The Contemplative Edge

Or the mental ramble that followed the Gigaom shutdown.

Try as I might I can’t remember when I first heard of Om Malik. In my mind he’s associated with names like Zack Exley, Micah L Sifry, Danah Boyd and Esther Dyson but that can’t be because they are in the realm of digital inclusion and empowerment and Om Malik is about cutting edge innovation and commercial reality. So when was it?

My first strong memory of GigaOm was ‘back in the day’, as everybody on the podcast keeps saying, when Chris Albrecht and Tom Krazit did the Gigaom Show. From there I began to listen to Kevin C. Tofel and Janko Roettgers on cord cutting and Chrome; then there was Derek Harris and Barb Darrow whose insanely bad podcast intros prefaced great in depth interviews on cloud and big data and finally my favourite, everybody’s favourite tech Mom, in reality the very clever Stacy Higginbotham (not forgetting her dog, her eight year old – who must be nine now – and her bemused husband). These people have accompanied me in the car, to the gym and around the house then all of a sudden there they were: gone!

I have chased around in search of information: I have checked Twitter feeds, I have read Howdy y’all Stacey Higginbotham’s blog on http://staceyhigginbotham.com , I have caught up on Mathew Ingram’s Flipboard pages Media Past and Future but right now these are like echoes; Gigaom has gone and I’m going to miss it.

Which makes me think: why did I like it so much? Entertainment apart it was a source of information, good, detailed tech stories. These I could reference in my own personal blog which was where I organised my thoughts. Take for example “Never Say Never” which I posted in February; it was Derek Harris who mentioned the NVIDIA Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators and it was one of Stacey Higginbotham’s guests, Hiliary Mason, of Fast Forward Labs who talked about algorithms which can sort millions of data items in just a few processor cycles. All of which made me think about our dependence on current cloud technology to make our smart things smart and yet technology moves inexorably to the edge. Isn’t there a future conflict of interest there? When technology allows Google Translate to sit on my smart phone without a data link or central processing where is Google’s business model?

My personal ramblings are not cutting edge, they are what I call contemplative edge. Now I’m no longer involved in digital anything as a way of making a living I don’t have to scan the tech blogs and news feeds for the latest thoughts and ideas but I still do because I have the space to think about these things.

Despite what you may have read or heard England is not a cutting edge economy. We survive on a service based economy with some manufacturing (we do very good very expensive cars) and we have a lot of people in minimum wage zero hours employment. There are a few, small innovative companies but on the global scale of things they are very small. We are digital consumers; our measure of digital inclusion is based on how much we consume and how many services we access. Right now the Internet of Things is only just emerging in popularist news stories. The Insurance industry has been complaining that smart vehicles will reduce accidents and also insurance premiums; how will they make money? The white goods retail industry has been sounding warnings that smart appliances will lengthen the replacement cycle and that will hit profits. I spotted a set top box only this week which advertised itself as being able to make your TV a Smart TV – nonsense but you can get away with that sort of thing in the UK because the vast majority of people are not digital savvy, they are just consumers which is all they need to be.

What has this to do with Gigaom? Like I said at the beginning these are ramblings. Gigaom brought insight into a fast moving, technically advanced, disruptive world. Without the likes of Gigaom we will understand less. While other tech blog sites will continue they will have that geeky edge that Gigaom managed to avoid which is what made its stories so accessible and because of that we are potentially less well informed. In a few months time technology products branded for the Internet of Things will find their way into UK stores and we will consume them, as we do. We will not pause to consider the infrastructure of the cloud, the implications of big data or the cul de sac of development into which we will be driven so that we can be Smart. Gigaom could never influence the actions of nations but it could, and it did, inform those people who wished to keep thinking about what all of this might mean.

Gigaom I will miss you.

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“Two households, both alike in dignity,”

Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1 William Shakespeare

 

While growing older may have given me a more considered view of life there are some things that even now will drive me into a rant. One such thing is people in responsible, public facing roles who grab a headline by stating the obvious. Take, for instance, Eddie Copeland Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/people/research/item/eddie-copeland . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog http://policybytes.org.uk and an impressive CV ranging from being a Parliamentary Researcher, a Congressional Intern, and Project Manager of large infrastructure projects and so on.

