…just like a cog in something turning…

Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel like I’m a cog in something turning.
And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.
And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.


Photo by Dan Beach courtesy of the Joni Mitchell website


Remember the song Woodstock? I first heard the Matthews Southern Comfort version, then soon after that the Crosby Stills Nash and Young one, and shortly after that Joni’s original. I must have been all of 13. And today, forty-odd years later, it is still one of the defining songs of that time for me, perhaps even the defining one. Along with everything else that characterised those just-landed-on the Moon times, it made the teenager that was me believe that the world could and would be a better place. That people were essentially good. That we were social people. That sharing was good. That working together good would happen. That, over time, poverty and hunger and war and disease could all be solved, as humans worked together and applied their collective intelligence.



Photo courtesy Wikipedia


Those were the days. Imagine. [I could probably write the rest of this post trying to string together a series of songs from that era, but I’m going to resist the temptation.] Instead, I’m going to segue over to the Grateful Dead, an ever-growing influence on me in those days. I was very taken with the idea that the band seemed to on the road all the time, that they were always in concert, that for them music was really a performance art. Beyond that, I was entranced by their treating their music somewhat like traditional jazz or for that matter classical Indian music, with regular extemporaneous experimention on a series of themes. And then there was the Tapers Section.



Grateful Dead Tapers Section


Reading about the Grateful Dead and hearing them, and later on even getting the chance to watch them perform live a few times, I began to understand what Jerry Garcia meant when he said “Once we’re done with it, the audience can have it”. They really saw music as a performance art; more than that, they saw music as culture, alive and vibrant in community. End of segue. [Almost.]

As I grew older, and as the power of the internet unfolded before me, I became convinced that much of what I dreamt of would become possible as a result of that platform. And my love affair with the internet became a commitment for life. Incidentally, take a look at the tabs at the Internet Archive: and then figure out for yourself why the Grateful Dead have a tab all to themselves. [OK, now that’s the end of the segue.]

So, the internet as a platform. I began to believe in it. Reading stuff like the Whole Earth Review and slowly seeing what was happening at the WELL, I began to believe even more. And then came the Web. And mobility. And everything else.

Decades later, I was still that person. I still believed that ubiquitous, affordable connectivity, compute power and storage would help transform all our lives, would improve our ability to learn and educate ourselves, would help us become healthier, would help us live better lives. That is why I wrote Building Society For the 21st Century as the kernel for this blog when I first went public with it.

Today, in 2013, I am still that person.

Today, there are many reasons to be disconsolate. Poverty and hunger are still not history, even though we have enough collectively. Diseases that had been eradicated seem to be making a comeback. Wars have morphed into interminable guerilla engagements with no end in sight. The global economy’s a mess with growth hard to find. Governments seem powerless: democratic ones are largely two-party states with each party hell-bent on destroying the other, rather than serve their citizens; autocratic ones seem hell-bent on retaining power at any cost, including genocide. Millions of children are out of school and hundreds of millions of youth are unemployed. Climate and energy and water and natural resource problems continue to proliferate with no end in sight. Many reasons to be disconsolate.

And yet, today I am still that person, believing in a better world, believing for a better world. A world where enfranchised connected people can work together to make a difference to their education, their health, their welfare, their environment, their government, everything. People with the ability and the freedom to make a difference, to make a dent in their particular part of the universe.

So I thought I’d take a quick look on how we’re doing in terms of being enfranchised and empowered and connected.

Our ability to get connected. The internet. Nearly 2.5 billion people connected, out of the 7 billion or so. 44% of the connected people are now in Asia. A long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction, with millions being added regularly.

Screen Shot 2013-01-12 at 22.55.25


Our ability to do something with that connection: devices, smart and otherwise. Around 5 billion mobile phones in circulation, with a billion of them smartphone users.





Taken from 2012 KPCB Internet Trends


Our ability to do something with that connection: switching away from the scarcity-bound desktop PC/landline world to the mobile device/wireless world:



Taken from 2012 KPCB Internet Trends


Our ability to build our own devices. Raspberry Pi passes a million. How to build a mobile network basestation using Raspberry Pi.

Our ability to build our own anything. Portable open source 3D printers. The Global Village Construction Set.

Our ability to repair many things, substitute many things. Fixing the future with Sugru.

Our ability to mash all this up and use open platforms to do even more amazing things, some simple, some complex. How Arduino, open source and 3D printing are changing speaker design. Physical social networking with the Good Night Lamp.

The list is endless. Open courseware and MOOCs are now to be taken seriously. Open data is gathering momentum. Open architectures are beginning to pervade publishing, healthcare, even government.

Everything is getting disrupted.


Not just for Arabs, and not just at Springtime.

Everything. All the time.

With everyone connected and able to express themselves and to share with each other, the tools of past times are ill suited to serve us. So there’s a lot of pressure on legal and regulatory systems to do with many things: patents, copyright, trademarks, banking and finance, communications, computing, journalism, personal information, freedom of expression, you name it. And all these things tend to get further complicated as the very concept of nation comes under pressure, with Cyrano de Bergerac and Obelix going Russian. People and companies move to where the tax sun don’t shine.


gerard depardieu russian citizenship

Of course powerful incumbents are discombobulated by all this. Dinosaurs were designed for discombobulation.

And of course they try and fight the changes in every way. SOPA. PIPA. ACTA. WCIT. Look where it’s got them. As I’ve said before, it’s over.

Powerful incumbents like being in control, which means predicting the future by preventing it.

But you know what?

I feel/just like a cog/in something turning.

A coda: I learnt, while writing this post, about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. Do read Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig’s obituaries of Aaron. A sad day.

Coda 2: Here is the official statement from Aaron’s family and partner. Do read it.

A sad day.

But the future will not be prevented.



8 thoughts on “…just like a cog in something turning…”

  1. Woodstock was the end of the hippie movement. Three days of peace and love, great music, great drugs, and … nothing more than that. No group mind formed. The mother ship did not show itself. Back in the day, we really thought something magic could happen. Woodstock showed otherwise.

  2. JPR, It was the relationship between poverty and access to information which we began with some years ago:

    “By leaving people in poverty, at risk of their lives due to lack of basic living essentials, we have stepped across the boundary of civilization. We have conceded that these people do not matter, are not important. Allowing them to starve to death, freeze to death, die from deprivation, or simply shooting them, is in the end exactly the same thing. Inflicting or allowing poverty on a group of people or an entire country is a formula for disaster.

    The greatest initial social and economic risk of the Information Age is in creating two distinctly different classes of people: the technological haves and have-nots. Those who have access to information and information technology have a reasonable expectation to survive and prosper. Those with limited or no access will be left out. This holds true for individuals as well as nations. The key to the future is access to free flow of information. To the extent that the free flow of information is restricted or diminished, people will be left to endure diminished prospects of prosperity and even survival.”

    By chance it was in Russia where our poverty reduction efforts began in practical terms and that led to being marked as a threat to national security and no longer welcome to enter their territory. A fate shared with venture capitalist Bill Browder, whose influence gave rise to the Magnitski Act.

    We lost a founder just over a year ago. He didn’t take his own life, he was in fact trying to save many others when his own poverty caught up with him.


  3. the internet has been like a person, developing a few siddhis, before the hard work of yamas and niyamas has begun …

    some blessings, of course, but the real work remains …

    thanks for your part.

    enjoy, gregory

  4. Chris, I spent time trying to explain this was about the song not about the festival. for people like me in India the song was accessible. ironically I think even Joni Mitchell never made it to the festival.

  5. Jeff, I guess I’m more optimistic than most. I expect smart mobile phones to get cheaper. And I expect everyone on earth to be connected that way in my lifetime.

  6. There is no mother ship, no magical turning where we can say this is when everything changed. It is changing right now, it is changing person by person. It is evolution we want, not revolution. There is plenty of magic out there.

  7. Agree that it’s a long-running zeitgeist rather than a single silver bullet. But the internet and the Web were seminal nevertheless.

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