Large Scale Authenticity: What I Learned About MOOCs from Reality Television

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.

Chef is not quite this orange. Not quite.

Chef is not quite this orange. Not quite.

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.


Teleportation and the Student: Impossibility As A Lesson Plan

Tricking a cremate into looking at their shoe during a transport was common in the 23rd Century.

Tricking a crew-mate into looking at their shoe during a transport was a common prank in the 23rd Century.

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.

  1. 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…

    about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

    years. Um.

  2. 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…

    124,267

    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…

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.


Why “#thedress” is the perfect perception tester.

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.”

Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism with Blue Triangle and Black Square (1915).

Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism with Blue Triangle and Black Square (1915).

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.


That’s not the smell of success, your brain is on fire.

Would you mind putting out the hippocampus when you have a chance?

Would you mind putting out the hippocampus when you have a chance?

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?

We don’t.

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.


I Am Self-righteous, You Are Loud, She is Ignored

If we’ve learned anything from recent Internet debates that have become almost Lovecraftian in the way that a single word uttered in the wrong place can cause an outbreaking of chaos, it is that the establishment of a mutually acceptable tone is the only sensible way to manage any conversation that is conducted outside of body-language cues. Or, in short, we need to work out how to stop people screaming at each other when they’re safely behind their keyboards or (worse) anonymity.

As a scientist, I’m very familiar with the approach that says that all ideas can be questioned and it is only by ferocious interrogation of reality, ideas, theory and perception that we can arrive at a sound basis for moving forward.

But, as a human, I’m aware that conducting ourselves as if everyone is made of uncaring steel is, to be put it mildly, a very poor way to educate and it’s a lousy way to arrive at complex consensus. In fact, while we claim such an approach is inherently meritocratic, as good ideas must flourish under such rigour, it’s more likely that we will only hear ideas from people who can endure the system, regardless of whether those people have the best ideas. A recent book, “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy” by Lani Guinier, looks at how supposedly meritocratic systems in education are really measures of privilege levels prior to going into education and that education is more about cultivating merit, rather than scoring a measure of merit that is actually something else.

This isn’t to say that face-to-face arguments are isolated from the effects that are caused by antagonists competing to see who can keep making their point for the longest time. If one person doesn’t wish to concede the argument but the other can’t see any point in making progress, it is more likely for the (for want of a better term) stubborn party to claim that they have won because they have reached a point where the other person is “giving up”. But this illustrates the key flaw that underlies many arguments – that one “wins” or “loses”.

In scientific argument, in theory, we all get together in large rooms, put on our discussion togas and have at ignorance until we force it into knowledge. In reality, what happens is someone gets up and presents and the overall impression of competency is formed by:

  • The gender, age, rank, race and linguistic grasp of the speaker
  • Their status in the community
  • How familiar the audience are with the work
  • How attentive the audience are and whether they’re all working on grants or e-mail
  • How much they have invested in the speaker being right or wrong
  • Objective scientific assessment

We know about the first one because we keep doing studies that tell us that women cannot be assessed fairly by the majority of people, even in blind trials where all that changes on a CV is the name. We know that status has a terrible influence on how we perceive people. Dunning-Kruger (for all of its faults) and novelty effects influence how critical we can be. We can go through all of these and we come back to the fact that our pure discussion is tainted by the rituals and traditions of presentation, with our vaunted scientific objectivity coming in after we’ve stripped off everything else.

It is still there, don’t get me wrong, but you stand a much better chance of getting a full critical hearing with a prepared, specialist audience who have come together with a clear intention to attempt to find out what is going on than an intention to destroy what is being presented. There is always going to be something wrong or unknown but, if you address the theory rather than the person, you’ll get somewhere.

I often refer to this as the difference between scientists and lawyers. If we’re tying to build a better science then we’re always trying to improve understanding through genuine discovery. Defence lawyers are trying to sow doubt in the mind of judges and juries, invalidating evidence for reasons that are nothing to do with the strength of the evidence, and preventing wider causal linkages from forming that would be to the detriment of their client. (Simplistic, I know.)

Any scientific theory must be able to stand up to scientific enquiry because that’s how it works. But the moment we turn such a process into an inquisition where the process becomes one that the person has to endure then we are no longer assessing the strength of the science – we are seeing if we can shout someone into giving up.

As I wrote in the title, when we are self-righteous, whether legitimately or not, we will be happy to yell from the rooftops. If someone else is doing it with us then we might think they are loud but how can someone else’s voice be heard if we have defined all exchange in terms of this exhausting primal scream? If that person comes from a traditionally under-represented or under-privileged group then they may have no way at all to break in.

The mutual establishment of tone is essential if we to hear all of the voices who are able to contribute to the improvement and development of ideas and, right now, we are downright terrible at it. For all we know, the cure for cancer has been ignored because it had the audacity to show up in the mind of a shy, female, junior researcher in a traditionally hierarchical lab that will let her have her own ideas investigated when she gets to be a professor.

Or it it would have occurred to someone had she received education but she’s stuck in the fields and won’t ever get more than a grade 5 education. That’s not a meritocracy.

One of the reasons I think that we’re so bad at establishing tone and seeing past the illusion of meritocracy is the reason that we’ve always been bad at handling bullying: we are more likely to see a spill-over reaction from the target than the initial action except in the most obvious cases of physical bullying. Human language and body-assisted communication are subtle and words are more than words. Let’s look at this sentence:

“I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.”

You can adjust this sentence to be incredibly praising, condescending, downright insulting, dismissive and indifferent without touching the content of the sentence. But, written like this, it is robbed of tone and context. If someone has been “needled” with statements like this for months, then a sudden outburst is increasingly likely, especially in stressful situations. This is the point at which someone says “But I only said … ” If our workplaces our innately rife with inter-privilege tension and high stress due to the collapse of the middle class – no wonder people blow up!

We have the same problem in the on-line community from an approach called Sea-Lioning, where persistent questioning is deployed in a way that, with each question isolated, appears innocuous but, as a whole, forms a bullying technique to undermine and intimidate the original writer. Now some of this is because there are people who honestly cannot tell what a mutually respectful tone look like and really want to know the answer. But, if you look at the cartoon I linked to, you can easily see how this can be abused and, in particular, how it can be used to shut down people who are expressing ideas in new space. We also don’t get the warning signs of tone. Worse still, we often can’t or don’t walk away because we maintain a connection that the other person can jump on anytime they want to. (The best thing you can do sometimes on Facebook is to stop notifications because you stop getting tapped on the shoulder by people trying to get up your nose. It is like a drink of cool water on a hot day, sometimes. I do, however, realise that this is easier to say than do.)

From XKCD #386 – “Duty Calls”

When students communicate over our on-line forums, we do keep an eye on them for behaviour that is disrespectful or downright rude so that we can step in and moderate the forum, but we don’t require moderation before comment. Again, we have the notion that all ideas can be questioned, because SCIENCE, but the moment we realise that some questions can be asked not to advance the debate but to undermine and intimidate, we have to look very carefully at the overall context and how we construct useful discussion, without being incredibly prescriptive about what form discussion takes.

I recently stepped in to a discussion about some PhD research that was being carried out at my University because it became apparent that someone was acting in, if not bad faith, an aggressive manner that was not actually achieving any useful discussion. When questions were answered, the answers were dismissed, the argument recast and, to be blunt, a lot of random stuff was injected to discredit the researcher (for no good reason). When I stepped in to point out that this was off track, my points were side-stepped, a new argument came up and then I realised that I was dealing with a most amphibious mammal.

The reason I bring this up is that when I commented on the post, I immediately got positive feedback from a number of people on the forum who had been uncomfortable with what had been going on but didn’t know what to do about it. This is the worst thing about people who set a negative tone and hold it down, we end up with social conventions of politeness stopping other people from commenting or saying anything because it’s possible that the argument is being made in good faith. This is precisely the trap a bad faith actor wants to lock people into and, yet, it’s also the thing that keeps most discussions civil.

Thanks, Internet trolls. You’re really helping to make the world a better place.

These days my first action is to step in and ask people to clarify things, in the most non-confrontational way I can muster because asking people “What do you mean” can be incredibly hostile by itself! This quickly establishes people who aren’t willing to engage properly because they’ll start wriggling and the Sea-Lion effect kicks in – accusations of rudeness, unwillingness to debate – which is really, when it comes down to it:

I WANT TO TALK AT YOU LIKE THIS HOW DARE YOU NOT LET ME DO IT!

This isn’t the open approach to science. This is thuggery. This is privilege. This is the same old rubbish that is currently destroying the world because we can’t seem to be able to work together without getting caught up in these stupid games. I dream of a better world where people can say any combination of “I use  Mac/PC/Java/Python” without being insulted but I am, after all, an Idealist.

The summary? The merit of your argument is not determined by how loudly you shout and how many other people you silence.

I expect my students to engage with each other in good faith on the forums, be respectful and think about how their actions affect other people. I’m really beginning to wonder if that’s the best preparation for a world where a toxic on-line debate can break over into the real world, where SWAT team attacks and document revelation demonstrate what happens when people get too carried away in on-line forums.

We’re stopping people from being heard when they have something to say and that’s wrong, especially when it’s done maliciously by people who are demanding to say something and then say nothing. We should be better at this by now.


Spectacular Learning May Not Be What You’re After

Back in 1967, Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, released a fairly brief but very powerful work called the “The Society of the Spectacle“, which brought together much of the work of the Situationist International. Debord touches on many themes in this work (it’s well worth reading) but he focuses on the degradation of human life, the influence of mass media and our commodity culture, and then (unsurprisingly for a Marxist) draws on the parallels between religion and marketing. I’m going to write three more paragraphs on the Spectacle itself and then get to the education stuff. Hang in there!

Debord_SocietyofSpectacle

It would be very hard for me to convey all of the aspects that Debord covered with “the Spectacle” in one sentence but, in short, it is the officially-sanctioned, bureaucratic, commodity-drive second-hand world that we live in without much power or freedom to truly express ourselves in a creative fashion. Buying stuff can take the place of living a real experience. Watching someone else do something replaces doing it ourselves. The Society of the Spectacle opens with the statement:

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. (Debord, 1967.)

Ultimately, this representation of the real world becomes the perceived reality and it moderates all of our interactions as people, manipulating us by changing what we see and experience. (Recent research into the use of photographic images for memory manipulation have verified this – your memories can be altered by the selection of photos and items that you use to remember a particular event. Choose your happy snaps wisely!)

Ultimately, the Spectacle is self-sustaining and participating in a version of the world that is manipulated and second-hand will only produce more experiences that are in line with what has already been experienced. And why shouldn’t it? The entire point is that everything is presented as if it is the right thing to do and, by working within this system, that your own interactions are good because they are also within the Spectacle. However, this can be quite alienating, especially for radical or creative thought. Enter the situation, where you construct authentic, creative ways to liberate yourself from the Spectacle. This is where you are actually creating, making, doing something beyond the relationship of yourself to things you buy: this interactions with people beyond the mediation of established systems and commodity fetishism.

Ok, ok, enough of the details of Debord! I’ll get to my point on education. Let’s take a simplistic view and talk about the presentation of second-hand experiences with little participation and official sanction. I don’t know about you but that sounds a lot like the traditional lecturing style to me – high power-distance and low participation. Hierarchical enforcement and the weight of history, combined with a strong bureaucracy. Yup. That sounds like the Spectacle.

When we talk about engagement we often don’t go to the opposite end and discuss the problem of alienation. Educational culture can be frightening and alienating for people who aren’t used to it but, even when you are within it, aspects will continue to leap out and pit the individual (student or teacher) against the needs of the system itself (we must do this because that’s how it works).

So what can we do? Well, the Situationists valued play, freedom and critical thinking. They had a political agenda that I won’t address here (you can read about it in many places) – I’m going to look at ways to reduce alienation, increase creativity and increase exploration. In fact, we’ve already done this when we talk about active learningcollaborative learning and getting students to value each other as sources of knowledge as well as their teachers.

