Information concepts



I’ve been thinking about the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (PDF). I was never a big fan of the current ACRL Standards, mainly because I find them too unwieldy – 5 standards, 22 performance indicators, 71 outcomes, if I counted correctly. I much prefer Ranganathan’s Laws for their directness and simplicity. Less legal mumbo-jumbo and more poetry. The other issue with the standards is that they seem to reduce information literacy to using the library to write undergraduate research papers. The ACRL came out with standards for visual literacy a few years ago, which basically substitute “visual” for “information”, which further cements that reductive view. As I see it, information comes in many formats and flows through many channels, and we may come up with new formats and channels at times. So an expansive view of information is in order.

The Framework is built around a set of information literacy threshold concepts. I’m just going to jump over the literacy threshold and call them information concepts. It’s easier that way. They’re not quite up to the standard of Ranganathan’s Laws, but they flow off the tongue a little better than things like “The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.” Here are my primitive thoughts on each frame.

Scholarship is a conversation

Conversation implies an interaction among voices, meaning people are writing to be read, and writing based on reading. Standing on the shoulders of others, as it were. Conversations also shift and evolve over time. Old ideas get revised and refuted. New ideas get discussed and debated. Knowledge doesn’t stand still. Conversations have language, which may be specialized or esoteric. And conversations can be open – we can join in, contribute and ask questions – if we have enough of an understanding of the language to participate.
How are our students engaging with scholarly conversation?

Research as inquiry

It’s about questions more than answers. It’s never really done. We gain knowledge and understanding through exploring ideas, and that knowledge and understanding leads us to ask further questions.
How are our students engaging in inquiry?

Authority is constructed and contextual

A person’s reputation is built from accomplishments and experiences, and the community’s evaluation of them. Reputation and expertise in one area may not transfer to another.
How do our students question/evaluate authority?

Format as a process

The online environment can obscure the format of information products. Newspapers, research journals, and encyclopedias may all look like websites online, but there are different processes that go into generating different products in the information cycle. An awareness and understanding of those process is key to evaluating the information.
How do our students understand the information cycle?

Searching as exploration

It’s looking around, not just looking something up. Solving a complex problem may require multiple diverse resources, which may need to be sought through a variety of methods and strategies. Exploration means going beyond what is online to other types of documents, and beyond what is written down to human and institutional knowledge. This entails learning how to make observations and how to ask good questions.
How do our students engage in exploration?

Information has value

Value has a number of implications with regards to ownership and economics. We place on the information we create, and on information about us. We, as a society, negotiate this value, and also rights of ownership. Social, economic and political factors come to play in these negotiations, and impact what we can do with information and how we use it.
How do our students understand the value of information?


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To boldly go where Neil Young has gone before

tumblr_n7kxn4itK41rfil0ro1_1280Another session of The Internet Course has wrapped up. We had to work this one a bit differently. We only had five weeks, a third of the time, and we only had one fourth of the people. So it was weekly projects instead of panel discussions, which made for a more intense experience. I think both the Spring and Summer sessions were equally successful, even though they were very different.

We wrapped up with a series of video essays which analyzed visions of the future of the internet through the lens of old (and not so old) film clips. This was a challenge for the students, and myself as well, since video editing is not any of our fortes, but they all rose to the challenge, as they had done consistently throughout the course.

tumblr_n7kxn4itK41rfil0ro2_250I don’t think I’m ready to give up on the back-to-the-future theme though. The other day I watched Colossus: The Forbin Project, which had been in my Netflix queue since Bryan Alexander brought it up on the Bava. Colossus fits in a line of computer-aided doomsday machines from the Doomsday Device of Dr. Strangelove to the WOPR of WarGames to Skynet of The Terminator series. I see a common theme among these of the disastrous consequences of abdicating responsibility and giving up control. The human element does not matter to the machine, or the system, or the bureaucracy for that matter.

colossus3Another thing I see in Colossus is a vision of big computing, which was common in older science fiction. The trend towards miniaturization was seen by almost no one. Colossus is big as a mountain, and Forbin looks like some little nanobot walking through it. It also presents a vision of a command and control, hub and spoke network, in contrast to the mesh-like ARPANET that was coming on line as this movie was being made. There’s also a theme of constant surveillance, which resonates with today’s NSA activities.

The film ends with Colossus asserting world control, and explaining that it’s in humankind’s best interests:

Colossus says we’ll learn to like it. This same sentiment was expressed a few years earlier in the Star Trek episode I, Mudd, where a group of androids told Kirk, “you will be happy, and controlled.”

