Sea of Joy

….waiting in our boats to set sail/ Sea of Joy

Steve Winwood, Sea of Joy. Blind Faith, Blind Faith, August 1969

Steve Winwood. One of my all-time favourite musicians. Someone whom I heard for the first time in the early Seventies, someone whom I’ve been an ardent fan of ever since. Even went to a pub in Gloucestershire decades ago because I was told he drank there, just to see him in the flesh. He wasn’t touring then. He has, since, resumed touring, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see him maybe half a dozen times since. I was able to see him “live” twice this year, and I shall be doing so again next May. In fact, I took the photograph above while watching him play with Eric Clapton at Wembley Arena earlier this year. But that’s not what this post is about. [Even if I did enjoy being able to link to the concert using; what a lovely service!].

Sea of Joy. One of my all-time favourite songs, taken from one of my all-time favourite albums, Blind Faith by Blind Faith. A song dating back to times when working out the meanings of song lyrics was a hard thing to do…..”Once the door swings open into space, and I’m already waiting in disguise”……There was a time when I used to try, until I heard what might have been an apocryphal tale about the Doors and Mr Mojo Risin’. Erudite people had written erudite essays about what Jim Morrison may have meant in his repeated use of the phrase “Mr Mojo Risin” in a number of Doors songs. Extremely erudite essays about the meaning and role of mojo at the time, in terms of hoodoo and voodoo symbolism and representations of power and sex-appeal. And it is possible that Jim Morrison may have been influenced by all that when he chose to use the phrase as a motet. But. But then I heard the story of a little old lady who wrote in to some magazine some years after Morrison’s death, wondering what all the fuss was about. She said that the Morrisons used to live next door to them when little Jim was growing up. And Jim used to come and play in their yard. And her husband made up the phrase Mr Mojo Risin’ to describe the young James Douglas Morrison, who would have been 67 last week if he hadn’t died so tragically in 1971. Her husband liked crosswords and suchlike. And Mr Mojo Risin’ is a perfect anagram of … Jim Morrison. As I said, the tale is apocryphal. I don’t have a shred of evidence to back the story. And yet I believe it.

But that’s not what this post is about either.

This post is about a sea of joy. Maybe even an ocean of joy. Oceans of joy.

The internet.

I know, I know, comparisons can often be odious. And while pictures paint thousands of words, they come with frames. And anchors. Which can constrain imagination.


I’ve always imagined the internet to be a whole heap of rivers, feeding many seas, feeding one large ocean. Living, breathing, moving. A giant organism which is more than just a space. Containing water, that wondrous substance that helps keep us alive. A place where people swim and frolic, laugh and play. An environment of magic, of depth, of beauty we’re still discovering. A place full of life in all its brilliance. A repository of rich resource we can mine and use, sensibly and sustainably. And yet a place where danger lurks, where death too can be found. With pirates. And with pollution.

Despite all that, a sea of joy.

Which is partly why I’ve found recent discussions about Wikileaks intriguing to say the least. For some time now I’ve been talking about having to “design for loss of control”, referred to here and here, here and at the TED Salon here.

Humour me for a moment or two.

Imagine it’s raining outside. [For some strange reason I find this very easy to do. Perhaps it’s because of where I choose to live.] Imagine you go for a walk around your house, with a beaker in your hand, collecting rainwater, getting absolutely drenched in the process. [For an even stranger reason I’ve done this, as part of a school Physics question set by Resnick and Halliday, in 1974….I remember the question as “Drops are falling steadily in a perpendicular rain. You need to get from A to B in this rain. In order to encounter the least number of raindrops in your journey, would you (a) travel at your fastest speed (b) travel at your slowest speed or (c) travel at some intermediate speed you determine? Explain your answer.“]

Anyway, where was I? More importantly, where were you? Oh yes, I had you out collecting rainwater. Imagine you have a beaker full of rainwater. Imagine you take that beaker of rainwater and pour it into a nearby brook, which feeds a river, which empties out into a sea and forms part of the oceans.

For the sake of argument, let’s leave aside the philosophical question of whether you “own” the rainwater you collected. Imagine just trying to find that rainwater in the ocean, something you’re going to have to do if, for some reason, you’re keen on staking a claim to your rainwater.


