The development of social media platforms has allows us to exchange information and, well, rubbish very easily. Whether it’s the discussion component of a learning management system, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat or whatever will be the next big thing, we can now chat to each other in real time very, very easily.
One of the problems with any on-line course is trying to maintain a community across people who are not in the same timezone, country or context. What we’d really like is for the community communication to come from the students, with guidance and scaffolding from the lecturing staff, but sometimes there’s priming, leading and… prodding. These “other” messages have to be carefully crafted and they have to connect with the students or they risk being worse than no message at all. As an example, I signed up for an on-line course and then wasn’t able to do much in the first week. I was sitting down to work on it over the weekend when a mail message came in from the organisers on the community board congratulating me on my excellent progress on things I hadn’t done. (This wasn’t isolated. The next year, despite not having signed up, the same course sent me even more congratulations on totally non-existent progress.) This sends the usual clear messages that we expect from false praise and inauthentic communication: the student doesn’t believe that you know them, they don’t feel part of an authentic community and they may disengage. We have, very effectively, sabotaged everything that we actually wanted to build.
Let’s change focus. For a while, I was watching a show called “My Kitchen Rules” on local television. It pretends to be about cooking (with competitive scoring) but it’s really about flogging products from a certain supermarket while delivering false drama in the presence of dangerously orange chefs. An engineered activity to ensure that you replace an authentic experience with consumerism and commodities? Paging Guy Debord on the Situationist courtesy phone: we have a Spectacle in progress. What makes the show interesting is the associated Twitter feed, where large numbers of people drop in on the #mkr to talk about the food, discuss the false drama, exchange jokes and develop community memes, such as sharing pet pictures with each other over the (many) ad breaks. It’s a community. Not everyone is there for the same reasons: some are there to be rude about people, some are actually there for the cooking (??) and some are… confused. But the involvement in the conversation, interplay and development of a shared reality is very real.
And this would all be great except for one thing: Australia is a big country and spans a lot of timezones. My Kitchen Rules is broadcast at 7:30pm, starting in Melbourne, Canberra, Tasmania and Sydney, then 30 minutes later in Adelaide, then 30 minutes later again in Queensland (they don’t do daylight savings), then later again for Perth. So now we have four different time groups to manage, all watching the same show.
But the Twitter feed starts on the first time point, Adelaide picks up discussions from the middle of the show as they’re starting and then gets discussions on scores as the first half completes for them… and this is repeated for Queensland viewers and then for Perth. Now , in the community itself, people go on and off the feed as their version of the show starts and stops and, personally, I don’t find score discussions very distracting because I’m far more interested in the Situation being created in the Twitter stream.
Enter the “false tweets” of the official MKR Social Media team who ask questions that only make sense in the leading timezone. Suddenly, everyone who is not quite at the same point is then reminded that we are not in the same place. What does everyone think of the scores? I don’t know, we haven’t seen it yet. What’s worse are the relatively lame questions that are being asked in the middle of an actual discussion that smell of sponsorship involvement or an attempt to produce the small number of “acceptable” tweets that are then shared back on the TV screen for non-connected viewers. That’s another thing – everyone outside of the first timezone has very little chance of getting their Tweet displayed. Imagine if you ran a global MOOC where only the work of the students in San Francisco got put up as an example of good work!
This is a great example of an attempt to communicate that fails dismally because it doesn’t take into account how people are using the communications channel, isn’t inclusive (dismally so) and constantly reminds people who don’t live in a certain area that they really aren’t being considered by the program’s producers.
You know what would fix it? Putting it on at the same time everywhere but that, of course, is tricky because of the way that advertising is sold and also because it would force poor Perth to start watching dinner television just after work!
But this is a very important warning of what happens when you don’t think about how you’ve combined the elements of your environment. It’s difficult to do properly but it’s terrible when done badly. And I don’t need to go and enrol in a course to show you this – I can just watch a rather silly cooking show.
Teleporters, in one form or another, have been around in Science Fiction for a while now. Most people’s introduction was probably via one of the Star Treks (the transporter) which is amusing, as it was a cost-cutting mechanism to make it easy to get from one point in the script to another. Is teleportation actually possible at the human scale? Sadly, the answer is probably not although we can do some cool stuff at the very, very small scale. (You can read about the issues in teleportation here and here, an actual USAF study.) But just because something isn’t possible doesn’t mean that we can’t get some interesting use out of it. I’m going to talk through several ways that I could use teleportation to drive discussion and understanding in a computing course but a lot of this can be used in lots of places. I’ve taken a lot of shortcuts here and used some very high level analogies – but you get the idea.
