Shaking Trees: Changing the World, in the Face of Death

My friend Niels is dying and is celebrating life. Today he gave his ‘Last Lecture’ (viewable here in Dutch, Niels’ lecture starts at 42:00), following the example of Randy Pausch in 2008, in front of 400 people. He made us laugh, he made us think. He made us connect. So we can continue on after he’s no longer here. He turned us into his torch bearers, fakkeldragers in Dutch. That #fakkeldragers was the number 1 trending topic on Twitter in the Netherlands this morning, even as a major storm passed over and we like nothing more than discussing the weather, tells you a little something about Niels.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
400 people in the audience

I met Niels 10 years ago. He reached out to me online to ask me a question. Today he said to realize your dreams you have to start by asking a question. He asked me about learning online. He was a student then, and despite assurances to the contrary he could not access the univ’s buildings with his electric wheelchair and fully participate in the curriculum (Niels has spasticity and requires daily care). Undeterred he set out to arrange his own education online. We explored Second Life together, and we hung out in knowledge management fora, on blogs and social media. Only some 3 years later we finally met face to face, on a Mobile Monday meet-up in Amsterdam. Later we were both active in the topic of complexity management, and worked together to help build up a new company around participatory narrative inquiry. He married, and became a father, and despite every Kafkaesk requirement the ‘system’ threw at him he cut out his own path and became an entrepreneur. “He does not think it is impossible he’ll hold a regular job” someone wrote in his case file once. Another that he was a difficult patient to work with as “he keeps insisting on creating his own plans”.

His sense of humor not only keeps him sane, but also is his primary ‘weapon’ to create a space to be heard in health care and social care discussions and systems that are mostly accustomed to deciding or talking over him. “My case file never mentions the happinness of our family or the joy I find in my work” as key to personal wellbeing. That also drives him as an entrepreneur, where ever he goes he brings together those stakeholders that normally don’t enter into a proper conversation, and in those conversations plants the seeds to make the social and health care system work better. To replace faceless bureaucracy with a human face. To align the sometimes bewildering logic of the system with the logic of actual life. To make the system more efficient as well as more effective that way. Niels his last name roughly translates into English as Shaking Tree, and that became his brand. Shakingtree Interventions shakes things up. All trees in the Netherlands shook today, because of the mentioned storm, and it seems a fitting tribute.

A testament to him shaking things up is that the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health Care was an opening speaker today. He launched the annual ‘Shakingtree Award’ and presented the first one to Niels himself. At the same time he asked Niels, as he is wont to do anyway, to set the criteria for the Shaking Tree Award. Those criteria center around having experience with the health care system, being able to shake things up, and having a sense of humor.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
The Shakingtree Award Statue, a tree of touching hands

Even if this maybe, hopefully, isn’t his real last lecture, “I hope I will have cancer for a very long time”, it was a great day to call upon 400 friends, colleagues and strangers to step up and be a torch bearer, a #fakkeldrager. That message, even without his personal shout-out to me to ‘fix this already’ (to use maker spaces to create cheaper tools and adptations), was loud and clear to all I think. Niels wants us to learn how to “dance with the system“, that was his lesson for us today. He is launching a ‘social domain lab’ to continue teaching that.

Today was a good and a fun day, despite the reason why it was organized. Or as Niels quoted Pema Chödrön “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Over the past 18 months in my personal life I’ve learned (again) that to me beauty resides in that room where such layeredness is allowed to exist. Today reinforced it once more. Thank you Niels.

P1030933 P1030934

How to Leave Evernote?

Evernote
How to deal with the green elephant in the room?

After I quit using Gmail earlier this year, Evernote has become my biggest silo and single point of failure in my workflow. I have been using it since October 2010 with a premium account, and maintain some 4500 notes, about 25GB total in size. With my move away from Gmail, my use of Evernote has actually increased as well. Part of my e-mail triage process now is forwarding receipts etc to Evernote, before removing them from my mail box.

As with leaving Gmail, there are no immediately visible alternatives to Evernote, that cater to all convenient affordances I have become accustomed to. This was already apparant when I quit Gmail, when Peter Rukavina and I exchanged some thoughts about it. So in order to make the first steps towards ditching Evernote, I will follow the recipe I derived from leaving Gmail, as I presented it at the Koppelting conference in August.

Why do I want to leave?

