• Books,  Culture and Society

    A Response to Chris Hedges’ “Retribution for a World Lost in Screens”

    Bob Stein posted a link to Chris Hedges’ essay “Retribution for a World Lost in Screens” on Stein’s Facebook page. I responded, and Stein asked for clarification; this is my attempt to provide a more complete response to Hedges’ piece. I think Hedges is too easily dismissive of “screens,” and, even more importantly, the people behind those screens. I also think his is a tired rehearsal of an old argument that has already proven false. I am far more optimistic about the people of the screen.

    Plato asserted that text would destroy memory and lead to the end of civilization, resulting in men who “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.” While I share Hedge’s sense of impending doom, I think that pointing at the screen as even a contributing factor is daft. I think Hedge’s own isolation and egotism and elitism is fostering his talismanic associations with the printed page. He has created his own fetishistic idol, and his own demons.

    For various reasons, I have no talismanic associations with the printed page; my allegiance is to the word, in text, in pictogram, and in the human voice. A book is merely a container for words, for text, for image, and yes, for data. I am about to leave with my partner for a writer’s workshop where there will be writers using pens and notebooks, and MacBooks, and digital styli, and memory to record their impressions of each other’s words, written and spoken, and where they will be interacting with each other one-on-one, in small groups, and over Twitter and text message and email.

    We are still tellers of tales; we still experience narrative lust, and joy. We meet face to face through a glass, though it is not dark. My sense of optimism is spurred by several things— first, my experience in the college English lit and comp classroom, before and after the personal computer. I still teach students to read Chaucer aloud in Middle English; they still memorize his words, and those of Donne, and Shakespeare and Frost, and Keats and Monty Python for the sheer joy of it. We still parse text, whether it is rasterized or preserved on vellum, or on a digital reproduction of a manuscript too fragile to share, but which now the world may access.

    I am optimistic because I have met life-long friends via the ’net, and we gather together with familiarity and comfort in the flesh, though we meet for the first time in the analog realm. I am optimistic because one of the online communities I belong to has come together to return a member of our community home after she was trapped by Katrina, shepherding her and her cat from one to another, passing her off to her next host and driver, until she and her cat arrived at their home. We have bought roofs, found adoptive parents, critiqued poems and plays and novels, cheered with each acceptance and commiserated with each rejection from a publisher, and mourned as a whole for the loss of a member. We are a community. We are neighbors, separated by miles by brought together via the speed of light.

    I am optimistic because we are managing to share scholarship with scholars who are all over the world, affiliated and not, to engage in scholarly community via blogs and online communities. In that first community I mentioned, we have a vibrant politics forum where we require citations and analysis of argument for political discussions, and we have a single cardinal rule, respect for a fellow writer, and a single corollary; don’t be a jerk.

    Hedges alludes to the ideal of the padeia, ekstasis, as a thing withering on the digital stalk; I submit that he is missing what blooms around him. Yes, we have have the idols of the tribe, the cave, the marketplace, and of theater; but Bacon’s Four Idols are hardly new. The fault lies not in our screens, but in our thought processes. We have generations who have not been taught to engage with content, to engage with text and image, but the organic ability, nay, the desire and even the compulsion to engage and parse and understand is still there; I submit it is our responsibility to future generations to demonstrate that rhetoric and conversation, whether on the screen or on vellum, still ties us one to another, and that we still have a greater community of shared ideas and ideals; we act like chickens with opposable thumbs, but we can be better.

    The emphasis should not be on text in any specific container, but on words and on the ability to understand and communicate and share. The emphasis on the printed page is so misplaced that it should be laughable to any humanist; just as Plato denounced the arrival of text, so to did opponents of the incunabula decry the evolution of the printing press in that it made the luxury of the book affordable. This outcry too is being repeated, with objections to the liquidity of the digital text and the “death of the book.” The assertions about the authority of the codex book disappear for anyone who has ever seen what the early book was like; no word spacing, for one, and no, it was absolutely not linear. Even the early printed book bore with it the assumption of glossing as inherent, of text as conversation, much as the return to hypertext and the networked screen are doing for us now. The book has always been a container; whether the container was made of baked clay, or curling papyrus, or scraped animal hide, or fiber or silicon, the book is just the container; the screen is just a window and of the making of books there is no end.


