Archives for category: digital culture

As a lover of the interwebs and someone who’s followed the research from the likes of AOIR and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (see Tim Hwang’s great piece on the Berkman school of thought),  a recent discussion about the merits of “internet studies” is quite provoking:

Maybe we should stop talking about “information and communication technologies” or “the Internet” or “new and social media” as a single constellation of technologies that have key characteristics in common (distinctively participatory, or distinctively intrusive, for example), and that are sufficiently different from other parts of the world that they need to be talked about separately.

The Internet is still pretty new, so we tend to look at it as a definable thing, but digital technologies have now become so multifaceted and so enmeshed in other facets of our lives that such a broad brush obscures more than it reveals.

— Tom Slee, Blogs and Bullets: Breaking Down Social Media

And Henry Farrell’s reply:

Instead of wanting to study ‘the Internet’ or ‘Facebook’ or whatever, we should investigate the possible existence or relative strength of various posited mechanisms which causally connect certain situations with certain kinds of interesting outcomes. Most technologies will potentially bundle a number of these mechanisms together – hence, the need to try to disentangle these mechanisms as much as is possible in specific instances.

Instead of asking ‘does Facebook help protests in authoritarian regimes?,’ one would ask questions such as ‘does social influence from peers make individuals more likely to participate in demonstrations?,’ ‘does widely spread information about protester deaths make individuals more or less likely to participate?,’ ‘does government-provided information make citizens less likely to participate in anti-regime protests?’ and so on.

This is a helpful lens through which we can better focus on what we mean by “the web” and why it matters.  We tried to tackle some of these definitional challenges in An Open Web, outlining key “battlefields” which describe what’s at stake in terms of mechanisms (i.e. specific user freedoms and actions, rather than just threats to “the web” as such).

The above posts are timely reminders about the tendency to speak broadly about the internet as an umbrella term for the particular mechanisms, some of which are internet-dependent while others are only augmented or manifested online. This specificity is a hard discipline to enforce—I’m often too flippant or lazy to make clear distinctions, and moreover I assume that the audience picks up on my shorthand when I talked generally about the web.

But let’s strive be more specific about the mechanisms that are truly in play. This will not only make it easier for more people to understand why the web matters, in its many facets, but also inform a more nuanced discussion about how to accelerate meaningful initiatives and demarcate the real battlefields, which are immediate and important.

At this point the best thing the web and the book could do for one another would be to admit their essential difference. This would allow the web to develop as it wishes with a clear conscience, and for literature to do what it’s always done in periods of crisis: keep its eyes and ears open, take notes, and bide its time.

From a thoughtful essay on Internet as Social Movement in the magazine n + 1, apart from the author equating the book to literature, which is like saying newspapers are the necessary manifestation of journalism. Nevertheless, the overall sentiment is reassuring.

At any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity…Some machine is always showing us Mind; some entertainment derived from the machine is always showing us Non-Mind.”

A well-written piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker charts the philosophical debates about the role of the internet and human psyche and civilization. He categorizes sentiments into three main groups: the Never-Betters (the cyber-utopians such as Clay Shirky), the Better-Nevers (the nostalgic Nicolas Carrs), and the Ever-Wasers (for example historian Ann Blair arguing that our relationship to the internet and all its possibilities and shortcomings is same same but different).

The article is filled with a number of gems, and it certainly does a good job synthesizing the tensions about our life in the networked age. Gopnik’s use of historical anecdote  is never overdone, but instead it’s sprinkled intelligently throughout the article to qualify sweeping statements made by other authors and gives us pause on some widely-held assumptions about past and present views on technologies such as books, television, and “the kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery” people claimed the fractured, media-rich world of shellac 78s and color newspaper supplements provided.

My office buddy Mathias Schindler (@presroi) unboxed his Google Cr48 Chrome notebook today and got laughs when he passed around the enclosed instructions. Just read them. You won’t regret it.

The transmediale gave a lot of attention to Free Culture and the Open Web this year, from the book sprint to the Open Zone to a panel series called Lost in the Open, and piles of spontaneous sharerrorism actions throughout the festival. Curated (or should we say connected by) the talented Stephen Kovats and Ela Kagel, these events offered a platform for reflecting on sharing and collaboration through the lens of art.

Admittedly, I know next to nothing about art, but the biggest take-away from the festival was: 1) you don’t need to know much about art to try it yourself, and 2) the internet, including clusters of standards like the Web, is really important to making, distributing, critiquing, funding, and reusing art — now and in the future.

