Category Archives: intellectuals

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Open Letter: UnivCafé Testimonial

Here’s a slightly edited version of a message I sent about University of the Streets Café. I realize that my comments about it may sound strange for people who haven’t participated in one of their conversations. And there may be people who don’t like it as much as I do. But it’s remarkable how favourable people are to the program, once they participate in it.

Having taught at eight academic institutions in the United States and Canada, I have frequently gone on record to say that Concordia is my favourite context for teaching and learning. By a long stretch.

Concordia’s “University of the Streets Café” program is among the things I like the most about my favourite university.

Over the past few years, I have been a vocal participant at a rather large number of “UnivCafé” events and have been the guest at one of them. Each of these two-hour conversations has provided me with more stimulation than any seminar or class meeting in which I participated, as a teacher or as a student.

In fact, I have frequently discussed UnivCafé with diverse people (including several members of the Concordia community). As is clear to anyone who knows me, UnivCafé has had a strong impact on my life, both professionally and personally.

Given my experience elsewhere, I have a clear impression of what makes Concordia unique.

  • Emphasis on community development.
  • Strong social awareness.
  • Thoughtful approach to sustainability.
  • Seamless English/French bilingualism.
  • Inclusive attitude, embracing cultural and social diversity.
  • Ease of building organic social networks through informal events.

In a way, UnivCafé encapsulates Concordia’s uniqueness.

Yet it goes further than that. Though it may sound hyperbolic to outsiders, I would not hesitate to say that UnivCafé captures some of the Greek academia (Ἀκαδημία) while integrating dimensions of contemporary life. More pithily: ”UnivCafé is a social media version of Plato‘s Academy”.

It seems to me that academia is in a transition period. For instance, the tenure system could be rethought. With social and technological developments challenging many academic models, universities are often searching for new models. I sincerely hope that the UnivCafé model is a sign of things to come.

I have discussed this on several occasions with students and colleagues, and this notion is gaining ground.

There is something remarkable about how appropriate the UnivCafé model is, in the current context. To my mind, UnivCafé does all of the following:

  • Encourages critical thinking.
  • Gives voice to people who are rarely heard.
  • Exposes participants to a diversity of perspectives.
  • Brings together people who rarely get a chance to interact.
  • Integrates practical and theoretical concerns.
  • Allays fears of public speaking.
  • Builds valuable connections through the local community.
  • Brings academics outside the Ivory Tower.

As may be obvious, I could talk about UnivCafé for hours and would be happy to do so in any context.

In the meantime, may this testimonial serve as a token of appreciation for all the things I have gained from UnivCafé.

iCloud Dreams

Got lots more to blog, including something about “received knowledge”. And a list of things I love about Google. (I’m also getting started on “logical punctuation”, as you may already be noticing…)

But, at the risk of attracting trolls and Apple haters, I thought I’d post some notes from a daydreaming session. In some ways, it’s easier to write than the rest. And it’s more “time-sensitive”, in that my thoughts will likely sound very silly, very soon.

But I don’t care.

So, yes, this post is about iCloud, which will be officially unveiled in a few hours. No, it doesn’t mean that I expect anything specific from iCloud or that I trust Apple to deliver something awesome.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, I’m no Apple fanboi. I use a number of Apple products and I find several of them to be close to the ideal in my workflow, but I don’t have any sort of deep involvement in “the Cult of Mac”, Apple Inc., AAPL, or even Apple-focused development. I use the tools and like them, but I don’t think Apple will save us any more than will Facebook, Dell, Google, Amazon, Twitter, HP, or Microsoft.

[Automattic, on the other hand;-) ]

So, back to iCloud…

According to many, “cloud computing” (whatever that means) is a domain in which Apple has been relatively weak. I tend to share that opinion, despite the fact that a number of tools that I use have to do with either “the cloud”, Apple, or both. What might give trolls and haters some ammo is that I do have a MobileMe subscription. But there’s a lot I dislike about it and the only features I really find valuable are “over-the-air” syncing (henceforth “OTA”) and “Find My iPhone”. And since I use GSync on my iPod touch, MobileMe’s OTA isn’t that incredibly important. Depending on what iCloud may be, my MobileMe renewal (which comes up in a few days) could be a very hard sell. I don’t regret having it as it did help me retrieve my iPad. But it’s rather expensive if it’s the only thing it does. (Then again, so is insurance of any kind, but I digress…)

So, I’m no MobileMe poweruser. Why would I care about iCloud?

