Tag Archives: agency

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

Koppelting – Session on Leaving Gmail

This weekend the grassroots FabLab conference ‘Koppelting‘ is taking place in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Together with Dirk van Vreeswijk I’ll be doing a session this morning on how to leave Gmail and other walled gardens.

In this session I try to summarize the way I constructed my path out of Gmail in such a manner that it becomes a guide that may enable others to act for themselves. The talk explains why I wanted to leave Gmail, how I finally found a way, and what the replacement solution(s) are I now use. It ends with a ‘recipe’, based on how I found a way out of Gmail, to help you think about what keeps you in your own walled gardens, so it becomes easier to explore alternatives.

Outline and slides
Setting the scene:

  • Using gmail since July 2004
  • 250.000 conversations, across 770.000 messages. 21GB total.
  • 12 years the central hub for all my personal and work e-mail

Why I wanted to leave

  • In part: everything was on US servers
  • In part: because Google with my Gmail and all other data has a very extensive profile of me
  • But most of all: Gmail was a single point of failure. Losing access would mean losing everything concerning mail communications

How I left Gmail

  • From early 2014 started seriously considering it
  • Getting to action was hard as it is extremely easy to use what you have, to stick in your routine. Ease of use keeps you locked in
  • Finding “The Alternative” seemed impossible. Until I thought about the specific aspects that made Gmail so easy for me
    • Multiple addresses into 1 inbox
    • Cross device availability
    • Great filtering and tagging
    • A generic mail address as throw away mail
    • Spam filtering
    • Large free storage space
    • Great search
  • Two core things stood out after making the list
    1. GMail makes it easy to be lazy (piling not filing). I needed to treat myself to a better process: spend a few seconds now (delete, file, delegate), to save more time on search later
    2. What made Gmail great to me in 2004, is now widely available functionality and technology

What I have now
This is described in more detail in my earlier posting that triggered this session. For each item that made Gmail attractive to me I searched for an alternative. Recombining them into a new workflow is a viable alternative for my Gmail usage as a whole. Apart from the technology replacements, key part is up front contemplation and more continuous reflection on my working process. I’m a piler, not a filer, but adding a few seconds during e-mail triage to at least decide putting it in a pile that is not my Inbox, makes all the difference.

The slides are available in PDF on this site, and will be embedded below (currently upload is failing).

Leaving a walled garden planning aid
Although the path for me leaving Gmail took quite a bit of time, I think the journey can be abstracted into a recipe to make it easier to spot your own path out of a walled garden (Gmail, Dropbox, etc.)
The basic steps are:

  1. Pick the walled garden you want to leave
  2. List all the things that make it so convenient for you
  3. Reflect on what that list tells you, about your process and your tools
  4. Find replacements for each element, then recombine them into your new workflow
  5. Share what you found and did, so it is easier for others to follow in your footsteps

The outline and collaborative notes from the session are online on one of the etherpads of the Koppelting conference.

About Koppelting
Koppel is an old Dutch word for communal fields, Ting a Germanic word for a meeting of the free. Organized by the Amersfoort FabLab, a fully opensourced bootstrapped FabLab, Koppelting is the annual grassroots festival about peer production and free/libre alternatives for society.

Germanische-ratsversammlung_1-1250x715Germanic Ting, after the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, public domain

The Evolution and Role of My Agency Postings: Finding My Unifier

I finally wrote down the full overview of how I look at agency in our networked world, and the role of distributed technology in it, in the past weeks (part 1, part 2, part 3). It had been a long time coming. Here is a brief overview of its origins, and why it matters to me.

I previously (in the past 18-24 months) wrote down parts of it in rants I shared with others, and as a Manifesto that I wrote in January 2015 to see if I could start a hardware oriented venture with several others. I rewrote it for draft research project proposals (the image below resulted from that in June 2015) that ultimately weren’t submitted, and as a project proposal that resulted in the experiment we will start in the fall to see if we can turn it into a design method, which in itself will become an agency-inducing tool.

But the deeper origins are older, and suffused with everything I over time absorbed from my blogging network and the (un-)conference visits where those bloggers met, such as Reboot in Copenhagen. The first story I created around this was my 2008 presentation at Reboot 10, where I formulated my then thoughts on the type of attitudes, skills and tools we need in the networked age.
There I placed the new networked technology in the context of the social structures it is used in (and compared that to what came before) and what it means for people’s attitudes and skills to be able to use it in response to increased complexity. The bridge between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technology I mention in the three blogpostings on Agency, originates there.

