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.

When I talk about Networked Agency, I talk about reducing the barrier to entry for all kinds of technology as well as working methods, that we know work well in a fully networked situation. Reducing those barriers allows others to adopt these tools more easily and find power in refound ability to act. Networked agency needs tech and methods that can be easily deployed by groups, and that work even better when federated across groups and the globe-spanning digital human network.

The IndieWeb’s principles (own your own data, use tools that work well on their own, and better when federated, avoid silos as the primary place of where you post content) fit well with that notion.

Recently I said that I was coming back to a lot of my material on information strategies and metablogging from 2003-2006, but now with more urgency and a change in scope. Frank asked what I meant, and I answered

that the principles of the open web (free to use, alter, tinker, control, trust by you/your group) also apply to other techs (for instance energy production, blockchain, biohacking, open source hardware, cheap computing hardware, algorithms, IoT sensors and actuators) and methods (p2p, community building, social media usage/production, group facilitation etc.). Only then are they truly empowering, otherwise you’re just the person it is ‘done to’.

Blockchain isn’t empowering you to run your own local currency if you can only run it on de-facto centralised infrastructure, where you’re exposed to propagating negative externalities. Whether it is sudden Ethereum forks, or the majority of BTC transactions being run on opaque Chinese computing clusters. It is empowering only if it is yours to deploy for a specific use. Until you can e.g. run a block chain based LETS easily for your neighbourhood or home town on nodes that are Raspberry Pi’s attached to the LETS-members’ routers, there is no reliable agency in blockchain.

IoT is not empowering if it means Amazon is listening into all your conversations, or your fire alarm sensors run through centralised infrastructure run by a telco. It is empowering if you can easily deploy your own sensors and have them communicate to an open infrastructure for which you can run your own gateway or trust your neighbour’s gateway. And on top of which your group does their own data crunching.

Community building methods are not empowering if it is only used to purposefully draw you closer to a clothing brand or football club so they can sell your more of their stuff. Where tribalism is used to drive sales. It is empowering if you can, with your own direct environment, use those methods to strengthen local community relationships, learn how to collectively accommodate differences in opinions, needs, strengths and weaknesses, and timely reorient yourself as a group to keep momentum. Dave Winer spoke about working together at State of the Net, and 3 years ago wrote about working together in the context of the open web. To work together there are all kinds of methods, but like community building, those methods aren’t widely known or adopted.

So, what applies to the open web, IndieWeb, I see applies to any technology and method we think help increase the agency of groups in our networked world. More so as technologies and methods often need to be used in tandem. All these tools need to be ‘smaller’ than us, be ours. This is a key element of Networked Agency, next to seeing the group, you and a set of meaningful relationships, as the unit of agency.

Not just IndieWeb. More IndieTech. More IndieMethods.

How would the ‘Generations‘ model of the IndieWeb look if transposed to IndieTech and IndieMethods? What is Selfdogfooding when it comes to methods?

More on this in the coming months I think, and in the runup to ‘Smart Stuff That Matters‘ late August.

Data, especially lots of it, is the feedstock of machine learning and algorithms. And there’s a race on for who will lead in these fields. This gives it a geopolitical dimension, and makes data a key strategic resource of nations. In between the vast data lakes in corporate silos in the US and the national data spaces geared towards data driven authoritarianism like in China, what is the European answer, what is the proposition Europe can make the world? Ethics based AI. “Enlightenment Inside”.

French President Macron announced spending 1.5 billion in the coming years on AI last month. Wired published an interview with Macron. Below is an extended quote of I think key statements.

AI will raise a lot of issues in ethics, in politics, it will question our democracy and our collective preferences……It could totally dismantle our national cohesion and the way we live together. This leads me to the conclusion that this huge technological revolution is in fact a political revolution…..Europe has not exactly the same collective preferences as US or China. If we want to defend our way to deal with privacy, our collective preference for individual freedom versus technological progress, integrity of human beings and human DNA, if you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilization, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution . That’s the condition of having a say in designing and defining the rules of AI. That is one of the main reasons why I want to be part of this revolution and even to be one of its leaders. I want to frame the discussion at a global scale….The key driver should not only be technological progress, but human progress. This is a huge issue. I do believe that Europe is a place where we are able to assert collective preferences and articulate them with universal values.

