Becoming Net Smart with Howard Rheingold

I just bought the Kindle edition of Net Smart, Howard Rheingold‘s new book, published by the MIT Press. I participated in various of Howard’s courses: one about literacies of cooperation, another one about mind-amplifying tools, and now I’m involved in a collaborative project facilitated by Howard aimed at creating a peeragogy handbook.  Peeragogy is like peer to peer pedagogy, self-learners collaborating via a variety of social media to create, deliver, and learn an agreed curriculum (which they compose themselves).

More about peeragogy by Howard during his UC Berkeley Regents’ lecture:

UC Berkeley Regents’ Lecture: Howard Rheingold (Presented by Berkeley Center for New Media) from Berkeley Center for New Media on Vimeo.

In Net Smart Howard explains that we’re in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology. This is not just a book about how to become a more efficient user of digital technologies, there is a bigger social issue at work here: “if we combine our individual efforts wisely, enough of the right know-how could add up to a more thoughtful society as well as enhance those individuals who master digital network skills.”

The author does not hesitate comparing the web’s architecture of participation to the invention of the printing press and the spread of reading skills which amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Of course, it also lead to revolutions, bloodshed, manipulation and fanaticism. These experiences make it abundantly clear how important literacies such as crap detection and the avoidance of echo chambers are. In other words, Net Smart is a book which is a must-read for people seeking a balance between their physical and virtual environments, for parents, young people, business people and educators.

It’s not just about learning skills which one can practice alone. It’s about the ability to use these skills socially, in concert with others, in an effective way. Howard distinguishes in his book five literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network smarts.

Howard is a talented inventor of new words and concepts. He’s the guy who came up with the notion of “virtual community“. More recently he coined the term “infotention”: “a mind-machine combination of brainpowered attention skills and computer-powered information filters” (also have a look at the Infotention Network).

Watch Howard explaining his book and project for the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) Change11:

 

What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Applying Aristotle on interactions between humans and computers: it can be done. Just read Brenda Laurel about The Six Elements and the Causal Relations between them (in the New Media Reader, MIT, links and documents here) as we did in the Digital Awakening course.

Aristotle talks about drama as an organic whole. He distinguishes six qualitative elements: action, character, thought, language, pattern and enactment.

I’d like to pick out just one nugget out of this text: how we’re humanizing our tools. Once computers were being considered as big, clunky, intimidating and often maddening machines, a kind of dumb administrators.
Visionaries such as Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson saw very early on that computers could be much more.

It’s not just that the entertainment and social aspects of computers (in all their forms) prove to be so appealing. It’s that something in our relation with those devices is changing dramatically.

In her discussion of the element ’Thought’ Laurel mentions the familiar conundrum:’can computers think’ and the answer is surprisingly easy: ’computer-based agents, like dramatic characters, do not have to think (in fact, there are many ways in which they cannot); they simply have to provide a representation from which thought may be inferred.’

When you double-click on a folder of your Mac and it divulges its content, it seems as if it understood what you wanted. Does it actually understand anything at all? It does not matter; “The real issue is that the representation succeeded in getting me to make the right inferences about it’s “thoughts”. It also succeeded in representing to me that it made the right inferences about mine!”

This idea of making inferences about the “thoughts” of devices spreads of course as our computers become slick, small, nigh-powered devices we carry all the time with us. Increasingly, we’re no longer limited to double-clicking folders, but we can speak to those devices – humanizing them even more.

This may seem self-evident, bit it’s obvious this is a vast project and we’re just in the initial phases. Just think about how we deal with news media. Instead of searching desperately in unwieldy online newspaper archives, your smartphone – as your personal assistant – will alert you when there’s breaking news about, let’s say, Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

You’ll enter into a conversation, you’ll ask a question to get more details, a background question about someone who is mentioned in the report. Your personal assistant will use lot’s of sources, narrating the answers to your questions, indicating sources or taking into account the reputations stats of the sources. Chances are it will not be some mainstream media company developing such an assistant, but yet another young tech company.

The GigaOM Roadmap conference discussed this kind of evolution. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:

Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.

In Natural Born Cyborgs? by Andy Clark the author says:

Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.

It also has implications for our perceived identity. This could be an aspect of this remark in Clark’s above mentioned text:

In addition it may soon be quite important (morally, socially, and politically) to publicly loosen the bonds between the very ideas of minds and persons and the image of the bounds, properties, locations and limitations of the basic biological organism.

