Susan Rabiner, Thinking Like Your Editor

As I’ve been gearing up to write a new book, I’ve been thinking about how to do it better this time — continuous improvement and all that.  Some fairly obvious observations are on my mind: stronger argument, a more compelling narrative, less repetitive, probably shorter, and one big-picture idea,* below the rest of the post.

With these thoughts of self-improvement in mind, I’ve turned to the pros to see what they have to say, and found a wonder of a book.  It’s by former Basic Books editorial director-turned-agent, Susan Rabiner (you can follow her on Twitter, as I do; perhaps that will encourage her to Tweet more if we do!).  I heard Ms. Rabiner speak to a group of faculty on my campus; her talk was excellent, as is her book: Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-Fiction — and Get it Published.  Rabiner’s book even got the two thumbs up from Lara Heimert, the editor of Urs’ and my book, Born Digital, and our next project.  (We know from first-hand experience just how demanding, and amazing, Lara is!  Lara does not recommend books lightly; she said that she routinely gives it to her authors.  Hmm…  I wonder why we had to come across it on our own?  Maybe…)

There are lots of reasons why I hugely liked this book, most of which come down to modeling.  Rabiner has written a book that must itself accomplish all the things she’s telling the writer to do, which is no mean feat.  She tells us, for instance, to make argument and narrative work together — and, lo and behold, she does just that in her own text.  It’s a few hundred pages, yet it reads (almost) like a novel; I read it in one sitting.  The text is clean and flows from idea to idea in a way that pulled me along.  All the while, the topic is about thinking up a book project, writing a proposal, what to expect from an agent/editor/marketing department of your publisher, the distinction between a trade book and a university press project, and so forth.  I can see why it is recommended reading for anyone writing serious non-fiction.

Rabiner notes that, when someone is standing in a bookstore with your book in her hands, you have to convince her to devote 5 to 10 hours with you.  This great framing helped me think about my next project.  But it also became clear to me: Rabiner succeeded at her own assignment: 5 hours with her book was well-spent.

(*And at the same time, I have in mind a big-picture thought, encapsulated well by Cody Brown in TechCrunch, about thinking in terms of “apps” as well as “books”, in the traditional sense.  I think this next one will look more like “book” than “app,” but the form factor and interactivity components to any sustained argument strike me as important.  With Born Digital, Urs Gasser and I created four “books”: 1) the traditional bound one/Kindle version, which I count together as one, since I see little difference between the two from a user experience, much as Cody Brown notes in her TechCrunch post; 2) a blog; 3) a wiki; and 4) one comprised of student-generated videos, still a work in progress.  This is a topic for another day, but much on my mind.)

State of Affairs, Public Radio in Louisville

This morning, a few of us are talking about Born Digital and related issues on WFPL, public radio in Louisville, KY. It’s a great show, called State of Affairs. They’ve even made a video, hosted on Blip.TV, about how young people use the technologies.

For a glimpse into the technology world in Louisville, check out Michelle JonesConsuming Louisville. It’s a fun and interesting site, and Michelle’s one of the guests on State of Affairs.

Update: the archived show is here.

The Future of the Legal Course Book

Seattle University School of Law is hosting a workshop on the “Future of the Legal Course Book.”  It’s a very nicely organized, timely session, brought together by Prof. David Skover, Ron Collins, and deans Ed Rubin of Vanderbilt and Kellye Testy of Seattle University.  On the table: how should we rethink the legal case book in the name of improving pedagogy in law schools?

It occurs to me is that the key conceptual shift is that virtually all information – whether or not related to the law – is now created, stored, and shared in digital format for starters.  Our students, too, are “born digital.”  Our students have a very different relationship to information today than they did a generation ago.  They were small children when the DVD replaced the VCR. Research, for our students, is more likely to mean a Google or Lexis search from a web browser than a trip to the library.  They rarely, if ever, buy the newspaper in hard copy, but they graze through copious amounts of news and other information online.  (Even some law professors are now more comfortable in the use of online tools for legal research and analysis than in the system of Reporters and Pocket Parts.) Law school community members are learning, accessing information, and expressing themselves in new, digitally-inspired ways – sometimes good, sometimes not so good.  Others outside our community are increasingly learning about us and what we do from our web presence.

