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.

Did the 21st century really start now?

Another hectic week, and the last few days were an emotional roller-coaster as I covered the events in Egypt – from a distance, immersing myself in social media.

So, is this a Twitter or a Facebook-revolution? I don’t think it makes much sense to put it that way. This revolution is the result of having a large population of young people, a lot of them well-educated and used to social media but underemployed, having no real future in Egypt and realizing how corrupt the system is.

Twitter and Facebook are being used, but combined with audiovisual media (think Al Jazeera), blogs, live blogs, dumb phones and smartphones etc.

However, it’s the horizontal nature of the protests which is fascinating. The web allows us to communicate up and down, and also horizontally – with our peers. The real power is in this horizontal communication. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia had no charismatic leaders who were telling their followers what to do. That made it very hard for the regimes to defeat the protesters. Could it be that the 21st century – the age of participation, The Great Horizontal – started a few weeks ago in the Arab world?

Here you can watch Wael Ghonim (a Google manager who participated in the uprising) talking about the revolution and the web:

Read also Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog, Living History, After Tunisia and Egypt: towards a new typology of media and networked by political change by Charlie Beckett and on this blog The murmuration in the Arab world.

Talking about virtual worlds outside virtual worlds: The WELL

In our first blog about other venues where people discuss virtual worlds, we talked about Quora. While Quora is very new, The WELL is almost ancient:

The WELL is a cherished and acclaimed destination for conversation and discussion. It is widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born — where Howard Rheingold first coined the term “virtual community.” Since long before the public Internet was unleashed, it has quietly captivated some accomplished and imaginative people. Over the last two and a half decades, it’s been described as “the world’s most influential online community” in a Wired Magazine cover story, and ” the Park Place of email addresses” by John Perry Barlow. It’s won Dvorak and Webby Awards, inspired songs and novels, and almost invisibly influences modern culture.

In 2010, this social site celebrates its 25th birthday online. A wide variety of topics are being discussed in ‘conferences’. The ‘Virtual Communities’ conference has among its topics ‘Second Life: The World-Building MMOG’, but I don’t think there is a topic ‘blue mars’ or ‘opensim’ (search did not yield results).

The conversations are very instructive and friendly. Just like for the Quora discussions people are supposed to use their real names. There are moderators, ‘conference hosts’. However, there are also major differences between the two services.

Those differences boil down to this: The Well wants to be a walled garden. As they explain themselves: “Membership is not for everyone, partly because we are non-anonymous here.” One cannot vote a question or an answer up or down. There are no ‘follow’ buttons next to the names of the participants. In fact, you own your own words, meaning that you are responsible for them but also that others cannot simply copy paste them outside The WELL. Before quoting or even mentioning that another person is a member, one should ask that other person whether she agrees.

Another major aspect of the “walled garden”: membership is not free.

There are about 3.000 members now, and to be honest, I don’t think the community, owned by Salon.com, can boast tremendous growth figures.

In fact, The WELL is rather fascinating. Because of its history but also because of this non-viral approach of a members only gathering. Whether it will be able to survive, faced with competition such as Quora, is another matter. Quora uses real identities, but provides connections with Twitter and Facebook, is free, and for now manages to maintain good quality using a voting system. The WELL however is a bunch of micro-communities (around the conferences) where more intimate relationships can develop.

Sterling and Lebkowsky

conference page the well
To be fair, The WELL is not completely a walled garden. Non-members can for instance join the ‘Inkwell: Authors and Artists’ conference. Author Bruce Sterling and internet&cyberculture expert Jon Lebkowsky discuss this week State of the World 2011.

The organizers even run a wild experiment: a Facebook event page for feedback (great discussion there) and the ever cunning Lebkwoski announced on that page a Twitter hashtag (#sotw2011)!

Kinect and virtual reality hacks, taken to an extreme (for now)

Okay, still trying to figure out how to use this in a newsroom context, but KinectHacks says this is The Most Extreme Kinect Hack they’ve seen so far, so here it comes (waiting for Draxtor Despres to incorporate some Kinect magic in one of his news machinimas):

Adding another one from KinectHacks:

What is remarkable is the fact that clever but I guess not heavily funded geeks can make this stuff. There is a whole community out there around the Kinect developing awesome stuff and it seems Microsoft is wise enough not to try to prevent this DIY combining of virtual environments, gaming, serious applications and body tracking. It reminds me my near future sci-fi project – some of the scenes in those books could very well turn out to be spot-on predictions (remember the anthropomorphic virtual rabbit in Rainbows End).

Kansas to Cairo: vanishing cultural differences, or rather avoiding stereotypes?

If there is one thing which seems to be perfectly suited for collaboration and research in a world such as Second Life, it seems to be architecture. If such a project also involves geographically dispersed teams, education, and different cultures, it really becomes a fascinating challenge.

Students from Cairo and Los Angeles used Second Life to design a large open space situated between the Grand Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids of Giza. They had never met in the physical world, using their avatars and lots of other social media to communicate, collaborate and successfully complete the difficult task of creating sustainable urban design solutions while overcoming cultural boundaries. More about this project can be found on ArchVirtual.

Draxtor Despres made a news machinima in three parts about the project (the third part is in the making). One of the things which seems very interesting is a commentary in the video about the fact that people leave their identities behind when they enter Second Life. It’s a bit like leaving your country and becoming a citizen of another country, in this case a virtual one. Of course, one of the questions here is whether Second Life in itself is reflecting certain values, or whether it is value-neutral – being a place for very different cultures – or is precisely that diversity such an ‘American’ value?

It should come as no surprise that public diplomacy experts are interested – to put it bluntly, it provides a way to make American and foreign students work together and to spread certain values, while avoiding discussions about real world immigration issues.

A participant said the interaction was not hampered by external differences (people are like ‘color blind’, people ‘project their inner self’ in their avatar…) and that avatars reflect the inner qualities of people – and guess what, we’re all human beings and not that very different. At the same time though, cultural differences were being discussed regarding the architectural work itself. So it’s not really that there were no longer social and cultural differences – but I guess the virtual environment made it possible to have those discussions while avoiding stereotypes.

Here is part II of The Kansas To Cairo Project: