?> INFOMATTERS | Applying a Third Force to the Architecture of Information

The new world order is scarily familiar

Two somewhat unrelated news items caught my eye this week and suggested there is a long way to go before we understand what the new technologies of information mean for our world, and, more importantly, how to leverage their benefits.  News of the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will dominate news now from that country, perhaps deflecting the rather more terrifying coverage of Raid Badawi’s treatment at the hands of authorities. In case you missed it, he’s been sentenced to 1000 lashes, 10 years of imprisonment and fined close to $250,000 for blogging. Yes, you read that right – for blogging. Not hate crimes, not some imagined insult to a god, not murder, just blogging. And if you read his blog, you will note that the writings are generally smart, insightful and aimed at encouraging intelligent discussion.   Oh, and don’t forget, Saudi Arabia is one of our allies.

Now, looking at that link above, think about this. A federal judge in Dallas yesterday sentenced journalist  Barrett Brown to jail for another five years (he’s served more than one already) for  providing a link to hacked material. You can add almost a $1m fine to that too. But at least he did not get any lashes, right?

Journalists rightly point to the chilling effect Brown’s sentence has on investigative reporting, arguing that if one accidentally linked to hacked data, such as some of those leaked customer files so many companies seem to have a hard time securing, you would likely be similarly prosecuted. Showing distinctly more sangfroid at the news than I would in his shoes, Brown stated :

“Good news! — The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex. For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment. — Wish me luck!”

He won’t be the only one who needs it!


Enough with the ‘entrepreneurialsm’ already….

Everywhere you go in academia these days (or on social media) you find people harping on about being entrepreneurial or innovative. We are supposed to aspire to think big, think different, and to disrupt the status quo. Hell, you can even make up new words to show how unique you are (or if you are self-titled ‘thought-leader, speculatist and acclaimed thought-leader’ Troy Hitch, you can even forget the old rule about not repeating yourself, THAT’s how innovative he is). It used to be that everyone aspired to be ‘ethical’, at least in the wake of Wall St scandals a few years back, but now the BS has been upped a notch or two and people are desperate to demonstrate their credentials as genuine creative forces bent on shaping the future, seizing the opportunity, taking the uncharted course, starting the next Facebook, mining the big data,  having double visions (ok, I made that last bit up).

How pin-prickingly deflationary it must be then for such folks to read the latest National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of what employers actually want in new hires. No, the old staple of ‘communication skills’ is not #1 (but it remains highly sought). Nor is it even ‘ethics’ but ‘good work ethic’ is required. The #1 is Leadership, joint with Ability to Work in a Team (oh dear!). Being an entrepreneur? Ranked 17th, with only 25% of employers thinking it important. Being creative? That’s 19th, rated as less important than being tactful. Being a speculatist? Sorry, no need to apply.

iSchool faculty in Top 5 UT Inventions of 2014


What is it? Ciaran Trace, assistant professor in the School of Information, and Luis Francisco-Revilla, research associate at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, created software for a large touch-screen, table-top computer called an Augmented Processing Table (APT). The APT helps archivists and curators to better access, share and process both physical and born-digital materials.

Tell me more: The invention garnered the first Archival Innovator Award from the Society of American Archivists in 2013, with the team’s work being described as, “groundbreaking, overcoming professional and philosophical boundaries, embracing innovative ideas and emerging technology, and rethinking current standards and commonly-used models for arrangement and description in modern archives.” Ultimately, APT Research Team’s work will not only help people in the field of archival science follow best practices for processing but also will increase and enhance access to “reliable, accurate and trustworthy collections of information.”

Le Guin 2014 Book Awards Acceptance Speech – no further comment required

Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom.

Thank you.

Is age ruining tenure?

Well, big-time athletics might be part of the problem (see earlier post) but today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed ran a fascinating commentary from a just-retired professor about the problems of age. Apparently the average age of tenured faculty in the US is 55, and going up. Further, the number of professors over 65 has doubled in 10 years. Since there is no required or compulsory retirement age, tenure is increasingly the province of those who are not, shall we say, at their intellectual peak. Laurie Fendrich’s article raises very interesting questions about the motivations of some who stay on, perhaps longer than they should. 