Five to ten years from now, I think it’s likely that legal case books, too, will be born digital — and then rendered in a variety of formats, whether a good old-fashioned book or a Kindle/eReader file or a series of web pages and interactive exercises.  Updates could happen online, wiki-style (or not, if authors want to lock things down into a single format or series of files).  Faculty and teachers could click and unclick cases and lessons and questions that they’d like to use in class.  One could imagine that some students would click “buy in paper” and would get a print-on-demand version of the book sent overnight to them in the mail (say, for $49.95).  Others would click “buy it for my Tablet/Reader/Kindle/Whatever” (for $49.95 minus some discount).  Still others, perhaps hearing-impaired students, would click on “read it to me,” and so forth. 

There are surely reasons why such a future may not come to pass.  Some have raised concerns about legacy IP rights, strong interests by publishers in the current regime, and so forth, as barriers to such a future.  I think that the primary question to ask is about new investments: the bulk of our new investment in teaching materials and platforms be placed in materials that are cleared in a way that facilitates this future.  The barriers we should focus on are those that stand in the way of our shifting (at least some of) of new investments (of time, money, etc.) from one primarily oriented toward the analog to one that has a substantial digital emphasis in the first instance.

To be clear: Books remain important.  Books are not going away anytime soon; nor should they.  Hard-copies of books are important on many levels.  Many people prefer to read hard-copies of books to digital forms of books, despite massive ongoing investments in technologies like the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and new technologies at the MIT Media Lab; we like to curl up with them in bed, collect them on bookshelves as signals of our knowledge (or for easy access), take them to the beach, and so forth.  Books represent a stable format, unlikely the constantly-changing digital formats that imperil digital record-keeping processes over the long-term.  Books are the cornerstone, for now at least, of the large and important publishing industry, whose leaders play an important role in democracies and cultures around the world.  Books have the advantage, under United States law at least, of being covered by the first sale doctrine (you can give them away, or lend them, or sell them in a secondary market).  But books have downsides, too – the “slow fire” phenomenon, the high cost of production (compared to their digital counterparts), and the high cost of storage and distribution.  And, as many have pointed out here in Seattle, the presumption of *only* the traditional form of the book for case-based law teaching is inhibiting experimentation with new pedagogies.

As law schools, I think our work in the area of academic computing should be to facilitate this bright future of course materials born digital and rendered in various formats.  We need to make it easy for faculty to experiment with new technologies in support of their teaching, research, and scholarship — especially in an era of large-scale curricular reform at places like Vanderbilt, Harvard, and others. 

And there’s a need for leadership across schools, too, to develop the platform that makes this future possible.  There are building blocks coming together: CALI’s eLangdell, Rice’s Connexions, and so forth.  Publishers have a role to play here, too, both through their own experimentation and participation with broader, open efforts.  It will be fun to be part of such an effort.

A Review-in-the-Making of Born Digital

Andy Oram, editor at O’Reilly, has posted something quite extraordinary on the wiki for our book and associated research project.  It appears that he has read Born Digital and then posted his review on the wiki for comment before he posts it to the O’Reilly Media web site.  I hope others will take up his challenge to comment on it; just the sort of conversation we’re delighted to have, in small measure, provoked.  (For the record, this review-in-the-making is an effective critique of the book, which points at several of the inevitable soft-spots in our arguments.)  Thanks much, Andy, both for doing the honor of reading and reacting in depth to the book, but also for doing it in this fashion.

Digital Media, Youth, and Credibility

The final book in the MIT Press/MacArthur series on Digital Media and Learning (well, final only in terms of my getting around to writing up a review of it on this blog!) is “Digital Media, Youth, and Credibility,” edited by Miriam J. Metzger and Andrew J. Flanagin. It’s not last because it is the least important or least good, but rather it’s the taken the longest time to think about it and its message.

