Decentralized Virtual Sex with Cowboys

Earlier in the week I wrote about Rob’s new course and my take on it. Many thoughtful people offered their comments (that was partially the point).

Here’s a recapitulation of my thoughts after reading those comments.

I’m not suggesting that weblogs + Internet + chat rooms = an education. I’m not suggesting that doctors can learn how to perform colonoscopies online and medical school.

I’m not suggesting that we drink virtual beer and have virtual sex with virtual coeds in lieu of doing those real coming of age things at university.

I’m not suggesting that there is no knowledge nor that there is nothing to learn.

I’m not even suggesting that everyone can learn anything they need on their own in a sort of self-reliant education libertarian paradise.

Nor do I mean to suggest that universities are such a bad thing.

But I do think that one thing that Internet + weblogs have allowed us to realize is that there are other ways of organizing our societal affairs, be it work, education, or otherwise.

I would never say that “we don’t need libraries because we have the Internet.” That’s not the point.

It’s not so much the utility of the web, as what the web allows to, inspires us to, demands us to think. So it’s not “web = e-library.” It’s “library = information” and “web = information” and “wow, that’s different; I wonder what that means.”

It’s how the web changes how we think about the world that interests me.

I think that some of the ways the Internet is organized (decentralized, ubiquitous, anarchic, open source) and some of the the ways weblogs are constructed (interconnected, distributed, personal, opinionated) have inspired me (and others, including Rob, I think) to realize that we can do other things — things that perhaps we’ve always done in a top-down, centralized, expensive, carefully controlled, closed source way — differently.

For example, the Zap Your PRAM conference. This conference had no outside funding, no advertising, required no meetings to organize. And yet we had people from three countries gather in one place, almost spontaneously, for an interesting weekend of discussion.

This is only “revolutionary” in the sense that the usual way one organizes a conference involves considerably more time, money, and effort. And therefore it’s usually only institutions and governments that have the resources to do so.

The lesson in the conference for me is not “hey, we used weblogs and the Internet to organize a conference: technology is great!” The lesson is that the Internet and weblogs allowed us to envision ourselves as powerful actors, the “kind of people who can organize conferences.” The rest was easy, but the rearrangement of the mental planets was a necessary precursor to everything that followed.

Another example.

Several years ago, the selfsame Rob invited me to participate in a project in Kinkora. The project, which started out originally to construct a building that would showcase different approaches to agriculture, development and ecology, had evolved away from a physical building, and into a series of “test case” projects that would serve a similar showcasing role. Rob asked me to come up with some ideas, and one of those that I presented I called “This Bag of Potatoes Has a Website.”

The idea was that every bag of potatoes leaving Prince Edward Island would have a unique website address attached to it, and at that address consumers would find the “provenance” of the potatoes: where they were grown, by whom, with what chemicals, and so on. The idea was that the “value add” in the industry, going forward, was going to be information; consumers were going to want to know where their food came from and how it was grown.

The idea had some traction at the time, and we pursued several stands of it, and got several farmers interested, but ultimately it withered on the vine.

Flash forward to the present, and the idea seems more relevant now than ever: the entire agriculture industry is seeing the need for “provenance tracking.” And in the world of BSE, every head of cattle does need its own website.

The lesson for me here is not “here’s this revolutionary use of technology.” The lesson is that someone like me, immersed in the decentralized, open source, web, can take some of the ideas that working on the web uncovers — simple, open, powerful approaches to solving complex problems — and translate them into a completely different domain where they take on a new life.

And further that someone like me, with no formal education, no experience in agriculture, no real credentials to speak of at all, can be virally inserted into a group of ecologists and farmers and bring something to the table.

Again, I don’t present these examples as “here’s how with weblogs we can change everything.” The key for me is how weblogs and the Internet and open source and Linux and hyperlinks and the like can inspire us all to reconceive of how we do things, how we arrange ourselves, how we work, and how we learn.

In light of all this, my original comments about Rob’s course were simply pointing out that it was ironic that someone like Rob, who I think generally shares my take, would choose to evangelize this inside an institution that has, in many ways, a vested interest in having these trains of thought not pursued.

That said, after reading the comments that were posted, especially Rob’s own comments, I’ve come to realize that it makes perfect sense for Rob to do what he’s doing.

Let’s say Rob used to live in the city, and suffered from the confining strictures of urban life. Then, by happenstance and effort, Rob found that there was another way of thinking about living, and left the city to go out on the open range to live the carefree, decentralized, open life of a cowboy.

My original critique would suggest that Rob should stay out on the range, and not return to the city to share what he’d learned. Obviously that was wrong. The key, of course, is figuring how to return to the city to share these lessons without having the very fact of being in the city make their value seem irrelevant.

And that’s where my thinking has landed at this moment. Additional comment welcome, of course. Ye haw!


Alan's picture
Alan on March 3, 2005 - 21:36 Permalink

The reverse, of course, is equally true — that the insular vanities of blogging and the internet will be subject to review by the clear-thinking and non-faithful. Remember, the business lesson from your potato bag example is that it failed, not that some technology was applied. The evangelist says next time it will work — but has no empirical evidence to support it. One would hope that Rob will use the venue in the university not to simply evangelize to another group of the polite but privately disinterested. One would hope this course will observe the possibilities throught the confining strictures of, in your analogy, both rural and urban life, mapping the strengths and weaknesses of each, to determine a bigger picture and to plot a practical, rather than evangelical, course — moving from the dreamily possible to the useful.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on March 3, 2005 - 22:05 Permalink

I think Rob could generate huge interest in his course if he renamed it “Decentralized Virtual Sex With Cowboys”. It has a little more *crackle* than oh, say “Integrated Cases in Managerial Finance”.

Cyn's picture
Cyn on March 4, 2005 - 03:34 Permalink

I’d audit that course.

Dave's picture
Dave on March 4, 2005 - 18:26 Permalink

Perhaps you are saying that “The message is the medium” and that it is liberating” Roll over, Marshall!

Marian Evans's picture
Marian Evans on March 4, 2005 - 19:15 Permalink

LLoyd Axworthy, Canada’s former Foreign Affairs minister has written a scathing letter to Condoleezza Rice on the subject of missile defense. I’ve posted the website as my own.

Now *that’s* a rebuttal to the claims that Paul Martin had no ‘principled’ (as one Tory put it) reason not to join. Wow. Maybe I should only read the Winnipeg Free Press from now on. It beats the many headed goat that is All Tory News All The Time.

Ken Williams's picture
Ken Williams on March 4, 2005 - 20:02 Permalink

Crocodile Dundee tought Manhattanites some dandy lessons from the outback didn’t he?