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.

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)

Visited the photo exhibit by Eddo Hartmann on North Korea in the Huis Marseille museum in Amsterdam last week.

What struck me was the similarity with the Eastern block countries in the 1980’s in terms of design looking like it got frozen from the moment that outside influences were banned or blocked. It seems that the price for removing outside influences is reduction of inspiration or creative friction resulting in stagnation of artistic expression (other than those sanctioned)

East Berlin 1987
Friedrichstrasse, East-Berlin in 1987, at least it was busy, even if the design was like the 50’s

Also the contrast between the often inhuman scale of monuments, buildings and roads and the general absence of traffic or crowds. Except maybe for rush-hour on the metro (the exhibit contained some 360 degrees VR videos of that). The emptiness of the photos looks to be confirmed by aerial footage in Google maps, that also shows an absence of traffic and passers-by that doesn’t rhyme with Pyongyang having 3 million or more inhabitants. It reminds me of the emptiness of Second Life a few years back, where the entire environment was built up but no-one was ever there, except during events. Of cities we expect a certain activity level at all times. The whole ‘the city that never sleeps‘ mythology.


Google maps aerial photo of Pyongyang showing mostly empty streets


Elmine exploring some video footage of Pyongyang in VR

Last week was the annual Dutch Design Week. A good reason to visit Eindhoven in the south, which over the past years has turned into a innovation and creativity hub as well as a city renewal hotspot. I’ve visited regularly in the past years and every time you find new endeavours on the crossroads of high-tech, design, art and science, business, and citizen activism. When we were looking for a new place to live we considered Eindhoven because of this palpable elan (we ultimately decided against it due to travel times to other areas). Instead we visit every now and then, e.g. for Dutch Design Week.

We had a pleasant day browsing through various exhibits and expositions, and enjoyed talking to the designers, engineers and craftsmen who created the things on display. For lunch we had pizza from a mobile wood fired oven, outside on a surprisingly mild day.

One of the designers showing their products is Bas Froon, whom we know since our university days. In the past few years, after a decade and a half of business consulting, he went to art academy, and now exhibited a machine he built to create products from a single material (a fiber enhanced plastic fabric) The material is soft and flexible but can become hard and very strong when heated and under pressure. It is for instance used in the automotive industry to make car bumpers. Bas built a cross between a 3d printer and a clothing iron to be able to selectively heat and harden parts of a piece of this fabric, from a digital design. That way you can make a baby carrying sling for instance from a single piece of fabric including all the clasps and fasteners and the cushions for the infant.

Dutch Design Week 2017
Bas Froon’s machine

I got some ideas about temporary furniture for a possible next unconference at home, from a project by a local packaging company challenging designers to come up with other uses for their cardboard.

Dutch Design Week 2017

Also fun to see plenty of Ultimakers in use.

Dutch Design Week 2017 Dutch Design Week 2017
Brabant Living Lab printing soundscapes, 3d representations of noise levels in the exhibition hall.

Dutch Design Week 2017Dutch Design Week 2017
local government involvement, and LoRa enable trashbins

Spotted on a t-shirt:
Dutch Design Week 2017

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

In the past years Elmine and I have visited different cities for a longer time, to experience how it is to live there. For a month, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, we would stay in a city, and work from there, seeking out local entrepreneurs, while also enjoying the local food, coffee, and art on offer. Exposing ourselves to a different environment but not in a touristic capacity, provides inspiration, and generates new insights and ideas. We spent extended stays in Vancouver, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Berlin, Cambridge and Lucca, and are now exploring which city to set up camp in in the summer or fall of 2017. As I did in 2013 I asked around for suggestions, this time on Facebook. I got a long list of responses, which makes filtering and ultimately choosing likely a project in itself.

For us, for a city to qualify as a candidate it needs to be in Europe (as we want to drive there by car, given we are bringing our young daughter plus all the gear that entails), needs to have something to offer in terms of culture, and food, and good places to hang out in, but above all needs to have a few communities around new tech, start-ups, or other topics that we are interested in. This because we want to seek out new conversations and connections (such as when I organized the first Danish Data Drinks in Copenhagen in 2012).

Here are the (over 50!) suggestions we received, on a map:

Or see the list.

