Book Experiment #2: Interop

Urs Gasser and I began a research project in 2005 to study Interoperability (Interop, for short). Our gameplan was to answer a straightforward question: do higher levels of interoperability lead to increased innovation? A few years and many case studies later, we had found a general correlation between more interop and more innovation in the context of information technologies.

But we also had discovered a few order things that we had not expected. We found that we were seeing interop stories everywhere we looked. Interop seemed to matter outside of the IT context, too. We also found that people in a wide range of fields had also been thinking about interop: those who care about economics, computer science, systems theory, complexity theory, and so forth. We decided that there might be a book project that could build from the base of our research into those original case studies.

As we began to write up the longer-form argument, we agreed also to experiment with the format of the book, as we had done in the context of Born Digital, Intellectual Property Strategy, and other book projects. The premise here, with Interop, (now, in fact, published as a book, by Basic Books) is to present the book along with a rich set of case studies, available freely online, that have served as the raw data for the analysis and theory we present in the book version. Our early case studies on digital music, digital identity, and mash ups in the social web were the first three. Over the next few years, we worked with a strong team of interns, as always spread across two research centers (the Berkman Center at Harvard in the US and the FIR ate the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland), to produce several more. These new case studies, also published freely online, range more broadly.

Over the next few weeks, we will roll out pointers, from our blogs, to these online case studies about interop. They can be read as standalone pieces or, better yet, as a companion to the Interop book itself. We look forward to your feedback.

Born Digital: The Video Version

One of the ideas that Urs Gasser and I had from the start of the Born Digital book project was to find a way to co-produce the ideas behind the book.  The concept was to celebrate, in a graphic way, the creativity and ability of young people.  We worked closely with dozens of student interns on literature reviews, background research, focus groups and interviews, drafting and editing of parts of the book, and so forth.  We’ve been blessed by an extraordinary team of young collaborators.

One specific example of the co-production: a group of students have completed another version of our book, made exclusively by them with no editorial oversight from us, in the form of a series of videos.  Each of these videos are based on a chapter of the traditional form of Born Digital.  The upshot is that one can now “play” the book by watching a short video of each chapter.  The videos are short, roughly 3 to 5 minutes long, and they’re all freely available online.

The purpose of this project is in part to push the boundaries of what a “book” is in the digital age.  I love the traditional codex and all that’s followed on from the original idea.  But I think also that there’s room for new designs for long-form arguments that make a series of complex, interrelated points and which require sustained attention to understand.  I’m convinced that the traditional book will survive, but I think it’s also important that we experiment with new formats as well.

I know that Urs and I are hugely grateful to the many students — and fellows and collaborators throughout our research network, like danah boyd — who have contributed their smarts and their innovative ideas to our shared understanding of Youth and Media in a digital era.

We very much hope that you will try out the free, online video version of Born Digital!  And special thanks and all credit to the student video creators and Sandra Cortesi and other terrific Berkman staff who organized the crew.

Welcome back, Urs Gasser!

It is our great good fortune at the Berkman Center that Urs Gasser has returned, on a full-time basis, to be our new executive director. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to move us forward in our second decade. Urs has been a longtime fellow of the Center, but most recently has been living back home in Switzerland, where he has been a professor at the University of St. Gallen, one of our key research partners. Urs is committed to the highest standards in scholarship; the expansion of our collective minds through serious, collective inquiry; and to having fun in the process. In addition to his leadership and teaching skills, Urs is a wildly productive legal scholar in his own right, and no doubt will continue to contribute directly to what we know about the law as it relates to information and networks around the world. He has been a terrific co-author to work with on projects such as Born Digital, the book we wrote together over the past few years.

One of the great things about Urs taking this job is that he is focused on international collaboration and on interdisciplinary scholarship. These are important goals for the Center in its second decade. Urs has a particularly strong skill set in both of these regards and a commitment to proving that scholarship can be stronger when we work together across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

And personally, it’s just a joy to have him back with us full-time.

For more: listen to a podcast from Radio Berkman this week on Urs’s plans as executive director, as interviewed by David Weinberger. David has his own blogpost on Urs’s appointment here.

First Few Reactions to Born Digital

After about four years of planning, research, and writing, Born Digital officially came out this week. Urs Gasser and I have so many people to thank; we have been blessed with such great teammates and friends and helpful critics along the way. (Much of the work that the team has done is recorded, and will be updated, on the project’s web site, wiki, and so forth.)

