As an author, I’m not sure if you are reading this article online or in print. But if you are reading it online, I can tell you what is about to happen to you.
If I’m lucky, maybe you’ll like the article. Perhaps I’ll make a point that you think you agree with, then another. And if you’re like most internet users, addicted to Facebook or Twitter, it’s around the third “mmm-hmmm” that you will begin to struggle with the overwhelming question: should I tweet a link to this out? Should I share this on Facebook? You will read the article, but only half read it, with one half of your brain evaluating the Facebook-ability of this post and the other attending to its words.
This is by design, of course. As many have noted, the design of the technologies we use for the web bear more in common with slot machines than books, primed to keep us clicking, watching, and pull-to-refreshing, ever desirous to find the next new thing that everyone will be rating up.
It’s not just distraction during reading of course. Consider that fifty-nine percent of links shared on social media have never been clicked, the vast majority of users sharing articles online that they have never actually read. Algorithms that decide what we see and what we don’t produce “filter bubbles” that trap us in cocoons of homogenous opinion. Facebook’s algorithms for selecting trending stories routinely surface fake news stories, encouraging users to spread them further.
Just yesterday, I found a good friend of mine sharing a story from an anti-semitic conspiracy site. My friend is, of course, neither anti-semitic nor a conspiracist. But over the course of a long Democratic primary, he had signed up for certain Facebook pages associated with his candidate. Since content inducing anger is the most viral content, as pages and clickbait websites competed for votes over a too-long primary season the economics of clicks and shares pushed most pages further and further into enraging conspiracy charges, until my formerly liberal friend was now sharing anti-Clinton material from a pro-Putin site whose other articles were outlining the vast conspiracy of the Rothschild family in collaboration with the Illuminati.
Welcome to the internet, circa 2017.
I can’t be the only person seeing this. If you’re engaged online, you have seen this as well: formerly mild-mannered people engaging in mob behavior on Twitter, previously quiet and thoughtful people spreading conspiracy theory, originally tolerant people moving into ever smaller cocoons of thought. At the time I am writing this, we have just come through the first social media election. The results were not pretty.
Can Higher Education Save the Web?
For as long as I have been in educational tech, pundits have asked whether the web can save higher education. There’s been many waves of this, from the early techno-utopianism of the 1990s to the recent fascination with Massively Open Online Courses. In this formulation, education is calcified, creaky, rusted. The web, on the other hand, is vibrant and agile, fueled by innovation and creative destruction. The idea has been that if we could tap into the web’s vitality and innovation we could “fix” education. We could make education work somehow, revitalize it. Optimize it. Disrupt it.
But what if we have it backwards? What if it’s the web that needs saving? And what if it’s higher education that is best suited to save it?
This is not as bizarre as it sounds. Vannevar Bush, whom most consider the great-grandfather of hypertext, drew his inspiration from academic culture, with it’s dense interweaving of cross-references and annotations. Ted Nelson, the person who first applied that vision to the digital computer, saw hypermedia as way to model networks of agreement and disagreement in a way conversation could not. And the earliest users of both the internet and the web were academics, who built a culture of sharing and cooperation, founded on the best traditions of a community of scholars.
As development of web technology moved from universities and research centers to Silicon Valley in the mid 1990s, progress and innovation accelerated. But as the financial model of the web began to form around the twin pillars of advertising and monetization of personal data, things went awry. The social layer of the web provided by Web 2.0 products was a welcome addition to our shared networks, but the set of economic incentives underlying those products set the stage for the web we have today, with its pull-to-refresh addictions, clickbait conspiracy sites, and mob-like behavior.
Towards a Reflective Networked Future
In other words, academic culture inspired much of the web’s early design. And as the today’s web careens Hindenberg-like to the earth below, maybe, just maybe, it’s possible our institutions could return to save the web from its current trajectory, by envisioning technologies and practice for a more thoughtful, reflective, and inclusive online experience.
So, what would saving the web look like? How could we do it?
First, we must put digital literacy at the core of the curriculum. We spend countless hours teaching our students to navigate the world of research and published books. And yet we graduate them into a world where the vast majority of the information they consume professionally and personally will come through the internet. The literate culture of books and published articles is one of the great achievements of our culture, necessary to life-long learning, and must remain central to the education of our students. But it must be placed side-by-side with education on how to best use and critique the information environments they find themselves in on a daily basis.
Second, we need to provide the general population access to better quality information and just-in-time education. Initiatives around open access and blended learning.
We can follow the examples of many open pedagogy projects, and engage our students by having them bring digital services online and use the internet to increase local community participation rather than suppress it. While the process of formal peer review is generally accessible only at the level of doctoral candidates, there is nothing to prevent a student at virtually any level of academia from engaging a community of actual peers, in the truest sense of the word, given current state of freely available technology.
The current set of tools we are presented with on the web are insufficient for (and perhaps antithetical to) a digital life of the mind. As scholars, researchers, and teachers that should concern us.
Our traditional options have been to push our students away from the web as an information source or to teach them to live with its structural inadequacies. I’d propose there is a third way: make higher education an innovation center for exploring new modes of thinking with and through the web.
What do I mean here? We can look at new technologies, like distributed web annotation (a project gaining some steam in educational circles). We can adopt infrastructure projects, such as BYU’s recent move to allow students access to all their information through APIs. We can build new ways of contributing to communities of inquiry, as I have discussed elsewhere in my work on Choral Explanations.
We can, as institutions, design and develop new software that tries out heretofore unexamined opportunities for new modes of collaboration and communication (see, for example, the work of Bret Victor). We can attempt to model better networked practice as educators.