Category Archives: concepts & ideas

Machines Of Loving Grace

Networked Equilibrium

Without a doubt the most provocative words I’ve come across this week were written—not last week, or even last year—but 18 years ago, by the late Carmen Hermosillo.

Incidentally the notable 2nd-place spot for astonishing words read (among the non-fiction variety) go out to Walter Isaacson and his enthralling biography of the late Steve Jobs: chapter 1, page 5, in which Steve Jobs affectionately refers to his biological parents as “my sperm and egg bank”.

Carmen Hermosillo was a cyberspace theorist, blogger, and early adopter of digital technologies during the pioneering days of the Web back in the early 1990’s. She taught trans-disciplinary humanities and worked as an industrial Web Analyst, Content Manager, and also co-wrote and collaborated on numerous papers appearing in Wired and Leonardo.

Hermosillo was originally a big proponent of the Web. However, in 1994 she wrote an essay that caused an uproar, entitled Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace. In it she audaciously broke from the prevailing cyber-utopianism of the day by painting a critical view of computer and information networks. Hermosillo suggested these emerging digital systems, coupled with the rapid commercialization of the Web, were ushering in an era of uneven power distribution and centralized control. The consequences for human interaction and personal expression were, as Hermosillo put it, dire.

Here are several rather salient excerpts:

It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some kind of _island of the blessed_ where people are free to indulge and express their Individuality.

This is not true.

I have seen many people spill out their emotions, their guts on-line, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself. Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value.

In the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories by workers who were mostly exploited. I created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to [e.g. Compuserve, AOL], and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. That means that I sold my soul like a tennis shoe and I derived no profit from the sale of my soul. People who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends [text messages] and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.

Cyberspace is a black hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as spectacle.

Many cyber-communities are businesses that rely upon the commodification of human interaction.

These thoughts are intriguing, but also agonizingly negative.

Why did Hermosillo, initially a proponent of the Web, become so disenchanted with cyberspace?
These and other compelling questions are raised in Adam Curtis‘ BBC documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Whether we’re getting lost in the spectacle of cybernetic commodification or creating a new system of networked equilibrium and human empowerment is, nevertheless, open for debate.

The Web’s Next Act

Next Steps -The Truman Show Finale

Imagine for a moment your Internet connected life as you currently know it, exists as a series of pre-programmed events. A meticulously constructed digital reality where everything (and everyone) you interact with is almost perfect, governed by a universally agreed upon set of technological standards and best practices.
The grand architect sits high in the sky in awe of his thriving creation, trying to anticipate what should come next. All the while analyzing data, optimizing the experience and tweaking the patterns of design. Teams of technicians and engineers faithfully implement the architect’s master vision, placing products, pulling and prodding the algorithmic strings that ultimately dictate the nature of this constantly evolving system.

The vast majority of us on the Web are quite happy with the way things are. The cloud has everything we could ever possibly want or need, say the information technology pundits. Work in the cloud, play games in the cloud, stream music and movies from the cloud, socialize with your friends in the cloud.

But you’re wondering, and hoping, there’s more to the Web than just this over-hyped cloud nonsense. More than the detached silos of content surrounded by a massive walled garden that locks-in all the data generated by our online movements and activities, all without any discernible URIs.

A more optimistic outlook says the next dominant subtext of the Web will hinge on collaborative, (artificially) intelligent and socially semantic technologies. Of course, don’t forget open, transparent and decentralized. Scour the Web and you’ll find these are some of the popular memes gaining traction of late.

What about user-friendliness? Now there’s a cliché. Media theorist Norbert Bolz once aptly referred to user-friendliness as “the rhetoric of the technology which consecrates our ignorance”.
While the Web may or may not be getting any easier to use, ignorance and stupidity show no signs of slowing down online.

Louis Grey believes the next stage of the Web, or third wave, will be uniquely personal (the second wave we are currently in being Social). Indeed, it’s probably inevitable we’ll reach a point when popular conventions of the day: ‘liking’ things and ‘following’ people (and brands), eventually lose their appeal as people strive to inflect more meaning into their digital streams, rather than merely running around earning Foursquare badges and higher Klout scores. Louis Grey writes:

Now that the world’s information is posted, linked, indexed and searchable, and friends are connecting, sharing, liking, and following, the quest is on to streamline the noise and give the Web another dimension – one not measured by the data, or who led you to the data, but you as an individual. The third wave of the Web, is going to be about personalization by individual based on that individual’s preferences – explicitly stated or otherwise.

