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The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Saturday, July 10, 2010day link 

 Strong Elastic Links
picture There's something fundamentally messed up about the way we store and use information. Most of our information connects really badly with related information, and with the stuff the information is about.

I've talked about that before, like here: Connected Information, so I'll try not to repeat myself. It is however, somewhat difficult to convey my point. I've tried writing and rewriting this as an article a couple of times, but left it unfinished. It still isn't coming out very clear, but I'll leave it at that.

I want information to be linked, by unbreakable elastic links, to what the information is about.

The type of links we know on the web are useful, way more useful than no links. But they're but a pathetic shadow of the type of links we potentially could have that truly would be useful and reliable.

I'm sure it is not only me who have found some interesting article on the net or in a magazine about something new and promising. Say, self-driving cars or super-efficient solar cells. And then, months later, when I try to search for information about how that project might be going now, there's no trace of it. Some journalist did some kind of investigative job and wrote about something. On the web it might even include some clickable links to more information, like another article or a company website. When I come back some months later, those might still be there, or they might not. It is quite likely those links would point to some frozen information from that same time period. What happened later might remain a mystery, unless I have the time and resources to do a fresh piece of detective work.

The links we use on the web are like addresses on an envelope that we put in a mailbox. They indicate some kind of coordinates for a recipient. "He's over there!" But he might not be. The address might have changed and become invalid, or it might now be occupied by somebody else who has no relation to the person I'm trying to reach. The links don't follow the target when it moves. Likewise, web links aren't very good at linking up real people or real subjects.

Part of the problem is that the web links are one-way pointers. They just point in the direction of some virtual place. That place doesn't easily know that they're being linked to, because there's no link the other way. So, even if they wanted to, they couldn't easily update others on the status of what they linked to. Even if they could, it would still be a cumbersome thing to do.

Links shouldn't just be some address. They should actually link the two things.

The reason you have problems with spam is because the contents of the e-mail messages you receive don't really link up with anything. There's an address for the sender and the recipient, and addresses for servers that have processed the e-mail. All of that can be arbitrarily made up by anybody, because the e-mail doesn't actually link to the sender and the recipient. It can say all sorts of stuff that isn't at all true, or it can say things that were true at some point, but which go out of date later.

Imagine that you could attach a link to something, and that link, without a doubt, would maintain the connection, no matter what.

For the moment, never mind how it could be done, but imagine that between all people, all groups, all subjects and all media about any of these things, between all of those there would be unbreakable links. Hard links, so to speak, or strong links, but elastic, as they will "stretch" to any length no matter how the nodes move around and transform.

You probably know what school you went to in a certain year. That school is a rather finite entity. It should not be a matter of archaeological detective work to retrieve the information of who the principal was, and what became of any of the teachers or any one of the students. The school was an unmistakable entity. It was there, very physically, it had buildings, it was paid for, it stayed there for a long time. The same with all the people who were there. Every single one was unmistakably a real, living, breathing person. There's really nothing fuzzy about it at all. But in accordance with the way we typically treat information, it has been saved in a very fuzzy manner. If you go search for your school in search engines, there is likely to be some doubt about what school you're talking about, and whether it even exists. It is going to be very hard to locate a list of teachers or a complete list of students, if one exists. The information was kept on pieces of paper, which might have been mislaid or lost or falsified, and maybe never digitized. Even if you found the list, you wouldn't know if it was the right one, and even if you did, it is only a list of names and maybe addresses and maybe a photo. Most of these people have moved, many of them have changed their names, some have died, etc. It would be a huge amount of work to track them down, and you'd probably have to give up on quite a few of them.

We've gotten so used to sloppy, unlinked information that we find it quite natural and normal that information gets lost or that it is hard to reconstruct or that nobody knows if it is true or not. We even find a certain comfort and security in all this fuzziness. There's no government that is sure how many people there are in the country it governs. And that's despite that they really want taxes from all of them, and they don't want illegal immigrants, and everybody needs an ID. And the subject matter, persons, is in no way vague. It isn't difficult to decide if somebody is a person or not. They're very finite and the number of people is finite.

