except for all the others

Farhad Manjoo thinks the Clinton campaign email scandal proves that email in general needs to be ditched:

Email sometimes tricks us into feeling efficient, but it rarely is. Because it’s asynchronous, and because there are no limits on space and time, it often leads to endless, pointless ruminations. If they had ditched email and just held a 15-minute meeting, members of the campaign could have hashed out the foreign-agent decision more quickly in private.

In other words, limits often help. Get on the phone, make a decision, ditch your inbox. The world will be better off for it.

Sounds great — but what if “members of the campaign” weren’t all in the same place? I guess then Manjoo would say “get on the phone” — but have you ever tried arranging a conference call? If more than three people are involved it’s next to impossible. Talk about “inefficient”!

Also, when people hold a conference call to make a significant decision, it’s typically recorded so there will be a record of what they’ve decided, which is necessary in order to avoid the “that’s not how I remember it” problem — but that means that you have something that can be stolen later by nefarious parties.

Manjoo recommends Slack or Hipchat, which can work, but only when the conversation is among people wholly within a given organization.

Email drives me crazy the way it drives everyone else crazy, but I can set aside certain times of the day in which to use it. If I had to have my work interrupted eleven times a day for phone conferences, at someone else’s convenience, or had to have a Slack window open and pinging merrily away all day long, I’d never get anything done. Churchill’s famous comment about democracy — “the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried” — might be adapted here: email is the worst form of business communication, except for all the others that Manjoo recommends.

“a colossally elaborate manipulation”

Tim Burke is one of the most consistently thoughtful bloggers I know — and I’m choosing that word carefully: Burke doesn’t blog very often because he actually takes time to think before posting. The problem with the web, of course — and especially with the world of blogs — is that not many people follow Burke’s example. In a recent post, he gives a good reason why this is so:

There’s really very little to be said for trying to carry on a conversation (online or otherwise) with people who have nothing but an instrumental view of conversation as a means to their own anti-pluralistic or illiberal ends, who concern-troll every debate in the hopes of getting someone to take the bait. There are a set of writers who work hard every day trying to create a framework where the only right answers can be some kind of dogma, who will never for one passing second acknowledge the legitimacy of evidence which contradicts their own pet doctrines, who are never even momentarily in any danger of being persuaded by any countervailing viewpoint. For these writers, all online discussion is a colossally elaborate manipulation. I spent too much time in developing this blog arguing for an indiscriminate openness to conversation. Pursuing conversation with the comprehensively dishonest is a fool’s errand, and I’ve sometimes been just such a fool.

This seems exactly right to me. In an environment dominated by “ideological amplification”, very few people have any interest at all in thoughtful conversation, and they are hard to find in the midst of all the shouting.I have thought about this a lot, with no results. I have argued for years that the post-plus-comments model is fundamentally broken — it works fine for a blog with a readership the size of this one, but it simply doesn’t scale — but I can’t for the life of me come up with any alternative to it, except the famous Slashdot karma model, which has the opposite problem: it works only at a very large scale.When I wrote for The American Scene, for a time we had a wonderful community of conversation and debate, but then the comboxes were overwhelmed by trolls and other unhelpful voices, and became unreadable. Sure, I could look for the remaining thoughtful commenters, but only at the cost of having to wade through a great deal of garbage to get to them. Increasingly that came to seem too much trouble; and commenting itself came to seem too much trouble for a number of the people I most valued. If a typical post had three hundred comments instead of thirty, a Slashdot-like system could have filtered out the crap and left me with a reliable body of interesting comments to read; but with just thirty comments, one thoughtless vote can have a disproportionately great effect.I have returned to this topic many times over the past few years, because I can’t find any answer to these problems. The person who figures out a new architecture for online communication that encourages real conversation and filters out the trolls will have performed a great service for humanity. Though of course the trolls are always with us.


It’s interesting that the NYT today ran one story about people who refuse to have cellphones and another story about people who want to escape being always connected to the Internet. This meme has been building for some time, but I wonder if the curve is about to turn more sharply upward. Still more, I wonder whether it will amount to anything more than kvetching. Just as everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it, I think we’ll find that everyone will be complaining about the frustrations of being always connected but hardly anyone will actually disconnect.

