Kurzweil posts about a system developed for “mining the blogosphere,” i.e. BlogSum, a sophisticated listening natural language processing system for evaluating and indexing blog content developed at Concordia University. “The system is capable of gauging things like consumer preferences and voter intentions by sorting through websites, examining real-life self-expression and conversation, and producing summaries that focus exclusively on the original question.” This is a technical concept that David DeMaris and I had discussed some years ago, thinking of potential activist/political applications. It’ll be interesting to see how this technology is deployed.
John McDermott at Financial Times writes “How to have a conversation”:
What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.
Reading that, I realize I suck as a conversationalist (but wait, I shouldn’t talk about myself…) A commitment to learn and act on those principles is in order… online and off.
Later in the article, McDermott mentions “the ‘six ways to have a better conversation.’ These, according to the school, are: 1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.”
If you take off your mask, will you disappear?
In 2009, Howard Rheingold created an excellent mini-course in network literacy, a substantial resource for those who want to learn more about the Internet. Here’s the introductory video:
Howard’s written a book on network and digital literacy called Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.
This week, on October 20, a diverse assortment of forward-thinking, Internet-savvy, solutions-oriented people gathered in New York City for Contact Summit, a project-focused event organized by Doug Rushkoff and Venessa Miemis. I was originally planning to attend, and was plugged into the small team of organizers. I couldn’t make the event, but have been available as a resource for organizers of related global Meetups, and will help sustain the converation following the event.
Doug had created a prologue video for the remote Meetups scheduled to occur synchronous with the main event. Here’s a summary of his comments in that video – this gives a good idea what the gathering was about:
It’s time to take back the net. Currently the Internet is much too concerned with marketing, IPOs, and the next killer app, and too little concerned with helping human beings get where we need to go. We want to use the Internet effectively to promote better ways of living, doing commerce, educating, making art, doing spirituality. To collaborate on ideas about how to use the net well. There are a lot of projects that need our assistance. From Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, people are rising up. We need solutions. Contact is about finding the others, and working and playing with them to find solutions to age-old problems. In New York on October 20th, we’re having unconference-style meetings plus a two hour bazaar where people will demo their projects. We’ll select projects that most need help, help them get funding and move forward. What it’s really about is planting a flag in the sand, saying the Internet is really about us, not about aiding the bottom line of a few corporations. This goes as deep and as far as we want to take it. The Summit is just a trigger point. It’s time to fold the fringes of the Internet back into the middle and re-ignite the passion and practicality of the Internet. If there were another name for Contact, I would call it “Occupy the Net.” We will collaborate to bring disparate projects with similar goals into harmony, so that anything we can dream will emerge.
Here’s a list of the winning projects from the Bazaar:
- Freedom Tower, Free Network Foundation.
- Freedom Box
- 3D Printing: Community Collaboration Catalyst at the Fayetteville Free Library
Here’s a list of winning sessions (selected by attendees):
Upgrading Democracy: Representation is a fundamental concept of our governance, but is encoded in the technology of the 18th century. The modern networked world enables a truer form of representation known variously under the names Dynamic Democracy, Liquid Democracy, and Delegable Proxy voting.
Local Foodsharing platform: I don’t have details on this yet
Kick-Stopper – Crowdsourced Unfunding: This group is dedicated to creating online organizing tools to organize large scale divestment and debt strike campaigns. Join here: http://groups.google.com/group/debt-strike-kick-stopper
Online General Assembly: This group folded itself into the Upgrade Democracy group, but has its own mandate: to create an online version of the General Assembly technique (as practiced by Occupy Wall Street) for consensus building.
Collaboration Matchmaking Application: The idea is to create an application that helps creators, particularly artists, find collaborators on projects. During the final session on this concept, participants decided that this project should grow at its own pace and with a relatively smaller circle.
DJ Lanphier shot video at the event, and has gradually been uploading those to http://www.youtube.com/contactsummit. Here’s an example, a video of Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation: “We are discovering together how we should be working.”