The nice thing for my course-program this Fall is that these texts and discussion allow me to “connect the dots”: Clark and his thinking about the extended mind is an important part of a previous course facilitated by Howard Rheingold (Introduction to Mind Amplifiers) which is not unrelated to his other courseToward a Literacy of Cooperation, while the discussion about Brenda Laurel and the Six Elements is part of the above mentioned Digital Awakening course. Next Wednesday we’ll meet Howard in that course (in Second Life), and we’ll discuss Sherry Turkle’s text Video Games and Computer Holding Power (documents, program and practical details can be found here). One of the aspects of Turkle’s research is about role-playing and the exploration of “aspects of the self” and seems to fit very nicely in the context of the previous discussions.

“Yes, they are digital natives, but not tech-savvy”

I’ve been thinking about the term “digital natives”. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 Tony Bates facilitated a week about “Transforming teaching and learning through technology management“.

In a blogpost about this subject Squire Morley says:

So one of the questions Tony asks of us is whether universities can change from within or if new institutions are required for the 21st Century. Unless there is a disjuncture then there is no incentive to change. The system seems to be self-perpetuating. The training (or apprenticeships) of research graduates to become the next generation of lecturers and academics in the same ways as previously is at least partly responsible for this, as are the pressures for advancement through publication in closed, peer-reviewed journals.

But maybe one of the driving forces for change (facilitated by the use of social media) are the students? A new generation of digital natives? In my own experience, primarily among young journalists and journalism students, the fluency of digital natives in using social networks on a personal level does not really mean they “automatically” use these skills in the context of their learning or journalism. There is a subtle difference between being a “digital native” and being “tech-savvy”.

I gave a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée, Belgium and I had this video interview with facilitator Damien Van Achter:

Visitors and residents

But maybe “digital native” is too problematic a term to use. On the TALL blog David White uses the distinction between “residents” and “visitors” instead of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”:

(Hat tip to Stephen Downes for mentioning this video and blogpost). This distinction between “residents” and “natives” is not age-related nor even skill-related. Residents of the internet seem to inhabit a certain “space” and to maintain and develop a digital identity. Visitors seem to consider the net as a tool box.

This insight could be very useful. I often despaired when presenting Twitter to non-Twitter users, or Second Life for that matter: one can explain easily enough the buttons which one has to press and the basic practices (hashtags, lists for Twitter, creating an avatar and learning how to move around and communicate for a virtual world), but even then people are often reluctant to put that “knowledge” to good use.

So maybe the real issue is not the technology, but a cultural (often unconscious) choice for being a visitor and not a resident (I think active Twitter users are more like residents just as virtual world users are clearly “getting” the spatial metaphor). Which does not mean that promoting stuff such as Twitter is hopeless – it just means that the reluctance has to be recognized and addressed on the right level.

SmallTalk

I could not participate at the weekly Digital Awakening course session in Second Life, but I did my required reading: Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media“.

In that 1977 essay the authors foretell the importance of notebook computing. “While most saw the computer as a tool for engineers or, at most, businesspeople, Kay thought computers could be used even by children, and could be used creatively”, so it is explained in the MIT New Media Reader.

One of the great aspects of the Dynabook project was that it involved children as users. The kids were not just consumers or filling boxes which were provided by professional designers and developers, they were also programmers:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different
perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience. Their attention spans are measured in hours rather than minutes.

The kids used the Smalltalk-language: “Smalltalk was created as the language to underpin the “new world” of computing exemplified by human–computer symbiosis. It was designed and created in part for educational use, more so for constructionist learning” (Wikipedia)

I cannot help but contrast this enthusiasm with my experiences during a recent debate about the future of the newspaper industry. When I suggested journalism students (so university level, not junior high like in the Dynabook project) should have some basic experience with programming in order to see new story-telling possibilities, there was great indignation. A journalism instructor said that his students would not be interested in such a thing and an editor-in-chief exclaimed that such talk made him very nervous: journalists have to write stories, have scoops, not to mess around in programming languages.

Which means that more than thirty year after these Dynabook experiments, we failed to convey the message that computing literacy is not something for “the nerds in the basement”, but fun stuff which enables people to envision tasks and projects in very new and exhilarating ways.

Connecting the dots between digital awakening, massive online learning and cooperation literacies

I should have done this earlier on already, but here it is (or rather, it’s developing): a mindmap about my online learning experiment. I try to connect the dots between the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Change11 (facilitated by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes) , the Digital Awakening (Gardner Campbell)  and Introduction to Cooperation Theory (Howard Rheingold). You’ll find links the courses and some course material in the mindmap.

