediately apparent, will be suggested in a bit.

 Wiki what?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning fast, the emphatic form of which is “wikiwiki.” This phrase was first used to apply to a user-edited website called WikiWikiWeb composed by Ward Cunningham in 1995 – this was the first wiki. With 9,889,432 views per hour in English alone, most folks know about Wikipedia, but fewer understand what a wiki is or how to use one. Unlike traditional semi-static/gatekeeper websites that require complex software to create and are often controlled by a single person, a wiki can be built online, often for free, and designed so a limited or unlimited number of people can edit it easily.

I have been using Wikispaces for my writing workshops as well as for process drafting of research essays in my first-year writing courses. All changes are recorded in the “history” tab, so there is a complete record of who wrote what and when and this makes for a more thorough collection of drafts and revisions. Often the pages will have a “discussion” tab that is useful for writing workshop feedback, posting questions to readers etc. But wikis can be used for more than writing courses, they can be convenient and flexible group collaboration tools for any project, academic or otherwise. Browse the sites for Wetpaint or PB Works and note the varying complexity and features offered, or check WikiMatrix to find a handy tool for comparing a number of wikis of your own choosing.

Oh, and about those leaks….

In terms of “wiki-ness,” the Wikileaks website is not really a wiki since it is not editable by its users but its revelations certainly introduce an element of speed into the slower pace of partial diplomatic disclosure. Aside from speed, another aspect of wiki-ness manifest by Wikileaks is that of transparency and accountability – or at least the transparency and accountability of the powerful, since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is less than transparent himself.

On a wiki, every user and every change are recorded, there is no way to hide and all information is immediately available to users. By contrast, FOIA information is laborious to obtain and is often heavily redacted, which is partly why these leaks evoke mixed feelings for me. Why do we subscribe to transparency so selectively? Isn’t one of our chief criticisms of North Korea its absolute lack of transparency? No doubt these leaks will increase tension, make negotiation more difficult and possibly risk some lives but it might also be argued that, in a WMD world, everyone’s life is at risk every day when governments are not transparent.

However, there is a surprising amount of government and institutional cooperation worldwide and a massive assault by individual hackers to shut down or shut out Wikileaks, a fact suggesting that the threat we feel from transparency trumps the value we claim to put on it. Or perhaps it is a measure of our faith in the goodness of what our leaders and institutions do in secret, but this doesn’t seem in keeping with our recent waves of anti-government sentiment, so the motivation of leak opponents is unclear to me. And now, these anti-leak actions have led to “Operation Payback” a barrage of counter-hacking by supporters of Wikileaks in what may be our first public cyberwar.

One thing is for sure: without that cloak of secrecy, with the knowledge that we were watching, powerful persons and groups at all levels would act quite differently, perhaps with more humility, responsibility and vision. As the ambiguous Wikileaks logo suggests, time is running out for our planet and it may just take some kind of digital trickster to stir things up. Ultimately such transparency may be what assures our survival.

thats all folks


Fighting “Link Rot” in Webtexts

It just happened this week. I got an e-mail from a student doing research on the Beat Generation. She’d discovered a site I did a decade ago (or more) using a campus MOO, a text-only virtual world.  My “build” in the world was a writer’s space that resembled my vision of a 50s coffee shop in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

“RichMOOnd” is long gone but the site about it remains on our server and I guess Google picked it up. The links to Beat-Generation sites have long vanished or moved.

It’s a common problem, but as I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of scholarly publishers called CrossRef have been working for a decade to solve this problem.  Their plan will provide a sort of digital ISBN for publications.

While I love the idea, it won’t help self-published work (such as this blog). What can writers outside the CrossRef imprimatur do?  I claimed in a publication a few years ago that the hyperlink is the first new form of punctuation to come along in a while. It contains the sense of multiple conjunctions, depending on context. For the link above, it’s an “and” but in some cases it can be “and/but” or “and/or,” depending upon the context and the writer’s intention.

