Category Archives: Digital disruption

New Experiment: Working on Agency in a School Class

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

On Agency pt. 2: The Elements of Networked Agency

Earlier this year I wrote a 1st posting of 3 about Agency, and I started with describing how a key affordance is the distributedness that internet and digitisation brings. A key affordance we don’t really fully use or realize yet.
I am convinced that embracing distributed technology and distributed methods and processes allows for an enormous increase in agency. A slightly different agency though: networked agency.

Lack of agency as poverty and powerlesness
Many people currently feel deprived of agency or even powerless in the face of the fall-out of issues originating in systems or institutions over which they have no influence. Things like the financial system and pensions, climate change impact, affordable urban housing, technology pushing the less skilled out of jobs etc. Many vaguely feel there are many things wrong or close to failing, but without an apparant personal path of action in the face of it.

In response to this feeling of being powerless or without any options to act, there is fertile ground for reactionary and populist movements, that promise a lot but are as always incapable of delivering at best and a downright con or powerplay at worst. Lashing out that way at least brings a temporary emotional relief, but beyond that is only making things worse.

In that sense creating agency is the primary radical political standpoint one can take.
Lack of agency I view as a form of poverty. It has never been easier to create contacts outside of your regular environment, it has never been easier to tap into knowledge from elsewhere. There are all kinds of technologies, initiatives and emerging groups that can provide new agency, based on those new connections and knowledge resources. But they’re often invisible, have a barrier to entry, or don’t know how to scale. It means that many suffering from agency poverty actually have a variety of options at their fingertips, but without realizing it, or without the resources (albeit time, tools, or money) to embrace it. That makes us poor, and poor people make poor choices, because other pathways are unattainable. We’re thirsty for agency, and luckily that agency is within our grasp.

Agency in the networked age is different in two ways
The agency within our grasp is however slightly different in two ways from what I think agency looked like before.

Different in what the relevant unit of agency is
The first way in which it is different is what the relevant unit of agency is.
Agency in our networked age, enabling us to confront the complexity of the issues we face, isn’t just individual agency, nor does it mean mass political mobilisation to change our institutions. Agency in a distributed and networked complex world comes from the combination of individuals and the social contexts and groupings they are part of, their meaningful relations in a context.

It sees both groups and small scale networks as well as each individual that is a node in them as the relevant units to look at. Individuals can’t address complexity, mass movements can’t address it either. But you and I within the context of our meaningful relationships around us can. Not: how can I improve my quality of life? Not: how can I change city government to improve my neighborhood? But: what can I do with my neighbours to improve my neighborhood, and through that my own quality of life?
There are many contexts imaginable where this notion of me & my relevant group simultaneously as the appropiate unit of scale to look at agency exists:

  • Me and my colleagues, me and my team
  • Me and my remote colleagues
  • Me on my street, on my block
  • Me in my part of town
  • Me and the association I am a member of
  • Me and the local exchange trading group
  • Me and my production coop
  • Me and my trading or buying coop
  • Me and my peer network(s)
  • Me and my coworking space
  • Me in an event space
  • Me and my home
  • Me in my car on the road
  • Me traveling multi-modal
  • Me and my communities of interest
  • Me and my nuclear family
  • Me and my extended (geographically distributed) family
  • Me and my dearest
  • Me and my closest friends

agency comes from both the individual and immediate group level (photo JD Hancock, CC-BY)

For each of these social contexts you can think about which impact on which issues is of value, what can be done to create that impact in a way that is ‘local’ to you and the specific social context concerned.

Different in how agency is constituted based on type of impact
Impact can come in different shades and varieties, and that is the second way in which my working definition of agency is different. Impact can be the result of striking power, where you and your social context create something constructively. Impact can take the form of resilience, where you and your social context find ways to mitigate the fall-out of events or emergencies propagating from beyond that social context. Impact can be agility, where you and your social context are able to detect, assess and anticipate emerging change and respond to it.

So agency becomes the aggregate of striking power, resilience and agility that you and your social context individually and collectively can deliver to yourself, by making use of the potential that distributedness and being networked creates.
Whether that is to strengthen local community, acting locally on global concerns, increasing resilience, leverage and share group assets, cooperatively create infrastructure, create mutual support structures, scaffold new systems, shield against broken or failing systems, in short build your own distributed and networked living.

Designing for agency
For each of those contexts and desired impacts you can think about and design the (virtual and real) spaces you need to create, the value you seek, the levels of engagement you can/should accommodate, the balancing of safety and excitement you desire, the balance you need between local network density and long distance connections for exposure to other knowledge and perspectives, the ways you want to increase the likelihood of serendipity or make space for multiple parallel experimenting, the way you deal with evolution in the social context concerned, and the rhythms you keep and facilitate.

The tools that enable agency
To be able to organize and mobilise for this, we need to tap into two types of enabling technology, that help us embrace the distributedness and connectedness I described in part 1. The ‘techie’ technology, which is comprised of hard- and software tools, and the ‘soft’ technology which consists of social processes, methods and attitudes.
What types of technologies fit that description, and what those technologies need to be like to have low enough adoption thresholds to be conducive to increased agency, is the topic of part 3.

Building an IoT Infrastructure for My City

Earlier this year a group of Internet of Things enthusiasts in a month or so launched an open communication infrastructure across the entire city of Amsterdam, enabling anyone to let their IoT devices communicate. Without the need for 4G, Wifi or BT connections, it uses LoRaWan, which allows low bandwith but long range traffic, at low energy usage levels. They call it The Things Network.

Currently The Things Network is running a Kickstarter campaign to bring LoRaWan devices into the hands of more people, and thus create IoT infrastructure in more cities. The gateways on offer cost about 20% of what similar devices cost, and this is a great opportunity to implement a solid city wide infrastructure at very low cost. With an old fraternity friend, Ian Kennedy, we are now looking to create such an infrastructure for my hometown Enschede.