The moment you commit information to little bits of paper and sloppy handwriting and filing cabinets and vague references to other storage places, the game is lost. The link between the information and what it is about is no longer there. It isn't much better if the same system is simulated with computers. Useful information can often be reconstructed, but there's nothing that guarantees that.

In the electronic world, we should by now be able to do much better. There's absolutely no reason to store our information in the same sloppy manner, lists of names and addresses in files that can be lost and falsified, or, worse, in free unstructured text form that also is stored in fairly random places, without real links to the subject matter.

What I'm asking for is, in part, two-way links, as one can pull the string from either side. But it is also unbreakable links, not just pointers. Not just signs that point in the general direction of the other piece of information. Rather, something like an electrical wire. The moment somebody cuts it, an alarm goes off. Or a quantum entanglement kind of mechanism, where you just can't mess with it without it being noticed.

How can one practically implement it? I didn't say I knew how, just that I want it, and that everything we do with information would totally change if we had reliable links. But it is not like it is an unsolvable problem. It would in no way be impossible to provide each living person with a unique encrypted ID code. There are certainly issues of politics and of privacy, and of identity theft, but they could be solved if there were any unified wish to have unique IDs. As it is now, it is in most places a no-brainer to acquire multiple ID numbers or to disappear to somewhere else.

The same applies to things, places, organized groups, subjects, etc. Information is as sloppily kept as for people, or more. A car at least has an ID number, but it is only used by government agencies, not for recording your photos or car trips or anything else.

A lot of stuff might deserve being very loosely joined, but not facts. A piece of information that is or could be a fact when recorded shouldn't later be a matter of searching and guessing. You should know its level of correctness by the way it is linked, not by some forensic text analysis.

Our shared information system has Alzheimer's. Real events instantly get converted into vague guesswork and conjecture and interpretation and stories and remixed soundbites. And then we expect to pour all of that stuff together, have a machine sort it all, and then we'll discover how really smart we are?

We'd probably get somewhere faster if we at least could keep most of the objective stuff straight, and then we could use our imagination and reasoning abilities for more important stuff than merely trying to reconstruct what is going on.
[ | 2010-07-10 13:01 | 18 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, July 8, 2010day link 

 Truth: superconductivity for scalable networks
picture A couple of comments to my recent articles made me consider the importance of truth in effective collaboration networks. How can people truly connect if their connection is based on lies? Maybe collective intelligence is proportional to the amount of truth in the system.

Truth can mean different things to different people, of course, and there are several angles to this. To me truth is a coherence between realities and their representations. There can be many levels of reality and many levels of abstract representations. Truth is when what you say or imply is there actually is what is there, and when you actually say what is there.

It is rather relative, but, still, we recognize truth. Have you ever experienced having a conflict with somebody else, where you dig into the defense of your separate positions, and it is really upsetting, and you judge each other as being wrong, but then at some point, some key piece of information is exchanged, and you both, at the same time, have an "Oh, that's what's going on, now I understand!" kind of realization? It is a big sigh of relief, where the conflict just instantly evaporates. You realize that you defined a key term differently, or that you made assumptions that turned out not to be true, or you used different approaches, valid in their own right, but conflicting. Truth is freeing. It opens doors, makes things flow.

Between individuals, a lack of truth is often unintentional. You just didn't realize a key difference or a missing piece of information, and you proceeded based on different assumptions. Once they're brought to light, the matter is quickly settled, and an effective collaboration or agreement can be reached.

You can control people by intentionally leaving out the truth, by presenting a picture that is different from the reality. You can make a lot of money by making some cheap crap look expensive and attractive. You get votes by leading lots of people to believe you care about their interests.

At a very practical level, you can't make very good decisions when you don't have the correct information.

That is of particular importance in networking, in cooperation and collaboration. It is of huge importance in harnessing the self-organizing power of groups, in the hope of increasing collective intelligence.