The sea is designed to be plentiful, abundant. Quite different from lakes and ponds, which are contained and isolated, controllable. And often stagnant. [No, I’m not going to enter into angels-dancing-on-pins arguments about the Caspian Sea or for that matter the Dead Sea here].

Making things that are abundant by design somehow appear scarce is not an easy task. As I’ve said before, and said many times before, every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance; over time, the artificial abundance will win. Region coding of DVDs and music DRM are simple examples of the principle.

So it is with the internet. When you make something digital, you have something that is cheap to copy. When you connect that digital something to the internet, you have something that is cheap to distribute far and wide. That is why Kevin Kelly called the internet a “copy machine” in his seminal essay, Better Than Free, from which the illustration below is taken. If you haven’t read it yet, stop here and follow the link. It’s a must-read.

So now the internet exists, does it mean no one can keep a secret any more? No. It’s just like in the good old days before the internet: if you want to keep something secret, try not telling anyone.

The internet is designed to share.

There are many things that people don’t want to share, for a variety of good reasons: personally identifiable information; commercially sensitive information; and information demonstrably pertaining to national or international security. Sometimes it’s because the information is held asymmetrically and misused; in polite society we would call this “blackmail”, and in the civilised world this is illegal. Sometimes it’s because the information is considered “private”, and a right to privacy is seen to exist, a right not to be embarrassed because something you said in private somehow makes its way into the public domain. Which is why the recent spate of leaks has caused such consternation. Contrast this with Eliot Spitzer and the Wall Street firms he went after, the whistleblower/leak aspect of all that happened, and the difference in reaction then. Contrast this with Talking-To-Journalists 101, which says Nothing Is Ever Off The Record. In England, thirty years ago, when I was given rudimentary media training, I was told “always imagine that anything you say, everything you say, could be on the first page of the Mail tomorrow”.

Bruce Schneier, an erstwhile colleague and someone whose writings and sayings I pay attention to, wrote a wonderful little piece on the subject, making five simple points:

  • Encryption is not the issue
  • Secrets are only as secure as the least trusted person who knows them
  • Access control is hard
  • This has little to do with Wikileaks
  • Governments will have to learn what the music and film industries have been forced to learn already, that it’s easy to copy and publish digital files

You should read the whole essay, which I’ve linked to here. Bruce is brilliant, terse and trenchant as ever.

Clay Shirky, another writer I have a lot of time for, writes a very balanced piece here, about the importance of the legal process in all this. Any medium of communication, any method of publishing and propagating, needs to have its principles and guidelines, and over time, its laws and its regulations. Of particular importance is the following paragraph from his post:

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the U.S. trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us, “You went after WikiLeaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Due democratic process is always important; it is doubly important when we’re dealing with an emergent, valuable phenomenon. Such as the internet and all things digital.  Which is why I was so concerned with the apparently trivial all-downloaders-are-thieves approach that Mandelson et al sought to steamroller through via the Digital Economy Act. Which is why I remain concerned now. [Incidentally, I’m delighted that BT was part of the lobby that fought for, and won, a judicial review into the DE Act].

Not that I have anything against secrets per se.

Secrets are important, and there is a place for secrets. There are ways of keeping secrets secret.

Sharing is also important. And there is a place for sharing. It’s called the internet.

And it is really important that there continue to be ways of keeping shared things shared.

Which is why I appreciate the tireless work of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in all this; John Palfrey, and, more recently, Urs Gasser, do a great job there. Which is why I look up to people like Charlie Nesson and Jonathan Zittrain and Larry Lessig as they strive to make sure that the law cannot be confused with genus Equus subgenus Asinus, and that due democratic process is followed when new laws are constructed. Which is why I appreciate the time that people like Doc Searls and Cory Doctorow spend on this. Which is why I appreciate the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; of the Open Rights Group; of Creative Commons; of the Web Science Trust, particularly for their work on open data. People in all these places have somehow found the time and the motivation to devote to this cause. I am privileged to count many of them amongst my friends, too many to list here. You know who you are. Thank you.

You see, it’s not really about Wikileaks. Artificial scarcities will continue to be met by artificial abundances. There will be many more Wikileaks. In many places. At the same time. And some of them will be very damaging. Which is not a good thing. But. There is a right way to stop it. It’s called the democratic process.

