Friday, June 14, 2013

What I Wish I Had Learned in School

School for me was not really a pleasant experience. Oh, sure, it had its moments, but it was a struggle. On the one hand, we had the typical high school curriculum, which was about as exciting as paste, and on the other hand, we had the Darwinian social environment red in metaphorical tooth and claw. I didn't fit in either academically or socially, and when I got out of there, it was like a great weight had been lifted from me.

So it's hard to know exactly how to respond to this request: "The idea is pretty simple, we think that as the world becomes more complex, the formal education system is having a harder and harder time keeping up. Plenty of people are spending plenty of cycles looking for answers, but what we really want to do is ask a more fundamental question, 'What do you wish you had learned in school?' We think that by collecting people's personal stories, we can start to develop useful insights and perhaps even come to a few conclusions."

I guess my first, cynical, response the the question would be, "I wish I had learned how to escape."

I read today about things like Class Afloat, which is a high school taught on a tall ship,or the Bronx High School of Science, a so-called magnet school dedicated to (not surprisingly) science, or the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and so on and on and on, and I wonder, why couldn't I have been afforded any of those opportunities. But that's not what happens when you grow up in a small farming community in rural Ontario.

Certainly, I tried to make the most of my high school education, doing things like Reach for the Top and model parliament (where I was the leader (and only member) of the Fascism Reform Party) and band and drama and all the rest of it. I reveled in projects I could design for myself; the teachers gave me quite a bit of latitude, and I would write to embassies and government departments and such for raw materials.

What would I have done in an environment where I could program computers and build robots and write blogs and fly quadrocopters?  Or maybe my school would have been one of those where all this was tantalizingly out of reach, my internet access a small-town trickle of connectivity, the movie-making and the podcasting and robot-fighting something that people at Gloucester and Nepean and Lisgar did, not us out in the country at Osgoode Township (though now Metcalfe is an increasingly-nice suburb of Ottawa, and we might not have been able to afford to live there).

So anyhow, would I have liked to have learned all those things? Well, in the 70s, definitely yes - coming out of high school in 1979 already knowing to program a computer or build a robot would have been a huge advantage. Today, though, it might seem more like vocational education, kind of the 21st century analogue to the courses where the industrial arts kids learned to work on electrical circuits and car motors (you know - the advanced tech of the 1930s).

If I were in school today I'd probably be wanting to learn about carbon fibres and nanotubes and capacitors, genetic creation and manipulation, bioengineering, and all that sort of stuff. I'm not sure - I only know that some of this stuff exists, I'm not sure exactly where it's at and what you can build (or grow) in a high school science lab, but it would be fun to be 15 again and exploring these frontiers. Except that... I hated being 15, and I could wait to get out of there.

I wish we had had a track team at high school. We didn't have individual sports; we had only teams - football, soccer, hockey - and you had to make the team, which meant being able to get in the practice, which didn't work well for people like me, partially because I delivered papers every day and didn't have time for that, and partially because I really didn't like these other people very much (especially in places like soccer fields and locker rooms). But I could run, especially long distances - I once clocked a mile in less than five minutes (4:45 to be precise). But there was only soccer, and I rarely got to play.

Maybe "what I wish I had learned in high school" should have a category for stuff I actually learned, but wish I hadn't. Like the survival skills I needed to get through classes and after-school activities, for example, the reptilian flight-or-flight response that follows me to this day, the alternating thick and thin skin needed to ignore remarks but be keenly aware of when they might escalate into some sort of physical attack.

Maybe what I wish I had learned in high school would be those smooth social skills that the best of us in society display. Watching DARPA's Kathleen Fisher on video last week, for example, I was struck by her geniality and the comfortable manner in which she worked the room and traversed some difficult material. I'm sure we all know those people, they are the ones who always seem to be at ease, comfortable with themselves, able to reach out and really communicate with other people. But you don't see that a whole lot in the smaller and less well-off communities; it feels like the sort of thing you have to be in a position of advantage to be able to develop. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

I don't think people understand the difference between growing up on the inside and growing up on the outside; certainly people who are on the inside don't see it at all, and the people on the outside sometimes sense it, but what can they do?

Take smoking, for example. That's another thing I guess I wish I hadn't learned in high school (though to be quite honest, I guess I actually learned it working at the racetrack in grades 11 and 12, serving drinks in the box lounge). Smoking is a poor person's disease. The people on the inside, for whatever reason, grew up in an environment where you just didn't smoke, but all the working people smoked. You pretty much had to. That was in the 70s and 80s, of course; I'm sure that's all changed now. But there are plenty of other examples like that.

