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The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist

There are many views that one can have of the world. Some of these are entirely original; some are niche. Some form the default, unquestioned operating system that forms the bedrock of our collective understanding.

One way of thinking about views we hold individually and collectively is what W.V. Quine described as as a ‘web of beliefs’ That is to say, we hold some beliefs as more central to who we are and how we understand the world. That your spouse loves you, for example, would for most people be a more central belief than believing that Tirana is the capital of Albania. We have some beliefs that we hold lightly, and some that we would do battle over.

One’s repertoire of beliefs changes in nearly every waking moment. The merest chirp of a bird or chug of a passing motor, when recognized as such, adds a belief to our fluctuating store. These are trivial beliefs, quickly acquired and as quickly dropped, crowded out, forgotten. Other beliefs endure: the belief that Hannibal crossed the Alps, the belief that Neptune is a planet. Some of one’s beliefs are at length surrendered not through just being crowded out and forgotten, but through being found to conflict with other beliefs, new ones perhaps, whose credentials seem superior.

(W.V. Quine)

Some beliefs are handed down to us by parents or guardians. Some are in the air and form part of the milieu of a society at particular times in their history. There are some things that everyone does, and therefore we believe that it is the right thing for us to do as well. Sometimes we do not challenge these beliefs because to do so would set us up for conflict.

Choosing to eat differently to other people, for example by not eating meat, is an example of this. Refusing to recognise the monarchy as a legitimate institution is another example. Preferring to use Free Software tools rather than corporate apps, yet another.

But there are some practices that are seen as uncontroversial, encoded as ‘common sense’, as harmless, and are unthinkingly replicated without question. The problem is that, if we scratch the surface, some of these practices do not perhaps support the beliefs we think they do.

As long as a belief whose causes are undetected is not challenged by other persons, and engenders no conflict that would prompt us to wonder about it ourselves, we are apt to go on holding it without thought of evidence. This practice is often reasonable, time being limited. But it remains important to keep in mind that cause is commonly quite another thing than evidence. One obvious test of evidence is this: would it still be taken to support the belief if we stripped away all motives for wanting the belief to be true?

(W.V. Quine)

Let’s say that you’re told that being on LinkedIn is an important thing to do for your career. There appears to be evidence to suggest that this is the case. It’s certainly a ‘professional network’ compared to other social networks around. People are talking about work-related things. It seems ‘Serious’ (with a capital ‘S’).

However, I don’t think having a LinkedIn account does what people think it does. I don’t get particularly useful information from there, the ‘opportunities’ I’ve had could just have easily have come via email, and the endless stream of people LARPing their bullshit jobs for ersatz, meaningless awards is cringe-inducing. So yes, in an extreme case of burying the lede, I have deactivated my LinkedIn account.

What I find particularly insidious is the version of capitalism LinkedIn presents. It’s the face of a seemingly-benign way of structuring the world which venerates (to appropriate Feuerbach) the sign rather than the thing signified, the copy over the original, representation over reality, and appearance over essence. What matters is the performance rather than the work. Just like other algorithm-fuelled networks, this self-replicating pattern then spawns what Guy Debord called ‘the spectacle’, capturing everyone’s attention only for its own purposes.

So, while there’s a lot more I could say on this topic, having titled this post using a quotation from Debord, I’ll end with another from him:

The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world, in that the self- under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. The individual, though condemned to the passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is thus driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to magical devices, he entertains the illusion that he is reacting to this fate.

(Guy Debord)

Decentralising the description of skills with OSMT

Skills don’t exist. Not really. They’re a shorthand way of describing human attributes and potentials which break down if you analyse them too closely. That’s not to say that defining skills isn’t “useful in the way of belief” as Pragmatist philosophers such as William James would put it ⁠— but rather that they only exist, or represent some “truth”, in as much as they have cash value.


There’s a couple of video games I’ve played for over 20 years, on and off. They’re both football (“soccer”) games, one being EA Sports FIFA and the other Football Manager (these days actually Football Manager Mobile). Both games attempt to quantify various skills and attributes important to the sport.

Screenshot of Football Manager Mobile, taken from fmmvibe.com

The above skills or attributes are out of a maximum of 20, and they’ve been handily colour-coded so that those playing the game can see at a glance how strong or weak a footballer is in a particular area.


The example I gave above of a video game neglects other things that real-life football teams can and do look for in players they wish to sign. For example, how adept at are they at gaining a social media following? Can they speak to the press confidently? What are they like in the dressing room? Are they volatile?

When we talk about skills in an education or learning and development context, we’re often implicitly talking about them for reasons of employment. Like the footballer represented by colour-coded numbers each out of a maximum of 20, it would make the life of employers a lot easier if they could view job applicants in this way. That’s not to say that they should, it just feels a lot like that’s where we’re heading.

Whoever decides on and controls the numbers is therefore in a very powerful position. They get to decide what is important, provide ways of quantifying those things, and report on them in ways that have real-world outcomes. In this way, it’s very similar to the work I’ve done about digital literacies: whoever gets to decide who or what counts as ‘literate’ holds the power.

LinkedIn is an example of a company (now owned by Microsoft) that would love to provide this level of quantification of human skills. The screenshot below is from a video embedded in an article from last year announcing their ‘Learning Hub’.

Screenshot from LinkedIn video announcing their Learning Hub

Who defines these skills? Well… LinkedIn do. They control the taxonomy. We should be wary of this.


One of the things that really attracted me to Open Badges more than a decade ago was that it democratises the “means of production” of credentialing and recognition. Although there are always attempts at re-centralisation (this week it was announced that Pearson have bought Credly, one of the major players in the landscape) the whole thing, thankfully, is built on an open standard.

