What Ever Happened to the Book?

For Ted Nelson

I: Centrifugal Force

We live in the age of networks.  Wherever we are, five billion of us are continuously and ubiquitously connected.  That’s everyone over the age of twelve who earns more than about two dollars a day.  The network has us all plugged into it.  Yet this is only the more recent, and more explicit network.  Networks are far older than this most modern incarnation; they are the foundation of how we think.  That’s true at the most concrete level: our nervous system is a vast neural network.  It’s also true at a more abstract level: our thinking is a network of connections and associations.  This is necessarily reflected in the way we write.

I became aware of this connectedness of our thoughts as I read Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines back in 1982.  Perhaps the seminal introduction to hypertext, Literary Machines opens with the basic assertion that all texts are hypertexts.  Like it or not, we implicitly reference other texts with every word we write.  It’s been like this since we learned to write – earlier, really, because we all crib from one another’s spoken thoughts.  It’s the secret to our success.  Nelson wanted to build a system that would make these implicit relationships explicit, exposing all the hidden references, making text-as-hypertext a self-evident truth.  He never got it.  But Nelson did influence a generation of hackersSir Tim Berners-Lee among them – and pushed them toward the implementation of hypertext.

As the universal hypertext system of HTTP and HTML conquered all, hypertext revealed qualities as a medium which had hitherto been unsuspected.  While the great strength of hypertext is its capability for non-linearity – you can depart from the text at any point – no one had reckoned on the force (really, a type of seduction) of those points of departure.  Each link presents an opportunity for exploration, and is, in a very palpable sense, similar to the ringing of a telephone.  Do we answer?  Do we click and follow?  A link is pregnant with meaning, and passing a link by necessarily incurs an opportunity cost.  The linear text is constantly weighed down with a secondary, ‘centrifugal’ force, trying to tear the reader away from the inertia of the text, and on into another space.  The more heavily linked a particular hypertext document is, the greater this pressure.

Consider two different documents that might be served up in a Web browser.  One of them is an article from the New York Times Magazine.  It is long – perhaps ten thousand words – and has, over all of its length, just a handful of links.  Many of these links point back to other New York Times articles.  This article stands alone.  It is a hyperdocument, but it has not embraced the capabilities of the medium.  It has not been seduced.  It is a spinster, of sorts, confident in its purity and haughty in its isolation.  This article is hardly alone.  Nearly all articles I could point to from any professional news source portray the same characteristics of separateness and resistance to connect with the medium they employ.  We all know why this is: there is a financial pressure to keep eyes within the website, because attention has been monetized.  Every link presents an escape route, and a potential loss of income.  Hence, links are kept to a minimum, the losses staunched.  Disappointingly, this has become a model for many other hyperdocuments, even where financial considerations do not conflict with the essential nature of the medium.  The tone has been set.

On the other hand, consider an average article in Wikipedia.  It could be short or long – though only a handful reach ten thousand words – but it will absolutely be sprinkled liberally with links.  Many of these links will point back into Wikipedia, allowing someone to learn the meaning of a term they’re unfamiliar with, or explore some tangential bit of knowledge, but there also will be plenty of links that face out, into the rest of the Web.  This is a hyperdocument which has embraced the nature of medium, which is not afraid of luring readers away under the pressure of linkage.  Wikipedia is a non-profit organization which does not accept advertising and does not monetize attention.  Without this competition of intentions, Wikipedia is itself an example of another variety of purity, the pure expression of the tension between the momentum of the text and centrifugal force of hypertext.

Although commercial hyperdocuments try to fence themselves off from the rest of the Web and the lure of its links, they are never totally immune from its persistent tug.  Just because you have landed somewhere that has a paucity of links doesn’t constrain your ability to move non-linearly.  If nothing else, the browser’s ‘Back’ button continually offers that opportunity, as do all of your bookmarks, the links that lately arrived in email from friends or family or colleagues, even an advertisement proffered by the site.  In its drive to monetize attention, the commercial site must contend with the centrifugal force of its own ads.  In order to be situated within a hypertext environment, a hyperdocument must accept the reality of centrifugal force, even as it tries, ever more cleverly, to resist it.  This is the fundamental tension of all hypertext, but here heightened and amplified because it is resisted and forbidden.  It is a source of rising tension, as the Web-beyond-the-borders becomes ever more comprehensive, meaningful and alluring, while the hyperdocument multiplies its attempts to ensnare, seduce, and retain.

This rising tension has had a consequential impact on the hyperdocument, and, more broadly, on an entire class of documents.  It is most obvious in the way we now absorb news.  Fifteen years ago, we spread out the newspaper for a leisurely read, moving from article to article, generally following the flow of the sections of the newspaper.  Today, we click in, read a bit, go back, click in again, read some more, go back, go somewhere else, click in, read a bit, open an email, click in, read a bit, click forward, and so on.  We allow ourselves to be picked up and carried along by the centrifugal force of the links; with no particular plan in mind – except perhaps to leave ourselves better informed – we flow with the current, floating down a channel which is shaped by the links we encounter along the way.  The newspaper is no longer a coherent experience; it is an assemblage of discrete articles, each of which has no relation to the greater whole.  Our behavior reflects this: most of us already gather our news from a selection of sources (NY Times, BBC, Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian UK in my case), or even from an aggregator such as Google News, which completely abstracts the article content from its newspaper ‘vehicle’.

The newspaper as we have known it has been shredded.  This is not the fault of Google or any other mechanical process, but rather is a natural if unforeseen consequence of the nature of hypertext.  We are the ones who feel the lure of the link; no machine can do that.  Newspapers made the brave decision to situate themselves as islands within a sea of hypertext.  Though they might believe themselves singular, they are not the only islands in the sea.  And we all have boats.  That was bad enough, but the islands themselves are dissolving, leaving nothing behind but metaphorical clots of dirt in murky water.

The lure of the link has a two-fold effect on our behavior.  With its centrifugal force, it is constantly pulling us away from wherever we are.  It also presents us with an opportunity cost.  When we load that 10,000-word essay from the New York Times Magazine into our browser window, we’re making a conscious decision to dedicate time and effort to digesting that article. That’s a big commitment.  If we’re lucky – if there are no emergencies or calls on the mobile or other interruptions – we’ll finish it.  Otherwise, it might stay open in a browser tab for days, silently pleading for completion or closure. Every time we come across something substantial, something lengthy and dense, we run an internal calculation: Do I have time for this?  Does my need and interest outweigh all of the other demands upon my attention?  Can I focus?

In most circumstances, we will decline the challenge.  Whatever it is, it is not salient enough, not alluring enough.  It is not so much that we fear commitment as we feel the pressing weight of our other commitments.  We have other places to spend our limited attention.  This calculation and decision has recently been codified into an acronym: “tl;dr”, for “too long; didn’t read”.  It may be weighty and important and meaningful, but hey, I’ve got to get caught up on my Twitter feed and my blogs.

The emergence of the ‘tl;dr’ phenomenon – which all of us practice without naming it – has led public intellectuals to decry the ever-shortening attention span.  Attention spans are not shortening: ten year-olds will still drop everything to read a nine-hundred page fantasy novel for eight days.   Instead, attention has entered an era of hypercompetitive development.  Twenty years ago only a few media clamored for our attention.  Now, everything from video games to chatroulette to real-time Twitter feeds to text messages demand our attention.  Absence from any one of them comes with a cost, and that burden weighs upon us, subtly but continuously, all figuring into the calculation we make when we decide to go all in or hold back.

The most obvious effect of this hypercompetitive development of attention is the shortening of the text.  Under the tyranny of ‘tl;dr’ three hundred words seems just about the right length: long enough to make a point, but not so long as to invoke any fear of commitment.  More and more, our diet of text comes in these ‘bite-sized’ chunks.  Again, public intellectuals have predicted that this will lead to a dumbing-down of culture, as we lose the depth in everything.  The truth is more complex.  Our diet will continue to consist of a mixture of short and long-form texts.  In truth, we do more reading today than ten years ago, precisely because so much information is being presented to us in short form.  It is digestible.  But it need not be vacuous.  Countless specialty blogs deliver highly-concentrated texts to audiences who need no introduction to the subject material.  They always reference their sources, so that if you want to dive in and read the lengthy source work, you are free to commit.  Here, the phenomenon of ‘tl;dr’ reveals its Achilles’ Heel:  shorter the text, the less invested you are.  You give way more easily to centrifugal force.  You are more likely to navigate away.

