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Action over consumption

3 min read

Image by Arto Mattinen

This is likely to be my last 'proper' post of the year, before I announce that I'm heading off into a much more analogue December.

I was going to say that, on the world stage (Brexit, Trump, various deaths...) 2016 has been a pretty crap year. However, my nine year-old son (with whom I'm reading i at the moment) would probably remind me of Democritus: "by convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour; but in reality atoms and void". I'm raising a little Stoic.

So, instead, I'll turn to Ivan Illich, whose Deschooling Society I've been continuing to study this morning:

I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a life style which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a life style which only allows us to make and unmake, produce and consume-a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment.

One of the best things that has happened this year is that, along with some friends, I've founded a co-operative to allow us to work together in solidarity. Illich continues from the quotation above to discuss the importance of the organisational vehicle through which change and progress occurs:

The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies. We need a set of criteria which will permit us to recognize those institutions which support personal growth rather than addiction, as well as the will to invest our techno-logical resources preferentially in such institutions of growth.

The choice is between two radically opposed institutional types, both of which are exemplified in certain existing institutions, although one type so characterizes the contemporary period. as to almost define it. This dominant type I would propose to call the manipulative institution. The other type also exists, but only precariously. The institutions which fit it are humbler and less noticeable; yet I take them as models for a more desirable future. I call them "convivial" and suggest placing them at the left of an institutional spectrum, both to show that there are institutions which fall between the extremes and to illustrate how historical institutions can change color as they shift from facilitating activity to organizing production.

There's lots of predictions about what the future will bring. But, hey, as someone wise once said:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Keep on keeping on, people. I'll see you later.

Photo by Arto Marttinen

 

Weariness of the present

1 min read

From Seneca's On the Shortness of Life:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day. For what new pleasures can any hour now bring him? He has tried everything, and enjoyed everything to repletion. For the rest, Fortune can dispose as she likes: his life is now secure. Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.

Today and tomorrow then Pt.2. Can't wait.

 

OSS vs. FLOSS

1 min read

I thought this paragraph within an article entitled When Free Software Isn't (Practically) Superior was written in a particularly elegant and succinct way:

By emphasizing the power of collaborative development and “distributed peer review,” open source approaches seem to have very little to say about why one should use, or contribute to, the vast majority of free software projects. Because the purported benefits of collaboration cannot be realized when there is no collaboration, the vast majority of free development projects are at no technical advantage with respect to a proprietary competitor.

The point is that there's no benefit to Open Source software if it's technically inferior to proprietary software. With FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software), on the other hand, the fact that it respects and protects the user's freedom is a reason in and of itself.

 

The Sorcerer's Code | Psychology Today

I've only met Richard Stallman once, and he's an obsessive, a zealot, and unashamedly odd. But he's also an example of how someone can become a symbol and stand for something much bigger than themselves.

This is a great article, especially the following paragraph:

Stallman cares about surveillance because he sees it as a threat to democracy. Here’s the logic: The state holds secrets. To control the state, citizens need those secrets. To obtain them, we need whistleblowers. But surveillance lets the state identify and imprison whistleblowers. Thus, he says: “Democracy depends on reducing the level of general surveillance to the point where the state cannot identify the whistleblowers.” In that statement, he says, “I claim to have presented a theorem about the maximum level of surveillance that is compatible with democracy.”

 

Port 443 in a storm

2 min read

I've got a private Twitter list in TweetDeck entitled 'Core'. It contains people whose updates I don't want to miss. If you're reading this, and know me pretty well, you're probably on it.

One of the people on it is Simon Bostock. I got to know Simon through his comments on my blog about 10 years ago. Unusually for the people on that 'Core' TweetDeck list, the only way I'm connected to Simon is through Twitter. I don't have his phone number. We're not friends on any other social network. I've only met him in person twice, and then pretty briefly.

So yesterday, when I saw this, I was a bit shocked. I suppose I shouldn't be, given that Simon is the ultimate example of someone who employs a 'small pieces, loosely joined' approach to digital, meaning that, in fact, he has a pretty sustainable web presence. You never know where he's going to pop up next, but you do know that he will. Eventually.

Simon Bostock

There's a couple of things here:

  1. I've been thinking for ages that I should have better connections to people whose work I appreciate. I actually created a spreadsheet for this purpose a while back. These days I should probably use FullContact (or similar)
  2. There's something about personal vs. professional ethics here that I can't quite tease out. I had an interesting conversation with a teacher this week who came up with very reasonable objections to using Google, Facebook, and the like from energy and privacy perspectives. I'm just trying to figure out whether such things are like vegetarianism (and therefore should be accommodated in a professional setting) or whether sometimes we have to hold our noses.