A film sprint by the Emergence Collective (Gabriel Shalom, Patrizia Kommerell, Clare Molloy, Annika Bauer) helped capture the state of the conversation. Iterating on the immediated documentation techniques pioneered by the group, they produced the film The Future of Art. This time they complemented the in-person (and one in-robot) interviews with an online discussion via the #futureofart hashtag and several Quora threads.

The team did a great job compressing 13 interviews and lots of festival footage into a thought-provoking film. After watching the screening at transmediale, it made me appreciate how challenging it must be to harmonize so many different voices. One thought, at least from an interviewee point of view, is that in advance sitting in front of the camera, it would be helpful if you could grab a sneak peek of the other conversations. At least with my non-existent art cred, it would’ve helped to know the angle other interviewees have taken and respond to their comments. In particular, Ken Wahl’s insight was excellent and very riff-able in hindsight:

The idea of originality and proprietary-ness contributes to the whole Great Man theory, which is slowly disintegrating. The concept of the genius — you know, the Freud, the Marx, the Leonardo, the Einstein — [who] come up with an idea that is completely related to the man who came up with the idea. Today, ideas just get thrown out there and used. And it’s that use in a way that’s the art, rather than the person that comes up with the idea.

While I’ve often seen the Great Man theory as a historical anomaly (albeit an enduring one since the Renaissance or thereabouts), there has always been a strong undercurrent of collaboration all throughout art and other cultural processes. Even the canonized Greats were immersed in conversations and environments that enriched (or challenged) their thinking, some of them having close friends or partners who pushed the work further, often without the same recognition.

So, it seems with the rise of massive collaborative online projects, we see a return of sorts to more distributed authorship, yet at the same time with a granularity of attribution never before possible. Each commit or edit or interaction can be logged and attributed to one source. So this gives rise to an unprecedented quantitative measure of reputation. And what’s more interesting, to follow Wahl’s point, is that the measure of contribution isn’t so valuable as the measure of reuse. A good idea is duly cited, a great idea takes flight and becomes owned by all.

(For the record, this is very much how I feel about the concept “collaborative consumption,” although it seems to be at great odds with one public proponent of the term.)

Similar sentiments were echoed in the Sharism workshop I conducted with Fabricatorz Jon Philips and Christopher Adams. Sitting in a circle (just realizing how redundant it is to say “round circle”), we raised the question about motivations and effects of sharing. Here’s a nice recap of the ground we covered.

When one participant asked whether sharing excludes people without wealth and means, it was countered that in fact one of the greatest things to give is one’s attention and willingness to listen, learn, and contribute. A conclusion was then that sharing is often, in its most profound form, an immaterial gift. And so rather than getting bent up about direct remuneration for each and every act of sharing (which quickly dissolves into a quid pro quo “business model” crisis), it’s actually not insane to talk about sharing holistically and karmically.

This is where I sometimes feel the need to run around in tie-dye and chant, but for all it’s cheesiness, it’s actually a powerful idea. And one that gets lost sometimes in the noble trenches of the copyfight…though the sunshine is not meant to downplay the importance of remuneration and viable use cases. I care about those and empirical support for them quite a lot.

It also seems like I shared enough today, so with that — curious to hear your thoughts!

TEDxKreuzbeg by Igor Schwarzmann / CC BY-SA

Last night I had the honor of speaking at TEDxKreuzberg, which was a lot fun and the perfect opportunity to polish up some ideas and practice pontificating in front of a crowd. My talk was about Designing for Collaborative Consumption, and it was inspiring to hear such positive feedback to the design challenges and concepts in general. You can find the text of my talk below.

Thanks so much to the organizers Peter, Christoph, and Hans, and to the host, betahaus, for such a lovely evening!

Designing for Collaborative Consumption.

Firstly, I’m a remix kid. I come from the generation of sampling. So the talk you’re going to hear is a remix of arguments made by lots of great and interesting people, notably Aristotle, the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, Lawrence Lessig, Sean Bonner, Fight Club, Bruce Sterling, and the authors of a book that helped bring these ideas together, Collaborative Consumption.

I hope to remix these thinkers to provide some context and examples and then push the concepts further by offering some design challenges.

Context:

The 20th century was the era of hyper-consumerism. I won’t be the first nor last person to say we’re still in deep in extreme consumption and overproduction. You know the stats: basically, the world is ending, and we, the insatiable consumers of the world, are at fault.

We want things, we buy things, we throw away things. And what’s worse, this endless cycle pitched at “good for the economy.” It’s our duty to BUY BUY BUY.

