More Signal, Less Noise


12 Mrz, 2012

Google worries about delays of more than 400ms, not least because the more we click, the more they know, and the more they know, the faster they will lead us into their trap.  Google’s business model is to push our buttons so will will click their buttons: to figure out “what we want” in consumer terms, […]

Google worries about delays of more than 400ms, not least because the more we click, the more they know, and the more they know, the faster they will lead us into their trap.  Google’s business model is to push our buttons so will will click their buttons: to figure out “what we want” in consumer terms, to entice us to click through to their advertisers, because when we do so they make money.

Good for them.  I love using Google, it’s truly fantastic and I use it every day, but that doesn’t mean I have to let them sweet talk me into forgetting what I was looking for and end up buying something that they or their pals are selling.  They are subtle and good-natured about it, but a trap is a trap, and most of the time I want to be left alone to do what I want to do.

We professionals want to find directly whatever it is we are looking for, work on it, and having created value we want to share it with others. We academics want to be posing questions, evaluating results, putting our searches into personally and professionally meaningful contexts, and sharing what we learn with others, too. And if we are using Google for fun most of us don’t want to be colonized any more than we already are.  I like business as much as pleasure, but I don’t like confusing the two: confusion is confusing.  When I want to buy something, Google’s sponsored links and advertisements are just great, because unless you opt out, Google’s sophisticated data mining means that, when it comes to consuming, Google probably knows more about you than you.

But 99% of the time I want to be exploring, thinking, producing, networking, etc., and not parting with my money.  That’s why I have learned how to customize my browser to that there are more buttons leading to these things that I like to do than there are links to distractions set up by Google and their advertisers.

Here I’ll suggest a few, beginning with an Evernote button.  I like this one the most, because it prompts me to think about and work up what I’ve found and keep me going forward, often back to Google, and in any event knowing better what I am looking for and why.


Here’s how it works.  Once you install the Evernote extension, one click of the Evernote button the installation puts on your browser’s toolbar will present you with a form that prompts you to drive your thought forward.  The first box invites you to rename your note in a meaningful way.  The second field invites you to file it in a meaningful (and hopefully, memorable) place.  The third encourages you to add tags, which I think a great activity because it involves formulating formulate higher-level generalizations and a review of your larger concerns.  The next field prompts you to add comments, reflections, and/or putting things into meaningful context.  At one and the same time, this sequence of questions is satisfying housework (putting things into good order) and a powerful hermeneutic quest: the form invites you to reflect, categorize, and at least partly digest whatever link sparked your interest.

You can skip all of this, of course, like you do when you simply add a link to your browser’s built-in bookmarking feature, but then you typically end up with an unfathomable list of links, named whatever someone else names them, in an upside-down and so confusing stack.  The typical browser bookmarking feature has got it upside-down.  Imagine the useless work of heaving up your great pile of unread newspapers and journals to bury the most recent, and so most immediately compelling, on the bottom.  I don’t know what they were thinking.

But if you are alive you enjoy thinking and the pleasures of watching your thoughts add up.  If you are working on something that interests you, you’ll enjoy seeing how adding even just a bit of such “meta-data” and commentary magically transforms data into information, how this little bit of effort contributes mightily to the advance your understanding, and how it does so in a way that later will make it mercifully easier to find what you are looking for and more easily pick up more or less where you left off.  After whatever excellent nap, meaningful for meaningless distractions, finding a bunch of links in your good order and worked up nicely will help you get your head back in that great idea of yesterday in minutes!  It’s a wonderful trick, the psychological economy is basically miraculous, and appropriate note-taking strategies and methods like this help you pull it off day after day.
So, that’s a great start, but once we click through Google we likely run into even more dangerous honeypots, especially in websites designed to be “sticky,” like Yahoo or Facebook, or any designed to be impressive and scream “me-me-me!” — instead of melting away to reveal whatever it is you are looking for.  This is not an argument against surprise or putting yourself in the way of discovery, but about avoiding everyone else’s agenda when you are trying to concentrate on your own.