The internet is about sharing. It’s about making it easier to copy things and to move them around, to publish at scale. It’s about making it easier for Linus’s Law: Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. It’s about the power of democratised access. Access to publishing. Access to editing, to changing. Access to reading. Access to community skills and talent.

The internet makes it possible for us to do things we could never do before, like the World Wide Web itself. Like Wikipedia. Like Craigslist. Like being able to listen to “A symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom” live yesterday at the Personal Democracy Forum, as thousands of us were able to do yesterday.

The internet is capable of transforming lives at the edge, making radical impacts on education, on healthcare, even on government. Of course the internet is dependent on all of us having ubiquitous affordable connectivity, something I continue to be optimistic about. It will happen. Perhaps not in the way we thought it would. But it will happen. And there won’t be a digital divide. Because that too would be an artificial scarcity….

Steve Winwood, when he penned Sea of Joy, also had these words to say in the song:

Having trouble coming through,
Through this concrete, blocks my view
And it’s all because of you.

All because of you. The “you” in that phrase is us. We have a responsibility to future generations that the internet is governed the right way, that the right laws are formulated and promulgated, that the right process is followed.

Because there are generations to come….

Waiting in their boats to set sail, Sea of Joy.

Thinking about social objects

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

Andrew Largeman, a character in Garden State, a film that was written and directed by Zach Braff some years ago.

A group of people that miss the same imaginary place. That phrase really stuck in my head when I saw the movie, and it’s stayed there ever since. Go see the film if you haven’t already, you won’t regret it. [And you don’t have to take my word for it either. An IMDB rating of 7.9, spread out over 90,000+ votes, nearly a thousand reviews, that’s some going.]

It wasn’t long after that when Jyri Engestrom started riffing with the idea of social objects, and when Hugh MacLeod picked it up and spoke to me at length about the concept, part of me was still completely stuck in the Andrew Largeman mindset. The same imaginary place.

And that’s part of the reason I share some of the things I do via twitter: The music I listen to. The food I’m cooking or eating. The films I’m watching; the books I’m reading; the places I go to. Sometimes what I share is in the immediate past, sometimes it’s in the present, sometimes all I’m doing is declaring my intent. Because, paraphrasing John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

When we share our experiences of sights and sounds and smells, we recreate the familiar imaginary places we share with others. We use these digital objects as the seed, as one dimension of the experience to flesh out the rest of that experience. So we take the sound or image or location or even in some cases the smell, and we extrapolate it into a rich memory of that particular experience. Which is often a worthwhile thing to do, for all the people who shared that “imaginary place” with you.

This has become more valuable as a result of phenomena like Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, that have made it easier for you to share the digital objects with the people you shared the original experience with. Which is why any tool that helps you capture what you’re watching or reading or listening to or visiting or eating is worth experimenting with.

This is something I’ve been doing for some time now, playing with every tool that comes on to the market, trying to see what it gives me that others didn’t. [When I started doing this, I had to come to terms quite quickly with the fact that some people don’t like being on the receiving end of all this “sharing”. More than once, I thought long and hard about segmenting my stream so that people could tune in or tune out of the particular segment. But I’ve stayed “whole” nevertheless. More on this later].

I’ve written about social objects a few times, even touched on the topic of something analogous to a graphic equaliser for an individual lifestream, yet I felt it was worth while in discussing them further in the context of “a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”. This time around, I want to concentrate on the ecosystem, on the tools and conventions we will need. Because that’s how sharing of experiences can become simpler, more extensive, more valuable.

I think we do five things with digital objects:

  • Introduce the object into shared space
  • Experience (and re-experience) the object
  • Share what you’re experiencing with others
  • Place in context that experience
  • Connect and re-connect with the family that has the same shared imaginary place

So to my way of thinking, once I start going down this road, every music site, every photo site, every video site, every audio site, they’re all about helping us introduce digital objects into shared space.

Many of these introducer sites also double up as experiencer sites: so you can watch the videos, hear the music and so on.

Every community site then becomes a way of sharing the experience of those objects: every review, every rating, every post, every link, every lifestream, all these are just ways of sharing our experiences, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without.