Of course, this is a very difficult issue. There are older professors who are superb but there are also many who are not. I’ve always thought the best way to handle this was to come to some agreement that at a certain age, say 67, we remove tenure but offer those interested and capable of carrying on a rolling contract, renewable as agreed. If you are productive and enthusiastic, you stay on, but you don’t get to hang on forever just because you can. Am sure there are some wrinkles in this, not least the likelihood for abuse, but we do need to start talking about tenure and its limits before the matter is taken on by those who would love to rid the university system of this protection once and for all. In no other professions that most people pursue is there such a provision for permanent employment and the old defense that it protects ‘free thinking’ rings a bit hollow when most faculty don’t speak up over scandals such as those we see at UNC.  It’s time for universities to lead this discussion, not avoid it from fear.



Athletics ruining tenure?

For those of us raised outside the US, the college athletics system has always seemed curiously serious, almost professional. Players are often treated like royalty, huge crowds attend games, and the media interest in ‘student’ athletes seems to draw little distinction between  amateur college players and the pros in the major leagues. That most of these students are also working towards degrees in various fields (though clearly not all fields) is considered a given, though questions about how they can do this while training and traveling as athletes tend to be brushed aside. Athletic teams are expected at all major universities and the ties with alumni fundraising are undeniable. As long as people feel good, the athletes don’t forget they are students first, and more than a few sports are supported, what’s not to like?

Well, the recent scandals at Penn and UNC suggest the story is not quite so rosy. Though different in nature, they both point to the problems of money corrupting the values of public universities. UNC’s revelation that more than 3000 students over 18 years had participated in what is now called a ‘shadow curriculum’, getting easy grades for coursework that was, to all intents and purposes, of no educational value just so they could stay in school to participate in athletics is being treated with all the shock-horror reaction the media can muster. But is anyone really surprised? I mean, this was going on for over a decade. It involved a Professor of Ethics. There was a network of advisers, faculty and coaches who enabled it. And now people ask if this is an isolated case? Yeah right. As Brian Roberts, Professor of Sports Law at IU commented, the only real distinguishing issue here is  ‘they just got caught’.

The real concern for some of us is the fact that good faculty stand by and let this kind of corruption occur. And the ‘we didn’t know’ defense won’t wash. This scandal originated, according to the Wainstein report, in an academic program. Last April, the retired UNC faculty group wrote an open letter through the alumni association asking why current faculty were so silent on this matter, accusing them of abdicating responsibility as a faculty. After combing through more than 1.6 million emails, the full extent of murky boundaries between academics and athletics is coming to light and it’s hard to really believe that nobody outside of the named culprits actually knew what was happening.  One suspects that among the real reasons for faculty silence on such matters might be the belief that few people in the upper administrations of a university want to admit that  dubious practices are occurring or to deal with the fall-out from well-resourced alumni and power brokers who are quite happy to maintain the status quo. In such a context, what faculty member wants to blow whistles or be labelled a trouble-maker. Pity, but one imagined that was what tenure might usefully be seen as protecting.

We live in an age of increasing compliance, but regulatory oversight cannot be a surrogate for correct behavior. And when education has been devalued to the point that a degree is a commodity item provided by an organization with a sport-based business model  then yes, one can rightly ask, where were those tenured faculty? Cowed by choice or by context, this is another example of the corrupting influence of non-educational forces on the academy. When the tenured stand for nothing except their own career comfort then we might truly ask if the tenure system is itself broken?


Austin Google Community Forum

Spent most of Monday afternoon at the Google Fiber community forum at the Palmer Center. Roughly 150 participants representing organizations proposed to receive 1gb  connections when Fiber is rolled out in Austin came to hear a few of us talk about the challenges and possibilities this offered. Amid all the hoopla about speed, I encouraged folks to remember that no matter how fast the ‘net gets, people are still people so their cognitive processing won’t get any faster, their reading and viewing habits will remain and we should all work on designing through community involvement not just data deluge. I enjoyed the events and am pleased to offer the opportunity for our students to get involved. I just wish, when speakers are told to prepare their talks to be no longer than five minutes, some would not conveniently blow through this limit and hog the stage for double this. Ah, but what was that I was just saying about people not getting any faster……