His offense on this occasion is his recommendation, widely publicised in the press and on the BBC last Tuesday, that the Government should offer the elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to ‘discover life online’. I know that this is a sound bite from the Policy Exchange Manifesto which suggests that £875m is the figure required to get the final 17% online but aren’t we entering into a world of unreality here? Actually I would challenge the idea that we need £875m to tackle the problem of the final 17% (approximately 6.2 million people); that’s £141.13p per person more or less – what’s the 13p for I wonder?

It’s not that I would deny people working in the field of digital inclusion access to a slice £875m it’s an agenda that’s very close to my heart and I do not for one minute underestimate the importance of the work; it’s the approach and the short sighted attitude that makes me so cross. This is a technology manifesto intended to influence Government policy and the headline grabber is get older people online to help with problems of loneliness.

Contrast this with the interview on Giga Om with Usman Haque on May 20th just one week earlier: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/20/thingful-wants-to-crawl-the-internet-of-things-but-is-this-the-right-model/ . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium http://www.umberellium.co.uk , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com. He is an architect, creates responsive environments and dozens of mass-participation initiatives in cities, festivals and galleries throughout the world.

His view is that being on line empowers people and gives them the opportunity to take control of their environment. He is interested in how cities can talk to people and how people can interact with where they live. While there is a view that you have to have the skills before you can interact – a little obvious – that view misses the point. If you are setting out policy you are driving something forward not focussing on remediation of the obvious problem. If the vision for the future is realistic and enticing then the means will be found to redress the issues but if the focus sets out that we have to do A before we can progress to B then we may never realise the vision never mind succeed in including the final 17%.

Policy Exchange also falls into the skills trap: teach the skills and surely the rest will follow. It is widely recognised today that skills only approaches have pretty much failed – which is why we still have the 17%, the long tail that grows ever longer. We have to address the issues of trust, confidence, and belief and benefit which means that skill is just one piece and it doesn’t follow that it has to come first.

Policy Exchange and Eddie Copeland are seeing people as passive participants in the digital world; consumers and employees. The trick is to see people as active participants who are taking control and realising value in a digital economy. In the digital world full time mono occupations have gone forever and we need to be agile, self reliant, just in time learners. Let us look at the means to achieve that as a headline.

Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
The Walrus and the Carpenter

With due respect to William Gibson it’s the uneven distribution of the future that has run as a theme through my blog posts since I started them in 2008. Whatever reservations I may express about our attempts to create a pervasive superfast infrastructure I can’t ignore the impact of the Digital Champion programme and the work of the many volunteers in addressing digital exclusion in England: but we still have the long tail; we still have the 20% or so who remain digitally and, very often, socially excluded in 21st century England and it is my contention that no amount of Going On is going to change that. The impact of that exclusion is being highlighted this week by the introduction of digital by default in 2013.  We should refocus our efforts to support the long tail and not just at point of service delivery but unless there is a shift in the inherent values which underpin the current approaches I suspect that the long tail is going to remain stubbornly there for a long time yet.

As the Walrus said to the carpenter “The time has come, to talk of many things”: I believe it’s time for the digital inclusion agenda to move on. I don’t mean to ignore the long tail but to recognise that to be digitally included is going to mean something very different. When we talk about inclusion today we mean the internet; when we talk about superfast broadband we mean faster internet and when we talk about the internet we mean the World Wide Web. This is not just semantics because our understanding is what underpins a traditional model of society and the economy overlaid by channels of consumption. There are vested interests in keeping the world that way; the old adage that Google knows what you want, Facebook knows what you like and Amazon knows what everybody like you also bought is as true today as ever it was and that knowledge underpins the position of those organisations as Internet power houses. Last week I watched the hour long launch of the Kindle Fire  here was an object of desire built entirely around our relationship with an on line retailer.

When the current economic crisis ends, and I have to believe that it will end whenever that may be, the factory gates will not swing open and we will not all march back into work to the sound of “Sing as we go” there are fundamental changes in play which will lead to tensions between the need of current state to sustain consumption and changes in the nature of mass employment which seeks to create efficiencies in the world of supply. A connected world brings opportunities for coordinating activity on a massive scale, powered by big data and facilitated by cloud technology: production moves to the edge, supply lines become supply points, goods and services become personalized. The new digital inclusion takes the accepted ideas of skills and literacy and the necessity of online privacy and safety and adds to it the capacity for agility and expectation of a portfolio lifestyle, collaborative ability and a committed social role. These capacities will become essential parts of a digital person, without them people will re-enter the realm of digital and social exclusion.

What will the world look like post 2020 are those are clouds on the horizon?