As more people get connected, and as the tools for sharing get better, and as the costs of sharing drop, we’re going to have the classic problems that we’ve already learnt about from the web in general. There are too many firehoses. It becomes hard to know what is out there, harder to find the right things. Errors, inaccuracies, even lies abound. (Digital objects are easy to modify).

So metadata becomes important. Preferably automated, so that authenticity is verifiable. Preferably low-cost and high-speed. Preferably indelibly associated with the digital object. Preferably easy to augment with tags and folksonomies and hashtags. Times, places, people. Names and descriptions. Devices involved, settings for those devices. History of views, listens, access, usage, editing. The edits themselves.

Authenticity becomes even more important. Watermarking the object while at the same time allowing copies of the object to be modified.

Search tools have to get better. I’ve been reading and re-reading Esther Dyson’s The Future of Internet Search for some time now, linking what she’s saying to what I’m thinking about here. Esther has been a friend and mentor for a long time; when she has something to say, I shut up and listen.

Visualisation tools also have to get better, which is why I spend time reading stuff like Information is Beautiful, why I visit feltron or manyeyes.

Sometimes many of these things happen in one place, elegantly and beautifully. That’s why I like Chris Wild’s Retroscope, why I like How To Be A Retronaut. It helps us place into context some of the things we share, some of the things we used to share.

Sometimes the tools for doing some of this move us into new dimensions, as in the case of layar and augmented reality, or for that matter AR spectacles. Noninvasive ways of overlaying information on to physical objects, ways that allow us to share the imaginary place more effectively.

As a young man, I was an incurable optimist. While time has tempered that optimism, my outlook on life continues to be positive, so positive that people sometimes claim I’m almost Utopian. Yet I still remember two quotations that were like kryptonite to the Superman of my optimism.

The first was Thoreau’s: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. And the second was Burke’s: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“.

There are many things we have to get better at, and many people working hard to make sure that, collectively, we get better at them. Feeding the world, eradicating poverty and the illnesses associated with poverty. Making sure every child has access to basic education. Improving healthcare, moving from cure to prevention, moving from symptom to root cause. Being better neighbours. Being better stewards of our environment.

I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally lonely; I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally depressed. And I have always wanted to do whatever I can to prevent these things from happening.

The tools we have today can help us eradicate loneliness and depression in ways that pharmacology can only dream of. Those tools can and will get better.

Of course there are things that come in the way, things we have to deal with first. Concepts like intellectual property rights have to be overhauled from the abominations they represent today, rebuilt from the ground up. Concepts like privacy and confidentiality have to be reformed to help us bring back community values that were eroded over the last 150 years or so. Human rights have to be reframed in a global context, the very concept of a nation re-interpreted, a whole new United Nations formed.

But while all that happens, we can help. By continuing to create ways that people remember the familiar shared imaginary places, by reminding ourselves what family means.

Family is not about blood alone, it is about covenant relationships. When something goes wrong in a covenant relationship, you don’t look for someone to blame, or even sue. You look for ways to fix it. Together.

Families don’t just share a past, they share a present. And a future. Social objects are, similarly, not just about the past, they’re about the present, they’re about the future.

We’re on the start of a whole new journey, and so we spend time learning about sharing by declaring past and present experiences. Soon we will get better at sharing intentions.

Soon we will get better at sharing imaginary places that are in the future, not in the past or present.

Soon. to paraphrase the prophet Joel,  our old men shall dream dreams, our young men shall see visions.

Does the Web make experts dumb? Part 2: Who’s The Teacher?

I try and make a point of looking for the good in people; I try and make a point of looking for the good in situations; I try and make a point of looking for the good in outlook and expectation.

Those traits in me make some people believe that I’m a wild-eyed optimist, whatever the truth might be; this is particularly true of people who tend to believe that two and two make five, who are quick to draw conclusions on superficial evidence.

Against this backdrop, factor in the following: I was born in the ’50s, grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s. I cite Jerry Garcia, Stewart Brand and Lewis Hyde as early influences (people did read in the ’60s and ’70s); I learnt to dance to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (it’s harder than it sounds); I love spending time in San Francisco; and I call myself a retired hippie.

So some people think I’m a pinko lefty treehugging wild-eyed optimist. In short, a Utopian.  And you can’t blame them.

