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 , 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.


“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: . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog 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: . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform 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.

Never Disagree With An Idiot

George Carlin, the American stand up comedian said: “Never disagree with an idiot. He will bring you down to his level and then beat you with experience”. He came to mind this week when I was reading the reports of Apple CEO, Tim Cook’s response to criticism of Apple’s aggressive tax avoidance tactics. It’s not our tax avoidance that’s the problem he said it’s your tax regime (I’ve paraphrased but you get the gist). That same “bubble” mentality was evident in an Observer piece on Sunday: “How Silicon Valley tech elite’s wealth created a world apart” by Rory Caroll. This was very much a populist piece, by which I mean it wasn’t world shattering investigative journalism, but it highlighted a way of thinking. In summary this was a description of how employees from companies like Google, Apple, EA and Twitter are setting themselves apart from the people who live in the same geographical location. They travel in their own buses, they create their own gated communities and they create a sense of taking much and giving back little. They deny it, of course, with statements which reflect a view of San Francisco as a dirty city with poor schools to which the elite come to create wealth regardless. One reflects that they can’t understand people’s criticism; after all they are helping people to share.

Of course, as an outsider looking in, you can see that from Tim Cook to the unnamed developer they’re missing the point. We can apply Apple’s logic to any number of laws that we don’t happen to like; it’s not that I broke the speed limit, it’s just that you set the limit too low; likewise the tech employee community cannot see the difference between doing for and doing with.

Was any technology truly disruptive that didn’t move things closer to the edge? For example, the personal computer, the private car, the smart phone, Mpeg compression or the internet? Surely the disruption comes because the means of consumption or production becomes increasingly divorced from the core and choice is placed in the hands of the individual. We can see a cycle in which a new development triggers a market change, the old core responds first with negative publicity and then with attempts at regulation; then there is adaptation, new market models arise and it starts again. Old companies disappear or change and new ones grow up to replace them, better suited to the new environment.

This begs a question: what is the role of the Cloud? Think before you answer! On the one hand the cloud (let’s not get into the argument about what the cloud physically is; I know it isn’t a “the” but as a concept it’s out there, it’s working and like it or not most of us use it. We can think of it as a great facilitator, no cloud no smart phone for instance. We can see it as a great benefit; the Internet of Things is unlikely to function without the Cloud, there is going to be no Drop Box, Netflix will struggle and the low cost, fast running start up will, well it will not start up!

What of the cloud as an aggregator, a consumer of very big data, about us? Where does the wealth on which all of those unpaid taxes accrue get created? Isn’t it based on the analysis of that eye watering collection of data about us? Up to a point I accept the argument that nothing in this world is free; I don’t get to use my smart phone for all of those personalised services for nothing. In return I give up data about me, my contacts and my life. At what point do I, or any of us for that matter, decide that the cost is too high?

I am a great admirer of Jarond Lanier; not just because of his achievements but because of his ability to  set out the world from his point of view. While he is great at identifying trends he’s not so hot on the solutions and his latest book “Who owns the future” is a case in point. His argument for humanistic economics sounds okay but it’s based on an old idea of value; that of value in ownership. The economics of the digital realm comes from value in use. Without the cloud my smart phone may be an aging design icon but it’s also just a lump of useless alloy and glass. The value lies not in ownership but in use. Right now that value is created for me in time I will need that value to be created with me – and the digital network will allow that process of co-creation to happen. If it doesn’t then the price I am currently paying to realise that value will be deemed too high (I believe I will not be alone) and I will go elsewhere and do things other ways. Two things flow from this, firstly the developers that are setting up their world apart in the dirty city will have to start to do things with their neighbouring community and not exist in the belief that they are doing things for otherwise things will fall apart very quickly. Secondly that data of mine that you are taking in payment for services is generating a lot of money – much more than I think the services are worth – so give something back Mr Cook, pay your damn taxes.

As a final thought I firmly believe that cloud technology will eventually move to the edge where it will become truly disruptive. This will be because of resource demands and as every network architect knows the closer to the edge the less resource dependent it is; where we are now is unsustainable. I predict a period of negativity, followed by regulation (presumably in return for paid taxes) and then adaptation and a new business model – it will take time, but it will happen.

Smart Cities but are they smart places?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way” Charles Dickens A tale of Two Cities

One of the best things (worst things?) about being in the digital inclusion space is that you get to move in all sorts of circles: last month it was infrastructure at the Digital Agenda Assembly, last week it was knowledge sharing at a discussion in Birmingham and how that is becoming a government issue worldwide. While others will recognise that this demands a little understanding of everything it means that we have to hold our hands up to a detailed understanding of little.

