Book Review: Tubes (A Journey to the Center of the Internet)

Andrew Blum’s journey to the center of the Internet, as he calls it, begins when a squirrel nibbles the wires of his house, shutting his online access of. This event sparks a years-long journey of curiosity to figure out how the wires all connect, and how data flows through the physical space of the world.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Blum brings us along with him. It’s a pretty fascinating ride, if a bit technical at times, as he researches, investigates, and visits some of the main hubs of the dispersed Internet, from data centers to undersea cables to spaces below buildings in urban centers to isolated rural places — all forging different kinds of connection so that when I hit “publish” on this blog post and you click to read what I wrote, the data flows rather seamlessly (or so it appears) through fibers, wires, and yes, tubes of light.

There are moments where Blum geeks out a bit too much for my tastes, but I understand why he goes into such descriptions about routers, packets and fibers. What I was more interested in is how he frames the flow of information with the physical aspects of the world — the way we can imagine data moving along the contours of our Earth, and the ways in which those same contours provide barriers of access, too.

Overall, though, Tubes gives the reader a fuller sense of the digital world — sparking some appreciation for the original design of a distributed networked space and for the rather fragile elements that make up what we mostly take for granted. Some hubs are monumentally important, and yet, as Blum describes them, neither as secure as one would expect nor as reliable as they could be.

I really appreciated these final thoughts of Blum, who seeks to humanize his research, and ground it in the world we live in, not the virtual one we imagine when we use our technology.

“What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.”

— from Tubes by Andrew Blum, page 268

Peace (flowing through us all),
Kevin

John Reminds Us: Sometimes, Old School is Still Cool

John Spencer often shares interesting videos and resources and insights about innovative practice, and he often reminds us that advanced technology and the newest gadgets aren’t alway what’s needed. Here, he reminds us that “vintage” works, too. and might have more and different value than online or technology-based activities.

He also lists a bunch of possibilities, from duct tape and cardboard to hacking board games to sketchnoting on paper  (and it appears this whole concept will form elements of an upcoming book on the topic).

Peace (reminding us of its reach),

Kevin

Changes Afoot for YouTube (What Kids Can and Cannot See)

If you are a teacher or school that oversees its own YouTube channel (like I do), you need to know that changes are coming for how YouTube deals with videos and children. This comes after YouTube and Google were at the center of legal action around children’s access to videos, and I think the changes will be helpful.

Read more – Jeff Bradbury does a good job of explaining these changes for educators (thanks to Sheri, for sharing Jeff’s post)

There’s been a bunch of pushback by YouTube content creators — those who make their money off advertising inside videos — about the changes, which are part of COPPA (the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requirements, but I am all for deeper protections for those viewers under the age of 13. If that’s going to be your main audience, then you better be doing your job on protecting those viewers.

The Federal Trade Commission has released some information about what kind of material is “made for kids” or not.

Peace (what we see is what we do),
Kevin

Book Review: Because Internet (Understanding the New Rules of Language)

Sometimes, when you come across a linguist — even if you love words and language — the insider-speech gets a little too much to bear. Not so with Gretchen McCulloch, whose book Because Internet (Understanding the New Rules of Language) is infused with focused curiosity, a sense of fun and academic research. Yes, it’s possible.

And what she is looking at is our fascinating times of what seems to be our ever expanding elastic language — where the immersive and social qualities of technology seem to be altering the ways in which we write and speak and communicate in different ways. As teachers, many of us know this just by listening and reading our students.

McCulloch notes a few times in her book that her examination here is merely a snapshot of the present, not a prediction of where language is going.

To the people who make internet language. You are the territory, this is merely a map. — from the dedication page, by Gretchen McCulloch

Still, it’s a fascinating dip into rippling waters.

What interested me the most was her look at the explosion of informal writing — particularly as she notes how social media and technology connections is tearing down the rules of formal writing, for informal communications (while formal rules still apply for formal writing) — and what she calls “typographical tone of voice” — a term that I love for its poetry.

In this section, McCulloch explores the expanded use of punctuation for meaning making, the use of font styles (no caps/all caps, etc), repeating letters for emotive resonance, abbreviations to connote kindness, the echoes of coding into our writing, the use of space between words and passages, and ways we project emotions and feeling into our writing when confronted with limited means.

