Friday March 7, 2014
Cool and Consumerism
A symposium with Tom Frank and Alissa Quart
National Portrait Gallery, McEvoy Auditorium, 11am
Tuesday, March 12, 2014
Center for the Humanities
Technology as Classroom: The Media Environment as Pedagogy
CUNY Graduate Center C202, 3:45p
Wednesday March 13, 2014
Housing Works Bookstore and Café, NYC, 7p
Wednesday March 19, 2014
College of New Jersey
Lecture to Interactive Multimedia & Communication Studies
MAYO Concert Hall, 4-5:30p
(CNN) -- I'm just as reactionary and just as outraged as the next Internet user when I learn that a service I've been using for free is going to start selling my information to market researchers or excerpting my posts and pictures for its clients' advertisements or charging me good money to communicate with an online cohort that might have taken me years to build.
Such is the case with Instagram, a free photo-sharing app for smart phones. Millions of people have downloaded the free app and have been busy taking and sharing photos of themselves and their fascinations.
Instagram has risen to the level of a Twitter as far as the culture around it is concerned. It has spawned a new visual language, a new etiquette of sharing and an outpouring of creativity in the form of contests, collaborative art exhibits and personal expression.
The problem with being bought for a billion dollars is that eventually you have to start showing the kinds of returns expected for a billion dollar company. That means either charging users for the service or, as in the case of Instagram, selling the users' data. Instagram plans to use the photos people upload in targeted ads -- much as Facebook now uses our friends' updates as the substance for advertisements called sponsored stories, as in: "John says: My Starbucks coffee tastes great today."
So now, presumably, John's picture of Starbucks will serve that same purpose -- creating a contextual advertisement. Instead of simply uploading and distributing our photos, we are working for the man.
Well, what did we expect? Did we think Instagram was just a couple of self-funded slackers trying to make the world a more photographic place? Simple though it may be, Instagram is also a massive platform of servers and storage.
There are people working there, coding the software, designing the interface, and figuring out how anyone gets to look at anything whenever they want to. They need to eat.
In a tactic now familiar to Facebook users, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom issued a blog post backtracking significantly from the original announcement and assured users that the company has no plans to use their photos in ads. But the damage has been done, and the Instagram community is on notice that they may not own the rights to the photos they upload.
If they had charged for the service from the get-go, Instagram would have likely had many fewer takers. Photo services from Yahoo's Flickr to Google's Picasa already existed. So instead of charging for their service, Instagram decided to get the biggest base of users it could, use its massive membership as leverage to sell itself, and then let the buyer (in this case Facebook) figure out how to make money. In essence, Instagram sold its users to Facebook. We were never the customers, we were the product.
So now that Facebook intends to cash in on its investment, it's a bit disingenuous for those of us using the free service to cry foul. We may be entitled to free Internet (though that's a topic for another column), but we are not entitled to free services. Unless, of course, we're willing to barter with something else, such as our consumer profiles or our photo streams.
What irks us, of course, is the sense that we've been betrayed. Instagram felt a little alternative, authentically bottom-up. It's a tiny piece of software, and if they had figured out a way for us to store our photos locally or to pay a small charge for server space exceeding some amount (as Flickr does), it could have stayed a rather noncommercial affair.
Moreover, Instagram's community, perhaps rightly, feels as though it was responsible for its own formation. Even though this community formed around a piece of commercial software, the relationships within it are real and the result of a significant investment of time and energy and trust. Now that those relationships have turned out to be commodities, many people feel exposed and cheated. No longer the users, but the used.
Sorry, but -- in a word -- tough. This is the way of the Internet: pay or, well, pay. Just as Facebook's users must come to grips with the fact that they can longer reach all their friends with an update unless they pay for "promotion," Instagram's users must reconcile themselves to the fact that their photographic creations are now grist for some advertiser's mill.
After all the time and energy put into one's profile or network or photo stream, the ground rules seem to change. And those rules seem to change just at the moment our investment and connections seem too large to make it worth jumping off to some other service, if one exists.
