The web has solidified against us

Jim Groom has a Bavalicious post with musings on where the web went wrong in higher ed, and I highly recommend you read it, as well as some very informed and thoughtful responses in the comments. I am posting an expanded version of my own comment here.

Pat Lockley suggests a less sinister rationale for the existence of the Learning Management System, essentially that it serves as a space for people uncomfortable with what he terms the “extrovertweb” of open platforms.

There’s something to that, there is no question that fear and anxiety play a huge role in discomfort with the open web in higher ed. But his point, perhaps because Jim frames the discussion in an exploration of the historic roots of the open web, took me back to the very first wiki we started at UBC. It was an instance of UseMod, a flavour of the original wikis created by Ward Cunningham. No passwords, no IDs required, almost no structure of any kind. It was deliriously anarchic. Pat’s notion of an introverted web reminded of an amazing piece of anonymous writing that appeared on that wiki one day:

Why Wiki?

I like writing. But sometimes, a la Peter DeVries, I can’t stand the paperwork. After a few hours of writing, I start to notice the fibre of the paper and remember that once upon a time, the page was a nothing but solid, living wood. Then my pen gets heavy, as if stuck in sap, carving gnarled, knotted language into an uncooperative medium. The page transforms into one gigantic block, though not the kind of block used for building houses for stuffed animals or castles for imaginary friends. It’s not a fun block, writer’s block, because it lets you build only by its absence, never by its presence.

Word processors don’t make a difference. Don’t believe me? Try ’em. You will. The problem with word processors is that they are simply paper projected onto a screen. When we type a Word document, it is usually with the intention of printing it onto paper at some point. The Block gets in there, scans itself, downloads your document. E-Blocks. Watch out. Carving words into a screen is only slightly easier than carving them in blood on your arm.

So I wiki. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Sure, people might read it, but it is electronic, unreliable, ethereal. It is something I don’t entirely understand. But what I like, what I really enjoy about wiki writing, is that paper never gets the chance to solidify against me.

Something about that notion of the wiki space resisting “solidification” resonated very deeply with me. And that it was posted in a place that was itself so fluid and free just seemed almost poetically perfect.

“Why wiki?” was just one of the expressions I came across regularly on that platform that spoke to new and liberating possibilities. Another anonymous page outlined the profound implications of the wiki space, making “teaching and learning collaborative not only as a process but as the product as well” and “teachers out of the students and conversely students out of the teachers”, so powerful that it “will force educators to reinvent” what they do. With the benefit of historical hindsight, maybe not so powerful as that.

Because of the wide-open nature of that original wiki space, I estimate that two-thirds of the activity was from outside UBC, and about half of that had little to do with formal education. Yet I never once had to remove writing that was hateful, pornographic, or illegal.  I was personally delighted to be thinking I was doing some small thing to foster an information commons, although I had to disguise what was happening to some extent from university people who were disturbed by that possibility. I vividly recall when I had to defend the stated orientation of the site from an anonymous contributor who thought it was too explicitly defined as a UBC space. Damn, I was loving my job that day.

It’s hard to express how excited I was by the possibilities of the open web by these expressions. I had helped to create a space, but it was very much out of my control and as a result amazing and unpredictable things were constantly happening. I’m still chasing that buzz. As with many addictions, the buzz seems progressively less intense and intoxicating. And one must endure increasingly difficult and at times humiliating circumstance to catch it.

9 thoughts on “The web has solidified against us

  1. Thought i’d comment here too – but interesting to think of somehow merging WordPress threads so you could cross comment maybe? Forked comment threads?

    Thinking more over the wiki idea, and perhaps the idea of openness as sharing, and that those richer in confidence or time could be the instigators of, is there perhaps something potlatch like in building spaces specifically to redistribute? (Apologies if appropriating a cultural term is crass – gift economy doesn’t really have the sense of geography / proximity / shared ownership I wanted when expressing spaces)

    This moves towards, perhaps like wiki’s did (when compared to say blogs) the idea of an equity of sharing, which blogs lack as they tend to be singular voiced and set in stone.

    Even blog comments have to appear at the end of a post – and no in a post, or as if removing or altering sections of the text could not be a comment as well. Comments as a graffiti leaving the structures in place.

    I feel code coming on…….

  2. “Hi anonymous guy and wikikeeper,”

    How awesome is that! That wiki was vital and alive, and that sense of possibility that I tapped into a few years later in 2006/2007 is vital part of this history. But as you well know, that revolution never got off the ground. The LMS was far too entrenched, it still is. And I think that is where that moment of 98/99 is interestign to me. I undertand the LMS was crucial for a number of reasons, but the way in which it solidified against the insitutions is what’s shocking inretrospect. And I know there was pushback early on at this reality, I heard it on the ground at CUNY with Zach Davis in 2000.

