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Review of Infomocracy, by Malka Older

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Title: Infomocracy

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-765-38515-4

Length: 384

Price: $24.99

Rating: 98%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Tor.com releases Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy on June 7, into the teeth of a U.S. presidential election cycle, which is the best possible time for the book to come out. I’m happy to report that both publisher and author make the most of the opportunity.

World of Infomocracy

Infomocracy envisions a speculative future in the mid-to-late 21st century where most states have joined a world government system based on local rule. Under this system, the countries have been divided into centenals, which are governing units of 100,000 residents. Each centenal may chose the regime by which they wish to be governed, with choices including ideological governments such as Heritage (conservative), Liberty (libertarian), or Policy1st (everyone’s dream party that advocates the “demonstrably best” policies on each issue, for some definitions of “demonstrably best”); corporate governments including Phillip Morris, 888, and Coca-Cola; and a smattering of nationalist and local parties. The government that wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority, which gives it significant influence at the supranational level. Some countries, including likely candidates Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, decided not to join the world government scheme and govern independently.

At the center of Older’s world lies Information, a global service that combines our current internet, the Internet of Things (e.g., this pachinko machine paid out a 28,000 yen jackpot on such and such a date), as well as manipulable visualizations and heads-up displays. I think the combination of a governing scheme akin to that found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with an information service more like the one described in Minority Report serves the story’s needs admirably.

Ground Game

The popular aphorism that “all politics is local” describes a world divided into 100,000-person mini-states quite well. Infomocracy follows Ken, an undercover agent of influence for Policy1st, and Mishima, a researcher and sometime security worker for Information. As in William Gibson’s novels such as Pattern Recognition, we receive the barest hints of what the main characters look like, focusing instead on what they know, what they do, and how they react within their milieu.

As the story progresses, we follow Ken and Mishima around the world as they embark on assignments, react to emergencies, and explore their burgeoning relationship. Sometimes their efforts create the desired change, sometimes they get a mixed result, and sometimes everything goes wrong. Those varied outcomes, which highlight the joy and pain that are never far from the tactical-level worker’s mind, are no doubt the product of Older’s work as a humanitarian aid worker in Japan, Darfur, Mali, and other places (including three years as a team leader), as well as her appointment as a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015. When you consider that experience in tandem with her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. work at l’Institut d’Études Politques de Paris, you get a sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to the task.

Events in Infomocracy proceed in a manner that is both familiar and surprising. To paraphrase Chekhov, “If you see a global information network over the fireplace in Act One, it will go off in Act Five.” We don’t quite get to Act Five before the information and communication grid goes down, but fail it does and the hell that was breaking loose accelerates into a maelstrom Ken and Mishima must navigate.

Older brings the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t give the book a 100% rating because I thought a few minor elements weren’t handled as well as they might have been, but I don’t feel compelled to write an artificially “balanced” review that makes too much of those quibbles. The book’s too good to spend much time on a few bits that were merely good instead of outstanding.

Conclusion

Infomocracy doesn’t read like a first novel—rather, it reads like the work of an experienced author who can leverage her significant life experience into a compelling narrative. I recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy enthusiastically and without reservation. I look forward to her next book.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Review of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life

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Title: Quantified

Editor: Dawn Nafus

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52875-7

Length: 280

Price: $27.00

Rating: 92%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Fitness trackers, such as the Nike+ FuelBand, FitBit, and (in some modes) the Apple Watch have grown in popularity over the past several years. Knowledge of one’s activity levels and physical state, even if measured somewhat inaccurately by contemporary sensors, empowers users by providing insights into one’s relative health and activity levels. Other sensors, including implanted devices such as pacemakers, record data more accurately at the cost of greater intrusion upon the self. In Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, Dawn Nafus, a Senior Research Scientist at Intel Labs, leads an investigation into the anthropoligical implications of new technologies and applications.

