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.

    Makerfair Eindhoven Makerfair Eindhoven Makerfair Eindhoven
    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.

    Maker Faire Eindhoven Maker Faire Eindhoven

    20180929_134053

    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.

    I got elected as treasurer of the newly founded Creative Commons Chapter Netherlands. Could not make the founding meeting this afternoon but thankful for the trust of the participants in the meeting. Looking forward to working with the other newly elected board members Maarten Zeinstra (chair), Hessel van Oorschot (secretary), Sebastiaan ter Burg (general board member), and Lisette Kalshoven (representative in the CC Global Network Council). The newly formed Chapter is the result of the changing structure of Creative Commons globally.

    Last week the 2nd annual Techfestival took place in Copenhagen. As part of this there was a 48 hour think tank of 150 people (the ‘Copenhagen 150‘), looking to build the Copenhagen Catalogue, as a follow-up of last year’s Copenhagen Letter of which I am a signee. Thomas, initiator of the Techfestival had invited me to join the CPH150 but I had to decline the invitation, because of previous commitments I could not reschedule. I’d have loved to contribute however, as the event’s and even more the think tank’s concerns are right at the heart of my own. My concept of networked agency and the way I think about how we should shape technology to empower people in different ways runs in parallel to how Thomas described the purpose of the CPH150 48 hour think tank at its start last week.

    For me the unit of agency is the individual and a group of meaningful relationships in a specific context, a networked agency. The power to act towards meaningful results and change lies in that group, not in the individual. The technology and methods that such a group deploys need to be chosen deliberately. And those tools need to be fully within scope of the group itself. To control, alter, extend, tinker, maintain, share etc. Such tools therefore need very low adoption thresholds. Tools also need to be useful on their own, but great when federated with other instances of those tools. So that knowledge and information, learning and experimentation can flow freely, yet still can take place locally in the (temporary) absence of such wider (global) connections. Our current internet silos such as Facebook and Twitter clearly do not match this description. But most other technologies aren’t shaped along those lines either.

    As Heinz remarked earlier musing about our unconference, effective practices cannot be separated from the relationships in which you live. I added that the tools (both technology and methods) likewise cannot be meaningfully separated from the practices. Just like in the relationships you cannot fully separate between the hyperlocal, the local, regional and global, due to the many interdependencies and complexity involved: what you do has wider impact, what others do and global issues express themselves in your local context too.

    So the CPH150 think tank effort to create a list of principles that takes a human and her relationships as the starting point to think about how to design tools, how to create structures, institutions, networks fits right with that.

    Our friend Lee Bryant has a good description of how he perceived the CPH150 think tank, and what he shared there. Read the whole thing.

    Meanwhile the results are up: 150 principles called the Copenhagen Catalogue, beautifully presented. You can become signatory to those principles you deem most valuable to stick to.

    Heinz Wittenbrink, who teaches content strategy at the FH Joanneum in Graz, reflected extensively on his participation in our recent Smart Stuff That Matters unconference.
    We go back since 2006 (although I think we read each others blog before), when we first met at a BarCamp in Vienna. Later Heinz kindly invited me to Graz at several occasions such as the 2008 Politcamp (a barcamp on web 2.0 and political communication), and the 2012 annual conference of the Austrian association for trainers in basic education for adults.

    He writes in German, and his blogpost contains a lot to unpack (also as it weaves the history of our interaction into his observations), so I thought I’d highlight and translate some quotes here. This as I find it rather compelling to read how someone, who’s been involved in and thinking about online interaction for a long time, views the event we did in the context of his and my work. And that some of what I’m trying to convey as fundamental to thinking about tools and interaction is actually coming across to others. Even if I feel that I’ve not yet hit on the most compelling way to formulate my ideas.

    Heinz starts with saying he sees my approach as a very practice oriented one.
    “Ton engages on a very practical level with the possibilities of combining the personal and personal relationships with the wider contexts in which one lives, from the local community to global developments. He has a technical, pragmatic and practice oriented approach. Also he can explain to others who are not part of a digital avantgarde what he does.”

    And then places the birthday unconferences we did in that context, as an extension of that practice oriented approach. Something I realise I didn’t fully do myself.

    “The unconference of last week is an example of how one can do things from a highly personal motivation – like meeting friends, talking about topics you’re interested in, conversing about how you shape your new daily routines after a move – and make it easy for others to connect to that. What you find or develop you don’t keep for yourself, but is made useful for others, and in turn builds on what those others do. So it’s not about developing an overarching moral claim in a small context , but about shaping and networking one’s personal life in such a way that you collectively expand your capabilities to act. Ton speaks of networked agency. Digital networking is a component of these capabilities to act, but only embedded in networks that combine people, as well as locations and technical objects.”

    Speaking about the unconference he says something that really jumps out at me.

    To list the themes [….of the sessions I attended…] fails to express what was special about the unconference: that you meet people or meet them again, for whom these themes are personal themes, so that they are actually talking about their lives when they talk about them. At an unconference like this one does not try to create results that can be broadcast in abstracted formulations, but through learning about different practices and discussing them, extend your own living practice and view it from new perspectives. These practices or ways of living cannot be separated from the relationships in which and with which you live, and the relationships you create or change at such an event like this.

    Seeing it worded like that, that the topics we discussed, theorised about, experimented around, are very much personal topics, and in the context of personal relationships, hits me as very true. I hadn’t worded it in quite that way myself yet. This is however exactly why to me digital networks and human networks are so similar and overlapping, and why I see your immediate context of an issue, you and your meaningful relationships as the key unit of agency. That’s why you can’t separate how you act from your relationships. And why the layeredness of household, neighbourhood, city, earth is interwoven by default, just often not taken into account, especially not in the design phase of technology and projects.