- Data Transfer
The first thing to realise is that the number of atoms in the human body is huge (one octillion, 1E27, roughly, which is one million million million million million) but the amount of information stored in the human body is much, much larger than that again. If we wanted to get everything, we’re looking at transferring quattuordecillion bits (1E45), and that’s about a million million million times the number of atoms in the body. All of this, however, ignores the state of all the bacteria and associated hosted entities that live in the human body and the fact that the number of neural connections in the brain appears to be larger than we think. There are roughly 9 non-human cells associated with your body (bacteria et al) for every cell.
Put simply, the easiest way to get the information in a human body to move around is to leave it in a human body. But this has always been true of networks! In the early days, it was more efficient to mail a CD than to use the (at the time) slow download speeds of the Internet and home connections. (Actually, it still is easier to give someone a CD because you’ve just transferred 700MB in one second – that’s 5.6 Gb/s and is just faster than any network you are likely to have in your house now.)
Right now, the fastest network in the world clocks in at 255 Tbps and that’s 255,000,000,000,000 bits in a second. (Notice that’s over a fixed physical optical fibre, not through the air, we’ll get to that.) So to send that quattuordecillion bits, it would take (quickly dividing 1E45 by 255E12) oh…
- Information Redundancy and Compression
The good news is that we probably don’t have to send all of that information because, apart from anything else, it appears that a large amount of human DNA doesn’t seem to do very much and there’s lot of repeated information. Because we also know that humans have similar chromosomes and things lie that, we can probably compress a lot of this information and send a compressed version of the information.
The problem is that compression takes time and we have to compress things in the right way. Sadly, human DNA by itself doesn’t compress well as a string of “GATTACAGAGA”, for reasons I won’t go into but you can look here if you like. So we have to try and send a shortcut that means “Use this chromosome here” but then, we have to send a lot of things like “where is this thing and where should it be” so we’re still sending a lot.
There are also two types of compression: lossless (where we want to keep everything) and lossy (where we lose bits and we will lose more on each regeneration). You can work out if it’s worth doing by looking at the smallest number of bits to encode what you’re after. If you’ve ever seen a really bad Internet image with strange lines around the high contrast bits, you’re seeing lossy compression artefacts. You probably don’t want that in your genome. However, the amount of compression you do depends on the size of the thing you’re trying to compress so now you have to work out if the time to transmit everything is still worse than the time taken to compress things and then send the shorter version.
So let’s be generous and say that we can get, through amazing compression tricks, some sort of human pattern to build upon and the like, our transferred data requirement down to the number of atoms in the body – 1E27. That’s only going to take…
years. Um, again. Let’s assume that we want to be able to do this in at most 60 minutes to do the transfer. Using the fastest network in the world right now, we’re going to have get our data footprint down to 900,000,000,000,000,000 bits. Whew, that’s some serious compression and, even on computers that probably won’t be ready until 2018, it would have taken about 3 million million million years to do the compression. But let’s ignore that. Because now our real problems are starting…
- Signals Ain’t Simple and Networks Ain’t Wires.
In earlier days of the telephone, the movement of the diaphragm in the mouthpiece generated electricity that was sent down the wires, amplified along the way, and then finally used to make movement in the earpiece that you interpreted as sound. Changes in the electric values weren’t limited to strict values of on or off and, when the signal got interfered with, all sorts of weird things happen. Remember analog television and all those shadows, snow and fuzzy images? Digital encoding takes the measurements of the analog world and turns it into a set of 0s and 1s. You send 0s and 1s (binary) and this is turned back into something recognisable (or used appropriately) at the other end. So now we get amazingly clear television until too much of the signal is lost and then we get nothing. But, up until then, progress!
But we don’t send giant long streams across a long set of wires, we send information in small packets that contain some data, some information on where to send it and it goes through an array of active electronic devices that take your message from one place to another. The problem is that those packet headers add overhead, just like trying to mail a book with individual pages in addressed envelopes in the postal service would. It takes time to get something onto the network and it also adds more bits! Argh! More bits! But it can’t get any worse can it?
