Category Archives: Society

Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with the people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectiveness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different.

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son GW Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.

Related:

As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again

 

Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:

 

Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.

Respectfully,

Albert Einstein

Or this one:

 

John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at ResearchBlogging.org or Scienceblogging.org or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević

Some of you may know that my brother is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. He also works as a visual artist in photography, video, and other media, mostly in collaboration with his wife Gordana who is an artist.

In a few months, his book willl come out – Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević:

The central role that the regime of Slobodan Milošević played in the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia is well known, but Marko Živković explores another side of this time period: the stories people in Serbia were telling themselves (and others) about themselves. Živković traces the recurring themes, scripts, and narratives that permeated public discourse in Milošević’s Serbia, as Serbs described themselves as Gypsies or Jews, violent highlanders or peaceful lowlanders, and invoked their own mythologized defeat at the Battle of Kosovo. The author investigates national narratives, the use of tradition for political purposes, and local idioms, paying special attention to the often bizarre and outlandish tropes people employed to make sense of their social reality. He suggests that the enchantments of political life under Milošević may be fruitfully seen as a dreambook of Serbian national imaginary.

I have read most of the stuff in the book, at least in some earlier drafts, over the past few years, and I know this stuff is good! It will help you understand Serbia – in the wartime 1990s as well as before and after. And it may help you understand some other nations or some other groups of people (perhaps even TeaPartiers if you are dilligent in adjusting for different contexts, histories, etc.).

So, pre-order the book now – it will come out next May but it will be worth the wait.

The Most Awesome Wedding

Last weekend, we went to a wedding in New Jersey.

My wife, being in the wedding, went earlier in the week. My teenage son is too cool to go to a wedding so he stayed with Grandma, programming something on his computer. So my daughter and I got on a train early Friday morning (the Carolinian) in Durham. I don’t think she has ever been on a train before! As for me, I traveled by train a lot back in Europe, but not so much in the States – a trip to Charlotte a decade ago, a quick ride in San Francisco in 2007, that’s about it. And this is a looooong ride – about 10 hours from Durham to Newark, NJ.

The train ride was very comfortable. The train is clean, spacious, people on it nice, so I wonder why we don’t use train more often. Ten hours is a lot of time. My daughter and I chatted some, went to the diner car to get some food and drinks a couple of times (though we did stock up on chocolate, chips and sodas before boarding), looked out of the window, etc. She loaded a few movies onto her laptop and watched a couple of those. I read some of Carin Bondar’s delightful book ‘The Nature of Human Nature’. There were parts of rural North Carolina and Virginia where there was no signal for my iPhone, but for the most of the trip the train passes through urban areas and, although there is no wifi on the train itself, there was sufficient signal for my iPhone to be useful. I spent a lot of time reading science blogs via Scienceblogging.org and realized how useful the site is (and that it does not really need a special mobile version – it works fine as it is).

We arrived in Montclair, NJ in the evening and were first taken to a high point (High Lawn Pavillion, for those familiar with the area) from which we could see the night skyline of Manhattan. We stayed with the parents of the bride. Actually, one of the brides. This was to be a wedding in a same-sex marriage, a first one I attended. And also a Jewish wedding (not a first for me, though).

On Saturday, we had time to get on a bus and spend the morning in Manhattan, have lunch there, and meet some friends (you may have seen some pictures I posted on Facebook – my wife has much more still to upload). The Saturday dinner was organized by the parents of the other bride and the wedding itself was on Sunday (we drove back on Monday – a drive much easier and smoother – and with the truck stops much cleaner – than what I remember from 19 years ago, the last time I went that way by I-95, in the opposite direction – North).

This was probably the most fun and relaxed wedding I ever attended (it is hard not to be nervous at one’s own, so I’ll refrain on commenting on that one). The rabbi had fun. Both brides had fun. Everyone in the synagogue had fun. Not a dull or tense moment during the entire ceremony. It was beautiful, it was spiritual, yet it all felt so normal, so natural, I had to remind myself at the end that I was participating in history. A ceremony like this, just a few years ago, would not just have been impossible, but unthinkable.

The two brides come from two very different families. One from the North, the other from the South. One Democratic, the other Republican. One Jewish, the other Christian. In many ways – polar opposites. Yet both families stepped up to the plate and embraced each other fully.

It was not just Lisa and Erika being revolutionaries and trailblazers. It was not just that Lisa and Erika got married to each other and a couple of hundred of us were there. We were not just observers, but participants. I like to think that each one of us came out of it a better person. That each one of us is now a seedling, making the world a better place wherever we may be.