 (PS: I nicked the title from Paul Ford's Medium profile that includes the line: 'Any port in a storm, especially ports 80 and 443'. The former, of course, is for HTTP connections and the latter HTTPS...) 

 

Basic digital skills framework based on G-Suite for Education (v0.1)

1 min read

Basic digital skills framework based on G-Suite for Education (v0.1)

I'm doing some work with Victoria College in Jersey at the moment. They're without a Head of Digital Strategy at the moment so I'm helping them out by getting the teaching staff up-to-speed with G-Suite for Education. 

Never wanting to miss a chance to try something I haven't done before, I worked with the Head of Staff Development to come up with a draft framework based on the SOLO Taxonomy. It's badged (of course!)  

In the interests of working openly, I'm sharing it here. Bear in mind that it's a draft (v0.1) of something that will be iterated upon with input from staff. It's also worth noting that this doesn't yet represent current Victoria College policy. With that in mind, I'd appreciate your comments — although please do read the whole document first, instead of commenting-as-you-go!

Click here to access: https://goo.gl/ftFZLj

 

Change

2 min read

Change

I've been continuing to read Book 9 of Marcus Aurelius Meditations this morning. In it, he's concerned about change, and gaining perspective on things that we try and control:

All things are in process of change. You yourself are ceaselessly undergoing transformation, and the decay of some of yourparts, and so is the whole universe.

It can seem a little morbid to think about death, but doing so gives us the ability to see how pathetic our everyday concerns can be:

Soon earth will cover us all. Then in time earth, too, will change; later, what issues from this change will itself in turn incessantly change, and so again will all that then takes its place, even unto the world’s end. To let the mind dwell on these swiftly rolling billows of change and transformation is to know a contempt for all things mortal.

Importantly, and almost 2,000 years before psychoanalysis, Marcus Aurelius talks about how our concerns and anxieties are of our own creating. And, because they are of our own creation, we are in control of them:

Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity, marking the swiftness of change in each created thing, and contrasting the brief span between birth and dissolution with the endless aeons that precede the one and the infinity that follows the other.

There's many reasons that I do my daily reading, including 'settling' myself and ordering my mind for the day. But another is certainly to define a series of books to introduce my children to during their teenage years and early adulthood. I can imagine Meditations being top of that list.

Image by Aaron Burden

 

The fruits of our labours

2 min read

Note: I've ordered myself a new Kindle Paperwhite 3G to get back into my Daily Reading habit. Meanwhile, I forced myself to use the Kindle app on my iPad Mini to do my reading today, albeit it later than usual and over a cup of coffee in Wetherspoons.

Image by Tiago Faifa

In Book 9 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations he talks about how we 'bear fruit', which reminds me of Galatians 5:22-23:

10. Everything bears fruit; man, God, the whole universe, each in its proper season. No matter that the phrase is restricted in common use to vines and such like. Reason, too, yields fruit, both for itself and for the world; since from it comes a harvest of other good things, themselves all bearing the stamp of reason.

In his Collected Maxims and Other Reflections of François La Rochefoucauld (maxim 138, removed after the first edition of his works) also talks about us 'bearing fruit':

Every kind of human talent, like every kind of tree, has its own unique characteristics and bears its own unique fruits.

The useful thing about the 'fruit' metaphor is that it not only enjoins us to have practical utility in the world, but helps us understand that we all have different ways of flourishing

Seneca, in On The Shortness of Life explains that we're not all the same in terms of our tempraments and talents:

You must consider whether your nature is more suited to practical activity or to quiet study and reflection, and incline in the direction your natural faculty and disposition take you. Isocrates forcibly pulled Ephorus away from the forum, thinking he would be better employed in writing history. Inborn dispositions do not respond well to compulsion, and we labour in vain against nature’s opposition.

I certainly didn't believe in people having a genetic disposition towards certain activities and ways of being until my wife and I had children. While we can shape them to some extent, I'd say that more than 50% of who (and how) our children are comes from something seemingly innate.

Applied to my own life, while I enjoy teaching, running workshops, and consulting with clients, what I really enjoy doing is reading and writing. It's all a balance, but I'm happy that these days I do occasionally get paid for my writing.

