Archive for the figuring out the Info Flow Category

Time for a completely unscientific survey of Iterations readers.

How often do you blog?  Daily, weekly, monthly, once in a blue moon?  How do you split your time in the blogosphere among writing on your own blog, commenting on others,

How does your practice vary from month to month, week to week, with the demands of the Asylum on your time?  (Aside: a free set of toothpick instructions to anyone who can name the minor literary character who perceptively re-named the “real world” to The Asylum.  Hint:  it’s not Arthur Dent.)  Do you religiously set aside a particular part of your schedule/time for adventures in blogging?  Or do you find yourself sometimes spending far too much time in the blogosphere and other times where you go days, weeks, perhaps even months without entering?

Is blogging something you do to relax or escape from the Asylum?  Or is it something you use as a primary information source? Something you do as part of a marketing or other business strategy?  Something else?

Yes, I know, there are dozens of studies out there.  I’ve read some of them.  Bookmarked others with plans to “read someday.”  And I’m happy to take any references you want to share.

But I’m not interested, not at the immediate moment anyway, in scientific evidence on the blogging phenomenon.  I’m merely curious, looking for some   individual stories from those whose interests at least partially overlap with mine.

In short, friends and acquaintances, I’m nosy.

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I received a note from someone that Iterations was displaying wrong in Firefox?  How many people have been having this problem?  And if so, anyone with suggestions as how to fix the problem?

Thanks?

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You are your info flow.

It’s long been the case.  If you teach, it’s going to be real hard to keep up with progress in your field.  Especially if you want to do things like sleep and hang out with friends and family.

And it’s harder than ever, because “keeping up” means paying attention not just to the narrow field of your own research, it means paying attention to not-so-parallel developments in several others.   And there’s more going on in every darn one of them.

Look, I’ve never met a college professor who wasn’t a big reader.   And if you visit a professor’s house, invariably you’ll see a lot more books than you’ll see in the houses of others.  Oh, novelists probably will be pretty close.  And there’s the occasional lawyer or business CEO.  But you want to see a lot of books, the place to go is a professor’s house.   It’s a good bet that you’ll find shelves of them, not just in the office or “study”, but in just about every room of the house.

The book collections are deceptive, however.   Watch those professors more carefully, and you’ll see that while they’ll still be processing a lot of written information, it’s not professional keep-up-with-the-field reading that they’re doing.    It’s student papers, drafts of committee memos, letters of reference for job applicants, email, class prep.

And that’s after they’ve left campus for the day.   If you think professors are sitting in their offices reading books and articles … forget it.  They’re in class, they’re in hallways talking to students, they’re meeting with their department chair about a problem student, they’re advising, they’re in meetings, meetings, meetings.

And if they do get home and find everything is graded (happens twice a year, about 15 minutes before the end-of-semester report goes to the registrar’s office, if there’s no family errand or house repair  or visiting relative to deal with, the book they pull out is likely to be a bestselling novel.

So I was imprecise:  I’ve rarely met a college professor who wasn’t at one time a big reader.  The problem is that “one time” was yesterday for lots of us.

Now, there are exceptions.  I’m not talking here about the people at top research institutions, those who have the biggest publish-or-perish pressure, and who (more often than not) have substantially lower teaching loads.  But there are a lot more college faculty out there who have 6 or more courses and 150+ students a year to have regular contact with, than there are those who have 4 courses or less and a graduate teaching assistant or six.  And that’s not even including those adjunct faculty who have to teach 8, or 10, even 12 courses a year, often commuting between multiple institutions.

No, it doesn’t surprise me that the average college teacher lags farther and farther behind progress in the field the older he or she gets.  Frankly, sometimes I’m amazed we do any field reading at all.

But the purpose of this article is not to whine about the college teacher’s lot in life. It’s not to rail against the unreasonable expectations of publication-or-perish or the stupid waste of mental resources that faculty commitee meetings entail.

No, I simply want to highlight a hidden, perhaps unavoidable, constraint on the effectiveness of teachers.  A constraint that makes effective teaching more problematic every day. A constraint that makes it increasingly questionable that the flagship economic institutions of higher education — the university and the 4-year college — will satisfy the educational functions that we would have them serve.

