5 Good Things to Start in 2015

At the beginning of December I wrote about 5 things that I’d learned and had (re)confirmed. There’s been a lot going on since then and it’s been astounding me how willing people are to make the same mistakes, especially in on-line communication, and just go out and do things that are hurtful, ignorant and, well, just plain stupid. I’m always writing this with the idea of being helpful to my students so here is a list of 5 things (not necessarily the only 5 things or the top 5 things) that would be good habits to commit to in 2015 when it comes to electronic communication. Think of it as the 5 things I’ve learned, specifically addressing the on-line world. Some of these have come up in the blog before but I think this is the only time they’ve all been in the same place. Eh, let me know. (Note: we’ve all done things like this at some point probably so this is a reminder from a fellow sufferer rather than a lecture from a saint. My feet of clay go up to my navel.)

  1. Just Because You Can See Something Doesn’t Mean You Have to Comment.

    There’s a famous XKCD comic about this (see above) and it is both a time sink and a road to unhappiness to think that everything that you can see needs to be dealt with by your intervention. Now there are times when it almost always makes sense to assist, much as in real life: when someone is being threatened, when someone is being bullied, when someone else is actively harassing someone. But when you notice that someone you vaguely know is happy about using a selfie stick and posts some silly pictures? No, that’s not the time to post an insulting video about selfie sticks and then link him in so he knows he’s being insulted. Really? That makes sense? Don’t be that person. We all have strong opinions about some recreational stuff but, most of the time, no-one’s getting hurt so why make someone else feel miserable?

    It’s sometimes hard for people to know when to leap in and when not to but there are some clear indicators. Are you doing it to make someone else feel bad about something that they like? Yeah, why are you doing that? Go and find something better to do. Are you doing it to show how smart you are? It’s probably working in the opposite way. Are you bullying people to complain about people bullying people? Do you need to read that sentence again?

    Doesn’t mean that you can’t comment but it means you need to choose when to comment and the best way to comment. If you really feel that something you run across needs input, don’t do it in a way that is thoughtless, mean, bullying, unnecessary or insulting. If someone says “Yeah, I don’t need your input” – then stop. If you really screwed up the communication – apologise. Simple. Learn. Try to do better in future.

  2. Vent BEFORE Typing

    Oh, yeah. If only I could take back some of the things I typed when I was angry. These days, I try to be grumpy off-line so I’m constructive on-line. Way more effective and I have to apologise less. If someone isn’t getting the point, then don’t get ruder or START USING ALL CAPS. Back off. Use your energies elsewhere. The science is pretty clear that straight-up chest bumping arguments only solid opposing opinion. Discuss, back off, discuss again. Be cool.

    (Ok, so sometimes I have a small vent at the air for a while and then grab a calming tea before I come back. This brings me to the next point…)

  3. The Internet Can Wait

    The Internet is not a communications system that has hard real-time constraints. Guess what – if you don’t respond immediately then you can go back later and see if anyone else has said what you wanted to say or if the person commenting has read through some stuff and changed their mind. 3,000 people saying “HERP DERP” is not actually helpful and a pile-on is just mass bullying.

    Especially when you are agitated, step away. Don’t step away into Day Z and get sniped by human hunters, though. Step all the way away and go and relax somewhere. 3D print a flower and look at that. (You may have actual flowers you can observe.) Watch an episode of something unchallenging. Think about what you want to say and then compose your response. Say it with the style that comes from having time to edit.

    YUUIO ARE AA FMOROON! AA FDI CANNT BVEL(IEBE YOU WIULLD THINK THAGT !!!!!!??!?!?! HIIITLLER!

    That’s really less than convincing. Take some time out.

    What are you basing that on? I thought the evidence was pretty clear on this.

    There. That’s better. And now with 100% less Hitler!

  4. Stay Actual Rather Than Hypothetical

    It’s easy to say “If I were in situation X” and make up a whole heap of stuff but that doesn’t actually make your experience authentic. If you start your sentence with qualifiers such as “If I were..”, “Surely,” or “I would have thought…” then you really need to wonder about whether you are making a useful point or just putting down what you would like to be true in order for you to win an argument that you don’t really have any genuine experience to comment on.

    It’s been so long since I’ve been unemployed that I would hesitate to write anything on the experience of unemployment but, given that my take on welfare is for it be generous and universal and I have a strong background in the actual documented evidence of what works for public welfare, my contributions to any thread discussing welfare issues can be valuable if I stick to what could be used to improve people’s lot, with an understanding of what it was like to be unemployed in Australia. However, I would almost never leap in on anything about raising children because I don’t have any kids. (Unless it was, I WANT TO BOIL MY CHILDREN, in which case it’s probably wise to check if this is a psychotic break or autocorrect.)

