Category Archives: technology (society)

DIY Citizenship, social media and social change at FutureEverything

I’m getting ready to head to FutureEverything in Manchester, an amazing festival of art/technology/ideas that runs from May 12-15.  The conference/ideas stream features several interesting tracks including discussions on open data, local broadband, and collaboration.  I’ll be speaking on DIY citizenship, social media and social change.

Since my panel collaborators Mushon Zer-Aviv and Alexandra Deschamps-Sosino are probably more connected to how revolutions in design and availability of technologies are connected with innovation and participation, I thought I’d talk a bit about how social media affordances have provided us with new models for citizenship, and what we can do with these models.  I’ll provide a bit of history about how citizens role in discussing and participating in politics have been thought about – and organized – in the past, and how media have played a role.  Then I’ll discuss the current media environment, hopefully asking some hard questions about how we use the participation that our environment offers to sustain our citizenship and work for social change.

I’m also a speaker blogger, and am looking forward to exploring the explosive world of art, thought and music that the festival promises to be.  More later . . .

The Social Media Echo Chamber

The Pew Internet and American Life project released their findings on young people’s use of social media yesterday. Apparently young people are less likely to use Twitter than adults aged 25-40 (although teenage girls are an exception). They are also less likely to blog. I don’t think that this survey data indicates that young people aren’t engaged in meaningful social life online or elsewhere – youth do lots of socializing online. This finding should remind us that participating in social media is not a unified experience. The relationships that committed Twitterers of a certain age construct (your author included) may be more representative of our age and demographic than indicative of social media itself.

No, what I’m thinking about is along the lines of what Christian Sandvig is working on: these applications are now becoming infrastructures for participation. To understand them, we need to know more about how they are built, how they work, and who controls them. Yes, we want to make things together, and we want to make relationships with people. It’s easier to do this using applications like Facebook Twitter, and YouTube. But this also means creating a relationship with the platform itself. The algorithms to which we’ve delegated the work of connecting and communicating also have agency. We don’t know much about them, in the main. Sometimes, we get a small view into the algorithms of certain systems – this week, I learned more about the School of Everything and how its search and matching

The question of social media use and agency is not just a question of knowing or being able to understand the design process. If different generations or social groups want to relate to each other in different ways, then there’s social interest in understanding how different infrastructures shape and are shaped by those relationships.

I feel that sometimes, the social media world that I’m part of acts like an echo chamber, with the kinds of relationships that “people like me” form getting reproduced by our practices – and perhaps even by our media infrastructures.  We start thinking that social media works a certain way because that’s the way it works for us.  I think it’s critical that research understand both ends of this process – the way systems are designed, and the potentially very different kinds of things that designs make possible, among different kinds of people.  Otherwise we’ll all simply be shouting into our own social media echo chambers.

Evolution, Innovation, and Ethics

I took my sweetie to London’s best holiday nerdfest last night – Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People.  It was a three-hour celebration of the wonders and beauties that science can reveal – along with lots of hilarious British standup comedy.  Throughout, there was lots of emphasis on the role of evolution in creating fantastically complex organisms – and societies.  But there was something bittersweet, to me, about celebrating how much our society has evolved, especially in the wake of the disastrous lack of results from Copenhagen.

Yes, our society has evolved and created astonishing innovations like the computer I’m using to write this, and the network that ensures all of you can read it.  The internal combustion engine, in particular, has facilitated extraordinary developments in transportation, commerce, health and well-being.

But such development comes with consequences, as we now know.  Our evolved intelligence has got us into this mess, and now must get us out of it.  Unfortunately, much of society is now in thrall to a particularly well-evolved form of self-interested greed.  The policy debates about how to respond to climate change illustrate this well:  everyone agrees that something must be done, the conclusive data is building up, but there is hesitation.  Why?  In many cases, because agreeing to collectively solve a problem interferes with the pursuit of individual gains – a pursuit so well supported by today’s capitalism.

