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:

Musing about lifestreams, subscribe-aggregation and publish-aggregation

For years I’ve been watching the way people aggregate and summarise what they do, and how they make such aggregations available to others. In the old days we used to call these chronological aggregations diaries, and we’ve had many famous diarists over the centuries.

Some part of me is deeply enmeshed in an oral tradition: as I’ve discussed earlier, maybe it’s the Calcutta in me, the extension of the adda. Addas are intimate yet open, oral yet visual, immediate yet part of a ritual. Which is why I considered the overlapping small circles that make up the blogosphere to be addas in their own right.

More recently, there have been some powerful developments in the chronological aggregation space. They appear to be driven by two factors: a re-entry of visual communications and associated traditions; and the emergence of ubiquitous mobile tools that could write back to the web, not just access it. Which is why people consider Web 2.0 to be about participative architectures.

These developments have created their own terminology. I think it may have been Jeremy Keith who first used the term “lifestream”; for sure he was the first person I saw using the term, sometime in 2006. Today lifestreaming looks like it’s going to be big business, all based around a multimedia chronological aggregation of things a person or group does.

The facebook news feed is in some respects nothing more than an aggregation of lifestreams, lifestreams belonging to your friends. Twitter brought a pub-sub feel and a brevity, a capillary compression, to the whole thing, and that spawned the FriendFeeds of this world.

Some years ago, Tantek Celik began using his Flickr account pretty much like another blog, and I began to appreciate what happens when photography meets the blogosphere. So I spoke about it to my then 14 year old son, who then pointed out that he’d been reading wonderful blogs like daily dose of imagery for some time by then.

Brittany Bohnet and Dave Morin revelled in using mobile devices to upload aspects of their lifestream into facebook, a trend accentuated if anything by the arrival of the iPhone. As Brittany’s example shows, many people preferred the tumblr approach to this aggregation, first brought to my attention by Kiyo:

Innovation is rife in this space, and it’s only going to get better. For example, take a look at this:

Yongfook is promising us something more with Sweetcron, worth watching out for. My thanks to Cindy Stanford, hci on Twitter, for bringing this to my attention.

There seems to be a sequence worth watching here. First we had RSS. Then we had first-order aggregators, but they were “subscribe” aggregators: one place where you could read many feeds you subscribed to. Now, as people publish in different contexts and media, we have “publish” aggregators, or at least that’s what a lifestream seems to be.

Subscribe aggregators are subscriber-centric. Publish aggregators are publisher-centric. Both types of aggregators, at least in their current form, are backward-looking.

I cannot help but feel that there is a VRM-related innovation to come. Both publish aggregators as well as subscribe aggregators will start dealing with intent, at which point we have digital butterfly markets. Doc, Sean, what do you think?

Then it gets really interesting. I can see so much potential for innovation once we have a meeting point for publish aggregators and subscribe aggregators, a platform that allows us to do that forward and back in time, true multimedia, true mobile.

Comments? Views?

Capillaries can carry compressed context

I’ve been playing around with FoxyTunes, installing it in Firefox, getting the TwittyTunes extension. And it’s not just because I like music. I think what’s happening here is very powerful.

Let’s start with Twitter, it looks harmless and gormless, what possible use could it have? After all, what can you do in 140 characters? Let’s see.

First off, I can send messages that look like the one below. I typed it in myself, it described what I was doing at the time.


What don’t I like about it? Well, it’s not good enough for the 21st century. For starters, I shouldn’t have to type it in. Something should be scraping what I am doing, capturing it in a way I can choose to share with others. Choose, we must remember that word. And what else? Oh yes, wouldn’t it be nice if I could enrich the information I was sending? Provide more information about the artist or group, maybe YouTube video links, maybe Wikipedia links, maybe Flickr links, maybe even the homepage of the band or group. How about a link to the song itself, so that someone else can sample it, try it out, decide for themselves if they like it? Maybe even a way to search for more information, and the tools to buy the CD or DVD in physical or digital format?

Chance would be a fine thing, but ….. how can I SMS all that? But wait a minute, the 140 character limit isn’t a real limit, not if I send a short url linking to all that. Or even better, having someone do that for me, a web service like tinyurl.

