Deep Work

The fact that [David Heinemeier] Hannson might be working from Marbella, Spain, while your office is in Des Moines, Iowa, doesn’t matter to your company, as advances in communication and collaboration technology make the process near seamless. (This reality does matter, however, to the less-skilled local programmers living in Des Moines and in need of a steady paycheck.) This same trend holds for the growing number of fields where technology makes productive remote possible — consulting, marketing, writing, design and so on. Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.

From “Chapter One: Deep Work is Valuable.”

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. First edition. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

The Library as Idea and Space

From around 300 BC until the beginning of its destruction with the Roman imperial takeover under Julius Caesar, the Library of Alexandria was the principal workplace for international scholarship. In light of this discussion of the curatorial, it is worth noting that this classical library was in fact incorporated into a larger complex known as the Mouseion, or House of the Muses, which formed a multidisciplinary study center similar to a university (etymologically, it is the source of the modern word “museum”). In his erudite meditation on libraries, Alberto Manguel makes the observation that in terms of a conception of the world, the Library of Alexandria and the Tower of Babel are direct opposites. While the tower represents the “belief in the unity of the universe,” the library instead embodies an understanding that the world is made up of innumerable different voices that, if somehow collected and read, would “address the whole of creation” through their very singularity and yet, as an ensemble, could never become static.  Expanding Manguel’s comparison, it is interesting to consider the two architectures in relation to concepts of dispersal and containment. In the moment of its destruction fragments of the Tower are violently and irretrievably flung out in all directions across the Earth, whereas the Library derives its meaning as a space of proximity for gathering together such fragments.


In the context of Occidental history, however, libraries are especially symbolic of a particular Enlightenment sensibility. Poignantly addressed by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, libraries became the new cathedrals of cities when science and the attendant desire to disseminate knowledge replaced the religious impetus of previous generations. Stories were no longer told primarily through clerical art and architecture but were instead translated, multiplied, and circulated through printed books. In Hugo’s novel, this idea is summarized in the phrase “Ceci tuera cela” [“this will kill that”]—a provocative exaggeration, though the printing press by no means did away with architecture, just as the digital turn has not replaced printed matter. What is true, however, is that the ethos of the public library (in contrast to private, monastic, or other specialized and restricted libraries) continues to be intimately connected to democratic ideals of equality and free access to knowledge and culture. Such libraries are usually non-profit spaces, which provide citizens with material and immaterial goods and media that would otherwise have to be purchased. Therefore, one of the many ways in which the library contributes to societyis by converting marketable goods into public goods. The potential of the library for making things public is furthermore reflected in its paradoxical reality as an intellectual meeting place: based on intellectual and communal values, it also lends a public platform to otherwise fundamentally private— whether mental or cerebral—activities like reading and thinking, thus connecting it with ideals such as free speech and the freedom of expression. The library is thus both a political economy and an intellectual space.

Springer, A.-S. “Legere and βιβλιοθήκη: The Library as Idea and Space,” Fantasies of the Library, MIT Press, 2016.

The Art of Relevance: Wants and Needs

You may have noticed that I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants. Where they want to go. What they want to do. What they think matters.

This is intentional. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them — their values, their priorities.

In 2007, I sat on a panel at the National Academies of Science about the future of museums and libraries. I was the youngest person there, cowed by leaders and experts in the room. I’ll never forget a distinguished CEO, banging his fist on the table and saying, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.”

I was too nervous to say anything at the time, but the phrase stuck like a thorn in my brain  stem. The thorn jammed in a little further each time I heard it, dozens of times over the years, in meetings and conferences and brainstorming sessions.

The phrase drives me nuts. It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be the experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people “need” too?

I don’t think we can tell the difference between what people want and what they need…

… Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what people want and need? Of course not. We should care deeply about these things. We should do whatever we can to discover more about peoples’ desires, goals, needs, and values. But learning about someone’s needs and prescribing those needs are completely different.

In my experience, the institutionally-articulated “needs” of audiences often look suspiciously like the “wants” of the professions speaking. Professionals want silence in the auditorium, so they say “people need respite from their busy lives.” Priests want parishioners to accept the canon as presented, so they say, “people need strong spiritual guidance.” Teachers want students to listen attentively, so they say “kinds need to learn this.”

When I ask the phrase “don’t give people what they want, give them what they need” means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people’s expressed desires but presenting them with experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants’ comfort zones. But I don’t typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don’t hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of “needs” of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear “don’t give people what they want, give them what I want.”

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, Calif: Museum 2.0, 2016.

Oh, we’re really making an AI

Around 2002 I attended a private party for Google — before its IPO, when it was a small company focused only on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site you thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an A.I.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 13 other AI and robotics companies in addition to DeepMind. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search constitutes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Bather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every tie you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter Bunny looks like. Each of the 3 billion queries that Google conducts each day tutors the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousandfold more data and a hundreds more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI. In a quarterly earning conference call in the fall of 2015, Google CEO Sundar Pichai stated that AI was going to be “a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing… We are applying it to all of our products, be it search, be it YouTube and Play etc.” My prediction: By 2026, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.

Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, 2016.

Readings Omnibus

This past year at the University of Toronto, some anecdotal instances of increased student cost in one particular segment of the course materials market, that of course packs, received attention in the student press. According to this coverage, course packs had become more expensive as a direct result of the decision by the University of Toronto to not renew its collective license agreement with the Canadian copyright collective licensing agency, Access Copyright.1 A student told the University of Toronto student newspaper The Varsity, “my… professor told the class we would have to buy [the] course pack for nearly double the price it cost last year due to the termination of the Access Copyright license” (Robin 2014). Similar anecdotal stories have appeared at other institutions, as a growing number of universities and colleges in Canada have decided that the collective license agreement with Access Copyright was not worth the price at which it was being offered in negotiations, given the possibility of managing copyright costs internally. (More recently, students at Ryerson University expressed similar shock and disappointment with rising course pack costs in the aftermath of the expiration of Ryerson’s agreement with Access Copyright) (Chandler, 2016). As these student press articles show, there are undoubtedly some instances in which costs to students did rise significantly. However, depending on whether the instructor or producer of a given course pack was aware of the extent of their rights under Canadian copyright law and the contents of their library’s collections, these increased costs may have been unnecessary.

Cancilla, N. et al., (2017). Engaging Faculty and Reducing Costs by Leveraging Collections: A Pilot Project to Reduce Course Pack Use. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. 4. DOI: http://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.2137


The third and final section of the survey consisted of three questions about tasks performed when assessing a journal package for renewal. The prompt read: “When determining whether to renew a journal package, where do you perform the following tasks?” The three assessment tasks were: calculating cost per use of journal titles, comparing usage statistics with other packages, and viewing usage statistics. These three assessment tasks are overwhelmingly performed outside the system for all three LSPs, and percentages are comparable across systems. Cost per use (Q3.1) assessment is only performed in Alma by 5% of users, in Sierra by 4%, and in WSP by 6%.

Singley, Emily, and Jane Natches. “Finding the gaps: A survey of electronic resource management in Alma, Sierra, and WMS”, 2016. http://hdl.handle.net/2345/bc-ir:107201. Note: Pre-print version of an article that will be published in Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship 29(2).


The author found that 74% of print titles acquired in 2008‐09 had been used within their first six years in the collection, and that 27% of print books acquired between 2008 and 2014 had been used between July 2013 and November 2014. By contrast, only 12% of the ebooks acquired between 2008 and 2014 were used during the same 17‐month period. The author examines how different print and electronic collection development models might affect monograph use in academic libraries within the context of previously published research.

Factors Affecting the Use of Print a nd Electronic Books: A Use Study and Discussion. Amy Fry. College and Research Libraries Pre-Print. December 14, 2016

Minds on fire: how role-immersion games transform college

Lest academic readers slam this book (or iPad) down in fury, I hasten to acknowledge that the case against bad play is formidably strong. I agree with much of it. In fact, Chapter 2 (“Subversive Play: The Bane of Higher Education”) contents that for the past two centuries higher learning has suffered precisely because American students have been fully immersed in bad play — the boozy debates and theatricals of the early literary societies, the hazings and initiations of fraternities, the football craze, beer pong and binge drinking, and a host of competitive, role-playing online worlds, among other obsessions. But this book also contends (Chapter 3: “Creating An Academic Subversive Play World”) that the motivational power of bad play — of “subversive play”, as I have termed it — can energize students and help them flourish — in college and in life …

… The rationalist merits of higher education are well known, intoned by college presidents and commencement speakers, reiterated in institutional mission statements, and endorsed by most professors — including me. There’s no need to restate them here. This book instead advances what might be called the anti-rationalist perspective. The central argument is not that higher education is all wrong, but that it’s only half-right. Our predominant pedagogical system — rational, hierarchical, individualistic, and well-ordered — often ignores aspects of the self relating to emotion, mischievous subversion, social engagement, and creative disorder.

— “Debate at Dawn”, “Minds on fire: how role-immersion games transform college“, Mark C. Carnes

The Bricoleur and The Engineer

The Savage Mind: bricoleur and engineer

Lévi-Strauss developed the comparison of the Bricoleur and Engineer in The Savage Mind. “Bricoleur” has its origin in the old French verb bricoler, which originally referred to extraneous movements in ball games, billiards, hunting, shooting and riding, but which today means do-it-yourself building or repairing things with the tools and materials on hand, puttering or tinkering as it were. In comparison to the true craftsman, whom Lévi-Strauss calls the Engineer, the Bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting preexisting things together in new ways, adapting his project to a finite stock of materials and tools. The Engineer deals with projects in their entirety, conceiving and procuring all the necessary materials and tools to suit his project. The Bricoleur approximates “the savage mind” and the Engineer approximates the scientific mind. Lévi-Strauss says that the universe of the Bricoleur is closed, and he often is forced to make do with whatever is at hand, whereas the universe of the Engineer is open in that he is able to create new tools and materials. But both live within a restrictive reality, and so the Engineer is forced to consider the preexisting set of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, in a similar way to the Bricoleur.

