The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.
The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.
It’s been two weeks since I called David Kobia to launch Ushahidi’s crisis mapping platform in Haiti. I could probably write 100 blog posts on the high’s and low’s of the past 14 days. Perhaps there will more time be next month to recount the first two weeks of the disaster response. For now, I wanted to share an astounding example of crowdsourcing that took place 10 days ago.
What's special about the first week of the semester is that, not only do you get to sample an unnaturally wide variety of wares, but by studiously avoiding the "required reading" portions of each syllabus, it's possible to indulge in the illusion that you'll actually take every course you sit in on, including that daunting (and tantalizing!) course on quantitative linguistics. Alas, there are only so many hours in the day, and as my wife and I have discovered, small children demand that some of those hours be spent with them. So greedy!
At any rate, here's my lineup for day two:
History of Science 151: Modern Pasts and Postmodern Futures
This course analyzes the modern age through three complementary perspectives. First, it offers a historical perspective focusing on landmark changes of the period, particularly focusing on science (Pasteur, Darwin, Charcot, Maxwell) and technology (steam engines, rail, telegraphy, photography). Second, it analyzes the work of important writers on modernity and civilization (focusing on Marx, Bergson, Freud). Third: it studies theorists of postmodernity (mainly Lyotard, Jameson, Habermas) who describe the benefits, dangers and/or alternatives to modernity.
I sat in on the first 30 minutes of this class, and I had to cross my legs to hide my nerd lust. I love science and pretentious French postmodernists. Who knew there was a class in which Lyotard and Darwin unite? In the words of the great cultural theorist H.J. Simpson, "Woo Hoo!"
History of Science 162: Science in the Enlightenment
Explores practices of scientific theory, experimentation and observation in Europe and North America, 1681-1815. Topics include: Chemistry, Electricity, Astronomy, Mathematics, Natural History, Newtonianism, Science and the Public Sphere, Science and the State, Science and Rationality, Science and Utility, and Science and the Industrial Revolution.
And I sat in on the last half of this course. Also tempting. A whole week devoted to one of my preoccupations from last semester, changing notions of time. Ever heard of "deep time?" I hadn't either. Sadly, this conflicts with the other history of science class above.
Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 11: Making Sense: Language, Thought and Logic
What is meaning, and how do we use it to communicate? We address the first of these questions via the second, presenting an interdisciplinary approach to the study of human languages. We investigate language as the product of a natural algorithm, that is, a computational facility which grows spontaneously in our species and enables us to expose out thoughts and feelings. Our investigation uses formal models from logic, linguistics, and computer science. These models will also shed light on human nature and basic philosophical issues concerning language.
This one is a little too hearty of fare, even for my substantial appetite. Plus, the professor won't allow auditors to sit in on sections. This is part of the politics of being a Nieman fellow, by the way. Professors generally welcome us—sometimes enthusiastically—to their courses, but due to (I think) administrative restrictions won't let us attend the smaller meetings led by the teaching fellows. This is a problem on a class like this one, where I'd need more, um, intimate assistance if I'm to work out the complex math involved.
Government 98qa: Community in America
Has the social fabric of America's communities and the civic engagement of its citizens changed over the last generation? Why? Does it matter? What lessons might we find in American history? These questions are at the focus of this seminar.
I was born to take this class. Kidding, but only kind of. Anyone who's read my book knows I've wrestled a lot with Putnam and his ideas around community. This is the one course I'm most interested in taking this semester, and it starts in five, so I'm out.
Today marks the first day of the winter semester, but if you're imagining Timothy Bottoms and John Houseman matching wits, you've got the wrong idea. The first few weeks of classes are dedicated to course shopping, in which students cram into the most popular courses hoping to land one of the precious spots, and faculty try to sell their courses to increase enrollments. It's a mating ritual of sorts, and great fun. Here's Harvard grad Ross Douthat describing it in The Atlantic Monthly a few years ago: "There is a boisterous quality to this stretch, a sense of intellectual possibility, as people pop in and out of lecture halls, grabbing syllabi and listening for twenty minutes or so before darting away to other classes."
Boisterous may not put quite a fine enough point on it, so far as we fellows are concerned. Our tenure at Harvard is so short—I often joke that they let us into the candy store, but only gave us a nickel—that I think I speak for us all when I say there's an immense pressure to pick the right courses right from the start. You can help, or at least, I'll be curious for your thoughts. I'll be blogging my courses all week. Here's what I'll be shopping today:
Historical Study B-43: Slavery/Capitalism/Imperialism: The US in the Nineteenth Century
This course treats the history of the 19th-century US and the Civil War in light of the history of US imperialism, especially the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the illegal invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s. Likewise, it relates the history of slavery in the US to the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, Indian removal, Atlantic cotton, land and money markets, and the hemispheric history of antislavery.
