Hello world (again)

1275.

The number of days since I last posted here.

For those of you who still bothered to check in here, and to read what I’d written, here or elsewhere in the blogosphere since the turn of the century, thank you. And apologies for my absence.

I wanted to take some time off. I needed to take some time off. I wasn’t enjoying the experience of what the blogosphere had become, at a time when the use of the very word “blogosphere” was an anachronism, and showed my age.

It wasn’t a goodbye, more an au revoir.

The world had changed a lot since I began writing here, and I felt I should go silent for a while and concentrate on observing, listening, thinking and reflecting. It was all part of a considered plan to retire from full-time work, to leave my less-travelled path through the conferences and unconferences and suchlike, to reduce my presence on social media in general. That plan remains on course as I enjoy my time as a grandfather.

Some of those changes had perturbed me for some time, and I’d written about them. But first some background.

I was encouraged to get into blogging by people like Doc Searls and Christopher Locke and later Kevin Marks, by the multitude of Cluetrain friends and fan people I found myself spending time with and learning from.

I used to read Entropy Gradient Reversals whenever I could, and that in turn led me to reading Cluetrain. I got in touch with Chris, met him face to face a few times, even went to Bangalore with him. He was kind enough to share his learnings with me and my team a number of times, and I remain grateful.

I met Doc in similar ways; I think our first “formal” interaction was when he was writing a piece for Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0, (or maybe it was Linux Journal), and Chris suggested him that we chat. Sometime after that, Doc gave my name to Halley Suitt, who was organising a fascinating session in New York, I believe it was at the Harvard Club. She also organised a “blogger’s dinner” at Katz’s Deli that night, and it was there I was encouraged to go more public with my blogging. [Till then I was keeping a low profile, publishing to closed groups of people, principally at work].

All that was a long time ago. Much has changed since, but some things remained important to me.

One, blogging was “provisional”. It was a way of sharing what I was thinking about, not always fully formed, as a technique for eliciting comments, advice, criticism. The learner in me, the curious core of me, found this fascinating.

Two, blogging wasn’t “directed”. There was no onus on anyone to do anything. Nobody could be expected to read what you wrote, to comment on it, to provide any sort of feedback. Anything a reader did was a gift. Sure, you could pose questions, share observations, ask for feedback — but you couldn’t force anyone to do anything. There was no contract, no right to expect anything. It wasn’t a subscription service that someone else committed to reading, either by signing up or sometimes even paying. The blog was just there, and if you were lucky and someone deemed it worthy of reading, they would turn up. You learnt to be grateful for the time that people spent reading, reviewing, commenting, sharing.

Three, it was a space for civil discourse. Since everyone who turned up was a volunteer, it came with an innocence, a social mien that shouted softly. Not that there weren’t rants: what there was was a set of conventions that made ranting polite, civil, never ad hominem.

Four, it was open and non-proprietary. I think it was Doc who gave me this insight, when describing a conversation he had with someone, it might have been George Lakoff. He described a post as a snowball, which sometimes gathered mass and rolled away of its own volition, no longer under the ownership or direction of the original poster. And that this was to be expected, and it was okay.

Five, the learning often happened via links. You were encouraged to provide links in what you wrote, links to what you wrote, links to what others wrote. When people commented, they often provided links as well. Links were seen as a way of enriching and annotating what was said.

Six, it was non-hierarchical. Connected not channelled. I remember reading what Hossein Derakhshan wrote, about the “book internet and the cable internet”, and identifying very much with what was being said there.

Reading what became The Cluetrain Manifesto was the trigger to my experimenting with blogging in the first place: readers were human, in a community with significant reach; markets were indeed conversations; and the principle of links being able to subvert hierarchies was fascinating.

I’d grown up believing that the Industrial Revolution was a “supply side” revolution, and that the Information Revolution would redress this imbalance by empowering all of us, the “demand side”. Cluetrain helped me continue down this path.

You may think that I’m trying to describe that age in a rose-tinted Kumbaya way, and maybe you’d be right.

Things had changed. Debate had became more and more polarised: the ability to sustain civil discourse began to disappear. We began to operate in bubbles without overlap, unwilling or unable to recognise the other side’s right to exist; the question of giving their point of view a healthy airing didn’t even arise any more.

Politeness and civility had also begun to disappear, things were becoming markedly pointed and personal, even vicious.

Frictions and impurities in access and content were becoming more common, as the “book internet” began to get muzzled, ostensibly a sad byproduct of the mobile age. The open architectures of earlier times remained firmly in the past. Facts became unimportant.

Some of the cleverest people in the world had decided that rather than make it easier for people to find what they were looking for, they would make it easier for products and services to find people. Product privacy began to exceed personal privacy. The dream of an empowered “demand side” began to recede.

Yup, things had changed. The “facts” of the environment I was in had changed.

And when the facts changed, I had to change my mind. Step away for a while. Observe. Listen. Think.

I’m back, but with a difference. I’m only going to share things here which I believe will be useful, positive, uplifting, enriching. When I ask questions, they will be questions that look forward. I’m going to keep that glass forever at last 51% full.

I’ve never been one to concern myself with having an “audience” or a “readership”. In the past, while I’ve had days when over 7000 people were dropping by here, my core community of readers was probably no more than a double Dunbar. A single Dunbar will do me. A single reader will do me, as long as she helps me learn.

Hello world. Again.

To be continued. Occasionally.

The music never stopped

 

There’s mosquitoes on the river
Fish are rising up like birds
It’s been hot for seven weeks now
Too hot to even speak now
Did you hear what I just heard?

Say it might have been a fiddle
Or it could have been the wind
But there seems to be a beat now
I can feel it in my feet now
Listen here it comes again

There’s a band out on the highway
They’re high steppin’ into town
It’s a rainbow full of sound
It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns
Everybody’s dancin’

The Music Never Stopped: Grateful Dead, 1975: Barlow/Weir. [Aficionados of this particular song should check this post out, updated since the news of John Perry Barlow’s passing].

 

One of my favourite Grateful Dead songs, from one of my favourite Grateful Dead albums. I first heard Blues For Allah sometime in 1976, and, to use the language of those times, the album “blew my mind”.

1975. There was no internet in those days, no Web. If, like me, you’d lived in Calcutta all your life, information used to be pretty hard to come by. It was all “analogue”, often physical, often simultaneous: “word-of-mouth”. Radio was the medium by which you found out things, and newspapers and magazines were the ways in which those things were persisted, often after applying filters.

Some of the filters were censoring filters: after all, 1975 was the beginning of the Emergency in India, 21 months of authoritarian rule most of us would prefer to forget. But for the most part, the filters were marketing filters, attempts to prioritise and contextualise the flow of information.

Suffice it to say that tidbits of information about the Grateful Dead did not make that prioritisation cut, and so the way we heard about the band, band members, their music, their lives, it was pretty much all based on community interaction: sharing tapes, articles torn out of tattered foreign magazines, the liner notes on well-worn albums passed on from hand to hand, stories, some of them nothing more than rumours, permeating through the collective consciousness of the Deadheads in Calcutta and in the rest of India.  Which sort of makes sense, given that the Dead were the band who gave us “taping rows”.

That’s how I first heard of John Perry Barlow. As a Grateful Dead band member and lyricist, writer of songs I’ll never forget.

When I left India in 1980, it became a little easier to hear about the Dead, to hear them, even to watch them play live. Which was incredible. But when I asked about John, all I heard was “he’s retired, he’s become a rancher somewhere like Montana or Wyoming”. Which really intrigued me. But it was hard to find out more.

Then, in the early 1990s, his name began to crop up here and there. That’s how I heard about the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and was intrigued enough to find ways of supporting their work. I’ve been privileged to meet many of the EFF pioneers over the years, and I’m grateful to all of them for helping me understand things I didn’t understand earlier.

By the late 1990s I’d read A Declaration Of the Independence of Cyberspace, and John became that rare beast to me, a hero in more than one domain, made even more mysterious by his decision to walk away and return to ranching roots.

A strange convergence was taking place. It was through reading about the EFF that I found out about Esther Dyson, someone who’s been an incredible mentor to me, not just in person but often from afar (and possibly without even knowing about it). It was through Esther that I learnt about Christopher Locke, and began to discover what would later become The Cluetrain Manifesto. I managed to convince Chris to come and speak to my teams in London and in Bangalore, one thing led to another, and soon multiple pathways led to my speaking to and then meeting Doc Searls; meeting David Weinberger and Rick Levine would soon follow.

Some years later, Doc would introduce me to John. And so I finally met someone who was a childhood hero of mine, an adolescent hero of mine and an adult hero of mine. [Yup, I was tongue-tied. Entranced].

Soon after that, as I began to delve more into this mystical man, I learnt about his Principles of Adult Behaviour. They’re reproduced in AC Smith’s blog What I Know So Far, in his eulogy to Barlow. Please do go there and read the article and the Principles, you won’t regret it.

John Perry Barlow’s path began to cross mine every now and then after that, and he remained as welcoming, as affable, as laughing-glinting-eyes as ever. We became friends on Facebook, and it gave me the chance to have some vicarious connection to him and what he was going through over the past decade or so.

With his passing we mourn the loss of a gentle man, one who spent time thinking about things that are important, and then writing about those things and sharing them. The age of cyberspace is upon us, warts and all. If you haven’t done so already, do make the effort to read his Principles, his Declaration of Independence, his Economy of Ideas, his Next Economy of Ideas.

I didn’t know him well. At most I met him a dozen times; at most I had three conversations of any note with him. Yet, in all those interactions, he sought to embody the principles he’d written about and referred often to. He was open and welcoming, encouraging and “building up”, willing to question himself in everything while at the same time striving for a future with hope and purpose, seeing the value of humanity as a collective rather than a set of isolated human beings.

I remain grateful to him (no pun intended). I remain grateful to the ideas he helped birth in me.

Cindy Cohn, over at EFF, has written a brief but very moving piece about John and his life and what he leaves behind; by continuing to visit that site you will learn more about his work and his legacy; by supporting EFF you can play your role in extending that legacy.

RIP John Perry Barlow.

Thinking about cricket and open data and platforms

Some of you have been conversing with me, not only via this blog, but also intermittently via other channels, principally facebook and twitter. Blogs are conversations about the provisional, and I learn from your comments and pointers.

By now you’re used to my whims and vagaries. You know I try and write about information using perspectives that aren’t necessarily “business”. For the most part, I tend to meander into the worlds of food, music and literature, and to use those settings to investigate aspects of information.

Sometimes I wander into a narrower space, that of cricket. I realise by doing so I “lose” a goodly number of you, and ask for your forbearance. I just had to write this cricket post. It also happens to touch upon one of my other foibles, constructing UnGoogleAble questions.

Early this morning, I found out something that really intrigued me. When James Anderson joined Alastair Cook at the fall of Stuart Broad’s wicket, it was only the second time in history that England’s leading run-getter and  England’s leading wicket-taker were at the crease together. The first time around was in 1877, also in a Test between England and Australia, the second proper cricket “Test match”. [Technically this was not an Ashes match: the fateful home loss that heralded the term took place in 1882]. To put this in context, the current match, Test number 2289, is England’s 994th; the previous instance, Test number 2, was, unsurprisingly, also England’s 2nd. So for 140 years, across 992 matches, England’s top run-getter didn’t bat with England’s top wicket-taker. Until yesterday.

[My thanks to Benedict Bermange for the tip-off. Great find].

[Update: To give you an idea of just how delicious this is, Ian Botham retired from Test cricket as England’s leading wicket-taker, barely two weeks before David Gower overtook Geoff Boycott to become England’s leading run-getter. Nearly….]

It got me thinking. How would I go about checking on this? How would I go about checking on whether, and if so how often, this has happened for cricketers of other countries?

I started with people whose careers I was readily aware of. My Testbed, so to say, was Tendulkar and Kumble, India’s leading run- and wicket-accumulators. The first thing I had to do was to check whether they’d ever batted together. Tendulkar played Tests from 1989 to 2013, and Kumble from 1990 to 2008, so there was no doubt they’d played together. But had they batted together?

Turned out they had. 16 times to be precise.

The next thing to check was when each became the country’s leader in their field. Turns out that Kumble led the wicket list from 10th December 2004, and, coincidentally, Tendulkar led the run list from 10th December 2005, exactly a year later. Which then meant that of the 16 times they’d batted together, there were only two occasions when they were at the crease as the crowned kings of their art.

The joy was in being able to query all this simply and quickly using free-to-air unpaywalled resources.

Thank you ESPNCricinfo. I can now while away some more of my vacation messing about with the data to get to every instance where a country’s leading run-getter was at the crease with the country’s leading wicket-taker. If I feel particularly adventurous, I could test for instances where the world’s run-leader batted with the world’s wicket-leader, then soften the conditions (as I suspect I will need to) to test for those where they faced each other or, at the very least, were on the field of play at the same time.

Another of my favourite examples is discogs. If you’re interested in vinyl you have to play around with the site, it’s amazing.

More recently, I came across something truly astounding, to do with yet another of my vagaries. I collect fountain pens. Not “to collect and admire” but to use. I love using pens that have been looked after diligently by others and handed down through generations. As with most of my collections, I’ve tended to specialise: the only pens I bother collecting are Pelikans. Anyway, the point of this story is that the pens often need some restoring, and a proper understanding of the filler mechanism is important. Which is how I came across Richard Binder’s site and books.

Each of these sites is different in terms of the data provided, the “openness” of the data, how easy it is to get to, use and enhance. The pen-filler site is an example of something narrow and deep, available to read and  with illustrations, with the ability to buy more detailed stuff as needed. The cricket site comes with very rich data and with a powerful interface that lets you do quite a lot without having to program anything; the discogs site is full-blown, with APIs and a proper API Forum, with all the data provided on a CC0 No Rights Reserved licence.

We’re all going to learn more about the importance of open data, of building data infrastructures that make it possible for people to learn about stuff, gain insights, build insights, enhance human understanding. People like Tim Berners-Lee, Nigel Shadbolt and Wendy Hall have been banging this drum for a long time; the people at the ODI in the UK, initially led by Gavin Starks and more recently by Jeni Tenison, continue to show the way. In my interactions with DJ Patil it has become clear to me that what he and his network of colleagues have been doing is similar and of critical importance. We’re all having to deal with the fallout from fake news, fake information, fake data, fake credentials, even fake actions. This fakeness adds to and worsens the problems we have in debating almost anything of value — there is extreme polarisation of views, with its consequent blind acceptance of opinion and even lie as fact. Yet the problems we face as humanity (be they in climate or nutrition or health or water or energy) require us to collaborate across cultures and timezones if we are to get to solutions. Ubiquitous and affordable access to bandwidth and compute is part of what we need to get there; research in web science is key; so too is digital literacy.  And open data.

We should celebrate and honour the people and institutions that make all this possible.

On platforms and sustainability

A few years ago, I read this disturbing Rip van Winkle post by Hossein Derakhshan.

He’d been incarcerated for six years, and wrote about how the Web he’d left had changed while he was away. One phrase stood out for me. A departure from a books-internet to a television-internet. It resonated. Deeply.

I’ve believed in the idea of being connected rather than channelled for many years now. Not surprisingly, that phrase occurs repeatedly in the “kernel” for this blog, written as I launched ConfusedOfCalcutta a dozen or so years ago. [Until then my blogging was “closed”, a constraint placed by the nature of the work I was doing at the time].

Hossein’s web-we-have-to-save piece began to gnaw at the Cluetrainer in me. If you haven’t read that yet, do so as soon as you can. Messrs Searls, Locke, Weinberger and Levine are well worth revisiting, not just visiting. I do so pretty much every year.

The Cluetrain Manifesto told us that we weren’t meant to be seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We were meant to be human beings, and our reach was meant to exceed the grasp … of those who would control us, channel us. If digital advertising revenues are anything to go by, and if the linear nature of streams is anything to go by, it looks like we’re heading firmly back into seats and eyeballs territory. The bait of book-internet was being switched into television-internet, aided and abetted by the “appy” world of the smart mobile device. Words like content and audience were back in favour.

The Cluetrain Manifesto also told us that hyperlinks would subvert hierarchies. Again, in reading Hossein’s piece, there was something that resonated in me about the channelling nature of the hashtag culture in comparison with the connecting nature of the hyperlink culture. Folksonomical in origin, when embedded in streams, the essence of the hashtag ran the risk of becoming a channel identifier.

The Cluetrain Manifesto said markets were conversations. Ah yes. Conversations. I remember conversations. When people could discuss ideas, write “provisionally” as Doc Searls used to say, where (if I remember his metaphors correctly) the blogosphere was souk-like, as described to him by an African pastor on a flight somewhere. I think he also referred to a conversation with George Lakoff where a blog post became a snowball, gathering a momentum all its own as it was cross-linked and commented on. Our moves towards shorter-form posts, towards soundbites and tweets, towards channelled streams, towards video, towards “live”, all of these moves militate against conversation.

So is that it? Back to seats and eyeballs, channelled not connected, “audiences” sucking up linear “content”? Back to a time where discourse wasn’t possible, where law-of-the-jungle-might-was-right, and visceral emotion was the preferred means of communication?

If Hossein Derakhshan had “woken up” in 2017 he may well have assumed so.

Platforms used to be things that we built on, not in.

If platforms are to be built sustainably, that’s principle 1. You build on a platform, not in it. Those that build on the platform should be able to interact with each other independent of the platform if they so choose.

Platforms are not just big business in themselves, they do generate employment. But the on- part of the business must be significant in relation to the in- part. A sustainable platform will create ecosystems that are orders of magnitude larger than the platform itself. That’s part of what makes a platform sustainable. I think that’s principle 2 of platform sustainability.

A part of me wants to evoke Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander when it comes to building sustainable platforms. The platform “community” needs to be cared for and looked after, the living spaces they inhabit need to be designed to last. Multipurpose rather than monoculture, diverse rather than homogeneous . Prior industrial models where entire communities would rely on a single industry need to be learnt from and avoided. We shouldn’t be building the rust belts of the future. We should be looking for the death and life of great platforms, for a pattern language for sustainable platforms. Principle 3 of platform sustainability looks at the diversity of the ecosystem.

I think there’s a need for a fourth principle, something to do with the right to repair.

P_20170510_140343.jpg

Photo courtesy Rama Sangye, an old classmate from Calcutta

The lungi-clad moustachioed gent above is unlikely to see his job taken by a robot anytime soon. He repairs gramophones. The ones that work off-grid, with bloody great horns, with steel needles eking out sound from lacquer records operating at 78rpm.

That was the India I left. Where anything that could be repaired was repaired. Everything came with a right to repair, and people learnt to do that repairing. Sometimes with official spare parts, sometimes with sensible cannibalisation, sometimes with sheer ingenuity when something else at hand was suitably repurposed.

There is no such thing as digital-only. That which is digital exists in and forms part of the world we inhabit. And we need to know how to fix things that break in that construct. Bias in AI systems may be an area where the “right to repair” will manifest itself most powerfully.

Principle 4 of sustainable platforms is the right to repair.

This is, by its very nature, a provisional post. I’m sharing things I’m thinking about, in the hope that a number of you get in touch with me and help me learn about this space. The blogosphere is not what it used to be, and people don’t necessarily comment any more.

We need to be thinking about sustainable platforms. On-platforms rather than in-platforms; platforms that create ecosystems many orders of magnitude larger than the platform itself; platforms designed for sustainable growth rather than digital coal mines, rust belts and hollowed-out precincts, downtowns that die every night; platforms where the right to repair is universal.

More to follow. Maybe. If anyone still reads stuff like this. If markets are still conversations.

A coda:

 

I had the joyous experience of finding, and acquiring, this timepiece a little while ago. it cost me less than 0.001% of what Paul Newman’s Rolex went for.

 

IMG_0321.jpg

It’s a Station Master’s watch from a century ago. Swiss movement, casing ostensibly from Britain, distributed in Calcutta through the esteemed name of Garrard.

It’s lasted well. Works like a charm today.

It lasted well because it was designed and built to last. And it was taken care of.

For something to be sustainable it needs to be designed and built as sustainable.

That’s necessary but not sufficient. Sufficient happens when due care is taken.

Incidentally, one of the recent books I’m reading (and enjoying) refers to time as “the engine of interaction”. I think that time and place and identity are all engines of interaction, and that sustainable platforms have this at their core.

Maybe this coda contains principles 5 and 6. Let us see.

 

 

of graveyards and golf courses: A perspective on perspective

When I was a child, I loved seeing photographs of everyday things from not-everyday perspectives. I think the first such thing I remember marvelling about was what a human hair looked like under a powerful microscope. It looked a bit like this image from “Long Hair Community” via Google:

I’m still fascinated by such out-of-normal-perspective images. More recently I came across the work of Pyanek, who appears to dabble in such stuff. Here’s his view of pages from a book.

It’s not just close-in that is interesting, zooming out is as mesmerising. I love flying, and spend a lot of time on planes. When on a plane, I tend to read and write rather than watch films. The odd documentary perhaps, but that’s about it.

In addition, when possible, I enjoy looking out of the window. Even now, seated at home, I marvel at the thought of how placid and glassine the ocean looks when viewed from 37000 feet. After a while you get to recognise the signs of movement even at that distance.

When I’m taking off or coming in to land, I make an effort to try and recognise “objects” from afar. You’d be surprised at the altitude from which you can, with confidence, say to yourself “That’s a golf course” or “that’s a graveyard”. With a little practice it becomes quite enjoyable.

There’s always a coming-home segment to my flights, and I live in Windsor, which means I get to do something unusual. View my house while coming in to land at Heathrow. It only happens when we approach from that side, but it happens often enough for me to know the signs. And so I try and “lock on” to the path as early as possible, filing away telltale signs from distance.

After a while I found I could do it regardless of the approach; coming over Canary Wharf and following the Thames became as recognisable as flying in over Windsor Great Park, circling to the north-west before making the approach became familiar as well.

I still remember the unfettered joy of looking down from maybe 10000 feet and realising that what I was seeing was fireworks at dusk. An amazing feeling.

There’s something special about looking at things from very close or very far away; something to learn about the thing in question; something to help you get balance into your view; something calming, sometimes even therapeutic.

We use phrases like “get the big picture” or “see the wood for the trees”; I am not sure how often we get to practise changing perspective.

Practice in changing perspective is not just a distance thing, it’s a time thing as well. Every morning, as I prepare for the day ahead, I ask myself “what’s the one thing I’d like to get done today”. But I also ask myself regularly “what’s the one thing I’d like to do this year”.

Sometimes I do this looking backwards rather than forwards. “What’s the one thing I achieved last year”. Sometimes it’s with a more critical twist: “what’s the one thing I would have liked to have done last year”.

Changing perspective can be enjoyable, instructive, even illuminating. Changing perspective in the grain size of what you look at: very small to very large, very near to very far; changing perspective forward and back in time; each of these exercises can be valuable.

Today, with the tools of social media, you can test questions like “most played/watched/read this day, this week, this month, this year”. We should be able to apply the same techniques to issues beyond just entertainment.

Sometimes the platforms give you the ability to change context: trending globally, trending in country A, trending locally. This should be something we should also be able to do in time rather than just geography.

It becomes even more important when you can point the mechanism towards “trending amongst people whom I trust and whose opinion on this topic matters to me”.

We will get there, as we learn the real potential and value of the friend graph .

I intend to write more about this; I’m not sure when, but it will happen. My urge to write has been weakened by the polarisation and politics and sheer venom I see around me.

I’m going to be 60 in a few months. My second grandchild is due any moment. Some of the people I care for aren’t well. Some of them aren’t here any more.

There is a lot we cannot control. And there is a lot we can change. That we must change.

To make the right changes we must understand. Understanding requires being able to stand in someone else’s shoes. Or footprints.

Perspective matters. The ability to change perspective, and to learn from that change, matters. The ability to hold on to what matters also matters, as you learn from a variety of perspectives.