  • It’s a single point of failure for both private and work related material
  • It’s on US servers, and I would like my own cloud instead
  • It’s not exportable in a general format

What I don’t like about Evernote

  • No easy way to get an overview or visualisation of my notes (although notes are easy to link, those links are not visible as a network)
  • No easy way to mine the total of notes, aside from regular search for specific notes
  • No way to let Evernote use my own cloud / server for storage
  • No reliable way to share with others who are not Evernote users themselves

What I like about Evernote

  • Really everything can be a note
  • It’s cross device (I consult material on my phone, and store e.g. boarding passes there during travel)
  • It has good webclippers for most browsers (allowing choosing the destination notebook, tags, and add remarks)
  • I can easily share to Evernote from most apps on my phone
  • I can e-mail material to it, while indicating destination notebook and adding tags
  • I can automate Evernote stuff with Applescript (I e.g. integrate Evernote with my other core tools Things (todo lists) and Tinderbox (mindmapping)
  • It makes handwritten stuff, images, and scans searchable (even if it doesn’t convert everything to text)

Next steps will be coming up with viable solutions and alternatives for each of those points, and see if I can then integrate those into a coherent whole again. Terry Frazier pointed me to The Brain again today on FB. The Brain is a tool I heavily used from 18 to 13 years ago. It turns out this mindmapping/note taking tool is still around. It currently works cross-device and has Android and iOS apps, and allows attaching files and navigating links in a visual way. It comes at a hefty price though, and still looks like it really is from 1998. Will explore a bit if it might fit my needs enough to give it another try.

Malaysian Open Data Readiness Assessment

The past 12 days I was in Malaysia on mission for the World Bank and Malaysia’s Administrative Modernisation planning unit (MAMPU). Malaysia is pushing forward both on Big Data and Open Data initiatives, and I was there to do an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) to help point to the logical and most promising steps to take, in order to unlock the full potential of open data. The ODRA was the result of conversations I had with MAMPU when I visited Malaysia last year as member of the Malaysian Big Data Advisory Panel.

A marathon of meetings
Over the course of my visit we met with representatives of over 70 organisations, ministries, departments and agencies (2/3 government), and some of those organisations several times, usually for 1 hour or 90 minute sessions. All of these focused on the federal level (Malaysia is a kingdom with a federal structure). In all these meetings we were trying to understand the way the Malaysian government works, and how data plays a role in that. From the output, using the ODRA methodology, we assess the logical and possible steps for Malaysia to take towards more open data.

meeting
One of the many meetings we had

Formal launch with the Minister
The first two days were filled with meetings with civil society, the private sector and academia. The third day we met with the Minister for Administrative Modernisation responsible for MAMPU, which in turn is the responsible agency running the open data efforts. Together we officially launched the ODRA effort in attendance of the press and some 300 representatives of various civil society, business and government organisations. The Minister pointed to the value of open data in light of Malaysia’s development goals in his opening speech. After a little exercise, by my WB colleague Carolina from Washington, to gauge the opinions in the room on the value of open data to help move to a more informal exchange of ideas, I gave a presentation to show how open data creates value, what ensures open data success and how the ODRA will help find the right ‘hooks’ to do that. The Q&A that followed showed the strong interest in the room, and also the commitment of the Minister and MAMPU as both he and MAMPU’s DG got involved in the discussion.

Kuala Lumpur
Seminar with the Minister and a 300 people audience

Result driven and diverse
Malaysia strikes me as a country with lots of diversity, and as very result driven. That diversity was further emphasized while reading the very beautiful book Garden of the Evening Mists by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, but is also visible in every meeting we had, and every little walk I took through the city. The public sector is driven by KPI’s and in general everything is very much progress and future oriented. That has yielded impressive results, such as removing poverty in just generation, and now walking the path to be a high-income country by 2020. At the same time, all those KPI’s can generate a lack of focus (if everything is a priority, nothing really is) and can create blind spots (softer aspects such as the quality of interaction between government and the public) because it is harder to quantify.

Kuala Lumpur
Last year I was only visiting for 2 days or so, and had no time to see more of my surroundings. This time I was here for a week and a half, although most of those days were very busy. Some of the evenings, and during the weekend however my WB colleagues Rob (based in KL) and Carolina go to explore the city a bit, and enjoyed the great food. I spend a few hours visiting the Menara Kuala Lumpur, a telecommunications tower that has an observation deck providing a great view from 300m up over the city. With 5 million people it is a sprawling city over a large area (we commuted everyday from the hotel to MAMPU offices, 35kms away, all within the city), and the view from the tower showed me how extended that area really is.

Kuala Lumpur Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur Kuala Lumpur
Some views from Menara KL over the city.

