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June 26, 2009

[reboot] Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is doing the wrap-up speech.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says what’s great about your event is that it matches it’s name. What’s wrong with it is (he says) that it’s the eleventh reboot. “When are you going to have a stable system?” We’re rebooting the reboots.

He s says he’s not into the action vs. words thing because he’s a novelist. He also promises to tell us what the next decade looks like culturally. He begins with an anecdote about the chief designer at Fiat who talked about the Fiat since the 500, a very popular car. The designer told an audience that it succeeded because it’s a 50-yr old design. Bruce asked from the audience: Since the new Fiat 500 is a big success, what’s the future for it? Are you going to release the car that came after the F500. (There was such a car.) No, he said. They were looking at post-consumer alterations of the F500 and they were going to “professionalize” that; they were going to move the F500 into “emergent demographic groups.” “I thought this was a really clever idea” and that this is going to happen a lot, a “scary paradigm of the future.” It’s very hard to construe that as progress, he says. We’ve known since the 12th century what progress is: Master nature, more security, better health, etc. What we’re going to get: No money, scarcity, financial collapse, low-intensity global warfare, and a climate crisis. We’re deliberately moving backwards. Gen Xers in charge when people are “afraid of the sky.”

He says he heard a guy [missed the name] that “future” is an old paradigm. Bruce agrees with him. A mythos of the future, the belief in the future, just won’t be the same. We’re moving into a-temporality. Steam punk + metaphysics. Gibson is working on a book called “Zero History.” But Bruce isn’t ready to talk about this yet. Instead, he wants to talk about what it’ll feel like to live through the next ten years. It won’t be progress or conservativism. We get “transition to nowhere.” No big boom bubbles. Bad weather. Global emergent change.

Divide the future into four quadrants.

1. Crisis capitalism for aging baby boomers. They’re not major actors but they have all the votes. They’ll be more attached to crotchety fantasies.

2. BRICs. Emergent countries emerging into nowhere. They’re globalizing but not progressing . Fundamentalists are in charge but they don’t get anything done except ruin things.

Most of the world is in the first two quadrants. Quadrant 3: Reboot in power. Gen Xers running things. Cultural sentiment: “Dark euphoria.” Things are falling apart, everything is possible, but you never realized you would have to dread it so much. You leap into the unknown, you fall toward earth, and then you realize there’s no earth there. a) Top end: Gothic high-tech. You’re Steve Jobs, you build something beautiful but you’re dying of something secret and horrible. Death is waiting, and not a kindly death. Heroic story, but very Gothic. Or, from the political world: Sarkozy. Brilliant. Ethnic. You have no ideology. He’s willing to run against himself, reboot himself. Obama is a gothic high-tech figure. He’s a Chicago machine politician, an ethnic indeterminate politician with a massive fund-raising routine. Sarkozy comes on TV after the Brazilian aircraft crash because he wants to be on TV. These guys are positioning themselves in the narrative rather than building infrastructure. Their cheerleaders, not leaders.

b) The other side of Reboot in power is low-end: Favela chic. You’ve lost everything but you’re wired to the gill and still big on Facebook. Everything you believe as geeks is Favela thinking. This venue is itself a stuffed animal. The unsustainable is the only frontier you are. You’re old in old-new structure, a steam punk appropriation.

Bruce now promises us some practical advice. “I was shamed by Matt’s 100 hour speech. I know what I ought to be studying. I have to go do it now.” So, here’s some practical advice on bright green geek environmentalism. A general principle, painful for a gothic generation like yours: “Stop acting dead.” You’ve been trained that way; it’s the default for your generation. Hair shirt green just changes the polarity of the 20th century. It just inverts it. It’s not really a different way to live.

How do you know if you’re acting dead. The test: The great-grandfather principle. Would your dead great grandfather do a better job of what you’re intending to do. E.g., saving water. Water is indestructible. But your dead great grandfather is saving more water than you. You can’t save more than a dead guy. Save electricity. Move into a smaller apartment. [Amusing bullshit.] You’re going to be dead much longer than you’re alive. So you need to do stuff that you can do better than your dead great grandfather.