    Buy me a Coffee! If you find this post or this site interesting, and would like to see more, buy me a coffee. While I may actually buy coffee, I’ll probably buy books to review.


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  • Culture and Society,  Writing

    Best 404 Evah

    There’s something of an art to a proper 404 page. You want to let the user know that she’s taken a bad step, and you want to help her find the correct path again. There’s a bit of professional pride in doing that, and still making a statement. Here’s the 404 page for this site. It’s pretty basic, frankly, when there are 404 pages that will generate haiku as part of the error message. But this page is, hands down, the coolest I’ve ever seen.

  • Culture and Society,  Pedagogy,  Writing

    On The Use of Sources, Citations, and Links

    An image of a set of bound encyclopediasAs educators, we spend a great deal of time trying to teach students how to research, how to use sources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how to tell a good source from a bad one. I know how to help students do this in person, where we can work with lots of practical examples; I used to think it was possible to actively teach source evaluation online. I’ve created guides and handouts on source evaluation, as well as linked to other guides, like this one on “Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” from UC Berkeley.

    Of late, I’ve grown less sure that it’s possible to teach resource evaluation remotely, and more sure that it’s a skill that many people desperately need.

    I’ve spent the last year working as a paid blogger. I’m writing about a variety of subjects in which I have some expertise, and I’m blogging much as I do on my own sites. I strive for accuracy and specificity, I provide citations, and I link to solid sources.

    Some of my peers are much less likely to link to sources, or provide citations; and when they do link to a source, more often than not, it’s one that I’d identify as a resource to avoid. I note that most, if not all, my blogging colleagues are college educated, and many have graduate degrees. But increasingly, I’m noticing not only my colleagues’ blog posts have citation problems, but others are problematic in terms of sources. I’m seeing blog posts, and articles by professional journalists (both on line and in print), and discussion forum posts that suggest that the writers can’t tell if a resource is decent, or utter crap.

    Here’s an example of a source a fellow paid blogger linked to in a post about Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The piece “Frankenstein: Themes, Images and Metaphor Birth, Biology and the Feminist Angle in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is from a Suite 101 site; pretty much anyone who is functionally literate in English can (and does) post on Suite 101. That’s generally true of most content sites, and I’m not meaning that as a slam; I think it’s a virtue. That said, there are problems with treating all content, from all sources, as equally valid. This piece opens with this sentences:

    In 1818 Shelley created a much loved Gothic novel, Frankenstein, which she would use as a medium to present her ideas and thoughts on birth, biology and feminism. Birth is, for most women, considered to be one of the most important, precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced. Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein took this theme and distorted it in order to produce one of the most famous gothic novels ever written.

    There are some minor infelicities; much-loved needs a hyphen, Frankenstein isn’t the actual title of the novel, nor is it italicized as a title. But the real problem is that the ideas are trite, and that they are expressed as a string of prepositional phrases. There’s an ugly duplication in “ideas and thoughts,” and a fair amount of “hesitation” padding—“for most women,” “considered to be,” and then more synonym phrases—“precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced.”

    And there’s the paucity of thought inherent in the assertion itself—and the disconcerting agreement problem inherent in “considered to be one of the most” to modify “event,” in the singular.

    No one is perfect, and heaven knows, I can’t spell or proof my own prose. I make mistakes all the time. But those two sentences were bad enough, given the absence of content, that I read them and wondered “who wrote this?”

    The author is a grad student enrolled in a Comparative Literature M.A. program in London.

