Automatic shifting and manual steering on the information superhighway

I’d like to thank the folks at the Berkman Center for listening to my talk yesterday, and for feedback that was skeptical about the very points I know that I need to sharpen. The talk is available here in multiple audio and video formats. The slides are separately available on SlideShare. There are many ways to use these materials. If I wanted to listen and watch, here are the methods I’d choose. For a tethered experience I’d download the original PowerPoint deck from SlideShare and watch it along with the MP3 audio. For an untethered experience I’d look at the slides first, and then dump the MP3 onto a portable player and head out for a run. Finally, if I lacked the time or inclination for either of those modes, but was still curious about the talk, I’d read Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent write-up.

After the talk we had a stimulating discussion that raised questions some of us have been kicking around forever in the blogosphere:

  1. Do “real people” — that is, people who do not self-identify as geeks — actually use feed syndication?

  2. If not directly and intentionally, do they use it indirectly and unconsciously by way of systems that syndicate feeds without drawing attention to the concept?

  3. Does the concept matter?

The third question is the big one for me. From the moment that the blogosphere booted up, I thought that pub/sub syndication — formerly a topic of interest only to engineers of networked information systems — was now becoming a tool that everyone would want to master in order to actively engage with networked information systems. Mastering the principles of pub/sub syndication wasn’t like mastering the principles of automotive technology in order to drive a car. It was, instead, like knowing how to steer the car — a form of knowledge that we don’t fully intuit. I have been driving for over 35 years. But there are things I never learned until we sent our kids to Skid School and participated in the training.

I’ll admit I have waffled on this. After convincing Gardner Campbell that we should expect people to know how to steer their cars on the information superhighway, I began to doubt that was possible. Maybe people don’t just need automatic transmission. Maybe they need automatic steering too. Maybe I was expecting too much.

But Gardner was unfazed by my doubt. He continued to believe that people need to learn how to steer, and he created a Skid School in order to teach them. It’s called the New Media Studies Faculty Seminar, it’s taking place at Baylor University where Gardner teaches, at partner schools, and from wherever else like minds are drawn by the tags that stitch together this distributed and syndicated conversation. Here’s Gardner reflecting on the experience:

Friday, I was scanning the blog feeds to read the HCC blogs about the discussion. Then I clicked over to some of the other sites’ blogs to see what was happening there. Oops! I was brought up short. I thought I’d clicked on a St. Lawrence University blog post. It sure looked like their site. But as I read the post, it was clear to me something had gone wrong. I was reading a description of the discussion at HCC, which had included very thoughtful inquiries into the relationship of information, knowledge, and wisdom. Then I realized that in fact I was reading a description of the HCC discussion — because that’s what they’d talked about at St. Lawrence University as well.

And now my links bear witness to that connection, tell my story of those connections, and enact them anew.

This property of the link — that it is both map and territory — is one I’ve blogged about before (a lucky blog for me, as it elicited three of my Favorite Comments Ever). But now I see something much larger coming into view. Each person enacts the network. At the same time, the network begins to represent and enact the infinities within the persons who make it up. The inside is bigger than the outside. Each part contains the whole, and also contributes to the whole.

The New Media Studies Faculty Seminar has given some educators a lesson in how to steer their own online destinies, and a Skid School course on which to practice their new skills. That pretty much sums up my ambition for the elmcity project too. Automatic transmissions are great. But we really do need to teach folks how to steer.


  1. Either I am getting goofy as I get older or is the idea that the application should make it easy/intuitive for the uninitiated/untrained to operate and get the correct/desired outcome. No training classes for users, just some really good help (eg mouseovers or messages in the process).

    Maybe this is the same thing as realizing that the ‘cloud’ is just a high tech version of ‘time sharing’ from 50 years ago.

    Along those lines, I certainly want what your call your ‘Elm City Project’ to proliferate and I am willing to put in the effort to be the St. Louis site.

    Now Jon, how do I do that without any training, classes, programming or other time using things like data entry? I am willing to spend time to get contacts that I have here to provide events but, they will want it to be dead simple and easy for the non technical. Is there an app for that?

  2. Here’s a dead simple solution: Use Google Calendar, put its widget onto your events page, and convey the URL of the companion feed to a hub.

    Anyone can easily do this. And yet it almost never happens. Why not? Missing concepts, including:

    – that there is such a thing as a companion data feed

    – that there can be such a thing as a hub

    – that the feed’s data, unlike a web page or a PDF file, can travel through networks — perhaps routed through hubs, perhaps peer-to-peer — without loss of fidelity

    It /is/ dead simple to plug events into Google calendar, or Hotmail calendar, or another calendar. Anyone can do it. But if you lack a conceptual framework in which that makes sense, and is a meaningful and productive activity, there’s no way you will do it.

    Is there an app for that?


    We are creating and inhabiting a global information network in which some nodes are human beings and some are automated systems. It has emergent laws and properties. It behooves us to articulate them and teach them.