See, if every connection formed between two nodes in a network is based on lies and misinformation, not much synergy is achieved, and the connections will not be very effective. Imagine that each node in a network provides some kind of statement of "This is what I'm about. This is what I provide. This is what I need." and nodes connect with each other based on that, then it is important that such statements approximately represent something actual. If the people who say they provide funding have no money, and the people who repair cars don't know anything about cars, and the people who take care of children don't like kids, and the people who say they can fix things have no clue how - obviously the wrong connections are being made. You don't get the right people for the job, you don't find the right collaborators, you don't get the laundry detergent with the best price/quality ratio.

It might not make sense to describe it mathematically, but these errors in connection will certainly add up quickly, maybe exponentially. If you're trying to do something big, or you're part of a big network, these kinds of errors in connection might easily add up to making the whole thing completely ineffective.

Conversely, if you create a network of true connections, where it is clear what each node does, what is supplies, and what is needed, it starts scaling. Imagine the kind of superconductivity that takes place when all information is complete, relevant and correct. Self-organization can scale rapidly if there's little loss of integrity from untruth in each connection.

Currently, most types of organization are having a problem there. Even the very small organization of a single relationship between two people. Even people who've been married for years typically have a considerable problem saying the truth and relating based primarily on what is true. So, even more so, the more people you put together.

Our current civilization is to a large degree based on manipulation through untruth, by the few, of the many, exactly because we aren't good at cooperating truthfully.

The majority of the population in the industrialized world are employees. They produce a value for somebody else which is, on the average, a lot higher than the value they're being paid. They do that in part because they don't know how to produce that value on their own, and in part because they don't know the value of what they're producing. The reason they don't know those things is because the information isn't easily available. Rather, they're presented with entirely different and misleading information, emphasizing the stability of their situation, their benefits, their rights, random entertainment, weather and traffic reports, etc.

It typically isn't a matter of evil intentions on the part of the few who control the many. It is currently the most pragmatic and efficient choice. It is relatively more practical and productive to borrow money to create a company and hire a bunch of people and tell them what to do than it is to participate in a bottom-up self-organizing network of the same number of people. Not always. Sometimes small groups of people will freely do something great, without coercion, without needing payment. It is still a bit of an exception, but it is an important enough exception to indicate significant future possibilities. Sometimes open source communities will create a great product, fairly efficiently, for free, because a number of people voluntarily gather around a need or a solution, communicated clearly and truthfully enough so that they all can sense it, in one form or another.

Fuzzy projects and problems aren't yet easily undertaken by cooperative groups. Oh, strictly hierarchical groups are on their way out, but corporate network-like structures are still based on a hierarchy of control. The top still pays salaries and reaps the profit and outlines what one should work on, even if the finer details are loose.

There is lots of good information easily available. But huge areas are covered only by wildly misleading information, or information is largely missing, and that fact is well hidden. Do you think you know how most people make their money, or how large cooperations make their money? Sure, you can easily learn the average salaries of people in different professions, and the type of work they do, and you can easily look up the profits for public companies. But what actually is going on is mired in many layers of obfuscation.

Good information is something you readily can act upon and use. If I don't know how to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and I receive the right information, then I'll be able to fix the faucet. Maybe I first need to go to Home Depot and get a tool or a part, but that would be part of the good information, and I can still get the result I seek, right here, today.

There are plenty of outfits that will promise you similarly readymade information on how to make a good living doing one thing or another. Say, Internet Marketing or MLM. But once you receive that $2000 get rich quick manual or your supply of MLM vitamins, you discover that the instructions just don't get you there. They might be technically correct, and they might even give you a good overview and teach you something, but they're leaving out the specific information you would need to act in an effective way.

I have lots of friends online and offline. Yet I'm not really sure what to do with most of them. I mean, what can I do for them, what can they do for me? Oh, we don't have to do business in order to be friends, but if we do have something to offer or something we're looking for, it would be nice if we all knew what it was. And, I must admit, as to the majority of the people I know, I don't really know what they can do, and I probably haven't told them honestly what I need and want.

It is hard to be honest. If somebody asks me what I do or how I'm doing, I'm likely to tell them I'm fine, and things are going well, and I'll give them some general idea of what I do, which usually doesn't match neither what I actually do nor what I'd like to do. Why do I do that? In part because I myself am a little fuzzy on what it is I'm here for, and in part because I'm embarrassed if I actually need something, or I'm failing at something, and I'd like to look good. Different people have different hangups, but it is rare to get immediately actionable truth out of anybody.

