Barbara Fister's blog

Know News, Good News

Last weekend, Simmons College held a symposium that brought together around 80 journalists and librarians, along with some tech start-up folks, museum curators, and policy wonks, all to talk about what we can do to help people deal with dis- and mis-information (formerly known as “fake news” until that began to mean “news I don’t like.”)  The stage was set  by Michelle Amazeen, who studies mediated persuasion and misinformation during an era of “content confusion” and the reasons we are so prone to be taken in and resist changing our minds.

With that start, we developed inventories of our values and practices within our professional groups, then in mixed groups developed on-the-fly proposals for projects journalists and librarians could theoretically do together to engage communities in understanding how news works.

This is the part where the prompts I carried home with me are very clear and detailed while my notes are totally confused and hard to read . . . because we were too busy imagining things together. It was exhilarating, meeting people from different walks of life to invent something on the fly. My group included some old friends and new ones, such as David Beard, who noted the event in Poynter’s Morning Mediawire and, being a journalist, was ace at getting us to develop a story about our project, and Vanessa Rhinesmith  who is the program manager for Digital HKS (a part of Harvard’s Kennedy School that explores the risks and opportunities of technology in the public square). She’s the one who kept us focused, and inspired. Programs, she manages them. We then presented our ideas in press release form (ours had a Hamilton soundtrack – who lives, who dies, who tells your story?) and we voted on the various proposals – hard to do, since they were all so fascinating.

My notes have fragments like “seek shared values,” “library as platform,” “desire to engage,” “we have broken modes of discourse,” and “need scaled research on how people can be drawn in to public libraries.” There was discussion of polling data about public trust – librarians apparently have it, journalists don’t, but maybe the trust librarians have is based on mythology because in reality people have no idea what we do. Still, are there ways to leverage that localized and mythologized trust to involve people with the press?

Journalists and librarians have values in common – we work for the common good, use information to shed light on the issues, we protect sources and readers when what they say or read might put them in danger, we believe in the value of seeking truth. Journalists strive to hold the powerful accountable, and librarians strive to be accountable to the powerless. Most of our projects focused on using libraries as sites of both learning about issues and media literacy skills, but also places where communities could learn to tell their own stories, a news bureau from the grassroots.

What we didn’t talk as much about was how the platforms that dominate search and sharing have skewed our view of news, about the ways black-box algorithms have such global reach and so many unintended consequences. How maybe information isn't as great a problem as the larger forces dismantling social wellbeing and creating division. How these platforms have taken on the role of editor without the responsibility, and how they dominate the ad business to take a big chunk out of the dollars that are needed to sustain news organizations. We didn’t think globally. Maybe that’s because other people are doing that. Instead, we thought about leveraging local trust to reverse-engineer the ways stories are told and to give communities tools to take control of their own narratives and, in learning together, have productive civic engagements to negotiate the differences in the stories we tell.

It was a thoughtful, well-organized event that included stunning visual notetaking by a professional visual artist, Sita Magnuson, who managed to listen, distill meaning, and illustrate all at the same time. Her work will be included in a forthcoming white paper based on this project. I got to meet Scot Jaschik in real life for the first time, and also got to meet David Leonard, the man who runs the fabled Boston Public Library. (I asked, not recognizing his name, “do you work at the main library or in the branches?” and the answer was “well . . . both.”) Hearing about what they’ve been up to at BPL and a delayed flight inspired me to visit the totally renovated Copley Square main library. The intimidatingly brutalist half has been totally transformed and is full of life and color. I also had a chance to swing by the Kennedy School where Vanessa Rhinesmith was convening the first of several discussions about digital equity and the 2020 census, and that was . . . . well, I’ll save that for another post. I'll just say we'd better start planning for it, it's not that far away and it's going to be important to get it right.

 

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018
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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Lessons from the Facebook Fiasco

“Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association. . . . The library profession has a long-standing commitment to an ethic of facilitating, not monitoring, access to information.” Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, 2001-2002.

“We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” American Library Association Code of Ethics Adopted 1939, last amended 2008.

It was interesting to learn about a new product designed to personalize the library experience for public library patrons shortly after watching Mark Zuckerberg being grilled by members of Congress. Thanks to a Twitter thread posted by Becky Yoose, a systems librarian who works for a large public library, I now know OCLC, a global library cooperative based in the US, best known for its shared catalog WorldCat, has acquired Wise, a subsystem for what librarians call an “ILS” - an integrated library system that combines the catalog with library functions such as keeping track of who has checked out what. This new system will do much more – in a sense, cataloging library users and tying their interests to library materials and programs through marketing.

