Filter Failure

I started following Thomas Vander Wal’s FriendFeed a week or so ago, and noticed that he had linked to a presentation from Clay Shirky at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York from back in September (I think, I just did a cursory Google search to try and date the presentation)

The title caught my eye, because I’m just now emerging from what feels like weeks on end of my own coding. I’m bridging our “employee directory” (and identity/authentication) tool to our list service, and in the process re-creating a lot of the same kinds of community aggregation of activity that’s become de rigueur. It’s perhaps one part reinvention of the wheel and one part shaping that wheel for our particular wagon.

So, I’ve been thinking about Activity Lists, and all the information we are tracking and how much it is, and what I can do to mitigate what I know will be coming with the same old lament, time and again about “information overload” from a lot of the faculty I come in contact with in my job. How can I help ease that? Or present the information in more manageable chunks?

It’s the opening preamble to to Clay’s talk. Which goes on for a bit, but it’s the first time in recent memory that I actually stayed glued to the screen for 20 minutes. And that’s saying a lot. ( I don’t typically have the patience to sit through 20 minutes of anything, much less a tech talk – my wife even noticed because she was in the same room while I listened to it all). But maybe this information is different, and a talk on Information, privacy, and colliding worlds in higher ed. can hold me for 20 minutes.

(Although, Clay uses “right” like most of us use “um” – and honestly, it got distracting as hell later in the talk, but um, er, I digress.)

While I disagree with Shirky somewhat that the problem/issue of privacy controls is a new one – I was pretty fascinated with the the summary statement of the presentation – information overload really isn’t a condition – it’s just a fact that we we are swimming in information – and have been for quite some time, since Gutenberg really. And that the change in publisher-mediated filtering that has happened with the advent of the Internet requires us to rethink the problem – not of taming information, but how to implement filters. And when we complain – it’s not the information, it’s our filters.

This hit home for me recently – back in September actually – when I complained in Twitter about reaching an information saturation point

(and it was pretty funny that Kevin bookmarked a bunch of dents and a post after that about Information Overload being a farce.

(editor’s note – which is really weird because I’m the editor – but I’m leaving my original sentence above even after fact-checking myself, because it’s both telling AND funny. Kevin bookmarked an article about it being a “cop-out” – which I never read – and only in going to look for Kevin’s quote did I see the article is about the same Clay Shirky presentation I’m commenting on now – It’s a small, incestual internet after all, it’s a small… farce, cop-out, close enough)

I adore information. I eat live and breath information. I’m the quintessential modern era “knowledge worker” – taking it in and sending it along as fast as I can. My tolerance for multiple streams is pretty high. But it was a complete cop-out to complain about saturation.

I wasn’t saturated, my filters failed. I was getting the same exact stuff from twitter, friend feed, del.icio.us, etc. And I was having a devil of a time adapting to the duplicates. (somewhere in the back of my mind is the mantra of “I see everything twice.” from Catch-22).

I had to adjust. And that’s the theme – and the challenge. Putting a cork in information flow, ever since Gutenberg, has been useless. You can’t control it. We’ve never been able to control it, but we spent 500 years pretending we could and building Academies and Bureaucracies to do it. And the internet came along and created a whole new perceived set of problems that some in the Academy (and even more in the Corporates) are trying to figure out how to control – trying different hardware and software games to still control publication.

Instead of rethinking the problem.

My personal example highlighted this for me – it wasn’t about too much information, it was about personal workflow. I set myself up for my own problem with the duplicates. And solving it was about reorganizing how I got at the information.

Back to my own apps – it’s not that I’m collecting too much, or displaying too much (maybe the defaults can be tweaked) – but more in that the freedoms to personally filter what’s there is key.

I don’t have any more answers than Clay postulated in his talk. And I’m not really adding anything with this post other than my own Eureka! moment that I’m going to be rethinking the problem in terms of filters (and personal filters) rather than publication control. Because I definitely think he’s on to at least a glimpse of what the real issue is.

It’s not the bits, it’s how you personally arrange them into bytes (and enable others to do the same).

The New Rickety Rocking Chair

When I first graduated from College, I went to work for CompuCom – who in 1996 was trying to change their business model from the dying dinosaur of reselling Compaq and HP (then two separate companies) and IBM to a service business, and I was a college hire, sent to build and bolster the resell business with service consulting in setting up software and services on the equipment they sold. It was an interesting business that forever established a healthy distrust on my part for “service consultants.” It was the wrong place at the wrong time and I was the wrong person to be there. And I’ll mostly leave it at that – save for one story.