- Networks Aren’t Perfectly Reliable
If you’ve ever had variable performance on your home WiFi, you’ll understand that transmitting things over the air isn’t 100% reliable. There are two things that we have to thing about in terms of getting stuff through the network: flow control (where we stop our machine from talking to other things too quickly) and congestion control (where we try to manage the limited network resources so that everyone gets a share). We’ve already got all of these packets that should be able to be directed to the right location but, well, things can get mangled in transmission (especially over the air) and sometimes things have to be thrown away because the network is so congested that packets get dropped to try and keep overall network throughput up. (Interference and absorption is possible even if we don’t use wireless technology.)
Oh, no. It’s yet more data to send. And what’s worse is that a loss close to the destination will require you to send all of that information from your end again. Suddenly that Earth-Mars teleporter isn’t looking like such a great idea, is it, what with the 8-16 minute delay every time a cosmic ray interferes with your network transmission in space. And if you’re trying to send from a wireless terminal in a city? Forget it – the WiFi network is so saturated in many built-up areas that your error rates are going to be huge. For a web page, eh, it will take a while. For a Skype call, it will get choppy. For a human information sequence… not good enough.
Could this get any worse?
- The Square Dance of Ordering and Re-ordering
Well, yes. Sometimes things don’t just get lost but they show up at weird times and in weird orders. Now, for some things, like a web page, this doesn’t matter because your computer can wait until it gets all of the information and then show you the page. But, for telephone calls, it does matter because losing a second of call from a minute ago won’t make any sense if it shows up now and you’re trying to keep it real time.
For teleporters there’s a weird problem in that you have to start asking questions like “how much of a human is contained in that packet”? Do you actually want to have the possibility of duplicate messages in the network or have you accidentally created extra humans? Without duplication possibilities, your error recovery rate will plummet, unless you build in a lot more error correction, which adds computation time and, sorry, increases the number of bits to send yet again. This is a core consideration of any distributed system, where we have to think about how many copies of something we need to send to ensure that we get one – or whether we care if we have more than one.
PLEASE LET THERE BE NO MORE!
- Oh, You Wanted Security, Integrity and Authenticity, Did You?
I’m not sure I’d want people reading my genome or mind state as it traversed across the Internet and, while we could pretend that we have a super-secret private network, security through obscurity (hiding our network or data) really doesn’t work. So, sorry to say, we’re going to have to encrypt our data to make sure that no-one else can read it but we also have to carry out integrity tests to make sure that what we sent is what we thought we sent – we don’t want to send a NICK packet and end up with a MICE packet, for simplistic example. And this is going to have to be sent down the same network as before so we’re putting more data bits down that poor beleaguered network.
Oh, and did I mention that encryption will also cost you more computational overhead? Not to mention the question of how we undertake this security because we have a basic requirement to protect all of this biodata in our system forever and eliminate the ability that someone could ever reproduce a copy of the data – because that would produce another person. (Ignore the fact that storing this much data is crazy, anyway, and that the current world networks couldn’t hold it all.)
And who holds the keys to the kingdom anyway? Lenovo recently compromised a whole heap of machines (the Superfish debacle) by putting what’s called a “self-signed root certificate” on their machines to allow an adware partner to insert ads into your viewing. This is the equivalent of selling you a house with a secret door that you don’t know about it that has a four-digit pin lock on it – it’s not secure and because you don’t know about it, you can’t fix it. Every person who worked for the teleporter company would have to be treated as a hostile entity because the value of a secretly tele-cloned person is potentially immense: from the point of view of slavery, organ harvesting, blackmail, stalking and forced labour…
But governments can get in the way, too. For example, the FREAK security flaw is a hangover from 90’s security paranoia that has never been fixed. Will governments demand in-transit inspection of certain travellers or the removal of contraband encoded elements prior to materialisation? How do you patch a hole that might have secretly removed essential proteins from the livers of every consular official of a particular country?
The security protocols and approach required for a teleporter culture could define an entire freshman seminar in maths and CS and you could still never quite have scratched the surface. But we are now wandering into the most complex areas of all.
- Ethics and Philosophy
How do we define what it means to be human? Is it the information associated with our physical state (locations, spin states and energy levels) or do we have to duplicate all of the atoms? If we can produce two different copies of the same person, the dreaded transporter accident, what does this say about the human soul? Which one is real?
How do we deal with lost packets? Are they a person? What state do they have? To whom do they belong? If we transmit to a site that is destroyed just after materialisation, can we then transmit to a safe site to restore the person or is that on shaky ground?