How can you do this, he asks. A geek-friendly approach to consumption. For people of your generation, objects are print-outs. They’re frozen social relationships. Think of objects in terms of hours of time and volumes of space. It’s a good design approach. Because if you’re picking these things up — washing it, storing it, curating it — these possessions are really embodied social relationships: made by peole, designed by people, sold by people, etc. Relationships that happen to have material form. You might argue that you ought to buy cheap things or organic. That’s not the way forward. Economizing is not social. If you economize, you’re starving someone else. You need to reasses the objects in your space and time.

The monarch among objects are everyday objects. Whatever is taking up your time most, or closest to your space. E.g., get the best bed you can get. Get a beautiful, well-designed chair. If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it. Women, get real cosmetics.

It’s hard but it’s doable, he says. It’s very hackerly. Make lists. Four categories: Beautiful things, things that have some emotional meaning, your tools and devices, everything else. Bruce then tells us how to tell which is in which. First two: you’re eager to tell someone about its beauty or meaning. Tools: Don’t make do with broken stuff. You’re not experimenting with it if you’re not publishing the results in a falsifiable form.

This is hard to do. It’s the sort of thing you do when a spouse dies or a child leaves your home. It’s tough. It’s not a thing to do on impulse. But you will become much more of what you already are. [Tags: ]

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[reboot] Government officials take it on the chin

I went to a fascinating breakout at Reboot at which two government guys came to talk about national policy. The government guys were culturally of the Reboot crowd (or so it seemed to me), and one of them came to his position straight out of a tech start-up. But the group of thirty people in the small, converted men’s room (!) met their openness with pent-up hostility. I was surprised at the anger. The gov’t guys ought to listen (which is what they were doing at this meeting), should not expect ideas for free, need to maybe do nothing, need to get the country over the digital divide, should give grants to small businesses, should stay clear of small businesses, don’t be afraid to lose control, build communities, participate in communities, stay out of communities… My untutored sense was that the Web community felt frustrated that this initiative was so late at getting started. As an American, I was actually impressed with the government folks’ openness and webbiness.

Afterwards, I talked with my friend Morten Kamper. He wasn’t at the session, but he said that there was concern that the government’s broadband committee is comprised of the telcos without sufficient citizen or webizen participation, and that Net neutrality is indeed an issue, as the telcos assume they can prefer some of their bits to others.

BTW, I asked the room if there was reluctance on the part of the government to be transparent, and, if so, where’s the Danish version of the Sunlight Foundation. The general answer I got was: There’s no official reluctance, but it’s going too slowly. And Ton Zijlstra said that in the Netherlands, the official policy is to be transparent but there are cultural resistances.

I also asked, at the beginning, if it was clear that the “broadband policy” they were talking about was actually committed to delivering an open, unfiltered, non-discriminatory Internet. The answer was “Yes,” with an implied, “Why would you even have to ask?” (And the answer to that implied question is: Because it’s not clear in America.)

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June 25, 2009

[reboot] Ton Zijlstra on how to facilitate

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Ton says the biggest obstacle is one’s own apprehension. He says facilitators cannot give content and participate. Don’t mix and match content and process. Stay in control by letting go. “If you want people to start generating idea, don’t give your own ideas, not even as examples.” “Push everything back into the group.”

Always make the rules clear. When there’s an infraction, don’t assume immediately that it’s out of line. Attract people to the desired behavior.

“Create energy by doing nothing.” Be patient.

Avoid the usual introductory round. Try breaking people into groups of 4-5 where each introduces herself and moves on to the next group.

Worry about the form of work second. First: What is the purpose of the session. Work forms: Open Space, knoweldfe cafe, sticky notes….Find one and then improvise.

Prepare with your ‘client.’

Capture the results, but keep them as close to the work at the session as possible. E.g., photo the flip charts rather than writing up a report. Then “share your shit.” And play.

Audience participation:

Q: How do you handle blabbermouths?
A: You have to get over your hesitancy to step in.

People should remember that not everyone speaks Engish.

