The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

28 July 2010

Accretionary Wedge #26: The Evolution of Geoblogs

This topic interests me because I’m very interested in how the collection, storage and dissemination of information has changed in less than two decades.

Douglas Adams gave a talk at a tech conference in Cambridge in 1998 (audio - transcript, in which he described the leaps in human knowledge in terms of the Four Ages of Sand (perhaps appropriate as Michael is co-hosting this month): The first two ages were the development of lenses for telescopes and then microscopes, allowing us to experience the universe at increasingly larger and smaller scales; the third was the invention of the silicon chip, allowing us to do calculations fast and therefore make increasingly complex models of reality; and the fourth is the use of computer technology to expand our notion of communication -- beyond the one-to-one version (dialog, either in person or by letter or phone) and the one-to-many version (books and newspapers, then radio and television) we’ve had for the last century -- into the present-day cacophony of many-to-many communication. Many-to-many communication allows individuals to interact with the world in something approximating real time.

I love the Ages of Sand metaphor, not just because it is geological, but because lodged into it is the idea that carbon-based lifeforms who have evolved on a mostly silicon-based planet have learned to exploit this common element in its oxide and elemental forms to exponentially enhance both our vision (ages 1 and 2) and our capacity to collect, process, store, and disseminate information (ages 3 and 4). We’re on the way to being a global, silicon-based organism.

We’re beginning to see some of the effects of many-to-many communication: a recent positive example is the success of the Green movement in Iran last year in getting their story heard by the rest of the world. A dozen or so years ago a dictatorship could shut down the news spigot pretty easily -- iconic images of Tank Man taken in Beijing during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstration exist because the events took place in front of the Beijing Hotel, where several photojournalists were staying, and they were able to smuggle film out (today that scene would have been recorded on dozens of individual mobile-phone cameras and seen world-wide within hours).

My first experience with a computer was writing the final report for my junior field geology class on my housemate’s Mac SE, in 1989. When I arrived at Santa Cruz for grad school students had pretty broad access to the campus dial-up network (No T1 lines in campus housing until 93-94), and we were downloading the Mosaic browser by the fall of 1993. My first reaction was that it was just Usenet with pictures, but back in 1989 I never figured the producers of the Simpsons would be able to generate enough stories to keep the show going for a year.

I first came across the geoblogosphere quite accidentally in April 2007 when a routine search for information on textbooks brought me to a post from Ron Schott, proposing a GeoWiki. It took me a month or so to discover and decipher GoogleReader -- today I’m subscribed to 60+ geoblogs and read pretty much every post. This organic community of geology-types, self-selected for relative tech-savviness, works for me on several different levels:

1. Education
A non-trivial number of geoblogospherians/geoblogospherlings are educators. Some are at two-year institutions, some at small colleges and universities, and some are grad students and undergrads (and a number have transitioned in the last few years). Like many of you, I had to go through a re-education process in order to teach classes of beginning students, at least partly because my understanding of the general curriculum was much deeper in some areas than in others. Discussing these issues with other educators (particularly those whose strong areas have complemented my weaker ones) has been a big help for me.

2. Community
What I miss most about being at a research institution is having day-to-day contact with friends and colleagues working in geosciences. I attend GSA and AGU most years, both to see old friends and to immerse myself in current topics. Geoblogger meetings are a new addition to this (and of course we now have Geotweeters as well!), but the geoscience folder on Reader and my Twitter account expose me daily to an informal discussion of the current state of research, issues in education and industry, real-time information on eruptions, earthquakes, mass movements, floods, and photos of what people are having for dinner.

3. News/context
Without the geoblogosphere we would still know about the Haiti earthquake, the Indonesian tsunami, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, and the Gulf oil volcano, but global events like these must be either catastrophic or affect Americans or Europeans to become "news" here. Sites like Geology News and Eruptions provide information and context to events that often disappear down the global news hole. And the level of expertise out there provides me with background that is quite useful when I interact with friends and students. A current example can be found in Dave Petley’s coverage of the Attabad landslide -- I’ve never been to the Hunza valley but Dave’s coverage has made this as real a geological (and teachable) event as it could be from 12,000 kilometers away.

4. Activism
Last year Kim at All My Faults was a prime mover in promoting the highly successful Donors Choose/Giving Kids the Earth program. This week Jessica at Tuff Cookie is promoting the International Volcano Monitoring Fund (please give, if only to spite Bobby Jindal). Out here in the west, the big (non-budget related) story has been the attempt to strip serpentine of its designation as California’s state rock. Among those trying to make sure that politicians make decisions based on solid science are Garry Hayes, Andrew Alden, Brian Romans (also @perrykid and @cbdawson in the twitterverse). It remains to be seen whether we win this, but this previously ignored bill is now drawing attention of major media outlets across the state as well as inside and outside the country, and supporting editorials in major newspapers.

A common refrain is that the computer and the internets are just tools -- perhaps, but in the same way that the wheel and pencil and steam engine are tools, not the way potato peelers and thigh masters are tools. Some tools change the world and the way we function in it and the way we think. Clay Shirky compares the invention of the printing press with the advent of online publishing. The former democratized the dissemination of information, and led to increasing rates of literacy and education but that wasn’t the intent. The rapid spread of literacy and individual access to the printed word that played a big role in creating our modern world from that ancient one is an emergent property of movable type -- what we are part of today seems to be a similar revolution and it is worth watching closely as it advances through the culture.

But keep in mind, I’m the one who didn’t think the Simpsons would last...


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts, Jim. I especially like your list of the different levels of geoblogosphere influence. Thanks also to Jon Christensen (@westcenter) for mobilizing us on the serpentine issue.

Katharine (aka @perrykid)

Cian said...

I like how you've broken out the various ways the geoblogsphere works for you. I'm particularly curious to see how the "community" aspect evolves. Right now the majority of geobloggers seem to be in academia. I hope we hear more voices across all sectors – including crossing the bridge between the researchers and the "applied" folks.


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