Do we need to develop special programming languages that make it impossible to carry out actions that would violate certain ethical or established protocols? How do we sign off on code for this? How do we test it?
Do we grant full ethical and citizenship rights to people who have been through transporters, when they are very much no longer natural born people? Does country of birth make any sense when you are recreated in the atoms of another place? Can you copy yourself legitimately? How much of yourself has to survive in order for it to claim to be you? If someone is bifurcated and ends up, barely alive, with half in one place and half in another …
There are many excellent Science Fiction works referenced in the early links and many more out there, although people are backing away from it in harder SF because it does appear to be basically impossible. But if a networking student could understand all of the issues that I’ve raised here and discuss solutions in detail, they’d basically have passed my course. And all by discussing an impossible thing.
With thanks to Sean Williams, Adelaide author, who has been discussing this a lot as he writes about teleportation from the SF perspective and inspired this post.
I know, you’re all over the dress. You’ve moved on to (checks Twitter) “#HouseOfCards”, Boris Nemtsov and the new Samsung gadgets. I wanted to touch on some of the things I mentioned in yesterday’s post and why that dress picture was so useful.
The first reason is that issues of conflict caused by different perception are not new. You only have to look at the furore surrounding the introduction of Impressionism, the scandal of the colour palette of the Fauvists, the outrage over Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Dada in general, to see that art is an area that is constantly generating debate and argument over what is, and what is not, art. One of the biggest changes has been the move away from representative art to abstract art, mainly because we are no longer capable of making the simple objective comparison of “that painting looks like the thing that it’s a painting of.” (Let’s not even start on the ongoing linguistic violence over ending sentences with prepositions.)
Once we move art into the abstract, suddenly we are asking a question beyond “does it look like something?” and move into the realm of “does it remind us of something?”, “does it make us feel something?” and “does it make us think about the original object in a different way?” You don’t have to go all the way to using body fluids and live otters in performance pieces to start running into the refrains so often heard in art galleries: “I don’t get it”, “I could have done that”, “It’s all a con”, “It doesn’t look like anything” and “I don’t like it.”
This was a radical departure from art of the time, part of the Suprematism movement that flourished briefly before Stalin suppressed it, heavily and brutally. Art like this was considered subversive, dangerous and a real threat to the morality of the citizenry. Not bad for two simple shapes, is it? And, yet, many people will look at this and use of the above phrases. There is an enormous range of perception on this very simple (yet deeply complicated) piece of art.
The viewer is, of course, completely entitled to their subjective opinion on art but this is, for many cases, a perceptual issue caused by a lack of familiarity with the intentions, practices and goals of abstract art. When we were still painting pictures of houses and rich people, there were many pictures from the 16th to 18th century which contain really badly painted animals. It’s worth going to an historical art museum just to look at all the crap animals. Looking at early European artists trying to capture Australian fauna gives you the same experience – people weren’t painting what they were seeing, they were painting a reasonable approximation of the representation and putting that into the picture. Yet this was accepted and it was accepted because it was a commonly held perception. This also explains offensive (and totally unrealistic) caricatures along racial, gender or religious lines: you accept the stereotype as a reasonable portrayal because of shared perception. (And, no, I’m not putting pictures of that up.)
But, when we talk about art or food, it’s easy to get caught up in things like cultural capital, the assets we have that aren’t money but allow us to be more socially mobile. “Knowing” about art, wine or food has real weight in certain social situations, so the background here matters. Thus, to illustrate that two people can look at the same abstract piece and have one be enraptured while the other wants their money back is not a clean perceptual distinction, free of outside influence. We can’t say “human perception is very a personal business” based on this alone because there are too many arguments to be made about prior knowledge, art appreciation, socioeconomic factors and cultural capital.
But let’s look at another argument starter, the dreaded Monty Hall Problem, where there are three doors, a good prize behind one, and you have to pick a door to try and win a prize. If the host opens a door showing you where the prize isn’t, do you switch or not? (The correctly formulated problem is designed so that switching is the right thing to do but, again, so much argument.) This is, again, a perceptual issue because of how people think about probability and how much weight they invest in their decision making process, how they feel when discussing it and so on. I’ve seen people get into serious arguments about this and this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the incredible abuse Marilyn vos Savant suffered when she had the audacity to post the correct solution to the problem.
