Re-routing Cyberinfrastructures

Mike Caulfield has a really interesting post on the future of personal cyperinfrastructures. The crux of the argument is while Domain of One’s Own is right, true and beautiful, no one really wants to manage their own bit of a server through a cPanel-driven web hosting environment. In fact, life is already far too cold, brutish, and short to add sysadmin to the mix 😉

His idea, instead, is that folks should have a virtualized server stack that they install apps on that they buy, but at the point of sale you own the app and its data which are both kept on your own server (which is encrypted so your virtual host can’t read). In other words, you own your data and your apps in a highly customizable, portable, and secure virtualized server environment, but you don’t have to worry about  the sysadmin headache.

I really like his vision as a broader cultural model to move towards, and I think it’s a pretty smart frame for what’s to come. But as Ryan Brazell notes in his comment on that post, it’s not exactly in the spirit of Domain of One’s Own as we’ve imagined it. We are far more interested in a curricular intervention. We actually want some of this stuff to be visible and remain challenging, we want students to struggle a bit with this environment, and we want faculty to consider the roots of the web. That said, I’m not suggesting folks need to suffer to learn. This isn’t the Christian vision of sacrifice for salvation. An investment in understanding conceptually and technically how the web works through the cPanel interface provides a curricular and technological platform for just that.

What’s more, at this point more than 600 people at UMW have have signed up for a domain and used CPanel to create subdomains, installed their own application, and  more. That’s something—it tells me that while we keeping saying this stuff is hard and we need it to be easier when, in fact, it’s (a) not all that hard and (b) a worthy concept space to struggle with regardless. But I agree with Mike that the struggle need not be for everyone all the time. UMW Domains might benefit from more seamless options for creating a subdomain or installing a new blog. Tim Owens has been talking about such a setup for a while using APIs in a WordPress dashboard—I’m totally onboard. There are times when the CPanel might not be necessary, but it’s presence as a tool for folks to explore and figure out remains essential to the project.

I wrote a post the other day that UMW is exploring virtualized server environments, so Mike’s argument speaks to me on this front. But I guess I tend to see reasons and possibilities for both the old gold LAMP environment with the CPanel GUI interface as well as the ability to fire up servers, experiment with apps, etc. I can even see us giving each student a virtualized environment down the road as well so they can map subdomains on various tools they are using in the virtualized environment. Why limit them to one space? Why limit freedom?

I both love Mike’s idea and I share Ryan’s concerns. Making something like Domain of One’s Own too plug-and-play defeats the purpose, at the same time making it too hard is not a solution either. Making it part of the discourse on campus around what the web is and how we need to think about it more broadly for our teaching is exactly what we want to communicate!

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17 Responses to Re-routing Cyberinfrastructures

  1. Jmcclurken says:

    “have signed up for a domain and sued CPanel” — I almost did that once….

  2. Jmcclurken says:

    I have mixed feelings about this move toward simplifying the tools toward the point of just a single button push installation. We lose some of that sense of students learning what it is they are creating. At the same time, if they are just following a 10(?) step process and still don’t understand the underlying process, then why not move to greater simplification?

    At one level, it’s simply a philosophical discussion, but on another, since we have invested in the DoOO concept, there are practical questions here about goals and priorities.

    • Reverend says:

      Jeff,
      I think the work you’ve done has gone a long way towards defining those goals over the last nine years—framing the infrastructure as part of the curriculum. For me that is where this stuff really makes sense. It’s what continues to separate UMW Blogs from most other blogging platforms, and it provides a level of sophistication that supports a broader claim of UMW as the epicenter of the digital liberal arts (if one were to be so bold as to make that claim). I think making it more flexible is important, but making it relevant to curriculum is crucial. And that’s the road we should continue to travel down.

  3. Paul says:

    This makes me think of what we were talking about in The Internet Course with regards to HTML: You can make websites without it, but knowing something about the code underneath gives you more power. But there is value in ease as well as struggle – getting things done vs. opportunities for growth. Some of us have a bias for the latter that others don’t share.

    • Reverend says:

      Paul,
      That’s a really good point, and a Victorian Literature professor at UCLA said to the class once, “I ask you to struggle with 1000 page books like Bleak House because you might not otherwise, and there is some gold in those hills.” I agree with that concept, but that’s why I am higher ed #4life 🙂

    • Tom says:

      Probably also important to note that it’s relative and much more gray than black and white.