Librarians like to think privacy is an essential feature of freedom of inquiry, and keeping track of what you’ve read in the past once you’ve returned a book is none of our business, even if it makes us seem less convenient or user-friendly than all of the other systems that remember things for us. It’s too bad that we can’t tell you whether you’ve read John Sandford’s Extreme Prey already. (It’s understandably hard to keep track when all 26 books in the series have the word “prey” in the title.) That inconvenience is outweighed by possibility that your reading history could be used to hurt you or another of our library users. Reading should never be used as evidence against you – and the freedom to read widely shouldn’t be chilled by concerns that your reading records may be stored and used against your will.

Sure, we were scorned by officials after 9/11 who said “the government doesn’t care about what James Patterson novel you read” and “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide.” Well, I’ve written articles about sexual violence and serial murder in crime fiction. Some of my reading records could look mighty suspicious if someone suspected I was up to no good. What if what you’ve been reading was obtained and published by someone who had a grudge and wanted to publicly provoke a reaction? Could get messy. Luckily, that can’t happen if those records aren’t kept.

That said, a lot of librarians think library privacy is an outdated, slightly ridiculous obsession, given literally billions of people have signed up for social media platforms and are used to getting algorithmic recommendations. Aren’t libraries letting our patrons down if we don’t personalize our information offerings algorithmically? Won't we seem useless and outdated?

(An aside: in academic libraries, where demonstrating value is considered a survival skill, this is more frequently framed as tracking individual use of the library to promote “student success,” enabling us to intervene if a student isn’t connecting to the library. After all, there’s evidence students with high GPAs use the library, thank goodness - it shows we have value and therefore should be allowed to exist. But what about students who don't use the library? I’ve been told I’m forcing my personal values on innocent students who may be harmed if I don’t keep track of whether and how they use library resources. To which I say there are non-invasive ways of reaching out to struggling students and ethical ways to study library effectiveness that don’t involve gathering piles of sensitive data and asking it to do it for us.)

Anyway, this new product being offered to public libraries in the US after a successful debut in the Netherlands will allow libraries to enhance patron profiles, tying what they like to read and programs they are interested in to demographic data, such as their age, gender, and residence. This is both to personalize the library experience and to make the library more valuable to the public. (A Dutch site describing the product opens with “"Falling loan figures. Falling visitor numbers. The customer is increasingly central" and goes on to say “By following the behavior of your customer, you have a wealth of information. With the Wise marketing module you can edit and use this data for different marketing purposes." Anxiety stick, followed by a marketing carrot.) Public libraries have programs for job seekers, for the homeless, for people with various medical issues, for immigrants learning English or applying for green cards. What we haven’t done is connect that information into their patron records. But we could, to better personalize the customer experience!

According to a press release “OCLC takes data privacy very seriously. OCLC does not sell users’ personal data. Wise and other OCLC products make use of personal data only within the context of providing the library services that our members and their users have agreed to."

I’ve heard this somewhere before . . . where was it? . . . oh, yeah, that’s what Zuckerberg said, over and over, to members of Congress. We don’t sell data. We care about privacy. Users agreed to it. And there was his weird insistence that it was all in order to serve the “Facebook community” as if there is a singular community of over two billion people who want their lives improved by seeing highly personalized advertising, that this is all about bringing us closer together by amassing and using personal information for "customer relationship management" through segementation.

OCLC, I have discovered, has registered the service mark, "because what is known must be shared." No. Really. It doesn’t.

Perhaps even more distressing to me is that OCLC describes this product as an analytics tool that "removes subjectivity" because its decisions about people involve data and computers. That seems shockingly uninformed for an information organization. Let me share some reading materials voluntarily, just as I have tagged myself as “interested in privacy” right here of my own free will. I'm sure there's lots I've missed, but these come immediately to mind.

Algorithms don't remove subjectivity. This is basic professional knowledge. The trouble Facebook is in should be making us more cautious, less easily persuaded that our salvation lies in gathering more user data. I’m not sure who to blame for blithely embracing market-segnmentation "personalization" systems – OCLC or members of my profession for thinking surveillance capitalism is the model we should follow in spite of what we know and what we purport to value.

 

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Sunday, April 15, 2018
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Bad News

It has been a while since the president declared the press “the enemy of the people,” but he hasn’t let up on hammering on journalism. (One exception: he appears to be an avid fan of Fox and Friends, transcribing bits of it onto Twitter. The show is more entertaining than the daily intelligence briefings White House officials try to provide -- orally, because the president prefers being told the gist to reading boring documents.) It seems likely that his real reason to attack Amazon and threaten antitrust action isn’t to break up a dangerously large vertically integrated corporation but because its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post. There are lots of tech giants that are near monopolies, but so far Trump hasn’t gone after Google, and his concern for competition against small businesses hasn’t led him to attack Walmart.

I’m not an Amazon fan. I don’t like the company’s vast ambition or the part it plays in surveillance capitalism. Like Google and Facebook, it has come to dominate global markets so thoroughly that direct competition is virtually impossible. Amazon has no compunction about demanding cities raid the public purse to compete for a new headquarters or punishing publishers that push back on contract terms by removing their "buy" buttons. Would you want to be one of their Mechanical Turks, earning pennies for piecework? Or work in one of their vast warehouses? I would love to have an antitrust investigation launched against it and other companies that use technology, venture capital, dizzying IPOs and bare-knuckled aggression to strip-mine entire industries.

