Information Technology

Review of Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, "The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online"

With the highest office in the land occupied by a troll (and through no fluke: trolling constitutes the form, substance and sole consistent principle of the man’s entire political career), it certainly feels as if things are now on the other side of a tipping point.

The casual, habitual acting-out of grandiosity or malice has always been among the possibilities afforded to anyone with a modem -- but as an indulgence, not a norm. The Web 2.0 as an emancipatory supplement to the public sphere probably deserves its own floor in some Museum of Countercultural Visions. The idea of anonymity or pseudonymity giving voice to the powerless once sounded full of democratic potential, although it proves difficult to credit after scanning YouTube comments for half an hour.

The promise of liberation gave way at some point to disinhibition, mostly. Disinhibition combined with great power is dangerous mixture, volatile at best, and, as with dynamite, unlikely to grow more stable over time.

A number of scholarly books on memes, tweeting, comments-field commentary and other modes of contemporary digital communication have come out. And given the circumstances, I’ve tried to read them -- only to be reminded from time to time of Jackie Gleason’s complaint about reviews of TV shows in the newspapers: he said they were like describing an automobile accident to the eyewitnesses. The prospect of the description running to full monographic length is enough to make the brain and eyeballs itch. With most of the recent volumes on digital discourse, I found it hard to resume reading. An exception worth mentioning is Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner’s The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online (Polity Press).

Phillips, an assistant professor of literary studies and writing at Mercer University, approaches the routines and artifacts of online communities as a folklorist. Milner is an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston. The authors, who identify themselves as millennials, acknowledge having been shaped by the culture they analyze. Converging on the study of memes, trolling, creepypasta and other practices from their different disciplinary backgrounds, they find sharp distinctions between on- and off-line life to be, at this late date, analytically dubious at best. We cross the line too often to pay all that much attention to it. And the forms of humor, storytelling and the like now constantly generated and circulated online are best understood as examples of the “vernacular creativity” typical of folklore.

In this, Phillips and Milner take their cue from Alan Dundes, one of major American folklore scholars of recent decades, who expanded the definition of “the folk” to cover “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor.” Whatever a group may share to begin with, it almost inevitably accumulates a stock of common experiences, lingo, habits, symbols and so forth. The Amish have their folklore, and the guys in Cell Block D have theirs, no less exacting in its traditions but less appealing to tourists.

Easy to see, then, why many items of online folklore -- memes and jokes especially -- seem to be the culture of specific in-groups and incomprehensible or off-putting to outsiders. But that’s only part of the story. The power to cut, paste, blend, spoof or otherwise transform all that’s available in a digital format (imagery, audio, texts, etc.) renders just about everything into potential grist for expressive experimentation. At the same time, the audience for any given digital artifact is impossible to predict with any confidence.

Even communication between two people who know each other well can be ambiguous, of course, and the finer shades of nuance don’t stand a chance. Hence Poe’s Law, which the authors define as “postulates that sincere extremism online (manifesting as bigotry, conspiracy theorizing or simply being wrong about something) is often indistinguishable from satirical extremism.”

Like earlier manifestations of folk culture, then, the forms that Phillips and Milner discuss are prone to “blurring the lines between structure and play, formal and folk, commercial and populist.” But the newer kinds constantly run the risk of generating more than confusion or distaste among those not in the group. What has emerged is a culture of extreme ambiguity or, in the authors’ preferred expression, ambivalence -- “that which is difficult to classify or is otherwise strange, creepy or some combination of funny and offensive ….” They note:

“Apparently straightforward demarcations between author and audience, between this text and that text, between universal meaning and audience-specific meaning, don’t need much jostling before they start to crumble.”

Which can, of course, be a good thing: the conditions for creative experimentation, for the sort of activity the authors celebrate in passages that sound much like cultural-studies celebrations of agency from not so long ago:

“Women, queer people, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities and members of economically disenfranchised populations -- whose voices have historically been undervalued or muted -- can [using digital culture] push back against regressive hegemonic forces, and engage in assertive, confrontational and empowering expression.”

But they have also seen “how community formation, cultural exchange and generally having a fun and funny time -- presumably good things, pro-social things -- can simultaneously serve to police community boundaries, encourage cultural myopia and generally make outsiders miserable.”

I expect to have occasion to return to this topic in the future, as developments may warrant. But for now, I will end with a link to something I wrote about the research of one of the authors a couple of years ago and forgot until about halfway through The Ambivalent Internet, one of the more interesting books I’ve read so far this year.