    In other words, if you don’t know enough about Mary Shelley or her novel to realize that the piece is stupid, if you aren’t a sophisticated enough reader to know that the English is less than acceptable in terms of basic grammar and syntax (never mind style), then the author appears to have legitimate “credentials.”

    I’m also noticing another issue related to an inability to evaluate a source; a phenomenon that researchers call the Dunning-Kruger Effect; that’s when “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it” (Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77 no. 6 (1999): 1121–34).

    Essentially, as blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes (quoting Kieran Healy):

    [A]s a famous paper by Kruger and Dunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck&hmdasand this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

    On a community forum post recently, a mother explaining why she is against vaccination for her kids wrote:

    I’ve read over thousands of pages of actual studies that were conducted on the individual adjuvents and attenuated viruses and bacterials. History of vaccines, of disease, demographics with a medical jargon book at hand if I didn’t understand something. I’ve read all the inserts to the vaccines, I’ve watched the vaccine (aka drug companies) companies. I’ve come to my conclusion that vaccination is not for me or mine.

    This is someone who thinks Internet research—research she can’t understand without a specialized dictionary—gives her the same sort of qualifications as someone with an M.D. One reason I know that she isn’t an M.D. is that she gets basic science facts wrong, repeatedly, refers to outdated descriptions of how vaccinations are made, and thinks http://vran.org/ is a medically researched and scientifically valid site.

    I don’t really have a solution on an individual level. But I do think one of the things we can do, all of us, as writers and educators, is keep providing better sources, better links and as kindly and gently as possible, point out why a particular citation is less than respectable. At least that way, by linking to good sources, we’ll eventually drive the lesser citations down in search engine rankings.

  • Culture and Society,  Pedagogy

    On Homeschooling

    Tony Woodlief has written a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, opinion piece about why he and his spouse have chosen to homeschool their children. He writes, in part:

    The reason we’ve broken with tradition, or perhaps reverted to a deeper tradition, is not because we oppose sex education, or because we think their egos are too tender for public schools. It’s because we can do a superior job of educating our children. We want to cultivate in them an intellectual breadth and curiosity that public schools no longer offer.

    Somewhere there is now an indignant teacher typing an email to instruct me about his profession’s nobility. Perhaps some public schools educate children in multiple languages and musical instruments, have them reading classic literature by age seven, offer intensive studies of math, science, logic, and history, and coach them in public speaking and writing. The thing is, I don’t know where those schools are.

    I think were I to have children, I’d want to do much the same thing. Not so much because my own K-12 experience was mostly horrendous, but because of the education I received from my over-educated, intellectually curious book-loving parents. They encouraged me, and provoked me, and fed my brain and mind, while most of the time I was, quite honestly, just parked in a holding pattern by well-meaning but over-worked teachers. (Granted, there were some exceptions: Mr. Muchnick, and Virgina Hall, to name two).

    Had I stayed in high school, I would have graduated in 1980. My high school was, and is, one of the better ones in N.H., but I was essentially warehoused. I spent every spare moment in the library, and in the Keene Public Library, the tiny Westmoreland public library, the Brattleboro Public Library . . . not to mention reading pretty much everything else I got my eyes near, and being regularly “fed” books by my older siblings.

    But, for a variety of reasons, despite some wonderful teachers, like Mr. Jobin, endlessly patient in French, I was invisible in high school; my guidance counselor told me that I wasn’t college material, and suggested I attend Colby Sawyer for a secretarial degree, where I could meet a nice young doctor from Dartmouth.

    It’s much worse now, where “No child left behind” has frequently resulted in a cult of mediocrity.

    Go read what Woodlief has to say. He makes a lot of sense.