In some ways, I don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t. Until very recently, though I saw rumours about Apple’s new “cloud services”, I was only vaguely intrigued about it. I did think that it might solve my MobileMe issue. But I treated these rumours with a lot of skepticism and a rather low level of interest.

Yet, today, iCloud has been giving me a drift-off moment. Like Android did, at some point.

It’s not that I have predictions to make about iCloud. I’m not even speculating, really. But it got me to think. And, I admit, I enjoy thinking.

Without further ado (about nothing), my fanciful thoughts stemming from a short daydreaming session about iCloud…

The main thing people seem to be expecting  (based on rumoured negotiations with music publishers) is a music streaming service similar to Music Beta by Google or a digital file storage service similar to Amazon Cloud Drive. Both of these are quite neat and I could see myself using something like this. But it’s not exactly what makes me dream. While iTunes integration might make Apple’s version of a music streaming service somewhat more useful than the others. Besides, rumours have it that, through agreements with the recording industry, iCloud might sync music without requiring long uploads. It’s quite possible that this only works with tracks purchased on iTunes, which would upset those whose expectations are high, but could already be useful to some.

Where I’m beginning to drift off, though, is when I start thinking about OTA for podcasts. It’s been high up on my wishlist, as a feature, and you might say that it’s a pet peeve with iOS devices for podcatching. Having to sync my iPod touch to my main desktop just to have my podcast list up-to-date is a major hassle. Sure, there are apps which sync podcasts OTA. Problem is, they can’t add podcasts to the native iOS media player, which is a dealbreaker in my case. (As absurd as it may sound to others, one reason this is a dealbreaker is that I now listen to everything at doublespeed. Hey, it’s my podcast library and I listen to it as I want, ok?)

So, OTA podcasts would constitute a significant enhancement to my experience. Nothing absolutely required and possibly not that significant for others, but it’d really help me in more ways than one could imagine.

Thing is, syncing my iPod touch isn’t just about podcasts, even though podcatching is my main motivation to sync. After all, I don’t listen to podcasts yet I still sync my iPad. So, what else? Well, backing up is the main other thing, and it might be one of the core reason for Apple’s implicit insistence on syncing. That’d be classic Apple. Data loss can be such a big problem that they’d “do what they can” to prevent users from losing data. Far from perfect, in my experience (I ended up having some problems when I lost my “iTunes Library” file). And quite annoying when it meant that the sync would take a very long time to finish at precisely the point when I’m trying to leave home. But a classic Apple move, even in the way Apple haters may mean it.

So OTA synchronization of the whole iOS device, and not just podcasts or music, would be a definite plus, in this perspective. If it does end up coming with iCloud, it’d provide support to the idea that the tethering of iOS devices to desktop computers is really about ensuring that users back up their devices…

…and stay up to date. Firmware updates aren’t that frequent, but they’re probably a major part of the equation for Apple.

But not so much for me. If OTA podcasts were available, I’d still sync my iOS devices on occasion, through whatever means necessary. In fact, were I to use an Android device, a backup app would be essential, to me. So still not much dreaming from the backup aspect of iCloud.

Although… Sync is much broader than preventing device-specific data loss and making sure your device has the latest firmware.

For one thing, it does encompass some of the aforementioned OTA functionalities in MobileMe. Useful, but still not dreamworthy.

We get a bit closer to a “dream come true” if we talk about Xmarks, a bookmark-sync service originally meant for Firefox.  Sure, it sounds incredibly prosaic. But OTA bookmarks would open up a wide range of possibilities. This is about a qualitative difference from going OTA. In the case of backups, it’s about avoiding an annoyance but, arguably, it’s not really about changing something major about our behaviour. (Then again, maybe it is, with people who don’t back their devices up.) Point is, with something as simple as bookmarks, OTA is “disruptive”. At least, it gets me to daydream. One reason is that:

…no matter how fundamental they have been for the Web, links and bookmarks have yet to find their full value.

Hmm… Ok, perhaps a bit hyperbolic… So let me rephrase…

There’s still a lot to be done with URLs and, as simple as they are, I love thinking about links. Maybe I’m just obsessed with URLs.