Some very general remarks:

– In Digital Awakening we discuss texts by the pioneers of our digital era. One of the recurring themes is the need to augment human intellect in order to cope with the complexities and the fast developments in an increasingly interconnected world. Computers and computer networks can help to augment human intellect, going far beyond a vision of computers as just “computing machines for nerds”. Questions here are whether these efforts to augment our human intellect do not contribute to the increasing complexity and the velocity of changes, resulting in increasing unpredictability and chaos. Or in other words: is the empowerment of small groups and individuals leading to a decrease of the capabilities of communities to determine their future development?

– Which leads us to the complexities of human cooperation and the relation between individual rationality and what is good for communities. In the course about literacies of cooperation we investigate what game theory learns about the tension between individual rationality and collective outcomes, but we also explore design principles which increase the possibilities of governing common pool resources. How can online networks and virtual communities leverage the possibilities of human cooperation?

– Talking about literacies: we have to acquire the insights but also the social and technological skills in order to augment cooperation. Is our education system doing a good job in this respect? Do we apply those literacies in designing education platforms (talking here about education and learning in a very broad sense, not only about schools and colleges catering primarily for young people in a formal context).

To put it more dramatically: if computer networks, mobile and ubiquitous computing lead to the development of a kind of worldwide thinking, dreaming and creating brain structure, how does this worldwide structure enables self-learning and -improvement, what is the role of human individuals and groups in this process, what about our emerging artificial intelligence overlords which may or may not become intelligent, self-learning and self-organizing entities?

(For using this map: use the icons next to the blue “share” button to zoom in and out, to enlarge the screen. You can also drag the map around in order to explore the different parts. Please take into account this is just a general structure and the map will be updated in the coming days and weeks).

Is abundance a myth? The Original Affluent Society and Social Media

I stumbled upon the theme of “abundance” in the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation course (#cooplit) and the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 (see previous posts on this blog about both courses) – and I have some issues with the underlying idea that our advanced societies and technology fundamentally alter the situation of humankind from problems of scarcity into issues regarding abundance. In the MOOC there is a discussion of A Pedagogy of Abundance, a meditation by education technology professor Martin Weller on how researchers and teachers are confronted with the avalanche of available content (and of course, this is something happening in many other activities such as news media, music industry etc). In the Social Media Classroom of the #cooplit Kathy Gill posted about Cooperation, Competition and Power:

At its core, however, I believe that zero-sum thinking reflects a dance for power in a world where resources are limited. But today’s economy is moving towards unlimited, not limited, resources. That’s what digitization does to information — it breaks the scarcity barrier. Pre-digital, if I wanted to read “the newspaper” — then you, my partner, could not read it at the same time (unless you read over my shoulder). That’s gone. Ditto for movies and music. And then there is the co-creation that Howard talked about today — wikipedia, SETI at home. Lots of examples in Tapscott’s Wikinomics. Perhaps cooperation is something that humans can achieve only when they have moved to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the U.S., at least, systemic cooperation will require a major cultural shift inside and outside of institutions. And a new definition of “success” that does not rely on wielding “power” over others.

Of course, there is much truth in what Weller and Gill say. But still I’m not so sure we come from a situation defined by scarcity and move to an era of abundance, enabling us to freely cooperate and to stop fighting each other. Howard Rheingold in a comment on Gill’s post gives examples of zero-sum situations such as scarcity of water, but I think there is more. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins articulated the theory of the original affluent society, saying that hunter-gatherers often had far more leisure time than people in contemporary societies. It seems industrialized countries are very good in maintaining a feeling of scarcity, however rich they may be in absolute terms. The structure of desire and the never-ending game of shifting reputation signifiers cause scarcity and competition to stay very important aspects of these societies. This is true – I think – when we think about classical aspects of the consumption society, but maybe also when we think about social media production. What about the effects of shifting reputation signifiers on the competition on social networks? The emergence of new metrics such as the Klout influence index? The time people invest in polishing their online reputation and image, not to mention the work involved in dealing with the noise on the social networks? Which means that maybe, in order to change the nature of often destructive competitions, we’ll need to change the structure of the game. In very (too) general terms I suspect this is related with the production of meaning and with fundamental issues such as how we define what is means to have a good life. It means we should practice the capability of “letting go” of the stream of updates, blogposts and alerts. I guess this has to do what Douglas Rushkoff discusses in Program or be Programmed. He advocates programming, not just blogging in the boxes provided by the big corporations.