In the first decade of the 2000s, I was fired up about the potential for an energized entrepreneurial scene to emerge in Austin, which was famously on the map as a city for new business, but didn’t really have the kind of creative entrepreneurial scene you see in, for instance, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. I worked with Bijoy Goswami at Bootstrap Austin, and managed the Wireless Future project at IC2, as well as flying formation with the clean energy and sustainable business communities that seemed to have traction here. However, busy myself with a couple of startups, I became less focused on that scene. It kept evolving… Bijoy started an entrepreneur community via his work with the ATX Equation, and local entrepreneur Josh Baer started something local, similar to Y-Combinator, called Capital Factory. Gary Hoover, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of entrepreneurial history, has been teaching classes for entrepreneurs at the McCombs School of Business. There’s much better support for entrepreneurs in Austin today than there was a decade ago.
Now Josh, John Butler (of IC2) and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe are teaching a cross-disciplinary course at the University of Texas called 1 Semester Startup. I attended a meeting last night of potential mentors for the class, in which students will form actual startup companies and try to make them fly. Mentors will be on call to answer questions and help the budding entrepreneurs avoid pitfalls and deal with inevitable mistakes and missteps. Several people (including yours truly) signed up for these mentorship roles.
There’s much wrangling about the lack of jobs in the U.S., and the economic crisis we’ve brought on with a complex combination of bad business, bad government, and outright fraud in some of the more abstract markets. To me one of the best solutions to the fix we’re in economically is to get better and better at building business and creating new markets, and that’s the promise of entrepreneurial creativity. So this course is just the sort of thing we need – more and more of it. (I’d also like to see a strong emphasis on ethics in entrepreneurial training, but that’s another rant for another day).
Everybody’s head is a strange universe filled with echos of voices they’ve heard over and over again. Against this, we try to manifest our intentions, to persuade with more voice, more conversation. Sometimes we get through, but even when we get through, we’re often filtered, just as we’re filtering. Is it any wonder that it’s so difficult to build and sustain an effective collaboration?
I’m looking at the ways that we strive to aggregate our attentions, find common ground, and work together. Over the years I’ve approached this through the lens of democracy, or what I’ve referred to as the “democratic intention” to create a participatory process that works. The older I get and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this intention, though we so often profess it, is actually rare. Most of us would really like to assert our self interest, our own preferences, but society is a collision of interests and preferences, we have to give in order to take. In a recent discussion of the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod, I was struck by the hardwired assumption that self-interest inherently rules, and cooperation is reached most effectively with an understanding of that point, thus the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, I find that real people are fuzzy on that point, they’re not necessarily or inherently all about self-interest. We’re far more complex than that.
There’s a force of democratization in this world that I suspect is an inherent effect of two factors, population growth and density (which forces us to socialize and co-operate) and human evolution (hopefully we’re growing wiser, more capable, and continuing to adapt). I see aspects of it in work that I do. My internet work is often about building contexts to bring people together for shared experience and collaboration. At the Society of Participatory Medicine I’m involved in communications, and the concept of participatory medicine is driven by a democratization of health information and process. In politics I’ve focused on grassroots emergence, ad hoc and headless organizations, methods for effecting and enhancing participatory culture and activism. In thinking about markets, I’m drawn to the Cluetrain Manifesto and Doc Searls’ current Project VRM, or vendor relationship marketing, which is about giving consumers tools for symmetrical power within the vendor/customer relationship.
I’m thinking about all this in the context of my ongoing fascination with culture, media, and the Internet, and developing thinking that might feed into several interesting projects here and elsewhere. One thought I had was about a potential revival of Extreme Democracy and new conversations about emergent democracy. These are potentially lush gardens of thinking and doing that at the moment are barren, having been untended for a while.
(Update: Alfred Hermida blogs Vivian Schiller’s 7 reasons to be cheerful about journalism at Reportr.net.)