I've been a history nerd since I was in grade school, and last semester I concentrated on post Civil War 19th Century American history. I've tended to underestimate the role race and slavery's effects have played in, well, just about everything. This course could act as a corrective to that, but what I'm really interested in is developing some historical research chops. Next:
English 141: The 18th-Century Novel
The rise of the novel, seen through eighteenth-century fiction by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Radcliffe, and Jane Austen, plus films, paintings, and engravings, magazine articles, and excerpts from literary and social theory. Issues include genre (what differentiates novels from epics, romances, newspapers, correspondences, biography, pornography?), modernity (what was novel about the novel?), gender, reading, and pleasure. Lecture-discussion format.
For years I've maintained a half-formed (okay, ill formed) idée fixe concerning the birth of the novel. Cultural commentators, pundits, the rest of us ... we all tend to treat the novel as something ahistorical, immutable, and yet it's a fairly recent cultural innovation. Plus, I've always wanted to read Fielding and Defoe.
History of Art and Architecture 175k: American and European Art, 1945-1975
This course will examine artistic production in the US and Europe between 1945 and 1975 to clarify some of the most crucial questions of this thirty year period: How did post-war visual culture repress or acknowledge the recent 'caesura of civilization' brought about by World War II?; how did the neo-avant garde position itself with regard to the legacies of the avant gardes of the 1920s?; how did artistic production situate itself in relation to the newly emerging apparatus of Mass Media culture?
I've left professor names out of the descriptions thus far, but it's often a big (or even biggest) factor that goes into one's decision. The above course is being taught by Benjamin Buchloh, a well-known critic and art historian. Buchloch wrote frequently for ArtForum when I interned there back in the mid-90s, and I found his prose to be occasionally brilliant but generally impenetrable. He'd always personified the gratuitous abstruseness of art criticism to me, but part of my Harvard experience has been re-evaluating my prejudices against Frankfurt School-inflected cultural criticism, and maybe this course will be part of that. If nothing else, I'm hoping Buchloh will give good slide.
I woke up this morning, stumbled downstairs and flipped open my laptop. Who was there to greet me but an old—and estranged—friend. As often happens in these scenarios, the conversation quickly took an awkward turn.
Me: "Oh my God! It's blog! Hey there ... it's been, like, soooo long."
Blog: "Yes. Yes it has. I hear you're well. I believe you're at Harvard now?"
Me: "I am, yes ... Look, I've totally been meaning to write. In fact, you probably noticed those posts in the drafts folder? I think I could still turn a few of those ... well, one is especially ... uh"
Blog: Meaningful silence. Blog glares in reply.
Me: Awkward laughter. "Okay, look, I'm sorry. I know that doesn't count. But you don't know what it's been like! The courses here are insanely demanding. I mean, Harvard professors expect you to read, like, a book a day. Every day! Who does that? And then there've been the kids. We had to get them into new schools, and Finn's daycare is in the opposite direction as Annabel's, andnd then there's all these parties—"
Blog: Still glaring. "Parties? You couldn't post to me because of parties!?"
Me: "Well, um. Parties isn't the right word, maybe. I mean, they're at night. And there's alcohol. And food. And, well, we dance sometimes. But mainly we're discussing important things. You know, the future of journalism and whether the New York Times will start charging for content."
Blog: "You had to assemble the finest minds in journalism and ply them with cheap Prosecco to figure out whether or not the Times would do what every J-School freshman already knew they were going to do?"
Me: "Look. You're angry. I'd be pissed too. And I need to be honest with you. I just needed a break, okay? We spent a lot of time together over the last several years, and we always wrote about the same stuff. I've been ... well, I've been studying intellectual history. William James. John Dewey. Charles Pierce. Pragmatism. And I've also been working on ... short stories."
Blog: Looking baffled. "Oh. Short stories. About crowdsourcing?"
Me: Sighing with exasperation. "No, blog. Not about crowdsourcing. Actually, they're just about people. People, not crowds."
Blog: "I see. You know. You could post them here. I wouldn't mind. And the only people who come by anymore are marketing dorks who punched "crowdsourcing" into Google and wind up here by mistake.
Me: "I guess that's an idea. I could just blog about what I'm doing while I'm on my Nieman? About my classes, and the smart, funny stuff people say? You wouldn't mind?"
Blog: "Mind?! I'd love it. I just, you know, don't like feeling abandoned."
Me: "Ah, Blog, I missed you too. And maybe from time to time we can post about crowdsourcing still."
Blog: Excitedly: "Short stories about crowdsourcing?"
Me: "We'll see, Blog, we'll see."