The second story is my closing keynote speech at the SHiFT conference in Lisbon in 2010 (where we had to stay on a week because of the Icelandic ash cloud closing down European airspace). I blogged the submitted talk proposal, and video and slides are also available. There I talked about doing things yourself as a literacy (where literacy in the Howard Rheingold sense implies not just a skill but deploying that skill in the context of a community for it to be valuable), on the back of internet as our new infrastructure (an echo of Reboot 2008). I suggested that that socially embedded DIY was not just empowering in itself, but very necessary to deal with a complex networked world. Not just to be able to create value for yourself, but to be resilient in the face of ‘small world syndrom’ (the global networks finally making visible we live on a finite world) and cascading failures that propagate at the speed of light over our networks exposing us to things we would previously be buffered from or would have time to prepare for. I proposed the term Maker Households as the unit where DIY literacy (i.e. skills plus community) and local resilience meet, to create a new abundance based on the technical tools and methods that the networked world brings us. I was much more optimistic then how those tools and methods had already lowered the barrier to entry and merely pointed to the need to better learn to apply what is already there. I called upon the audience to use their skills and tools in the context of community, with the Maker Household as its local unit of expression. From those local units, a new global economy could grow (as the root meaning of the word economy is household).

Since then these notions have been on my mind daily but usually absorbed into every day work. I registered the domain name makerhouseholds.eu with the intention of writing up my SHiFT talk into an e-book, but never sat down to do it and let everyday life get in its way. Over time I became ever more convinced of the importance of these notions, as incumbent institutions started to crumble more and general discontent kept rising. At the same time I more strongly realized that the needed technology was failing to create more agency beyond a circle of power-users, and where broad adoption was taking place it was because key affordances were being dropped in favor of ease of use and ease of business models. Especially when I in 2014 started to explore how to make myself less dependent on tools that were providing convenience, but at the cost of exposing myself to single points of failure in what should be networked and distributed, and realized how much work it is to make the tools work for you (like maintaining your own server, or leaving Gmail). That triggered the ranting I mentioned, solidifying my conviction that Maker Households should be about packaging technology in ways that make it easy for people to increase their agency, without compromising their resilience.

Personal importance: Agency as unifier
Why this long overview? Because it seems it led me to finally finding ways to express what unifies my work of the past almost 20 years. As a kid I felt everything was connected, although everyone seemed to want put everything into discreet boxes. Internet and digitization made the connectedness all true, and I’ve been fascinated with the potential and consequences of that ever since I first went online in 1989, over 25 years ago. That unifier has however been elusive to me, even as all my work has always been about making it possible for others to better understand their situation and by using technology more purposefully act together with their peers based on their own perceptions of needs and wants. That was what drove me towards the change management side of introducing technology in groups and organizations, what drives my interest in dealing with complexity, informal learning networks, and the empowering aspects of various internet- and digitisation driven technologies such as social media, digital maker machines, and open data. That unifier has been elusive to my clients and peers often as well. I regularly have people call me saying something like “I don’t understand what it is you do, but whenever I search for things I think might help, your name comes up, so I thought I’d better call you.” Increasing agency as a unifier, from which different areas of expressing that flow, may put that confusion to rest.

Agency, as unifier, also makes the ‘menu’ below the way for me to explore additional fields and activities.

Agency by Ton Zylstra

On Agency Pt 3: Technology Needs for Increased Agency

This is the last of three postings about how I see agency in our networked era.
In part 1 I discussed how embracing the distributedness that is the core design feature of the internet needs to be an engine for agency. In part 2 I discussed how agency in the networked era is about both the individual and the immediate group she’s part of in the various contexts those groups exist, and consists of striking power, resilience and agility. In this third part I will discuss what we need to demand from our technology.

My perception of agency more or less provides the design brief for the technology that can support it.

Agency as the design brief for technology
If distributed networks are the leading metaphor for agency, then technology needs to be like that too.

If agency is located in both the individual and the social context of an immediate group the individual is functioning in for a given purpose, then technology needs to be able to support both the individual and group level, and must be trustworthy at that level.

If agency consists of local striking power, resilience, and agility, then technology must be able to take in global knowledge and perspective, but also be independently usable, and locally deployable, as well as socially replicable.

If technology isn’t really distributed, than at least it should be easy to avoid it becoming a single point of failure for your and your groups use case.