By installing the Readability button you will have an alternative, an ever-present reminder close at hand, of its great magic: with one click the application both strips away the “stickiness” and reformats what is left.  You will be presented with the title and body of the article or blog post have have been looking for transformed into something of beauty, like the most beautiful book you’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

Not only that, you will be given the choice to save it in a special, annotated list for later and one that is also synchronized with your tablet or mobile phone.  You can also have it sent to your Kindle. This little button, designed to look like a comfortable red velvet sofa, gives you something wonderful to look forward to: reading without distraction.
If you’ve made it this far you’ll be a sucker for adding browser “extensions” for such things as for email, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or WordPress, because their buttons grab whatever link you happen to be visiting, pop open a handy abridged version of larger applications, paste the link into it, invite you to add a comment, and share.

In this way, the cost — the “noise” — is no more than two keystrokes — one to open the extension and a second to send it along: every other keystroke will be you — the “signal” — connecting to your friends or colleagues, sharing links, offering comments, soliciting help, advice, support, etc.  Gravy!

So, I have shown how you might avoid clicking everyone else’s buttons but your own and those of people you choose.

I’ve also shown how you might see your browser not as a bunch of functionality, but as a workflow, connecting people, you can redesign for your own purposes.

And in doing so I’ve invited you to transform yourself from the consumer Google and its advertisers  want you to be into the active, creative thinking soul that you really want to be and which is our present, larger academic and professional goal.

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2 Kommentare

  1. Ahmet

    Great post, bruce! However, I would like to remark that you are mostly focusing on the information and sharing infrastructure and less on their utilization. It would be great to see a follow-up post to this one to describe the potential of the use of one’s own extensions. For students, for instance, how would this change the way they work in the group for the better, especially regarding team project assignments?

  2. Bruce Spear

    Brilliant, Ahmet, thanks!

    Discussion of how all this technology directly relates to group work and learning is my main interest and what I’d like to see discussed on these pages as well!

    In the meantime, I’ll share some of the notes I’ve posted on my websites, including:

    My first notes on education at Harvard, where Eric Mazur’s work, now funded with $40 million of new grant money, is based on the assumption that academic achievement is directly associated with group work. He uses clickers, for example, to organize peer group discussion to great effect.

    Group Work, on my Methods site, including the evaluation criteria I use for evaluating group work and a list of things students might do in their group blogging.

    What You Will Learn, on my WebWork site, where I place group work in a larger context of web work activities.

    As for the question of how the methods outlined above contribute to group work, and how they might be measured, the correlation might not be immediately obvious and measurable. But I think any number of recent examples of student blogging offer compelling evidence:

    Teaming Up! describes one group’s waking up to the advantage of team work, developing an activity meaningful to them (they read my list of activities, found it lacking, and came up with their own activity — good for them!), and carefully working with the technologies to redesign their website to reflect their working together: the complexity of the problem and sophistication of the results are possible because of sustained apprenticeship to such tools: we see here of tool, web design, and team work together to create an elaborate metaphor, a platform for rich communications, and for those involved, an opportunity to develop a far more powerful concept, and practice, of collective action. I’m so proud of them!

    Reflection, surveys student learning through “spogging”, which they define as “sport + blogging” and describe as a complex negotiation of technology, web, group work, and with emphasis on knowledge management. If you have used Evernote, as they did, you can readily imagine how their mapping, listing, and drafting involved complex templating, organizing, discussing, etc., and lead to a very satisfying and sophisticated integration and achievement. I’m so proud of them, too!!

    Review, use the puzzle metaphor to explain how they managed increasing complexity of reference — all those searches of relevant sources which they learned to collect using Evernote — and increasing sophistication of post structure. If you know a little bit about the Toyota A3 templating system (citation on their cite) for knowledge management you will recognize how they learned how to list sources, ideas, thoughts and image; re-arrange them in self-conscious ways, and fluently weave stories out of them. Yikes, I’m beaming for them!

    This brief survey leads me to think about how differently I find myself trying to describe student technology use. Before, like many, my descriptions of technology use typically started with screenshots of the user interface, lists of functionality, and promises that sound like any marketing package promising, basically, of pie in the sky. But having asked my students to write up what they have learned and as a guide to their achievement the technology appears at first as a tangle, a pile of obstacles students find themselves challenged to overcome, and then it falls somewhat in the background as they learn how to use it to explore their interests, develop research skills, connect with each other, find themselves, publish their work … They have good reason to conclude their semester with a strong sense of achievement: their claims are supported by 8-12 published articles, three times as many comments on each other’s work, and websites that are attractive to look at and interesting to read. Their confidence is well-earned. The technology is necessary, but in itself insufficient: a vital means, but as a means to a larger end: their learning and preparation.

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