Yes, sometimes it's hard to learn just where in a company's business plan one fits. But let's hope these early experiences of investing in free stuff only to learn the true cost will make us more ready to think twice about when and how we wish to participate. For if we're not paying in money, we'll end up paying with something else.
After all these years, my first "starred" review at Publishers Weekly! (yes, you can pre-order this book here)
(CNN) -- This week is Computer Science Education Week, which is being observed around the United States with events aimed at highlighting the promise -- and paucity -- of digital education. The climax of the festivities, for me anyway, will be the opportunity to address members of Congress and their staffers on Wednesday in Washington about the value of digital literacy. I've been an advocate of digital culture for the past 20 years, and this feels like the culmination of a lifetime of arguing.
Yes, I was once the one getting laughed out of both cocktail parties and editor's offices for suggesting that someday people would be using word processors to send one another messages over telephone lines. But the vindication I feel for being right about our digital future is tempered by an equally disheartening sense that we are actually missing an opportunity here.
I have never been as enthusiastic about the promise of digital technology itself as about the human potential unleashed by these new tools. Yet I fear this promise is increasingly undermined by our widespread unwillingness to seize the abilities they offer us. Although we live in a highly digital age, digital literacy is not a priority among us. And as a result computer science is not a priority in our schools.
My talk to Congress may not change this overnight. There are many structural impediments to bringing any new curriculum into America's public schools. The multi-year process through which school district decisions are made is incompatible with the development cycles of the Internet startups hoping to meet the demand for digital education. Teachers fear their own inexperience with code may disqualify them from becoming competent instructors. And there's not enough money for the education we already have, much less the education we would like to offer.
But I'm hoping we can get motivated enough to catch up with, say, Estonia (where they teach code to kids) and begin developing a society capable of thriving and competing in a digital world. So to that end, here are the 10 things I plan to say in my 10 minutes on Capitol Hill:
1. When we got language, we didn't just learn how to listen, but how to speak. When we got text, we didn't just learn how to read, but how to write. Now that we have computers, we're learning how to use them -- but not how to program them.
2. Programming a computer is not like being the mechanic of an automobile. We're not looking at the difference between a mechanic and a driver, but between a driver and a passenger. If you don't know how to drive the car, you are forever dependent on your driver to take you where you want to go. You're even dependent on that driver to tell you when a place exists.
3. Not knowing how our digital environments are constructed leads us to accept them at face value. For example, kids think the function of Facebook is to help them keep in touch with friends. Even a bit of digital literacy helps us see that Facebook users are not its customers, but its product.
4. "Computer class" can't be about teaching kids to use today's software; it must be about teaching kids to make tomorrow's software.
5. The failure to teach computer science isn't just impeding kids' understanding of the digital world, but also crippling our nation's competitiveness in business. We outsource programming not because we can't afford American programmers, but because we can't find American programmers.
6. America's military leaders are scared: They have no problem finding recruits who want to fly drones, but have few who want -- or are ready -- to learn how to program them. One Air Force general told me he believes America's competitive advantage on the cybermilitary frontier is one generation away from being lost.
7. We are putting in place a layer of technology, culture, and economics that we'd darn well better do consciously. The technology we build today is the operating system of the society of tomorrow. Right now, painfully few are participating in this -- and usually the choices are made by the highest bidder.
8. Computer Science is not just a STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- subject, but a liberal art as well. Being able to think critically about digital media environments means being able to think critically about our world.
9. Kids are already doing algorithms, the basic building blocks of computer programming. Once they learn long division, they are ready to start programming.
10. The resources are out there: Codecademy.com is just one of many free tools (including CSUnplugged.org and Scratch.org) that any teacher can pick up and implement -- if he or she can muster the autonomy to do so. It may just happen that computer education, like the Internet itself, will depend on distributed authority and the bottom-up, enterprising nature of human beings working together.
Edutopia.org - Ask kids what Facebook is for, and they'll tell you it's there to help them make friends. And, on the surface anyway, that's what it looks like. Of course, anyone who has poked a bit deeper or thought a bit longer about it understands that people programming Facebook aren't sitting around wondering how to foster more enduring relationships for little Johnny, Janey and their friends, but rather how to monetize their social graphs -- the trail of data the site is busy accumulating about Johnny and Janey every second of the day and night.