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Canadian College Is Victim of 'Cyberterrorism' Attack

A Canadian university has become the victim of an ongoing cyberterrorism attack, CBC News reported.

As of Friday, the University of Moncton had received nine “degrading and unwanted” emails from an unknown sender, according to the university’s president and vice chancellor, Raymond Théberge. The emails were sent out campuswide and reached about 2,000 students and staff.

The emails, which began arriving a little over a week ago, target a single female student in what some university officials are calling “revenge porn.” The emails include sexually explicit images.

Officials don’t believe university data or personal information have been compromised at any point, and their IT department is working to intercept new emails from the sender.

Some students at the University of Moncton asked that the campus email system be cut off until the perpetrator was found and held accountable. But Théberge said that would affect the institution’s nearly 4,000 students and would give the cyberattacker what he or she wants.

“If we were to freeze all emails, it will mean the perpetrator will have succeeded in stopping us from operating,” Théberge said. “This is a type of cyberterrorism, and it’s never a good thing to give in to these kinds of attacks.”

Police believe they have uncovered the identity of the culprit, but they have not yet found the person. One of the two servers they are following is connected with an IP address in Europe.

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Why IT professionals should receive tenure (essay)

Education technology has become an essential component of modern college teaching. If you doubt this, just ask the students and faculty members at the University of California, Davis. Back in May, they had to deal with the failure of their learning management system right before their final exam period. While the university restored some of its functionality in time for testing and grading, users had to make do without many of the digital services upon which they had become dependent.

Davis has experienced periodic LMS outages for years, ever since it began to outsource maintenance of the system. But it is hardly the only university to suffer from this type of outage, and it is certainly worth considering what higher education institutions can do to avoid such situations. One of the first steps should be rethinking the role and position of IT professionals on campuses.

The people who choose, order, install, build and maintain IT systems on campuses usually have job titles like IT (maybe network) specialist or instructional (web) designer, and are in some branch of the campus org chart under the chief information officer. Such IT service staff almost never have the title “professor,” which means they are unlikely to have tenure.

We think that's unfortunate, because people who make decisions about ed-tech infrastructure need to hear from experts who have the freedom to speak on behalf of what's best for education, not just what's best for a university's bottom line. After all, if ed tech really is the future of education, these colleagues of ours will play a vital role in determining what that future will look like. That means they need the protections of academic freedom, which means they need to be able to earn tenure.

Of course, not all IT staff do the kind of work that justifies the possibility of tenure. The IT professionals who do hardware and network installation, repair work, and other support tasks shouldn't be faculty members. But other IT workers who choose and set up complex systems, work with students and faculty members on pedagogy and research, have advanced and highly specialized training, and who are expected to research and develop new systems for their universities should be faculty and should therefore be eligible to earn tenure.

The situation is similar in university libraries. A library, be it one with miles of stacks housing blocks of wood pulp or simply an air-conditioned server room full of electronic resources, is an essential component of any true university. Librarians affect education, even if they don't run their own classes. The American Library Association's Core Values of Librarianship closely resemble the values codified as academic freedom for more traditional faculty. Some library personnel who do tasks like reshelving books do not qualify for tenure, but certain IT staff could have an expectation of scholarly output, would be given positions in faculty governing bodies, would receive support for attendance at conferences, and so on.

Why should universities extend tenure to a new class of workers at a time when they're taking it away from so many other employees? Quite simply, it will save them money in the long run. If Davis had given its IT specialists tenure, they might have been much more likely to speak out against outsourcing their LMS maintenance. And if there hadn’t been so many outages, perhaps that institution wouldn't have required as many people to respond to each one.

Similarly, at a recent conference, a university IT professional (whom we leave anonymous to protect his job), told us that it would be impossible to use free, open-source software on his campus because the administration liked the control of having a contract with a commercial software vendor. Free software is said to require more and more qualified IT staff, but it still might be cheaper than a paid approach, because it doesn't require expensive licensing fees. This would also leave those IT staff free to customize the open-source software and to innovate with other members of the university community.

Industry generally pays much better than academe, so it can be highly competitive for a higher education institution to hire skilled IT professionals. But the job stability that comes with tenure could be an employee benefit for universities to offer those employees with skills in high demand. This is, in fact, a problem that universities have already solved: they attract people to faculty positions in law, business and the many other fields where there is lucrative employment outside academe by offering other incentives, such as job stability and the possibility to take risks, innovate and expand human knowledge.

