Thursday, 29 November 2007

Dissensus in academe

Andrew Keen gave a fine performance in this morning's opening plenary session challenging, quite assertively, the complacent acceptance of everything about Web 2.0 as being positive. Building on the thesis of his recent, controversial, book, "The Cult of the Amateur", he pointed to the dilemma in the perception of Google and Wikipedia as being in some ways 'authoritative' or even correct sources of knowledge and information and the threat that the web poses for children, learners and others who nowawadays use it as the first (and most often, last) port of call. Whilst his plea for a reassertion of 'authority' in the sense of quality, accreditation and validity of information mightn't have gone down terribly well with the post-modernists in the audience (and it didn't), in a later (jam-packed) discussion session he made it quite clear that this cultural relativism, linked with a naive enthusiasm for technology, is at the heart of the google/wikipedia/second life millionaires' financial model; in which, essentially, they reap profits from a free (willing-slave) workforce and in which learners are lied to, mislead and cheated.

He admitted that in his book he was over-generous to 'traditional media', but claimed that his basic point is that, with these, you know their intrinsic biases and act accordingly (eg we all know the political line likely to be followed by any particular newspaper), whereas with the web the cloak of anonymity allows anyone to peddle anything as 'truth'. The difficulty he faced was that his assertiveness and the abrupt way in which he cast aside questions that he had obviously been sick of hearing a million times probably alienated a few of the gentler types in the audience and pushed them onto the defensive opposite position. Indeed, this came through in the final plenary session where Graham Attwell snarled disapproval and proclaimed himself to be a proud ex-hippy and socialist looking to overturn educational traditions with Web 2.0!

Certainly, nothing like a good debate to make a conference memorable!

One of Andrew Keen's targets, in the later discussion, was Second Life, which I have to admit has been somewhat disturbingly cropping up at almost every presentation. Clearly there are many enthusiasts in universities around the world, with many owning 'islands' within SL. Part of what he was saying was a reminder to the audience that the founder of SL comes from a strong evangelical, born-again Christian background as do others within Web 2.0 and virtual worlds and he worries that this ethos is what drives and underpins some of these developments. For example, with SL being an attempt to create a better, Christian world/heaven and to accommodate people to their notion of a separation of body and soul which might ultimately legitimise arguments for the existence of an alternative afterlife/soul. Interesting philosophical point. Of course, one could point out that in practice the sorts of behaviour exhibited by many on SL represent a serious digression from the standard perception of what 'Christian values' are supposedly about.

In summary though, he was at great pains to point out that he is not a Luddite, but rather that we deserve to be more critical of technology developments and their social implications. What we need to deal with urgently is providing children and students with a critical media literacy that allows them to fully appreciate the difference between the opinions of a "fourteen year old" and a "Harvard professor" and stop the delusion that hard work and effort isn't needed in order to be educated or understand subjects. He also suggested that many of the Silicon Valley pioneers have recognised the limitations of their approach and are now developing new systems which restore the value of human expertise, such as the Mahalo search engine which is built on the skills and knowledge of human experts and librarians/curators. The issue of anonymity versus confidentiality is also central to his argument - that anonymity and lack of identity undermines the value of any contribution posted onto the web (eg in wikipedia, discussion forums, etc).

The other talked about keynote in the morning session was that of Prof Sugata Mitra - who later joined Andrew Keen for the discussion session and who presented a very different perspective, based on that of the scientific concept of self-organising systems and how given what we know of evolution and developmental systems, we perhaps shouldn't worry too much about such short-term concepts as SL/Google etc..they may not even survive. Perhaps they are an evolutionary blind alley rather than necessarily the mainstream future of the internet. Indeed, as he rightly pointed out in the long term view, humanity itself will have a tough job continuing as it is!

However, his actual keynote was on an entirely different subject. He described some experiments that he has conducted all over India in which he placed a broadband connected computer into a kiosk (or stone building, usually) with a touch pad and keyboard and left it in the middle of villages or near playgrounds to see what would happen. He showed some video-footage taken in several of the locations and what he discovered was that the devices sparked the curiousity of the children (but not the adults) in these rural or slum areas, and over time the children gradually learned how to use it to surf the web and get information. This is despite the fact that none of them had seen a computer before, had little or no formal education at all and had no knowledge of English. Over a number of months the children had learned English and about computers. He presented a number of fascinating stories and examples including one where he accepted the challege of demonstrating that left to themselves a group of Tamil children in a remote village could teach themselves the basics of biotechnology in English! He said that when he spoke with the children later they said that they hadn't really learned very much, "other than that transcription errors and genetic mutations cause a range of diseases and that the build up of plaque in the brain explains the poor memory and behaviour of some of the older people in the village."

His core message though was that with children, computers should be in the playground and used by groups clustering around, arguing and teaching each other, rather than stuck inside classrooms for individual use.

His presentation was full of humour and clearly endeared him to the audience. Although one person might not be too happy about his wise crack regarding Google's plans to develop a system 'which will be able to tell you what to do tomorrow, what career options suit you and help form your opinions.' He said he already possesses such a system and it can indeed be difficult to cope with but he manages as best he can with his wife !

Oh, and of course he pointed out the irony in the Second Life story being that the word 'avatar' is of course of Sanskrit origin and the Hindu belief in a God only being able to appear in the world in a simulated, animated form, thus in their system it is first life that's second life....if you see what I mean!

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