A number of weeks ago I read Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide in which he describes his and Edward Snowden’s personal experiences around, as well as the scope and depth of government surveillance disclosed by, the major NSA leak that has been rightly on our front pages for a full year now. What struck me after reading it is the curious gap between the personal impact and sense of enormousness of it all that Greenwald describes, and the blandness with which a lot of the factual material struck me personally. Somehow the emotional response to ‘they see everything’ is missing when you have no real clue as to who ‘they’ are, or what ‘everything’ really means, until e.g. your partner gets stopped at an airport because of it. Which in turn means that it will not trigger a lot of action for lack of short enough feedback loops. Yet, the precise point of leaking actual material and not just describing what is going on, is to trigger such a response.

Witchhunt Snowden
Witch hunt Snowden, part of a ‘walk‘ in Berlin I came across last May

The shocking bits of the NSA story to me are 1) the generic nature of capturing any and all data, 2) that it is mostly about economic advantage and only notionally about national security, 3) the callousness with which the overall internet infrastructure is purposefully weakened for all to gain what can only be a temporary information advantage, 4) the systemic lack of oversight in an opaque-by-design legal framework and a complicit tech-industry. They are shocking however on non-emotional abstract levels.

I can emphatize with the growing sense of excitement, anger and dismay that Snowden and Greenwald describe, but the factual material does not have that same emotional impact on me when it is presented to me, not having made that journey. Mostly because the really important part is of a statistical nature: the NSA is tapping into everything all the time, but that is hard to grasp or translate to my personally felt context. Whereas the singular stories on the NSA’s capabilities that do trigger emotions if I project them on my own situation, are predominantly about situations where someone is specifically targeted, which I’d say is the regular description of espionage and not the thing to be concerned about.

I had the same with several Wikileaks stories, and reading accounts from those that were part of it: if you’re in it, discovering it, building the narrative, it is emotionally way more important and exciting than when you only see the finished result, regardless of the injustice exposed. My wife gets bored easily with my university fraternity stories for much the same reason (as they can’t really be boring, can they?). It is also why the German Chancellor is livid about her own phone being tapped, but not about 85 million German citizens being tapped: the small and personal trumps the enormous but general.

This is not to say I haven’t responded in practice: I have changed my on-line toolset and processes, and stopped using various US based data services such as Dropbox and Amazon’s Elastic Cloud where I was a paying customer, in favor of using European based and owned, alternatives. Those are all rational responses though, and are actually saving me money as well as making me generally safer online even disregarding the surveillance question. While the NSA leaks fed my existing unarticulated uneasiness concerning online security, it was spotting specific steps within my own sphere of influence that led me to act this spring, unrelated to the NSA leaks.

How do you make the abstract a personal emotion that triggers responses? Because responses to the NSA-leaks are certainly needed. How do you make systemic absurdity emotionally tangible? Vonnegut, Kafka, and Orwell come to mind but that type of literary processing is far removed from acting or working change in the here and now. Art can be a powerful way to tap into emotional responses though, and there are likely other ways. More on that in a next posting.

As we are in Berlin this week, we had the opportunity to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibition ‚Evidence’ in the Martin Gropius Bau, just off what used to be Checkpoint C.

We have seen Ai’s work in several places, but never a large collection as this. It helped understand much more of the layers in his work, trying to make sense as well as show the absurdity of the rapid societal changes China has seen in the past few decades, and this being an authoritarian country thus very much blurring the lines between political activism and art.

Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei

The police demolishes your studio, they previously invited you to build to help create an art scene in Shanghai? Turn the bricks and other remnants into a monumental installation and call it ’Souvenir from Shanghai’. Or exhibit the hard drives and usb sticks that were confiscated during a search of your home, with the ‚evidence’ stickers attached to them.

Ai Wei Wei

Want to discuss the shoulder shrugs caused by the destruction of ancient city neighborhoods in favor of new concrete tower blocks? Destroy and spray paint even more ancient vases to cause an uproar and point out the hypocrisy.

Is the government refusing to discuss how corruption that led to bad quality buildings costs thousands of deaths amongst school children during an earthquake? Collect the names yourself, and use 200 tons (!) of concrete reinforcement bars pulled from the rubble as material for your installations, or turn them into marble as a memorial.