I’ve always had reservations about City Regions as an underlying principle for economic and social development. Let me qualify that: it’s not that I don’t understand the importance of cities as centres of population or as drivers for economic growth it’s that we tend to think of them as independent systems that exist outside of any other context; we make the system boundary too constricted. I understand that we cannot have an unbounded system but we make the world view rather myopic and the city system looks in on itself or at best on other cities that are also looking inwards. This perception is shared not only by those who discuss cities but also those who live in them. Any recognition of a wider context for a city is limited to “trickle down effects”. Now we are moving into the realms of “Super connected cities” which begs the question: connected to what?

The piece by Dr Rick Robinson on how information can support forward looking decision making highlights the need to identify long term social, environmental and financial outcomes. I concur; outcome based strategy provides a better driver for innovation and investment than simple short term financial return. However, there are a couple of missing pieces from the picture.

The city operations centre in Rio de Janeiro is a well publicized example of Smart City Technology. I have never been to Brazil; I have never been to South America, much less Brazil and I don’t speak Portuguese. Everything I see and read about Rio de Janeiro is full of superlatives: biggest, highest, richest, and poorest and the fastest. Brazil has overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy but I read about it most in the context of Smart Cities.

I’m an admirer of the work of Anthony Townsend and Rachel Maguire of the Institute of the Future, particularly “A Planet of Civic Laboratories”  because they recognise not only the value to be gained from the high level information systems as a driver for decision making but also the importance of ownership by the people who live in the cities: in the Brazilian context they highlight the use of personal sensing and access to open data to inform citizens who can be empowered to make a difference locally. This chimes well with local currencies and trading systems and was emphasized by Greg Lindsay in a 2010 piece “The Battle for Control of Smart Cities” .

The second missing piece is about the context for cities. I’m not just talking about the peri-urban hinterland, I mean the rural context which sits between the cities. I recently had the pleasure of a discussion with colleagues at the THINKlab at the University of Salford about the use of sensor technology to manage food supply chains. This arose from a consideration of the popular, simple idea of local food boxes and barter systems in communities. Looked at in the wider context of rural food distribution (rural areas tend to produce food, export it to urban areas then re-import it in order to buy it at retail outlets). An efficient barter system and food boxes are potentially disruptive and could undermine the local retail outlet which closes. Apart from the loss of amenity this works until there is a period of shortage at which point the community is drawn back into the food supply chain but must go further to obtain food. This is inefficient in terms of carbon use and creates hardship for those who cannot travel easily. The solution we explored was to look at how information systems could manage demand and inform local supply in a way which incorporated the food boxes into the established supply chain; the internet of things at a very small scale.

How is this relevant to the city? Ownership by the citizenry cannot be ignored. The Mckinsey and Company report into “Cities, Information and Inclusion” emphasizes the public value that arises from digitally included populations. Such supply chains of goods, labour and information already exist between cities and their rural context but we fail to recognise them when considering the smart systems. There is a strong outcome based case for “smart places” for while the urgency lies with the cities of today to ignore the wider context is not only inefficient but poor system boundaries increases the future risk of unintended consequences when we encounter periods of disruptive change.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time a race of people lived on islands on a beautiful sea. Occasionally the people would write letters to each other and every now and again they might visit each other, making the journey on small boats between the islands. Some of the larger islands with big populations on them were able to build wooden bridges so that they could walk to other large islands close by and talk to them more often.

Then, one day, an enormous wave swept across the sea. Some people looked up and saw it coming in the distance but others were taken completely by surprise because they only looked upon their own coastline and the nearby islands and didn’t see any reason to look out into the distance. The lucky ones scrambled up onto the high ground and sheltered in the rocks as the wave swept by taking all before it. The unlucky ones disappeared and were never seen again. Following the passage of the wave there was a terrible storm and all the people on the islands could do was shelter as best as they could.

When the storm had passed the people emerged from their shelters to find that the sea had been completely transformed by the wave. Many buildings had completely disappeared, the bridges between the larger islands had gone and as if by magic, the smaller islands were no longer just islands but had become nodes in a huge nexus that reached out in every direction as far as the eye could see.

Some of the people on the islands ignored the nexus because they said it was a bad thing; they didn’t see the point of it and it wasn’t for them. They longed for the days when they would walk along their coast line and look out to the island next door. They missed the occasional boat trip to see their neighbours and all they could do was sit and talk about the way things were. Eventually these people left the islands leaving behind their empty homes and the small, grey box that was part of the nexus.

For others it seemed that the nexus was a good thing. They realized that the nexus could carry messages far beyond their immediate neighbours to nodes that were far away, to islands where organisations had new ideas and new ways of thinking that they had never even considered before. Before long ideas were flowing through the nexus and as messages passed through the nexus people added more information so that the nexus became a rich source of ideas and information.

western telecom

With the nexus there was no need for wooden bridges so that even the smallest island could link to islands with similar interests. There was no need to be a big island with lots of people. In this way groups of small islands could appear as one very big island with lots of connections that improved their knowledge and understanding but even more importantly allowed them to speak with one, strong voice.

