Peter in his circle of friendsPeter in his circle of friends at the start of Crafting {:} a Life (image by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA license

When the first Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, went to space on the D1 mission he had a clear goal. Earlier astronauts upon returning to earth had all responded to the question how it was to see the entire earth from above, our blue ball in the black void, with things like “Great”, “Very moving”, “So very beautiful”. Ockels was determined to find a better description for the experience, by preparing for it, by more consciously observing and reflecting while up there. Yet when he came back he realised all he could say was “So very beautiful” as well. There was no way for him to put the layering, depth and richness of the experience in words that would actually fully convey it.

Experiencing an unconference can be like that. It certainly took me about a week to come back down to earth (and overcome the jet-lag) after spending a handful of days on Prince Edward Island in a somewhat parallel universe, Peter‘s Crafting {:} a Life unconference with around 50 of his friends and connections.

Here too, the description “it was great” “it was beautiful” is true but also empty words. I heard several of the other participants comment it was “life changing” for them, and “the start of something momentous on PEI”. I very well understand that sentiment, but was it really? Can it really be that, life changing?

I have heard the same feedback, ‘life changing’, about our events as well. Particularly the 2014 edition. And I know the ripples of those events have changed the lives of participants in smaller and bigger ways. Business partnerships formed, research undertaken, lasting friendships formed. I recognise the emotions of the natural high a heady mix of deep conversations, minds firing, freedom to explore, all around topics of your own interest can create. I felt very much in flow during an hours long conversation at Crafting {:} a Life for instance.

Reboot had that impact on me in 2005, reinforced by the subsequent editions. Those multiple editions created a journey for me. Bringing students there in 2009, because I was one of the event’s sponsors, was certainly life changing for them. It spoilt them for other types of events, and triggered organising their own events.
In a certain way Crafting {:} a Life brought the Reboot spirit to PEI, was a sort of expression of Reboot as it included half a dozen connections that originated there in 2005. Similarly I feel our own unconferences are attempts at spreading the Reboot spirit forward.

What makes it so? What makes one say ‘life changing’ about an event? Space to freely think, building on each other’s thoughts, accepting the trade-off that if your pet topics get discussed others will do other things you may not be interested in. Meeting patience while you formulate your (half-baked) thoughts. That is something that especially has been important in the experience of teenagers that took part in our events, and I think for Oliver too. That everyone is participating in the same way, that age or background doesn’t somehow disqualify contributions, and being treated as having an equal stake in being there.

How do you get to such a place? I find it’s mixing the informal/human with the depth and content normally associated with formalisation.

What made Peter’s event work for instance was the circle at the start.
The room itself was white and clinical to start in, and people were huddled in the corner seeking the warmth of the coffee served there. The seating arrangement however meant everyone had to walk the circle on the inside to find their seat. Then once seated, after welcoming words, there was music by one of the participants who offered it, first a reflective and then an upbeat song. This in aggregate made the room the group’s room, made it a human room. The post-its on the wall after the intro round led by Elmine increased that sense of it being our room, and the big schedule on the wall we made together completed it. Now it was our own central space for the event.

Splitting the event over two days and marking both days differently (meeting/talking, and doing) worked well too. It meant people weren’t coming back for the same thing as yesterday, but had something new to look forward to with the same measure of anticipating the unknown as the first day. While already having established a shared context, and new connections the day before.

The result was, to paraphrase Ockels, “great”. Clark, one of our fellow participants, found a few more and better words:

Crafting {:} a Life was a breath of fresh air. The unconference dispensed with pretension, titles or faux expertise. Everyone had for the most part a chance to share their story, contribute, and talk. While some asked what I did for a living, it was only after all other avenues of discussion were explored. For the most part one-to-one conversations were much like what I had with Robert Paterson, (“What is Clark’s story” he asked) open ended, personal, and with the ability to discover new things about the other. The activities emphasized small groups and there was no “oh my God my PPT is out of order what will we talk about” that I myself have fallen victim to. There was music, laughter, food and tears. It was genuine, …

I think that goes to the heart of it. It was genuine, the format didn’t deny we are human but embraced it as a key element. And in the space we created there was way more room than usually at events to be heard, to listen. And most of all: space to share the enormous gift of two days worth of your focused attention.