We will finally divorce infrastructure from the internet.  See written evidence presented by Dr Catherine Middleton to the House of Lords Select Committee on Superfast Broadband (page 245). Infrastructure will underpin intelligent homes, transport, energy, water and food supply; what IFTF calls sharable cities; what I call sharable communities.

The world will be personalized: Social care and health care will take account of personal wealth and be co-produced through a raft of agencies and local providers; they will no longer be chosen from a basket of pre-prepared offers. Medication will be personalized. Learning will be personalized, lifelong and continuous to support our adaptability and agility. Political engagement will be both personal and social; political parties will be collaborative and transitory the power will lie with the floating voter. What IFTF describes as the shift from “individually responsible intelligent organisms to complex ecosystems of biologically distributed intelligence”.

The economy will be truly digital, not a digital layer over a 19th century industrialized society but truly digital. Sheer economic pressure will force production to the edge removing costs from distribution logistics, inventory storage and over production. The rise of the Internet of Things will build intelligence into everyday objects, appliances and food and the aggregated data will fine tune supply. Big data will have value in a wider sphere than just social and market trends as providers realize that they have an interest in when and how we consume their products and services. Additive manufacturing will become the norm for the majority of consumer products and it will take place as close to the point of distribution as possible. Everything will exist in software until it is required and software will exist in the cloud; deindustrialization will be the norm.

We will experience massive disruption of traditional media; the Netflix effect will spread so that we will capture increasing value from SMART TV’s. The business model of telcos and cable companies will adapt or die: we will see the same patterns of protectionism and aggressive lobbying as we have with print media and music distribution industries but the outcome will be the same. The decline of traditional news and content providers will be matched by the rise and rise of respected curators of content as we seek trusted sources. Hyperlocal will play an increasingly important role in the information needs of communities; social media will be the second point of call for information signposting. Mobile will be pervasive and the accepted norm.

There will be little demand for mass employment and so we must prepare to have different expectations of our lifestyles. As institutional wage labour declines micro contributions increase, production becomes social. Beyond 2020 we are faced with a stark choice: Do we operate a false, inefficient economy in which we make goods in factories and consume over the internet to meet a demand stimulated by the marketing forces of the big providers as we do now? Do we operate in a way which makes us social care workers one day, manufacturers the next, educators one morning, learners one afternoon? Do we embrace a rise in the value of artisan goods and develop new skills to offer personalized services? Do we become content creators and skilled curators both to generate income and to enrich the lives of our communities?

Will all of this happen tomorrow? No of course not, this is a process of change but we must prepare for that change lest the long tail suddenly shortens and wide exclusion becomes the norm again. Consider the digital skills and attitudes that we need to develop to enable participation in the brave new world; consider yet the implications for staying as we are and not preparing for the impact of change? Do we pick up our tablet, log on to the store and order a video to watch on our SMART TV and call ourselves digitally included? Think about it.

You Don't Have to be Big – Just Smart

On the first Monday in November I went to “Birmingham’s Big Debate”. IT was held at the ICC in Birmingham, one of my favourite buildings. The subheading for the event was “Can the creative sector save the UK economy?” I went because I received an invite through colleagues at Digital Birmingham and I am interested in all things Digital, particularly in how they relate to people. Events like these are a good opportunity to catch up with old friends and hopefully make a couple of new ones. I managed the former, I’m not sure if I achieved the latter.

There were some interesting speakers at the event which was peopled predominantly by representatives from Birmingham’s Creative sector. Charles Leadbeater highlighted the small pebbles theme, the importance of rebels in the innovation process, the dangers of centres of excellence that end up as a home for lime coloured bean bags and the need for places (not necessarily permanent, purpose built places) for people to collaborate and to exhibit.

David Harris gave an industry perspective on the economic potential of creative industries and how creativity sat low on the educational agenda. He posed a very important question which seemed, to me, to get lost; what happens if you put creativity at the core of everything? David was accompanied at the podium by Toby Barnes who runs a successful gaming company. Toby’s presentation tried to pull together the potential for the future, particularly of digital technology.

