I recognise what Ben Werdmüller says. About the withdrawal creating space to both read more long form, and to write more myself. Also the replacement dopamine cravings, by looking up your blog’s statistics when the Facebook likes fall away, I had. Indeed as Ben suggests, I also removed the statistics from my website (by disabling JetPack, I never used Google Analytics anyway). Different from him, I never stopped using Twitter or LinkedIn, just cut back Facebook which I felt was the real time sink (also as Twitter nor LinkedIn were on my phone to begin with, and because I use Twitter very differently from how I used Facebook.) Going completely ‘dark’ on social media is also about privilege I feel, so the crux is how conscious are we of our information strategies? How the tools we use support those information strategies or not, and most importantly in the case of social media as a time sink: in how much it’s the tools that shape our info diet, instead of the other way around.
After my initial posting on this yesterday, Greg shares a few more quotes from his students. It reminds me of the things both teachers and students said at the end of my 2008 project at Rotterdam university for applied sciences. There, a group of teachers explored how to use digital technology, blogs and the myriad of social web tools, to both support their own learning and change their teaching. The sentiments expressed are similar, if you look at the quotes in the last two sections (change yourself, change your students) of my 2009 posting about it. What jumps out most for me, is the sense of agency, the power that comes from discovering that agency.
As a long time netizen it is easy to forget that for many now online their complete experience of the internet is within the web silos. I frequent silos, but I’ve always kept a place well outside of it for over two decades. When you’ve never ‘played outside’, building your own space beyond the silos can be an eye-opener. Greg McVerry pointed to the blog of one of his students, who described the experience of stepping outside the silos (emphasis mine):
The fact that I now have a place where I can do that, where I can publish my thoughts whenever I want in a place open for people to read and to not be afraid of doing so, is liberating. I’ve always wanted a space online to call my own. I’m so tired of all the endless perfection I see on social media. My space, “Life Chapter by Chapter” is real. It’s me, personified by a website. And though this post is not digitally enhanced in any way, I love it because it’s representative of the bottom line of what I’ve learned in EDU 106. I’m my own person on this site, I’m not defined by Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. I can post what I want, when I want, how I want. It’s a beautiful thing.
That’s a beautiful thing, indeed. Maybe this is the bit that Frank Meeuwsen and I need to take as the key to the story when writing a book, as Elja challenged us today (in Dutch).
This week, like last week, I spent two full days working with the Library Services Fryslan’s Frysklab team. We sat down to in full detail document our work and thinking on the ‘Impact Through Connection’ projects. At the start of 2017 we did a first pilot, of which the design was based on my networked agency framework. Since then several instances of the project have been delivered, and the team noticed a pressure to oversimplify it into something focused solely on the act of digital making. It’s a type of greedy reductionism, to have something novel fit into the existing, and judge it not by impact but by needed effort to deliver the project. This often means it needs to be reduced to a point where it no longer requires change of those doing the projects, and the cheapest form in which it is believed the same results can be claimed on paper. Even if the stated purpose of the project remains to create that change.
Our 8 person team writing sprint in progress (photo Bertus Douwes)
As I said last week it is a luxury to sit down with dedicated people and document all we know and experienced around these projects, so we can build new narratives to help others embrace its core tenets and not oversimplify.
Even though working with Mediawiki is a pain, we’ve put together a strong amount of material. In the coming weeks we will be slowly detailing and shaping that to turn it into useful material for different stakeholders for these projects (our team, our pool of facilitators, library staff, directors, school leaders, teachers, children, their parents and the people in their neighbourhood). Early next year we’ll get together again to reflect with a wider group of stakeholders on whether we need more or different things to add.
Discussing some of our material before getting back to writing. (photo Jeroen de Boer)
It was good to in a sprint like this create a living document we can now take forward at a more calm pace.
Our team every time is in awe of the energy the projects create. During the pilot project we were regularly cheered and applauded when arriving for a session with the class of 10 year olds. In the video below from the end of a project in the past days, our facilitators were sung to each in turn by the participating children.
This week and next week I am working with the Library Services Fryslan team (BSF), the ones who also run Frysklab, a mobile FabLab. We’re taking about 5 full days and two evenings to dive deeply into detailing and shaping the Impact Through Connection projects BSF runs. Those are based on my networked agency framework. Now that BSF has done a number of these projects they find that they need a better way to talk about it to library decision makers, and a better way to keep the pool of facilitators much closer to the original intentions and notions, as well as find ways to better explain the projects to participants.
