Jaron Lanier: open textbooks "appalling and preposterous" | Opensource.com

Jaron Lanier: open textbooks "appalling and preposterous"

Posted 03 Mar 2010 by 

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Jaron Lanier is certainly getting his share of press lately.  His latest guest starring role: a rant in Monday's very special episode of L. Gordon Crozier's technology column for the Wall Street Journal.  Seems like Lanier is becoming a go-to guy when one is in need of a sound bite denouncing "free culture" in all of its radical and dangerous forms.

It's a perfect fit, too.  To the world of traditional media, Lanier must seem like the perfect spokesmodel: the dreadlocked visionary who has journeyed for years in the virtual wilderness, and has now returned to warn us of our horrible dystopian future, in which all the creative souls of the world must deliver pizzas because no one values their genius.  What we call a commons, Lanier calls "Digital Maoism".

Nothing new to us in the open source world -- although it's been a while since anyone called us communists.  With a straight face, anyway.

The latest vector of attack for the red menace: remixable textbooks. 

The dirty Maoists in question: Macmillan Publishing.  

Wait... what, now?

Apparently, Macmillan is going to give textbook remixing a try, with the launch of their new Dynamic Books platform.  It's pretty interesting stuff, actually.

It's clear that Macmillan is recognizing some important new opportunites as they venture into the world of online texts.  Professors are almost never happy with a textbook as it is written; many go so far as to write their own textbooks from scratch.  Allowing these professors to start more easily from someone else's otherwise strong base seems like a perfectly logical -- one might even say scientific -- method of extending and improving academic discourse.  These kinds of innovations are now possible in a digital world, in which the costs of producing atoms and delivering bits are finally, mercifully separated.

Lanier takes a somewhat dimmer view of Macmillan's new foray into textbook remixing.  Crozier tees it up for us:

Mr. Lanier's new book, "You Are Not a Gadget," rails against the Internet for promoting a "digital Maoism," in which "a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed." He says anonymous groups creating content lack the accountability of an individual. "If you're worried about history or science being politicized, a mashup will be even worse. Individual textbook authors are not perfect, but at least they have a voice with consistency and creativity."

What an oddly shrill response -- but a response that puts the nature of Lanier's misunderstanding in very sharp relief.

Find me any accepted open license, anywhere on Earth, in any language, that doesn't have an attribution clause as one of its central features.  

No, that's okay.  Don't waste your time, because there aren't any.

It's a classic logical fallacy: some mashups are anonymous, therefore all mashups are anonymous.  Which is, of course, utter nonsense.  In an honest-to-goodness actual digital commons, the notion of attribution is ingrained and enforced -- a reality quite removed from Lanier's vision, in which every professor is a potential saboteur, painting virtual moustaches on the Mona Lisas of scholarship, and the poor stupid sheeple of the world won't know the difference. 

Crozier clearly worries about this as well, although somewhat more diplomatically:

We have to wonder about the unintended consequences of a textbook absent an author. For example, since 1948 generations of students learned from Paul Samuelson's "Economics," which has sold four million copies. It had quirks and went through many editions. But it also was elegantly written and became canonical. What happens when students learn from what appears to be the same text but isn't?

Gee, that would obviously be terrible, wouldn't it?  A textbook absent an author!  Of course, none of these textbooks will be "absent an author" any more than emacs is absent Richard Stallman.  An authorless system would be to no one's benefit at all, which means that no one would stand for it.  In the academic world, in which appeal to authority is high art and plagiarism is felony, how can one entertain, even for a second, the ludicrous notion that some cow college econ professor might be able to get away with taking credit for Paul Samuelson's "Economics"?

It seems quite reasonable to imagine a digital verion of Samuelson on steroids, with Talmud-like commentaries by the greatest economic minds of the day, all very clearly labeled, with attractive and useful interfaces to differentiate between various interpretations.  The original work would always be the "upstream", and professors would be able to overlay digital "patches", clearly marked as such, to clarify this point or that point.  Such a work would be a tremendous boon to scholarship -- and would look suspiciously like the systems that open source developers have used to manage bits for many years now.

Near the close of the article, Mr. Crozier says "in the case of textbooks there should at least be transparency when the relationship between authors and students is amended. Readers should be able to know they've read the book the author intended or what changes were made and why."  

