COB-55: hanging on

squirrel hiding in tree

If you want to achieve a twenty-five-year service pin from your bureaucratic organization, you’ve got to learn to hang on.  When you sense danger, get down low in your branch and cling to your position.  Occasionally, cautiously, raise you head and scan your surroundings for signs of activity.  If you see any, quickly get prone and motionless.  Hope that no one detects signs of life.

Beware of innovative, entrepreneurial tree-shakers.  Wrap your tail around a sturdy part of the organization so that if you’re temporarily dislodged from your position, you can pull yourself back to where you were.  Realize that they may try to starve you out.  If you have to eat your nuts to keep your position, do it without regret.  In the normal operation of a bureaucracy, having nuts just creates problems.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Brad Stone reports in Bloomberg Businessweek that Larry Page and his senior associate divisional deputies are trying to root out bureaucracy at Google.  We trust that Googlers will be able to search out and find this page so that they will know how to respond.

In the past, few have recognize the importance of bureaucracy for the Internet.  But this sad situation is rapidly changing.  W3C (the World Wide Wide Consortium) is a first-rank bureaucracy that plays a critical role in the development of the Internet.  Tremendous controversy has recently emerged around the W3C’s HTML5 logo.  In GigaOM, Bobbie Johnson reports:

the HTML5 [logo] fiasco is a reflection of the W3C’s own feelings of inadequacy. It has always struggled with its image as a huge, sprawling bureaucracy that can’t make decisions.

Of course, discussing logos is more important than making decisions.  The root problem here is that W3C is being made to feel inadequate because it is a bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats and bureaucracy are subject to continual disrespect, insults, and vituperation. We suggest that the W3C establish a new DNS standard such that HTTP 404’s are automatically redirected to the Carnival of Bureaucrats. This new standard would help to educate Internet users about the importance of bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats often use a professional language known as bureaucratese. Utilization of bureaucratese has a characterization of specialization in its administration by bureaucratic organizational functionaries. Contemporary scientifically oriented research scholarship has documented that word-length extensiveness is correlated with informativeness, thus providing justification for the professionalization of bureaucratese in efficiency-oriented bureaucratic organizations.[*]

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

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[*] See Piantadosi, Steven T., Harry Tily, and Edward Gibson. “Word lengths are optimized for efficient communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1012551108 (2011).  Here’s some discussion of this article.

the value of college in the Internet era

Students, families, and societies are making large investments in college education.  In the U.S., about 41% of persons ages 25 to 34 years old have completed a two-year or four-year college degree.  Another 19% of persons in those age groups have taken some college courses but have not received a degree.[1]  These statistics indicate that a majority of young adults today have spent at least some time in college courses.  Probably more than half have spent more than a year in college.  While younger persons have a lower work-income opportunity cost of college years than do older persons, they have a greater opportunity cost of future returns from foregone learning and experiences that are more valuable than college. The investment of young persons’ years in college is a significant investment both individually and socially.

The direct financial investment in college is also substantial.  The sticker price of some elite private colleges in the U.S. now exceeds $50,000 per year, and the state-resident sticker price for some state universities exceeds $20,000 per year.  Colleges, however, engage in person-specific price discrimination through high sticker prices and individualized financial aid.  Financial aid packages include both direct price reductions (scholarship grants) and student loans (which have a significant default rate).  Good statistics apparently aren’t available on the net average paid cost per year of college.  It’s probably above $10,000 per year.

College is a good institution for young persons.  Many colleges offer students the opportunity to get away from their families and hang out with other young persons.  College cafeterias usually offer unlimited quantities of food.  Being at college tends to improve opportunities for sex. College also offers the opportunity to gain a life-long tribal affiliation similar to that of dedicated sports fans.  Most significantly, young persons cannot get parental, institutional, or governmental funding for non-collegiate activities such as living in a different culture, working on starting a new company, or dedicating oneself to excelling in an activity or sport.  A young person’s alternative to college is usually a paying job.  College easily is more appealing to a young person than is getting a job.

But college courses have relatively little value as sources of knowledge in the Internet era.  College courses typically are organized around a subject designation and classes where the professor stands in front and professes knowledge to the students.  Students, however, have ready access on demand to a vast repository of knowledge via the Internet. Except for highly specialized cases, the professor’s knowledge surely is less comprehensive, less readily accessible, and less current than knowledge freely available on the Internet.