The evolution of networked global communication infrastructures is disrupting and changing delivery of news and the way journalists work. While some publishers have been wringing hands and tearing hair over the collapse of the business model for news publishing, others in the industry get that news, and news authority, will always be relevant, that there will always be a need and a market for informed delivery of and interpretation of facts. I just spent two days (Friday and Saturday, April 1st and 2nd) at the University of Texas’ 12th Annual Global Symposium on Online Journalism, organized by brilliant, forward-looking Professor Rosental Alves. After stewing in the juices of the future of journalism for two days, I’d like to summarize what I think I was hearing.
The future of journalism and the future of Internet are intimately related. The Internet has catalyzed a democratization of knowledge, and is (in my opinion) a force beyond our control, though there are enough discussions about controlling it in some way that I’m seeing discussions of substance about how to resist that control (which are interesting, but out of scope for this post). The democratization of knowledge and the evolution of social tools on the Internet are the two aspects of intense interest on my part that have led me to seemingly diverse projects and discussions involving futurism, politics, evolving markets, participatory medicine, and online journalism. While to some I may seem all over the map, I see a consistency in all of these: they’re all part of an Internet-driven evolution. Politics, marketing, healthcare, and journalism are all experiencing disruption and difficulty as the global online information infrastructure becomes increasingly pervasive and sophisticated.
1. This might be a good place to quote P.D. Ouspensky: “In order to understand a thing, you must see it s connection with some bigger subject, or bigger whole, and the possible consequences of this connection. Understanding is always the understanding of a smaller problem in relation to a bigger problem.”
2. I don’t see “democratization of knowledge” as an inherently wonderful thing. While I’m dedicated to open and distributed knowledge systems, I recognize the relevant issues: “a little knowledge can be dangerous,” “in the wrong hands, knowledge can be dangerous,” etc. I’m also committed to participatory or democratic systems, but with the understanding that they have significant issues – democracy doesn’t scale well, doesn’t necessarily result in the best actions or decisions for all, can be little better than “mob rule,” etc. We have to be thoughtful about these things, and attend to the down sides.)
Internet forces have undermined business models for publishing and news delivery – enough’s been said about that. The UT conference I attended looks beyond that disruption and focuses on the new reality of technology-mediated news dissemination and a new more symmetrical relationship of news organization with news reader. Readers have similar access to the means of production as news organizations, and have the expectation of an environment where they can readily provide feedback on news, if not participate in gathering and disseminationg news stories. Bloggers and small independents are breaking stories and conducting deep investigation. Journalism is becoming a partnership of the news professionals with their more or less informed audiences.
Here are some thoughts and questions I’m having, inspired by the conference (and to some extent by the Future of Journalism track at SXSW Interactive that I helped curate).
- Today’s newsroom is a high technology operation. The new journalist understands code, and there’s a new breed of developer (in the hacks hackers, program or be programmed mode) who understands journalism well enough to be an effective partner in application development. In this context, there’s an evolution from “shovelware” to apps that effectively leverage diverse platforms, especially mobile platforms.
- Will the web and the browser continue to be primary platform for news delivery, or will mobile apps be more prominent and effective? Or (more likely) are we looking at an ecosystem where both will be adopted and used? The web has advantages, including ubiquity, existing infrastructure, linkability, bookmarking and social tech.
- How important are aggregation and curation vs reporting? Are aggregators practicing journalism, or “making sense of the Internet.”
- Many publications are integrating social media, becoming more conversational. How well can conversations scale? Does this have a democratizing effect?
- Revolution in Egypt wasn’t driven by social media alone, but also (if not more so) by Egypt’s independent press.
- How polarized are we, how do we become less polarized, what is the relationship of news to politicization and polarization, and is there a relationship between polarization and credibility?
- What is the impact of moving from a workflow heavily based on editing to real-time publishing models?
- What’s the relationship of news to engagement? How can you both engage and scale?
- New concept: “newsfulness,” or likelihood of a device to be used for news access.
- Is public journalism a public good? Does it make more sense for investigative news organizations to be nonprofit rather than for-profit?
- How do news organizations use, and monetize, Twitter?
