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.

On pasta and music and copyright

I love food. I love cooking. I use the analogy of food to learn about information: in fact, I’ve nearly finished writing a book that looks in detail at information as if it were food. One of the foods I love is pasta. Glorious pasta.

[I’m attributing this to Red Giraffe, though I came across this elsewhere without any attribution.]

Nobody quite knows precisely where pasta comes from, where and when pasta began. The web is a rich resource for satisfying any curiosity you may have on the topic; suffice it to say that most of the stories involve thousands of years, a lot of dead people (usually Greeks, Romans and Chinese) and even the odd saint or two. Marco Polo doesn’t quite make the cut, but that doesn’t prevent the Chinese having a stake in the ground millenia earlier.

Some of the stories are more recent and more enjoyable (albeit slightly less credible) such as this one, harvested from the Alexandra Palace Television Service over fifty years ago:

Some of the stories may be hard to believe, but nevertheless people agree on a number of things:

  • Pasta has been around since the year dot.
  • Pasta is made by mixing ground kernels of grain, usually wheat,  with water or egg; while Italian pasta tends to be made of durum wheat and no other, other types of grain are in use elsewhere.
  • Pasta used to be made by hand (or more precisely, foot); since 1740 or so machines have also been used to make pasta.

[attributed with thanks to Donovan Govan]

Pasta comes in many shapes and sizes and forms; if you’re interested, read the wikipedia article. If you want to delve deeper, there is probably no better book than Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Encyclopaedia of Pasta.

[Attributed with thanks to FoodieSteve’s blog]

Pasta proclamations, even patents, have been around for a long time, perfidious and pusillanimous attempts to pervert people’s creativity. There have even been designers who’ve tried their hand at new forms of pasta:

Giorgio Giugiaro’s Marille pasta

Philippe Starck’s Mandala pasta

Think about pasta. Today, anyone can make pasta. Kafkaesque bureaucracies can make up rules about the nature of the grain used, the water used, the egg, whatever, but basically every human being has a right to decide what to make pasta out of. You can buy machines to make pasta. But you don’t have to. You can buy “readymade” pasta made by someone else, or even try and make similar pasta at home yourself. You can even go to the extreme, and buy not just the pasta but the love and labour that goes into making and serving a dish with pasta: you can go to a restaurant and pay a chef to do that for you, pay waiters to serve it to you.

Basically, you can do what you like with pasta, starting with the wheat and water and ending with the cooked meal. At each stage, you have the choice of whether you want to pay someone else to do something or not. Someone else can make the pasta for you. Sell you a machine to make pasta. Write a book and tell you how to make the pasta. Or the meal itself. Someone else can cook it for you, amateur or professional. There are a million ways people can participate in the design, making, cooking and eating of pasta, a million ways people can make money with pasta.

Wonderful, isn’t it? The freedom and creativity that has given us over 1300 types of pasta over centuries, shared and enjoyed by billions.

But you know something? It would take very little to screw all this up, to make a complete codswallop out of pasta. Imagine this scenario:

  • Step 1: Patented genetically modified durum wheat begins to displace “organic” wheats. Over time, all the durum wheat grown in the world is covered by patent. People continue to share recipes and cook and eat at home, and in restaurants.
  • Step 2: The GM wheat manufacturers do deals with pasta machine manufacturers (also patented, of course). You cannot use the machines except with official durum wheat. [This is called putting the DRM in durum, which then gets trademarked as DuRuM]. People continue to share recipes and cook and eat at home and in restaurants. Some people have the gall to build their own machines, some don’t even use machines; they knead the dough with their feet.
  • Step 3: The pasta and pasta machine manufacture and distribution industry does not like this, so, under the guise of public safety, lobbies and gets legislation passed that outlaws all wheat bar non-GM wheat, as happened for a while with mustard oil in India. While they’re at it, home manufacture of pasta is also banned. People continue to do what they’ve been doing for thousands of years, and the legislation isn’t taken seriously.
  • Step 4: The internet arrives, Moore’s Law continues to march, and the digitisation of the pasta world continues. 3D printing becomes reality. People don’t just share recipes with their friends and neighbours any more, they now use the internet to share recipes with people they don’t even know, people living all over the world. Even worse, people start making their own pasta machines even though this is “illegal”. RepRap pasta machine cells spring up everywhere.
  • Step 5: The pasta and pasta machine manufacture and distribution industry, which had been going so well since the middle of the 19th century, is distraught. They find all this modern technology so unfair, despite the irony that they themselves disrupted an entire industry as a result of technological advancement 150 years ago. So they lobby government for even more law, to declare sharing of recipes illegal, to declare 3D machines illegal, to declare the transport and distribution of such recipes and machines illegal. Up goes the cry, the pasta bandit must be stopped. Billions at stake, millions of jobs lost, all because of the pasta bandits.
  • Step 6: Government is so busy looking for WMD in Iraq, looking through their expense claims, looking for oil, looking for lucrative post-government book deals, speaking assignments and suchlike, that they don’t have time to worry about all this. Their noses may have been deep in the trough, but they know what to do every time they hear words like “bandit”. Bandits? We can’t have them. Thieving uncivilised louts, we need to put a stop to this forthwith.
  • Step 7: And so the pasta “bandit” is born. And over time, five thousand years of eating pasta comes to a halt.

Don’t worry, none of this could happen in a civilised country, we have nothing to fear. Especially in civilised countries like the UK, the USA and France.

Think about pasta. And think about music. Think about laws that require you to take down a home video of people singing Happy Birthday to You. Think about laws that require people’s internet connections to be cut off for alleged acts of music “piracy”, somehow seen as criminal theft while being at best, and that too only if proven sufficiently in a court of law, civil offences of copyright infringement. Think about laws that make it impossible to provide free wifi.

Think about the freedoms that are being traded. Yankee Doodle, as the song says “put a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni”.

Soon we won’t have the right to call anything Macaroni. Forget calling a feather macaroni, at the rate our freedoms are being traded we will soon not have the right to call macaroni macaroni. Not unless it was made out of GM durum wheat made using licensed machines on licensed premises, using officially endorsed recipes.

The Digital Economy Act is not about thieves or bandits. It’s about preserving 150-year-old business models that prevent human beings from enjoying 5000-year-old freedoms.

The customer is the scarcity

Every economic era is characterised by certain abundances and by certain scarcities; these change over time; yesterday’s abundances become today’s scarcities and vice versa. When I was a young child in India, cotton was plentiful and polyester scarce. People valued the scarce thing over the abundant thing: so the rich wore Terylene shirts and the poor wore cotton. Even though the Terylene shirts were overpriced uncomfortable non-absorbent non-breathable stick-to-your-back sweat producers.

Most of the time, the abundances and scarcities are natural, caused by explicable imbalances between supply and demand. So cotton was cheap in India and expensive in the UK, while polyester was cheap in the UK and expensive in India.

Sometimes the imbalances are artificial: monopolies and cartels and market power abuse and price-fixing and market-cornering are examples of such artificial imbalances. Most of these have been seen for what they are, and consequently declared illegal in most countries.

Not all artificial scarcities have been termed illegal as yet: the most glaring example is that of “intellectual property rights”, where something is made artificially scarce using the power of the state; no other rights depend exclusively on state intervention. Strange, that.


The digital age has given rise to more and more artificial ways of creating and assuring scarcity. Computer ports are a classic example: when all the ports were hardware ports, scarcity was easy to understand. When the ports in question were software ports, the concept of scarcity was less easy to establish.

Analogue things are usually scarcer than digital things, since the cost of digital reproduction and transmission is extremely low. As Kevin Kelly said, the internet is one great copy machine. [if you’re a fan of KK, do take a look at some of his other essays in related areas: Better Than Owning is well worth a read, for example.

