Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

20190608_084935Walking to the market

I’ve just woken up after a great Day 2 of Peter’s Crafting {:} a Life unconference. Nominally the day was more about doing, where the first day was more about meeting and talking. We started with a walk from Peter Catherine and Oliver’s home to the Charlottetown Farmers Market. There I enjoyed a second breakfast of tasty crab cake, a lovely salmon bagel and good espresso. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we chatted both during the walk and outside the Farmers Market.

20190608_093459Peter, Oliver and Ethan holding court

One of the participants has access to a bus so he drove us back to the ‘campus’ where we all gathered again to build the program for the day together. A fantastic line-up of things ranging from ‘blood memories’ , the history of Peter’s home and surrounding houses (including daguerrotypes), drinking your first ever cup of coffee (and the life changing story behind it), to drawing fantasy maps.
I suggested doing a session on blogging, building on Day 1’s conversations about what happened to blogging, and the future of blogging. It ended up on the schedule for the afternoon.

20190608_110318Olle starting the fantasy cartography session

The rest of the morning I spent with a small group of people at the harbour location of Receiver Coffee, where two of us had their first ever cup of coffee (“I never deliberately put a bitter thing in my mouth with the intention to enjoy it”). Around the coffee we had a fascinating conversation of the seismic consequences of leaving a prescriptive strict organised religious community. The methods, tactics and tools I use in working with groups a lot, in order to create a space for collective change to happen, to build connections and community, essentially can be and are being used to introduce and maintain power differences, isolate groups etc. It’s as if a tool you see as fit for beautiful craftsmanship is deployed to stab someone.

20190608_113054 Garden conversationa first coffee, and back yard conversation

After lunch I sat down with a handful of people in Peter’s back yard for a session on IndieWeb tools and how they can breathe life back into blogging by taking control over your own content and the tools to connect you to others. For lack of laptops and because of bright sunlight, we talked more than we did things. And because of a bit of confusion around the schedule a larger group joined us an hour later under the assumption that was the correct starting time. But those ‘glitches’ worked out fine, as whoever is here are the right people, and whatever we talk about is the right topic. At first we talked about the IndieWeb tools and underlying standards and intentions, and examples of how that works out in practice (or doesn’t). From there we looped through an enormous variety of topics, from filling moments with listening to podcasts, to lifehacks, to getting transcripts of YouTube videos to parenting, reading to elderly people to improve quality of life, to instagram posers, grooming and language, and much much more. The free flow of the conversation with people drifting in and out, went on for some 4 hours effortlessly. People were taking notes but not disengaging on their phones. For me this session was worth the entire trip on its own, I was in flow. There’s much I still need to tease out for myself, to go back into the conversation and pick on a few strands to explore further, but right now it’s enough for me to admire the shape of the ephemeral construct we put together in that back yard. I came out sun burned not having noticed it in the conversational flow.

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Pre-dinner waiting time was filled with terrific oysters. It had been a long time since I had them, and the last time was of the ‘here’s a bit of salty watery snot’ variety. These were fresh, we’re on an island after all, delicate of taste and very meaty. A local chef then served a nice bbq burger meal, after singing an Irish dedication song to us. More music followed.

20190608_184013pre-dinner rush to finish the first draft

Elmine had been working on writing a story during the day, which she plotted together with Rob Paterson, and she read out the first finished draft in front of not just the 50 people who participated in the unconference, but also their partners, families and others who had joined us for dinner. It must be daunting to stand up and read aloud something you created just now, and of which the ink isn’t even dry yet. Leaving half the audience brushing away a tear, it was great. I also felt it completed the circle of our own participation. Elmine led us through the first exercise on Day 1 where we told each other stories, and now she rounded it off with reading us all a story inspired by the family who brought us together in and around their home. When Peter thanked Elmine and they embraced, that was the moment I felt myself release the space I opened up on Day 1 when I helped the group set the schedule. Where the soap bubble we blew collapsed again, no longer able to hold the surface tension. I felt a wave of emotions wash through me, which I recognise from our own events as well. The realisation of the beauty of the collective experience you created, the connections made, the vulnerability allowed, the fun had, the playfulness. We wound down from that rush chatting over drinks in the moon lit back yard.

Thank you Peter for bringing us all to PEI for a few days of, as you wrote earlier, the simple act of spending time together talking about life for a while. Crafting a life is in part about crafting shared experiences. This most definitely was one.