Macron’s actions are largely based on the report by French MP and Fields Medal winning mathematician Cédric Villani, For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence (PDF)

In a case of synchronicity I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway when I was ill recently, just as Bryan Alexander scheduled it for his near future science fiction reading group. I loved reading the book, and in contrast to some other works of Doctorow the storyline kept working for me until the end.

Bryan amazingly has managed to get Doctorow to participate in a webcast as part of the Future Trends in learning series Bryan hosts. The session is planned for May 16th, and I marked my calendar for it.

In the comments Vanessa Vaile shares two worthwile links. One is an interesting recording from May last year at the New York public library in which Doctorow and Edward Snowden discuss some of the elements and underlying topics and dynamics of the Walkaway novel.

The other is a review in TOR.com, that resonates a lot with me. The reviewer writes how, in contrast with lots of other science fiction that takes one large idea or large change and extrapolates on that, Doctorow takes a number of smaller ideas and smaller changes, and then works out how those might interplay and weave new complexities, where the impact on “manufacturing, politics, the economy, wealth disparity, diversity, privilege, partying, music, sex, beer, drugs, information security, tech bubbles, law, and law enforcement” is all presented in one go.

It seems futuristic, until you realize that all of these things exist today.
….. most of it could start right now, if it’s the world we choose to create.

By not having any one idea jump too far from reality, Walkaway demonstrates how close we are, right now, to enormous promise and imminent peril.

That is precisely the effect reading Walkaway had on me, leading me to think how I could contribute to bringing some of the described effects about. And how some of those things I was/am already trying to create as part of my own work flow and information processes.

One of the things we inherited from the previous owners when we moved into our new home this year was an ‘insect hotel‘ in the garden, mounted on the wall of the shed. The idea is it provides a safe haven for useful insects. I’ve seen bees using it early this year. Our insect hotel is a small thing with a number of bamboo stems lodged into it. In the past months, I frequently found several of those bamboo stems on the ground beneath it, but didn’t know why. Was it wind? Were larger insects pushing the stems out?
Today I finally spotted the reason from my home office window. A great tit pulls out the bamboo stems and sitting on the roof edge of the shed probes the other end of it for resident insects to snack on. Once done, it drops the bamboo stem, for me to find later and wonder how it got there. It’s not an insect hotel, it’s a buffet!

In the past weeks I’ve been part of a team working with a class of 10/11 year olds, as an experiment around increasing agency with 21st century digital skills, under the title Impact through Connection. In this I’m partnering with the NHL (university of applied sciences), and the regional Frisian library BSF, with some funding coming from the Dutch Royal Library as part of their Vision Mediasavviness 2016-2018 program. The experiment centered around helping the group to identify communal issues, situations they would like to change, and then to develop ideas and realize them. So that the group ‘gets’ that with various making and other machines and instruments, they have the agency, have the power, to change their surroundings for themselves as a group.

Since January we’ve been meeting with the school’s team, and then weekly 6 times with the class of 22 children. It was loads of fun, not just for the kids involved. The highest compliment we received was that one of them said “this is more fun than the annual school trip”. Another remarked feeling sorry that all other classes had to work, while they were making stuff. We pointed out that they too were working very hard, but differently, and that having fun does not mean you’re not working.

Yesterday we’ve had the final session, ending with presentations of the things they built (such as phone covers for phone-types that aren’t otherwise available, a way to look under water, a class room MP3 player for audiobooks, games, computer controlled door locks, a candy machine, a robot to counteract bullying, websites documenting the process, and a money system for the school).

Afterwards I returned home and jotted down a list of observations to reflect on. We plan to do a similar experiment with a group of adults from the same neighborhood as the school serves, as well as will aim to replicate it for other school classes.

First, for context, the order of the sessions we did.
Session 1: group discussion about the children’s environment, things they would like to change, ideas for making things they had. Resulted in a ‘wall of ideas’, ordered from ‘looks less hard to do’, to ‘looks harder to do’.
Session 2: getting to know maker machines (3d printers, laser cutters, electronics, etc.), by bringing the machines to the class room, and parking the Frysklab Mobile FabLab out front.
Session 3: getting to know programming (using Micro:bits, all the children got one to keep)
Session 4: Diving deeper in to the idea now they have a notion of what is possible with the machines and material available, using a canvas to think about what the idea solves, whom it is for, what part of the idea to zoom in on, and who in their own social network could help them realize it.
Session 5: building prototypes (again with Frysklab parked outside)
Session 6: building prototypes and presenting results

In non-specific order here are some of the raw observations I made in the past weeks, that we can further elaborate and chew on, to create the next iteration of this experiment.

