What you really need to know about the state of the world

Tying a few things together here, starting with the mysterious 8-foot Lego Man that “washed up” on a Florida beach. The front of his “shirt” says “No real than you are,” and the reverse side has the name “Ego Leonard.” Ego has a website based in the Netherlands, but nobody knows how he got to Florida (vacation?). Lego Man appears by inference (link on the site) to be a project of St. Art Gallery.

Ego’s a cheerful sort: “I come from the virtual world. A world that for me represents happiness, solidarity, all green and blossoming, with no rules or limitations.” However, he says, “my world has been flooded with fortune-hunters and people drunk with power.” Maybe we’re looking at a potential Occupy Legoland.

Ego Leonard’s visit was timed just before the world population hit 7 billion more or less (who’d have a precise count?), and that’s supposedly today, Halloween 2011. How fast are we growing?

1 billion – 1804
2 billion – 1927
3 billion – 1959
4 billion – 1974
5 billion – 1987
6 billion – 1999*
7 billion – 2011

The crazy and wildly diverse human race, is clearly a successful species, as of the 1800s – we’re producing new humans faster than Lego’s producing its brightly-colored simulacra. How successful we can remain, growing at this accelerating rate, is another question. How do you employ and provide resources for a population of 7 billion and counting? While people are staying around longer, crowding the new kids. (Perhaps this is why some of my libertarian acquaintances have argued against spending resources on aging citizens – arguing to end Social Security and Medicare, let ’em drop, defer resources to the next batch of humans).

You’ve been hearing a lot about economic injustice in the US, with the high-rolling, elite top 1% controlling 40% of the wealth and striving to get more. Perhaps they see the handwriting on the wall and want to make sure they have theirs as resources are stretched to the limit by 7 billion demands. However if the global economy collapses under the weight of this growing crowd’s demand for resources, it’s questionable what value the wealth of the wealthy will actually have in that context.

Meanwhile climate is increasingly whacky. Latest is an “unusually early snowstorm” leaving ~3 million in the eastern US without power. A decade ago, a climate scientist told me that, while climate change is driven by global warming, but not all the effects will be “warm.”

Some argue that climate change is unrelated to the substantial emission of gases associated with the growing numbers of people in the world (with their exhaust-ing cars, boats, and airplanes, and their aggregated farts). This is because they want to sell more: the current world economy pivots on the burn.

We should all move to Legoland.

And now for something completely different… but possibly related…

Did you know that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist? My pal Steve Silberman has written a great piece on Jobs’ Buddhist history. Maybe the best thing I’ve read about Jobs, and incidentally a striking perspective on American Buddhism. Excerpt:

Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear.

Punctuation: Steve Jobs’ last words: “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow…”


I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship as the requisite basis for action in an era of greed and confusion. Stewardship can be defined several ways, but the general sense I get is that it means taking responsibility for something that you don’t “own.” Ownership also needs definition for the sake of clarity, and as a Buddhist I’ve cultivated some depth around the concept of “I” or “self” and the concept of “own.” If the self is an illusion, then ownership is part of that illusion.

But we have to live in the world, and accept consensual hallucinations like the concept of “self.” I can also think of “I” as a bounded awareness, and stewardship as taking responsibility for something beyond that boundary.

The case that came up most recently for me was that of technology stewardship, which I just spent two weeks discussing on the WELL with Nancy White and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities. We were talking about how people with a community of practice who have relative clue about technology take responsibility for assessing, selecting, and sustaining technology platforms for the community to use, primarily for communication and collaboration. Communities are complex, technology can be complex as well, so there’s much to be discussed in this context. Check out the discussion and the book if you’re interested, but I’m more interested in how the act of stewardship works, especially the attitude behind it.

While stewardship may or may not be through some role that is compensated, it should be inherently unselfish. To effectively take responsibility for something beyond yourself, you have to be prepared to put your “self” aside and think in terms of the best interests relevant to the stewardship role. In technology stewardship for a community, you’re selecting the technology that best serves the interests and capabilities of the community, not necessarily the technologies you would prefer or be most comfortable with.

We also talk about stewardship in the context of The Austin Equation, where I’m involved as a resource on community development, especially online. For that project, a group of volunteers have been defining and mapping scenes local to Austin, with the idea that they will take a stewardship role with the scenes they’ve selected, i.e. help build coherence and effectiveness into a community where the only glue, at the beginning, may be affinity and marginal awareness. How do you step into a community, in a role that the community itself didn’t define or originate, and provide effective stewardship? That’s an issue I keep considering – somehow you have to engage the community and convey the value of your stewardship.

These are some initial thoughts about stewardship; I’d like to have a larger conversation, especially about how to inspire an attitude of stewardship more broadly so that people are generally more focused on helping than “getting.”

The manifesto that made my day

Earlier today I listened to a Buddhist Geeks talk with Stephen Batchelor, who said he was pretty sure there is no god… but then Chris Carfi sent a link to an email list we’re on that aligned so completely with where my life has been going that I thumbed my nose at Batchelor. There clearly is a god, and he made sure that I saw Maureen Johnson’s manifesto today: I AM NOT A BRAND. Have you read it? If not, stop now, go read it, then come back and we’ll talk.