Food
Already last year what stood out for me is that food is important in Malaysia, and is offered at every opportunity, even during every meeting. Also the variety of cuisines on offer is great, from all over Asia, as well as western and Latin American. MAMPU arranged great Malaysian food for breakfast and lunch, during the intensive days of interviews, allowing me to indulge in all the great tastes and enjoying the spicyness. Off hours Rob took us to several places, Malaysian, Mexican, Spanish-Japanese, Korean, and Peruvian. I also sampled some of the fine Chinese restaurants. Sunday evening we enjoyed a great open air diner on the 24th (or 23A, as in Malaysian 4 sounds like death), overlooking KLCC park at sunset, and seeing the lights come on in the iconic Petronas towers. I arrived home with a little more baggage then I left with, so part of the aftermath of my visit is not just writing the report, but also losing that additional weight 😉

Kuala Lumpur Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur Kuala Lumpur
From the open 24th floor of one of the Troika towers, enjoying Peruvian food, watching the sun set and lights come on in Petronas Towers. In the background Menara KL from which I had a great view over the city earlier that day.

Next steps
The coming weeks we’ll go through all the material we’ve collected in our meetings and during our desk research. From it a report will result that is action oriented to help MAMPU drive open data forward, and use it as a tool to attain the development goals Malaysia has set for itself. Most of the necessary building blocks are in place, but those blocks are all in their own silos and generally not connected. Likely most of the suggested actions will be about creating the connections between those building blocks and work on the quality of relationships between stakeholders and the awareness of how open data can be a tool for both the public and for the public sector. I am grateful to the great MAMPU and WB team for our collaboration these past days and the hospitality they have shown me.

Kuala Lumpur
The MAMPU and WB team

How a Small Municipality Shows the Way with Open Data

In 2014/2015 my colleague Frank and I worked with the Province of North-Holland and 9 municipalities in that province to position open data as a policy instrument: around specific local issues we would publish data, and reach out to potential re-users. Part of this process was to make open data a normal part of every day work on public tasks. Hollands Kroon, a rural municipality in the very north of the Province was one of the participants that succeeded in bringing open data into line management.

Now they have launched a new municipal website, following the so-called ‘top tasks’ model. In this model the most prominent information shown is the information citizens most need or want. I have interacted with many municipalities that because of moving to a ‘top-tasks’ website refused to publish data or the answers to the FOIA requests they received. They said “we’re in the process of limiting the information in our sites to the most sought after, so we’re not going to publish any data etc, that would be confusing.”

Not so in Hollands Kroon. This is how their new site looks, with open data a very prominent menu option.

HK Website

With this step, Hollands Kroon shows how they have embraced open data. Already after the program with the Province, called North-Holland Smarter, they had formed a data team, working to raise internal awareness for open data and data driven work, and working to raise interest in re-use. Now they’ve gone a step further in making open data a significant part of their external communications.

To me this is all the more remarkable, as when we started in 2014 Hollands Kroon as a small rural municipality doubted whether open data could be a useful tool to them, and assumed it would only make sense in urban environments, such as in Amsterdam, the biggest city in the Province of North-Holland. They then quickly realized there is potential for their own local context and policy issues as well, especially if you work together with neighbouring municipalities in the region, in collaboration with the Province.

FOSS4G Keynote: Open Data for Social Impact

Last week I had the pleasure to attend and to speak at the annual FOSS4G conference. This gathering of the community around free and open source software in the geo-sector took place in Bonn, in what used to be the German parliament. I’ve posted the outline, slides and video of my keynote already at my company’s website, but am now also crossposting it here.

Speaking in the former German Parliament
Speaking in the former plenary room of the German Parliament. Photo by Bart van den Eijnden

In my talk I outlined that it is often hard to see the real impact of open data, and explored the reasons why. I ended with a call upon the FOSS4G community to be an active force in driving ethics by design in re-using data.

Impact is often hard to see, because measurement takes effort
Firstly, because it takes a lot of effort to map out all the network effects, for instance when doing micro-economic studies like we did for ESA or when you need to look for many small and varied impacts, both socially and economically. This is especially true if you take a ‘publish and it will happen’ approach. Spotting impact becomes much easier if you already know what type of impact you actually want to achieve and then publish data sets you think may enable other stakeholders to create such impact. Around real issues, in real contexts, it is much easier to spot real impact of publishing and re-using open data. It does require that the published data is serious, as serious as the issues. It also requires openness: that is what brings new stakeholders into play, and creates new perspectives towards agency so that impact results. Openness needs to be vigorously defended because of it. And the FOSS4G community is well suited to do that, as openness is part of their value set.

