You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Archive for September, 2011

Is Information Technology Beneficial?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

We often assume that information technology is beneficial to society, however, this is rarely backed by empirical evidence. Last week in our cooperation reading group, we discussed a fascinating paper by Jeremiah Dittmar that examines the link between information technology and economic growth. Despite the title, the paper is not about the Internet or even computers, it is about the printing press. The author used data from the fourteenth and  fifteenth centuries to show how that the printing press indeed had a positive effect on economic growth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Internet Memes for World Peace

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Today was perhaps the first time a head of state makes reference to an Internet meme in a speech. This is both  funny and potentially really interesting.  Mexican President Felipe Calderón during a speech given to the national delegation participating in the Panamerican Games made reference to a popular Internet meme from known as El Fua. Calderón said:

You must know how much your are worth and you should go the extra mile… I was going to say something else, well, El Fua! (laughs) for being Mexicans, for the value of being Mexicans, for the pride for being Mexicans, feel it there.


El Fua – Source: Know Your Meme

Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of the Internet argues that cute pictures of cats (i.e., memes) are precondition to the spread of powerful ideas, like democracy. Perhaps the Arab Spring revolution was one of those ideas, we don’t know, but if a silly Internet meme made it to the president’s mind, could the same happen to other bottom-up ideas? Could one of those be a change of policies related to the war on drugs? One can hope.

Terminology Discussions as Probes

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

I typically avoid terminology discussions because they tend to lead nowhere, however, sometimes they are a useful way of knowing how different disciplines approach similar phenomena. We had two separate discussions about terminology at the fellows hour. One of them was about the distinction between cooperation and collaboration. The second was about data, information and knowledge.

Cooperation vs Collaboration

Seems like the positions were that despite being used interchangeably in everyday discussions, in most social sciences the understanding is that cooperation refers to the underlying basic human behavior consisting of doing things for others. In computer science terms, I guess this would be a the “low-level” behavior that is closer to hardware (or wetware in the case of humans). Collaboration on the other hand is a more explicit and intentional form of cooperation that requires coordination, communication. So in a way, collaboration and coordination are instances of collaboration.Probably cooperation is of interest to people studying basic human behavior such as cognitive scientists, behavioral economists, development psychologists, biologists, etc. Collaboration might be of interest to sociologists, anthropologists and computer scientists working on social software.

Information vs Knowledge

Parallel to the previous discussion, some people brought up the distinction between information and knowledge. Someone wondered if information was the same as data, in the sense that data is “neutral” and yet to be interpreted. Someone else argued that data itself is not neutral as it was the result of a data collection process designed to collect some variables and not others. Finally, Vivek Kundra mentioned a funny thing that happened when he became the CIO of the United States Government. He said that several people thought he was going to be in charge of the relationship between the White House and the press, which was not the case.

Suitcase Words

Marvin Minsky often talked  about “suitcase-words”. He wrote that “consciousness” is a suitcase words because it “does not refer to any single idea or thing, but that we use it as a suitcase-word for a great many different activities”. Minsky’s approach was to unpack these word in at least three different things. I am sure there must be a lot of more formal discussions unpacking the terms above, it would be good to compare those discussions within and across different fields.

2011 Fellows on Twitter

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

I started putting together a Twitter list of Berkman Fellows. I am probably missing a lot of people,  so  please let me know the @handle of those I missed… or perhaps this is something that @berkmancenter could curate?

All roads lead to Berkman

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

I have been hanging out at the Berkman Center for a few years now but this was my first week as a fellow. Meeting all the new people at the lunch event on Tuesday made me realize how Berkman is some sort of intellectual hub of the Internet. Also, I am often surprised  by how many know about Berkman and how many influential digerati are or have passed  by Berkman at some point.

All roads lead to Rome
Photo by Greenery

The diversity of backgrounds among the Berkmanites is also very telling of the type of people who are attracted to building and understanding the on-line world. Nicholas Negroponte once described the Media Lab as a place for misfits and I think Berkman is another one of those places. We need more places like these, places willing to host people unbounded by specific disciplines.

But Berkman, like the Media Lab, is a transitional spaces for a lot of people. Where can these misfits go afterwards? I would like to know the answer to that. In the meanwhile, as I was trying to find a photo to accompany this post, I searched for  “misfit” on Flickr and I got a lot of pictures of cats!  Coincidence? I don’t think so.

20070317 - Carolyn's birthday and St. Patrick's Day party - (by AE) - 425285317_98fff7420d_o - Misfit - playing, on back

Photo by ClintJCL