Organization and Coverage

Quantified is a collection of papers from the Biosensors in Everyday Life project, a multi-year effort with representatives from several institutions that examined how biosensing technologies, using either”wet” sensors (e.g., saliva, blood, or another bodily fluid) or “dry” sensors (e.g., heart rate, temperature, or blood pressure), impacts individuals and society as a whole.Nafus divided Quantifiedinto three sections: Biosensing and Representation, Institutional Arrangements, and Seeing Like a Builder. The first section, Biosensing and Representation, contains four chapters that examine the Quantified Self (QS) movement from an academic perspective. The first three pieces are, as Nafus admits, written by academics using academic language. I was happy to discover those pieces are accessible to the general reader, which isn’t always the case with articles or dissertations written by specialists for specialists. For non-academics like myself, the first three chapters provide a useful glimpse at how professional scholars approach biosensing as both practice and artifact. The fourth piece, by Wired contributing editor and QS movement leader Gary Wolf, provides a bit of push-back against the strictly academic approach to biosensing.

The Institutional Arrangements section examines QS in terms of regulation, privacy, and autonomy. Images of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and assumed observation as presented in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Orwell’s 1984 immediately come to mind, but as with every new technology access to information is regulated by differing privacy regimes at the regional, national, and supranational level.

The final section, Seeing Like a Builder, approaches biosensing from the perspective of mechanical engineering, device design, and data management. The first chapter is an edited conversation between Nafus, Deborah Estrin of Cornell Tech in New York City, and Anna de Paula Hanika of Open mHealth about the role of open data in the biosensing movement. Subsequent chapters investigate environmental monitoring, data available through the City of London’s bike rental program, and personal genomics.

Topics of Interest

I’ve written a fair amount about privacy issues and public policy, so I naturally gravitated toward the essays in the Institutional Arrangements section. In the Biosensing in Context chapter, Nissenbaum and Patterson apply the framework of Contextual Integrity to data captured by biosensors. As the name implies, Contextual Integrity addresses the appropriate sharing of information given its context, rather than a coarser set of norms established by law or policy. For individuals taking advantage of QS technologies, they might want to share information with other members of the movement to gain insights from their combined knowledge (called the “n of a billion 1’s” approach elsewhere in the collection). Marking appropriate sharing and usage depends on accurate metadata, which is discussed in Estrin and de Paula Hanika’s exploration of the Open mHealth data framework from the Seeing Like a Builder section.

In Disruption and the Political Economy of Biosensor Data, Fiore-Garland and Neff address the narrative that new technologies favor democracy and democratization. Specifically, they challenge the notion that disruptive change is, by definition, good. As they note:

In their most extreme form, disruption discourses use the concepts of democracy and democratization as ways to describe technological change, and in doing so ascribe social power to technological change in a teleological, deterministic way: if we say a technology disrupts power by bringing democratic access to data or power, then the technology will be democratic.

As rhetorical constructs, “disruption” and “democratization” invoke ideas of personal freedom and autonomy, implicitly denying traditional authorities control over one’s data. As with most business models based on platforms that provide the medium through which data is shared (e.g., Facebook), this argument is inherently self-serving. In the United States, private companies face few barriers to collecting and analyzing individual data, and practically none at all if the data has been shared openly and intentionally. While the interaction of health privacy laws and QS data sharing has yet to be tested, existing precedent argues strongly in favor of an interpretation favorable to companies that want to analyze the data for private gain.

I also enjoyed Marc Böhlen’s chapter Field Notes in Contamination Studies, which chronicled his team’s effort to track water quality in Indonesia. Böhlen’s team had to wrestle with the cultural implications of their work and account for both the expectations of the Indonesian citizens affected by their monitoring as well as the initial suspicions of the Indonesian government. I hadn’t encountered a narrative of this type before, so I appreciated learning more about his team’s work.

