Musing about unheralded heroes and heroines and accidental criminals and IPR

I love Auden’s poetry. I have particular fondness for The Unknown Citizen (or JS/07/M/378, the reference Auden gave to him), so much so that I tend to recall the closing lines of the poem almost weekly in one context or another:


Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.


Unknown citizens have fascinated me for decades. The amateur historian in me has a peculiar bent: I’m fascinated by stories of people whose impact on our lives is belied by their relative obscurity, people whose fifteen minutes of fame changed the course of a tiny part of history, while being largely forgotten by history in general. Take Tank Man for example.

Twenty-three years on, we still don’t know his name. We don’t know if he’s alive or dead or where he is to be found. History isn’t good at remembering people when you don’t know their names.

At least Tank Man knew what he was doing.

Sometimes (some would argue I should use the word “Often” here) people have their impact on history accidentally. Take William Huskisson for example. Statesman, Privy Councillor, MP for multiple constituencies, we remember him principally for being the first person to die in a railway accident: he was run over by Stephenson’s Rocket, and died despite being taken to hospital by Stephenson himself. Now there were people who died in railway accidents before that, but they weren’t the ones to make the news.

My passion for unheralded heroes started in a strange way. As a young boy, I was fascinated by what we then called “general knowledge” or “quizzing”, and as a result had amassed a vast quantity of “useless” information by the time I was 18. It all began with the story of Denise Darvall. You see? I’ve just proved something to you.

Most readers will be familiar with the name of Christiaan Barnard, the surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant. Some may even remember the name of Louis Washkansky, upon whom Barnard operated.  A few will remember that the operation was carried out by Barnard at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town. Even fewer will remember that the operation took place on 3rd December 1967.

But who remembers Denise Darvall?

Denise Ann Darvall was the donor of the heart used by Barnard. A 24 year old killed tragically earlier that very day, run over by a drunk driver while she was out shopping for cake. A true accidental heroine, largely forgotten by history.

I could go on and on, but won’t. As you can probably see, I’m fascinated by stories of accidental and often obscure heroes and heroines, how history picks a random few up and puts their names up in lights, yet leaves unnamed and forgotten the many others involved. Every invention, every political event, every scientific idea, has its share of heroes and heroines, often unnamed, sometimes accidental, always obscure.

Sadly there is now a new branch of accidental and obscure for me to study.

The accidental criminal.

I’ve been concerned about digital rights management and intellectual property rights for some years now, deeply concerned. Those concerns rose to the fore during the infamous Digital Economy Act, a process with the singular, perhaps unique distinction of sullying and besmirching the reputations of politicians involved, in all three major parties.

Those concerns are now growing.

This, despite the relatively balanced and even-handed approach to intellectual property rights taken by Professor Ian Hargreaves in his report, commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron. If you haven’t read the report, please do.

Why am I more concerned?

Firstly, because outcomes often tend to be disconnected to what the commissioned report said: we’ve been here before, as I document here. We’ve had consultations and discussions and reports aplenty, all saying largely sensible things, only to find that what actually happens has very little to do with the reports and recommendations; instead, it appears to be based on narrow, biased lobbying.

Secondly, this lobbying tends to be based on very questionable numbers, again something I’ve written about before in Numbers of Mass Distraction. Don’t believe me? Why not read what the US Government Accountability Office has to say on the subject?

Thirdly, the objective of the lobbying tends to be to enact law that is focused on getting the “low hanging fruit” of the accidental downloaders, the unaware, the weak, the unwary. Why? Because it’s easier to bully them.

I’m not here to defend karaoke-loving grandmothers convicted of illegal downloading. I’m not even here to defend grandmother 83-year old Gertrude Walton, sued by the RIAA in 2005. [At least her defence was impeccable. She didn’t just not have a computer, she’d died some time earlier.]

What I am here to do is to ensure that you understand what’s going on.

But more important than all this is the fact that a very questionable industry practice has been spawned, with very questionable practices. The ambulance-chasers of the IP world, nakedly going after, threatening, seeking to criminalise, the unknowing, the weak, the unaware, the unwary. A practice that needs to be looked at very carefully by all governments, in terms of what they do and how they do it.

