Saturday, March 6, 2010

Narrative Control in the Digital Age

“Can’t the Internet control us just as easily as it can liberate us?” asked Jonathan Zittrain Wednesday night as part of the Provost’s 2010 lecture series. Zittrain is a law professor and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University,

Zittrain explained that technology is changing the way we access and add to human knowledge. Our ever-increasing reliance on digital information can create difficult problems with regard to the historical record.

One major issue is that people, governments, organizations or corporations can justify revising the record for various reasons:
  • national security

  • privacy

  • copyright

  • fairness (jury taint, defamation, group insult)

Zittrain offered a few examples where publicly-available information was deemed harmful, and how the problem was dealt with.

Apparently, the EPA used to make “worst-case scenarios” available on the Internet: detailed information about what would have to be done, where, to cause the most damage to life and property. The intent was to let people know that ‘Hey, something really bad could happen. Just FYI.’ However, in the wrong hands, this information could practically be a step-by-step guide.

In response to the uproar that inevitably followed when the scenarios gained publicity, the government decided to establish government reading rooms, where interested parties could go in sans cameras or writing materials of any kind and read as much as their heart desired. According to Zittrain, “It’s quaint. It was totally well-meaning, but there is an element of comicalness to it.”

Another pitfall to recording history in the digital age is that information is increasingly consolidated. Imagine a future where Ebooks are used exclusively over their ink-and-paper counterparts. If for any reason an Ebook vendor changes the book (perhaps due to copyright or governmental regulation), digital rights management would allow the change to be reflected in every copy.

“This is how holes appear in the historical record in way they did not before,” Zittrain said. “It is terrifying!”

Distortions in the record can be just as significant, especially when they can’t be distinguished from truth. For example, sponsored editorials that are favorable of a particular policy or person. As Zittrain put it, “[the record] doesn’t say later ‘By the way, this was fake.’”

“So what do we do? This is not necessarily making for a more complete or accurate historical record.”

His solution: Don’t keep everything in the same place. Lots of copies keep stuff safe! Libraries can play a role by keeping copies to check against other available copies & the Google master copy (when Ebooks eventually predominate, as Zittrain believes).

Furthermore, compromises can be made. For example, if China objects to certain content being shown on YouTube, that content can be restricted to visitors from China without necessitating complete removal (and thus preserving the record).

We must protect the historical record, Zittrain argues, because our view of the past depends on who wrote the story.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Are Scientists Made Of?

Last Thursday, the Duke Career Center, the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & and Policy (IGSP) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) sponsored a screening of the documentary “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist,” the story of three PHD candidates working to establish their careers in a Columbia University lab. The students are working to isolate proteins and determine their structures using X-ray crystallography, a difficult technique that requires a lot of luck.

The documentary, filmed over the course of three years, captures the heartbreaking failure that can follow months of work, as well as the surprising triumph that can result from a breakthrough. Each of the three students has their own reason for being there, and each approach their research in a different way. (Click here to read a review)

At the beginning of the movie, lab director Larry Shapiro somewhat controversially says that “one of the best things you can do as a scientist is suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You become obsessed with a problem and can’t stop working on it until you find your answer.”

However, Dr. Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom, director of Duke’s Center for Science Education, argues that “you don’t have to be OCD or obsessed to love what you’re doing, you just have to have passion for it.”

Schwartz-Bloom was one of six panelists who shared their thoughts with the audience after the movie.

Grad student Vincent Chen was impressed with the film’s accuracy “in terms of the ups and downs in science. You have a lot of failures, and very few successes.”

Grad student Cynthia Tedore disagreed. “I didn’t see the repeated failure as accurate from my point of view. In any field, it’s bad to pursue one project with a small chance of succeeding. It’s better to pursue several.”

A member of the audience commented that, based on her experience in an X-ray crystallography lab, she thought the filmmakers did a good job. “I was touched by everything that happened. There are upsides and downsides. X-ray crystallography is very different from other fields, so [the movie] might not reflect what happens in other labs.”

Schwartz-Bloom said that the movie made her nervous with its emphasis on hard labor with a small chance of success. “A lot of kids today don’t go into science because they think it’s ‘too hard.’ Even people with some passion for it decide that they don’t want to do it.” She worried that the movie would only encourage this sentiment.

Fortunately, not everyone was so discouraged. My bio major friend told me that, despite the grim portrayal, she had not been dissuaded from her goal to be a scientist.

At the end of the discussion, the panelists offered their advice for aspiring researchers like my friend.

“Sometimes it is important to know when to quit, when a problem is impossible to solve. Otherwise, you can trash your entire career.” -- post-doc Rebekah Fleming

“Be a sponge. Take in everything you can, because you don’t know when you’ll need it in the future.” -- Schwartz-Bloom

“Don’t be afraid to find out what your weaknesses are, and how to fix them.” -- Tedore

“Science should be fun. If you’re doing it for your boyfriend or for your parents, you can do it for a while, but eventually it’ll break your heart.” -- panel moderator, professor Mohamed Noor of the Biology Department