Another Meeting. Another Post-Literate Future.

by Alphaville Herald on 27/05/05 at 2:14 pm

Yesterday I attended a meeting of the SL Future Salon, organized by Jeffrey Paffendorf (SNOOPYbrown Zamboni ) of the Acceleration Studies Foundation. The idea of the SL Future Salon is to bring clever futurists (and presentists?) together in SL to discuss the shape of things to come. This round the speakers were Betsy Book (Skyllar Skidoo) of Terra Nova and Virtual World Review fame, Clark Aldrich (author of Learning by Doing), and Julian Lombardi of the Croquet Project. SL seems a natural setting for such a discussion, but as we soon learned, the technical limits of SL become painfully salient – so much so that they distracted from the content of the discussion, which is perhaps just as well, given the content of the talks and hopeless chatter from the peanut gallery (self included).

Clark Aldrich (Clark Waves), Jeffrey Paffendorf (SNOOPYbrown Zamboni) and Betsy Book (Skyllar Skidoo)

As with the last meeting of this group of bleeding edge technological leaders, the meeting was plagued with technological problems. It took about an hour just to get the audio feed, and then there was a one minute delay between in-world events and the audio. It *was* interesting to see how the introduction of audio halfway into the meeting changed the complexion of the event. I’m sure the first speaker (Aldrich) was frustrated with trying to communicate anything by typing to a crowd of attention ho’s like yours truly. I had to do that once to an SL group know as The Thinkers and I found it pretty much impossible to communicate anything of value. Oddly, though, when the audio came on it didn’t seem to help that much – it just changed everything to a different kind of bad.

The peanut gallery

The Aldrich part of the presentation is worth reflecting on at length, since the content seemed to mirror the situation we were in – trying to harness technology for more effective modes of communication and learning. The basic project is reasonable enough and to some level of granularity almost certainly true, but could we please have a moratorium on these brain dead slogans about how books are so passé and we are in a post-literate phase of learning?

Aldrich has written a couple books, but you would think from the talk that those are the only books that he’s read. In any case his idea of what books are and what they do was utterly foreign to me. Somehow he has it in his head that books are devices for the communication of lines of information. Read the sentence, comprehend the sentence, store the sentence.

Now if that was your idea of books, then of course you would have trouble seeing how books could be of any use whatsoever in the acquisition of problem-solving skills, conveyance of emotions, yadda yadda yadda. But how on God’s green earth could anyone ever come to such a bizarre view of what books are and what they do?

Books — and written and verbal communication generally — are notorious for inflaming passions, indoctrinating people into lifestyles, behavior patterns, attitudes and mores. If the only book you were familiar with was Perl for Dummies, then indeed you might think Aldrich had a point, but I do think there are some minor oversights here – you know, things like THE BIBLE and THE KORAN.

The issue is that books do not directly convey information, for the most part, but use fragments of natural languages as kinds of hints and clues, in conjunction with our ever day experiences and abilities, to convey ideas, feelings, and yes even abilities. What is conveyed is not IN the book per se, but is rather the product of the book plus the agent plus the environment. Books provide hints and suggestions that in the hands of intelligent agents with lots of real world knowledge and practical reasoning skills and abilities can result in understanding or acquiring deep truths and abilities. Nor is it an accident that written communications are able to do this with some effectiveness – the technology has several thousand years of beta testing behind it.

I thought about this a lot during the discussion, and what exercised me was not the thesis being advanced by Aldrich (which was a howler) but rather trying to figure out the source of such a monumental tragicomic error. The theory I came up with was this: You sit in silicon valley, playing with computers, and pretty soon you start extending the computer metaphor into your everyday life. You see books, and you think: ah, these are just like lines of code that we feed into our CPUs. You begin to mistake written forms of natural language communication for lines of code. Once you accede to this confusion you have begun sliding down a path of ever more profound confusion. You think: gosh, all this cool stuff I do cannot have been taught in lines of code, so I didn’t get it from books or verbal instructions. Books are crap! They can’t teach me! Books are just so…so… pre-9/11.