But we can go further. While many people wonder how students can invest vast amounts of energy into some projects and not others, bringing the ability to play into the equation makes a significant difference and it goes hand-in-hand with freedom. But this means giving students the time, the space, the skills and the associated activities that will encourage this kind of exploration. (We’ve been doing this in my school with open-ended, self-selected creative assignments where we can. Still working on how we can scale it) But the principle of exploration is one that we can explore across curricula, schools, and all aspects of society.

It’s interesting. So many people seem to complain about student limitations when they encounter new situations (there’s that word again) yet place students into a passive Spectacle where the experience is often worse than second-hand. When I read a text book, I am reading the words of someone who has the knowledge rather than necessarily creating it for myself. If I have someone reading those words to me from the front of a lecture theatre then I’m not only rigidly locked into a conforming position, bound to listen, but I’m having something that’s closer to a third-hand experience.

When you’re really into something, you climb all over it and explore it. Your passion drives your interest and it is your ability to play with the elements, turn them around, mash them up and actually create something is a very good indicator of how well you are working with that knowledge. Getting students to rewrite the classic “Hello World” program is a waste of time. Getting students to work out how to take the picture of their choice and create something new is valuable. The Spectacle is not what we want in higher education or education at all because it is limiting, dull, and, above all, boring.

To paraphrase Debord: “Boredom is always counter-educational. Always.”


You are a confused ghost riding a meat Segway.

I regularly write bits and pieces for my students to read, sometimes at the beginning of courses and sometimes at the end. Occasionally, I fall into the trap of thinking that this means that I understand what is going on. This post is something that all of my students should read to get a good understanding of the context behind those suggestions.

  1. You are a confused ghost riding a meat Segway. It doesn’t really matter whether you believe that your consciousness is something innate and separate from your body or whether you believe it’s a byproduct of the chemical and electrical interactions in your brain, your conscious will and the autonomic systems of your body are separate entities for the most part. We assume continence in our society: of bladder, bowel, speech and action. Despite the push from the underlying framework to do things, the ghost on top can and does regularly override those impulses. Some people choose not to override or claim that the pull is too strong and, at this point, things start to fall apart. Some other people try and force the Segway to do stuff that it can’t do and then that falls apart. One thing we can generally agree on is that it’s harder to communicate with people when the meat Segway crashes or fails so look after it but don’t let it rule your life. The Segway comes in different shapes, sizes and colours but the ghosts tend to be more affected by how the world reacts to you rather than much else.
  2. No-one will know you who are unless you communicate. This doesn’t mean that you have to talk to everyone but the best ideas in the world will do nothing unless they are shared with someone. We have no idea how many great ideas have been lost because someone was born in a condition, place or time where they were unable to get their ideas out.
  3. Communication works best when tone is set by consensus. There’s a lot of stridency in communication today, where people start talking in a certain tone and then demand that people conform to their intensity or requirement for answers. You only have to Google “Sea-lioning” to see how well this works out for people. Mutual communication implies an environment that allows for everyone to be comfortable in the exchange. Doesn’t always work and, sometimes, stridency is called for, of course. Making it the default state of your communicational openings is going to cause more grief than is required. Try to develop your ear along with your mouth.
  4. Certainty is seductive. Don’t worry, I’m not making some Foucaultian statement about reality or meaning, I’m just saying that, from my experience, being absolutely certain of something can be appealing but it’s quite rare to find things where this is true. But I’m a scientist so I would say something like this – even with all the evidence in the world, we’d still need a cast-iron proof to say that something was certain. And that’s “a” proof, not “some” proof. People love certainty. Other people often sell certainty because many people will buy it. Often it helps to ask why you want that certainty or why you think you need it. What you believe is always up to you but it helps to understand what drives your needs and desires in terms of that belief.
  5. No-one knows how to be a grown-up. If you feel like it, go and look at advice for people who are in an age bracket and see what it says. It will almost always say something like “No-one knows what’s going on!”. As you get older, you make more mistakes and you learn from them, hopefully. Older people often have more assets behind them, which gives them more resilience, more ability to try something and not succeed. But there is no grand revelation that comes when you get older and, according to my friends with kids, there is no giant door opening when you have kids either. We’re all pretty much the same.