Archive of August 2015

And So, Without Ed-Tech Criticism…

Audrey Watters defends her turf in an excellent talk on the role of criticism. A few choice bits:

Indeed, the computer is a medium of human expression, its development and its use a reflection of human culture; the computer is also a tool with a particular history, and although not circumscribed by its past, the computer is not entirely free of it either. I think we recognize history, legacy, systems in literary and social criticism; funny, folks get pretty irate when I point those out about ed-tech.

And:

It’s an odd response to my work, but a common one too, that criticism does not enable or effect change. (I suppose it does not fall into the business school model of “disruptive innovation.”) Or rather, that criticism stands as an indulgent, intellectual, purely academic pursuit—as though criticism involves theory but not action. Or if there is action, criticism implies “tearing down”; it has this negative connotation. Ed-tech entrepreneurs, to the contrary, actually “build things.”

Here’s another distinction I’ve heard: that criticism (in the form of writing an essay) is “just words” but writing software is “actually doing something.” Again, such a contrast reveals much about the role of intellectual activity that some see in “coding.”

And:

If we believe in “coding to learn” then what does it mean if we see “code” as distinct from or as absent of criticism? And here I don’t simply mean that a criticism-free code is stripped of knowledge, context, and politics; I mean that that framework in some ways conceptualizes code as the opposite of thinking deeply or thinking critically—that is, coding as (only) programmatic, mechanical, inflexible, rules-based. What are the implications of that in schools?

And finally:

Computer criticism can—and must—be about analysis and action. Critical thinking must work alongside critical pedagogical and technological practices. “Coding to learn” if you want to start there; or more simply, “learn by making.” But then too: making to reflect; making to think critically; making to engage with the world; it is from there, and only there, that we can get to making and coding to change the world.

Is it just me, or does the tech industry sometimes seem obsessed with building a “feedback culture” at the office where everyone is encouraged to adopt a “growth mindset” meanwhile whenever honest well-intentioned criticism comes along we plug our fingers in our ears and sing “tra-la-la”?

It’s at least worth trying to listen.

Room Versus Board

Brendan O’Connor, writing for The Awl on Airbnb:

The true innovation of the sharing economy—or maybe it’s the startup economy, or entrepreneurship (or maybe just…capitalism)—is in the continued refinement of the perception of value, not necessarily in offering new services and developing new products, but in making them available for cheaper, because, as it turns out, when you don’t pay anyone a salary or give them benefits because they’re all subcontractors, and you don’t actually have to invest in any of the infrastructure upon which your business model depends, either directly or by paying taxes, your costs are a lot lower than everyone else.

The Birth of Pulp Fiction

Louis Menand:

Paperbacks, even paperbacks that were just reprints of classic texts, turn out to have a key part in the story of modern writing.

Still one of my favorite writers.

A Dao of Web Design at 15

John Allsop reflects on A Dao of Web Design, originally published 15 years ago, and the web today:

Perhaps those advocating this position, that progressive enhancement is old fashioned and quaint, that the Web is dead or dying because native apps are better, are right. Perhaps the idea of an application is the apotheosis of the very idea of human computer integration, and the Web, in falling short, well, in being different, is an evolutionary dead end.

But I continue to believe, just as the Web is not print, though it emerged in many ways from the medium of print, it is not just another application platform. It has its own genius, which we could call as I did all those years ago, adaptability.

This is a position that I will have a very hard time letting go of, but one that I find increasingly difficult to uphold with beginners or those who “weren’t around” at the time—and even, I think, people who were but never fully bought into the idea of “progressive enhancement”. The problem is still, I think, one of articulation. We need better explanations for what the web is, why it is important, and why anyone should care.

That, or, we simply need to step aside and let the upcoming generation come to their own conclusions in this regard, perhaps with better and more robust solutions than came before.