It’s quite a luxury to take the time with 5 others to spend a lot of time on talking through our experiences, jotting them down, and reworking them into new narratives and potential experiments. It’s also very intensive, as well as challenging to capture what we share, discuss and construct. In the end we want to be able to explain the why, what and how of networked agency to different groups much better, next to improving the way we execute the Impact Through Connection projects.
After doing a braindump on day 1, we used the second day to discuss some of what we gathered, figure out what’s missing, what needs more detail. We’ve now started to bring all that disjointed material into a wiki, so that we can move things around, and tease out the connections between different elements. This will be the basis for further reflection, planning to end up with ‘living documentation’ that allows us remix and select material for different contexts and groups.
Currently I think we are at the stage of having collected a mountain of thoughts and material, without much sight of how we will be able to process it all. But experience tells me we will get through that by just going on. It makes the luxury of having allocated the time to really do that all the more tangible.
Today I attended the public defense of the PhD thesis of Freddy Veltman-van Vugt, titled ‘Grensverleggend leren’ (roughly translates to ’moving the frontier of learning forward’). She focused on what it takes for teachers to learn and teach skills critical to our highly digitised and interconnected world in a self directed way. Her doctorate already started some 14 years ago (I think she started writing in earnest after her retirement), and I was invited because one of my all time favourite projects, the Homo Zappiens 2008 project, was one of four cases that were the subject of her empirical research. Ten years ago Freddy promised me to invite me to her public defense, and she kept word. This is the third time my work has become the object of study of a PhD thesis, and today I thought it’s a rather fun indicator of whether I’m working on something novel and worthwile. (The other two were my blogging practices and my open data work). Today when asked by one of the learned opponents at the defense, Freddy said she saw our 2008 project as one with the most compelling predictive value. During the reception afterwards she followed that up with the remark that our project from 10 years ago is still a rare and unique approach. She asked me if I had done any more projects like it, and actually there’s only the current project with the Library Service Fryslan ‘Impact through Connection’ that resembles what we tried to do then.
In the Homo Zappiens project about a dozen teachers of the Rotterdam university of applied sciences took a year to informally work together on changing their teaching towards more self-directed learning, while incorporating more of the affordances networked technology gives us. The form of the project was shaped exactly the same, self-directed, action-oriented. We held that you can’t learn to teach differently if that’s being taught the traditional way. The results clustered around authenticity, co-creation, the skills involved in creating that, knowledge transfer to colleagues not involved in the project, and formats for new or altered work forms during teaching to let form follow function. The project meant deep personal change for many of the members of our ‘gang’. Rediscovering the fun of learning, finding the guts to experiment, getting so much closer to students and colleagues. “I came to change my teaching module, I left having changed my world”. It’s a project I’m still very glad about, and I feel I was able to co-create what I think of as a Reboot—like turning point for the participants.
I also picked up a useful new word today from Freddy’s PhD thesis, “agency shyness”. She talked about the critical factors involved in self directed learning, and next to engaging with real intractable problems, then also referenced the guts needed to experiment in a settled working environment. Not all teachers she came across in her cases dared to experiment, to try and do things differently. They were shy to explore new agency.
Agency shyness is very much relevant to my current work with the Library Service Fryslan on networked agency. We encounter it in the teams we work with, in contrast with my own mission behind networked agency, battling feelings of disempowerment.
It was good to see Freddy get her doctorate, and to realise our 2008 project is still standing strong, and would still be novel to most. After ten years it is still an iconic project.
This is an interesting article on how the drop in Bitcoin (BTC) versus US dollar rate may mean that a 51% attack on the bitcoin network is getting easier. According to the article 90% of mining capacity has gone offline, as it is no longer profitable at the current BTC price. It argues that if you buy just part of that now worthless (because single purpose) equipment cheap, you can effectively double the mining capacity of the network in a way that gives you more than 51% of the capacity (at least temporarily). Then that entity would be able to influence the ledger.
Of course the big Asian elephant in the room that is left unmentioned is that such a 51% attack is likely to have taken place already. As the article itself states ‘most miners’ were in China, where you can now get all that mining equipment cheap ‘by the pound’. As most mining was already running on a handful of Chinese superclusters, and given what we know about the data driven authoritarian model China geopolitically pursues, the conclusion is rather obvious: The 51% threshold had been reached in China already. So it’s not an emerging 51% attack risk, it’s just that there now may be a window of opportunity for somebody else to do it.