- “Gatejumping” vs gatekeeping. Twitter allows early gatekeepers to jump the gates, deliver news directly and immediately.
- Do online journalists have more autonomy than their offline counterparts?
- Open APIs catalyze developer communities, potentially bring new revenue potential, speed up internal and external product development.
- How do news organizations keep up with increasing R&D demands with decreasing budgets?
- What is the impact of pay walls, and how well will they succeed? What makes paywalls viable: scale still matters, but brand is back. Users are depending more on brand authority, advertisers are getting back to basics.
Link to my tweets from the conference.
Via Flemming Funch, a review of “Finite and Infinite Games – A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility” by James P. Carse: “A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game….An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game.”
All finite games have rules. If you follow the rules you are playing the game. If you don’t follow the rules you aren’t playing. If you move the pieces in different ways in chess, you are no longer playing chess.
Infinite players play with rules and boundaries. They include them as part of their playing. They aren’t taking them serious, and they can never be trapped by them, because they use rules and boundaries to play with.
Hearing via Twitter that my friend Gary Chapman of the LBJ School has died. News of his death was posted by Isadora Vail of the Austin American Statesman. No details yet. I had just emailed Gary today asking for his support in putting together an Austin Wikileaks Summit. [Update: Statesman article by Vail reporting that Gary died of an apparent heart attack.]
Gary was a visionary thinker, always exploring the edge of emerging technologies… and he was a fine guy and a good friend. I interviewed him for the Austin Chronicle in 1999. [Link]
I think that a lot of people in the technology policy community feel there’s a kind of vacuum with respect to crafting a vision for why the United States should invest in science and technology in the future. That’s seen as a liability in forming consensus about what we should be investing in, but also an opportunity for helping craft a new vision.
The last organizing principle of technology policy was the Cold War, and that lasted for 50 years. But that’s pretty much over, and now we need a new organizing principle. It’s not clear what that’s going to be. There’s been a de facto consensus around global economic competitiveness, but that doesn’t really seem to have the same kind of glue that the Cold War rationale had. So I think there’s still work to be done on crafting the vision, and I think there’s certain pieces that have to go into it:
(1) Sustainability, that is, its relationship to the natural environment and our ability to build an economic system that doesn’t deplete the earth’s resources.
(2) Global commerce that is not solely competitive, but cooperative in nature as well.
(3) Social justice and equity issues, so that we don’t end up with technology policy that just favors the wealthy. That would have to take into account vast disparities in education and literacy and access to economic resources.
(4) A technology policy that’s democratic, and that offers the opportunity for people who are not scientific and technological experts to help craft it.
On October 20, I caught Steven Johnson’s talk at Book People in Austin. I’ve known Steven since the 90s – we met when he was operating Feed Magazine, one of the early web content sites. After Feed, Steven created a second content site, actually more of a web forum, called Plastic.com.
Starting with Interface Culture, Steven has mostly written books, and is generally thought of as a science writer, though I think of him as a writer about culture as well. His book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software was a major influence for those of us who were into social software and the percolation of “Web 2.0.” I related it to my earlier “nodal politics” thinking, and it influenced the collaborative paper created by Joi Ito et al., called “Emergent Democracy.” Steven wrote an analysis of the Howard Dean Presidential Campaign for the book I edited with Mitch Ratcliffe, Extreme Democracy.
When Steven wrote The Ghost Map, he came to realize that the story breaking the cholera epidemic in London in 1854 was more complicated than he had realized. John Snow is credited with identifying the source of the cholera (in water, not airborne as many thought), but he wasn’t working in a vacuum. Among others, Reverend Henry Whitehead assisted him, and it was Whitehead that located the index patient or “patient zero” for the outbreak, a baby in the Lewis House at 40 Broad Street. Ultimately the discovery that cholera was water-borne, and that the 1854 outbreak was associated with a specific water pump in London, was collaborative, a network affair. Realizing this, Steven wanted to know more about the origin of great ideas and the spaces that make them possible in both human and natural systems.