In today’s world, you are your information flow.  If you’re good at acquiring and interpreting the information you get and transmit, you’ll managel.  If you aren’t, you won’t.  If there’s a single skill set that determines how well a college graduate will do, it’s the skill set called “using information.”

“You are your information flow” isn’t new to 2009.  What is new, however, is that those we have traditionally tasked to ensure college graduates have the “using information: skill set, are themselves less and less likely to be masters of that skill set.

Mastering the information flow means, among other things, being closer to the cutting edge, not farther away.

Mastering the information flow means being close enough to the cutting edge that one has the right critical thinking and communication and interpretive skills for assessing when something is cutting edge and when it isn’t.

It isn’t that college professors need to be cutting edge researchers themselves, though that is one way to increase the odds.   It’s that college professors need to be able to channel more and more cutting edge information that more and more people are creating.

And channeling here is not merely possessing some New-Agish sort of drain pipe unclogger.  It’s knowing when to use PVC pipe and when to use copper, when to use a 90? ell and when to use a 45? bend, and when to put a plug in the line.  When to turn the faucet full open and when to run just a trickle.

While some of the plumbing of interpretation works the same in 2009 as it did in 1909 or 1809, much of it cannot.   Any more than today’s water supply can be governed by the rules Edwin Chadwick proposed when he was first advocating modern sewers for metropolitan London in the 19th century.

If we want our students to avoid being awash in the sewage of the Internet age, to avoid the informational choleras and influenzas that are going to be out there, we need to provide them with up-to-date master plumbers.

Not with lots of world experts on outhouse cleaning.

But for now, I gotta go.  My sink’s plugged again.

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“Traditionally in Mind Mapping, the branches are read from 12 o’clock clockwise, so for the moment, we will assume this is the way we want them organized.”
– from NovaMind “Tutorial 4 — Arranging and coloring your Mind Map.”

Mind-mapping software, to my mind, resides near the top of the “1000 cool things about the Internet age.” It has come to the point that were I forced to give up either my word-processor or mind-mapping software, I’d give up the word-processor.

Most of what I use Word for now I can do fairly easily with just a text editor and the ability to Google for the appropriate HTML tag. In fact, much of the time now I do. Right now I have seven TextEdit documents open, and zero Word documents.

But it’s a rare day indeed when I don’t have one or more mind-map files open. Right now, it’s three files using NovaMind and one using MindManager. (It’s still early. By the end of the day, I’ll probably have twice that.)

The reasons I use mind-mapping software so much are legion, far too many to go into in a blog entry, even one of the length I usually put out.

[Advertisement: Stay tuned, though. Iterative Listening should be releasing a special report on the value of mind-mapping before this month ends. And I hope to follow it with a more extensive e-book sometime next year.]

But I do want to talk about one of the cool biggies that differentiates mind-mapping software from word-processing software. I don’t know why — whether it is because it is mature technology with close to 30 years of development and tweaking behind it, or because both its developers and users tend to be hardwired with the same 20th-century ways of thinking — but word-processors have a pretty annoying learning process associated with them.

Think of it this way — how many times over the years have you been frustrated by your word processor because you want to do something (perhaps some kind of formatting) and you can’t figure out how to do it without a bit of slogging through menus and help files and WordForDummies books? That in fact is how we always approach our word processor: we already know we want to do X in Y way.

Now, that’s sometimes the case with mind-mapping, too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see a sentence like the one quoted above from a NovaMind tutorial. Most mind-map programs are like NovaMind are indeed set up to portray your thinking in this clockwise fashion.

However, notwithstanding such “default” features of the software, which you would think would encourage users to find and conform to “usual” ways of thinking, mapping software enables exactly the opposite. There is hardly a week goes by that I don’t discover a new situation in which the software can be used or a new way to use the software in a particular kind of situation.

Here’s a partial list of the possible uses of mind-mapping for business copywriters, for example: brainstorming a new project; fleshing out the picture of a prospect; outlining a letter; managing an ongoing project; making a presentation to a client. And within each of these areas, you get an amazing increase in flexibility for “how to do things”, flexibility that doesn’t distract you from the projects at hand but instead speeds things up.

Take me.