But that would require a thoughtful approach by a Department of Justice that is operating on behalf of the public good, not acting on a presidential fit of pique. Trump’s continual attacks on the press are disturbing because they encourage authoritarian behavior abroad and diminish trust at home. Now the Department of Homeland Security has put out a bid to build a system to monitor news organizations, journalists and their social media profiles, tracking news-related “influencers,” treating journalists as a potential threat. What could go wrong?

It’s not as if we don’t have plenty of problems with our news environment without government interference. Too many news outlets are owned by strip-mining hedge-fund capitalists with zero interest in journalism. The Denver Post, still standing after the Rocky Mountain News folded, has staged a brave insurrection against its New York owners in the face of another newsroom bloodletting. The canned right-wing promos news staff were required to read at local news stations owned by Sinclair Media have brought attention to the fact that nearly 40 percent of Americans now get local news from stations owned by one company with an agenda. The conglomerate, which is trying to wriggle through FCC regulations to acquire Tribune Media stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, could soon reach over 70 percent of the country. Speaking to On the Media, Felix Gillette said Sinclair is more interested in squeezing every penny out of their stations than in politics, so it goes cheap on news gathering while blurring the line between news and infomercials.

Either way, it’s bad news.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018
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Gatekeeping, Moderation, and Conspiracies

Fact-checking by ProPublica

Image courtesy of ProPublica.

It’s International Fact-Checking Day, a project of the Poynter Institute. What a quaint concept! It’s intrinsic to good journalism, but it can’t be done by algorithm or en masse – it’s lovingly hand-crafted work in pursuit of nailing down something that’s often ambiguous and needs to be considered in context and without confirmation bias. In an era when the deadline is eternally now (newspapers are no longer put to bed, they have to be up and at ‘em 24/7) and lies travel to the top of Google search results before the truth can get its pants on, there’s little time to check the facts and few staff to do.

The efforts librarians and media literacy folks have launched to help citizens sort it all out are needed, but outsourcing the work to individuals isn’t a solution any more than privacy self-defense is the fix for surveillance capitalism. Yes, we need to know how to weigh information we encounter every day, but we also need to acknowledge that it’s coming at us fast and at volume. We need some quality fact-checkers working in critical places, which means we need to support trustworthy human gatekeepers.

In journalism, that means findings ways to do what ProPublica does to make sure their investigative reporting is sound and dig in against the trend to jazz up stories to drive digital ad revenue. In science and scholarship, it means slowing down to do the job right in spite of pressure to publish at high volume, avoiding the urge to rush headline-catching studies out, and rewarding replication efforts instead of treating them as unpublishable and insignificant. We also need to cultivate a culture where issuing a correction doesn’t lead to wholesale claims that nothing journalists or scientists do should be trusted.

Meanwhile, without much notice because our outrage-o-meter burned out due to overuse and too much news is coming at us too fast (what? A lawmaker in Minnesota is proposing the state create a registry of people with autism? Seriously, Twitter? Oh dear lord it’s true), the House and Senate have passed bills allegedly to stop sex trafficking. FOSTA and SESTA will make the people it allegedly protects less safe while also telling tech companies they’d better start cracking down on content. I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to Facebook’s stock dive, to reactions to trolling on Xbox, to this bill, or what but Microsoft apparently will monitor use of Skype, Xbox and Office (Office?!?) starting in May. "Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity)” the new terms state. I heard about this from a crime fiction writer who wonders if the offensive language, sex scenes, and violence in her fiction will get her into trouble. I’m pretty sure Microsoft doesn’t have thriller writers in mind, but the policy is worryingly broad.

As social media companies have learned the hard way, content moderation is hard. and being a gatekeeper is both expensive and fraught. That’s why Facebook denies it’s a content company, it’s just a platform for sharing, but given how influential the platform is globally that no longer lets them off the hook.

In this weird world of disputed facts and alternative truth, conspiracy theories have particular appeal. They provide a flexibly coherent narrative that ties all the doubts and uncertainties together into a compelling story that can’t be disproven because gatekeepers are part of the conspiracy. The relaunch of Roseanne has surfaced a Pizzagate-style metanarrative about the evil pedophile Democratic deep state that would probably have stayed in the shadows if she wasn’t in the news.

It reminded me that she, like a lot of Americans, bought into the Satanic ritual abuse moral panic of the 1980s, something I wrote about the year before Facebook was invented by a Harvard undergraduate. The web was relatively new and faculty weren’t sure how to help students evaluate what they found there. I argued understanding the wider information landscape was an essential part of information literacy – where do all these sources come from? How are they vetted? How can students get enough practice handling information that they get the hang of it?That problem has only become more complex and more pressing as time goes on.

