Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Fear of the Unknown

Fear of the Unknown

For about a month earlier this year I had an Internet Use Survey running on Survey Monkey.

I made some phone calls to strangers to, to ask them if I could help in some way, and to suggest taking the survey. I got a shocked reaction when I suggested to the second lady I spoke to that I'd like to watch her using the internet. "There's no way I'd let anyone see me do that." was the response. I recognized the reaction immediately. That was exactly how the participants in an earlier door to door survey responded, late last year. All of them had this "no way" reaction at first. Most but not all by any means were happy to be subjects for the survey with a little persuasion. After 10 minutes together the fear of the unknown evaporated, the idea that this was some sort of examination disappeared.

During the first week of the Internet Use Survey I asked three groups with a high proportion of experts in them to do the Internet Use Survey. The Coaches Network at Ryze, the Christchurch Linux Users Group and the New Zealand WSIS Group. The results were interesting. Some people who considered themselves (self ranking) to be expert users, have characteristic use patterns that I believe belong to newbies. Some people who are relatively new, have use patterns that show good connections and a wide variety of activities that I'd equate with experienced users.

I didn't talk to any of these people. I may be judging unfairly. For instance I know well how enormously valuable a tool like Yahoo Instant Messenger can be. I have used it extensively, several hundred hours. But my current use is tiny. It's a wonderful tool, but it eats up the hours, and I simply don't have the time. I'd equate using Yahoo Instant Messenger with an experienced user, but I'm an experienced user who avoids using it.

Even among the expert users there were very few people on the social networks like Ryze. And NONE of the 39 people who responded were keeping a blog. Both those numbers are interesting, because I think in the next year we'll see more experienced users doing both those things.

The internet is a TWO WAY communication process. Every experienced user becomes a publisher of opinions. Newbies shudder at the thought. Fear of the internet is I think a worse fear than the fear of public speaking. But it is an un-necessary fear, when the time comes each of us has a need to speak out. When you do that easily and well, you'll know that you are a peer on the internet, a cybercitizen if you like.

The Internet Use Survey confirmed for me that very few people are competent internet users. People tend to do a small number of things they feel comfortable with. The best way to learn about lots of different tools and techniques is to join groups of other internet users. Sadly most newbies are unwilling to do that. Hence they remain newbies for months and months because the key process that would allow them to learn new things was never engaged.

If you have not yet done so, join the Ryze Business Network. It's free, and it's not too hard for even newbies to understand how to use the network. If you go to Yahoo Groups, search in areas of your personal interest. Find some groups to join. (Most groups have very low memberships and low mail rates. But a few groups generate lots of letters.) Try them and see. (As a new user you will need to register first.) It's probably too soon to start your own blog. If that interests you, there is an excellent network on Ryze that will help you. Of course you are now on Blogger. You could start here.

Information Literacy (For advanced Newbies)

While there has been much debate about the digital divide, that is not now a problem that concerns me. People who do not have computer access at least have practical access to real data in a real world. That is often superior to the pseudo-data based virtual world you and I can enter.

It's certainly true that the internet makes it possible to become more informed and better able to play an effective role in the world. It's not true that the internet is filled with unreliable data and is a poor source of information. The fear of teachers and librarians that the internet will pollute our information environment was merely a prejudice. For instance it's well known that since 1998, everybody who cared had much better well supported information about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction, on the internet, than was carried by the established free press. Government and "official sources" proved to be the most unreliable.

Of course the ease of publication and the freedom individuals have to say what they choose on the internet does mean that there is a lot of poorly informed opinion expressed. Usually the poor quality of the source is obvious. Each of us is responsible for what we choose to pay attention too. "Garbage in garbage out", they say.

I'm indebted to NZ poet and author Kevin Ireland for this very clear insight. "All our knowing is a myth. We can never understand the past as it really was. Research based on science can produce facts, but we always interpret what those facts mean. We reinvent the past (or the present) to suit our own mind-set."

The problem that concerns me is our poor ability to understand data, and to incorporate good data into our understanding . I call this developing information literacy. Let me explain.

What is Information Literacy?

