Wired to Geeks: Come Talk About Yourselves

First there was the Wikitorial, and now Wired is giving it a try by posting a news story for readers to edit.  The subject: Wikis!  The original, unedited story begins:

Wikipedia has hit the big time.

The massive user-generated and edited site is not only the biggest
encyclopedia in the world, it’s also gotten the attention of the media
elite, been lampooned by the Onion and Comedy Central and will come
packaged with MIT’s $100 laptop project.

But what are the lessons of Wikipedia and what bodes for the future of
wikis beyond Wikipedia? Will open collaboration be the exception or the

Wow, pretty shocking stuff, Wired.  Apparently I’m not the only one who’s less than enthused about the topic.  After one day, only two people have edited the page besides the original author.*  I suspect the wiki-folk are abuzz somewhere about this experiment, but just not on the page itself.

Link to the wiki page: Wired Wiki.
Link to Wired story about the story: Wired News: Edit This Wired News Story.

Correction!  There have been 103 edits to date.  I was looking at the history for the "original unedited" version, which had been edited nine times by three users.  Confused?  Me too.  I blame SocialText’s horrible navigation interface.  (Hey, wasn’t Social Text the name of the journal that hosted the Sokal hoax?  I wonder if this coincidence means anything to anyone.)

Anyway, here’s the opening to the current, edited story:

Wikipedia has edited its way into the big time.

The massive user-driven site is now by far the biggest encyclopedia in
the world. It has recently attracted the attention of the media elite,
having been lampooned by The Onion and Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert
— who in turn gave birth to the term "wikiality". Wikipedia may also become familar to children without access to the internet as its extensive database will come pre-packaged with MIT’s $100 laptop in the One Laptop per Child project.

But is there a future for wikis beyond the encyclopedia model? Will open collaboration be the exception or the rule?

I usually try to restrain myself from criticizing other people’s writing, because I’m no example, but this is truly crappy writingOf course I could go edit it myself if I really cared — Wired even trotted out the obligatory "If you don’t participate you can’t complain about the results" in their teaser to the article, presumably being a bit tongue-in-cheek.

On Technology Criticism and its Reception

A quote from the preface to Langdon Winner‘s classic book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986):

[T]his is a work of criticism.  If it were literary criticism, everyone would immediately understand that the underlying purpose is positive.  A critic of literature examines a work, analyzing its features, evaluating its qualities, seeking a deeper appreciation that might be useful to other readers of the same text.  In a similar way, critics of music, theater, and the arts have a valuable, well-established role, serving as a helpful bridge between artists and audiences.  Criticism of technology, however, is not yet afforded the same glad welcome.  Writers who venture beyond the most pedstrian, dreary conceptions of tools and uses to investigate ways in which technical forms are implicated in the basic patterns and problems of our culture are often greeted with the charge that they are merely "antitechnology" or "blaming technology."  All who have recently stepped forward as critics in this realm have been tarred with the same idiot brush, an expression of the desire to stop a much needed dialogue rather than enlarge it.  If any readers want to see the present work as antitechnology," make the most of it.  That is their topic, not mine.

Twenty years later, the situation is hardly any better.

… I should add, though, that the analogy Winner makes here is perhaps imperfect — it depends on how you define technology, which is tougher than it sounds.  I may expand on this topic later (not much time for blogging lately).

Digital Bookmarks to Encourage Reading

Digital_bookmarkI noticed this product in a bookstore today — the Mark My Time Digital Bookmark.  It’s a combination stopwatch-bookmark that will track or count down your child’s reading time.  It’s the "best and easiest way to monitor reading time and keep kids excited about reading so they’ll want to read more."

This is a hard product to criticize.  The testimonials on their website prove that it works, and the marketing is all quite responsible.  We all have problems with time management nowadays, and clocks are a useful tool for improving discipline.

I wonder, though, if this subtly encourages too much clockwatching at too young an age, especially when used as shown in the photographs with the timer front-and-center.  Kids shouldn’t be time-stressed like the rest of us.  I’m straying into serious Luddite territory here, but childhood isn’t the time for everything to be quantized, digitized, and yoked to the machine.  Kids deserve free, unstructured time, or if it’s structured then let that structuring be more indirect.  Surely a parent could keep track of time without delegating that task to the child or this device.