There is a cost incurred both for substance and the lack thereof.  Such are the dilemmas of hypertext.

II:  Schwarzschild Radius

It appears inarguable that 2010 is the Year of the Electronic Book.  The stars have finally aligned: there is a critical mass of usable, well-designed technology, broad acceptance (even anticipation) within the public, and an agreement among publishers that revenue models do exist. Amazon and its Kindle (and various software simulators for PCs and smartphones) have proven the existence of a market.  Apple’s recently-released iPad is quintessentially a vehicle for iBooks, its own bookstore-and-book-reader package.  Within a few years, tens of millions of both devices, their clones and close copies will be in the hands of readers throughout the world.  The electronic book is an inevitability.

At this point a question needs to be asked: what’s so electronic about an electronic book?  If I open the Stanza application on my iPhone, and begin reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am presented with something that looks utterly familiar.  Too familiar.  This is not an electronic book.  This is ‘publishing in light’.  I believe it essential that we discriminate between the two, because the same commercial forces which have driven links from online newspapers and magazines will strip the term ‘electronic book’ of all of its meaning.  An electronic book is not simply a one-for-one translation of a typeset text into UTF-8 characters.  It doesn’t even necessarily begin with that translation.  Instead, first consider the text qua text.  What is it?  Who is it speaking to?  What is it speaking about?

These questions are important – essential – if we want to avoid turning living typeset texts into dead texts published in light.  That act of murder would give us less than we had before, because the published in light texts essentially disavow the medium within which they are situated.  They are less useful than typeset texts, purposely stripped of their utility to be shoehorned into a new medium.  This serves the economic purposes of publishers – interested in maximizing revenue while minimizing costs – but does nothing for the reader.  Nor does it make the electronic book an intrinsically alluring object.  That’s an interesting point to consider, because hypertext is intrinsically alluring.  The reason for the phenomenal, all-encompassing growth of the Web from 1994 through 2000 was because it seduced everyone who has any relationship to the text.  If an electronic book does not offer a new relationship to the text, then what precisely is the point?  Portability?  Ubiquity?  These are nice features, to be sure, but they are not, in themselves, overwhelmingly alluring.  This is the visible difference between a book that has been printed in light and an electronic book: the electronic book offers a qualitatively different experience of the text, one which is impossibly alluring.  At its most obvious level, it is the difference between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Publishers will resist the allure of the electronic book, seeing no reason to change what they do simply to satisfy the demands of a new medium.  But then, we know that monks did not alter the practices within the scriptorium until printed texts had become ubiquitous throughout Europe.  Today’s publishers face a similar obsolescence; unless they adapt their publishing techniques appropriately, they will rapidly be replaced by publishers who choose to embrace the electronic book as a medium,.  For the next five years we will exist in an interregnum, as books published in light make way for true electronic books.

What does the electronic book look like?  Does it differ at all from the hyperdocuments we are familiar with today?  In fifteen years of design experimentation, we’ve learned a lot of ways to present, abstract and play with text.  All of these are immediately applicable to the electronic book.  The electronic book should represent the best of 2010 has to offer and move forward from that point into regions unexplored.  The printed volume took nearly fifty years to evolve into its familiar hand-sized editions.  Before that, the form of the manuscript volume – chained to a desk or placed upon an altar – dictated the size of the book.  We shouldn’t try to constrain our idea of what an electronic book can be based upon what the book has been.  Over the next few years, our innovations will surprise us.  We won’t really know what the electronic book looks like until we’ve had plenty of time to play with them.

The electronic book will not be immune from the centrifugal force which is inherent to the medium.  Every link, every opportunity to depart from the linear inertia of the text, presents the same tension as within any other hyperdocument.  Yet we come to books with a sense of commitment.  We want to finish them.  But what, exactly do we want to finish?  The electronic book must necessarily reveal the interconnectedness of all ideas, of all writings – just as the Web does.  So does an electronic book have a beginning and an end?  Or is it simply a densely clustered set of texts with a well-defined path traversing them?  From the vantage point of 2010 this may seem like a faintly ridiculous question.  I doubt that will be the case in 2020, when perhaps half of our new books are electronic books.  The more that the electronic book yields itself to the medium which constitutes it, the more useful it becomes – and the less like a book.  There is no way that the electronic book can remain apart, indifferent and pure.  It will become a hybrid, fluid thing, without clear beginnings or endings, but rather with a concentration of significance and meaning that rises and falls depending on the needs and intent of the reader.  More of a gradient than a boundary.

It remains unclear how any such construction can constitute an economically successful entity.  Ted Nelson’s “Project Xanadu” anticipated this chaos thirty-five years ago, and provided a solution: ‘transclusion’, which allows hyperdocuments to be referenced and enclosed within other hyperdocuments, ensuring the proper preservation of copyright throughout the hypertext universe.  The Web provides no such mechanism, and although it is possible that one could be hacked into our current models, it seems very unlikely that this will happen.  This is the intuitive fear of the commercial publishers: they see their market dissolving as the sharp edges disappear.  Hence, they tightly grasp their publications and copyrights, publishing in light because it at least presents no slippery slope into financial catastrophe.

We come now to a line which we need to cross very carefully and very consciously, the ‘Schwarzschild Radius’ of electronic books.  (For those not familiar with astrophysics, the Schwarzschild Radius is the boundary to a black hole.  Once you’re on the wrong side you’re doomed to fall all the way in.)  On one side – our side – things look much as they do today.  Books are published in light, the economic model is preserved, and readers enjoy a digital experience which is a facsimile of the physical.  On the other side, electronic books rapidly become almost completely unrecognizable.  It’s not just the financial model which disintegrates.  As everything becomes more densely electrified, more subject to the centrifugal force of the medium, and as we become more familiar with the medium itself, everything begins to deform.  The text, linear for tens or hundreds of thousands of words, fragments into convenient chunks, the shortest of which looks more like a tweet than a paragraph, the longest of which only occasionally runs for more than a thousand words.  Each of these fragments points directly at its antecedent and descendant, or rather at its antecedents and descendants, because it is quite likely that there is more than one of each, simply because there can be more than one of each.  The primacy of the single narrative can not withstand the centrifugal force of the medium, any more than the newspaper or the magazine could.  Texts will present themselves as intense multiplicity, something that is neither a branching narrative nor a straight line, but which possesses elements of both.  This will completely confound our expectations of linearity in the text.

We are today quite used to discontinuous leaps in our texts, though we have not mastered how to maintain our place as we branch ever outward, a fault more of our nervous systems than our browsers.  We have a finite ability to track and backtrack; even with the support of the infinitely patient and infinitely impressionable computer, we lose our way, become distracted, or simply move on.  This is the greatest threat to the book, that it simply expands beyond our ability to focus upon it.  Our consciousness can entertain a universe of thought, but it can not entertain the entire universe at once.  Yet our electronic books, as they thread together and merge within the greater sea of hyperdocuments, will become one with the universe of human thought, eventually becoming inseparable from it.  With no beginning and no ending, just a series of ‘and-and-and’, as the various nodes, strung together by need or desire, assemble upon demand, the entire notion of a book as something discrete, and for that reason, significant, is abandoned, replaced by a unity, a nirvana of the text, where nothing is really separate from anything else.

What ever happened to the book?  It exploded in a paroxysm of joy, dissolved into union with every other human thought, and disappeared forever.  This is not an ending, any more than birth is an ending.  But it is a transition, at least as profound and comprehensive as the invention of moveable type.  It’s our great good luck to live in the midst of this transition, astride the dilemmas of hypertext and the contradictions of the electronic book.  Transitions are chaotic, but they are also fecund.  The seeds of the new grow in the humus of the old.  (And if it all seems sudden and sinister, I’ll simply note that Nietzsche said that new era nearly always looks demonic to the age it obsolesces.)

III:  Finnegans Wiki

So what of Aristotle?  What does this mean for the narrative?  It is easy to conceive of a world where non-fiction texts simply dissolve into the universal sea of texts.  But what about stories?  From time out of mind we have listened to stories told by the campfire.  The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowolf held listeners spellbound as the storyteller wove the tale.  For hours at a time we maintained our attention and focus as the stories that told us who we are and our place in the world traveled down the generations.