Deconstructing learning through social media: virtual seminar, MOOC and OpenCourseware

I’m about to start a wild experiment in learning, by participating in various online courses, using various social media platforms. I have various objectives:
– to experience what learning could mean in this century and what it tells us about the changes in society and in the economy.
– to gain a deeper understanding in the philosophical underpinnings of new media.
– to become more creative, by better understanding what’s “new” about new media.
– to experiment with ways to combine various social media for online learning processes in the broadest sense of the word “learning”.

I’m not an educator working in a school or university, but a financial blogger/journalist/newspaper community manager. I’m already using Twitter, blogs, curating tools and chat systems to interact with our community. This, in my opinion, is a form of online learning and I hope to develop new practices inspired by the courses I’ll participate in during this Fall.

New Media Studies

The course which seems more “philosophical” is Awakening the Digital Imagination: A Networked Faculty-Staff Development Seminar coordinated by Professor Gardner Campbell, Virginia Tech.

The course runs almost every week from September 12 through December 2. There is a syllabus, The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003) and we’ll work on various platforms such as Twitter, Flickr and… Second Life. The project in Second Life is being facilitated by Liz Dorland, Washington University (Chimera Cosmos in Second Life) and by Robin Heyden, Heyden Ty (Spiral Theas in Second Life) and the infohub and group blog are up and running.

This week we’ll discuss Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think“. The first week the participants discussed Inventing the Medium by Janet H. Murray, the Introduction of The New Media Reader and watched this video:

The video says “the Machine is Us/ing Us”. While using the web we’re teaching the Machine, which learns from our billions of daily online actions. The Machine is not just connecting data, it’s connecting people. In that sense one could dream of an exponentially increasing worldwide intelligence, which eventually becomes self-learning (the Technological Singularity discussion). It reminds us of the optimism of engineers, who realize that our world and our survival become ever more complicated. However, engineers are optimistic: complexity is a problem which can be tackled. Computers and networks change Thought itself, and enable it to tackle the big challenges of our time.

But then again there are these other thinkers, more to be found in the humanities: they talk for tens of years now about the end of the big Ideologies, the end of the big metaphysical stories making sense of it all. Patient deconstruction and analysis show the fallacies, the inconsistencies, the circular reasonings in those stories. Should we confront the supposed cynical smile of the humanities-expert with the optimism of the engineer, or rather deconstruct this opposition? I’ll find out in the weeks to come.

MOOC

I also registered at the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) Change, an international, distributed and rhizome-like learning network/experience. I also attended previous, similar editions (the Connectivism courses), often as a lurker, sometimes active. It’s bewildering and mind-blowing, no, mind-amplifying!

The course is facilitated by  Dave CormierGeorge Siemens and Stephen Downes.

Dave Cormier offers this video to explain what we’re up to.

 

In a post about how to participate it is explained that: “…there is no one central curriculum that every person follows. The learning takes place through the interaction with resources and course participants, not through memorizing content. By selecting your own materials, you create your own unique perspective on the subject matter.”

The interactions take place on various social media platforms, using many tools.

OpenCourseWare

The last part of my program for this fall is studying MIT OpenCourseWare Introduction to Computer Science and Programming (instructors are Prof. Eric Grimson and Prof. John Guttag). The idea is to learn how computer scientists actually think and in that sense the course is about much more than just “learning how to program in Python”.

Interesting to see is how the video, transcripts, reading material can be consulted for free, while direct interaction with the teaching staff is reserved for those who pay the hefty fee for studying at the MIT. This does not mean that using these course materials is devoid from any interaction: OpenStudy provides a platform for collaboration with fellow-users (the platform could also be used for the Change MOOC).

The issue of how to facilitate learning collaboration while also protecting the business model of universities is solved in another way by Stanford University: they’re organizing an Open Class on Artificial Intelligence. Participants will not be able to ask questions directly, but a voting system will select a number of questions which will be answered by the instructors.

That’s one of the fascinating aspects of these courses: we learn how to practice and think in new ways, and while trying to do so it becomes obvious to the participants that the activity of learning itself and the institutions of learning are being confronted with disruptive change.

MetaMeets Day 2: going beyond virtual worlds, machinima, avatars…

Beyond the beyond is the name of Bruce Sterling’s famous blog on Wired. It’s a habit of sci-fi people to think beyond what is anticipated by the mainstream, eventually to think about how ‘change‘ or ‘beyond’ itself gets new meanings.

