Alexandria Online

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anonymity is the Enemy of Authority

Let me tell you a story about anonymity

When Odysseus escaped the clutches of the man he had robbed and blinded, Polyphemos the Cyclops, he gave his name as "Outis" -- "Nobody." It was trick that bought him some time. Polyphemos bellowed to his fellow Cyclopses that "Nobody" had robbed and blinded him and they all laughed at him.

But Odysseus could not stand to be known as Nobody. If you've studied heroic narratives in any culture you have seen the importance of identity, of having a name. You show your identity in your armor, your horse, your father's name, your actions and the actions of your ancestors, and your name.

As Odysseus sailed away, he shouted his true name back at Polyphemos, who then prayed to his father, Poseidon, to destroy Odysseus. The hero's pride in his name brought on the destruction of all his comrads and great suffering for himself. But it was worth it because a hero needs a name.

I have made a point to reveal who I am, where I live and who I work for both in this blog and on my site. I have also named the people I have talked to and the schools I have visited. This news in the New York Times inspired me to revisit this issue. Newspapers are starting to request full names and email addresses when you want to comment on an article. But here is what is most interesting to me:

The debate over anonymity is entwined with the question of giving more weight to comments from some readers than others, based in part on how highly other readers regard them. Some sites already use a version of this approach; Wikipedia users can earn increasing editing rights by gaining the trust of other editors, and when reviews are posted on, those displayed most prominently are those that readers have voted “most helpful” — and they are often written under real names.
This phenomenon is the beginning of true peer review, a process that is critical to the advancement science, culture and thought. An idea is just an idea until it is reviewed and critiqued. Then it becomes authoritative. The process described above does not come close the peer review structure that is in place in academia, but it is a step in the right direction. When an experienced editor at FSG, the Paris Review, or The New Yorker is finished with your work, your ego is nothing but a smouldering field of ruin. We've all had coaches or teachers who broke us down and built us back up stronger and better. When they finish with you, you are just that much closer to being an authority, becoming a creative, unique individual.

To be an individual, you need to be separate. Jaron Lanier writes about the importance of "membranes" in his book, You Are Not a Gadget. I agree with him on the importance of membranes in keeping an entity unique and separate. An author is an intellectual organism surrounded by a membrane. Ideas flow in and out, but the flow is regulated so that the entity does not explode, disintegrate or fade into its own environment. If you are anonymous, you have no membrane. You are just part of the "grey goo" of the hive mind: mindless, infinite, incoherent chattering.

Before schools throw away books and start giving kids online content to read, they need some assurance that the content has a membrane, a brand, a name behind it, and a group of known, creative individuals with names creating the brand.

And if you're thinking of teaching them a language, how about the "Middlebury College" name brand? Can you beat that?

For decades Middlebury has run one of the most well-known language programs and summer programs for languages in the country. Now, according to the New York Times, it is teaming up with a for-profit entity, K-12 Inc. to produce complete, online courses of instruction in language. It's not free, not a wiki, not open-source, and decidedly not anonymous. It is the voice of Middlebury College and it branded programming as branded and packaged by K-12 Inc.

Branding and education? Can they really go together? Yes: Any questions?

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