Bruce Sterling at SXSW Interactive 2012

After introducing Bruce I dove into Twitter and live tweeted his talk. People told me afterward that they thought it was too cheerful – see what you think from these short bursts (I was typing faster than I could think.) Comments encouraged.


2010 Top Stories and Trends: The Eight-Ball List

I’m not much for categorical top ten lists, but my inner pundit won’t let the year end without some kind of list – in this case stories/trends that stood out for me over the last year. I don’t have a top ten, only eight – the eight ball list.

(Here’s a bit about my year, which you can skip if you want to cut to the chase.) It was an busy, interesting, often slightly insane year for me: I had just spent three years in the for-profit and marketing worlds, leveraging my online community-focused Internet expertise to get a handle on social media strategy. My orignal thought was to work with nonprofit and academic organizatins, as had always been my preference, but I found myself getting drawn more into the world of for-profit marketing, which is where the term “social media” found resonance. (More about SM below.) At the end of 2009, I left the social web company I had cofounded and spent some time in a state of professional identity crisis – “what do you do now?” The answer was threefold: go back to web development, which had been my day job since leaving my last couple of jobs sunk with the dotcom bust in 2000-2001; commit more time to Plutopia Productions,the future-focused events company I cofounded; and spend more time writing. Progress? I’m doing a lot of web development, working with developer Selwyn Polit and designer Steve Bartolomeo (real gems to work with). Plutopia’s reputation is spreading, and we’re working hard on three aspects of the business: our signature event in March at SXSW Interactive; our media channel, Plutopia News Network, which I’m coproducing with Scoop Sweeney, and with David Whitman as managing editor; and our white label events production company. Not as much time for the writing, but I expect to do more writing and speaking in 2011 as I sort things out and find bits of time. (My personal kanban is always very full.)

One other thing I’m doing is leading a social media team for the Society of Participatory Medicine, where I was one of several cofounders. Participatory medicine is a hot topic, lots of interest; I could have done a top ten list on that subject alone… but I didn’t include items related to healthcare here. I expect to have more to say about it in the next couple of months.

Meanwhile, (drum roll…)

Jon L.’s 2010 Eight Ball List

Who says the web is dead? Drupal and WordPress are alive and well…
There’s a huge demand for website development; many individuals, nonprofits, and for-profits are rethinking their web presences, modernizing, moving to content management systems, integrating social media, etc. There are many great technologies, but I believe there’s no web development need that can’t be addressed by either WordPress or Drupal. They’re versatile and powerful open source tools, and they both scale pretty well. And they’ve really come into their own – both have high and growing adoption, and are increasingly sophisticated platforms. I’ve committed to these two platforms in web development, acknowledging that there are other great options (Joomla, Rails, Zope/Plone, et al.)

The Internet matures
I think “matures” is a very positive word for what we’re seeing – the network of networks is increasingly valuable, and there’s increasing demand for high bandwidth and rich services. Backbone providers (telcos like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast) are dominant providers of high-bandwidth connectivity. They want a bigger share of increasing value I mentioned, and they want clear ROI for the buildout of fatter pipes. One big issue: they’ve also become content providers, which could create a conflict of interest. That’s where net neutrality comes in – how free should the Internet be on both sides, delivery and consumption? Net neutrality approaches are seen as one way to preserve the neck of the golden gooses. There are many different perspectives and opinions on what IS happening and what SHOULD happen. By 2012, will we have definitive answers?

Social media, ugh.
“Social media” is a buzzword that’s cycling out. Many professionals don’t want to use the label, figuring it’s been sullied by the many amateur consultants who were hustling for work over the last couple of years. And there really wasn’t much of a market for consulting in this space – over a year ago, I saw even clueful social media consultants looking for Real Work, and acknowledging that they couldn’t find clients. My thought du jour is that to the extent that organizations are buying advice about social media, they’ll buy it either from communications consultants (PR/marketing firms, etc.) or from web experts. But the sense I’m getting from many conversations over the last couple of years is that organizations have other things they have to do with their money and their time – social media’s way down on the list, if it’s there at all. Does this mean that it isn’t important? Not at all – I think social media’s embedded in everyday life, we’re all using it. It’s like the telephone – we all use it, we all need it, but that doesn’t mean we have a lot of love, respect, or need for telemarketers.

