At State of the Net 2018 in Trieste Hossein Derakshan (h0d3r on Twitter) talked about journalism and its future. Some of his statements stuck with me in the past weeks so yesterday I took time to watch the video of his presentation again.

In his talk he discussed the end of news. He says that discussions about the erosion of business models in the news business, quality of news, trust in sources and ethics are all side shows to a deeper shift. A shift that is both cultural and social. News is a two century old format, representative of the globalisation of communications with the birth of the telegraph. All of a sudden events from around the globe were within your perspective, and being informed made you “a man of the world”. News also served as a source of drama in our lives. “Did you hear,…”. These days those aspects of globalisation, time and drama have shifted.
Local, hyperlocal, has become more important again at the cost of global perspectives, which Hossein sees taking place in things like buying local, but also in Facebook to keep up with the lives of those around you. Similarly identity politics reduces the interest in other events to those pertaining to your group. Drama shifted away from news to performances and other media (Trumps tweets, memes, our representation on social media platforms). News and time got disentangled. Notifications and updates come at any time from any source, and deeper digging content is no longer tied to the news cycle. Journalism like the Panama Papers takes a long time to produce, but can also be published at any time without that having an impact on its value or reception.

News and journalism have become decoupled. News has become a much less compelling format, and in the words of Derakshan is dying if not dead already. With the demise of text and reason and the rise of imagery and emtions, the mess that journalism is in, what formats can journalism take to be all it can be?

Derakshan points to James Carey who said Democracy and Journalism are the same thing, as they are both defined as public conversation. Hossein sees two formats in which journalism can continue. One is literature, long-form non-fiction. This can survive away from newspapers and magazines, both online and in the form of e.g. books. Another is cinema. There’s a rise in documentaries as a way to bring more complex stories to audiences, which also allows for conveying of drama. It’s the notion of journalism as literature that stuck with me most at State of the Net.

For a number of years I’ve said that I don’t want to pay for news, but do want to pay for (investigative) journalism, and often people would respond news and journalism are the same thing. Maybe I now finally have the vocabulary to better explain the difference I perceive.

I agree that the notion of public conversation is of prime importance. Not the screaming at each-other on forums, twitter or facebook. But the way that distributed conversations can create learning, development and action, as a democratic act. Distributed conversations, like the salons of old, as a source of momentum, of emergent collective action (2013). Similarly, I position Networked Agency as a path away from despair of being powerless in the face of change, and therefore as an alternative to falling for populist oversimplification. Networked agency in that sense is very much a democratising thing.

Yesterday at State of the Net I showed some of the work I did with the great Frysklab team, letting a school class find power in creating their own solutions. We had a I think very nicely working triade of talks in our session, Hossein Derakshan first, me in the middle, and followed by Dave Snowden. In his talk, Dave referenced my preceding one, saying it needed scaling for the projects I showed to alter anything. Although I know Dave Snowden didn’t mean his call for scale that way, often when I hear it, it is rooted in the demand-for-ever-more-growth type of systems we know cannot be sustained in a closed world system like earth’s. The small world syndrom, as I named it at Shift 2010, will come biting.

It so often also assumes there needs to be one person or entity doing the scaling, a scaler. Distributed networks don’t need a scaler per se.
The internet was not created that way, nor was the Web. Who scaled RSS? Some people moved it forwards more than others, for certain, but unconnected people, just people recognising a possibility to fruitfully build on others for something they felt personally needed. Dave Winer spread it with Userland, made it more useful, and added the possibility of having the payload be something else than just text, have it be podcasts. We owe him a lot for the actual existence of this basic piece of web plumbing. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Ben and Mena Trott of Movable Type helped it forward by adding RSS to their blogging tools, so people like me could use it ‘out of the box’. But it actually scaled because bloggers like me wanted to connect. We recognised the value of making it easy for others to follow us, and for us to follow the writings of others. So I and others created our own templates, starting from copying something someone else already made and figuring out how to use RSS. It is still how I adopt most of my tools. Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.

That’s why I fully agree with Chris Hardie that in the open web, all the tools you create need to have the potentiality of the network effect built in. Of course, when something is too difficult for most to copy or adapt, then there won’t be this network effect. Which is why most of the services we see currently dominating online experiences, the ones that shocked Hossein upon returning from his awful forced absence, are centralised services made very easy to use. Where someone was purposefully aiming for scale, because their business depended on it once they recognised their service had the potential to scale.

Dave Winer yesterday suggested the blogosphere is likely bigger now than when it was so dominantly visible in the ‘00s, when your blogpost of today could be Google’s top hit for a specific topic, when I could be found just on my first name. But it is so much less visible than before, precisely because it is not centralised, and the extravagant centralised silos stand out so much. The blogosphere diminished itself as well however, Dave Winer responded to Hossein Derakshan’s talk yesterday.

People still blog, more people blog than before, but we no longer build the same amount of connections across blogs. Connections we were so in awe of when our writing first proved to have the power to create them. Me and many others, bloggers all, suckered ourselves into feeling blog posts needed to be more like reporting, essays, and took our conversations to the comments on Facebook. Facebook, which, as Hossein Derakshan pointed out, make such a travesty of what web links are by allowing them only as separate from the text you write on Facebook. It treats all links as references to articles, not allowing embedding them in the text, or allowing more than one link to be presented meaningfully. That further reinforced the blog-posts-as-articles notions. That further killed the link as weaving a web of distributed conversations, a potential source of meaning. Turned the web, turned your timeline, into TV, as Hossein phrased it.

Hoder on ‘book-internet’ (blogs) and ‘tv-internet’ (FB et al) Tweet by Anna Masera

I switched off my tv ages ago. And switched off my FB tv-reincarnate nine months ago. In favour of allowing myself more time to write as thinking out loud, to have conversations.

Adriana Lukas and I after the conference, as we sat there enjoying an Italian late Friday afternoon over drinks, talked about the Salons of old. How we both have created through the years settings like that, Quantified Self meetings, BlogWalks, Birthday Unconferences, and how we approached online sharing like that too. To just add some of my and your ramblings to the mix. Starting somewhere in the middle, following a few threads of thought and intuitions, adding a few links (as ambient humanity), and ending without conclusions. Open ended. Just leaving it here.

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.

It’s great to visit Trieste again. I was here, mostly with Elmine, sometimes alone, in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 as well. Arriving around lunchtime yesterday I lunched at Pepi’s, a small Italo-Austrian place, that I try to always visit when here to enjoy their choice meats with sauerkraut and horseradish. Evening dinner was al fresco, in the very good company of friends and bright new people to meet, enjoying the sunset on the Piazza Unità d’Italia. Yes, I’m here to work, the pictures don’t show you the effort going into preparing my keynote.

Sotn 18

Today I am enjoying the 2018 edition of the State of the Net conference, in Italy. Organised by Beniamino Pagliaro, Paolo Valdemarin and Sergio Maistrello.

Beniamino Pagliaro opening the conference this morning

This morning I provided a key note on Networked Agency, where I talked about rediscovering our ability to act. As networked groups, in real and meaningful contexts as the unit of agency. For that to be possible our tools, both technologies and methods, need to work for groups, be much easier to access. They also need to work both as a local instance as well as federated across contexts. From it striking power (classic agency) flows, agility to use and leverage the useful things coming at us over the networks, and resilience to mitigate the negative consequences that come at us over those same networks.

The slides are below.

The videos of State of the Net are online, including the video of my talk.


(Disclosure) Paolo is a long time friend and I had the privilege of contributing to previous editions in 2012 (Trieste) and 2015 (Milano). I’m also a member of the conference’s steering committee.

Will be speaking at State of the Net (SOTN) next month, in Trieste, about networked agency. I’m also on the steering committee of SOTN.
I just also confirmed speaking at the opening of the FOSS4GNL conference in July on ethics, local societal impact and shifting landscapes. (I was invited based on my keynote at the global FOSS4G in 2016)

Mid June will see the 2018 edition of State of the Net (SOTN) take place in Trieste. SOTN is a long running series of conferences looking at how our use of the internet is changing us and our societies. The topic for this year is ‘Consequences’, one that fits right in my current phase of thinking about and reflection on the course and content of my work, so I’ve marked my calendar accordingly. Access to the conference is free, and the event is always of high quality. So if you have an opportunity to attend, do grab it.

One of the organizers of SOTN is my friend Paolo Valdemarin, whom we originally met at the first BlogTalk conference 15 years ago. I’m currently a member of the conference’s Steering Committee, and was a speaker in the 2012 edition in Trieste, and a panel moderator in the 2015 edition in Milano.