Now, imagine that we were able to tell the honest truth most of the time. Imagine that it would be easy and natural to record and share the information about what really is there. Then imagine the possibility that lots of things actually would fit together when a lot of us start doing so. You know, I have something you need, you have a solution to my problem, X has the information that Y needs, A has a resource that B knows how to use. Synergy is much more likely when everything is visible.

Do our communication and collaboration tools lead us to be more or less honest? Do they increase truth, or obfuscate it? Do I have to wear a mask in order to protect myself, or do I get empowered by showing my real face?

How can we create environments where the truth is empowering?

I'm not talking about ultimate truth about the meaning of life and the universe. Simply, as I mentioned, a correspondance between what is going on and what one says is going on.

Masses of people who need to keep up appearances, trying to adhere to norms they never consciously agreed to, are relatively easy to control. They can be rendered rather harmless, as they each pursue individual rewards that don't truly match what they need and want.

If we make collaborative tools that simply reinforce our inclination to keep up appearances, they won't go far. If they only help us exchange impressively sounding declarations, abstract positions and lists of accomplishments, they won't have accomplished much.

Good information is actionable. It isn't just something to find interesting and to collect and pass on. There should preferably be something you can do about it or with it right now.

It is in itself a fairly fuzzy proposition to write an article about the need for truth in collaboration. Does that change anything? Maybe, maybe not. What is exactly the truth I'm calling for? I can only give vague examples.

There's a transparency that is needed. A lack of resistance. A matching of receptors. Things that match match. If one puts the wrong labels on stuff, one might erroneously try to match things that really don't fit.

Collective intelligence has something to do with increasing the number of opportunities for stuff to connect up, and lowering the resistance to it happening. Lacking or incorrect information are forms of resistance. Correct and complete information decreases resistance and increases connections.
[ / | 2010-07-08 02:27 | 19 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Sunday, June 27, 2010day link 

 Be afraid, be very afraid
picture The old civilization (human civilization in the last few thousand years) is pretty much based on the observation that humans, on the average, work badly together, but they can be controlled. Thus, history is the story of individuals, the lucky few who were in the right position to control others, and who knew how to do so. Alexander the Great couldn't have conquered much all by himself. His genius was in persuading 100s of thousands of soldiers to do what he said, to go and get killed so that he could be the dictator of a huge empire. Most memorable parts of history worked pretty much the same. Some guy used force and persuasion to make lots of people do what we wanted done, and the result became something impressive. Empires. Pyramids. Roman aqueducts. Greek temples.

Our society isn't much different today, other than that the control mechanisms have gotten much more clever and convoluted, and they've been camouflaged as democracy, free markets and free speech. What's different is that it is no longer the very visible kings or presidents who are in charge of very much. They go with the flow almost as much as everybody else. What hasn't changed is that it is the very, very few who control the majority of what's going on. But it is the vast majority that enable this to happen and that provide all the manpower. Despite that what they're getting isn't really working very well.

Western civilization - it would be a good idea, like Gandhi said. Democracy, that would be good idea too. Free markets would be an excellent thing to implement. We don't really have those, even though most people on the street would tell you that we do. They'd also tell you that money represents value, and that everybody has an equal opportunity, and one is free to say whatever one wants. All of which is a cartoonish propaganda reality which doesn't really exist anywhere on this planet.

However, the really good news is that all of it could change very, very quickly.

The thing is that we simply haven't worked out how to work together yet. The groups we're familiar with are simply collections of people who follow one leader, or a few leaders. Corporations. Governments. Religions. The News. We're talking about thousands or millions of people who voluntarily choose to do what a handful of people tell them to do. Usually towards their own ends, for their own gain, or simply based on their particular personal insanity.

Mind-boggling. Why do we do that?

Because collective intelligence hasn't worked for us so far.

