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Archive for the ‘Web Technology’ Category

Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2018

by Jacob Silverman (HarperCollins 2015)

Books on technology are often out of date by the time they are published. I read Terms of Service three years after its publication, yet I suspect it is still very relevant. The book is a searing indictment of social media. Do you know the saying, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” (originally referring to TV viewers)? Silverman warns us that we (and our personal data) are the product of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, and others, including some I had never heard of (like Klout and TaskRabbit). Our personal data are being sold to the highest bidder; that is where these social media giants earn their billions of dollars. They are all, in essence, advertising companies, and we happily hand over our precious personal information in exchange for a “free” place to express ourselves on the web. This is neither new nor surprising, but Silverman makes a detailed (if sometimes shrill) case. He also seems to think there is not a lot we can do about it, not only because we become addicted to social media sites (which is exactly what they want us to do), but because more and more, we need to participate in them if we are not to isolate ourselves in this social media era.

Chapter 1, “The Ideology of Social”, briefly summarizes the rise of Facebook, Google Plus, and other social media giants. Chapter 2, “Engineered to Like”,  is about the pressure to “Like” (which means “More, please”) and to stay on the platform. (At the time of publication, Facebook had not yet added “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” to “Like”.) Facebook’s tags (identifying how you are feeling, where you were, who you were with, etc. when you post) simplify the collection and quantification of your data for the company.

Chapter 3, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen”, examines why we feel the need to post details and photos about our personal lives, and why we “constantly tend” our social media profiles. Notifications and alerts keep us tethered to the site. We are disappointed if no one “Likes” or comments on our posts (I can attest to that!). But how many “Likes” are enough? Whatever we post soon vanishes in the fire hose of posts. We rarely revisit even our own old posts, let alone someone else’s. They are quickly forgotten, yet we keep churning them out, often including images as proof that we actually lived that moment, were in that place.

Chapter 4, “The Viral Dream”, is about “virality”–why it occurs and how it can impact people’s lives, often for the worse. “Viral fame quickly fades; that’s in its nature and the nature of the systems and culture we’ve created to enjoy it. But the hangover it produces can be long.” (pg. 67) It also considers “trending” and the data trail it produces, and points out that followers can be bought (or bot) by those who pursue notoriety or fame. It is the advertisers that actually benefit from trending topics and viral posts.

Chapter 5, “Churnalism and the Problem of Social News”, concerns “cheap, disposable content repurposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date  and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish”. Silverman considers how responsible journalism is affected by the drive to be first, which can pressure media outlets to publish without first confirming accuracy. He considers the weaknesses of Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and similar sites, and the pressure on journalists to be on social media all the time. He mentions “listicles” and quizzes, which he considers poor excuses for content.

Chapter 6, “To Watch and Be Watched”, focuses on surveillance, which is a constant of the social web. When we are online (and sometimes when we aren’t but just carrying our mobile devices around), we are constantly being watched, by Google, by Facebook, by the NSA, by everyone, and as they watch us, they are collecting information about us, often with the purpose of selling us a product (or an idea). We are being watched, and we are watching. We try to “manage our visibility”, but it is really out of our hands.

Chapter 7, “The War Against Identity”, is about identity vs. anonymity (which used to be a choice one could make on the web, but no longer!). Some of the things Silverman points out: Whereas social media sites used to allow people to use pseudonyms, more recently, we are required to use our real names and encouraged to sign up through other sites (like Facebook and Google Plus), which results in additional data about us being collected by the site. The fact that we may want to show different faces in different situations, as we do in real life, does not matter. We are forced to reveal just one self to the online world, whether we like it or not. Silverman considers how the choice to be anonymous can be beneficial, and opines that we should have that choice, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Chapter 8, “The Reputation Racket”, concerns our reputation on social media, and how sites like Yelp, TaskRabbit, and Uber use ratings to judge both businesses (restaurants, drivers…) and people (consumers, riders); those who get poor ratings may be fired or may find it difficult to impossible to get a ride or a job. But the algorithms that determine our ratings are kept secret, so we can’t know what ours is or correct it if it is inaccurate.