I still wonder in what instances blockchain is actually really useful, meaning that having a distributed database/ledger AND a transparant log of transactions AND a permanent immutable record are needed for such a use. But where that is the case, I am convinced it is, other than maybe for public records, not needed and even risky (see above) to have it run on a global network or platform. As then others, not invested in your actual use case, may have influence on the validity and stability of your use case.
It makes much more sense to me to have use case specific blockchains where the needed computing nodes are distributed across the network of people invested in that specific use case. For instance I can easily imagine a local currency or exchange trading system (LETS), to use blockchain. But only if it is run by the members of that LETS for the members of that LETS. Meaning a small computing node attached to your home router as part of your membership contribution.
Technology needs to be ‘smaller’ than us, run and controlled by the socially cohesive group that uses it for some specific purpose, otherwise it more likely undermines agency than provides agency.
Some things I thought worth reading in the past days
- A good read on how currently machine learning (ML) merely obfuscates human bias, by moving it to the training data and coding, to arrive at peace of mind from pretend objectivity. Because of claiming that it’s ‘the algorithm deciding’ you make ML a kind of digital alchemy. Introduced some fun terms to me, like fauxtomation, and Potemkin AI: Plausible Disavowal – Why pretend that machines can be creative?
- These new Google patents show how problematic the current smart home efforts are, including the precursor that are the Alexa and Echo microphones in your house. They are stripping you of agency, not providing it. These particular ones also nudge you to treat your children much the way surveillance capitalism treats you: as a suspect to be watched, relationships denuded of the subtle human capability to trust. Agency only comes from being in full control of your tools. Adding someone else’s tools (here not just Google but your health insurer, your landlord etc) to your home doesn’t make it smart but a self-censorship promoting escape room. A fractal of the panopticon. We need to start designing more technology that is based on distributed use, not on a centralised controller: Google’s New Patents Aim to Make Your Home a Data Mine
- An excellent article by the NYT about Facebook’s slide to the dark side. When the student dorm room excuse “we didn’t realise, we messed up, but we’ll fix it for the future” defence fails, and you weaponise your own data driven machine against its critics. Thus proving your critics right. Weaponising your own platform isn’t surprising but very sobering and telling. Will it be a tipping point in how the public views FB? Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis
- Some of these takeaways from the article just mentioned we should keep top of mind when interacting with or talking about Facebook: FB knew very early on about being used to influence the US 2016 election and chose not to act. FB feared backlash from specific user groups and opted to unevenly enforce their terms or service/community guidelines. Cambridge Analytica is not an isolated abuse, but a concrete example of the wider issue. FB weaponised their own platform to oppose criticism: How Facebook Wrestled With Scandal: 6 Key Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation
- There really is no plausible deniability for FB’s execs on their “in-house fake news shop” : Facebook’s Top Brass Say They Knew Nothing About Definers. Don’t Believe Them. So when you need to admit it, you fall back on the ‘we messed up, we’ll do better going forward’ tactic.
- As Aral Balkan says, that’s the real issue at hand because “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have the same business model. If Cambridge Analytica can sway elections and referenda with a relatively small subset of Facebook’s data, imagine what Facebook can and does do with the full set.“: We were warned about Cambridge Analytica. Why didn’t we listen?
- [update] Apparently all the commotion is causing Zuckerberg to think FB is ‘at war‘, with everyone it seems, which is problematic for a company that has as a mission to open up and connect the world, and which is based on a perception of trust. Also a bunker mentality probably doesn’t bode well for FB’s corporate culture and hence future: Facebook At War.
Frank writes about how the Netherlands became the first connection outside the USA on the open net by the NSF (as opposed to the military initiated ARPANET academic institutions used then), thirty years ago yesterday on November 17th 1988. Two years previously .nl had been created as the first ever country top level domain. This was the result of the work and specifically the excellent personal connections to their US counterparts of people at the Amsterdam CWI, the center for mathematics. Because of those personal connections the Netherlands was connected very early on to the open internet and still is a major hub. Through that first connection Europe got connected as well, as the CWI was part of the European network of academic institutions EUnet. A large chunk of the European internet traffic still runs through the Netherlands as a consequence.