I was sent on one assignment to shadow a “Senior Systems Engineer” and install this brand-new software called “Microsoft Exchange” at a marketing company. There’s an overly geeky story with that that would invoke sendmail, pegasus, mercury, netware, and a very early distribution of Red Hat Linux, but needless to say, we struggled a bit to get the software installed.

Anyway, I remember lamenting about things at lunch with the Senior SE – I was naive then (okay, I’m still naive) – but I had more than a few problems at using being billed out as experts at $150/hour without knowing much about the product we were installing (or even conceptually how it all fit together).

He said something that has stuck with me for now-on 11 years, and maybe perhaps the best thing I got out of the 9 months I was at CompuCom. He said:

“They don’t pay us for what we know. They pay us for what we can figure out.”

It took a long time for me to appreciate that. After all, I’m euphemistically in that employment category of “knowledge worker.” My entire job is based on having and obtaining knowledge about putting together rules and instructions that collect, store, route, and display information. The most lucrative of the jobs in my field are seemingly based on having knowledge – that collection of disparate pieces of information – on subjects that most don’t have. It is with little wonder that there are many in my field – and similar “knowledge worker” pursuits – that vociferously guard the collected information they’ve gained, giving themselves some kind of “expert” label – and selling access to that collection through me or my authorized agent. Few would blame me for doing that.

But I would.

You see, somewhere along the line I bought into the mission and the ideals of the industry that I’m in. That it is a noble pursuit to share far and wide the collected information, the knowledge, that I’ve gained. Not only noble, but that it is a moral imperative to do so.

As I’ve gotten older, that belief has been reinforced, as I find myself having to function in an employment where it is impossible to know everything, impossible to be an expert relative to others in all subjects in a field. There is always someone that knows more than I do about a given subject. And only by those sharing what they know am I able to successfully accomplish many of the tasks placed before me. Sure, I have to know a fair amount, I have to have the fundamentals, but I can no longer be successful in the business I’m in based solely on what I know.

This isn’t new. It’s always been this way. Any time and point in history where the so-called “experts” tried to limit and shape and influence access to the things that people wanted to know, there was rebellion. Information always finds a way to be known.

What has changed – not only in my industry, but in just about every field of pursuit for the “knowledge workers” is the pace in which that rebellion happens. Our Ptolemaic circles do not survive for long. I can be an “expert” only for the briefest of time, before what I know is replaced with something new.

My peers and I created a Frankenstein for the gnostics. Those systems we built to collect, store, route, and display information created a revolutionary way to share it. The distribution channel is no longer the same. Information is a commodity. I’d apologize for all of us for that. But I won’t. I’m not the least bit sorry about it.

And now that revolutionary distribution channel is doing more. It’s no longer about sharing it. It’s about collaborative augmentation. Remixing it. Assembling it in ways that the original authors never pictured. Some people are calling this “Web 2-point-oh” – whatever the name it’s just the technology catching up with how we already communicate. So not only is information a commodity, but so is knowledge.

This gets me to the real point of this whole rambling treatise. And that’s about Cooperative Extension.

The heart and soul of Cooperative Extension, in my mind, at least in my short time in Extension, is the county agent. In all my years in IT and Systems Engineering, I know that the best support has always come from local staff. Even if those local staff weren’t up on the latest IT trends, or didn’t have all the knowledge of what was happening with the services they were actually supporting the use of – they had the experience with the folks they were supporting. Knowing you have to jiggle the faulty video cable in the back of Bob’s computer is worth as much as the knowledge about the signaling protocol that VGA uses, or what video driver version is loaded. Combined together – that’s pretty powerful.

It goes back to the famous quote from Dr. Seaman Knapp – who spearheaded what has become our county agent system:

“What a man hears, he may doubt, what he sees he may possibly doubt, What he does himself, he cannot doubt”

The commodity information sources exist. People can find what plants to place in their yard. They can find what the soil is. They can find information about what plants work best with their soil. But what they don’t have is the experience that our Master Gardeners and Horticulture specialists have. And when the Master Gardeners are on those same sites – working in those same communities where the people already are – they can see the some information, the same knowledge, and can “Yep, I did this” or “Yep, I was working with some folks last week that were doing exactly what you are trying to do” And there’s an increased level of trust by knowing that that experience is just down the road from me. Those communities can broaden the experience of our agents, connecting them to peers and connecting them to the public at times and in ways that an office visit just can’t do. These “connectors” are the new experts.