The topic of credibility (and the related themes of information quality and access) is incredibly important — and also very, very hard to get a grip on. It turns out that my co-author on Born Digital, Urs Gasser, is among the world’s experts on this topic in law, so I was in luck. He did most of the research and drafting on our chapters on Quality and Overload. This work also bumps up against what we at the Berkman Center have been struggling with for some time in the context of old and new media and credibility, with our conference on Blogging, Journalism and Credibility and, more recently, the Media Re:Public project.

In their introduction, the editors start out with a summary of each chapter — abstracts, almost — which together serve as a helpful device for those readers who don’t hav the time or inclination to make it through the entire volume. Not suprisingly, the summaries are worthy and faithful to the articles themselves.

Together, the editors have also written a first chapter on opportunities and challenges in the context of online credibility. Their section on “Defining Credibility” and related context (pp. 7 – 9) is useful and could serve as a reference point for other articles on the topic. Their grounding, more generally, of credibility in the youth digital learning environment got me thinking hard about the power of the search algorithms (Google’s PageRank, of course, chief among them) and the impact that these engineering decisions have on what young people are learning and will be learning. A few people in the private sector may never have had such power over a key aspect of learning in history.

The second essay by Metzger and Flanagin also includes “a call to arms to researchers, educators, policy makers, and others concerned with these issues to understand how youth think about credibility in the digital media environment and to devise a plan to assist youth in finding and evaluating the information they need.” (p. 17) Sounds right, but also sounds like a huge challenge.

The summary finding from the editors that grabbed me the most: “Perhaps the most consistent theme across all these stakeholders is that digital technologies complicate traditional notions of hierarchies and authority structures.” (p. 18) Quite right: hierarchies and authority structures don’t go away, they are just shifted around, with new players in the mix. Hierarchy and authority aren’t gone, and won’t go, they’re just different, in ways we are only beginning to understand. (Hence, in my view, the growing importance of librarians and many forms of teachers.)

The book also includes a second “call to arms,” this time in favor of “teaching credibility assessment.” (p. 155) Frances Jacobson Harris notes, quite rightly, that “meaningful access to digital information resources and systems in schools is about much more than a physical connection to the Internet. Digital natives are not necessarily skilled or critical consumers of digital information. Many are still novices when it comes to searching, selecting, and assessing the meaning and value of the information they find.” (p. 155) This is one of the key themes that we explore in Born Digital, and which has previously been built out effectively by Henry Jenkins, Eszter Hargittai, and others. Overall, this essay is totally wonderful: clear, compelling, and with a great conclusion. (pp. 172-3)

David Lankes, in “Trusting the Internet,” offers a nice piece on what he calls “information self-sufficiency” and its implications. It’s well-grounded in the technology and the tools under development on the net. (See especially pp. 115 – 7) I liked this line: “Just like libraries used to produce pathfinders and annotated bibliographies, users will soon be able to find a piece of information, such as a Web site, and follow that information to all of the other public information used in a given conversation.” (p. 114)

One of the sub-themes in the DML series has been the overlay of health and information in the lives of young people. That theme is picked up here in Gunther Eysenbach’s piece on credibility and information related to health online. He introduces and evaluates an interesting model, called DIDA, on the flow of information online. (pp. 132 – 3) The punchline, as one might imagine, is that many people go first to the Internet and second to their doctor for health information today; and there’s still a rich mix of people who consider online information credible and those who are more likely to be skeptical of it (certainly squaring with our own research on young people and digital media, to be sure). (pp. 125 – 6)

Fred Weingarten of the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy concludes the volume with a constructive essay on the (limited) role of government in respect to the credibility of information online, which he summarizes into three easy-to-understand categories. (pp. 181 – 2)

So, we are left with two clear calls to arms, some helpful frameworks, and a huge challenge ahead of us. The answer, as unfulfilling as it sounds, has to be to work on critical thinking skills through the schools, libraries, and traditional modes of parenting and peer-learning. Though technology can help, it won’t solve the problems and it may bring about some new problems of its own; I don’t think there will be any short-cuts. But the pay-off of serious engagement on this topic could be enormous in terms of acess to information and new ways of teaching, learning, and engaging in civic life.