Conclusion

Quantified is an excellent first multidisciplinary study of the Quantified Self movement. The field is certain to evolve quickly, but the pieces in this book provide a strong base on which to perform future analysis.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Review of The Art of Language Invention

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Title: The Art of Language Invention

Author: David J. Peterson

Publisher: Penguin

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-143-12646-1

Length: 284

Price: $17.00

Rating: 94%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

During my high school years, I thought it would be fun to invent my own language. Something like English, but heavily influenced by the many related Romance languages popular in Europe. I described this vision to my French teacher and she said, “You mean, like Esperanto?” One encyclopedia article later and I was on to other projects.

Others were not so easily deterred. David J. Peterson parlayed his childhood love of languages into a master’s degree in linguistics and a career inventing languages for the HBO series Game of Thrones, SyFy’s Defiance, and other projects. In The Art of Language Invention, Peterson shares his experiences as a language developer along with enough background in linguistics to appreciate the decisions and effort that go into creating a new language.

Linguistics as a Discipline

While at Syracuse University in the late 1980s, I had the good fortune to take LING 201 from Professor William Ritchie. That course surveyed the mechanics of linguistic analysis by introducing topics such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax, while also describing writing systems, language families, linguistic evolution, and interactions that produce new forms of language such as dialects, creoles, and pidgins. I thought it was fascinating stuff and went on to take several more linguistics classes. I would have taken even more if they’d counted toward my degree program.

In a little over 250 pages, Peterson does an excellent job of covering the topics from LING 201 such that a reader with little or no training in linguistics can appreciate the tools and, perhaps more importantly, the effort that goes into developing a language complete with its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Even readers with only a passing interest in language creation but who would like an approachable introduction to linguistics could benefit from Peterson’s work.

Constructed Languages in Popular Media

The hook behind The Art of Language Invention, of course, is Peterson’s development of Dothraki and Valyrian for the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Peterson weaves the tale of how he developed Dothraki and Valyrian throughout his coverage of various linguistic topics, supplementing his own insights and results with those of other language creators. As a co-founder of the Language Creation Society, which you can find online at conlang.org, Peterson created a meeting point for language enthusiasts to share their work and their love of language.

What I appreciated most about language development at the professional level is the attention to backstory and evolution. Just as it’s impossible to fully appreciate English without knowing how it has changed over the years, developers can’t construct a new language without giving significant thought to its proto-language and the cultural, geographic, and political forces that shaped it over time. Peterson’s commentary on how those decisions get made, and how they affect the end state of the language, provide terrific insights into his process.

Conclusion

I believe The Art of Language Invention is a terrific book that intertwines the geeky worlds of linguistics and speculative fiction into a satisfying manuscript. Yes, I am in many ways an embodiment of this book’s target audience, but if you share even a part of my enthusiasm for the subject, you should read Peterson’s work.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 30 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Title: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Author: Whitney Phillips

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02894-3

Length: 248

Price: $24.95

Rating: 90%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Ah, trolls…so much fun to watch when they’re harassing someone you think deserves it and so infuriating when they get under your skin. Whitney Phillips, a lecturer in the department of communications at Humboldt State University, wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oregon on trolling behavior. That dissertation provides the foundation for This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things from MIT Press.

What is Trolling?

Phillips notes that the central theme of all trolling is lulz, which she defines as amusement at other peoples’ distress. Proactive schadenfreude, I guess. Trolls are perfectly happy to derive their enjoyment from regular users, public figures, and other trolls. All that matters are the lulz.

One of the first widespread instances of trolling took place when a group of trolls invaded the Usenet newsgroup rec.pets.cats, asking increasingly odd questions and suggesting inappropriate solutions to feline health issues. Regardless of your cat’s respiratory issues, you probably won’t need to aerate it with a .357 hollow-point bullet. I never visited the rec.pets.cats group, but discussion of the trolls’ behavior leaked over to the groups I did participate in. Even the collateral damage was significant. Another early example on Usenet, though one that bordered on spam as well, was “Serdar Argic”, an alias for what appeared to have been multiple posters sending out hundreds of lengthy posts per day denying the Armenian genocide from the early 20th century to groups such as soc.culture.history.

