That Old Anonymous Web

People are jerks.

At least you might think that if you ever spent any time reading through the comments section of any online article that have a decent readership. People harass one another, start arguments by nitpicking silly iota, and inevitably, someone brings up a comparison to Hitler.

I used to think folks were so crummy to one another because of a sociological phenomenon wherein people act worse when they feel anonymous – as though no one is going to catch them. As researcher Philip G. Zimbardo states:

You minimize social responsibility,” he explained. “Nobody knows who you are, so therefore you are not individually liable. There’s also a group effect when all of you are masked. It provides a fear in other people because they can’t see you, and you lose your humanity.

I reasoned that, since people are fairly anonymous on the Internet – I mean, who uses their real name for chat forums? – we all unleash some of our inner nasty.

And everyone used to talk about the web being an anonymous place – the Wild West. You can learn anything, do anything, be anybody. No one had to know what you were up to. It was amazing.

However, we no longer think of the web as anonymous. In fact, it is largely the opposite: the web is a gigantic big-government deployed tracking device. It is unstoppable, unrelenting, and everywhere. It knows where you are now, where you were yesterday, what you bought, what you wrote (or spoke!) to whom, and even does a fair job predicting what you will want and say and where you will be tomorrow.

Google Tracking me

That’s a tad unsettling. But we’ve digested it wholly because, hey, who doesn’t want a super computer in their pocket that can recommend the best carnitas taco within 1.3 miles of my current location!

The web has indeed transformed from this great big anonymous landscape into the all-knowing eye. That does not have to be bad, I guess? But knowing people and bureaucracy, it probably is.

Ongoing, the movement afoot is to opt out of the web – not cut the cord but to use only non-traceable, encrypted devices and software packages. It is doable, but difficult and cumbersome. And even that does not defeat the growing list of municipal “real world” cameras tracking vehicle license plates and pedestrian traffic. Sure, there is this wild jacket. But what about a warm sunny day? Is there photo bomb lotion so we can go without the coat?

Not everyone minds being tracked. But many will continue to stand firm in the effort against vastly well-funded resources – both private and federal – that bend towards knowing, hoarding, and tracking information.

All that data – about each of us on the granular level and meta level. Here we are, countless numbers of us without a plan or clue about who we are or what we want out of life. A little ironic.

The web is no longer wild and free. It is no longer anonymous, despite whatever efforts we deploy.

Oh, and you know, people writing about Hitler in the comment sections are still jerks. Now we just know who they are in real life.

Huts and Micro/Tiny Houses in the 23rd Century

There was this earthquake on 25 April 2015, and disaster struck. 7,000 people were killed and 450,000 displaced.

A buddy of mine was showing me photographs from a tiny village that was leveled. He explained that the residents can rebuild their stone huts by hand, but need money to get the sheet metal roofs. Metal roofing materials have to be brought in from a large city nearby.

Another buddy of mine is running a program here in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, that trains ex cons in the building trade and gets them working alongside certified union craftsmen, paid, and busy. They are construct micro housing, sometimes called “tiny houses”. Huge demand — buyers are already lined up out the door.

It didn’t escape me that our descendants may look back on our era in Western culture as a time of indulgence. A time when we were so wealthy and idle that we could build trendy tiny homes as fashionable expressions of taste and preference (towards meaningful outcomes, certainly, but still these are self-elected). A time when we have the technology and labor force and industry to construct tiny modular homes that will be energy efficient and weatherized and comfortable.

A time when our fellow humans toil in the aftermath of a horrendous earthquake to rebuild by hand, stone by stone, their rock huts while awaiting on the generosity of strangers to help them buy the corrugated tin roofing from the next town over.

I know it would be a logistical nightmare to ship tiny houses to Nepal. I know their are geographic and political and cultural reasons why it just is not practical for the tiny houses we build in Pittsburgh to house earthquake victims in Nepal. And I know it is expensive, to boot.

But I also know how history reads —and I’ve spent my fair share of time being a Monday Morning Quarterback. Just as that phrase will lose meaning, so too will all of our excuses for why and how much and this and that. What our descendants will stand witness to as they read about our position in history is that there was a time when we had the technology, and we had the ability, and we had the leisure, and we had the money, and in Pittsburgh, we had the tiny houses.

But in Nepal, after a horrendous earthquake, they still had tiny stone huts that had to be rebuilt, brick by brick.

rock pile and tent

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Open Badges and Online Learning

We are (slowly) moving away from the traditional “sheepskin” diploma model of four years of formal education and towards a new, portable and self-driven model. This will be a robust, rapidly changing environment filled with apprenticeships and ad-hoc teams of makers and managers, fueled by countless networking opportunities. Phrases like mash up, meetup, startup, MOOC, codefest, hack-a-thon, and gamification of learning, will rule the lexicon.

Open Badges are a foundational piece – they will allow learners to proclaim their skills from a validated third party source. And they will allow educators to supplement and legitimize their curriculum.

This change is driven by the demands of the economy and lack of flexibility on the parts of universities. Big businesses no longer offer lifetime employment. Legally binding pension plans are no longer legally binding – we are seeing them changed decades into the agreements, leaving pensioners on the hook for lost income. Universities – and the insurmountable debts they blithely hand students – are not offering a competitive edge in the cost ratio analysis. The four-year diploma is simply the current “badge” the system looks to for verification of credentials.

But what if the economy started looking to other sources of verification, sources that cost less or have a more immediate rate of return, are more current in leading technologies or practices, or meet the hyper-local demands of a person’s geographic needs? What if individuals forsook the four-year process and started their own ventures – and they themselves hired others from this new verification pool?

Learning is no longer the big ticket outcome students seek from universities. Jobs are – and by extension, financial stability. The current system is failing graduates on the latter, and the former is slowly but overtly being provided by the innovation economy. That economy offers a much more nimble and risk-taking set of parameters, but it is highly available to those with the aptitude and flexibility to participate. There is already uptake by those on the cutting edge.

Those cutting edge learners see the (financial) value of online digital badging systems and self-directed, learn-as-you-go systems. It is a practical system for today’s innovators. The middle masses, those who understandably “play it safe”, will gradually catch on and potentially move to this new method.

Meanwhile, lingering issues – such as the burden of investment into residence halls and first-tier sports complexes – will continue to be a drag on the universities, and may become particularly poignant if enrollment begins to fall. They may enter into a downward spiral caused by too much expansion (fueled by an effort to attract more, higher-quality students). Their prices will rise, and services will shrink.

I want all learners to have the walled garden experience of a formalized, long term academic education. But the costs no longer make that practical. If a strong competing validation system does emerge that meets the needs of the new economy, such as digital Open Badges, it will be the crack in the dam that precipitates a wholesale movement away from that formalized model. Universities will persist, but perhaps as more esoteric institutions of thinking, or perhaps as research incubators for spin off companies.