Working with dummies

Some time ago, Ivo Gormley, a young and gifted filmmaker, came to see me about a project he was working on, on participative citizenship, mass collaboration and the internet, and their implications on government as we know it.

That project became Us Now, a one-hour documentary produced by Banyak Films. It had its premiere at the RSA yesterday, a wonderful location for events of this type. Ivo asked me if I would introduce the film and frame and moderate the discussion to follow, an honour and privilege I was delighted to accept.

If you live near London, do try and watch the film for yourself as soon as you get the chance. There’s a screening due next week, details here. I believe there are a number of other previews planned before general release, and will post the details once I have them. In the meantime, particularly if you don’t live in the UK, there are clips and transcripts available here, with contributions from Clay Shirky (pictured above), Don Tapscott, Paul Miller and Lee Bryant amongst others.

Using examples ranging from Couch Surfers and Ebbsfleet United through to Zopa, Ivo weaves a convincing picture of the potential of collaborative software in a participative society, a narrative that flows effortlessly while punctuated by relevant yet succinct interviews and observations.

The questions that followed appeared to have three themes:

  • Can we do this? Can we bridge the generation gaps between the adopters of these technologies and the general population?
  • How can we do this? How do we actually begin to realise the potential of these tools in government, both local and national?
  • What can go wrong? What about the potential for such tools to do harm? How do we protect against misuse?

Ivo’s film has started the debate, it makes sense to continue it at the Us Now blog, so please direct your comments and questions here.

So what does all this have to do with the title of this post? Simple. I wanted a reason to point people towards this wonderful blog, Quite Human: Meeting people who work with dummies. How did I get to that blog in the first place? Well, yesterday, before the screening, Ivo introduced me to his father. A gentleman called Antony Gormley. I wondered why his name seemed familiar, why his face seemed familiar. But then I forgot all about it and went out for dinner with friends. Today, while having a cup of green tea with Malc, the subject came up and he reminded me. Which led me to some lazy surfing this evening, perusing Antony Gormley’s works. Which in turn led me to this entry:

Look what they’ve done to my song, ma

[With thanks to Ms Safka, and to Malcolm for alerting me to this story via his post here.]

[An aside: Would you believe Melanie turned 60 earlier this week? Happy belated birthday.]

In a HotNews post earlier today, Steve Jobs opened up (pun intended) with his views on DRM. Well worth a read. For me, the most telling quote was this:

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

I am aware that there have been attempts to develop DRM systems for CDs, as discussed here. But they were (thankfully!) catastrophic failures.

This whole DRM thing, when put in the context of what Steve says, now reminds me of something else tangentially Apple-related.
Soon after iPods came out, we had this flurry of activity from some information security professionals saying things like “iPods should be banned from trading floors”. My natural counter at the time was “OK, provided we check every person in and out of the building, look into their briefcases or whatever passed for briefcases, scan and analyse their cellphones and PDAs, and so on.”

I likened it then to being asked to shut the attic window while the front door was not just wide open but barn-sized. I would not ban the iPods unless they “shut the barn door”.

And I guess that’s the way DRM now feels in the context of music. Shutting attic windows while barn doors  flap forlornly open.
Critics of Jobs may argue that CD sales are eroding fast and being replaced by digital downloads, and that stopping the illegal reproduction of digital tracks was therefore imperative. My answer?  No cigar. Not even close.

The damage done by poorly implemented DRM is damage that is being done to all and sundry. Damage that affects everyday people carrying out everyday activities. Damage that affects business and leisure, creativity and pleasure. Damage that extends way beyond music. Legitimate software doesn’t run. Legitimate subscribers can’t get access to digital things they’ve paid for. There are too many examples for me to continue to cite them here.

It’s been no secret that the drive for DRM has come from “content owners”. Even Bill Gates, someone who doesn’t automatically conjure up images of being the Godfather of Open, said so here a couple of months ago.

Take a look at Steve’s penultimate paragraph:

If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

It’s a classic Because Effect situation. We have numerous examples of publishers saying they’ve sold more books once they opened up to Google Search or Amazon Look Inside This Book or similar; numerous examples of musicians and bands being successful selling DRM-free downloads; I could go on but won’t.

The whole concept of an e-book failed, as far as I am concerned, for three reasons:

  • The hardware was too heavy.
  • The process was too unwieldy.
  • Reading a book was no longer a pleasure.

We appear to live in very strange times. Times when people in the hardware, software, media and entertainment industries spend enormous sums of money on making their products and services more “user-friendly”, more user-centred, simpler to use, more convenient. They know all the buzzphrases, so do their consultants. And vast sums get spent.

And then what do they do? They put poorly thought out DRM all over the place. Go figure.

Folks, this is not sustainable. We need new ways of paying for creative value. So go read Terry Fisher, go watch Larry Lessig, go surf Cory Doctorow, go pore over Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, go study the opensource movement. Go write to your local DJ. Go burn a disk.
Go do something.

Because the walls are coming down. They’re coming down.

Musing about Digital McCarthyism and Digital Nonviolence

While researching aspects of the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, I was reminded of the works of Richard B Gregg. While I had come across Gregg while reading Economics, I hadn’t appreciated quite how influential he’d been on King, or for that matter just how dedicated he’d been in seeking to understand Gandhi. If you don’t know about Gregg, do take a look at his Wikipedia entry.

I’m currently reading a 1938 Gregg pamphlet titled What is The Matter With Money? It’s a reprint from the Modern Review for May and June 1938. In it, Gregg spends a lot of time looking at trust, and some of the things he says jell with me.
I quote from Gregg:

…A money economy makes security depend on individual selfish acquisitiveness instead of on trust. Trust grows when men serve first and foremost the community and the common purpose. There has sometimes been an element of service and community purpose in the making of private fortunes, but it has not often been predominant. Money splits up community security and plays upon men’s fears, — fears of the future and of each other’s motives, fears that compel them to compete with one another to a harmful degree.

Gregg concludes the paragraph with an interesting assertion:

Money has worked on us so long that it is now hampering the further development of science, art and technology.

At reboot last year I spoke about the things that had to die before we can regain some of the things we’ve lost, in keeping with the conference theme of renaissance and rebirth. [Hey Thomas, what’s happening with reboot this year?]
Gregg’s words have served to remind me that concepts like identity and trust are fundamental parts of community and not individuality; culture too is a community concept, be it about arts or sciences or even forms of expression; community itself is a construct of relationships at multiple levels. Maybe the reason why much of what is now termed IPR (and its cater-cousin DRM) is abhorrent to me is that these things focus on the individual and not the community.

I am all for making sure that creativity is rewarded, in fact I believe that any form of real value generation should be rewarded; but not at the price of stifling the growth of culture and of community. This, I believe, is at the heart of what Larry Lessig speaks of, what Rishab Aiyer Ghosh speaks of, what Jerry Garcia believed in, what opensource communities believe in, what democratised innovation is about.

Culture and community before cash.

I recently bought a book by Gregg called The Power Of Nonviolence. When describing the book, the bookseller noted that it [the particular copy I was buying] was signed by Gregg; unusually, the recipient’s name had been erased and carefully at that; the bookseller surmised that it may have had to do with fears about McCarthyism.

You know something? At the rate we’re going, the battles about IPR and DRM are going to get uglier, to a point where we’re going to see something none of us wants. Digital McCarthyism. What we’re seeing in the software and music and film spaces already begins to feel like that.

We need to find a better way to work it out. And it makes me wonder. What’s the digital equivalent of Gandhian Nonviolence?

The democratisation of creativity

One of the key points made by Larry Lessig in his 23C3 speech is how code, once used solely to make things work, is now being used to make culture; as he says “the tools of creativity have become the tool of speech”.

When we hear statements like this, it’s important to experience them, not just read them. Take a look at the image on the right. It’s part of a wonderful set of creative digital works by someone called Chema Madoz. You can find it, as well as many more, at

How did I find out about Chema Madoz? Via StumbleUpon. Why did I do something about it? Because I spoke to my 15-year old son about it, and realised that for him, Chema, and for that matter, were as familiar, almost old hat, as Line Rider. As the saying goes, I should stay in more often.

If we do the wrong thing about DRM and IPR:

  • the wood in Chema’s background will have its own exclusive image rights
  • the matchstick will be copyrighted
  • Chema would have no tools to use
  • and even if there were tools to use, it would depend on the compatibility with someone’s particular content provider/connect provider/device manufacturer walled garden

So let’s keep on trying to do the right thing.

Agoramancy? A Sunday afternoon ramble

I don’t know about you, but I spend a fair amount of time looking at things that emerge from open source communities, be they free-as-in-freedom or free-as-in-gratis. At least one of the reasons I do so is to try and figure out what happens next. Agoramancy? Who knows. [For those who care about these things, the word “agoramancy” yielded precisely one result via Google.]

I used to track something called LiveSupport, which lately became CampCaster. If you get the chance, go there and take a look. Alternatively, I’ll save you some of the bother and quote some of the interesting bits from their site:

  • Never heard of Campcaster? Here’s the elevator pitch: Campcaster helps you run your radio station. Do automated broadcasting and live studio playout in one system: schedule your broadcasts from the comfort of your own home with the Campcaster Web component, or do dynamic live shows with the Campcaster Studio desktop application.

    What’s the big deal about this release? We’ll cut to the chase: Campcaster 1.1 is the first release that is stable and feature-complete enough to be used in production systems. Indeed, the Campware implementation team will be helping to roll it out to multiple radio stations in Sierra Leone later this month. Other major radio stations are starting to adapt Campcaster to their needs: Austria’s Radio Orange is adapting the playout system to work with its digital archive, while in Hungary, a network of independent radio stations is integrating Campcaster’s storage server into its IKRA project, a generic public website engine for radio stations.

    “Awesome! Where can I get it?” you ask. The first thing you should know is that Campcaster only works on Linux. We recommend Ubuntu Dapper or any other Debian-based system.

    If you have an Ubuntu or Debian system, then just click here for installation instructions. Otherwise, click here to download.

This gets very interesting. In the lead-up to Y2K, despite everything the consultants did to raise FUD amongst the billpayers, many Eastern European and South Asian countries stood their ground. Houston, we don’t have a problem. Why? Because they computerised too late. The advantage of No Legacy.

When you look at the countries that are really making use of opensource, a similar pattern emerges. People who find lock-in a luxury too far. The infinitesimal cynic in me sees PL 480 equivalents where people are forced to use lock-in products and services, where governments set vendor locks in concrete. But then I remember 1974 and Daniel Patrick Moynihan writing what was then the world’s largest cheque ever, for $2.2 billion, and then presenting that cheque to Mrs Gandhi to clear the PL 480 residues.

Back to the point. See what the CampCaster site says:

The first thing you should know is that Campcaster only works on Linux. We recommend Ubuntu Dapper or any other Debian-based system.

If you have an Ubuntu or Debian system, then just click here for installation instructions. Otherwise, click here to download.

Is this the shape of things to come? Only Linux. With a recommended distro. But possible with other distros. Only Linux.

Linux is definitely becoming more and more mainstream, and we will see variations on this type of announcement all the time.

Take The Venice Project as an example. For years people have been telling me that there’s nothing they can use to watch TV on Linux, even though I showed them magazine articles that said they could, and even tried to show them the software. Tried. And failed. But that was in the past.

What now? What does the Venice Project say about this? I quote from their site:

  • Does The Venice Projectâ„¢ work on the Mac or Linux?

  • We’re working hard on a native Macintosh Intel version and expect it to be available in the next few months. Currently the application works fine under Bootcamp but not under Parallels; it needs to access the graphics processing unit (GPU) for some of its operations, and Parallels does not support that at the moment.
  • A Linux version is also in the works.

Folks, we’re heading fast towards a world where Linux, OSX and Windows will coexist. Where the market will force people to make substitution-level interoperability something “normal” and to be expected. Where industrial-strength design coexists with elegance and coolth.

And I for one am looking forward to that new world.

A coda. You know, when IBM sold their PC division to Lenovo, I heard rumours that they did it because the management were sick and tired of the fights between their Linux guys and their Windows guys. I dismissed it as the fiction it was. But now I wonder.