Will we lose all of this?  Can narratives stand up against the centrifugal forces of hypertext?  Authors and publishers both seem assured that whatever happens to non-fiction texts, the literary text will remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form.  The lure of the literary text is that it takes you on a singular journey, from beginning to end, within the universe of the author’s mind.  There are no distractions, no interruptions, unless the author has expressly put them there in order to add tension to the plot.  A well-written literary text – and even a poorly-written but well-plotted ‘page-turner’ – has the capacity to hold the reader tight within the momentum of linearity. Something is a ‘page-turner’ precisely because its forward momentum effectively blocks the centrifugal force.  We occasionally stay up all night reading a book that we ‘couldn’t put down’, precisely because of this momentum.  It is easy to imagine that every literary text which doesn’t meet this higher standard of seduction will simply fail as an electronic book, unable to counter the overwhelming lure of the medium.

This is something we never encountered with printed books: until the mid-20th century, the only competition for printed books was other printed books.  Now the entire Web – already quite alluring and only growing more so – offers itself up in competition for attention, along with television and films and podcasts and Facebook and Twitter and everything else that has so suddenly become a regular feature of our media diet.  How can any text hope to stand against that?

And yet, some do.  Children unplugged to read each of the increasingly-lengthy Harry Potter novels, as teenagers did for the Twilight series.  Adults regularly buy the latest novel by Dan Brown in numbers that boggle the imagination.  None of this is high literature, but it is literature capable of resisting all our alluring distractions.  This is one path that the book will follow, one way it will stay true to Aristotle and the requirements of the narrative arc.  We will not lose our stories, but it may be that, like blockbuster films, they will become more self-consciously hollow, manipulative, and broad.  That is one direction, a direction literary publishers will pursue, because that’s where the money lies.

There are two other paths open for literature, nearly diametrically opposed.  The first was taken by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.  Although hugely popular, the three-book series has never been described as a ‘page-turner’, being too digressive and leisurely, yet, for all that, entirely captivating.  Tolkien imagined a new universe – or rather, retrieved one from the fragments of Northern European mythology – and placed his readers squarely within it.  And although readers do finish the book, in a very real sense they do not leave that universe.  The fantasy genre, which Tolkien single-handedly invented with The Lord of the Rings, sells tens of millions of books every year, and the universe of Middle-earth, the archetypal fantasy world, has become the playground for millions who want to explore their own imaginations.  Tolkien’s magnum opus lends itself to hypertext; it is one of the few literary works to come complete with a set of appendices to deepen the experience of the universe of the books.  Online, the fans of Middle-earth have created seemingly endless resources to explore, explain, and maintain the fantasy.  Middle-earth launches off the page, driven by its own centrifugal force, its own drive to unpack itself into a much broader space, both within the reader’s mind and online, in the collective space of all of the work’s readers.  This is another direction for the book.  While every author will not be a Tolkien, a few authors will work hard to create a universe so potent and broad that readers will be tempted to inhabit it.  (Some argue that this is the secret of JK Rowling’s success.)

Finally, there is another path open for the literary text, one which refuses to ignore the medium that constitutes it, which embraces all of the ambiguity and multiplicity and liminality of hypertext.  There have been numerous attempts at ‘hypertext fiction’; nearly all of them have been unreadable failures.  But there is one text which stands apart, both because it anticipated our current predicament, and because it chose to embrace its contradictions and dilemmas.  The book was written and published before the digital computer had been invented, yet even features an innovation which is reminiscent of hypertext.  That work is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and it was Joyce’s deliberate effort to make each word choice a layered exploration of meaning that gives the text such power.  It should be gibberish, but anyone who has read Finnegans Wake knows it is precisely the opposite.  The text is overloaded with meaning, so much so that the mind can’t take it all in.  Hypertext has been a help; there are a few wikis which attempt to make linkages between the text and its various derived meanings (the maunderings of four generations of graduate students and Joycephiles), and it may even be that – in another twenty years or so – the wikis will begin to encompass much of what Joyce meant.  But there is another possibility.  In so fundamentally overloading the text, implicitly creating a link from every single word to something else, Joyce wanted to point to where we were headed.  In this, Finnegans Wake could be seen as a type of science fiction, not a dystopian critique like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor the transhumanist apotheosis of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (both near-contemporary works) but rather a text that pointed the way to what all texts would become, performance by example.  As texts become electronic, as they melt and dissolve and  link together densely, meaning multiplies exponentially.  Every sentence, and every word in every sentence, can send you flying in almost any direction.  The tension within this text (there will be only one text) will make reading an exciting, exhilarating, dizzying experience – as it is for those who dedicate themselves to Finnegans Wake.

It has been said that all of human culture could be reconstituted from Finnegans Wake.  As our texts become one, as they become one hyperconnected mass of human expression, that new thing will become synonymous with culture.  Everything will be there, all strung together.  And that’s what happened to the book.

Digital Citizenship LIVE

Keynote for the Digital Fair of the Australian College of Educators, Geelong Grammar School, 16 April 2009. The full text of the talk is here.

Digital Citizenship

Introduction: Out of Control

A spectre is haunting the classroom, the spectre of change. Nearly a century of institutional forms, initiated at the height of the Industrial Era, will change irrevocably over the next decade. The change is already well underway, but this change is not being led by teachers, administrators, parents or politicians. Coming from the ground up, the true agents of change are the students within the educational system. Within just the last five years, both power and control have swung so quickly and so completely in their favor that it’s all any of us can do to keep up. We live in an interregnum, between the shift in power and its full actualization: These wacky kids don’t yet realize how powerful they are.

This power shift does not have a single cause, nor could it be thwarted through any single change, to set the clock back to a more stable time. Instead, we are all participating in a broadly-based cultural transformation. The forces unleashed can not simply be dammed up; thus far they have swept aside every attempt to contain them. While some may be content to sit on the sidelines and wait until this cultural reorganization plays itself out, as educators you have no such luxury. Everything hits you first, and with full force. You are embedded within this change, as much so as this generation of students.

This paper outlines the basic features of this new world we are hurtling towards, pointing out the obvious rocks and shoals that we must avoid being thrown up against, collisions which could dash us to bits. It is a world where even the illusion of control has been torn away from us. A world wherein the first thing we need to recognize that what is called for in the classroom is a strategic détente, a détente based on mutual interest and respect. Without those two core qualities we have nothing, and chaos will drown all our hopes for worthwhile outcomes. These outcomes are not hard to achieve; one might say that any classroom which lacks mutual respect and interest is inevitably doomed to failure, no matter what the tenor of the times. But just now, in this time, it happens altogether more quickly.

Hence I come to the title of this talk, “Digital Citizenship”. We have given our children the Bomb, and they can – if they so choose – use it to wipe out life as we know it. Right now we sit uneasily in an era of mutually-assured destruction, all the more dangerous because these kids don’t now how fully empowered they are. They could pull the pin by accident. For this reason we must understand them, study them intently, like anthropologists doing field research with an undiscovered tribe. They are not the same as us. Unwittingly, we have changed the rules of the world for them. When the Superpowers stared each other down during the Cold War, each was comforted by the fact that each knew the other had essentially the same hopes and concerns underneath the patina of Capitalism or Communism. This time around, in this Cold War, we stare into eyes so alien they could be another form of life entirely. And this, I must repeat, is entirely our own doing. We have created the cultural preconditions for this Balance of Terror. It is up to us to create an environment that fosters respect, trust, and a new balance of powers. To do that first we must examine the nature of the tremendous changes which have fundamentally altered the way children think.

I: Primary Influences

I am a constructivist. Constructivism states (in terms that now seem fairly obvious) that children learn the rules of the world from their repeated interactions within in. Children build schema, which are then put to the test through experiment; if these experiments succeed, those schema are incorporated into ever-larger schema, but if they fail, it’s back to the drawing board to create new schema. This all seems straightforward enough – even though Einstein pronounced it, “An idea so simple only a genius could have thought of it.” That genius, Jean Piaget, remains an overarching influence across the entire field of childhood development.

At the end of the last decade I became intensely aware that the rapid technological transformations of the past generation must necessarily impact upon the world views of children. At just the time my ideas were gestating, I was privileged to attend a presentation given by Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and perhaps the most subtle thinker in the area of children and technology. Turkle talked about her current research, which involved a recently-released and fantastically popular children’s toy, the Furby.

For those of you who may have missed the craze, the Furby is an animatronic creature which has expressive eyes, touch sensors, and a modest capability with language. When first powered up, the Furby speaks ‘Furbish’, an artificial language which the child can decode by looking up words in a dictionary booklet included in the package. As the child interacts with the toy, the Furby’s language slowly adopts more and more English prhases. All of this is interesting enough, but more interesting, by far, is that the Furby has needs. Furby must be fed and played with. Furby must rest and sleep after a session of play. All of this gives the Furby some attributes normally associated with living things, and this gave Turkle an idea.

