Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Policing the Police

Yesterday, Alan Liu came to the U.C. Irvine campus to talk about "Knowledge 2.0" and explain how the Transliteracies project he founded has been integrating new research about social computing, along with practices and technologies associated with Web 2.0.

I have seen Liu speak several times and have always found it worthwhile. In fact, he was on my campus three years ago, when a coda to his talk, in which he argued that critics should be producers as well as theorists, became one of the factors that made me totally re-think the publics I was trying to reach.

Given that Liu was presenting an entire theory of the twenty-first-century Humanities, it was refreshing to see his approach so grounded in practical pedagogy. Among those who consider themselves part of the Institute for Distributed Creativity, there has been a lot of curiosity about his upcoming graduate seminar, "Literature Plus." During "Knowledge 2.0," Liu showed sample work from very different audience in the form of a wiki from a recent undergraduate course. He admitted that this experiment in college teaching had posed several challenges to the conventions of traditional authorship and authority within the academy. Students worked on two teams: one based on "Creativity" and one based on "Collaboration." This sometimes subverted the most basic hierarchical relationships in the classroom, although Liu was able to adapt with good humor to a description that listed him as "bright, intelligent, and physically breathtaking," with the final descriptor going to a crudely humorous graphic.

Since I'm currently teaching a course in which students use blogging and are engaged with other social computing practices, I was particularly interested in Liu's list of lessons learned.

First, he noted that students became much more engaged in the course material, after they created their own bio pages, which Liu described as a hybrid between the genres of the professional bio/vita and that of the profile on a social network site.

Second, he said that having students edit each others' work wasn't always practicable, because of what he called a "disparity in their writing levels," to which -- as a longtime writing program administrator in the U.C. system -- I can certainly attest.

Third, he argued that the nature of research assignments had to account for the sudden advent of Wikipedia and other low-investment resources for citation. Given that this course was offered in 2006, which was a key year for the massive super-saturation of undergraduate discourse by the online encyclopedia, it is not surprising that Liu was spurred to write a Student Wikipedia Use Policy, which was also announced here in June of 2006.

Liu compared the Wikipedia incursion into student prose to an "algal bloom" that "sucks all the oxygen out of the water." However, he noted that his statement also acknowledged the value of Wikipedia for very recent stories for which synthetic accounts had not yet made it into print or for quick definitions and details for minor facts. He also implicitly conveyed respect to Wikipedia by comparing it to a cross between an encyclopedia and a blog, which for Liu are both legitimate genres, and by using positive modifiers like "powerful," "dynamic," and "communal." I might argue that a similar ambivalence about Wikipedia characterized the talk of recent UCI guest and WikiScanner creator Virgil Griffith, who was on our campus only a few days earlier. (They both also showed the same wiki-related project at UC Santa Cruz.)

Liu began by examining the law and order metaphors that have proliferated to describe policing practices among user-generated content creators, such as the Wikipedians who manage the enormous online encyclopedia. This includes the "hall monitor" role of academics charged with enforcing policies against plagiarism. He cited a cautionary Educause article by Liz Johnson, "Plagiarism Detection: Is Technology the Answer?" in expressing reservations about software projects like PAIRwise, which is capable of mapping the "cycles and rhythms" of unattributed borrowings and "rings and conspiracies" among students. Of course, a few years ago, I wrote an article about the metaphors associated with plagiarism-detection, so I think Liu is right that these punitive figures certainly loom large in the cultural imagination of institutions of knowledge, although I think Turnitin.com has a lock on the plagiarism paranoia market and that not-for-profit, open source alternatives like PAIRwise have little chance for widespread adoption.

Liu is a good close reader for the terms that those associated with Wikipedia, Citizendium, and Conservapedia were using in statements designed to explain their policing functions. Liu drew attention to phrases such as "judges in court" and "volunteer police force" and terms like "constables," "infractions," and "commandments." As he pointed out such declarations smacked of the monopolies on violence generally associated with the state.

He explained how his own projects were influenced by evolving technologies, and how his ground-breaking index of humanities resources on the web Voice of the Shuttle progressed from Web 1.0 to what he called Web 1.5, as flat HTML coding gave way to webforms and dynamic content made possible by databases, middleware, and templates and stylesheets. However, he argued that with the multiple users and read-write functions of Web 2.0, system administrators and programmers came to occupy a place of "unwarranted authority." As shorthand for the debate about Web 2.0, he opposed the positions of Tim O'Reilly and those of Jaron Lanier in "Digital Maoism." Given all the notable critics of Web 2.0 (Siva Vaidhyanathan, Trebor Scholz, Lawrence Lessig, Ian Bogost, Lisa Nakamura, Mia Consalvo, and Geert Lovink, just to name a few) and all of the prolific high-profile boosters (starting with Henry Jenkins), this seems to be a regrettable oversimplification. But Liu was obviously pressed for time and even cut what looked like some of the most interesting slides in his talk as "too technical" to allow time for questions.