This idea of man controlled by machine seems a far cry from Engelbart’s vision of the augmented man:

With the human contributing to a process, we find more and more as the process becomes complex that the value of the human’s contribution depends upon how much freedom he is given to be disorderly in his course of action.

As I was thinking about the augmented man, I recalled a vocoder-distorted Neil Young voice singing Transformer Man, from his crazy Kraftwerk-inspired 1982 album, Trans. This album proved so unpopular that even I don’t have it, and along with its follow-up, Everybody’s Rockin’, managed to get Neil sued by his label.

The songs give a mixed view of where things might be going. Transformer Man has a happy hippy vibe:

Transformer man
Still in command
You’re eyes are shining on a beam
Through the galaxy of love

But he sings to the Computer Age:

I know I’m more
than just a number.


And you need me
Like ugly needs a mirror

suggesting that we’re just data to the machine, but we’re really more than that quantified self. How does ugly need a mirror? Maybe it thinks it doesn’t. Or maybe it needs something to point out its flaws. Maybe it needs the human connection in order to have beauty. We R In Control sounds a bit dystopic and Forbinesque:

Computer age in harm’s way.
We will prevail
and perform our function

Not entirely clear who “we” are, but the line “We control you floor to floor” suggests it’s not us. But then the Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher) comes along to the rescue to bring the system down, singing “ky ky yippee yi yippee yi ay” like a wanna-be Bruce Willis. And then Sample And Hold goes right back to Norman and friends on Star Trek and their vision of happiness:

Don’t hesitate to give us a call
We know you’ll be satisfied
When you energize
And see your unit come alive
We know you’ll be happy.

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Cloudy, with a chance of vectors

wordle-1962-reportEarly on in the Thought Vectors experience someone whose name I don’t remember wordled Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think. I do remember that I thought it was interesting to muse upon what you could pull out of the word cloud. This morning I saw that Christina Engelbart had posted a word cloud of Doug Engelbart’s article,  Augmenting Human Intellect. Since I have yet to read the article, I’m not sure if I can or should try to make anything of the image. But one thing that struck me about it was the repetition of words – process and processes, structure and structuring. Apparently Wordle doesn’t have a stemming function. I discovered that Tagxedo, another word cloud generator, does do stemming, so I ran the article through it. The first thing I noticed was that I don’t like Tagxedo’s fonts. There’s a button to change them, but none of the options that came up were appealing. The word computer seems to have disappeared, which is strange. Maybe the program regards it as a common word and filtered it out. Development is much more prominent, and symbol stands out a little more. I see a sentence in it: Augmentation means structure. It seems like an idea worth exploring, but I should read through the article first.

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Vectoring through concept symbiotics


cc 2009 Brian DeMaio

cc 2009 Brian DeMaio

Once upon a time, way back in my undergrad days, Johnny D asked if I wanted to play some pool. “Dude, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve played pool.” “So what? You should be good at it. It’s all vectors.” So apparently because I got an A in high school physics, I should be good at pool. The term vectors always brings that story to my mind.

Vectors, as I recall, have velocity and direction, so I suppose thought vectors would imply thinking intently and intensely towards some purpose. But that pool analogy colors my thoughts with a vision of colliding ideas going off in unexpected directions. Smells like creative spirit.

At the same time as this thought vector thing is ramping up, The Internet Course is winding up. We were just discussing Vannevar Bush and JCR Licklider a few weeks ago in building our internet timeline. And we’re talking about man-computer symbiosis (as in cyborgs) this week as we envision the future of the internet.


Our friend Wikipedia says the term cyborg comes from a 1960 paper (PDF) by Clynes and Kline, the same years as Licklider’s paper.

I think I first encountered the concept in The Avengers TV series, “Return of the Cybernauts” in my childhood days. I don’t remember anything of it now really, so it’s too bad it’s not streaming on Netflix. The earlier episode is out there though. There were also bionic men and women on TV in the 70s. I don’t remember them being called cyborgs, although the series comes from a novel of that name. The bionics seem more add-on than symbiotic to me, probably because there was no AI involved.

astonishing tales 025 02Marvel Comics wanted to adapt The Six Million Dollar Man, but lost the bidding war to a competitor. Instead they gave the green light to a true cyborg character, Deathlok. The story was born out of the Vietnam/Watergate era, but set in the 80s/90s timeframe, and prefigures The Terminator, Escape from New York, and Robocop especially. I remember being fascinated by the internal conversations between the more-or-less human half of the character and his onboard computer. You can see some of that in this scene. There’s also a third voice in there – I’m not sure who that is. Thanks to Diversions of a Groovy Kind for a scan of the full story.