Impact is often hard to see, because of fragmentation in availability
Secondly, because impact often results from combinations of data sets, and the current reality is that data provision is mostly much too fragmented to allow interesting combinations. Some of the specific data sets, or the right timeframe or geographic scope might be missing, making interesting re-uses impossible.
Emerging national data infrastructures, such as the Danish and the Dutch have been creating, are a good fix for this. They combine several core government data sets into a system and open it up as much as possible. Think of cadastral records, maps, persons, companies, adresses and buildings.
Geo data is at the heart of all this (maps, addresses, buildings, plots, objects), and it turns it into the linking pin for many re-uses where otherwise diverse data sets are combined.

Geo is the linking pin, and its role is shifting: ethics by design needed
Because of geo-data being the linking pin, the role of geo-data is shifting. First of all it puts geo-data in the very heart of every privacy discussion around open data. Combinations of data sets quickly can become privacy issues, with geo-data being the combinator. Privacy and other ethical questions arise even more now that geo-data is no longer about relatively static maps, but where sensors are making many more objects as well as human beings objects on the map in real time.
At the same time geo-data is becoming less visible in these combinations. ‘The map’ is not neccessarily a significant part of the result of combining data sets, just a catalyst on the way to get there. Will geo-data be a neutral ingredient, or will it be an ingredient with a strong attitude? An attitude that aims to actively promulgate ethical choices, not just concerning privacy, but also concerning what are statistically responsible combinations, and what are and are not legal steps in getting to an in itself legal result again? As with defending openness itself, the FOSS4G community is in a good position to push the ethical questions forward in the geo community as well as find ways of incorporating them directly in the tools they build and use.

The video of the keynote has been published by the FOSS4G conference organisers.
Slides are available from Slideshare and embedded below:

Sunday Serendipity Reading Links

Every day I save a bunch of links from my explorations over the interwebs. Stuff that passes my radar, may become fodder for my writing at some point, but often gets piled and forgotten.I thought maybe it is good to share some of the unsought links I encounter, and some of the notions why I bookmarked it. Blogging of course used to be linklogging, sharing links to your blog neighbourhood, so let’s say it’s returning to a respected tradition. Here are a fistful of links from this week.

    Distributed web

  • IPFS, a distributed way of delivering webpages and files. Pointed out to me in the context of my postings on distributedness and agency. Napsterizing/torrenting everything. Also seems to want to preserve everything on the web better.
  • Steem is a blockchain based social media platform. Aims to ‘pay’ you for contributing, and do the bookkeeping in a blockchain ledger. Not sure that may work, nor that permanent records of each social media utterance are desirable. Like with IPFS mentioned above, ’not forgetting’ may not be a feature but a very concerning social bug. My friend Boris Mann is trying it out, looking forward to reading more of his reflections. I may not understand, I never understood the purpose of Medium either, which superficially seems to be the same thing but without the bookkeeping.
  • Anil Dash reflects on the lost infrastructure of social media. This resonates strongly with me in terms of what made blogging so exciting 10-15 years ago, as well as with my recent writings about agency. Part of the picture is weaving a tapestry of functionality across different services and tools that together are a potent mix. It needs plumbing like RSS, trackback and discoverability over the lines of conversations distributed over the individual blogs of the participants. My friend Lilia did her Phd on those distributed conversations. And as Hoder wrote seeing the web again after six years in an Iranian prison: much of our web now, such as Facebook, is just TV, not coffee house interaction.
    Governance

  • Free private cities. Sign up to live in one, so you have an ‘equal’ position based on contracted service provision. Because tinkering with democracy and the fact that others have different needs is bothersome, or such. Apparantly the social contract isn’t good enough. This has high overtones of Snowcrash Burbclaves, and the micro-democracy states (100.000 people each, and with every election there is freedom of movement globally to pick the government (corporate, value or ethnicity based) of your choice in the very entertaining near-future SF book Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. These private city contracts don’t seem to account for the cost of leaving if you cancel your contract, as it is still territory bound, so finding a new service provider means physically moving. With all the social and monetary cost of doing that. Also seems to me that the Principality of Monaco held up as a good practice example, incorporated US towns, or the City of London for that matter provide ample demonstration of why this may not be the way forward to a more inclusive global society.
    Effectiveness

  • The Ribbon Farm, a blog by Venkatesh Rao, newly added to my feed-reader. His recent newsletter edition on premature synchronization as a cause of problems, chimes with a lot of my experience. Converging too early (because there are just 10 minutes left in the meeting), or forcing convergence in a group doesn’t help much usually. The leading example in the link being military reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about “the world championship of armies” where the US military units were failing because they waited or tried to confirm orders continuously, and the Dutch fared better because they upon receiving others did what seemed worth doing based on context and observation, not seeking further orders and disregarding the literal meaning of orders in the process. Desyncing, as a practice seems valuable advice, and similar to making stuff distributed by design, or probe-based evolution. Seek out new perspectives and let yourself be challenged as part of your routines.