I went to university in the summer of 1988 and had the opportunity to early on enjoy the fruits of the CWI’s work. From the start I became active in the student association Scintilla at my electronic engineering department at University of Twente. Electronic engineering students had an advantage when it came to access to electronics and personal computers and as a consequence we had very early connectivity. As first year student I was chairman of one of Scintilla’s many committees and in that role I voted in late ’88 / early ’89 to spend 2500 guilders (a huge sum in my mind then) for cables and plugs and 3 ethernet cards for the PC’s we had in use. I remember how on the 10th floor of the department building other members were very carefully connecting the PC’s to each other. It was the first LAN on campus not run by the University itself nor connected to the mainframe computing center. Soon after, that LAN was connected to the internet.
In my mind I’ve been online regularly since late 1989, through Scintilla’s network connections. I remember there was an argument with the faculty because we had started using a subdomain directly of the university, not as a subdomain of the faculty’s own subdomain. We couldn’t, because they hadn’t even activated their subdomain yet. So we waited for them to get moving, under threat of losing funding if we didn’t comply. Most certainly I’ve been online on a daily basis since the moment I joined the Scintilla board in 1990 which by then had moved to the basement of the electronics department building. We at first shared one e-mail address, before running our own mail server. I used telnet a lot, and spent an entire summer, it must have been the summer of ’91 when I was a board member, chatting to two other students who had a summer job as sysadmin at the computer center of a Texas university. The prime perk of that job was they could sit in air conditioning all summer, and play around with the internet connection. Usenet of course. Later Gopher menus, then 25 years ago the web browser came along (which I first didn’t understand as a major change, after all I already had all the connectivity I wanted).
So of those 30 years of open internet in the Netherlands, I’ve been online daily 28 years for certain, and probably a year longer with every-now-and-then connectivity. First from the basement at university, then phoning into the university from home, then (from late ’96) having a fixed IP address through a private ISP (which meant I could run my own server, which was reachable when I phoned into the ISP), until the luxury we have now of a fiber optic cable into our house, delivering a 500Mbit/s two-way connection (we had a 1Gb connection before the move last year, so we actually took a step ‘backwards’).
Having had daily internet access for 28 years, basically all of my adult life, has shaped both my professional and personal life tremendously. Professionally, as none of my past jobs nor my current work would have been possible without internet. None of my work in the past decades would have even existed without internet. My very first paid job was setting up international data transmissions between an electronics provider, their factories, as well as the retail chains that sold their stuff. Personally it has been similar. Most of my every day exchanges are with people from all over the world, and the inspiring mix of people I may call friends and that for instance come to our birthday unconferences I first met online. Nancy White‘s husband and neighbours call them/us her ‘imaginary friends’. Many of our friends are from that ‘imaginary’ source, and over the years we met at conferences, visited each others houses, and keep in regular touch. It never ceases to amaze.
To me the internet was always a network first, and technology second. The key affordance of the internet to me is not exchanging data or connecting computer systems, but connecting people. That the internet in its design principles is a distributed network, and rather closely resembles how human networks are shaped, is something we haven’t leveraged to its full potential yet by far. Centralised services, like the current web silos, don’t embrace that fundamental aspect of internet other than at the hardware level, so I tend to see them as growths more than actualisation of the internets’s foremost affordance. We’ve yet to really embrace what human digital networks may achieve.
Because of that perspective, seeing the digital network as a human network, I am mightily pleased that the reason I have been able to be digitally connected online for almost 30 years, is first and foremost because of a human connection. The connection between Piet Beertema at CWI in Amsterdam to Rick Adams at NSF in the USA, which resulted in the Netherlands coming online right when I started university. That human connection, between two people I’ve never met nor interacted with, essentially shaped the space in which my life is taking its course, which is a rather amazing thought.
This is a naive exercise to explore what ethics by design would look like for networked agency. There’s plenty of discussion about ethics by design in various places. Mostly in machine learning, where algorithmic bias is a very real issue already, and where other discussions such as around automated driving are misguided for lack of imagination and scope. It’s also an ongoing concern in adtech, especially since we know business practices don’t limit themselves to selling you stuff but also deceive you to sell political ideas. Data governance is an area where I encounter ethics by design as a topic on a regular basis, in decisions on what data to collect or not, and in questions of balancing or combining the need for transparency with the need for data protection. But I want to leave that aside, also because many organisations in those areas already have failed their customers and users. Which would make this posting a complaint and not constructive.