"Information literacy" is a requirement of all people who seek to live modern information rich lives. Information richness demands a set of essential skills from us all. These skills may be:

a) Each person having his or her own data. Your own life is your primary experience. Each of us should have notes, records and measurements based on that experience. Journals, diaries, bench notes, photographs, sketches, that can act as aids to our memories. You trust your own data. Having your own data is your filter against collecting a lot of rubbish from published sources. Your own data helps you to use suitable key words when you do internet searches.

b) Collected secondary data. We all need to collect resources: from the Internet, radio, books, television or in conversations and letters. The most interesting parts of that need to be filed or stored in some logical way. Access to these records is important. Most of the material in my journal is a collection of this sort of material. Sadly my journal is not indexed.

c) Understanding your belief filters. We all use filters to preselect what takes our interest and what we find is acceptable evidence or unacceptable evidence. Our filters make it possible to cope with the sea of data that flows around us. We choose to pay attention to only a tiny part of that. Sometimes we need to pay attention to things we would rather not know about.

d) Making space in our lives for uncertainty. It's very comforting to live in a world of certain knowledge. Positive thinking and some religious beliefs create this strong sense of certainty. It's a trap of choice. Once you choose to "know", then what you "know" forbids knowing something else. (You can't hold both a positive and negative charge at the same time.) We all need space in our lives for not knowing. Create a workspace in your mind for unresolved problems, leave room for doubt. Try to avoid rushing to close an argument too soon by filling in the gaps in our knowledge with inventions from our own imagination. The growing edges of our lives are the places where we maintain our doubt.

e) Making an effort occasionally to find the pattern. There are both complex ways to understand data and ways to simplify that understanding. English academic Gregory Bateson spoke about "finding the pattern that connects." Our data is disconnected, and understanding what the data offers becomes clear when we can see a pattern. The pattern is the key to turn raw data back into information. The data, the facts alone have no meaning. We create meaning when we decide what the data says. Reading material doesn't mean you "know it". Choosing what to "know" and integrating it with what you knew before is a task that takes time and effort.

f) To do something with the new ideas you are generating. We build our own minds. Mind building is an active process. On the internet I've done a lot of reading research to answer people who have made ignorant and unjustified statements. You never win the argument with people like this. Their position is entrenched and they are not motivated to do their own research. But they do provided me with motivation. So I learn new things. In writing a reply I structure what I've learnt and integrate it with my previous learning. The fact that only 14 people read the essay, that my challenger was unimpressed, and that nobody else was likely to take any real interest is of no matter.

When you are learning new things, do something with the knowledge. Write in your journal, put something in your blog, to talk to a friend about it, try to make a plan, develop a speech, or communicate what you are thinking to a group, maybe by email. Doing something practical is a good test. If your communication fails or the test breaks, go back to the beginning. Quite a bit needs to be known about any subject in order for anyone to use new understanding effectively. Educational specialists often speak about learning as though immediately after the lesson you can have full understanding. Often when you learn things, full understanding of what you know comes weeks, months, even years later.

g) This may lead to publication in some form. (In fact "f" is also a form of publication) Here the publication is more formal, more planned. An essay, a web page, a programme of action, maybe even a book. Or perhaps your own game, or music composition or artwork or designs or …… whatever creative activity you can imagine. Some skills in speaking and writing or in coding may increase your ability to be effective.

h) Appreciate that all our understanding is mythological. We cannot know the truth. We can only seek understanding. Our memories keep re-inventing the truth in a way that suits our own current mind-set and purpose. We build the truth we need for the moment. It helps us get by. I like the quote from American film-maker Waldo Salt. "To seek the truth you must first have lost it." That simple idea if the crux of Information Literacy. The journey begins when you understand that what you thought you knew is not longer valid, and that all truth is elusive.

The Journey

It matters not a scrap where you begin. Eventually everything is connected to everything else. There is no golden path. Begin with computers, family history, football, or aerospace engineering, it’s all one ball of wax, you can only start where you are. What interests you now? You will go on from there to a dozen other things once you develop the skills required. In fact the whole spectrum of lifelong learning depends exactly on these skills which I'm calling "information literacy"

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Internet Literacy

Newbies on the Net

When most people begin to use the internet they email a few friends, share some jokes and digital photographs and search on Google for some information about a hobby or interest. This done, they soon run out of motivation.