So now all I need is for someone to build an app that scrapes what I am listening to, figures out what it is, goes and collects the enrichments and conveniences I want to send with the information (band links, YouTube, Flickr, Google, Amazon, the Facebook fan page, maybe a Netvibes collection of related feeds, the Wikipedia entry and so on) and then packages all that into a small space using something like tinyurl.

Which brings me to TwittyTunes and FoxyTunes. Now my Twitter message looks like this:


It does the scraping, directly out of my iTunes. It lets me choose whether to share what I am listening to with others, song by song. It sends the message on to Twitter. But that’s not where the value is. For that, you, the “follower” of my tweet, need to click on the link, and hey presto, you get something that looks like this:


You see, this is why I play with things like Twitter. Not because I want to appear cool. But because I am so old and grey and slow that the best way I learn is by playing. Now I can really see how something like Twitter can add value in the enterprise. And I’m secure enough in myself to want to share what I find out, openly and freely. Which is what I’m doing here. [Without a business model or a monetisation plan in sight :-)]

It’s worth bearing a few things in mind. First there was the web. Then there was SMS. Without SMS there is no Twitter. Without the web there is no Twitter. Now we’ve had tinyurl for a long time, but it starts coming into its own when we start using something like Twitter. As a result of all this, someone else could build something like FoxyTunes (which looks like Netvibes meeting, and then building TwittyTunes to connect up with the Twitter world. And then suddenly everything else waltzes in to enrich what we can see and do, ranging from text to audio to video, from search and syndication and conversation to fulfilment.

What strikes me is the power manifest here, the power of connecting simple things like SMS and tinyurl and Twitter. Small pieces loosely joined, as David Weinberger said.

We are moving into a world where open multisided platforms will dominate, with simple standards and simple tools connecting up wide open spaces. We are seeing it happen now. This post is not about FoxyTunes. Or TwittyTunes. Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or Amazon. Or iTunes. Or Flickr. Or YouTube.

It’s about all of them. It’s about all of them, and the apps we don’t know about yet, the ones that will emerge tomorrow. How we can find ways of bringing all of them together and moving information around them, linking information between them, enriching and sharing that information beyond them.

By the way, we do stuff like this in the enterprise already. This is what we use e-mail and attachments for, this is why we use mailing lists and address books and spreadsheets and documents and presentations. All the things we’ve grown to love.

Or, in my case, hate. If you’re like me, you’ve had it with those tools. Absolutely had it. H.A.D. I.T. They are so not fit for purpose. Or. looking at it another way, there is a generation of tools out there that are so much more fit for purpose.

We’re not dealing with firehoses any more. We’re dealing with capillaries, as I discussed in my post yesterday. And these capillaries carry and distribute information nutrients, and process and eject information waste and toxins. The real power of all this lies in the increasing transportability of context.

Oh, incidentally, in the past, I’ve found the tools for grabbing screenshots frustratingly complex and time-consuming, so I’ve tended not to use them. It is fitting that this time around, I could do all this easily. Because of a project called Jing, and because I then had simple and seamless ways of going from Jing to Flickr to iPhoto to ecto to WordPress. And guess how I found out about Jing? Through someone’s tweet.

Also incidentally, it would be worth looking at the role played by the opensource movement in making sure we can move around so freely between all these applications. Which brings me to a strange conclusion. More a hypothesis. Am I right in considering the possibility that VRM is necessary only because everything is not opensource? That good opensource obviates the need for VRM? Doc? Don? Steve? Chris? Chris? Anyone out there?

Musing about Capillary Conversations

There’s something I find truly fascinating about the way we converse. At home, when I was growing up, the house was always full of people, of different ages, speaking different languages (primarily English, Tamil and Bengali), waltzing between bilateral and multilateral conversations. At school, it was more of the same, except the ages were less diverse, there were fewer bilateral conversations, and the languages were English, Bengali and Hindi. The college canteen exhibited similar characteristics, as did that Mecca of college canteens, India Coffee House, College St, Calcutta. Photos below courtesy of Lecercle.


The location didn’t matter as much as the way conversation flowed, how the adda worked. How the participants in the adda provided emergent governance and kept things moving. Of course you had the bores and the bombasts, but somehow the adda coped with them. Managed them, digested them, ejected them. And flourished.

