Do you believe in magic?*

The present topic of this particular column wasn't the originally planned topic. It was a very recently posted article by Jaron Lanier that compelled me to take my chances and jump into the Web 2.0 in education fray. Lanier's article doesn't deal with education, but to my mind the issues he raises bear a very direct relationship to the attitudes underlying the unsubstantiated belief in the immense educational promise of Web 2.0. However, for some not fully explicable reason, as this column wrote itself that main catalyst somehow was pushed farther and farther into the background. Be that as it may, wherever it ultimately finds itself in the overall format of this column, it's very much a significant part of its conceptual construction.

Lanier's article, posted in Edge, is titled DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism. He writes about what's been called The Hive Mind, and what he identifies as the dangers of that mindset. Lanier focuses primarily on the Wikipedia and on social bookmarking sites. Among other things, he tell us that he has:
... participated in a number of elite, well-paid wikis and Meta-surveys lately and have had a chance to observe the results. I have even been part of a wiki about wikis. What I've seen is a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization. Why isn't everyone screaming about the recent epidemic of inappropriate uses of the collective? It seems to me the reason is that bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.
Although Lanier points to numerous cases in which the Wikipedia is inaccurate, he emphasizes that the purpose of his article isn't to point out these inaccuracies, but rather to ask why it is that users of a source such as the Wikipedia seem rather unconcerned with those inaccuracies. His answer (which meets quite a bit of criticism in a series of rebuttals, also on Edge) is that too many of us have become enamored with the promise of the collective mind-set. We seem to have developed a magical belief in the knowledge generating powers of the collective.

Lanier's piece is well worth reading (as are the rebuttals) , but the debate around the question of the actual worth or worthlessness of collective writing or editing isn't what caused me to decide to write this particular column. Instead, it was the possible connections to education that it suggested (my own "Think education"?) that got the wheels rolling. Although I found a great deal that I agreed with in Lanier's piece, I tend to be more in favor of collective writing and editing than against it. But even though in the past I've encouraged the idea of pupils writing Wikipedia entries, I find doing so very problematic. Should pupils take part in writing a wiki? Could a collective endeavor such as that result in something that could be considered an "authoritative" text (and if so, by whom)? Would they learn from doing so that expertise is important, and that they have to edit and re-edit their work in order to make it as accurate as possible? Or would they perhaps (inaccurately, to my mind) learn that writing an entry for an encyclopedia is a rather simple task that can be done by anyone? As much as I want to believe that it's the former, experience tells me that the long-term answer is most often the latter.

And I suppose that, having asked a question at the top of this page, I should offer some sort of answer by the bottom. Do I believe in magic? Perhaps the closest I can get to an honest and accurate answer is "Oh, how I'd love to!". Then again, another answer comes to mind as well. When a magician causes a rabbit to materialize out of thin air, we're left with our mouths open, entertained and amazed, and wondering just how he did it. When we say "it's magic", we can, however, mean one of two very different things. If we really think that the trick was achieved through something beyond explanation, then perhaps we believe in magic. If, however, we realize that the beauty of the trick is that it really has an explanation, but that the magician has, through expert sleight of hand and hours of practice, pulled it off so beautifully that we can't figure out what that trick is, then perhaps rather than believing in magic, we're truly appreciating it. Education doesn't have to be finding answers that mute our sense of wonder. It does, however, have to instill in us the desire to seek out and enjoy the explanation.

Go to: A magic strand?