Posts Tagged ‘open source’
Doc Searls – How the Old Bottom is the New Top
Searls spoke at at SxSW earlier this year. I caught him there already and made some notes. His talk today was very similar and still relates to the new book he has written: The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge.
Andy Hood – The Unselfish Gene
Hood is from AKQA a (marketing? branding? ad?) agency and sponsor of the festival that helps brands “improve business performance through innovation”. He talked about how in our current times it is incredibly necessary to try things and to make sure you learn from whatever it is that you try. According to Hood whenever you learn you can consider yourself to be successful. He quoted Wayne Gretzky who said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Having learned something you have to act on it and follow it through.
His reference to The Selfish Gene was a bit thin: “evolve or die” (meaning you need to keep learning) and “the genepool needs to be diverse” (meaning you need to have an ecosystem of partners).
Finally he referenced an interesting Disney project around gesture recognition on normal surfaces (like a door knob):
Rupert Turnbull – An Inside Job: Tales from a Corporate Startup
Turnbull is the publisher of Wired UK. He talked about intrapeneurship (although I am not sure what he meant to say other than that we should cherish intrapeneurs). He beliefs we are all born with an entrepeneurial spirit, but that we don’t all use this spirit when we grow up. Turnbull is a good storyteller and shared his own forays into the world of starting businesses. He also discussed how disruption can be an opportunity: Wired UK has an incredibly diverse sets of business outlets: website, magazine (print and tablet), podcast, consulting, events, hospitality, retail, etc.
Louisa Heinrich – I am Superman
Heinrich works for Fjord and has no slides (brave!). She talked about how the extended Quantified Self movement and its thinking can make us better human beings. Our lives are made of thousands of decisions every day without us even being conscious about many of those decisions. Our brains process massive amounts of data and it is an illusion to think that computers can just take over that task.
We are inherently narrative creatures. We think of our own lives as a set of very rich stories and we cannot help but see patterns in these stories. She loves the ideas of technology helping us creating stories about ourselves on the basis of the data that is in our lives. When this happens we should all have the power to decide who gets to look at our data though.
Ross Ashcroft – No More Business As Usual
His talk was also mainly about storytelling. He showed the Hollywood formula:
On the basis of these plot elements Ashcroft told a story about a new way of doing business and “new ownership” (the theme of PICNIC). Similarly to the talks of Turnbull and Hood this seemed to be more about how you say something than what you say. I’m left with barely any content… Yes, the world is changing. Now what?
Elizabeth Stark – The Democratization of Knowledge and Innovation
Stark talked about the largest online protest in history: against SOPA. She described how the media portrayed the demonstrations as a top down approach from a set of Silicon Valley executives, whereas in reality it very much was a bottom-up, decentralized and chaotic movement. Stark sees this as a way of working and innovating in the future: harnessing the creativity of millions of people who realise that you can learn anything you want, that experts are made (rather than born) and you don’t need a PhD to innovate.
Farid Tabarki – Burdened with Radical Freedom
Tabarki (a trendwatcher with his own company Studio Zeitgeist) started his talk by looking back at the rise of Lady Gaga who rose to the position of most influential woman in media in only two to three years. She was able to do this because of three things:
- In the past you needed MTV to become well known. Lady Gaga uses a platform where anybody can tune in anytime (2 billion views on her YouTube channel)
- Before you could only communicate with your fans through magazines. She has around 30 million followers on Twitter.
- In the past you had to make sure your records were in physical stores, now you have global instant delivery with things like iTunes.
We are all little Lady Gagas: we are also liberated from the constraints of the past and we live in the age of digital decentralization. The next part of his talk focused on education (the usual Coursera-like examples). These new ways of doing education are based on the fact that one size no longer fits all. Other fundamental changes are related to sharing, transparency (check out this Norwegian website showing the income of all Norwegians for an example of true radical transparency). Finally, we will also have a much more hybrid approach to things.
How will we go from the old centralized system to the new system? Will it be a revolution or a transformation? One thing is for sure: we need take some risks.
Cathal Garvey – Enter Bio-Hacking!
Garvey is a biohacker and an academic (his slides actualy have content, unique in PICNIC):
His wish is for this “most fundamental technology of them all” to be democratized. Garvey showed quotes from Bill Gates and Freeman Dyson saying how important biotechnology will be in the future (“the machine language of life”). Biotechnology as the original open source technology, it is there for anyone to hack on.
Why biohacking? Basically because it is about the ownership of self. 20% of the Human genome is currently patented (WTF?!). So there is a rich community of hackers (in hackspaces and dedicated biolabs) and biopunkers using things like the OpenPCR (for thermocycling) trying to democratize access to this type of technology and genetic information.
Jon Lombardo – HealthyShare: Because Friends are Good for Your Health
Lombardo leads social media for GE and talked about their new app: HealthyShare, a way to let your friends help you with your health challenges. GE sees health as a social thing. There are four things you do to or with others when it comes to health:
The app transfers these pre-existing things to the online domain (unfortunaty this is another app that is heavily based on Facebook). Right now the app is mainly focused on what he calls “casual health”. They want to move it to the more serious health concerns.
Tim O’Reilly – The Clothesline Paradox and the Sharing Economy
I saw O’Reilly being interviewed on the same topic at SxSW and wrote a blogpost about it. His truly excellent talk today (refreshingly full of content compared to the morning) was mainly a rehashing of what was discussed there.
O’Reilly has published a case study documenting the economic impact of open source on small business.
Finally O’Reilly talked about skateboarder Rodney Mullen talking about innovation and creativity:
Clash of Systems: A Socratic Conversation
Humberto Schwab, the “innovation philosopher for business” who used to be my philosophy teacher at the Montessori Lyceum and was called Huib then, led a Socratic conversation with a few of the speakers of the day.