Koppelting – Session on Leaving Gmail

This weekend the grassroots FabLab conference ‘Koppelting‘ is taking place in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Together with Dirk van Vreeswijk I’ll be doing a session this morning on how to leave Gmail and other walled gardens.

In this session I try to summarize the way I constructed my path out of Gmail in such a manner that it becomes a guide that may enable others to act for themselves. The talk explains why I wanted to leave Gmail, how I finally found a way, and what the replacement solution(s) are I now use. It ends with a ‘recipe’, based on how I found a way out of Gmail, to help you think about what keeps you in your own walled gardens, so it becomes easier to explore alternatives.

Outline and slides
Setting the scene:

  • Using gmail since July 2004
  • 250.000 conversations, across 770.000 messages. 21GB total.
  • 12 years the central hub for all my personal and work e-mail

Why I wanted to leave

  • In part: everything was on US servers
  • In part: because Google with my Gmail and all other data has a very extensive profile of me
  • But most of all: Gmail was a single point of failure. Losing access would mean losing everything concerning mail communications

How I left Gmail

  • From early 2014 started seriously considering it
  • Getting to action was hard as it is extremely easy to use what you have, to stick in your routine. Ease of use keeps you locked in
  • Finding “The Alternative” seemed impossible. Until I thought about the specific aspects that made Gmail so easy for me
    • Multiple addresses into 1 inbox
    • Cross device availability
    • Great filtering and tagging
    • A generic mail address as throw away mail
    • Spam filtering
    • Large free storage space
    • Great search
  • Two core things stood out after making the list
    1. GMail makes it easy to be lazy (piling not filing). I needed to treat myself to a better process: spend a few seconds now (delete, file, delegate), to save more time on search later
    2. What made Gmail great to me in 2004, is now widely available functionality and technology

What I have now
This is described in more detail in my earlier posting that triggered this session. For each item that made Gmail attractive to me I searched for an alternative. Recombining them into a new workflow is a viable alternative for my Gmail usage as a whole. Apart from the technology replacements, key part is up front contemplation and more continuous reflection on my working process. I’m a piler, not a filer, but adding a few seconds during e-mail triage to at least decide putting it in a pile that is not my Inbox, makes all the difference.

The slides are available in PDF on this site, and will be embedded below (currently upload is failing).

Leaving a walled garden planning aid
Although the path for me leaving Gmail took quite a bit of time, I think the journey can be abstracted into a recipe to make it easier to spot your own path out of a walled garden (Gmail, Dropbox, etc.)
The basic steps are:

  1. Pick the walled garden you want to leave
  2. List all the things that make it so convenient for you
  3. Reflect on what that list tells you, about your process and your tools
  4. Find replacements for each element, then recombine them into your new workflow
  5. Share what you found and did, so it is easier for others to follow in your footsteps

The outline and collaborative notes from the session are online on one of the etherpads of the Koppelting conference.

About Koppelting
Koppel is an old Dutch word for communal fields, Ting a Germanic word for a meeting of the free. Organized by the Amersfoort FabLab, a fully opensourced bootstrapped FabLab, Koppelting is the annual grassroots festival about peer production and free/libre alternatives for society.

Germanische-ratsversammlung_1-1250x715Germanic Ting, after the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, public domain

On Agency: Summary and My Manifesto

Now that I’ve formulated my overall perspective on Agency (part 1 on distributedness, part 2 on defining networked agency, part 3 on technology needs), this is a summary of the key points and their consequences. Half of these are general insights, condensed from what I’ve been exposed to and absorbed in the past 10-15 years or so. These points are why it matters. The novel combinations I think I contribute (marked in bold) provide the ‘how’ to that ‘why’ by delivering the agency towards increasing our agency. These points form my manifesto to act upon.