Two other Kevin Kelly essays stand out in this context: People Want to Pay and Why People Pirate Stuff. I quote from the Pirate essay:

[Game developer Cliff Harris asked the online world “Why do people pirate my games? And in the answers, …] He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got — even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route. Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.

Similarly, one of the key points made in the Want to Pay essay is this:

People buy stuff, but what we all crave are relationships. Payment is an elemental type of relationship. Very primitive, but real.

There are some caveats in this urge to pay.

Paying has to be super easy, idiot-proof and frictionless. There can’t be hurdles. The easier it is to pay, the more eager people are to pay.

The price has to be reasonable. That means it has to be reasonable in relation to similar stuff that is free!

The benefits of paying have to be evident and transparent. This takes creativity to produce and work to convey simply. Unless the benefits of paying are obvious, paying is made difficult.

Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. Port vulnerabilities will be exploited, as Microsoft users have found out to their cost. DVD players will be “chipped” to overcome the insanity of region coding on DVDs (which, by the way, is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen done). Music and film and book DRM will be hacked, as Jon Lech Johansen showed elegantly.

When I was a child, “English” films (which included those of both US as well as UK origin) tended to come out a year to eighteen months after release abroad. Not surprising in an analogue world, with very high production and distribution costs and a scarcity of copies as a result. Today, when there is an artificial gap between US and Indian or Chinese release, the artificial abundance kicks in. Piracy.

Protecting artificial scarcity is an expensive proposition, and ultimately a losing proposition. More and more people will volunteer time to help correct artificial scarcity, because they see it as path pollution, the desecration of core values by profane behaviour.

People see DRM as something that is an irritant, a pollutant, a time waster. They want to pay, but not at the price of artificially imposed inconvenience. There is also a key trust issue here: similar to the issues related to identity, privacy and confidentiality, there is a pervasive belief that those who use DRM will act more and more unreasonably.

Take Amazon. I like much of what the company does and stands for. The recent incident with Amazon and 1984 may not dent the company’s reputation overall, but many people will not buy a Kindle as a result. And I am one of them. Remotely-managed deletion of electronic copies of 1984 from people’s Kindles, copies that were legitimately paid for, is a monstrous thing to do. Incidents like “1984” will spur the pushback against DRM even more.

This post is not about the 1984 incident; although we will see consequences, the incident will pass. This post is about something far more important.


[My thanks to Bergen Moore for the photo above.]

This post is about the customer. Customers are creative people who transform scarcities and abundances in strange and beautiful ways. If two-wheelers are abundant and four-wheelers are scarce, then a way will be found to make a two-wheeler behave like a four-wheeler.

As Dan Bricklin pointed out wonderfully in his book Bricklin on Technology, we must always remember that the role of the technologist is to build tools for people to use, not to constrain them from doing things. [incidentally, Dan’s partner-in-crime during the VisiCalc days, Bob Frankston, is an excellent source of learning as well. I have had the joy of listening to him on many occasions, count both him and Dan as personal friends. If you get the chance, do read Bob on Zero Marginal Cost and on Assuring Scarcity.

People are incredibly creative. If you plan for ten uses of a tool while designing it, you can rest assured that they will find an eleventh use. Take cooking as an example. And the concept of recipes.

Recipes are tools for the transfer of cultural enjoyment. They show some classic opensource behaviours, to the extent that NEA applies. For most recipes you can say: Nobody owns them. Everyone can use them. Anyone can improve them.

I love cooking. I speak to chefs regularly in order to find out how to make what they made. Sometimes they have cookbooks, and sometimes I buy the cookbooks. Why? Because it is convenient, and I am happy to pay for that convenience, for that service. Content is a service business, as Andrew Savikas points out eloquently. Sometimes I get the book signed by the author, triggering some of Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free generatives, especially those of authenticity and embodiment and patronage.