I feel it is that that makes these events stand out. Most other events don’t do that for its participants: Space for focused attention, while embracing your humanity. Reboot did that, it even had a kindergarten on site and people brought their kids e.g. But that approach is very scarce. It needn’t be. It also needn’t be an unconference to create it. A conversation, dinner party, or other occasion might just as well. (I found that video btw on a blog in the rss feeds of one of the participants, which seems apt).

On our way home Elmine suggested doing a second edition of our e-book ‘How to unconference your birthday’ (PDF). I think that is a very good idea, as Peter and us now have experience from both being an organiser and a participant, and we have now several additional events worth of experiences to draw upon. We created the first edition as a gift and memento to all participants of our 2010 edition, the 2nd such event we did and the first we did in our home. A decade on a second edition seems fitting.

Organising unconferences as birthday parties carry the risk of reciprocal visits. So now that our friend Peter is organising an unconference called Crafting {:} a Life, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his company in mid June, we will be visiting Prince Edward Island by way of Montreal. Looking forward to it! I’m very pleased that our unconferences can be the seed for similar activities by others, that the little stone we throw in the water now and then keeps creating ripples. Since our first event, Bev Trayner and Etienne Wenger have been organising yearly similar events, called BEtreats, in both California and Portugal. And now Peter brings the ripples to Canada.

From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].

To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.

Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.

In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:

“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.”

In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.

If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.

Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:

  • Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
  • Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
  • Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
  • Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
  • Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
  • Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
  • Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.

stm18
An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.

Heinz Wittenbrink, who teaches content strategy at the FH Joanneum in Graz, reflected extensively on his participation in our recent Smart Stuff That Matters unconference.
We go back since 2006 (although I think we read each others blog before), when we first met at a BarCamp in Vienna. Later Heinz kindly invited me to Graz at several occasions such as the 2008 Politcamp (a barcamp on web 2.0 and political communication), and the 2012 annual conference of the Austrian association for trainers in basic education for adults.

He writes in German, and his blogpost contains a lot to unpack (also as it weaves the history of our interaction into his observations), so I thought I’d highlight and translate some quotes here. This as I find it rather compelling to read how someone, who’s been involved in and thinking about online interaction for a long time, views the event we did in the context of his and my work. And that some of what I’m trying to convey as fundamental to thinking about tools and interaction is actually coming across to others. Even if I feel that I’ve not yet hit on the most compelling way to formulate my ideas.

Heinz starts with saying he sees my approach as a very practice oriented one.
“Ton engages on a very practical level with the possibilities of combining the personal and personal relationships with the wider contexts in which one lives, from the local community to global developments. He has a technical, pragmatic and practice oriented approach. Also he can explain to others who are not part of a digital avantgarde what he does.”

And then places the birthday unconferences we did in that context, as an extension of that practice oriented approach. Something I realise I didn’t fully do myself.

“The unconference of last week is an example of how one can do things from a highly personal motivation – like meeting friends, talking about topics you’re interested in, conversing about how you shape your new daily routines after a move – and make it easy for others to connect to that. What you find or develop you don’t keep for yourself, but is made useful for others, and in turn builds on what those others do. So it’s not about developing an overarching moral claim in a small context , but about shaping and networking one’s personal life in such a way that you collectively expand your capabilities to act. Ton speaks of networked agency. Digital networking is a component of these capabilities to act, but only embedded in networks that combine people, as well as locations and technical objects.”

Speaking about the unconference he says something that really jumps out at me.

To list the themes [….of the sessions I attended…] fails to express what was special about the unconference: that you meet people or meet them again, for whom these themes are personal themes, so that they are actually talking about their lives when they talk about them. At an unconference like this one does not try to create results that can be broadcast in abstracted formulations, but through learning about different practices and discussing them, extend your own living practice and view it from new perspectives. These practices or ways of living cannot be separated from the relationships in which and with which you live, and the relationships you create or change at such an event like this.

Seeing it worded like that, that the topics we discussed, theorised about, experimented around, are very much personal topics, and in the context of personal relationships, hits me as very true. I hadn’t worded it in quite that way myself yet. This is however exactly why to me digital networks and human networks are so similar and overlapping, and why I see your immediate context of an issue, you and your meaningful relationships as the key unit of agency. That’s why you can’t separate how you act from your relationships. And why the layeredness of household, neighbourhood, city, earth is interwoven by default, just often not taken into account, especially not in the design phase of technology and projects.