On the process (time, time time!):

  • The school team school was extremely supportive, and the teacher showed enormous flexibility. She rearranged her normal class schedule extensively to ensure we had more time than we thought possible.
  • The process we designed worked, but we could have spent more time and attention to several parts of it.
  • The process worked in the sense that we got everyone to make things, and have them dive deep beyond the initial magic and wow of 3d-printing and laser cutters
  • We asked them to map out the groups they belonged to, and both their own and their classmate’s skills. We spent too little time to do that properly and to use it fruitfully in the process afterwards
  • We didn’t succeed in our original plan to bring the group to defining one or a few projects that were less person and more group focussed (except for the kid that designed a currency system for the school), and then select parts of that on which individuals or small groups could work. It seems we would need to spend more effort in the run-up to the cycle of sessions to do that properly
  • Working with a pool of people with specific domain knowledge that we could bring in when needed worked very well and strengthened the results
  • I used a canvas to help the group get to better defined projects, and while it worked, the steps in filling the canvas could have been better defined. Now some raced ahead, without key information for the next bits, while I worked with others to take the first few steps
  • The overall process hasn’t become clear to the group as a distinct shape, I think. Although that would enable them to design their own projects on their own (more on that later)
  • Having the children present their work to the group at the end was fun, useful and a good way to bring everything together again

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Two filled out canvases

On our team and the teacher

  • When we look at Making, we see how it is different from what was before, how all of a sudden ‘anyone’ can do things that took specialised machines and factories earlier, and how that changes the dynamics of it all. The children don’t see it that way, because they don’t have that history. Although that history is the source of our own fascination it is not the fascination you can confer to the children, as it is by definition a meaningless comparison to them.
  • Our large pool of people to help out was necessary to be able to provide adequate guidance. Even if adding 5-7 adults to a classroom feels like a lot.
  • More clearly articulating to the group which roles team members help might be helpful (e.g. I don’t know my way around the Frysklab truck, but still got asked a lot by the kids about it. I solved it by saying, I don’t know either, let’s go find out together)
  • The teacher could likely have a more defined role during the sessions (other than trying to keep a semblance of order), maybe also in building the bridges to other parts of the curriculum in the run-up?
  • We had several preparatory meetings with the teacher and others inthe school
  • There’s a lot I can’t do (too little experience with the machines to have internalized all routines, my own thinking is often too little visual and too much textual) It’s partly a pro as well (as it makes it easy for me to led the child lead the thinking proces, as I don’t have answers either)

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At work in the FabLab truck, and 3d printers chugging away

The path the children took

  • Large differences within the group, also in self-image, means very different speeds within the process (‘I don’t think there’s something I am really really good at’)
  • Finding out that the path from your fantasy to making it tangible reality contains disappointments (what is possible, what is realistic within time given, how does a result compare to what you imagined at first), and finding or not finding ways to surmount that disappointment
  • Not everyone was able to visualize from their ideas towards the parts that make up the whole, or different aspects and steps
  • Enormous richness in ideas, but sometimes very narrowly focussed
  • It is very important to build a bridge from the classroom project to at home (“can I take this home” “but this is something I can’t do at home”). Part of the empowerment lies here. (Also as they proudly told and partly mobilized their parents for their ideas as well)
  • They willingly left us their projects so the Frysklab team could show them on a national conference the day after the last session, after promising to return their projects soon

Visible impact and affect during the sessions

  • Really listening to ideas and trying think them through, remembering what they said about it 3 weeks earlier, is a boost in empowerment for the kids in itself
  • Children don’t have as many experience based associations and ‘hooks’ to listen to our stories, so examples are needed
  • Examples from ‘nearby’, such as the kid with a 3d printed hand prosthetic living in the neighbouring province are therefore very valuable. We need to collect many more of them.
  • Such appealing examples may also aid in bringing across the process and thinking model itself better
  • Giving everyone a Micro:bit during the process therefore turned Jeroen into a hero of everyone in the room (loud cheers!)
  • Taking things home is a source of pride
  • Other classes were jealous of this group
  • The group quickly build attachment to the team (where is Ton? Cheers when a team member arrives a bit late)
  • Concepts like ‘prototyping’ are hard, and zooming in on something small and maintaining attention is too