Chapter 9, “Life and Work in the Sharing Economy”, concerns the crowdsourcing of work. Platforms such as TaskRabbit, which match individuals with low-paying work, enable companies to avoid hiring professional or full-time workers at decent wages with benefits. I was totally unaware of this trend in employment, which essentially enslaves an underclass of workers who are unable to get real jobs; they are forced to compete for lower and lower pay with others like themselves, while the companies claim that they are providing a means to earn extra cash for stay-at-home moms and those who need to supplement their income.

Chapter 10, “Digital Serfdom; or, We All Work for Facebook”, concerns how online companies use people to create content and do other work (test their products, read text that computers cannot read . . .) without compensation. It is not only web platforms that require us to work for what we want: we transport and put together IKEA furniture, scan our own purchases in stores, check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library, pump our own gasoline, etc. (It also mentions flanerie, or cyber-flanerie, where we move from one piece of content to the next, never stopping for long, forgetting soon afterward, “processing” each experience.)

Chapter 11, “The Myth of Privacy”, is about privacy, or the myth that we have any. Silverman points out that Facebook may allow us to control what other Facebook users know about us, but we cannot control what Facebook itself knows or can use or sell. If we want a modicum of control over our online selves, we must pay the platform owner, but most people don’t; we want a free platform, but the platform is never free; if we don’t pay with money, we pay with data. Sometimes, what we wanted to keep to ourselves (or to a particular audience) is unintentionally made public to the wrong audience. Silverman examines definitions and history of the concept of privacy and describes the reams of data Facebook collects about people (thousands of pages). Facebook, Google, and similar platforms track people not only online but in the real world, as we drive around and enter stores and restaurants, and they target us for ads. (I’d like to inject here that perhaps unlike most people, I am mostly oblivious to ads. I skip or zap them as soon as I am able and rarely notice them along the margins of text. If there are enough to be intrusive (e.g., on The Daily Kos) I tend to avoid the site altogether. On the other hand, I was kind of appalled yesterday when I looked at this blog from a reader’s viewpoint and saw the large number of ads flanking the post. But when I just revisited it now, the ads have vanished. ???) There are applications available to help us protext our privacy to some extent, but they are not used by many people. Most Facebook users never check their privacy settings, for example, and those privacy settings change frequently as Facebook makes it harder and harder for its users to elude its data collection.

Chapter 12, Big Data and the Informational Appetite”, considers the field of statistics known as Big Data. Data brokers “vacuum up” information about us, and the Facebooks of the world partner with these brokers (and sometimes merge with them), enabling them to better pressure us to click and buy. Silverman writes, “Surrounded by an abundance of content but willing to pay for little of it, we invite into our lives unceasing advertisements and like and follow brands so that they may offer us more.” (pg. 321) In so doing, we are complicit in our own enslavement. The platforms want us to think they are improving the world. In Silverman’s view, they aren’t. He advises, “Consumers need to educate themselves about these industries and think about how their data might be used to their disadvantage. But the onus shouldn’t lie there. We should be savvy enough, in this age of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” (pg. 326)

The final chapter, “Social Media Rebellion”, has a few tips for protecting onself (using photos of avatars or objects instead of actual photos; lying about our profile; avoiding tagging, checking in, hashtags, location services and notifications; removing apps you don’t use or don’t trust. . . .) but is mostly about people who go much further in their attempts to get the better of social media platforms, such as Vortex, CV Dazzle, F.A.T., Weird Twitter, and others, none of which I was aware of.

This book made me uncomfortable about my use of Facebook and Google products, even though I feel that I am less vulnerable to targeted ads than many folks. In the future, I hope I will be more respectful of people who choose not to use these sites. I’ve noticed that while reading it, I’ve posted to Facebook a bit less than usual, and avoided personal posts. I wonder how long it will last!


