An insult to the concept of “training”

Via the The Chronicle of Higher Education — apparently every staff member at the University of Iowa, including faculty, will now learn how not to be a jerk. Great news! Obviously it’s only ignorance of social norms that would lead a professor to offer higher grades to his female students if they let him feel their breasts. It couldn’t possibly be the case that he knew it was wrong and did it anyway. What kind of appalling free-will hell of a universe would that be to live in?

That said, I’m not at all opposed to requiring people to spend a few minutes or an hour being told about university policies and punishments, even quizzed on such policies and punishments. Oooh, let me write the quiz!

The University of Iowa punishes professors who trade grades for sex, money, or any consideration whatsoever besides merit by

A. Suspending them.
B. Firing them, tenure or no tenure.
C. Depriving them of copying privileges.
D. Relegating them to offices where new carpet has been installed.
E. Setting a trap baited with jailbait and posting the resulting video on YouTube.

Two things are wrong with this “sexual harassment training,” though. First of all, I’ve been through similar things, and usually the questions are more like the following:

For a professor to trade grades for sex, money, or any consideration whatsoever besides merit is wrong because

A. The Berne convention of 1886 declared it illegal.
B. You could lose your job.
C. It might offend the student.
D. You did not state these considerations in your syllabus’s Course Requirements.
E. All of the above.

However, I haven’t seen their proposed test. I’m sure they haven’t written it yet. Perhaps it will be sensible, and perhaps I’m being unfair. But the second thing that’s wrong? Don’t call it “sexual harrassment training.” That dilutes the very idea of education. “Training,” especially at a university, should mean teaching someone to do something. Unless they’re offering a certificate in CYA, I don’t see what they’re teaching. Call it a “University Policy Review” or something.

Current mood: disgusted.

UPDATE 8/15: Others are also disgusted.

Networks & literary influence

Last night I read Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, by Duncan Watts. It’s a few years old, now — interesting to read a book about networks, including social networks, that came out in 2003, right before the Web 2.0 explosion. Watts even added a chapter just a year later strictly in order to take into account SARS, Howard Dean, and Friendster. Awhile ago I also read (via audiobook, but let’s not quibble) the 2002 Linked: The New Science of Networks, by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, and of course I positively slavered over Here Comes Everybody a month or two ago. The Watts and Barabasi books are much more mathematical, though still very accessible, and among other things it’s amusing to read them as a narrative of scientific competition. Watts and his team build a brand-new general model of a network, but, oh no! they forget to take degree distribution into account, upon which sly Barabasi and his team triumphantly scoop them in Nature (or was it Science) with that forgotten, important adjustment. Gripping stuff. Intellectual agon at its finest.

I love reading about networks, and I’m starting to see power laws everywhere. (Which reminds me that I should really read the book The Long Tail; I’ve only read the article.) I still don’t quite get what a scale-free network is, or rather, I know what it is, but I don’t quite get what factors make a network scale-free instead of random. I’m also wondering whether hub-and-spoke networks are really a kind of hierarchy with only two levels. I’m almost at the point (god save me) of wanting to go read a bunch of business books about organizational structure. Which organizations, which structures, which networks, best allow for communication, learning, creativity, happiness and puppies? A very interesting question.

My dissertation was also based on a network question, I think, though a different one: How does one idea (“the villanelle”) travel through a network? Or, really, more simply (I’m almost ashamed to say how simple), What is the network that this idea traveled through? What was its exact route of textual transmission? I began to get very incensed at some of the fuzzy, romantic claims of those who would airily suggest that the villanelle just, you know, happened. Peasants sang merrily in the fields surrounding Naples, and next thing you know all the courtiers in France are wild for A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A”. Dude, there’s always a Patient Zero.