The audio came on for the discussion with Julian Lombardi, which had the odd effect of leading me to turn up the volume and leave the computer entirely, coming back every five minutes or so to read the comments from the peanut gallery (and maybe add some). Not that the comments were taken seriously.

I had been looking forward to the Lombardi presentation because I’ve been a big booster of the Croquet Project for some time now. I even hyped it in my presentation at the State of Play last November. Sadly, I didn’t learn anything new about Croquet here, and more sadly Lombardi didn’t have clue one about Second Life so any kind of comparative analysis was completely off the burner.

Croquet, of course, is a project that provides an open source 3-D graphical environment for collaborative projects that allows building objects, scripting them, skinning them, etc, plus running lots of applications (e.g. web browsers) in the environment. So it is natural to ask, as one person did, “What is the difference between this and SL.” A good question that was never answered. We did get a nice gee we should work together some day sort of answer, but I don’t count that. Also on my mind was the question I asked last November: if you have Croquet who needs SL? That was asked and ignored twice. Oh well…

Bettsy Book’s talk was sort of interesting to me for a while, because I hadn’t exactly thought about it, but now that I have I think I might be done thinking about it. She discussed branding of virtual merchandise in SL, with particular attention to FIC allstars Amiee Weber and Cubey Terra. The general impression I got was that branding strategies are going overlap in a major way with real world branding strategies – possibly to the point where there is no meaningful difference apart from the available color palette. Or if there was a difference it wasn’t made salient to me.

Well that’s about it, except for some comments by the “instant access” peanut gallery. It is really just impossible to sit there and not heckle, I’ve discovered, which is sort of cool. Everything depends then on the moderators and speakers to properly filter the stream of wisecracks and occasional good points. That might be an impossible job, it also makes it very easy to ignore the questions you don’t want to answer by selecting the softballs from the bit stream.

But I rant.

Uri checks out the scarey new skin of Clickable Culture’s Zero Grace.

Even naked guys and anarchists are futurists!

9 Responses to “Another Meeting. Another Post-Literate Future.”

  1. budka groshomme

    May 27th, 2005

    Excellent points, Uri. The problem with the post-lit concept is that they have yet to present an alternative way to encode information for the future generations, which is why we have books to begin with. Until that problem is solved they spout meaningless nonsense.

    The other point is that they confused learning through books with converying knowlege through books. One can learn through doing, but that locks the future into an apprentice-journeyman-expert model that is mostly and thankfully, in our distant past.

    Not being able to hear the audio gave me somewhat of a biased view of what was being presented. Are we next going to have a session for the blind?

  2. Tony Walsh

    May 27th, 2005

    Good review, Uri. I had to bail “early” (1.5 hours into the discussion), so I missed a good deal of chatter. I’m hoping the next installments of the SL Future Salon will be less glitchy and managed better. I don’t have a lot of free time (most of it is taken up playing Pong), so I’m hoping for a tighter schedule next round. Also, there should really be a heckler backchannel available to keep the noise down. Given that I had my chat window open full-screen most of the time, the meeting might as well have been held in IRC.

    This being said, I don’t want to minimize the efforts of Paffendorf and his merry band. They’ve done great work putting these discussions together and I look forward to more.

  3. hank hoodoo

    May 27th, 2005

    Uri, you sum up better than I could have, or at least better than I have the willpower to, a lot of what I was distressed me about this “post-literate” stuff. I do think the less sensational version of his point – that new technologies create exciting new venues for learning and thinking in ways that we couldn’t before – is right on, but it’s a big damn step from that to “books are obsolete.” So much so that it terrifies me how much the internet has shortened my attention span these days.

    Ironically, I think his argument would have been carried off better if it HADN’T been reduced to a blurb by the format, something what else but a *book* is good for.