Top-down-anything does not work (videos)

Part 1: Roads unfit for people:

Part 2: Roads FiT for People:

Books: ‘On The Grid’ by Scott Huler

grid_cover.jpgAbout a month ago, I told you about the book-reading event where Scott Huler (blog, Twitter, SIT interview) read from his latest book On The Grid (amazon.com). I read the book immediately after, but never wrote a review of my own. My event review already contained some of my thoughts about the topic, but I feel I need to say more, if nothing else in order to use this blog to alert more people about it and to tell everyone “Read This Book”.
infrastructure 001.JPGWhat I wrote last month,

“I think of myself as a reasonably curious and informed person, and I have visited at least a couple of infrastructure plants, but almost every anecdote and every little tidbit of information were new to me. Scott’s point – that we don’t know almost anything about infrastructure – was thus proven to me.”

infrastructure 003.JPG…was reinforced when I read the book itself: I don’t know anything about infrastructure. But after reading the book I can say I know a little bit, understand how much I don’t know, and realize how much more I’d like to know. I bet it was fun watching me as I was reading it, exclaiming on average five times per page “This is so cool”, and “Hey, this is neat” and “Wow, I had no idea!” and (rarely) “w00t! Here’s a tidbit I actually heard of before” and “Hey, I know where this is!” (as I lived in Raleigh for eleven years, I know the area well).
infrastructure 006.JPGA few years ago, Scott was just as ignorant about infrastructure as most of us are. But then his curiosity got better of him and he started researching. He would start at his house in Raleigh and trace all the wires and cables and pipes going in and out of the house to see where they led. Sometimes there would be a crew on his street digging into the asphalt and fixing something and he would approach them and ask questions. At other times he would figure out where the headquarters are and who to ask to talk to:
infrastructure 007.JPG

“What Scott realized during the two years of research for the book is that people in charge of infrastructure know what they are doing. When something doesn’t work well, or the system is not as up-to-date as it could be, it is not due to incompetence or ignorance, but because there is a lack of two essential ingredients: money and political will. These two factors, in turn, become available to the engineers to build and upgrade the systems, only if people are persuaded to act. And people are persuaded to act in two ways: if it becomes too costly, or if it becomes too painful to continue with the old way of doing things. It is also easier to build brand new systems for new services than it is to replace old systems that work ‘well enough’ with more more modern ways of providing the same service.”

infrastructure 008.JPGIn a sense, this book is a memoir of curiosity as Scott describes his own adventures with a hard-hat, a modern Jean Valjean sloshing his way through the Raleigh sewers, test-driving the public transportation, and passing multiple security checks in order to enter the nearby nuclear plant.
infrastructure 009.JPGBut it is more than just a story of personal awe at modern engineering. Scott weaves in the explanations of the engineering and the underlying science, explains the history and the politics of the Raleigh infrastructure, the historical evolution of technologies underlying modern infrastructure, and illustrates it by comparisons to other infrastructures: how does New York City does that, how did Philadelphia did it 50 years ago, how did London 500 years ago, how about Rome 2000 years ago?
infrastructure 014.JPG

“What is really astonishing is how well the systems work, even in USA which has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world. We are taking it for granted that the systems always work, that water and electricity and phone and sewers and garbage collection and public transportation always work. We get angry on those rare occasions when a system temporarily fails. We are, for the most part, unprepared and untrained to provide some of the services ourselves in times of outages, or to continue with normal life and work when a service fails. And we are certainly not teaching our kids the necessary skills – I can chop up wood and start a wood stove, I can use an oil heater, I know how to slaughter and render a pig, how to get water out of a well, dig a ditch, and many other skills I learned as a child (and working around horses) – yet I am not teaching any of that to my own kids. They see it as irrelevant to the modern world and they have a point – chance they will ever need to employ such skills is negligible.”

infrastructure 015.JPGAnd this brings me to the point where I start musing about stuff that the book leaves out. As I was reading, I was constantly hungry for more. I wanted more comparisons with other cities and countries and how they solved particular problems. I wanted more history. I wanted more science. I wanted more about political angles. But then, when I finished, I realized that a book I was hungry for would be a 10-tome encyclopedic monograph and a complete flop. It is good that Scott has self-control and self-discipline as a writer to know exactly what to include and what to leave out. He provides an excellent Bibliography at the end for everyone who is interested in pursuing a particular interest further. His book’s homepage is a repository for some really cool links – just click on the infrastructure you are interested in (note that “Communications” is under construction, as it is in the real world – it is undergoing a revolution as we speak so it is hard to collect a list of ‘definitive’ resources – those are yet to be written):
OnTheGrid homepage.jpg
infrastructure 022.JPGWhat many readers will likely notice as they go through the book is that there is very little about the environmental impacts of various technologies used to ensure that cities function and citizens have all their needs met. And I think this was a good strategy. If Scott included this information, many readers and critics would focus entirely on the environmental bits (already available in so many other books, articles and blogs) and completely miss what the book is all about – the ingenuity needed to keep billions of people living in some kind of semblance of normal life and the interconnectedness that infrastructure imposes on the society, even on those who would want not to be interconnected:
infrastructure 027.JPG

