At State of the Net yesterday I used the concept of macroscopes. I talked about how many people don’t really feel where their place is in the face of global changes, like climate change, ageing, the pressures on rules and institutions, the apparent precarity of global financial systems. That many feel whatever their actions, they will not have influence on those changes. That many feel so much of the change around them is being done to them, merely happens to them, like the weather.
Macroscopes provide a perspective that may address such feelings of being powerless, and helps us in the search for meaning.

Macroscopes, being the opposite of microscopes, allow us to see how our personal situation fits in a wider global whole. The term comes from John Thackara in the context of social end ecological design. He says a macroscope “allows us to see what the aggregation of many small interactions looks like when added together”. It makes the processes and systems that surrounds us visible and knowable.

I first encountered the term macroscope at the 2009 Reboot conference in Copenhagen where Matt Webb in his opening keynote invoked Thackara.
Matt Webb also rephrased what a macroscope is, and said “a macroscope shows you where you are, and where within something much bigger, simultaneously. To understand something much bigger than you in a human way, at human scale, in your heart.” His way of phrasing it stayed with me in the past years. I like it very much because it adds human emotion to the concept of macroscopes. It provides us with a place we feel we have, a sense of meaning. As meaning is deeply emotional.

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
Seeing the small …

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
and the bigger picture simultaneously. (Chuck Close self portrait 1995, at Drents Museum)

Later in his on stage conversation at State of the Net, Dave Winer remarked that for Donald Trump’s base MAGA is such a source of meaning, and I think he’s right. Even though it’s mostly an expression of hope that I typified in my talk as salvationism. (Someone will come along and make everything better, a populist, an authoritarian, a deity, or speakers pontificating on stage.) I’ve encountered macroscopes that worked for people in organisations. But sometimes they can appear very contrived viewed from the outside. The man who cleans the urinals at an airport and says he’s ensuring 40 million people per year have a pleasant and safe trip, clearly is using a macroscope effectively. It’s one I can empathise with as aiming for great hospitality, but it also feels a bit contrived as many other things at an airport, such as the cattle prodding at security and the leg room on your plane so clearly don’t chime with it. In the Netherlands I encountered two examples of working macroscopes. Everyone I encountered at the Court of Audit reflexively compares every idea and proposal to the way their institution’s role is described in the constitution. Not out of caution, but out of feeling a real sense of purpose as working on behalf of the people to check how government spends its money. The other one was the motto of the government engineering department responsible for water works and coastal defences, “Keeping our feet dry”. With so much of our country below sea level, and the catastrophic floods of 1953 seared in our collective memory, it’s a highly evocative macroscope that draws an immediate emotional response. They since watered it down, and now it’s back to something bloodless and bland, likely resulting from a dreary mission statement workshop.

In my talk I positioned networked agency as a macroscope. Globe spanning digital networks and our human networks in my mind are very similar in the way they behave, and hugely overlapping. So much so they can be treated as one, we should think in terms of human digital networks. There is meaning, the deeply felt kind of meaning, to be found in doing something together with a group. There’s also a tremendous sense of power to be felt from the ability to solve something for yourself as a group. Seeing your group as part, as a distinctive node or local manifestation, of the earth-wide human digital network allows you to act in your own way as part of global changes, and see the interdependencies. That also let’s you see how to build upon the opportunities that emerge from the global network, while being able to disconnect or shield yourself from negative things propagating over the network. Hence my call to build tools (technologies and methods) that are useful on their own within a group, as a singular instance, but more useful when federated with other instances across the global network. Tools shaped like that mean no-one but the group using it itself can switch their tools off, and the group can afford to disconnect from the wider whole on occasion.

Some links I thought worth reading the past few days

Thomas Opening Reboot
Thomas opening Reboot, with my name as sponsor on the banner

Last night at my birthday party one of the guests was Sam. He had just finished his Masters in 2009, when I invited him to Reboot in Copenhagen. A conference I first visited in 2005, which became a turning point in my professional life. In 2009 I was a main sponsor, and one of the perks was bringing people to the conference for free. Sam was one of them. At my birthday party he told me how that had been a pivotal point for him, an eye opening experience so shortly after his masters. He went on to create similarly inspiring events in the Netherlands with others, and remarked how spoilt he was with being able to do that. Awesome how paying the spirit of Reboot forward has influenced people till this day.

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.

Origins
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