The key points in summary are:

  1. The agency deficit and potential.
    There are many issues where many people recognize they need or should find different solutions, because existing structures are failing, but do not see a viable path towards action for themselves. This is the current agency deficit. At the same time many existing tools and instruments are underused because of barriers to entry or the form in which they are currently available. This is the agency potential.
  2. The potential of distributedness.
    Distributed digital networks are similarly structured to human networks. Hierarchies and hubs superimposed on a distributed network are rigid edge cases that don’t fully use the flexibility distributed networks can provide. Human networks can more successfully use technology when the same type of flexibility and fluidity is present in the technology used. This is the path to agency.
  3. The relevant unit of agency is a person plus related group in context
    The unit of agency to consider is not the individual on her own, nor a general ‘target’ group, but the combination of a person and the subset of meaningful relationships for a real and given context. Agency is networked. That way both the individual’s capabilities and perspectives as well as those of the relationships involved can be leveraged. This means that to discuss agency it needs to be done for specific contexts, and with knowledge of the relationships involved. No generic answers are possible, although examples are.
  4. Networked agency is the sum of striking power, resilience and agility
    Because your context does not exist in a vacuum but in a global network of other contexts and connections, agency is not merely about what you can do in your context (striking power), but also how you can mitigate (resilience) or leverage (agility) the consequences of things propagating to you from outside of it
  5. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ technology need to be always used in combination
    Methods and processes that take human networks as a given in how we act, organize and learn (community building, networking, complexity management etc), in combination with distributed hard technology / science is the relevant scope of technology to consider. Not just ‘real’ tech. This combination is how you create the needed bridge and conduit between the digital and us humans, out of the combinations agency emerges.
  6. Technologies need to be ‘smaller‘ than us, barriers lowered
    We need to seek out, recombine, or create expressions of that technology that allows the context specific user group involved to deploy, alter, and trust or control it, without barriers to entry based on money, expert knowledge, or time consumption. This often means making the technology truly distributed, such that local expressions of it are independently possible in an interdependent global network. There is a range of promising technologies on this path that however need an extra push.
  7. Reasoning from a desired specific impact, not from technology features
    It is necessary to reason from the desired impact. Issues that cannot be solved by a single individual, nor on a general level by a group or mass, but only with the active involvement of the group of people it concerns are the ones to focus on. Issues are context specific, so is impact.
  8. Making it specific creates a design aid
    Putting a (list of) specific contexts (person plus meaningful relations) at one end, and a (list of possibly) desired impact on a specific issue at the other, with the lists of potential hard and soft technologies in between, such as in the image below, can be used as thinking aid and design aid.
    It allows you to explore possibilities based on selecting varying combinations of certain technologies, or specific combinations of technologies already available in the involved context, to see how to provide agency to contexts/groups towards desired impacts. This provides agency towards creating agency.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

The Evolution and Role of My Agency Postings: Finding My Unifier

I finally wrote down the full overview of how I look at agency in our networked world, and the role of distributed technology in it, in the past weeks (part 1, part 2, part 3). It had been a long time coming. Here is a brief overview of its origins, and why it matters to me.

Origins
I previously (in the past 18-24 months) wrote down parts of it in rants I shared with others, and as a Manifesto that I wrote in January 2015 to see if I could start a hardware oriented venture with several others. I rewrote it for draft research project proposals (the image below resulted from that in June 2015) that ultimately weren’t submitted, and as a project proposal that resulted in the experiment we will start in the fall to see if we can turn it into a design method, which in itself will become an agency-inducing tool.

But the deeper origins are older, and suffused with everything I over time absorbed from my blogging network and the (un-)conference visits where those bloggers met, such as Reboot in Copenhagen. The first story I created around this was my 2008 presentation at Reboot 10, where I formulated my then thoughts on the type of attitudes, skills and tools we need in the networked age.
There I placed the new networked technology in the context of the social structures it is used in (and compared that to what came before) and what it means for people’s attitudes and skills to be able to use it in response to increased complexity. The bridge between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technology I mention in the three blogpostings on Agency, originates there.