After all, our kids aren't Facebook's customers; they're the product. The real customers are the advertisers and market researchers paying for their attention and user data. But it's difficult for them or us to see any of this and respond appropriately if we don’t know anything about the digital environment in which all this is taking place. That’s why -- as an educator, media theorist and parent -- I have become dedicated to getting kids code literate.
As I see it, code literacy is a requirement for participation in a digital world. When we acquired language, we didn't just learn how to listen, but also how to speak. When we acquired text, we didn't just learn how to read, but also how to write. Now that we have computers, we are learning to use them but not how toprogram them. When we are not code literate, we must accept the devices and software we use with whatever limitations and agendas their creators have built into them. How many times have you altered the content of a lesson or a presentation because you couldn't figure out how to make the technology work the way you wanted? And have you ever considered that the software's limitations may be less a function of the underlying technology than that of the corporation that developed it? Would you even know where to begin distinguishing between the two?
This puts us and our kids -- who will be living in a more digital world than our own -- at a terrible disadvantage. They are spending an increasing amount of their time in digital environments where the rules have been written by others. Just being familiar with how code works would help them navigate this terrain, understand its limitations and determine whether those limits are there because the technology demands it -- or simply because some company wants it that way. Code literate kids stop accepting the applications and websites they use at face value, and begin to engage critically and purposefully with them instead.
Otherwise, they may as well be at the circus or a magic show.
More generally, knowing something about programming makes us competitive as individuals, companies and a nation. The rest of the world is learning code. Their schools teach it, their companies are filled with employees who get it, and their militaries are staffed by programmers -- not just gamers with joysticks. According to the generals I've spoken with, we are less than a generation away from losing our technological superiority on the cyber battlefield, which should concern a nation depending so heavily on drones for security and electronic trading as an industry.
Finally, learning code -- and doing so in a social context -- familiarizes people with the values of a digital society: the commons, collaboration and sharing. These are replacing the industrial age values of secrecy or the hoarding of knowledge. Learning how software is developed and how the ecosystem of computer technology really works helps us understand the new models through which we'll be working and living as a society. It's a new kind of teamwork, and one that's under-emphasized in our testing-based school systems.
To build my own code literacy, I decided to take free classes through the online website Codecademy.com, and ended up liking it so much that I'm now working with them to provide free courses for kids to learn to code. The lessons I've learned along the way are of value to parents and teachers looking to grow more code literate young people.
One of Codecademy's key insights was that programming is best taught by doing. Where literature might best be taught through books, coding is best taught in an interactive environment. So instead of just giving students text to read or videos to watch, Codecademy invites them to learn to code by actually making code. Every online lesson involves writing lines of code in an interactive window within the web browser, and then hitting the "run" button and watching those lines actually work. Instant payoff, and an "intrinsic reward."
Code also makes much more sense to people when it is tied to a real project. People need reasons for learning one skill or another. When students are working to devise a computer adventure game, all of a sudden abstract mathematical functions become immediately relevant.
Finally, while badges and point scores are great for motivating students in the short run, social connections to a real group of cohorts probably matter more for the long haul. Codecademy's first strides in that direction, simple forums, allow users to seek out help from others when they're stuck in a lesson. Meanwhile, those who are mastering a skill find it really sinks in when they have the opportunity to explain things to someone encountering it for the first time. Just as research has shown a heterogeneous classroom benefits those on both ends of the aptitude spectrum, interaction between more and less experienced code learners benefits both.
The greatest challenge so far, at least from my end, has been figuring out ways to get these interactive lessons into the schools that need them. Between curriculum standards, overworked faculty and legal restrictions on inviting minors to use websites, it's an uphill battle. To help with these challenges, Codecademy has unveiled an after-school program through which any parent or teacher can teach code to a self-selecting group of interested students.
When I learned about the after-school program, I was compelled to tweet, "No Excuses." That's about the best I can say it. The obstacles to code literacy are getting smaller every day, while the liabilities for ignorance are only getting more profound.
What steps are you taking to bring code literacy into your classroom?