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Excerpt from Practices for an Abundant World - Chapter 7 of Learning in a Time of Abundance by Dave Cormier (2024)

Author: Dave Cormier

Cormier, Dave. Learning in a Time of Abundance: The Community Is the Curriculum. Pages 155-169. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/113247.

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The following practices for learning in abundance are by no means meant to be exhaustive. How could they be in a word of an abundance of connection? But I plan to add more practices to the book's companion website, https://learninginabundance.com/, in the future.

The following practices for learning in abundance are by no means meant to be exhaustive. How could they be in a word of an abundance of connection? But I plan to add more practices to the book's companion website, https://learninginabundance.com/, in the future.

Practice 1. Build New Fact Habits

Each time you point to something that is true or a fact or "the way things are," take some time to check it. I suggested earlier that Wikipedia is a nice generic place to start, not because it tells the "truth" but because it's connected. Each article has links to the issues/topics/conversations that you are referring to.

Fortunately, the book on checking on facts has been written by Mike Caulfield at Washington State University. His book, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers and Other People Who Care about Facts, published in 2017, explores the many ways in which people are trying to deceive you on the web and lays out four moves and a habit for making each of us better consumers of content. My favorite bit is about a habit that he suggests we all need.

The habit is simple. When you feel strong emotion—happiness, anger, pride, vindication—and that emotion pushes you to share a "fact" with others, STOP. Above all, it's these things that you must fact-check.

Why? Because you're already likely to check things you know are important to get right, and you're predisposed to analyze things that put you lin] an intellectual frame of mind. But things that make you angry or overjoyed, well… our record as humans are not good with these things. (7; ellipsis in original)

That habit, I think, is an adaptation that we need to make given all the information that we have around us. With the ease of publication on social media platforms, even casual
thoughts that cross our minds get kept for posterity. I'm not so worried about what ther aily to do for your future employability, though have certainly looked at peoples social media profiles as part of the hiring process. What I'm concerned with is how our casual acceptance of concepts or events that might be facts based on the way they make us feel strengthens those concepts or events.

If I happen to believe that ketchup is a tool of evil (which I do) and I see an article that supports my position, I'm going to send it along. Now if that article is simply saying that ketchup is the bane of culinary happiness and that it should be shunned as an insult to any cook, that's fine. I'm passing along something that is obviously an opinion. I have made it clear to whomever might be reading my stream that I'm a food snob and maybe a little obnoxious, but I've not supported my position with any weak or misleading facts.

If, however, the article suggests that ketchup causes some dread illness, that's a different story. Suddenly what I'm doing is adding my own trust to support a claim that is not true. Ketchup is disgusting, and I believe it will wreck your french fries, but I don't know that it causes any particular illness. And, nore important, my thoughts on whether it makes people ill are relevant. But since it feels to me that it's probably true, as it latches my own disgust with the condiment, I'm happy to pass le disinformation along. If other people trust me, they are ing to believe that I checked on the information to see whether was true before I passed it along.

I feel strongly. It supports my opinion. Share.

We can all imagine issues far more important than ketchup that could be amplified by our passing information along. We, each of us, are part of the information-sharing and knowledge-making engine that is communication technologies in the twenty-first century. Because we're able to easily publish to a global audience, we are responsible in a way we have never been before for all our recorded utterances.

We need new habits for our everyday handling of truth. Being extra cautious when you are very excited about a fact, or a meme or whatever, is a great place to start.

Practice 2. Leave Bread Crumbs, Even in Casual Conversation

There isn't a debate on the internet nowadays that doesn't at some point include a person popping up and saying that they have done their "research." We talked a little bit about the difference between dishwasher research and actual research in a previous chapter. The recommendation here is simple. If you have "researched," or more likely read, something or have any reason to believe something, leave a trail to show how you came to your position. There is no need for any of us to claim knowledge of the politics in a foreign country or of some deep, obscure scientific theory or of a UFO landing. Simply post the source of your information. It can be as simple as a change of expression from "I did my research, and ketchup is a tool of the devil" to "Here is an artice from Mustard Daily that says ketchup is a tool of the devil."

Reframing how you share information changes the nature of the conversation and the way your voice contributes to a conversation. It can change the nature of the way that we understand one another. In the first case, I'm starting an argument with you, but you have no idea of what my position is premised on. In the second case, you can see both my bias and the bias of the place I got my information.

This change can be difficult to make. Switching from "I believe" to "I believe what Heloise says" can impact our sense of identity and, frankly, just be hard to remember to do. Old habits are hard to break. Taking that extra time to check can also lead to us finding out that our long-held beliefs are things that are maybe not as certain as we thought they were.