Hurrah for fact-checkers and for systems that support them. We need them more than ever.

 

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Saturday, March 31, 2018
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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Public Domain -- Just Kidding!

Not long ago, our interlibrary loan manager pointed out that a journal article requested by two of our patrons was posted to an academic social site. Normally, she wouldn’t refer our patrons to an article posted online because authors often post things without regard to the fact they surrendered their legal right to do so. The most common practice is to give copyright to the publisher, which usually allows a version of the article to be shared online at some point. This doesn’t threaten publishers’ business because a relatively small proportion of authors bother to find an earlier version and dust it off and even if they do, it’s standard practice to consult the published version of record, though there’s likely little difference. A lot of our interlibrary loan traffic is securing the final version of a publicly-available preprint. This can cost us quite a lot of time and money, but it’s how things are done.

Anyway, she was startled to see that the publisher wanted $38 per copy for an article that clearly stated on its first page was in the public domain. It wasn’t copyrighted! But the version the publishers put out was. Sort of. The publisher “added value” (according to their website “such as formatting or copy editing”). Unless the authors of the article that was in the public domain paid the publishers of the journal $3,000, readers and libraries would have to pay for it.  

The work was produced by federal government employees, whose work is placed in the public domain. They wanted it to reach academic readers so they submitted it to an academic journal that is, like most academic journals now, owned by a for-profit multinational corporation. So publicly-funded research that had the privilege of being published in one of over 1,300 journals owned by this particular publisher is not accessible unless somebody pays, very often with more public dollars. Does this make sense?

A lot of sense, to publishers and their investors. The profit margins are fabulous!

I know that things in the public domain can be copied and sold by whoever wants to sell them. No rights are reserved, at least in the US, at least theoretically. (Twitter folks have been finding me some odd exceptions.) This is why having our government documents in the public domain is so valuable. People can build things out of them. Businesses use government information all the time. But the argument that public domain article can’t be shared without payment to a middleman kind of messed with my head and led me to write a heated Tweet. I hardly ever use ALL CAPS, but I did.

I wasn’t the only one who found it counter-intuitive, though why should I be surprised? This is business as usual. What the government employees did by surrendering all rights to a publisher was to get a patina of prestige, mostly conferred by the volunteer labor of reviewers and editorial board members. Copyediting is nice, but it’s the journal as a brand that is valuable. That’s why commercial publishers are snapping them up left and right. Still, there’s something discombobulating about seeing on the same page that it’s in the public domain and will cost $38.

If that rattles your cage, what’s far more troubling is that these same publishers are co-opting the movement to make research open access. They see the tide is turning, but it’s turning at a leisurely academic pace. They’re going to own open access, with the high costs transferred to authors and their funders, if we don’t change our ways.

Fortunately good people are trying to create change. I’ve tooted the horn for various efforts including Humanities Commons, the Open Library of Humanities, the Open Science Framework, Lever Press (liberal arts college libraries walking the walk) and the ambitious reworking of the relationships among scholarly societies, academics, and libraries drawn up by the imaginative engineers of the Open Access Network. I’m also pleased to see the ScholarlyHub project is moving along. I love the opening paragraph April Hathcock and and Guy Geltner wrote in their update.

In ecobiology, an ‘invasive plant species’ is one that takes over a natural habitat and competes with native species for food, air, water and other resources. The invasive species grows so fast that native species are no longer able to survive. At some point, native plants die out, leaving the invasive species to thrive in a monopoly over its new habitat. Scholarly communications is one such habitat in which we as researchers have allowed an invasive species – the private, for-profit academic publishing industry – to take over the resources we need and use to create and disseminate knowledge. With a revenue stream of nearly US$10 billion (and growing), private, for-profit academic publishing is threatening to choke out all other, smaller forms of knowledge creation and dissemination, leaving companies like Elsevier, Springer Nature, SAGE and Wiley as the sole plants in the scholarly communication garden. At ScholarlyHub, we are determined not to see that happen and are working to clear the garden, a little space at a time, to allow for research to continue to grow and thrive in its natural environment: the world of non-profit, researcher-owned and -operated scholarly communication.

 

It's a good article, and a serious warning of things to come. The bizarre and profitable turn academic publishing has taken is not tradition. It’s a rentier’s co-optation of academic tradition. We need to imagine new ways to share knowledge and (a harder task) new ways to fund it and (the hardest task of all) adopt new habits that choose making knowledge both freely and more equitably open over submitting to journals owned by mega-corporations. But we’d better do it quickly, before “open” becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, SAGE and Wiley.  

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018
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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Winner Take All (But the Blame)

As hard as it is to be shocked by anything anymore, the deeply reported story about how a politically-motivated marketing company used personal data of over fifty million unwitting people gathered through a Facebook app, collecting psychological profiles to merge with vast amounts of personal data is still pretty astonishing. Kudos to The New York Times and the Guardian’s Observer for their work.