“We can, if we group together, fight off the weenuses and hosebags who want to turn the Internet into a giant commercial…”

The rest of this is about me, and who cares? But I do want to download a bit and make a point.

All I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of decades is help people have meaningful conversations and solve problems together, i.e. build communities and organize effective collaborations. I’ve been in conversatoins about this with all sorts of people, including conversations in the early 2000s about social software and online social networks and how the web that was evolving – conversations captured to some extent in the collaborative paper “Emergent Democracy” that I had worked on with Joi Ito and others, and the post by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Daugherty that described “web 2.0.” I spent a lot of time thinking about political uses of the technology, with the Howard Dean campaign as a laboratory, and co-edited a book about social technology and politics called Extreme Democracy. About four years ago I was working on a consulting methodology that would help people leverage their physical and online social networks more effectively, and while I was working on this people started talking about social media. Specifically social media marketing.

I understand social technology and I get why the social web is attractive and compelling and starting to get all the mindshare we formerly committed to television. Clay Shirky talks about this in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age: maybe we really wanted, needed, to have two way conversations all along, and broadcast television was just an alternative we had to accept until we got the technology we have now.

Television has confused us, it makes us think that media is (are?_ a vehicle for commercial messages, and without ads and persistent selling, a medium is broken. (This makes me remmber Lance Rose’s contention more than a decade ago that THE INTERNET IS NOT A MEDIUM, it’s an environment, and that’s probably another conversation we should be having.)

I’ve tried to establish my social media cred, but in a world where social media, as a profession, is supposed to be about marketing and selling, I don’t completely fit. It’s not that I’m against selling, but it’s not really what my life’s about, and I’ve never been attracted to the world of sales and marketing, even less so when I found myself in the middle of it.

But I love the idea of building relationships – that businesses can build symmetrical relationships with their customers, and vice versa. Is that the new marketing? Time will tell. I was raving supporter of the ideas in The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition, and I’ve been edging my way into a conversation started by one of its authors, Doc Searls, labeled Project VRM. Doc recently posted a piece called “Manage relationships, not each other,” that makes the point:

During the Industrial Age, the power asymmetry between vendor and customer got so steep that vendors got to talking about customers as if the latter were cattle or slaves. Customers became “targets” that vendors “captured,” “acquired,” “locked in” and “managed.” As the Information Age dawned, however, customers gradually became more independent. So, midway into the second decade of the new millennium, customers were no longer the ones being managed. Nor, however, were vendors. Instead, relationship itself was managed by both parties.

This perspective lines up pretty well with Maureen Johnson’s manifest. “I am not a target” is not unlike “I am not a brand.”

Every person I meet is a universe of experience and intelligence and spectacular complexity. I’m learning to appreciate this point, I can no longer easily and readily reduce someone to a statistic or a line of text or a bald concept bouncing around in my brain… there’s too much. We need more respect and reverence in our lives, and less of the reduction and dehumanization that we’ve somehow fallen into, no doubt driven by old media and mass marketing conceptual shorthand.

So this is where I have to quote, in full, the “I am not a brand” manifesto:

The Internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people -— talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the Internet that matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand -— tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people.

Jon L.’s iPhone in the NY Times

I’ve been interviewed by the New York Times before, but usually for the technology section. Who’da thunk I would turn up in “Fashion and Style”? Katie Hafner included me in a piece called “When Phones are Just Too Smart.” She originally asked how I find iPhone apps, and I realized I have no one method – some I find online, some I find by searching the store for a particular kind of thing, or I might search for the app that goes with a specific service (like Yelp). Others I see friends using – like “Bowl” (Tibetan singing meditation bowls) and “Bloom” (Brian Eno’s virtual musical instrument app), both of which I found via David Armistead.

I counted around 80 apps on my phone, and I use about 20 of those regularly. As Katie mentions, I found several Buddhist apps, including the very useful “Meditator,” a mediation timer. (Looking for the link, I discovered that Simple Touch Software also has an app called “Meditate.” Checking that one out, too.)

I’m really digging music apps, like Soma.FM’s, and DJ Spooky’s interactive app for his new release, “The Secret Song.”

Another shaggy apocalypse story

I should say more about the “Collapse” preview I just posted – don’t want to mislead. For every pile of ashes there’s a great squawking phoenix, after all.

In fact I can’t say that we’re not screwed – god knows what unforeseen dangers are lurking in our little corner of the universe. The sun could explode, or the planet could implode. The Yellowstone caldera is overdue for a cataclysmic eruption. All hell could break lose.

And if you’re conversant with Buddhist thinking, you know that all things are impermanent.

That said, I also know that we’re remarkably resilient and we can probably survive more than we know. The real question (as in the global warming controversies) is this: is there something we can do now to avert a catastrophe, and should we be doing it? Those who once denied “global warming” (I prefer climate change), faced with incontrovertible evidence that Something Is Up, are now acknowledging that point but arguing that there’s nothing we can do about it (i.e., we shouldn’t do anything to disturb tourism on Amity Island, even as Bruce the shark cruises the waters, looking for hors d’oeuvres.)

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.