Practice 3. Learn to Cheat Honestly. No Really, I Want You to Cheat

We're always borrowing our understandings from one another.

We're always taking our guidance from others' work, either directly from them or from the things they've recorded in text or voice. We learn jokes from others. We take turns of phrase from TV commercials and expressions from our parents. We are mockingbirds.

When we move to a formal learning model, however, we have another word for it —we call it cheating. Look at the way we've been teaching through scarcity: we hide the answer from a student and ask them to figure it out or remember it. It's like we play hide-and-seek with the information, If we're going to use that model of teaching now, we have to create an artificial environment of scarcity. We have to turn off the internet search engines and Al systems. Block students from working with one another. Make them work by themselves. The technology is too good. Whether it's texts or math problems, anything that has a patterned response, anything where the teacher already knows the answer, is available to find or create online.

Schools are certainly moving to block students from using these things so they can prove that students are doing their own work. And yet, when we talk about being a productive citizen, we talk about how we need to collaborate and work together.

Forcing people to study by themselves is a troubling way to look at learning in a world of information abundance. There is little chance that any of us has had a purely original thought and certainly not a giant original thought. Our thoughts build on one another's. We collaborate. We hear things. We disagree with things. We steal other people's ideas. I mean you could say "borrow." You could say "learn from." You could say a lot of things, but the simple fact is that we learn things from one another.

The new advances in Al systems mean that any written text, any image, any video that you see could be created with the click of a button. This is going to happen. If you have the choice to use ChatGPT to summarize a one-hundred-page report or spend eight hours to do it yourself, most people are going to use ChatGPT most of the time. If we're honest about it, we can use our other skills to look for the biases that are built into these systems and allow others to do the same. Being transparent about our work, however we've done it, is more important than ever.

It's the same with your kid using these tools to learn. My kids do. But I try to get them to be honest about it. Try the math problem, struggle with it, use some Al system like MathGPT to help you when you're stuck. Talk to your teachers or your kids' teachers about it. Homework without these "helping" tools doesn't exist.

We need to learn to cheat honestly. Tell people where you learned what you learned. Build your learning collaboratively—that's the easiest way I've ever found to deal with abundance. Name the system that wrote your first draft. It can be a difficult model to adjust to, but it is a better reflection of the needs we have in the world we live in.

Practice 4. Be Gentle with Yourself and Your Beliefs as Time Passes

I think of learning as something we are built to do. It's our competitive advantage. The vast set of skills that you have now is not the same as the one you would have learned ten thousand years ago, and with good reason. We might see our inability to make a shoe or a fishing hook as a loss, but the challenges of an abundant world are, at least partially, different.

Maybe my favorite example is the ability to knap stone. Knapping is the process of chipping away at stone so that you can eventually get to the point where it can be used as a tool. You might use that tool for cleaning animal skins or chopping wood or settling an argument, but regardless, the right shape is critical. I am told that the skill required for knapping could take a lifetime to learn. Every piece of stone is different, requiring different handling to get to the desired shape. And being able to make good tools could mean the difference between life and death. Snack or no snack.

You, yourself, don't need to learn to knap stone. As soon as we started heating up metal into shapes, the stone knappers went out of style. Imagine being a stone knapper, Torg Knap from the family of knappers, leaders in your community because you've been the best knappers for generations, and, suddenly, your family skill is no longer top of the heap. Sure, people who couldn't afford metal still wanted your skills. It would have taken millennia, maybe, before those skills were no longer needed. But the tribe's relationship to your skill had changed. The power position changed. You weren't as valuable as you used
to be.

We are at another changing of the guard. Metal. Houses. Writing. Print. Digital communications. At each of those points of transition, hundreds or sometimes thousands of years would pass as the culture slowly shifted to come to terms with the new reality. The fact that you make great tents? No longer relevant.
You can remember The Epic of Gilgamesh in its entirety? Still cool, but not as necessary as before. You have a pile of monks in a building who will copy the writing of some long-dead person into another book? Meh. We're gonna roll off one hundred copies here on our Xerox machine. Or we're going to post this link, for free, without labor, to Facebook so our 1,600 "friends" can all access it.

I've argued here that the critical difference, the deep affordance, that our new technologies give us is an abundance of connection—connection to information, to people's ideas, to misinformation, to the world. That abundance exposes the uncertainty that has always hidden beneath the surface of our interactions. It used to be that you could know something and expect that that knowing would remain. And that's still true for any things. But increasingly, you could know something now, and five years later that knowledge will no longer be generally accepted among your peers.