Ai Wei Wei Ai Wei Wei

What also very much stood out for me is that the installations we see are merely the endpoint of a long process where the final work’s contours only emerge at the end. They are illogical as a sudden appearance but a logical outcome of the process involved. That process contains investigative journalism, diving into science and history just as much as reflecting on (western) art.

These glimpses of an artist’s process or his studio, the endless trying, the slow slog towards an object, is enormously fascinating to me. We can’t do enough to break the fiction that all the expressions and objects we laud as art are like Athena born ready made from the mind of the artist, but the result of time consuming exploration and hard work.

Thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition both as a window on how this particular artist works, as well as on China, of which we assume much but really know little.

We went to hear an interesting talk by Dutch investigative journalist Brenno de Winter on privacy and related issues this weekend. It is part of a series of privacy related talks and workshops held in our town in this and coming weeks.

To me, as I blogged in 2006 after that year’s Reboot Conference privacy is a gift by the commons to the individual, and not so much an intrinsic individual thing. It allows the individual to be part of the commons, to act in the public sphere. It also means to me that privacy is part of what makes the commons work: withouth a certain expectation of privacy no-one can participate in the commons, resulting in the absence of commons.

privacy in public
Privacy in Public, photo by Susan Sermoneta, CC-BY

That doesn’t mean privacy can do without protection. The commons collapses easily, especially when your information is disconnected from your physical presence, as is usually the case in our digital age. Where the commons collapses, because i.e. the social distance increases, or contexts change or fully drop away, there rules and instruments are needed.

In that light Brenno shared a few notions I wanted to capture and put in this context of the commons:

  • The “If you have nothing to hide, why bother?” argument introduces a false dilemma. It puts the onus on the individual who seeks privacy, and not on whether the other entity complies with existing privacy rules and laws (=a responsible member of the commons). It may also well be what is ok now, will carry dire consequences in the future (e.g. homophobia in Uganda) when the character of the commons changes especially radically.
  • In the Netherlands there are no consequences for disregarding privacy rules around data inside a data-using entity (e.g. staff nosing around in data they have nothing to do with, like doctors looking up medical files from famous patients they are not treating themselves). Others can act as if outside the commons without social scrutiny.
  • Whenever there is a data security breach the data holder is generally portrayed as the victim, and not the people who’s personal data it is, or who are described by the data and who’s expectation of privacy in the commons got damaged. (as well as disregarding the fact that in the EU my personal data at company x is my data.)
  • The Dutch privacy watchdog CBP has 86 staff, compared to 1 million companies and government branches they need to watch. The watch dog has no teeth. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Privacy has weak anchors in Dutch law. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Why are there no (routine) impact assesments of measures that erode privacy in the name of security? If erosion of privacy is to be tolerated, the damage it constitutes to the commons needs to be not just balanced but surpassed by the benefits to the commons on other aspects.
  • All of these points are relevant to the question of how to maintain or extend the commons with rules and instruments, so that the gift of privacy can be given. By making sure the ‘infringing’ party is under similar social pressures to behave. By making sure we maintain a realistic balance when privacy needs to be temporarily eroded for the sake of the commons (that is the source of privacy).

    When privacy breaks down also the commons itself breaks down, as privacy is the pathway and the trust base for taking part in the public sphere.

    I want to redefine my working definition of ‘Making’ and ‘Makers’. To me, seeing making as literally making an object by myself, misses the more fundamental shift of what is going on with ‘making’. It’s time to look at ‘Making’ as a communal process, instead of an individual act to create a solitary object.

    My grand-dad made stuff in his shed all the time. For him making was an individual act. He made something. It was also focussed on a singular object, often a simple hack for a task at hand. He made something.

    If you take that as a definition of making, the ‘maker movement‘ is just about having access to cheaper and better machinery, DIY gone digital. Cool machines for milling, laser cutting and 3d printing, that replace or augment a range of hand tools.
    These machines thanks to digitization and open source hardware are on a path of becoming exponentially cheaper as well as better. But cheap tools do not a movement make.

    As with most things digital, the key new thing is the global high speed connectedness that internet and mobile communications give us. It’s not just having the machines, but having them while being part of a global pool of knowledge, and a global network of people.
    That immensely expands the context of making in several dimensions, away from the solitary objects my grand-dad made.

