Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘activism’

09 MARCH, 2012

Introducing The Curator’s Code: A Standard for Honoring Attribution of Discovery Across the Web

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UPDATE: Some thoughts on some of the responses, by way of Einstein.

UPDATE 2: This segment from NPR’s On the Media articulates the project well — give it a listen.

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.” ~ Ray Bradbury

You are a mashup of what you let into your life.” ~ Austin Kleon

Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

As both a consumer and curator of information, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the architecture of knowledge. Over the past year, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about a fundamental disconnect in the “information economy”: In an age of information overload, information discovery — the service of bringing to the public’s attention that which is interesting, meaningful, important, and otherwise worthy of our time and thought — is a form of creative and intellectual labor, and one of increasing importance and urgency. A form of authorship, if you will. Yet we don’t have a standardized system for honoring discovery the way we honor other forms of authorship and other modalities of creative and intellectual investment, from literary citations to Creative Commons image rights.

Until today.

I’m thrilled to introduce The Curator’s Code — a movement to honor and standardize attribution of discovery across the web.

One of the most magical things about the Internet is that it’s a whimsical rabbit hole of discovery — we start somewhere familiar and click our way to a wonderland of curiosity and fascination we never knew existed. What makes this contagion of semi-serendipity possible is an intricate ecosystem of “link love” — a via-chain of attribution that allows us to discover new wonderlands through those we already know and trust.

The Curator’s Code is an effort to keep this whimsical rabbit hole open by honoring discovery through an actionable code of ethics — first, understanding why attribution matters, and then, implementing it across the web in a codified common standard, doing for attribution of discovery what Creative Commons has done for image attribution. It’s a suggested system for honoring the creative and intellectual labor of information discovery by making attribution consistent and codified, celebrating authors and creators, and also respecting those who discover and amplify their work. It’s an effort to make the rabbit hole open, fair, and ever-alluring. This not about policing the Internet from a place of top-down authority, it’s about encouraging respect and kindness among the community.

Together with my design and thought partner on the project, the infinitely brilliant and hard-working Kelli Anderson, and with invaluable input from my wonderful studiomate Tina of Swiss Miss fame, we’ve devised a simple system that any publisher and curator of information can use across the social web and on any publishing platform.

The system is based on two basic types of attribution, each shorthanded by a special unicode character, much like ™ for “trademark” and for © “copyright.” And while the symbols are a cleaner way to do it, you may still choose to credit the “old-fashioned” way, using “via” and “HT” – the message here is not about how to credit but simply to credit.

stands for “via” and signifies a direct link of discovery, to be used when you simply repost a piece of content you found elsewhere, with little or no modification or addition. This type of attribution looks something like this:

stands for the common “HT” or “hat tip,” signifying an indirect link of discovery, to be used for content you significantly modify or expand upon compared to your source, for story leads, or for indirect inspiration encountered elsewhere that led you to create your own original content. For example:

In both cases, just like the words “via” and “HT,” the respective unicode character would be followed by the actual hotlink to your source. For example:

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One reason we’re using unicode characters is that we we wanted the symbols themselves to be a kind of messenger for the ethos of the code — the character is hotlinked to the Curator’s Code site, which allows the ethos of attribution to spread as curious readers click the symbol to find out what it stands for.

This is where it gets interesting. With generous help from my studiomates Cameron and Jonnie, we’re offering a bookmarklet that lets you easily copy-paste the unicode characters for use in any text field, from a tweet to your blog CMS. Just drag the bookmarklet to your bookmarks bar and click it every time you want to attribute discovery, then click your preferred type of attribution and watch the unicode magically appear wherever your cursor is in a text field. Add the actual hotlink to your source after it like you normally would.

See it in action:

If you’re a publisher, you can also grab the Curator’s Code badge pack to display your support, and sign the public pledge to join the ranks of supporting sites.

As for the design, Kelli — as much a designer as a visual philosopher — came up with this beautifully meta concept, where we display famous quotes related to attribution in a parallax rabbit hole of sites on which they actually occur, layered in the order of source attribution. Hovering over the hole makes the parallax shift before your eyes, as if the Internet is burning a hole of discovery through your very screen. In Kelli’s words:

Maria spoke about attribution less as an obligation and more as an enabler of deep, surprising (and perhaps infinite) voyages through information. Through linking, the Internet connects disparate sources in a way that no other medium has before — effectively creating these meta-narratives of discovery. Maria called them ‘rabbit holes.’ With that one phrase, I knew that the site should demonstrate pathways of attribution by (literally) poking a hole in the Internet to glimpse the pathways of attribution beyond.”

Here’s to a new dawn of keeping the Internet’s whimsical rabbit hole of information open by honoring discovery like the creative and intellectual labor that it is.

Questions? See the FAQ section.

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09 MARCH, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate on the Spirit of Exploration

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On the heroism of curiosity, or what The Little Prince can teach us about longing for infinity.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently made a chill-giving case for the whimsy of the Universe, is among our era’s most articulate advocates and storytellers of science. On March 7, Tyson testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the economic, social, and cultural benefits of space exploration — an urgent message at time when space funding is at an all-time law and Carl Sagan’s vision lives on only as a poetic lament.

Tyson opens with a beautiful quote from French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, better-known as the author of The Little Prince — a philosophy treasure chest all its own:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Any nation, any time, has the capacity to create a hero. It just has to have ambitions with goals set.

[…]

If people see NASA as a charity agency for the satisfaction of some engineers and scientists, they are not understanding the actual growth NASA has played in the growth of this nation — and the economic growth of this nation.

[…]

The pathway from the investment to the return on the dollar takes a little longer than an elevator ride to explain… Innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed, the culture of innovation spills over. Everyone feels like tomorrow is something they want to invent and bring into the present. That’s the culture that so many of us grew up with, and that’s the culture that so many of us who read about it want to resurrect going forward. Without this, we just move back to the caves.”

So what happened between the golden age of space exploration, when the design of the spacesuit was a feat of cross-disciplinary ambition and excitement oozed even from the ad pages of science magazines, and today? When did we forget that infinity beckons? Perhaps Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said that the universe is made of stories, not of atoms, but the stories we tell about those atoms are the fabric of our understanding, our culture, and our society. Without cosmic storytellers like Tyson, the universe would contract into a ball of anthropocentricity — next thing we know, we’re back to believing the Earth is the center of the universe.

Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, isn’t merely an eloquent case for space exploration — it’s an intelligent and necessary manifesto for rekindling an infinitely important torch of human curiosity.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2012

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Adam Curtis on How Technology Limits Us

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What Ayn Rand has to do with the Occupy movement.

Documentarian Adam Curtis is among our era’s most influential cultural storytellers, with a penchant for debunking the established order of beliefs and ideologies. In The Century of the Self (2002), he traces the origin of consumerism and how Freud’s theories shaped twentieth-century manipulations of public opinion, from politics to marketing; in The Power of Nightmares (2004), he explores the rise of the politics of fear; in The Trap (2007), he examines the concept and evolution of freedom and the simplistic models of human nature on which it is based. His latest BBC documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, premiered last May, mere months before the global Occupy movement erupted, and paints an infinitely intriguing, though in my view wrong on many counts, portrait of technology as a limiting, rather than liberating, cultural and political force. The title of the series comes from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, in which he envisions a world of cybernetics so advanced that the balance of nature is restored and there is no need for human labor.

Though the film has strong techno-dystopian undertones akin to the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock series of the 1970s and neglects how technology enables such powerful phenomena like networked knowledge and crowd-accelerated learning, it offers a dimensional context for many of our present political, economic, and technological givens. Coupled with Curtis’s signature immersive storytelling and exquisite use of historical materials, rare footage, and revealing soundbites, the series is an invaluable primer for much of today’s most pressing sociocultural issues.

The first part, titled Love and Power, deals with how Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism shaped the ethos of Silicon Valley in the 1990s and, eventually, the global economy as Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton set out to create the New Economy, based on the premise of a dramatic rise in productivity thanks to emerging information technology. Curtis, however, goes on to argue that instead of creating market stability, these Randian ideals constricted people into a rigid system with little hope of escape.

We are now living through a very strange moment. We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite — that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”

Part two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, explores how technology cornerstones like cybernetics and systems theory were, Curtis argues, falsely applied to natural ecosystems and used to develop unrealistic models for human beings and societies. The episode has particularly timely resonance, in light of the recent global Occupy movement, as Curtis argues that such self-organizing network models without central control might be good at organizing change, but are less effective in what comes after.

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions showed the limitations of the self-organizing model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power. The hippies took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics. They believed that this alternative way of organizing the world was good because it was based on the underlying order of nature. But this was a fantasy. In reality, what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines. Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organizing principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age. And what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas as to what comes next. And, just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”

The final part, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, examines the selfish gene theory of evolution, developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Curtis traces how this applied to everything from the civil war in Congo and the Rwandan genocide to George Price’s quest for the origin of altruism to Dawkins’ atheist reformulation of the religious idea of the “immortal soul” as a computer code in the form of genetic patterns. Curtis concludes by asking whether, in accepting these views of humans as machines, we as a culture have disempowered the human spirit.

Hamilton’s ideas remain powerfully influential in our society — above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes. But, the question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences?… We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.”

Curiously, Brautigan’s original collection of poems, which inspired the film title, was intentionally distributed for free. The Curtis documentary, on the other hand, remains largely (legally) unavailable online and nearly impossible to legally see outside the U.K., as if a stubborn and enforced metaphor for the very thing it argues.

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