Schwab started by outlining the basic rules for the Socratic method (as one way of battling the intellectual fallacy and putting the practical knowledge and practical intelligence in the center of our acting):
- You can only get the floor when you ask for it by raising your hand, and only then when the chair gives you the floor
- There is no discussion, you are in a process of thinking together and trying to answer a question
- Before you can speak, you have to be capable of repeating what the person before you said and you have to be able to summarize the previous 15 minutes of dialogue
- You are not allowed to refer to books, investigations or other smart people
- You have to use simple and concrete language
- The chair will be a philosopher, who will not provide any content but will make sure that all dimensions of the question are explored by creating the space for that
- If the rules madden you then you can ask for a timeout
He then asked the four speakers to come up with one philosophic question each. The speakers asked the following questions:
- Why do people do things for eachother without necessarily getting something in return?
- Do we own ourselves?
- What am I willing to share as a human being?
- Are we losing leadership?
I focused more on the methodology than on the contents of the discussion, very interesting!
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop about LiquidFeedback organised by Netwerk Democratie and Waag Society. LiquidFeedback is a piece of open source (MIT-licensed) software that is used by the Pirate Party in Germany to help them in their decision making process. The tool aims to deliver the following:
- Pure and representative democracy
- Non moderated proposition development process
- Indisputable results
In the Netherlands we live in a representative democracy founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people. This has issues in the legitimacy of representation. A pure or direct democracy (in which all decisions are made by referendum) is more legitimate but is usually impractical at a large scale and has a danger of mob rule. Liquid democracy is an alternative (maybe a synthesis?) where you directly participate in issues if you have knowledge, are interested, are affected by it or if you think the issue is important. If you don’t have engagement with the issue, then you give the “power of attorney” (i.e. delegation) to somebody else on the basis of their expertise or your sympathy and trust for them. This delegation is transitive: your delegate can delegate his or her votes to the next person.
The LiquidFeedback software puts issues into areas, which themselves are clustered into units (e.g. the “parking permits” issue sits in the “transportation area” in the “Amsterdam” unit).
Unique in the software is that issues can be deliberated without moderation. The creators of the software had the following objectives in how issues should be discussed:
- Participation of all members in decision making
- Not just yes/no decisions
- No need to compromise
- Trustworthy and indisputable results
- Aplicable in large organizations
Their design criteria were as follows:
- No need for moderation (nobody in the system has special privileges), troll resistancy
- Only constructive criticism and change requests
- Quantified feedback
- No encouragement to vote based on majorities and chances rather than political objectives
- Integrity to be achieved by traceability
The whole process follows a simple model: First there is a discussion phase which consists of three parts: new, discussion, freeze. After that there is voting.
There is no anonymity in the system. Every member can start an issue. When they do, it is considered “new”. Everybody can then give constructive and quantifiable feedback. They can support the issue, or they can give a suggestion on how to improve the issue. Their suggestion is delivered as a “must”, “should”, “should not” or “must not”. Suggestions can get support too. The original initiatior has full discretion on if and how to amend the issue on the basis of the suggestions and is scored on how well the suggestions are incorporated (“yes” or “no”). Anybody can also post an alternative issue which can get support. If there is enough support (and a quorum is reached) then the issue turns into an initiative and can, after a frozen period, be voted on.
In the voting LiquidFeedback manages to solve a classic voting problem: sometimes similar initiatives can steal eachother’s votes (i.e. would Gore have lost the 2000 US elections if Ralph Nader would not have been in the race?). The presenters used the following example:
Imagine three plans for the redevelopment of a closed military plant and the number of votes they would get in a referendum:
- Community park (30%)
- Camp ground (30%)
- Chemical plant (40%)
In this case the plan for the chemical plant would win, even though there is a majority of people who would prefer a green option. This is problematic. LiquidFeedback solves this by using preferential voting. For each initiative you have following three options: approve with preference (you can prioritize each of the initiatives you aprove), abstain or disapprove with preference.
LiquidFeedback is not only used in politics, but has also been piloted in business. The CEO of the large german IT consultancy company Synaxon (who sympathises with the Pirate Party) has implemented the software in his company. He wanted to avoid the peer pressure that would naturally come within office politics, so Synaxon’s implementation is pseudonymous. The CEO as committed himself to act on any ideas that get enough support, even if he doesn’t like them. Here is a German article if you want to read a bit more.
I do realise that business isn’t a democracy (nor should it be), but I do see many domains inside business where it would be beneficial to have a much wider discussion and to get broad feedback on ideas. I would be very interested if anybody knows other companies experimenting with this type of information technology enabled deliberation.
P.S. LiquidFeedback isn’t the only tool for this purpose. An alternative is Adhocracy.
I haven’t been blogging much about Moodle lately, but this news excited me very much, so I’ll do a quick write-up.
Moodle HQ has decided to move away from native mobile Moodle app development and will switch to developing with HTML 5 and the open source mobile development framework Phonegap. This will allow developers to work on a single codebase and compile a release for all mobile platforms simultaneously. The important part in the news item is this:
The app will be highly modular, and allow the community to contribute to development just like Moodle itself. [..] Although we will lose a little speed and smoothness in the interface when moving to HTML5, I think the idea of building up community effort around a cross-platform mobile client will far outweigh that and sets us up better for the long term. [..] The app will be licensed under the GPL. You are allowed to fork it and build your own custom apps if you wish. (Institutions may want to rebrand it and modify it for their own purposes).
This is the first open source project that I know of that has taken this approach. I’ve always found the way that the mobile space fragments development efforts irksome. I’ve also seen very few true open source projects targeting mobile technology. This masterstroke of Martin Dougiamas solves both of these problems. Once again he is at the vanguard of community based software development. His has my attention!