It seems also virtual people love to think ‘beyond': beyond virtual worlds, avatars, machinima. That at least is the conviction I have after attending the MetaMeets conference about virtual worlds, augmented reality and video/machinima in Amsterdam. I’ll give a very fast overview of the second and last day of the conference to illustrate this.

Heidi Foster is involved in the management of a new breedable pet in Second Life, Meeroos, with a large customer base. Meeroos are mythical animals, Foster explained, but they are mostly very cute and they ask to be picked up. To be precise: the project launched on May 21 and now there are 22,000 players and 250,000 Meeroos in Second Life. It’s conceivable that the Meeroos will invade the rest of the Metaverse by spreading to other virtual worlds such as OpenSim. In the discussion it was suggested to expand to mobile devices as well. That would be awesome I think: develop and launch on Second Life, spreading throughout other virtual places and ending up on smartphones and tablets.

Not a potential but a real move to mobile devices was presented by Timo Mank, an artist-curator at the Archipel Medialab. In 1999 he co-founded Art Hotel Dit Eiland (This Island) in the Dutch village of Hollum on Ameland. The Medialab initiates Artist In Residences focused on cross reality projects. Many artists from PARK 4DTV worked on Ameland creating content for web based virtual islands. Until recently Timo was curating Playground Ameland Secondlife.

Early this year the Foundation Archipel Ameland shifted focus from yearly media art interventions to transmedia story telling for iPad. The project is called TMSP TV and it connects twitter with guests at the TMSP studio in Diabolus Artspace Secondlife. The LiveLab uses the daily on goings in the World Herritage Waddensea and brings this material as live feed to virtual space where it’s playfully reevaluated, mixed and redistilled by guests and performers.

Toni Alatalo is the CTO of a small games company, Playsign, and the current lead architect of the open source realXtend platform. He explained that not every virtual world needs avatars. Imagine a virtual environment allowing to explore the human body by traveling through the veins, or just think Google Earth. Technologically speaking avatars do not need to be part of the core code of the virtual environment, instead the code could be modular. Which could lead us indeed to virtual worlds without avatars, or to avatars in environments which are not perceived as classical virtual worlds (think augmented reality, smartphones).

metameets audience looking at 3D video

Of course there were things which seemed very familiar to seasoned users of Second Life or Open Sim. Melanie Thielker (Avination) talked about roleplaying, commenting a video depicting the awesomeness of user-generated content. ‘Content’ is an awful word used by publishers when they mean all kinds of stuff such as texts, videos, infographics, images. In this case it refers to impressive builds made by users of the virtual worlds, but Melanie emphasized rightfully that the most important content items are the storylines people create, the characters they build, the backstories they provide, the communities they form. They write their own books in a very experimental, fluid, ever-changing setting.

But even this well-known practice is going somehow ‘beyond’ as it takes place in Melanie’s own virtual world, independently from Second Life. Melanie is an entrepreneur in the Metaverse.

Karen Wheatley is the director of the Jewell Theatre in Second Life. She goes beyond theatres and beyond some existing Second Life subcultures. She runs a theatre in Gor. The Gorean subculture is known for its traditions (based on novels by John Norman), is fond of a warrior ethos, (mostly) female slaves and dislikes furries (avatars with animal-like features) and kid-avatars. All of which does not prevent Wheatley to organize her Shakespearian performances in Gor, open for all avatars. She gets sponsoring and so we could consider her being an entrepreneur too.

Draxtor Despres goes beyond in various ways. In his video reportages he combines ‘real’ footage with video shot in virtual environments. He presented his newest big project: a documentary for the German public television ZDF, Login2Life which will come out mid-July. It goes beyond Second Life as it also shows World of Warcraft.

Stephen M. Zapytowski, Professor of Design and Technology at the School of Theatre and Dance of the Kent State University presented another example of crossing boundaries: April 2011 saw the premier of his avatar ghost for Kent State’s production of Hamlet. This ghost played “live” on stage with real life actors in a blend of virtual and real worlds. Which of course made the audience dream of avatars and humans playing nicely together in the augmented reality (please stay calm: we’re not there yet).

Talking about playing together: that’s what the music panel with JooZz & Al Hofmann talked about. They want even more sophisticated means for people from all over the planet to jam together in perfect synchronicity.