Constructivists had already determined that between ages four and six children learn to differentiate between animate objects, such as a pet dog, and inanimate objects, such as a doll. Since Furby showed qualities which placed it into both ontological categories, Turkle wondered whether children would class it as animate or inanimate. What she discovered during her interviews with these children astounded her. When the question was put to them of whether the Furby was animate or inanimate, the children said, “Neither.” The children intuited that the Furby resided in a new ontological class of objects, between the animate and inanimate. It’s exactly this ontological in-between-ness of Furby which causes some adults to find them “creepy”. We don’t have a convenient slot to place them into our own world views, and therefore reject them as alien. But Furby was completely natural to these children. Even the invention of a new ontological class of being-ness didn’t strain their understanding. It was, to them, simply the way the world works.

Writ large, the Furby tells the story of our entire civilization. We make much of the difference between “digital immigrants”, such as ourselves, and “digital natives”, such as these children. These kids are entirely comfortable within the digital world, having never known anything else. We casually assume that this difference is merely a quantitative facility. In fact, the difference is almost entirely qualitative. The schema upon which their world-views are based, the literal ‘rules of their world’, are completely different. Furby has an interiority hitherto only ascribed to living things, and while it may not make the full measure of a living thing, it is nevertheless somewhere on a spectrum that simply did not exist a generation ago. It is a magical object, sprinkled with the pixie dust of interactivity, come partially to life, and closer to a real-world Pinocchio than we adults would care to acknowledge.

If Furby were the only example of this transformation of the material world, we would be able to easily cope with the changes in the way children think. It was, instead, part of a leading edge of a breadth of transformation. For example, when I was growing up, LEGO bricks were simple, inanimate objects which could be assembled in an infinite arrangement of forms. Today, LEGO Mindstorms allow children to create programmable forms, using wheels and gears and belts and motors and sensors. LEGO is no longer passive, but active and capable of interacting with the child. It, too, has acquired an interiority which teaches children that at some essential level the entire material world is poised at the threshold of a transformation into the active. A child playing with LEGO Mindstorms will never see the material world as wholly inanimate; they will see it as a playground requiring little more than a few simple mechanical additions, plus a sprinkling of code, to bring it to life. Furby adds interiority to the inanimate world, but LEGO Mindstorms empowers the child with the ability to add this interiority themselves.

The most significant of these transformational innovations is one of the most recent. In 2004, Google purchased Keyhole, Inc., a company that specialized in geospatial data visualization tools. A year later Google released the first version of Google Earth, a tool which provides a desktop environment wherein the entire Earth’s surface can be browsed, at varying levels of resolution, from high Earth orbit, down to the level of storefronts, anywhere throughout the world. This tool, both free and flexible, has fomented a revolution in the teaching of geography, history and political science. No longer constrained to the archaic Mercator Projection atlas on the wall, or the static globe-as-a-ball perched on one corner of teacher’s desk, Google Earth presents Earth-as-a-snapshot.

We must step back and ask ourselves the qualitative lesson, the constructivist message of Google Earth. Certainly it removes the problem of scale; the child can see the world from any point of view, even multiple points of view simultaneously. But it also teaches them that ‘to observe is to understand’. A child can view the ever-expanding drying of southern Australia along with a data showing the rise in temperature over the past decade, all laid out across the continent. The Earth becomes a chalkboard, a spreadsheet, a presentation medium, where the thorny problems of global civilization and its discontents can be explored out in exquisite detail. In this sense, no problem, no matter how vast, no matter how global, will be seen as being beyond the reach of these children. They’ll learn this – not because of what teacher says, or what homework assignments they complete – through interaction with the technology itself.

The generation of children raised on Google Earth will graduate from secondary schools in 2017, just at the time the Government plans to complete its rollout of the National Broadband Network. I reckon these two tools will go hand-in-hand: broadband connects the home to the world, while Google Earth brings the world into the home. Australians, particularly beset by the problems of global warming, climate, and environmental management, need the best tools and the best minds to solve the problems which already beset us. Fortunately it looks as though we are training a generation for leadership, using the tools already at hand.

The existence of Google Earth as an interactive object changes the child’s relationship to the planet. A simulation of Earth is a profoundly new thing, and naturally is generating new ontological categories. Yet again, and completely by accident, we have profoundly altered the world view of this generation of children and young adults. We are doing this to ourselves: our industries turn out products and toys and games which apply the latest technological developments in a dazzling variety of ways. We give these objects to our children, more or less blindly unaware of how this will affect their development. Then we wonder how these aliens arrived in our midst, these ‘digital natives’ with their curious ways. Ladies and gentlemen, we need to admit that we have done this to ourselves. We and our technological-materialist culture have fostered an environment of such tremendous novelty and variety that we have changed the equations of childhood.

Yet these technologies are only the tip of the iceberg. Each are the technologies of childhood, of a world of objects, where the relationship is between child and object. This is not the world of adults, where the relations between objects are thoroughly confused by the relationships between adults. In fact, it can be said that for as much as adults are obsessed with material possessions, we are only obsessed with them because of our relationships to other adults. The corner we turn between childhood and young adulthood is indicative of a change in the way we think, in the objects of attention, and in the technologies which facilitate and amplify that attention. These technologies have also suddenly and profoundly changed, and, again, we are almost completely unaware of what that has done to those wacky kids.

II: Share This Thought!

Australia now has more mobile phone subscribers than people. We have reached 104% subscription levels, simply because some of us own and use more than one handset. This phenomenon has been repeated globally; there are something like four billion mobile phone subscribers throughout the world, representing approximately three point six billion customers. That’s well over half the population of planet Earth. Given that there are only about a billion people in the ‘advanced’ economies in the developed world – almost all of whom now use mobiles – two and a half billion of the relatively ‘poor’ also have mobiles. How could this be? Shouldn’t these people be spending money on food, housing, and education for their children?

As it turns out (and there are numerous examples to support this) a mobile handset is probably the most important tool someone can employ to improve their economic well-being. A farmer can call ahead to markets to find out which is paying the best price for his crop; the same goes for fishermen. Tradesmen can close deals without the hassle and lost time involved in travel; craftswomen can coordinate their creative resources with a few text messages. Each of these examples can be found in any Bangladeshi city or Africa village. In the developed world, the mobile was nice but non-essential: no one is late anymore, just delayed, because we can always phone ahead. In the parts of the world which never had wired communications, the leap into the network has been explosively potent.

The mobile is a social accelerant; it does for our innate social capabilities what the steam shovel did for our mechanical capabilities two hundred years ago. The mobile extends our social reach, and deepens our social connectivity. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the lives of those wacky kids. At the beginning of this decade, researcher Mitzuko Ito took a look at the mobile phone in the lives of Japanese teenagers. Ito published her research in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, presenting a surprising result: these teenagers were sending and receiving a hundred text messages a day among a close-knit group of friends (generally four or five others), starting when they first arose in the morning, and going on until they fell asleep at night. This constant, gentle connectivity – which Ito named ‘co-presence’ – often consisted of little of substance, just reminders of connection.

At the time many of Ito’s readers dismissed this phenomenon as something to be found among those ‘wacky Japanese’, with their technophilic bent. A decade later this co-presence is the standard behavior for all teenagers everywhere in the developed world. An Australian teenager thinks nothing of sending and receiving a hundred text messages a day, within their own close group of friends. A parent who might dare to look at the message log on a teenager’s phone would see very little of significance and wonder why these messages needed to be sent at all. But the content doesn’t matter: connection is the significant factor.

We now know that the teenage years are when the brain ‘boots’ into its full social awareness, when children leave childhood behind to become fully participating members within the richness of human society. This process has always been painful and awkward, but just now, with the addition of the social accelerant and amplifier of the mobile, it has become almost impossibly significant. The co-present social network can help cushion the blow of rejection, or it can impel the teenager to greater acts of folly. Both sides of the technology-as-amplifier are ever-present. We have seen bullying by mobile and over YouTube or Facebook; we know how quickly the technology can overrun any of the natural instincts which might prevent us from causing damage far beyond our intention – keep this in mind, because we’ll come back to it when we discuss digital citizenship in detail.