His own Web 2.0 criticisms involved some interesting uses of visual evidence. He pointed to the BBC's mash-ups of the locations of news stories with Google mapping data as an example of the larger elevation of a moronic aesthetic around user tagging. And he showed a sketch of this Rube Goldberg pencil-sharpener to represent both the crude undesigned instrumentalism of the argument of a typical "freshman or sophomore paper" and the general scheme for a Wikipedia entry in which users insert their heterogeneous contributions like the beehive, boots, and woodpecker in the drawing.

One of the central issues he raised had to do with the U.S. obsession with "policing" rather than "policy," to which Commonwealth countries presented a marked contrast as they confronted the categories of "best" and "good" with much more deliberation and strategic planning. Given the subject matter of the book I'm working on, I would tend to concur.

Although, as a writing specialist, wary of automated assessment, I'm always skeptical to hear about things like cognitive scientists designing computer programs that can use "sixty factors" to re-write textbooks for twelve-year-olds, most of what Liu said about collaborative social computing projects sounded possible, desirable, and worth supporting, particularly when he reviewed the output of three working groups of the Transliteracies project. The History of Reading Working Group is apparently going to soon debut a Flash movie about the history of the book, which shows how the book has evolved over time by using the first page of the Book of John. The New Reading Interfaces Working Group has apparently been at work on a new edition of Alice and Wonderland that represents the written information in the text in a number of ways.

Finally, he explained how the Social Computing Working Group might end up shaping more of the organization's mission, as members explored the idea of the "thick margin" of a text's social use. He talked about how little could be learned about social dynamics through a program like Microsoft Word and its "track changes" function in comparison to the margin of a blog that gives much more information about the "social graph" accompanying written discourse. I sympathized with Liu when he talked about how track changes served as a "fumbling way" for "talking to a copy editor" while working with the manuscript of his book. For example, when a UCI colleague was recently giving me constructive criticism about a grant proposal, I noticed that she ended up using Facebook as a more effective channel for mutual communication than track changes. However, like Ian Bogost, Liu pointed out the inadequacies of Facebook for "fine grain" distinctions, and said that using programs like Flickr was "like working with all thumbs." Liu suggested that Brad Fitzpatrick's work on the problems of the "social graph," which incorporates different kinds of friends and "missing friends" and friends from different social network sites.

In addition to thinking about "data mining at a corporate scale," Liu also grapples with the "description problem" of social markup, which he said might be considered to be analogous to the history of markup in writing, which once lacked capitalization, spaces between words, and punctuation. As someone who has spent a lot of time this week learning about parsing functions and how to make ActionScript work with XML, I laughed when he showed the classic Far Side cartoon about "What We Say to Dogs" and "What They Hear," as being like talking to a computer, which hears BLA BLA BLA URL BLA BLA BLA URL.

Finally, he showed some wonderful data visualizations that used the Wikipedia entries on "abortion" and "chocolate" as examples. (I must say the strong emotions that he described as typical of those who contemplate chocolate made sense of some of the powerful responses I've gotten to a chocolate mention in a talk that eventually became this paper.) He used the lexicon of computer animation when he showed how the data could be "tweened" and how Wikipedia vandalism and "revert wars" appeared in these tools.

In closing, Liu put forward his thesis that the production and the policing functions should be separated in the reception of works with multiple and possibly unreliable authors. He suggested that social computing could facilitate both functions and that a variety of stake-holders from governments, churches, and families should be able to apply mark-up functions themselves to appropriately filter data. The problem, of course, is that as WikiScanner shows, these organizations are already taking an active role in editing online sources. Furthermore, when I think about how the current administration is sifting and selecting convenient truths, such as how the White House edited out information in a narrative about global warming, I'm not certain of how judiciously they would perform their policing function on the reception end. Even local governments could move to quash information, like the wonderful City of Vernon.

But I would guess that Liu thinks that everyone should be able to hit the "history" tab to judge for themselves, based on his comment that "access" as well as "privacy" are "creatures" to be protected in an "ecology" of information ethics. But do these multiple policemen at the reception end promulgate similar problems to those of multiple authorship at the production end? I suppose we all read texts in the context of multiple communities, and Liu thinks that contemporary readers will be able to decipher through multiple systems of mark-up, just as they always have.

Liu came to UCI as part of the UCI Software Culture series, which was organized by Facebook friend and colleague Peter Krapp. Other speakers for the academic year 2007-2008 will include Wendy Chun, Arnold Dreyblatt, Alex Galloway, Lev Manovich, and McKenzie Wark.

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Blogger Lupton said...

It's interesting to read about bio pages as a cross between traditional cv's and social profile sites. I hadn't thought of this as I continue to update my own bio pages, but that is certainly what is happening to this genre; thanks for making me more aware of it. We should ask all our students to post bio pages rather than fill out basic information on a torn out sheet of notebook paper. It would jumpstart investment in the social dimension of the class immediately!

I am sorry to have missed Liu's talk.

3:55 PM  

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