At the same time, it’s no surprise at all. We’ve long known Cambridge Analytica was given lots of money by Robert Mercer, a far-right libertarian who teamed up with Steve Bannon then of Breitbart, to elect a president who would serve their political aims. We’ve known for almost as long as it has existed that Facebook gathers enormous amounts of personal data using emotional triggers, technology, obscure privacy policy shifts, and an enormous user base to become one of the world’s most powerful influence machines. We didn’t know much about the academic, Aleksandr Kogan, who wrote the app to get the data from Facebook in a way that violated their terms, but we knew from Cambridge Analytica’s marketing hype that they intended to gather data on virtually every American adult and match it with psycho-social profiles to effectively target political messages.

What’s still shocking, though, is the brazen disregard for common decency exhibited by all the players. Maybe it’s wrong to call it “common,” because generally accepted norms of behavior are no longer generally accepted. That’s pretty much a definition of “polarization.”

Cambridge Analytica is shocked, shocked to learn that the research they paid for was gathered in ways that Facebook didn’t technically allow but didn’t bother to check. Facebook, is shocked, shocked, that someone who said they would agree to terms by ticking a box on a form would fail to keep that agreement because, as a Facebook spokesman told the Times, “protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do.” How he said that with a straight face is beyond me. Kogan has said he did nothing wrong, though one of his employers, Cambridge University, might find his methods unethical even though Kogan performed this work under the auspices of a private company. (I literally guffawed when I read at his university profile that his lab is “highly interested in cooperation [and] trust” among other positive-sounding things.) I have no idea whether his other academic affiliation, St. Petersburg State University, considers his private business interests problematic. Evidently Cambridge was unaware of this side gig.

The joint investigative work of the Times and the Observer confirms some other unsavory things: the data that Cambridge Analytica said was destroyed hasn’t been; when a lawyer informed Mercer and Bannon foreigners couldn’t work on US political campaigns they set up an elaborate shell company to America-wash it all; the mechanism for influencing voters was tested first in Caribbean and African campaigns where privacy regulations aren’t such a bother. Facebook is outraged now, but only because the story was about to go public – as if their whole business doesn’t revolve around using personal data to manipulate people. There’s plenty that stinks about this.

What bothers me most, though, is that none of these parties has any sense of responsibility for the things they admit went wrong. It’s somebody else’s fault. Nobody seems to see these as their ethical breaches or breaches of trust. Just mistakes in the paperwork and bad PR.

Another analysis in the Sunday Times explains some of this attitude. A sizable portion of Americans believe in the absolute truth of their religion, in the absolute greatness of the United States, and an absolute devotion to individualism, including unregulated capitalism. It doesn’t matter if something is factually correct. It doesn’t matter when Trump publicly admits he made up information during an official visit from a head of state. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the United States didn’t have a trade deficit with Canada, and Trump told supporters at a fund-raiser “I didn’t even know. I just said ‘you’re wrong.’” Lying comes easy when you have no sense of shame.) According to Peter Baker’s “Washington Memo,” taking issue with facts is just political nit-picking to a segment of the population that adheres to a “deeper truth” that Trump represents for them more faithfully than the news media or any other secular institution. Winning matters, how you win is unimportant.

An academic doesn’t care a fig about research ethics. A wealthy man spends millions to manipulate millions to elect the leader he has chosen for us because he doesn’t want to leave that up to our democratic process. A company that manipulates billions of people around the globe to sell ads keeps pretending they have no responsibility for the damage it is doing and has no answers when asked how they plan to fix it. And we, the public, are all too happy to share sensational information without checking its accuracy or context. What a strange hole we’ve dug ourselves.

It's not exactly news, but still it's solid journalism. It's not exactly a surprise, but it should be shocking if we have any sense of decency.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018
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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Informed Dissent

I went to a brown-bag lunch with some folks today talking about how to use a new software platform developed to keep notes about advisees and keep track of both problems and promise. It will replace a lot of emails and phone calls and dropped balls, but it also feels a bit like a benevolent Panopticon. I know our students have grown up in a world of constant surveillance, but I wouldn’t have liked all those notes about me trailing me through college, however well meant. The parent company’s privacy policy talks about aggregating “anonymized” data for its own trade-secret uses, which makes me nervous. A handful of data points can reveal identity if you know what you’re doing. I’ve read enough of Audrey Watters remarkable work to know how these ed tech companies are galloping along, raising venture capital, buying and selling and merging and morphing. Who know who'll own that data next? I’ll get with the program – I mean, how can you say you are not willing to help with “student success”?  - and I see the practical value, but I don’t like its underlying implications.