Talking about addas, here are a few definitions that I’ve tried to cull from the article I linked to above:

adda n.

the fine art of socialising
relaxed conversation about anything and everything
one of the favourite pastimes of the people of Bengal
where elders used to discuss their politics at a local place
literary sessions usually rounded off by the serving of exquisitely prepared snacks and cups of tea
a dense fog of cigarette smoke, an assorted aroma of food and coffee, and a loud hum: the sound of several addas
a stream of visitors from early morning to late evening
serious, articulate and dignified elderly men deliberating on a serious topic
my grandmother regally presided over her own meetings
every topic under the sun was discussed, and of course family gossip was exchanged
elders acted as arbitrators in family or local disputes
sometimes, even marriages were arranged in these feminine addas

You get my drift? The adda was a social network, but it wasn’t electronic. It was a blogger’s meet, without a computer in sight. It was the blogosphere before the blogosphere existed. It was a place, yet it was everywhere.

Addas were fantastic. They are fantastic. They continue to be fantastic.

But. Addas didn’t scale. When we had multiple addas, there was some conversation that transcended addas, but it was limited. And for sure it didn’t transcend time or space. Everything was now and here. Sure it was “live”, and of course that was fantastic, but there were a few drawbacks. The conversations didn’t persist, so if someone wasn’t there tough luck. No replays, no recorded highlights. If the conversation was in a language you were less than fluent in, tough luck. Everything was now, no time to translate. If you couldn’t remember the names of the people you met, or if you weren’t introduced to everyone when you came in, then tough. Too bad. You see, addas weren’t like business meetings, with fixed start and end times and endless droning by people who liked the sound of their own voices. People walked in and out of addas. Freely. You weren’t always introduced, you didn’t always know everyone either. But usually there was someone who knew you, who greeted you as you came in, and that was good enough for the others.

So there were good things and there were drawbacks, but on balance they were fantastic.

For a long time now, I haven’t been able to come up with the right way to describe what I saw happening in the verandahs and streets, the college canteens, the India Coffee Houses.

[I’m not sure I’ve got it now. But then that’s what makes blogging so valuable. I can stick something out here and invite comment, watch you improve on it or cut it to shreds or even do both — at the same time — without getting hung up about it.]

What changed? How come I feel good about the descriptions now, when I didn’t even a few months ago. I’ll tell you what. Twitter. That’s what changed. Here’s another extract from the adda link I provided earlier:

Come evening, and parks and important street crossings of Kolkata attracted adda-loving young people. Idly watching traffic and people go by, casual conversations assumed new dimensions. The middle-aged and the elderly frequented neighborhood shops or dispensaries. The day’s experiences were related, with the shop owner or the homely doctor joining in. With time hanging heavy on their hands, unemployed young men chose two places for their adda. The roadside ground floor verandah (known as the rok) of a house, or the roadside tea stall. Occasional lewd remarks, aimed at passing girls, caused much resentment among the seniors of the locality.

Markets are conversations. By watching the interactions between the physical world and the electronic world, by observing what was happening at work and at home, connecting the family and the workplace to Facebook and Twitter and mobile devices, I began to see something that reminded me of something else. Which was this: When I had my heart attack in 2006, I started learning more about how the heart functioned, which included understanding how arteries and veins worked. Which meant I started seeing diagrams like the one below, reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia.


Now let me add and emphasise some of what is said below this diagram in Wikipedia:

Blood flows from digestive system heart to arteries, which narrow into arterioles, and then narrow further still into capillaries. After the tissue has been perfused, capillaries widen to become venules and then widen more to become veins, which return blood to the heart.

The walls of capillaries are composed of only a single layer of cells, the endothelium. This layer is so thin that molecules such as oxygen, water and lipids can pass through them by diffusion and enter the tissues. Waste products such as carbon dioxide and urea can diffuse back into the blood to be carried away for removal from the body. Capillaries are so small the red blood cells need to partially fold into bullet-like shapes in order to pass through them in single file.

Capillary permeability can be increased by the release of certain cytokines, such as in an immune response.

When I see pictures like the one above, when I read descriptions like the one above, I start thinking. Is that what Twitter is? Is Twitter a set of capillaries, connecting arteries of conversation in the physical world to veins of conversation in the electronic world, connecting the home and the physical workplace to the electronic social network, the virtual world and the mobile device? Is there something special happening between Facebook and Twitter and the phone, set in the all-too-real contexts of home and work, cutting across ages and genders and places and subjects?

Is this something special happening because we can now do things we couldn’t do before? Is it because the conversations are persistent, because they can be archived and retrieved, subscribed to, searched, found? Is it because the conversations can be participated in more freely, because we know who’s in the conversations, because we no longer have to rely on memory? Is it because the barriers to entry and exit of the adda are lower, we no longer have to be fluent in every language, we can translate after the event?

Is it because the relationship between the physical and the virtual world isn’t about either-or, it’s about and? Physical and virtual.

Maybe we do have capillary conversations.

Twitter isn’t a fire-hose, it’s a collection of capillaries. That’s what pub-sub is about, capillary action. Where nutrients get diffused and distributed, where waste products get diffused and ejected. But Twitter is useless on its own, it needs the arteries and the veins. Which is where physical and electronic social networks come in. Twitter augments and is augmented by Facebook. We just haven’t got used to it.

And it’s not just about Twitter and Facebook either. It’s about Flickr. And YouTube. And Dopplr. And Netvibes. These are just different collections of veins. Without an e-mail in sight.

[An aside. When I looked for photographs of India Coffee House, and found Lecercle’s set, I was very taken with his descriptions. Here’s the text that accompanied one of the photographs I used:

All around, people were drinking coffee with an accompanying glass of cold water, reading newspapers and eating samosas or their 23 rupee Chicken Afghani. As elderly turbans waiters in faded white uniforms drift from table to table. Everybody knows about the Calcutta’s love for talk especially about exalted topics. It usually a careless chatter about anything from Dosteovsky to the vagaries of Indian cricket selectors. It usually involves some amount of talk about cricket, politics, football, Calcutta, food and always a footnote about the songs of Tagore. The Coffee House permeates this talk, a bright hum insulated by the coffee house’s high vaulted ceilings and the noise of the Calcutta Street.

Maybe you get an idea as to why I love blogging, and a bit about the roots of this blog.]

What have you changed your mind about?

That’s the subject of a very powerful set of essays published recently in the Edge World Question Center. I haven’t read all of them yet; I was working through them sequentially when I received an e-mail from Pat Kane of ThePlayEthic, pointing me at the answer given by Kevin Kelly. [Thanks, Pat, and I look forward to meeting you on Thursday.]

I loved it. And I suggest you stop whatever you’re doing and read it, now.

Some tidbits:

Everything I knew about the structure of information convinced me that knowledge would not spontaneously emerge from data, without a lot of energy and intelligence deliberately directed to transforming it. All the attempts at headless collective writing I had been involved with in the past only generated forgettable trash. Why would anything online be any different?


How wrong I was. The success of the Wikipedia keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.


It has always been clear that collectives amplify power — that is what cities and civilizations are — but what’s been the big surprise for me is how minimal the tools and oversight are needed. The bureaucracy of Wikipedia is relatively so small as to be invisible. It’s the Wiki’s embedded code-based governance, versus manager-based governance that is the real news. Yet the greatest surprise brought by the Wikipedia is that we still don’t know how far this power can go.


It is one of those things impossible in theory, but possible in practice. Once you confront the fact that it works, you have to shift your expectation of what else that is impossible in theory might work in practice.


When you grow up knowing rather than admitting that such a thing as the Wikipedia works; when it is obvious to you that open source software is better; when you are certain that sharing your photos and other data yields more than safeguarding them — then these assumptions will become a platform for a yet more radical embrace of the commonwealth.


Generation M is growing up knowing that Wikipedia works; to Generation M, it is obvious that open source software is better; Generation M, the Multimedia, Multitasking, Mobile Generation, is certain that sharing photos and other data yields more than safeguarding them.

Generation M understands what Kevin Kelly says here:

Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.

In other words, for Generation M, or maybe the generation after that, the tragedy of the commons can be overcome, the free rider problem can be overcome, they have seen the promised land: The collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.

I have to repeat that. The collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.

Read it and weep. With joy. Because it is just possible that future generations may not have to put up with the trash that we have.