My current interest is in exploring what ethics means, and can be done by design, in the context of networked agency, and by extension a new civil society emerging in distributed digital transformation. A naive approach helps me find a first batch of questions and angles.
The notions that are the building blocks of networked agency are a starting point. Ethical questions follow directly from those building blocks.
First there are the building blocks related to the agency element in networked agency. These are technology and methods/processes, striking power, resilience and agility.
a) For the technologies and methods/processes involved, relevant are issues relating to who controls those tools, how these tools can be deployed by their users, and if a user group can alter the tools, adapt them to new needs and tinker with them.
b) Low thresholds of adoption need an exploration of what those thresholds are and how they play out for different groups. These are thresholds of technological and financial nature, but also barriers concerning knowledge, practicality, usability, and understandability.
c) Striking power, the actual acting part of agency provides questions about if a tool provides actual agency, and isn’t actually a pacifier. Not every action or activity constitutes agency. It’s why words like slacktivism and clicktivism have emerged.
d) Resilience in networked agency is about reducing the vulnerability to propagating failures from outside the group, and the manner in which mitigation is possible. Reduction of critical dependencies outside the group’s scope of control is something to consider here. That also works in reverse. Are you creating dependencies for others? In a similar vein, are you externalising costs onto others? Are you causing unintended consequences elsewhere, and can you be aware of them arising, or pre-empt them?
e) Agility in networked agency is about spotting and leveraging opportunities relative to your own needs in your wider network. Are you able to do that from a constructive perspective, or only a competitive/scarcity one? Do your opportunities come at the cost of other groups? When you leverage opportunities are you externalising costs or claiming exclusivity? In a networked environment externalising costs will return as feedback to your system. Networks almost by definition are endless repeats of the prisoners dilemma. Another side of this is which ways exist in which you can provide leverage to others simultaneously to creating your own, or when to be the lever in a situation.
Second there are notions that follow from the networked part of networked agency. The unit of agency in networked agency is a group of people that share some relationship (team, family, org, location, interest, history, etc), that together act upon a need shared across that group. This introduces three levels to evaluate ethical questions on, at the level of the individual in a group, at the level of the group itself, and between groups in a network. Group dynamics are thus firmly put into focus: power, control, ownership, voice, inclusion, decision making, conflict resolution, dependencies within a group, reciprocity, mutuality, verifiability, boundaries, trust, contributions, engagement, and reputations.
This in part translates back to the agency part, in terms of technology and skills to work with it. Skills won’t be evenly distributed in groups seeking agency, so potentially introduce power asymmetries, when unique capabilities mean de-facto gatekeepers or single points of failure are introduced. These may be counteracted with some mutual dependencies perhaps. More likely operational transparency in a group is of more importance so that the group can see such issues arise and calling them out is a normal thing to do, not something that has a threshold in itself. Operational transparency might build on an obligation to explain, which also is a logical element in ensuring (networked) agility.
The above output of this first exercise I will try and put in an overview. Not sure what will be useful here, a tree-like map, or a network, or a matrix. A next step is fleshing out the ethical issues in play. Then projecting them on for instance specific technologies, methods and group settings, to see what specific actions or design principles emerge from that.
This is a start to more fully describe and explore a distributed version of digitisation, digitalisation and specifically digital transformation, and state why I think bringing distributed / networked thinking into them matters.
Digitising stuff, digitalising routines, the regular way
Over the past decades much more of the things around us became digitised, and in recent years much of the things we do, our daily routines and work processes, have become digitalised. Many of those digitalised processes are merely digitised replicas of their paper predecessors. Asking for a government permit for instance, or online banking. There’s nothing there that wasn’t there in the paper version. Sometimes even small steps in those processes still force you to use paper. At the start of this year I had to apply for a declaration that my company had never been involved in procurement fraud. All the forms I needed for it (30 pages in total!), were digitised and I filled them out online, but when it came to sending it in, I had to print the PDF resulting from those 30 pages, and send it through snail mail. I have no doubt that the receiving government office’s first step was to scan it all before processing it. Online banking similarly is just a digitised paper process. Why don’t all online bank accounts provide nifty visualisation, filtering and financial planning tools (like alerts for dates due, saving towards a goal, maintaining a buffer etc.), now that everything is digital? The reason we laugh at Little Britains ‘computer says no’ sketches, is because we recognise all too well the frustration of organisations blindly trusting their digitalised processes, and never acknowledging or addressing their crappy implementation, or the extra work and route-arounds their indifference inflicts.