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Today was day 1 of the Crafting {:} a Life unconference that our friend Peter is organising on Prince Edward Island. It was a fun and wonderful day.
It was a novel experience, doing an unconference party like this as a participant. Elmine and I have always been on the other side, the persons convening a group of our friends and connections in our home for the event. Then you know all of those there, although most participants won’t know each other. Today it was like the latter for me, half a dozen familiars, and 40 or more people you never met. Peter said when he picked us up at the airport “you are the only two people in the world who know in what position I am right now.” The flip side of that is I’ve learned what all of you who participated in our events knew all along, how it is to participate.

20190607_084854Before the start, the circle of chairs waiting for us

Both Elmine and I did take some role in today’s events. In the run-up we chatted with Peter to provide feedback and share some of our previous experiences. And today, we helped set the scene. After Peter’s welcoming words and intro, some songs by Michael, and a welcome from Oliver, Elmine took the group through an introductory exercise. It was a version of the ‘anecdote circle lite‘ we did ourselves last summer. Groups of 5 or 6 would talk about “something you crafted or created that you’re most proud of, gave you most pleasure or was the most fun to do.” It is a good way to get to know some of the other participants while doing away with the usual ‘I’m John, and I’m the X at Y company”, of which nothing ever gets remembered when 40 people do that one after another. Now I’ve learned about veterinarian training on PEI, who created the most recent official PEI atlas (and whose name because of that will be remembered centuries from now because those official atlases are kept and cared about), and the pleasure you feel making something with your hands when your regular work is coding. While one was telling their story the others would write down what stood out for them. All those notes served as a source of reference and inspiration for the rest of the day.

Crafting {;} a Life Crafting {;} a Life

Next Peter and I guided the group through building the program. I opened the space and invited people to propose topics or sessions, and when enough others showed interest it would go on the schedule. After the first sessions and lunch, and later in the afternoon we returned to the schedule so people could add things, and use their earlier experiences in the day to suggest new additions to the schedule. With the instruction to be curious, follow your energy and your feet to where you feel engaged, and have fun the participants were off.

20190607_173005the schedule as it emerged during the day

I attended sessions on constructive approaches to local climate adaptation efforts, the role of arts in social movements, a conversation on what happened to blogging, burn-out avoidance strategies, the future we see / want to see for blogging, and how to start and not to start a creative hub and maker space. I would have loved to also join a session on ‘phone nerding’ and the ‘death café’ but you can only be in one spot at any given time. I feel that the fact that this is all taking place on an island with a tight-knit community, gives a special flavor to the event. The sea is a natural boundary to the community and who counts as part of it, and there’s a strong sense of all being into it together. That also showed yesterday evening when Elmine and I found ourselves discussing the impact of AirBnb and other pressures on the local housing market, with some people at a bar, one of whom turned out to be the city counsellor responsible for that subject.

20190607_161502envisioning the future of blogging in Peter and Catherine’s back yard

We ended with pizza and some drinks. Tomorrow we will return for day 2, which will be focused on doing, where today was more about meeting and talking. Some ideas for what to do already emerged during this day. I will likely do something around the indieweb with the others interested in having a personal site away from the silos. But first sleep, and breakfast on the Charlottetown Farmers Market tomorrow.

Yesterday I realised once again the importance of watching how others work with their tools. During the demo’s of what people worked on during IndieWebCamp Utrecht I was watching remotely as Frank demoed his OPML importer for Microsub servers. At some point he started sending messages to his Microsub server’s API, and launched Postman for it. It was the first takeaway from his demo. I decided to look Postman up, install it, and resolved to blog about the importance about sharing your set-up and showing people your workflows.

Then Peter independently, from a different cause, beat me to it with “You do it like that?”.

So consider this reinforcement of that message!

With the CPH Techfestival announced I just booked my early bird ticket for this year’s event in early September.
Having signed the Copenhagen Letter in 2017, and having had to miss participating in the Copenhagen 150 to draft the Copenhagen Catalogue last year, I will attend this year.

Subscribe to humans is this year’s tagline. In my information strategies and rss-reading tactics, I always have done just that: subscribe to people, not sources or blogs. I aim to contribute my networked agency work to the mix in September.

Today I’m working at Library Service Fryslan to further document and detail our Networked Agency based library program Impact through Connection. This is a continuation of our work last December.

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The team in skype conversation, which is why all are staring towards the laptop.

We sat down to augment material and write this morning. In the afternoon we spent an hour talking to David Lankes. He’s the director of USC’s library and information science school, and the originator of the term ‘community librarian’. Jeroen de Boer, our team lead, had asked him last month for some reflection on our work. That took the shape of an extended skype confcall this afternoon, which was very helpful.