Luckily, we have also evolved an ethics of collective action.  Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize winning work explains that societies have also evolved innovative ways of sharing resources to avoid the “tragedy of the commons.”  As the pressure to define ourselves as self-interested consumers mounts in this holiday shopping week, it’s important to remember what else our society has evolved:  ethics, compassion, and a sense of the collective good.

Happy holidays – I’m off to slow down and enjoy the snow.

Open ecologies – can open hardware be like open software?

The growth of the open source software development movement is held up as one of the great successes of a networked world – leaving source code open is associated with global-scale participation in software development and open-source products that are now central to the technology industry.  This has in turn inspired calls for opening up other “closed” processes – government, education, knowledge (like Wikipedia).   There’s now talk of a global “open everything” movement.

But as Steven Weber explains, there are some specific elements to open-source development.  First, that open code is a way of providing easily modifiable basic tools that can be customized to solve a whole set of different problems.  This is one key to the success of open source – it’s the utility of the source code that’s available, and ability to modify it.  So my friend who is working on a totally bespoke database can draw elements of source code from other databases built by others, even if those other products have little to do with what he’s making.  Weber’s second element is that open-source is based on principles and values rather than efficiency.

Given these key elements, can we expect to produce “open everything’?  Under what circumstances does an open-source model translate outside of software?  To investigate this I’ve started watching the nascent movement towards open hardware development.  Of course, hardware is a physical product with manufacturing costs.  But if we think the design and production process, there are some clear opportunities to create an open source production ecology.

First, hardware designs are not material objects.  They are, like software, intellectual products.  Currently, most hardware production is based on patented designs.  But hardware hackers (or hobbyists) can upload, view and download designs at OpenCores, which also allows would-be manufacturers to produce prototypes of their chip designs.  Second, the realms of software and hardware are converging.  The cost of developing software-controlled chipsets is dropping, with the major cost now being the software development itself.

The larger issue is how to grow an open source development and production ecology.  In software development, one aspect of this ecology is the licensing framework, which identifies free software and makes using source code conditional on releasing any subsequent source code.  How could this happen in the hardware world?  How would a prospective hardware (re)designer know that the amazing mobile widget she/he was holding had an open design?
The solution, according to a nascent coalition called the Open Hardware and Design Alliance (OHANDA – watch this space) would be to develop a trademark sticker, to identify a piece of open hardware. The sticker would include a registration key, pointing to a design held in a repository somewhere.  Then that design could be reused.

This potential intervention raises some interesting questions about “open everything.”  How do open ecosystems grow?  How modular do the “open” elements have to be?  (it would be obviously more valuable to have a few, easy-to-use open hardware models than one design that’s difficult to reuse).  And finally, what are the defining values of openness?  OHANDA may provide some important lessons.

Hacking the City – redux

I was delighted to read that the Personal Democracy Forum’s 2009 Conference (twitter slurp here) includes a Birds of a Feather meetup on the topic of “Hacking the City.”  I first heard community technologists use this phrase in 2005, when Mike wrote a post about how community Wi-Fi is a way of hacking the social space of cities.  What he was referring to was the way that community interventions in provision of communications infrastructure could change how people socialized – since so much of our interactions are mediated by various types of networks.

But “hacking the city” like so many good ideas, has taken on another life.  It’s now used to describe how networked technologies can be harnessed so that citizens can take action in their own cities. There’s, where volunteers in cities around the world build open source tools and advocate for open data , New York City’s The Open Planning Project (who advocate for open source software in government, and run several citizen-participation blogs) and MySociety’s  FixMyStreet, which features maps where my neighours have flagged two instances of fly-tipping and two piles of dog poo within 1 km of my house.

After doing some work this year about other types of digital activism, I’m returning this summer to thinking about the politics of local networks – it’s time, and furthermore it matters!  Can anyone think of other good examples of hacking the city?

UPDATE:  Exciting!  Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona in November.