“There are people who advocate for moving “off the grid” and living a self-sufficient existence. But, as Scott discovered, they are fooling themselves. Both the process of moving off the grid and the subsequent life off the grid are still heavily dependent on the grid, on various infrastructure systems that make such a move and such a life possible, at least in the developed world.”

infrastructure 031.JPGMy guess is, if there’s anyone out there who could possibly not like this book, it will be die-hard libertarians who fantasize about being self-sufficient in this over-populated, inter-connected world.
infrastructure 032.JPGAt several places in the book, Scott tries to define what infrastructure is. It is a network that provides a service to everyone. It has some kind of control center, a collection center or distribution center. It has a number of peripheral stations and nodes. And there are some kinds of channels that connect the central place to the outside stations and those stations to the final users – every household in town. There is also a lot of redundancy built into the system, e.g., if a water main breaks somewhere, you will still get your water but it will come to you via other pipes in surrounding streets, with zero interruption to your service.
infrastructure 025.JPGScott covers surveying of land, stormwater, freshwater, wastewater, roads, power, solid waste, communications (phone, broadcast media, internet) and transportation (e.g., public transportation, trains, airplanes). These are the kinds of things that are traditionally thought of as ‘infrastructure’. But aren’t there other such systems? I’d think security has the same center-spokes model of organization as well: police stations and sub-stations (distribution centers) that can send cops out wherever needed (distribution channels), with potential criminals brought to court (processing centers) and if found guilty placed in prison (collection center). Similarly with fire-departments. Ambulances are just the most peripheral tentacles of the health-care infrastructure. The local-county-state-federal political system is also a kind of infrastructure. So is the military. So is the postal system. So is the food industry and distribution.
infrastructure 018.JPGThinking about all of these other potential examples of infrastructure made me realize how many services that require complex infrastructure undergo cycles of centralization and decentralization. For transportation, everyone needed to have a horse. Later, it was centralized into ship, railroad, bus and airline infrastructures. But that was counteracted by the popularity of individually owned cars. And of course taxis were there all along. And as each decade and each country has its own slight moves towards or away from centralization, in the end a balance is struck in which both modes operate.
infrastructure 020.JPGYou raised your own chickens. Then you bought them from mega-farms. Now many, but not most citizens, are raising their own chickens again. It is not feasible – not enough square miles on the planet – for everyone to raise chickens any more. But having everyone fed factory chicken is not palatable to many, either. Thus, a new, uneasy balance.
infrastructure 011.JPGNowhere is this seen more obviously today as in Communications infrastructure. We are in the middle of a big decentralization movement, away from broadcast (radio, TV and yes, newspaper industry infrastructure with its printing presses, distribution centers and trucks) infrastructure that marked about half of 20th century, and forward into something more resembling the media ecosystem of the most of human history – everyone is both a sender and a receiver, except that instead of writing letters or assembling at a pub every evening, we can do this online. But internet is itself an infrastructure – a series of tubes network of cables and it is essential not to allow any centralized corporation to have any power over what passes through those cables and who gets to send and receive stuff this way.
infrastructure 013.JPGFinally, as I was reading the book I was often wishing to see photographs of places or drawings of the engineering systems he describes. As good as Scott is at putting it in words, there were times when I really wanted to actually see how something looks like. And there were times when what I really wanted was something even more interactive, perhaps an online visualization of an infrastructure system that allows me to change parameters (e.g., amount of rainfall per minute) and see how that effects some output (e.g., rate of clearing water off the streets, or speed at which it is rushing through the pipes, or how it affects the water level of the receiving river). That kind of stuff would make this really come to life to me.
infrastructure 030.JPGPerhaps “On The Grid” will have an iPad edition in the future in which the text of the book is just a beginning of the journey – links to other sources (e,g., solutions around the globe, historical sources), to images, videos, interactive visualizations and, why not, real games. After all, it is right here in Raleigh that IBM is designing a game that allows one to plan and build modern infrastructure – CityOne. These two should talk to each other and make something magnificent like that.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle.
The small images are thumbnails – click on each to see the whole picture, full-size.

The Secret Powers of Time (video)

Professor Philip Zimbardo conveys how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. Time influences who we are as a person, how we view relationships and how we act in the world.