I teach students who are Google-happy to find an academic source for information, preferably one that is archived.  Even when a casual source offers well written content, will it still be there in a year? Students often don’t care, since they they their work to be ephemeral, but if a class project endures, employers and prospective employers might want to see the brilliance on display.

Thus I point students to libraries, government sites, and university pages for “hard links” to at least keep the “rot” minimal.

This is Your Brain, Hooked on Gadgets

Location: Doing ONE Thing at a Time
image courtesy of UCLA Magazine

I was pleased to see “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” in The New York Times, and it’s a decent follow up to my recent post about why I resist getting an iPad right away.

My own students love to multitask, and, frankly, often their work lacks depth because it has been done haphazardly and with partial attention. Too many students get Cs or lower because of this. Even though I encourage multimodal work that includes more than text, the core of the idea under discussion must be sound, and the execution must be excellent to earn an A.

A few of us in academe, notably Michael Joyce in his book Othermindedness and elsewhere, have celebrated the ways in which we think laterally and associatively, under the influence of networked technology. Joyce once praised “successive attendings” as more important to our future than a sustained attention span.

I won’t deny that appeal and the power of lateral and associative thinking, because brains like Thomas Jefferson’s thrived on it. But sadly, for most of us multitasking seems an either/or proposition. Michael Joyce has always impressed me with his expansive mind, like his fellow poet Walt Whitman’s, able to contain multitudes.

Most of my students, as well as this writer, can contain only a few things at a time. The result of trying to overload the brain often comes with a price, and for students, it’s likely the one paid by Connor, the son of one of the people interviewed for the Times story:

Connor's troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.

Connor began getting Cs in school, largely, his parents claim, because of his multitasking. And that is what happens too often to my students. Parents can–and too often do not–encourage better habits by example and, old schooler that I am, punishment. But Connor’s parents are both heavy multitaskers, so dad interrupts vacation time to check mail and make calls. That’s a different world from that of my med-school-bound friend John, when he was in high school. After one B on the report card, John got pulled from our gaming group until he again got straight As.

John got the scholarship to UVA. I limped in and out of Virginia with a C+ GPA. I will admit that I had a lot more fun.

Some diversions were different then: paper-and-dice games, dorm bull sessions, movies in an auditorium and not on a computer. Others, notably women and beer, remain the same. But the effects of dividing my personal time were pernicious. Luckily, I had no cell phone or laptop when I burrowed into the depths of the Alderman Library to read and prepare drafts in writing.

Now, every square centimeter of our campus library has wireless access, and the students don’t look up as they cross our beautiful grounds. Their thumbs are busy, texting. With that goes a chance at introspection. As this shift has happened, I’ve grown less afraid that my students won’t know the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree than I am that no one but me and a few other old folks will notice the cherry trees blooming in front of Ryland Hall. This is the emblematic price we pay for multitasking. Cherry trees are the unnoticed wallpaper for student walks, not a vital part of their college experiences to remind them that beauty and youth fade quickly.

One of Sven Birkerts’ great fears in The Gutenberg Elegies, the waning of the private self, is coming to pass. There’s no quiet time alone for those I teach. You can get a 2010 sense of his thinking in “Reading in the Digital Age,” from The American Scholar. The waning process is well underway. How do we fight it?

I’ve learned, the hard way, to tell those who IM me at Gmail, despite the busy status, that “I’m busy.” In Second Life I’m relentless about not answering IMs when building. I check mail three times daily at work, and that’s it. I do not answer the phone, ever.

I’ve recaptured acres of time, as a result. But I have a strong will, strong to the point that I’ll hurt others’ feelings if they interrupt my work. My students, for whatever reasons related to peer pressure and a lack of counterexamples, live in a hive.

As a beekeeper, that’s a metaphor I normally enjoy. But humans are not honeybees.

As a student put in in the UCLA story where I found the image for this post:

“If I’m reading for one of my classes, and doing other things as well, then I am not paying my full attention to the reading, and therefore learning less.”

Other than “focus on one, maybe two, tasks until you are done,” I see no other way around this dilemma. The task is hard, but the reward, as Birkerts notes, is no less than living what Socrates would have called an examined life:

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one's essential position.