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Some of the created projects

The making itself

  • Robots! At first almost everyone wanted to build robots (to clean their room e.g.)
  • Things for yourself, versus things for the group. As said, before the making we likely need to build a ‘ramp’ towards more communal oriented projects
  • The realization for the chidren that things take time, can be complicated. That it isn’t magic but actual work
  • The dawning notion that programming means cutting everything into tiny ‘stupid’ steps (‘like explaining it to my 3 yr old sibling’)
  • Software is equated to computers and phones. That things that don’t look like computers can be programmed, and that hard- and software are getting merged more and more (cars, IoT, robots) takes time to land
  • Likewise ‘making’ is connected to hardware, objects and software mostly. Creating ‘systems’ or ‘processes’ is a novel concept (except for the currency making project). Challenging systems is like a fish changing the water it swims in.
  • Similarly for most, their actual environment (the street, the neighborhood, city etc, are also like ‘water’ and mostly perceived as immutable. Measuring things in your environment and acting on it was notably absent in the ideas
  • The attention span needed to zoom in on a small part at a deep enough level to be able to apply it is pretty hard to maintain
  • Building websites to document projects is an essential part the children came up with themselves. Needs to become a standard component of the process.

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Presenting results

Other circumstantial elements

  • Searching online for examples and useful material (like code snippets) can be a stronger part of the process (as answer to the frequent question “but how can I do that?”). Means paying attention to searching skills.
  • The mentioned websites can contribute to that by collecting links to resources etc.
  • Data collections didn’t play a role (likely as there were no ‘sensing’ projects), but could be a resource in other iterations
  • E-mail is not available to all children (not allowed to, don’t want to give out their parents e-mail), but often needed to register for online coding and making tools, or to create a website. Providing throw-away e-mails, like I personally do with 33Mail, is something to add to our toolkit.

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Gathering the group for the final group picture

(more pics here in this Dutch language posting by the Frisian library and Frysklab team)

In the coming weeks I will be working with a Dutch school class (group 7, so 10/11 yr olds), in collaboration with the Provincial Library Friesland and their FryskLab team (a mobile FabLab).

Last summer I wrote a series of postings on how I see a path to significantly increase agency for various group in various contexts, if we succeed in lowering the adoption threshold for existing technologies and techniques. Then any group can recombine those technologies and techniques to create a desired impact in their own contexts and environment.

With a little bit of funding from the Dutch Royal Library, the Provincial Library Friesland and me will work with a school class of the Dr. Algraschool and later with people in a neighborhood to put that model to the test.

In collaboration with the NHL, a university for applied sciences, we will use the results of the experiment to propose a follow-up project as part of the NHL’s lectorate on ‘agile craftsmanship’.

The first session is Wednesday, where we will start with the class to discuss the type of things they would like to change or improve around themselves, and what capabilities they feel they themselves and classmates have. In a follow-up session we will combine those ideas and their talents with the facilities of FryskLab, and then work with the children to build their own prototypes, solutions and projects.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time since I worked with primary school kids. Back in 2007 I worked with 12 primary schools to integrate digital literacies in their regular lessons, where we explored what children were already doing online, and how schools could help guide that, and build on it in their lessons. And it will definitely be a pleasure to work with the FryskLab crew (who were such a great addition to our 2014 Make Stuff That Matters birthday unconference)

Frysklab in da house!
The FryskLab mobile FabLab, parked in front of our home, 2014

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

The key points in summary are:

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

Agency by Ton Zylstra

Playing politically on base emotions has consequences. Choice of words has consequences. It does not make the fear mongers and populists directly or criminally responsible, but it does come with moral responsibilities. If you consistently fan emotional flames you do bear moral responsibility for the resulting sparks and ‘singular unconnected’ fires. What British radio host James O’Brien says in the fragment embedded above about the UK, is as much true in Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Austria etc. I share his deep frustration.

The arsonists walk among us pretending to bring common sense and empathy, because “one should be allowed to say this after all, and high-time too”. They don’t go by the names of Schmitz or Eisenring, but it doesn’t take Max Frisch to point them out. The arsonists walk among us pretending it is some mythical Other that will take “what is Ours” and who will burn our house and institutions down. The arsonists walk among us, luring us with reactionary nostalgia for a country and a time that has never existed. It will be those arsonists however that end up setting things alight, not any ‘Other’.