I don't regret not being born into a home where I always knew I would be going to Yale and teaching at MIT or maybe Stanford. I would have become a different person. It was enough my parents gave me the expectation that I would go to university, and the tools that would help me succeed. And I've always known since those days that what distinguished me from them was not some aspect of my education, nor my innate intelligence, nor my work ethic nor my compassion and dedication, no, none of that, nothing but simple facts of birth and social standing.

Yes, I sometimes wish I had learned to escape - but if I had ever gotten that wish, I would never have seen life on the outside, and never sensed the urgency of doing something once I got through university and was in a position to do some good in the world. So I guess that's not what I wish for.

I guess I wish I had learned integral calculus. Yeah, that would have made all the difference.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Open Road

Right now, the government awards road-building contracts to large construction companies. But imagine the government decided to end these contracts, and to simply grant anyone who wanted to build a road a license to build a road.

It would still be a complex process, of course. Road-builders would have to secure easements and concessions from landowners, assemble road-building technology and staff, and of course put asphalt on the ground. After construction there would be ongoing issues of maintenance and management.

Still, such roads would be built. Some of them might be barely more than tracks - that's what we saw in the early days of concession roads. Such a road really was just some land granted to open access, where people could drive their carts without crossing someone else's property.

It wouldn't be long before people put tolls on these roads. That's what happened in Britain, as the common lands were enclosed, a network of toll roads developed, and travellers would have to pay a tariff every few miles.

In such an environment it is inevitable that there would be a call for open roads, sometimes also known as free roads, or freeways. The logic would be inescapable: toll booths are like sand in the engine of the economy, causing a harmful friction.
Toll Roads and Navigations:The toll roads and some of their dates are shown in red. River Navigations (improved rivers, even if primarily with drainage in mind) and canals are in blue. The stagecoach route came through Peterborough. The road off (not shown) that passes Barrow and ends at New Holland connected the re-routed stagecoach with the new ferry. (Source: Bennett, 1999, 86)

A movement would develop around the idea of free and open roads, and a logo and map system shared among open road owners and users. We could imagine an organization developing, 'Locomotive Commons', to create standard licenses governing the operation of open roads.

How would the people who owned toll roads respond? Well, we can imagine what they would do from analogy in other fields, like publishing.

Some would be vehemently opposed to open roads, and demand that the government not create or support open roads, as they create unfair "competition" to their toll roads.

Others, though, would embrace the free and open road movement, but they would redefine what the words 'free' and 'open' meant. Basically, a road would be 'free' and 'open' if - and only if - the person managing the road had the right to set up a toll on the road.

Any other license governing the use of the road would be considered to be "more restrictive" and "less free". This would be the case because it would 'restrict' the road manager's 'freedom' to charge tolls for the use of the road.

"You can always take another road," declared the proponents of the new "Free Road" movement. "Nothing prevents you from you from taking one of the more restrictive roads that do not allow the construction of toll booths."

Because of the number of people opposed to toll gates of any kind on the roads, the Locomotive Commons foundation established several different types of license, including:

- LC:NT - the non-tolls license, which prohibited managers from setting up toll booths, thereby ensuring people traveling along the road would never need to pay a toll.

- LC:IA - the "intersect alike" license (IA), which stipulated that if your road connected to a road with a certain license, it had to share the same license. Because, after all, if any part of a road becomes a toll road, it has the effect of making the whole road a toll road.

The "Free Road" movement launched a full-scale opposition to these licenses. They called them "restrictive" and argued that "people should have the right to make a living from the roads" (even if they did not actually build the roads).

Foundations (some funded by the original road-building construction companies that were losing out on the lucrative traffic) organized conferences to make "Declarations" defining the meaning of "free" according to "four freedoms: the freedom to run the road; the freedom to map where the road goes; the freedom to share the road with others; and the freedom to add other roads to the road."

Of course, "sharing the road with others" might involve setting up a toll booth; and any interpretation of "share" that did not allow the establishment of a toll booth was considered a "restriction" on one of the four freedoms.

Eventually, with considerable foundation support, and also the support of organizations that built tolls and managed toll roads, a lobby emerged with enough voices to convince Locomotive Commons to declare that some of its licenses - specifically, the ones prohibiting tolls on the road - to be "not free".

Eventually people just used the new "Free Roads," paying their tolls every few miles, because there was really no alternative. The "Free Roads" wouldn't connect to the "restrictive" No-Toll roads, partially because of the intersect-alike clause, and partly because NT roads really did connect to other places, and the Free Road owners simply didn't want the competition.