  • Culture and Society,  Writing

    Yog on Online Moderation

    James D. Macdonald, SF author and exceedingly experienced online moderator (remember Yog Sysop? That’s him) offers some rules for moderation under the heading:

    Here’s what moderators need to know:

    • a) Sure, there’s freedom of speech. Anyone who wants it can go start their own blog. On Yog’s board, Yog’s whim is law.
    • b) Yog is an ancient ghod of chaos and evil. And he doesn’t like people very much.
    • c) Moderation is a subjective art, and the moderator is always right.
    • d) The moderator may have minions. They need to have a private area where they keep the buckets of Thorazine and the cold-frosty bottles of cow snot.
    • e) The minions speak with the voice of Yog. Yog backs his minions up.
    • f) There is always someone awake, and in charge, when Yog isn’t around in person. The minions know who the Duty Yog is.
    • g) If someone starts off as a spammer, troll, or flamer, he is a spammer, troll, or flamer forever and is liable to instant deletion/banning with no recourse and no appeal.
    • h) If the moderator ever needs inspiration, he can re-read Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and recall that the posters are sinners and he is Ghod.
    • i) Rules? In a knife fight? Yog and his minions have standards, but they don’t need to tell the posters, lest some of them attempt to game the system. Attempting to game the system is, all on its own, a deletable offense.
    • j) ALL CAPS posts are deleted on sight, unread. Mostly ALL CAPS POSTS are ALL CAPS.
    • k) Anyone who doesn’t space after punctuation marks is insane, and can be deleted/banned on sight.
    • l) Personal attacks against Yog and his minions are ignored. Personal attacks against anyone else are deletable on sight.

    See the original post at Making Light and be sure to read the comments, too.

  • Culture and Society,  Writing

    Blogging as Conversation

    Tor, my favorite fantasy/sf publisher, has just gone public with their new Web site, one that has been re-designed with community engagement with content as a core principle. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, an editor at Tor, and one of the founding bloggers at Making Light, has a fabulous essay on blogging.

    In the blog post Nielsen Hayden opens with this simple but elegant explanation of the core concept behind blogging and community content:

    Effective blogging is a combination of good personal writing and smart party hosting. A good blog post can be a sentence long, or three pages long; what matters is that it encourages further conversation.

    Go read the rest of his post; it’s one of the best meditations on blogging and digital communication I’ve ever read.

  • Culture and Society

    Online Communities, Women, and Misogyny

    I’ve posted already about the hateful way Kathy Sierra was treated by other bloggers. The reaction has been interesting. Yesterday Chris Locke and Kathy each posted, collaboratively, their takes on the specific incidents, and the larger issue of hate speech and threats in the blogosphere.

    The core issues are neatly summarized by Ross Mayfield here:

    • Being safe is something most everyone can agree is a right.
    • Being anonymous on the web matters.
    • Being open on the web matters. Transparency is good.
    • Being free with speech is both what makes us great and makes us go too far.

    Mayfield provides four assertions that pretty much anyone will agree with. There is, however, a need to juggle possibly conflicting goals—like preserving the right of anonymity, but not when anonymity is used to perpetuate hate speech, as it was in the attacks on Kathy Sierra. There’s potential conflict between speaking frankly, and the necessity of free speech, and not allowing hate speech.

    We do have methods of controlling hate speech, methods that aren’t matters of censorship. There are the less than effective technical methods—banning, and moderating and deleting comments; even, disemvowelling the truly idiotic rabid hate-monger, but primarily, online communities need to enforce community standards. As MacAllister Stone puts it:

    I think we have to self-police. I think, when someone says something that’s clearly horrible and inflammatory, we stuff ’em in a box. Embarrass them. Shame them into either adhering to community standards, or exile them by deletion and/or blocking.

    With that context extablished, I want to look at two short quotations from Chris Locke and Kathy Sierra regarding online attacks and hate speech specifically directed towards women.

    Kathy Sierra asks:

    But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter’s life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?

    Chris Locke observes

    Misogyny is real — and vile. Violence against women is wrong. It must not be tolerated. This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away.