Radical Technologies coverPerhaps it doesn’t help that I’ve been reading a fascinating and scary book by Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. He’s a senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and has done a lot of work on user interface design and smart cities. This is no typical techno-dystopian jeremiad. He’s very well informed about a whole host of technologies that we hear a lot about but (if you’re like me) have a hard time grasping. He's a graceful writer, so even when he’s angry he’s eloquent without relying on emotional cues or nostalgia. More importantly, he thinks new technologies have a lot of potential – but if we fail to pay attention, all of its benefits will reinforce current power structures. What they call “innovation” now that "progress" has gone out of style is the entrenchment of power and wealth.

The subjects tackled include the smartphone, the internet of things, digital fabrication (you know, those 3D printers every library had to buy to be cool), cryptocurrency, blockchain, automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. All of these things are being created by humans to influence our everyday lives while also pushing us out of the way. He has an answer for the problems the technological "stacks" consolidating power among a few powerful companies pose. We can’t simply disconnect, we can’t use these systems in ways that won’t reproduce our current arrangements of power. What we need to do is promote a generation of radical technologists who will rewrite the code. For those of us who aren’t already engaged in this work, he recommends we push back against the rhetoric of transcendence and don’t let our eyes glaze over when people start going on and on about the blockchain or machine learning because it will change our everyday lives.

Greenfield is a good guide to all this. He can explain how it works and what its implications are. He also has frequent moments when poetry breaks through. Here’s a sample:

At present, the internet of things is the most tangible material manifestation of a desire to measure and control the world around us. But as an apparatus of capture, it is merely a means to an end. The end remains the quantification of the processes of life at every scale; their transformation into digital data; and the use of that data for analysis, the development of projective simulation and the training of machine-learning algorithms. It behooves us to spend time thinking about what comes along for the ride, every time we invoke this complex of ideas, to consider where it might have come from and what kind of world it suggests we live in.

For me, many years of thinking and working in this domain have left behind a clear and vivid picture of that world. It seems strange to assert that anything as broad as a class of technologies might have a dominant emotional tenor, but the internet of things does. That tenor is sadness. When we pause to listen for it, the overriding emotion of the internet of things is a melancholy that rolls off of it in waves and sheets. The entire pretext upon which it depends is a milieu of continuously shattered attention, of overloaded awareness, and of gaps between people just barely annealed with sensors, APIs and scripts.

Implicit in its propositions is a vision of inner states and home lives alike savaged by bullshit jobs, overcranked schedules and long commutes, of intimacy stifled by exhaustion and the incapacity or unwillingness to be emotionally present. The internet of things so often seems like an attempt to paper over the voids between us, or slap a quick technical patch on places where capital has left us unable to care for one another (59-60).

Then, as if we weren’t already reduced to shambles, he points out the real problem is who gets the information this stuff collects and what happens to it, finding a parallel in 1936 Dutch record keeping that seemed like a good idea until the Germans took over the machines and the data and used it to industrialize murder.

It’s a very good book. It does a good job of explaining complicated things. It makes a strong argument for doing technology differently. It also suggests that if we don’t, we’re in deep trouble.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018
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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Other Duties as Assigned

Given the great dismantling of public institutions that we’ve been witnessing since Reagan told us government was the problem, librarians have been picking up new roles. Who else is going to?

Since there are very few public places where people can go without having to pay for the privilege, librarians are getting training on injecting NARCAN to revive people dying of overdoses. That’s worked so well, a “Lifesaving Librarians Act” has been introduced in Congress to pay for more NARCAN in public libraries. Aw, doesn't that sound great? Librarians as lifesavers in their spare time! We can’t do much about helping people out of poverty or having a coherent health system, but we can ask library workers to revive dying addicts. I mean, librarians already help people fill out government forms, search for work, learn to read, and bridge the digital divide (though what little federal funding there is for all that is on the chopping block).

And now school librarians – the few that haven’t been let go to save money – can step up, too. Apparently, the Parkland kids’ extremely cogent arguments for avoiding kids getting killed in schools regularly by people with easily-accessible military-grade weapons didn’t get through to the Florida legislature. Teachers, naturally, aren’t keen on being armed, though they are expected routinely to shield students with their bodies and practice being attacked just like my generation practiced for nuclear wars that fortunately didn’t actually happen every few weeks. The Florida governor is sensible enough that he doesn’t think it’s a terrifically safe idea to fill schools with guns, but since the politically correct solution to gun violence is more guns, librarians, counselors, and coaches can now be the good guys with guns to kill the bad people with the guns that don’t kill people in massive numbers in a matter of minutes.

We’re a service profession. We think working for the public good is a dandy idea. Saving lives? Sure, if we have to, we’ll do our best. But maybe as a nation we can do better than had a little cash to libraries and ask them to knit together the holes in the social net. We sure as hell don’t need to arm librarians just to avoid the wrath of the NRA.