    This global knowledge pool and network adds three dimensions enormously increasing the potential of ‘making’:

  • The first dimension is that of having access to all knowledge about everything you could make with your machines as well as how to make them (including ‘just-hit-print’ designs). This is still centered around the object, but expands your creativity and hacking skills with those of everyone else. This is what is most commonly understood as maker culture.
  • Second it provides insight and knowledge on how making is so much more than just creating an object. Ideation, experimenting and probing various options, creating it, and then utilizing it in the intended context, all become part of Making. For all those aspects our connectedness can provide input. Understanding this dimension is hugely important, both disruptive innovation theory and start-ups testify.
  • Thirdly it widens the range for which we can make something. Bigger awareness of global issues and how they play out in our local community and context, allows us to come up with different things to make, that help address it. [Think hydro/aquaponics projects in derelict US inner cities]
  • When you put all of those together, ‘making’ is the local expression of global knowledge and awareness, that in turn can serve as a trigger for interaction and change locally.

    Viewed this way, making is a communal process. Communal both in its source of knowledge and inspiration, as well as in the context and rationale of where the stuff you made is put to use. Process, as in the full cycle from awareness of issues, ideation, and creation, all the way to application, impact, and sharing the resulting insights again.

    Seeing making as an individual act towards a solitary object obscures the layered richness making in the digital age is an expression of. A maker is not doing DIY, but a maker becomes a bridge or boundary spanner between his own local community and other wider global communities, as well as becomes a community hacker.

    At ThingsCon in Berlin and 3D Camp in Limerick next month, as well as at our own MidSummer Unconference ‘Make Stuff That Matters’ in June, I will take this perspective of ‘Making as communal process’ as starting point.

    We see and think differently with our hands than with our eyes and heads. Whenever we make something tangible it has the potential to change our perspective.

    This became tangible again for me last December when I participated in Wiro Kuiper’s ‘Lego serious play’ workshop. Handling lego stones, seeing something take shape in your hands, involves a different part of your brain while thinking on questions like “what is it that I do for clients?” as depicted in the pic below. (Add your guess as to what it means in the comments 😉 )

    Lego Serious Play Workshop
    What I do for clients, @ lego serious play workshop

    Since that workshop I have been musing about how ‘making something tangible’ could play a role in more of my work situations. Without much progress.


    Tangible statistics, MAKE.opendata.ch

    Recently we acquired a 3D printer at home. Previously I have encountered 3d printing ear hangers from visualized statistics based on open data (shown above), and I discussed that idea with Elmine. She, for a little side project of her, printed the two items below.

    tangible statsElmine’s 3d printed statistics

    They are both printed statistics: the small one is the number of Germans in the Dutch border region, and the bigger one the number of Dutch in the German border region (data source). Each by itself does not mean much to me. But in combination they are very interesting again: they make differences in amount tangible. You can feel the difference when you take the objects in your hands. Tangible infographics as it were.

    Where could I apply that? And also, how to overcome my reluctance to make things tangible like this early / quickly as part of my own exploration (I tend to keep everything in text or in my head)?

    Last week Thursday the one day workshop ‘Hack die Bildung‘ (Hacking Education) took place in Berlin. For a general description read the previous posting. This posting describes the theme I introduced as ‘host’ during the speed geeking rounds: beyond text and books. Explaining it all in the previous posting would have taken too much text 🙂
    I pointed to 2 developments I think are impacting the way we (can) deal with lineair ways of information distribution like text documents and books.
    First of all the amount of available information that comes at us (due to increased connectivity and resulting dynamics), which makes pattern recognition over large bodies of info more important than actual reading all that info. Headline scanning on steroids. Already 4 years ago I described how that has changed my daily info-diet routine
    (filtering, tools, input routine). It means that most of my outside-in information reading has moved beyond books and longer texts (I don’t read books as primary source e.g. but follow the authors), and that only inside-out information consumption still contains a largish text focus. This because filtering information, validating it, etc now all completely falls to me as tasks (not to some editor e.g.), and I have to be very picky when it comes to giving attention to a larger body of text. Even though I still regard my self as a through and through text oriented person, and our home is filled with books.
    The second observation I shared was the notion that lineair texts are by definition very ill-suited to convey complex situations and problem descriptions, while the level of complexity in our societies is increasing (again due to increased connectivity and the resulting dynamics of that). I think it is that limitation what makes literature so great and fun, following all the complex storylines and interactions through the detailed description of the life of the protagonists. We intuit life’s complexity more from that than it is actually spelled out, and we enjoy grasping at what we intuit between the lines. At the same time we now realize it makes for a crappy information carrier for complex situations. What is great and fun for literature, is a bug for other texts.
    Also where book printing was first the start of a new era of abundance, it has now become a place of scarcity as our general level of connectedness has increased so much bringing new demands to the speed, availability and interdependence of information flows.