Not that it would have mattered. The Free Road owners could always depend on exclusivity. Often, the only way to get from point A to point B was to use a Free Road - they would obtain the concession (and often public financing) to build a Free Road over a river or through a mountain pass, and if you wanted to use it, you had to sign up for a Free Road Account and you would be billed for the full distance traveled, whether you used Free Roads or NT.

Young people would grow up angry about the tolls and fees, and opposing the cost of roads (which most of them couldn't afford anyways). They would join the Free Road Foundation or the Open Road Movement and lobby against corporate subscription-based roads.

But in the end, they found themselves arguing in favour of allowing tolls, because they were arguing for free and open roads, and had learned that licenses prohibiting tolls were actually less free and less open than Free Roads.

Off to the side stood now thoroughly discredited (or, at least, shouted down) the original no-tolls advocate. He had just wanted people to be able to move freely through the land without barriers and hindrance. He wanted people to explore the country no matter whether they were rich or poor. And he even understood how important the opening of free roads across the land was to health, education and commerce.

Now he reflected on a world where traveling down a "Free Road" would cost you money, and where the meaning of "Open Road" meant "could have tolls or barriers." And he began to wonder what would happen when these new meanings of "free" and "open" began to be applied to things like speech, religion, justice and the vote.

Because nothing is "free", I guess, unless someone can come along and charge you money for it.


On 12/06/2013 12:58 PM, rory wrote:
If someone closes off OER, someone else can reproduce it elsewhere ad infinitum at no cost. This bears no resemblance to roads with their physical limitations.

I did address this in my text, but having heard from several people on this point now, I conclude my analogy may be been too subtle.

This was not an argument I hadn't anticipated. Here it is restated in my analogy: "You can always take another road," declared the proponents of the new "Free Road" movement. "Nothing prevents you from you from taking one of the more restrictive roads that do not allow the construction of toll booths."

I did answer it at length (though none of the critics gives me credit for even trying).

In order to reproduce something (let it be a road or an OER) one must first have access to the original. Once a commercial version of the resource exists, there is significant incentive on the part of the commercial owner to block or limit access to the original, so that the only available version is the commercial version.

I have over the years identified (and linked to in my newsletter) numerous examples of how access to the original free resource may be limited:
- legal challenges and FUD - making it too much of a risk to use the non-commercial resource
- poisoning - using technical and legal requirements requiring that resources in some way be 'certified'
- flooding - making the free resource just one out of hundreds of versions, pushing the free resource down in search results
- book-storing - creating self-contained environments in which links to free versions are not available
- salting - adding 'extra value' to the commercial resource not available in the free resource
I could add many more but you get the point. These are clear and obvious to anyone who actually looks for them; the evidence is as plain as day.

In my analogy I represented this response as follows: "Eventually people just used the new 'Free Roads,' paying their tolls every few miles, because there was really no alternative. The 'Free Roads' wouldn't connect to the 'restrictive' No-Toll roads, partially because of the intersect-alike clause, and partly because NT roads really did connect to other places, and the Free Road owners simply didn't want the competition.

"Not that it would have mattered. The Free Road owners could always depend on exclusivity. Often, the only way to get from point A to point B was to use a Free Road - they would obtain the concession (and often public financing) to build a Free Road over a river or through a mountain pass, and if you wanted to use it, you had to sign up for a Free Road Account and you would be billed for the full distance traveled, whether you used Free Roads or NT."

Again - maybe too subtle.

A great deal is made of the fact "non-rivalrous goods like data on the Internet" can be reproduced at will. But in publishing and commerce generally, there are rivalrous goods. The time and attention of readers, the trechnology at their disposal, the balancing of rights and regulations - all these are rivalrous elements in what would otherwise nonriovalrous market. It is from my perspective a naive and unsupportable argument to suggest that people can just reproduce free copies of these newly-commercialized resources.

Indeed, if the business model of publishers of CC-by content were so easily disrupted, there would be no return on their investment, and they would never get into the business. The very fact that there is a pro-commercial lobby for the use of (otherwise) free resources is itself proof that the "you can just make free copies" argument is fallacious.

OK, that's it, I'm done. No more arguing from me on this. If you continue to support the "everyone must support CC-by" position, I will simply regard you as being against free and open access to learning and learning resources, and working instead for people trying to privatize the education system, puting your own narrow self-interest ahead of wider social values (putting you in my mind on par with banks and the oil industry).

"Let's see someone close off the route to Europe from America. As long as the air and water are free they can close off what they want and who would pay attention!"