Amen to that.  We are in violent agreement.  Now, I don't know what model Macmillan will choose, so I can't speak for them -- but it's clear that they are very much following the open content playbook, and in the world of open content, this transparency is precisely the point.  What's truly "appalling and preposterous" is that the Jaron Laniers of the world would have you believe otherwise.

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25 Comments

RemyD
Open Source Evangelist

"... [a] vision, in which every professor is a potential saboteur, painting virtual moustaches on the Mona Lisas of scholarship"
lolz

Seriously though, Transparency is the key to scratching everybody's itch. I'm just as worried about vandalism as the next guy, but when we have revision control systems to provide change logs and 'git blame' for annotations, accountability will be built-in form the bit-level up.

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Rebecca
Open Source Champion

...that anyone would rail against open textbooks. Look at the current fiasco with Texas dictating the history and science textbooks for children across the country, and basically trying to re-write history through a partisan lens and alter science to fit a religious agenda.

Seems to me we could all benefit from a bit more collaboration and transparency in the textbook market.

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Colonel Panik

Remember the "doctors" those real MDs who did
TV ads for the tobacco industry? Or those sugar industry MDs?

Bah Humbug.

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Medbob

So, an individual professor will be able to replace something that is flat out wrong in a textbook? And this is a bad thing?

I also don't get it that it will be horrible that someone takes a great textbook like the economics textbook, and replaces some of the material (like the stuff quoted above as "quirks") with something that makes more sense to the person TEACHING the material.
Is this person saying that the (potentially) twisted fact that the hypothetical "eclectic" professor inserts into this hallowed text will actually be REMEMBERED by the hypothetical student a couple of years down the road? Get real!

More clueless analysts that make their money offering clueless opinions to the intelligent readership that clucks, and promptly turns to the next page. No wonder they are relegated to dead trees.

BTW... The Journal site prevented me from reading the whole fetid mess. I'm spared from the waste of minutes of my life!!!!

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Brotherred

I have been an active user of FLOSS for some years now and have attended an Ohio Linux Fest where I had a wonderful time of learning and talking with others. I have used many rpm based distros and am now on Mandriva. Though I started out my GNU+Linux experience with Red Hat 9 and then Fedora Core 3 to 6. I just last night read about all of the packages that come from Red Hat in that they are maintained or originally written for and by Red Hat.

While I love my GNU+Linux regardless of flavor and am excited about open culture I would not want my ignorance no matter how wanting on my behalf to become a pattern for textbooks and education.

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cgrams
Open Source Champion

I must admit, I spent a lot of time reading Jaron Lanier's work over the weekend. I wasn't familiar with him, and I stumbled across him first here, but then also when researching my Wikipedia article posted today on the business channel. In particular, this dialog from 2006 was pretty interesting-- him vs. some of the other leading thinkers on the subject of the Wikipedia "hive mind."

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html

I just put his new book on my Kindle, and will let you know what I think after I have read it. But in what I've seen, I don't think he is really "denouncing free culture"-- I think it is more subtle than that. I think he is warning us of some of the perils of attribution-less content (or attribution-light content).

I don't know where I stand yet, but I do think a conversation about content without attribution and accountability is a conversation worth having, even if it just helps me figure out what I think.

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gdk
Open Minded

...but he certainly doesn't help his case any by making dramatic and polemical statements.

Are there legitimate issues? There certainly are. Is hive mind an issue in Wikipedia? Oh yes indeed, it is. Is the legitimacy of attribution a concern? No question about it. But his implication that every commons, no matter how conservatively managed, devolves into the the kind of mess one sees in the worst corners of Wikipedia, is preposterous -- and actively damaging if people take his nonsense as gospel truth, because it happens to show up in the Wall Street Journal.

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Medbob

That problem is authority of sources. Wikis are unique in that you can drill down to determine the source, but on the surface you need to use critical thinking to sort out the probabilities.
The problem of quality, and managing that quality, is the ultimate problem. This problem has changed incumbency from the authoritative source to the consumer of the information. There are many folks that I trust as authoritative sources, but could Linus make a mistake in administering the Kernel? The answer to that is yes, so it's incumbent upon the consumer of information to confirm the quality of the information that they consume.

The type of people that will take the article as gospel because it's in the WSJ, are those who are willing to give up their fates to someone else's critical thinking. Those folks do a great disservice to their own minds, and the entire society as a whole. You must take responsibility for the things that you believe and how they got there!

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honestann

I have no problem with open-source software or projects or books or otherwise. But I do have a slightly different, albeit related, worry - which might be called "monopolization or control of topics".