    But nonetheless really engaging… I’m with Tony that Jerry, the techies, and the speakers deserve madd props, and I’m looking forward to future future (?) salons.

  4. montserrat

    May 28th, 2005

    when people say books are dead what they’re pointing at in kind of a ham-handed stupid attack way is that one way of moving information (the book) has changed. its like when you had codexes and then the technologies changed some and then you got printed books. its not that big a deal really, i mean not as big a deal as some people with tenure think it is.

    what is interesting to me about the experience described in the article above was the idea that its real hard to communicate ideas in the IM/chat context. that idea is interesting because it defines a boundary around what you can and can not talk about.

  5. SNOOPYbrown Zamboni

    May 28th, 2005

    Good stuff, guys. Thanks for the feedback and criticism, and Tony and Hank, thanks also for the props (it’s really very much appreciated). Oh, and for the record Uri, it’s Jerry not Jeffrey (not that I haven’t been called worse :-) .

    Couple of quick things. Clark and Julian have both agreed to do follow-up phone interviews and take unanswered questions from the Salon. I’ll be sure to include the issues you all raise here. Let me know if you have more.

    On the comments regarding Clark’s research and presentation, some of them are a liiiiittle “fairly unbalanced” ;-) considering the awkward format he got caught in (like Uri points out with his Thinkers experience, it’s hard to get complex ideas across in a sea of chat, so I would point you to his pretty prolific writings (yes writing!) elsewhere online or most conveniently this audio recording). In everything I’ve heard and read, Clark focuses on fixing the gaps between school/training and the professional world, and what people know vs. what they do. He doesn’t focus on making books disappear but he does focus on why the status of book as penultimate learning tool is changing*. As a 23 y/o recent college graduate and avid book reader who’s now out there learning to do things “for real,” his slide with the “Infatuation with Books” axis really resonated with me, maybe because I didn’t take “post-literate”, well, too literally ;-) . The upcoming phone conversation should clarify things more, and I’ll be sure to ask him for pointers to his hard data, too.

    *On this idea I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter”. From an editorial review: “Worried about how much time your children spend playing video games? Don’t be, advises Johnson—not only are they learning valuable problem-solving skills, they’d probably do better on an IQ test than you or your parents could at their age…”

    Switching subjects to Salon use and access, it’s interesting to hear how different people experienced it. Tony had his chat window nearly covering his whole screen, for example, and Uri walked away from his machine when the audio kicked in. I think that’s great, and we’ll expand and keep a variety of content and participation options open, some of which don’t involve direct use of SL at all. The Salons are already at a point where you can experience them 1. fully in Second Life 2. live on the Web in video and chat or just plain audio 3. after the fact in audio downloads and chat logs, or any combination of all three. Yes we had some audio roughness at the beginning of last Salon, but dude, when this thing is streamlined it’s gonna be suh-weet. Suggestions, constructive criticism, and volunteers much appreciated.

    Lastly, regarding Betsy’s presentation where she asked for examples of a virtual world-grown brand transferring from one VW to another, I think I’ve got one that might count. Can you guess what it is? (Hint: the Herald, w00t! :)

  6. Urizenus

    May 28th, 2005

    Thanks for the comments Jerry. There is actually a serious debate going on right now in philosophy about so-called knowledge how, vs. knowledge that. It’s an old distinction (the moniker is due to Austin, I believe) but it’s not clear what it comes to (remember the old debate in computer science between declarative vs procedural languages?). However that debate comes out, the question of lteracy or post-literacy or whatever is just too much of a mess to make progress possible in thinking about the problem. One problem is that we don’t know what literacy IS. Is it book knowledge? Does it include familiarity with picture books? Illuminated manuscripts? Rare artifacts? Self-help books?