Trolling as Rhetoric

As a communications scholar, Phillips takes on trolling as a rhetorical activity, placing it in a broader cultural context as both product and amplifier of certain aspects of society. Specifically, the masculine drive for domination and as a complement to the 24-hour news cycle.

One reason middle school is such a vile experience for many children is the constant barrage of status games, where kids try to find their place in society at the expense of their classmates. Male trolls, who appear to dominate the landscape, continue this type of aggressive behavior online. They base their rhetorical strategies on the work of Arthur Schopenhauer’s book The Art of Controversy, which melds Aristotelian logic and Socratian dialectic with the Dark Side of the Force. The trolls’ goal is to invoke negative emotions from their targets and, upon eliciting insults or harsh language in response to their own provocations, remind their victims that there’s no room for rudeness in civilized argument and go right back to taking arguments out of context, insulting their opponent, and racking up the lulz.

Phillips also takes issue with conservative media, particularly Fox News and its handling of the Birther controversy, which raised the question as to whether President Barack Obama (usually spoken as Barack HUSSEIN Obama) should release his long-form birth certificate and, after it was released, whether it was a legitimate document. Fox News rode that story hard for much of 2008 and 2009 — you can still hear the echoes if you listen closely. Trolls took advantage of the coverage and some images of Obama to create intentionally offensive and racist memes.

That’s not to say trollish behavior is strictly the purview of Fox News and its ilk. When the Tea Party affiliate in Troy, Michigan had early success turning sentiment against a levy intended to fund the town’s library, an advertising agency devised a campaign purported to be from a group named Safeguarding American Families. The ads expressed opposition to the measure and announced the group would hold a book-burning party. The outrage at this fictitious statement turned sentiment in favor of the ballot measure, which ultimately passed.

Phillips also offers an interesting commentary on trolls as trickster characters. The trickster is known for undercutting the foundations of a society’s cultures or mores but not replacing it with anything. Rather than offer a helpful solution for how things could be done better, tricksters start a fire and walk away. When there are no more lulz to be had, the troll’s work is done.

Transitioning to a Publishable Book

Academic writing is often completely impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a specialist in the author’s field of inquiry. My brother wrote his dissertation on a public policy subject I found interesting, but I couldn’t get through more than three pages of the final document. (Sorry, Doug. I know I said I read the whole thing, but my soup spoon kept creeping toward my eyeballs.) Passive voice is used to maintain a semblance of objectivity and distance, specialized language pervades the text, and rewrites continue until the ultimate academic hazing ritual is complete.

Kind of makes me wonder if dissertation committees haven’t been trolling candidates since the 1500s.

Phillips and her editors did a terrific job of excising unneeded jargon from the text, though some usage and conventions they kept leap off the page. The seemingly ubiquitous forward slash appeared in the section on method/ology, but at least there were no indiscretions on the order of the visual pun When the (M)other is a Fat/Her that William Germano mentions in Getting it Published. That said, while phrasings indicating someone is “gendered” as male have entered the general literature, saying someone was “raced” as Caucasian still seems odd to this generally interested reader.

Conclusions

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a terrific introduction to the world of trolling, exploring how trolls put on figurative masks (or literal masks in the case of online anonymity) and generate lulz from those they encounter. As a former competitive debater in high school and college, I’m dismayed by the violence done to my beloved art of rhetorical controversy. Score some lulz for the trolls, I guess. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

April 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Book Review: Virtual Economies from MIT Press

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Title: Virtual Economies

Authors: Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-02725-0

Length: 294

Price: $45.00

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Designing playable, let alone interesting, video games is difficult. Massive multiplayer games, especially those that allow trade among players, increase design complexity considerably. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, tweaking prices of individual items or resources to make them more or less accessible to the players and finding the best ways to move money into or out of the game’s economy.