When I first started with mapping software, it was as a brainstorming tool. Then I discovered that Inspiration (the first mapping program I used, and still one I use for a lot of different projects) allows you to toggle between “diagram” and “outline” mode, and soon I was using the tool to prepare lecture outlines. This morphed into a way of putting together syllabi for new courses.

Then I started finding different ways of linking — to other maps, to non-map files like pdfs, jpgs, and docs, to the Web. Now complicated projects like the Technology and Education book or a major marketing presentation use multiple maps, linked in all sorts of ways.

I use mapping to do a ten-minute SixHats exercise. Or ust to jot down three or four semi-connected ideas on a project I’m not going to be working on for some time — I don’t really want to be distracted from the work at hand, but I also don’t want to lose those ideas in the the interim. And in no more time than it takes to write a post-it note, I’ve created and saved a mini map of connections for future reference, and then I’m back to the day’s main tasks. (Since starting this blog entry, I’ve added two of those post-it-note equivalents.)

I’m using the collaborative potential of web-based mapping via programs like MindMeister. And in the last two weeks, I’ve discovered new ways of organizing notes to projects (Curio), tracking the progress on a project (both NovaMind and MindManager), and ways of making presentations that will knock the socks off those tired and boring Powerpoint things (using either NovaMind or Curio). I’ve always felt a bit guilty that I haven’t mastered more of Powerpoint. But I don’t think I’m going to bother. Powerpoint looks to be less important than Word now.

Oh, I still don’t know why so many people (and software developers) want the default of maps to proceed in that clockwise direction. But since it’s pretty easy on almost all of the programs to re-arrange map branches as I want them, I don’t think I’ll worry about it much.

I’m too busy having new ideas and discovering ways to develop them.

Like clockwork, even.

Vroom.

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My remote stops and lingers on CNN less than once a month.

With the exception of the occasional seismic event (9/11, election night), I could care less what the people on CNN say.  And even during those seismic event moments, I’m not going to be lingering on CNN — I’m going to flipping back and forth between CNN and various other channels I visit equally rarely (FoxNews, MSNBC, CBS/ABC/CBS).

No, it’s not apathy about what’s happening in the world.  And, no, it really doesn’t have much of anything to do with politics or media bias or any of those usual suspects.

I don’t listen to TV news sources because they simply aren’t trustworthy sources of information anymore.  And I no longer have time for “information sources” who consistently prove unreliable.  Information sources whose research is incomplete.  Information sources who only tell one third of one half of one perspective on a story.   Information sources who are too busy shouting about the pebble of news they have found to realize that they are standing in the middle of a quarry.

Now, I understand that one function, perhaps the most important function, of information sources like CNN and the others is to filter information for me.  To pick the important bits out of the mass of data out there, the mass of data that I simply don’t have the time or energy or contacts to filter on my own.

Point taken.

But if you’re going to be an information filter, that brings with it an awesome responsibility.  Not a responsibility to “present all sides,” whatever the eff that means.  Not to be “fair and balanced,” another platitude that has the intellectual content of the instructions on a tube of Preparation H.

A responsibility to sift the wheat from the chaff.

A responsibility to go deeper rather than shallower.  To go broader rather than narrower.  To know when it’s time to look at the forest, and when it’s time to examine a specific tree.

A responsibility to go beyond first impressions and gut reactions.   A responsibility not to get distracted by trivia or celebrity or ephemerality.  A responsibility to avoid the facile categorization and the half-thought-out conclusion.

A responsibility not to shout the loudest, but to listen the hardest.

And, sad to say, this awesome responsibility is far too rarely met.  CNN, the others — they fail abysmally at it.  Over and over and over again.

Why?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it is their incompetence.  Perhaps it is their ideological bias.  Perhaps it is just imperfect humans beings being imperfect human beings.  I don’t know.

And, frankly, I no longer care.

Because, in the end, the reason for their failure doesn’t matter.  Only the failure itself.  In a world of information glut, a world where each of us gets bombarded by something between 3,000 and 30,000 messages a day, I simply don’t have time for information sources with that low a signal/noise ratio.  I have too much muck to wade through as it is.

