Teaching and Copying Across the Net

Enthusiasm is lagging. It must be the heat. It got into the 80s today, with an afternoon thunderstorm. Tomorrow and Sunday are supposed to be in the 90s. And there’s no sign that the humidity is going to let up. The dewpoint is at 68, and it’s almost midnight. So as the physical world sends me into lethargy, the mind begins to flag as well.

It’s not all useless. I want to point out this new post about shared online and education and peer production by Jon Udell. Udell is one of the best commentators on technology writing today. He has a very good sense for both the technology and the social impacts. His post is about a video he created to show people how to maintain a Scotts Classic reel lawn mower.

But in an era of commons-based peer production there will be increasing numbers of folks who will package their knowledge and experience in video form, and publish it freely, just because they can. Everyone’s an expert on something. If it’s quick and easy to document some aspect of that expertise, and if doing so makes you a global authority on that topic, people will choose to do it.

If I’m right about where this is headed, the video-sharing sites will soon offer more than cute animal tricks, stupid people tricks, and experimental artwork. They’ll start to be windows that open on many areas of knowledge and experience, the sharing of which will accelerate the production of new knowledge and the deepening of experience.

Via Daring Fireball, I recently came across Instructables, a web site that collects step-by-step instructions for making a mad scientist light, LED throwies, and solving Sudoku. It’s all very similar in spirit to Make magazine.

Paul Graham posted a shorter than usual essay this month about copying what you like from others. In that spirit I’ll conclude with a long quote from Mr. Graham.

How do you avoid copying the wrong things? Copy only what you genuinely like. That would have saved me in all three cases. I didn’t enjoy the short stories we had to read in English classes; I didn’t learn anything from philosophy papers; I didn’t use expert systems myself. I believed these things were good because they were admired.

It can be hard to separate the things you like from the things you’re impressed with. One trick is to ignore presentation. Whenever I see a painting impressively hung in a museum, I ask myself: how much would I pay for this if I found it at a garage sale, dirty and frameless, and with no idea who painted it? If you walk around a museum trying this experiment, you’ll find you get some truly startling results. Don’t ignore this data point just because it’s an outlier.

Another way to figure out what you like is to look at what you enjoy as guilty pleasures. Many things people like, especially if they’re young and ambitious, they like largely for the feeling of virtue in liking them. 99% of people reading Ulysses are thinking “I’m reading Ulysses” as they do it. A guilty pleasure is at least a pure one. What do you read when you don’t feel up to being virtuous? What kind of book do you read and feel sad that there’s only half of it left, instead of being impressed that you’re half way through? That’s what you really like.

Even when you find genuinely good things to copy, there’s another pitfall to be avoided. Be careful to copy what makes them good, rather than their flaws. It’s easy to be drawn into imitating flaws, because they’re easier to see, and of course easier to copy too. For example, most painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used brownish colors. They were imitating the great painters of the Renaissance, whose paintings by that time were brown with dirt. Those paintings have since been cleaned, revealing brilliant colors; their imitators are of course still brown.

There’s a connection between all of this and Benkler’s peer production and the future of education. But you’ll have to discover that link for yourself.