    If books were invented now, excerpt from Dutch VPRO documentary De Toekomst – Game over & over’ with Steven Johnson, january 2006.
    Hence the increasing availability of tools like Tinderbox that help you first to map out complexity, and then turn portions of it into lineair texts for publishing. (Regular mind mapping tools don’t suffice, as they still only allow you to build hierarchical structures from a single starting node.) Hence the interest in visualization techniques, which often yield new insights.
    Hence the popularity of piling strategies (Gmail, everything in one folder) versus filing
    strategies (Outlook folders). Video, audio are both ways to escape the lineair demands of texts as well. Audio has always been a medium of choice for complex pattern conveyance, which we usually call music. Try writing that down in prose. We’ve also been saying ‘a picture is worth more than a thousand words’ for ages. Cliches like that have a reason for existing. The number of tools that have lowered the threshold for us to create and share both video and audio material is large. See Videoboo or audioboo just for one example. This regardless of problems we have in retreiving/refinding/searching material like that, I am now talking about conveying complex messages.
    Games are another segment where we’ve made great progress in escaping the linearity of texts. Whether it is the gaming environments the military use to train troops in adaptive responses to a complex area of deployment, or whether it is for us to learn the consequences of the laws of nature like with Phun. Things like that convey the subtle interactions and chains of causality much more clearly than my physics book ever could (though I must say the teacher compensated that with experiments)

    This posting is part of ‘Blog Action Day’ on Climate Change.
    We always, I think, ‘cheated’ to grow/progress by adding stuff from ‘outside’ to our societies/economies that we otherwise treated as a closed system: serfdom, conquering, colonization, the new world, slavery, coal and oil, to name a few.
    Now everything is connected, we’re all in the same global complexopolis (I just made that word up), and there’s no ‘outside’ the system anymore to cheat with. (Except for credit-based money creation, which went bust recently as well). So we’re locked into a closed system. All of us, all 6.5 billion and counting.

    P1000759.JPG

    Climate change is just one of the elements in that mix: the result of us cheating the system by digging up coal and oil and adding them to the carbon cycle again. It concerns a number of other greenhouse-causing gases, and it concerns all of our resources, phosphates, metals, carbons, you name it. CO2 is just the current poster child of choice.
    And we’re only half waking up to the fact that we’ve closed each and every loop in the system now. Back to where other species have spent their entire existence, inside their fixed niches in the ecosystem.
    I have no clue how to ‘fix’ it, I assume there is no easy fix nor a quick one. It will need an overhaul of most of our ways of doing things. How I as an individual can contribute to that, I don’t know. I’m more or less in the same spot Peter is in. Rationally I’m on board but the difference engine that is my brain is largely indifferent still, just worried in a diffused kind of way.

    Lighthouse on Hiddensee

    Of course there are things an individual can do, buy local, consume less, avoid flying, use public transport in stead of my car, donate boat paint, go favela chic. But does it really make a difference? Am I better at it than my dead great grandfather? Can you really get to e.g. the 80% CO2 reduction that is required of us Westerners if you stick to a 2 degree average rise in global temperature, while giving other nations a chance of reaching our levels of well being (which is the moral choice to make here)? Which brings us to ‘cap and converge’ (not to be confused with cap and trade), cap CO2, know that all resources are capped as well, and converge to a more or less equal ‘budget’ for all world citizens. Will that be achievable, without yielding to a type of hair shirt green eco-fascism, which my green primary school teacher already warned me about when I was 11 in 1981? I find I lack data, and our societies processes lack the transparency to make an informed judgment.

    Lunch break conversations

    This is not a doom and gloom posting, far from it. It’s just that for now I am merely holding questions, and wondering what ‘working on things that matter’ should mean for me right now. What questions are you holding?
    (pics: random people going about their lifes, and enjoying themselves)