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Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World

Posted by nliakos on September 9, 2014

by Don Tapscott (McGraw Hill, 2009)

This book follows up on Growing Up Digital, which I never read, and is by the author of Wikinomics, which I did read and found a bit dated (at least, I wanted to know whether all those predictions had come to pass). In Grown Up Digital, Tapscott examines the many ways Net Geners, as he calls the folks who were between 11 and 31 when he was writing the book, are different from the Baby Boomers (his generation, and mine) in particular, and also the Gen Xers and Millennials. He lists eight characteristics common to the Net Generation (devotion to freedom as opposed to chaining oneself to the first job one gets; customization (individualizing everything), scrutiny (of marketing ploys, political promises, etc.), integrity (demanding it of people, corporations, and politicians), collaboration, entertainment (wanting products and jobs to have an element of fun), speed (insistence on efficiency and instant responses), and innovation. Then he proceeds to look at how this super-connected generation has changed/is changing/will change education, the workplace, the marketplace (Net Geners as consumers/prosumers, cf. Wikinomics), the family, and politics (Barack Obama had just beaten Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries leading up to the 2008 election but had not yet been elected President when Tapscott was writing the book).

For me, the most interesting chapter may have been the one on family. Here, the realities of the Baby Boom generation (extreme conflict with their parents over politics, music, fashion, and sex resulting in impatience to break free of family ties and move out of the family home as soon as possible) are contrasted with the friendlier, less hierarchical relationships between Net Geners and their Baby Boom parents, who democratized the family but are now having second thoughts when their kids don’t want to move out–because, as Tapscott points out several times in the book, they don’t need to leave home to find freedom; they have freedom at home. Boomers think there must be something wrong with young adults who are not anxious to move out of their parents’ house; Tapscott finds this reluctance to leave rather charming, and in part a response to the more democratic family structure initiated by the Boomers who did not want to boss their children around the way they had been bossed around. They just assumed their kids would move out on schedule, but in many cases, it isn’t happening. Net Geners are not embarrassed about liking their parents, who in many cases have hovered over them all their lives. It’s a whole different dynamic, but as Tapscott points out, not necessarily a bad one. He made me reconsider my unexamined opinion that living at home after college is bad.

My complaints are (again) poor editing (I sometimes found more than one mistake in the same paragraph!) and unnecessary length due to a lot of repetition. Maybe publishers just want a book to be at least a certain length (I heard this somewhere about TED eBooks, which are not afraid to be short). I could have done without all the repetition, but then again, it probably helps me to remember what I read. The text contains little snippets (like pop-ups on a web page) and longer snippets that relate vaguely to the content on the page, which were distracting to my linear Baby Boomer brain; Tapscott mentions how Net Geners may not read a lot of books but are expert at gleaning what they need by jumping through a book without reading everything, as you often have to do when reading a webpage. I must admit I could not do this with a book! I feel constrained to read the whole thing; otherwise, I wouldn’t feel I had actually read it. But this book made me realize that this might just be silly.

Like Wikinomics, the book (already five years old) probably needs updating, but in this case I felt like it opened my mind to see this cohort (including my students and my daughter’s contemporaries) in a whole new light. Tapscott believes Net Geners really can change the world for the better if we accept them with an open mind and grant them the opportunity to do so. After reading the book, I can see how this may be so.

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Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

Posted by nliakos on July 22, 2014

by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams (Portfolio, a member of the Penguin group, 2006)

2006 was the year I first created my online presence. Before 2006, I basically used only email and a word processing program. Then I discovered TESOL’s Electronic Village Online and participated in the session “Becoming a Webhead” with Dafne Gonzalez and Teresa Almeida d’Eça. It changed my life! That was where I learned how to blog, how to use a wiki, and got over my fear of signing up for accounts for all kinds of free online stuff, which led to social media, podcasting, glogs, and lots more.  If you google me now, you find quite a lot, whereas before 2006, I doubt you would have found anything. It was a pivotal year for me.