In the face of that complexity, designers must remember their primary goal: earning money for the publisher. Early in Virtual Economies, Lehdonvirta and Castronova lay out the three main objectives of virtual economy design: creating content (both by the producers and the players), attracting and retaining users (attention), and monetizing the game’s virtual resources to create an income stream for the producers. These objectives frame their analysis throughout the book, providing a coherent narrative that emphasizes the importance of designing a system so it generates revenues needed to sustain a game or community.

Unintended Consequences

One source of joy and fear for designers is discovering how their users will creatively exploit the rules of a game to create the experience they want. In fact, the authors point out that designing an inefficient currency might make a game more playable, perhaps because players would develop strategies and tactics to work around the inefficiencies or negotiation and trust issues would lead to interesting player interactions.

You can also try to make virtual money through traditional economic activity. In games, as in any economy, some players search for arbitrage opportunities. When discrepancies arise between the objective value of an item and its perceived value, investors can attempt to make a profit by buying or selling the item. In the stock market, these inefficiencies might arise when a company’s stock is undervalued because investors give too much weight to recent sales data. Investors can buy the stock, hold it until it reaches its proper value, and sell to collect the profits.

Some games offer more straightforward examples, such as allowing users to buy a leather jerkin at a shop in one part of the virtual world and sell it in another region for a significant profit. In either case, players who enjoy this type of activity can take advantage of in-game commercial opportunities.

Faucets and Sinks

Just as players try to acquire game resources, designers must find ways to remove those resources from the game. Maintaining the proper flow of money using macroeconomic policies requires a tricky balancing act between having too much or not enough money in the system. Without income, players can’t buy items they need or desire, but too much money produces in-game inflation that puts even routine purchases out of reach of newer players.

Lehdonvirta and Castronova describe how designers can use money faucets and money sinks to add or remove virtual currency from the game. Money faucets might be as simple as gaining treasure from killing orcs or as complex as arbitrage, while money sinks could include maintenance costs for dwellings, replacing damaged equipment, or securing transport to remote areas.

Virtual Becomes Real

Finally, it’s entirely possible for in-game items and virtual currency to cross over into the real world. Some rare World of Warcraft items command hundreds of dollars on eBay or elsewhere and entire companies in Romania and China make money through “gold mining” (defeating monsters to gain their treasure and selling the gold to other players) or leveling up characters for players who lack either the time or inclination to do it themselves.

Virtual currency can also be used in place of real money for physical transactions, as happened with the Q coin used in Chinese producer Tencent’s game Tencent QQ. A lack of credit cards or easy online payment hampered online commerce in China at the time, so players used Q coins as a medium of exchange. Players transferred Q coins to settle debts or, after the company (at the insistence of the People’s Bank of China) limited the amount that could be transferred at one time, created accounts with standard amounts of Q coins and gave their transaction partners the account’s password.

Conclusions

Virtual Economies combines standard material found in earlier works such as The Economics of Electronic Commerce with new applications told through the eyes of individuals who are both academic analysts and practitioners. Specifically, Lehdonvirta and Castronova provide a substantial overview of traditional economics, such as supply and demand curves and marginal analysis, as well as more recent topics from behavioral economics that help explain why and how individuals deviate from the traditional rational actor model. Add in discussions of what makes for a good currency, how markets function, and macroeconomic issues removes the need for students to buy multiple texts to get the full picture.

Many professors and independent readers will choose to supplement this book’s information with reading packets and online resources, but Virtual Economies could easily stand alone in any context. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

January 5, 2015 at 10:00 am

Book Review: MOOCs, by Jonathan Haber

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Title: MOOCs

Author: Jonathan Haber

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52691-3

Length: 227

Price: $13.95

Rating: 90%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer free classes to anyone with internet access and a willingness to learn. As author Jonathan Haber notes in his recent MIT Press book MOOCs, this educational innovation is working its way through the hype cycle. First touted as an existential threat to traditional “sage on the stage” lecture-based learning, the media has inevitably turned to highlighting the platform’s flaws. How MOOCs evolve from their freemium model remains to be seen.

