Start your own publishing house or university…

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to meet journalism students interested in social media (at a Journalism Night in Brussels, Belgium, organized by publishers, journalism departments & organizations). I presented some tools I use on a daily basis, a workflow for articles and bigger news projects. That same workflow could be considered a “personal learning environment” but also the nucleus of a publishing venture. One can look at it clockwise, working from collaborative mindmaps up to chat and immersive environments: working out a project systematically, publishing in real time “the making of” and finally presenting the article or video while asking feedback. But it’s also possible to start out in a synchronous session, brainstorming in a chatroom or in an immersive place:

I also mentioned the possibility for young journalists to start their very own publishing house. Why not start the next TechCrunch or Huffington Post? If it fails, too bad, but the skills one acquired by simply trying are useful also for the more established media companies. I posted about this on PBS MediaShift and here you see my interview with the famous Californian blogger Robert Scoble:

Often journalists look bewildered when I talk about becoming their own publishers, but not in this case. I definitely had the feeling that at least some of them are considering the possibility…

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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.”

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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.

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Using Tumblr for fast and furious blogging

How can one combine longer posts with short posts, often just mentioning something interesting on other blogs without being inclined to add something substantial? I’ve been embedding Twitter in the right column of this blog, as I do at my Bear&Bull blog (Dutch language).

my tumblr blog However, often I’d like to include some pictures or videos in that stream. Or to add something longer than 140 characters. So I decided to use Tumblr as a platform for fast and short (re)blogging. I embedded it in the right column, and of course I’ll continue using Twitter (both accounts are linked, but not automatically).

I integrated the Disqus-commenting system in my Tumblr blog. I’m still struggling with the design aspects of combining slow and fast streams, but anyway, I’ll give this a try. It will help to add new stuff on a daily basis, while reserving the main column of this blog for longer posts.

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How the internet changes the practice of macro-economics

A number of blogs did very well in describing the problems in the subprime market – even before most professional economists realized the problems. This fascinates me, like for instance the fact that in order to get cutting edge information about technology one rather consults blogs than major mainstream media. Of course, the smarter mainstream media now incorporate blogs in their operations, even allowing them a great deal of autonomy. It seems to be an illustration of how efficient those small, nimble entities can be, using the internet and network effects.

Edward Hugh gave an interesting talk about blogs and the internet at the London School of Economics: how the internet changes the practice of macro-economics.

Via Edward Harrison on Credit WriteDowns.

You can follow Hugh on Twitter, on his blog Global Economy Matters and on Facebook.

Roland Legrand

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The Sixth Paradigm

Are you interested in the proliferation of markets everywhere (think not only the major financial markets but also Facebook, iTunes, Second Life… )? What about cloud computing and concepts such as Everything as a Service? And finally the digitization which transforms so many industries and activities? Now let’s tie those three big trends together and you’ll end up with the Sixth Paradigm of Sean Park.

I attended Park’s workshop about Reinventing Financial Services at the LIFT conference in Geneva, Switzerland, but don’t run away now thinking that “it’s about finance, so it must be utterly boring.” In fact, Park’s thinking about financial services is embedded in a more general philosophy about change in the economy and society, and about the clashes between those changes and culture in big and small companies.

Park is heavily inspired by the work of the economist Carlota Perez who wrote the book Technological revolutions and financial capital (2003). In this video Perez explains five technological revolutions and the new paradigm or common sense they brought along in each case:

This is a trailer video about the possible application of those ideas for the financial services:

You can find Park’s presentation of this re-invention of financial services on his blog.

A fictional narrative written in 2005 by Park explores the future of financial services and markets from the vantage point of December 2015 looking back on the changes that occurred over the past decade. Not to be interpreted literally, the goal was to foster discussion and debate on how powerful secular trends in technology, economics and demography might act to shape a new landscape in how markets operate and financial services are delivered in the future.

Pretty fascinating stuff. You can follow Park on his blog The Park Paradigm and of course on Twitter.

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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.

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‘Silicon Valley is a state of mind, not a place’

Cities, centers of innovation, do matter. Even though we have telecom, internet, tele-presence technologies, people seem to need concentrations of innovation and expertise: look at the international financial centers and the geographical clusters of technological innovation.

The tech blogger and evangelist Robert Scoble brought a round-up of what’s hot in Silicon Valley at the LIFT conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Some companies he discussed are located in Silicon Valley, others in San Francisco… but does it make any sense to make a separation Valley/San Francisco? Of course not, and Scoble said: ‘Silicon Valley is a state of mind, not a place’.

Which is interesting for virtual worlds people. There is a need for those cities and regions where innovation is so important (read also the works of Richard Florida). However, one can take part in this state of mind, even from a distance. I think virtual places such as Second Life can be important here.

It helps to actually talk to innovators (using SL voice for instance) and to share a same virtual space with other tech-minded people. I do know for a fact that my own passion for internet technology got a tremendous boost by meeting internet-minded people from all over the world in virtual environments, and most of the time in Second Life.

Of course virtual environments are part of a wider social media ecosystem (Twitter, Plurk, blogs, video, machinima, wikis, forums, offline meetings etc), but as we speak about changing mentalities and worldviews, meeting other people is of crucial importance – in virtual or physical environments.

So what is hot these days in Silicon Valley? Mark Littlewood has this great post about Scoble’s list on The Business Leaders Network. For the new media Scoble mentioned Flipboard (personalized social mazagines), PostPost (online newspaper based on your Facebook links), The History of Jazz (reinvention of the book on the iPad) and Datasift (screening streams of information).

Other media stuff: Storify (for curating social media), Curated.by (another curating tool), PearlTrees (a way to curate, structure and exchange information) and Prezi (cool alternative for Powerpoint).

What is not mentioned? Well, virtual environments. They are not on the list of hot new developments. So yes, for some people at least virtual environments help to get into a Silicon Valley state of mind, but those environments themselves are no longer perceived as being an important part of the future of the internet. Oh yes, Blue Mars now lets you rate avatars on the iPhone, but you won’t hear comments on that during innovation conferences such as LIFT. More will be needed to make virtual environments ‘hot’ again.

Related (about the innovation conference LIFT):
Digital natives are not the same everywhere
The murmuration in the Arab World

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