There is another side to sociability, both far removed from this bullying behavior and intimately related to it – the desire to share. The sharing of information is an innate human behavior: since we learned to speak we’ve been talking to each other, warning each other of dangers, informing each other of opportunities, positing possibilities, and just generally reassuring each other with the sound of our voices. We’ve now extended that four-billion-fold, so that half of humanity is directly connected, one to another.

We know we say little to nothing with those we know well, though we may say it continuously. What do we say to those we know not at all? In this case we share not words but the artifacts of culture. We share a song, or a video clip, or a link, or a photograph. Each of these are just as important as words spoken, but each of these places us at a comfortable distance within the intimate act of sharing. 21st-century culture looks like a gigantic act of sharing. We share music, movies and television programmes, driving the creative industries to distraction – particularly with the younger generation, who see no need to pay for any cultural product. We share information and knowledge, creating a wealth of blogs, and resources such as Wikipedia, the universal repository of factual information about the world as it is. We share the minutiae of our lives in micro-blogging services such as Twitter, and find that, being so well connected, we can also harvest the knowledge of our networks to become ever-better informed, and ever more effective individuals. We can translate that effectiveness into action, and become potent forces for change.

Everything we do, both within and outside the classroom, must be seen through this prism of sharing. Teenagers log onto video chat services such as Skype, and do their homework together, at a distance, sharing and comparing their results. Parents offer up their kindergartener’s presentations to other parents through Twitter – and those parents respond to the offer. All of this both amplifies and undermines the classroom. The classroom has not dealt with the phenomenal transformation in the connectivity of the broader culture, and is in danger of becoming obsolesced by it.

Yet if the classroom were to wholeheartedly to embrace connectivity, what would become of it? Would it simply dissolve into a chaotic sea, or is it strong enough to chart its own course in this new world? This same question confronts every institution, of every size. It affects the classroom first simply because the networked and co-present polity of hyperconnected teenagers has reached it first. It is the first institution that must transform because the young adults who are its reason for being are the agents of that transformation. There’s no way around it, no way to set the clock back to a simpler time, unless, Amish-like, we were simply to dispose of all the gadgets which we have adopted as essential elements in our lifestyle.

This, then, is why these children hold the future of the classroom-as-institution in their hands, this is why the power-shift has been so sudden and so complete. This is why digital citizenship isn’t simply an academic interest, but a clear and present problem which must be addressed, broadly and immediately, throughout our entire educational system. We already live in a time of disconnect, where the classroom has stopped reflecting the world outside its walls. The classroom is born of an industrial mode of thinking, where hierarchy and reproducibility were the order of the day. The world outside those walls is networked and highly heterogeneous. And where the classroom touches the world outside, sparks fly; the classroom can’t handle the currents generated by the culture of connectivity and sharing. This can not go on.

When discussing digital citizenship, we must first look to ourselves. This is more than a question of learning the language and tools of the digital era, we must take the life-skills we have already gained outside the classroom and bring them within. But beyond this, we must relentlessly apply network logic to the work of our own lives. If that work is as educators, so be it. We must accept the reality of the 21st century, that, more than anything else, this is the networked era, and that this network has gifted us with new capabilities even as it presents us with new dangers. Both gifts and dangers are issues of potency; the network has made us incredibly powerful. The network is smarter, faster and more agile than the hierarchy; when the two collide – as they’re bound to, with increasing frequency – the network always wins. A text message can unleash revolution, or land a teenager in jail on charges of peddling child pornography, or spark a riot on a Sydney beach; Wikipedia can drive Britannica, a quarter millennium-old reference text out of business; a outsider candidate can get himself elected president of the United States because his team masters the logic of the network. In truth, we already live in the age of digital citizenship, but so many of us don’t know the rules, and hence, are poor citizens.

Now that we’ve explored the dimensions of the transition in the understanding of the younger generation, and the desynchronization of our own practice within the world as it exists, we can finally tackle the issue of digital citizenship. Children and young adults who have grown up in this brave new world, who have already created new ontological categories to frame it in their understanding, won’t have time or attention for preaching and screeching from the pulpit in the classroom, or the ‘bully pulpits’ of the media. In some ways, their understanding already surpasses ours, but their apprehension of consequential behavior does not. It is entirely up to us to bridge this gap in their understanding, but I do not to imply that educators can handle this task alone. All of the adult forces of the culture must be involved: parents, caretakers, educators, administrators, mentors, authority and institutional figures of all kinds. We must all be pulling in the same direction, lest the threads we are trying to weave together unravel.

III: 20/60 Foresight

While on a lecture tour last year, a Queensland teacher said something quite profound to me. “Giving a year 7 student a laptop is the equivalent of giving them a loaded gun.” Just as we wouldn’t think of giving this child a gun without extensive safety instruction, we can’t even think consider giving this child a computer – and access to the network – without extensive training in digital citizenship. But the laptop is only one device; any networked device has the potential for the same pitfalls.

Long before Sherry Turkle explored Furby’s effect on the world-view of children, she examined how children interact with computers. In her first survey, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, she applied Lacanian psychoanalysis and constructivism to build a model of how children interacted with computers. In the earliest days of the personal computer revolution, these machines were not connected to any networks, but were instead laboratories where the child could explore themselves, creating a ‘mirror’ of their own understanding.

Now that almost every computer is fully connected to the billion-plus regular users of the Internet, the mirror no longer reflects the self, but the collective yet highly heterogeneous tastes and behaviors of mankind. The opportunity for quiet self-exploration drowns amidst the clamor from a very vital human world. In the space between the singular and the collective, we must provide an opportunity for children to grow into a sense of themselves, their capabilities, and their responsibilities. This liminal moment is the space for an education in digital citizenship. It may be the only space available for such an education, before the lure of the network sets behavioral patterns in place.

Children must be raised to have a healthy respect for the network from their earliest awareness of it. The network access of young children is generally closely supervised, but, as they turn the corner into tweenage and secondary education, we need to provide another level of support, which fully briefs these rapidly maturing children on the dangers, pitfalls, opportunities and strengths of network culture. They already know how to do things, but they do not have the wisdom to decide when it appropriate to do them, and when it is appropriate to refrain. That wisdom is the core of what must be passed along. But wisdom is hard to transmit in words; it must flow from actions and lessons learned. Is it possible to develop a lesson plan which imparts the lessons of digital citizenship? Can we teach these children to tame their new powers?

Before a child is given their own mobile – something that happens around age 12 here in Australia, though that is slowly dropping – they must learn the right way to use it. Not the perfunctory ‘this is not a toy’ talk they might receive from a parent, but a more subtle and profound exploration of what it means to be directly connected to half of humanity, and how, should that connectivity go awry, it could seriously affect someone’s life – possibly even their own. Yes, the younger generation has different values where the privacy of personal information is concerned, but even they have limits they want to respect, and circles of intimacy they want to defend. Showing them how to reinforce their privacy with technology is a good place to start in any discussion of digital citizenship.

Similarly, before a child is given a computer – either at home or in school – it must be accompanied by instruction in the power of the network. A child may have a natural facility with the network without having any sense of the power of the network as an amplifier of capability. It’s that disconnect which digital citizenship must bridge.

It’s not my role to be prescriptive. I’m not going to tell you to do this or that particular thing, or outline a five-step plan to ensure that the next generation avoid ruining their lives as they come online. This is a collective problem which calls for a collective solution. Fortunately, we live in an era of collective technology. It is possible for all of us to come together and collaborate on solutions to this problem. Digital citizenship is a issue which has global reach; the UK and the US are both confronting similar issues, and both, like Australia, fail to deal with them comprehensively. Perhaps the Australian College of Educators can act as a spearhead on this issue, working in concert with other national bodies to develop a program and curriculum in digital citizenship. It would be a project worthy of your next fifty years.

In closing, let’s cast our eyes forward fifty years, to 2060, when your organization will be celebrating its hundredth anniversary. We can only imagine the technological advances of the next fifty years in the fuzziest of terms. You need only cast yourselves back fifty years to understand why. Back then, a computer as powerful as my laptop wouldn’t have filled a single building – or even a single city block. It very likely would have filled a small city, requiring its own power plant. If we have come so far in fifty years, judging where we’ll be in fifty years time is beyond the capabilities of even the most able futurist. We can only say that computers will become pervasive and nearly invisibly woven through the fabric of human culture.

