Tim Wu and the future of the Internet

Tim Wu explains the rise and fall of information monopolies in a conversation with New York Times blogger Nick Bilton. Author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Borzoi Books), Wu is known for the concept of “net neutrality.” He’s been thinking about this stuff for several years, and has as much clarity as anyone (which is still not much) about the future of the Internet.

I think the natural tendency would be for the system to move toward a monopoly control, but everything that’s natural isn’t necessarily inevitable. For years everyone thought that every republic would eventually turn into a dictatorship. So I think if people want to, we can maintain a greater openness, but it’s unclear if Americans really want that…. The question is whether there is something about the Internet that is fundamentally different, or about these times that is intrinsically more dynamic, that we don’t repeat the past. I know the Internet was designed to resist integration, designed to resist centralized control, and that design defeated firms like AOL and Time Warner. But firms today, like Apple, make it unclear if the Internet is something lasting or just another cycle.



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.”


Reworking meetings?

I downloaded a sample of the new Jason Fried/David Heinemeier Hansson book, Rework, which will doubtless find its way onto my reading pile – seems like good pithy bits of advice we can all use. However I zeroed in on the “meetings are toxic” section, and tweeted something about how that view suggests someone who doesn’t know how to have meetings. But it really suggests the frustration of someone who’s been victimized by others who don’t know how to have meetings. And even people who know how will sometimes screw up – I’ve subverted a few of my own meetings, for instance.

It’s useless to rail against meetings as toxic, just try to have better meetings. In fact, the authors acknowledge that point, but only after venting. Examples:

“They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things.” But life is like that, no? When we’re not doing zazen, we stumble into conceptual states of mind, samsara, and everybody’s weaving a bit of that web, and you don’t cut through it by pretending it isn’t there. The meeting should be the knife that slices through the fog and finds reality and clarity. If you don’t know how to do that, your meetings might be unproductive, if not toxic, but that’s a problem of organization, not a problem with meetings per se.

“They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.” Yes indeed – this frustrates me, too… meetings where the people in the room are saying the same thing over and over. Department of Redundancy Department. But I had a flash of insight while sitting in one of these – there were people in the room who needed that redundancy for knowledge they were acquiring to sink in. Meetings can be slow because some participants need them to be slow. Quick thinkers may be frustrated, but there’s where a commitment to group process takes priority.

“They drift off- subject easier than a Chicago cab in a snowstorm.” That’s true, if the meeting doesn’t have an effective leader to keep things on track. The solution for this problem is implicit.

“They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.” So you shouldn’t have meetings because they require preparation? That seems out of kilter to me. If nobody needs the meeting, then the preparation is a waste of time. But if people need the meeting in order to synchronize their efforts or get clarity about something, do you really want to blow if off because preparation’s a hassle?

“They frequently have agendas so vague that nobody is really sure of the goal.” So write a clear agenda, no?

There’s a couple more, but you get the point. It’s easy to complain about meetings, because they do have failings, but the better move is to say how to make them effective and productive.

In fact, Fried and Hansson do have some recommendations – set a timer and end meetings whether everyone’s done or not is one. So if the people in the room haven’t quite worked it out, and the timer goes off, they’re SOL.

Invite as few people as possible is another, and I totally agree. Why invite anybody who doesn’t need to be there? Have a clear agenda, start with a specific problem, both good. Meeting at the site of the problem is a recommendation that might not be practical. End with a solution and assigned responsibility, also good. Action items.

One that’s surprisingly missing, that I learned many years ago: don’t call the meeting unless there’s a reason. (Standing meetings for checkins can be an exception, and monthly organizational meetings where there’s always something to address).

My bottom line is that meetings are not inherently toxic. And you gotta have ’em. I think I would’ve reworked that section of Rework. (Bet the rest of the book is great!)


Social semantics

Much semantic confusion around the new world of ubiquitous omindirectional communication, especially in the business/marketing world where it’s critical to understand how to capture attention and make effective, productive connections. I happened onto a post by Venessa Miemis that explores confusion about reputation (or whuffie) vs social capital.

Parenthetical: Flashing back to a meeting David Armistead and I had with a supposedly savvy social business entrepreneur where we used the term “social capital,” and she informed us that we were confused about the term, and proceeded to define it in the “social entrepreneur” sense – that social capital is microfinance, the sort of thing Muhammad Yunus is into. We realized she was confused and decided she was less than credible, but with a kind of “gold rush” around social-whatever, as we have today, Babelian weirdness is inherently part of the scene.

Okay, end paren. I was excited about Miemis’ post, quite a bit because of it’s clarity (vs the post by Brian Solis that it dissects, which is somewhat opaque). Also because it resolves a confusion of labels and contexts: reputation is not the same a social capital, and social capital is more complex than some who invoke it might allow.

I like the thinking in this paragraph:

If we decide that reputation is the new “currency” of the social economy, and decide to attach a number to it, I’m going to suggest that that would undermine the entire premise itself, instead resulting in commodity fetishism. (Neither Solis nor [Tara] Hunt directly suggests attaching a number to it, but I’m just pointing out that if we talk about this using economic words, people will be led to develop it accordingly.) I’m just trying to think ahead here. What Hunt is trying to promote is a return to human-centric practices in business and leading from underlying human values. (One of the tweets she sent me was a link to this post of hers, which indicates as much) I think that’s what we’re all trying to do – I’m just cautioning that people may abuse this premise if its meaning is cloaked in economic metaphor.

I’m not sure it’s a “return to human-centric practices,” i.e. I don’t know that we were ever especially human-centric in business, depending how that’s defined, but I’m pretty sure that markets were conversations before they were mediated by broadcast technology and became more abstract – I said as much in the early 90s, when I proposed FringeWare, Inc. as a “street market in cyberspace.” I suppose I was thinking then, too, that markets had been more “human-centric” in the past, but we have to be careful not to view the past – or the future, for that matter – with rose colored glasses. Neither the past nor the future exists, only hazy memory and hazy speculation.

What we do know is that mass media fragmented via the Internet, and mindshare in general is more focused on the personal and the conversational. We may still watch some things on television, but there’s so much more texting, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking. The business challenge is to get into that space and get a word in edgewise. Especially hard if you spent your life pushing and controlling messages that were transmitted over a limited number of channels by the few to the many.

In this context reputation is important – trust is crucial – and social capital is inherent, if not well-understood. It’s good to see writers and thinkers and even merchants trying to get their heads around all this.