Grey’s ideas sound almost utopian considering the characteristically impersonal nature of digital communications.

Jaron Lanier sees the Web as a moderately oppressive place for the creative class. Yes that’s right, he’s talking people like us—you, me, the struggling writer down the street. In his book, You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier suggests current forms of personal expression and the individual voicemuch more vibrant during the early days of the Internet—are now under threat by unscrupulous “cloud owners” intent on profiting from intellectual properties and creative works without adequately compensating content creators.

Questions of compensation and wealth distribution run deeper when you consider the Web’s growing commercialization as it rears its semi-ugly head in the form of media paywalls and centralized social networks.
Many high traffic digital properties encourage content contributors to produce original material in exchange for exposure rather than monetary compensation. The Huffington Post, most notably, has been highly criticized in the past in this regard for not paying their legions of bloggers (ehem, writers).

Application developers too, face challenges despite the lucrative growth of the mobile application market. Major host platforms in some cases take a 30% cut out of the developer’s pocket. And then of course there’s Mark Zuckerberg and company, charging a whopping 30% fee to developers on game transactions, also brilliantly devising a proprietary credit system rather than rely upon PayPal or major credit card companies.
Does this seem like a fair and equitable way to treat the very people who contribute to some of the best and brightest aspects of the new digital economy?

Materializing Your Ideas

Biffy Clyro, Saturday Super House © Storm Thorgerson. Courtesy of Idea Generation

Image: Biffy Clyro, Saturday Super House © Storm Thorgerson. Courtesy of Idea Generation

The world doesn’t need another f*(king —insert your idea here— .

This statement is something that you need to hear. You need to pin that on your wall and look at it every day. Because that’s how people feel. Let that drive you to prove everyone wrong.

Someone I’ve known for a very long time, who I highly respect, wrote these provocative words in an email recently in response to a business plan written by someone else both he and I know quite well. I’m not going to mention any names or particulars here in the interest of discretion.

The entrepreneur who wrote the business plan in question asked a small group of close friends and colleagues, myself included, to read through his proposal and offer up any critical insights and feedback.

By my estimate this entrepreneur has spent nearly a decade thinking seriously about the subject area covered. The document itself, from what I gather, is the culmination of a lifelong aspiration influenced by many past business and personal experiences.
Certainly these could all be considered necessary prerequisites to launching a successful business endeavour.

So when someone says to you, quite bluntly, “this idea has been done before and the world really doesn’t need it“, entrepreneurs, you should stop and take note.

This is the default response you’ll invariably hear when embarking on a new project. “Convince me otherwise”, potential stakeholders will challenge. Not because they want to see you fail or they want to just shoot down your idea for the hell of it. No. Chances are quite good someone has already thought of your super-amazing-incredibly ground-breaking-revolutionary-über-innovative idea. So you’ll need to prove the naysayers dead wrong. Potential investors will want to know what you’ll do to differentiate from brand leader X. How your product or service will out-innovate the countless reams of other competitor offerings you’ll be facing.
The same person who wrote the words included at the beginning of this post also made the insightful point of saying, “focus more on the ‘why‘ over the what”, as a way to find your market niche.
I think this is outstanding advice for anyone eyeing a piece of the cut-throat start-up/product development/marketing game. I’d also add, when re-writing your business plan for the 100th time, pretend you’ll be pitching your idea on the Dragon’s Den (Shark Tank if you’re in the U.S.). What would Kevin O’Leary think about your proposal?

By some estimates the number of business start-ups that fail can be anywhere from 30 to 95% depending on how failure is defined. Fail faster and more often has become a popular mantra in the tech and creative industry of late —but also the word “no”. When people say “no” a smart entrepreneur will learn from the experience and adapt accordingly. Tenaciousness in this regard is likely the one outstanding character trait that separates the average entrepreneurs from the great ones. So entrepreneurs, get used to hearing the word “no”.

Steve Jobs was famous for his use of the word “no” which, over the years, effectively killed off hundreds, perhaps even thousands of product concepts and ideas he deemed too inferior to line the coveted Apple Store shelves. Now, interestingly, it seems Google’s CEO Larry Page is following in Steve Jobs footsteps, marching to the drum of streamlined development in an effort to usher in a radically transformed Google.

But don’t let all this talk of killing ideas prevent you from pushing yours forward. What matters is perseverance. Put another way, ideas are relatively worthless without a need, passion, opportunity, execution, team work, and follow-through.