Two types of tech to consider
This applies to two forms of technology. The ‘hard’ technology, hardware and software, the stuff we usually call technology. But also the ‘soft’ technology, the way we organize ourselves, the methods we use, the attitudes we adopt.

Technology should be ‘smaller’ than us
My mental shorthand for this is that the technology must be smaller than us, if it is to provide us with agency that isn’t ultimately depending on the benevolence of some central point of authority or circumstances we cannot influence. In 2002 I described the power of social media (blogs, wiki’s etc.), when they emerged and became the backbone for me and my peer network, in exactly those terms: publishing, sharing and connecting between publishers became ‘smaller’ than us, so we could all be publishers. We could run our own outlet, and have distributed conversations over it. Over time our blog or rather our writing was supplanted, by larger blogging platforms, and by the likes of Facebook. This makes social media ‘bigger than us’ again. We don’t decide what FB shows us, breaking out of your own bubble (vital in healthy networks) becomes harder because sharing is based on pre-existing ‘friendships’ and discoverability has been removed. The erosion has been slow, but very visible, not only if you were disconnected from it for 6 years.

  • Smaller than us means it is easy enough to understand how to use the technology and has the possibility to tinker with it.
  • Smaller than us means it is cheap (in terms of time, money and effort) to deploy and to replace.
  • Smaller than us means it is as much within the scope of control/sphere of trust of the user group as possible (either you control your tools, or your node and participation in a much wider distributed whole).
  • Smaller than us means it can be deployed limited to the user group, while tapping into the global network if/when needed or valuable.

Striking power comes from the ease of understanding how to use technology in your group, the ability to tinker with it, to cheaply deploy it, and to trust or control it.
Resilience comes from being able to deploy it limited to the user group, even if the wider whole falls down temporarily, and easily replace the technology when it fails you, as well as from knowing the exact scope of your trust or control and reducing dependancy based on that.
Agility comes from being able to use the technology to keep in touch with the global network, and easily alter (tinker), replace or upgrade your technology.

Technology needs an upgrade
Most of the technology that could provide us with new agency however falls short of those demands, so currently doesn’t.

It is mostly not distributed but often centralized, or at best ‘hubs and spokes’ in nature, which introduces trust and control issues and single points of failure. Bitcoins ultimate centralization of the needed computing power in Chinese clusters is one, Facebooks full control over what it shows you is another.

It is often not easy to use or deploy, requiring strong skill sets even when it is cheap to buy or even freely available. To use Liquid Feedback decision making software for instance, you need unix admin skills to run it. To use cheap computing and sensing/actuating hardware like Arduino, you need both software and electronics skills. Technology might also still be expensive to many.

Technologies are often currently deployed either as a global thing (Facebook), or as a local thing (your local school’s activity board), where for agency local with the ability to tap into the global is key (this is part of true distributedness), as well as the ability to build the global out of the many local instances (like mesh networks, or The Things Network). Mimicking the local inside the centralized global is not good enough (your local school’s closed page on FB). We also need much more ability to make distinctions between local and global in the social sense, between social contexts.

There are many promising technologies out there, but we have to improve on them. Things need to be truly distributed whenever possible, allowing local independence inside global interdependence. Deploying something for a given individual/group and a given use needs to be plug and play, and packaging it like that will allow new demographics to adopt it.

The types of technology I apply this to
Like I said I apply this to both ‘hard’ tech, and ‘soft’ tech. But all are technologies that are currently not accessible enough and underused, but could provide agency on a much wider scale with some tweaks. Together they can provide the agency that broad swathes of people seem to crave, if only they could see what is possible just beyond their fingertips.

The ‘hard’ technologies where barriers need to come further down I am thinking about are:

  • Low cost open source hardware
  • Digital making
  • Low cost computing (devices or hosted)
  • (open) data and data-analysis
  • IoT (sensors and actuators)
  • Mesh networking
  • Algorithms
  • Machine learning
  • Blockchain
  • Energy production
  • Agrotech
  • Biotech

The ‘soft’ technologies where barriers need to come further down I am thinking about are:

  • Peer organizing, organisational structures
  • Peer sourcing
  • Open knowledge
  • Iterative processes and probing design
  • Social media / media production
  • Community building practices
  • Networked (mental) models
  • Workflow and decision making tools
  • Community currencies / exchanges
  • Hacking ethics
  • Ethics by design / Individual rights

Putting it all together gives us the design challenge
Putting the list of social contexts (Agency pt 2) alongside the lists of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ techs, and the areas of impact these techs create agency towards, and taking distributedness (Agency pt 1) and reduced barriers as prerequisites, gives us a menu from which we can select combinations to work on.
If we take a specific combination of individuals in a social context, and we combine one or more ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technologies while bringing barriers down, what specific impact can the group in that context create for themselves? This is the design challenge we can now give ourselves.