      We all opt to “get things done” in probably 99% of our lives and in ways that would make many people with different interests very sad.

      I don’t set type. I don’t sew my own clothes. I don’t fix my car. I cook my own food (mostly) but don’t raise my own livestock or grind my own spices. My power comes entirely from the power company.

      I make things on the Internet but I use WordPress, javascript libraries, APIs etc. to get things done. I know very little about anything I consider real programming and despite cPanel, WordPress, virtual servers and many other wanderings- I don’t know all that much about the actual way the Internet works. Is the understanding of servers, routers and packets more or less empowering than understanding HTML? Where does PHP lie? Is HTML more important than poetry?

      I do believe in the value of struggle but I find it far harder to figure out what someone else ought to struggle with and I really have no idea what’s important. So I now comment on blogs hoping to confuse others.

      • Reverend says:

        Tom,
        Are you working with faculty yet? Sounds like you need to do that or get some therapy 🙂 I’m not sure you’re gonna build a community with this line of thinking. Your the most creative person in edtech I’ve ever seen, lock in and share it with the good folks at VCU. You have expertise in the web and edtech, help people struggle with what it means for them.

  4. Martha says:

    The first time I installed WordPress (using Fantastico, I believe), I didn’t know what I was doing beyond “installing” something. I was completely new to the space of open source Web apps. I didn’t get the interplay between the php files that had been placed in a directory on my server space and the database that had been created. I didn’t understand what the tables in that database represented. I didn’t see how a “theme” or a “plugin” interacted with core applications files.

    I understand WordPress pretty well now — and that comes after years of using this application and experimenting with it. Somewhere along the way, by learning more about how WordPress worked (and other Web apps), I learned A LOT more than I had ever known before about how the Web worked.

    While I’m proud of what I can do with WordPress now, I’m much more enchanted by what I’ve learned about the ways of the Web. The former represents a (marketable) skill set that allows me to make things and do stuff (which I love). The latter represents a (marketable?) understanding of the world I live in that allows me to think more deeply about my place in that world. Learning WordPress helped me understand how WordPress works. Learning the Web helped me understand how the world works.

    The two things are related, but they are not the same.

    I care very little about whether or not what we are asking students to do is “too hard.” We require students to learn VERY hard things in the classes they take at UMW. (Organic Chemistry, I’ve heard, is VERY, VERY hard.) I do care that when we ask them to learn hard things we do it for very good reasons — and for me, helping them to develop a technical and cultural literacy about the Web is the very good reason.

    If they graduate from UMW and decide they want an application model like the one Mike describes, I think that’s great. If they graduate from UMW, unplug, and decide to go hike the Bob Marshall Wilderness for the rest of their lives, I think that’s great too (I might want to join them some days).

    Whatever choice they make in terms of their relationship with the world they live in, I would like it come from a place of knowing. I want them to have grappled with some tough questions, tackled some difficult tasks, and come out on the other side knowing more — and knowing enough to make choices for themselves that are wise and informed.

    All that said, Domain of One’s Own is nascent. It’s only a little more than six months old!! We’ve been building to this place for going on 10 years at UMW, but this project is still very, very new. I don’t believe for a second that all of the 600 or so users in the project now have arrived at a place of knowing. I think a few have, though. And I have high hopes that we can bring more and more of them to this place.

  5. Pat says:

    Ok, this could be dangerous to share, but I assumed you’d seen the unhosted project? https://unhosted.org/

    A sort of my stuff is mine and so on. Like web-rtc and the whole move to everything in JS – sort of the browser as everything. There was, for a while, an opera feature which allowed you to have a web server on any PC.

    Perhaps too pirate radio for long term community, but how long a window do we need?

    • I had not seen that — I will check it out. Local JS-driven browser-based apps are a short-term approach to hybrid apps, but you’re right — they are hackable and they get the job done near-term.

  6. As I said in a recent tweet, I think the main point is getting lost here. Reclaim (as I see it) is a reaction to something (otherwise, why “Reclaim”?). But you risk being a reaction to something that increasingly *does not exist*.