    I think ‘literate’ is just a verbal badge of honor that we give to people that we want to celebrate for their having a certain skill-set, which makes Clark’s position seem all the more bizarre. You aren’t literate because you store a bunch of sentences in your head. You are literate when you you have an important basket of skills which allow you to extract information and acquire abilities from various forms of written communication, and probably we could extend that idea to graphical communications as well.

    At the end of the day books are just tools for communicating that take advantage of the real world knowledge and abilitites that we already have in place. I don’t think most people appreciate this and I’m pretty sure that Clark doesn’t appreciate it either.

    Now as you can imagine, having taught at the university level in some capacity or other since 1983 I’ve experimented a lot with different teaching styles, techniques, and tools, and universities are constantly trying to get us to experiment with newfangled educational technologies. I can’t speak for anyone else, but in the case of teaching abstract subects like philosophy those technologies have been utter failures for me (I can’t speak for other subjects or teachers), and I think I know why they don’t work for me.

    The problem, paradoxically, is that these new technologies that are supposed to be so newfangled and all are in fact quite retrograde in their underlying philosophy of the nature of the human learning experience. They are primarily concerned with pushing information, typically graphical information, at students. But the problem isn’t finding ways to package information, the problem is establishing a learning community with the student, and in large measure this means establishing a brand new micro-language with the classroom. Existing technologies are woefully bad at this for the simple reason that the basic science does not exist which allows us to understand how good teachers and good students collaborate in the construction of these micro-languages and the formation of their learning communities. Pushing machines at the problem is not only hopeless, it is a gigantic step backwards.

    But then again, I haven’t read Clark’s books on learning, nor for that matter, have I read much of anything on the topic of teaching. I learned all this by doing it. ;-)

    Oh and yeah, the Herald is an example of a brand that has moved into a new MMORPG. “Yesterday TSO, Today SL, tomorrow the World!” That’s the secret motto that we don’t put on the banner.

  7. komuso tokugawa

    May 29th, 2005

    That’s not Anarchy…it’s a map of the Lost island.

  8. komuso tokugawa

    May 29th, 2005

    Yep, that post-literate stuff was a load of rubbish methinks.
    Typical old “out with the old, cos the new has to be better approach” that is such a flawed approach to thinking about diffusion and integration of new tech (and that’s coming from a rabid early adopter.)

    Especially that slide depicting academics as literate…if anything academics may well be some of the least literate people on the planet, given their prediliction for writing papers littered with technobabble and gobblygook, usually to impress their equally (il)literate peers.

    I made a few peanut gallery posts, in particular a reference to a book that focuses on the decline of the english language through silo obfuscation lingo (dang!…see, I can do it too!)
    “The book charts how “managerial language” has infiltrated the English of politics, business, bureaucracy, education and the arts. The book is about the rise of core strategies and key performance indicators, and the death of clarity and irony and funny old things called verbs. It is about a new language that Watson calls sludge and clag and gruel. Those three blunt words speak to the book’s larger intention. Death Sentence is also a manifesto, the first shots, Watson hopes, in a campaign everyone can join to bring the language back to life.” The Age, Nov. 2003″

    That said, I fully agree with clarks approach to learning and simulations, and I hope to read more about his clarifications of “post-literacy” and the “death of books”…

    God Save the Queen…:-)

  9. Prokofy Neva

    May 31st, 2005

    Uri, I already said a lot of this in my forums post of a few weeks ago after an earlier Salon:

    The peanut gallery, the self-conscious pretentiousness of some of the futerati, the lack of a sound track, the lack of a point when presentations are wrapped in all this glittery, shiny cyber stuff. I wish the Saloners would just come IW and type like the rest of us. Just one time. Then fool around with all that other stuff if they can get it to work. On their blogs and elsewhere, I made note of this article in “The New Republic” about the demise of the book and “book-learning” and it isn’t at all the rosy picture you’d imagine since the premise is: you miss a lot. (you need a subscription to view) (need to download the TK3 reader to view)

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