The Game Layer

But even when games find their way into a traditional school setting, they’re hardly an automatic solution. When the stakes are too high, the games becomes a crushing competition that’s fun for spectators but a chore for most students. Think of your typical spelling bee, with its public humiliation and permadeath “one-mistake-you’re-out” rule. When the stakes are too low — well, actually the stake can’t get too low, and perhaps this is the point.

Schools have long relied on games — they call them sports, clubs and band competitions — to get students excited about coming to school. In fact, these are often all that keep kids there long enough to graduate. But schools have rarely used academic competition to reach more than a few top students even through research suggests that kids who aren’t at the top would benefit the most from it. As far back as 1959, sociologist James Coleman was urging schools to use competition as a way to change students’ attitudes about academics. At the time, he was head of the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Social Relations (later renamed the Department of Sociology). He’d just spent two years studying nine Midwestern high schools and found that more than 40 percent of boys wanted to remembered in school as a “star athlete,” but fewer than 30 percent favored the epithet “brilliant student.” This despite the fact, Coleman observed, that school is “an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.”

In schools from the inner city to the most privileged suburbs Coleman discovered one key similarity: kids were intensely social, spending most of their free time playing sports and hanging out. “Adults often forget how ‘person-oriented’ children are,” he wrote. “They have not yet moved into the world of cold impersonality in which many adults live.” The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he said, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teen’s attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze “maximum rewards for minimal effort.” Like factory workers or prison inmates, to which Coleman directly compared them, high school students in the 1950s had responded to school’s demands by “holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all.” They were protecting themselves from extra work by ostracizing high achievers.

It was, Coleman suggested, a rational response to a system whose rewards sat on a bell curve. Schools had created a kind of free market in which every student was competing against every other student for relative rank. Grades, he found, were almost completely relative — when one student achieved more, it “not only raises his position, but in effect lowers the position of others. The result, even in the best suburban schools, was intense social pressure to minimize, not maximize studying.

But these same students didn’t think twice about honoring athletes. Coleman theorized that because most athletic events pit school against school, star athletes’ achievements bring prestige to the entire school, which benefits everyone. A student spending her lunch hour studying “is regarded as someone a little odd, or different,” he wrote. But the basketball player who shoots baskets at lunch “is watched with interest and admiration, not with derision.” So Coleman proposed that schools replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education.

Greg. Toppo. 2015. The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Trade.

 

The Comedy of Survival

Perhaps the major difference between pastoral and picaresque lies in the application each makes of human intelligence. The pastoral intellect uses the rational capacity of the mind to criticize the inadequacies of present experience and its imaginative talents to create alternatives to the present. It is characterized by abstract ideas — truth, justice, goodness, love — intended to lead toward a fulfillment of human potential at some future time. The picaresque intellect instead concentrates upon the study of immediate reality, and its imagination upon the creation of strategies for survival. Picaresque liberty is not escape from misfortune, but confidence in one’s ability to persist in spite of it.

Modern cities, like ancient Rome, are messy, expensive, chaotic, and dangerous. Those who flee them in search of rural peace and quiet are following a pastoral way that Western culture has endorsed since Virgil. The pastoral tradition also makes it plain that this quest is likely to fail, for the seeker of peach and simplicity is likely to carry inner conflict and anger, and these will govern his or her life more than the rural environment will. Escape into fantasies is not a workable solution to urban and existential ills.

What the picaresque tradition in dignity and respectability, it makes up for in clear-eyed practicality. In the picaresque eye, cities and wild places are all full of both danger and opportunity, and wherever one finds oneself is the place where life must be lived as well as possible. Picaresque life is infinite play, with no hope of winning much, but endless enthusiasm for keeping the play alive.

Joseph W. Meeker, “The Pastoral and the Picaresque”, The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic.

 

Play Anything (non-pumpkin spiced edition)

The lesson that games can teach us is simple. Games aren’t appealing because they are fun, but because they are limited. Because they erect boundaries. Because we must accept their structures in order to play them. Soccer sees two teams of eleven players attempting to use their feet, torsos, and heads to put a ball into a goal. Tetris asks you to position falling arrangements of four orthogonally-connected squares in order to produce and remove horizontal lines. And yet the experiences games like soccer and Tetris create are far larger than those boundaries convey on their own. That boundary results from the deliberate, if absurd, pursuit of soccer and Tetris on their own terms, within the limitations they erect. The limitations make games fun.

What if we treated everything the way we treat soccer and Tetris – as valuable and virtuous for being exactly what they are, rather than for what would be convenient, or for what we wish they were instead, or for what we fear they are not? Walks and meadows, aunts and grandfathers, zoning board of appeals meetings and business trips. Everything. Our lives would be better, bigger, more meaningful, and less selfish.

Ian Bogost, Preface: Life is not a game, Play Anything