My pledge: as long as I’m connected, and enjoying the benefits of online life, I’m not going to bitch about it.

the art of the handout

This fits with what I hear from students all the time:

A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire. Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

I think when slide presentations are used well the story isn’t quite so sad, but they are almost never used well — and, as Edward Tufte never tires of saying, there are few lecturing situations in which a paper handout is not considerably more useful than a set of PowerPoint slides. I consider The Handout a great pedagogical art form, and devote a lot of time to preparing handouts for classes. The keys are to (a) provide as much information as possible on the page (b) without overcrowding and (c) in a format that gives clear differentiating structure to the different points, ideas, and quotations. One of my minor fantasies is to be asked to give a seminar in handout preparation for my fellow teachers. Alas, it’ll never happen.

accept my cyborg self!

Danah Boyd doesn't just want to be a cyborg, she wants to be accepted as a cyborg. Recently at a conference she was criticized for fooling around on the web rather than paying attention to the speakers. This upsets her. Interestingly, she doesn't do what — in my experience, anyway — most people similarly accused do: she doesn't claim Awesome Multitasking Powers. She freely admits that she wasn’t paying much attention to the conference speakers, but says that people don't listen to speakers at conferences anyway — “I don't think that people were paying that much attention before” laptops — and anyway she learned a lot while looking up words the speaker used on Wikipedia instead of trying to follow the argument. “Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.” For Boyd, the criticism she received is a function of two things: first, an “anti-computer attitude,” and second, a refusal to “embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts.” (Stop trying to crush my spirit of inquiry!) In response to all this I have a few questions. My chief one is this: why go sit in a room where someone is lecturing if you so conspicuously aren't interested? Or why not quietly edge out if a particular talk leaves you cold? That way you don't have to subject yourself to boring stuff — you can do your “learning and thinking and engaging” somewhere with coffee and pastries — and you don't distract, by your ceaseless typing and mousing, people who are trying to listen? And one more: If you can learn via Twitter and Wikipedia, couldn't you also — just possibly — learn by listening to another human being for a while? Lord knows there are more than enough dreary lecturers in the world — “Earth to boring guy,” as Bart Simpson once said — but some people speak rather well. Think of the best TED talks: do you really want to be staring at your screen and typing while those are going on? All I am saying: Give listening a chance.

the media of literary fandom

Here’s a wonderful article on the seemingly archaic and yet evergreen medium of the electronic discussion list and the kind of writers whose fans thrive in that environment. Here’s a sample paragraph:

Pynchon, Wallace, Ballard. These aren’t the only writers with active mailing-list followings: Foucault-L is fairly popular, as are lists on Joyce and a number of late Modernist poets. Still, they do suggest a certain correlation, sorted roughly along the shared lines of the postmodern, the “cult” and the pre-Baby Boom. When John Updike died in January a few Facebook groups were founded in his memory, but there was no Updike-L to organise a communal run-through of the Rabbit series or to collate his obituaries into a handy list. Similarly, Wallace’s cult reputation seems to have added an imaginary decade to his bibliography — contemporaries such as Franzen and Chabon barely get a look-in. And, yet, the work of these mailing lists is never quite as stable as it seems. The prevalence of outdated technology means that discussion lists such as Pynchon-L straddle an uneasy line between permanence and ephemerality: the archives are there, but are as difficult to navigate as they are to maintain, especially when the software garbles all hypertext messages into indecipherable strings of formatting code. Projects such as the Pynchon Wiki are a partial solution, bringing members slightly closer to fluid interactivity of Web 2.0, but in truth represent only a tiny fraction of the list’s accumulated expertise.

Now, it does seem that the author is trying really hard not to say that geeky male writers draw geeky male fans who use geeky technologies to communicate with one another — but it’s an interesting article nonetheless. (I wonder if some skilled sociologist could discriminate between the kind of person who uses these lists and the kind of person who prefers Usenet and allied technologies.)