The next new thing is always going to be just around the corner. That can create a lot of anxiety. We have fewer places in our lives where we can just accept that a certain thing is true, forever, leave thinking about it and move on. That feeling of falling behind, or not being able to keep up, is true for many of us. We can only accept that it's part of the new reality and find ways of learning the next new thing that work for us.

Practice 5. Learn to See Who Is Left Behind

The internet can also further separate the haves from the have-nots. If you can't afford to participate in the internet information revolution, you become further separated from the rest of the world. This book is a long-form discussion about the impact of the internet and abundance on how we think, but large portions of humankind are still not able, for reasons of structural inequality, to participate in that abundance, let alone in conversations about it.

Yet, in many parts of the world, public services are increasingly digital-first. Where I live, a person used to be able to walk into a government building or call a number and, by asking questions, find the service that they needed. The more we focus on digital services—and particularly the automated chatbot version of digital services—the less access we provide. People without devices are obviously impacted, but so are those who may not have the literacies to navigate complex digital bureaucracies and those whose questions are complex or don't fit the easy FAQ boxes that chatbots operate from. These issues disproportionately affect people who are poor, elderly, or marginalized—often the people most in need of public services.

The ways in which the internet and all its abundance work against us are not always transparent. In each case that we get something for free from a corporate platform, there is someone making money from it. Every time a public service gets provided in a new way, there are people who did it the old way who now face barriers or fall between the cracks. Neither that hidden profit nor those barriers are obvious in our abundant-information landscape. Indeed, the very abundance makes it harder to see.

It's important, however, at this juncture to do the work of learning to see the complex systems we rely on, and of thinking our way through what we pay for change. If we improve service at motor vehicle registrations, that's a net good, right? Nobody has to wait in line. Email is a faster version of mail. The internet is a vaster library. Zoom is —sometimes—a better telephone. These things are, in the broadest sense, true, but when a so-called improvement actually makes societal structures less accessible or less equitable, we need to address barriers and inequities rather than steam blithely ahead.

Digital technologies can be profoundly inequitable in their design and in their impact. Poor and racialized neighborhoods may face increased digital surveillance through police partnerships with Amazon Ring, while being overlooked for Wi-Fi network investment and upgrades. This means their citizens reap more risks than benefits from digital development. And when automated decision-making systems factor race, class, or age into a process, such as who is eligible for scholarships or food stamps, they categorize individuals based on the outcomes others of their demographic have experienced. This reinforces stereotypes and amplifies discrimination.

The tools themselves can also have racism baked into their core functions. A few months ago, I stood in a line at the airport while an automated facial recognition system checked white person after white person through the line. When a black woman stepped up to the camera, the system simply scanned up and down, failing to register her face. This has happened again and again with facial recognition tools, which-trained predominantly on white male faces—do not consistently recognize darker skin or accurately identify women.

And there are other examples. Many microphones don't pick up women's voices. Social media platforms enable hate speech. The microphones can be improved, if equity is valued, but the behavior of our fellow citizens on social media often does not reflect that principle.
We need to learn, in the midst of all this abundance, to see who our systems are leaving behind. And then we need to decide to care.

Practice 6. Model Your Values: Help Build a Prosocial Web

A few years ago, I was giving a presentation in a high school auditorium to parents about the internet. During the question period, one parent stood up, struggling to find the words to ask a question. She told a story about seeing her kids watch a mean-spirited YouTube video. She didn't know how to approach her children to address it. She talked about standing there, excluded, while her children laughed along with the video.

She asked me, "What am I supposed to do about the internet?" Good question. What am I supposed to do about what the internet is doing to me? There was a terrible sense of helplessness in the way she spoke about the web. She saw it as something done to her. That mom was worried that she wasn't able or allowed to parent her children anymore. I tried, in a rambling ten-minute response, to give her permission to parent her kids, even it's on the internet. I hope that what I said was that rules haven't changed, that we still can apply our own values to the internet. Things have just gotten harder.

Later that week, I ended up in a similar conversation with a colleague about kids' access to the internet. She mentioned that her child's access to the internet was limited to one hour a night and that the two of them were friends on Instagram.Without thinking, I asked, "You mean on the Instagram account you know about?"

I left that meeting thinking of all the things that a teenager could get into in an hour on the internet. In 2005, the concerns that I would have heard would have mostly been access to pornography and the potential of stalkers. As social sites became more and more prevalent, concerns in 2012 would evolve to include things like bullying in online spaces. A slightly savvier internet user would have suggested that things like 4chan were a danger.