It’s like finding time for a daily walk with the dog.  Why in the world should I take that walk through a swamp filled with disease-carrying mosquitos?

And no matter how many perfectly coiffed pretty people with top-of-the-line orthodontia you put at anchor desks, TV “news” channels, no matter how good your talking heads get at combining celebrity and a sense of gravitas, you keep insisting I walk through swamps.

I don’t have that kind of time.

Or interest.

Swamp gas may be a alternate source of energy.  But it’s still swamp gas.

No thanks.

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Slashdot?  What’s that?

Most of my offline friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have never heard of Slashdot.  Heck, my guess is that a majority of my online contacts haven’t either.

That’s too bad, because despite its “News for Nerds” masthead, Slashdot offers to anyone who visits, nerd or non-nerd, an excellent opportunity to reap the value of a a listening mindset.

In fact, for most visitors, nerd or otherwise, Slashdot (abbreviated /.) is going to have its greatest value only to the extent that the visitor enters with that listening mindset.

Look, I like talking.  This blog wouldn’t exist if I didn’t.  But I very rarely post to /. discussions.  Not because I don’t have anything I want to say –  go to /. and within 5 minutes I’m probably muttering to myself — but I find it impossible to effectively post there.

Oh, it isn’t truly impossible.  However, given the way /. works, together with the way *I* work, it makes very little sense for me to post very often.  Because I’ve never paid for a /. “subscription,” and because I don’t set my /. up in a way to immediately notify me of stories, and because I don’t typically find myself reading a /. thread until it has been online for at least 6 hours, or even a couple days, my first opportunity to post on a thread comes at a moment when the thread already has a few hundred entries on a couple dozen sub-threads.  Add in the moderation system that assigns a score to each post, and each user’s ability to screen posts based on score, and it’s pretty darn likely that any post I add is going to disappear unseen and, worse, uncommented upon.

And since I’d be posting primarily because of a hope that someone might listen … well, I’m just not going to post very often.

This used to annoy me.  But it doesn’t anymore.

Why not?  Because at some point I realized just how many people there were on /. who had something to offer me if I just went on and listened.  My inability to post there isn’t a weakness.  It’s a strength.

The thread titled “Give Up the Fight for Personal Privacy,” is, to my mind, a perfect case in point.  Because of my personal intellectual, epistemological, and ideological interests, and because of my deep seated fears for my own privacy and the ability of states and organizations and assorted scum-bags to invade it, I pay a lot of attention to privacy issues.  I expect I know more about privacy and its infringement than most people.  I would go so far as to say my knowledge of the potential for privacy invasion is greater than that of 90 percent of the individuals I know.

But, this /. thread makes it clear that, despite all that interest of mine, I’m still a piker.  What I know may be huge, as compared to what my mother knows or my reading group pals know or my teaching colleagues know.  But it’s tiny compared to what I don’t know.

Unfortunately, if you want to know what I mean you’re going to have to read a big chunk of the thread.  And that means a few minutes of your time.  When I started writing this blog entry, this /. thread on privacy already had 565 comments. By the time I finish this article, post it on Iterations, and you read it, who knows how long the /. thread will have become.

Because, I’m sorry, but I can’t summarize the thread for you.  I couldn’t even if I had read the whole thing. (I’m only about 30% through the thread right now.)   That’s part of the point you see.     Read a /. thread on a topic of interest to you, and you hear a lot of really smart people out there with a lot of different perspectives on the topic.  Perspectives that cannot easily be reduced to this or that interest or ideology.

Listen to your average television panel yakking about privacy,  or attend an academic conference session devoted to the subject, and it’s pretty easy to line people and ideas up, and place them into nice and neat categories.  But read a /. thread on the topic and you simply cannot do the same.

Oh you’ll see a number of trolls and knuckleheads (especially if, as I do, you set your reading threshold to admit all posts, even those with a score of -1).  But you’ll also see lots of really smart people making very good points that you cannot make consistent with each other.   You’ll find yourself realizing, over and over again, that even the bits you thought you had figured out already aren’t quite as obvious as they used to be.

At least I do.