Update: I’ve now learned that this approach towards mobile started at CV&A Consulting, a Moodle partner in Spain. Kudos to Juan Leyva for coming up with Unofficial Moodle Mobile which will now drop the “unofficial” part!
One of the great failures of any company – for that matter of a capitalist economy – is ecosystem failure. Great companies build great ecosystems, one in which value is created not just for a single company or group of industry players, but for partners who didn’t even exist when the product or service was introduced. Many companies start out creating huge value. Consider Microsoft, whose vision of a computer on every desk and in every home changed the world of computing forever, and created a rich ecosystem for developers. But as Microsoft’s growth stalled, they gradually consumed more and more of the opportunity for themselves, and innovators moved elsewhere, to the Internet. Internet innovators like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have also created a rich ecosystem of opportunity, but like Microsoft before them, they are leaving less and less on the table for others. This is a bad trend. Wall Street firms, which got their start trading on behalf of clients, then began trading against them, then created vast Ponzi economies to drain the value from entire segments of the economy are even more dire examples of this trend. But this crisis of capitalism goes beyond individual industry segments. For example, the race by companies to eliminate labor costs has been a short term profit win but a long term loss. Since the cycle of capitalism depends on consumers as well as producers, and consumers are less and less able to find employment, at some point, we’re going to have to start thinking about how to put people to work, rather than how to put them out of work. At O’Reilly, we’ve always tried to live by the slogan “Create more value than you capture.” It’s a great way to build a sustainable business and a sustainable economy.
O’Reilly started off by talking about the banking industry which went from a value-creating industry to a value-destroying industry by wanting to keep more from themselves. He next switched to Microsoft which in its startup days managed to create a true platform on which others could create a massive amount of value. When Microsoft started to try and capture that value for themselves the value creators moved out and onto the web (O’Reilly’s was the first commercial site on the web). The definition of ultimate ecosystem failure is if you take more value out than you create. He says that we are effectively stealing from our grand children.
He observes that very often value creation starts by people having fun and then only later do entrepreneurs come along and start monetizing that value. An example is the make movement. We are only now (seven years into the maker fair) have people turning this movement into serious businesses. He really dislikes the current culture of startups raising money and then going for an exit (“despicable” is the word he used). A lot of these startups see money as gas and see what it is that they do as a journey from gas station to gas station, rather than as creating something that brings value to people. Finding your passion, getting people to believe in it and then try and make a difference is a more sustainable model. Great companies should have big and audacious goals.
The open source movement has had an immense positive impact on the technology ecosystem. These people very often did not make buckets of money, but they did create the infrastructure that all of us are building on top of now. He described to the clothes line paradox: when somebody decides to hang their clothes on the clothes line instead of using the dryer, we don’t just shift some energy use from hydrocarbons to renewables: it just disappears. This is a great metaphor for what is happening on the Internet with open source. MySQL for example “shrunk” the database market, but when you really look at it, it actually grew the market and created a lot of value.
How do you actually measure this type of value and the size of this (free unmeasurable) economy? That is hard. Investors don’t create jobs, customers create jobs. The only reason you need investors is because you cannot keep up with the demand of the customer. Tim O’Reilly is now looking for ways to put labour back into the economy. His first example is the Apple store. Most other retailers have laid off as much staff as possible. Apple has found a new model that works. Walgreens is now trying to do the same with healthcare. Other examples are Kickstarter and Etsy which both are putting labour back into the economy. He thinks we will be doing more of this “added value for eachother”. There is also a whole peer to peer thing happening. If you see a sharing economy it eventually does get monetized, so policy makers can start protecting the future from the past, rather than the past from the future.
Fosdem is the place where you’ll find a Google engineer who as a “full time hobby” is lead developer for WorldForge an open source Massive Multiplayer Online game, or where you have a beer with a developer who has a hard time finding a job, because all the code he write has to have a free software license: “you don’t ask a vegan to have a little bit of meat do you?”. It probably is the world’s biggest free software conference: More than 5000 people show up yearly in Brussels, there is no fee to attend and there is no registration process.
I really enjoy going because there are few other events that have this few barriers to attendance and to approaching the event the way you want to approach it. I like wondering around and thinking about how these are the people that actually keep the Internet working. Below some notes about the different talks that I attended (very little educational technology to be found, beware!).
Free Software: A viable model for Commercial Success
Robert Dewar from AdaCore had an interesting talk about how to use free software as a true commercial offering. There was no ideology in his talk but only a pure commercial perspective. They usually sell free software as “open source” and focus on convenience and utility in their selling proposition. They tell the customer they get the source code included without locks and with no limits on the number of installs.
The business model is based around subscriptions (for support, testing, etc.). What he really likes about that model is that the interests of them and the customer are fully aligned: they only make money when the customer renews. Often companies have to get used to asking for support though, they have not been “trained” to value support in the past.
He considers commercial versus open source a bogus distinction. In many ways he would consider AdaCore to be very similar to what Microsoft in what they do. The main difference is the license of the software. The AdaCore is much more permissive as you are allowed to copy and do with it what you want.
He also spent some time thinking about whether AdaCore’s approach would work with other companies. Could Microsoft open source Windows? He thinks they could without it affecting them badly: people would be willing to pay for timely updates and support. Could a games company open source their games? Copryright protection is one way they currently protect their very large investments. It might be hard for them to open source, but in general the model could be used much more widely. Every company is in the business of giving users what they want and open source licenses are that much more convenient for users.
A New OSI For A New Decade
Simon Phipps has joined the board of the Open Rights Group and the Open Source Initiative (OSI). He talked about reptiles: they have no morality and are very old and only react to fear and hunger. Corporates are reptiles too. Corporations don’t have ethics, people have ethics. OSI tried to find a way to show large organizations that the four software freedoms (use, study, modify and distribute) are important for them too. A pragmatic rather than a moral perspective on open source software helped the OSI to be able to get corporate involvement. Their initial focus was very much on licensing. They have been succesful: OSI has become the standard for open source in government and the fear around the term has been turned around: other processes are now appropriating the term.