I mean, wow. That’s a lot of intriguing lens on writing, and McCulloch navigates them all with a personable voice, a linguist’s ear for language, and a sense of both celebration and skepticism about what might or might not be happening with our language.

Later, she also explores memes and emoticons, and the way visual language is complementing written language, often in complementary and complicated ways. This book covers a lot of ground, but McCulloch is an able tour guide, pointing out the funny quirks as well as the emerging patterns.

Peace (written out),
Kevin

My Students and How They Use Technology: Survey Results

tech survey collage

Each year, for the past eight or nine years, I have given my sixth grade students a survey at the start of our Digital Life unit — as much to inform our discussions as to give me some insight into trends over time with an 11 year old audience.

This year, for example it’s a growing TikTok trend and a further devaluing of Facebook, with Instagram’s popularity also on the decline. Also, there are fewer reported negative experiences even as more students report adults talking to them about how best to use technology and digital media.

All this also helps me send forward resources to families and parents, as an encouragement to talk about and monitor technology use with their children.

This leads us to the first activity — The Internet Mapping Project by Kevin Kelly– and students are planning to share out today their artistic interpretations of how they envision their interaction with technology. I am always curious to see how they approach this prompt. Some go literal. Others, symbolic.

Internet Mapping Project template

Peace (becoming aware),
Kevin

#WriteOut: Giving Kids A Camera In Order to Capture The Wild

As the Write Out project kicks off today (and goes for the next two weeks, with the National Day on Writing right in the middle of it all), I wanted to share out a project I have had underway for a few weeks now, in which my sixth grade students have been going about their small suburban town “capturing the wild” with photographs. We aim to use the photos as part of a connection with another school, and for some writing this week.

You can view my podcast video here (via SoundSlides)

Peace (thinking it through),
Kevin

The TikTok Kids and the Social Media Dance

There’s a fascinating deep dive into the world of TikTok in The New Yorker magazine (technology issue) this week. If you don’t know what TikTok is, other than hearing the alliterative name on the lips of every adolescent and teen you come across, it’s a good place to start.

Read How TikTok Holds Our Attention by Jia Tolentino (one of my favorite writers!!)

Tolentino notes how the quick edited, and remixed, videos made in the Chinese-company-owned app cross language and culture (although not without some significant bumps in government regulatory filters at times); is music-based, for the most part; involves elaborate edits for laughs and humor; reminds some users of the now-dead Vine app; uses AI algorithms to feed your homepage with what it thinks you want to see; has the usual strands of racism, sexism and other negative elements that invade many social media spaces; is built on the backbone of Music.ly, which I do remember; and is perfectly geared to the short-attention population.

(Aside: if you wonder why I wrote ‘Chinese-company-owned app’, it’s because I do pay attention, as much as I can, to where companies originate from, as some countries and companies work more closely than others to gather data from users of technology. China is certainly one of those. Tolentino doesn’t dive into that particularly issue, so there’s no clear line from TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to the Chinese government, but she does bring forward the tension between the engineering division of the app that works in the US and the home offices in China, with one observer noting that the front office runs the show, despite any stated ‘independence’ of the US operations. So, always be wary of who has your data. You know that, right? Do our kids know that?)

And of course, there’s Lil Nas X and the hit song, Old Town Road, which was built and engineered purposefully on and for the TikTok community — short, funny, catchy — in hopes the viral nature would filter over into the larger music world. It worked.

I still know I need to learn more. (see TikTok trending videos)

Each afternoon, the students in my sixth grade classroom line up in groups, and some “do TikTok” as they say, and what they mean is that they act out the elaborate quick-edits of some popular TikToks, sort of like social media coordinating swimming but on concrete. I can only watch.

It’s strange, and funny, and weirdly elaborate, with foot moves and arm movements, and hand gestures, and short vocal phrasing. Given as I am not immersed in TikTok world, I have no anchor to know what it is they are even trying to emulate.

So imagine my surprise when a group of students informs me that we — they and me — will be making a TikTok at the end of the school year. This was not a question. It was a fact. I give a quizzical look and they all smile.

“Um. Ok. Maybe.”

In my head, three ideas rattle around:

  • Learn more about TikTok
  • Maybe TikTok will no longer be “the thing” in seven months
  • Time to brush up on my dance moves

Peace (sustaining your attention),
Kevin

Eyeing Our Way Across the News Spectrum

News Spectrum ExperimentOne of the news apps on my Android phone that I use every now and then — called SmartNews — presented me the other day with a view of a feature they are developing (maybe? it wasn’t clear) that shows news stories as seen across the politically-slanted media spectrum. There was a toggle at the bottom of the screen, and as you moved it, the news filters changed. The screenshot is a collage of me, moving the toggle from left to right, blue to red.

Now, how they determine which is which (which media leans blue and which leans red) wasn’t clear to me (it’s no doubt some algorithm, which brings up all sorts of thorny issues about bias and data mining), but I did find it interesting to view the headlines from news organizations in this manner. This particular day, we were in the mist of the dumb hurricane in Alabama story.

The New York Times used to do a feature that analyzed news from the Left and the Right, too, bringing in different voices through excerpts, but I don’t see it anymore, and that’s too bad. I enjoyed reading what my own political leanings normally would have had me avoid.

If we are ever to break out of these increasingly smaller bubbles, we’re going to need to see the larger world of political views.

I haven’t seen this feature in this news app return, so I don’t know if it is just a beta that I stumbled on or what.

Peace (in blue and red and in-between),
Kevin

 

Invasion of the Memes: The Rise of the VSCO Girl

What to make of this? Since the first day of school, I’ve been hearing references and seeing references to being a ‘VSCO Girl’ in some of my students’ work and discussions. I did a quick search, and found that VSCO is a photo filtering app, and when I asked one of my students if calling themselves a VSCO Girl was related to photography and app filters, they gave me a look of confusion.

So, eh, no, maybe not?

Yet, sort of.

Their own explanation of what VSCO Girls meant was confusing to me, something about scrunchies and hydro-bottles and clothes, and so I decided I needed to do a little more research.  Doing so uncovered this summer-long viral meme of the VSCO Girl that had been completely under my radar. (To be fair, I am a middle age white man with three boys)

Centered mostly on Tik Tok, but now moving over to Instagram and YouTube and SnapChat, being a VSCO Girl is related to how a girl perceives themselves, and apparently, certain products and clothing are key elements.

Another element of this is the saying and typing of “sksksksk” (which seems to stem from slamming fingers on the keyboard or keypad) and “And I oop.”  (A meme reaction people use to show surprise on social media.) VSCO stands for Visual Supply Co. – the business which invented the app that sparked the meme that fed the movement.

One site, StayHipp, described it this way:

A VSCO girl is someone who is active on the VSCO app and/or whose style matches the aesthetics of VSCO. This trend has grown to the extent that “VSCO” is used as an adjective to characterize something or someone who embodies a VSCO girl lifestyle.

The VSCO girl trend is largely based on owning a specific set of items including Birkenstocks, scrunchies, hydro flasks, metal straws, and anything from Brandy Mellville. Many of the items associated with the trend are brand-specific and may be pricy, but things like homemade friendship bracelets and oversized T-shirts are just as important to the trend as AirPods and Instax cameras are. Each individual has the power to put their own spin on this trend, whether it’s through their attitude, style, social media presence, or just the good vibes they radiate.

Most importantly, being a VSCO girl, or even just dabbling in the trend is about keeping a positive outlook and having fun! — via StayHipp

It then goes on to list all of the objects that a VSCO Girl might have, and the cost, and how to buy them.

  • Birkenstock shoes
  • Scrunchie hair ties
  • Hydroflask water bottles
  • Brandy Melville clothing
  • Instagram-able meals
  • Metal straws
  • Slip on Vans shoes
  • Choker necklaces
  • Multiple rings worn at once
  • Friendship bracelets
  • Polaroid cameras
  • Pastel nail polish
  • Mario Badescu skincare products
  • Fjällräven backpacks
  • Stickers on laptops and water bottles
  • Carmex lip balm

Which makes me think this is all part of some larger Product Influencer Campaign, to sell stuff to young girls by targeting their Girl Identity through social media. Which makes me wary of the trend, yet I’m amazed at how much the concept has filtered through my entire sixth grade classes in just a few weeks of summer. In a small activity yesterday, many tried to add sksksksks and I Oop into what they were writing. That includes boys as well as girls, which makes me wonder if the meme is turning into something else altogether.