I admit to being very sheepish about what comes next. Several people have sent kind emails that say, basically, “congrats on the book coming out and good luck with the promotion.” Thinking about “promoting” ourselves and our book (wrapped up, now, in our identity, as “authors”) makes me very queasy. I much prefer the idea of our participating in an ongoing public conversation about youth and media, a conversation that is well underway with lots of brilliant people involved. To that end, I’ve been thrilled to see the first three web 2.0-type reactions to the book.

– The Shifted Librarian comments — by photo! — on buying Born Digital for her Kindle. This is so fitting, and cool. (As I commented on her post, I got teased at a book talk at Google the other day that the Kindle edition was initially priced at over $20.00, which was more than the hard-cover cost of $17.00 and change; it’s since come down some.)

– I am grateful to the Librarians! Law Librarian blog has a post, which (justifiably enough, and in a mere few words; very economical) juxtaposes the marketing description of the book against what we actually say inside its covers; and,

– A brand-new friend — who contacted my via Facebook about his blogpost — JohnMac is wondering about where he fits into the scheme. I suggested that he is probably a Digital Settler, which is a fine thing to be, (and thought I’d point out this post, in which I responded to critiques from Henry Jenkins and danah boyd and others about the terminology we work with in the book). I have a feeling we’ll be doing a lot of explaining, and perhaps defending, these choices of terms — but that, it seems, is in fact part of the point!

Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion already, and looking forward to much more — some of it playing out in the public parts of cyberspace.

Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected

The MacArthur Foundation’s Series on New Media and Learning, published by the MIT Press, includes a book called Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (2008); open access version here. I opened this book first when I was writing a chapter on Innovators, for Born Digital, a book I’m co-writing with Urs Gasser. I had reason to come back to this book again in thinking about the Task Force we’re chairing, called the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, as there’s a chapter that centers on risk and moral panic in the context of Internet safety. (I’ve previously written about the series as a whole and the volumes Youth, Identity, and Digital Media and Civic Life Online.)

As with the other volumes in the series, there’s much in this book that informs and provokes.

The first essay, by editor Tara McPherson, has a title with particular to the lawyer interested in this topic: “A Rule Set for the Future.” It did not disappoint. This first essay serves both as a guide to the book as a whole as well as a description of six rules to lead to a bright future. As McPherson points out, “This volume identifies core issues concerning how young people’s use of digital media may lead to various innovations and unexpected outcomes, including a range of unintended learning experiences and unanticipated social situations. While such outcomes might typically be seen as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ our investigations push beyong simple accounts of digital media and learning as either utopian or dystopian in order to explore specific digital practices with an eye attuned to larger issues of history, policy, and possibility.” (p. 1) She promises that the book will take up a broad range of issues within this frame, including “policy, privacy and IP,” and to do so in a way that will inform a series of core questions, about what’s really new here, the historical background for these changes, the manner in which these changes are occurring, and what recommendations one might make for “policy, curriculum, or infrastructure.” (p. 2)

These issues that McPherson raises are in many ways the same questions we are seeking to answer in Born Digital, to be honest. She puts them nicely here. (And as a side note: the first footnote of McPherson’s opening essay points to the fact that there have already been — at least — three books on roughly the topic that Urs and I are working on: Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom — I’m Learning; Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital; Howe and Strauss’ Milliennials Rising.)

The bulk of McPherson’s opening essay is devoted to laying out “six maxims to guide further research and inquiry into the questions motivating this study.” (p. 2) These six maxims, or rules, are wonderful, both on their own and as a guide to the essays that follow. I will not ruin it by citing them all in this blog-post; you should read them for yourself if you are interested enough in this topic to be reading this paragraph of this obscure blog post. I will say that in Rule 4: Broaden Participation, she cites to a number of the prominent cyber-lawyers, including Lessig, Boyle, and co.

In her essay, “Practicing at Home,” Ellen Seiter does the unexpected: she “draw[s] out the similarities between learning to play the piano and learning to use the computer.” (p. 28-9) One such similarity is the barrier to entry of cost. Overall, it’s a worthy exercise. She informs nicely the issue of how to conceive of digital literacy in the curriculum. Her assessment of the digital divide data and literature, with an overlay of concerns about cultural capital and participation, (e.g., pp. 37-8) invoke Henry Jenkins’ fine work on the participation gap as a better way to think about the relevant split. (There’s also a critique of a passage in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks on related grounds. (pp. 41-2) Ultimately, as Seiter admits, hers “is a pessimistic essay,” (p. 49) though one worth engaging with, especially for those of us who are hopelessly optimistic.

Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer take up the safety issue in the third essay, which is why I picked the book back up again now. It is a bit unexpected to see this essay in this volume — it fits less neatly than some of the others do with the rest — but is very helpful, especially when thinking about what we should really be worried about with respect to young people online. Cassell and Cramer lay out the facts about how great the risks are to young women of using the Internet, wonder why the media portrayal of the issue is quite so hyperbolic and misaligned with these facts, and ultimately “argue that the dangers to girls online are not as severe as they have been portrayed, and that the reason for this exaggeration of danger arises from adult fears about girls’ agency (particularly sexual agency) and societal discomfort around girls as power users of technology.” (p. 55) Cassell and Cramer do an especially nice job of placing into historical context the worry around teens online, in light of previous, similar fears that cropped up as earlier communications media became popular.

Christian Sandvig’s piece on “Wireless Play and Unexpected Innovation” offers a nice overview of how unexpected innovation may happen and what the prerequisites are for its occurrence. He locates Eric von Hippel within the literature and Sandvig’s own argument, which, as a von Hippel devotee, I found a helpful anchor for aspects of his argument. (p. 89) The last paragraph is an accurate — possibly scolding, certainly daunting — call to action. “‘Participatory culture,'” Sandvig contends, “will only move beyond the elite if the desire for decentralized control and widespread participation can animate changes in our society’s fundamental structure of opportunity.” (p. 94)

A cluster of essays that drive down further on the literacy and curricular questions follow. Sonia Livingstone offers insights aplenty in her strong essay on Internet Literacy. She stresses “the historical continuities between internet literacy and print literacy,” to great effect. (p. 115) She ends with a challenge nearly as ambitious and daunting (and just as accurate) as Sandvig’s. Paula Hooper has an instructive take on the use of programming in the curriculum. Sarita Yardi writes up a fun take on the “backchannel” in the classroom — “an exciting innovative space for a new learning paradigm.” (p. 160) Henry Lowood dives deep into games and “the expressive potential of machinima.” (p. 191) Robert Heverly reviews the topic of “growing up digital” and its impact on identity, privacy, and security — with many themes invoking the work of danah boyd (such as persistence).

The second-to-last essay, by Robert Samuels, is the most challenging. He argues, off the bat, “that in order to understand the implications of how digital youth are now using new media and technologies in unexpected and innovative ways, we have to rethink many of the cultural oppositions that have shaped the Western tradition since the start of the modern era.” (p. 219) Like the challenges at the end of the Sandvig and Livingstone pieces, Samuels’s argument strikes me as right, and hard work. He also argues “that we have moved into a new cultural period of automodernity.” I admit I did not understand it in full. (p. 219, 228-33) But I suspect that I like the idea of what he sees ahead: “by defending the public realm against the constant threats of privitization, we can open up a new automodern public space.” (p. 238) It sounds like something you need a whole conference on to understand properly, rather than the one-way street of a 20-page essay.

In the final essay, Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explore perspectives on the current state of digital learning. I am glad I made it this far in the book — propelled by the fine essays that preceded it — because they take up some efforts near and dear to our hearts at the Berkman Center, including Prof. Charles Nesson’s Harvard Law School/Harvard Extension School/Second Life class, CyberOne, taught with his daughter and my law school classmate Becca Nesson. (p. 249-51) Anderson and Balsamo end with a spirited manifesto for “Original Synners,” which I intend to think about adopting in my own teaching. (p. 254-7)

Taken together, these essays fit together as a series of detailed examples that string together issues that are not immediately connected in one’s mind. McPherson predicted as much in her opening essay. As she puts it, together, these essays, “encourage us to recognize that innovation as a cultural phenomenon often happens in unexpected places (as does learning) and produces unanticipated outcomes. They remind us to ask who innovation serves and how we might best reap its benefits for broader visions of social equity and justice. And, finally, they underscore that the term ‘innovation’ is value laden and historically complex.” (p. 5) It’s worth making it all the way through; the connections become clear in the full telling of the tales.

MacArthur/MIT Press Series on Youth, Media, and Learning

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation, along with MIT Press, announced the release of a series of new books on youth and new media. The series is a treasure trove.

I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).

I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.

For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)

The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.

Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.

At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.

So far, I’ve finished the book on “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” (ed. by David Buckingham) and “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning” (ed. by Katie Salen) and am part of the way through each of the others. Each one is excellent.

In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (“privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)

There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)