Augmented cyborgs at SXSW

Another SXSW coming up; it’ll be good to see old friends and make new connections. The Austin Chronicle asked me to write something for their SXSW Interactive issue; that led to an interesing interview with cyborg anthropologist Amber Case, a longer version of which I might post here later. When “bOING bOING” was a magazine, I was an associated editor listed as “cyborganic jivemeister,” and the magazine I published, FringeWare Review, focused quite bit on “cyborging.” Originally a science fiction term, a mashup of “cybernetic organism,” the term represents a potentially huge field of study – how humans interact with, and how human experience is enhanced by, digital technology. If you’ll be at SXSW Interactive, don’t miss Amber’s keynote Sunday, March 11, 2pm at the Austin Convention Center, Exhibit Hall 5 (#SXAmberCase). Meanwhile after the interview was done she and I kept talking, and will be working on a project together, a blog on the subject of augmented reality.

Resilient Communities

Elements of Resilient Communities

Follow John Robb and pay close attention to what he has to say, because he has his finger on the pulse. He’s currently promoting the concept of resilient communities, defined here:

A resilient community is the path to a safe, prosperous, and vibrant future for us, our kids, and our neighbors — despite an increasingly chaotic world…. We take control of our future. We implement the only solution that can give us the a safe, secure, and prosperous future. We become resilient. We find ways to help local people, businesses, and municipalities to PRODUCE, and that’s and important word, more of what we rely upon…. Fortunately, we now have the technology and the insights required to produce with quality and efficiency at the local level like never before.

State of the World 2012

Bruce Sterling and I are holding forth in our annual State of the World conversation on the WELL. Here’s the short url for access: http://bit.ly/yNcL9L If you have questions or comments for us, and you’re not a member of the WELL, just send them to inkwell at well.com.

It’s a pretty juicy year for this sort of thing; we’ll have some apocalyptic fun surveying the wreckage. (If you happen to be Lester Brown, and have practicing global prognostication much longer than we have, we especially welcome your comments.)

Apple’s convergent television: “I finally cracked it!”

Disrupting televison

We’ve been hearing for two decades now about television/computer/Internet convergence. Televisions sets today are advanced digital products, and we connect computers and specialized set-top boxes to ’em, but they’re still primarily display devices.

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs ““very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant.”

Jobs told Isaacson that “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

More on the Jobs/Apple vision of convergence here.

I’m imagining a media device that, like the Internet, swallows all other forms: television set, movie theatre, stereo, juke box, etc. But it would also be interactive, a window on the rest of the world. This isn’t exactly cutting edge – those who think about such things expected it before now.

Contact Summit: “It’s time to take back the net”

At the Contact Summit. Photo by Steven Brewer

At the Contact Summit. Photo by Steven Brewer

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:

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.”

Photo by Steven Brewer.

Forward thinking about the competitive workplace

Earlier this week I attended a breakfast panel sponsored by Gensler (http://www.gensler.com), an architecture, design, planning and consultation firm that focuses (among other things) on effective workplace environments, consulting for companies like Google, HP, Yahoo and Facebook. The title of the panel was “Designing your workplace for a competitive edge.”

Here’s my set of notes from the panel:

Evolving workplace:

Version 1.0: Move fast and break things. Emerging culture. Workplaces built for speed, transparency, flexibility.

Version 2.0: 8×8, 1:1. Cubic farms on vast floor plates. Cube dwellers. Butts in seats. Embedded hierarchy.

Version 3.0: (Now). Activity-based era. Changing work process. Mobile, remote work. “We” spaces, not “me” spaces. Support for collaboration. Drivers: faster pace, distributed teams, lean and mean. Changing work processes (from waterfall to agile). Closed to open. Get products to market faster. Multiple space times for multiple work modes. Coworking. Workers not tethered to one company.

Panelists
Derek Woodgate, The Futures Lab: futurist perspective
Eden Bruckman, International Living Future Institute: sustainability perspective
David Bumgardner, HP: real estate acquisition and management perspective.

Bumgardner’s job is to maximize HP’s real estate portfolio. He has to consider how employees work and what kind of environment is conducive to productivity, at the same time maintaining standards across the global HP properties. He focuses on optimal use of all properties, noting that the workforce increasingly consists of mobile employees who require no office or desk. The need for consistent standards is so that wherever the mobile employee goes to an HP facility, the work environment is fairly consistent. Other factors: environmental sustainability, affordability.

A green and sustainable workplace environment can be a competitive edge: some of the most talented employees will factor environmental impact into their decisions about where to work.

Google is another company that focuses on sustainability. The focus is authentic, no greenwashing. Google wants to move beyond LEED, looking through the lens of the Living Building Challenge (https://ilbi.org/lbc).

The build environment is an extension of who we are. We see increasing interest in building bio measurement and feedback into environments. China is looking closely at metrics in building 20 megacities.