The conceptual parallel between Deathlok and Robocop is so close that it seems like it’s a direct influence. The writers say otherwise, that they took their clues from Blade Runner. Allegedly, they also took inspiration from the comic book characters Judge Dredd and Rom, so there may be an indirect connection. Blade Runner was released while William Gibson was in the process of writing Neuromancer, much to the author’s embarrassment. He thought he’d be accused of stealing ideas from the film, when he was actually inspired by Carpenter’s Escape from New York.

What is it with the 80s and techno-dystopia? Deathlok was a little ahead of his time, although Orwell saw it coming decades earlier. According to Licklider, the USAF saw something coming too:

A multidisciplinary study group, examining future research and development problems of the Air Force, estimated that it would be 1980 before developments in artificial intelligence make it possible for machines alone to do much thinking or problem solving of military significance.

There’s a tension in that man-computer symbiosis. One view sees the machine as dehumanizing, the technology as a child of war, the worst of man’s efforts. But Bush saw it as enhancing and extending, making man, like Steve Austin, better than he was. And Licklider says the road to symbiosis will be ”the most creative and exciting [years] in the history of mankind.” The darker view makes for better fiction, but the hopeful view looks toward a better tomorrow.

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Your brain on the internet

The communicator badge, the enhanced vision visor that Geordie LaForge wears, and the attached and embedded technology of the Borg are all examples of wearable computing, in a sense, but they also represent a continuum of connection. The badge is strictly wearable. The visor comes on and off, but it has a neural connection as well. And the Borg implants redefine the humanity of the beings they connect to, making them half man, half machine, but also connecting them together in a networked hive. That continuum of connection moves from external devices to a brain-computer interface.  These techno-neuro connections exist today, in cochlear implants for example. The real brain-computer connection still seems like the stuff of science fiction, like William Gibson’s biosofts. That sort of invasive connection poses a medical ethics problem. But what about a non-invasive interface? When I first heard about InteraXon’s technology a few years ago, I thought it was so far out that I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. Their Muse headband, like Emotiv’s EPOC, pick up brain waves through EEG sensors. DARPA is sponsoring research into using this technology for telepathy. If we take Moore’s Law into consideration, how far away is a Borg and biosoft future?

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I thought the map of the social impacts of the internet was a great project for The Internet Course. Here is the map:

View Larger Map
It serves as another awesome example of the benefits of putting the students in the driver’s seat: I never would have thought of doing this project this way. It’s not that I’m unaware of some of the things that can be done with Google Maps. The Spreadsheet Mapper was new to me, but I’ve done things like this directly in Google Maps. I just would not have made the connection. The internet is everywhere, worldwide, and in the ether, or the cloud, but it has real impacts on real people. The class picked a few major points on a global scale, and of course there are a million more. But this could even work on a very local scale. I wonder how many small businesses in the Johnstown area have shut down because Walmart is able to leverage the internet to manage a hyperefficient supply chain. I wonder what businesses are flourishing because they can easily tap into the global market. I was talking to a luthier a few months ago. He said he used to work in central NY, but saturated that market so he had to move on to a different business, selling woodworking equipment, and different parts of the country. Now he’s back to making musical instruments in a nice little town and able to keep pretty busy because he has a global market online. The class had the brilliant insight to connect stories like that to a map, showing that the impacts of the internet are not some abstract thing but real effects on actual people.

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Odd futures

image00The Internet Society has a page of possible futures for the internet, not all positive. Something I find interesting about them is that they put these scenarios together in 2009, projecting ten years ahead. So we’re halfway between their vantage point and what they were expecting to see. They’re all mostly off track of course, since predicting the future even five years in advance is a fool’s errand. Overall they give the sense that the internet is in danger. But the animations are pretty cool.

One of the threats is the trend towards consolidation and monopolization. That may offer the benefit of economies of scale, but that benefit doesn’t always reach society at large. What gets lost are market-driven competition and innovation. Watch the big get bigger in real time:

Click the animation to open the full version (via

All that activity is happening because we’re feeding into the machine. We make it happen. But does the future have to be negative? I once heard a futurist say that it is important to imagine the future that you want to see – sort of a long-winded way of saying “think positive.” And as  Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Elon University and Pew Research have been surveying people on their predictions for the future of the internet for ten years. Their most recent report, looking ahead to 2025, is a mix of hopeful and less-hopeful visions. The first two seem nice.

metopolisIn class we talked about using movie clips to illustrate where the internet is going. This is right up my alley, of course. I went and watched Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which is possibly the first science fiction film, looking for things that might fit. There’s this scene of a shift change,  right near the beginning, showing armies of people going to work, “feeding the machine” as it were, which could be made into a metaphor for the internet (remember Wesch’s video?), or Amazon’s warehouses, or for Foxconn for that matter. But that’s the dystopian view. It’s too easy to go that way, and a lot of sci-fi does, but is that the future we want to see?  In that Elon/Pew report, Bryan Alexander says, “We will see more planetary friendships.” Paul Jones said, “Television let us see the Global Village, but the Internet let us be actual Villagers.” It may be easy to be pessimistic, but it’s better not to.