Digital transformation, digital societies
Digital transformation is the accumulated societal impact of all those digital artefacts and digitalised processes, even if they’re incomplete or half-baked. Digital transformation is why I have access to all those books in the long tail that never reached the shelves of any of the book shops I visited in decades part, yet now come to my e-reader instantly, resulting in me reading more and across a wider spectrum than ever before. Digital transformation is also the impact on elections that almost individually targeted data-driven Facebook advertising caused by minutely profiling undecided voters.
Digital transformation is often referred to these days, in my work often also in the context of development and the sustainable development goals.
Yet, it often feels to me that for most intents and purposes this digital transformation is done to us, about us but not of us. It’s a bit like the smart city visions corporations like Siemens and Samsung push(ed), that were basically devoid of life and humanity. Quality of life reduced and equated to security only, in sterilised cities, ignoring that people are the key actors, as critiqued by Adam Greenfield in 2013.
Human digital networks: distributed digital transformation
The Internet is a marvellous thing. At least it is when we use it actively, to assist us in our routines and in our efforts to change, learn and reach out. As social animals, our human interaction has always been networked where we fluently switch between contexts, degrees of trust and disclosure, and routing around undesired connections. In that sense human interaction and the internet’s original design principle closely match up, they’re both distributed. In contrast most digitalisation and digital transformation happens from the perspective of organisations and silos. Centralised things, where some decide for the many.
To escape that ‘done to us, about us, not of us’, I think we need to approach digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation from a distributed perspective, matching up our own inherently networked humanity with our newly (since 30 yrs) networked global digital infrastructure. We need to think in terms of distributed digital transformation. Distributed digital transformation (making our own digital societal impact), building on distributed digitisation (making our things digital), and on distributed digitalisation (making our routines digital).
Signs of distributed digitisation and digitalisation
Distributed digitisation can already be seen in things like the quantified self movement, where individuals create data around themselves to use for themselves. Or in the sensors I have in the garden. Those garden measurements are part of something you can call distributed digitalisation, where a network of similar sensors create a map of our city that informs climate adaptation efforts by local government. My evolving information strategies, with a few automated parts, and the interplay of different protocols and self-proposed standards that make up the Indieweb also are examples of distributed digitalisation. My Networked Agency framework, where small groups of relationships fix something of value with low threshold digital technology, and network/digital based methods and processes, is distributed digitisation and distributed digitalisation combined into a design aid for group action.
Distributed digital transformation needs a macroscope for the new civil society
Distributed digital transformation, distributed societal impact seems a bit more elusive though.
Civil society is increasingly distributed too, that to me is clear. New coops, p2p groups, networks of individual actors emerge all over the world. However they are largely invisible to for instance the classic interaction between government and the incumbent civil society, and usually cut-off from the scaffolding and support structures that ‘classic’ activities can build on to get started. Because they’re not organised ‘the right way’, not clearly representative of a larger whole. Bootstrapping is their only path. As a result these initiatives are only perceived as single elements, and the scale they actually (can) achieve as a network remains invisible. Often even in the eyes of those single elements themselves.
Our societies, including the nodes that make up the network of this new type of civil society, lack the perception to recognise the ‘invisible hand of networks’. A few years ago already I discussed with a few people, directors of entities in that new civil society fabric, how it is that we can’t seem to make our newly arranged collective voices heard, our collective efforts and results seen, and our collective power of agency recognised and sought out for collaboration? We’re too used, it seems, to aggregating all those things, collapsing them into a single voice of a mouthpiece that has the weight of numbers behind it, in order to be heard. We need to learn to see the cumulative impact of a multitude of efforts, while simultaneously keeping all those efforts visible on their own. There exist so many initiatives I think that are great examples of how distributed digitalisation leads to transformation, but they are largely invisible outside their own context, and also not widely networked and connected enough to reach their own full potential. They are valuable on their own, but would be even more valuable to themselves and others when federated, but the federation part is mostly missing.
We need to find a better way to see the big picture, while also seeing all pixels it consists of. A macroscope, a distributed digital transformation macroscope.
From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].
To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.
Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.
In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:
“Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.”
In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.
If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.
Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:
- Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
- Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
- Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
- Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
- Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
- Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
- Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.
An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.
