Weinberger’s Talk at Michigan

Earlier this month, I disregarded office-hour responsibilities (“Will return by 4:30 p.m -DM”) on a Monday afternoon and went over to Ann Arbor for David Weinberger’s talk, “”Too Big to Know: How the Internet Affects What and How We Know,” based on his soon-to-be-released book of a similar title.

It’s worth a look; the talk hits several important notes, particularly in light of the information studies slice of ENGL505, a rhetoric of science and technology class I’m teaching right now. In 505, we finished reading Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information earlier this week, and although several aspects of the book are dated, that datedness is largely a function of print’s fixity. I know this isn’t big news, but because Weinberger’s talk works with a related set of issues, their pairing (for my thinking as much as for the class) has been worthwhile.

A couple of quick side notes:

  • Brown’s introduction of Weinberger is a nice illustration of differences between Information Studies and C&W or PTC. That “invent” is cast in the shadows of technological determinism is, well, curious. Or, it’s what happens when rhetoric has gone missing. I had to turn to an authoritative decision-maker to verify my sense that invent still has some mojo.
  • I like Weinberger’s account of the history of facts, and while I understand that facts are useful for argument, their solidity and their restfulness touch off other problems for argument.
  • I left Weinberger’s talk largely satisfied with his characterization of the moment we are in and the shifting epistemological sands digital circulation has stirred. But, if the paper paradigm has really met its match, why should Too Big To Know be printed at all? An obvious answer is that book will produce substantially more revenue than the blog where bits and pieces of the book draft surfaced. Yet, it seems like this cuts against the grain of the talk. I will, of course, withdraw this question if Kindle copies of TBTK outsell paper copies.

CCCC Atlanta Rewind, Part II

I don’t think there will be a part 3 in this series, but I wanted to post in a consolidated location the various pieces I brought to Atlanta last week. Steve offered a careful play-by-play of many of the meals and local excursions I was a part of. And he mentioned in the entry that we had a fairly small audience at the N.30 session. With that in mind, I figured I may as well render my talk into an overdubbed video and post it to YouTube where it will surely get a couple of more views in the year to come.

But first, Steve’s video, which initiated and enframed our roundtable:

Below is my contribution to the roundtable. To continue experimenting with YouTube’s closed captioning, I uploaded the full script of my talk as a text file. I’m impressed at how capably YouTube creates alignments between the video’s audio track and the text. Also, all of the oooh-aaah cloud photographs come from the recent New York Times installation, “Up in the Clouds.”

And finally, here’s the poster I tacked up in the Computer Connection room and that I’ve posted in a half dozen places already.

3.33 Ways: Tracing Rhetorical Style from Prose to New Media

The accompanying a/v playlist (linked from the QR codes) is available over here.

Halavais, Search Engine Society (2009)

A couple of months have lapsed since I read Alex Halavais’s Search Engine Society; in fact, I read it in June while flying to Santa Fe and back. I need to return my copy to the library, and I wanted to post a few brief notes. Search Engine Society is a terrific introduction to search engines. Halavais achieves a nice (and what I would describe as a successful) balance between accessible prose and theoretical rigor. That is, I found the book exceedingly readable, but I could at the same time see frequently enough the theoretical surroundings Halavais brought to bear. Certainly it left me with the impression this book could have been more forwardly theoretical in its examination of search engines, but that it seamlessly achieves both is one reason I will be assigning a chapter for undergraduates this semester and I will likely include the full book this winter in ENGL516: Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice.

At just more than 200 pages, the book includes an introduction and eight chapters: 1. The Engines, 2. Searching (which I will ask students to read in ENGL326: Research Writing), 3. Attention, 4. Knowledge and Democracy, 5. Censorship, 6. Privacy, 7. Sociable Search, and 8. Future Finding. Among Halavais’s opening acknowledgments are that data on searching practices is hard to come by. Public search engines capture a certain amount of data about queries and the IP addresses from which they are made, but we still have much to learn about how search is deployed privately, as when computer users look for files on their hard drives. The coverage of early chapters includes how search engines work, the history of searching the web, the known limitations of presumably whole-web search engines, the web-cultural importance of specialized search engines, crawlers, currency, the rise of social search, and much more. Again, what’s here might seem–to one with an advanced technical understanding of search engines–like a broad survey, but I would add as a counterpoint that there’s plenty here in terms of references and context to prime beginners to these–what I regard as an increasingly important set of issues.