A piece at Slate, in which the writer interviews some high school teenage girls, indicates that the whole VSCO Girl concept can be seen in two lenses — one way is that some girls view it as a connector point through social media, a way to “fit in” through style and choice, and another way is some girls see it as a way to mock the whole consumer-driven marketplace, making fun of the idea of products defining a girl. (And did you know there are not just VSCO Girls, but also Soft Girls and e-Girls?)

For the teens I talked to, most said being called a VSCO girl was a bad thing, something to be avoided. They were mixed on whether anyone would own up to being one or proudly proclaim her VSCO girl status, or any strong connection with it, to the world. — from Slate

Why do I have a sense that these two competing concepts of empowering girls and mocking girls, making its way over social media, are going to collide and the girls who just want to fit in are going to be the very ones who are going to get the most hurt?

How do I have a meaningful discussion about trends like this to give my students the ability to make decisions about social media and memes and empower them to question the viral nature of their world?

I suppose I can do that best by empowering them to be critical of the world, and to think on the power of real friendships, real connections, real people. I want the wonderful girls who spend their days in my classroom with me as writers and readers and members of our community to be true to themselves, and not just become some product of influence from the technology they use.

Peace (confused but trying),
Kevin

Originality Reports Sounds Rather Orwellian


blank dossier flickr photo by theilr shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I don’t blame Google for adding a plagiarism detector into its Google Classroom suite. I suspect teachers have been asking for such a tool, given the ease of cut/paste from outside sources and from each other, and the cost of other service that do the same job.

In fact, last year, a colleague of mine in an earlier grade was worried about some students with the exact same language in an essay for a public safety project. One had shared with the other, via a Google Doc, and some text lifting had occurred, apparently. Perhaps it was an act of friendship more than theft.

I have mixed feelings about the use of plagiarism tools, from an educational standpoint, even though I use Google Classroom regularly with my sixth grade students (but not exclusively Google Classroom … it’s good not to have everything run through Google, for privacy reasons and for experiential reasons). I also realize that high school teachers might have a different approach than I have, given the grade level I teach.

First, the Originality Reports function that Google will be rolling out with Google Classroom in the near future (see Google’s info page) has this Orwellian vibe to the language of its name, doesn’t it? But it’s catchy, too. I give them that. Originality Report.

According to the company, students will be able to check their own work three times against the search database, before submitting a piece of writing, and then teachers can do a check, too. There apparently will be also be a future option to create an internal database of student writing, to be used as a database.

Student work that has been scanned with the tool is not retained or owned by Google. We search for what’s publicly available on the web. In the future, we plan to add an option for schools to have a private repository of student submissions – that they own – so instructors can see peer-to-peer matches. — https://edu.google.com/products/originality/?modal_active=none

Despite Google’s public statement of who owns the student work in the database, I worry about this gathering up of student writing and wonder (again) who owns the words that young people write in a school-sponsored online space like Google Classroom. This issue of ownership of material surfaced with Turnitin, right? And it just sold for $1.75 billion dollars. Plagiarism detection and gathering student work is big business.

As a teacher, I often thoughtlessly assume that whatever my students write, the writing is theirs. They own it. Perhaps I am naive. In fact, I know I am. Anything a student writes for me in a school online space is, in fact, now part of the school’s technology infrastructure, and I suspect those words written, either for assignments or for pleasure, are now owned by the school district. It’s probably in the terms of service. And, well, there’s something unsettling about that, even though I don’t worry about my specific school district. At least, I don’t worry right now, under this school/technology administration.

Is that good enough? Or is that just convenient for me, the teacher?

This also reminds us, as teachers, that we need to be explicitly teaching our students about the use of text, of original ideas and borrowed work, of plagiarism in a Digital Age. We can’t let a technology tool replace the actual teaching, and in this age of accessible text, it’s never been more important to advocate for originality of ideas and writing.

Google’s move towards Originality Report project has surfaced some questions that I have probably avoided with myself in adopting Google Classroom, in terms of student ownership of their writing, and I’ll continue to grapple with it.

I suspect students, living as they do in the Age of Everyday Privacy Invasion, don’t even give this kind of thing a second thought. Which is sad and frustrating. And this reality makes me even more aware of my role as the adult teacher in the room of children, the educator bringing them into an online space for school. I have an obligation to be vigilant in protecting their privacy.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this?

Peace (thinking),
Kevin