Trying to make our effort much more tangible in terms of examples and in supporting librarians in their role in Impact through Connections, is one thing that was emphasised. The need for training librarians in the methodological aspects of this, to help them feel more comfortable in the open-ended setting we create for this project, another. It also made us realise that some of the things we already mentioned, or did earlier, but since dropped of our radar somewhat, need to be pulled more into the center again. The suggestion to create multiple parallel propositions for libraries, as a way to better engage in conversation about the level of service provided, involvement of librarians, and the consequences different choices carry, I think was a good practical tip.

A conversation with David Lankes
In conversation with David Lankes

Today I made my first Open Street Map edit. Open Street Map is a global map, created by its users (which includes lots of open government geographic data). My first edit was triggered by Peter Rukavina’s call to action. He wrote how he wants to add or correct Open Street Map data for a location when he mentions that location or business in his blogposts. He also calls upon others to do the same thing.

I don’t think I mention locations such as restaurants often or even at all in my blog, so it’s an easy enough promise for me to make. However, I did read and copy the steps Peter describes. First installing Alfred on my laptop. Alfred is a workflow assistant basically. I know Peter uses it a lot, and I looked at it before, and until now concluded that the Mac’s standard Spotlight interface and Hazel work well enough for me. But the use case he describes for quickly searching in a map through Alfred made sense to me: it’s a good way to make Open Street Map my default search option, and foregoing Google Maps. So I installed Alfred, and made a custom search to use Open Street Map (OSM).

The next step was seeing if there was something small I could do in OSM. Taking a look on the map around our house, I checked the description of the nearest restaurant and realised most meta-data (such as opening hours, cuisine, etc) were missing. I registered my account on OSM, and proceeded to add the info. As Peter mentions, such edits immediately get passed on to applications making use of OSM. One of those applications is a map layer showing restaurants that are currently open, and my added opening hours show up immediately:

My first edit also resulted in being contacted by a OSM community member, as they usually review the early edits any new user makes. It seems I inadvertently did something wrong regarding the address (OSM in the Netherlands makes use of the government data on addresses, BAG, and I entered an address by hand. As it came from a pick-up list I assumed it was sourced from the BAG, but apparently not). So that’s something to correct, after I find out how to do that.

[UPDATE: The fix was simple to do. The issue was that in the Netherlands the convention is to add meta data about stores to its corresponding address node (not as a separate node, unless there are more businesses at the same address). So the restaurant node I amended should not have been there. I copied all the attributes (tags) over to the address node, and then deleted the original node I edited. The information about the restaurant is now available from the address node itself. If you follow the link to the earlier node, you will now see it says that I deleted it.

I think it’s also great that within minutes of my original edit I had a message from a long time community member, Eggie. He welcomed me, pointed me to some resources on good practice and conventions, before providing some constructive criticism and nudge me in the right direction. Not by fixing what I did wrong, but by explaining why something needed improvement, and linking to where I could find out how to fix it myself, and saying if I had any questions to message him. After my correction I messaged him to check if everything was up to standard now which he acknowledged, ending with ‘happy mapping’. This is the type of welcoming and guidance that healthy communities provide. My Wikipedia experiences have been different I must say.
/UPDATE]

Recently I have been named the new chairman of the board of the Open State Foundation. This is a new role I am tremendously looking forward to take up. The Open State Foundation is the leading Dutch NGO concerning government transparency, and over the past years they’ve both persistently and in a very principled way pursued open data and government transparency, as well as constructively worked with government bodies to help them do better. Stef van Grieken, the chairman stepping down, has led the Open State Foundation board since it came into existence. The Open State Foundation is the merger of two earlier NGO’s, The New Voting (Het Nieuwe Stemmen) foundation of which Stef was the founder, and the Hack the Government (Hack de Overheid) collective.

Hack de Overheid emerged from the very first Dutch open government barcamp James Burke, Peter Robinett and I organised in the spring of 2008. The second edition in 2009 was the first Hack de Overheid event. My first open data project that same spring was together with James Burke and Alper Çuğun, both part of Hack de Overheid then and providing the tech savvy, and me being the interlocutor with the Ministry for the Interior, to guide the process and interpret the civil servant speak to the tech guys and vice versa. At the time Elsevier (a conservative weekly) published an article naming me one of the founders of Hack de Overheid, which was true in spirit, if technically incorrect.

