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Why Personal Cyberinfrastructure Matters

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One of the questions I’ve been pondering from time to time over the past couple of weeks is why personal cyberinfrastructure matters. Hearing Campbell’s own vision for this was helpful, in the sense of providing some well-considered points on the matter.

Part of what bothers me is my belief in the value of specialization: shouldn’t writers focus on being writers, painters on being painters, accountants on being accountants… and sysadmins on being sysadmins? Isn’t it a waste of time and energy to take on yet another role, when there are plenty of “canned” solutions maintained by specialists?

Campbell’s answer would be, I think, that knowing how to maintain a personal cyberinfrastructure should be a foundational skill in this age, a true digital literacy, as learning how to read and write has been. That may be a reasonable viewpoint, if we accept that the disruption of the internet is on the scale of the alphabet. Shirky certainly seems to think that it is: “We are living in the middle of the largest increase of expressive capability in the history of the human race.” But still, why isn’t it “literate enough” to take advantage of tools like blogger, flickr, and facebook? Two thoughts come to mind: (1) AOL, and (2) modularization.

By AOL, of course, I mean “walled garden.” Facebook is the ultimate example of this today, with the carefully designed and controlled means of interaction it affords its users: photos go in photo galleries, banter and news go on walls, and personal information goes on info pages. In other words, the user has no meaningful way to “narrate, curate, share” in a way that reflects their own sense of expression – unless that sense happens to be the same as facebook’s. Conversely, should one bother to setup their own cyberinfrastructure, it has the potential to be whatever the creator might dream up.

By modularization, I mean being able to select and assemble components into a useful whole. Think of setting up email on your server, installing wordpress on your server, and adding plugins like Google Analytics and Twitter to your blog. Specialized people (developers) can create these useful components, which can then assembled together into a useful whole by the creator of a personal cyberinfrastructure. In other words, a creator should be able to weave together components like flickr, facebook, and twitter together as a part of their own vision for their presence on the internet, rather than living their “cyber-existence” within the walled garden of facebook.

I leave you with a quote by John Hughes, from his influential paper Why Functional Programming Matters:

One can appreciate the importance of glue by an analogy with carpentry. A chair can be made quite easily by making the parts – seat, legs, back etc. -and sticking them together in the right way. But this depends on an ability to make joints and wood glue. Lacking that ability, the only way to make a chair is to carve it in one piece out of a solid block of wood, a much harder task.

The walled gardens are offering us blocks of wood and butter knives to carve out our online identities. If we have a vision for our online identity, why would we accept that offer when instead we can mashup and personalize components that are already available using the glue that comes from being “sysadmins of our personal cyberinfrastructure?” Bag of gold, indeed.

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