Doug Rushkoff on Life, Inc.

For the last week and a half, I’ve been leading a discussion with Doug Rushkoff about his new book, Life, Inc. You can find us on the WELL. Doug’s analysis of the coevolution of the corporation and contemporary cultures and economies is important to consider; it points to the need for a new sustainability economy.

Of course centralized currency works for some. Hammers work for some. They just suck at brain surgery. Centralized currency is not the only kind of currency there could be, and it has certain biases to it. It would work a whole lot better if there were other currencies that promoted circulation over hording, and abundance over scarcity.

Yes yes yes. Some things are scarce, and scarce currencies can help orchestrate scarce markets for scarce things. They also help very wealthy people stay wealthy without working – and I make no judgment on that. There are many people who we might want to keep rich, even though they create no value. Or businesses that are just going through a rough century or two and need to be able to stay afloat by investing and growing rather than creating or innovating. And they should be entitled to use whatever they can.

But we – people who create value, who work, who innovate – should also be able to work with currencies that reflect the value we have created. Just as people used to get a grain receipt for every pound they brought to the mill – a receipt that could be traded – we, too, should be able to work currency into existence. We shouldn’t have to work *for* someone who has borrowed money at interest from the bank in order to pay us; we should be able to use a kind of money that reflects the abundance of our output rather than just the artificial scarcity of the treasury.

We’ve got a currency system that could not support the introduction of a renewable energy source. That should give us pause. We don’t have to destroy the Fed. We simply need additional mechanisms for value exchange.

Technoutopia socialism

Kevin Kelly talks about “social media” and social-ism, saying “the frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly giving rise to a revised version of [the s-word].” This is a new brand of socialism that “operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now.”

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.

He uses the word socialism, he says, “because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions.”

Heralds of the transition:

How close to a noncapitalistic, open source, peer-production society can this movement take us? Every time that question has been asked, the answer has been: closer than we thought. Consider craigslist. Just classified ads, right? But the site amplified the handy community swap board to reach a regional audience, enhanced it with pictures and real-time updates, and suddenly became a national treasure. Operating without state funding or control, connecting citizens directly to citizens, this mostly free marketplace achieves social good at an efficiency that would stagger any government or traditional corporation. Sure, it undermines the business model of newspapers, but at the same time it makes an indisputable case that the sharing model is a viable alternative to both profit-seeking corporations and tax-supported civic institutions.

Who would have believed that poor farmers could secure $100 loans from perfect strangers on the other side of the planet—and pay them back? That is what Kiva does with peer-to-peer lending. Every public health care expert declared confidently that sharing was fine for photos, but no one would share their medical records. But PatientsLikeMe, where patients pool results of treatments to better their own care, prove that collective action can trump both doctors and privacy scares. The increasingly common habit of sharing what you’re thinking (Twitter), what you’re reading (StumbleUpon), your finances (Wesabe), your everything (the Web) is becoming a foundation of our culture. Doing it while collaboratively building encyclopedias, news agencies, video archives, and software in groups that span continents, with people you don’t know and whose class is irrelevant—that makes political socialism seem like the logical next step.

I don’t know that I would make that prediction, and while I’m swimming in all this, I’m feeling a bit circumspect about the future (which, incidentally, isn’t here yet and never will be, despite what you’ve heard.) We’re increasingly dependent on computers, for instance, and global energy shortages or outages could be problematic (better crank out a lot more thin-film photovoltaics). But it’s cool to feel a bit of utopian optimism, if only briefly, between newscasts.

Mega-Regions, nouveau rail, and connection

Richard Florida on Mega-Regions and High Speed Rail: “…fordism has come smack up against its limits. It’s cheaper to produce many industrial goods off-shore, and the geography of post-war suburbia has been stretched to its breaking point. It may well be impossible for sustained recovery to come from breathing life back into the banks, auto companies, and suburban-oriented development model. A new period of geographic expansion – or what geographers term a ‘new spatial fix’ – will eventually be needed to spur a renewed era of economic growth and development….New periods of geographic expansion require new systems of infrastructure….”