Which is why, when I make assertions like I did last night: suggesting that the Web actually reduces barriers to entry when it comes to “expertise”, and that traditional experts (myself included) are becoming less scarce, less distinctive, less “valuable”: I need to back up the assertions with some concrete evidence rather than just theory.

Which is what I intend to do tonight.

I want to point you towards evidence of the Great Leveller status of the internet. Some evidence I found intriguing at first, compelling as I got into it, and finally inspiring.

Sugata Mitra: courtesy of the TED Blog

So let me tell you the story of Sugata Mitra, polymath, professor, chief scientist emeritus. A man with an incredible vision and the willingness to do something about it. He speaks English and Bengali, a little German, spent time in Calcutta, works with computers and is passionate about education. So maybe I’m a little biased. Bear with me.

Professor Mitra is responsible for introducing me (and a gazillion others) to the concept of Minimally Invasive Education or MIE. In simple terms, over a decade ago, he ran an experiment called Hole In the Wall which took PCs and stuck them in walls in slums, with no explanation or instruction. And watched as children learnt.

Some of you must be thinking, he must have gotten lucky, a flash in the pan. Yes. Eleven years later. Nine countries later. 300 Holes-In-The-Wall later. 300,000 students later. You could say he got lucky.

I prefer to think he called it right. I was privileged to hear Professor Mitra at TED, and to shake his hand. I have had an instinctive and long-seated belief in the incredible potential of humanity, and hearing his story reinforced my belief. You can find his TED talks here and here.

One of my favourite practitioners and writers on leadership, Max De Pree, characterised leaders as people who do just two things: set strategy and direction and say thank you. In between those two things, he said leaders are servants and debtors. Since reading some of his works in the late 1980s, I’ve considered “getting out of the way” to be an essential component of good leadership.

If you ever wanted rebuttals to abominations like the Bell Curve; if you ever wanted refutations to arguments about the web making us dumber; if you ever wanted evidence to challenge assertions about the cult of the amateur; then look no further than Sugata Mitra’s research. Thank you Professor Mitra. And thank you TED, particularly Chris Anderson and Bruno Guissani for bringing Professor Mitra to my attention and then giving me the chance to meet him.

All teachers are learners. All learners are teachers. Teachers and learners are not just passionately curious a la Einstein; they want to see everyone discover their potential, achieve it and improve upon it.

Stories like Sugata Mitra’s inspire me. They make me believe that battles to ensure ubiquitous affordable connectivity are worth while; they make me believe that wars to eradicate inappropriate IPR are worth while; they make me believe that the Digital Divide can be avoided.

They remind me of the incredible potential every child represents. The incredible responsibility every parent, every teacher, every human has towards generations to come. The critical value of education in that context.

So if people want to believe the internet dumbs people down, fine. That’s their choice, and I don’t have to agree with them. It will not stop me wanting to use the internet to level the playing field, to help ensure that access to information, to knowledge, to wisdom is not the birthright of the privileged few alone.

Another data point. Last year I spent some time in Italy with my family (it was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we took the children to Sorrento, where we’d honeymooned in 1984). And we went to Pompeii. Where we met a fantastic guide called Mario. Who was 65 years old, a real expert. And he was stopping working for a while. Going back to school. Because the web had reduced the value of his expertise.

The problem, the weakening of the value of “expertise”, is instructive. His response, to go back to school at 65, is even more instructive. You can read all about it here, in a post I wrote at the time.

[By the way, thanks for your comments yesterday. I will wait for further comments tonight and tomorrow, and then try and round things off in a final post later this week.]

Does the web make experts dumb?

For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.

Information can be asymmetric in a number of ways. The first, and simplest, is asymmetry-in-access. If you can make sure that no one else has access to information that you have access to, if you’re in a position to deny others access to the information, then you can do something useful with it. In the old days this was called keeping a secret. Keeping something secret is not wrong per se. But if that secret is privileged information, there are many things you cannot do with it. Like trade on it. Or blackmail someone as a result of it.

Nevertheless, for centuries, people have made money by having asymmetric access to information. And for the most part they’ve done it legally.

A second form of asymmetry is in effect a special case of asymmetry-in-access: asymmetry-in-creation. If you create/originate the information in question, then it is possible to prevent anyone else from knowing it. All you have to do is make sure that you don’t tell anyone. Kenny Dalglish, while managing Liverpool in the mid-to-late 1980s,  was asked how he’d managed to keep Ian Rush’s return from Juventus a secret. In answer he said ‘It was simple. I didn’t tell anyone”.

If you choose not to share something you’ve created, then you are in a position to be the only person in the world to enjoy it. Take a work of art or music or literature. As creator, you can choose to share whatever you’ve created with nobody; with just one person; with just a few people; the choice is yours. And you can charge for this access. Some people may think you’re being selfish, some people may consider you “sad” as a result, but you have every right. What you’re doing is legal. You’re protecting the scarce nature of what you’ve created, and seeking to exploit that scarcity.

For centuries people have made money out of creating unique things, scarce things, and then charging others when they want access or ownership.

A third form of asymmetry is really a derivative form, where the information is itself not of much use without some way of comprehending it, parsing it, interpreting it: asymmetry-in-education. Equality in educational rights may be a much-vaunted goal, but it’s not there. Equality of opportunity continues to be mandated, and may well happen in your lifetime. Equality of outcome cannot be legislated. Asymmetry-in-education has therefore continued to persist despite the efforts of well-meaning people over the past century or so.

This form of asymmetry has been exploited by experts in many guises: doctors, lawyers, priests, even IT consultants. And their theme song is simple. “You didn’t have to work as hard as I did to know what I know. It’s complex, you won’t understand it.”. In many cases, this situation was exacerbated by the use of foreign languages, preferably dead foreign languages. And, just in case that wasn’t enough, the smoke and mirrors of specialist terminology, jargon, abbreviation and convention was used to obfuscate the environment.

For millennia experts have exploited this asymmetry and wielded power and amassed wealth as a result.

There is a fourth, and final, form of asymmetry: asymmetry-by-design. This is where you take something that is essentially abundant and, through fair means or foul, get it redefined as scarce. Most implementations of Digital Rights Management are attempts to create asymmetric access, make something scarce by design. At a level of abstraction, iPhone and Android apps are essentially the same thing in disguise: thinly-veiled attempts to make abundant things scarce.

Creating artificial scarcity out of something that is essentially abundant is also not wrong per se. But there can be legal and moral implications. Building a dam near the source of a river and charging people for access to the water may sound reasonable; on the other hand, there may be strong grounds for “grandfathered” rights to that water. Society, through the ages, has seen fit to protect the view (as in “ancient lights”), walks (as in ramblers’ rights) and even open spaces (as in commons).

[Speaking of commons, permit me an aside. There appears to be a tendency for people to use the term “by hook or by crook” to mean the equivalent of “by fair means or foul”. This is inaccurate. If you wanted to chop down wood for firewood, you were entitled to use your hook or your crook to get to branches and limbs of trees in the commons. Only fair means. No foul means.]

Asymmetry in access. Asymmetry in creation. Asymmetry in education. Asymmetry by design.

Asymmetries all of them. Asymmetries that allowed people to wield power and to amass wealth. For the most part legally.

Then, along comes the internet. Along comes the Web.

The world’s biggest copy machine, as Kevin Kelly reminded us.

Suddenly asymmetry of access was weakened, holed amidships below the waterline. One of the nicest things about the web is that it levels the playing field for access. More accurately, it is capable of levelling the playing field for access. And it is for this reason that “net neutrality” arguments tend to get most heated where there isn’t any true competition for access. Given real transparency and real competition for access, there would not be a need for legislation.

Copying machines are not designed to make things scarce. As a result, anything made available on the internet was relatively easy to copy. Which in turn meant that anything that was expressed as a digital object was difficult to make scarce. Many many industries have made money for many many years on the basis of relative scarcity; their concepts of pricing were based on scarcity models. So they tried to make the inherent abundance of the internet into something scarcer by using DRM or its more sophisticated new form, the App.

This approach, asymmetry-by-creation, and its alter ego, asymmetry-by-design, are about creating artificial scarcity. This is fundamentally doomed. I’ve said it many times. Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.

So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.

I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.

The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.

I have three children born since 1986. One has finished her Master’s and is now a teacher. One has just finished his A Levels and is taking a “gap year” before starting university in a year’s time. The third is still in school.

The web has made them smarter. They know things I did not know at their age, and I had privileged upbringing and access. They know things more deeply than I did. Their interest in things analog is unabated, they think of the web as an AND to their analog lives rather than an OR.