But what happens after I get the recipe verbally, or after I buy the book? I’ll tell you what happens. I do it my way.

I change things. I experiment with the ratios and quantities in the recipe; add ingredients, drop ingredients. Change the way it’s meant to be cooked. Pass on my learning, the comments of my guests. And learn from others as they do the same thing.

Can you imagine being told that you can’t share recipes with others? That you can’t change ingredients or quantities? That you can’t enrich, augment, mutate the ideas involved? In many ways that is what DRM and IPR is designed to do, prevent us from being creative. [Pharma and IPR is a whole separate subject, yet essentially related. I will cover that in a post on some other day].

Customers want to be creative, to experiment with things, to change things, to share what they learn, to learn by sharing.

We are fast approaching an age when many analogue things will become virtual, digital, easily copied.

We can choose to invest time and effort in making digital things harder to copy: we can choose to create artificial scarcity, and lose.

Or we can choose to invest time and effort in making digital things easier to consume, to share, to enrich. And to pay for.

The customer is willing to pay. If we get the consumption model, the paying model, the sharing model, right.

The customer is the scarcity. Let’s focus on valuing that scarcity, on giving the customer what she wants when, where and how she wants it. With the right consumption and payment and sharing models.

Rambling about creativity and capital and content and frames

In this context of creativity and web, Jonathan Zittrain, or JZ as he gets called, made a number of critical points in his excellent book The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It cover.jpg One of those key points is to do with the “generative” web, the phrase he uses to describe the open and innovative and creative aspects of the web; JZ spends time articulating the rise of locked-down devices, services and whole environments as a direct response to the ostensibly anarchic nature of the generative web, with its inherent vulnerabilities and weaknesses. … ] The implied tension between “generative” and “secure” that is to be found in JZ’s book, resonated, in a strange kind of way, with some of the ideas in Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: 184376331101lzzzzzzz.jpg The book remains one of my all-time favourites, I’ve probably read it a dozen times since it was published.

The tragic death of Michael Jackson has dominated much of the news this past week, even overshadowing the Iran situation in some quarters. Strange but true. Jackson’s death has had some unusual consequences, as people try and deal with their own reactions in different and creative ways. While the original story broke, I believe, on TMZ, Twitter was the river that carried the news to the world.

And Twitter was overwhelmed. Which meant the arrival of the much-loved Fail Whale:


Which led someone to come up with this:


This concerned a small number of people, who were worried that the image may cause offence. Which in turn led someone else to this:


And so it went on, as people sought more and more creative ways of expressing their emotions and paying tribute to Michael Jackson. Wallpaper downloads. Posters. Photographs. Videos. Collages and montages. All in double-quick time. For me the most creative was this mashup:


BillieTweets. Where someone has taken a Billie Jean video and made the lyrics visual using tweets where the relevant word has been highlighted. Follow the link to see how it works. [Thanks to the Scobleizer for the heads-up. And safe travels.].

All this is part of the magic of the web, the value that is generated when people have the right access and tools and ideas. Human beings are so incredibly creative.

In this context of creativity and web, Jonathan Zittrain, or JZ as he gets called, made a number of critical points in his excellent book The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It


One of those key points is to do with the “generative” web, the phrase he uses to describe the open and innovative and creative aspects of the web; JZ spends time articulating the rise of locked-down devices, services and whole environments as a direct response to the ostensibly anarchic nature of the generative web, with its inherent vulnerabilities and weaknesses. [If you haven’t read the book, do so, it’s worth it. ]

The implied tension between “generative” and “secure” that is to be found in JZ’s book, resonated, in a strange kind of way, with some of the ideas in Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital:


The book remains one of my all-time favourites, I’ve probably read it a dozen times since it was published. And given away many many copies, something I have done with a very small number of books, including: The Social Life of Information, The Cluetrain Manifesto and Community Building on The Web.