So that was the year Tapscott and Williams published Wikinomics. It has been on my to-read list for years, but when I finally got around to reading it, I realized that a book like this one is out of date as soon as it’s published (or maybe even before it’s published), let alone eight years later. I wondered whether the predictions the authors made then had come true or not; mostly, I didn’t know. They made a lot of confident predictions about how Web 2.0 would transform the way business is done, e.g.: “Peer production will continue to grow in importance because key enabling conditions are present and growing.”  “Companies that don’t source a growing proportion of new product and service ideas from outside their walls will find themselves unable to sustain the level of growth, agility, responsiveness, global savvy, or creativity they require to compete in today’s environment.” “Companies that embed [openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally] in their workplaces will create competitive organizations that leverage internal and external capabilities more effectively than their traditional counterparts.” And so on. But they failed to predict the dark side: hacking, spamming, phishing, identity theft, governmental surveillance and blocking of websites. It seems to me that these activities have the potential to bring down the web as we know it. Already, countries like China and Saudi Arabia have created their own internets to shield their citizenry from the information available on our Internet; and lately I have been getting more and more nervous about online banking and shopping due to the increasingly sophisticated hacking of governmental, commercial, and financial websites. I don’t think Tapscott and Williams gave a thought to these things back in 2006. At least, there is no mention of them in Wikinomics.

The authors set up a website for readers to provide their input; the original site,, has evolved into I haven’t explored it yet, but presumably, they have updated (or are updating) the book with the participation of many others (the whole idea, after all, is mass collaboration).

The question remains whether it is really worth reading a book about cutting-edge technology eight years after it was written. Probably not. As I read, I kept wondering, then what happened? How did it turn out? Were they correct? Were they wrong? What would they say about this now? And also: if corporations use more ideas from people outside their walls, they can downsize. What’s going to happen to all those people who lose their jobs? How will the “external” participants pay for health insurance (or rent, mortgages, kids’ education, grocery bills, for that matter) if they are not employed in traditional jobs? Knowing what I know now about the redistribution of wealth between “the one percent” and “the ninety-nine percent”, I wonder if things are so rosy after all. I don’t presume to blame this imbalance of wealth and power on mass collaboration. But something has happened which transferred American wealth from the majority to a very tiny minority. Just a thought.

Posted in Non-fiction, Web Technology | 1 Comment »

Steve Jobs

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2013

by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster 2011)

I am not a “Mac person,” although my very first computer was a Mac Plus, and I do have an iPod Nano. I’ve always chosen cheaper over better, as I have long presumed Apple products to be; most people say they are, anyway. Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, written during the last two years of Jobs’ life, examines how Jobs created Apple and its iconic products: the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, all of which were revolutionary in their own way. Isaacson looks unblinkingly at Jobs’ infamous personality, his design genius, his ability to bridge the gap between technology and the humanities, his passion for a totally integrated product, his rejection of open, shared systems, and his uncanny ability to figure out what people wanted before they knew they wanted it. It helped me to understand the Apple appeal and also explained why, when my daughter’s iPod Shuffle battery died, I couldn’t just go to the store and buy another battery to replace it, which annoyed me mightily at the time (we ended up purchasing a new device for almost the same price as sending the Shuffle to the factory for a new battery): Jobs refused to allow anyone inside the devices Apple produced in case they were able to copy, clone, or tinker with them. He even went so far as to design a new screwdriver so that unauthorized people would not be able to open up his products! It seems a little absurd, but according to Isaacson, that is how far his passion for the products went.

It was very interesting, but could have done with a bit less detail and repetition (571 pages is really long!). I guess it will be the definitive, authorized (but apparently unread by the subject) biography of Steve Jobs, because it’s really thorough!


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Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2013

by Sherry Turkle (Basic Books, 2011)

Sherry Turkle is a psychologist at MIT who has been studying and writing about people’s use of technology and how people are affected by technology since the 1980s. Her latest book is like two books in one. The first part, “The Robotic Movement: In Solitude, New Intimacies,” is about social robots–those designed as children’s toys (Furby, My Real Baby, AIBO…) and those potentially used as companions for the elderly and disabled (Paro, My Real Baby…). Turkle acquires the robots and takes them to schools and homes, sometimes lending them out for several weeks; then she interviews the children and adults about their “interaction” with the robots. She is disturbed by how easily people seem to be taken in by the robots’ performance of understanding and emotion (as if they are “wired” to respond to certain expressions or actions). Even people (both children and adults) who understand clearly that the robots are machines (like the robots’ designer, in at least one case) respond to them as if they were alive… or at least “alive enough”. Children worry that their grandparents, given these robots, might choose the robots over them–and indeed, Turkle describes a scene in which this actually happens.