This is another great example of what happens when the human perceptual system, environmental factors and facts get jammed together but… it’s also not clean because you can start talking about previous mathematical experience, logical thinking approaches, textual analysis and so on. It’s easy to say that “ah, this isn’t just a human perceptual thing, it’s everything else.”
This is why I love that stupid dress picture. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of art, cultural capital, mathematical background, history of game shows or whatever. All you need are eyes and relatively functional colour sense of colour. (The dress doesn’t even hit most of the colour blindness issues, interestingly.)
The dress is the clearest example we have that two people can look at the same thing and it’s perception issues that are inbuilt and beyond their control that cause them to have a difference of opinion. We finally have a universal example of how being human is not being sure of the world that we live in and one that we can reproduce anytime we want, without having to carry out any more preparation than “have you seen this dress?”
What we do with it is, as always, the important question now. For me, it’s a reminder to think about issues of perception before I explode with rage across the Internet. Some things will still just be dumb, cruel or evil – the dress won’t heal the world but it does give us a new filter to apply. But it’s simple and clean, and that’s why I think the dress is one of the best things to happen recently to help to bring us together in our discussions so that we can sort out important things and get them done.
For those who missed it, the Internet recently went crazy over llamas and a dress. (If this is the only thing that survives our civilisation, boy, is that sentence going to confuse future anthropologists.) Llamas are cool (there ain’t no karma drama with a llama) so I’m going to talk about the dress. This dress (with handy RGB codes thrown in, from a Wired article I’m about to link to):
When I first saw it, and I saw it early on, the poster was asking what colour it was because she’d taken a picture in the store of a blue and black dress and, yet, in the picture she took, it sometimes looked white and gold and it sometimes looked blue and black. The dress itself is not what I’m discussing here today.
Let’s get something out of the way. Here’s the Wired article to explain why two different humans can see this dress as two different colours and be right. Okay? The fact is that the dress that the picture is of is a blue and black dress (which is currently selling like hot cakes, by the way) but the picture itself is, accidentally, a picture that can be interpreted in different ways because of how our visual perception system works.
This isn’t a hoax. There aren’t two images (or more). This isn’t some elaborate Alternative Reality Game prank.
But the reaction to the dress itself was staggering. In between other things, I plunged into a variety of different social fora to observe the reaction. (Other people also noticed this and have written great articles, including this one in The Atlantic. Thanks for the link, Marc!) The reactions included:
- Genuine bewilderment on the part of people who had already seen both on the same device at nearly adjacent times and were wondering if they were going mad.
- Fierce tribalism from the “white and gold” and “black and blue” camps, within families, across social groups as people were convinced that the other people were wrong.
- People who were sure that it was some sort of elaborate hoax with two images. (No doubt, Big Dress was trying to cover something up.)
- Bordering-on-smug explanations from people who believed that seeing it a certain way indicated that they had superior “something or other”, where you can put day vision/night vision/visual acuity/colour sense/dressmaking skill/pixel awareness/photoshop knowledge.
- People who thought it was interesting and wondered what was happening.
- Attention policing from people who wanted all of social media to stop talking about the dress because we should be talking about (insert one or more) llamas, Leonard Nimoy (RIP, LLAP, \\//) or the disturbingly short lifespan of Russian politicians.
The issue to take away, and the reason I’ve put this on my education blog, is that we have just had an incredibly important lesson in human behavioural patterns. The (angry) team formation. The presumption that someone is trying to make us feel stupid, playing a prank on us. The inability to recognise that the human perceptual system is, before we put any actual cognitive biases in place, incredibly and profoundly affected by the processing shortcuts our perpetual systems take to give us a view of the world.
I want to add a new question to all of our on-line discussion: is this a dress thing?
There are matters that are not the province of simple perceptual confusion. Human rights, equality, murder, are only three things that do not fall into the realm of “I don’t quite see what you see”. Some things become true if we hold the belief – if you believe that students from background X won’t do well then, weirdly enough, then they don’t do well. But there are areas in education when people can see the same things but interpret them in different ways because of contextual differences. Education researchers are well aware that a great deal of what we see and remember about school is often not how we learned but how we were taught. Someone who claims that traditional one-to-many lecturing, as the only approach, worked for them, when prodded, will often talk about the hours spent in the library or with study groups to develop their understanding.