Before he got to his current book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven looked at the history of ecosystem science and found himself studying and writing about the life of Joseph Priestley, and publishing The Invention of Air. Ostensibly about Priestley, his discovery that plants produce oxygen, and his other contributions to science and nascent American democracy, the book is also about the conditions that contribute to innovation in science and elsewhere, including, per a review in New Yorker, “the availability of coffee and the unfettered circulation of information through social networks.”
These books form a trilogy about worldchanging ideas and the environments that make them possible. From what Steven learned in researching and writing them, he’s ready to dismantle the idea of the single scientist or thinker reversing or disrupting common paradigms with a eureka moment or flash of insight. That flash of light is the culmination of a longer process, 10-20 years of fragments of ideas, hunches that percolate and collide with other hunches. And there’s usually no thought of the impact of an idea. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t set out to create the World Wide Web, he was just scratching his own itch.
Good or great ideas emerge from what Steven calls “liquid networks,” clusters of people hanging out and talking, sharing thoughts in informal settings, often in coffee houses. The people who innovate and produce good ideas tend to be eclectic in their associations – they don’t hang out with people who are just like them, they’re exposed to diverse thinking.
This aligns with my own thinking that we should have idea factories that bring these diverse sets of people together… this is what I’ve seen as the real promise of coworking facilities and various other ways of bringing creative mixes of people to rub their brains together and produce sparks.
Here are three stray thoughts expressed that I really liked, that came up in Q&A:
- Error and noise are important parts of the process of discovery. You can’t advance without ’em.
- A startup is a search algorithm for a business model.
- There’s a thin line between saturation/overload and productive collision.
Photo by Jesús Gorriti
Daniel Pink has a smart article on flip thinking, a trend in innovation. It’s a matter of rethinking sequence logic: for instance, a math instructor finds that it makes more sense to work on problems in class, and follow with the lecture (uploaded to YouTube, where students watch as homework). You experience the tension of the problem first, and get hands-on guidance from the instructor. Having learned your way around the problem, you see the lecture that contextualizes that learning.
While the idea is great, and Pink offers excellent examples where turning sequences around might work, the more compelling lesson is about creativity: we should rethink our habits and routines, and consider re-engineering our processes, as a matter of course. It’s too easy for ruts to form. We avoid disruptive innovation because it can be painful, but it’s productive pain. [Link]
The Journal of Participatory Medicine has published an interesting piece on Self Diagnosis, subtitled A Discursive Systematic Review of the Medical Literature. It’s a complex subject – as patients become more informed and empowered, they are more liable to want to have a role in diagnosis, and more apt to question a doctor’s perception or framing of their condition. This isn’t new for some of us – thirty years ago I was disagreeing with my physician to the extent that he would prescribe to treatments, one based on his assessment and one based on mine.
The systematic review published in the JOPM turned up 51 articles, of which 38 were suitable for inclusion in the review. There are three assessments of self-diagnosis: that it’s reliable and desirable (31%), that it’s not reliable but still desirable (23%), or that it’s neither reliable nor desirable (29%).
I’m sure the assessments depend to some extent on context and personality, which varied in the papers assesed. One significant problem considered in the discussion is that “self-diagnosis obviously challenges the authority of medicine, an authority which may already be in decline.”
A decline in medical authority is not necessarily a bad thing, even from medicine’s perspective. The notion of self-care and the changing nature of the doctor-patient relationship have been lauded as positive changes in the health system.
The article goes on to discuss how the patient/doctor relationship was historically “characterized by an authoritative, paternalistic doctor managing the care of the submissive patient.”
With respect to patient self-diagnosis, the modern patient clearly would participate in diagnostic decision making, but not necessarily with ease. The ability to assess quality and reliability of health information is not necessarily within the grasp of most lay people, presenting a difficulty on two fronts. On the one hand, any attempt to mediate access to information, or to recapture control of its delivery will infringe upon lay autonomy, returning the patient to the paternalistic care of the omniscient physician. On the other, consuming information without adequate understanding results in individual vulnerability for both patient health and the doctor-patient relationship.