In the coming months, as an experiment, with a provincial library and a local FabLab, we will explore putting this into practice. With groups of neighbours in a selected city we will collect specific issues they want to address but don’t currently see the means to (using a bare bones form of participatory narrative inquiry). Together we will work to lower the barriers to technology that allows the group to act on an issue they select from that collection. A separate experiment doing the same with a primary school class is planned as well.

Agency by Ton ZylstraAgency map, click to enlarge

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.

Data Sovereignty as Prerequisite for Open Data Agency

As we are living in a networked world, increasingly government bodies execute their tasks while collaborating in networks of various other stakeholders. This also happens when it comes to collecting, providing or working with data as part of public tasks. One of the potential detrimental side effects is that it quickly becomes unclear who can decide to open such data up. Or whether a government entity, who wants to publish data as part of a policy intervention, still feels able to do so. This ability to decide over your own data, I call data sovereignty. I think without proper attention, the data sovereignty of public institutions is under pressure in collaborative situations and a threat to the freedom of public entities to decide and act on their own open data efforts. This is especially problematic where the lack of data sovereignty hinders public entities in deploying open data as a policy instrument.

I have just completed an inventory of the data sets that a Dutch province holds and the visible erosion of data sovereignty was the main unexpected outcome for me.
This erosion takes different shapes. Here are a few examples of it, encountered in the Province I mentioned:

  • Data collection on businesses locations and the number of people they employ (to track employment per municipality per sector) is being pooled by all provinces (as a national level data set is more useful). The pooling takes place in a separate legal entity. It is unclear if this entity still falls under FOIA and re-use regulations. This entity also exploits the data by selling it. Logical at the organisational level perhaps, but illogical in comparison with the provincial public task (and maybe not even legal under the Re-Use law). Opening up the data needs to be done through that new entity, meaning not just convincing yourself, but all other provinces as well as the entity who has commercial interest in not being convinced. The slowest will thus set the speed.
  • Data collection on traffic flows, collected by the Province, is stored directly in a national data warehouse (NDW). Again pooling data makes it more useful, but the Province cannot store cleaned data there (anomalies filtered out, pattern changes explained etc.), so always needs to redo that cleaning and filtering whenever they want to work or access their own data. Although the publicly owned NDW now publishes open data, until recently they saw themselves as a commercial outfit, adverse to the notion of open data.
  • Data collection on bicycle traffic, done by the Province, is stored in the online database of a French service provider active in the entire EU. Ownership of the data is unclear. The Province only accesses the data through the French website. If a FOIA request came, it would be unclear if providing the data runs counter to any rights the service provider is claiming.
  • Data collection on the prevalence of bird species is being collected in collaboration with nature preservation groups and large numbers of volunteers. The Province pays for the data collection, but the nature preservation groups claim their volunteers (by virtue of their voluntary efforts) are the rightful owners of the data. Without seeking internal legal advice, the discussion remains unsolved and stalls.

None of these situations are unsolvable, all of them can get a definitive answer. The issue however is that nobody is clearly in a position, or has the explicit role to make sure such an definitive answer gets formulated. Because of that, uncertainties remain, which easily leads to inaction. If and when the Province wants to act to open data up, it therefore easily runs into all kinds of questions that will slow action down, or ensure action does not get taken.

It is entirely logical that public entities are collaborating in networks with other public entities and domain-specific stakeholders for the collection, dissemination and use of data. It is also certain, given our networked society and the drive for efficiency, the number of situations where such collaboration takes place will only rise. However, for the drive towards more openness it is detrimental when ownership of public data becomes unclear, gets transferred to an entity that potentially falls outside the scope of FOIA, or falls under the rights of a private entity, just because nobody sought to clarify such matters at the outset.

Public entities should learn to strongly guard their data sovereignty if they want to maintain their own agency in using opening up data as a policy instrument. Moving to open by design as a default for the public sector, requires stopping the erosion of data sovereignty.