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:

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 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.

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.”

Social media for breakfast

Cross-posted from Social Web Strategies:

Peter Kim, who describes himself as a traditional marketing professional, gave an interesting talk at this morning’s Social Media Breakfast. He says at his site that he’s working on an enterprise social technology company, along with Kate Niederhoffer, who was also at the SMB, and my pal Doug Rushkoff, who’s “not from around here.” I’m mulling this over: he says he’s a traditional marketer but he’s helping build a social tech company, so there might be a contradiction here, especially given his talk, wherein he questioned whether social media really works for marketing. Actually, he led by questioning whether negative social media experiences (like fake blogs) had any impact on companies like Wal-Mart and Comcast… it’s not like their stock went south based on blogosphere or videosphere bad buzz. I pointed out, though, that the companies had done far worse without taking a huge hit. It’s a complicated world, and social media makes it even more so.

Another question Kim was asking was whether companies could scale their use of social media so that it could make a difference for them in a positive way, as part of their marketing efforts. Why are companies still spending three million on superbowl ads if social media can be effective? As always happens with new forms of media, at least early on the new doesn’t replace the old, it’s just another way of communicating. I think most of us who’ve been at this for quite a while suspect we’re seeing a revolution, the new converged media will be truly transformative, more and more so over time. I suspect Peter Kim sees that more clearly than he let on.

The talk got me thinking. Social media is complex, it’s niche, it’s political, it involves all sorts of personalities and personal quirks; user generated content requires monitoring or moderation or some kind of oversight, so there’s very real and possibly expensive social overhead. Some companies are jumping in and others are interested, but a social web strategy requires a lot of thought, and perception from new angles, flexing new brain muscles you didn’t know you had as you think your way into it. And you can’t own it in the same way you could own a top-down marketing campaign. In a sense, it owns you, and requires that you be authentic…

My friend Mike Chapman said at one point that “there are no rules. When you try to put rules around it, you break it.”