When you work in education research, you get used to people effectively calling you a liar to your face because a great deal of our research says that what we have been doing is actually not a very good way to proceed. But when we talk about improving things, we are not saying that current practitioners suck, we are saying that we believe that we have evidence and practice to help everyone to get better in creating and being part of learning environments. However, many people feel threatened by the promise of better, because it means that they have to accept that their current practice is, therefore, capable of improvement and this is not a great climate in which to think, even to yourself, “maybe I should have been doing better”. Fear. Frustration. Concern over the future. Worry about being in a job. Constant threats to education. It’s no wonder that the two sides who could be helping each other, educational researchers and educational practitioners, can look at the same situation and take away both a promise of a better future and a threat to their livelihood. This is, most profoundly, a dress thing in the majority of cases. In this case, the perceptual system of the researchers has been influenced by research on effective practice, collaboration, cognitive biases and the operation of memory and cognitive systems. Experiment after experiment, with mountains of very cautious, patient and serious analysis to see what can and can’t be learnt from what has been done. This shows the world in a different colour palette and I will go out on a limb and say that there are additional colours in their palette, not just different shades of existing elements. The perceptual system of other people is shaped by their environment and how they have perceived their workplace, students, student behaviour and the personalisation and cognitive aspects that go with this. But the human mind takes shortcuts. Makes assumptions. Has biasses. Fills in gaps to match the existing model and ignores other data. We know about this because research has been done on all of this, too.
You look at the same thing and the way your mind works shapes how you perceive it. Someone else sees it differently, You can’t understand each other. It’s worth asking, before we deploy crushing retorts in electronic media, “is this a dress thing?”
The problem we have is exactly as we saw from the dress: how we address the situation where both sides are convinced that they are right and, from a perceptual and contextual standpoint, they are. We are now in the “post Dress” phase where people are saying things like “Oh God, that dress thing. I never got the big deal” whether they got it or not (because the fad is over and disowning an old fad is as faddish as a fad) and, more reflectively, “Why did people get so angry about this?”
At no point was arguing about the dress colour going to change what people saw until a certain element in their perceptual system changed what it was doing and then, often to their surprise and horror, they saw the other dress! (It’s a bit H.P. Lovecraft, really.) So we then had to work out how we could see the same thing and both be right, then talk about what the colour of the dress that was represented by that image was. I guarantee that there are people out in the world still who are convinced that there is a secret white and gold dress out there and that they were shown a picture of that. Once you accept the existence of these people, you start to realise why so many Internet arguments end up descending into the ALL CAPS EXCHANGE OF BALLISTIC SENTENCES as not accepting that what we personally perceive as being the truth could not be universally perceived is one of the biggest causes of argument. And we’ve all done it. Me, included. But I try to stop myself before I do it too often, or at all.
We have just had a small and bloodless war across the Internet. Two teams have seized the same flag and had a fierce conflict based on the fact that the other team just doesn’t get how wrong they are. We don’t want people to be bewildered about which way to go. We don’t want to stay at loggerheads and avoid discussion. We don’t want to baffle people into thinking that they’re being fooled or be condescending.
What we want is for people to recognise when they might be looking at what is, mostly, a perceptual problem and then go “Oh” and see if they can reestablish context. It won’t always work. Some people choose to argue in bad faith. Some people just have a bee in their bonnet about some things.
“Is this a dress thing?”
In amongst the llamas and the Vulcans and the assassination of Russian politicians, something that was probably almost as important happened. We all learned that we can be both wrong and right in our perception but it is the way that we handle the situation that truly determines whether we’re handling the situation in the wrong or right way. I’ve decided to take a two week break from Facebook to let all of the latent anger that this stirred up die down, because I think we’re going to see this venting for some time.
Maybe you disagree with what I’ve written. That’s fine but, first, ask yourself “Is this a dress thing?”
Live long and prosper.
I’ve written before about the issues of prolonged human workload leading to ethical problems and the fact that working more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis is downright unproductive because you get less efficient and error-prone. This is not some 1968 French student revolutionary musing on what benefits the soul of a true human, this is industrial research by Henry Ford and the U.S. Army, neither of whom cold be classified as Foucault-worshipping Situationist yurt-dwelling flower children, that shows that there are limits to how long you can work in a sustained weekly pattern and get useful things done, while maintaining your awareness of the world around you.
The myth won’t die, sadly, because physical presence and hours attending work are very easy to measure, while productive outputs and their origins in a useful process on a personal or group basis are much harder to measure. A cynic might note that the people who are around when there is credit to take may end up being the people who (reluctantly, of course) take the credit. But we know that it’s rubbish. And the people who’ve confirmed this are both philosophers and the commercial sector. One day, perhaps.