The focus on action is good.

Q: [me] Is it appropriate to call on people?
A: Yes, sometimes. I use it to get silent people speaking?

Q:[me] How do you deal with groups ho may feel powerless to speak?
A: you have to know about that ahead of time. You may need to send the managers out, or put them in different subgroups.

Q: What goes on in the mind of facilitators? General energy level in the room?
A: [not Ton] We also think about the space. E.g., we could set the chairs so we’re looking at one another. I do pay attention to the energy in the room.
A: [not Ton] I facilitate smaller groups. I worry about whether they’re happy and attentive.
A: [not Ton] Are people falling into their usual bad habits.

[Lot of conversation. I’m transcribing little of it.]

A: [me] Do you point out the relationships among remarks? E.g., “What you just said enhances/contradicts what so and so said earlier”
A: If it’s more about me bringing my expertise, yes. Otherwise, it gets in the way of the session participants owning the results.

Q: Do you bring into the group what’s being said in the private conversations?
A: Depends.

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[reboot] Matt Webb

Matt Webb is part of a small design company. He’s not a designer.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He collects definitions of design: “Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impost meaningful order” – Victor Papanek. One of his colleagues, Jack Schulze, says “Some people (they are wrong) are about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.” Problem solving is hard but isn’t enough, says Matt. But what is culture? Culture is “the things that make life interesting” (Bruno Munari). “The designer of today reestablishes the long lost contact between art and the public,” said Munari. Art often began as functional objects — drapes, urns — so why shouldn’t our own objects be art?

Matt is going to be a chain of consciousness talk about what makes his life interesting. [My live blogging will magnify whatever choppiness there is.]

He shows faces drawn using an algorithm that bases feature size on baseball stats. (Chernoff faces?) These are macroscopes (John Thackara’s term) . Designers have macroscopes. Macroscopes shows where you are in the big context, human-scale. He shows a Here & There projection of NYC that shows where you are and where you culd be simultaneously. “It’s a kind of superpower.”

In 1959, Sen. Fulton supposed that a tomato in space might be 2D and a million mile square. In 1972, NASA finally released a photo of the entire earth. That’s a macroscope. “We need macroscope ideas.” Even the cleverest people in the world can’t tell us a coherent story of the economic collapse. The scale difference is too huge: If you can see the whole thing, the happenings are invisible, whereas if you can see the happenings, you can’t see the whole thing. People in this room might be able to create macroscopes that could help us understand it.

Now Matt talks about superpowers. In Kalarippayattu “the body becomes all eyes” and you are ready for anything. In a reverse power, your eyes become hands: Anything you can see, you can touch. Among the yoga super powers: To become mute, unheavy, large, levitate, telekineses, self-hypnosis, “the ability to touch the moon with one’s fingertip.” Matt then quotes JFK’s commitment to putting a person on the moon. JFK was a “yogic master with the supernatural power to touch the moon with this fingertip.” It took a million man-hours of technical study, 300,000 Americans and 20,000 corporations. What’s our generation’s equivalent of the moon landing? Might be Wikipedia. Where do we spend our next 100 million hours?

The moon landing came out of a command culture. 300,000 people worked and 12 people went to the moon. Wikipedia came out of a collaborative, participatory culture. E.g., burdastyle.com , twitter.com/andy_house (house reports status), newspaperclub.co.uk (uses excess capacity for producing papers). He reads an extended quote from Ze Frank. “When people start something new, they perceive the world around them differently.” We become aware of how the media manipulate us.

Matt’s challenge: Put aside 100 hours to work on someting. ” When you participate in culture —not solving problems but inventing culture — that’s when life gets interesting.” [Great talk. Posted without being proofread.]

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June 27, 2008

[reboot] Jyri Engestrom on “Nodal Points”

Jyri Engestrom, whose company, Jaiku, was bought by Google, is talking about “Nodal Points: The emerging real-time social Web.” About four years ago, I heard Jyri talk about “social objects:” at Reboot, a talk that really stuck with me. Now Jyri works on social tools at Google.