Thanks, so much, to the team that Connie Yowell and the MacArthur Foundation and MIT Press put together to develop this series of six books. What a rich resource the collection is, as bound volumes; free downloads; and directions for future research and leadership.

First Few Reactions to Born Digital

After about four years of planning, research, and writing, Born Digital officially came out this week. Urs Gasser and I have so many people to thank; we have been blessed with such great teammates and friends and helpful critics along the way. (Much of the work that the team has done is recorded, and will be updated, on the project’s web site, wiki, and so forth.)

I admit to being very sheepish about what comes next. Several people have sent kind emails that say, basically, “congrats on the book coming out and good luck with the promotion.” Thinking about “promoting” ourselves and our book (wrapped up, now, in our identity, as “authors”) makes me very queasy. I much prefer the idea of our participating in an ongoing public conversation about youth and media, a conversation that is well underway with lots of brilliant people involved. To that end, I’ve been thrilled to see the first three web 2.0-type reactions to the book.

– The Shifted Librarian comments — by photo! — on buying Born Digital for her Kindle. This is so fitting, and cool. (As I commented on her post, I got teased at a book talk at Google the other day that the Kindle edition was initially priced at over $20.00, which was more than the hard-cover cost of $17.00 and change; it’s since come down some.)

– I am grateful to the Librarians! Law Librarian blog has a post, which (justifiably enough, and in a mere few words; very economical) juxtaposes the marketing description of the book against what we actually say inside its covers; and,

– A brand-new friend — who contacted my via Facebook about his blogpost — JohnMac is wondering about where he fits into the scheme. I suggested that he is probably a Digital Settler, which is a fine thing to be, (and thought I’d point out this post, in which I responded to critiques from Henry Jenkins and danah boyd and others about the terminology we work with in the book). I have a feeling we’ll be doing a lot of explaining, and perhaps defending, these choices of terms — but that, it seems, is in fact part of the point!

Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion already, and looking forward to much more — some of it playing out in the public parts of cyberspace.

Katie Salen, ed., "The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning"

The first book that I read in the series of MacArthur/MIT Press’s Digital Media and Learning series was “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning,” edited by game designer and educator Katie Salen (open access version here). As with the other books in the series, it’s a very important contribution to the scholarly literature of a nascent field. (I’ve come back to Salen’s work just as Urs Gasser and I are turning in the final, final version of our forthcoming book, Born Digital.) “The Ecology of Games” is an excellent primer on where innovation is happening at the intersection between games and learning and where future avenues for research offer promise.

The first essay, Salen’s “Toward an Ecology of Gaming,” sets the frame for the collection. She recounts, helpfully, those things that “we” know already: “… that play is iterative as is good learning, and that gaming is a practice rooted in reflection in action, which is also a quality of good learning. We know games are more than contexts for the production of fun and deliver just-in-time learning, the development of specialist language, and experimentation with identity and point of view. We know games are procedurally based systems embedded within robust communities of practice. We know that video games and gaming have done much to shape our understanding and misunderstanding of the post-Nintendo generation, and hold a key place in the minds of those looking to empower educators and learners. Beyond their value as entertainment media, games and game modification are currently key entry points for many young people into productive literacies, social communities, and digitally rich identities.” (pp. 14 – 15) She ends her chapter with five unanswered questions, each worth reflecting and working on. (p. 15)

James Paul Gee‘s “Learning and Games” gives an overview of what “good game design” can “teach us about good learning” and vice-versa (p. 21). He offers these insights through what he calls the “situated learning matrix.” (pp. 24 – 31) The most illuminating part of his essay for me was the discussion of the ways in which young people form cross-functional teams within gaming environments — and his view of the excellent training opportunities these contexts could hold in terms of training them for workplace experiences. (p. 33)