We’re in a time where whatever is presented to us as discourse on Facebook, Twitter or any of the other platforms out there, may or may not come from humans, bots, or someone/a group with a specific agenda irrespective of what you say or respond. We’ve seen it at the political level, with outside influences on elections, we see it in things like gamer gate, and in critiques of the last Star Wars movie. It creates damage on a societal level, and it damages people individually. To quote Angela Watercutter, the author of the mentioned Star Wars article,
…it gets harder and harder to have an honest discussion […] when some of the speakers are just there to throw kerosene on a flame war. And when that happens, when it’s impossible to know which sentiments are real and what motivates the people sharing them, discourse crumbles. Every discussion […] could turn into a […] fight — if we let it.
Discourse disintegrates I think specifically when there’s no meaningful social context in which it takes place, nor social connections between speakers in that discourse. The effect not just stems from that you can’t/don’t really know who you’re conversing with, but I think more importantly from anyone on a general platform being able to bring themselves into the conversation, worse even force themselves into the conversation. Which is why you never should wade into newspaper comments, even though we all read them at times because watching discourse crumbling from the sidelines has a certain addictive quality. That this can happen is because participants themselves don’t control the setting of any conversation they are part of, and none of those conversations are limited to a specific (social) context.
Unlike in your living room, over drinks in a pub, or at a party with friends of friends of friends. There you know someone. Or if you don’t, you know them in that setting, you know their behaviour at that event thus far. All have skin in the game as well misbehaviour has immediate social consequences. Social connectedness is a necessary context for discourse, either stemming from personal connections, or from the setting of the place/event it takes place in. Online discourse often lacks both, discourse crumbles, entropy ensues. Without consequence for those causing the crumbling. Which makes it fascinating when missing social context is retroactively restored, outing the misbehaving parties, such as the book I once bought by Tinkebell where she matches death threats she received against the sender’s very normal Facebook profiles.
Two elements therefore are needed I find, one in terms of determining who can be part of which discourse, and two in terms of control over the context of that discourse. They are point 2 and point 6 in my manifesto on networked agency.
This is unlike on e.g. FB where the cost of defending against trollish behaviour by design takes more effort than being a troll, and never carries a cost for the troll. There must, in short, be a finite social distance between speakers for discourse to be possible. Platforms that dilute that, or allow for infinite social distance, is where discourse can crumble.
This points to federation (a platform within control of a specific group, interconnected with other groups doing the same), and decentralisation (individuals running a platform for one, and interconnecting them). Doug Belshaw recently wrote in a post titled ‘Time to ignore and withdraw?‘ about how he first saw individuals running their own Mastodon instance as quirky and weird. Until he read a blogpost of Laura Kalbag where she writes about why you should run Mastodon yourself if possible:
Everything I post is under my control on my server. I can guarantee that my Mastodon instance won’t start profiling me, or posting ads, or inviting Nazis to tea, because I am the boss of my instance. I have access to all my content for all time, and only my web host or Internet Service Provider can block my access (as with any self-hosted site.) And all blocking and filtering rules are under my control—you can block and filter what you want as an individual on another person’s instance, but you have no say in who/what they block and filter for the whole instance.
Similarly I recently wrote,
The logical end point of the distributed web and federated services is running your own individual instance. Much as in the way I run my own blog, I want my own Mastodon instance.
I also do see a place for federation, where a group of people from a single context run an instance of a platform. A group of neighbours, a sports team, a project team, some other association, but always settings where damaging behaviour carries a cost because social distance is finite and context defined, even if temporary or emergent.
At our birthday unconference STM18 last week, Frank gave a presentation (PDF) on running your own website and social media tools separate from the commercial silos like Facebook, Twitter etc. Collected under the name IndieWeb (i.e. the independent web), this is basically what used to be the default before we welcomed the tech companies’ silos into town. The IndieWeb never went away of course, I’ve been blogging in this exact same space for 16 years now, and ran a personal website for just under a decade before that. For broader groups to take their data and their lives out of silos it requires however easy options out, and low-threshold replacement tools.
One of the silos to replace is Twitter. There are various other tools around, like Mastodon. What they have in common is that it’s not run by a single company, but anyone can run a server, and then they federate, i.e. all work together. So that if I am on server 128, and you are on server 512 our messages still arrive in the right spot.