Nodal Points is an homage to William Gibson, he says, and especially to a character who can predict the future by seeing patterns in human amounts of data.

Jyri says that social networks don’t explain why people are connected socially. He talks about the importance of social objects — objects that connect people in a social network. “Good web services allow people to create social objects that add value.” Mobile devices can help because they provide sensors that let us capture more data. This will be increasingly true.

Then we need to think about the verbs that people perform on objects. E.g., Flickr’s aggregation of what people have done with your photos. We should be surfacing the available actions.

“Social peripheral vision” lets you see what’s next. If you are unaware of other people’s intentions, you can’t make plans. “Imagine a physical world where we have as much peripheral information at our disposal as in WoW.” Not just “boring update feeds.” Innovate, especially on mobiles. We will see this stuff in the next 24 months. Some examples: Maps: Where my friends are. Phonebook: what are people up to. Email: prioritized. Photos: Face recognition.

Structurally, there are “object lockers” and on top of that a set of “activity aggregators.” “What’s key is filtering out what’s irrelevant.” Pattern recognition matters … hence, nodal points. “It’s not that different from Web search,” except the query is constant and consists of contextual parameters, e.g., who is copresent in the space, what’s in the calendar. “Imagine it’s all funneled into one big query” that runs constantly.

Detecting nodal points: “What should I be aware of that’s happening around me? Was what just happened significant to someone on the network.” And then deliver it to people at just the right time, perhaps via push. “Discovery is becoming social.” “It is the end of the era of search,” i.e., of querying for stuff. From browser to search to share (citing former ceo of paypal). From pagerank to “facerank” where what counts is friends in common, physical proximity, shared taste, shared objects.

He points to OpenID (identity), OAuth (authorization), and OpenSocial (interoperability).


Whe you develop a social service, your questions shoudl be: What is your object? Whare are your verbs? What are your nodal points?

Are we creating echo chambes?
An empirical question. Still open. In my own experience, no. We can build into the software the ability to prompt you with what would be interesting to you even though you would never have thought so. [heavily paraphrased]


[Great talk. And undoubtedly giving insight into Google’s plans for socializing its software.] [Tags: ]

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June 24, 2008

Babbage’s Noise pReboot podcast

Nicole Simone interviewed me about what I’ll be talking about at ReBoot. It’s posted here.

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June 22, 2008

Babbage’s noise

I’m working on a talk for Reboot, a very fun conference in Copenhagen. Because it’s an after-dinner talk, and because it’s a bunch o’ geeks, I plan on talking in a hugely preliminary way about some of what I’ve been researching for the past few months. I’m assuming the audience’s preemptive forgiveness. Also, with luck, they’ll all be a little drunk. At the moment, my talk is called “Babbage’s Noise,” mainly because I like the way it sounds.

I’m still trying to pick a thread through the morass of material I’ve happily sunk into. The outline I’m currently sewing together — unsuccessfully, so I reserve all rights to ditch everything and talk about Cluetrain or how everything is mixed up smooshy miscellaneous if I have to — begins by talking about Charles Babbage’s intense irritation about the hurdigurdy players outside his window. Babbage is, of course, routinely pointed to as having in the 1820s invented a precursor to the modern computer, which many say got just about all the elements of the architecture right. Fascinating guy. I then want to compare his use of the term “information” with the modern formulation, which comes from Claude Shannon, but which was quickly transmogrified.

Ultimately, I want to argue that Babbage’s machines had nothing essential to do with information in the sense in which we use the term in the modern age. Babbage thought he was applying Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labor to the production of tables. My talk will spend some time on the history of tables, because I think it’s really interesting. But the main argument against reading the modern idea of information back into history is that modern information is encoded and symbolic, neither of which were true for Babbage’s machines, although I grant that it sure looks that way.

And I think I have an overly-clever way of bringing it back to the modern sense of noise. (Possible spoiler alert, depending on where the talk goes: Communication theory generalizes based on the exceptional case when communication is derailed by noise.)

I’d be more clear about this, but I don’t understand what I’m talking about. And, yes, as usual, that won’t stop me. [Tags: ]

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