Heinz then talks about blogging, and our earlier silent assumptions that novel technology would as per default create the right results. Frank’s phrasing and Heinz’s mention of the ‘original inspiration’ to blog resonate with me.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the people I had the most intensive conversations with have been blogging for a long time. They all stuck with the original inspiration to blog. Frank in his presentation called it “to publish your own unedited voice”. The openness but also the individuality expressed in this formulation was clearly visible in the entire unconference.

For me blogging was a way of thinking out loud, making a life long habit of note taking more public. The result was a huge growth in my professional peer network, and I found that learning in this networked manner accelerated enormously. Even if my imagined audience when I write is just 4 or 5 of people, and I started blogging as a personal archive/reflection tool, I kept doing it because of the relationships it helped create.

Continuing on about the early techno-optimism Heinz says about the unconference

The atmosphere at the unconference was very different. Of the certainties of the years shortly after 2000 nothing much remains. The impulses behind the fascination of yesteryear do remain however. It’s not about, or even less about technology as it was then, it’s about smart actions in themselves, and life under current conditions. It’s about challenging what is presented as unavoidable more than producing unavoidability yourself.

Only slowly I understand that technologies are much deeper embedded in social practices and can’t be separated from them. Back then I took over Ton’s concept of ‘people centered navigation’. Through the event last week it became clearer to me what this concept means: not just a ‘right’ efficient way to use tools, but a practice that for specific needs deliberately selects tools and in doing so adapts them.

People centered navigation is not a component of better more efficient mass media, but navigating information in reference to needs and capabilities of people in localised networks. Where above all the production of media and content in dialogue with a limited number of others is relevant, not its reception by the masses. Network literacies are capabilities to productively contribute to these localised networks.

Just like practice is inseparable from our relationships, our tools are inseparable from our practices. In networked agency, the selection of tools (both technology and methods) is fully determined by the context of the issue at hand and the group of relationships doing it. As I tried to convey in 2010 in my Maker Households keynote at SHiFT and indeed at the earlier mentioned keynote I gave at Heinz’s university on basic literacy in adult learning, networked literacies are tied to your personal networks. And he’s right, the original fascination is as strong as before.

Heinz finishes with adding the work of Latour to my reading list, by his last remark.

The attempt to shape your local surroundings intelligently and to consider how you can connect them in various dimensions of networks, reminds me of the localised politics in fragile networks that Bruno Latour describes in his terrestrial manifest as an alternative to the utopies and dystopies of globalisation and closed national societies. Latour describes earth as a thin layer where one can live, because one creates the right connections and maintains them. The unconference was an experiment to discover and develop such connections.

Thank you Heinz for your reflection, I’m glad you participated in this edition.

At the Smart Stuff That Matters unconference we did an ‘anecdote circle lite’ as an introductory activity. Participants discussed in small groups about their latest move to a different house, in terms of the biggest disappointment and most pleasant surprise of living in a new house/neigbourhood/city.

While one participant talked, the others in the group would write down things that stood out for them. This served as raw input for putting together the program of the day. Below the photo of all the remarks that ended up on one of our living room windows, is the transcription of all 130+ post-its. It is unsorted and in random order. Some of the post-its read like they’d deserve their own blogpost to explore.