And that’s why I try to find room to read at least one big chunk of a /. thread several times a week.  Each chunk may take me 15-20 minutes, or more, to work my way through.  But I find it’s invariably going to be 15-20 minutes well spent.  I’ve been visiting /.  for a couple years now, and I’ve *never* been disappointed with the chunks I’ve decided to spend 15-20 minutes with.

Even if it’s abbreviation weren’t so cool, Slashdot belongs on the “1000 cool things” list.

News for listeners.

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As I was using Exposé to find a particular window this morning, I realized just how radically my use of the computer has morphed in the last couple years or so.

While I think of myself as a student and proponent of innovation, I’m rarely on the cutting edge of things.   Not even close:  my blog is less than six months old; I barely know how to text-message; and I still have never used instant-messaging.  When it comes to technological sophistication, I may have improved by an order of magnitude in the last couple years, but that only means I’m at a eighth grade level rather than the 3rd-grade level I used to be at.

And so the morphing of my computer use gets me wondering about exactly how unusual is my experience?  How much have others who don’t consider themselves “early adopters” or “leading the charge”, others who know they are “behind the curve”, still changed in their use of computer technology?

So, I thought I’d throw out for comparison a top ten list.  This list is the ten pieces of software “most important” to me right now.   They’re in no particular order, save that I think each of the 10 is substantially more important than anything that might be #11.
1.    Firefox.  Browser #1
2.    Safari.  Browser #2.  Still has some features I’m more familiar with.
4.    WordPress.  Blogging.
5.    Inspiration.  Mind-mapping.
6.    MindManager.  More mind-mapping.  Neither Inspiration nor MindManager has all the features of the other.
7.    NetNewsWire.  RSS reader.  Been using less than a month.  I can’t believe I did without it.  Funneling the information I need into headline form in one place, plus folders for quick and dirty clipping of “to read/use later” stuff.
8.    TextEdit.  Just what it says….text, text, and more text.  Compose it here, then cut and paste it to wherever.
9.    Acrobat.  Starting to want to do things with pdf files that can’t do with the free Reader.
10.    OS X Leopard features and utilties. Expose, the character palettes, the Dock, the calculator, the dashboard, QuickTime, etc.
11.    OmniFocus.  Personal time management software.

I think the list is as interesting for what is not on it, as for what is.  No email client — I still use Thunderbird, and at some point I’ll probably go back to it or another email client, but 90 percent of my email checking is now done via my web browser.

And the biggest omission, no “full feature” word processor.

I still use Word, but pretty much just for (i) documents where I need footnotes, tables, and other extensive formatting features or (ii) old documents that I’m finishing up or referring back to.  For my day to day work with composing, outlining, synthesizing, writing information….it’s much more efficient to jump back between text editor and mind map and browser.  The big word-processing software simply isn’t necessary anymore on a daily basis.

To be honest, none of my three word-processors (Word, AppleWorks, and an ancient copy of Wordperfect for Mac that probably doesn’t even work in Leopard), alone or in combination, is even going to be in my list of 15 most essential software:  in addition to the 10 above, right now they are  below, let’s see, Stickies, ActivityMonitor, QuickBooks, MindMeister, iCal, Thunderbird, iTunes.  And falling almost on a daily basis.

I’m betting within 6 months, there will be another five to ten applications on my list with more importance.

Anyway, that’s my list.  What’s on yours?

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Here’s a little test:  What’s going on on your desktop right now?

Here’s mine, as of the time I was writing this entry:

On the computer:  besides writing this blog, I’ve got my email open and one message started, a MindMeister map being edited, five more browser tabs, an old Inspiration mindmap, three TextEdit documents in various stages of completion, my Omnifocus project list being edited.  And in the last 20 minutes or so I’ve sent off 4 article links to various people.  And I’ve managed to reduce the unread items in my RSS feeder to 19…er, sorry, that just refreshed.  It’s now 49 unread items.

And of course there’s the offline stuff.  Forget the unscheduled interruptions from the other occupants of the house, which no one can avoid.  I’m writing checks (and making sure I have the bucks in the account to cover them), I’ve got a “don’t forget” list for tomorrow’s road trip to southwest Iowa for fine cuisine, two magazines, no wait, four magazines, and three books open.  And somewhere, I imagine, there’s the newspaper I picked up off the porch at 5 a.m.