The event then moved into facilitated discussion groups and, for me at least, it entered a state of mass denial as it appeared that the messages from the front of house had not been heard. I don’t think it was just my table, at least not judging from the bullet point list that arose from all of the discussions. There were some good people on my table, engaging, intelligent, and important but seemingly unable to see the bigger picture. There was deep conviction that the city was to be the focus of activity – what happened to collaboration as a route to innovation? The West Midlands is a large and diverse place -. There was a call for centres of excellence as place to exhibit national collections. Why did they bother to invite Charles Leadbeater if nobody was going to hear a word he said? There was a re-run of the Birmingham City Council website fiasco and the excellent riposte from local activists with their DIY site but then a complaint that the council still wasn’t listening and engaging with them – Err, your point? But what was most disturbing was that nobody, as @Cyberdoyle would say, got IT. Nobody appeared to understand the wider implications of a digital world.

Charles Leadbeater covered the ground from “We Think” but there is a paper which he wrote for Cornerhouse, Manchester in 2009 called “The Art of With” where he describes the culture of companies (and governments) that do things ‘for’ people and ‘to’ people. In creative terms it equates to art ‘at’ us. For Leadbeater the logic of ‘with’ underpins changes in people’s relationship to information and to one another. “The barriers to entry into creating media content are falling.” This is part of what was missed by the people at the Birmingham event; it was clear from the comments that the participants saw themselves as doing things for and to and not recognising the new economy or the new opportunities that arose from doing it with.

It’s time I stopped buying the Sunday Times. It’s a bad habit; I’m used to settling down with it for an hour after breakfast on a Sunday. It’s the only time I buy a traditional paper.  Rupert Murdoch doesn’t get it either, I’m referring to his insanity viz Google indexes, yet conversely there was this article in the Culture section last Sunday.

times

The article was a brilliant example of how small pebbles, collaborating, allowed musicians to share their art, make a living – and that includes all of the support organisations – with not a single rant about DRM. The irony wasn’t lost on me but I don’t suppose that Mr M reads his publication, well, not on a Sunday.

What the people in that debate were missing was the same point; the internet has changed the goal posts, the world is no longer just flat, it’s joined up. Eric Schmidt, in a recent Gartner interview stated that “It’s because of this fundamental shift towards user-generated information that people will listen more to other people than to traditional sources; unsurprisingly, for Schmidt, Learning how to rank that ” is the great challenge of the age.” Schmidt believes “Google can solve that problem” because Google tends to listen to some people more than others. In the next five years, if a company does not exist on the internet, it does not exist in the world. Those companies with an eye to capturing the content market will have their identity firmly on the web 2.0 and web 3.0. Those companies with art to exhibit and art to sell will do so in ever changing, ever flexible, ever on line spaces and their market place will be the web. However, it’s more than this, because not only does the web provide the place to share and sell it also provides the place to receive thoughts, to gain inspiration, to collaborate, it is the art of ‘with’ that Leadbeater talks about.

Within five years a web persona will be as important as a real world identity. Brian Solis recently wrote about Portable identity in the evolution of the social web. “Socially connected consumers will strengthen communities and shift power away from brands and CRM systems; eventually this will result in empowered communities defining the next generation of products.” – Brian Solis – The world will know you by your web persona, in the internet of things you will be a connection and every device you use will be node on that connection. Bigger entities, like companies, will just be bigger networks.

Having the faith to put yourself into the hands of the people and trust them. That’s what’s wrong. There is no faith and no trust. There is an underlying fear that people will ask for something that the system can’t deliver and so it has to manage expectations. I was humbled recently when I read an article by Radha Rao on Technology and the Intellectual Life of the Poor where he looks at the inability of society to consider excluded people as just having a creative life, we have to see them as both creative and excluded: “How do we begin to look at the technological lives of people beyond developmentalism and take into account the way it changes aspirations and subjectivities?” – Radha Rao –

I’ve talked here about an event with the creative sector but it applies equally across all businesses. Unless business embraces its audience, its customers, unless it seeks to understand the art of ‘with’ and has the faith to accept that a wider collaboration will yield benefits irrespective of  whether they’re from the creative quarter or not then the creative or any other sector will not be able to save the UK economy – I doubt it will save itself.

Media Literacy

Have you ever been to one of those workshops which begin with the words “I want you to tell us something about yourself that nobody else in the room would know” I‘m not going to have a grumpy old man moment about my views on this but I will confess to something that not a lot of people know; I used to be a school teacher. Many years ago, admittedly, but I was that teacher. I say this because one of the subjects that was taught way back then was Media Studies. I have deconstructed images, highlighted the sub text, framed the picture, explained a “tracking shot” created that sound effect and recorded the play. This was all about understanding mediation, that the media was not a window on life but a point of view with an underpinning set of values that we somehow felt young people needed to recognise and understand. 