Last night after I shut the covers of Six Degrees, I started dreaming about building a database (or maybe it would only need to be a web service if it could hook into existing textual repositories via some kind of search protocol or APIs) that tracks literary influence. Surely someone must have done something like that? All you need to do to start, at least, is to get access to a bunch of full corpusses. Corpi? All the works of a single author; as many sets of those as you can get. Start with Shakespeare. Take every word Shakespeare ever wrote (and yes, I know that that right there is contentious, because which editions?) and do a basic concordance. There’s one at, for instance. Then take someone else: T. S. Eliot, say. Same thing: basic concordance. (Apparently there isn’t one online any longer.) Then you link the individual words, so that if you look up the word “flower” you can find out that Shakespeare used is 64 times and Eliot used it 28 times, for instance. Make sure to calculate that as a percentage of the total number of words in that author’s corpus. Then use some algorithm to determine the degree of similarity: how many of Shakespeare’s top 500 words appear in Eliot’s top 500 words, for instance. And it’d also need to take into account how many times the word “Shakespeare” appears in Eliot’s writing.

The more authors whose total oeuvre you put in, the more detailed your model of the literary network would become. Shakespeare would be a hub, duh, the Google, the Tokyo Station. You couldn’t stop there, of course. You’d have to eventually incorporate the literary criticism, for the simple reason that Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres never once mentions the word “Shakespeare,” let alone “Lear” or “a-cold.” If she uses “forked” and “jelly” it’s surely in a kitchen sense. So you’d take all the works (at that point you need a “Work” field as well as an “Author” field) that mention both “Shakespeare” and “Smiley,” and there you go. Wait, no, then you’d need to build in geography and chronology. Does Marlowe ever mention Shakespeare? Does Shakespeare ever mention Marlowe? I don’t think so, but you can’t say they didn’t influence each other. They must have.

There’d be lots of interesting insights to come out of it if it were built right, had a great interface, and had lots of good, clean, upright, loyal, chaste data behind it. Boy, wouldn’t that beat stupid clinamen, tessera, kenosis blah blah blah all hollow?

Sigh. The fantasies I have.

Results 1-1 of 1 for “is google making us stupid”: No. (0.27 seconds)

The other day I got an envelope in the mail, a grave, serious-looking envelope that seemed never to have heard of junk mail. I did know it was unsolicited, however, because this responsible piece of correspondence announced itself as being from The Atlantic. I opened it, and, as I had surmised, it was a grave, serious, highly responsible invitation to subscribe.

I might actually take them up on it at some point. The only reason I opened the piece of mail to begin with was that I had read Nicholas Carr’s piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and I found that article interesting. Wrong, but interesting.

Carr’s article has been making the rounds, especially on Twitter, which is where I first heard of it — because, as I mentioned, I am not in fact a subscriber to the print version of The Atlantic. (Yet.) First, an eminent wit made gentle fun, then Tom Scheinfeldt offered an opinion, and then someone else seemed to think that my own reading habits might be considered an example of the kind of thing Carr is talking about.

In case you haven’t guessed, the implied answer to the question is “yes.” Yes, Google is making us stupid. Surely, though, it was some Atlantic editor who came up with the title. I imagine said editor leaning back in his chair (I imagine him male), leaning back in his chair, I say, in his large office in the Watergate, the mighty Potomac and all Arlington, VA spread out behind him, expostulating, “Now, see here, Nicky, we’ve gotta have a title for this piece that grabs ya. Something kicky. Something that all the bloggers will leap on, ya know. Controversial, that’s what sells mags and ups page-hits these days.” I refrain from imagining slicked-back hair and a bushy black moustache. That would be going too far.

The title and the article clearly come from the brains of two different authors — or if the title was indeed Carr’s idea, then he must have been channeling some such cunning editorial incubus. For one thing, Carr’s real subject is the Internet, not Google, though he does offer up Google as “the Internet’s high church” and thus its moral arbiter and exemplar. For another thing, a more important thing, while Carr may wonder whether the Internet is making us stupid, he offers support for a rather different thesis: that the Internet is changing the way we read. We now read faster and shallower, we’re easily distracted, and, if we’re Nicholas Carr, we’re beautifully lyrical about it:

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Now this, as far as it goes, matches my own experience (as far as that goes). I too have noticed that I’m more easily distracted than I used to be when I’m reading or writing. Carr reports on his blog that he’s been “flooded with emails and blog posts from people saying that my struggles with deep reading and concentration mirror their own experiences.” I’ll even say that I worry about it, too. Some days I can feel my brain filling with scraps of information as though with confetti, and I want nothing more than to sit down with some Elmer’s in an empty kindergarten classroom and paste all the bits together into a semi-coherent whole.

But even so, even though Carr’s article is smarter (yes, smarter) than its title, even though my own experience matches Carr’s and that of his readers, even though I too find my new distractibility troubling and at times inconvenient, even so, I’m not sure that melancholy is the way to go here. For one thing, childishly: I like the internet. I don’t want to believe that it makes me stupid. For another, pragmatically: I don’t know what we could do about it as a society if it were true. Personally, I definitely see the benefit of no-internet times in my day, and I’ve become pretty good at policing those times so that I can focus on reading or writing, those high-concentration activities. Sure, that’s a boundary that I never used to have to set, but as a trade-off, at least I have a room of my own now (at home, anyway), unlike, say, Jane Austen, who, legend has it, used to have to write her novels “in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.”

For another thing, and more importantly, Carr has entirely left out one of the key apparatuses of the Internet: contribution. As it happens, I just saw Idiocracy, and that’s a vision that would give anyone pause. Carr’s article seems subtly to point to just such a future for our bedumbening culture. But, crucially, there’s no internet in that moronic dystopia, and indeed it’s difficult to see how there could be. There are live monster truck rallies, and there is certainly television, as if in perfect, colorful illustration of Clay Shirky’s thesis in “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” (video here). It is a nightmare of passive consumption, and therefore the Internet in all its participatory glory cannot figure there. The Internet is a place where thousands of anti-Brawndo sites and comments and images and videos and e-mail petitions would appear thirteen seconds after the government passed the policy to water the crops with a sports drink. Contribution, creation, is not only a social good, it’s a way to learn. Not just because other people can comment on what you’ve contributed and potentially modify your thoughts, but because the act of creation itself involves a crystallization of what exactly it is that you think.

Also, Carr’s comparison of Google’s project to Taylor’s is seriously borked. Taylor’s “scientific management” was a system of controlling people, and specifically people’s bodies. It was (is) a system that almost literally aimed at making a human body into a cog in a machine for the purpose of capitalist production, a system totally not down with the thesis that we are stardust, we are golden. Carr writes that “What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind,” but what that analogy lacks is the factor of power. Taylor’s managers could and did and do order their workers to stop performing complex acts of complete craftsmanship and instead perform one repetitive motion or set of motions hour after hour after tiring, soulless, painful hour. The structure of power dictated that the workers had to do this or be fired. Google, by contrast, has no power to command us. As an employer, Google notoriously gives its engineers an immense amount of physical freedom and comfort, in fact, but that’s not what Carr is talking about here. Carr seems to feel this same sense of coercion, weirdly, from the internet generally: “Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened,” he writes, “hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.” Let’s get this straight: for all its real flaws, Google does not order people to Google. Hyperlinks do not propel you toward them. The Internet does not force you to surf.

Carr’s article, as I’ve said, is very interesting, and I’m glad it appeared — it’s a question that needs to be raised, this of distractibility. What I’d like to see, however, somewhere, somehow, is a more detailed analysis of exactly what it is we’re being distracted by on the internet. I know that one thing I tend to be distracted by is precisely the urge to check, to verify: What does this word mean? Does the article hyperlinked to really say what the linker says it says? I know that another thing I tend to be distracted by is the urge to contribute, to comment: Why yes, that’s right! No, I disagree. Another distraction is the urge to share: Hey, Tom would be interested in this. This is just like that thing he sent me the other day. It’s hard for me to believe that any of these kinds of distractions, as inconvenient as they are, are making me stupid. I return to that image of confetti: to me, the internet consists of a shower of invitations to subscribe, to inform myself, to read, to think, to share, to write, and while it’s a bit loud and hectic and the trombones are a bit annoying, well, it’s a celebration, after all.