Which is why I found this paper on the subject, by Kalika Doloswada and Ann Dadich, refreshing, interesting, an unexpected ray of hope. Please read it.

Some of their key takeaways:

  • The preferred vehicle to prevent illegal downloading is litigation, but there’s scant evidence of this working.
  • Where there is litigation, there’s scant evidence of the monies collected making their way to the creators.
  • Technological advances: closed private networks, IP blockers, identity obscuring tools, anonymous file-sharing networks, encrypted systems: make it hard to get to the IT-savvy, particularly the IT-savvy with criminal intent
  • Despite all this, the preferred mode of the ambulance-chaser is to go after, and to criminalise, the low-hanging fruit of the unaware, the unwary, the unable to defend.

I have over 2000 CDs. I’ve paid through the nose for all of them. I own the vinyl for a hundred or two of them, and have owned (and left behind in India) many more.

I have owned hundreds of cassette tapes, all pre-recorded.

I’ve never taped off the radio, copied someone else’s vinyl on to tape, or downloaded something illegally.

I thought I knew the law. Yet I may have repeatedly broken the law (apparently!) by buying a CD and transferring its contents on to ITunes over the years. As the Daily Mail says here:

People like Terry Fisher and Charlie Nesson over at the Berkman Center have been pushing for alternative ways to resolve the publishing/copyright/IPR impasse for some years now. People like Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing have been writing about for years.

It’s time we all got involved: otherwise we’re going to get the future we deserve, with schoolyard bullies using questionable tactics, data and processes to go after the weak.

More importantly, as a result of the lobbying by these people, we’re going to destroy the ability of the digital world to live up to its promise: in education, in healthcare, in welfare, in government, and in business as a whole.

The lawmakers who allow all this to happen (DMCA, ACTA, DEA, Hadopi, et al) will make more bad laws and move on.

The lobbyists who use questionable data to influence the lawmakers will make their money and move on.

The cowboy firms that collect monies through threats and fear and because of the ignorance of those they prey on will make their money and move on.

The industries who need to change will have staved off change for a short while as a result.

Then everything will change. The laws will change. They must change. Because the law does not remain an ass for long.

But criminal records are forever.

Learning from my children… and Radiohead

I’m blessed. I have three children, born early 1986, late 1991, mid 1998. There is so much I learn from them.

My daughter, the eldest, told me all about Facebook in 2004, and even became my first friend there after I received an invite from Dave Morin, now at Path. Before that I’d done things like watch her converse across multiple MSN Messenger channels in parallel (forcing me to have Microsoft in an Apple-only house!), seemingly while doing her homework and while watching television. It reminded me of the time she was just a few years old, watching TV while reading while eating while playing with toys. I would gently walk over to the TV with the intention of switching it off, only to be stopped by a plaintive “Dad, I’m still watching it”. She was three when the web was written about, five when it became real. And it was a joy to learn about the web through her eyes, the sites she visited, the sites she knew about, the tools she used and why.

She was about 14 when she got her first mobile phone, to give you an idea of how long ago it was. Imagine a 13 year old without a mobile phone now. And SMS was in her DNA, all the way from the start. [While I can’t take credit for it, I do love the definition: “A teenager is someone who can send a text message without taking her phone out of her pocket“]. She was extolling the powers of eBay and YouTube to me before she was old enough to have a credit card. And her choices of phone were (in chronological order) Nokia, Motorola and Samsung. She now has an iPhone.

She’s now a schoolteacher, and it’s a real privilege for me to learn, by watching her and talking to her, how teachers use the web to build their class and course plans and material. A few weeks ago, when she was visiting us, I had the chance to observe her at work in the living room, preparing her material while the TV was on in the background, and it all came flooding back.

Next up was my son, who was less about Facebook and more about Bebo, as social networking did its Benjamin Button thing and went younger. And skateboarding. And cameras. So the sites he took me to were different: it was through him that I discovered places like daily dose of imagery and metacritic, as examples.  His first phone turned up when he was about 12, and his choices were different. Nokia to begin with, Samsung soon after (influenced by camera quality), and then settling with the Nexus One. Android is very important to him.

And then came my youngest, and she introduced me to stuff like Stardoll and Club Penguin, as social networking went younger still. This had its dark side: as the age by which children engaged with such technologies dropped, there appeared to be an unwelcome consequence, that of increased cyber-bullying. So my wife and I found ourselves having to learn about the dangers of formspring and “underage” facebook, a hard time to be parenting. Nothing in our past prepared us for the environment; yet we had two advantages, the older children, there to advise and guide us while not interfering or participating themselves. Parenting was our job, not theirs.

She was 10 when she got her first phone, and it was an iPhone. A hand-me-down. From me. She stayed with that for a while, and then, exactly as predicted by my old boss Ian Livingston at BT, she went all “BBM” on me and insisted on a BlackBerry. [A couple of years ago, as the first commercially available Androids were coming out, and I was telling Ian about the preferences my son had shown, he’d predicted that the next child would be a glutton for BlackBerry Messenger, given her age. He was absolutely right.]

During their lifetimes I have seen the fat TV disappear completely, the CD become a shiny plastic relic to place in the same category as “desktops”,  the mobile phone become a prosthetic device, and the laptop a fashion accessory. Their facility with sound and picture and video, the ease with which they navigate cyberspace, the way they put all this to use and create value from it….. all reasons to make a dad’s heart sing. Of course I’ve had to learn about how to help them combat fraud, how to avoid going to the wrong sites, how to protect their privacy. But largely they’re the ones doing the learning and the teaching, not me.

Except for one or two things. Many children seem to believe that printers get cartridges replaced and paper restocked the same way clothes fly off floors, get washed and ironed and turn up in their bedroom wardrobes. Something needs to be done about this. But that’s a different post.

Where was I? Oh yes, learning from my children. Today my son came to me to tell me about the latest Radiohead album, and to ask whether we can order it.

So we went to the site, pictured below:

EMI may be in trouble, the dinosaur BPI and IFPI may bleat and rant about Numbers of Mass Distraction, but, despite all that FUD,  there is still a lot to like about the way the music industry is going. Because some people are really trying to do things differently. [Ed: enough with the TLAs, JP!]

Global releases. Simultaneous releases. None of the cowpath-paving regional carving-up of territories or times. All formats in one bundle, without the evil of salami-slice torture thrown in. A distribution process that is in keeping with the modern world, all designed and executed by people who appear to have read Kevin Kelly’s fantastic essay Better Than Free and, more importantly, appear to have understood it and taken it to heart.

Of course there were, and continue to be, glitches.

The site was too busy to take the load 14 minutes after the announcement of the album, brought to me by my son quoting Pitchfork. My order wasn’t going through, I was getting a false “decline”. But there was a way to ask for help, an email address. Which I wrote to. And got a reply forthwith saying that the site was very busy, the “decline” was likely to be a function of that volume, and that I should try again in a few hours. Which I did. Successfully.

I’m not a fan of cookies, and bristled at being told “in order to buy any product you must have cookies enabled”. But I could live with it, in the expectation that things will get better.

I had to pretend that I lived in China, just to see what happened. Nothing. If I clicked there I went precisely nowhere. Everything just went quiet. Ominous.

The £3 price differential between MP3 and WAV was enough for me to feel “why don’t you include the MP3 in your WAV bundle then?”. But I didn’t make a big deal of it. Radiohead have done so many things right in this venture that I can live with the rest. Not perfect, but continuing, positive proof that there’s a better way to improve the music business than the nonsense engaged in by people like BPI and RIAA.

I hope Radiohead break the record for money collected on pre-order for this album. Pour encourager les autres.

It will show others what is possible, following on from the brilliant work done by people like Nine Inch Nails, and for that matter, Radiohead themselves, earlier with In Rainbows.

In the meantime, I continue to learn from my children. And will remain ever grateful at having been given the opportunity to learn from them

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.]