The second story is my closing keynote speech at the SHiFT conference in Lisbon in 2010 (where we had to stay on a week because of the Icelandic ash cloud closing down European airspace). I blogged the submitted talk proposal, and video and slides are also available. There I talked about doing things yourself as a literacy (where literacy in the Howard Rheingold sense implies not just a skill but deploying that skill in the context of a community for it to be valuable), on the back of internet as our new infrastructure (an echo of Reboot 2008). I suggested that that socially embedded DIY was not just empowering in itself, but very necessary to deal with a complex networked world. Not just to be able to create value for yourself, but to be resilient in the face of ‘small world syndrom’ (the global networks finally making visible we live on a finite world) and cascading failures that propagate at the speed of light over our networks exposing us to things we would previously be buffered from or would have time to prepare for. I proposed the term Maker Households as the unit where DIY literacy (i.e. skills plus community) and local resilience meet, to create a new abundance based on the technical tools and methods that the networked world brings us. I was much more optimistic then how those tools and methods had already lowered the barrier to entry and merely pointed to the need to better learn to apply what is already there. I called upon the audience to use their skills and tools in the context of community, with the Maker Household as its local unit of expression. From those local units, a new global economy could grow (as the root meaning of the word economy is household).

Since then these notions have been on my mind daily but usually absorbed into every day work. I registered the domain name makerhouseholds.eu with the intention of writing up my SHiFT talk into an e-book, but never sat down to do it and let everyday life get in its way. Over time I became ever more convinced of the importance of these notions, as incumbent institutions started to crumble more and general discontent kept rising. At the same time I more strongly realized that the needed technology was failing to create more agency beyond a circle of power-users, and where broad adoption was taking place it was because key affordances were being dropped in favor of ease of use and ease of business models. Especially when I in 2014 started to explore how to make myself less dependent on tools that were providing convenience, but at the cost of exposing myself to single points of failure in what should be networked and distributed, and realized how much work it is to make the tools work for you (like maintaining your own server, or leaving Gmail). That triggered the ranting I mentioned, solidifying my conviction that Maker Households should be about packaging technology in ways that make it easy for people to increase their agency, without compromising their resilience.

Personal importance: Agency as unifier
Why this long overview? Because it seems it led me to finally finding ways to express what unifies my work of the past almost 20 years. As a kid I felt everything was connected, although everyone seemed to want put everything into discreet boxes. Internet and digitization made the connectedness all true, and I’ve been fascinated with the potential and consequences of that ever since I first went online in 1989, over 25 years ago. That unifier has however been elusive to me, even as all my work has always been about making it possible for others to better understand their situation and by using technology more purposefully act together with their peers based on their own perceptions of needs and wants. That was what drove me towards the change management side of introducing technology in groups and organizations, what drives my interest in dealing with complexity, informal learning networks, and the empowering aspects of various internet- and digitisation driven technologies such as social media, digital maker machines, and open data. That unifier has been elusive to my clients and peers often as well. I regularly have people call me saying something like “I don’t understand what it is you do, but whenever I search for things I think might help, your name comes up, so I thought I’d better call you.” Increasing agency as a unifier, from which different areas of expressing that flow, may put that confusion to rest.

Agency, as unifier, also makes the ‘menu’ below the way for me to explore additional fields and activities.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

On Agency Pt 3: Technology Needs for Increased Agency

This is the last of three postings about how I see agency in our networked era.
In part 1 I discussed how embracing the distributedness that is the core design feature of the internet needs to be an engine for agency. In part 2 I discussed how agency in the networked era is about both the individual and the immediate group she’s part of in the various contexts those groups exist, and consists of striking power, resilience and agility. In this third part I will discuss what we need to demand from our technology.

My perception of agency more or less provides the design brief for the technology that can support it.

Agency as the design brief for technology
If distributed networks are the leading metaphor for agency, then technology needs to be like that too.

If agency is located in both the individual and the social context of an immediate group the individual is functioning in for a given purpose, then technology needs to be able to support both the individual and group level, and must be trustworthy at that level.

If agency consists of local striking power, resilience, and agility, then technology must be able to take in global knowledge and perspective, but also be independently usable, and locally deployable, as well as socially replicable.

If technology isn’t really distributed, than at least it should be easy to avoid it becoming a single point of failure for your and your groups use case.

Two types of tech to consider
This applies to two forms of technology. The ‘hard’ technology, hardware and software, the stuff we usually call technology. But also the ‘soft’ technology, the way we organize ourselves, the methods we use, the attitudes we adopt.

Technology should be ‘smaller’ than us
My mental shorthand for this is that the technology must be smaller than us, if it is to provide us with agency that isn’t ultimately depending on the benevolence of some central point of authority or circumstances we cannot influence. In 2002 I described the power of social media (blogs, wiki’s etc.), when they emerged and became the backbone for me and my peer network, in exactly those terms: publishing, sharing and connecting between publishers became ‘smaller’ than us, so we could all be publishers. We could run our own outlet, and have distributed conversations over it. Over time our blog or rather our writing was supplanted, by larger blogging platforms, and by the likes of Facebook. This makes social media ‘bigger than us’ again. We don’t decide what FB shows us, breaking out of your own bubble (vital in healthy networks) becomes harder because sharing is based on pre-existing ‘friendships’ and discoverability has been removed. The erosion has been slow, but very visible, not only if you were disconnected from it for 6 years.