Image by Tiago Faifa

 

On 'quitting social media' to further your career

4 min read

Image by Marcus dePaula

I've been using social media ever since it first came around as part of the wave of 'Web 2.0' applications that changed our relationship with the web. It wasn't that long ago, but it's difficult to remember just how difficult it was for the average person to both read and write the web. 

In a controversial article for the New York Times, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in Distracted Times, argues that the use of social networking is not only addictive and antithetical to 'deep work', but actually bad for one's career. 

I think Newport makes one good point amongst a pretty bland arguement, which itself is undermined by his claim to have "never had a social media account". Let's deal with what I think is a valid argument first. By the looks of the Hacker News discussion, others also think this is the best part of the article. To quote Newport directly:

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

Here, I think Newport eloquently puts into words what a lot of us who have used, for example, Twitter for the last 10 years have been feeling: it's not the same as it was. Without wishing to look back through rose-tinted spectacles to a so-called 'golden age', there was definitely a time when the amount of self-selection necessary to use social networks meant that it was a more pleasant and interesting place to interact with others.

However, Newport also takes issue with those who use social networks in order to further their career. He believes that all you need to do is 'work hard':

Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. This is a philosophy perhaps best summarized by the advice Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you do that, the rest will work itself out, regardless of the size of your Instagram following.

I don't think that's true at all. There's a huge element of luck and serendipity involved in success beyond very prescribed fields such as academia and medicine. Let's be mindful that Newport is an assistant professor on his way up in the world. 

Newport argues against the idea that using social networks 'can't hurt' your career through two approaches:

First, interesting opportunities and useful connections are not as scarce as social media proponents claim... To be clear, I’m not arguing that new opportunities and connections are unimportant. I’m instead arguing that you don’t need social media’s help to attract them.

[...]

My second objection concerns the idea that social media is harmless. Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive.

There's an element of truth in the latter point, due to the nefarious influence of ad-tech. However, it's a sleight of hand to say that use implies addiction. Apart from the eloquent expression about the value 'the market' places on things that are rare and valuable, this entire article can be dismissed as Newport not knowing what he doesn't know.

In other words, while being a privileged white guy working in a reasonably-prestigious university might mean that he can avoid the 21st century for a while, for the rest of us social tools enable us to make important connections, do innovation work, and increase our serendipity surface.

Image by Marcus dePaula. This article is cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn.

 

3 problems Trump's victory brought into sharp focus

3 min read

Image by Crawford Ifland

I'm writing this 12 days after Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US Presidential Election. By now, the shock is wearing off, and some more nuanced articles are emerging. The first response by most of those I read was an understandable desire to go into some kind of crypto-hibernation. This post by the founder of Cryptocat really opened my eyes as to why that's a wrong-headed solution.

To my mind, there's three interrelated problems that people need to address in the overlapping circles of the Venn diagram to which I pay attention: 

  1. Algorithmic news - this election, with pro-Trump bots overwhelming the Clinton campaign messages, fake news farms in Macedonia, and 'post-truth' politics, shows how much we in the west are living in an algorithmic democracy. People are consuming less traditional news media, and more via their social media feeds. This has led many outlets into a 'race to the bottom' according to the managing editor of Snopes.
  2. Surveillance - one of the most invasive laws ever to have been passed got the final assent it needed this week in the UK. I take it for granted that the US spies on its own citizens in the wake of the Snowden revelations but now, not to be surpassed, GCHQ and the UK government seem to have found a way to bulk-collect data on innocent citizens, prying into the lives of everyday life, as a matter of course. 
  3. New literacies - all of the above can happen because we, as citizens, don't really understand what is going on with the technological side of our democracy. As I outlined in my thesis and follow-up book, digital literacies have a civic dimension that's often overlooked. I was glad to see that Audrey Watters has shared some of her initial thoughts about what a syllabus for education technology under Trump might look like.

I've said this before, but now it's becoming now a huge problem for our democracy: we're not preparing our young people with the digital skills they need for the world they inhabit right now. On the one hand we've got functional skills, and on the other, computer science. We haven't got the capacity to teach the latter, which means it's largely being taught badly, or not at all.

That huge gulf between the top end and the bottom end just isn't being addressed. It involves all of the eight elements of digital literacies I've identified in my work, but there isn't a simple magic wand to be waved here. Digital literacies are plural, they're context-dependent, and it's not like there's a one-size-fits-all approach where you can now get people across a line and call them 'digitally literate'. It's a way of being, and a constant up-skilling based on understanding, need, and empowerment.

Image by Crawford Ifland. This article is cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn