My ‘blogposts on this day in ….’ widget tells me it is 11 years ago today that Reboot 11 was announced for the end of June. As it turned out it was the final edition, with the theme ‘Action’. I’m still very happy I was able to support that conference financially as a sponsor. (Even in the hindsight of the year after, when we could have used the money ourselves very well, as business fell flat for a while.) It was within my scope of action then, and I still think back fondly to those conferences, and take inspiration from them regularly, even after more than a decade since that final edition. What also stands out is how utterly ludicrous it now seems to announce something for the end of June, viewed through pandemic tainted lenses. 😀
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.
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.
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.
The closing key-note at Reboot was given by Bruce Sterling. A great and entertaining talk, looking at the next ten years and what it will be like to live through them. Sterling, a futurist (or strategic forecaster, if you’re not allowed to use the word ‘futurist’), and cyberpunk SF writer, painted a great and at the same time very bleak picture. Referring to a lot of things he saw and heard during the conference, he repeatedly poked all of us in the eye with apparent pleasure. The room grew increasingly silent throughout his talk. I loved it, and I still remain very much an optimist (I guess getting through and out of clinical depression did that for me).
The next 10 years
The next decade, Sterling says, will not feel like progress. At the same time it won’t feel like conservatism either. There’s simply nothing much left to conserve, as well as nothing to progress to. So it’s transition, but transition to nowhere. No new (asset) bubble to get the old economic structures going again, ‘lots of bad weather’ (i.e. climate change), and global emergent change. The core feeling for the Reboot-type people for the 20-zero’s and 20-tens is ‘Dark Euforia’. “Everything falls apart, but there are endless opportunities. You just didn’t think you’d dread them so much.”
Sterling distinguished four quadrants that hold scenario’s for the next decade. For me they contain loads of interesting notions about the type of (weak) signals that go with them, which can help to choose your actions, avoid time wasting rear-guard fights, recognize threats to neutralize etc. Basically I can see a whole new set of tags coming into use with which I will collect bookmarks for my writing and thinking.
1: Crisis Capitalism for Aging Baby-Boomers
A large demographic that wants to hang on to their material achievements. “They have all the votes but no future.” They won’t get out of the way, but get nothing done either.
Brasil, India, China, and if you don’t discount oil, Russia. Emerging economies, but emerging into nowhere. Developing with no direction in particular. Globalizing without purpose, not progressing, not really developing.
3: Shock of the Old
Fundamentalists in power, whether they are christian or islamic. They don’t have a policy, have no plan, they can only ruin what is still left standing.
4: Reboot in Power
Basically the Reboot participants, feeling their ‘Dark Euforia’ over endless opportunities in a world that’s coming apart. They come in different varieties. At the top-end is ‘Gothic High-Tech’. You’re brilliant, on top of the world, but death is just around the corner, caused by something secret and horrible. Steve Jobs (made the iPod, but needs a liver), Nicolas Sarkozy (brilliant, but no ideology, offering no alternative), Barack Obama (Massive grassroots fund raising routine, but a Chicago machine politician, ‘not Vaclav Havel’), are positioning themselves in the narrative rather than building infrastructure. Cheerleaders, not leaders.
At the low-end is ‘Favela Chic’. It’s when you ‘lost everything, but you’re wired to the gills and big on Facebook’. Everything we Reboot-geeks believe is basically Favela Chic. We have Favela-slogans, says Sterling: ‘Action is cheaper than control’, ‘So fix it’, ‘Always in Beta’, ‘Just fucking do it’. Favelas are emergent structures. Stuffed animals are the European Favelas, repurposed buildings like Kedelhallen, the old-new. Urban interventions, re-using the left-over husks of the unsustainable is our frontier, because it’s under the radar, and you actually can get a lot done there.
Bruce Sterling then offered some practical advice, on how to not be ‘hair shirt green’ (because it just changes the polarity of 20th century consumerism, and does not constitute a really different way of life), but to be ‘bright green geeks’.
The Great-grandfather Principle
The first piece of advice was to stop acting dead, even though it’s temptingly gothic. Saving water, saving energy, reducing your CO2-footprint, recycling, my dead great-grandfather is much better at it than me. You have plenty of time to save water (“water is indestructable“) when you’re dead. Billions of years of it. So start doing things that matter, that your dead great-grandfather cannot do. Saving and economizing that way is also not social, as you’re basically starving someone else by reducing the volume and intensity of your transactions.
Objects as Frozen Social Relationships
In stead reassess the way you deal with and relate to objects. See objects as frozen social relationships, as print-outs of those relationships. See objects in terms of volumes of time and space. With such a (design) approach you will make entirely different choices when it comes to objects.
The objects that should be most important to you, ‘the monarchs among your objects’, are the ones you use most, intensively, and are closest to you. Clothing, your bed, a chair, personal care stuff etc. Don’t go ‘cheap’ on those as they are the things you spend most time with. “Buy real things, that you actually use. All everyday objects should be the best.”
For all the rest of your objects, sort them into 4 buckets (‘making lists is a very lifehacking-like thing to do’):
1: Beautiful things
2: Things with emotional meaning
Things only belong in bucket 1 or 2 if you are actually eager to tell people about them, show it to them. Do these objects have a narrative that you want to share?
Tools are very important, so make sure you have the best tools, high-tech. Don’t make do with stuff that is broken. Also don’t put tools in this bucket that you only pretend to be experimenting with. “You’re only experimenting if you are publishing the results“, which is a very significant point I think.
4: Every thing else.
If it’s not in bucket 1 to 3, get rid of it. Before getting rid of it though, virtualize it by taking pictures or scanning it, and scanning the barcode. So you can later refer to it or retrieve a similar item if needed.
The Right Closing
I thoroughly enjoyed this talk, specifically at the end of Reboot. Someone remarked it would have been more effective if it had been the first keynote of the conference, as then ‘we would have had two days to prove Sterling wrong’ or something to that effect. I disagree. This was a very useful and valuable talk, both in terms of content and form. Sterling was an active participant during the preceding conference days, and it made his talk more effective. It told him which eyes to poke in. Below is the video of Bruce Sterlings closing key-note.
Taking it on the Chin
In the previous post I wrote about how the Danish government officials at Reboot had to wade through a lot of suspicion and frustration from the participants before getting to the actual discussion at hand. As David Weinberger said, they took it on their chin. In this posting I want to discuss the frustration and suspicion that participants expressed in more detail, especially because I’ve seen it happen repeatedly last year at PolitCamp in Graz and GovCamp Amsterdam, as well as last month at Hack de Overheid (‘hack the government’). As I commented then as well, I think we need to learn when to break that pattern and check emotions and reflexes.
Danish IT policy discussion, photo by Andreas Johannsen
Frustration and suspicion
First let me acknowledge that the frustration ‘we the people’ have in general in dealing with bureaucracies and political structures is real. And we are right, based on our previous experiences, to be suspicious about the veracity of statements like ‘we really want to listen to your concerns’ because often strongly worded affirmations of ‘listening’ and ‘we’ll look at it’ turned out to be untrue. So much so that they’ve become red flags when they are now used.
The flipside of our frustration and suspicion is that we tend to paint all our interactions with ‘government’ and ‘politics’ with the same brush. In everything we see and hear we will tend to see our picture of government confirmed, we will fit the data into the established pattern.
We are selling ourselves short however if we don’t get past this frustration and suspicion when confronted with a civil servant or politician that actually is interested in hearing our story, and involving us in their work.
Andrew Turner talking, me taking notes at Danish IT policy session. Photo by Andreas Johannsen
There is no ‘the government’
First we need to recognize that there is no ‘the government’. Government is a very complex collection of different agencies, departments, local, regional and national levels, executive bodies and whatnot. And most pieces of that puzzle have no idea what is going on elsewhere. Also, each of these government organizations is made up of individual people. Projecting your experience with one piece of government on a civil servant that you happen to talk to some place else then is not only unfair but uncalled for. There is probably nothing the civil servant can do that will change your frustration anyway. Projecting your assumptions and prejudices about an entire group onto an individual, and proceeding to treat that individual based on that projection only, also happens to be the definition of discrimination.
Suspension of Disbelief
When to shelve our suspicion that ‘they’ won’t listen to us, when to suspend our disbelief this civil servant in front of us is for real?
One of the signs can be what ‘they’ are doing to get to talk to you. In this case it was a team responsible for literally writing Denmarks next national IT strategy that came to Reboot, a key European webgeek gathering, to talk to us in a locker room. This was not your average ‘public participation’ session in some non-descript grey government building at a time of day when only 50+ white males in early retirement with too much time on their hands can attend. ‘They’ came and sought ‘us’ out on ‘our home turf’ because we might be knowledgeable about the subject they are responsible for. And it wasn’t a token visit either, they were fully involved during the entire conference. The same was the case with the other events I mentioned at the start: passionate professionals seeking ‘us’ out during weekends even. In my experience those gov officials that don’t care about your participation usually invite you to come to their place. So that when you don’t bother to show up they can pretend you’re ok with their plans. The former is an active stance, the latter a passive on. Active stances are tell-tale signs for you and me to suspend our disbelief.
Check your Frustration at the Door
Our frustrations about our dealings with government are very real. Nevertheless we need to re-evaluate our frustration every single time when interacting with a civil servant.
Are you really listening to what this civil servant is saying to you, or just to the echos ringing of your frustration when you hear it?
Is this civil servant the one that can actually address your concern, your anger? Or should you be venting your feelings someplace else, e.g. at a different agency, or at a different level, or in the political sphere outside the government bodies?
Will venting your frustration contribute to a useful outcome of the exchange? Or will it just cause your counterpart to become defensive?
If you answer these questions ‘no’, then check your frustration at the door. That way you make room for having an actual conversation.
Have something to offer
One of the things I caught myself on is that on several topics I have frustrations in dealing with government people, but upon closer examination I don’t have much beyond that (yet). I can formulate what ‘they’ are doing wrong or ‘don’t get’, but find it more difficult to actually contribute constructively beyond the obvious when asked. Because getting into the less obvious requires thinking it through, and formulate steps and actions to implement my ideas in a ‘yes, and’ in stead of a ‘no, but’ fashion. It’s one thing to say ‘government should listen more’ or ‘just open up and become transparent’, quite another to help bring that process about and suggest practical steps as to how I would like them to listen to me specifically, or what I think should be more transparent. It means I need to care to know more about ‘them’, to be able to see their context more. So, when an opportunity arises to interact with government, and it warrants suspension of disbelief, I need to be willing to prepare. I need to take an activist stance. Otherwise me saying ‘government isn’t listening’ is just a fig leaf for inaction and passivity on my side.
Jakob Willer, Danish ITST (l), discussion going on (r)
Civil Servants need to do something too
Real conversations are two-way, so it’s not just ‘us’ that need to do something, the same goes for the civil servants that are our counterparts. First, I need you as a civil servant to be a real human being, be an individual. I know that there are things you can and cannot say, you can and cannot promise, you can and cannot do. It is the same for each of us that is acting from a certain role. But: acknowledge that explicitly, so it does not feel like being stonewalled or like you’re being defensive, when you have to say no.
Help ‘us’ to overcome our suspicions by showing us how you intend to involve ‘us’ into an ongoing conversation. Usually ‘parpticipation’ takes place at the start of a process, then some magic happens in a black box, and out comes something on the other side we don’t really recognize. Involve us all the way, from idea up to and including implementation. So we can see how our contributions matter or not. Also keep your promises about follow-up. I’ve noticed at times that ‘we’ll get back to you quickly’ means something different in my book than it does for some government agencies. To keep the conversation going however, to keep momentum, to make it feel like an ‘on-going’ thing, we need to know exactly when ‘quickly’ is. In the case of the Danish government session at Reboot this meant e.g. the transcripts of the post-it notes were up online during the conference the same day, and the URL was given during the session.
Jakob Willer and Christian Lanng at Danish digital policy discussion. Photo by Andreas Johannsen
Taking it on the Chin, Reprise
The Danes took it on the chin. One of them said to me in later e-mail conversation they know this is going to happen a lot, and they don’t take it personal. They see they need to go through it before actually getting somewhere. That is laudable even if you think it should be the normal behaviour of civil servants. Nadia El-Imam during the discussion session with Danish government officials asked if we as citizens could enter into a contract with them so we could hold them to their commitments of transparency and involvement. Christian Lanng, one of the Danish civil servants present, said “Yes, if I can enter into the same type of contract with you as well.” Exactly.
At Reboot11 there clearly was a lot of interest in transparent government, on different levels. Apart from the political stream, with the Swedish Pirate Party, there were several sessions taking on transparent government on both the policy and the operational level. For me opening up government data, and making government more transparent is important because it allows people to both base their choices and decisions on more relevant information, as well as act more confidently in shaping their own lives.
Nadia El-Imam brought a number of people to Reboot that would not have been there otherwise. To bring them in touch with the Reboot-crowd, but also with each other. To talk about technology and digital policies for the European Union, and come up with tangible input. She organised several ‘Wikicrats’ sessions. It started out with the participants giving their own perspectives (slides), and then several working sessions took place.
As I am working on opening up government data in the Netherlands, I did a session on Open Data at Reboot. Starting with a short introduction of the work James Burke and I did for the Dutch ministry for the interior, I invited other participants in the audience to add their own work and examples, so different European efforts get more connected. People from Denmark, Canada, US and UK explained some of their work on open government data. One of the examples put forward, Folkets Ting (which follows the political activities of Danish MP’s) also was demo’d in a seperate session by Michael Friis (slides). Also Christian Lanng, of the Danish IT and telecom agency of the ministry for technology, science and innovation, invited us all to take part in a session the next day to help shape the new Danish IT policy that is being written.
Shaping Danish IT Policy
On Reboot day 2, a few dozen people found themselves in an overfilled changing room of Kedelhallen, discussing how the Danish government should shape their IT policy, and how they should engage with us and others in both shaping and implementing that policy. As David Weinberger noted, the Danish civil servants had to wade through a lot of frustration and disbelief before we could get into real discussion, and they took it on the chin gracefully. More on that in a separate posting. The results of the session, transcription of post-its, in English as well as the continuing discussion in Danish can be found at Digitaliser.dk, the Danish IT and Telecom Agency open platform for discussing all things digital.
Change Camps in Canada
Mark Kuznicki is a driving force behind the ChangeCamps in Canada, about re-imagining citizenship and government in the age of participation, about which he gave a good session at Reboot. Had a great lunch conversation with him, amongst other things about the Vancouver ChangeCamp, our mutual contact/friend and Vancouverite Jon Husband, and the City of Vancouver embracing Open Data as well as open standards and open source, last May.
Shaping EU policy on Public Service Information
David Osimo, who organized a workshop at the European Commission in Brussels this spring on user-driven innovation of public services (pageflakes overview), was an active participant in the Open Government Data dialogue this Reboot. He has also launched a platform to collectively bring our own perspective to the EU’s take on e-government. Next November a new ministerial declaration on e-government will be published during the Malmo EU e-gov conference. If you want to contribute to co-creating an open declaration on public services in the age of social media, please add your ideas, suggestions and comments there.
All in all transparent government and open government data were a big part of the conversations I had with lots of people during Reboot 11. Having my own Open Data session at the start of day 1 of the conference was a good conversation trigger for me, but certainly Open Data / Transparent gov was on a lot of people’s mind at Reboot. A very good thing.