Facebook, The Social Network, my newfound respect for Zuckerberg.
The film “The Social Network” was an acknowledged fiction, but it showed enough about Mark Zuckerberg’s thought processes and work ethic to convince me that I had radically underestimated him. I’m convinced now that he really does have genius, a vision, and he’s a hard worker. Facebook is a force of nature, however you might feel about it – for more and more people, it’s how they experience the Internet. As for the film, it was smart and powerful, but its down side was that it wasn’t really smart about the Internet. Aaron Sorkin admits that he knows little about it. I think that was a missed opportunity.

It’s the stupid economy
Nobody seems to know what’s up with the economy, and I’m no economist – I certainly don’t want to add more fog. I agree with Doug Rushkoff that too many people are living off float, finance charges, related services, layers of bureaucracy, etc. – therefore not creating and sharing tangible value. I’m not sure what the answer is. Clearly crooks, liars, and economic errors helped crash the economy, and ordinary people have been screwed by opportunists who have managed to hang onto their money, and make more, as others are struggling hard to pay their monthly dues. We should be pissed off, but we’re too confused. I recall the line when Clinton successfully opposed Bush – “It’s the economy, stupid.” Turn that around – “It’s the stupid economy.” I’d like to see what a smart economy looks like. I grew up in an era of balance between progressive liberal and grounded liberal thinking, and it seemed to work – maybe that’s what makes an economy smart, that balance.

Obama under attack
Barack Obama, who seems to be a very good president strugging with almost insurmountable problems, most of which he inherited from predecessors, has been savagely attacked in a complete breakdown of domestic statesmanship on the right. The level of disrespect is rather amazing and the degree of polarization is disheartening. What happened to respectful, balanced, moderate Republicans? They seem to have lost their political party, and I wonder where they’ll go from here. As an independent, I have an issue with Democrats, too, and with political parties in general. Partisan thinking brings out the worst in people – and when times are rough, it behooves us to get on the same page more often.

Rethinking journalism
Journalism is not dead, but it’s harder to fund, especially deep investigative journalism. I’ve been hanging out with journalists lately, talking about the fate and future of the endeavor, and many are into interesting and fruitful experiments with new technologies, forms, and business models. One great model: Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization that’s forming partnerships with other nonprofits as well as for-profits (like the New York Times). I won’t say a lot about this here, but I helped coordinate a journalism track at SXSW Interactive that should include lively discussions about news innovation.

Wikileaks raises questions about transparency.
Everybody’s been weighing in on this one, and I’ve made several posts about it. I should just summarize what I think: governments do need to be able to have confidential discussions, not everything should be public – I get that. However governments are accountable to citizens, and should be as transparent as possible. Journalists (the fourth estate) should mediate transparency by digging out the sort of information information Wikileaks revealed, analyzing it, and reporting the facts, using judgement, keeping secret what should be secret and needn’t be revealed. Something like Wikileaks exists partly because news organizations are failing, because the effective business model for hard news is unclear, because nobody’s paying journalists sufficiently well for sufficiently long to dig that stuff out. Real journalists shouldn’t be asked to churn PR pieces and write infotainment articles. They should be asked to dig out the kind of information Wikileaks has been publishing, and to do the analysis to build real, effective news stories.



Irons in the fire:

  • Plutopia Productions projects are on fire… including the Plutopia 2011 event during SXSW and the Plutopia News Network that Scoop Sweeney and I will be launching within the next month. Scoop and I are also producing events on the side, like last Friday’s “From Jerusalem to Cordoba” performance by Catherine Braslavsky and Joseph Rowe. Scoop and I, like our Plutopia Productions colleagues, see event production — creating compelling experiences — as an art form. We expect to produce at least one event per quarter, either as part of Plutopia Productions or onw our own, in addition to our work on the content site, which will include podcasts and god nose whatever other media.
  • I’m partnering with other web developers in creating Teahouse Media, a web consulting and development cooperative. Web development is my day job, and I pursue it with relish… an avid builder of information environments and systems. As in the past, I’m focused on open source platforms, primarily Drupal and WordPress.
  • With a loose group journalists and other thinkers and doers, I’ve been exploring the future of journalism and the emergence of digital news applications; set to moderate a panel on the subject at SXSW Interactive.
  • Trying to get my head aorund the future of the Internet. I gave a talk on the subject at a recent meeting of the Central Texas World Future Society, and will give another similar talk at Link Coworking at noon on January 8.
  • In that context, I’ve also been tracking the Wikileaks controversies, thinking to convene a public forum on the subject via EFF-Austin. Is Julian Assange shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre? Or is he a contemporary Daniel Ellsberg variation? Also thinking about transparency; working as an organizer (with the LBJ School) of the Texas Government 2.0 Camp, which will be January 28-29.
  • A practicing Buddhist, I’m looking into the Gurdjieff work, a different system of thinking, but similar in its cultivation of mindfulness. True mindfulness is easy to conceive but hard hard hard to achieve.
  • I’ve signed up to be a reviewer for the City of Austin’s Grant for Technology Opportunities, which awards money to community technology projects. I’ve always had an interest in community technology, and that’s revived somewhat as I note that there’s still a digital divide, and it’s even more significant as so much more of what we do in our daily lives requires access to technologies and networks. Also interseted in digital literacy; not long ago Howard Rheingold and I were discussing his next book, which will be on that subject.
  • The world is incredibly screwed up at the moment; I feel an obligation to get into an active an visible advocacy for the things I think are important… a humane progressive agenda, a positive and transformative cultural agenda, depolarizing politics and an end to the cultural cold war in the U.S. and beyond, commitment to the ideal of sustainability, acknowledgement of and response to the problem of global warming, etc. Can a web developer do all that much? I’m with the army here… we should all try to be all that we can be…

Doug Rushkoff: Program or be Programmed

At dinner the night before he spoke at SXSW Interactive, Doug Rushkoff told me that he had been working a new book idea, but had decided not to write the book. Instead, he was going to present it in his talk and let others run with it however they might. Actually writing the book was less important than getting the ideas out.

In the talk, he noted how quickly things become polarized in this era, the bad-trip bizarre extremes suggested by the Tea Party and the Palinites. Given all this, he had come to the conclusion that we’re “running obsolete code” socially‚Ķ something about the information environment we’ve created enables polarization, perhaps. How much of this is the bias of a binary medium, and how much of it is attributable to the biases of the people who program our technologies‚Ķ and our “social code”? He had been thinking about how our technology works vs how our technology works on us. His conclusion: if you’re not the programmer, you are one of the programmed.

So the book he was going to write was to have been called something like Program or Be Programmed. He discussed how game players progress from players to “cheaters” (i.e. they find the tricks, backdoors, and cheats within a programmed game) to author or programmer. It’s a natural progression – taking control of our environment, the reality we’re banging around in. This goes back to the creation of writing as a formalized symbolic representation of reality, and the invention of the printing press, which means the written word can be replicated. Initially “anyone can program reality” via written text, when we get the ability to read and write. However the invention of the printing press assigns more control to those who control the means of production/replication – we get the division between those who publish and those who “merely” read. Those who control publishing control which representations of reality are broadly replicated – I’ve spoken elsewhere of the invention of the printing press as the genesis of broadcast media, where control of “reality” is centralized. In the era of mass media, there’s a sense of mainstream knowledge that’s vetted carefully by editors and publishers who share similar biases and assumptions.

In the era of computers and the Internet, we’ve seen the evolution of a more decentralized, diverse “social” media. How free are we from a the centralized set of biases associated with mass publishing? While we appear to have many and diverse publishers, what we have is more bloggers but not necessarily more programmers, and Rushkoff argues that there are biases in the way things are programmed – programmers have biases or they’re directed according to the biases of others. An example is a Facebook profile, which has a structure defined by Facebook so that it reduces the personality of the Facebook user to a consumer profile. Similarly Google is programming Internet-based structures – presumably on the “open Internet” – where the bias is for Google to extract value from content creators who produce their content for free within an infrastructure that Google increasingly controls.

