Time and the silver platter

This post has been updated and augmented since it was first posted.

I was recently wondering aloud on the Creative Good forum why it is that data aggregation is so popular. In this post, I consider data aggregation platforms and services as the silver platter, and consider them worth the time of evaluation because it could be argued that a large part of the surveillance problem lies in the fact that people engaging with the silver platter are so attracted to being served so decadently, and so we pay the price.

In contrast to the silver platter is a vision of the Internet as something to be explored, half through directed searches, half through the serendipity of allowing interest to highlight interest to arrive at a completely unforeseen destination (like when searching for unfinished phrases, like ‘poetry does not lead to’). This vision also depends on active, thoughtful contributions made to it that involve at least some knowledge of coding, or at least how to use Word Press.

This vision departs from Doug Engelbart’s own vision that computers should ‘augment’ our intelligence (e.g., by involving the ‘human problem-solver’ and ‘computer clerk’). Such a vision leads to experience, as it involves a process, inclusive of the deliberation of – and responsibility for – decisions, and involves time. Gulping down the firehose of information is immediately satiating. And illusory.

But another attraction of data aggregation services is to be seen, not just to consume. The problem of the silver platter here is that it invites corruption, by gaming the high-stakes system, as much as it does the time and risk of the attempt of work to become visible through relevance, which is to say, finding that which is helpful to oneself and others – and, by raising and lifting up, becoming visible to those who are also searching.

But most people want the silver platter! So end up being served by and serving a closed system of extraction that only projects an image of the process of knowledge. This self-perpetuating system never truly engages those who are passively engaged. This is more than just a ‘teacher’s problem’. Consider an important comment made by Sam Altman, who is an example of someone prepared to learn from time, considering the last decade as a ‘warm up’:

What human rights look like, what the role of humanity looks like, what the new socioeconomic contract, with your government looks like. These are, these are questions that everyone deserves to lay it on and that we should make a collective decision and not sort of the will of the people who write the software (source).
For those who want teaching, ‘extra’ [1] time investments are essential. This includes, in my opinion, taking the time to ascertain how to step away from certain ‘EZ reach’ platforms. To rework an old adage, we dignify platforms with our time and to refuse moral thinking in our engagement is to relinquish control of our lives today, no need to speak of dystopian futures.

As an aside, what needs to be systematized in teaching today is a Serresian ecocritical knowledge: at once scientific, humanistic, and specialized. This requires more engagement, not less – though I find difficulty in calling this anything new, given the interdisciplinary approach taken by Plato and Aristotle. The foundation of this classical thought was Plato’s keen eye for asking questions especially where things appear to have already been worked out. As the present is always changing, we cannot be so sure of knowledge that automatically moves on its own, ‘going without saying’.

Plato said it first: serving knowledge, regardless of what kind, has never been enough – knowledge can’t be downloaded! By extension, a constructive Internet depends too on our ability to meaningfully relate and coordinate what we can find on or bring to it.

Just as we can criticize educational institutions for not giving us everything that is needed for the apotheosis of personal growth, so can we criticize data aggregation platforms/services. Part of root of the problem is not in education or programs or software as a service – but in our epistemological expectations.

As if learning shouldn’t take time. As if becoming relevant shouldn’t be more than gaming a matter of course.

But relevance is something more. It is taking the time to be helpful after first being willing to suffer to do the long work of striving. If we only harvest the limited kind of relevance that can thrive among data aggregation, this says something about what we mean as humanity.

That which is digitally relevant should fulfill a version of the (apocryphally?) proverbial ‘three gates’: is it true? kind? helpful? Simply put, the meaning of relevance needs to shift from that which is trendy to that which has good effect, from media sensationalism to what Altman has noted as the difficulty of ‘fair treatment on complex issues’ (source).

Individuals who operate effectively in our culture have already been considerably “augmented.” – Doug Engelbart


How do we safeguard time and space for the growth process that begins wherever we are or nourish the discernment of tools and their application through the myriad contexts of use cases; how can we cultivate the relevant over the automatic?

Since this post was first published, the EFF has started a new series on the Public Interest Internet which is a ‘wider, more generous, more diverse world’ than toxic walled gardens. There are alternatives to digital fast food, but it is on us to actively engage with it.

[1] For defense of ‘extra’ learning, see my paper, Pedagogy of extraneity.

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