Indeed. There are millions of would-be immigrants around the world who would only wish that were the case. They wish nobody had thought of a way of defining 'free' in terms of borders. I do know that anyone attempting to cross from Europe to North America by means of a purely non-commercial route will be arrested for immigration violations. The Open Road has truely been closed.


One more, and then I'm done, I promise!

Pete Forsyth wrote to this list, in part:

* Mr. Downes first (publicly) described the works of Shakespeare as "easy" to define in terms of openness; but when pressed for what that easy answer was, he (privately) described the issues as "complex" and outside the realm of a simple yes/no answer.
* He inquired (due to a misunderstanding of my questions) about the availability of the introduction and index of a certain edition of Hume's Treatise. For any who are interested, it is here, in several formats:

I have learned a few things about Mr. Downes' thinking on the matter; I don't find any of it persuasive; and I have found his approach hostile and disingenuous. I intend to withdraw from this discussion.

I admit that I have become increasingly frustrated by this discussion, and I have been snippish to some people, for which I apologize.

But my desire to stay off-list was based in my belief that people on this list don't want to watch the back and forth debate on the point I raised. However, now that a version of it is on list, I offer you the full text of the discussion, and readers can decide for themselves whether my responses have been accurately represented above, and whether I have been hostile and disingenuous.

On 12/06/2013 1:39 PM, Pete Forsyth wrote:

Rather than exploring a complex hypothetical scenario, why not look at a real educational resource with an extensive history that long pre-dates CC licenses, and consider whether or not we consider it "open"--

The play Hamlet is in the public domain, and as such, there is no restriction on its reuse relating to whether or not that use incurs profit. (There's nothing analogous to the "NC" provision.)

So, any publisher can -- and many publishers have -- charged money for it. I find it difficult to understand how that can be described as locking it down or preventing reuse, because it can also be downloaded for free (or at least, free of charges beyond the needed equipment) from places like Wikisource:,_Prince_of_Denmark/Act_1

But more to the point, a (non-profit) high school *or* a (for-profit) theatre company may perform Hamlet without paying anybody a royalty.

It seems to me that your position is that Hamlet is not free, because there is no provision protecting it from commercial exploitation. Is that correct? 

(My response)

Shakespeare is easy. Do a real-life one: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Biggs (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1888) (be sure to include Selby-Biggs's introduction and lengthy index, which are the real values of this edition).

I think you'll find that for pretty much every public domain work other than the few painstakingly gathered in Gutenberg the argument I offer stands up pretty well.

-- Stephen

From:Pete Forsyth []
Sent: Thursday, June 13, 2013 11:15 AM 

Sorry to belabor the point, but I don't understand your answer -- what is the easy conclusion? It's free and open? Or it's not free or open?

> Do a real-life one:

The reason I chose Shakespeare's Hamlet is precisely because it is real-life. It's a play I've both paid to read, and read for free; and that I've both paid to watch, and watched for free. As far as I know, no royalties exchanged hands when my high school put it on. I've learned from it in both formal and informal environments, and I suspect many others on this list have as well. To me, this seems like the quintessential OER.

In what respect do you consider it not "real-life"?


From: Pete Forsyth []
Sent: Thursday, June 13, 2013 11:22 AM

Stephen, I replied on the list about Shakespeare. I don't understand why you're bringing up Hume -- but in direct response to that example, isn't that online and freely available? Is this not the introduction you're seeking?


Hiya Pete,

I used the Hume reference instead of Shakespeare because Shakespeare is low-hanging fruit. It has been reproduced in Gutenberg and received wide circulation.

But the vast majority of public domain content is *NOT* freely available in the way that the Shakespeare is freely available. Shakespeare is the exception, not the rule.

That’s why I referenced the 1888 Selby-Biggs edition of Hume. It’s clearly in the public domain. But you just can’t find it anywhere; the only way to get it is to buy it. This is true of the majority of public domain work (and, ultimately, will be true of the majority of CC-by work).

You found an edition of Hume’s Treatise, but *NOT* the Selby-Biggs edition. I picked this edition specifically because Selby-Biggs added a long interdiction and famous analytical index. You cannot find that edition anywhere. At least, I couldn’t.

-- Stephen

> Shakespeare is the exception, not the rule.

You seem to be making an incorrect assumption about the conclusion I'm trying to draw. I'm not interested in whether or not the treatment of my example is typical -- only in whether or not you consider it to be free and open. You have yet to answer that, here or on the list.

> You found an edition of Hume’s Treatise, but *NOT* the Selby-Biggs edition.

Well, it's edited by Selby-Bigge, and was first published in 1888. It also has a very detailed index, and a preface that explains why it has such a long index. If there's more to it than that, and I missed the version you're seeking, never mind I guess. But I don't see how any of this is germane to my question.