Haber is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on education technology. This book is based in part on his attempt to re-create a philosophy undergraduate degree by taking free online courses and, where necessary, reading free online textbooks. In MOOCs, Haber captures the essence of the courses, both through his personal experience as well as his encapsulation of the history, current practice, and impact of MOOCs in the social, educational, and corporate realms.

MOOCs as a Learning Environment

The allure of MOOCs centers around their ability to share knowledge with students who might not be able to attend MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh, or other leading institutions. Students can watch videos on their own schedule and, if they’re not concerned about receiving a Statement of Accomplishment or similar recognition, they don’t have to turn in homework or take quizzes on time or at all.

Most videos are 5-10 minutes in length, though some courses that present complex content can have videos that stretch to as long as 45 minutes. Production values range from a professor sitting in their office and facing a camera (often with PowerPoint slides displayed at least part of the time the professor speaks) to videos including animations and location shots that take significant time and budget to produce.

MOOCs offer three general grading policies: quizzes and tests with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, computer programs submitted to an automated grader (very common in machine learning courses), and peer grading. There’s no possible way for professors to grade essays or computer programs from thousands of students, so they have to rely on objective mechanisms and peer grading to carry the load. Objective tests are acceptable, but many students dislike peer review even in cases where it’s clearly necessary.

Institutions sponsoring MOOCs go to great length to distinguish students who complete a MOOC from their traditional students. Certificates or Statements of Achievement stress that the holder is not a Wharton/Stanford/MIT student and that the certificate conveys no rights to claim such status. Most MOOCs also use much looser grading standards than traditional courses. For example, students are often allowed multiple attempts at homework or exams and the total grade required to pass a MOOC is often in the 60-70% range. These relaxed requirements make certificates easier to earn and probably increase retention, but the end result is a much less rigorous test of student ability.

Controversies

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have generated controversy. The first question is whether, despite their huge enrollments (some courses have more than 100,000 students registered), the courses’ equally huge drop-out rates. As an example, consider the following statistics from the September 5, 2014 session of the Wharton School’s course An Introduction to Financial Accounting, created and taught by Professor Brian Bushee (which I passed, though without distinction):

Number of students enrolled: 111,925

Number of students visiting course: 74,599

Number of students watching at least one lecture: 61,130

Number of students submitting at least one homework: 25,078

Number of students posting on a forum: 3,497

Number of signature track signups: 3,953

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 7,689

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction: 2,788 (included in total receiving SoA)

The ratios that stand out are that only 54.6% of enrolled students watched at least one lecture, 22.4% submitted at least one homework, and 6.87% of students earned a Statement of Accomplishment. That pass rate is fairly typical for these courses. While the percentage seems miniscule, another MOOC professor noted that, even with just 5,000 or so students passing his online course, his 10-week MOOC cohort represented more students than had passed through his classroom in his entire career.

Another concern is who benefits from MOOCs. Students require internet access to view course movies, at least in a way that can be counted by the provider, so there is a significant barrier to entry. Surveys show that the majority of MOOC students are university educated, but there are still large groups from outside the traditional “rich, Western, educated” profile. So, while many students appear to come from richer, Western countries, the courses do overcome barriers to entry.

Finally, MOOCs raise the possibility that courses from “rock star” professors could replace similar offerings taught by professors at other schools. For example, San Jose State University licensed content from a popular Harvard political philosophy course taught on edX with the intention that their own professors would teach to the acquired outline, not their own. The philosophy faculty refused to use the content and wrote an open letter to the Harvard professor complaining about the practice. A similar circumstance led Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier, who created and taught the vastly popular Sociology course offered by Coursera, to decline permission to run his course a second time. Coursera wanted to license his content for sale to other universities, which could save money by mixing video and in-person instruction. Duneier saw this action as a potential excuse to cut states’ higher education funding and pulled his course.

Conclusions

Haber closes the book with a discussion of whether or not he achieved his goal of completing the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in one year using MOOCs and other free resources. He argues both for and against the claim (demonstrating a fundamental grasp of sound argumentation, at the very least) and describes his capstone experience: a visit to a philosophy conference. His test was whether he could understand and participate meaningfully in sessions and discussions. I’ll leave his conclusions for you to discover in the book.