We are now in a new decade: Open Source is the default and digital liberty is moving to centre stage. OSI has lost some of its relevance, so they decided to reinvigorate the organization with a member-based governance which should include all stakeholders. They now have new affiliates (other open source non-profits like Mozilla or Drupal) and the next stage will be government bodies and non-entities (whatever that might mean). Later they will get personal associates and then corporate patrons. All of this should enable a bottom-up governance. Members will decide how OSI will operate, they will create OSI initiatives, they can use OSI as a policy venue and they will co-ordinate initiatives locally and globally.
A new OSI project will try and help educators educate the world about open source: FLOSSBOK. I am personally not sure the world is waiting for another project like this. There are quite a few alternatives already.
Tristan Nitot, Principal Mozilla Evangelist kickstarted the Mozilla Devroom. He told us that six European organisations have gotten significant grants from Mozilla (one of them being Fosdem). Mozilla strives to create an Internet that is benefiting everyone. The Internet that is being built currently does not benefit everyone. He focused on a couple of trends on the net:
- App Stores have good sides (app discovery and monetization), but also very bad sides: they create vendor lock-in and prevent people from switching platform (I have personally felt this when contemplating switching away from the iOS platform) and occasionally inhibit free speech through “censorship”. Mozilla believes you can get the good of the app stores without the bad.
- Social networks have obvious good sides, but also profile users, prevent users from porting their data to other services and identity providers can even lock people out of their digital lives. Using Facebook is ok, but don’t use it exclusively to interact with others. When you use something for free, then you can assume that you are the products. He showed us a great cartoon about Facebook users:
- Newer devices (tablets, smartphones and netbooks) are increasingly convenient and popular. Very often they force users to a specific browser (e.g. Chrome on the Chromebook or Safari on iOS) making them definition the opposite of the web.
What is Mozilla doing about these things:
- They are trying to solve identity in a decentralized, browser agnostic and privacy respecting way. The codename for the project is BrowserID and it is based on using email addresses to provide identity.
- Boot2Gecko (B2G) is a complete operating system build for the open web. Check out the Frequently Asked Questions about the project.
In my book these three projects (especially the last one) make Mozilla a group of absolute heroes. Donate here!
There was an interesting talk about how Mozilla organizes its own IT services. Currently that is done by paid staff, but they strongly believe they can get this done through the community (MediaWiki does something similar.
Kai Engert talked about a very important topic: “Web security, and how to prevent the next DigiNotar“. He has a let’s say “unconventional” presentation style: instead of slides he used a piece of written text that he displayed on the screen and read out loud. Maybe this should be called something like “live visual podcasting”. His points were good though. He explained how it is a problem that every Certificate Authority (CA) has unlimited power and he listed the alternatives. You could maybe use a web of trust like the CAcert community. This still doesn’t solve the problem of a single root key. Another proposed solution was Convergence using notaries that would monitor certificates. Kai see too many problems with this as a solution for general users. One suggestion could be build on top of DNSSEC. Again that has problems. How do you know who has signed the the DNS? Google has also proposed something called Certificate Transparency which might work, but also might create some problems. His proposed solution builds on what is in existence using the existings CA combined wit the notary system. This talk was bit dense (I got lost half way if I am honest, obsessibely reading Megan Amram), so if you want to read it yourself find it here.
Michelle Thorne is the global event strategist for Mozilla. She is currently very focused on creating communities of “webmakers” and they are starting with children, video makers and journalists first. She presented three tools/projects for these webmakers:
- Hackasaurus let’s anybody edit the web. Kids are suddenly empowered to remix existing web pages. Check out the hacktivity kit if you want to use this in the classroom.
- Popcorn.js is a HTLM5 media framework that allows you to connect web content with video.
- OpenNews (formerly called knight-mozilla) puts web developers in newsrooms building tools that help journalistic challenges.
One thing I noticed is that she used htmlpad to present a few slides. I need to check this out as it is probably one of the simplest ways of collaborating around text or getting a quick HTML page online.
The focus for Mozilla in Fosdem is very much on the technology side of things and less on the broader themes that the Mozilla foundation is tackling. I had a hard time finding somebody from the Mozilla Learning team to talk about Open Badges, but did get some good connections to have this conversation later in the year.
Wikiotics did a very short lightning talk of which I only managed to catch the tail end. Their goal is to make a site that allows anybody to create, update, remix interactive language lessons.
The Pandora is a small Nintendo DS sized open Linux computer designed for gaming. It has a 800×480 touchscreen, wifi, bluetooth, two SDHC card slots, SVideo output, two analogue controllers, a DPad, L/R buttons, a QWERTY thumb keyboard, 256/512MB RAM and 512MB NAND Storage. It has about 10 hours of battery life (full use).
It comes with its own repository (an app store) allowing for easy installation and updating of games and other applications. One thing that will appeal to many people is the amount of emulators that it can run. If you want to relive the days you spent on the Amiga 500, Commodora 64, Apple II or the Atari ST it will work for you.
Because the device is so open, the possibilities are limitless. For example, you could connect a keyboard and mouse using a USB hub and connect it to a TV to turn the Pandora into a small desktop PC or connect a USB harddisk and turn it into a web- or fileserver. The price price will be €375 (ex VAT). What is great is that the device is produced in Germany and so does not have any sick labour conditions for the people building it.