In the second part, “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes,” Turkle focuses on people who are always connected (she actually prefers the word tethered, which has a much different association)–primarily teenagers, but also adults and older people.  She reports on interviews with many people who describe their inability to resist when they receive a text message: teenagers who send text messages hundreds of times every day and parents who ignore their children for their BlackBerries.  (She notes that for a child, having a parent physically near but constantly occupied on their mobile device or computer is probably more devastating than the parent’s physical absence.) She interviews high school students who wrench themselves away from their phones in order to give themselves a real life…. but this is very hard, because their social life revolves around their online life. Off-line, they may lose their social position. Online, they are trapped by Facebook and their smartphones, unable to disconnect. They also feel forced to spend a lot of time creating and improving their online profiles in order to present themselves in a particular (“cool”) way.

Reading the book, I wondered how these people ever get anything done. When do these kids do their homework? work at part-time jobs? play sports or do anything else they enjoy?  I don’t have a smart phone, and for the first time, I felt glad that I don’t.


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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2012

by Clay Shirky (Penguin, 2010)

Shirky’s second book focuses on what we do in our free time (in the second half of the 20th century, we watched TV, but now we are more likely to use the Internet to interact) and why (intrinsic or extrinsic motivation). His thesis is that if we aggregate all the leisure time of all the people on the planet, we can do great things–but we may also choose to do inane things. He postulates four levels of creativity and sharing: personal (individual to individual), communal (in a group), public (for the public good, e.g., Wikipedia or Apache), and civic (with the goal of improving society). Creative artifacts range from the ridiculous (lolcats, or photos of cute cats with stupid captions) to the sublime (, with everything in between.  What we do with our time and our abilities depends on our means (the tools that enable us to create and share), our motivation (for love or money?), and the opportunity (described as an environment where a group of participants can do more than what individual people can do by themselves). Shirky advocates for more society-changing civic-level sharing but notes, “The question we now face. . . is what we’ll do with those opportunities. The question will be answered . . . by the opportunities we provide for one another and by the culture of the groups we form than by any particular technology.” (p. 192)

Clay Shirky’s first book is Here Comes Everybody.

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Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

Posted by nliakos on October 30, 2012

by David Weinberger (Times Books/Henry Holt & Co., 2007)


I really should try harder to read books like this when they come out, instead of five years later, because the technology changes so quickly. This one still seems relevant, though, even though my whole online life has happened since its writing! Weinberger postulates three orders of order. The first order of order is physical stuff: things, animals, people (like when you clean up your room and put things where they belong). The second order of order is the metadata level (like a library card catalog–remember those? or a list of stuff; at this level, you can give your stuff more than one label, enabling you to find it more than one way. For example, a library book has a title card and one or more author and subject cards. The third order of order is the digital order, where stuff can be labeled (tagged) in infinite ways, digital stores reconfigure themselves for each shopper, and the likes of Wikipedia and Expedia collect and share information for us.

Our tendency to analyze things into pieces (“splitting”) and then group them (“lumping”) comes from Aristotle (“Aristotle lays out a task for all those who want to know their universe: Go forth and lump and split.” p 71), but we are no longer bound to the old ways of doing this, which were limited by the physical limitations of things, which cannot be in more than one place. Now, each piece of information is like a leaf that can exist simultaneously on many different trees. The result is an inherent messiness, which humans are hard-wired to organize into something that makes sense to us. Weinberger writes that everything is not miscellaneous “because we work damn hard at straightening it up.” (p. 228). But the knowledge itself “wants to be miscellaneous” (p. 7).

An aside: Weinberger has apparently had to coin the verb miscellanize, together with its corresponding participial adjective, miscellanized, in order to convey his message. I wondered how to pronounce it; where to place the stress? It isn’t in the dictionary (including online dictionaries; even Google is stumped by it and wonders if I didn’t mean to search for miscellanies). I offer my best guess here: MISC ell a nize(d). Mr. Weinberger, can you confim?