But anyone who has studied cognitive load issues, the way that the human thinking processes perform as they work and are stressed, will be aware that we have a finite amount of working memory. We can really only track so many things at one time and when we exceed that, we get issues like the helmet fire that I refer to in the first linked piece, where you can’t perform any task efficiently and you lose track of where you are.
So what about multi-tasking?
Ready for this?
There’s a ton of research on this but I’m going to link you to a recent article by Daniel Levitin in the Guardian Q&A. The article covers the fact that what we are really doing is switching quickly from one task to another, dumping one set of information from working memory and loading in another, which of course means that working on two things at once is less efficient than doing two things one after the other.
But it’s more poisonous than that. The sensation of multi-tasking is actually quite rewarding as we get a regular burst of the “oooh, shiny” rewards our brain gives us for finding something new and we enter a heightened state of task readiness (fight or flight) that also can make us feel, for want of a better word, more alive. But we’re burning up the brain’s fuel at a fearsome rate to be less efficient so we’re going to tire more quickly.
Get the idea? Multi-tasking is horribly inefficient task switching that feels good but makes us tired faster and does things less well. But when we achieve tiny tasks in this death spiral of activity, like replying to an e-mail, we get a burst of reward hormones. So if your multi-tasking includes something like checking e-mails when they come in, you’re going to get more and more distracted by that, to the detriment of every other task. But you’re going to keep doing them because multi-tasking.
I regularly get told, by parents, that their children are able to multi-task really well. They can do X, watch TV, do Y and it’s amazing. Well, your children are my students and everything I’ve seen confirms what the research tells me – no, they can’t but they can give a convincing impression when asked. When you dig into what gets produced, it’s a different story. If someone sits down and does the work as a single task, it will take them a shorter time and they will do a better job than if they juggle five things. The five things will take more than five times as long (up to 10, which really blows out time estimation) and will not be done as well, nor will the students learn about the work in the right way. (You can actually sabotage long term storage by multi-tasking in the wrong way.) The most successful study groups around the Uni are small, focused groups that stay on one task until it’s done and then move on. The ones with music and no focus will be sitting there for hours after the others are gone. Fun? Yes. Efficient? No. And most of my students need to be at least reasonably efficient to get everything done. Have some fun but try to get all the work done too – it’s educational, I hear. :)
It’s really not a surprise that we haven’t changed humanity in one or two generations. Our brains are just not built in a way that can (yet) provide assistance with the quite large amount of work required to perform multi-tasking.
We can handle multiple tasks, no doubt at all, but we’ve just got to make sure, for our own well-being and overall ability to complete the task, that we don’t fall into the attractive, but deceptive, trap that we are some sort of parallel supercomputer.
The most important thing about having a good idea is not the idea itself, it’s doing something with it. In the case of sharing knowledge, you have to get good at communication or the best ideas in the world are going to be ignored. (Before anyone says anything, please go and review the advertising industry which was worth an estimated 14 billion pounds in 2013 in the UK alone. The way that you communicate ideas matters and has value.)
Knowledge doesn’t leap unaided into most people’s heads. That’s why we have teachers and educational institutions. There are auto-didacts in the world and most people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to some extent but you still have to learn how to read and the more expertise you can develop under guidance, the faster you’ll be able to develop your expertise later on (because of how your brain works in terms of handling cognitive load in the presence of developed knowledge.)
When I talk about the value of making a commitment to education, I often take it down to two things: ongoing investment and excellent infrastructure. You can’t make bricks without clay and clay doesn’t turn into bricks by itself. But I’m in the education machine – I’m a member of the faculty of a pretty traditional University. I would say that, wouldn’t I?
That’s why it’s so good to see reports coming out of industry sources to confirm that, yes, education is important because it’s one of the many ways to drive an economy and maintain a country’s international standing. Many people don’t really care if University staff are having to play the banjo on darkened street corners to make ends meet (unless the banjo is too loud or out of tune) but they do care about things like collapsing investments and being kicked out of the G20 to be replaced by nations that, until recently, we’ve been able to list as developing.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (pWc) have recently published a report where they warn that over-dependence on mining and lack of investment in science and technology are going to put Australia in a position where they will no longer be one of the world’s 20 largest economies but will be relegated, replaced by Vietnam and Nigeria. If fact, the outlook is bleaker than that, moving Australia back beyond Bangladesh and Iran, countries that are currently receiving international support. This is no slur on the countries that are developing rapidly, improving conditions for their citizens and heading up. But it is an interesting reflection on what happens to a developed country when it stops trying to do anything new and gets left behind. Of course, science and technology (STEM) does not leap fully formed from the ground so this, in terms, means that we’re going to have make sure that our educational system is sufficiently strong, well-developed and funded to be able to produce the graduates who can then develop the science and technology.