Listen to the kids when they say “never again.” It doesn’t have to be this way. They're the future, and they're doing us proud

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018
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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

From Schooled Skepticism to Informed Trust

As I mentioned last week, Mike Caulfield has written a handy (and free!) classroom-ready book about fact-checking and provides useful case studies for students and anyone who wants to fine-tune their bullshit detector. Also, he has explained why simply studying a document for clues (a checklist approach) doesn’t work and four moves you can make instead: corroborate, trace the story's origin, confirm (aka “read laterally”), and don’t get stuck in a rabbit hole (“circle back”). I have to also give a tip of the hat to Marc Meola who made a very similar point back in 2004, though we didn’t need it quite so badly back then.

The catch is that some folks have calibrated their bullshit detectors to click loudly if the source of information appears to be afflicted with MSM syndrome. It’s mainstream, so it must be liberal.  Or as the president likes to call it, “fake news.” These are news organizations that use gatekeepers, also known as new editors, and their job limits individual freedom to make up your own mind so that makes them all automatically the enemy of the people. The real people, not the people who are the enemy so don't count as people. Fact-checking sites like Snopes also set off these calibrated detectors because it finds too often the facts aren’t fake and the fakes aren’t fact.

Caulfield has since addressed this problem in “Media Literacy Is About Where To Spend Your Trust. But You Have To Spend It Somewhere.” It’s not that hard to get students to doubt. In fact, quite a lot of higher education is training in doubt. We critique, we take apart, we don’t take it for granted. We test our hypotheses. We reverse engineer ideas until bits of it are all over the floor. This means we’re better at distrust than trust. I’ve certainly experienced this problem when having students look at radically different conclusions drawn from primary sources or when pointing out how peer review processes are hardly fool-proof. Great, so now we can’t trust anything? Well, you have to trust some things, and luckily some people are more likely to use ethical and well-tested methods to arrive at conclusions than other people, whether in journalism, science, policy-setting, or simply making a decision.

If William Perry’s 1968 study that developed a model of intellectual development still holds water, college students in their late adolescence/early adulthood are at about the right age to be a living, breathing shrug emoji. (Maha Bali also makes this connection in a comment on Caulfield's blog post.) They’re past thinking things are clearly right or wrong. They’ve moved into a confusing time when everything is suspect. If nothing can be absolutely right, how are you supposed to trust anything? Isn’t it all a matter of opinion? Eventually, if things go well, they are able to commit to some things being more right than others, which is an epistemic shift – there are ways we can come to believe what we think is most likely right, which is not exactly the same as being able to think critically. It’s actually gaining trust in particular ways of knowing and caring enough to weigh options fairly.

This passage from the 1968 report jumped out at me, describing students in the relativistic phase.

Under stress (of fear, anger, extreme moral arousal, or simple overburden of complexity) it is possible to take refuge in the all-or-none forms of early dualism. At this point reactive adherence to Authority (the "reactionary") requires violent repudiation of otherness and of complexity. Similarly, reactive opposition to Authority (the "dogmatic rebel") requires an equally absolutistic rejection of any "establishment." Threatened by a proximate challenge, this entrenchment can call forth in its defense hate, projection, and denial of all distinctions but one. In this structure of extreme proprietary "rightness," others may be perceived as so wrong and bad as to have no "rights," and violence is justified against them.

Retreat is rare in our records [of the research project] and where it occurs it cannot be illustrated by concise excerpts. In recent years its structure is exemplified vividly in the forms of thought of the extreme "radical" left in student revolt. These forms may be examined in the statements of the "radical" as opposed to the "liberal" students . . . The forms are of course identical with those employed by persons and groups of the extreme radical right.

Certainly young folks in 1968 were facing stress and questioning authority, but retreat into dualism isn’t rare anymore and it’s not just a youth thing. What’s different today is our engines of epistemic reasoning are engineered by advertising technology. We Google it. We heard about it on Facebook or Twitter. We saw it on Instagram or YouTube. Every single one of those sources of information has an algorithmic editor, but this editor, unlike a traditional news editor, has no interest in news value and no wall separates him from the business side. In fact, he works only for the business side and will deny he’s in the news business at all. He’s only interested in ad placement, and he doesn’t even see what news is being shared because it’s happening so fast and hey, it’s not his problem. He only cares about the code; it's not his content, just his assembly of it.

The effect of this editorial work, though, has created an alternative news universe full of alternative facts and links to like-minded alternative "news" outlets and it’s all very profitable and all very ripe for mischief in the service of power and money.

We need to teach how to trust as much as we need to teach fact-checking. We can’t simplify things by saying “it’s peer reviewed” or “it’s from a major national newspaper” or “it’s from a university press” or “that’s from a scholarly society, so it’s good.” Peer review fails. National newspapers of quality get it spectacularly wrong. The recent shenanigans of the IEEE shows why trusting quality brands is problematic. First, in a Twitter post an "outreach historian" for the professional organization casually and sloppily discredited an African-American scholar’s work without reading it, then the organization first denied the historian (who apologized) was authorized to speak (though that was actually his job) and deleted the record of the dispute (not a good look for institutional history), then the society published a plagiarized article and removed it for review rather than acknowledge the problem . . . aaand it doesn’t help that the organization that insulted the work of two women scholars has a 90 percent male membership. There are any number of examples of highly respected organizations and publishers behaving badly. Information isn’t trustworthy simply because of its brand. (An aside: this is why using Journal Impact Factor to evaluate the quality of an article or an author is so bogus.)