My mistake, you did find the Selby-Biggs edition. It didn’t show up at all on the Google search (which is kind of my point, that the OA versions get buried). How dod you find it?

> I'm not interested in whether or not the treatment of my example is typical -- only in whether or not you consider it to be free and open. You have yet to answer that, here or on the list.

You’re just using a rhetorical trap, trying to get me to provide simple yes-no answers to complex questions. My point isn’t (and never was) a simple statement about whether ‘X’ resource is free and open. Under some circumstances the work could be free and open; under other circumstances the same work might not be. Right now we have no problems accessing Shakespeare, but longer term, after publishers do the Napster treatment to Open Archives and Gutenberg, we will have significant problems. My argument is that CC-by licensing doesn’t convey unique protections on resources, and that of a CC-by resource is a ‘free’ resource, it is no less legitimate to call a NN-NC resource a ‘free’ resource.

This isn’t about ‘winning’, it’s about understanding the environment in which we work, and rhetorical tricks don’t help with that.

From: Pete Forsyth []
Sent: Thursday, June 13, 2013 1:42 PM 

> My mistake, you did find the Selby-Biggs edition. It didn't show up at all on the Google search (which is kind of my point, that the OA versions get buried). How dod you find it?

I went to the Internet Archive, and using their search engine. In my experience this is a vastly more effective way of finding PD works than Google. I highly recommend it.

> I'm not interested in whether or not the treatment of my example is typical -- only in whether or not you consider it to be free and open. You have yet to answer that, here or on the list.

You're just using a rhetorical trap, trying to get me to provide simple yes-no answers to complex questions.

No, no trap -- I just wanted an answer. "It's complex" is a perfectly good answer, and helps me understand your thinking, though I'm still not sure why you're only answering here and not on the list where I asked.

This isn't about 'winning', it's about understanding the environment in which we work, and rhetorical tricks don't help with that.

At this point in this discussion, I have a lot more confidence in my own understanding of that environment, than in yours. You're free to disagree.


From: Pete Forsyth []
Sent: Thursday, June 13, 2013 3:37 PM


I'd like to follow up on the Hamlet example I introduced. Mr. Downes replied on one of these lists, and separately in private; while I wish to respect any desire to keep specific comments private, I think a couple points in summary merit followup to the lists.

* Mr. Downes first (publicly) described the works of Shakespeare as "easy" to define in terms of openness; but when pressed for what that easy answer was, he (privately) described the issues as "complex" and outside the realm of a simple yes/no answer.
* He inquired (due to a misunderstanding of my questions) about the availability of the introduction and index of a certain edition of Hume's Treatise. For any who are interested, it is here, in several formats:

I have learned a few things about Mr. Downes' thinking on the matter; I don't find any of it persuasive; and I have found his approach hostile and disingenuous. I intend to withdraw from this discussion.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Ongoing Digital Citizenry Training

Responses to comments on my recent online talk, in preparation for my keynote in Caracas in a couple weeks. Commenter voices are in italics. The original forum and comments are all in Spanish; I'm working through an interpreter.

·        Perhaps the greatest challenge lies in introducing technology in classrooms through an innovative methodology which suits the times in which we live. This will make subsequent ongoing training easier throughout the learner’s life.

This is a challenge because it is not a single objective, but one which changes over time. Each year we see new technology and new methodology. People change, society changes. So it’s important not only to help people adapt to the technology and methodology of the day, but to develop and adapt new methodologies into the future.

Historically, the classroom has been among the slowest segment of society to make these changes. As one person reported in a study a few years ago, “I turn off my technology when I go to school.” Outside school, we are connected and communicating and creating. But this seems still to be the exception inside the classroom.

Consequently, I am led increasingly over time to challenge whether we should be depending on the classroom for future learning at all. It is a very difficult environment in which to work, where teachers work alone, separate from each other and society, and more recently, with less and less control over their working conditions. I would rather see teachers work within information and communications networks, rather than debate how to incorporate these networks into an unfriendly and outdated classroom environment.

·        ICTs have opened up a wide range of training possibilities which are nonetheless not entirely new. For some time now there has been talk of the importance of personalised learning and the need for it to take the learner's interests and learning conditions into account. Today, technology allows us to apply constructive approaches which learning centres have been trying to introduce in training institutions for decades.

I would be the first to agree that many of the approaches now being adopted by technology-enhanced learning were developed and tried in learning centres in the years before technology. I myself remember working at development education centres in Calgary and in Northern Alberta employing adaptive and constructive pedagogy.