I know some long-time climate researchers who cannot edit or add-to various "global warming" AKA "CO2-alarmism" topics on wikipedia, because their edits and additions are immediately removed by bought-and-paid-for advocates of the claim that normal human activity will destroy the environment via global warming. These criminals, who loudly claim the "science is settled", but refuse to allow any evidence or research to the contrary to be published anywhere they can intimidate or control, have utterly destroyed communication in one branch of science.

This is quite recognizable as modus-operandi of authoritarians, totalitarians, statists who wish to impose their schemes upon everyone - this time by imposing global totalitarian government justified by the "global problem" of so-called "global warming" AKA "climate change".

While I have no problem with open-endeavors, those involved must be very careful to establish a structure that prevents one side of any topic from limiting the views of others, just because they have very well-financed masters who will pay them to overwhelm open discussion. We DO NOT wish to limit their freedom of expression, but they most certainly DO take every action possible to limit our freedom of expression.

What is my opinion, without thinking very extensively about this problem? When anyone establishes open-endeavors, they should have clearly stated policies to prevent their work from being co-opted, destroyed or misdirected in the name of improvement. I suspect diligent, thoughtful moderation is sufficient, where the originator can remove inappropriate changes. Any modifications that are arguably worthwhile, but not deemed appropriate by the moderator, might be displayed elsewhere on the site/book with a note by the moderator why it was not allowed or included. Of course, malicious trash should simply be deleted.

So, perhaps a "middle ground" (which is a form of open-endeavor) has replaces "author" with "moderator" or "editor".

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Shocky

The suppression of alternate views in the (so-called) scientific community is nothing new. It's been going on since modern science began several centuries ago.

What generally happens is that a new generation of scientists make discoveries that prove some parts of the previous dogma to be wrong. This work is suppressed by the senior people in the field, because it challenges their position (and they get to do it because they are the "peer" reviewers for all the research articles). When the senior ones finally all retire, the new generation finally gets the chance to get their research out (the few who haven't given up and gone on to other pursuits). After a few years they become the senior ones suppressing the research of the new ones in the field.

In the long run the scientific method wins out or the pride and hubris of the individuals involved, and our understanding advances. But it takes place on a roughly 20 year cycle, an order of magnitude slower than it would if all scientists actually obeyed the principles that they claim to. But they are every bit has hypocritical as leaders in any other field.

As just a couple of examples, look at the history of the discoveries that RNA could be used instead of DNA as the genetic store for organisms, and that RNA could have enzymatic actions. There are easily hundreds of other examples that can be found.

The meritocratization of research in the digital age actually makes it harder for the suppression of new research and allows science to advance more quickly (but it also brings a lot more noise into the process, since all the crackpots can now publish too).

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honestann

You correctly describe the past ~100 years, and to some degree the past 400 years. However, throughout most of history, suppression was much more effective and long-lasting. Why? Presumably because authoritarianism was much stronger, and the better situation you describe more-or-less parallels the "enlightenment" where significant degrees of liberty and individualism co-existed with authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of evidence today indicates a global turn away from liberty and individualism, and back to authoritarianism. The implementation of "global government" is supported partially or fully by virtually every power-that-be today, and nonsense like CO2-alarmism is simply their latest rationalization to attempt to justify a worldwide return to top-down authoritarianism.

I have been a scientist my whole life, and I have seen a massive change in allocation of resources based upon political considerations. This might not be visible to most folks, but it is obvious to me from inside, where those who wish to research and test new or unpopular possibilities are thwarted in droves, and quite aggressively. Those who believe in honesty are forced out within a few years in a great many fields of science today. They "give in" and support the notions and projects favored by the powers-that-be, or they "give up" and move to another field they hope is more honest.

If the percentage of science funded directly and indirectly by government hadn't grown from "modest" to "overwhelmingly dominant" in my years as a scientist, I wouldn't worry so much, perhaps.

Incidentally, given the massively expanded influence of PR and scammery in the world of scientific funding today, the *opposite* problem from what you describe is just as common today - where totally bogus new "theories" are assigned the status of "the science is settled and other [older or different] theories will not be funded or tolerated". So, while you are correct in what you describe, the abuse now works in both directions. Also, as an aside, I do not accept that we must wait a generation or move forward on new possibilities. What happened to drawing inferences on the basis of merit - consistency and compliance with observational and experimental results? Then the bias of "old versus new" does not exist, because ideas and theories are given equal chances, and effort tends to be expended in proportion to merit - as honestly judged by each thinker.