Balancing Games, The Open Source Way
Jeremy Rosen has been working on Battle for Wesnoth, a turn-based strategy game, since 2004. He talked about how to achieve balance in a game. When you are talking about multiplayer balance:
- No match should be decided by the matchup
- No match should be decided by the chosen map
- The best player should win… usually
Single player balance is different, in single player game fairness is not important anymore, it is just about having fun:
- The AI won’t complain if the game is unfair (Jeremy on the AI: “By the way our AI doesn’t cheat, but is very good in math”)
- Players want the game to be challenging
- Each player has different capacities, we need to decide who we balance for
Balance problems can occur in many places (e.g. map balance, cross scenario balance, unit characteristics) and aren’t easy to find. One way of finding them is by organizing tournaments as people will do their best to exploit balance weaknesses to win. Balance will always be a moving target and new strategies will appear. User feedback is not so useful because players think they never make mistakes and that all their strategies should work. Sometimes you can find some good providers of feedback: “These persons are important, and like all of us, they are fueled by ego. Don’t forget to fuel them”.
His recommendation is to find somebody in your game’s community who can make a balance a fulltime job.
Freedom Box: Out of the Box!
Bdale Garbee, gave us an update on the activities at the FreedomBox Foundation. According to him it really is a problem that we are willfully hand over a lot of personal data to companies to manage on our behalf without thinking much about the consequences. Regardless of the intention of companies, for-profit companies have to operate within the rules of the jurisdictions that they operate and can lead to things like Photo DNA.
Freedombox’ vision is to create a personal server running a free software operating system and applications designed to create and preserve personal privacy that should run on cheap, power-efficient plug computers that people can install in their own homes. That will then be a platform on which privacy-respecting federated alternatives to current social networks can be build. These devices will probably be mesh-networked to augment or replace the current infrastructure.
The foundation has to do four things:
- User Experience (this is very important if it is going to be useful for people who are not “geeks”)
- Publicity and Fund-Raising
- Industry Relations
They have had to bound the challenge by focusing on software, rather than custom hardware and on servers and services rather than client devices. They have also decided to use existing networking infrastructure where appropriate while working to move away from central infrastructure control points (like the Domain Name System (DNS)). Another decision has been to build all elements of their reference implementation on top of Debian which is a completely open volunteer based International organisation. This means that regardless of how successful they will be as a foundation all of their work will survive and remain available. Their goal is that new stable releases of Debian should have everything needed to create FreedomBoxes “out of the box”.
The first “application” they want to deliver is a secure chat service. They have based this on XMPP with Prosody on a single host (by chance I was sitting next to one of the Prosody developers).
They have also decided to make OpenPGP (GnuPG) keys as the root of trust. It is great technology, but it is hard to establish initial trust relationships. One interesting idea is to take advantage of smartphone technology (that we all walk around with) to facilitate initial key exchange (see the work from Stefano Maffuli).
He finished his talk by quoting Benjamin Franklin:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
What I should have written last year: distributed and federated systems
There is an overarching trend at Fosdem that I could already see last year: the idea of decentralisised, distributed and federated systems for social networking and collaboration. There is a whole set of people working on creating social networks without a center (e.g. BuddyCloud or Status.net or distributed filesystems (like OpenAFS), alternatives to GoogleDocs (LibreDocs) and mesh networking (like Village Telco with the Mesh Potato). There are even people who are trying to separate cloud storage from the cloud application (Project Unhosted). These are very important project that have my full attention.
If you have reached this far in the post and still want to read more (with a little bit more of a learning perspective) then you should check out Bert De Coutere’s blogpost. Through him I learned about Open Advice, an interesting approach to capturing lessons learned.
Wow! This is a masterful book.
Levy reports on three different eras that have shaped modern computing:
- The group of hackers at MIT in the early sixties who were the first to use computers for anything other than computing things (the first computer game, the first chess computer, the first time that a computer is connected to a robot, etc.) and created a culture, the hacker ethic, in the process.
- The people around the Homebrew Computer Club in California in the early seventies who were the first to create hardware at a scale that could work for hobbyists and in households
- A group of Apple and Atari enthusiasts (fanatics?) who invented whole new genres of gaming and birthed the modern game industry in the early eighties.
Levy is an excellent writer (you have read In The Plex, haven’t you?) and through his writing I was immediately and completely awed by the brilliant playfulness of these geniuses.
The hacker ethic is something that still today has tremendous value. Levy teases out these principles from the MIT culture that he investigates:
- Access to computers—and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
- All information should be free.
- Mistrust Authority—Promote Decentralization. (From the book: “Bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are flawed sys-tems, dangerous in that they cannot accommodate the exploratory impulse of true hackers.”)
- Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
- You can create art and beauty on a computer.
- Computers can change your life for the better.
Paragraphs like this:
As for royalties, wasn’t software more like a gift to the world, something that was reward in itself? The idea was to make a computer more usable, to make it more exciting to users, to make computers so interesting that people would be tempted to play with them, explore them, and eventually hack on them. When you wrote a fine program you were building a community, not churning out a product.
made me understand more fully why Richard Stallman is so pained thinking about what we lost. Greenblatt is also pretty vocal:
The real problem, Greenblatt says, is that business interests have intruded on a culture that was built on the ideals of openness and creativity. In Greenblatt’s heyday, he and his friends shared code freely, devoting themselves purely to the goal of building better products. “There’s a dynamic now that says, ‘Let’s format our web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads,‘” Greenblatt says. “Basically, the people who win are the people who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.”
Some things haven’t changed though. Go to places like Fosdem and you realize that the following is still the case:
It is telling, though, to note the things that the hackers did not talk about. They did not spend much time discussing the social and political implications of computers in society (except maybe to mention how utterly wrong and naive the popular conception of computers was). They did not talk sports. They generally kept their own emotional and personal lives—as far as they had any—to themselves. And for a group of healthy college-age males, there was remarkably little discussion of a topic, which commonly obsesses groups of that composition: females.
There is a lot of hacker wisdom:
[..] An important corollary of hackerism states that no system or program is ever completed. You can always make it better. Systems are organic, living creations: if people stop working on them and improving them, they die.