    Heinz then talks about blogging, and our earlier silent assumptions that novel technology would as per default create the right results. Frank’s phrasing and Heinz’s mention of the ‘original inspiration’ to blog resonate with me.

    It’s probably not a coincidence that the people I had the most intensive conversations with have been blogging for a long time. They all stuck with the original inspiration to blog. Frank in his presentation called it “to publish your own unedited voice”. The openness but also the individuality expressed in this formulation was clearly visible in the entire unconference.

    For me blogging was a way of thinking out loud, making a life long habit of note taking more public. The result was a huge growth in my professional peer network, and I found that learning in this networked manner accelerated enormously. Even if my imagined audience when I write is just 4 or 5 of people, and I started blogging as a personal archive/reflection tool, I kept doing it because of the relationships it helped create.

    Continuing on about the early techno-optimism Heinz says about the unconference

    The atmosphere at the unconference was very different. Of the certainties of the years shortly after 2000 nothing much remains. The impulses behind the fascination of yesteryear do remain however. It’s not about, or even less about technology as it was then, it’s about smart actions in themselves, and life under current conditions. It’s about challenging what is presented as unavoidable more than producing unavoidability yourself.

    Only slowly I understand that technologies are much deeper embedded in social practices and can’t be separated from them. Back then I took over Ton’s concept of ‘people centered navigation’. Through the event last week it became clearer to me what this concept means: not just a ‘right’ efficient way to use tools, but a practice that for specific needs deliberately selects tools and in doing so adapts them.

    People centered navigation is not a component of better more efficient mass media, but navigating information in reference to needs and capabilities of people in localised networks. Where above all the production of media and content in dialogue with a limited number of others is relevant, not its reception by the masses. Network literacies are capabilities to productively contribute to these localised networks.

    Just like practice is inseparable from our relationships, our tools are inseparable from our practices. In networked agency, the selection of tools (both technology and methods) is fully determined by the context of the issue at hand and the group of relationships doing it. As I tried to convey in 2010 in my Maker Households keynote at SHiFT and indeed at the earlier mentioned keynote I gave at Heinz’s university on basic literacy in adult learning, networked literacies are tied to your personal networks. And he’s right, the original fascination is as strong as before.

    Heinz finishes with adding the work of Latour to my reading list, by his last remark.

    The attempt to shape your local surroundings intelligently and to consider how you can connect them in various dimensions of networks, reminds me of the localised politics in fragile networks that Bruno Latour describes in his terrestrial manifest as an alternative to the utopies and dystopies of globalisation and closed national societies. Latour describes earth as a thin layer where one can live, because one creates the right connections and maintains them. The unconference was an experiment to discover and develop such connections.

    Thank you Heinz for your reflection, I’m glad you participated in this edition.

    Elmine says this about the difficulty to describe her feelings about having almost 70 guests, friends, family, clients, peers, neighbours, spend two days in our home. Where the youngest was 8 weeks, the oldest 80 years. Where the shortest trip made was from right next door, and the furthest from Canada and Indonesia, and the rest from somewhere in between:

    I try to find words to describe what happened the past few days, but everything I write down feels incomplete and abstract. How do you put into words how much it means to you that friends travel across the world to attend your birthday party? That you can celebrate a new year in life with friends you haven’t been able to meet for four years (or longer)? Who’s lives have changed so drastically in those years, including my own, but still pick up where you left the conversation all those years before? How can I describe how much it means to me to be able to connect all those people Ton and I collected in our lives, bring them together in the same space and for all of them to hit it off? That they all openly exchanged life stories, inspired each other, geeked out together, built robots together?

    It was an experience beyond words. It was, yet again, an epic birthday party.

    It also extends to the interaction we had with those who could not attend, because the invitation and response also trigger conversations about how other people are doing and what is going on in their lives.

    I completely share Elmine’s sense of awe.

    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.

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    August 31st Elmine and I host the 4th Birthday Unconference and BBQ-Party in our home in Amersfoort. The unconference is titled “Smart Stuff that Matters”.

    So what is Smart, and what Matters?

    A year ago we moved to Amersfoort. A different house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. The city where our daughter will grow up.

    A new environment means lots of exploration. What makes a house a home? How can you smartly adapt your house to your needs? Who lives in the neighbourhood, how do you settle in it? What makes a city your city? Which existing initiatives appeal to you, and in what ways can you contribute to them?
    Whether it’s a new habit, a new device in your home, your contacts and networks, or your approach: what are smart ways to act and contribute to your residence and environment so it supports you and the others in it? In the context of much wider developments and global issues, that is. Both social and technological, at home, in your neighbourhood, your city. It’s important to approach things in ways that create meaning, enable the important things, both for you and others. Smart Stuff That Matters therefore.

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    Our house, in the middle of our street

    A full day long we’ll explore ‘smart’ in all its facets.
    Smart homes (and around the home), smart neighbourhoods, smart cities.
    Socially, how do we learn, communicate, organise and share? How do we act, how do we contribute? How do we find the power of collaborative agency.
    And also technologically, which technologies help us, which only pretend to do so, and are these technologies sufficiently ours?
    We will have the Frysklab Team joining us again with their mobile FabLab, and have plenty of space to experiment with technology that way. Such as sensors, internet of things and programming. Or to build non-digital hacks for around the home.

    Frysklab in da house!
    Frysklab’s truck parked at our old home in Enschede during the previous unconference

    Together we’ll explore what smart means to you and us.
    Bring your small and big experiences and skills, but above all bring your curiosity, and let yourself be surprised with what the others bring.
    Do you have ideas about what you’d like to show, discuss, present or do?
    Have ideas about what you would like to hear from others about? Let us know! We’ll build the program together!

    You’ll find all relevant information about the unconference on this site. You’re also welcome to join our Facebook group for the event.