This isn’t really different from the way it’s always been. My great-grandfather owned a country store – and used to sit on some rickety rocking chairs and entertain company. Usually while watching “The Price is Right” (at least in my memory). Web 2.0 is the new rickety rocking chairs and checkerboard.

Anne Adrian at Auburn wrote a blog post a few days ago, about trying to articulate “Web 2.0” for Extension. She wrote of something that I had been thinking about some time for the project that I’m involved in with Cooperative Extension. What’s in it for the states? What’s in it for the people in the counties that are where the people are? I know that where I in the same boat, on the spot, I would have ummed, erred, hemmed, and hawed a halting description of how Web 2.0 is beneficial to local folks. I wouldn’t have been even able to articulate what Anne felt was unconvincing. I’ve been thinking more and more about this since I read Anne’s post. And how would I answer that question?

I haven’t read Weinberger, so I’m going to boil mine down to those opening words.

It isn’t about what you know, it’s about what you can figure out.

And who do we have better than our local folks at figuring things out?

What are the IT Responsibilities

I sent this to a campus mailing list today, and the question is as relevant to be discussed among the blogs as it is on a campus network administrators mailing list. Perhaps even more so.

This last week has brought the computing world another high-profile so-called hacking incident. In this case, 13 high school students in Pennsylvania are being charged with computer trespass(*), a felony charge in their case. Obviously there is internet opinion on all sides of the issue. The most lucid exposition is likely in an opinion column in USA Today. (via: Bruce Schneier).

(* In North Carolina, computer trespass is generally a misdemeanor. However, for University computers, e.g. a Government computer, Unauthorized Access is a felony. These two sections are part of the general NC computer crimes general statute)


In something closer to the issues Universities face, earlier this year, a group of business school applicants hacked the Harvard Business School’s outsourced ApplyYourself system – and were (at least then) denied admission to the school. Again, details are sketchy and varied, though I’m inclined to accept the Philip Greenspun’s (opinionated as it might be) take on the matter. (see also a media story from boston.com )


Closer to home some of our students were initially charged last year with unauthorized access to a Government computer because they posted joke entries into the Public Safety police blotter. I do not know the details of this, and I really don’t want to know. I know some of the conjecture, I know most of what was said on a student web board on the matter and I know what the news media reported, none of which really highlight the actual details. I have never talked to an IT peer on this campus that might know any details. (and to be clear, the details one way or the other about that DO NOT matter for the purposes of my eventual question).


I DO NOT want to start a discussion about whether or not felony charges, or denying students access to a business school are appropriate punishments. I DO NOT want to start a discussion about the law, or the gray areas of the law, or the culpability of the students, or the parents, or the organization’s governance. I definitely DO NOT want to start a discussion about the details of any of the incidents, especially because the majority of us don’t know the story of any of them beyond the news reports and internet opinion.

(these are very valid discussions, however, they were not within the scope of the campus mailing list, and I’m not going to encourage them to be in the scope here)

What I am doing is posting them because these incidents, and others, highlight that there are serious ramifications to the IT support, the coding, the outsourcing, and the implementation of technology made by folks like you and me.

This is an inordinately complex business, decisions we make, and technologies we implement end up being used (and misused) in ways we never imagined. We can spend hours on hours in due diligence to make sure we keep up with security threats, that our systems are patched, fixing where we used or in our code when we meant to use and and still have our systems taken advantage of.

But it’s safe to say, our peers do some absolutely stupid things. In the first example in Pennsylvania, some of the first incidents resulted from the administrator password being taped to the laptops. (however if the USA Today is correct, there was a continued progression of misuse that led to the felony charges, it wasn’t a straight take advantage of the password => felony charge). The ApplyYourself issue, if Greenspun was correct, was possible only due to quite poor application design.

So, my question(s) for discussion are these: (and any you want to add):

What are the responsibilities of the IT staff? What can we do, in terms of best practices, to make sure that we aren’t doing the stupid things (stupid, of course, is a relative, and often hyperbolic term), that leave open the possibilities for illegitimate use? (continued misuse is a whole other story). What kind of self-oversight and peer support can we implement to protect ourselves and even more so, our system users from things like this? What are your thoughts?

I know that I’ve done my fair share of Self-Denial of Service attacks and very likely will continue, thankfully, none have ever escalated into the kinds of things where someone is going to be charged with a crime (or even get in trouble). My sincere hope is that we never do end up in that situation and the intent of these questions are to talk about things we can do to avoid that.