Getting the digital autonomy we pay for

As an armchair educational technologist I’ve applauded the emerging notion that we should encourage students to build personal cyberinfrastructure, rooted in a domain of one’s own, that empowers them to live and work effectively. Doing so requires some expertise, but not necessarily this kind:

Authorship has blossomed since the dawn of social media; but even in its rise, authorship has been controlled by the platforms upon which we write. Digital pages are not neutral spaces. As I write this in Google Docs, I’m subject to the terms of service that invisibly manipulate the page; and I am also subject to the whims of the designers of the platform.

Owning our own homes in the digital requires an expertise that this writer does not have. I don’t own my own server, I haven’t learned to code, I haven’t designed my own interfaces, my own web site, nor even my own font. I must content myself to rent, to squat, or to ride the rails.

[Risk, Reward, and Digital Writing]

That’s Sean Michael Morris writing in the journal Hybrid Pedagogy. I agree with the premise that many are disempowered, but not with the conclusion that they’re stuck with that fate. Digital autonomy isn’t a nirvana only geeks can attain. We can all get there if we appreciate some basic principles and help create markets around them.

I’ve owned and operated servers. Nowadays I mostly avoid doing so. I host this blog on WordPress.com, and accept the limitations that entails, because it’s a reasonable tradeoff. Here, on this blog, at this point in my life, I don’t need to engage in the kinds of experimentation that I’ve done (and will do) elsewhere. I just need a place to publish. So I’ve outsourced that function to WordPress.

I haven’t, though, outsourced the function of writing to WordPress. I still write with the same text editor I’ve used for 25 years. When I finish writing this essay I’ll paste it into WordPress and hit the Publish button. This is not an ideal arrangement. I would rather connect my preferred writing tool more directly to WordPress (also to Twitter, Facebook, and other contexts). I’d rather that you could do the same with your preferred writing tool. And I’d like the creators of our writing tools, and of WordPress, to get paid for the work required to make those connections robust and seamless.

The web is made of software components that communicate by means of standard protocols. Some of those standards, like the ones your browser uses to fetch and display web pages, are baked into all the browsers and servers in a way that enables many different makes and models to work together reliably. Other standards, including those that would enable you to connect your favorite writing tool to your favorite publishing environments, are nonexistent or nascent. If you would like those standards to exist, flourish, and work reliably everywhere — and if you are willing to support the work required — then say so!

One of the Elm City project’s core principles is the notion that you ought to be able to publicize events using any calendar application (or service) that you prefer. In this case there is a mature Internet standard. But many vendors of calendar publishing systems don’t bother to implement it. When I ask why not they always say: “Customers aren’t asking for it.”

I don’t want most people to run servers, write code, or design interfaces. I just want people to understand what’s possible in a world of connected, standards-based software components, to recognize when those possibilities aren’t being realized, to expect and demand that they will be, and to pay something for that outcome.

WordPress.com is a valuable service that I could be using for free. In fact I pay $13/year for domain mapping so I can refer to this blog as blog.jonudell.net instead of jonudell.wordpress.com. That’s useful. It helps me consolidate my online presence within a domain of my own. But is that really critical? My wife blogs at luannudell.wordpress.com. Her homepage at www.luannudell.com links to the blog. Writing this post reminds me that I keep forgetting to create the alias blog.luannudell.com. Maybe I will, now that I’m thinking about it, but I’m not sure she’d notice a difference. People find Luann online in the spaces she chooses to inhabit and call her own.

I’d rather she had the option to spend $13/year for a robust connection between Word, which is her preferred writing tool, and WordPress. And then be able to transfer that connection to another writing tool and/or publishing platform if she wants to. Gaining this autonomy doesn’t require deep technical expertise. We just need to understand what’s possible, demand it, and be willing to pay (a little) for it.

5 Comments

    1. I use an emacs-like text editor called Epsilon. I’d probably be most comfortable using it to write Markdown that I’d preview in WordPress. But clearly I’m an outlier. The point here is that people ought to be able to choose from a selection of more mainstream writing tools, and connect them into various publishing environments.

      1. Jon, Ha! Of course you are an outlier! (says the guy who frequently writes in vim ;-) )

        But you are right on with this post. The challenge is, I think, that to most people all of this that happens on computers and the Internet is “magic”… and so they blindly accept the restrictions because they don’t know that there can be any other way.

      2. Or they’ve simply forgotten there were (and so still could be) other ways. Plenty of folks are old enough to remember that word processors were (and still can be) more capable writing tools than textboxes in browsers and apps.

  1. I too want to have one writing tool. I’d like to feed a unified, private, durable database of everything I’ve ever written. Then I’d like to publish (syndicate?) of of that database.

    I just signed up for medium.com because it has such a nice simple writing tools with gorgeous results (e.g. typography). It’s got some interesting syndication abilities, letting me email content and put it on a WordPress blog.

    Then again, I’m sure I’ll quickly become disillusioned as I consider how locked up my writing is. And I’ll also get frustrated at the lack of deeper capabilities like mathematical notation. Meh.

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