    In 2006 Tumblr was a web site, Twitter was a web site (beta website, but there you go), Google Docs was a web site, Youtube was a web site.

    They aren’t websites anymore. They are apps with server storage. The hybrid app — not the website — is where the war for ownership is being fought.

    I think people have interpeted my statements as saying primarily “we should make this easier for students”. There’s a sentence or two in that piece that I wrote inartfully and people may be sticking on. But it’s not primarily ease of use. It’s making sure you’re on the battleield that actually matters. If you successfully Reclaim the HTML constructed browser based app and the world has moved on to hybrid apps, it’s like Reclaiming DOS. Part of that issue may be ease of use, but the bigger part is that DOS just has a decreasing role in our lives. Reclaiming DOS leaves people without strategies to use in the quickly expanding non-DOS portions of their lives.

    I’m DRAMATICALLY overstating the importance right-this-minute of shifting to the hybrid approach — the post claimed only that the path to cyberinfrastructure will run through it. In time. But it has to not because it’s easier, but because that is the path history will follow, and if personal cyberinfrastructure is to remain relevant it must engage with the problems that exist. Reclaiming a domain will not be enough — you’ll have to articulate a strategy that accounts for web/net-hybrid apps.

    Again — it may not change what you do today. But long term it is worth considering. As you’ll know from the Internet course, the web browser was originally an “app” itself, meant primarily for browsing and editing documents (the first web browsers had editing built into the BROWSER, not the web site). For various reasons dealing with commercialism, browser and platform fragmentation and the like, it quickly became a meta-app, a portal to server-based, HTML UI’d apps. What we’re starting to see is the period of using a document browser to run applications is coming to a close. We’re moving back to an internet that had a wide variety of apps running on it.

    I actually meant the post to be more a meditation on the direction personal cyberinfrastructure has gone (and frankly has already gone — I know that some of you reading this got here through clicking a link in a third-party Twitter client, some are reading it in a client-based RSS Reader, some will share it via their Pinboard app). It want’ meant to be a direct reflection of RYD. What you’re doing is great, and needed, and as today is the day we’re moving into our newly built house I’ll go further and say you KNOW I’ve put my money where my mouth is on that. Still, the future is hybrid, the future is already here, and if you want to meaningfully reclaim it you are going to have to engage with that.

  7. Martha says:

    Mike,

    I had a long response written in which I said that I think I now understand what you’re saying much more clearly, but my browser ate it.

    In the end, I do see what you’re saying and, I confess, I’m not sure what the answer is. I think I’m foolishly hoping right now that the Web we’ve built DoOO for will stick around long enough for us to educate and prepare a large cohort of students to understand it. Perhaps, in that process, we’ll also figure out how we adjust ourselves midstream to accommodate (and better understand) the (not)Web that is coming (already here).

    • I think it’s deeply ironic that your browser ate it. Or, wait, if you were agreeing with me, it’s “fitting” isn’t it?

      Browsers eating crap, a full 20 years into the browser revolution, is one of the reason the hybrid shift is inevitable. People want to write in desktop/tablet based editing applications that autosave their drafts and don’t ditch everything if you click the wrong tab or your internet goes wonky on post. I think it’s interesting to think of those early browsers with the editors built into them — it is in a way a return.

      • Reverend says:

        Mike,
        Thanks for this follow-up comment, I think your vision makes a ton of sense, and it sounds very similar to the idea Kin Lane, Audrey Watters, and other folks were imagining as part of “Reclaim Your Domain” last year this time:
        http://hackeducation.com/2013/04/11/reclaim-your-domain/ You really flesh it out beautifully, and this is something aI truly do want to work on. That said, it’s not Domain of One’s Own—that’s still CPanel-centirc, and right now at UMW that’s actually a good thing. It will change like you say, and thanks to hippies like you we’ll be more than ready.

        Also, I echo Tim Owens’s sentiment that Reclaim Hosting needs to be the hosting company that frames this all out 🙂

        • It’s true — part of the issue here is RYD vs. DoOO. DoOO is a scale-up and as such has to be based on past success and current momentum. RYD is experiemental and has to be poised for the future. 😉

  8. Pingback: Caring about the now | Ryan Brazell

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