Blown To Bits

Archive for November, 2009

Is Wikipedia Getting Middle Aged?

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Wall Street Journal (story here; subscription needed) reports that Wikipedia is losing editors faster than it is recruiting new ones. Since about the beginning of 2008, departures have exceeded arrivals in the corps of volunteers who contribute to Wikipedia and scour it for accuracy–or in some cases, opportunities for petty vandalism.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on, and the Journal raises several possibilities without claiming it knows what is true. The original editors have been at it for almost a decade; perhaps they have burned out. Perhaps all the easy and interesting stories have been written; there isn’t much new to say about Crime and Punishment within Wikipedia’s stylistic strictures. (In fact if you check that entry’s history, it was modified only 10 days ago, but only to reverse some act of vandalism.) Can it be that from the standpoint of the totality of human knowledge, Wikipedia editing has now reached a state of diminishing returns? Also, perhaps, it is not so much fun as it used to be; there are more rules to follow, and more people checking on your edits, than there used to be.

It’s an important question. Wikipedia is one great success of crowdsourcing, of a useful artifact produced using the lunatic fringe of democratic participation. What if the model is unsustainable after awhile, because at some point there are more people who have their fun as trolls than there are as builders?

Newspapers and Universities

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Chronicle Review — the longer-format magazine that occasionally accompanies the Chronicle of Higher Education — is this week about the decline of journalism. One of the pieces asks a number of scholars whether the decline of the news media had important implications for universities. Here is a link to the answers — including my own. I decided to take a rather utilitarian tack — that universities will become even more mysterious and mistrusted institutions if we don’t have journalists touting our good works every now and then. There are lots of interesting answers to the question — I agree with my colleague Jill Lepore’s characterization of students, by the way. And she is not the only one worried about the increasing superficiality of thought, and the increasing difficulty in encouraging people to drill down and think deeply (see Ted Gup’s, for example).

The Bookmaking Robot

Friday, November 6th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I have been negligent in not commenting on the Harvard Book Store’s marvelous print-on-demand engine, dubbed Paige N. Gutenborg. For those of you in the area, the store is right across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Yard, and the press is right ¬†on the main floor — just keep walking straight ahead to the back of the store. In a few minutes, you can have any public domain book printed that is available via Google Books. Some copyrighted works are available too, but the big buzz is over the access to copies of old books, many in foreign languages, of which only a few libraries may have copies. What you get is just what you want — a printed book, on good paper, bound and trimmed, and with a full-color soft cover in the original design. The machine prints, binds, and trims, in only a few minutes. And for only $8 per book.

While I was watching this process a couple of days ago, the book being printed was an old French text — a professor had ordered copies for his class. A nearby shelf has a variety of other samples.

The first book printed on this press was a copy of the first book printed in North America — the 1640 hymnal, The Bay Psalm Book. In a wonderful loop of history, it had been printed in Cambridge, only steps from where the Harvard Book Store printed the copy 369 years later.

Paige is fascinating to watch. Even more than its (her?) marvelous automation, it is simply energizing to witness the bits, coming from heaven knows where, becoming atoms in front of your eyes. The imagination runs wild. Maybe, if I ever move, I’ll just throw all my books out and have new copies printed of anything I discover I actually want. I can’t find half the books I own anyway. If you don’t like that fantasy, come up with a better one of your own.

I have to congratulate Jeff Mayersohn, the president of the store. He has seen independent book stores die, one after the next. Even the Harvard Book Store, which offers outstanding service and a knowledgeable staff and is operating in a book-loving community if any such still exists, must have felt threatened. He’s decided to make the technology work for him rather than kill him. Good for him and good for the store. I wish them the best.

Bonus for those of you able to drop in: the trimmed edges are there for the taking. They are bound booklets of blank pages, an inch or so tall and six or eight inches wide. Kids can create their own books by writing or drawing on the pages. How neat is that?

What Google has on you

Friday, November 6th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Google has released a dashboard tool that makes it easy for you to review all the settings and preferences you’ve provided for the various Google products you use (Docs, YouTube, Gmail, etc.). The short video here shows you how to access it. (Basically, pull down the Settings menu in the top right of the Google home page, select Google Account Settings, and then select Dashboard and log in a second time.) It’s a bit sobering to see what you’ve told Google about yourself, and what documents of yours Google has, all in one place.

Of course, Google actually knows a lot more about you, or may, than what you’ve said in response to the various invitations it has given you to fill in forms. The Dashboard doesn’t reveal what Google may have concluded about you by retaining and analyzing your searches, for example. You can observe a lot by watching, as the great Yogi Berra said and Google knows better than anyone. The Dashboard gives you no information or control about the privacy threat from inferred data rather than explicit question answering.

For more, see the ComputerWorld article.