Yes, it is safe to say that I suffer from what the author of the blog Rands in Repose five years ago, labelled Nerds Attention Deficiency Disorder.  (Here’s the blog entry.  Read it and the comments.  It’s fascinating stuff, and like much stuff about the Internet, both troubling and exciting.)

I don’t want to minimize the problems of ADD.  I’ve seen both friends and students who have it, and it can be utterly disabling.  But reading the RinR article, I wonder whether there’s something else going on out there with other people.

I’m thinking in particular of the tendency of teachers and employers and parents and assorted old farts like me to talk about young people’s laziness and lack of anything approaching a meaningful attention span.   I’m wondering how often we old farts see laziness and/or zero attention span, and what’s really happening is NADD in action.  That a lot of the people we are chastising for failing to follow our rules and doing what we want them to do the way we want them to do it are actually being very, very productive and hard-working indeed.

That’s one of the reason I encourage you to read not just the original RinR entry about NADD, but all the hundred or so comments thereto.  Because if you look at the people commenting, what you see is a bunch of really smart people getting a lot of stuff done.  In short, not low productivity, but very high productivity.  A good thing.  A really good thing.

I’m wondering, instead of trying to instill traditional notions of “attention!” in our students, whether we should be figuring out how to spread the NADD disorder.  Might it be a necessary skill set for the 21st century?

I’m not yet ready to add NADD to the “1000 Cool Things” list.  But I’m tempted.

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I admit it.  I’m an unapologetic enthusiast for the new and cool.

I can’t think of a time I’d rather be living in.  Today’s flat world is the most exciting place of change since the British started finding new ways to combine steam and iron in the Industrial Revolution, and its happening in a world with a lot more economic wealth.

Though I’d rather be living it as 25 years younger and several hundred thousand dollars wealthier, and it would be nicer to live where I didn’t have to worry about winter soon making its annual five month visit, I think there is no place in history that I’d rather be living in right now than the world circa 2008.

Which brings me to the place of history and its study amidst all this change.

Because while I’m an enthusiast for the future, I’m also an enthusiast for the past.  Despite having written a dissertation on the economic history of company law in Victorian Britain, I remain interested in how companies work, how law works, and in what happened during that 63 years and 7 months Queen Victoria occupied the throne of the United Kingdom.

(It’s another reason, I suppose, for academics referring to the PhD as the “terminal degree”:  after having endured all the stuff that finishing the thing takes, it’s a good bet that your deep interest in the subject is going to be on life support.)

History remains a passion, and not just the history of the Victorians.  For example, I am currently reading a book on trade in the ancient world.  (More on that in a bit.)

Yet I’ve had greater and greater difficulty convincing my fellow enthusiasts about the future (i.e., the students in my economics and history classes) that there is deep value to be had from studying the people, events, and technologies of the past.  Let’s be honest, after all:  the people are dead, the events can’t be changed, and the technologies are several generations obsolete.

And let’s also be honest about those “lessons from the past”.  While they are real and while they are important, they are complicated and difficult to draw.  Between the time when the past happened and today there have been many continuities and many, many changes, and it’s very difficult untangling which is which.

The book on ancient trade that I just alluded to, Barry Cunliffe’s The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (Penguin, 2002) is an excellent illustration.  It reveals its author’s erudition (he’s a professor of European archaeology at Oxford) at every turn, and paints a detailed picture of the ancient trader’s world, of the lure of tin and the discovery of Britain.  But it is not an easy read.  Given that I’ve been reading bits and pieces of the story for several months now and have only just now passed the halfway point of Cunliffe’s 184-page book, I don’t expect to be assigning it in my economic history course.

Yet it is oddly compelling, and a book well worth the effort.  But it will take effort.

But is it really worth that effort?  What does the story of Pytheas the Massaliot (Massalia is the ancient name for what has become the modern French city of Marseille) offer for better understanding of the world of 2008?  It is after all the ultimate in stories about long-dead people, long unchangeable events, and long obsolete technologies.  Apart from French antiquarians and Oxford archaeologists, I don’t expect there are 500 people in the world who care about the ancient name of Marseille, and not many more who care about ancient trade routes or the history of tin.  Answering the “What’s in it for me?” would appear to be an insurmountable question.

