Tag Archives: innovation

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.

Slow Food meets Community Broadband

Michael Pollan’s open letter to the next American president suggests that the North American industrial food production system should return to regionalism, year-round planting, and small farms.

Pollan has created a framework for local farming and food distribution that advocates for “small is beautiful” local agriculture (including a proposed White House Victory Garden) that avoids simply assuming that local food or small scale distribution is inherently better. There is no use, he argues, for calling for local distribution of more diverse crops if grain elevators will only accept corn and soy. A return to localism should happen because it is economically and socially viable, and would help the US disconnect food production from a dependence on foreign oil.

Many people I know from CWN and media reform advocacy would make a similar argument about the necessity for a return to localism in communications ownership. There are some parallels between the two areas: local media can nourish geographically close areas by presenting local stories, distributing local information, and creating opportunities for people living close to each other to learn about one another. Local evening newscasts on a broadcast television channel provided skilled employment as well as local information: but as media ownership consolidated, many local newscasts have been eliminated. Local radio funding has been cut too, as North American stations invest in satellite radio

So should we have a local internet? In the 1990s the answer to this question would have been yes, and the strategy the creation of community networks, which were the first ways for people without university affiliations to get online. These FreeNets, including the National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa, loaded up the front ends of their systems with local information, but what they did best was get people to go online . . .where . . . they met a lot of people who didn’t live in their local areas.

Then researchers started talking about the internet as a global utopia – Manuel Castells famously claimed that we were leaving behind a “space of places” and moving into a “space of flows.” Research in “virtual communities” blossomed. It seemed that a local internet was mostly a portal to a global world, and that communities and social networks would become dis-integrated from the local. The emotional argument might go this way: as we eat delicious berries out of season, trucked across the country, we watch YouTube videos instead of the local news.

But the internet is a local infrastructure: the local loop controls the speed of access to broadband. Someone must invest in this, and here is where community networking (reinvented as community wireless networking) comes in: WiFi is cheap, and local people can thus own the last mile, whether through their governments or through other non-profit or community organizations. The question is, should they? Unlike food, digital communications don’t absorb energy as they travel between places, and people maintain relationships with people from all over the world, as well as getting access to media from all over the world.

But people still live in places, and their lives are influenced by local policies, cultures, and contexts – not to mention media habits. My thesis case studies suggest that people most often use local WiFi networks to get their e-mail and to check the weather or the local news. It is impossible to return to a media world in which each small town has no idea of the big world issues. Finance, culture, and information flow too smoothly for this, and the disadvantages of being disconnected from this flow are still too great. Still, I believe that it is very likely that the next ten years will see us travel less, get our food from closer to where we live, and spend more time in local areas. If anything, this supports local investment in both communication infrastructure and in local media.

Local ownership and control of communications infrastructure can ensure that towns, cities, or neighbourhoods are not left out of the continuing global exchange of information. However, using community networks just to get people online is not the whole story – it is like investing in grain elevators for only one type of crop. If a more local world is coming (and it is, based on previous economic downturns), governments and organizations also need to invest in community media that will inspire local talent, provide employment, and help culture, creativity and innovation to strengthen.