Though it’s not stated explicitly, I get the impression that part of the digital bookmark’s appeal is that it’s an electronic gadget.  I guess it’s never too early to promote gadget obsessions — these kids are still too young for a cell phone (I think).

As I said before, I’m sure this works and that on balance it’s fairly harmless.  When they release the WonkaZoid digital bookmark with video game and candy dispenser, then we’re in trouble.

Daily Show’s Future Shock

In case you haven’t seen it already, I recommend checking out The Daily Show’s funny new feature called "Future Shock" with Samantha Bee.  The first installment featured Ray Kurzweil and RFID-chip-implant do-it-yourselfer Mikey Sklar.  You can watch the videos on the Daily Show site (or you can find copied snippets on YouTube as well, if that makes you feel better).

Challenging the Chip: Labor and Environmental Consequences

CtcI’ve noticed people searching for this book and landing on my site, so I thought I’d give it a mention.*

Challenging The Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry is a new book brought to you by the excellent Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.  Here’s their description of the book:

From Silicon Valley in California to Silicon Glen in Scotland, from
Silicon Island in Taiwan to Silicon Paddy in China, the social,
economic, and ecological effects of the international electronics
industry are widespread. The production of electronic and computer
components contaminates air, land, and water around the globe. As this
eye-opening book reveals, the people who suffer the consequences are
largely poor, female, immigrant, and minority. Challenging the Chip is
the first comprehensive examination of the impacts of electronics
manufacturing on workers and local environments across the planet.

Contributors to this
pioneering volume include many of the world’s most articulate,
passionate and progressive visionaries, scholars and advocates. Here
they not only document the unsustainable and often devastating
practices of the global electronics industry but also chronicle
creative ways in which activists, government agencies, and others have
attempted to reform the industry—through resistance, persuasion, and

I’ve only skimmed the book in a bookstore but hope to track down a library copy soon to read.  This book gives some much-needed exposure to issues that hardly anybody knows about.  We hear the odd murmur of about possible iPod sweatshops, but I think the problem is much, much bigger than people imagine.

*Yep, you have no privacy on the web, just in case you thought otherwise.  (But the TypePad stats only show referring sites or searches, that’s all.)

Computers Writing the News

From the Financial Times:

First it was the typewriter, then the teleprinter. Now a US news service has found a way to replace human beings in the newsroom and is instead using computers to write some of its stories.

Thomson Financial, the business information group, has been using computers to generate some stories since March and is so pleased with the results that it plans to expand the practice.

The computers work so fast that an earnings story can be released within 0.3 seconds of the company making results public.

Link: FT.com / Companies / Media & internet – Computers write news at Thomson.

(via BookNinja: Wire stories now really wired)

These are for business wire stories about earnings, so it’s not too surprising, but so many other "news" stories these days are just regurgitated press releases that it can’t be long before the practice takes off.

“Neutral” Websites That Aren’t

Rory Litwin at Library Juice writes about Procon.org, a neutral-looking news site that claims to give you the straight dope on various controversial subjects, when in fact it’s really a deceptive effort to push certain agendas.  His post begins:

Procon.org is a new set of websites claiming to promote informed citizenship by providing “both sides of the issue” in a number of topics of debate or political interest. Its pages are designed so that students will easily notice all of the indications of reliability that information literacy instructors have taught them to look for in a web page: the group’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status and non-partisanship is prominently located in the upper left; contact information is easy to find; it’s at a dot org domain; and it is written in cool and measured prose. And the organizing principle of the site – providing the “pros and cons” – especially invites students to trust it.

I find Procon.org’s websites dangerous for undergraduates but useful in educating librarians to be better information literacy instructors.

Spending a good chunk of time with these sites provides an object lesson in how control over the way a question is framed and control over what information gets applied to it can go a long way in determining how people answer that question. The site presents questions to students, such as “Is the United States a Christian Nation?,” provides pro- and con- statements relating to them, and lets students feel that they are answering these questions for themselves. It is what you might call “guided thinking.”

Procon.org’s claim of non-partisanship and neutrality is a deceptive strategy designed to influence students’ thinking about topics like the war in Iraq, homosexuality, the ACLU, medical marijuana, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Its presentation appears at first glance to be so neutral and harmless that I fear many librarians will be fooled by it. Certainly many students will.