Teaching trust means teaching the cultures and practices of good scholarship and good journalism and providing students with opportunities to practice honest, ethical listening and thinking about things that don’t have singular right answers but have ones that are demonstrably wrong. We also need to explain the ways our adtech-driven information systems actually work and how they are corrupting our common knowledge. I don’t see any way around it.

You can’t administer a trust vaccine in a fifty-minute library session. Where should this work happen? How do we make sure it does happen?  

 

 

 

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018
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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Exploring Engagement - and My Inner Student

I tried MOOCing again. I didn’t stick long with the first of these free online courses I tried, but this one, Engagement in a Time of Polarization, was too tempting to pass up. I knew some of the organizers by reputation and through Twitter encounters so I knew it would be good. Also it was only two weeks long. I thought I could swing two weeks.

That was a little ambitious, as it turns out. It ends in a few days and there’s a lot I either missed or rushed through thanks to poor planning. But the course materials will be online for a year, so it’s not too late for me to catch up.

In brief, the course started with some historical models for participatory education – the Antigonish movement, the work of the Highlander Center, and black community education in the Jim Crow south. We moved on to what engagement online looks like today and how the design and economics of our technology platforms contribute to polarization (the “industrialization of communication” as  Mike Caulfield put it). We had an "ask me anything" chat with Zeynep Tufekci (I got there late, ahem.) We also have looked at what to do about technology-driven polarization: what can we do as individuals? What should we do to change the systems that influence concepts of speech, identity, and the contemporary public sphere? Fascinating stuff, and I have a huge list of things I want to track down and read.

What I’m also taking away is a touch of what it’s like to be a student again, using a variety of technologies that don’t always work as I might expect, having conversations with people who I’ve never met before who come to the course with different backgrounds and experiences, having due dates that are suddenly past before I got around to putting them on my calendar. To be sure, I didn’t pay for this course and nobody’s taking attendance. The stakes are nothing like what my students face. Yet it has been valuable for me to be in a student role, thinking about what works for me and what is challenging.

Though I'm pretty comfortable with communicating through technology, it has proven surprisingly complicated, in part because of that polarization thing. I’m used to chatting online with affinity groups that have been together for a long time. We don’t all know one another in person, but we have a sense of who’s who, what people will have already read, even what will be considered funny as opposed to snarky or just plain puzzling. Meeting people for the first time from a variety of countries who come from different professions and disciplines makes conversation a bit more challenging.

Then there’s the technology itself. The course was run on edX through Davidson College. Davidson is a cool place. edX – well, I find it challenging, though it’s certainly no more aggravating than any campus LMS. I found myself clicking a lot to get around, and that makes conversations feel disjointed. I’ve also discovered I don’t like watching videos. At all. Luckily the videos were all captioned and you could even download transcripts. Still, I’d rather read than watch, and this platform seems to assume the reverse. (They weren’t boring videos, by the way. I just never actually made the live video chats on time.) As for reading … well, there’s this attractive gadget for building a colorful magazine of readings and it looks super-cool. The pages flip and everything! But I never really got the purpose of making something on a screen look like paper pages, and the print is hard to read. Also the gadget you use to make these online magazines bills itself as being good at “performance tracking and monetization” which … well, gee, weren't we just talking about that?

Our other major technology for class discussion was Twitter just as Twitter’s mass deletion of bot accounts was blowing up, with right-wing pundits who suddenly lost thousands of followers outraged about their rights being violated. That’s what happens when you industrialize conversation. We were building our classroom about polarization with the master's tools.

The point of this is not to complain about edX or the course or technology, per se. It’s that I found it illuminating to be a student – a not-very-on-top-of-things student – using technology that sometimes was useful but often felt frustrating.I hope it will make me more empathetic when students get confused by the platforms that seem obvious to me or even, gasp, fail to meet deadlines. Been there, done that, this week.

Since I have so little wisdom to share about the content of this course, I’ll share some things others wrote that you should be reading instead because they're really good.

Kate Bowles at Music for Deckchairs - “Chop Wood. Carry Water.” This woman writes so well.

Chris G. at Hypervisible Exchanges – “Power, Polarization, and Tech.” It's a feature, not a bug, and it’s really about class, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, technology, and power. Mostly power.

Mike Caulfield at Hapgood  - “Recognition Is Futile: Why Checklist Approaches to Information Literacy Fail and What To Do About It.” Practical and profound. You might also like his open access book, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers . . . and Other People Who Care About Facts and his Four Moves teaching examples.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018
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Thursday, February 22, 2018

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