I’ve been looking at running a Mastodon instance, or similar, myself for a while. Because yes, there are more Mastodon servers (I have accounts on mastodon.cloud and on mastodon.nl), but I know even less about who runs them and their tech skills, attitudes or values than I know about Twitter. I’ve just exchanged a big silo for a smaller one. The obvious logical endpoint of thinking about multiple instances or servers, is that instances should be individual, or based on existing groups that have some cohesion. More or less like e-mail, which also is a good analogy to think of when trying to understand Mastodon account names.
Ideally, running a Mastodon instance would be something you do yourself, and which at most has your household members in it. Or maybe you run one for a specific social context. So how easy is it, to run Mastodon myself.
I could deploy it on my own VPS. But maintaining a VPS is rather a lot of work. And I would need to find out if I run the right type of operating system and other packages to be able to do it. Not something for everyone, nor for me without setting aside some proper time.
Or I could spin up a Mastodon instance at Amazon’s server parks. That seems relatively easy to do, requiring a manageable list of mouse clicks. It doesn’t really fit my criteria though, even if it looks like a relatively quick way to at least have my own instance running. It would take me out of Twitter’s software silo, but not out of Amazon’s hardware silo. Everything would still be centralised on a US server, likely right next to the ones Twitter is using. Meaning I’d have more control over my own data, but not be bringing my stuff ‘home’.
Better already is something like Masto.host, run by a volunteer named Hugo Gameiro who’s based in Portugal. It provides ease of use in terms of running your own instance, which is good, but leaves open issues of control and flexibility.
So I’d like a solution that either can run on a package with my local hosting provider or figure out how to run it on cheap hardware like Raspberry Pi which can be connected to my home router. The latter one I’d prefer, but for now I am looking to learn how easy it is to do the former.
Mastodon and other similar tools like Pleroma require various system components my hosting provider isn’t providing, nor likely to be willing to provide. Like many other hosters they do have library of scripts you can automatically install with all the right dependencies and settings. In the section ‘social media’ it doesn’t mention Mastodon or any other ‘modern’ varity, but they do list GnuSocial and its predecessor StatusNet. GnuSocial is a script that uses the same protocols like Mastodon, OStatus and ActivityPub. So it should be able to communicate with Mastodon.
I installed it and created an account for myself (and myself as administrator). Then I tried to find ways to federate with Mastodon instances. The interface is rather dreadful, and none of the admin settings seemed to hint at anything that lies beyond the GnuSocial instance itself, no mention of anything like federation.
The interface of GnuSocial
However in my profile a button labelled “+remote” popped up. And through that I can connect to other people on other instances. Such as the people I am connected to on Mastodon already. I did that, and it nicely links to their profiles. But none of their messages show up in my stream. Even if it looks I can send messages to them from my GnuSocial instance as I can do things like @someotheruser, they don’t seem to arrive. So if I am indeed sending something, there’s no-one listening at the other end.
I did connect to others externally
And I can send messages to them, although they do not seem to arrive
So that leaves a number of things for next steps to explore. Also on Mastodon in conversation with Maarten I noticed that I need to express better what I’m after. Something for another posting. To be continued.
Do You Have Any Diodes? ….. …. Is probably the most unlikely question I got ever asked out of the blue at a birthday party. However the answer turned out to be yes, I did have two diodes. I didn’t think I did, but taking a look in the one box I suspected might have some electronic components in them, proved me wrong.
The diodes were needed to increase the strength of the scary noises an evil robot was emitting. This evil robot was being created just outside our front door where the enormous Frysklab truck, containing a mobile FabLab, was completely filling the courtyard. Representing everything that is wrong and evil about some of the devices that are marketed as necessary for a ‘smart home’, the evil robot then got ritually smashed into pieces by Elmine, wielding a gigantic hammer, named ‘The Unmaker’ that a colleague brought with him. That was the official closing act of our unconference “Smart Stuff That Matters“.
Around all this our 40 or so guests, friends, family members, clients, colleagues, peers, were weaving a rich tapestry of conversations and deepening connections. Something that our friend Peter put into words extremely well. Elmine and I are in awe of the effort and time all who joined us have put into coming to our home and participate in our slightly peculiar way of celebrating birthdays. Birthday parties where evil robots, a hyperloop to send messages from the courtyard to the garden, mythical German bbq-sausages, friendship, philosophy, web technology, new encounters and yes diodes, are all key ingredients to help create a heady mix of fun, inspiration, connection, and lasting memories.
Thank you all so much for making it so.