Mega-regions, if they are to function as integrated economic units, require better, more effective, and faster ways move goods, people, and ideas. High-speed rail accomplishes that, and it also provides a framework for future in-fill development along its corridors. Just as development filled-in along the early street-car lines and the post-war highways, high-speed rail will encourage denser, more compact, and concentrated development with growth filling in along its routes over time.

I’ll just add that we’re evolving a network economy where modular diy (or bootstrap) business development can take root, and I suspect the future will depend on our ability to connect more than it will depend on our ability to grow. We have technical infrastructure to support connection, light rail could be part of the physical infrastructure. (Thanks to Tim O’Reilly and Steven Johnson for pointing me at this piece.)

Algae Biofuels Summit

Here’s a conference for “communities in the algae biofuels value chain,” including “power plant operators, industrial carbon generators, algae technology developers, algae equipment suppliers, algae project developers, biofuels refiners, financiers, carbon market players, oil companies, airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers.”

…the goal of the Summit is to provide a forum where the algae community can discuss and learn how to build the links within the value chain that are necessary to make the algae biofuels industry a reality.

Participatory Medicine

In a retreat today and tomorrow with founders of a participatory medicine movement at Cook’s Branch near Houston. In participatory medicine, the patient comes first, and is part of a team that also includes patient groups and communities, healthcare providers, and clinical researchers (paraphrasing the Wikipedia article, which has much more on the subject):

Participatory medicine is a phenomenon similar to citizen/network journalism where everyone, including the professionals and their target audiences, works in partnership to produce accurate, in-depth & current information items. It is not about patients or amateurs vs. professionals. Participatory medicine is, like all contemporary knowledge-building activities, a collaborative venture. Medical knowledge is a network.

Free Paper

Free Paper

We dropped by Flatbed Press last night for Annette Lawrence’s “Free Paper” exhibition, hosted by Austin Green Art. It was an activist exhibit – Randy Jewart was strongly encouraging, if not requiring, people to sign the ForestEthics Do Not Mail petition. They want to create something similar to the “Do Not Call” registry, which lets you opt out of telemarketing calls. With a “Do Not Mail” registry, you could opt out of hardcopy junk mail, which we seem to tolerate better than the calls or email spams – but the mountains of junk mail are taking down whole forests, which is one point of Lawrence’s exhibition. The exhibition “onstitutes a body of work that addresses issues of excess and consumerism.”

While journals and personal calendars have provided inspiration in previous series, daily junk mail provides the source material for this exhibition. Lawrence explores her concerns about the extreme amount of paper used in the effort to advertise products and services through direct mail. The paper collected over 395 days (thirteen months) weighs a total of 265 pounds. Free Paper is both a commentary on the disposability of consumer culture and an attempt to introduce order and meaning.

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.

End of the Viridian era

Added Bruce Sterling’s “Last Viridian Note” to the Viridian Design web site and to Worldchanging. It’s kind of like simple living/voluntary simplicity, but that’s not what he’s thinking:

Do not “economize.” Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It’s melting the North Pole. So “economization” is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

It’s not so much about how to live in the new economy as how to live despite the economy, which is a wonky abstraction tethered to an unstable and unsustainable conceptual base, a manifestation of a centuries-long bubble that’s exploding slime on every main street parade. Despite that, we find energy and volition and keep on keeping on. As we move from a linear supply model to a network supply model, from resource extraction from knowledge extraction, we transform and are transformed, and move on.

And get good tools. In fact,

…get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely “non-materialistic.” There is nothing more “materialistic” than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

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.