I found MOOCs to be an interesting read and a useful summary of the developments surrounding this learning platform. That said, I thought the book could have been pared down a bit. Some of the discussions seemed less concise than they might have been and cutting about 20 pages would have brought the book in line with other entries in the Essential Knowledge series. It’s hard to know what to trim away, though, and 199 small-format pages of main text isn’t much of a burden for an interested reader.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Book Review: Grassroots for Hire

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Title: Grassroots for Hire

Author: Edward T. Walker

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-107-61901-2

Length: 282

Price: $32.99

Rating: 96%

 

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Grassroots politics, the common term for political movements that use popular participation to effect change, came to prominence in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Starting in the 1930s, but particularly in response to the social movements of the 1960s that challenged the ruling elites, consulting firms offered services to help clients develop, focus, and deploy campaigns to shape policy using popular opinion.

Edward T. Walker, a professor of sociology and that University of California, Los Angeles, captured the results of his detailed study of political consulting firms specializing in grassroots mobilization in his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy. The product of several years’ work interviewing grassroots consulting firms and analyzing data on the industry, Walker’s book offers a dispassionate and detailed look into this category of firms.

An Example Campaign

The author opens his commentary with a discussion of Students for Academic Choice, an advocacy organization started by for-profit colleges and trade schools such as the University of Phoenix. This organization ran an advocacy campaign, which included letter-writing and email efforts from students of for-profit universities, with the goal of ensuring these schools remained on the approved institutions list for federal student loan programs.

Students for Academic Choice recruited student leaders and provided support services, including template emails students could send to lawmakers public email accounts. All the participant had to do was fill in information such as their course of study and institution before sending it to their representative. The process of identifying opinion leaders, designing support activities, and driving participation is different in the details but often follows a standard pattern that’s well suited to templated consulting.

Walker goes into some detail on the structure of and range of services offered by grassroots consulting firms. Many of the interviews were done on a not-for-attribution basis, but in some of those cases he could still share significant details by choosing what to reveal and masking the identity of the firm and the individual he spoke with. As with any profession, participants show a range of motivations and attitudes, ranging from caring deeply about the issues they choose to support to working actively for whoever is willing to hire them.

Astroturfing

Grassroots for Hire also spends a good deal of time on so-called “astroturf” campaigns. AstroTurf is the patented trade name of a synthetic turf used on sports fields for many years. Just as AstroTurf might be thought of as “fake grass”, a “fake grassroots” campaign could by analogy be called an “astroturf” campaign. The author cites three considerations that could indicate a popular campaign is illegitimate (p. 33):

  • Incentivized: Participants are offered incentives for their engagement or threatened with negative consequences if they do not take part.
  • Fraudulent: Participants either do not believe or do not fully comprehend the claims they are making (or, worse, campaign organizers engage in fraud by attributing claims to individuals that were never actually made). Participants take part despite these limitations because they are either incentivized or threatened….
  • Masquerading: The campaign has covert elite sponsorship and is masquerading as a movement with a broad base of non-elite support.

It’s easy for a campaign’s opponents to dismiss it out of hand as a fake effort funded by one or more elite interests, but often difficult to prove any direct involvement without information from an opinion leader recruited by campaign consultants or copies of the “generated mail”.

Conclusions

The author rounds out his coverage of public affairs consulting in support of grassroots campaigns with a series of appendices describing the data his team collected and the specific methodologies used to analyze it. These appendices bridge the gap between the author’s doctoral dissertation (from which this book is adapted) and a published work. Academic writing doesn’t always translate well to the traditional publishing world, even for established houses such as Cambridge University Press, but in this case the transition was successful.

Walker’s goal in writing Grassroots for Hire was to provide factual and statistical support for debate about the consequences of professional consultants providing advocacy support services. His analysis more than meets that challenge. Highly recommended.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.