Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer builds websites, makes art, and teaches in NYC

Class and attention quality

From yesterday’s New York Times article, “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era”:

“Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment,” said Vicky Rideout, author of the decade-long Kaiser study. “Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.”

Policy makers and researchers say the challenges are heightened for parents and children with fewer resources—the very people who were supposed to be helped by closing the digital divide.

The same day Matt Mullenweg posted this video to his blog. It’s a presentation about the social implications of constantly using one’s iPhone, given at a country club.


Digital literacy and attention quality are certainly important across the socioeconomic spectrum, but I do think that it’s legitimate for public policy to focus on the needs of lower income people. More from the Times article:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

Let me preface this by saying that I have much respect for Microsoft’s danah boyd, who is quoted in the article. But the idea of Best Buy and Microsoft funding a national digital literacy program sounds to me like McDonald’s funding a new school lunch program. “Connect2Compete” sounds like a great name for some dystopian parody of corporate-training-mill style technology education.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support these kinds of initiatives. I just think we need more independent efforts, for example Jonathan Baldwin’s Tidepools. As part of his thesis project at Parsons, Baldwin set up free community wifi for primarily lower income residents of Brooklyn’s Red Hook. The community mapping application he created uses the visual language of gaming to do things like improve civic infrastructure and map out the locations of NYPD stop-and-frisks.

It’s impressive work, and I’m happy to hear he’ll be developing it further under the New America Foundation. And it’s given me a lot of ideas about how I should proceed with

Ellie Irons: Speculative

This one has been fun to watch come together:

Combining found natural materials (dead wood, foliage) with electrical wiring and living plants like moss and lichen, the sculptural installation took the form of a networked branch riddled with wires that seem to be either drawing power from or conveying power too the surrounding built environment. I filmed the sculpture as I built it, combining footage shot in the studio with details from the surprisingly vibrant forest outside my studio. The result is a piece that slowly reveals an ecosystem in which the lines between technological and biological evolution appear increasingly blurred.

It’s also worth relinking the Bruce Sterling talk which is also amazing.


Gladwell vs. Shirky: A Year

Acts of communication, by themselves, aren’t especially interesting. We’ve always had protests, riots, and revolutions, and the people who carried them out have always found ways to spread the word. If the medium for those communications shifts from word of mouth, to printed flier, to telephone, then to texts and Twitter, what does it really matter? Technology becomes an important part of the story only if it’s changing the nature of the events — and the nature of the social groups that are carrying them out.

See also: How to run a protest without Twitter


Why you should learn to program your computer

This is an essay I wrote for a one-off newspaper published by the Trade School folks. I haven’t found any trace of it online, but I bet a PDF version will materialize at some point.

An unusual book was published in 1974 called Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It has an oversized magazine format and two front covers. The two sides read inward to the center page, each side rotated 180° to the other. On the Computer Lib side, above a crudely-drawn clenched fist, reads the subtitle: You can and must understand computers NOW. I like the imperative nature of the phrase, even all these years later.

The book isn’t written by a computer scientist. Its author, Ted Nelson, isn’t a “technical person” so to speak, he has degrees in sociology and philosophy. He is a kind of über-generalist:

People keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t. EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross- connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly.

Nelson also coined the term “hyptertext” and continues to work on Xanadu, an ambitious (but tragically unpopular) hypertext system technically still in competition with the World Wide Web. I think of him, fondly, as the web’s crazy uncle. I appreciate his open resistance to the conventions of the web, even if my own career building websites is largely based on those conventions.

It’s hard to overstate the ubiquitous role the web now plays in our lives. The undergraduates I teach have grown up with access to Facebook and Google, these things must feel timeless to them. However, the internet as a whole is a fairly recent creation. It’s the result of very deliberate choices reflected in infrastructure and code. It’s easy to overlook how that hardware and software actually operates on our data.

As Lawrence Lessig has argued in Code, “we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear.” Setting aside Lessig’s unfashionable use of the word cyberspace, his point is an important one. It’s echoed more recently by Douglas Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed:

Throughout the twentieth century, we remained blissfully ignorant of the real biases of automotive transportation. We approached our cars as consumers, through ads, rather than as engineers or, better, civic planners. We gladly surrendered our public streetcars to private automobiles, unaware of the real expenses involved.