This book was written in the mid eighties and discusses some topics that are still relevant today. Read the following paragraph and think about the current battle between Android and iOS: hackers insist
[..] that when manuals and other “secrets” are freely disseminated the creators have more fun, the challenge is greater, the industry benefits, and the users get rewarded by much better products.
We also encounter Bill Gates and Steve Jobs right at the start of their companies. I thought it very was very funny how already then they showed something of their later self: Gates was complaining publicly in 1976 how everybody was just copying his version of Altair Basic without paying for it and Jobs was already purely focused on marketing, the user experience and what the actual hardware would look like (even when you opened the Apple 2, it had to look neat and accessible).
We absolutely have to thank O’Reilly for republishing this classic!
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Lift France 2011 conference. For me this was different than my usual conference experience. I have written before how Anglo-Saxon my perspective is, so to be at a conference where the majority of the audience is French was refreshing.
Although there was a track about learning, most of the conference approached the effects of digital technology on society from angles that were relatively new to me. In a pure learning conference, I am usually able to contextualize what I see immediately and do some real time reflecting. This time I had to stick to reporting on what I saw (all my #lift11 posts are listed here) and was forced to take a few days and reflect on what I had seen.
Below, in random order, an overview of what I would consider to be the big themes of the conference. Occasionally I will try to speculate on what these themes might mean for learning and for innovation.
Utilization of excess capacity empowered by collaborative platforms
Robin Chase gave the clearest explanation of this theme that many speakers kept referring back to:
This world has large amounts of excess capacity that isn’t used. In the past, the transaction costs of sharing (or renting out) this capacity was too high to make it worthwhile. The Internet has facilitated the creation of collaborative platforms that lower these transaction costs and make trust explicit. Chase’s most simple example is the couch surfing idea and her Zipcar and Buzzcar businesses are examples of this too.
Entangled with the idea of sharing capacity is the idea of access being more important than ownership. This will likely come with a change in the models for consumption: from owning a product to consuming a service. The importance of access shows why it is important to pay attention to the (legal) battles being fought on patents, copyrights, trademarks and licenses.
I had some good discussions with colleagues about this topic. Many facilities, like desks in offices, are underused and it would be good to try and find ways of getting the percentage of utilization up. One problem we saw is how to deal with peak demand. Rick Marriner made the valid suggestion that transparency about the demand (e.g. knowing how many cars are booked in the near future) will actually feed back into the demand and thus flatten the peaks.
A quick question that any (part of an) organization should ask itself is which assets and resources have excess capacity because in the past transaction costs for sharing them across the organization were too high. Would it now be possible to create platforms that allow the use of this extra capacity?
Another question to which I currently do not have an answer is whether we can translate this story to cognitive capacity. Do we have excess cognitive capacity and would there be a way of sharing this? Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and the Wikipedia project seem to suggest we do. Can organizations capture this value?
The idea of the Internet getting rid of intermediaries is very much related to the point above. Intermediaries were a big part of the transaction costs and they are disappearing everywhere. Travel agents are the canonical example, but at the conference, Paul Wicks talked about PatientsLikeMe, a site that partially tries to disintermediate doctors out of the patient-medicine relationship.
What candidates for disintermediation exist in learning? Is the Learning Management System the intermediary or the disintermediator? I think the former. What about the learning function itself? In the last years I have seen a shift where the learning function is moving away from designing learning programs into becoming a curator of content and service providers and a manager of logistics. These are exactly the type of activities that are not needed anymore in the networked world. Is this why the learning profession is in crisis? I certainly think so.
The primacy (and urgency) of design
Maybe it was the fact that the conference was full of French designeurs (with the characteristic Philippe Starck-ish eccentricities that I enjoy so much), but it really did put the urgency of design to the forefront once again for me. I would argue that design means you think about the effects that you would like to have in this world. As a creator it is your responsibility to think deeply and holistically. I will not say that you can always know the results of your design (product, service, building, city, organization, etc.), there will be externalities, but it is important that you leave nothing to chance (accident) or to convenience (laziness).
There is a wealth of productivity to be gained here. I am bombarded by bad (non-)design every single day. Large corporations are the worst offenders. The only design parameter that seems to be relevant for processes is whether they reduce risk enough, not whether they are usable for somebody trying to get something done. Most templates focus on completeness and not on aesthetics or ease of use. When last did you receive a PowerPoint deck that wasn’t full of superfluous elements that the author couldn’t be bothered to remove?
We can’t afford not to design. The company I work for is full of brilliant engineers. Where are the brilliant designers?
Distributed, federated and networked systems
Robin Chase used the image below and explicitly said that we now finally realize that distributed networks are the right model to overcome the problems of centralized and decentralized systems.
I have to admit that the distinction between decentralized and distributed eludes me for now (I guess I should read Baran’s paper), but I did notice at Fosdem earlier this year that the open source world is urgently trying to create alternatives to big centralized services like Twitter and Facebook. Moglen talked about the Freedombox as a small local computer that would do all the tasks that the cloud would normally do, there is StatusNet, unhosted and even talk of distributed redundant file systems and wireless mesh networking.
Can large organizations learn from this? I always see a tension between the need for central governance, standardization and uniformity on the one hand and the local and specific requirements on the other hand. More and more systems are now designed to allow for central governance and the advantages of interoperability and integration, while at the same time providing configurability away from the center. Call it organized customization or maybe even federation. I truly believe you should think deeply about this whenever you are implementing (or designing!) large scale information systems.
Blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual worlds
Lift also had an exhibitors section titled “the lift experience“, mostly a place for multimedia art (imagine a goldfish in a bowl sat atop an electric wheelchair, a camera captured the direction the fish swam in and the wheelchair would then move in the same direction). There were quite a few projects using the Arduino and even more that used “hacked” Kinects to enable new types of interaction languages.