In “In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives,” three authors (Reed Stevens, Tom Satwicz, and Laurie McCarthy) take up a great topic: “whether playing these games affects kids’ lives when the machine is off.” (p. 41) The key insight for me was the notion of identity: “… young people are indeed forming identities in relation to video games. The idea that they can do things in the game that they cannot do in the real world is only part of the story; the other half is that they hold actions that they control in-game in regular comparative contact with the consequences, and morality, of those actions in the real world. Actions in games, then, are a resource for building identities in the real world, occurring through a reflective conversation that takes place in-room.” (p. 62)

“E is or Everyone: The Case for Inclusive Game Design,” by Amit Pitaru, followed a different structure than most other essays in the series. It’s told as a story about the researcher’s time with students at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, NY, a “remarkable school” that “educates approximately 200 pre-K to twenty-one-year-old students with a variety of physical disabilities and medical needs.” (p. 68)

Through this narrative, Pitaru offers insights on many levels. The essence of the argument is that a lack of play among children poses dangers, many of which can be avoided through digital games when set in the proper context. Pitaru claims further that digital games “provide a viable complementary activity to existing mediated forms of play” for children with disabilities.” (p. 85) I wondered, at the end, how many educators would agree with Pitaru, and where other experimentation is happening.

Mimi Ito, as usual, offers an extraordinarily helpful essay. If you read any single essay from the DML series, read this one: “Education vs. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children’s Software.” The topic is genres of participation. She tells a story about “commercial children’s software, designed to be both fun and enriching, lies at the boundary zone between the resilient structures of education and entertainment that structure contemporary childhoods in the United States.” (p. 89) Ito gives an instructive history of the development of games for kids along with a genuinely useful analytical frame and a clear conclusion. She writes, “If I were to place my bet on a genre of gaming that has the potential to transform the systemic conditions of childhood learning, I would pick the construction genre.” (p. 115) Here’s to tinkering (and to Mimi’s great work).

In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost makes an intriguing argument in favor of “procedural rhetoric” via games. In his view, this approach could enable the questioning of the values behind certain professional practices instead of their blind assumption. (p. 130) I’m not sure I completely got his argument, but it was useful and provocative to puzzle it through.

Anna Everett, the editor of another volume in the series, and S. Craig Watkins offer a counterpoint to much of the rest of the book, exploring ways in which games and other immersive environments are not always socially productive. (p. 143) It’s a helpful reminder and a useful link to the DML series book on race.

The most interesting data that is presented in the book comes from the private sector: Cory Ondrejka, then of Linden Labs/Second Life and the Annenberg School (now headed to an exciting new job…), points out some usage statistics about SL in “Education Unleashed: Participatory Culture, Education, and Innovation in Second Life.” The most striking — and hopeful — figure was his note that 67% (sixty-seven percent) of respondents to a survey of Teen Second Life users “had written at least one program using the scripting language.” (p. 239) Of course it is a tiny sample (384) of self-selected young people, but the tinkering spirit that Mimi Ito highlights in her essay is alive and well in the people that Ondrejka heard from.

Barry Joseph, director of Global Kids, Inc., wrote the concluding essay on “treating games as a form of youth media within a youth development framework.” His notion of game design as an element of making meaning through the creation of structures is a great addition to the thinking on semiotic democracy that I think is so crucial in this literature. His theory is well-grounded in experiences he’s had with Global Kids, working with teachers and students and corporate supporters, which gives the piece an important series of links to reality that is often missing from our scholarly literature — without giving up the theoretical side.

Salen, Ito, Ondrejka, and Joseph’s essays, among others in the book, led me to a conclusion out of the book: in some contexts, great forms of learning may come for some students using well-designed games, primarily of the construction genre. There’s not yet sufficient evidence here, in my view, to turn over our entire educational system to games and virtual worlds, but there’s plenty to learn from what some young people are doing in these environments during school time and otherwise.

Daniel Solove's The Future of Reputation

The first book I’ve read in full on my Amazon Kindle is Daniel Solove‘s “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.” It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read since it came out; it did not disappoint. I was glad to have the joint experience of reading a first full book on the Kindle and of enjoying Solove’s fine work in the process.