    There’s something else going on here, besides ordinary hate speech and Internet trolls. Kathy Sierra was specifically and carefully targeted. She was attacked for no real reason—but the attacks, and the language and images used in the attacks are overtly sexualized and exceedingly misogynistic.
    Like many other women with online presences, Sierra was attacked because she is female. There’s a culture of harassment online, directed towards women in general, over and above the usual ‘net obsessed trolls and nutters. It’s almost impossible to find a woman who blogs or participates in discussion forums who hasn’t been subjected to sexualized attacks and unwelcome sexually explicit comments, innuendos and email.

    Bill Humphries linked to these posts from Min Jung Kim an Asian woman blogger, and Gin Mar, a woman and veteran of the Iraq war.
    I think Liz Henry, like MacAllister Stone, has the right response:

    I’d like to make a call to action. When this kind of shit happens, we’ll call it out and document it in public. Call it in the moment. Call it in front of your coworkers. Call it if it’s major or if it’s minor, it’s all part of the same spectrum of misogynist behavior. How about just saying, once in a while, right in the moment if you can, “That’s not funny,” when it’s really not. Say it crosses your boundaries. Say it’s not acceptable to you. This takes practice, but with time, we can all do it and find strength in numbers.

    We need to be very clear that this kind of attack is not accepted, and that the community, and the ’net as a whole, object to it. At the same time, I also want to acknowledge that there’s a rise in equally sexually-directed attacks against men on the net, and more often than not, overtly sexualized comments from women that very much qualify as hate speech; that’s not cool either, nor should it be acceptable.

    In a subsequent post, I want to talk about the particular difficulties faced by women in technology, on and off the net; the underlying misogny in technology by a loud minority is very much part of the reason Kathy Sierra was attacked.

  • Culture and Society,  Security

    Death Threats are Not OK

    Blogger and UI expert, Kathy Sierra, had to cancel her talk at the Etech conference, because of really really nasty death threats, and threats of sexual assault. You can read about it here.

    There are fairly well-known “A-list” bloggers skirting the outskirts of this. And there are certainly quite a few people who know who’s responsible.

    They need to go to the police. This is absolutely not acceptable, ever.

    Via Chuqui, here are some blogs that talk about Kathy’s sick, vicious, criminal attackers.

  • Culture and Society

    On Building a User Community

    Kathy Sierra, one of the Head First authors, has an extremely useful and thoughtful post on Building a User Community. This is a post from someone who gets community, and the importance of sharing with, rather than feeding from, a community. I’m going to wait until I’ve read the sequel before I post, but you really ought to go read Kathy Sierra right now.

  • Culture and Society

    The Influence of Individuals

    I’ve been watching an interesting saga unfold; bear with me while I expound.

    I’m a member of a community for writers called “Absolute Write.” It’s a combination of a resource site and an online community, with a particular emphasis on outreach and advocacy for writers. There are a lot of scams that target naive writers, including scam publishers and less than professional literary agents.

    Absolute Write is temporarily off the Web because one such less than professional literary agent, Barbara Bauer, took exception, as she is wont to do, to being included on a list of the Twenty Worst Agents, a list that was carefully researched, and documented, and provided as service by the Science Fiction Writers of America, a respected professional organization. Barbara Bauer bullied the somewhat naive ISP into taking down the entire Absolute Write site via a threatening and intimidating phone call.

    Absolute Write will be back,  but this incident is an example of the chilling effect such actions have.

    But it’s also an example of the influence of individuals on the Web as a whole. I first heard about this last night, via an IM from someone who works as a moderator at Absolute Write. I knew something odd was going on because I was logged on when the site disappeared.

    Teresa Nielsen Hayden, a very well known editor, and prominent blogger, posted about the takedown here. Teresa, or TNH, has posted about Bauer before, here and here, where she tried to get TNH fired. Then others picked up the story and posted.

    Here are some good sources about agents and about getting an agent.

    Updated: I’ve been adding links as they appear.

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