Most projects tried, in some way, to negotiate a new way of working between the virtual and the real (or should I call it the visceral). As soon as those boundaries disappear designers will have an increased ability to shape reality. One of the projects that I engaged with the most was the UrbanMusicalGame: a set of gyroscopes and accelerometers hidden in soft balls. By playing with these balls you could make beautiful music while using an iPhone app to change the settings (unfortunately the algorithms were not yet optimized for my juggling). This type of project is the vanguard of what we will see in the near term.
Discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of technology
A surprising theme for me was the well articulated discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of some of the emerging digital technologies. As Benkler says: technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice and not all practices that are becoming feasible now have positive societal impact.
One artist, Emmanuel Germond, seemed to be very much in touch with these feeling. His project, Exposition au Danger Psychologique, made fun of people’s inability to deal with all this information and provided some coy solutions. Alex Peng talked about contemplative computing, Chris de Decker showed examples of low-tech solutions from the past that can help solve our current problems and projects in the Lift Experience showed things like analog wooden interfaces for manipulating digital music.
This leads me to believe that both physical reality and being disconnected will come at a premium in the near future. People will be willing to pay for having real experiences versus the ubiquitous virtual experiences. Not being connected to the virtual world will become more expensive as it becomes more difficult. Imagine a retreat which markets itself as having no wifi and a giving you a free physical newspaper in the morning (places like this are starting to pop up, see this unplugged conference or this reporter’s unconnected weekend).
There will be consequences for Learning and HR at large. For the last couple of years we have been moving more and more of our learning interventions into the virtual space. Companies have set up virtual universities with virtual classrooms, thousands and thousands of hours of e-learning are produced every year and the virtual worlds that are used in serious games are getting more like reality every month.
Thinking about the premium of reality it is then only logical that allowing your staff to connect with each other in the real world and collaborate in face to face meetings will be a differentiator for acquiring and retaining talent.
Big data for innovation
I’ve done a lot of thinking about big data this year (see for example these learning analytics posts) and this was a tangential topic at the conference. The clearest example came from a carpool site which can use it’s data about future reservation to clearly predict how busy traffic will be on a particular day. PatientsLikeMe is of course another example of a company that uses data as a valuable asset.
Supercrunchers is full of examples of data-driven solutions to business problems. The ease of capturing data, combined with the increase in computing power and data storage has made doing randomized trials and regression analysis feasible where before it was impossible.
This means that the following question is now relevant for any business: How can we use the data that we capture to make our products, services and processes better? Any answers?
The need to overcome the open/closed dichotomy
In my circles, I usually only encounter people who believe that most things should be open. Geoff Mulgan spoke of ways to synthesize the open/closed dichotomy. I am not completely sure how he foresees doing this, but I do know that both sides have a lot to learn from each other.
Disruptive software innovations currently don’t seem to happen int the open source world, but open source does manage to innovate when it comes to their own processes. They manage to scale projects to thousands of participants, have figured out ways of pragmatically dealing with issues of intellectual property (in a way that doesn’t inhibit development) and have created their own tool sets to make them successful at working in dispersed teams (Git being my favorite example).
When we want to change the way we do innovation in a networked world, then we shouldn’t look at the open source world for the content of innovation or the thought leadership, instead we should look at their process.
A lot of the above is still very immature and incoherent thinking. I would therefore love to have a dialog with anybody who could help me deepen my thoughts on these topics.
Finally, to give a quick flavour of all my other posts about Lift 11, the following word cloud based on those posts:
The final themed session at Lift 11 France is about OPEN – What happens when barriers to innovation become drastically lower?. From the introduction:
The Internet has radically open innovation systems in digital products, content and services. Today, the same is happening to manufacturing, finance, urban services, even health care and life sciences. What will this new innovation landscape look like?
She starts her talk by showing how large Africa truly is. Ushahidi shares a heritage of openness with the Internet. Africa is getting connected fast and the costs of the connection keeps on dropping. Eventually this will change the rural landscape. Initially a lot of web 2.0 services where local copies of silicon valley services, but now we are starting to see services being developed for true local (check out iHub).
Mobile technology plays an important part. The coverage is getting better. In 2015 they expect to have 7.2 billion non smartphones and 1.3 billion smartphones in Africa. Mobile money is an innovation that is a third world first. More than 20% of Kenia’s GDP flows trough the mobile money system. It is transforming many (government) services: for example prepaying for electricity.
By making the tools open source, people can take the tools, use their own data and make it their own: it really lowers the barriers for people to use the technology. Ushahidi as a platform is now used for all kinds of use-cases that were never imagined. Crowdmap has pushed the number of Ushahidi implementations to over 15.000.
Of course there are challenges: the last mile stays difficult. Nothing is as big a showstopper as power black outs. She then goes on to critique Facebook as a walled garden for its lack of generativity. When there are closed walls around technology it becomes much harder to innovate (hear, hear!). So her advice is to bet on generativity and open source.
Homesense started with a blog post. She got a bit sick of the idea of the “smart” home. Every home is different. She thought it would be a good idea to give this new simple open technology to “normal” people without any specific interest in technology and let them use it in a creative commons way. She then went looking for people who were willing to get people to volunteer their home for experimentation. In the end they found 6 households in 4 countries.
So what happened? People were given a “homesense kit” based around the Arduino. The households worked with technological experts to create things that were useful to them, like a robot that would tell you when you left the toilet seat up, or a little map that would show you were the shared bike-hubs around your house had bikes available, or something that would turn off the light when there was enough light around the house.
Then suddenly the project received a cease and desist letter from a large manufacturer who has a trademark on the word “Homesense”. Luckily, after some legal advice, they could go on. Now they’ve been invited by the MoMa to exhibit their project in the Talk to me exhibition.