Now, however, without the ability to speak freely, campus IT staff can as often be an obstacle as an aid in finding the best solutions that use IT. They usually enforce the use of the particular tools that the administration has purchased or licensed, with minimal regard to whether those tools actually solve the real problems of education or research.

It is unclear to us whether a change in perspective is at all possible with such IT professionals located where they now are on most campus organization charts. That's the main reason why we think the decision makers in IT merit tenure and the academic freedom that comes with it. Giving them protection and stability would co-opt them to work on behalf of scholarship and research, making of them allies of the rest of the faculty and not enforcers of a particular IT regime.

Without extending tenure to IT professionals, campuses will continue to spend money on expensive commercial IT systems and the inferior ed-tech tools that generally come with them. Moreover, the people who tend those systems will not be the kind of innovative individuals that institutions generally try to hire for positions on their regular faculty. Since IT professionals will play an ever-growing role in educational decision making in our increasingly wired campuses, giving them the same protections as regular faculty members is both economical and logical. To do otherwise is to risk forfeiting all the educational benefits that technology can bring.

Jonathan A. Poritz is an associate professor of mathematics at Colorado State University at Pueblo, and Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at the university. This piece is adapted from Education Is Not an App: The Future of University Teaching in the Internet Age, published this month by Routledge.

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Another argument against laptops in the classroom (essay)

So, with all the controversy swirling around students’ use of laptops in the classroom, have you decided to prohibit them or not?

Advocates of allowing laptops took a took a punch in the gut with a recent study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding that students -- unable to resist the Sirens of the internet during class -- performed better when laptops were not permitted in the classroom.

Of course, as with critical-thinking courses and outcomes assessment, everyone and their dean has a theory on the subject. As a longtime advocate of permitting laptops, my intuition has been that we who took notes by hand back in the age of pens and paper simply can’t appreciate that keyboard note taking is more efficient for today’s students weaned on computers. I concede the high distractibility quotient of laptops and can accept the MIT study’s claim that they depress performance. I’m just not persuaded that our students are scampering around cyberspace at a much higher rate and to a significantly worse effect than in the days of yore when we daydreamed, doodled and passed notes in class.

And I’m not convinced that, at the level of higher education, efforts to enforce attention aren’t a bit too paternalistic. Perhaps banning laptops deprives the internet surfer of the important life lesson that, in the end, cutting corners has consequences.

Given that, why have I now changed my mind and defected to the opponents of laptops in the classroom?

Because, almost without fail, when I call on a student who’s been clacking away taking notes during class to apply a rule or concept under discussion, their eyes instantly dart down to the laptop screen in front of them as they scroll through the notes they’ve just taken to find the answer. One would have thought I’d asked a court reporter to read the last sentence back. Since the question normally requires the student to use, rather than simply repeat, material they’ve just typed into their machine, they do not find the answer and set off on a futile treasure hunt through all their notes to locate it.

My best guess is that today’s students’ keyboard skills are sufficient to allow them to mindlessly record what’s said in class, like a secretary too hurriedly taking dictation to think about what’s actually being said.

I haven’t been a student myself lately (as the allusion to secretaries taking dictation makes pretty clear), but I don’t recall being able by hand to record verbatim what was being discussed in class. Instead, I believe we were forced -- due to the relatively slow rate at which one can take handwritten notes -- to grasp, paraphrase and summarize in more or less outline form the information we were taking down. Laptops may, in other words, convert students into tape recorders whereby learning is postponed till whenever the transcript of a class is reviewed, corrupted by imperfections in the transcripts and impeded by the resultant inability to ask questions in class. Paradoxically then, inefficiency in the speed of note taking may help infuse an understanding of the subject matter into the notes.

I will break the news of my defection to the dark side of the laptop issue to future classes in the following way: effective note taking is not a one-step process where classroom content travels directly into your laptop via your hands, which, it appears to me, is the natural route of laptop note taking. Instead, it is a two-step process where the material must first travel through your mind, to be inspected and rewrapped, and only then recorded via your hands.

A neuroscientist may well cringe at my explanation. On the other hand, without the benefit of the better of the two note-taking methods, he or she may have had a harder time becoming a neuroscientist in the first place.

Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law.

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