Community will no longer be a matter of who’s aggregated in any place, but also how they share and manage resources.

Health and well-being is the new perq for employees; it’s no longer about having a corner office or other sings of hierarchy.

At Zappos, the number 1 priority is company culture, feeling that if you get that right, the rest will happen naturally. How does the built environment impact that culture?

The contemporary work environment needs spaces for energizing and spaces for discharging that energy.

Technology is moving fast, but the build environment is inherently slow.

HP created the Halo Room (http://www.humanproductivitylab.com/archive_blogs/2007/08/28/hp_halo_releases_hp_meeting_ro.php), a set of global networked technology-mediated remote conferencing environments. As these kinds of environments proliferate, travel requirements will decrease. “You’re not going to see that people interaction go away. You’re going to see better ways to get it.”

Increasingly building sustainability into design standards, which may have to vary for different (non-U.S.) contexts. Striving for a zero effect (carbon neutral). Changing densities.

Currently workers don’t feel the same commitment from companies as before, and vice versa. Companies are reducing the numbers of employees and relying more on contractors. We’re creating a world of experts (consultants).

Future workers (currently under 25 years of age) are growing up with a different set of assumptions. Their world is a world of peer groups, not authoritarian hierarchies. It’s a world that’s saturated with technology, especially for communications. For the first time ever, we’re starting to see multiple generations of employees working together in the same office.

What #OccupyWallStreet is about

#OccupyWallStreet is just the sort of movement I’ve been expecting. It’s a true grassroots movement catalyzed and sustained by social media (which is probably crucial, as I explained in an earlier post). While there is an overriding agenda about economic justice, OWS represents a diversity of interests and concerns. It’s a working class phenomenon, but it includes both blue collar and white collar workers, many of them newly unemployed. These are the statistics that corporations ignore when they cut jobs and strip healthcare benefits. These are people who heard a promise throughout their lives and saw it shattered to dust over the last decade. These are people who have created much of the value that millionaires and billionaires have captured and stashed in their Swiss bank accounts. These are honest, hardworking swimmers who didn’t see the sharks coming until it was too late.

Remember Frank Capra’s film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where an ordinary guy played by James Stewart takes on Washington corruption? Sending a true-blue Mr. Smith to Washington didn’t work to his advantage, the level of corruption almost took him down. What happens, though, if you have an army of idealistic, straight-shooting Mr. Smiths who actually believe that the system should work for everybody, not just the wealthiest 1%? To me the Occupy movement is that army, and they’re occupying not Washington D.C., but Wall Street, which has become the real seat of power as corporations ascend and governments weaken.

I saw a talk last night by David Cobb, a former shrimper and construction worker who got his law degree in 1993 and was the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2004. He’s currently active with MoveToAmend.org, and organization that seeks an amendment to abolish the concept of corporate personhood, arguing that corporations never should have been assigned the rights normally assigned to a person in the first place. Why is this a problem? The biggest issue currently is the assertion of a corporation’s Constitutional right to contribute to political campaigns. The question is the extent to which corporate power and influence over government should be limited. Cobb’s argument was that the supposed American democracy is not really “of, by, and for the people” because corporations are making and enforcing (through influence) decisions that we should be making together. What’s an example? One might be the complex of government decisions connected with the recent “too big to fail” financial crisis and bailouts, including weakened regulation of banking and credit card industries. It’s the financial crisis, and more so the response to it, and resulting loss of jobs and benefits, that’s brought diverse citizens to the streets in the “Occupy” movement. Also, for that matter, it was an inspiration for the formation of the Tea Party on the right side of the fence.

Like Cobb, I don’t think the issue is the idea of the corporation, of people coming together to create an entity to accomplish something, like building a business or fulfilling a not for profit mission. The problem is an imbalance of power and influence, and the growing sense that a few rule the many. Most of us grew up believing in something called democracy, which is difficult to achieve and too easy to game. Cobb pointed out that there’s been a democratization trend – more and more people assigned the rights of a person, women minorites, etc. But at the same time there’s a corporatist trend, a kind of gentler version of what we used to call fascism, that has been growing and is currently ascendant and taking as much power as possible.

I don’t think it’s too radical for the people to demand their rights as persons and as citizens, and assert those rights against the rights of “legal fictions,” i.e. corporations. But (as I posted in Facebook and Google+ earlier), we have to stop feeling outraged and start feeling a tranquil and firm sense of empowerment. That’s what I think I’m seeing in the OWS demonstrations so far.

Neal Stephenson on Innovation Starvation

“The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.” [Link]

Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Of course we’ve been tracking the fires in the Austin area, especially the massive complex fire in Bastrop, and I’ve been thinking how to make sense of the disaster. Marsha and I drove toward Bastrop, Texas Monday to get a better look, not expecting to get very close (we didn’t want to be in the way). We drove within ten miles – not close, but close enough to capture photos of the massive tower of smoke: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weblogsky/sets/72157627607062626/ Jasmina Tesanovic was there the same day, and posted her thoughts here.