We in the educational community and surrounds have been saying this for years. You can’t have an innovative science and technology culture without strong educational support and you can’t have a culture of innovation without investment and infrastructure. But, as I said in a recent tweet, you don’t have to listen to me bang on about “social contracts”, “general benefit”, “universal equity” and “human rights” to think that investing in education is a good idea. PwC is a multi-national company that’s the second largest professional services company in the world, with annual revenues around $34 billion. And that’s in hard American dollars, which are valuable again compared to the OzD. PwC are serious money people and they think that Australia is running a high risk if we don’t start looking at serious alternatives to mining and get our science and technology engines well-lubricated and running. And running quickly.
The first thing we have to do is to stop cutting investment in education. It takes years to train a good educator and it takes even longer to train a good researcher at University on top of that. When we cut funding to Universities, we slow our hiring, which stops refreshment, and we tend to offer redundancies to expensive people, like professors. Academic staff are not interchangeable cogs. After 12 years of school, they undertake somewhere along the lines of 8-10 years of study to become academics and then they really get useful about 10 years after that through practice and the accumulation of experience. A Professor is probably 30 years of post-school investment, especially if they have industry experience. A good teacher is 15+. And yet these expensive staff are often targeted by redundancies because we’re torn between the need to have enough warm bodies to put in front of students. So, not only do we need to stop cutting, we need to start spending and then commit to that spending for long enough to make a difference – say 25 years.
The next thing, really at the same time, we need to do is to foster a strong innovation culture in Australia by providing incentives and sound bases for research and development. This is (despite what happened last night in Parliament) not the time to be cutting back, especially when we are subsidising exactly those industries that are not going to keep us economically strong in the future.
But we have to value education. We have to value teachers. We have to make it easier for people to make a living while having a life and teaching. We have to make education a priority and accept the fact that every dollar spent in education is returned to us in so many different ways, but it’s just not easy to write it down on a balance sheet. PwC have made it clear: science and technology are our future. This means that good, solid educational systems from the start of primary to tertiary and beyond are now one of the highest priorities we can have or our country is going to sink backwards. The sheep’s back we’ve been standing on for so long will crush us when it rolls over and dies in a mining pit.
I have many great ethical and social arguments for why we need to have the best education system we can have and how investment is to the benefit of every Australia. PwC have just provided a good financial argument for those among us who don’t always see past a 12 month profit and loss sheet.
Always remember, the buggy whip manufacturers are the last person to tell you not to invest in buggy whips.
A lot of posts today, and a lot of words, but I had to make a decision over the last couple of days as to whether I still felt comfortable blogging about things like discrimination in education and the myth of meritocracy when I am a member of the exceedingly privileged group of well-educated, comfortable, white men.
I’ve debated long and hard whether continuing to frame things as I do is an overall positive act or whether it just reinforces the idea that it is people like me who need to define what has to be done and what change has to be made. Are my ideas and writing of sufficient value to make up for the fact that I’m still the same old face on the television? Would it be better for me to stand back and let others take over the vacant space because it’s far less intimidating than having to step into a filled area?
I’ve spent the last three days thinking hard on this and I think I’ve sorted out where I am useful and where I am not, and what that means in terms of the way that this is presented.
I’ve decided to continue because I’m not trying to talk for or instead of the people that I’m not, I’m talking to try and help to make more space for those people to talk. So that more people like me can listen when they do speak. And I would never want to represent myself as an authority on much, except for knowing what it’s like to be a middle-aged man with deteriorating eyesight and bad knees, so please never think that I’m an authentic voice for the people I talk about – I’m trying to help make change, not pass myself off as something I’m not. As always, if you have a choice between reading someone’s authentic experiences and a reported view, you must go to the source. If you only have time to read one blog, please make it someone else’s and make that person someone whose voice you really want to hear.
Thanks for reading!