Many of you reading this are experts; I myself am considered an expert in some things. And the status bestowed upon us by our expertise is dwindling

So what?

We should rejoice that access to the things that made us experts is now getting easier, cheaper and more universal.

We should rejoice that generations to come will out-expert us in every field we care to name.

We should rejoice that we continue to enter a world where the economics of abundance is displacing the economics of scarcity.

We should rise up every time there is an attempt to pollute the path of open access.

The web is not making us dumb. It is the expert in us that is being made to look dumb. And that is a Good Thing.

Views? Comments? I suspect this post might attract a few flames….

Thinking about Mario, Pompeii and the internet

I spent some time with the family wandering around Pompeii at the weekend. It was a wonderful experience; while I’d been there before, it was a long time ago: the technology of archaeology has moved forward apace; and I was twenty-five years older. [We’d gone to Sorrento for our honeymoon in 1984. We decided it would be fitting to go back there for our silver anniversary, this time with the children.]

There were many things I learnt, much that was brought to mind. Some of you probably think I read too much Jane Jacobs (and for that matter, Christopher Alexander) for my own good. So be it. I’d happily re-read The Death and Life of Great American Cities every six months or so; if you haven’t discovered Jane Jacobs stop reading now, go to the book-buying web site of your choice and order pretty much anything by her. Alexander’s A Pattern Language is probably somewhat less accessible, but still definitely worth a read.

So what did I learn?

I learnt that the buildings in Pompeii that had arched and domed rooms and gateways fared much better than the rest.


I learnt that Pompeii was a cosmopolitan place where they’d worked out the importance of using culture-crossing graphics and symbols rather than words.



I learnt that they had interesting models of re-use: for example, they used the fragments of ceramics smashed in the earthquake of 62AD to form and decorate floors:


I learnt that they took real care in their design, making the roads work as rainwater escapes as well: the city was built on igneous rock which was less than perfect as a flood plain. But then it would be hard for people to cross the streets, so they embedded the streets with crossing stones at regular intervals:



I learnt that they used natural materials as cat’s eyes, embedding pavements and floors with reflective stones as shown below:



I learnt that they cared about waste and recycling, saw what they built under the rooms (and for that matter how they reused urine as fertiliser).


I learnt that they had open standards and component architecture. For example, they had 38 different sizes of container for food and drink, and everyone used the same sizes to mean the same things:


I learnt that they did all this with time for beauty and enjoyment in their architecture and layout:


I learnt that they did all this under the shadow of Vesuvius, a fragile and beautiful peace in the presence of danger:


But you know what? I could have learnt all of this from a book. I could have learnt all this from the internet.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Mario. 65 years old this year. Been doing the job of personal tour guide for 48 years. A wonderful, passionate man, passionate about everything he does, passionate about Pompeii, its history and culture, passionate about archaeology, passionate about learning. Someone who has seen the impact of bad decisions from an archaeological perspective, someone who cares enough to celebrate the learning that comes from those decisions.


All this time I was seeing things in Pompeii, and thinking about the internet.

But Mario changed all that. He saw things in the internet and started thinking of Pompeii.

You see, Mario’s stopping work for a year or two. He’s not retiring, even though he’s 65. He’s going back to school.

Why? Because of the internet. He realises that the internet (particularly the web) reduces the barrier to entry for information and knowledge; that it exposes paucity of knowledge, and raises the bar for standards in professions where knowledge is a form of expertise.

He has seen his colleagues and peers, so-called experts, fail to hold the attention of crowds, as they bleat on about things we can all find out from the web. He is too passionate about his profession, his skills, his way of life to allow the internet to weaken him. He is too passionate about Pompeii, about its history, about his history, to roll over and give up.

So Mario, aged 65, a consummate professional, a passionate expert at what he does, is going back to school.

Because of the internet.

And you know what? He’s looking forward to it.

So I will be back in a few years’ time, to see Mario. To see what he has learnt. And how he keeps ahead of the internet.

In manufacturing we speak of a “China Price”. Maybe Mario’s tale suggests that for knowledge we should start speaking of an “internet price”.

In the meantime, here’s to Mario, and to all the Marios of this world. Passionate about what they do, choosing to embrace and extend the internet.