The internet in 2024 has a whole other load of problems. There are deep algorithms that are tracking that child in the hour they are online, slowly crafting their desires toward some random purchase or pattern of behavior. The intensity of the attention economy has many of us—kids or not—convinced that we need to craft a personal image to an increasingly refined degree. The prevalence of digital devices has kids in constant emotional flux in their relationships with one another as they can change and shift on a minute-by-minute basis, often in the middle of the night. There are trolls, professional and otherwise, who are ready to attack for LOLs at any time. And, maybe most dangerous, there are extremists (white nationalists come to mind) who are actively recruiting young people into some profoundly harmful ideologies. Plus, let's face it, kids are constantly inundated by careless, petty microaggressions by far too much of the adult population in their online spaces.

But there is no way to keep children from the internet. There is no conceivable process to keep any kid from the amazing potential of the internet. Guitar lessons on YouTube. Wikipedia answers to fact-based questions. Recipes. Games with your friends. Music… oh my god, the music. Almost anything you could ever want to know or do can be found on the internet.

Kids are going to use the internet. Humans are going to use the internet. We are going to learn all the lessons that the internet has to teach. We learn the pettiness and aggression. Just think of the way people dismiss the feelings of famous people by insulting them on the internet.

Here's the thing. We can also affect what those lessons are.

The internet is fundamentally participatory. The internet grows, all internet platforms grow, through the addition of content. Every time you post on Facebook or send a picture into the ether, you've contributed to the conversation that is shaping our future. Every comment. Every like. It shapes what everyone else understands. Internet companies make money (often from ads, sometimes from your data) when you participate in them.

The internet is people.

You can see where I'm going with this. The adults aren't coming. No one is going to "legislate" niceness on the internet. They aren't going to make people say nice things, just as we don t legislate that people have to be nice to one another in person. We need to understand that we contribute to the larger voice every time we post… and every time we don't.

And I'm not talking about confronting trolls who are purposefully attempting to be aggressive or dismissive or vicious. You need to keep both your physical self and your emotional self safe. I'm talking about in the everyday way that we can be better with one another, with the people we know.

You need to help build a more prosocial web. Every time you are fair to someone you disagree with on the internet, you leave a good connection behind you. You create a participatory node that represents your values. Every time you fact-check something before you post it, and include the citation when you do, you're creating a reliable lesson that can be learned by someone else. Every time you participate in a conscious, deliberate way, you are putting another stone into the foundation that supports the values you believe in.

That is not to say that being prosocial is simply "making space for everyone." There are limits. Sometimes being prosocial means standing against something.

The last seven to eight years have shown us the tremendous impact that a cynical, extremist, and data-driven web can have on our culture. So many of these damaging, divisive culture wars are the creation of companies (and governments) with an agenda that has nothing to do with the well-being of our society.

Please participate. Do it well. Put your better values on the internet. Our society is literally being shaped by the internet right now and will be for the foreseeable future. We are all watching the web we're building. The web is us. Help build a good one.

The better we do, the more comfortable we'll become confronting uncertainty.

Practice 7. Take Time to Be Bored and to Care for Yourself and Others

The technologies around us change what is possible for us as societies. Some of those changes are amazing. Some of them are deeply troubling. Most of them could go either way. Is it bad that our kids can communicate with one another all the time? It can be. It depends on how we handle it.

One of the biggest things that the technology provides is access. Access to one another. Access to information we understand and information we can, probably, never understand. All that access can also take away that feeling of comfort that allowed us to feel like we understood the world we were living in.

But that certainty was always an illusion. The biggest difference is that now we see the uncertainty. The dominant cultural paradigms of my country—white, heterosexual, European descent, affluent, English-speaking (depending on where you live)—were never actually the only way that people lived. But they were the only ways that made it through the barrier of our media.

That barrier is gone.

We need to bring forward a new skill set if we're going to deal with both kinds of uncertainty: the kind that has been revealed by more voices being heard and the kind that has been caused by the changes that allowed those voices to be heard.

We need to have a conscious sense of our own values so we can use them to help inform our decisions. We have to understand who we trust and why we trust them. We need to be, in a small way, humble about the magnitude of all the things there are to know and understand our limits.

We need to use those skills to help us set limits too. We don't need to fill every moment with a blinking cursor or a notification. We can't work all the time or be connected all the time, so we need to talk to the people we love and figure out how to make time to be alone and quiet and bored while still being respectful of the people we are connected to.

Caring is always uncertain. It can often be hard. But I think it's worth it.

DMU Timestamp: June 08, 2024 00:26





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