Free Access, Media Scarcity . . . . and the future of capitalism

Last week I was wandering around the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, riffing with Wolf (an OII DPhil) about how knowledge gets produced and distributed.  We looked at Greek statues “collected” by the Germans, moved to Russia by the Sovietes for 50 years, and finally on public display – and discussed the radically different ways of knowing made possible in a world of globally produced, distributed, and commented information.  “It’s an amazing privilege” I said to Wolf.  “But what are the long term implications?  There’s always  controlling access to information.  In the middle ages it was all physically locked up in places like Oxford.  Now I’m worried it will come to be controlled in some other way.”

Over the next few days, talks by Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow highlighted how the movement towards free access means that control over information, media (and maybe knowledge) threaten established business models and legal frameworks.  Lessig showed how current intellectual property law is so far out of sync with practices of remix that it is criminalizing a generation of kids who use media like ideas.  For Doctorow,  the key change for media has been the decreasing potential for making money by making media excludable (controlling who gets a copy of something.  Faced with the fact that the “internet is a perfect copying machine”, businesses are responding by trying to make it an imperfect copying machine.  Like Lessig, Doctorow thinks this is reactionary and counterproductive.  He thinks the only viable business models will be based on new understandings of how to distribute media/information/knowldege, and not on controlling its reproduction.  Free access has created unprecedented participation in culture – the current market economy doesn’t work if there’s an oversupply of art and undersupply of demand.

Back in Oxford, my colleague/flatmate Bernie picked up the thread.  He’s been thinking about how capitalism has always depended on scarcity.  Informational capitalism has exploded such that information is no longer scarce – it’s easy to copy and distribute.  So what becomes of capitalism?

These transformations of information/media use and reuse highlight the importance of access.  Access is reconfigured through and with technical changes, practices, laws.  Unlike 500 years ago, you don’t have to travel to Oxford to find information – but instead you have to negotiate licenses, torrents, remixes, and misinformation.  How to sort it all out, and whether this can happen under capitalism, is one of society’s next challenges.  It’s a far cry from determining who gets to store the Greek statues.


As I made a right turn across traffic into a blind alley on my bicycle today, I thought about Douglas Englebart, who I met in Thierry Bardini’s book Bootstrapping: Douglas Englebart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing . Englebart is best-known for building the first on-line computer system and for heading the lab where the first computer mouse was designed. But his more interesting contribution to cybernetics and computing studies was his concept of co-evolution – where engaging with a system changes the way that you think, while simultaneously changing the system itself. This principle suggests that tools don’t just serve useful purpose, they actually enhance human intelligence through the way that they are used.

Englebart wanted computers to demand an engagement from the people who used them, so that both would co-evolve, as Bardini says, “to enable new modes of creative thought, communication, and collaboration” (p. 143). But his caveat was that computers were not meant to be easy to use – otherwise the people using them wouldn’t really evolve – and neither would the system. He was inspired by an early cybernetic thinker, J.R. Licklider, who wrote:

“it is worth pausing to ponder how few well-developed skills there are that are both complex and widespread. Almost everyone can get about in three-dimensional space. Almost everyone can speak and understand one of the natural languages – perhaps not grammatically, but fluently. But relatively few people can do anything else that is even remotely comparable in informational complexity and degree of perfection.” (cited in Bardini, p.216)

Englebart hoped to make computing into one of these complex, widespread skills. But his co-evolution project never took off – instead, computers are “user friendly” with purportedly transparent forms of navigation. But on my ride today, as I made a turn that was logically correct but intuitively wrong, I thought about the complexities of navigation as a cognitive activity.

Navigating in a new place requires not just the capacity to move in three-dimensional space, but the acceptance and mastery of a new geography – understood through street signs and direction abstracted from a two-dimensional map, as well as memorized physical landmarks. Because I don’t yet know the circuitous route across London well enough to calmly pedal like a distracted academic thinking about cybernetics, I have to pay attention so I don’t turn intuitively and find myself in the horrific triangular limbo between Marylebone Road, Old Marylebone Road, Marylebone High Street and Old Marylebone High Street.