Many of these approaches, though, were difficult and expensive to adapt on a widespread basis. What technology enables is what Toffler originally called ‘mass customization’. For example, while connecting people with similar interests and aptitudes has always been a value, prior to the use of technology it was only possible in urban centres. But today people who are distributed geography can now associate with communities of interest.

·        ICTs are an inclusive tool, especially for those people who have obstacles that hinder their access to information or who have limited access to learning in one way or another, as ICTs define multiple ways to access information through multimedia, programmes and applications.

I agree that ICTs have this potential. But I caution that this does not happen automatically, and that there are risks associated with it.

For example, prior to the use of ICTs, we would buy products, and own them. This we could buy a book or a record album and read it or listen to it and share it with our friends and even resell it. But digital content is typically licensed, not sold, which means that one copy can only be used by one person, which may actually increase costs and barriers, unless addressed in some way through ‘fair use’ legislation or through licenses that permit sharing.

·        Currently, learning takes place in the community and as a result of an interaction with all its social elements and agents. Thanks to technological advances there is now an endless amount of knowledge which can be put to the service of the community. More is probably learnt from those elements from which we believe we learn least – knowledge is certainly not located in any specific special place. It can be found whenever someone wants to find it and in any place.  Do you agree?

Yes, I agree. One of the slogans I have used for many years to describe the use of ICTs is this: “People should learn about forestry in a forest, about law in the courtroom, about cuisine in the kitchen.” I still believe this. One of the advantages of ICTs that we Will eventually see, I think, is that we depend less and less on content and textbooks, and more and more on real experiences in the wider community.

·        If we want to learn, we have to seek out sources ourselves. We firstly need to do this whilst in the school system, as we have more interest in learning. The truth is, however, that we learn on a daily basis. We learn from each other, through our own experiences, from trial and error, from new technologies, from books, magazines, and from the few educational programmes we can find on the television. We learn from everything and everybody.

This is quite true. One of the great challenges for the school system, though, is to not destroy this interest in Learning. There is an old ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ cartoon where Calvin is all eager to attend his first day of school, ready to learn all about the world, and where he returns home, dejected, hating school and hating everything to do with Learning. This is sadly far too common the result of school. We do as humans have a natural desire and ability to learn, but it can be beaten down and defeated by the education system.

We read a lot in educational theory about motivation. But motivation is only necessary when we are trying to persuade people to do things they do not want to do. The fact that we need to motivate students is already a sign that we are failing. We as educators should be following students, helping them pursue their own interests in their own way, providing the support and encouragement and expertise they need, but helping them meet their own ambitions and objectives, not burdening them with ours.

On Being in the Public Service

I could probably obtain employment in the private sector, and it remains my back-up plan should the current gig at NRC come to an end (I continue to be 'unqualified' to obtain employment at a university). I'm sure I could earn more money, one way or another, working in the private sector.

But as I told our new General Manager recently, I feel like I belong at the National Research Council. "I'm where I want to be," I said. My sense of meaning and belonging are satisfied to a greater extent working, as they say, "in the service of Canadians," than they would serving some more particular interest.

I say this because this is National Public Service Week, an occasion I'm sure all of us in the public service greet with a certain amount of cynicism, especially recently, but one which touches on why many of us are here.

It's not just a job. When I'm working here, it's hard not to ignore the fact that I'm working for the same outfit that employs people like Stephen Lewis, Chris Hadfield and Romeo Dallaire. That's not insignificant (no, I don't get to have lunch with them).

There was some concern last year when the new Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector came out, especially that part which was euphemistically titled 'respect for democracy', as it seemed to suggest that we needed to 'toe the line' and follow the policy and direction of the Prime Minister and his government.

But, of course, we've always had to do that. It comes with the job. Our primary purpose is to serve the people of Canada, but what that amounts to, in practice, as it is sometimes intoned in our offices, "our task is to serve the government of the day."

The 'Respect for Democracy' section says:
The system of Canadian parliamentary democracy and its institutions are fundamental to serving the public interest. Public servants recognize that elected officials are accountable to Parliament, and ultimately to the Canadian people, and that a non-partisan public sector is essential to our democratic system.
Now (as later sections make clear) that does not mean I put away my own views and interests when I join the public sector, nor even does it mean I can support a political party and engage in political activism. But what it does mean, very clearly, is that I can't use my office to support one or another political party, and I cannot use the resources of the Government of Canada to support a political campaign on behalf of one or another party.