Also, please do remember that virtually every massively important idea and theory is considered "crackpot" by a vast majority when it is first presented. So, while we all would love to be bothered less by "noise", we cannot trust anyone but ourselves to decide what IS noise.

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flipped

Namely, you seem to be confused about which opinions in the climate debates are "bought and paid for".

While you have -- at least in theory -- an excellent point, you're example is better suited for the counter-argument.

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honestann

I am fine with your post, because both of us seem to believe that ALL relevant data should be available to everyone, NO relevant data should be jiggered or withheld (the raw data must always be available as well as any "reduced" or "processed" data authors wish to publish), and no power, control or information-suppression games are played by either side.

If all information is revealed, we can both perform our due diligence upon it, and probably we will both draw the same inferences when we complete exhaustive analysis.

The problem is, when the vast majority of funding comes from entities with axes to grind, what we get is predatory behavior, not science. And when agencies of "world government" and "national governments" control the vast majority of funding through unlimited taxation and money-printing-out-of-thin-air, no balance of resources is possible, and those in control almost always think and act like politicians and authoritarians, not like objective scientists who "just want to understand, and don't care what is the result".

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cgrams
Open Source Champion

OK, I read Jaron's book, and have posted my thoughts in an article on the business channel today.
http://opensource.com/business/10/3/jaron-lanier-just-hater-or-should-we...

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Unidentified

You are right, Chris. Lanier is NOT denouncing free culture. That is a complete misreading. He is more steering us to keep all of our options open when it comes to the technology "lock-ins" we are incorporating, so that we don't limit ourselves as we progress in this evolving online world.

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fourcultures

Anyone who thinks the remix is not more important than the original source has clearly never read a TS Eliot poem or seen a play by Shakespeare. These 'borrowed' shamelessly, and were highly and enduringly original. There is no conflict between these.

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Katie

My problem is that this article is a personal attack on Jaron Lanier rather than a reasoned stand. It more or less says "I am right because Jaron Lanier is a moron?"

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Neal

What, virtual reality isn't paying the bills these days? He really made an impact on that field :-)
Nice to see he has a new gig.

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ale london

Collaborating to re/mix / re/write to personalise pedagogical methods and teaching styles!
Is needed! It can be done!
You seem to be interested in visiting http://kaizendo.org/
http://nxadm.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/dsc4322.jpg

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openuniverse

greg:

"Works under CC0 do not require attribution. When citing the work, you should not imply endorsement by the author." http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

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gdk
Open Minded

I stand technically corrected ...but does anyone actually consider CC0 a "creative commons license"? Does anyone use it? This is no different than simply putting something in the public domain.

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Kevin Gamble

I put CC0 on my blog. I care about the ideas, but could care less about attribution. If someone wants to claim them as their own-- so be it. Even though I may not know the origins of much of my writing I would never be so arrogant as to claim they are mine and mine along.

Kevin

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Kevin Gamble

I put CC0 on my blog. I care about the ideas, but could care less about attribution. If someone wants to claim them as their own-- so be it. Even though I may not know the origins of much of my writing I would never be so arrogant as to claim they are mine and mine along.

Kevin

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openuniverse

first of all, yes, people are using it. (i use it, and i've seen other people use it besides just creative commons, who have used it.) it's especially useful for data that goes into cc-licensed studies. and it certainly is a license, because it has to be.

in many countries it isn't possible for authors to put things into the public domain, or to use things put into the public domain (except by time limit) unless there is a license. cc0 is such a license, a license that takes the concept of the public domain and makes it more universal. very useful, rather new and not very well known.

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Unidentified

"accepted open license, anywhere on Earth, in any language, that doesn't have an attribution clause as one of its central features"

Given that you're writing on opensource.com, I'm surprised at your all-or-nothing statement above. Besides CC-zero as noted above, at least two well known open source licenses (BSD and
MIT) don't have attribution clauses.

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Greg DeKoenigsberg is the Vice President of Community for Ansible, where he leads the company's relationship with the broader open source community. Greg brings to Ansible over a decade of open source product and community leadership, with the majority of this time spent building and leading communities for open source leader Red Hat. While at Red Hat, Greg served in various community leadership roles, including senior community architect, leader of the Fedora project, chair of the first

What is open education?

Hacking computer science education at Khan Academy