Before I picked up “The Future of Reputation,” Solove had already played an important part in my own thinking about online privacy. The term that he coined in a previous book, “digital dossiers,” is a key building-block for the chapter of the same topic in Born Digital, which Urs Gasser and I have just finished (coming out in August). Solove advanced the ball in a helpful way, building on and refining previous scholarship of his own and that of Jonathan Zittrain, Paul Schwartz, Simson Garfinkel and others.

This book has the great virtue of being accessible to a reader who is not a privacy expert as well as being informative to those who know a good bit about it to begin with. Solove repeats a lot of lines that one has heard many times before (for instance, at the outset of Chapter 5, Scott McNealy’s line: “You already have zero privacy. Get over it.”), but also introduces some new ideas to the mix. It’s good on the theory, but it also offers practical policy guidance. He also poses good questions that could help anyone who wants to think more seriously about how to manage their reputation in a digital age.

One other thing I appreciated in particular: Solove is clearly a voracious reader and does an excellent job of situating his own thoughts in within the works and thought of others (variously Henry James and Beecher; Burr and Hamilton; Warren and Brandeis; Brin, Johnson & Post, and Gates) and in historical context, which I much enjoyed.

As for the Kindle itself: it’s fine. I don’t love it, but I also have found myself bringing it on planes with me lately, loaded up with a bunch of books that I’ve been meaning to read. So far, the battery life has been poor (might be my poor re-charging practices), so that the technology of the Kindle is sometimes less good than the technology of the classic book (which cannot run out of batteries in the middle of a long-haul flight, as my Kindle always seems to). The eInk is soft on the eyes; no problem there. The next and previous page functionality is fine, and the bookmark works pretty well. And FWIW, I’ve now got Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)” on there, which is up next for a review — as its premise cuts against the grain of Born Digital.  One advantage of the Kindle is cost, once you have device: the Solove and Bauerlein books cost a mere $9.99 each.

OpenLibrary.org

There’s enormous promise in the Open Library project, which we’re hearing about today at Berkman’s lunch event from Aaron Swartz. The idea is wonderfully simple: to create a single web page per book. That web page can aggregate lots of data and metadata about each book. In turn, the database can be structured to indicate very interesting relationships between books, ideas, and people. The public presentation of the information is via a structured wiki.

I’m most interested in hearing what Open Library thinks it needs in the way of help. They have a cool demo here. It seems to me that one way to succeed in this project is to combine what start-ups call “business development” with what scholars do for a living with what non-profits think of as crowd-sourcing or encouraging user generated content or whatever. There’s a lot that could be done if the publishers and libraries contributed the core data (should be in everyone’s interest, long-term anyway); scholars need to opt in an do their part in an open way; Open Library needs to get the data structured and rendered right (curious as to whether OPML or other syndicated data structures are in play, or could be in play, here); and human beings need to contribute, contribute, contribute as they have to Wikipedia and other web 2.0 megasites.

A note from a participant: “libraries resist user-generated cataloguing.” This seems to me a cultural issue that is worth exploring. We do need to balance the authority of librarians in with what the crowds have to offer. But I’m pretty sure it’s not an either-or choice, as David Weinberger makes clear through his work.

One thing that makes a lot of sense is their plan for supporting the site over time. The combination of philanthropy (at least as start-up funds, if not for special projects over time) plus revenue generated through affiliate links over time makes a lot of sense as a sustainable business plan.

One could also see linkages between Open Library and 1) our H2O Playlists initiative (hat-tip to JZ) to allow people to share their reading lists as well as 2) what Gene Koo and John Mayer at CALI are doing with the eLangdell project.

It’s not a surprise that the truly wonderful David Weinberger — I can see him blogging this in front of me — brought Aaron here today to talk about this.

Where I’m left, at the end of lunch, is with a sense of wonder about what we (broadly, collectively) can accomplish with these technologies, a bit of leadership, a bit of capital, good communications strategies, and some good luck in the public interest over time. It’s awe-inspiring.