The resonant piece was this: One of Perez’s seminal findings was the difference between financial capital and production capital.

In Perez’s view, financial capital “represents the critera and behaviour of those agents who possess wealth in the form of money or other paper assets….. their purpose remains tied to having wealth in the form of money (liquid or quasi-liquid and making it grow. To achieve this purpose, they use …. intermediairies …. The behaviour of these intermediaries while fulfilling the function of making money from money that can be observed and analysed as the behaviour of financial capital. In essence, financial capital serves as the agent for reallocating and redistributing wealth.

Perez goes on to say that “the term production capital embodies the motives and behaviours of those agents who generate new wealth by producing goods or performing services.

Through these distinctions, she clearly delineates the differences between the “process of creating wealth and the enabling mechanisms”; these distinctions are then played out through a number of “surges” or paradigm shifts. An incredible book.

For some time now, I’ve been wrestling with the connections between Zittrain’s generative web and Perez’s production capital, and formed my own views of the progressive-versus-conservative tensions that can be drawn from such a juxtaposition.

All this came to the fore again in the context of copyright and content, as I read Diane Gurman’s excellent First Monday piece on Why Lakoff Still Matters: Framing The Debate On Copyright Law And Digital Publishing

I give the abstract of the article here:

In 2004, linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff popularized the idea of using metaphors and “frames” to promote progressive political issues. Although his theories have since been criticized, this article asserts that his framing is still relevant to the debate over copyright law as applied to digital publishing, particularly in the field of scholarly journals. Focusing on issues of copyright term extension and the public domain, open access, educational fair use, and the stewardship and preservation of digital resources, this article explores how to advocate for change more effectively — not by putting a better “spin” on proposed policies — but by using coherent narratives to frame the issues in language linked to progressive values.

Reading the article took me back to Perez and to Zittrain. Our Lakoffian frames of “strict father” and “nurturant parent” are in many ways congruent with the generative-versus-secure and production-versus-financial continua described by JZ and Carlota. As Gurman says:

Lakoff’s nurturant parent embodies values of equality, opportunity, openness and concern for the general welfare of all individuals. Under the progressive economic model, markets should serve the common good and democracy…. The strict father frame, on the other hand, centres on issues of authority and control. The moral credo expresses the belief that if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest they will become prosperous and self-reliant. The favoured economic model is that of a free market operating without government interference.

A free market operating without government interference. Hmmm I remember those.

Despite the credit crunch, the economic meltdowns, the rise in fraud, despite the socialisation of losses and the privatisation of gains that ensued, many things have not changed. And they must. We need to move to a generative internet production capital world. And for that maybe we need to think about what Diane Gurman is saying.

We need to frame our arguments around our values rather than just on the facts and figures; we need to weave a coherent narrative based on public benefit via empowerment and access.

We can see the implications of this divide in many of the arguments that are being had in the digital domain. For example, the recent announcement by Ofcom of its intention to enforce regulated access to premium (and hitherto exclusive) content is a case in point, where the same arguments prevail.

The response of the incumbent, while understandable, is benighted. You only have to look at the public benefit implications, particularly those to do with human progress and innovation.

The returns expected from production capital differ from those expected out of financial capital for a variety of reasons; the most important reason is that when you’re in the business of creating value and wealth, rather than redistributing it, the returns tend to be somewhat less than astronomical.

Thinking about innovation and business models

I’ve always maintained that people who “think opensource” work on useful things, solve problems, create value; they don’t focus on the business model at the outset but instead concentrate on the value they create.

In Peter Drucker’s words, “people make shoes, not money”. Make something that is worth while and people will pay you for it. Figure out what shoes you’re good at making and then make them well. You will make money as a result.

Knowing in advance how you’re going to make money from snake oil may sound like you have a business model; what you have is snake oil. And that’s the problem you need to concentrate on first, the fact that you’re not creating anything of value.