The whole area is a tinderbox after an unprecedented drought, and a great, now dangerous, feature of the Austin area is that cities and suburbs here have pervasive greenspaces, and we’ve built residences and other structures close to, and surrounded by, foliage that is now potentially explosive.

The current disasterous fires have a climate change signature; they’re products of the record Texas drought – at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, global warming. They were fanned by strong, oddly dry, winds from tropical storm Lee, and while no single storm is specifically related to global warming, their increasing number and severity may be related. While I’m not looking for a climate change debate here, it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right, and leaders have ignored scientific consensus for so long that prevention is no longer an option. We should be thinking about adaptation, but that’s not happening, either.

In fact, we’re not prepared for disaster. Marsha and Jasmina returned to Bastrop Tuesday hoping to volunteer, and Marsha spent much of Wednesday as a volunteer at one of the evacuee shelters. So much is happening so quickly, it’s hard to manage – and there’s no clear leadership or structure. The fire has destroyed 1,386 homes, and it’s still burning. Much of the attention and energy is focused on core concerns. On the periphery of the disaster, there are too few leaders or managers and too many details to manage.

This is a metaphor for global crisis. Economies are challenged and systems are breaking down; at the same time, we have real crises of authority. At a time that demands great leadership, we have no great leaders. Politicians left and right are stumbling. In Texas, which has needed great insightful leadership for some time now, the governor dismisses science and leads rallies to pray for rain.

In difficult times past, great leaders have emerged. Where are they now?

1 Semester Startup

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).

Emerging thoughts

I’ve been in conversation with a diverse group of people who are interested creating a next version of the Internet that’s more peer to peer, more open source/open architecture, less vulnerable to government or corporate restriction. Some aspects of the various threads of conversation are idealistic – not wholly unrealistic, but so far a bit fuzzy and not fully baked. However there’s substantive, useful, and promising discussion in the air, and I’m hopeful that something viable and helpful will emerge.

Coincidentally, the concept of emergence came up, via this article by Margaret Wheatley, who calls emergence “the fundamental scientific explanation for how local changes can materialize as global systems of influence” as networks evolve into communities of practice, and then systems of influence begin to emerge. This she calls the life cycle of emergence.

This resonates with the Emergent Democracy discussion and paper that Joi Ito, Ross Mayfield, and I (along with several others) worked on in the early 2000s. But what’s missing in this talk about emergence and changing the world is the role of intention. Who sets the goals for changing the world? Who catalyzes networks and drives them in a particular direction? No person or group decides to make something emerge or to make specific changes – emergence is about force and evolution, not human intention. And when you talk about changing the world, by whom and for whom, and with what force, become relevant questions.

The Tea Party and the Koch Brothers want to change the world, too. Is their vision less valid than mine or yours?

But there are forces that transcend Internet theorists and instigators, Tea Parties, partisan movements, idealistic next-net theorizers, rebels in the street, corporations, governments, etc. – forces that emerge out of control; evolution that occurs, not created or driven by some interest group, but driven by complex social physical, psychic, and social factors that have unpredictable effects.

We’re just another set of smart people who think we know how the world should work, and we probably need more humility. How can we be effective in a context where there are forces that are truly beyond our control? What intentions should we support and honor?

Transitional Internet

I continue to be focused on the future of the Internet and aware of divergent paths. In the later 2000s, following a period of digital and media convergence and given broad adoption of evolving high speed (broadband) network connectivity, the Internet has become an environment for mixed media and marketing. The Internet is increasingly centralized as a platform that serves a global business engine. It’s a mashup of business to business services and business to consumer connections, a mashup of all the forms of audio, text, and video communication and media in a new, more social/participatory context: the faceless consumer now has an avatar, an email address, and a feedback loop.

The sense of the Internet as a decentralized free and open space has changed, but there are still many advocates and strong arguments for approaches that are bottom-up, network-centric, free as in freedom (and sometimes as in beer), open, collaborative, decentralized. It’s tempting to see top-down corporate approaches vs bottom-up “free culture” approaches as mutually exclusive, but I think they can and will coexist. Rather than make value judgements about the different approaches, I want to support education and thinking about ethics, something I should discuss later.

Right now I want to point to a collaboration forming around the work of Venessa Miemis, who’s been curating trends, models, and projects associated with the decentralized Internet model. Venessa and her colleagues (including myself) have been discussing how to build a decentralized network that is broadly and cheaply accessible and that is more of a cooperative, serving the public interest rather than a narrower set of economic interests.

I’ll be focusing on these sorts of projects here and in my talks on the future of the Internet. Meanwhile, here are pointers to a couple of Venessa’s posts that are good overviews for what I’m talking about. I appreciate her clarity and focus.

There’s also the work of Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation, which I’ve followed for several years. The P2P Wiki has relevant pages:

The future of global online journalism

(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.

(Notes:

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.