Decentralized internet for you and me

It seems all the talk about the “decentralized internet” gets more concrete for ordinary internet users (citizens?) like me. Tom Simonite at Wired did a great job explaining decentralized applications (DApps) in his article The Decentralized Internet Is Here, With Some Glitches. He discusses alternatives for Google Docs (using Graphite), eBay, YouTube (DTube) and so on.

Graphite proudly says it’s powered by Blockstack and that it is the first truly decentralized and encrypted replacement for Google G-Suite and Microsoft Office. Blockstack explaining Blockstack:

I’ll experiment with these things the next few days. Tom Simonite warns the DApps can be pretty clunky, but isn’t that the charm of all new developments? The more fundamental objection is whether we really want a kind of unbreakable, unstoppable communication network. Just asking the question might seem like heresy to cyber libertarians, but isn’t there some value in stopping criminals and terrorists from communicating in total freedom and secrecy? I guess there must be some balance here, figuring out how to organize that balance is a complicated matter.

Learning how to cooperate in a web-environment. What about Virtual Reality?

Howard Rheingold’s online course about Cooperation started last week, using BigBlueButton and not in some fancy Virtual Reality environment. BigBlueButton is our synchronous communication system (let’s say ‘videoconferencing’), but a lot of work happens asynchronously using a wiki, blogs, social bookmarks, and – very important – forums. These asynchronous systems are bundled in a proprietary system called the socialmediaclassroom.

I watched a recorded videoconferencing session, as usual in these courses the about 12 participants got jobs to do while Howard presented this week’s material: searchers, lexicon-builders, bloggers, summarizers, mindmappers…

The idea is to show how people can engage into online collaboration and to experience how rich the results can be.

I participated in this course for the first time  in January 2013 and at that time I wrote a rather detailed post about the content of this first lesson: Exploring the biology of cooperation.

Why no VR-meeting?

In 2007-2008 I participated in many meetings in the virtual world Second Life. We’re in 2018 now and the idea of organizing online courses in virtual worlds seems even more exotic than it was in 2007. We have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and smaller, closed online courses – but all these are based on video (streaming and archived), texts with interactive elements and forums.

How comes? Since even videoconferencing inevitably starts with technical problems – people struggling with the user interface, connectivity and audio issues, it seems even more problematic to organize this in a virtual space where the learning curve is even steeper and the equipment needed is even more high-end.

In the meantime we have environments which are enabled for real VR such as Sansar and High Fidelity. 

VR-enabled environments have some big advantages. They make it possible to show objects in 3D and to let participants manipulate these objects using touch controllers for instance. Very important is the sense of sharing the same space, something which lacks in videoconferencing.

The disadvantages: people need the right equipment, which is often not the case. The learning curve is often steep, and you can’t see the ‘real’ persons (even though avatars these days can reflect the facial expressions of the people behind them).

It would be interesting to check how easy or how difficult it would be to organize realtime annotation, link exchanging or mindmapping in a virtual environment.How much hassle would it take to make recordings? Stuff like 3D mindmapping would be fascinating but extra training would be needed.

Maybe we’ll give it a try during this six-week course. If so, you’ll read it here.

Upcoming: Howard Rheingold course about Cooperation

A new, possibly last edition of the famous Cooperation course by Howard Rheingold, the man who gave us the term “virtual community”, launches today. It’s not too late to participate, but be warned: this is not a Massive Online Open Course, but a Small, Intensive Online Course which is reasonably priced.

What is it about? I quote Howard:

“a six week course using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter to introduce the fundamentals of an interdisciplinary study of cooperation: social dilemmas, institutions for collective action, the commons, evolution of cooperation, technologies of cooperation, and cooperative arrangements in biology from cells to ecosystems.”

We’ll have a small group of participants which are involved in fascinating projects and learning activities. For more information click here.

Full circle conversations

I had to explain to journalism students how to use social media (I only had one hour!). Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe the first stage is organizing your thoughts and listening. After that participate actively in conversations but don’t just broadcast your messages. So the sequence could be like this:

  • Organise your thoughts using mindmapping. There are lots of tools, I like to use MindMeister. The added benefit is that, in a later stage, you can turn your mindmap into a collaborative map, asking others to help you. There are free alternatives for online mindmapping but they won’t all allow for collaborative mindmapping.
  •  Head over to social media such as Twitter and Facebook to listen. Organize relevant people in Twitter lists, search for hashtags. Other interesting places for in-depth discussions are Reddit and Quora, and for each subject you’ll find specialized forums.
  • Use a good dashboard such as Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to keep stuff organized.
  • I still use RSS-feeds and RSS-readers, in my case that’s Feedly.
  • Make your own procedure for hunting and gathering important content. You can stock posts into Feedly and in social bookmark services such as Diigo. I use Diigo a lot, it makes it easy to use tags, descriptions and to work in groups.
  • Have your own blog, but don’t underestimate the technical hassle. An easy solution might be Tumblr or Medium. Or you could go for a fully hosted WordPress or Drupal solution.
  • Of course you also need social media to talk about your blog posts and to discuss with others. Don’t hesitate giving others credit for their posts and contributions and engage in real conversations, not in thin excuses to promote yourself.
  • This is where the circle closes itself: you return to the social media to tell people about your post and to reconnect. You can use the feedback to develop your mindmap even further and then you can publish the mindmap as a collaborative document where others can add their own thoughts. Maybe this will inspire you for a new post and a new cycle.
  • Chances are that you can invite people to form a small community on Slack, where you can work together – exchange bookmarks, organize channels for different aspects of the subject the community is interested in. A videoconferencing tool such as Zoom enables you to engage with that community into a weekly of monthly meeting. Or you can invite experts for short presentations and experiment with realtime collaborative mindmapping.

Social media in this classical sense costs time and effort (which I myself lack for the moment). A lot can be said about strategy – I recommended the students to focus on well-defined subjects. Specialized subjects and real-time communication also help to avoid the kind of brutal and rude social media fights one witnesses every single moment these days.

Journalism and Artificial Intelligence

Today I have to give a very brief talk about journalism and artificial intelligence here in Brussels, Belgium. I’m not an AI-expert but at the newsroom we read and talk about the AI-disruption all the time.

I made a mindmap:

Some conclusions and questions: what are the implicit ethical choices we make while using AI-powered tools? We used to speak about ‘the people formerly known as the audience” implying that these days the “audience” is an active participant in the news process – will AI help us in exploring that further or will it just simulate interaction and debate? What about the journalists, will they simply lose their jobs? I think they’ll have to engage even more in team work but this time the teams will consist not only out of reporters and multimedia wizards but also AI-agents will join us. The hybrid human/AI-teams who are most efficient in coordinating tasks will outperform.

Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Philosophy: join our reading group

What does philosophy tell us about virtual reality and virtual worlds? I’d like to start with some people who do not belong to the typical college overview of classical philosphers, people who started thinking about the augmentation of human intellect and human emotions such as Vannevar Bush (As Ae May Think, 1945), J.C.R. Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, 1960), Douglas Engelbart (Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, 1962), Theodor H. Nelson (Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1970-1974)… all authors and texts which can be found in The New Media Reader (MIT).

book cover of The New Media Reader

What they have in common is the awareness that the world becomes a complex, rapidly evolving and dangerous place. In order to keep up with the challenges we need to augment our intellectual capacities, not only our rational reasoning skills but also our ability for compassion and empathy. Computers in their many forms are a crucial part of that augmentation.

The texts in the New Media Reader are often decades old. They are chosen not only because the authors were able to predict the path of technological change, but also because they show us that those authors had ambitions and visions which have not been realized yet. In other words, they still inspire us to create new things which may be beneficial for the planet. I’m convinced that augmented and virtual reality are offer possibilities in the context of augmenting our faculties – for instance by enabling us to build 3D information structures.

There are many more authors and texts in this hugely inspiring book, among them also more “recognized” philosophers (at least in continental Europe) such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) and Donna Haraway (A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century, 1985).

I participate in a group reading those texts, and trying to develop practices and even tools in this context. The group, Metacaugs, lives primarily on Slack, if you’re interested have a look at our Orientation Guidebook

MixedRealities lives in Sansar

Finally virtual reality platform Sansar is in open beta. I think Linden Lab, owner of Second Life, did a nice job. Will social VR reach more people now or will it just take away people and attention from Second Life? Or will we have to wait for Facebook Spaces to have success in order to pull Sansar along (or would it be destroyed by Facebook)? We just don’t know. It could very well be that for the vast majority of human beings social VR is a solution for a problem that does not exist. Nevertheless, I love it. MixedRealities has a little presence at Sansar, it’s called Philosopher’s Corner. Here you see an image of the construction works:

my place in the virtual world Sansar

I’d love to do something similar at High Fidelity, yet another beautiful VR-platform, but give me some time as it seems far more challenging. But a fascinating world it is, here you see a place called “Playa”:

a scene from the vitual world High Fidelity

Science fiction gets real

It’s the book Neuromancer by William Gibson that really made the word “cyberspace” popular. He describes it as thus:

A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

That a least was the quote I got in my mind when reading on Singularity Hub about a new way to represent information infrastructure – in the form of a virtual city. The buildings have different shapes, heights and colors and an operator, immersed in this city, can immediately see whether something bad is happening in a very intuitive way. The Colorado-based startup ProtectWise built the tool.

In January 2018 William Gibson will publish a new book, Agency. If you can’t wait reading a great science fiction book, Gibson is very positive about Cory Doctorow’s newest book Walkaway.