Well let me point out three big reasons.

First, lets look at that stuff about trade routes.  Today’s is a world made and remade daily by trade.  When people speak of “globalization,” they’re describing a world defined by its trade.  Yet, as any good economic historian will tell you, globalization is not a recent phenomenon.  Indeed, as the story of Pytheas the Greek points out, it’s been going on for millennia.  So what’s different, really, about the 21st century’s version?  What makes our globalization so special, for good or for bad?   Well, it seems to me, you can’t answer these questions unless you get deep into the details.  Unless you think about how trade works,  about how raw materials and goods get from where they are to where they end up.  In short, you need to know about trade routes.  And the routes of trade are a lot more complicated than the half-page “circular flow” diagram that is to be found in most introductory economics textbooks.

Which brings me to the second and third reasons.   Reading along with Cunliffe as he pieces together the trade routes of the ancient world reveals just how difficult it truly is to figure out who is actually trading with whom in a global market.  And it reveals all the judgment calls one must make about “evidence” along the way of that figuring out.

If you’ve got a mind that works well with abstraction, the theoretical concepts of economics (supply and demand, opportunity cost, national income, technology, and the rest) are fairly straightforward.  But to put those concepts to work with real world situations is complicated and messy work.  Especially if you want to do it well.

Because while the 21st may put unprecedented amounts of “data” at our fingertips — just do a couple Google searches and click on a few links — converting that data into “evidence” is detailed and frustrating work.  It requires the user of data to make constant judgments and interpretations.

But when you live in a world with so much data to hand, it’s very hard to see those judgments being made.  That’s where Cunliffe’s story comes in. He is very transparent about where and how and why he’s making inferences and interpretations.

Indeed that transparency is part of what makes reading his book such slow going.  I can imagine my students saying, if I were so foolish as to assign the book and then ask for their evaluation of the book, “but he takes so long to say anything!”

Yet I’m not sure there’s any more important skill people in the 21st century have to develop than empirical judgment.  It is so, so easy for political and business and religious charlatans to just inundate us with “information”.  We must have tools of judgment as good as our tools of information transmission.  We need advanced tools, the kind of tools hitherto the province of PhD-level historians and archaeologists, and we need those tools in the hands of everyday users of information with a bachelor’s degree or less.

We need the study of history today.  More, not less, than ever before.

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Can you tell from these recent posts that I’ve been trying to ramp up my time devoted to websurfing?

For a lot of reasons, I’ve been trying to bring my understanding of the processes and institutions of information flow into the 21st century.  I realized a while back that if I’m going to continue to call myself “the listening PhD,” I needed to bring my understanding of online information flows to a PhD level.  And that’d be no small task since my technical competence re: matters of the Internet was then at a grade school level.

So, over the last 18 months or so I’ve been working at simultaneously trying to accumulate and shoehorn information found via surfing, blogging, reading, emailing, and subscribing, at the same time as I’ve been frantically searching for technological ways of quickly acquiring, filtering, and processing the piles and piles of information.  I don’t need PhD level techie skills, but I do need college-freshman-level skills.  And sooner rather than later.

It’s been a very frustrating process, for a couple reasons.  The big one, of course, is the one faced by all ignoramuses — the inability to even identify the proper questions to ask.  But even when I found a good question to ask, I couldn’t wade through the techie talk to figure out how to answer the question.

If a younger reader is looking for a field to go into, or an older one looking to switch, and enjoys working with words, can I recommend “technical writing”? This market has to be huge — there is certainly a profound need for people who can translate tech speak into everyday language for people who lack PhD level tech sophistication.

That’s another reason why the Demo Girl, which I just posted about yesterday or the day before, made it to my list of 1000 cool things.

And it’s why today’s link, to The Common Craft Show, is being added.

We all know about the Dummies books and the Idiots’ guides.  But the people at Common Craft do things one better with their quick little, no frills intros “in plain english” to many basic technologies.   Intros that do two things all the technobabble never manages to accomplish: they, on an everyday and personal level, show you just how revolutionary something like a wiki is; AND then they show you how to start realizing real benefits from that revolution.  And they manage both in, literally, just a few minutes.

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