Monday, February 14, 2011

On value and the eye of the beholder

I often come back to this topic, because time and again I am struck by how unpredictable and subjective the issue of value is.

This was brought home to me by something that happened on the 365 project. I don't pretend to be a photographer and my decision to sign up for the project was part of my self-help initiatives after the annus horribilis that was 2010. I decided not to try to take brilliant photographs, but instead to create a photo journal, publishing a photo that recorded something meaningful about each day. The results are of varying quality. Yesterday, I discovered to my my surprise that one of my photographs has been 'favourited'. Not the one with the accidentally excellent mood lighting, or any of the passable ones of historical buildings in my town. Not the one showing the symbolic snowdrops blooming bravely, or the accidentally good shots of my pets. Nope. Instead it's the shot with which I was least satisfied of all.

I was trying to do something interesting with the water in the bottles, but I have neither the camera nor the skills to succeed. If I had taken a single other shot worth using that day, this one would have been binned. But this is the one and only photograph in my collection to have been favourited. I don't know why. I don't know what the person in question saw in it. Maybe it serves as a 'what not to do' example for a photography course they're delivering. Who knows?

If you think about it, diamonds have no intrinsic value, but because of their perceived value, a whole industry... several whole industries have built up around them. People die in the quest for them. And yet they are solid carbon, just like coal, which we hardly value at all... until we are in danger of freezing to death, that it is. Then, suddenly, a diamond is worthless and coal is inestimable.

Wall-E, the animated feature film, shows a (semi?)sentient robot coming across a diamond ring in its little box. He throws the ring out, and keeps the box, because it intrigues him... and because he wasn't programmed with our value system.

We seem pre-programmed to think that anything or any skill we possess must ipso facto be of lower value. And, for those of us looking to develop a learning culture that is a hive of user generated content, this means we are going to have to work really hard at spotting the nuggets, the treasures, the diamonds in the rough and encouraging their owners to see their intrinsic/potential value to someone else.
That trick that you learned in Excel/Photoshop; that activity that you do with your class; that piece of advice you give your staff members; that lesson you learned the hard way... these are the things that people can use. Because you discovered/developed them, you assume either (a) everyone knows how to do them or (b) nobody would be interested.

I think you'd be surprised!
I once developed a wiki to be used by a group of people embarking with me on a new venture. The idea was that we would develop a glossary of new terms related to the shared endeavour, as well as a recommended reading list, with reviews. When I mooted the suggestion, it was greeted with much enthusiasm: everyone was mad keen to have such a resource. However, once it was created, very few people were bold enough to add to it, and those who did tended to make additions in the form of questions: adding a word with a question mark after it... which no-one replaced with anything helpful. And yet these people were reading voraciously, and debating matters in class (an on the online discussion forum), they were each applying their own perceptions of the terms we were learning on a daily basis. They were more than happy to help one another on a 1:1 basis off-line, but actually sharing something in a space where others could see it? Not so much.

This culture of undervaluing the things we know/can do is going to take a long time to overthrow, and we're going to have to work hard at. Until then, if one more person tells me "if we build it, they will come" I think I might scream. If we build them (up), then they might just come, but we have a long way to go, methinks...

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