  5. Don’t Make People’s Real Problems a Dinner Party Game

    One of the few times I have been speechless with rage was when I was discussing gay marriage with someone on-line and they said “Well, this would be a fascinating discussion to have over dinner!” and they were serious. No, human rights are not something for other people to talk about as it it were some plaything. (I walked away from that discussion and frothed for some time!)

    And this goes triple for anyone who leaps in to play “Devil’s Advocate” on an issue that really does not require any more exploration or detailed thought. If we are discussing a legal argument, and not human rights, then sure, why not? If we’re talking about people not being allowed to use a certain door because of the colour of their skin? We’ve discussed that. There is no more exploration of the issue of racism required because anyone with a vague knowledge of history will be aware that this particular discussion has been had. XKCD has, of course, already nailed this because XKCD is awesome.

    I see this now with many of the misconceptions about poverty and the pernicious myths that want to paint poor people as being “less worthy”, when a cursory examination of the evidence available shows that we are seeing a rapidly growing wealth divide and the disturbing growth of the working poor. The willingness to discuss the reduction of rights for the poor (compulsory contraception, food credits rather than money, no ‘recreational’ spending) as if this is an amusement is morally repugnant and, apart from anything else, is part of a series of discussions that have been running for centuries. We can now clearly see, from our vast data panopticon, what the truth of these stories are and, yet, go onto any forum talking about this and find people trotting out tired anecdotes, “Devil’s advocate” positions and treating this as an intellectual game.

    People’s lives are not a game. Engage in discussions with the seriousness required to address the issue or it’s probably best to try and find somewhere else to play. There are many wonderful places to talk rubbish on the Internet – my blog, for example, is a place where I work and play, while I try to change the world a little for the better. But when I roll up my sleeves in big discussions elsewhere, I try to be helpful and to be serious. The people who are less fortunate than I am deserve my serious attention and not to be treated as some kind of self-worth enhancing amusement.

  6. Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself

    Gosh, I said there were 5 and now there are 6. Why? Because you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes. I’ve made all of the mistakes above and I’ll probably (although I try not to) make a few of them again. But as long as you’re learning and moving forward, don’t be too hard on yourself. But keep an eye on you. You can be shifty. But don’t be strict about your own rules because rigidity can be a prison – bend where necessary to stay sane and to make the world a better place.

    But always remember that the best guidelines for bending your own rules is to work out if you’re being kinder and more generous or harsher and meaner. Are you giving an extra point 6 when you promised 5? Are you stopping at 4 because you can’t be bothered?

We all make mistakes. Some of us learn. Some of us try to help others to learn. I think we’re getting better. Have a great 2015!


The Invisible Fragility of our World of Knowledge

If I were to mention that I was currently researching Rongorongo, as background for a story in which the protagonists communicated in a range of reverse boustrophedonic texts, there are three likely outcomes.

  1. You would roll your eyes and close the browser, or,
  2. You would think “Aha, that’s what I was talking about last night at the Friends of Rapanui Quiz Night. How apt!”, or,
  3. You would go and look up Rongorongo and boustrophedon in Wikipedia.

What I am fairly sure that most of you will not do, is to go and look up the information in a book, go to a library or even ask another human. (Some of you will have used physical means such as books or libraries because you are being deliberate physical users. I am after the usage patterns that your adopt unconsciously, or as a matter of actual habit, then those that are employed because of a deliberate endeavour to use another source.) There is no doubt that we live in an amazing world of immediately available information and that it has changed the way that we use, store and retrieve information but this immediacy has come at a cost: we tend not to use or consult physical media as much. As a result, there is less of the physical to hand, most of the time. I have noticed a major change in the way that I use information and, while I tend to read and annotate material on printed paper (using a fountain paper, no less, so I am not judging anyone for their affectations), I search and edit in the digital form. Why? Each form has its own efficiencies.

A physical artefact that we can no longer read.

A physical artefact that we can no longer read.

The absence of the physical artefact is often not noticeable unless we are cut off from the Internet or from our stored versions of the material. Last week, my laptop decided that it would no longer boot and I realised, with mounting horror, that my only copies of certain works in progress were sitting on this ‘dead’ machine. Why weren’t they backed up? Because I was not connected to the Internet for a few hours and I had left my actual backup device at home, to reduce the risk of losing both laptop and backup in the same localised catastrophe.

The majority of the on-line information repositories are remarkable in their ease of use and sheer utility – as long as you can connect to them .We, however, have an illusion of availability and cohesion that is deceptive and it is the comfortable analogue of the printed page that lulls us into this. Wikipedia, for example, presents a single page full of text, just like a book does. It is only when you look at the History and the Discussion that it dawns on you that each character on the page could have been contributed by a difference source. While the printed page is the final statement of a set of arguments between the authors, the editors and their mutual perceptions of reality, it is static once printed. In Wikipedia, its strength and its weakness is that the argument never ends. Anything on a publicly editable page is inherently fragile and ephemeral. What is there today may not be there tomorrow and there is no guarantee that what appears sound now will be anything other than horrible and deliberately broken in a second.

The fragility doesn’t stop there, however, because we don’t actually have any part of Wikipedia inside our offices, unless you happen to be Jimmy Wales. (Hi!) Wikipedia.org, the domain name of Wikipedia, is registered in California, but the server I was connected to (for the queries I put above) was in Washington State, and there were some 17 active network devices involved in routing traffic from me (in Adelaide) to the server (in Washington) and then getting the information back. This doesn’t count the active electronic devices that I can’t see in this path and, believe me, there will be a lot of them. Now we build a lot of redundancy into the global network that we call the Internet (the network of networks of networks) but a major catastrophe on the West Coast will quickly force so much traffic onto those backup links that information flow will stop and, for some good technical reasons, it will then start to fall over.

So the underlying physical pathways that actually shunt the network information from point to point could fall over. At that point, if I had a book on the linguistics of Easter Island, I could read it by torchlight even if I had no local power. A severe power failure here or in enough places along the way, or at Wikipedia’s data centres? Suddenly, my ability to find out anything is blocked.

But let’s look at the information itself. People have been editing the Rongorongo page for over 10 years. The first version (that we can see, Wikipedia can invisibly delete revisions) is recorded for the 25th of November, 2002. Happy double digits, Rongorongo page! Since then there have been roughly 3000 edits. Are all of them the same quality? Hmm. Here are some comments:

14 April 2006, “reinstate link to disambiguate Rongorongo, wife of Turi, NZ”

18 May 2006, “If I want to be blocked, why do I improve these pages? REMEMBER LIUVIGILD! TRY BLOCKING ME!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA” (sic)

18 May 2006, “Excuse my insolence. This is not vandalism, as it is all true. Why do you insist on reverting it? Please send a PERSONAL message of explanation. Sincerely, 64.107.172.130”

28 April 2007, “Inhabitants of Easter Island have many names for it.”

7 April 2011, “A picture of a banana leaf is not helpful here. I looked on this banana leaf for scribblings. I know what one looks like, and if someone doesn’t, they can read about it at banana.”

12 November, 2012, “What’s wrong, Kwamikagami? It is what it is, isn’t it? Just a straight up comparison of rongorongo and Indus Valley glyphs, nothing more. I’d love to know which ones are ‘not true”‘according to you”

There are periods when this page is changing every few minutes and sometimes the data is the same for days or even months. But most people don’t know this because they never think to look in the history or talk sections. Right now, it appears that someone is disputing the authority of Kwamikagami, a person who has carried out a lot of edits on this page. This is important because if you say to someone “Hey, look at this page” then 3000 edits over 10 years says that the chances of the page changing in a day is something like 80%. The burstiness would have an impact on this but the general idea is that the simple page on a dead text(?) is more likely to change on a daily basis than not.

Does this make Wikipedia any better or any worse than the printed page? I think it makes it different because we have to treat it as an evolving discussion that we have walked in on, because of its inherent fragility and ephemeral nature.

We live in amazing times, where I can use a small hand-held device to access almost everything that our species has created. And yet, when I go to look at how robust this knowledge source is and how vulnerable we are to losing our connection to that knowledge, I am reminded that we are going to have to work out how to do this properly. If we give up the fixed physical forms (books, CDs, DVDs), then so be it, but we must make sure that we deal with this fragility before we become too seduced by the immediacy.  We have to think about this for our students too. How do we provide them with artefacts that they can consult down the line, when they need to look something up? Books have no licensing agreements, never expire and do not have to be abandoned when a digital format changes. Yet, they have none of the advantages.

I mention this because I am really looking forward to seeing how people address and solve this challenge – how can we have the best of the immediate and convenient, while having the enduring presence and guarantee of future access? Rongorongo itself is a physical artefact for which we have lost the knowledge of reading, or if it is even a text at all. It’s a reminder that we have faced this problem before and we have not solved it sufficiently well. Perhaps this time.