I think this gets to the challenge we face in advocating participatory medicine, but the same challenge is inherent in any democratization of knowledge: to participate, you have to be able to make informed decisions – you have to be informed, and you have to be capable of understanding the information that’s accessible to you. The real source of empowerment may be, not just in the education and participation of the patient, but in the mutually empowering relationship of physician and patient.
The article concludes “that there are no clear binaries to guide the incorporation of self-diagnosis into contemporary health management.”
It is a complex matter, because it is a relational one, tightly bound up in the ways lay people and doctors position themselves and interact relative to one another and relative to particular disease categories.
Wired News hosts a conversation between Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson, who’ve written similar books… Steven – Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation; and Kevin – What Technology Wants.
Steven “finds that great creative milieus, whether MIT or Los Alamos, New York City or the World Wide Web, are like coral reefs—teeming, diverse colonies of creators who interact with and influence one another.”
Kevin “believes “technology can be seen as a sort of autonomous life-form, with intrinsic goals toward which it gropes over the course of its long development. Those goals, he says, are much like the tendencies of biological life, which over time diversifies, specializes, and (eventually) becomes more sentient…”
I’m glad Kevin and Steven are making the “hive mind” point, a rationale for softening rigid proprietary systems and encouraging collaboration and interaction… sez Steven: “innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.” Great ideas emerge from scenes, the solitary inventors are just catalysts for the execution (no mean feat, though).
Manor, a small town in Texas a few miles from Austin, has become an unlikely star player in the new world of “Government 2.0.” This week Manor and GovFresh, an organization that provides news and information about technology innovation in government, joined forces to host a conference on “big ideas for local America.” The conference highlighted the work Manor, nearby DeLeon, and other small governments in the U.S. are doing to incorporate social media and open data approaches to provide better information and services to citizens, and to engage them more effectively. This is part of an open government trend that’s been brewing since the 1990s, but is catching fire with pervasive Internet adoption and digital convergence.
When Obama was President-Elect, Gary Chapman at the LBJ School in Austin spoke to a local community media summit and told how the Obama Transition Team had been working with the LBJ School on government transparency, with Open Government as the new administrations highest priority. Beth Noveck, Assistant to the White House CTO, was in Manor affirming that priority – the Obama Administration is providing leadership from the top.
In the last 5 years or so, as we’ve seen an acceleration of digital convergence and increasingly pervasive use of smart digital devices to access all sorts of information, we’ve seen a disruptive democratization of knowledge and information and demand for all sorts of data to be opened up via application programming interfaces. The world’s information is increasingly sorted, sifted, and combined in various useful and creative ways. This is transforming the worlds of journalism, healthcare, energy, and law as well as politics and government. The Manor gathering was an acknowledgement and update. Janet Gilmore of the Texas Department of Information Resources noted that there’s an open data movement within governments – and governments have all sorts of data sets they can expose – about weather, wildlife, real estate, income flows, resource locations, etc.
There’s also a huge potential for government at all levels to use social media to engage citizens – not just to get the word out about what government is doing, but listening to citizen input on what government should be doing. The message I heard in Manor is that people don’t want to talk about doing cool and innovative stuff with emerging technologies, they want to stop talking and start doing. And there’s so many easy ways to start doing: WordPress sites, 311 systems, Facebook and Twitter presences, QR codes, mobile applications… a list as long as crowdsourced minds can make it. Manor is soliciting ideas and conceiving new ways to incorporate technologies via its Labs, in partnership with Stanford Univeresity’s Peace Dot Program and others.
There are many challenges to opening up government, not the least of which is culture. Someone at the Manor gathering commented that “the technology is easy, but the people are hard.” That speaks to all sorts of challenges – training and adoption, privacy issues, culture change, apathy, control. But we’re on kind of a roll here, and picking up momentum and energy.
On January 28th and 29th, there will be a Texas Government 2.0 Barcamp at the Eastview Campus of Austin Community College. Watch this space for more information.