Let us instead focus on how we will use technology in fifty years’ time. We can already see the shape of the future in one outstanding example – a website known as RateMyProfessors.com. Here, in a database of nine million reviews of one million teachers, lecturers and professors, students can learn which instructors bore, which grade easily, which excite the mind, and so forth. This simple site – which grew out of the power of sharing – has radically changed the balance of power on university campuses throughout the US and the UK. Students can learn from others’ mistakes or triumphs, and can repeat them. Universities, which might try to corral students into lectures with instructors who might not be exemplars of their profession, find themselves unable to fill those courses. Worse yet, bidding wars have broken out between universities seeking to fill their ranks with the instructors who receive the highest rankings.

Alongside the rise of RateMyProfessors.com, there has been an exponential increase in the amount of lecture material you can find online, whether on YouTube, or iTunes University, or any number of dedicated websites. Those lectures also have ratings, so it is already possible for a student to get to the best and most popular lectures on any subject, be it calculus or Mandarin or the medieval history of Europe.

Both of these trends are accelerating because both are backed by the power of sharing, the engine driving all of this. As we move further into the future, we’ll see the students gradually take control of the scheduling functions of the university (and probably in a large number of secondary school classes). These students will pair lecturers with courses using software to coordinate both. More and more, the educational institution will be reduced to a layer of software sitting between the student, the mentor-instructor and the courseware. As the university dissolves in the universal solvent of the network, the capacity to use the network for education increases geometrically; education will be available everywhere the network reaches. It already reaches half of humanity; in a few years it will cover three-quarters of the population of the planet. Certainly by 2060 network access will be thought of as a human right, much like food and clean water.

In 2060, Australian College of Educators may be more of an ‘Invisible College’ than anything based in rude physicality. Educators will continue to collaborate, but without much of the physical infrastructure we currently associate with educational institutions. Classrooms will self-organize and disperse organically, driven by need, proximity, or interest, and the best instructors will find themselves constantly in demand. Life-long learning will no longer be a catch-phrase, but a reality for the billions of individuals all focusing on improving their effectiveness within an ever-more-competitive global market for talent. (The same techniques employed by RateMyProfessors.com will impact all the other professions, eventually.)

There you have it. The human future is both more chaotic and more potent than we can easily imagine, even if we have examples in our present which point the way to where we are going. And if this future sounds far away, keep this in mind: today’s year 10 student will be retiring in 2060. This is their world.

Crowdsource Yourself

I: Ruby Anniversary

Today is a very important day in the annals of computer science. It’s the anniversary of the most famous technology demo ever given. Not, as you might expect, the first public demonstration of the Macintosh (which happened in January 1984), but something far older and far more important. Forty years ago today, December 9th, 1968, in San Francisco, a small gathering of computer specialists came together to get their first glimpse of the future of computing. Of course, they didn’t know that the entire future of computing would emanate from this one demo, but the next forty years would prove that point.

The maestro behind the demo – leading a team of developers – was Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was a wunderkind from SRI, the Stanford Research Institute, a think-tank spun out from Stanford University to collaborate with various moneyed customers – such as the US military – on future technologies. Of all the futurist technologists, Engelbart was the future-i-est.

In the middle of the 1960s, Engelbart had come to an uncomfortable realization: human culture was growing progressively more complex, while human intelligence stayed within the same comfortable range we’d known for thousands of years. In short order, Engelbart assessed, our civilization would start to collapse from its own complexity. The solution, Engelbart believed, would come from tools that could augment human intelligence. Create tools to make men smarter, and you’d be able to avoid the inevitable chaotic crash of an overcomplicated civilization.

To this end – and with healthy funding from both NASA and DARPA – Engelbart began work on the Online System, or NLS. The first problem in intelligence augmentation: how do you make a human being smarter? The answer: pair humans up with other humans. In other words, networking human beings together could increase the intelligence of every human being in the network. The NLS wasn’t just the online system, it was the networked system. Every NLS user could share resources and documents with other users. This meant NLS users would need to manage these resources in the system, so they needed high-quality computer screens, and a windowing system to keep the information separated. They needed an interface device to manage the windows of information, so Engelbart invented something he called a ‘mouse’.

I’ll jump to the chase: that roomful of academics at the Fall Joint Computer Conference saw the first broadly networked system featuring raster displays – the forerunner of all displays in use today; windowing; manipulation of on-screen information using a mouse; document storage and manipulation using the first hypertext system ever demonstrated, and videoconferencing between Engelbart, demoing in San Francisco, and his colleagues 30 miles away in Menlo Park.

In other words, in just one demo, Engelbart managed to completely encapsulate absolutely everything we’ve been working toward with computers over the last 40 years. The NLS was easily 20 years ahead of its time, but its influence is so pervasive, so profound, so dominating, that it has shaped nearly every major problem in human-computer interface design since its introduction. We have all been living in Engelbart’s shadow, basically just filling out the details in his original grand mission.

Of all the technologies rolled into the NLS demo, hypertext has arguably had the most profound impact. Known as the “Journal” on NLS, it allowed all the NLS users to collaboratively edit or view any of the documents in the NLS system. It was the first groupware application, the first collaborative application, the first wiki application. And all of this more than 20 years before the Web came into being. To Engelbart, the idea of networked computers and hypertext went hand-in-hand; they were indivisible, absolutely essential components of an online system.

It’s interesting to note that although the Internet has been around since 1969 – nearly as long as the NLS – it didn’t take off until the advent of a hypertext system – the World Wide Web. A network is mostly useless without a hypermedia system sitting on top of it, and multiplying its effectiveness. By itself a network is nice, but insufficient.

So, more than can be said for any other single individual in the field of computer science, we find ourselves living in the world that Douglas Engelbart created. We use computers with raster displays and manipulate windows of hypertext information using mice. We use tools like video conferencing to share knowledge. We augment our own intelligence by turning to others.

That’s why the “Mother of All Demos,” as it’s known today, is probably the most important anniversary in all of computer science. It set the stage the world we live in, more so that we recognized even a few years ago. You see, one part of Engelbart’s revolution took rather longer to play out. This last innovation of Engelbart’s is only just beginning.

II: Share and Share Alike

In January 2002, Oregon State University, the alma mater of Douglas Engelbart, decided to host a celebration of his life and work. I was fortunate enough to be invited to OSU to give a talk about hypertext and knowledge augmentation, an interest of mine and a persistent theme of my research. Not only did I get to meet the man himself (quite an honor), I got to meet some of the other researchers who were picking up where Engelbart had left off. After I walked off stage, following my presentation, one of the other researchers leaned over to me and asked, “Have you heard of Wikipedia?”

I had not. This is hardly surprising; in January 2002 Wikipedia was only about a year old, and had all of 14,000 articles – about the same number as a children’s encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, though it had put itself behind a “paywall,” had over a hundred thousand quality articles available online. Wikipedia wasn’t about to compete with Britannica. At least, that’s what I thought.

It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next few months – as Wikipedia approached 30,000 articles in English – an inflection point was reached, and Wikipedia started to grow explosively. In retrospect, what happened was this: people would drop by Wikipedia, and if they liked what they saw, they’d tell others about Wikipedia, and perhaps make a contribution. But they first had to like what they saw, and that wouldn’t happen without a sufficient number of articles, a sort of “critical mass” of information. While Wikipedia stayed beneath that critical mass it remained a toy, a plaything; once it crossed that boundary it became a force of nature, gradually then rapidly sucking up the collected knowledge of the human species, putting it into a vast, transparent and freely accessible collection. Wikipedia thrived inside a virtuous cycle where more visitors meant more contributors, which meant more visitors, which meant more contributors, and so on, endlessly, until – as of this writing, there are 2.65 million articles in the English language in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s biggest problem today isn’t attracting contributions, it’s winnowing the wheat from the chaff. Wikipedia has constant internal debates about whether a subject is important enough to deserve an entry in its own right; whether this person has achieved sufficient standards of notability to merit a biographical entry; whether this exploration of a fictional character in a fictional universe belongs in Wikipedia at all, or might be better situated within a dedicated fan wiki. Wikipedia’s success has been proven beyond all doubt; managing that success is the task of the day.

While we all rely upon Wikipedia more and more, we haven’t really given much thought as to what Wikipedia gives us. At its most basically level, Wikipedia gives us high-quality factual information. Within its major subject areas, Wikipedia’s veracity is unimpeachable, and has been put to the test by publications such as Nature. But what do these high-quality facts give us? The ability to make better decisions.

Given that we try to make decisions about our lives based on the best available information, the better that information is, the better our decisions will be. This seems obvious when spelled out like this, but it’s something we never credit Wikipedia with. We think about being able to answer trivia questions or research topics of current fascination, but we never think that every time we use Wikipedia to make a decision, we are improving our decision making ability. We are improving our own lives.