  • Smaller than us means it is easy enough to understand how to use the technology and has the possibility to tinker with it.
  • Smaller than us means it is cheap (in terms of time, money and effort) to deploy and to replace.
  • Smaller than us means it is as much within the scope of control/sphere of trust of the user group as possible (either you control your tools, or your node and participation in a much wider distributed whole).
  • Smaller than us means it can be deployed limited to the user group, while tapping into the global network if/when needed or valuable.

Striking power comes from the ease of understanding how to use technology in your group, the ability to tinker with it, to cheaply deploy it, and to trust or control it.
Resilience comes from being able to deploy it limited to the user group, even if the wider whole falls down temporarily, and easily replace the technology when it fails you, as well as from knowing the exact scope of your trust or control and reducing dependancy based on that.
Agility comes from being able to use the technology to keep in touch with the global network, and easily alter (tinker), replace or upgrade your technology.

Technology needs an upgrade
Most of the technology that could provide us with new agency however falls short of those demands, so currently doesn’t.

It is mostly not distributed but often centralized, or at best ‘hubs and spokes’ in nature, which introduces trust and control issues and single points of failure. Bitcoins ultimate centralization of the needed computing power in Chinese clusters is one, Facebooks full control over what it shows you is another.

It is often not easy to use or deploy, requiring strong skill sets even when it is cheap to buy or even freely available. To use Liquid Feedback decision making software for instance, you need unix admin skills to run it. To use cheap computing and sensing/actuating hardware like Arduino, you need both software and electronics skills. Technology might also still be expensive to many.

Technologies are often currently deployed either as a global thing (Facebook), or as a local thing (your local school’s activity board), where for agency local with the ability to tap into the global is key (this is part of true distributedness), as well as the ability to build the global out of the many local instances (like mesh networks, or The Things Network). Mimicking the local inside the centralized global is not good enough (your local school’s closed page on FB). We also need much more ability to make distinctions between local and global in the social sense, between social contexts.

There are many promising technologies out there, but we have to improve on them. Things need to be truly distributed whenever possible, allowing local independence inside global interdependence. Deploying something for a given individual/group and a given use needs to be plug and play, and packaging it like that will allow new demographics to adopt it.

The types of technology I apply this to
Like I said I apply this to both ‘hard’ tech, and ‘soft’ tech. But all are technologies that are currently not accessible enough and underused, but could provide agency on a much wider scale with some tweaks. Together they can provide the agency that broad swathes of people seem to crave, if only they could see what is possible just beyond their fingertips.

The ‘hard’ technologies where barriers need to come further down I am thinking about are:

  • Low cost open source hardware
  • Digital making
  • Low cost computing (devices or hosted)
  • (open) data and data-analysis
  • IoT (sensors and actuators)
  • Mesh networking
  • Algorithms
  • Machine learning
  • Blockchain
  • Energy production
  • Agrotech
  • Biotech

The ‘soft’ technologies where barriers need to come further down I am thinking about are:

  • Peer organizing, organisational structures
  • Peer sourcing
  • Open knowledge
  • Iterative processes and probing design
  • Social media / media production
  • Community building practices
  • Networked (mental) models
  • Workflow and decision making tools
  • Community currencies / exchanges
  • Hacking ethics
  • Ethics by design / Individual rights

Putting it all together gives us the design challenge
Putting the list of social contexts (Agency pt 2) alongside the lists of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ techs, and the areas of impact these techs create agency towards, and taking distributedness (Agency pt 1) and reduced barriers as prerequisites, gives us a menu from which we can select combinations to work on.
If we take a specific combination of individuals in a social context, and we combine one or more ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technologies while bringing barriers down, what specific impact can the group in that context create for themselves? This is the design challenge we can now give ourselves.

In the coming months, as an experiment, with a provincial library and a local FabLab, we will explore putting this into practice. With groups of neighbours in a selected city we will collect specific issues they want to address but don’t currently see the means to (using a bare bones form of participatory narrative inquiry). Together we will work to lower the barriers to technology that allows the group to act on an issue they select from that collection. A separate experiment doing the same with a primary school class is planned as well.

Agency by Ton ZylstraAgency map, click to enlarge