Students’ motivations to learn have little effect on the shape of the college courses that they take.  A college course is set in a syllabus before students start out on it. The course typically responds relatively little to students’ interests and questions while traversing it.  Students usually foresee applying their college-gained course knowledge in far distance years and uncertain circumstances. In contrast, adults seeking to solve new and pressing problems are strongly motivated to follow promising learning wherever it leads.  This personal, problem-driven learning implies a more propitious learning course than do college courses.

The classes that make up courses usually don’t have good learning mechanics.  Some highly motivated students vigorously and diligently attempt to write down everything that the professor says.  Other students take notes more desultorily.  The exercise of note-taking tends to detract from active listening and thinking.  Students are subject to uniform exercises and tests.  That uniformity penalizes diversity in ways of learning and types of intellectual mastery. Course credits and grades signal that students have finished the course and have been sorted into an authoritative order of success.[2] Because knowledge and skills of students are not measured at the beginning of courses, course grades typically have little relation to learning.

Academic institutions traditionally have claimed to offer valuable meta-knowledge: courses of whatever subject teach students how to learn.  But since most learning outside of college will take place with Internet tools that involve experiences much different from taking college courses, colleges’ claims to teach students how to learn aren’t credible.  That’s particularly true in courses with professors suspicious of Internet tools such as Google, Wikipedia, and various online fora.[3]

Colleges can have enduring intellectual value by inspiring in students love of learning and joy in learning.  Motivation to learn is not just a matter of internal spark or external pressure.  It’s also an acquired pattern of life.  Professors who radiate interest and joy in study of their subjects testify to this pattern of life.  An institutional environment that celebrates achievements in learning orients persons to learning.  Having peers available for sharing knowledge encourages learning.  For colleges to have intellectual value, academics must be fun.

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[1] See U.S. 2011 Statistical Abstract, Table 227.  These data are for the year 2009.

[2] Some students spend most class time flirting, playing with gadgets, talking, or sleeping.  Since by reading books and borrowing notes students can do well on tests without paying attention in classes, some professors base some share of the final grade on class participation.

[3] For recent empirical work evaluating college students’ acquisition of general intellectual skills, see Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  This study does not consider the changing technological circumstances of learning.

what makes a book

What makes a book is its binding.  The binding implies a linear order of text and turning pages.[1]  A book is a slow, regular, rhythm of new textual images that plays out a story. A book is a filmic projection of text, run in slow motion.

Turning pages isn’t the same as scrolling.  Scrolling is an undressing.  Scrolling is a gradual revelation of a form behind the text.

Book paging is likely to remain an important form in electronic works.  Web pages usually are not book pages, because web pages do not have a fixed frame.  They often have different sizes and require scrolling. The movement from web page to web page is typically ad hoc.  E-readers for electronic books, in contrast, support book paging.  This paging will give books enduring meaning in electronic media.

A bound order of book pages is likely to remain an important form in electronic works.  A beginning and an end characterizes human lifetime.  A narrative arc makes a story memorable and shareable.  Electronic works make possible forms that incorporate user choices and random effects, e.g. virtual worlds and games.  Such works, while popular, will not replace within electronic media a bound order of book pages.[2]

Reference books will cease to exist in electronic media.  Codices allowed more efficient random access than did scrolls.  Electronic databases allow more efficient random access than do codices.  Where random access is the primary attribute of use, books have no meaningful electronic future.

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[1]  In an unpublished MLA presentation in December, 2006, Peter Stallybrass asserted that the book binder makes a book.  For discussion and related thoughts, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007), “CommentPress: New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts,” Journal of Electronic Publishing, v. 10, n. 3, DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0010.305

[2] While the electronic future of a bound order of book pages seems secure, traditional book publishers face a difficult future.

the bigger project in social networks

pedal-powered plane

Like the propensity to truck and barter, the propensity to compete for status is common to all humans.  The latter propensity can be found in many other animals as well.  Twitter succeeded as least in part by providing humans with all the status-jockeying opportunities of blogging while requiring much less ancillary work.

But apart from status seeking, humans also naturally respond to opportunities to participate in a bigger project.  Wikipedia is a wonderful example of this human propensity.  A key issue for new social networks like Quora is the bigger project.  Quora attempts to offer a bigger project, but whether it will succeeded in doing so is still an open question.  If answering questions becomes just a game of status seeking, then services that provide such opportunities more efficiently are likely to prevail.  If answering a question is structured well as a bigger project, it can elicit a greater range of human behavior than just status-seeking.  The same fundamental issue is relevant to all other social networks.

Update: political effects of Wikipedia’s bigger project