stm18

  • City is experienced more than the place, the place lived more than the city
  • Does smart stuff make us faster? Smart slow stuff: yoga, walk the dog, pillow, alone time, just be, mountain bike
  • Get in town by changing speed
  • Move (=1) integrating connected to social fabrics (=2)
  • turning old hous into a living space
  • material things vs digital: like e-book collection
  • segregation big city, hard to connect
  • big new build house, spoiled? comfort
  • old owners of the house had own way of doing things (and we have the implications)
  • de-smart, why needed? “Lekker zelf knoeien
  • Combination green city garden station, freedom + comfort
  • moving from big to small, small to big
  • different transitions together with moving houses
  • the fence that is permeable (privacy + see through and contact)
  • shed-own space, tinker space
  • get to know people on the street
  • there are kids in the neighbourhood, but we hardly see them
  • it is more stressful when you know more
  • physical limitations, short range, 500m
  • travel time vs family time
  • self reliance, responsibility, freedom critical
  • plants and music
  • where to find coffee
  • un-smarting, light
  • children help bring/make community
  • technology also ‘blinds’ local jewels
  • approach newcomers
  • learning from overhearing experts
  • takes meeting many potential friends to find one
  • moving to area with different culture is interesting
  • small community very comfortable
  • small talk = life blood of community
  • when do you live in a city or just use a house
  • connections matter
  • transition issues – how not to get crazy in the process
  • you don’t want to be sharks with sharks, you want to be a shark with a fish
  • expanding and contraction
  • tinkerspace
  • energy
  • interhuman connection
  • view of a green toolshed, lots of travel time for work
  • eyeglass 2016 meltdown travel
  • accessibility in the city
  • rediscovering the city when not able to walk far
  • home = your own stuff? (living together!)
  • never moved, ice damage, 2 yrs
  • segregated cultures
  • to the hague, busy, rules and fines, large differences
  • standing out from the crowd is hard
  • slow moving, gradually
  • to make friends you need to see them in new environments/situations for next level
  • big city, big street, no social cohesion
  • smalll town -> big city
  • groups stay separate
  • sharing with other people to connect -social media, -online communications, free online courses
  • smart stuff to feel home: old fashioned slow stuff
  • living in 2 places, moving without moving
  • having a group that makes you feel at home
  • yard work = meeting people
  • social fabric in neighbourhoods, how to reach eachother
  • smart vs responsibility
  • homeschooling techniques & stories
  • stm starts with people, human, after that technology
  • anti-squatting: live in a room that is not designed for it / community
  • you have to move, even when moving
  • liked a 30s-40s home, but appreciates the comfort of a brand new one.
  • house with a garden, everything around the corner. Feeling the need for less ‘smart’
  • The stuff you bring to a new home define feeling at home
  • the first move breaks you
  • MSTM14 – best travel experience
  • hired house vs bought house, changes vs stable
  • amsterdam -> borg. Wow I’m living here now, jazz musicians
  • not being at home after moving busy at work
  • staying out of algorithmic propaganda world
  • when you build a new house you have to imagine how it will turn out. You buy it ‘on paper’. Conformity=expectations of society
  • outside city -> center, old house requires a lot of work, what do you really need?
  • smart slow stuff, algoritmic propaganda world
  • house is where I am, flexible/portable housel
  • live in an ambulance
  • connecting to people in building.
  • welcoming neighbours
  • moving evolves the world (e.g. neanderthals) and your family (e.g. ancestors)
  • discovering other similar people
  • home for kids so different for parent. time/part in life
  • kids do better understanding systems
  • needs from social fabric depends on the situation
  • social needs interaction
  • rules for making friends: it’s work, you need to set out to make friends
  • being somewhere new for a month inspiration
  • home is a combination of green and the comfort of good facilities
  • freedom
  • silence
  • “central”
  • being there needs a decision
  • unpredictability is cool too
  • serendipity?!
  • bumping into people is important
  • home ~~~~~ discovery
  • erasing traces / tracks
  • understand the city depends on the way of transport
  • Airbnb is not about living only
  • how to find chemistry
  • small road to a small town with 70 people
  • childhood roots us
  • what could possibly go wrong while moving
  • transitions are key stress factors
  • 1st home physical co??? with the space
  • walk cycle go by boat
  • discovery needs slowness
  • building informal network
  • moving is losing
  • noise
  • heart vs wallet
  • right side of town
  • freedom from family
  • more development after my development
  • cats own the house
  • all the friends you haven’t made (yet)
  • via Facebook a small room in Amsterdam
  • when do you still bump into friends by accident
  • a simple light switch works better than any app
  • hack your kid: online games -no money -earn money by irl activities
  • kids: boat —> steer, morning ritual, egg timer, backlog
  • color coding, feedback, move board along
  • yes you can forbid things (hack your kid)
  • connecting with people in buiding + new intro of people living in same building
  • warmth vs energy bills
  • adapt to little negative things
  • back in the city
  • architecture influences interaction / community
  • having a house you can walk around
  • NL-Hungry->USA->Turkey->NL (neighbours) – kids running through
  • old church now serves as a community center

My friend Peter has taken to sketching with water colors some year and a half ago. Since he’s been sketching regularly and posting some of the results on his blog.

During our event last weekend, at some point I came across Peter and Oliver sitting quietly in a corner of the garden, with Peter sketching our house.

All of a sudden something that I watched from afar, manifested itself right in my own garden. I hadn’t realised until that moment that that could happen, even if in hindsight it seemed likely from the start.

It is really pleasing to have Peter visit us and then see him draw something right on the spot. Something being sketched or drawn by hand, feels to me as if it is being seen. (Where photos might more often have a quality of ‘something I may or may not have time to look at later)

Peter saw our house. Through the eyes of the artist.

Through the Eyes of the Artist