Link: Library Juice – Fake Neutrality: Procon.org.

The comments to the post are worth reading as well.  They demonstrate his points — many of the commenters can’t seem to tell that the site has a bias (either that or they’re just trolls trying to promote the site).

Pushing an agenda is fine, but not when you do it dishonestly to trick students and other people.  The Reader’s Comments are especially disheartening (if they’re real, and sadly I think most of them are).  For example,

  • "Thank you for your intellectual honesty and clarity. This site [Israeli-Palestinian ProCon.org] should be advertised on more traditional media so that curious members of the general public can learn. Traditional forms of news and information have let the public down by substituting salaciousness and ‘infotainment’ for facts and reasoned discourse."
    Ralph 8/6/06

  • "I love your simple, precise rendition of history. It’s better than going to school!"
    Rose 7/14/06

  • "If the world would start looking at things like this pro/con way maybe people would learn to respect each others differences a little bit more."
    Hazystrains 7/1/06

  • "I have said so often that a perfect teacher will give no clue to a student as to his personal beliefs. ProCon.org qualifies as one such teacher."
    Bart 11/12/05

  • The irony is really too much.

    I’ve visited this issue a bit before in reference to SourceWatch.org, who are truly unbiased and informative (or so say I — you can judge for yourself whether it’s just my lefty tendencies speaking), in comparison to ActivistCash.com, a site that looks like straight information, but is really run by a PR firm, in a previous post: Following the Money (Or Not) – Sniffing Out Corporate PR.

    Update: Kamy Akhavan from ProCon.org has posted a response here and also at Library Juice.  Please read them both for another viewpoint.  Perhaps I’m just too cynical for my own good.  I admit I  haven’t yet done much more than skim the ProCon sites, so if I was unfair I apologize.

    One of the main reasons I’m suspicious is the choice of topics.  There are only seven, and four are medical marijuana, gays, "under God", and the ACLU.  Who besides conservatives thinks those are the most important issues facing the US today?  They’re undeniably "hot button" or "wedge" issues, and maybe that’s the reason ProCon thinks it’s important to address them.  But simply giving prominence to a wedge issue gives some credence to it — this is part of the political strategy.  People get upset about wedge issues largely because they’re told that it’s an important controversy.

    For example (as I believe Rory pointed out at Library Juice), who asks "Is the ACLU good for America?" besides conservatives?  I can see now that the ACLU is a topic here because of the founder, Steven Markoff’s past involvement with them, and so it’s understandable that he’s written about it.  So one suggestion I’d make for ProCon is to explain (or explain more prominently) the selection of topics.

    Celebrate Blackout Day

    This is a good idea.  J. Sinopoli suggests that we make the anniversary of the 2003 Northeast US blackout a voluntary holiday from electricity.  Excerpt from an article at Interactivist Info Exchange:

    [We] call to formalize, as a holiday, the August 14 Blackout.

    It could be our version of Carnival, and we could use one. It requires no municipal support. We as a people could simply do it. A harmless ritual: You come home from work, or wherever, switch off your circuit breakers, and that’s all, it begins. It is not a debauchery, not a wild night, but perhaps a free one. Free of the system, free of the machine, free of the exhaustive burdens of ambition. Free of electricity, and the 24 hours a day you-don’t-stop that goes with it. There was a time, before electricity, when people simply retired at night. What else could you do? It was dark. Not anymore. Progress has its compromise. The blackout took us back to the basics, of who we are as human beings, with none of this shine and polish to distract us from the truth.

    As with anything good, the blackout as a holiday would be optional; none of the hospitals must shut down, no vital services would close. No one must do anything. But for those who can do it, and wish to, the blackout offers a pre-existing holiday so simple to celebrate there is almost no reason not to. Every August 14 we could easily stage a re-enactment of the largest-known naturally-occurring party in the history of the human race. The city went dark that night and 10 million people did not flip out or riot, or conduct themselves in any way sinister or foul. Newscasters were amazed at how peaceful it was.

    Link: Interactivist Info Exchange | J. Sinopoli, "A Proposal for the Adoption of the Blackout as a Holiday".