If you have to buy things all the time, then there are traditionally two types of solutions for what to do with all the junk you collect. You either dispose of it – by selling or throwing it away – or you store it.

Designing for the Dump:

The first solution, disposal, is very attractive to business folks. It’s a very lucrative. It means that you will buy an inferior product one day, turn around to throw it away the next, and then buy a new thing, preferably the upgrade from the same company. (cough, Apple!)

The name for this unsustainable design principle is planned obsolescence. Objects designed for a limited lifetime. And unfortunately, it’s the most predominate business strategy of our time.

We can see the remains of this throw-away culture in the paper coffee cups we drink from every day, to the shitty IKEA furniture that falls apart one year later, to the smartphones we replace faster than we can remember their names.

Designing for the dump means an overflow of junk in our homes, on the streets and landfills the world over.

Rise of the Self-Storage Industry:

So, maybe you’re a little more sensitive about throwing away good stuff the day after you unwrapped it. You want to keep it for a rainy day, or for the memories, or in the hopes that one day you’ll repair it and you’ll be so grateful you have it.

Enter the self-storage industry. It’s booming profits off the charts. Not only in the hyperconsumption nation of the US, but also in a country I always thought was more thrifty and consumption-conscious: Germany.

If self-storage is any measurement of junk we own and don’t need, then what does it mean that within 10 years, Germany went from having 0 self storage facilities to 70? In Europe, it went from a handful in the UK to well over 1500 across the continent.

We’re buying more stuff. So much so, we can’t even manage to keep it all in our homes, and have to pay a premium rent to store it elsewhere.

No matter where our stuff is, we still have to exert a lot of energy and euros to just maintain our collection of must-haves objects. As Bruce Sterling says, every moment devoted to stumbling over and tending to your piled debris are precious hours in our mortal lives, and time not spent with family, friends, your society, yourself.

Fight Club: The things you own end up owning you.

With so much effort invested in junk, you have to ask yourself: who is being owned by whom?

So, with all this doom and gloom, is there any reasonable way to take action? And even if a few dedicated, environmentally-aware kids take a stab at changing this horrible scene, can we even make a difference?

There is one clear advantage we have, in our generation: the power of the network.

We can be leverage our networks. Unlike any generation that came before, we can better provide and share infrastructure thanks to network technology. We can buy, build, and collaborate locally and efficiently. We can shop smarter, share better, and use our networks, both online and off, to reduce waste, improve the economy and environment, spare our bank accounts, and even have a good time and make new friends doing it.

That’s collaborative consumption, and I want to talk about its wonderful opportunities.

So, I’ve said a lot of scary and depressing stuff. But there is good news. Values are shifting.

Think about this co-working space, betahaus. You can rent a desk and share office infrastructure together with fellow digital nomads. No one, besides the people who actually the run the space, have to own any of the equipment, and even they can lease or rent it from other companies.

Let’s take an example of an office printer for a betahaus resident. Maybe once in a great while you actually need to print something. Do you really want to own a dedicated device for printing stuff? I mean, you have to refill it, repair it, and lug it around whenever you move, and one day, dispose of it.

A huge advantage with a place like betahaus is that they make it easy and attractive to share these resources, and by doing so, they make it more efficient (and let’s be honest, more fun and social) for all of the people working here.

Let’s think for a second about other types of resources. Who needs to own a moving van? Not many folks. That’s why services like Robben & Wientjes, the moving truck rental company in Berlin, are successful. The same holds true for platforms like the US-based Zipcar, a car sharing service. Or airbnb and Couchsurfing. Or even the Bahn bikes, Mitfahrgelegenheit, and stuff-sharing sites like NeighborGoods.

All of the many, many sites out there now make it easy to offer, find, and share goods and services: flexibly, agilely, and socially.

Here’s another example: the common household drill. How many of you own a drill? Can you even remember the last time you used it? Did you know that on average, a household drill is used a total of 5-10min its entire lifetime? That gives you what, like 20 holes max? Is that really an efficient object to purchase, maintain, and care for?

What if instead of all that time it spent idling on the shelf, it could be generating value, either by renting it out for cash or just helping out a neighbor?

Products like household drills, or moving vans, or a bike in a city you’re visiting aren’t necessarily desirable to own. Instead, isn’t it just better to accessing them? Aren’t the rights to use and access something more important than owning it?

I think this is a mantra for our times:
On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership.

You know who said that? Aristotle. A Greek philosophy who wrote that more than 2000 years ago.

Actually, the stuff I’ve been saying about sharing drills and expensive machinery and even lodging won’t have sounded foreign or even futuristic for many of the generations that came before us.