I have adopted Ch. 2 for ENGL326 because it gets into issues of superficial or complacent (i.e., self-satisfied) search. Drawing on work by Hargittai and others, Halavais establishes how willing searchers are to scratch the surface. So, we will seek to extend questions Halavais poses, such as “How can you know which terms, or combination of terms, best targets the information you are after?” into our own work with Search Alerts and RSS. The chapter also gets into the value of serendipity for invention, the limitations of semantic search for different file types, re-finding, the invisible/deep web, “berrypicking” (Bates), and adaptive search: much, in other words, that will be of some use to students concerned with research writing.

Halavais’s last two chapters bear on my research interests, as well. His discussion of sociable search touches upon collaborative filtering and tracing associations and challenges conventional sensibilities about the search engine as an algorithmic mechanism (that subdues agency or that disguises and promotes a malevolent corporate agenda). I appreciated that the book confronts–though perhaps not with especially clear cut solutions–questions of cultural production intrinsic to search engines, e.g., “Who will know?” (190). The “who will know?” question echoed for me with Foster’s “I will not know,” with disciplinary assumptions about the adequacy of search and databases. Halavais concludes the book with the “who will know?” question, noting that “[t]he term ‘search engine’ is far too prosaic for the role that search plays” (190).

“Search personalization represents one of the most active areas of research, but, as with search generally, by privileging certain sources over others there is the danger that a searcher can become trapped by her own search history” (52).

“The internet and the web likewise have been disruptive to the way attention is aggregated and distributed, and so it is worth asking whether there is a similar ‘tyranny of the web'” (58).” Or, for that matter, whether attention fatigue is to blame for the “Death of the Web.” Interesting to think that a preference for a locatable web (via search, via attention-corralled, if gated, networks) yields, if not the death of the web, a catatonic (kata- -tonos), or toned-down, web.

Time Enough for Slow Reading

Reports like this make me fidget. An appeal to the slow toward “meaning and pleasure” strikes me as less a call for “slow reading” as an idyllic, life-of-the-mind practice and more as a call for “slow[er] reading [than you do when you must hurry].” While I understand the urge to foster thicker, more patient relationships between readers and whatever they read, the “slow reading revolution” seems to me to frame of texts by default according to a filter-first logic, an already-filtered logic. The aim is not revolution, really, but involution by temporal variation, by changing speeds. According to Clay Shirky’s discussion of filtering and publishing in Here Comes Everybody and elsewhere, filter-then-publish aligns with broadcast and with editorial gate-keeping, screening that happens before publication. When user-generated content comes along, on the other hand, these events are reversed.  Publishing happens first, filtering after. For readers, then, the trouble with the web is that both varieties of content slosh around together (an indistinguishable stew): streams are not already separated into cooked content (i.e., filter-then-publish) or raw content (i.e., publish-then-filter). Filtering is crucial in a digital age not only because we need it to survive experientially this growing delta of user-generated content but because the already-filtered is drifting in its midst. These conditions require of online readers a heightened “filtering imperative” all the way up.  And yet my first, admittedly glancing, impression is that “slow reading” assumes filtering to be unproblematic or already settled–a given. Filtering is not exactly reading, right?, but filtering is pre-reading–a flitting relationship that, I would argue, cannot be as slow-probative-sluggish as slow reading advocates would like. Steven Johnson, in his introduction to The Best Technology Writing of 2009, differentiates the slow-fast as “skim and plunge,” allowing for nimble readers who can change speeds as skillfully as Kobe Bryant setting up a blow-by step. Slow reading advocates would appear more concerned more with plunge than with skim. Beyond “slow reading,” I am interested in filtering and in making these skim/plunge changes of speed explicit with students.