What we didn’t have then was the internet. We witnessed the first micro computers and their development (we really believed that 640k would be enough for anyone), the  9600baud modem, e-mail (we couldn’t imagine what anyone would want to use it for either), networks (so you could share expensive peripherals like NLQ dot matrix printers and high capacity (sic 10 Mb) storage, colour, tcp/ip and then the mosaic browser and with it a sudden dawning of what it all could mean. By that time I had left teaching and the government of the day had declared that media literacy was no longer necessary as a subject. What was important was literacy, numeracy and science. Soon to be added to the list was IT. 

Now, it seems, we have come full circle, as is the way of things, and we have a Digital Participation Consortium under the auspices of Ofcom. 

AOL   Cabinet Office   DC10plus
BBC   Champion for Digital Inclusion (Race Online 2012 Team)   DCMS
Bebo   Change Agency   DCSF
Becta   Channel 4   Digital UK
BIS   Cisco   Digital Unite
British Library   CLG   Directgov
Broadband Stakeholder Group   Community Media Association   e-skills UK
BSkyB   Oxford Internet Institute   Get Safe Online
BT   Portland PR on behalf of Apple   Google
Tate   Post Office   Intel
Timebank   QCDA   ITV
UKCCIS   Research in Motion (BlackBerry)   LearnDirect
UK online centres   Scottish Government   Media Literacy in Scotland
Virgin Media   SkillSet   Media Literacy Task Force
Wales Media Literacy Network   Museums, Libraries and Archives Council   Media Trust/Community Channel
Welsh Assembly Government   Mobile Broadband Group   Microsoft
YouthNet   MySpace   NIACE
Northern Ireland Executive   Northern Ireland Media Literacy Network    

 The big difference between then and now is that then there was a definable media. Big organisations which had vast resources making content for the rest of society. They’re still there and the principles of mediation and the underlying values of large scale producers still apply. These are Charles Leadbeater’s large stones on a beach. What we have now are the small stones, the collaborative, hyperlocal publishers of content.

There has been a tendency to think of hyperlocal as a benign benefit to communities and as a way of broadcasting the community voice, giving it a platform and making it heard. I share that view. However, I would also like to share with you a recent experience that the need for media literacy has never been greater. I was having a light hearted conversation via Twitter with Lewis Shepherd in Washington about whole food and socialism along the lines of “What’s socialist about whole food?” when a re-tweet appeared in the stream: 

“3rd Red Scare? RT @penval @lewisshepherd Socialism apart – what’s not capitalist about whole food?” 

These things appear and disappear all of the time but given that I was thinking about the whole media literacy piece I took time out to investigate a little further. A check on the profile of the sender brought me to this:

 redscarebot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I usually ignore the automated stuff I was intrigued so I had a look at the web site and found myself here:

Digital Hisory Page

This site is allegedly fronted by the University of Huston. It doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2006 and, if the contact page is to be believed it has been subjected to some vigorous spam attacks. On the face of it this is a factual web site which provides information and worksheets for teachers about American History. Some of it is quite good, I learned things. When you start to dig it becomes somewhat more insidious. Certain groups in the US are labelled, specifically: Italians, Irish and Asians, they are migrants. Other groups are omitted, specifically indigenous Indian tribes. African Americans and the Civil War are a mere footnote in history. Jewish people are “non-Christians”. According to this web site indigenous Americans are white, middle class and Catholic.

 None of this is explicit, it’s all inferred and it’s all supported by “facts”. It’s quite amateurish and you would have to be rather crass not to see the issues that are raised here but it does serve to remind us that there is an element of internet media literacy that we didn’t have to deal with when the “media” was a clearly defined, easy to see, big stone.

The people and organisations who sit on the Ofcom Digital Participation group are as good a representational body as you are likely to get. I wish it well and have faith that they will consider the full impact of the hyperlocal revolution in all of its forms. This is not just about making us all more aware in  a digital world, it’s fundamental. Recently the European Union issued a communication on Media Literacy where it said:

 “Democracy depends on the active participation of citizens to the life of their community and media literacy would provide the skills they need to make sense of the daily flow of information disseminated through new communication technologies.”

COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION 20.8.2009 on media literacy in the digital environment for a more competitive audiovisual and content industry and an inclusive knowledge society

 This, for me, says it all and because this is a sentiment to which we all subscribe I think we should be mindful of the media literacy issues that will arise from our hyperlocal endeavours.