I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for march 2014

Unwieldy communities

2014-03-31 by Nick S., tagged as communication, education

I recently signed up for an on-line course in university teaching with Coursera, in part because I was curious to see how massive open on-line courses ("MOOCs") work and in part as a lower-committment alternative to studying for a full-scale graduate certificate in higher education that I decided I wasn't currently able to afford or commit to. I might write more about the MOOC experience when the course is over, but I was first inspired to make a few observations on very large communities.

Logging in to the course for the first time, I was immediately impressed by my own smallness. There's nothing like glancing over hundreds of posts from other learners introducing themselves to remind oneself of what a tiny part of the world one occupies, even the relatively elite world of university teachers. Having happened to re-read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recently, I readily identified with the Total Perspective Vortex used to torture prisoners by showing them just how insignificant they are compared to the universe in its entirety.

I quickly saw that I was only going to be able skim over the posts made by other learners, and that I couldn't expect other learners to spend any more time appreciating whatever I was going to contribute. I've come to similar realisations reading Usenet articles in the 1990s, and observing the comments sections of popular news web more recently: with so many articles and comments out there to read, and many of them being less than enlightening, reading all of them is a fool's task.

Here lies a problem for the idea that blogs and comments would radically democratise media and political discussion: it simply isn't feasible to hold a conversation with millions of participants. Matthew Hindman details the result for political blogs in The Myth of Digital Democracy (2008): only a tiny handful of blogs have a wide readership, and they're mostly written by the same kind of people who previously wrote widely-read newspaper columns.

Going back to my course, I came to see the main value of posting to the discussion board to be not in intimate conversation with hundreds of my fellow learners, but in working through my own thoughts and putting them into a form in which they might be digested should someone happen to read them. (I take much the same view of this blog.) When reading the discussion board, I can only hope to get an overview of what everyone else is talking about, with only the occassional pause to read an eye-catching item in more depth.

So I hope my classmates won't be too offended if I miss any posts that they've slaved over, only to have them drown in a sea of other posts. It'll take more than a nice web site to expand our brains to encompass conversations with a hundred other people.

On the myth of the machine

2014-03-19 by Nick S., tagged as philosophy

I've recently been reading a bit about science vs humanities, having worked my way through Neil Postman's Technopoly (1993), Joseph Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason (1976), Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine (1967, 1970) and finally something of a rant about the alleged STEM crisis from Hal Berghel in the March 2013 issue of IEEE Computer (p. 70-73). Each complain about what they see as a "mechanisation" (as suggested by Mumford's title) of society, driven by a narrow pursuit of economic efficiency and technological progress at the expense of real human interests.

I've never quite understood some of the antagonism that seemed to exist between disciples of the sciences and the humanities around the middle of the twentieth century, and arguments over the merits of quantitative vs qualitative research. Maybe everyone was over it by the time I began studying for my undergraduate degree in the 1990s, having finally accepted that there are many interesting fields of endeavour and many valid approaches to research with their own strengths and weaknesses.

I, like a lot of other scientists and engineers, have a lot of affinity for hierarchical reductionism, in which any particular system is studied and explained in terms of its immediate sub-components. So biology is explained in terms of biochemistry, which is explained in terms of chemistry, which is explained in terms of physics, for example. As far as any credible science can tell, humans are indeed made up of sub-atomic particles and the forces that act on them, but hardly anyone supposes that sub-atomic physics is an effective tool for describing or understanding, say, art or politics. At the same time, to claim that humans somehow transcend or defy the laws of physics is a likely recipe for bullshit.

The real problem for humanists, perhaps, is that few people feel the need to hire out historians, philosophers and art critics in the way that they hire out accountants, physicians and engineers. Yet almost everyone is interested in art and history to some degree, and meaningful participation in society surely requires some knowledge of that society's culture, history, philosophy and much else besides. In a sense, we're all amateur humanists, but we leave science and engineering to the professionals. Consequently, the humanities become invisible to narrow economic analyses that track only the transfer of material wealth from one person to another.

The real enemy here is narrowness, whether it be an economist's pre-occupation with material wealth, an engineer's pre-occupation with machines, or a humanist's pre-occupation with soul. If you want to achieve some narrow task, a machine is indeed likely to be an excellent tool for performing it efficiently and well. But who wants to be a machine?