You put a group of people together, most of the time, you'll end up with something more stupid than any of the individuals you put together. They'll argue, posture, waste time, and probably end up agreeing on something not very useful. But give them a leader, somebody who'll inspire them, give them a purpose, while making sure they get paid and fed, suddenly they'll all line up and do what they're told.

But imagine that a group of people actually suddenly could become more than the sum of its parts.

Imagine that the natural order of things would be that a group of people would self-organize in order to maximize their common interests. Imagine that together they'd accomplish more than simply the sum of their individual contributions, because of the synergy between then. They'd operate at a bigger order. Surprisingly clever and wonderful stuff would happen that none of them individually could have predicted, and that none of them directly caused.

That's called Collective Intelligence. That's when a group of people becomes smarter than any of them individually, and even smarter than them all together. It's a positive sum. 1 + 1 + 1 = 5.

That's not a wild-eyed fantasy. It is simply that humans haven't been very good at it so far. The result of that has been that 0.01% of the population control the other 99.99%, who do what they're told, and who're rewarded in some mediocre way for doing so.

Imagine that it changed one day. Maybe somebody came up with a tool that allowed people to actually work together. Maybe it just started happening by itself. Evolution. Suddenly we see win-win relationships around us.

Just like Alexander the Great by himself in his underwear wouldn't be worth much, and just like Adolf Hitler was just a little angry Austrian guy, part Jewish, mediocre painter, chronically constipated, most of the great leaders of civilization don't amount to much by themselves. Oh, some of them do. Some leaders would remain leaders even if we had a choice about it, because they're inspiring, because they're empowering and enabling catalysts who know how to make things happen.

But most of those very, very few who call the shots should probably be very afraid.

Because if we actually figured out how to work together, they'd be out of a job from one day to the next.

Elected leaders are only there because they've been elected. One little scandal, the truth coming out, will remove them from office in a couple of days. And nobody might vote for them next time.

Multi-billion dollar multi-national corporations are only in the position they are because people are buying their products, voluntarily, but without really knowing what's behind it, who's doing what, where these products come from, what the money is used for, etc. If they knew, they'd make different choices right away.

While we're scattered, disjoined, dispersed, unconnected, distracted and confused - we're not very effective.

We, the people, are the real power. If a million people agree on what is in our common interest, what's one anti-social asshole gonna do? Go hide? Unfortunately, today, that one guy is the CEO, and you could be laid off any day if you don't do what you're supposed to. But if we actually were talking with each other, he'd be the guy who'd be running for cover. Assuming he's one of those guys who got there by deceit and coercion.

There is one problem to solve. It is THE problem. How can we work together, towards our common interests, in a way that is constructive. In particular, how can we together solve complex problems that we wouldn't be able to solve individually.

It is called collective intelligence.

It isn't just some crazy left-wing idealist dream. It is probably the natural order of things. The universe works perfectly well. Stars are born, stars die. Evolution has gone on for billions of years. Billions of life forms coexist in great diversity and synergy. It is just us humans that for a few thousand years have gotten lost in the dark ages of mental and emotional separation. We found that we could think abstractly, invent stuff, communicate, organize, manipulate. That made us surprisingly productive and simultaneously surprisingly malleable and controllable.

Chances are that we don't remain dispersed for much longer. One way or another we'll figure out how to actually work together. Or we'll go extinct within the next couple of generations. Evolution happens when there's a bit of a crisis. Probably we'll change and we'll make it.

When we change, it will probably happen quickly. Because, really, it is not exactly about what any one of us are up to. Rather, when we find out that we can work together and the sum will be greater than the parts, there will be no way back.

That will be the Singularity.

When suddenly we no longer all are working against each other, allowing the few to manipulate us for their personal gain, when suddenly there is positive gain in all our collaborations. When suddenly humanity starts to feel smart and creative and constructive, rather than homicidal and suicidal. When humanity wakes up.

There are really only a few anti-social fucktards who'd even be against this. Most all of us want humanity to succeed. We want to be free. We want to make a difference. We want to be happy. Duh. Most people are good people.

If the truth is available, and easily communicated, and large groups of people can work together on common goals, big things can happen. It hasn't happened so far. It probably will soon. In part because technology is evolving rapidly. It will probably soon be impractical to keep us all apart.