Very few people had seen the wave coming; only those that looked up and out to sea. Nobody knew if there would be another wave and so it became important to scan the horizon. Those islands that were on the edge of the great sea were able to look out and then, through the nexus tell everybody what they saw. The people could then discuss these things amongst themselves and with other nodes on the nexus so that they understood the world beyond their island and prepare themselves for what the future might bring.

It’s fashionable to prefix everything with “Social”; we have the social web and social media but it’s a mistake to think that a social organisation is a passing trend. Social is not just about gossip though the role of gossip in establishing and maintaining relationships should not be overlooked. Social is about maintaining contact, about exchanging information, about sharing experience and it has a role in the larger organisation in disrupting silos.

The twenty first century organisation cannot exist in isolation. Why would it want to? This applies not only to businesses but also to public facing organisations and the voluntary sector is no exception. It is not enough to invest in word processing, a copy of Publisher© for newsletters and a spreadsheet for the accounts. Nor is it enough to have a web site for the purpose of telling people what you do. It’s not even enough to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The investment in ICT should be strategic and its use should be embedded into the fabric of the organisation.

Investment in an organisation’s ICT should focus on content management. A single collection point for content that drives the communication channels using the principle of create once and use many times. An organisation’s back office system should understand that there are many channels and it should be able to use data to drive the right content through the right channel.

Communication is not only outbound. Inbound messages come via comment, via social media and via direct channels. The systems should take in feedback, encourage social engagement, allow for comment and push all of that back through the organisation and out to a new group of stakeholders. The modern organisation ‘is’ a node on the nexus and the nexus can work for the organisation.

The information available to organisations is vast and constantly updated so we need tools that keep it relevant and manageable. The combination of high level data and local knowledge supplemented by social exchange is what gives the modern organisation its business intelligence. All of this informs the organisation’s strategy.

None of this is fixed. Nothing stands still. It constantly shifts. This is where the true potential of a social organisation lies because it operates in the stream of information which it filters and shares within its own eco system. Organisations should no longer be asking the questions ‘Which laptop should I buy?’ and ‘Who can build me a website?’ Organisations should be addressing the world beyond the coastline because that is what will make them a successful, agile organisation for who knows when the next wave is due?

Are you looking at investing in the ICT infrastructure for your organisations? Why not comment and let us know what you’re thinking.

Big Digital Society, I Think Not

OliverTwistThe future is here, it’s just being denied to the majority of people. The last time I put fingers to keyboard I tried to argue the case for rethinking our ideas of digital inclusion. This was not because a great deal of what happens in the fields of digital literacy and inclusion isn’t good. This was because there is a tendancy to assume that it’s job done and one size of solution will really fit all; so let’s move on. I argued that some of the current trends in innovation and in health and social care would lead to an even greater digital divide because current digital inclusion thinking would not address the long tail of deep exclusion.

There have been a couple of articles this week which do nothing to make me feel any less concerned that we are failing to address the fundemental need for a knowledge society so that the benefits are there for everybody and not just the few.

A piece in The Guardian by Sarah Knight from JISC and signposted by Joe Wilson (@joecar) who is Head of New Ventures in Glasgow, highlighted the impact of poor digital literacy skills amongst both students and academic staff. While JISC seeks to mitigate this it doesn’t bode well for the digital natives theory. For me it highlights the limitations of an office skills IT curriculum rather than a knowledge management curriculum.

The MIT Technology Review carried a piece called “Techtonic Shifts in Employment” by David Talbot and signposted by Richard Florida (@richard_florida) who describes himself as a Global Urbanist; this piece describes how the impact of technology is superceding jobs in what was once perceived as the secure, middle management/clerical white collar sector and the skills and understanding required to create new jobs and to innovate on the basis of the newly aquired digital skills was not there – yet? – . Given the implications of the Guardian piece it might suggest that a policy shift was overdue to redress the balance; not so.

The final piece by Tristram Shepard on his “All Change Please” blog  signposted by Mike Bostock (@mike_bostock) who works in Education Leadership Development, highlights the shift in the National Curriculum away from Information Technology and Design Technology to more “traditional” subjects. Why? At a time when there are concerns about the use of IT in the higher education sector, when the shift in employment trends demands a grasp of knowledge based tools why do we see a shift towards traditional subjects?