The question is how much of a Herr Biedermann I will be, you will be, we will be, before we learn to send the arsonists packing.

Do we even know anymore how to do that?

The Burning of the houses of Parliament, October 16, 1834 by Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, Oct 16 1834, by J M W Turner. Image by Pete Jelliffe, CC-BY-SA

Yesterday and today I am at the ARAS Community Event Europe in Frankfurt, Germany. The conference brings together people around PLM (product lifecycle management). I was asked to provide the opening keynote. Digital disruption and the new (or rather often not so new) methods we have available to deal with that were the topic of my talk. Starting with Steve Denning’s recent observation that we’re in the Golden Age of Management now as we are setting the scene for what management looks like in the networked age, I talked about the unintended impact of internet and mobile communications, that make a range of existing management methods obsolete if not dangerous. Simultaneously I went into the different emerging instruments and methods that are emerging in response.

Find the slides below.

We spent July camping in France, visiting Southern Brittany, the Atlantic coast mostly, as well as Lyon. One thing that caught my eye was the omnipresence of skulls on fashionable accessories.

I am tempted to see it as an attempt to channel the general discomfort and anxiety that seems to permeate our societies in the face of increased complexity, digital disruption and resulting decline of those structures and systems that previously provided a comforting sense of security. Although I bet Bryan at Infocult, who has been tracking all things gothic in technology already for a long time, has a more articulated view on it.

For what it’s worth, I started calling them Anxiety Accessories: novelty items and fashion items adorned with skulls. A few examples from France in the past month:

Colorful skull adorned shopping bags, at artisanal market on Ile-de-Ré, offered to the many vacationing tourists on the island (in the context of many sailing yachts in the harbor):

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Skull shirt in the local H&M in Lyon, in the racks with easy and cheap summer dresses

Skulls as design element. Sign of anxiety?

Skull watch by Swiss brand Swatch in a jewelry store in Angouleme (Hanging next to last year’s Olympic edition, the games to ‘inspire a generation‘. Also on offer high carate golden skull hangers of course)

Skull as design element. Sign of anxiety?

Skulls used in street art, one example from La Rochelle

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In a Facebook group for freelance journalists where people ask for contacts or for pointers to people to interview, a journalist asks

for a story in a national newspaper I am looking for people who stopped using Air B&B (sic) because of the big negative sides (tourists damaging your stuff, logistics around transferring keys, people not paying)

And gets a spade of responses along the lines “why are you taking a negative approach by default?” and then listing any number of positive experiences.

In the ensuing discussion it becomes clear that the journalist in question has no actual knowledge of how AirBnB works. Such as that every booking is paid up front in full to AirBnB, so people not paying is not possible. Such as that each host is insured for damage through AirBnB itself. Such as that “the reliable sources” he heard negative experiences from should be verifiable at the site itself, since both host and guest have profiles showing their reputation. In short, the journalist didn’t think to spend 5 minutes checking out the AirBnB website, FAQ and his sources stories, but started down the lazy route of collecting a handful of anecdotes from Facebook first.

Also there seemed no realization that even finding a good number of negative stories does not automatically constitute a story unless it concerns a significant portion of overall experiences (because when you do a lot of transactions the chances of something happening quickly increases to 1. Statistics, probability, and all that…) or shows a pattern like AirBnB not living up to its commitments when something does happen. It seemed having negative stories was the news being sought.

Asked the journalist “So I don’t have my facts straight. Is that bad?”

journalists at play
Journalists at Play by Lisa Padilla (CC-BY)

Below is the video of my recent TEDxZwolle talk on why using Open Data is important. (Slides and transcript here)

Open Data is a source of enormous potential both socially and economically.
There is also a much more compelling reason why we need Open Data.

First our global networked society needs openly shared things, such as data. Openness and sharing is what makes networks function. The important bit about Open Data, is the openness.

Second, our networked society also means increased complexity because of all the new connections and myriads of feedback loops. Open Data is useful here to spot patterns, to contextualize your everyday life, to find the stories that are invisible to the singular perspective. Open Data, as it’s available to all, enhances your singular perspective to better grasp the complexity of your world.