This is Engelbart’s final victory. When I met him in 2002, he seemed mostly depressed by the advent of the Web. At that time – pre-Wikipedia, pre-Web2.0 – the Web was mostly thought of as a publishing medium, not as something that would allow the multi-way exchange of ideas. Engelbart has known for forty years that sharing information is the cornerstone to intelligence augmentation. And in 2002 there wasn’t a whole lot of sharing going on.

It’s hard to imagine the Web of 2002 from our current vantage point. Today, when we think about the Web, we think about sharing, first and foremost. The web is a sharing medium. There’s still quite a bit of publishing going on, but that seems almost an afterthought, the appetizer before the main course. I’d have to imagine that this is pleasing Engelbart immensely, as we move ever closer to the models he pioneered forty years ago. It’s taken some time for the world to catch up with his vision, but now we seem to have a tool fit for knowledge augmentation. And Wikipedia is really only one example of the many tools we have available for knowledge augmentation. Every sharing tool – Digg, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, Twitter, and so on – provides an equal opportunity to share and to learn from what others have shared. We can pool our resources more effectively than at any other time in history.

The question isn’t, “Can we do it?” The question is, “What do we want to do?” How do we want to increase our intelligence and effectiveness through sharing?

III: Crowdsource Yourself

Now we come to all of you, here together for three days, to teach and to learn, to practice and to preach. Most of you are the leaders in your particular schools and institutions. Most of you have gone way out on the digital limb, far ahead of your peers. Which means you’re alone. And it’s not easy being alone. Pioneers can always be identified by the arrows in their backs.

So I have a simple proposal to put to you: these three days aren’t simply an opportunity to bring yourselves up to speed on the latest digital wizardry, they’re a chance to increase your intelligence and effectiveness, through sharing.

All of you, here today, know a huge amount about what works and what doesn’t, about curricula and teaching standards, about administration and bureaucracy. This is hard-won knowledge, gained on the battlefields of your respective institutions. Now just imagine how much it could benefit all of us if we shared it, one with another. This is the sort of thing that happens naturally and casually at a forum like this: a group of people will get to talking, and, sooner or later, all of the battle stories come out. Like old Diggers talking about the war.

I’m asking you to think about this casual process a bit more formally: How can you use the tools on offer to capture and share everything you’ve learned? If you don’t capture it, it can’t be shared. If you don’t share it, it won’t add to our intelligence. So, as you’re learning how to podcast or blog or setup a wiki, give a thought to how these tools can be used to multiply our effectiveness.

I ask you to do this because we’re getting close to a critical point in the digital revolution – something I’ll cover in greater detail when I talk to you again on Thursday afternoon. Where we are right now is at an inflection point. Things are very fluid, and could go almost any direction. That’s why it’s so important we learn from each other: in that pooled knowledge is the kind of intelligence which can help us to make better decisions about the digital revolution in education. The kinds of decisions which will lead to better outcomes for kids, fewer headaches for administrators, and a growing confidence within the teaching staff.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a panacea. Far from it. They’re simply the best tools we’ve got, right now, to help us confront the range of thorny issues raised by the transition to digital education. You can spend three days here, and go back to your own schools none the wiser. Or, you can share what you’ve learned and leave here with the best that everyone has to offer.

There’s a word for this process, a word which powers Wikipedia and a hundred thousand other websites: “crowdsourcing”. The basic idea is encapsulated in a Chinese proverb: “Many hands make light work.” The two hundred of you, here today, can all pitch in and make light work for yourselves. Or not.

Let me tell you another story, which may help seal your commitment to share what you know. In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc.

Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, or RateMyProfessors.com, or the promise of your own work over these next three days, Douglas Engelbart’s original vision of intelligence augmentation holds true: it is possible for us to pool our intellectual resources, and increase our problem-solving capacity. We do it every time we use Wikipedia; students do it every time they use RateMyProfessors.com; and I’m asking you to do it, starting right now. Good luck!

The Alexandrine Dilemma

I: Crash Through or Crash

We live in a time of wonders, and, more often than not, remain oblivious to them until they fail catastrophically. On the 19th of October, 1999 we saw such a failure. After years of preparation, on that day the web-accessible version of Encyclopedia Britannica went on-line. The online version of Britannica contained the complete, unexpurgated content of the many-volume print edition, and it was freely available, at no cost to its users.

I was not the only person who dropped by on the 19th to sample Britannica’s wares. Several million others joined me – all at once. The Encyclopedia’s few servers suddenly succumbed to the overload of traffic – the servers crashed, the network connections crashed, everything crashed. When the folks at Britannica conducted a forensic analysis of the failure, they learned something shocking: the site had crashed because, within its first hours, it had attracted nearly fifty million visitors.

The Web had never seen anything like that before. Yes, there were search engines such as Yahoo! and AltaVista (and even Google), but destination websites never attracted that kind of traffic. Britannica, it seemed, had tapped into a long-standing desire for high-quality factual information. As the gold-standard reference work in the English language, Britannica needed no advertising to bring traffic to its web servers – all it need do was open its doors. Suddenly, everyone doing research, or writing a paper, or just plain interested in learning more about something tried to force themselves through Britannica’s too narrow doorway.

Encyclopedia Britannica ordered some more servers, and installed a bigger pipe to the Internet, and within a few weeks was back in business. Immediately Britannica became one of the most-trafficked sites on the Web, as people came through in search of factual certainty. Yet for all of that traffic, Britannica somehow managed to lose money.

The specifics of this elude my understanding. The economics of the Web are very simple: eyeballs equals money. The more eyeballs you have, the more money you earn. That’s as true for Google as for Britannica. Yet, somehow, despite having one of the busiest websites in the world, Britannica lost money. For that reason, just a few month after it freely opened its doors to the public, Britannica hid itself behind a “paywall”, asking seven dollars a month as a fee to access its inner riches. Immediately, traffic to Britannica dropped to perhaps a hundredth of its former numbers. Britannica did not convert many of its visitors to paying customers: there may be a strong desire for factual information, but even so, most people did not consider it worth paying for. Instead, individuals continued to search for a freely available, high quality source of factual information.

Into this vacuum Wikipedia was born. The encyclopedia that anyone can edit has always been freely available, and, because of its use of the Creative Commons license, can be freely copied. Wikipedia was the modern birth of “crowdsourcing”, the idea that vast numbers of anonymous individuals can labor together (at a distance) on a common project. Wikipedia’s openness in every respect – transparent edits, transparent governance, transparent goals – encouraged participation. People were invited to come by and sample the high-quality factual information on offer – and were encouraged to leave their own offerings. The high-quality facts encouraged visitors; some visitors would leave their own contributions, high-quality facts which would encourage more visitors, and so, in a “virtuous cycle”, Wikipedia grew as large as, then far larger than Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, we don’t even give a thought to Britannica. It may be the gold-standard reference work in the English language, but no one cares. Wikipedia is good enough, accurate enough (although Wikipedia was never intended to be a competitor to Britannica by 2005 Nature was doing comparative testing of article accuracy) and is much more widely available. Britannica has had its market eaten up by Wikipedia, a market it dominated for two hundred years. It wasn’t the server crash that doomed Britannica; when the business minds at Britannica tried to crash through into profitability, that’s when they crashed into the paywall they themselves established. Watch carefully: over the next decade we’ll see the somewhat drawn out death of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a Wikipedia-dominated landscape.

Just a few weeks ago, the European Union launched a new website, Europeana. Europeana is a repository, a collection of cultural heritage of Europe, made freely available to everyone in the world via the Web. From Descartes to Darwin to Debussy, Europeana hopes to become the online cultural showcase of European thought.

The creators of Europeana scoured Europe’s cultural institutions for items to be digitized and placed within its own collection. Many of these institutions resisted their requests – they didn’t see any demand for these items coming from online communities. As it turns out, these institutions couldn’t have been more wrong. Europeana launched on the 20th of November, and, like Britannica before it, almost immediately crashed. The servers overloaded as visitors from throughout the EU came in to look at the collection. Europeana has been taken offline for a few months, as the EU buys more servers and fatter pipes to connect it all to the Internet. Sometime late in 2008 it will relaunch, and, if its brief popularity is any indication, we can expect Europeana to become another important online resource, like Wikipedia.

