Philosophical Musings

November 25, 2007

Just Say No to Linda O’Connor (and Yes to Wikipedia)

Filed under: Digital Culture,postmodernism — Elad Kehat @ 8:12 am

Linda O’Connor, a middle school librarian from New Jersey, has launched a campaign in her school to “Just Say No” to Wikipedia. You have probably heard the reasons before:

“Teachers and students have found at least two cases of incorrect information while using Wikipedia”

Wow, at least two errors, that’s nothing new, but here’s the real problem:

“Kids just take it for gospel, they really do, and that’s my concern about it.”

Apparently, wisdom does not transfer by diffusion. Just spending your life in a library with books all around you  is no guarantee that you’ll become smart. Let us try and see then whether our dear librarian could have come up with a better solution, in just two steps.

First, teach the kids that what they read online isn’t gospel. While you’re at it, why don’t you teach them that what they read offline isn’t gospel either. (Neither is the gospel gospel for that matter, but this is a pro-real education rant, not an anti-organized religion rant so I’ll stop there). Teach them to think for themselves. Teach them to corroborate the “facts”.

“A teacher researching Martin Luther King Jr. found white supremacist information in his entry”

If you taught students the bare minimum of rationale and critical thinking, then they should be able to recognize white supremacist information when they see it, realize that it has no place in a Martin Luther King article, and seek additional sources.

“The problem with Wikipedia, the school officials said, is it can be modified by anyone.”

And here comes the second step – realize that your students are people too  – “can be modified by anyone” includes them. Why not let them contribute something?

Instead of launching a “just say no” campaign, I’d rather see Ms. O’Connor suggest that her students take up a subject, learn all about it from various “authoritative” sources, then go into Wikipedia, look for errors and fix them. This way students could learn that there are inaccuracies in Wikipedia, learn how to look for additional sources and corroborate information they find online, and even give something back to society by making Wikipedia, a free source that’s easily available for everyone, more accurate.

Unlikely. I just hope that the digital generation are smarter than their parents.

September 14, 2007

Wake Up and Smell the Medium

Filed under: ebooks,entrepreneurship,postmodernism — Elad Kehat @ 6:12 pm

Back in 1998 or 1999 – the good old days of the big internet bubble, I had a company that did web development projects for internet startups. That means I saw a lot of startups, 99 percent of which are long gone now. There are many reasons for startup failure, and having a stupid idea isn’t a prominent one. This post however, is on one of the stupidest ideas.
I don’t remember the startup’s name – all I ever saw was a demo of their product. They developed a product for ecommerce (remember, it was in the days of the big bubble), where you had a 3D, video-game-like environment that you moved through to do your shopping. Think Doom (which was the big name in first-person shooters back then) staged in a shopping mall. You walk through the virtual mall, looking at the shops’ signs, and hey, here’s a shoe store. You walk in. There are shelves with shoes on display. You get close enough to some shelf so you can see the shoes, but no, these are the ladies’ shoes, you want men’s. So you go to another shelf, and here are some nice men’s sneakers. You pick one up, look at it, check the price tag, put it back on the shelf, and move to the next one.
There were people from several other startups there, and a couple of VCs, and everybody was going Ooooh and Aaaah. I remember feeling strange at being the only one there thinking to myself, boy, this is stupid!
If I want to shop in a mall, I go out to the mall. Why on earth would I want to do that from my PC? Where’s the advantage? If you’re going to digitize the shopping experience, why don’t you give me a quick way to search through the merchandise for something I want instead of requiring me to “walk” through the “store”? How about reviews, recommendations, and all the other goodies that any decent ecommerce site offered even back then?

Didn’t they read Marshall McLuhan? (they probably did, but never understood what they read…)
The problem of course is that the common reaction to a new medium is “great, how do we make it more like the old medium?”. But old media almost never die (video didn’t kill TV, which didn’t kill radio, and cinema didn’t kill theater), and new media thrive by making use of unique new advantages that weren’t available to the old ones, not by merely copying the old formulae over.

And now we finally come to the thing that prompted this long rant: almost ten years later, with the internet hardly a new medium anymore, the same stupidity is still among us.
In this post on O’Reilly radar, a pretty good blog otherwise, Peter Brantley, whom, according to his CV, is rather experienced in libraries, technology, and library digitization, is all appalled by an “extremely clever, and intuitively appealing” idea:

“Imagine keyword searching through a book database, only the results come back as a picture of library stacks where the book is highlighted in context, where serendipity and browsing could happen.

You could setup the stacks image up so that you can “walk” along the shelves as if you were walking the stacks across your computer screen. If the mapping was done well, you could zoom up toward the stacks and view the book on the shelf. If you did this at several libraries, both public and academic, you could flip between your book at the public library and your book in an academic library setting, browsing across both shelves.”

That’s even more stupid than the shoestore I described above – with shoes at least you care how they look, but who cares what the book’s spine looks like?
Searching online through a book’s text is a great idea, and I hope that Google’s project is successful, but if anything, it makes the experience of physical libraries redundant. For 99.999% of books in the world (i.e. barring some beautifully illustrated old manuscripts) we only care about the text inside, and that can be delivered very efficiently online, as in Project Gutenberg. When online, books are just files. They’re not stacked on shelves, they don’t have spines, and there’s absolutely no reason to treat them like anything other than digital files. The Dewey Decimal System is a necessary evil – it’s damn hard to find the book that you want in a big physical library, so a librarian called Melvil Dewey came up with a notoriously hard to learn system to order all those books on the shelves. That was back in the 1870s! They didn’t know better. “Computer” back then meant a person who computes
Now why oh why would anyone think that it’s a good idea to reproduce the tedious experience of walking along the shelves of a library in order to find a computer file?

Anyway, since we’re discussing libraries and stupidity, here’s a nice video:

October 29, 2006

It’s all in Your Head

Filed under: art,postmodernism,religion — Elad Kehat @ 7:48 pm

People see in art what their mind wants to see. I always saw Van Gogh’s restless starry night as an example of the artist’s misery and craziness. For this guy it speaks of god.

October 28, 2006

Religion and Ideology

Filed under: history,ideology,postmodernism,religion — Elad Kehat @ 8:32 am

A letter by Mr. Marqués De Tamarón from Madrid, to the editor of The Economist (October 7th, 2006), in response to their review of Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion reads:

“SIR – Your laudatory review of “The God Delusion” seems to accept the tenet that “it was religious faith that ultimately turned [the September 11th terrorists] into killing machines” and that “religious moderates make the world safe for fundamentalists.” However, the historical fact remains that the most murderous sets of beliefs ever adopted were those two great, modern and officially atheist ideologies, communism and National Socialism. So much for scientific hubris.”


Mr. Tamarón’s mistake lies in classifying communism and National Socialism as atheistic. For issue at hand – how blind faith can turn zealot’s morals upside down – extreme ideology and religion (especially monotheistic religion) fall into the same category. Both are often used as a tool by power crazed leaders to drive their brainwashed followers to commit atrocities.

What enables such deeds in both cases is the firm belief in one truth, and in a small cadre having a monopoly on that truth. If extreme ideologies have waned in the west, along with religion, it is because our post-modern society has largely freed itself of mono-verity and adopted pluralism instead.

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