That I think is pretty reasonable. Indeed, one might argue (as I have in the past) is that this does as much to protect the public service from the government of the day as it does to ensure that we support its policies and procedures when we are at our workplace. Just ask Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

It's not really a fine line at all. Not to me. And it's not a violation of my oft-touted principles to work in the interest of political policies I personally oppose (and to do so enthusiastically).

I have a multitude of principles on topics ranging from environmentalism to truth in advertising to open access and free learning. At the top of that list of values is respect for and support for the instruments of democracy. I believe that each and every person has the right to be heard, to be represented, and where appropriate, to have those views upheld and implemented. Even if those views are sometimes not mine.

It reminds me of the days when I was president of the Graduate Students' Association, and hence, chair of GSA representative meetings. Clearly, I had a political agenda. But when I sat in that chair, my demeanor changed, necessarily, as my job became one of ensuring that the meeting ran properly and people were able to be heard and make decisions. 

This sometimes resulted in Council voting to support measures I opposed. Quite often, actually. But I considered it to be more of a political victory to see democratic process implemented and respected in the GSA that I did to see any particular policy implemented within the organization.

It's also similar to my approach regarding the nascent Moncton Free Press. We are intended as an alternative newspaper, and of course there's going to be certain (generally progressive) points of view represented in the newspaper. But despite my support for some of those views, I still want to see the opposing view represented in the newspaper, and even featured, if it wins enough support. Because, as I explained to others, having a newspaper where every point of view can be represented is itself the political victory.

I see becoming a member of the public sector as making a choice to play a similar role in terms of national and public policy. It's more of a victory to me to see that a government that wins the support of the people can implement its agenda, than it would be for me to work in my role as a public servant to constantly try to undermine that agenda.

Right now, this means supporting the agenda and prupose of a government I would not personally vote for. But I know full well that one day a government I would vote for may take office, and I want the mechanisms to be in place to enable that government to succeed. Nothing undermines faith in society and public institutions more than to see the people vote for a certain legislative agenda and approach, only to have it undermined by undemocratic forces operating in the structure of government.

But supporting the government of the day is not the only value the public service represnts. Here's another one, again from the new Values and Code of Ethics document:
Treating all people with respect, dignity and fairness is fundamental to our relationship with the Canadian public and contributes to a safe and healthy work environment that promotes engagement, openness and transparency. The diversity of our people and the ideas they generate are the source of our innovation.
 This is pretty important to me.  It forms the basis of my work toward wider access to education, and support for openly accessible resources. It also forms the basis for my work in an open environment, such as the publication of my newsletter, and even in my writing of this article. It's what we saw most recently in the work of Chris Hadfield - he could have just gone up and did his job in space, but he chose to take us all along with him.

It is also interesting to me to see in this values a reflection of the principles I find essential to the proper and effective functioning of a network. I've enumerated them on numerous occasions before: diversity, autonomy, openness, interactivity. These are also the values we want to promote in society, and it becomes the role of the public service is to ensure and support them.

Monday, June 03, 2013

What's Ours

As it was purchasing Tumblr, Yahoo was also quietly making changes to the Flickr photo sharing service. Flickr has been one of Yahoo's few success stories recently, and this was the first major revision to the site in a number of years.

The change came without warning, it dramatically changed the look at feel of the site, it changed the emphasis from sharing and community to photo browsing, and it upset a lot of people.

Like Jenny Mackness, I've been a member of the site since the beginning, have become a 'pro' (ie., 'paid') member, and have thousands upon thousands of photos stored on the site.  And my issue with the changes are similar to hers: it’s like hanging too many paintings on a wall in an art gallery, and 'Collections’ no longer show on the opening Flickr page.

And most importantly, "the worst thing about these changes is that they have decreased and diminished my sense of ownership over my own photos, since I no longer have a choice about how they should be displayed" It's not as bad as Google+, which has been "auto-enhancing" (ie., wrecking) my photos, but it's bad enough.

And she adds, "What Flickr hasn’t seemed to recognize is that they have ‘meddled’ with my identity." This was the part I thought she got exactly right.

But Alan Levine responds: "I disagree- Jenny gets a lesson that third party sites are not 'ours'. If they do their job well it has that sensation."

And he has a point, of course. Spaces like Flickr and Facebook and Google+ and Tumblr belongto large corporations who offer us certain services in exchange for the right to monetize our creativity and attention. From time to time they will allow us to pay for extensions to that privilege, which is how I can to pay Flick for 'pro' membership and Google for 100 gig of 'cloud' space.

And of course, these spaces are not ours, which is what in turn motivates things like the Domain of One's Own project, which exists thanks in no small part to Levine's own efforts. In the past I've supported the idea, and I still do, because, as we have just seen, these large corporations that give us a place to put our stuff are fickle.