Like global warming and urban sprawl, the dangers of centralized, corporate control over our mediated lives might seem daunting, inevitable even. It’s tempting to simply make due with those tools already at hand, to let professionals make the hard decisions about the software we rely on. The principle of intertwingularity suggests otherwise—your individual preferences and knowledge are fundamentally connected to the technologies where they become manifested. The capacity to write code is deeply intertwingled with what that software can produce.

Granted, the progress you can expect to make learning to program computers will be slow. It may take years before you build anything close to useful. Even so, the patterns of thought developed through understanding code will help you better negotiate the strange currents of our hypermediated world. The important first step is understanding why so that you will want to find out how. The second step is deciding on a project to undertake. The rest is a cyclical process of typing, befuddlement, and exhilaration when you finally understand how it works.

danah boyd on the participatory

From the Frontline roundtable I linked to earlier:

What worries me – and what I feel the need to call out – is not about whether or not everyone in the world will benefit in some ways by information and communication technologies, but whether or not the privileged will benefit more in ways that further magnifies structural inequality. I am certainly seeing this as the US college level, as more privileged US freshman are leaps and bounds ahead of their less privileged peers in terms of technological familiarity, a division that makes educating with technology in the classroom challenging.


Roger Ebert gets his voice

Well, kind of, thanks to a company that custom builds text-to-speech voices. Ebert’s new voice is compiled from his vast accumulated archive of reviews and commentary tracks.

CereProc didn’t need to hear me speaking a specific word in order for my “voice” to say it. They needed lots of words to determine the general idea of how I might say a word. They transcribed and programmed and tweaked and fiddled, and early this February, sent me the files for a beta version of my voice. I played it for Chaz, and she said, yes, she could tell it was me. For one thing it knew exactly how I said “I.”

CereProc is now blending in my audio snippets for “Casablanca,” where I sound enthusiastic, and “Floating Weeds,” where I sound calm and respectful. It’s nice to think of all these great movies sloshing around and coming out as my voice.

Link (See also)

Greg Allen on Gareth Long’s Untitled (Stories)

Gareth Long’s giant lenticular prints based on the iconic-yet-anachronous 1991 cover designs for JD Salinger’s books are freaking me out right now … Something an aesthete in an early Star Trek movie might have had hanging on his wall.

To fully appreciate these you have to watch the videos on Gareth Long’s website.


Making websites with WordPress

Tonight I’ll be giving an introductory presentation on using WordPress as part of the Trade School workshop series. Unfortunately my session is already full, but I’d like to do this again in the future (perhaps for The Public School?). In any case, here are my presentation slides (pdf).

Trade School has an interesting model: students bring an item or perform a task in exchange for the teacher’s time. In my case these objects (no tasks in my case) fall into two categories: personal enjoyment and materials for my projects. They range in “material value,” but the point for me isn’t so much that I get a fair exchange. Besides, our society is really bad at arriving at a reliable price on education.


When Is Transparency Useful?

Aaron Swartz is skeptical of politicians who trumpet “transparency” as the solution to government corruption.

When you create a regulatory agency, you put together a group of people whose job is to solve some problem. They’re given the power to investigate who’s breaking the law and the authority to punish them. Transparency, on the other hand, simply shifts the work from the government to the average citizen, who has neither the time nor the ability to investigate these questions in any detail, let alone do anything about it. It’s a farce: a way for Congress to look like it has done something on some pressing issue without actually endangering its corporate sponsors.

Link (See also)

Rhizome’s Seven on

This one day conference at the New Museum sounds interesting.

Seven on Seven will pair seven leading artists with seven game-changing technologists in teams of two, and challenge them to develop something new — be it an application, social media, artwork, product, or whatever they imagine — over the course of a single day.

$250 registration ($75 for students) until the February 23rd early bird deadline.


The Days of Miracles and

Greg Knauss travels back in time and has a conversation with himself about the future:

That’s why I wanted to talk to you, 1990 me. Your cynicism is important, even vital. God knows, there are times when it will seem like bunnies-and-rainbows optimism given what actually happens. Things get really, really bad for a while, and no amount of cynicism seems like enough.

But I also wanted to make sure that there are some things that are, in fact, awesome. The world’s been through a hell of a lot, and I’m not sure I trust my own eyes anymore.

Link via Daring Fireball