And sometimes the process of calculating and measuring benefits can come in the way. Many years ago, when I worked for Burroughs Corporation, I learnt this the hard way. This was the early 1980s, and software/services was just emerging as a business. Until then, all the margin was in hardware, so we ‘shifted tin”. We gave away the software and the services in order to sell the hardware. Then, as the cost of human capital rose, and investable capital became scarce, this equation began to shift. It became more and more important to understand the true cost of software projects before starting them.

So we instituted something called the Phase Review Process, borrowed from the US Navy if I remember correctly, and implemented it within the firm. Every project had to undergo a phase review at inception and then at each phase.

Which was all fine and dandy. Unless you were just about to start a project that would cost a total of £25,000 inclusive of everything. Which was less than the lowest possible total cost of the phase review process. But I was lucky, my management understood this issue, and it was mandated that projects had to exceed £100,000 in total planned cost before they needed to be put through the Phase Review Process.

Why am I writing all this? Well, some years ago I remember reading about something called the polypill; the newspaper articles referred to this paper which had been published in the BMJ in 2003.

The principle was simple. Six tried and tested medications to be combined into one pill that could cut potentially reduce cardiovascular disease by 80%.

When I first read the articles, I was intrigued. But I didn’t know much about the drugs involved. I knew nothing about statins, other than some vague notion that they were wonder drugs that combated high cholesterol with some wonder side effects. I knew even less about ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers, though I may have come across the beta-blockers as something to do with performance enhancement. Folic acid was something pregnant women took; and diuretics meant you had plumbing problems.

Aspirin I knew about, although I had no idea it could be obtained in cardio doses.

But that was in 2003. Since then, as many of you will know, I have had reason to get to know this particular cocktail of pharmacology quite intimately. Nevertheless, I’d forgotten all about the polypill.

Until a few weeks ago, when I read this on the BBC web site. The polypill could become reality in five years’ time, it said. And then I remembered what i’d read all those years ago, when they said … that the polypill could become reality in five years’ time.

And that made me think. Slowly. Very slowly. And my thoughts went a little like this:

One, cardiovascular disease is the single biggest cause of death facing humans.

Two, people had come up with a cheap and effective way of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease by 80%.

Three, this had happened six or seven years ago.

Four, with a little bit of luck and a following wind, we may see something happen in five years.

Of course I’m oversimplifying, but I don’t believe I’m exaggerating. A strange world we live in.

I’m not by nature a conspiracy theorist. I believe man landed on the moon nearly forty years ago. I don’t believe in little green men or UFOs. Neither do I believe that Big Oil makes sure that substitutes for gasoline never surface.

But here is what I believe. I believe there is some evidence that the polypill does not exist today because it’s hard to make money from it.

Why? Because the ingredients in the polypill are all out of patent, all “generic”. Because the way drugs are trialled, it’s prohibitively expensive to bring a new drug to market unless you have some monopoly rents to come, patents to exploit and exhaust.

So it is possible that the cost of trialling a cocktail of generic drugs exceeds the potential income from selling the cocktail. And so no polypill.

No mention of the number of lives potentially saved and minor stuff like that.

Now I take statins, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, diuretics, blood thinners and anti coagulants daily. You could say I have an amateur interest in all this. A passion, even, given that the medication has worked wonders on my heart and on my life expectancy.

This is not meant to be a diatribe against doctors or the medical profession or even the pharmaceutical industry: they have all treated me really well, and I owe them a debt of gratitude.

What I am trying to do is to point out that sometimes we hold up innovation by concentrating on the wrong thing at the start. And sometimes it’s because of the anchors and frames of the way we do things.

So I was thinking. Opensource people solve generic problems. Is there a way to opensource the trials of generic drugs, to change the mechanics and dynamics of drug trials for generics? Is there a way to adopt the opensource principle of “privatising losses and socialising gains”, the exact opposite of what happened during the credit crunch?

I wonder.