Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Palin's Reverie

As another public figure that we couldn't avoid hearing about for months on end once sang, "Oops, I did it again."

The media is currently full of Sarah Palin's gaffe.  If it was a gaffe.  (I think it was.)  (And no, I don't expect her to ever admit it.)

I have a link to The Center for Public Integrity's iWatch on my blog, and they did a Fact Watch of "Sarah Palin's Twist on Paul Revere."  I think it offers a balanced statement about what she got "right" and what she got "wrong," and why "wrong" may not be "wrong," per se, it may simply be a "twist" on Revere that is ultimately rather severe.

Sarah Palin is, for me, just another Donald Trump.  She seeks publicity, at the expense of the GOP (and, in her case, The Tea Party as well), and I don't think she really cares a whole lot about political viability.  I think it makes perfect sense that the two would share a pizza: both seem to me to wholeheartedly believe in the notion that there's no such thing as bad press.

What's more interesting to me is the way in which this debate about Palin's twisted take on American history highlights the issues involved in online collaboration.

After yesterday's posting about contemporary information overload and its effect on nuance and depth ("Screening"), I did what I always do:  I went out and read a whole bunch of stuff that totally disagrees with what I said.

In particular, I looked at Douglas Thomas & John Seely Brown's book, A New Culture of Learning.  Thomas and Seely argue that there has been a shift in the way in which information and learning are obtained: we no longer live in the "stable infrastructure" of education replicated in the classrooms of America.  Instead, we now operate within a "fluid infrastructure where technology is constantly creating and responding to change" (17).

Thomas and Seely suggest that, in the wake of eroding boundaries between "public" and "private," we need to rethink the differences between the two in ways that accommodate contemporary technologies and their effects.

They argue that one of the results of the changes brought about by technology is a shift in the relative functions of "the personal" and "the collective."

According to Thomas and Seely, "collectives are plural and multiple.  They also both form and disappear regularly around different ideas, events, or moments.  Collectives, unlike the larger notion of the public, are both contextual and situated, particularly with regard to engaging in specific actions" (57).

Thus, Thomas and Seely argue that, "[t]hroughout life, people engage in a process of continuous learning about things in which they have a personal investment" (57).

In a very dramatic sense, the Internet has enabled that engagement to expand exponentially.  One of the benefits of social networking media and online interaction is that they enable the formation (and, when they are no longer useful and informative, the dissolution) of collectives that offer "a nearly infinite set of resources that any individual can selectively tap into and participate in as part of his or her own identity" (59).

As you've no doubt heard, Wikipedia had to shut down the Paul Revere page after Palin's comment, because it was flooded with individuals who may or may not have been trying to alter the page to fit her remarks.  Because Wikipedia is precisely the kind of collective that Thomas and Seely describe, it possesses a certain vulnerability: it can be "invaded" by all kinds of personal, editorial contributions that may or not be made in a spirit of shared, collective learning.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many (if not most) academic professors HATE Wikipedia.  The number of haters is legion: some of them outright prohibit students' use of the source.

Personally, I think Wikipedia is an interesting phenomenon, and while I acknowledge its vulnerabilities, I do think it has a very decided place in the digital age, and that place can be a useful one, when it is tempered with scholarly common sense.

I tell students they can certainly start with Wikipedia when they're thinking about an issue (I often do that myself, actually), but they shouldn't simply start and end there.

And I stress the fact that they need to keep their critical and evaluative antennae up at all times, with all sources, whether they appear in print or digitally.

A good Wikipedia entry, like any good entry in any credible scholarly resource, always points you outward and elsewhere.  It tells you the sources of its information so that you can backtrack and check on what it has told you, it highlights the issues that are still open to interpretation and debate, and it usually generates more questions than answers.

What Wikipedia doesn't do, of course, is require a Ph.D. or an M.A.--or any kind of college credentials, for that matter--of its editors.  Obviously, this is going to bother quite a few of those people out there who went to all the trouble and expense of getting the darned things.

But really, any source that treats a complex, multifaceted problem or event as something that it has definitively "solved" or "defined" should be looked at thoughtfully and critically, in my opinion, regardless of who's writing it.

[For example, a debate still exists as to whether prions are the culprit in the transmission of rare brain diseases known as "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies" (TSE's), even though the man who developed the theory won a Nobel Prize for his work.  (See "The Prion Heretic," Science 27 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6033 pp. 1024-1027.)]  

These kinds of debates about "facts" are rife in academia--even in the sciences.   Ultimately, they constitute the lifeblood of intellectual inquiry.

The problem that academics seem to have with digital sources that embrace the input of the masses and disregard academic credentials --and this is a problem that isn't really addressed by Thomas and Seely--is that it is possible to create a purportedly "informative" world of completely useless relativism, a digital forum where everything is only as "correct" as its strongest advocate and where every opinion, insight or spin on an issue is treated as valid, even if it is factually incorrect or was debunked years ago.

Academics have standards for evaluating scholarly credibility and reliability; their greatest fear is a world in which there are no such standards.

Wikipedia's response to the Paul Revere crisis has been interesting.  I think it speaks to an understanding of the benefits of the collective digital environment outlined by Thomas and Seely.

Wikipedia has "Five Pillars" or basic operating principles that indicate an awareness of the inherent vulnerabilities of information gathered in a digital collective.  Thus, they make an attempt at avoiding the pitfalls of a collaborative digital environment.

When Wikipedia pages become subject to what is called "edit warring"--that is, " a series of back-and-forth reverts" in which one editor changes content on a Wikipedia entry, another editor "reverts" or changes it back, and this process continues several times over the course of a day--the warring editors can be blocked and Wikipedia administrators can opt to "protect" the page.

When that happens, the editors need to collaboratively work out their dispute and come to an agreement about the content of the page itself.

In the case of Paul Revere's page, this is currently occurring on a "Talk" page.

The assumption is that both the general public's media-spawned interest and any Palinists' personal investment in the collective Wikipedia page will die down over time, allowing those with a collective and personal interest in Paul Revere and his life and actions to reach a consensus and create a collaborative page that will strive to be 1) historically accurate and verifiable, 2) politically neutral,  and 3) comprehensive.

In short, they want to create something that is accurate, informative, interesting, and useful--as all good research, whether it is conducted individually or collaboratively and whether it is presented digitally or in print--always is.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."