I don’t want to mischaracterize the slow reading movement. Nor do I want to seem disparaging or unfair in writing through, as I have done briefly here, a few of my impressions: viz., I have a book on my night stand that I have been reading at a pace of two pages a week for almost three years. Snails, that’s slow. Sometimes I skip a week. Or two. Even slower then. I wish I could quit the book, but there is no hurry. Such a dragged out reading as with this book is like watching a nature program in which a tortoise flips sand over its freshly laid eggs. Flip. Flip. Flip. Or the episode with a sloth reaching for that one succulent cecropia leaf still a meter beyond its lethargic reach. It just seems to me it’s possible to teach a “closer connection” or some deeper involvement with texts via read-alouds and memorization than by invoking a superficial opposition to the assumed-to-be-frenetic character of “reading” online.

Most Polluted?

<snark>Every so often I go looking for examples of astonishingly astonishing
web design. With that said, I’m no standards-waving design puritan, and I admit
I am attracted to departures from conventionality (unusual CSS tricks, and so
on). This morning an email arrived with a link for PTA listserv subscribers to
the Syracuse City School District
web site
, a site so overstocked with informative tidbits that it can only be
described as belonging to the "dump it in, anywhere" school of design, a school
matching with the old industrial mindset that caused Lake Onondaga to be so
choked with mercury and other debris that it for many years won acclaim as the
U.S.’s most polluted. I get it that the school district is complex,
but…my oh my. Just try to find anything here (e.g., the media release

To be fair, I have done little in this entry other than pot-shot on the site (and remember a link for future returns). And, to be even fairer, I don’t even need anything from it today. But this craggy little hike through the cluttered SCSD corner of the web got me thinking that it
might be interesting in a class to look around for the most polluted school
district web site in the U.S. (or in a given state) and then to work on improving its usability.


Over at ReadWriteWeb today, I

this entry
about EtherPad, a
collaborative text-authoring web app. One conspicuous difference between
EtherPad and the other word processing web apps (Google
, Adobe Buzzword,
Zoho Writer, etc.) is that the changes to
the text are nearer to synchronous. Contributors see each other’s writing
almost immediately. Even better: EtherPad does not require an account; no
sign-up is necessary. The site provides
this demo.

It’s easy to imagine using EtherPad for drafting a conference
proposal or something, although Google Docs has proven adequate for that sort of
thing. Where I see EtherPad’s greatest immediate use (in my world, anyway)
is in the online consultation appointments we’ve been offering lately in the
Writing Center. Right now I use any number of chat clients (AIM, iChat,
and Google Talk), but EtherPad features a chat module. I log on to the
chat client, invite the student to a session, and we begin chatting about the
work at hand. Usually it takes five minutes to gain access to a draft.
Because the built-in file transfer processes get hung up far too often
(resulting in further delays), I also have the students email their drafts to
drop.io, where I can easily access the file. Even with all of this,
commenting the text in real time can be a pain. Absent voice options and
desktop sharing I still find it fairly difficult to identify the places in the
text where I am focusing. Why not copy/paste the document (or a portion of
it) into EtherPad and use the built-in chat module to discuss the passage?

EtherPad does not provide voice or video options, but it would serve as a
terrific complement to Adobe Connect Now, which does offer voice, video, chat,
and desktop sharing. For the WC technology audit I’m working on this semester,
I’ve been thinking a lot about recommending two-app mash-ups as a kind of
low-cost writing consultation-ware. EtherPad’s usability threshold is so
low (i.e., it’s free to use, requires no sign up, and presents its options in a
simple layout), it seems to me a strong choice for use alongside one of the
other audio-video-chat applications. I would think Writing Centers would
be all over this sort of web app for synchronous online consulting.

On the short list of drawbacks, there is the small matter of its ethereal
quality. You can save the text, but you need to keep track of the URL
because there is no other way to track down the saved file. As I was
checking out the save function, I found that the chat transcript is not logged.
When a saved version of the text is loaded, the chat transcript starts from
scratch. It would be nice, however, if there were options for saving (and,
thus, resuming) the chat transcript or for outputting the text file and the chat
transcript (for my purposes, I’d even like to see a one-click option for saving
these to a single file). Might also be nice to see a "scrub" option so that the
document and chat transcript are cleared from the server following a session. But these are relatively minor concerns for what
appears otherwise to be a promising new application.

One Word or Two?

Help me out: web site or website? Or: Web site or Website?

This morning I was reading while the Element was having its oil changed and
its rear differential freshly gooped, and I found a few variations of web site, Website,
etc. I’m inclined to prefer "web site"–two words and lower case. What
about you?