In the past year and a half I had more direct involvement with the Open State Foundation than in the years between. Last year I did an in-depth evaluation of the effectiveness and lasting impact of the Open State Foundation in the period 2013-2017 and facilitated a discussion about their future, at the request of their director and one of their major funders. That made me appreciate their work in much richer detail than before. My company The Green Land and Open State Foundation also encounter each other on various client projects, giving me a perspective on the quality of their work and their team.

When Stef, as he’s been working in the USA for the past years, indicated he thought it time to leave the board, it coincided with me having signalled to the Open State Foundation that, if there ever was a need, I’d be happy to volunteer for the board. That moment thus came sooner than I expected. A few weeks ago Stef and I met up to discuss it, and then the most recent board meeting made it official.

Day to day the Open State Foundation is run by a very capable team and director. The board is an all volunteer ‘hands-off’ board, that helps the Open State Foundation guard its mission and maintain its status as a recognised charity in the Netherlands. I’m happy that I can help the Open State Foundation to stay committed to their goals of increasing government transparency and as a consequence the agency of citizens. I’m grateful to Stef, and the others that in the past decade have helped Open State Foundation become what it is now, from its humble beginnings at that barcamp in the run-down pseudo-squat of the former Volkskrant offices, now the hipster Volkshotel. I’m also thankful that I now have the renewed opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something I in a tiny way helped start a decade ago.

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 good news from Flickr. Flickr is amending their changes, to ensure that Creative Commons licensed photos will not be deleted from free accounts that are over their limit. (via Jeremy Cherfas)

Flickr recently announced they would be deleting the oldest photos of free accounts that have more photos than the new limit of 1000 images. This caused concern as some of those free accounts might be old, disused accounts, where there are images with open licenses that are being used elsewhere. Flickr allows search for images with open licenses, and makes it easy to embed those in your own online material. Removing old images might therefore break things, and there were many people calling for Flickr to try and prevent breaking things. And they are, Flickr is providing all public institutions and archives publishing photos to Flickr with a free Pro account, and will also delete no Creative Commons licensed images, if they carried that license before 1 November 2018. (This prevents you from keeping an unlimited free account by simply relicensing the photos, and uploading new photos with CC licenses only.)

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.

stm18
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.

[TL;DR: A long tail is needed for distributed technology to be sustainable I think, otherwise it’s just centralisation and single points of failure in a different form. A long tail means the bottom 80% take over 50% of a market, and the top 20% under 50%. Mastodon currently has over 85% of its participants in the top 20% of instances, and it’s worse than that as 77% of participants are in 0,7% of instances. Just 15% are in the bottom 80% of instances. There’s a power law distribution, but it’s not a long tail. What can Mastodon do to get there and to sustainability?]

On 6 October 2016 Mastodon was launched, and its originator Eugen Rochko looks back in a blogpost on the journey of the past two years.

I joined on 7 April 2017, 6 months after its launch, at the Mastodon.cloud instance. I posted some messages for a month, then fell quiet for half a year. A few messages last March, and then I started using it more frequently last month, in the run-up to figuring out how to run Mastodon for myself (which for now means a hosted solution, but still aiming for running it from the home router). It’s now part of my daily information diet, but no guarantee yet it will last, although being certain I have ‘my half’ of the conversation on a domain I own helps a lot towards maintaining worthwhile exchanges.

Eugen’s blogpost is rightfully proud of what has been accomplished. It’s not yet proof of the sustainability of federated solutions though as he suggests.

He shares a few interesting numbers about the usage of Mastodon. The median of the 3460 known instances is 8 users. In total there are 1.627.557 registered accounts. The largest instance has 415.941 members, while the top 3 together have 52% of users, meaning the number 2 and 3 average 215.194 accounts. The top 25 largest instances have 77% or 1.253.219 members, meaning that the numbers 4-25 average 18.495 users. As the median is 8 it means the smallest 1730 instances have at most 8*1730 = 13.840 users. It also means that the number 26 to number 1730 instances have at least 360.498 members, or an average of 211. This tells us there’s a Pareto power law distribution: the top 20% of instances hold at least 85% of users at the moment. That also means there is no long tail, just a stub that holds at most 15% of Mastodon users only. For a long tail to exist, the smallest 80% of instances should account for over 50% of users, or over three times more than the current number.

As the purpose of Mastodon is distribution, where federation allows everyone to connect regardless of their instances (sort of like e-mail), I think Mastodon can only be deemed sustainable if there is a true long tail. Meaning, that while the number of users goes up, the number of instances should go up at a faster rate. So that over 50% of all Mastodon users will be on the 80% smallest or even individual instances. In the current numbers we should be most interested in the 50% of instances that now have 8 or less users, and find out what drives those instances, so we may have many many more of them. We should also think about what a bigger-to-smaller-instances funnel for members can look like, not just leave it to chance. I think that the top 25 Mastodon instances, which is just 0.7% of the total, currently having 77% of all users is very problematic from a sustainability perspective. Because that level of concentration is completely at odds with the stated purpose of Mastodon: distribution.