If skills are to be a currency with a cash value, then we need to ensure that the skills represented by badges and credentials are also democratically defined. All of which takes us finally talking about the Open Skills Management Tool:

The Open Skills Management Tool (OSMT, pronounced “oz-mit”) is a free, open-source instrument to facilitate the production of Rich Skill Descriptor (RSD) based open skills libraries. In short, it helps to create a common skills language by creating, managing, and organizing skills-related data. An open-source framework allows everyone to use the tool collaboratively to define the RSD, so that those skills are translatable and transferable across educational institutions and hiring organizations within programs, curricula, and job descriptions.

At the heart of OSMT’s functionality are Rich Skills Descriptors (RSDs): machine-readable, searchable data that include the context behind a skill, giving users a common definition for a particular skill. With the open source release of the OSMT, other organizations can now develop and collaborate on individual RSDs as well as on RSD collections.

The power here is in providing common definition for skills within a particular context. This definition, or standard, can then be referenced in the metadata of Open Badges in the AlignmentObject field.

I realise that this sounds rather technical and dry, so let’s look at an example given by Nate Otto during a meeting of the Open Recognition workgroup as part of the Open Skills Network yesterday.

Skills represented in human and machine readable ways

Just like Open Badges, these skills descriptors can be read by humans in words and machines as code (JSON). Let’s look at an example of a skill.

The 'Communicate Time Zones' skill

There’s a lot more I could say about this, as there’s a real balance to be struck here between the flexibility that allows a thousand flowers to bloom, and a level of complexity that could stymie innovation.

One of the reasons that I’m moderately excited about the possibilities is that it slots neatly into that AlignmentObject field I mentioned above which is part of the existing Open Badges 2.0 standard. This harks back to work I was doing while at the Mozilla Foundation, linking Web Literacy skills to Open Badges.

Another reason is that Nate and the good people at Badgr are behind it. Not only have they got great people with the best interests of the ecosystem there, but they’ve also got the technical expertise to make it a reality. The next step is to get many, many OSMTs in existence so that we can decentralise the means of skill description!

Stick or twist? (dougbelshaw.com)

As I mentioned in a recent weeknote, after successfully submitting my side projects to 512kb.club, I stumbled across 1024b.club. In plain English: there’s a couple of websites that list other websites that are less than a certain size. They’re trying to bring attention to the ‘bloat’ of the modern web.

The requirements of 1024b.club are quite… stringent, shall we say. 1024 bytes is a single kilobyte. For those reading this who may be ‘less technical’, do you remember 3.5″ floppy disks? They stored 1.44 megabytes of information, which means (if my maths is correct) you could fit 1474 of these tiny websites on one of those disks. Wowzers.


Never one to shrink from a challenge, and given that it’s been a while since I created my profile page at dougbelshaw.com, I decided to have a go. This is the result:

Page saying:
Dr. Doug Belshaw
Open Strategist
👋 About
✍️ Blog | Newsletter
💬 Mastodon | Twitter
🤝 LinkedIn

The great thing about emoji is that they’re Unicode, so don’t take up any more space than text. As a result, the page in the screenshot above, is a mere 624 bytes, so well underneath the 1KB limit. It’s the smallest website I’ve ever created. According to GTmetrix, it loads in 177 milliseconds!

By way of comparison, and I’ve had to create a gif here to show you what I mean, here’s the current version:

Page saying 'Dr. Doug Belshaw' and then text that changes between things like 'Tech sherpa' and 'Keynote speaker'. There are links to pages and social media icons.

A GTmetrix scan of this version shows that it takes 2.1 seconds to load, which is almost 12 times slower than the minimalist version. This difference is important not only for user experience, but being a responsible technologist and minimising the resources used by the sites that I put online.


I had a mixed response when showing the new version of my site (which is still on GitHub!) to various people. Some really liked it, especially those who block JavaScript (JS) and like minimalism. Others really didn’t, and much preferred my current version — especially the JS that rotates the various titles/roles under my name.

So I created a poll, and replicated it across Mastodon, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The results were fairly conclusive, as you can see for yourself:

LinkedIn

Poll showing 76% of respondents voting for 'STICK: keep what I've got'

19% - 'TWIST: change to minimal'
5% - 'Don't care / show results'

As you’d expect from a professional network, people like things to look shiny and polished, and aren’t too bothered about the page size implications.

Mastodon

Poll showing 48% of respondents voting for 'TWIST: change to the  minimal version'

32% - ''STICK: keep the one I've got'"
19% - 'Don't care / show results'

Conversely on Mastodon (or more precisely, the Fediverse) people were more split. I was actually expecting more people to vote TWIST, especially as 512kb.club is run by one of the moderators of the instance I’m on (fosstodon.org).

As one of the 48% of people who voted against Brexit, I don’t see that number as a reason to make sweeping changes…

Twitter

Poll showing 72.4% of respondents voting for 'STICK: keep what I've got'

10.3% - 'TWIST: change to minimal'
17.2% - 'Don't care / show results'

Again, not surprised by the result here: a ringing endorsement of my current profile page. Which is always good to know.

Next steps…

I’m thinking of incorporating the best parts of both approaches in a new version at some point in the future. So that would mean:

  • Drastically reducing the filesize of the web pages
  • Serving it from GitHub (to make it easier to edit)
  • Using emoji instead of icons wherever possible
  • Keeping the animated JS strapline
  • Ensuring it loads and renders properly for those who block JS

While I’m there, I should probably have a go at reducing the size of Thought Shrapnel (GTmetrix). Although it’s running WordPress, most visitors will hit the static front page which encourages them to sign up for my monthly newsletter.

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