    I continue to search for the right metaphor. Is automatic shifting vs. manual steering not helpful?

  3. Jon —

    Doc alerted me to your talk; I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in person. I am currently designing a VRM system with a personal data store component. We could use your event aggregator model.

    Regarding the 4th ‘R’, I am convinced that these concepts should be taught somewhere in Grades 6 – 12, about the same time that ethics and other abstract concepts are introduced.

    My belief is not based on trying to increase the number of computer programmers, but learning how information flows in the information world as part of ‘information highway driver training.’ How many US citizens do not know how to drive? We started driver training as a safety measure, but we allowed people to drive to enhance commerce and freedom. There was a time when most kids who grew up on farms knew their way around an engine. This served us well in WWII when citizen soldiers could fix a truck while the Germans had to wait for a mechanic to show up. It is self-reliance that separates the doers from the followers.

    To move forward as a country/society/world, we all need to be ‘doers’. In an increasingly technical world, this gets harder. And yet we know that learning fundamental concepts that span decades of technical innovation is key to that freedom.

    We all learn concepts that become obsolete quickly. But just because everything we learned about CMOS, Fortran, gouraud-shading, Morse code, etc. is not very useful today, typing, programming the remote, Xerox PARC human factors, word processing, spreadsheets, creating slideware, making videos, have become more useful and likely to remain so even as we develop mind I/O, heads up displays, Minority Report GUIs, roll up computer/displays, and robots. Understanding how information is referenced, connected, merged, distributed, etc. are equivalent classical concepts.

    While public education was started to turn independent farmers into factory workers, we need to think about how we turn consumer-followers into self-reliant innovative imagineers and artisans. This is radical thinking, but it is the only way we can advance the society as a whole. I believe some things can’t happen until a critical mass of people ‘get it’. The 4th R is fundamental is to making this happen.

  4. My belief is not based on trying to increase the number of computer programmers, but learning how information flows in the information world as part of ‘information highway driver training.’

    Nicely said!

    Understanding how information is referenced, connected, merged, distributed, etc. are equivalent classical concepts.

    Yes, and crucially we need to distinguish the specific tools/technologies/apps/services, which are evolving at a breakneck pace, from the underlying principles, which matter over longer cycles.

  5. Love in paragraph 1 how you help your audience know how to best digest your messages — helping them learn at their own pace. Thanks for modeling that behavior.

    1. In my experience, “real people” don’t use syndication.

    2. Except (an exception to every rule, don’t you know) when they aren’t aware they are using it.

    3. I’m still chewing on this, too. Since I’m a technologist, there’s a tendency for me to want people to think things are important that I think are important. RSS helps me pay attention to more stuff more easily. I’m still conflicted as to weather that helps me alleviate information overload or exacerbates it. It helps me be a faster consumer of information on line. Seems like a good thing to me. Increases my capacity for learning, one might say.

    I totally get that the Internet experience is predicated on steering. Ever watch someone surf?

    Yes, we need more effective drivers and better content creators.

  6. John, has been a grat pleasure to find your project, I’ve also been working in a community calendar system project and it’s great to find people that speaks the same stuff I like.

    I have 2 basic questions for you. Isn`t elmcity an app to gather all the public event’s in the world?

  7. The second question I want to ask is ¿Haven`t you notice?.

    There are some important issues that I haven’t heard of, at least not all together. I feel that these are critical aspects of a community calendar system, even greater than calendar systems compatibility, since I belive that compatibility alone is not enough while there are still missing functional aspects, second, because I think that compatibility also is built as someone leads and others follow. Maybe during the elmcity project you`ve also face some of this problems and you`ll know what I mean when I say that we need to create a community calendar system that accepts 3 Types of events

    Public + private events must go all together in the same system, because people don`t care about all the events in the world, but all the events in the world that they are invited to. From the producer point of view, according to who they want to invite and communicate to, there are 3 kinds of events.

    Untill now we have built different kinds of systems for each, but within each system they are usually all treated the same. What we need is to treat them differently, but allow them to coexist within the same calendar system. And it has to be easy/intuitive/fast from your personal/organizational calendar to create all 3 types of events:

    • Public events goes into a public hub, not many hubs as elmcity, just one. Tags should do the rest of the work.

    • Private events. Now all the events in a syndicated calendar end up in the public hub, but administrators must be able to choose easily between public and private within the same calendar.

    • Organizational hubs. This is the most misunderstood kind of event by common calendar systems, because it’s in between the public and private events. Organizations have many departments each with their own events calendar, some of the events they share in them are public, some are private for their own members only, but there is a second kind of private event; those they want to share with all the organization, or just all the departments of their own area. For this kind of events we need to provide special kind of hubs that gathers departments’ calendars. Every level of the organization need a hub, higher level hubs gaher lower level hubs. Bedework system for Universities is a great example of this process.

    I imagine a free web based Bedework that connects organizations to the inside but also to the outside with other organizations as elmcity does.

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