Eugen Rochko in his anniversary posting points at a critical article from April 2017 in Mashable, implying that criticaster has been been proven wrong definitively. I disagree. While much of the ‘predictions’ in that article are indeed silly, it also contains a few hints as to where sustainability may be found. The criticaster doesn’t get federation (yet likely uses mail everyday), and complains about discovery (yet likely is relieved not all his personal e-mail addresses are to be found in Google). Yet if we can’t explain distribution and federation, and can’t or don’t communicatie how discovery works in such a setting then we won’t be able to make a long tail grow. For more people to adopt small or individual instance we need to bring the threshold for running your own instance way down, and then way down again. To the level of at most one click installing a script on any regular hosting service, and creating a first account.

Using open protocols, like ActivityPub which Mastodon supports, is key in getting more people out of walled gardens and silos, and on the open web. Tracking its adoption is a useful measure of success, but 2 years of existence is not a sign of sustainability at all. What Eugen Rochko has kicked off with Mastodon is valuable and very laudable, but we have barely started getting to where we need to be for it to stick.

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.

  • Our platforms need to mimick human networks much more closely : our networks are never ‘all in one mix’ but a tapestry of overlapping and distinct groups and contexts. Yet centralised platforms put us all in the same space.
  • Our platforms also need to be ‘smaller’ than the group using it, meaning a group can deploy, alter, maintain, administrate a platform for their specific context. Of course you can still be a troll in such a setting, but you can no longer be one without a cost, as your peers can all act themselves and collectively.
  • 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.

    Saturday I visited the Maker Faire in Eindhoven. Jeroen of the Frysklab team invited me to come along, when their mobile FabLab was parked in our courtyard for Smart Stuff That Matters. They had arranged a touring car to take a group of librarians and educators to the Maker Faire, and invited me to join the bus ride. So I took a train to Apeldoorn and then a taxi out to a truck stop where the bus was scheduled to stop for a coffee break, and then joined them for the rest of the drive down south.

    The Maker Faire was filled with all kinds of makers showing their projects, and there was a track with 30 minute slots for various talks.
    It was fun to walk around, meet up with lots of people I know. Lots of projects shown seemed to lack a purpose beyond the initial fascination of technological possibilities however. There were many education oriented projects as well, and many kids happily trying their hand on them. From a networked agency point of view there were not that many projects that aimed for collective capabilities.

    Some images, and a line or two of comment.

    Makerfair Eindhoven
    En-able, a network of volunteers printing 3d-printed prosthetics, was present. Talked to the volunteer in the image, with his steam-punk prosthetic device. They printed 18 hands and arm prosthetics for kids in the Netherlands last year, and 10 this year until now. Children need new prosthetics every 3 to 6 months, and 3d printing them saves a lot of costs and time. You even get to customise them with colors, and your favourite cartoon figure or super hero.

    Makerfair Eindhoven Makerfair Eindhoven
    3d printing with concrete, a project in which our local FabLab Amersfoort is involved. Didn’t get to see the printer working alas.

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    Novelty 3d printing of portraits.

    Makerfair Eindhoven Makerfair Eindhoven
    Building your own electronic music devices.

    Makerfair Eindhoven Makerfair Eindhoven
    Bringing LED-farming to your home, open source. Astroplant is an educational citizen science project, supported by ESA.

    Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
    Robot football team versus kids team. Quite a few educational projects around robotics were shown. Mostly from a university of applied sciences, but with efforts now branching out to preceding education levels. Chatted to Ronald Scheer who’s deeply involved in this (and who participated in our Smart Stuff That Matters unconference).

    Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
    A good way to showcase a wide range of Microbit projects by school children. I can see this mounted on a class room wall.

    Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
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    An open source 3d-printed, arduino controlled android. But what is it for? Open source robotics in general is of interest of course. There were also remote controlled robots, which were quite a lot of fun, as the video shows.

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    At the fringe of the event there was some steam punk going on.

    Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven
    Building with card board boxes for children. Makedo is an Australian brand, and next to their kits, you can find additional tools and elements as 3d printable designs online.

    Maker Faire Eindhoven
    The Frysklab team presented the new Dutch language Data Detox kit, which they translated from the English version the Berlin based Tactical Tech Collective created.