Without Open Data we are like ants, without a clue of how our behavior contributes to the complexity of the anthill. With Open Data we can understand the anthill and our role in it better.

Don’t be an ant. Understand the anthill. Use Open Data. Understand your world.

Openness is a consequence of adopting a network metaphor for our societies. It is limited by what facilitates healthy functioning groups and individuals. That’s the balance to strike.

Cognitive Edge Business Network Europe
Vibrant connected network, aka society

Open Everything
There seems to be a conference on Open [Your Fav Topic Here] just about every day somewhere. Open Data, Open Access, Open Economy, Open Design, Open Source, Open Manufacturing, Open Innovation, Open Government, Open Science, Open Knowledge, Open Courseware, Open Corporates, Open Hardware, Open Energy: Open Anything and Open Everything.

For those not easily adapting to change, this is good news: Open is clearly a hype, so it can be ignored without peril, and it can be fought by denouncing it as empty hype.
For those embracing Open, this is also good news as it seems openness is a worthy goal in itself, a panacea, on the brink of going mainstream. Monster killers and monster embracers alike are missing something I think.

To me something more profound is happening on the middle ground between those two extremes.

New infrastructure begets new metaphors
Internet and mobile communications are a pervasive new infrastructure. They connect people, not geographic endpoints (as all other infrastructures do), and do so instantaneous and globally. New infrastructures push their principles as dominant metaphors on other areas. Railroads pushed ‘railroad time‘ upon our daily lives and rhythms. Internet is pushing the network metaphor upon us.

That network metaphor impacts our organizations, work, and our social life. The network metaphor is making itself felt offline just as much as online. It increases complexity through its myriad of newly created pathways and feedback loops, and thus increases the need for resilience of any given node.

Networks necessitate Open
The network metaphor necessitates openness: in a network you must share, you must be visible and responsive, otherwise you don’t exist and you will not be engaged with. Dark nodes in a network, those that don’t share or even announce their presence, are treated as damage in a network. Traffic, i.e. interaction with other nodes, gets routed around them. Dark nodes are simply ignored. To be part of the network a node must share, must allow others to connect and see what it’s doing. If you don’t open up to the world, you don’t exist to others. If you don’t open up, you will not be resilient, you will not be able to deal with increased complexity.

Open is not a hype, it is a prerequisite for, as well as a consequence of, a networked society, induced by our new infrastructure.

Open is not limitless however. It is bounded in order to deal with complexity and by our own humanity.

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Being closed for good reasons.

Openness has limits in complexity
Dealing with complexity is balancing being very open to the world, with maintaining strict boundaries. Lines in the sand, that you don’t allow to be violated without consequences. Bumping into those boundaries will not feel very open at all to those doing the bumping. I am very welcoming to visitors in our home, but you will be made to leave when you don’t respect it is indeed my home. While the network necessitates openness, the resulting complexity of global connectedness necessitates boundaries at the same time. Without setting boundaries a node is fully transparent, which makes it just as invisible to the network as a dark node. It is the difference between Project X and the open invitation to my birthday unconference.

Openness has limits in human group dynamics
In many interactions being shielded from others is needed to get somewhere. If something makes you feel vulnerable (some learning situations, negotiations, idea generation etc come to mind), you can’t deal with it in a very public setting, but need a space in which there’s more privacy. It is a deliberate short reprieve from the social pressures that would otherwise inhibit you in a negative way. Results of that seclusion, or the fact that you are entering such a more closed off space for a while, could very well be open.

Healthy communities of practice can be characterized by the way they deal with rhythms, spaces, evolution, value, excitement vs. feeling secure, internal and external perspectives, and multiple levels of engagement (from lurking to leading and back).

Openness can foster a wider variety of levels of engagement (as that is an aspect of networks), bring diversity of perspectives (idem), bring excitement, better allow evolution by exposure, and create more value for all involved.

Openness however needs to be limited when there’s a need for more opaque and smaller spaces, and to make group members feel secure enough to engage. It needs to be limited where it diminishes value for all involved e.g. when it dissolves a groups cohesion and identity or that of its members.

Openness is the default, to be limited by our human needs
Openness needs to be the default: we live in a networked world and open sharing is what makes networks function. Openness is limited by our humanity, for the health of individuals, groups and communities. That limitation ideally is temporary and clearly demarcated.

Pedro's Play Session
Open and bounded simultaneously: my 2010 birthday unconference