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Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere

Posted by nliakos on October 12, 2012

by Will Richardson (TED eBook, 2012)

Will Richardson used to be a K-12 teacher. Before that, of course, he was a student in the American school system. Now, he is the father of two schoolchildren. He also blogs about education and educational technology.  Richardson’s premise here is that our educational system was created when knowledge was hard to get, and it was necessary for children to physically go to a building where they could be instructed by those few who had knowledge (teachers). Now that this is no longer true–now that knowledge is easily attainable from almost anywhere if one is connected, and anyone can quickly find the answers to the kinds of factual questions that used to be taught and the knowledge of which was assessed (names, dates, events, math and science facts, geography, and so on)–Richardson argues that we need to fundamentally recreate the system to reflect reality. Instead of trying to do what we already do, but better, Richardson wants us to chuck the old system and re-invent school.

Richardson explains that what we used to consider literacy is no longer enough; we now need to be multi-literate, and schools need to teach multiliteracies; but right now, most schools are too busy trying to put up firewalls to keep email, YouTube, and (God forbid) Facebook out of the classroom, so kids have the whole web of knowledge at their fingertips 24/–except for the time they are in school (when they are forbidden to use their smartphones).

He believes that education “isn’t about delivery [of knowledge to children]. . . . It’s about discovery [by children and adults together].” He advocates rethinking assessment (realizing that we all depend on the Internet to find our answers, and we should be teaching our kids to do that well (i.e., to evaluate websites) rather than continue forcing them to memorize and then regurgitate canned knowledge which in most cases they will never need, and if they do need it, they can find it easily.  He cites Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, who believes that high-stakes testing in schools takes time and resources away from where they should be and forces teachers to teach to the tests, “[thus depriving] our children. . . of a real education.” He wants to “rethink teaching”, saying that “learning, unlearning, and relearning” are the essential skills of the future (and perhaps the present). He advocates that teachers share freely what they know. He believes we need to teach students to “talk to strangers” online (safely, of course!) because it is through connecting with others that we enhance our knowledge of the world. (Students in Richardson’s high school literature class studying The Secret Life of Bees had the opportunity to interact with the author while they were reading the novel.) Teachers should be “master learners,” modeling for students the behaviors we hope they will acquire. And kids should produce work that matters (“real work for real audiences”) in place of endless worksheets that end up in the recycle bin. It should be the kids who drive learning–not their teachers. (I always wonder, though: students know what they think they should learn, but there is so much that they don’t even know exists, or why they would need to know it. Can we really assume that they can figure this out on their own?)

Richardson ends by saying, “Our kids, and we ourselves, can now carry the sum of human knowledge around in our pockets. . . . We can have teachers and classrooms with us wherever we go.” He calls on us to educate ourselves about connected learning and to try to convince others of its importance.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners, Web Technology | 3 Comments »

Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2012

by Sugata Mitra (TED Books 2012)

This is my first TED Book. TED launched TEDBooks recently: “an imprint of short nonfiction works designed for digital distribution. Shorter than traditional books, TED Books run fewer than 20,000 words each — long enough to explain a powerful idea, but short enough to be read in a single sitting.”  Each book (there are currently just 13, but presumably more will be added) costs just $2.99 and can downloaded for the Nook, the Kindle, or the iPad/iPhone (I think; available from the ITunes store, anyway). I envision the day (pretty soon) when I can have my students purchase a few TED books to read on their iPads, iPhones, Kindles, or Nooks. The fact that the books are so short and so inexpensive, that they are nonfiction and that students can be turned on to their subjects by watching the related talks, is bound to make them popular. I just have to wait until everyone has the capacity to download the book somewhere. (I suspect that it may already be the case, as I think they all already have iPhones, and there are apps for eBooks available for those.)