That's pretty much it, unless they are teenagers. Teenagers are into Instant Messaging in a big way, and perhaps into downloading lot of music. When you connect to the internet nothing essential in your life changes. The internet does not make you clever, it does not get you a job and it does not give you entry into some new cyber-age of wonderful opportunity. That need not be what happens, but for almost everyone, that is the truth of it.

Some people believe that broadband is the answer. When we get broadband into every home people will "get it", they will understand what the internet is good for. Nobody I know has broadband, or "imitation broadband" which is all you can get in NZ. There is among politicians and the business community a belief that broadband will make the internet "real" for people. I don't believe it. To use the internet well you need to become firstly internet literate, and secondly information literate.

My view is contrary to most of those who think they are experts in this area. The future of the internet doesn't depend on broadband being generally available. The future of the internet depends on people across the world making contact with each other, on sharing views and opinions and on learning to trust each other. Instant Messaging and email are fine for that. Bandwidth would make reliable voice connection possible. That's why the Telcos's don't want it to happen. All those lovely toll call revenues might melt away.

The internet gives each of us the opportunity to be actively engaged as citizens of the world. Do we want that for ourselves? Do you want to he broadly educated, with contacts in many countries, with a diverse range of interests and special skills? Do you want to become someone different with new opportunities and new potential? It will take hard work and effort, maybe over 10 years. Do you want that journey? Do you have any choice? Of course you do.

If you want it, it's there. Most people do not yet understand the opportunity. They ask, "what use is it?" Many people who have a glimpse of the potential don't have the courage to begin.

Internet Literacy

a) Skill enough to keep the computer and it's files in order. Knowing how to create folders and to save files. To be able to find files on your hard-drive. To download and install software from the internet.

b) Ability to use a web browser, changing window sizes, running many windows at once and navigating between windows. Knowing how to set up the browser's tool sets and tool bars in an efficient way.

c) Knowing how to use an email client easily and effectively. Setting up email folders and using filters to send mail to those folders. Maintaining address books. Joining lists and user groups, and effectively dealing with large volumes of moderate to low interest mail.

d) Confidence to type fairly quickly so that one can participate in real time networks. Instant messenger can offer personal or group services. Internet Relay Chat, or proprietory chat services are also available. This is time consuming, but it's a very effective way to communicate.

e) Confidence enough to write your own letters to groups and lists and online forums. Confidence enough to maintain some of your own web pages.

f) The ability to format text into a basic HTML page, and to publish a text with photographs. There are only about eight tags one needs to know. This is in fact a fairly simple task. There are editors to help you, but all the editors I know do too much and are difficult for beginners to use.

g) The ability to search for the things you need to know using several different search engines.

h) Beyond these basic skills you need to become Information Literate over the next ten years. While this "newbies" guide is aimed at people who need to become Internet Literate, the long term goal is Information Literacy.

Becoming internet literate should take you about six months. But I've met people who after five years can do very few of the basic tasks above. What a waste. This is the thing that really concerns me. But it doesn't seem to concern anyone else. The newbie in his or her home is not concerned. Suppliers of computers and software are not concerned. Politicians and civic leaders don't understand the problem. Schools and educators are not interested either. So I ask: Where are people going to learn their basic internet skills? The usual answer is; "It's all on the internet." That's true, but if you are not internet literate, what's on the internet is not available to you.

If you are yourself internet literate, who do you know who isn't? What can you do to bring them up to speed?

Saturday, August 28, 2004

What Can You Know?

What Can You Know?

I've been looking at my own research data on internet use. It's surprising to see people who describe themselves as experienced users who only ever use the Yahoo search engine, and who get email almost entirely from people who they have personally met.

So I ask, how can any of us know if we are or we are not "experienced users". In reality we cannot know. All of us are in some ways "experienced" and in many ways "inexperienced".

All any of us know is what we happen to know today. Is what you know a little or a lot? Each of us as an individual is poorly placed to have any idea about that. We learn about our skills or lack of them during interaction with other people. But too many people are not engaged in that interaction.

We learn from other people. To do that online you need to join in activities which give us that opportunity to exchange views with lots of other people. Yes, people we don't personally "know". But people we can discover and learn about. Once the best way to do that was to participate in Usenet Forums or to join Listservers or a Yahoo Group. Today the best way to link with lots of other people is to join a social network.