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Impact mapping

Jessi, of the illustrious Internet Course crew, suggested that we cover the impacts of the internet through a Google map. It seems counterintuitive to me – I think of the internet as the cloud, the ether, so geolocating its impacts would never have occurred to me. But people are what is impacted, and people exist in places, so it’s certainly doable.

Since Howard Gardner brought up Craig Newmark the other week, I’ve been thinking about Craigslist. I didn’t know that it came out of the hippie commune culture (sort of – it seems like Craig was a latecomer to that scene in the mid-90s), but it totally makes sense. Craigslist was one part of the internet that had a huge impact on the newspaper industry. It had been in long-term decline anyway, due to television, cable, direct mail, radio, web,… but Craigslist could be seen as dealing a deathblow. Classified advertising had been a goldmine for newspapers, and Craig started giving it away for free. Seven years ago or so, when I was still working in the printing industry, there were t-shirts going around the Newspaper Association of America conference that said “Can’t we just kill Craig?” because he was seen as taking away their jobs. I wouldn’t paint him as the bad guy – if he didn’t do it, someone else would have – but I can see why they weren’t too happy with him.

So how would I map this out? If I were mapping the economic impacts of the internet, I could mark Craigslist HQ and attach some info to it, like so:

I linked some information and images to the marker, without trying too hard. For the map to be meaningful, I’d have to add more data points. It’s possible to share maps with co-editors, so everyone could work on the same map, maybe color coding the markers according to type of impact. The Spreadsheet Mapper that Ryan Brazell wrote about probably offers more control. I just wanted to experiment directly in Google Maps.

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Playing with HTML

We’re playing with HTML in The Internet Course this week as a part of looking at how the internet works. I like doing this because it gets our hands dirty with what goes on in the background. It also ties in to last weeks topic, the history of the internet, in that early web pages were largely coded this way. Nowadays many web pages are dynamically generated from backend databases through scripts, which is the way the Internet Timeline the class did last week works.

James, being totally on the ball, put together a page covering software that makes the web work. It’s nicely organized and consistent throughout. The way my browser displays it, the text runs right up to the edge of my monitor. As someone who used to work with typography, that bothers me. So I went and looked for a way to give it a margin. W3Schools is a great resource, but it wasn’t telling me exactly what I needed to know. I figured we would have to add <head></head> tags and put something between them. There’s also a <div> tag that could be used to define the column width, but I couldn’t get a left margin set. But the page from Stack Overflow gave me an idea. They used a tiny bit of CSS styling to give a margin to paragraph elements. What if instead of specifying the margin for p, we did it for body? So following the example they gave, I saved James’ page to my desktop, opened it in Notepad, and put this between the <html> and <body> tags:

  <style type="text/css">
    body { margin-left:5em; margin-right:5em;}

Then I opened the document with Firefox and it had a good margin on both sides, like this:
screenshotThat’s basically how I learned most of what I know about coding: copying and pasting bits from Q&As and tutorials and seeing what it does. Looking at source code helps too sometimes, although these days there’s usually a lot more than just HTML.

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Blogging the internet

I don’t blog enough. Somebody should do something about that.

I might have to make that my blog’s slogan, since Jim puts me to shame. But he does that to everybody. Writing is a laborious process for me. I think I tend to overthink it, and I also feel like I’m not good at articulating my thoughts. Hopefully it gets easier as I work at it, but it’s hard work getting there.

The advantage of blogging through a course is that it pushes us to process what we’re reading and doing and discussing. Wiseman Stephen Downes says “learning is practice and reflection.” Blogging is the practice of reflection. The nice thing about it is that there is no right or wrong, no need for formality, no required length – just get some thoughts out there. In the process, we start to get our thoughts in order. Maybe we start to think a little more deeply. Maybe we see something a little differently than someone else, and offer revelation or inspiration. Maybe we have a question or some confusion, and find clarification.

Jessi has picked up on that in The Internet Course: “I think the purpose of my blog is to grow.” I was glad to see that. I also like the way she has personalized her blog with a hyperexpressive Calvin. Some others have taken that step as well – James with his Photon Powerlab, Kim with her Kimternet, and Alex experimenting with various widgets. It’s good to see that starting. But like me, we all need to do more.

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