    THing thing we seem to come back to again and again, and it was part of the envermind the edupunks article, is how universities have found ti acceptable forego this sense of the commons you talk about. The impusle is in deep tension with McClurken’s notion of the Ivory Tower—and that struggle is fascianting. But you could argue thirty years earlier th ivory tower was actually building these networked spaces and imagining their possibility—so they weren’t totally anathema to that idea. Did the dot.com frame wherein, to quote Ian Bogost’s brilliant article on videogames in The Baffler:

    Like free digital services more broadly, the real purpose of the videogame business—and, indeed, of American business writ large—is not to provide search or social or entertainment features, but to create rapidly accelerating value as quickly as possible so as to convert that aggregated value into wealth. Bingo!

    The move to aggregated wealth in the stock market was about valuation not about social or educational features. Enron pioneered and eptiomzied this game, and this frame for the corporate mindset was ripe at this point in recent history and I want to belive, but I’m probabaly wrong, invaded University IT departments. Modelling their idea of services on in-home consoles to the free-to-play apps, to follblown outsourcing their brand to Silicon Valley.

    Ok, I think I am ready to write post three and finsih my part of the article, I love you 😉

  3. @jim “how universities have found ti acceptable forego this sense of the commons you talk about” again, important to remember 1998-9 in historical context. What was going on then? Y2K hysteria! Every higher ed IT shop I know of was up to its eyeballs triaging (mostly by buying COTS ERPs) what was build as a computing error of apocalyptic scale. Not only did this drain dollars/energy/attention away from teaching & learning (not evenly at ever institution of course) but also in my experience marked the final death knell (which had been building through the 90s) of “universities as dev shops” and heralded the era of CIO-as-purchasing-risk-reducer. Y2K can’t take all the blame for that, it was a general trend, but people are so quick to forget that WE BUILT A LOT OF THIS INTERNET SHIT ORIGINALLY! that’s the other historic trend to remember; while open source/free software has its historic examples, as a new paradigm that offered some middle ground between “build it all yourself” and “buy it” it really only started to get traction at scale, in that same period, with Apache and Linux, which if you’ll recall happened amidst HUGE FUD campaigns.

    Anyways, there’s a LOT of contributing factors to how we got to where we are (and lots of us who should have known better, lots of people who tried to warn us.) I do think, if we take the ideas of incumbency and historical forces seriously, it will take something bigger than “just” the alternatives being “better” or more aligned with mission and values to shift us (at scale at least) out of the currently entrenched systems. My money and interest are on p2p and virtualization, but I only put down $.50 as I’m not a gambling man nor very confident that it’s not too late.

    1. Again, you are on point. Y2K definitely plays a role here, it was hysteria writ large, and it enabled that wrap up to happen to some degree. I think what becomes clear quickly, and it limits my little brain that likes nice, stark dualities, is the how is far more complicated, and I’m digging on on that because you’re right. That said, you really do take a lot of blame for this on yourself, this was a cultural/historical move, and my “in retrospect” is always limited in that regard.

      On the other hand, faith for the future we can control together 🙂

      1. @jim “you really do take a lot of blame for this on yourself, this was a cultural/historical move” – oh I agree, however I do deserve just a little more blame for myslef as I helped run the edutools site that (again, inadvertently) helped normalize, commodify and standardize the way we talked and thought about these systems. But yeah, I get that for all that, I am a bit player in what has been a far larger waltz towards oblivion.

    2. @Scott – Fantastic point. It’s easy to forget the Y2K hysteria. You make an extremely valid point that Y2K shepherded in an era of COTS in higher ed that is still very deeply entrenched today. Thanks for the reminder. Will be mulling this over for weeks.

  4. Brian (and Jim by way of internet), this whole thread grabbed ahold of me in a great way. I find this even more interesting now that I am no longer at Penn State where I believe we were lucky enough to not have to divert teaching and learning with technology talent to the Y2K issue — we were able to spend our way through it — to now be at a University with more modest means. Here there are little of the tools I worked so hard to put into place there … wikis are a mystery, blogs are just now taking hold, and even the more commercial of the social web are not fully integrated into the fabric of teaching and learning. Today I am going to take part in my first Teaching and Learning Colloquium here at Stony Brook and will use this as a jumping off point to remind my colleagues of the greatness of the more open web — and to not be afraid! Thanks for the great reminder!

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