Background Thoughts from the Wife of a Geek

Today I started a wiki of digital resources for the folks I am privileged to teach with. I found myself thinking about how my personal experience with technology has informed  my views of pedagogy & technology/software/web-based tools, and I ended up writing a page called “Background thoughts from the wife of a geek.”  I’ve copied it, below.

The ethos of “technology”

I’ll argue that some of the customs and practices of early developers of the web have contributed to the current perspectives on globalization, collaboration, open information, creation of media, software, etc. that are pushing at current/traditional ideas about teaching & learning.

In capturing some of these here, I hope to give you a sense of the ethos behind some of the “tech” stuff leaching into the English classroom.

Please note: these are from the perspective of someone who remembers the night her husband brought home a clunky machine with a tiny black screen. When it was connected via the phone line to some unknown place, a bunch of orange Xs appeared in patterns on the screen. The patterns formed letters and approximated shapes. We could connect to this experimental thing called Prodigy that put up news headlines on the screen. Even then there were ads. There wasn’t much you could see or do with it. When he told me this was going to be the future, I remember rolling my eyes and saying something like, “If you say so.”

Why we should think twice before cursing computer programmers.

Software is not like any other product we buy or use. If it’s commercial, it’s developed by people who are under deadline. Often, they will be asked to knowingly make compromises in order to get the software out. That’s why you’ll often you see updates or new releases. It’s also why software developers are known to sleep under their desks when they are in a time crunch. (And here you thought Microsoft & Google provide all those amenities on the job just because they have money to throw around.)

An outsider’s view of geek-ian philosophies.

If a tool or piece of software is free, as many things on the web are, e.g., Firefox, it’s often developed by people who have day jobs. They do this work because they believe, passionately, in several overlapping things.

  • Democracy
    • The belief that the web is the ultimate democratic “place” is a guiding principle in the decisions many software developers make. An example is Google’s recent fracas with China.
    • Part of being a member of a democratic community is taking seriously the responsibility of contributing to the good of the commons. This is often part of what motivates people to develop free tools, like Wikipedia.
  • Freedom of information
    • Quite simply, many software developers and legal experts think that access to information should not only be freely available, it is actually a basic human right. See the The EFF (Electronic Freedom Foundation), which calls itself “the leading civil liberties group defending your rights in the digital world.”
    • How passionate are some folks about these beliefs? Some time ago, according to US Munitions laws, it was illegal to export certain kinds of software used to encrypt (lock) computer programs and files. Computer geeks were furious, so they simply printed the code on tee shirts and wore these when they passed through customs or airline security. Big lawsuits ensued. Under Clinton, these were clarified & changed.
  • Openness
    • A related belief is in openness. This is more of a philosophy about ways of being in the virtual world of cyberspace. This philosophy frames the decisions people make about everything from how much information they put out there about themselves, their families, colleagues, and friends, to practices of publishing only in open (refereed) academic journals or putting academic texts online for anyone to access.
  • This philosophy of openness is in direct opposition to underlying beliefs of current copyright laws. Proponents of openness, among them Larry Lessig, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, often term their position about copyright as copyleft. Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization founded by Lessig, offers copyleft licensing options.

What on earth all this has to do with English

by Chönóphotos!/Guillermo Salinas

To paraphrase an old saw, it’s the information, stupid.

We talk about the technology revolution as though it’s the computers, electronic gadgets, and web-based tools that are the news. Nope. The revolution is in the ways we receive, process, understand, access, interpret, share, and use information. It’s in our ideas about access to and power over information access, use, creation, distribution.

Technology may have sparked the information revolution, but today each makes the other possible.

Of course, as we all know, pencils are examples of revolutionary technologies. So are books. (Alphabetic text, as our fellow English Edster, Gunther Kress, likes to say.) And, traditionally, English teachers have owned all things textual, from the creation to the interpretation. So where does all this revolution leave us?

I don’t think we’ve created that answer yet.



Tim Berners-Lee, the “inventor” of the Web, talks about his vision

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyze it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.

Image by Chönóphotos!/Guillermo Salinas

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