But according to Englebart, my navigation confusion could be making me smarter. Once I can get across the city without thinking about it, I will have mastered another complex everyday skill – following a route featuring roundabouts, bad signage, and braintwistingly similar corners while not falling off a small metal contraption barging through traffic at 20 km an hour. It’s just that the city won’t be getting any smarter from me riding across it.

Then again, neither will my computer interface. In fact, compared to the process of learning to navigate the city, I have learned almost nothing from navigating the WYSIWYG interface of my Mac. Of course, I am not expecting to be challenged – I have accepted that my computer is meant to be easy to use rather than interesting to use. Even worse, using my computer provides me with very few of the brilliant moments where it, as a tool, becomes “ready at hand” (that’s Heidegger) – where it falls away and leaves me only with the experience of what it makes possible. A ready at hand bicycle lets me look up and marvel at the brilliant winter sunlight on mansions, chimney pots, and medieval churches. In comparison, a tool that is present at hand (still Heidegger) forces me to acknowledge its role as a tool. A bicycle does this when it has a flat tire. The Mac interface does this when it expects me to search through hierarchical files and folders for a document that I know is related to what I am writing, makes me scroll down to read through documents, highlight to cut and paste.

Can Englebart’s vision of co-evolution ever return to the complex everyday use of computer tools? Could we connect to our computers using only our minds, and then shape and learn from the systems we created? Bardini thinks we could, but warns us with the words of Jeff Raskin, an interface designer:

“I suspect most of us would prefer to use a direct mind to machine (MTM) interface, rather than type and shove a mouse around, but if the interface in which MTM is embedded is full of modal traps, complex navigational puzzles, and a multitude of details to be memorized, the improvement will be marginal and the interface as frustrating as anything now available” (cited in Bardini p. 226).

Faced with the complex navigational puzzle of the four Marylebones I ride past, I’m wondering if we underestimate the extent of the cognitive challenge of just getting where we are going!

Artivistic Oct 25 to 27

This is very exciting! I helped my talented brother and talented better half design a sound installation for the upcoming Artivistic festival. Please come and participate – it will be a great weekend!

3rd edition of Artivistic :: [ un.occupied spaces ]

25 to 27 October 2007 :: Montreal

We are infiltrating all levels of society. Artists, activists, academics, architects, bureaucrats, the homeless, anarchists, first nations, immigrants, doctors, geeks, queers, lawyers, teachers, witches, philosophers, clowns. Artivistic does not only provide a platform for political artists and artistic activists, but partakes in the very movements that work for change. In the pursuit of temporary moments of pleasure, we move towards freedom, for resistance is perpetual and oppression, ever-changing.

Building on the 2005 generation, Artivistic in 2007 will continue to ask questions that do not leave us thinking we have resolved the issues. We strongly suggest that you answer one, or all, of our questions with a question of your own.

< what is indigenous ? >

< what is natural space ? >

< what is (there) to occupy ? >

Artivistic is an international transdisciplinary three-day gathering on the interPlay between art, information and activism. Artivistic emerges out of the proposition that not only artists talk about art, academics about theory, and activists about activism. Founded in 2004, the event aims to promote transdisciplinary and intercultural dialogue on activist art beyond critique, to create and facilitate a human network of diverse peoples, and to inspire, proliferate, activate.

Embodied Lives?

Every generation has its utopia; its distress too. Often I feel they are two sides of the same coin, the way that an invidual’s greatest strength is his or her weakness. If the Apocalypse of the Cold War was the success of the Cold War (all those stockpiles of weapons and so few enemies) the Apocalypse now is the distress of a world made into a village, with nothing left to discover and only platitudes to exchange.

This week I read an article by Sherry Turkle, the first psychologist of the online world.

She writes about being tethered, about how the online “second self” she proposed in the 1990s is now becoming something else: itself. It is not that we have an online life that is separate or secondary to our “real” life, but instead we have a life in which we are connected to bots, profiles, avatars, search engines. What is the embodiment of life when we have no time for reflection, when turning off our devices is psychological torture because we invest in them the power to make us feel? I feel this torture myself when the icon next to someone I love indicates his absence. Maya, has written about projecting her anger on to one of these icons — the double absence of her lover all the more poignant in its embodiment in a small green circle.