Sugata Mitra was an invited speaker at the last WiAOC  (Click on “Keynotes for 2009” at the top); this may have been where I first learned about the “Hole in the Wall” project, or I may have listened to his 2007 talk, “Sugata Mitra Shows Kids How to Teach Themselves,” or perhaps “The Child Driven Education” in 2010. Mitra is described as “an education  scientist.” His big idea was to make a computer with internet access available to poor children in the streets of New Delhi and to watch what happened. What happened was that the children rapidly taught themselves/each other how to use the computer and how to get online. From this starting point, Mitra tried out his experiment in different places and in different ways, always finding that children are seemingly hard-wired to learn from each other. They naturally organize themselves into learning communities and need very little (if any) adult supervision or actual instruction to do so. Mitra praises MIE, or “minimally invasive education,” as a way to ask groups of kids a “big question” (e.g., Who was Archimedes and what is he known for?” or even better, a question to which even the teacher does not know the answer) and then stand back and let them use the computer to find the answer.

I found Mitra’s descriptions of what he has observed to be very interesting, his predictions about how things will work 50 years in the future, using a fictional child named Rita, much less so. We really have no idea what technologies will be invented between now and 2062 nor how they will affect our lives. MIE and SOLE (self-organized learning environment) are interesting enough!

The book is only 56 pages; I finished it during part of a bus ride from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. I am looking forward to reading more TED books! See here for more information about TEDBooks and a list of books that are currently available.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners, Web Technology | Leave a Comment »

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You

Posted by nliakos on July 18, 2011

by Eli Pariser (Penguin 2011)

Since 2006, as a member of the online Community of Practice Webheads in Action, I have been pretty devil-may-care about my web presence.  Sure, I am careful about what I say and what information I divulge.  But I sometimes shop online (frequently for books; I bought this one from; I have countless blogs and wikis, mostly connected to my ESL classes; I have a rarely used Flickr stream and lots and lots of Picasa Web Albums; I have accounts (many of them dormant or never used) at countless free websites, some of which have probably gone under since I signed up (like Bubbleshare). I have three email and two Facebook accounts.

I knew kind of subliminally that all this stuff was eroding my privacy. Now, having read The Filter Bubble, my subliminal awareness has become very conscious. Eli Pariser is very concerned about the effects of personalization on Internet users.  Personalization is the tailoring of each person’s Internet experience to that person’s individual taste and personality. I knew Google was somehow tailoring my results to me: I noticed the targeted ads in my gmail (if I mentioned teaching, there would be ads for EFL teachers; if I mentioned babies there would be ads for baby stuff) but figured, well, this is not a person reading my emails; it’s just some kind of automatic word recognition algorithm. And I noticed that if I searched for information, the information that was likely to come up was local, more often than not (if I searched for Montgomery County, Google showed me results from Maryland, although there are Montgomery Counties in many other states as well).

On the other hand, I had no idea that Facebook was using an algorithm to decide which of my 366 friends’ status updates to show me and which not to show me (I assumed that I just missed updates because I do not check Facebook that often, or that some people just weren’t posting updates.). Pariser, however, who makes a point of friending conservatives because he wants to know what they are thinking, noticed that Facebook, having figured out that he is a liberal, was not showing him his conservative friends’ updates anymore.

Pariser is concerned that when what we see on the web (from Facebook, Google, Yahoo, the New York Times, the Washington Post…) reflects our own worldview, we will have no incentive to explore new ideas. In fact, we will not even be aware that these ideas exist. The Web, which was supposed to bring us together by enabling equal access to information to all, is set to snare each of us in our own little world of preconceptions and prejudices and to dumb down what we see to what we like and easily understand, at the expense of what we should know (in order to be educated consumers and citizens).  To make his point, Pariser dips into psychology (how we learn), biography (Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas of what we should and should not know) and computer science (how algorithms manage what we see). He shows us how fragile our contract with Facebook is, as FB continually keeps changing the rules about what it can do with all the personal information we share on its site.

I think everybody should read this book. It really makes you think. For me, as someone who has exclusively used free websites to build my online presence, this Andrew Lewis quote says it all: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” (On the other hand, even if I am showered with targeted online ads, I don’t look at, click on, or buy because of those ads. I barely even notice them.)

This would be a great choice for the University of Maryland’s FirstYear Book.

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