Chantal Gerards showed us a few machinima videos, and I sensed a bit of frustration. In one of her creations she used music from the director David Lynch. Unfortunately, he did not even want to watch the video as ‘he does not like machinima’.

Chantal said: “I have a scoop for you today. I stop making machinima”, adding a bit mysteriously that she will move ‘beyond machinima’. Her advice goes beyond machinima as well: create together, with all kinds of people and platforms, move beyond the platform so that what you create gains wider relevance.

Read also my write-up of the first day: “we are at the beginning

Researching the philosophers of Silicon Valley, using mindmaps in 2D and 3D

What are the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of Silicon Valley? I’m trying to find out, reading and watching thinkers, historians, sci-fi literature, visiting virtual environments.

I’m trying to put some structure in my work using a mindmap, partially based on the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (by Fred Turner):

In Second Life I’m putting up some media panels with websites or videos illustrating this – it helps me generating new ideas shifting those things around and walking around there, or looking at the panels with other avatars and commenting them.

My mindmap-installation in Second Life

Another kind of innovation

Are we sure this is a time of major, disruptive, history-changing technological innovation? Professor Tyler Cowen in his book The Great Stagnation remembers his readers how the period from 1880 to 1940 brought us electricity, electric lights, powerful motors, automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, the telephone, indoor plumbing, pharmaceuticals, mass production, the typewriter, the tape recorder, the phonograph, radio and television. If you look at a longer timeframe and include the Industrial Revolution, the changes are even more impressive – essentially a story of combining advanced machines with powerful fossil fuels which brought unprecedented change to humanity.

Cowen:

Today, in contrast, apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what is was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch, even if dimmers are more common these days.

But what about the internet? That surely must be the big innovation of our day and age?

the great stagnation coverProfessor Tyler Cowen is not dismissive of the internet. “Unlike electricity, the internet hasn’t changed everyone’s life, but it has changed a lot of lives, and its influence will be even stronger for the next generation.”

What is special about the internet, for an economist, is that so many of its products are free. People can tweet, read blogs, browse on eBay, watch music videos, experience adventures in some gaming universe, attend a concert in a virtual environment, all for free.

Cowen: “… the new low-hanging fruit is in our minds and in our laptops and not so much in the revenue-generating sector of the economy.”

“Innovation hasn’t ceased, but it has taken new forms and it has come in areas we did not predict very well. A lot of the internet is a free space for intellectual and emotional invention, a kind of open-ended canvas for enriching our interior lives.”

“Basically, we have a collective historical memory that technological progress brings a big and predictable stream of revenue growth across most of the economy.”

Cowen gives a similar argument about the employment. While in the past breakthrough innovations resulted in lots of new jobs, the now famous internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter and even Google can’t be compared to the automobile behemoths of Detroit.

In a sense, we’re getting away from materialism, but that really hurts the economy and the social institutions funded by that economy. However, not everything is ugly:

  • The interest in science and engineering in India and China, their growing importance as markets for innovative products and services.
  • The internet facilitates scientific learning and communication.
  • More interest in a more efficient education policy.

Cowen also has a recommendation: raise the social status of scientists while at the same time being realistic as far as technological progress is concerned: we’re living in the new normal, or so it seems because the rate of technological progress never has been easily predictable.

Change

What’s my take on all this? The internet is putting into question more than one aspect of our societies and economies. The most obvious changes concern education and work. In both cases the relevance of factory-like institutions is diminishing rapidly, in favor of one-person enterprises working on a collaborative basis.

There is more individualism in this sense that people will choose their own curricula, taking into account their interests and particular situation. Sometimes it will be necessary to have a certificate acknowledging a certain expertise, often the value of training or education will be evaluated by the student herself when she tries to apply what she has learned.

macrowikinomics cover

The individual will participate in shifting collaborations, project-based. Some of these collaborations will be based on non-monetary reciprocity (for instance in group learning), others will be market-oriented.

Innovation will happen in various flavors, but as the boundaries of the enterprise will become deconstructed, open innovation will gain traction. Sometimes this innovation will be like in open source, but often various degrees of compensation will be sought: using Creative Commons or more traditional licenses, copyrights and patents.

These ideas are explored by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their books and presentations about Wikinomics. They analyze how the market and also non-market external collaboration are often more effective that in-company solutions. Those companies which are dominated by bureaucracies wanting to keep each and every process inside the company walls, will perish while those which reach out to external collaboration (market based or not), make a much better chance to be successful (also read my previous post about Don Tapscott at the LIFT conference, commenting on the Arab uprisings).