With all of this mediation, how do we determine how we are alive? In her article, Turkle wonders about our evocation of “aliveness,” in the age of robotics. What does it mean that something is alive? That it can interact? Or is there something more fundamental to life itself? Is it important to have live endangered animals in zoos as opposed to animatronic ones?

Aliveness becomes more poignant in a world with fewer different live things to encounter. Endgame an article in Harper’s magazine about the disappearing wilderness, discusses the “shrinking wilderness”. Edward Hoagland is an elderly man living in the woods in Vermont. With slight melancholy, he enumerates the animals with whom he shared his space, describing their interactions with each other and with him. He then criticizes contemporary environmental movements of becoming meaninglessly abstract: instead of talking about saving wild spaces that people have experienced or animals like the ones he lives with every day, they now talk about carbon offsetting, wind production, climate change management. Even saving nature is becoming disembodied – a task for the connected and digital and not for the settled and rustic.

Hoagland and Turkle both evoke a world with no mystery – a world where everything is known, every path travelled (even the tourist trail to Antarctica). There is a distress in both of their articles that the authors cannot fully communicate. The distress of the connections having pulled so far (away from place, ecology, human connection, or thoughtful reflection) that they are impossibly shallow. The depth and extent of this distress is probably unknowable, and it shapes, I think, our present experience of the world.

The question becomes one of alleviating distress. We each find our solution: my good friend delighted in telling me that particle physicists have encountered the limits of the scientific method. She felt solace in the fact that science could disprove the basis of its own existence. Other friends go hiking, feeling their bones settle as they climb rocks and breathe mountain air. In the midst of travel, disembodied love, and a professional interest in the role of technology, I am hoping to find the place, the experience, the compromise that will tell me – I AM ALIVE.

Is Code Beautiful, Part 2: Black boxes, invisible work

In a fit of thesis-writing procrastination, I have been reading articles that explore how difficult it is to call some things “society” and other things “technology”. One of these is Adrian Mackenzie’s article on Java programming as a virtual practice. In it he describes the way that Java programmers, because of the way they construct their functioning code from repositories of previous APIs, are caught between perceptions of their own role as “consumers” and “producers” of the internet. At the same time, the code they write is configured by attachment and identifications to all kinds of other documents. In other words, the work of Java programming is in reading, understanding, and recombining other bits of code, written knowledge, and marketing pressure. So what is presented as Java, then, is a virtual construction: virtual because it is shifting, unstable, and perpetually reconstructed.

All of this made me think about the work of coding, so I thought I would return last year’s question about the beauty of computer code. For me as a non-coder, the actual functioning of computer code is completely hidden – in science studies terms it is “black-boxed” – about as obvious to me as the controls of an airplane. But blueprints for an airplane are beautiful, so why not code?

A little while ago I tagged along to Rotterdam as part of Hive Network’s entourage at the Dutch Electronic Art Festival. At the festival many pieces played with the idea of stripping off the representational elements of “new media art” and displaying the means of production (code, hardware, electrical current, machine construction) as themselves artistic (see MK’s wonderful photo here for one example). But is the code itself beautiful? I was tempted to think of it as a sort of technique that could facilitate art, but might not in and of itself constitute art. A bit like the way watercolour can produce both subtle landscapes and paint-by-numbers, or tiles can make a mosaic or line the bathroom wall.

I wasn’t sure if this was being uncharitable, so I one morning I decided to ask the In-House Hacker (IHH). As usual, we had stayed up rather late and left the flat in a mess before going to bed, but by the time I got up everything was tidy and the kettle was boiling. The IHH was already frowning at a laptop in concentration. It was as if the disaster of the previous evening had been made invisible: housework, essentially, placed in a black box. Outside the window the garden had been watered, weeds pulled, blossoms coaxed and tended. And the IHH, sitting there working was still at it. Tidying, streamlining, ordering, compiling.

Making things beautiful? Or creating the perfect conditions for art, for beauty, to blossom?