Doesn't really matter if you're left wing or right wing or religious or scientific. There are a lot of artificial abstract ideas that separate us. But if we actually could talk about what we really care about, and work together on the solutions, nothing much would need to stop us.

Until we get there it is maybe a bit of a pain to try to work with others. Might be easier to either force somebody else to do it our way, or to follow somebody else's program.

But once we learn to actually network... the world will not be the same again. There probably won't be any way back.

So, if you're in the business of deceiving the many, for your own personal gain, be afraid. You'll need a new job soon. Something is emerging that you can't possibly compete with.
[ / | 2010-06-27 02:28 | 17 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Sunday, July 6, 2008day link 

 Laws of social networks
There are a few "laws" that typically are brought up when one discusses networks, particularly online social networks. They show a progression of different kinds of networks. They're not rules and they're not natural laws, but they're an abstraction of observations smart people have made about different types of networks.

First there's Sarnoff's Law. David Sarnoff was a big name in radio broadcasting. Around 1930 he formulated a law that said, essentially:


The value of a network is proportional to the number of members

He was talking about a broadcast network. Meaning a one-way emission of some program to a number of listeners or viewers. Sure, twice as many listeners is twice as good, if we're thinking about influence, advertising dollars, etc.

Then we move on to a different kind of network where each node potentially might talk with any other node. Here is Metcalfe's Law:


The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system

Here were talking about a telecom network. Think about a phone network. Anybody with a phone can call anybody else with a phone. So, the number of possible connections is much higher. It is the square of the number of nodes. Robert Metcalfe who formulated this law around 1970 was the inventor of the ethernet protocol for computer networks, and this applies to networks between computer users as well as it applies to telephones.

But we can do better than that. Computer users can not just make calls or send e-mails. With proper software like forums and social networking sites, they can also get together and form groups. The number of theoretically possible groups is much higher than the number of connections between individuals. So, here comes Reed's Law:

The utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.

This was formulated in 1999 by David Reed. This obviously applies to the Internet.

So, we went from a potential value proportional to number of members in a broadcast network, to the square of the number of members in a telecom type network, to roughly 2 to the n'th power, in a group-forming network, where n is the number of members.

This is all rather abstract and theoretical. We're only talking about potential maximum value, a potential which will never be met. In a phone network, most of the nodes wouldn't have the slightest interest in calling up the majority of the rest of the nodes. And on the Internet, most people would never want to participate in anything remotely like the number of groups that could be formed, as they wouldn't possibly have time, and their number of interests has not grown exponentially.

I'd rather go in a somewhat different direction and formulate a law that both is more correct and just as useless.


The value of a network is proportional to its complexity

See, the real value doesn't really depend very directly on the number of nodes. Sure, the Internet is potentially more valuable if we add a lot of people to it, but in reality only if there's a meaningful way for you to have a direct or indirect relationship to them, or to draw value from what they're doing. But it is not the number that does it, it is the type of web that is woven.

I'm talking about complexity in the sense of systemic properties where the parts somehow are inter-related in a way where the sum becomes more than just the total of the parts.

Those types of networks above are special cases of this. A broadcast network is very simple and doesn't have much complexity. However, the real value of such a network doesn't really depend on just the number of viewers, as it depends on who they are and what the network is broadcasting. One network might easily be more valuable than another with the same number of members.

The value of a telecom network isn't really n squared. It depends on which relationships people have outside the network. The more complex the relationships, and the more complex relationships the network facilitates, the more valuable it is.

Everybody on the net aren't going to form groups with everybody else, so, again, the real value depends on the complexity of the relationships that it is meaningful to maintain. Something might increase it, but it isn't the number of members itself that is going to increase it.

It is an easy claim to make, that the value of a network is proportional to its complexity, because complexity is badly defined and there's no way of measuring it. That doesn't make it less true.

What increases the value is increased complexity in the sense that more intricate webs are woven in a way that is useful.