The more difficult aspects of Cowen’s thinking seem to be almost spiritual. Even though he points out the practical problems related to a less materialistic society (who will pay for the old, the sick, the needy, for public services), he also seems to appreciate this evolution.

 

Related - Seth Godin says: “What’s actually happening is this: we’re realizing that the industrial revolution is fading. The 80 year long run that brought ever-increasing productivity (and along with it, well-paying jobs for an ever-expanding middle class) is ending.”

Kevin Slavin about those algorithms that govern our lives

How does our near future look like, as computing and fast internet access become ubiquitous, ever more digital data become available in easy to use formats? Well, it seems our world is being transformed by algorithms, and at the LIFT11 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Kevin Slavin presented some fascinating insights about this disruptive change.

I try to summarize his talk. I added some musings of my own, such as the stuff about social capital rankings and the Singularity.

Kevin Slavin is the co-founder of Starling, a co-viewing platform for broadcast TV, specializing in real-time engagement with live television. He also works at Area/Coding, now Zynga New York, taking advantage “of today’s environment of pervasive technologies and overlapping media to create new kinds of gameplay.” He teaches Urban Computing at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, together with Adam Greenfield (author of Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing).

Stealth

Slavin loves Lower Manhattan, the Financial District. It’s a place built on information. Big cities had to learn to listen, for instance London had to use a new technology during World War II, called radar, to detect incoming enemy bombers. Which would lead to the Stealth airplanes, the so-called invisible, untraceable planes – but anyway, also the Stealth plane can be located, and shot, as it appeared in Serbia.

Slavin is a master in explaining technologically complex things. For instance, the idea behind Stealth is to break up the big thing – the bomber – into a lot of small things which look like birds. But what if you don’t try to look for birds, but for big electrical signals? If you can “see” such a signal while nothing appears on your radar, well, chances are that you’re looking at an American bomber.

(Which reminds me: in this day and age, forget about privacy. If you want to hide, the only strategy is to send out lots of conflicting and eventually fake signals – I think futurist Michael Liebhold said that somewhere. His vision of the Geospatial Web: “Imagine as you walk through the world that you can see layers of information draped across the physical reality, or that you see the annotations that people have left at a place describing the attributes of that place!”

Just as was the case for the Stealth, it just takes math, pattern recognition etc to find out who or what hides behind all the bits of information one leaves behind).

The same reasoning applies for other stealthy movements, like those on financial markets. Suppose you want to process a huge financial deal through the market, without waking up other players. The stealth logic is obvious: split it up in many small parts and make them appear to move randomly.

But then again, it’s only math, which can be broken by other math. It’s a war of algorithms. As explains Wikipedia:

Starting from an initial state and initial input (perhaps null),[4] the instructions describe a computation that, when executed, will proceed through a finite [5] number of well-defined successive states, eventually producing “output”[6] and terminating at a final ending state.

Slavin says that 70 percent of all trades on Wall Street are either an algorithm trying to be invisible or an algorithm trying to find out about such algorithms. That’s what high frequency trading is about: finding those things moving through the financial skies.

Who will be the winner? It’s not only about the best algorithm or the best computer, but also about the best network – we’re talking here about milliseconds. If you’re sitting on top of a carrier hotel where all the internet pipes in a big city are surfacing, you have such an advantage. The internet is not this perfectly distributive thing floating around there, it has its physical properties which for instance determine the price of real estate in cities.

Motherboards

Slavin explains how it are the needs of the algorithms which can determine real estate prices and urban architecture in New York, London, Tokyo or Frankfurt. Real estate 20 blocks away from the Financial District suddenly becomes more expensive than offices which appear to be better connected in human terms. Referring to Neal Stephenson, our professor said that cities are becoming optimized as motherboards.

(Read Mother Earth Mother Board by Neal Stephenson on Wired and, also on Wired, Netscapes: Tracing the Journey of a Single Bit by Andrew Blum. Which also brings us back to Adam Greenfield, who gave a great talk at the Web and Beyond conference in Amsterdam, showing how web design principles and discussions are becoming largely relevant in urbanism – the city as a mother board or as a web site, to be organized as such and where the same concepts and algorithms can be used. Just think about the application of access and permissioning regimes in a world where the overwhelming majority of the citizens is perfectly traceable by their cell and smartphones. Which means that design becomes a very political matter).

