BarCamp Austin 2009

From its first year, I was committed in principle to BarCamp Austin but couldn’t quite seem to get away from SXSW Interactive long enough to make the scene. This year I made 100% commitment to go. Steve Golab of FG Squared wanted me to join him in a talk about Austin’s potential as a hub of the social media world. We grabbed a slot, but Steve had an emergency and had to leave before we spoke, so my friend Tom Brown stepped in to help, and I changed the presentation to something more general: how do you make a scene that involves diverse cultures and communities – the Open Source geeks, the Chamber of Commerce suits, the Bootstrappers and all the people brewing businesses from ideation through valley of death to growth? We talked a lot about the potential of coworking to bring voices from all these communities together in synergistic conversations. We were getting close to thoughts about solutions (with contributions from Sherry Lowry, Julie Gomoll, and others) but a half hour’s not along time. I’d love to continue that conversation somewhere.

Transhuman Responses

Natasha Vita-More has guest edited the Metanexus Institute’s “GlobalSpiral.” She’s created a response to a “Special Issue on Transhumanism.” In her intro, she says

There are numerous forbearers of theories on human evolution and traces can be found in a plethora of sources, all suggesting that the biological human is not the final stage of evolution for the Homo sapiens sapiens.  The philosophy and social/cultural movement of transhumanism has developed not only from the words “trans” and “human”, but also through an understanding that the human condition is one in which we might go outside to gain perspective, a process in becoming, an evolutionary transformation:

  • “Trans-human” and the Italian verb “transumanare” or “transumanar” was used for the first time by Dante Alighieri in Divina Commedia.It means “go outside the human condition and perception” and in English could be “to transhumanate” or “to transhumanize”. 
  • T.S. Eliot wrote about the risks of the human journey in becoming illuminated as a “process by which the human is Transhumanised” in “The Cocktail Party”, Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950.Julian Huxley wrote about how humans must establish a better environment for themselves, while still remaining man in New Bottles For New Wine, which contains the essay “Transhumanism”.Teilhard de Chardin wrote about intellectual and social evolution and ultra-humanity in The Future of Man.Abraham Maslow referred to transhumans in Toward a Psychology of Being.
  • The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedia Dictionary defined “transhuman” as meaning “surpassing; transcending; beyond”.The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defined “transhuman” as meaning “superhuman,” and “transhumanize,” as meaning “to elevate or transform to something beyond what is human”.

Mac Tonnies

An interview with Mac Tonnies, who has the Posthuman Blues, is a good overview of transhumanist thinking.

I would argue that we’re all “inferior” in the sense that we’re ill-adapted to essentially any lifestyle other than the one in which we happened to evolve. (Ask an astronaut.) I don’t think any transhumanist thinkers want to create a “perfect” being; the operative goal is to empower the human species on an individual level. In a foreseeable future scenario, instead of being saddled with the genome one blindly inherits, one can choose to become an active participant — and I find that possibility incredibly liberating and exciting. Transhumanism is not eugenics.

More on Mumbai/Twitter

I posted earlier about Mumbai/social media. Svetlana Gladkova says more about Twitter as a source of news and conversation about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Svetlana references an excellent piece by Mathew Ingram, who addresses the question whether Twitter can be trusted as a news source since “messages posted to Twitter aren’t verified in any sense of the word, and in many cases could be wrong, or could perpetuate misunderstandings or factual inaccuracies” (thought inaccuracies are often if not usually corrected in other messages). He notes that traditional media sources also often make reports that are incorrect. I think this became more common with the advent of cable news channels, then the Internet – news stories are more likely to be broken as they happen, and there’s less time for analysis and verification. Now we can all get the raw data, correct or incorrect, and we’re learning to interpret for ourselves what’s real, helped by evolving layers of analysis added by the journalists and experts that used to have sole ownership of the data.

Svetlana doesn’t

know why it should be important at all if Twitter is a good source of news or not – it is good in what it does and you can call it news since this is exactly what people share with us – news. And I don’t really think that people sending updates from their cell phones to let the world know what was going on were really trying to act like journalists – they wanted to share the news with anyone who was interested and that’s it.

She goes on to say that

Twitter is just the right place to get the information – and get it quick. When mainstream media takes time to bring reporters to site or at least find and verify a couple of sources and even bloggers taking a few minutes to type a post and hit that “Publish” button, Twitter is already here with multiple reports from people witnessing the entire situation directly where the situation is. And no, hardly all the facts will be correct but you will get to know something is happening – and you will have at least some understanding of what is going on. Besides, the wrong facts will probably be corrected soon right there on Twitter and if you watch with attention enough, you will get a more or less comprehensive picture.

That’s not just true of Twitter – we said the same about blogs before Twitter appeared, and we said the same about other forms computer-mediated communication, like email lists and online discussion forums, before blogs appeared.

Svetlana acknowledges that there are many levels of “noise” in the Twitter feeds, a combination of direct reports and quotes from media sources, facts and opinions.

But while noise at this level is typical mainly for Twitter only, there is another problem that Twitter shares with media outlets. The thing is that at crazy times like this you can never really trust anyone – be it a tweet from a person in the thick of things or a report from a reputable news organization. Simply because even news professionals can be wrong because their reporters can hardly get the full picture on site and often report mainly what they see themselves – which is not very different from what simple bystanders get to know. And we need to understand that when everything is equally disorganized and chaotic you will hardly find any source that will be actually reliable.

I found this especially interesting because it reminds me what I was thinking when I left journalism school for the English department 35 years ago (ouch! I’m getting grey). However hard you try as a journalist, you’re always presenting a limited set of facts and a limited interpretation. However well you try to adhere to standards of objectivity, in every piece you write you’re applying your particular cultural filters and biases, and you’re always working from a limited set of facts, even if you’re close to the story, sometimes even if you were in the middle of it.

This has been reinforced for me over and over through the years. In every case where I’ve been close to a news story, the published version was always inconsistent in some way with my awareness of the facts. It wasn’t that the reporter was “wrong” or I was missing something – we just had different perspectives. If you want to get closer to the truth, better to present the multiple perspectives, and the facts as ‘raw’ as you can make them. Journalists add context, and that’s valuable – we can’t all pore over the details of every story – but it’s good to know that we have the opportunity.

When I shifted my focus from journalism to literature, it was because I thought literature was better at capturing the truth. I was especially interested in the novel, which at its best presents a story from many perspectives in an attempt to capture what’s real. In the late 80s and 90s I was drawn to the Internet’s potential to do this – to provide the whole complexity of the narrative – around any subject or event. I made a career commitment to the web and social media because I could see the potential for the kind of writing I’d been interested in when I had wanted to be a journalist years before.

So now we have a complex narrative, nobody owns the truth, and everyone has the opportunity to think through the meaning of events like Mumbai. You can draw your own conclusions, and that’s powerful. As with everything that’s powerful, it carries responsibility: we should all learn to be far more media literate than broadcast media ever allowed us to be. But I see that happening, and I see in my many younger friends who have been living and breathing the Internet since grade school a better grasp of this democratization of knowledge, this opportunity to create a shared narrative.

The way we’re responding to Mumbai brings this into focus, but this is the new world of knowledge, and it’s the right evolution for the times we’re in – because our need to live sustainably is met with solutions built on knowledge as the key natural resource. Knowledge as a process is as vital in today’s world as industrial heavy equipment was in the industrial world of resource extraction and heavy infrastructure construction.

So what’s happening on Twitter – not just where Mumbai is concerned, but every day – is critical evolution, in my opinion.

Gary Chapman at Texas Community Media Unworkshop: Obama’s Open Government Initiatives

At the Texas Community Media Unworkshop last Saturday, I posted several notes to Twitter from a talk by Gary Chapman of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. By popular demand, here’s those notes, with some additional material…

Kevin Martin from FCC was at UT [last] week. He said Democratic members of the FCC had been trying to increase minority ownership of broadcasting, but his philosophy had been instead to expand the space and the opportunities. Gary had previously had concerns about Martin, but found himself agreeing with much he had to say. Martin is considering how to increse the availability of broadband as well as the bandwidth, something the Obama administration also wants. (See my previous post about white spaces.) Gary also heard Martin propose free national public broadband.

The LBJ School is working with Obama transition team. There’ll be a White House CTO. has info about transition.

The Federal government has already put spending data online and has created APIs, ways for programmers to access and use for that data, which anyone can also download. Obama drove legislation to do this – transparency in government is a top priority for the new administration.

OMB watch has created a site,, using that data.

Data about the Federal budget is also online, but not in an accessible way – as pdf documents. The LBJ School has prposed working on a transparent onine budget similar to the spending data, and is working with the Obama transition team on the concept. This should open a new era of transparency and accountability. People will be able to monitor what’s happening at all levels of government. The most compelling applications will tie the spending data to the budget for analysis… connecting the dots for real transparency.

The LBJ School is also seeking funds for a lab to create tools for bloggers, activists, etc. Get programming talent to build new tools. For instance, the want to take a wiki model of collaborative space and flip that into specfic applications for collaboration and for doing processing online. Gary mentioned as a similar tool Wikicalc, Dan Bricklin’s collaborative spreadsheet absorbed by SocialText. Another exampnle: Google is creating APIs for its spreadsheet.

The next phase of public media will blur boundaries between government and citizens using online tools, Gary says. We’ll see a transition from e-government, which is merely transactional (renew your driver’s license online) to i-government, or information based government. Government shouldn’t just build PR web sites, it should be guarantor of data quality for access by tool builders. This is the next phase of democracy, and the ext stage in the fight against corruption. We won’t need to file freedom of information access requests, because the information will already be online and accessible.

This is all high on the Obama transition team’s agenda. They’ve been working on this for months already. Obama is also reestablishing status of science – planning to bringing on a science advisor.

Obama on Technology and Innovation

The Obama presidency hopefully starts today, not January 20 – and it’s time for all of us to start real work on a future that’s not just survivable, but thrivable. My particular interests are social technology and sustainability, and on the tech side, I’m particularly interested in the ambitious plan set forth in Obama’s white paper, “Connecting and Empowering All Americans through Technology and Innovation” (linked as pdf). The doc incorporates some of the best thinking about where we should focus…

Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Information through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets – including a clueful paragraph on protecting the openness of the Internet and another on encouraging diversity in media ownership.

Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy. Tals about online tools for open government, and “bringing government into the 21st Century,” using tech “to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks.” To that end, he wants to appoint a Chief Technology Officer. (D’oh – you mean we didn’t already have one?)

Deploy a Modern Communications Infrastructure – great news for the “Freedom to Connect” crowd, including yours truly. “Barack Obama believes that America should lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access,” so he’s going to push for a redefinition of what constitutes broadband in the U.S., i.e. fatter pipes. He also wants to open spectrum for more and better wireless deployment.

Employ Technology and Innovation to Solve Our Nation’s Most Pressing Problems, such as lowering health care costs by doing more to integrate records and facilitate digital claims processing. Healthcare systems are a patchwork mess, so this will be a huge challenge – it’s definitely time to take it on.

Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy Development and Deployment. Those of us who are interested in clean energy development know that it’s all about technology – we replace resource extraction with knowledge development and engineering to support greater efficiencies as well as the development of new forms of energy. Obama has several items for supporting the development of the clean energy sector, and for upgrading education so that our schools will produce more science and engineering graduates, and “[tap] the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce…so that we can retain and
grow jobs requiring 21st century skills rather than forcing employers to find skilled workers abroad.” He’ll also modernize public safety networks.

Improve America’s Competitiveness. “Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.” Obama proposes making the R&D tax credit permanent, reforming immigration, doing more to promote American business abroad, ensuring competitive markets, protecting American intellectual property abroad and at home, and (big one) reforming the patent system. “By improving predictability and clarity in our patent system, we will help foster an environment that encourages innovation. Giving the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) the resources to improve patent quality and opening up the patent process to citizen review will reduce the uncertainty and wasteful litigation that is currently a significant drag on innovation.”

This is a lot to accomplish, but vision, attitude, and powerful intention will go a long way in getting us where we need to be after eight years of backward thinking and indifference. Personally, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone and plowing ahead with the the two areas of focus I’ve had for years – on the social web and on sustainability, both well-addressed by Obama’s plan – and I’m feeling invigorated knowing that the new administration will be supporting, not obstructing, progress in both areas.

White spaces

David Isenberg blogs about white space, a telecom term for unused frequencies in the radio waves portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, here specifically referring to using available digital television spectrum. Google and the New America Foundation had a meeting on white spaces or pervasive connectivity, “open airwaves, open networks.” David says this “seems an over-reach without a systems approach that includes pervasive fiber and already-deployed wireless protocols, such as Wi-Fi and LTE.”

Who’s going to build devices in such scale that they’ll out price-performance Wi-Fi? Who’s going to offer service that’ll out-pervade the cellular network? And what about that one critical factor that every wireless network must consider, backhaul

He sees this as another in a series of experiments, but he’s lookng for “a big, synoptic plan that rises above specific technologies and specific policy agendas, that uses all of the expertise available, to craft a comprehensive vision worthy of the moniker ‘Pervasive Connectivity.'”

Suppose in the next few months we get the opportunity to propose a real plan for Pervasive Connectivity for our nation, could we rise to the occasion? Or would we remain conditioned to the mindset of the last eight years, when small increments counted as great victories. Naomi Klein cites Milton Friedman’s idea that in a nodal moment, the ideas implemented are the ideas lying around. Rick Perlstein, in an essay called, A Liberal Shock Doctrine, points out that even progressive progress occurs in spurts, at opportune times. We shouldn’t limit our vision to one specific technology or one tactically available sliver of spectrum. Now is the time to have a comprehensive plan “lying around” for the network we really want.

Blimps along the Bay

I’m a zeppelin fan, always wanted to ride one. Looks like the day may come: passenger zeppelins are the wave of the present, popping up in the San Francisco skies. The SF zeppelin tours are pricy ($495/hr), but imagine skies filled with zeppelins a few years out. After all, they’re supposed to be more energy efficient than jets – maybe this is the future of air travel? [Link to Airship Ventures]

…Airship Ventures will offer rides that provide a bird’s-eye view of Napa and Sonoma wine country, the Big Sur coastline, San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area. The cabin holds 12 passengers and two crew members, and tickets start at $495 per person for an one-hour ride.

“It’s a way to see the world in a way that you haven’t experienced it before,” said Brian Hall, a software entrepreneur who started the company last year with his wife, Alexandra. “In a zeppelin, you’re flying low and slow. You’re going at a leisurely pace. You’re seeing things that you wouldn’t see from the road.”

H+ – a new transhumanist webzine

RU Sirius is editing a new Mondo 2000-ish transhumanist webzine calledH+. Download the pdf. From RU’s intro:

The glory of transhumanism is that it’s not just a movement of immortalists, or singularitarians, or advocates of digital democratization, or experimenters in self-enhancing technologies. Transhumanism reminds us that all — or at least many — of these developments are coming online at about the same time, that they impact each other, and that they will be remaking our societies and our personal experiences of the world in tandem. It represents nothing less than an attempt to have a realistic discourse about the human future while most of our leading intellectuals and politicians are still looking at that future through the rear-view mirror.

Making it – our DIY future

I’m not exactly a maker – I don’t spend a lot of time building or deconstructing devices or hacking what I’ve bought. I’m not a regular reader of Make Magazine, though it’s edited by my friend and former bOING bOING colleague Mark Frauenfelder, and I’ve always appreciated his world view… Mark’s a mashup of wide-eyed innocent and wise sage, and his head’s all full of fascinating cartoons and futuristic visions. When I curated a digital convergence track for SXSW Interactive in 2006, I included a session on DIY and convergence and contacted Mark, who suggested Phil Torrone, who signed on and suggested Limor Fried and someone from Make’s sister magazine, Craft. It was a great session; the next year Phil and Limor keynoted to a packed room at the conference. I realized there was a huge DIY movement emerging and they were channeling those energies. Consider that the world of the future may not be a slick, standardized manufactured environment but a world of personal reconfigurable environments, highly individualized; a world where everyone’s expected to have gadget literacy and everything in our environment has an open, hackable architecture.

A couple of years ago, after the first Maker Faire in California, I emailed Mark and suggested they try it in Austin. They did, and as a result I found myself working an installation on the DIY Home of the Future based on Derek Woodgate’s research and Dave Demaris’s hard work, along with Bon Davis and several others. (Our Plutopia collective and annual party emerged from this endeavor – long story.) I wrote a couple of DIY home pieces for Worldchanging at the time, posted here and here. Derek had done a lot of thinking about the future of personal built environments, again highly reconfigurable by “the user.” This assumes a couple of things: 1) that we evolve the gadget literacy I mentioned earlier, and we see that in the DIY/Maker movement as early adopters on the today’s fringes, and 2) homes and gadgets and devices will be increasingly open, hackable, and reconfigurable. To that end, Make has published a Maker’s Bill of Rights, and Jeremy Faludi at Worldchanging riffs on the concept, discussing design for hackability as green design. Note that the Bill of Rights page at Make has a link to the Leatherman Squirt, aka “Warranty Voider.”