In New Zealand at the moment the people in the dominant culture are complaining about the privileges given to the NZ Maori, the indigenous culture. It occurs to me that there is online a dominant culture which I've become part of. Other people may not feel so "at home" online. When you are new to the internet, you may feel that this is a foreign place and that you are unsure of your place and your rights and your ability to be listened too. If you feel like that, I can help.

I can remember how afraid I was about participating in world wide forums. For me the first time was 10 years ago. I wrote a letter about dancing in New Zealand and sent it to a Usenet Group re.alt.dance which was getting perhaps 30 letters a day. There were people on that network who I respected for their expertise. I was terrified that in my first post I might offend someone.

I posted. I waited. I checked my mail twice in the middle of the night. I waited. I checked my mail. I waited. Nothing.

I learnt slowly that people are not interested in "my opinion" they are only interested in their own opinions. What I had to say about New Zealand was of no particular interest. When people find their own opinions are disputed then are very interested. People defend their patch with passion. Too few are able renew their patch with new ideas and opinions. Even fewer have the confidence and the courage to redefine, enlarge and replant the territory they stand for. Most people deny themselves an open future. They choose to live in a self made fortress that is impervious to new ideas and contrary opinions.

It's hard, but try not to be like that. Make some room in your life for not knowing all the answers. Give yourself space in which to learn and develop.


Friday, August 27, 2004

Finding your own "HELP"

I'm disappointed with the help available in the Internet. If you put these words into Google - "beginner novice newbie internet" - You will gets lots of links. Some of them useful. You can't learn about the internet quickly. It will take you about 300 hours, 6 months if you work about 2 hours a day. You must give it some time, no effort no results.

Still using search engines is not a bad way to start. So do your own search but try three search engines that look at the Internet in different ways.

For instance try Google:
This search engine gives you a small number of pages that are "popular" based on the number of other pages that link to them. Often that works well.

I should add a note here about the use of "http://" Usually in a browser you omit this. "www." will open "Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol for you. The double slash indicates a base directory, like saying "this a new address starting here." If you are creating a link on a web page the full text "http://www." must be used.

This is a good time too to suggest that in typing addresses, email addresses, or file names you always use only lower case letters. (This is not the practice of some programming styles.) The http: protocol is case sensitive, and mixing upper and lower case letters causes errors. Upper and lower case does not affect email at all, but it's easier to be consistent.

Or you might look at Vivisimo which is a clustering search engine.

And Mooter is another search engine that tries to group results for you.

For specialist topics, Temona is suggested.

Take your time to read the material you find. Print the best items. Reading a printed document is much more efficient than reading on screen. It costs more of course, but you remember more, and you have the document to file away.

But don’t stop there, because the best way to learn stuff is from other people. So JOIN some groups, even if all you do for a while is sit in the background. I used to recommend joining groups at Yahoo, or getting onto specialist mailing lists. That might sill be good for you.

However I suggest you join either Ryze or Ecademy. Take the time to build your own homepage or profile there. Try to participate. Ask some questions. Once you get started you will soon know that the fear you may have now is un-necessary.


Thursday, August 26, 2004

One Hour a Week

A young man named Benjamin is in contact with me from Ghana. He is almost 30, single, works part time only making baskets I think. But he wants to get an education. To get on the internet he has to go to an Internet Cafe, and he can only afford about on hour once a week. What a handicap for a young man with ambition. However, maybe not as big a problem as some think. Here in New Zealand my experience is that most people who have internet connections in their homes only use the internet for 3-5 hours a week, and sometimes less. I'm as concerned for them as I am for Benjamin. When the internet first developed there was concern about the digital divide. Today I am much more concerned about the divide between those who have a big view about who they are and what is possible, a view getting bigger and stronger because of the internet, and those who have little idea what the internet is for. Too many people think it's great to use if you have a question to answer. You can use a search engine and get an answer. That may even be right, but not necessarily so. But that entirely misunderstands what the internet is best for. The internet does not replace the library. Access to the internet is not an education. People without connection to other people seldom have an questions to ask anyway. What the internet does BEST is connect people with people. You can find people who are like you. People who are like you, can find you, if you have your own web page, or public blog. It's in connection with other people across the world or across your city that the full benefit of the internet becomes obvious. Sadly most newbies realise this far too late. John