Practices like barn raising or the rise of cooperative individualism from the Great Depression are just a few examples.

The values of sharing resources goes back a long way.

What I’m talking about isn’t new, but I’ll argue that nowadays, thanks to networks, we can do it even better. And there are business strategies and creative opportunities to be had in modern collaborative consumption in addition to sharing economy.

Characteristics of Shared Objects:

So, can we distill any important characteristics of Collaborative Consumption? What are the rules of the game? Here’s a start.

Critical Mass
Firstly, you need enough goods or services on offer to make the platform attractive enough for users. Supply draws more demand. Couchsurfing isn’t going to work with two couches on offer.

Idling Capacity
This is about spare cycles. All the unused, material surplus that bolsters collaborative consumption. And it not just about products that sit unused on storage shelves, but also untapped skills, times, spaces. These resources have to be available, like in the drill example, and sharable.

Commons Governance
For these platforms to work, you need appropriate mechanisms for collaboration within legal, social and technical frameworks. There are great tools for this, and definitely the potential to develop more. Conflict resolution has to be cheap and easy, and resource providers need ways to participate in the decision-making process.

Trust
This is one of the most important pillars of collaborative consumption. Without trust, you don’t have continued and meaningful participation and growth. Trust has to be cultivated and facilitated. It’s not just available instantly, but grows organically through the service and positive experiences. Clearly defined boundaries of who’s participating and a way to key at bay trolls, spammers, and frauds, and other elements that harm the community. This requires effective monitoring and reputation management, plus graduated sanctions for people who violate community rules.

Design Challenges:

Building upon these principles and characteristics, I want to offer you a few design challenges.

Create open layers
Think about interoperability across key components. How can you use open standards to enable remix, modification, and improvements across products? How can open layers be applied to motors, power cords, outlets, connectors, joints, nibs for maximal customization and range of use?

Build modularity
Relatedly, shared objects should be easy to repair and amend. You shouldn’t have to throw away your entire phone because it’s scratched. Building modularity means fostering generativity.

Value added through usage
I think this is one of the most powerful design challenges. Think about an object that doesn’t depreciate with use, but is instead improved by it. One example is a baseball mitt. When you first buy it, it’s very stiff and hard to catch a ball with. Over time, with use, it becomes more flexible and a better product.

That’s just on the physical layer. What about value added on a data layer? Think about how objects can learn from behaviors the more they’re used. Like by collecting more data points. Or where the user contributes metadata, like marginalia, reviews, and fact checking for books.

Personalize shared objects
Are you familiar with these phones that hold multiple SIM cards? Those are really common in places like Africa where one device is used by multiple people. But each person inserts their own SIM card and all their address books and personal settings are ready for them. The personalization follows the user, not the device. Can we apply this to other devices and services? Cars, printers, refrigerator, coffee machines, or even drills?

Diversify Libraries
Libraries are not just for books. Think about other ways to pool resources, be it for commercial or community aims. You could have tool libraries, or ones for electronics, cooking appliances, moving boxes/materials, jewelry and accessories, holiday decorations, toys, you name it.

There is lots of potential. There are many business opportunities, as well as many challenges for creative and adventuresome people.

Let’s break the mold.

Don’t design for the dump. Don’t design for 20th century hyperconsumption. Design for things to last, to be shared, and to be part of the future, a future of collaborative consumption.

Clay Shirky sends a provoking line about “first blushes” with new technology, where early adopters are quick to bubble and proclaim the dawn of a new era. [See: index cards, the telegraph, airplanes, or even the Internet.] Shirky makes the point that a fair number of predictions turn out to be accurate but often get lumped together with the more far-out and unrealized techno-determinist dreams. From the vantage point of today’s sleek futurity, we giggle at these old-fashioned and dated visions of the future and declare them silly and naïvely misplaced at best. But do we really have enough perspective?

Tom Standage did this in The Victorian Internet, in which he held up predictions of the awesome change to be occasioned by the telegraph as faintly ridiculous. To do this, he relied on a kind of technological hedonism — “People in the 1800s said that the telegraph would make the future awesome, but they were describing our past, and the past can’t ever be awesome! Ha ha!”

We have inherited the power to project our thoughts around the world so rapidly that a man on the fastest horse in the world could not chase them. This is a power only dreamt of by the Ancients, and we give it not a moment’s thought. In that forgetfulness, it’s possible to make even correct predictions of revolution look wrong, so that obviously incorrect predictions about world peace breaking out are lumped together with entirely accurate predictions about the re-shaping of the commercial sphere.