The Things Network from Soda Content on Vimeo.

Enschede is a town of about 160.000 people, and covering the city will require 3 or 4 gateways, to which nodes and devices can connect to communicate. Both Ian and I ordered a gateway through the Kickstarter campaign, and are now looking to connect to more people locally with an interest in IoT. Ideally one or two others will also fund a gateway, ensuring city wide coverage. The coverage between the two of us is shown in the image at the top, and as you can see especially the southern suburbs still need coverage. We will likely also reach out to companies and the city government to see who else is interested in experimenting with this new infrastructure. As delivery of the devices is scheduled for late spring next year, still a long time away, we have plenty of time to get the ball rolling before that.

Interested in making Enschede IoT ready? Join the newly created mailing list Things Enschede (running on my own mail server), and/or help create the infrastructure by adding hardware through the TheThingsNetwork Kickstarter campaign. We will aim to organize a meet-up in November to get local conversations going.

If there are a few others willing to join us, we will certainly add Enschede to the growing list of cities in the The Things Network community. UPDATE: Others are indeed also active, and have been arranging gateways too. That ensures we will have enough hardware to get city wide coverage up and running. Meanwhile a local Enschede community page has been opened, but not yet filled.

Estonian E-Residency Granted

Ten days after I applied for e-residency in Estonia, I tonight received a message from the Estonian police and border guard that my e-residency has been granted. That is much quicker than I had expected. So now I will be waiting to hear when my Estonian ID card has arrived at the embassy in The Hague, so I can pick it up!

eidok
The e-mail saying e-residency has been granted

See my earlier posting “I applied for Estonian e-residency” for more info on why it is important, what it is, and how it works.

After 6 years in prison, how internet has changed

In 2008 Hossein Derakhshan (nick: Hoder) went to prison in Iran on a 19.5 year sentence for blogging. I met him once in Vienna in 2003 where he spoke about the emerging Iranian blogosphere, and the guide he wrote for Iranian bloggers to get started. Over the years he became known as the Iranian ‘blogfather’.

He was pardoned late last year and after 6 years of being locked up and not having internet access he returns to find the ‘net changed. When he went behind bars, blogging was a phenomenon, now it’s the FB’s of this world that set the tone.

“Writing online hasn’t changed much per se, but reading, and the process to get to be read has”. Hyperlinking to eachother to weave a conversation has been taken over by an algorithm creating your timeline for you. Hyperlinking as social currency has disappeared, and if you’re not shown in the timeline, your writings don’t exist.

He sees a change to the visual too. “The Internet-book has become the internet-tv.” Facebook “is not the future of the web, it’s the future of the tv.” “A great loss in terms of intellectual potential and diversity.”

All has become entertainment “up to the point where Iran doesn’t even feel the need to block some social networking sites anymore.”

Update: I see the French article I link to at the top derives from a Medium longread by Hoder himself. Read it in full “The Web We Have To Save

No Place to Hide and Our Apathy

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.

What the Internet of Things Is (Not)

Another element I want to highlight from the ThingsCon opening keynote by Alex Deschamps-Sonsino (Designswarm), is her discussion of what the internet of things (IoT) is and is not.

Of course the internet of things, just like any other technology is only a novel and separate subject by itself as long as it is the exception and not mainstream. Right now we are simply somewhere on the continuum between early human computer interaction and normal regular life. At the singularity point, or perhaps better, the vanishing point, an everyday object will ‚simply’ be smart, and we’ll just get on with it.

the continuum to normal life
slide from the keynote

This autonomy and smartness in everyday objects where it is relevant, does not equate automation, nor only smartness. It also means playing well with others (objects / interfaces / people, through APIs), and it means being connected to the internet as the underlying substrate, so it can become a grid or platform of objects and can be built upon.

One of the slides is shown below as a handy comparison chart.

Smart vs Connected

On Privacy and the Commons

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.

    Making as a Communal Process vs Individual Act

    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.

    An Exercise In Freedom of Information: Local Spending Data

    I have approached all 25 municipalities in my province with a freedom of information (foia) request for local spending data. This is a little side project that serves two purposes:

  • Bringing together spending data for the entire region
  • Establishing the FOIA readiness and processes of municipalities
  • Where does my money go
    Where does my money go? The first financial transparency open data project.

    OpenSpending: getting local spending data
    The main trigger for this is the OpenSpending project which exists as a global project, but also has a separate national Dutch clone at openspending.nl by the Open State Foundation. All Dutch municipalities report their spending and revenue in a fixed format, called IV3, to the Dutch Statistics Office CBS on a quarterly basis. If this data would be available for all municipalities, it would enable great comparison opportunities. Right now, only the data for the city of Amsterdam is available.

    So last October I did a FOIA request in my home town Enschede, to get the spending data, and promptly received it within a week. That data is now findable through the Enschede city data portal. Now that openspending.nl announced it is ready for more data, I decided to try and get some for my entire region. Last Monday I sent out 24 FOIA requests to municipalities in my province for their IV3 files.

    FOIA readiness and process assessment
    Now that I have send out 24 identical FOIA requests for spending data, and have the original one as benchmark, this provides good opportunity to compare the way municipalities deal with FOIA requests. So that provides the second purpose of this exercise.

    I will track the progress of my 24 FOIA requests, and document the results. Thusfar 5 out of 24 have let me know their digital communication path is closed for FOIA, so I have posted letters to those. One (1) municipality quickly confirmed my request, properly recognizing it as a FOIA request and stating it had been forwarded to the right person internally, a handful of others automatically confirmed reception of my e-mail.