Algorithms determine what we hear on the radio and what movies we see – and also what we won’t hear or see. They claim to predict what we want to read or watch, organize traffic, investment decisions, research decisions, and determine which conversations or searches on the web point to terrorist plots and who should be monitored and/or arrested by the security services.

Sixty percent of all movies rented on Netflix are rented because that company recommended those movies to the individual customers. The algorithms Netflix uses even take into account the unreliability of the human brain (we are rather bad in consistently rating things. Epagogix helps studios to determine the box office potential of a script – and influences in that way what will actually be produced.

There is an opacity at work here. Slavin showed a slide depicting the trajectory of the cleaning robot Roomba, which made it obvious that the logic applied here does not match with a typical human way of cleaning a floor.

Crashing black boxes

One may think that an algorithm is just a formalization of human expert knowledge. After all, a content producer knows what has the biggest chances to succeed in terms of box office revenue, clicks, comments and publicity. Isn’t an algorithm not just the automated application of that same knowledge? Not really. In fact, competing algorithms will be tweaked so as to produce better results, or they will tweak themselves. The algorithm often is a black box.

Genetic algorithms seem to mimic the process of natural evolution using mutations, selections, inheritances. Tell the algorithm that a certain weight has to travel from A to B, and provide some elements such as wheels, and the algorithm will reinvent the car for you – but the way in which it works is beyond are human comprehension (it does not even realize from the start that the wheels go on the bottom, it just determines that later on in its iterations): “they don’t relate back to how we humans think.”

Which is important, because think about it: algorithms determine which movies will be produced, and algorithms will provide a rating saying whether a movie is recommended for you. Where is the user in all this? Slavin: “maybe it’s not you.”

Maybe these algorithms smooth things out until it all regresses toward the mean, or maybe they cause panic when all of a sudden financial algorithms encounter something they weren’t supposed to encounter and start trading stocks all of a sudden at insane prices. This happened on May 6 2010. Wikipedia about this Flash Crash:

On May 6, US stock markets opened down and trended down most of the day on worries about the debt crisis in Greece. At 2:42 pm, with the Dow Jones down more than 300 points for the day, the equity market began to fall rapidly, dropping more than 600 points in 5 minutes for an almost 1000 point loss on the day by 2:47 pm. Twenty minutes later, by 3:07 pm, the market had regained most of the 600 point drop.

Humans make errors, but those are human errors. algorithms are far more difficult to “read”, they do their job well – most of the time – but it’s often impossible to make sense in a human, story-telling way of what they do.

There is no astronomy column in the newspaper, there is astrology. Because humans like the distort facts and figures and tell stories. That’s what they do in astrology, but also on Wall Street – because we want to make sense to ourselves, even if means we’ve to distort the facts.

Now what does a flash crash look like in the entertainment industry? In criminal investigations? In the rating of influence on social networks? Maybe it happened already.

Social Capital

Some other presentations at LIFT are also relevant in this context. Algorithms are for instance increasingly being used to determine your personal ‘value’ – for instance your value as an ‘influencer’ on social media. Klout is a company which uses its algorithm to measure the size of a person’s network, the content created, and how other people interact with that content. PeerIndex is also working with social network data to determine your ‘social capital’.

This is not just a weird vanity thing. Some hotels will give people with a high Klout ranking a VIP-treatment, hoping on favorable comments on the networks. Social influence and capital can be used as an element in the financial rating of a person or a company.

This in turn will incite companies but also individuals to manage their online networks. At the LIFT11 conference, Azeem Azhar, founder of PeerIndex, gave a great presentation about online communities and reputations management while social media expert Brian Solis talked about social currencies. Of course, people will try to game social ranking algorithms, just as they try to game search algorithms on the web.

Singularity

Rapidly increasing computer and network power, an avalanche of digital data and self-learning networks, ambient intelligence could lead to what some call the Singularity: “a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid and the growth of artificial intelligence is so great that the future after the singularity becomes qualitatively different and harder to predict” (Wikipedia).

Many scientists dispute the spectacular claims of Singularity thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil. There is also controversy about whether, if the Singularity would take place, this would be good or bad for humanity. Slavin points out the opacity of the algorithms. They can be efficient, but don’t tell stories and we cannot tell a good story about the inner workings of black boxes. Now already algorithms are capable of taking into account our weird human imperfections and inconsistencies, while humans also respond by trying to game algorithms. In that sense we’re witnessing not one spectacular moment of a transition to Singularity, but a gradual shift where algorithms become a crucial part of our endeavours and societies.