Open innovation is hard to do when you are an organization. It is very hard to do when you are a big business. Smaller outfits can do this much cheaper and get the results shared much more quickly.
Brazil is now the 5th largest Internet audience with only 38% penetration. A new digital middle class is coming up in Brazil and they are the most intense social media users in the world. Portuguese is the second most spoken language in Twitter and Brazil is the 2nd largest Youtube audience in the world. Why is this the case? Brazilians are social by nature. A global average social media user in the world has 120 network friends, in Latin America this is 176 and Brazil this is 230 friends.
What happens when you mix all these ingredients? You can get things like Queremos with five guys organizing concert by disintermediating all the people that are normally between a band and the attendee. It works like this:
Another example is how they used WordPress to invite consumers to really help in designing a concept car. The Fiat Mio concept car had 17.000 consumers bringing in their 11.000 ideas in about 15 months. It is fundamentally changing the way that Fiat Brazil wants to work going forward.
What are the 3 key learnings from this?
- A collaborative environment should never be based on anarchy. Leadership, stimulation, organization and ground rules are very necessary.
- It doesn’t mean that everyone interested in your cause will feel thrilled to collaborate effectively. Make room for all interested people.
- Even for the most collaborative cause, at the end, the motivation for any and every participant will be extremely individualist.
The first true theme of the conference is Urban, who needs to become smart in tomorrow’s cities. From the introduction:
We want cities to become greener, safer, more competitive, more inclusive, more vibrant or easier to move in. To achieve that takes more than great engineering and determined leadership, yet this is what most models of “smart cities” are built around. It requires trust and collaboration, the deliberate sharing of urban (hardware, software, informational) resources, open innovation ecosystems, empowerment policies… How will we achieve smart and open cities that could be livable?
Saskia Sassen is talking about The future of smart cities. Her research question is how much of the new technologies are truly urbanised. The cities is not just the materialities, it also is the people, the practices, etc. This means that the city can “talk back” and there is a notion “cityness”.
What would it mean to do open source urbanism? What would it mean if we start to think of the city as the hacker? Incompleteness is her foundational image for the future of the city because the concepts of the user don’t align with the concepts of the engineer.
I thought it was unfortunate that Sassen did not develop her thoughts further than these large broad philosophical strokes. This was in stark contract with the next speaker: Adam Greenfield runs a shop in New York called Urbanscale. His talk is titled: On public objects: connected things and civic responsibilities in the networked city. He prefers the term “network city” over “smart city”).
He is inspired by Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city. In our current networked city we have become an instrumented population. There is a strong spread of locative and declarative media. Increasingly we live among declarative objects (see Tom Armitage’s project of the talking Tower bridge).
We are surrounded by objects that can process information and “speak” to us leading to new modes of surveillance based on information gathering objects. What might it mean to speak of our right to the networked city. Maybe we need a new theory of public objects to help us think about them?
Greenberg show examples of a couple of technologies that are used in urban settings to get at a “taxonomy of effects” and a first start at thinking about the morality of objects:
- Välkky traffic sensors are non objectionable: there is local collection with a local effect and a clear public good.
- The Nikon advertisement that is “paparazzi billboard” is mildly disruptive: there is local collection and local effect, but there is no public good and slight disruption.
- The Acure touchscreen vending unit is gathering information about you and tries to discern your age and your gender and then present you with the right proposition. This is a prescriptive and normative non-urban technology. This is local collection with global effect and no public good: the data is analysed and used to change the propositions.
- Quividi (“he who watches”) VidiReports video analytics suite is a technology that records people as they pass by billboards and tracks their attention. Vidireports is leeching value of the cityscape. This technology is predictive and prospectively normative. Greenfield is actively trying to influence government to legislate against this type of technology.
Greenfield then gives a definition of the public objects. They should be designed in such a way that they are open and easily available. This has some problems: we are enormously increasing the “attack surface”. We also don’t have the etiquettes and protocols of precedence and deconfliction. But the aspirations are big though: among other things it could be a physical manifestation of the public sphere.
Next up was Alain Renk talking about Unlimited cities. He talked in French which was simultaneously translated. This setup made it very hard for me to both pay attention to the talk and blog. According to him we are confronted by a trend of standardisation of urban environment and it is very difficult to develop “urbadiversity”.
Some examples of people-(em)powered platforms are meetup and Etsy, Waze, Airbnb or Couchsurfing. This stuf is powerful: Intercontinental built 4400 hotels in 60 years, whereas Couchsurfing has 1.2m “couches” in 8 years (twice the volume of Intercontinental).
The economics are sustainable: I put my excess capacity into a common platform. This can grow very fast (low financial risk) because now the common platforms are completely scalable. This is a much more efficient use of resources. It is a dematerialisation: so more service than asset and it is focused and collaborative consumption. Put another way: ownership will not be the higher status consumption.
Chase has now started buzzcar (they have an app), a way for people to share their cars. It uses a collectively built infrastructure that is collaboratively financed where end users gain financially. Doing it like this she doesn’t have to wait for government or private companies, instead she has “auto-preneurs” putting their cars into the system. See here for a video explaining the concept. This way one well-used shared car can be used by 30-50 people. Some of these people will sell their car so one well-used shared car equals about 15-20 cars and can save 40-60 parking spaces.
This type of collaboratively built infrastructure will create the people’s city. Rather than having centralized or decentralized systems you now get distributed robust and resilient systems. We can finally have a future where there is scale without the homogenisation that this would usually bring.
The final talk is by Frédéric Mazzella. He has created a new way of carpooling and talked about how car-pooling can help forecast car traffic. Covoiturage.fr has 1.2 million members. By using people’s intentions of where they want to go when, they can forecast traffic (he showed a nice visualisation of this).