Doug was going to write Program or Be Programmed as a description of ten biases of digital media, and ten commands that go with them. He decided that the “era of the book” has ended, along with the biases of a linear literary culture, which gives way to the nonlinear biases of a digital culture, so he’s tossing out his list of biases and thoughts as a set of memes dropped into the digital stream. The format: bias followed by commandment, along with additional comments from Doug, and some of my own.

1) Time: “Thou shalt not be always on.” We can lose ourselves in our persistent connection to content streams. We assign our time to the presence of other voices at the expense of our own. We need to take more time to be who we are, and to shape our own thinking, our own voices.

2) Distance: “Thou shalt not do from a distance what can be done better in person.” This relates to Doug’s thinking about economies, which were delocalized and centralized by industrialization. Digital fetishism has us using long distance technology for short distance communication. Example: Doug visited a classroom where a group of students in the same room were all logged into Second Life for a meeting. Network technology has long distance biases, or equates all distance. Global becomes weak local; local becomes weak global. There are some kinds of local coordination that it makes sense to do online, but you have to be clear whether you’re using the technology where it’s most effective, or simply conceding to its inherent bias.

3) Scale – the net is biased to scale up. “Exalt the particular.” Not everything should scale. This makes me think of E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful.”

4) Discrete: “You may always choose none of the above.” The real world is not digital, is not a symbolic representation in metrics. Online activity is a digital landscape of forced choice. I see this as more about database coherence – if you’re trying to build a manageable data, you have constraints that are built into the interface as limited choices. Simple example: you might enforce one specific way of expressing a date, e.g. MM/DD/YYYY so that all dates will have the same format, therefore all date data will be coherent. Lacking this constraint, data is less usable. To the extent we force choices in something like a user profile, we’re forcing real, complex persons to limit their self-descriptions so they fit the biases of our data structures. You should always be able to withhold choice, or choose “none of the above.”

5) Complexity. “Thou shalt never be completely right.” Doug starts by noting the Wikipedia is taken seriously as a reference, whereas “using an encyclopedia used to be a joke” – i.e. the encyclopedia has many references but none of them captures the full complexity of the subject described. Real scholarship acknowledges, embraces, and digs into that complexity. There are few answers that are completely “right.” Complex inquiry is a good thing.

6) Anonymity. “Thou shalt not be anonymous.” We should work against the tendency of the net to promote anonymity and decentralization. Doug notes that, online, we have an “out-of-bodiness” which negates nonverbal communication. By default, we are incomplete in an environment that is mostly textual and binary communication. In this context, it is liberating to adopt a strong sense of identity.

7) Contact. “Remember the humans.” Content is not king in a communications environment – CONTACT is king.

8) Abstraction. “As above, so below.” Text abstracted words from speech. Invention of text led to an abstract god. Also led to treating economy as if it is nature – but it’s not, it’s a game. Don’t make equivalencies between the abstracted model and the real world.

9) Openness. “Thou shalt not steal.” This is about the assumption that everything should be free that seems prevalent on the Internet. Doug makes a long term bet against Google: “if everything is free, there is no one left to advertise.” Free is not the same as “open source.” I think what he’s saying here is “free as in beer” is not the same as “free as in freedom,” which is Richard Stallman’s persistent distinction. In fact I don’t agree that Google or anyone else is trying to make everything free. We’re seeing a transitional economy where value and compensation are being redefined, and where especially the value and exchange of social capital is increasingly more relevant.

10) End users. Here the bias is toward making all or most of us end users rather than programmers. “Program or be programmed.” Doug notes that in the early days of computing, computer classes taught programming with BASIC etc.. Now the classes teach how to use applications that others have programmed. The user and the coder are farther apart. He argues that we should all understand programming, be able to build our own tools or configure tools other have built so that we have more control over the digital environment. “But what about the greater learning curve?” He argues this is a good thing.

There is a tendency toward centralization with systems like Facebook. Is the web becoming more centralized? How does it remain decentralized?

One last note from Doug’s talk. I wrote this note: “Future of client side technology is digital currency. Will do to central bank what Craig’s List did to Hearst. Will have to be decentralized to exist and not be taken down.”