As it so happens, I have a full list of thoughts about “link processing” and I’ve already blogged about related topics (on more than one occasion, in different contexts, going back to relatively early blogposts). And I even think social science can help.

I mean, think about it! There’s so much you can do, with links! Much of it is obvious, but I’d argue, rarely discussed. For instance, it’s very clear that we can post links pretty much anywhere. Doing so, we’re sharing their “content”. (In a semiotic sense, links are indices. I wish we can move from the “semantic Web” to the “semiotic Web”. But that’s another issue.) Sharing a link is the basic act of the social Web. It’s so obvious and frequent that it seems not to require discussion”.

Another obvious thing about links: we can measure the number of times they’re followed. In 2011, more than thirty years after hypertext has been introduced as a stable concept, much of the Web’s finances still relies on “clickthroughs”. Seems important.

And there’s a lot of processing which can be done with URLs: shortening them, adding them to “to do” lists, checking them for validity, keeping them in link libraries, archiving their “content”, showing them as external or internal links, preventing them from “rotting away”, showing the wordcount or reading time of the item they “target”, display them as QR codes, abuse them, etc.

As you can notice, it’s easy to get me on a tangent simply thinking about URLs. What’s this have t’do with iCloud, you ask? Probably not much, in terms of the actual service which will be announced at Moscone. But I’ve been dreaming about iCloud as a way to integrate Diigo, Instapaper, Delicious, reddit, digg, Slashdot, StumbleUpon, Spurl, The NethernetXmarks

Hey, I told you I was dreaming! Something as simple as managing, processing, sharing, and archiving links in iCloud could lead to just about anything, in my imagination.

And speaking of Xmarks… It’s now owned by Lastpass, a company which focus on password management. IMHO, some Lastpass-like features could make their way in diverse products, including iCloud. Is this far-fetched? Possibly. But secure handling of passwords can be a major issue in both of Apple’s new operating systems (Mac OS X Lion and iOS5). From “keychains” to SSO, there’s a lot of work to be done which relates to password management, in my mind.

Which leads me to think about authentication in general and the rumours about “deep Twitter integration in iOS 5”. (Not directly related to iCloud, but who knows?) Again, something which can send me (and others) on drift-off moments. What if this integration suddenly made iOS devices more useful in terms of social networking services? Something to ponder, if one has a propensity for pondering.

At the same time, given the relative lack of activity on iTunes Ping, I wouldn’t bet on Twitter integration having that major an impact by itself. Not unlike Google, Apple has a hard time making a mark on the social Web. Now, if Twitter integration does connect to everything else Apple does, it could lead to interesting things. A full-fledged online identity? Access to contacts for not only messaging and photo sharing but for collaboration, group management, and media sharing? Not betting on any of this, but it could be fun. Again, not specific to iCloud, but quite related to “The Cloud”. If Twitter integration is deep enough, in iOS 5, it’d be possible to use iOS devices for “cloud computing”, getting further into the “post-PC era”.

An iCloud feature which is expected by several people, is something like an OTA version of the “iTunes file sharing” feature in iOS. Several apps (especially Apple’s own apps) use iTunes and a USB cable to share files. It was a welcome addition to iTunes 9.1 but it’s rather inconvenient. So many other apps rely on Dropbox for file sharing.

Which leads me to dream about iCloud as a replacement for Dropbox. Sounds extremely unlikely that it’ll have the full Dropbox feature set, especially if one thinks about the “Pro 50” and “Pro 100” plans on Dropbox. But I dream of the day when Apple’s iDisk will compete with Dropbox. Not that I’m convinced it ever will. But it’d make Apple’s devices all the more useful if it did.

Something similar, which isn’t frequently discussed directly, in connection with iCloud rumours, but which would rock: Mozy- or Carbonite-style backup, for Mac OS X machines. Sounds very unlikely that Apple will ever offer something like this but, as crazy as it may sound, the connection between Time Capsule and iCloud would be great if it went that far. From a user’s perspective, the similarities between Time Machine backup and “backing up in the cloud” (à la Mozy/Carbonite) are quite obvious. The advantages of both are clear. And while no hardware announcement is supposed to make its way to the WWDC 2011 keynote, I’d give the Time Capsule some consideration if it provided me with the equivalent of what I currently have with Mozy. Not to mention that Mozy has already sparked some drift-off moments, in me, before they announced their new plans. What if I could have a single service which combines features from Mozy, Time Machine, Dropbox, and YouSendIt?