Bacevich: let’s get our affairs in order

Maybe I’m a conservative, after all, because I was listening to Andrew Bacevich earlier today and nodding. Bacevich is a real conservative, not a neocon, and I’m thinking he’s got the right message … I was pretty excited by all he had to say:

  • The U.S. has become in empire of consumption, not production.
  • We assume that business must be built on credit, and not on productivity.
  • Americans (and others) are participating in a de facto Ponzi scheme, borrowing with the underlying assumption that the bills will never come due.
  • No one in politics seems to offer a politically plausible solution.
  • Trade imbalances are larger each year. Jimmy Carter was the one president who recognized the challenges awaiting if we refuse to get our house in order &ndash check out his “malaise” speech.
  • Freedom does not equal, or depend on, materialism. Quite the contrary.
  • We might have to modify what may be peripheral to preserver the core of the American way of life. Focus on the way we live and order our affairs.
  • At our best, we have focused on community, harmony, and the future. That last is important: we now think too little of the extent to which we put our children and grandchildren at risk as we squander our resources, which is the same as squandering our freedom.
  • We’re using military power to conceal the real implications of U.S. profligacy. Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, and Bush 2 all assumed that power can “fix the world” to sustain our dysfunctional system.
  • We have created an imperial presidency, and congress no longer articulates a visoin of the common good.
  • The National Security State build around the president doesn’t work – it didn’t predict 9/11 or plan effectively for the war in Iraq.
  • No one in Washington DC knows what they’re doing.

At least, that’s what I thought I heard him say… and I’m ready to work on solutions. My business partner, David Armistead, and I are already working on something that might be helpful.

Check out the Bacevich interview on Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Tiptoe through the tulips


Dave Wilson sent David Farber’s “Interesting People” email list a paragraph from Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (which I may have somewhere; Mark Frauenfelder once gave it to me for Christmas… if I had only thought to take it more seriously!) Here’s the paragraph, suggesting what you have when the bubble bursts:

At last, however, the more prudent began to see that this folly could not last for ever. Rich people no longer bought the flowers to keep them in their gardens, but to sell them again at cent. per cent. profit. It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end. As this conviction spread, prices fell, and never rose again. Confidence was destroyed, and a universal panic seized upon the dealers. A had agreed to purchase ten Sempers Augustines from B, at four thousand florins each, at six weeks after the signing of the contract. B was ready with the flowers at the appointed time; but the price had fallen to three or four hundred florins, and A refused either to pay the difference or receive the tulips. Defaulters were announced day after day in all the towns of Holland. Hundreds who, a few months previously, had begun to doubt that there was such a thing as poverty in the land, suddenly found themselves the possessors of a few bulbs, which nobody would buy, even though they offered them at one quarter of the sums they had paid for them. The cry of distress resounded everywhere, and each man accused his neighbour. The few who had contrived to enrich themselves hid their wealth from the knowledge of their fellow-citizens, and invested it in the English or other funds. Many who, for a brief season, had emerged from the humbler walks of life, were cast back into their original obscurity. Substantial merchants were reduced almost to beggary, and many a representative of a noble line saw the fortunes of his house ruined beyond redemption.

According to Wikipedia, “economists have debunked many aspects of [Mackay’s] account,” primarily whether “tulipmania” was actually a “bubble.”

While Mackay’s account held that a wide array of society was involved in the tulip trade, Goldgar’s study of archived contracts found that even at its peak the trade in tulips was conducted almost exclusively by merchants and skilled craftsmen who were wealthy, but not members of the nobility. Any economic fallout from the bubble was very limited. Goldgar, who identified many prominent buyers and sellers in the market, found fewer than half a dozen who experienced financial troubles in the time period, and even of these cases it is not clear that tulips were to blame.

Where today’s economic crisis is concerned, I’ve wondered to whether it’s catastrophic for the middle (and lower) income classes as compared to the wealthy, who have more to lose. Whatever the case, we’re on the edge of a volatile transformation. David Armistead and I (among others) have been talking for many months now about the inevitable evolution of a “sustainability economy,” shifting from assumptions of resource abundance driving seemingly unlimited consumption to a prevailing assumption that resources are inherently limited (not so much an assumption as a given). (Thomas Friedman suggests that we “green the bailout.”) In the new economy, we’ll shift from resource extraction to resource efficiency, from drilling for oil to drilling for knowledge. Our tulip farms will be organic, and we’ll return to the soil what we take.