All three of these examples prove that there is an almost insatiable interest in factual information made available online, whether the dry articles of Wikipedia or the more bouncy cultural artifacts of Europeana. It’s also clear that arbitrarily restricting access to factual information simply directs the flow around the institution restricting access. Britannica could be earning over a hundred million dollars a year from advertising revenue – that’s what it is projected that Wikipedia could earn, just from banner advertisements, if it ever accepted advertising. But Britannica chose to lock itself away from its audience. That is the one unpardonable sin in the network era: under no circumstances do you take yourself off the network. We all have to sink or swim, crash through or crash, in this common sea of openness.

I only hope that the European museums who have donated works to Europeana don’t suddenly grow possessive when the true popularity of their works becomes a proven fact. That will be messy, and will only hurt the institutions. Perhaps they’ll heed the lesson of Britannica; but it seems as though many of our institutions are mired in older ways of thinking, where selfishness and protecting the collection are seen as a cardinal virtues. There’s a new logic operating: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.

II: The Universal Library

Just a few weeks ago, Google took this idea to new heights. In a landmark settlement of a long-running copyright dispute with book publishers in the United States, Google agreed to pay a license fee to those publishers for their copyrights – even for books out of print. In return, the publishers are allowing Google to index, search and display all of the books they hold under copyright. Google already provides the full text of many books which have an expired copyright – their efforts scanning whole libraries at Harvard and Stanford has given Google access to many such texts. Each of these texts is indexed and searchable – just as with the books under copyright, but, in this case, the full text is available through Google’s book reader tool. For works under copyright but out-of-print, Google is now acting as the sales agent, translating document searches into book sales for the publishers, who may now see huge “long tail” revenues generated from their catalogues.

Since Google is available from every computer connected to the Internet (given that it is available on most mobile handsets, it’s available to nearly every one of the four billion mobile subscribers on the planet), this new library – at least seven million volumes – has become available everywhere. The library has become coextensive with the Internet.

This was an early dream both of the pioneers of the personal computing, and, later, of the Web. When CD-ROM was introduced, twenty years ago, it was hailed as the “new papyrus,” capable of storing vast amounts of information in a richly hyperlinked format. As the limits of CD-ROM became apparent, the Web became the repository of the hopes of all the archivists and bibliophiles who dreamed of a new Library of Alexandria, a universal library with every text in every tongue freely available to all.

We have now gotten as close to that ideal as copyright law will allow; everything is becoming available, though perhaps not as freely as a librarian might like. (For libraries, Google has established subscription-based fees for access to books covered by copyright.) Within another few years, every book within arm’s length of Google (and Google has many, many arms) will be scanned, indexed and accessible through books.google.com. This library can be brought to bear everywhere anyone sits down before a networked screen. This library can serve billions, simultaneously, yet never exhaust its supply of texts.

What does this mean for the library as we have known it? Has Google suddenly obsolesced the idea of a library as a building stuffed with books? Is there any point in going into the stacks to find a book, when that same book is equally accessible from your laptop? Obviously, books are a better form factor than our laptops – five hundred years of human interface design have given us a format which is admirably well-adapted to our needs – but in most cases, accessibility trumps ease-of-use. If I can have all of the world’s books online, that easily bests the few I can access within any given library.

In a very real sense, Google is obsolescing the library, or rather, one of the features of the library, the feature we most identify with the library: book storage. Those books are now stored on servers, scattered in multiple, redundant copies throughout the world, and can be called up anywhere, at any time, from any screen. The library has been obsolesced because it has become universal; the stacks have gone virtual, sitting behind every screen. Because the idea of the library has become so successful, so universal, it no longer means anything at all. We are all within the library.

III: The Necessary Army

With the triumph of the universal library, we must now ask: What of the librarians? If librarians were simply the keepers-of-the-books, we would expect them to fade away into an obsolescence similar to the physical libraries. And though this is the popular perception of the librarian, in fact that is perhaps the least interesting of the tasks a librarian performs (although often the most visible).

The central task of the librarian – if I can be so bold as to state something categorically – is to bring order to chaos. The librarian takes a raw pile of information and makes it useful. How that happens differs from situation to situation, but all of it falls under the rubric of library science. At its most visible, the book cataloging systems used in all libraries represents the librarian’s best efforts to keep an overwhelming amount of information well-managed and well-ordered. A good cataloging system makes a library easy to use, whatever its size, however many volumes are available through its stacks.

It’s interesting to note that books.google.com uses Google’s text search-based interface. Based on my own investigations, you can’t type in a Library of Congress catalog number and get a list of books under that subject area. Google seems to have abandoned – or ignored – library science in its own book project. I can’t tell you why this is, I can only tell you that it looks very foolish and naïve. It may be that Google’s army of PhDs do not include many library scientists. Otherwise why would you have made such a beginner’s mistake? It smells of an amateur effort from a firm which is not known for amateurism.

It’s here that we can see the shape of the future, both in the immediate and longer term. People believe that because we’ve done with the library, we’re done with library science. They could not be more wrong. In fact, because the library is universal, library science now needs to be a universal skill set, more broadly taught than at any time previous to this. We have become a data-centric culture, and are presently drowning in data. It’s difficult enough for us to keep our collections of music and movies well organized; how can we propose to deal with collections that are a hundred thousand times larger?

This is not just some idle speculation; we are rapidly becoming a data-generating species. Where just a few years ago we might generate just a small amount of data on a given day or in a given week, these days we generate data almost continuously. Consider: every text message sent, every email received, every snap of a camera or camera phone, every slip of video shared amongst friends. It all adds up, and it all needs to be managed and stored and indexed and retrieved with some degree of ease. Otherwise, in a few years time the recent past will have disappeared into the fog of unsearchability. In order to have a connection to our data selves of the past, we are all going to need to become library scientists.

All of which puts you in a key position for the transformation already underway. You get to be the “life coaches” for our digital lifestyle, because, as these digital artifacts start to weigh us down (like Jacob Marley’s lockboxes), you will provide the guidance that will free us from these weights. Now that we’ve got it, it’s up to you to tell us how we find it. Now that we’ve captured it, it’s up to you to tell us how we index it.

We have already taken some steps along this journey: much of the digital media we create can now be “tagged”, that is, assigned keywords which provide context and semantic value for the media. We each create “clouds” of our own tags which evolve into “folksonomies”, or home-made taxonomies of meaning. Folksonomies and tagging are useful, but we lack the common language needed to make our digital treasures universally useful. If I tag a photograph with my own tags, that means the photograph is more useful to me; but it is not necessarily more broadly useful. Without a common, public taxonomy (a cataloging system), tagging systems will not scale into universality. That universality has value, because it allows us to extend our searches, our view, and our capability.

I could go on and on, but the basic point is this: wherever data is being created, that’s the opportunity for library science in the 21st century. Since data is being created almost absolutely everywhere, the opportunities for library science are similarly broad. It’s up to you to show us how it’s done, lest we drown in our own creations.

Some of this won’t come to pass until you move out of the libraries and into the streets. Library scientists have to prove their worth; most people don’t understand that they’re slowly drowning in a sea of their own information. This means you have to demonstrate other ways of working that are self-evident in their effectiveness. The proof of your value will be obvious. It’s up to you to throw the rest of us a life-preserver; once we’ve caught it, once we’ve caught on, your future will be assured.

The dilemma that confronts us is that for the next several years, people will be questioning the value of libraries; if books are available everywhere, why pay the upkeep on a building? Yet the value of a library is not the books inside, but the expertise in managing data. That can happen inside of a library; it has to happen somewhere. Libraries could well evolve into the resource the public uses to help manage their digital existence. Librarians will become partners in information management, indispensable and highly valued.

In a time of such radical and rapid change, it’s difficult to know exactly where things are headed. We know that books are headed online, and that libraries will follow. But we still don’t know the fate of librarians. I believe that the transition to a digital civilization will founder without a lot of fundamental input from librarians. We are each becoming archivists of our lives, but few of us have training in how to manage an archive. You are the ones who have that knowledge. Consider: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. The more you share your knowledge, the more invaluable you become. That’s the future that waits for you.

Finally, consider the examples of Britannica and Europeana. The demand for those well-curated collections of information far exceeded even the wildest expectations of their creators. Something similar lies in store for you. When you announce yourselves to the broader public as the individuals empowered to help us manage our digital lives, you’ll doubtless find yourselves overwhelmed with individuals who are seeking to benefit from your expertise. What’s more, to deal with the demand, I expect Library Science to become one of the hot subjects of university curricula of the 21st century. We need you, and we need a lot more of you, if we ever hope to make sense of the wonderful wealth of data we’re creating.