I even think about the possibilities in terms of web hosting. As it stands, MobileMe does allow for some Web publishing through the iWeb application in its iLife suite. But iWeb has never been a major effort for Apple and it hasn’t been seen a significant update in quite a while. What if iCloud could become a true webhost just like, say… iWeb.com? (Semi-disclaimer: I won a free account with iWeb.com, last Fall, and I host some sites there. I also know some of the people who work there…)

Yet again, I don’t expect this to happen. It’s not speculation, on my part. It’s a daydream.

The reason this makes me dream is that I find all these things to be related and I wish they were integrated more seamlessly. Something about which Apple haters may not care much is the type of integration represented by iTunes. As clunky as iTunes may be, in some respects, it’s quite a success in terms of integrating a lot of different things. In fact, it probably overextended its reach a bit too much and we need to replace it. Apple needs to replace iTunes and we should also replace iTunes in our lives.

Like Gruber, I end up thinking about iCloud in relation to iTunes more than in relation to MobileMe. But I also dream about the ideal cloud service, which would not only sync and backup files between iOS devices, hundreds of millions of iTunes store accounts, and Macs, but replace several of the services for which I’m paying monthly fees.

Here’s to dreaming…

Other parts of this crazy, iCloud-infused daydream, in notes form:

Reply to Alex Gagnon’s Google Paradox

[Tried adding a comment directly on Alex Gagnon's Posterous blog, but it kept stalling. So I'll post this here, which may make for a different kind of interaction. Besides, I'd like to blog a bit more.]

The Google Paradox – Marc-Alexandre Gagnon.

We seem to be finding very different answers to rather similar questions. So I sincerely hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet and discuss these things in a local café.

But still, a few thoughts, in no particular order.

Let’s be clear on what we mean by “culture.” Sounds like there’s a tension, here, between the ways the concept signifies in: “cultural industry,” “Minister of culture,” “pop culture,” “our culture,” and “nature vs. culture.” As a cultural anthropologist, I tend to navigate more toward the latter contexts, but there are significant connections through these diverse conceptual frames.

Speaking of significance… It can be a useful concept, with some links to “relevance.” Especially if we think about Relevance Theory as defined by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Their theory is about communication and cognition, with some strange claims about semiotics. Significance can bridge the gap between their notion of relevance and what insight semiotics may provide.

Chances are, you’re not really singling out Google, right? Blekko and Bing are providing similar results for similar reasons. Google may be the target of most SEO, but current search engines share a fairly unified notion of “quality content.”

Speaking of quality… As mentioned on Twitter, we might think of quality as a social construct. Especially “now.” The modern era had a lot to do with tastemakers, which were given some “authority/influence/power” through a rather specific social process. Similar to what @ChrisBrogan and @Julien call “trust agents.” In sociology, we talk about “gatekeepers” in pretty much the same way. And Duchamp woke a few people up in showing the effects of museumization. We had similar things in music, though my courses in musical æsthetics paid relatively little attention to these.
The basic insight from most “posts” (postcolonialism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postnationalism, postindustrialism…) is that rigid structures may crumble. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, of course, but also the very idea of the Nation-State with “checkbox democracy” focused on the representation of predefined “interest groups.” Self-labeled arbiters of good taste, of course, but also the notion that “quality” is an immanent feature of the art object.

And speaking of art objects… People still talk about masterpieces, great works, and cathedrals. But we may also talk about the bazaar, “the eye of the beholder,” and “life as an art form.” Life is too short for everyone to be looking at the same old “artworks.” After all, “Life, sex, and art aren’t spectator sports.”

As for our logocentrism (“language media”), it’s difficult but possible to get beyond this ethnocentric bias. Part of this was prefigured in much 20th Century philosophy (from Russell to Davidson) and popular culture (Wings of Desire). But we can have a broader approach. In anthropology, we work on several things which are directly related to this, from linguistic anthropology and the ethnography of communication to cognitive anthropology and the anthropology of senses. We may live in a “visual” society but our obsession is with language. Which has a lot to do with the fact that the Internet was set in a Euro-American context.
But “our culture” isn’t a prison. We can adopt a broader worldview.

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It's one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it's completely fallacious, it's still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon's Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.

Anyhoo…

In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.

I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.