The conspiracy theorists could have a field day; the current government doesn’t want a knowledge society and it certainly doesn’t want the democratising potential of IT to be realised. I’m not a conspiracy nerd and would take a much less charitable view that the current government doesn’t even understand what it required; their view of a Big Society is rooted in the 19th Century Victorian ideals of a benign ruling class who oversee the welfare of the masses. This is a view that will lead to the increasing inequality of our society, we may be able to shop online and watch reruns of Strictly but we will not be empowered to make a difference to our own lives.

So what should we be doing? Our policy thinking should be more systemic so that we understand more of the influences that are shaping our society. We should be more iterative in our approach and move away from the tick box mentality that has been a feature both of the last government and this one; the job is not done, do not pass go, do not collect your OBE; it is not yet time to buy the hat. Understand that short term mitigation is not a long term solution; the policy choices appear to be driven by right wing tabloids, bankers and property developers.

I don’t share the current obsession with doing things like the Americans. The only time I look towards the United States is when I think about “We the people”; these three words should be the default starting point for policy and not we the industrialists, we the editors or we the financial institutions. In a world that is increasingly digital by default the democratising potential of ICT will not be realised unless the policy default become people based; everything else is just a means and not an end in itself.

Unpicking Personalised Learning

I owe everything I am to my parents; they saw to it that I had an education. I went to one of the early comprehensive schools where the ideal of equal opportunity for all set the baseline for what we did. Being the 60’s we were “banded” then “streamed” this was the time of the 1940 Education Act. I left there with 10 average ‘O’ levels and 2 good A levels and my parent saw to it that I went on to higher education. I returned after my first term, an alien. Suddenly nobody spoke the same language, I was adrift. In 1974 I emerged, the product of a Christian socialist education and entered the teaching profession. Hold that thought.

Earlier this week Charles Arthur from The Guardian @charlesarthur used Twitter to say that he was talking to some school children about the future of learning; I said that learning would be personalised to which he retorted: through software? On reflection that statement; the future of learning is personalised, needs unpicking; I happen to believe that  a certain amount of learning theory is based on an urban, middle class model of society. If you think about it, it’s not just learning. If you’re talking about inclusion what you really mean is inclusion in a Western European, middle class value set and most things fall out from that.

What happens if learning does become truly personalised? Tech is cheap and reliable and software platforms are common place. Add into the mix the mass of open access, multimedia content that is on the World Wide Web and why shouldn’t we personalise our own learning? I would argue though that this isn’t about tech.

Set aside all of the arguments about individual’s ability to structure their own learning, the untutored personality and all of the justification for a formal education system. Let’s set aside the cries of: where’s the pedagogy? What about the curriculum? I’m mindful of that; it may have been 47 plus years ago but I have been there. Just because learning is personalised it doesn’t mean you don’t have schools. There are some testing questions: what happens to the ideas about further and higher education when the boundaries between 14-19 establishments disappear? Who sets the standards? Why should learning stop just because it’s an 11-16 establishment? What happens to higher education when its resources are deemed suitable for 16 year olds? What happens to the fee structure? How do you access tutorials? Who sets the standard for quality? Yes I know that all these things happen now on a very small scale, but what if these were not the exceptions; what would happen to the system?

At the other end of the social scale people who are disengaged from learning now could find that a truly personalised system allows them to define a new curriculum that meets their needs. This is the non-middle class curriculum. This is a curriculum that helps people to cope with housing issues, lone parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, unemployment and the benefits system. In an idealistic way it’s a curriculum that helps people to understand, helps people who are disenfranchised and empowers them.

A personalised learning environment will benefit from tech, I have no doubt. This means that we have to have digital inclusion, which is why I believe in it as a fundamental right but if digital inclusion is to have meaning then we have to ask ourselves the question: included in what? When Forster (a Liberal) introduced the Elementary Education Act in 1870 there were objections to the idea of a universal education because it might make the labouring classes think! If we are to have truly personalised learning we have to understand the value of digital technology but we have to stop worrying about it. We have to de-couple learning from skills, put skills back in the box and get them out when needed and not predicate everything on skills. Our obsession with differentiation has brought us to a place where we have commoditised learning so that we have learning brands; Eaton, Charterhouse, Oxford and Cambridge are world famous brands. Conversely we have devalued learning that is relevant to a whole other stratum of society; no wonder people become disengaged. In a personalised world there are many curricula of even weight because the end point is not necessarily defined by a single set of values and if we are to include people we have to recognise those other values. A learning society builds social capital and social capital leads to innovation and from that innovation you get true public value.

Am I still a teacher? No, while I had many years association with the teaching profession I left the classroom after 15 years. So, is the future of education a personalised one? It should be and digital technology should play a role but the barriers to a truly personalised education system are embedded in our social system in a way that is exclusive, in many ways we haven’t moved very far from the fears of the 1870s.