That said, I have no illusion that hosting my own domain and server and all the rest of it will free from such fecklessness. It simply moves it back a level.

For example, the ISP on which I hosted my own server has been purchased three times since I started with them (which is how I find myself a SoftLayer customer without even trying). Everything about my service (and most importantly, the Linux configuration  support, which has long since vanished) has changed.

At home, I found myself viewing advertisements inserted into my web stream by my internet service provider (which also admitted to 'traffic-shaping' and of course bandwidth limits). Though I don't think it does this any more (I'm not sure, because I bolted from the service as soon as I could) I get the same sense of my personal space being violated.

And of course there's the wireless internet access industry, a collection of companies that have proven manifestly unable to resist no-cancellation policies and excessive roaming fees, and the platforms on which smartphones run, which enforce monopolies like the iTunes store or Google Play. Having iTunes deleting your music or Google Play banning updates certainly feels like a violation.

Even if I were to construct my own internet backbone and manufacture my own computers, our economy is so interlinked that fickle behaviour on the part of one corporation or another (perhaps the power company, perhaps the government) will intrude on my space. Because, in the end, everything I own, everything I create, everything I see, is obtained from, and at the discretion of, corporations and service providers.

This is not sour grapes; it's just a fact. It's no more or no less a fact that that I buy my food from restaurants and grocery stores, my clothing from Mark's Work Wearhouse, my water from the City of Moncton and my gas from Enbridge. It would be ridiculous and futile to attempt to provide all these things for myself; it makes much more sense to do what I do well, get paid for it, and purchase these services from others.

But with these purchases and exchanges of services, I have come over time to have certain expectations. Indeed, it is impossible to build a reliable network of goods and services if these expectations are not met. I do not expect my food to poison me, I do not expect the power or gas to stop functioning for no good reason, and I would consider it an affront if the City came along and said it was rezoning my property and neighbourhood to heavy industrial.

No, I don't own any of these things, but they all taken together form part and parcel of my life, my livelihood, and yes, even my identity.

So Jenny Mackness is not wrong to complain about sudden and unexpected changes in service delivery, not least in one she pays for, but also one in which she exchanges other value (such as her creativity and attention) for services. There's no reason why web services should be any different in this way from the newspaper or the gas company.

We need to become more clear about this. More and more of our digital world is moving into the cloud. Software we used to buy and install, like Photoshop, is now a service. That's fine (if expensive) if we can control our software. But if we start getting upgrades without being asked, and if our computers and other tools suddenly start performing in erratic and unexpected ways, or if we suddenly lose features (like Google Reader, or anything useful in Apple iMovie), then the loss of control we feel is real.

The software and digital content industries as a whole will have to be very careful. They have already tricked people into believing they are purchasing 'licenses' and not actual products, even when those products are shrink-wrapped and stored on DVDs. This resulted in significant push-back as people lost the right to copy, trade or resell their purchased product. But at least if the product changed they could keep the old one.

Now they will not even give us the product itself. They'll change it whenever they want. Terms of service, cost increases, usage caps - we've already seen that the industry will do whatever it wants if it feels it can wring a few extra dollars out of the service. The users - as we well know - are not the customers. The only people corporations answer to are the shareholders.

That's why we need to push back. These services are beginning to play an essential role in our lives. Just as the gas company cannot by law turn off the heat in winter, just as banks by law cannot charge more than a certain rate of interest, just as telephone companies by law must allow you to keep your number when you switch service, there is a growing need for an understanding that people demand, and must receive, a certain consistency in online environments.

Last week I linked to an article launching a campaign for a "people's terms of service." I commented, "Some of the terms that would be highlighted are laudible - the idea that such agreements could not be arbitrarily changed, that producer data collection practices would be transparent, that companies would respect user copyright, and that industry standard data security measures would be in place."

But I didn't like the mechanism, and I noted that companies will simply ignore these provisions. What might be needed I think is something rather stronger. So, here's the message to Flickr, the new owners of Tumblr, and the other vendors making a lot of money hosting our stuff and providing services online: if you can't behave, people will push back. Because they do feel their sense of identity is being infringed upon.

This sort of dissonance is real. How do you think the people who purchase Joe Fresh felt when they saw their favorite shirt among the wreckage of the Bangladesh sweatshop

Companies can get away with a lot. But when they start messing with people's sense of self, they are starting to tread dangerous ground. It might be something as simple as they way we are able to display our images online. But I think we know, intuitively, that if we can't even control that, then there's a lot more serious stuff behind the scenes we can't sway at all, and it begins to gnaw at us, bit by bit.