Think about a brain. Neurons are connected with other neurons in a very complex way that creates a system ready to respond in useful ways to a great number of different situations. It isn't the number of neurons that's key, but the multitude of ways they're become connected, based on a multitude of learning experiences. Signals propagate and ripple across the network, useful responses emerge, and the system keeps learning and evolving.

It isn't very valuable or useful to connect random people with other random people in random constellations. What is useful is that relationships form, based on shared interests or experiences, and that one is able to indirectly draw on the connections and knowledge of other people, through several steps.

If you're in a social network, you've somehow become connected with people that you have something in common with. You've also connected yourself with resources that are useful to you, which have been created by people you probably don't know. These people and those resources are again connected with networks of people that again are connected with other people and other resources. If there's something you want to do, or something you want to know, there's an intricate web of connectedness available to you. Maybe what you're looking for isn't available from what you're directly connected to, but it might materialize from what you indirectly are connected to. You're connected with a complex network and exactly what is available is in no way obvious. But the value of it increases the more developed this network is, the more meaningful connections have been developed, the more those different resources are lined up, ready to go. Which is the complexity.

The complexity can be increased. How to do so isn't generally clear or understood. How can one weave more useful, far-reaching connections, without merely making it all more complicated and confusing? There's no easy answer, but there are certain indicators. What you're looking for is the tools that appear to make things more simple, while actually connecting you with more stuff. Does it get things together for you, or does it fragment things for you? Is the network becoming smarter, or more confused? Are you seeing synergy emerging, or the opposite?
[ | 2008-07-06 23:20 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Friday, June 20, 2008day link 

 Peer material production
From P2P Foundation, Raoul Victor talking about how a Peer to Peer society might look like. One of the hard parts would be how to get from a capitalistic production system to a P2P system, presumably not based on money.
From a human point of view, the “efficiency” of a mode of production is measured by its capacity to allow the human material needs to be satisfied. Capitalism has created an extraordinary network (the world market) allowing existent needs to find, some times at the other side of the world, the means to be satisfied. Demand and offer are confronted and interrelated through the market mechanisms. But it is a relation distorted by commercial exchange and the capitalistic logic based of profit.

In the capitalist market, the needs considered are not all the real human needs. These are limited by the necessity to be solvent. If you don’t have money, your needs/desires do not exist in the market, they are not taken into account.

The offer is also limited, restricted: if production can not be sold, sold with profit, it is not done. Non profitable production does not exists in the market. Without profit perspective, fields are lied fallow, factories (even modern ones) closed, workers unemployed.

Only the logic of the capitalist market can explain that to day a child dies from malnutrition every 5 seconds in the world.

A peer society is the only way to interrelate the real (and not the solvent) demand with the real (and not the profitable) potential forces of production, human and material.
I intuitively agree. But how it actually is done, that's the thing. Our capitalistic system is inhumanely cruel and unable to deal with a great number of needs. But it is more efficient and productive than some of the alternatives, like a top-down communist bureaucracy. However, it shouldn't be all that hard to prove that it is hugely more wasteful and inefficient than a networked system that inspires people to produce what actually is needed, and to do so in the most efficient way. That would require, not just that everybody does whatever they feel like, but that there are potent ways of measuring of what is needed, what work is of good quality, etc. There'd still be a great need to way of measuring value.
For most of commonly needed products, we could imagine sorts of “super-markets” (we should say “super non-markets”) where goods are free/gratis. These might also be Internet sites. The nature and quantities of the products taken (instead of bought) would be instantaneously registered and the data sent by Internet to centers at different levels (villages, local, regional, worldwide).

That data would be permanently processed at different levels by a set of softwares in order to generate a list of consumption requirements, including as much information as possible: geographical localization, quantity, qualities, etc. The softwares would be constantly developed and improved integrating the final-user desires, systematically collected, elaborated, processed at all levels. That list would be made available to anyone in the planet, giving an instantaneous and permanent list of all the common consumption “itches” that humans “need to scratch”.

On the productive side, any center of production would thus have a real and large choice to decide what it prefers to produce, having the security that its product will be useful and used/consumed. It could also make propositions of new solutions to present or future needs/desires.

Every production center, in his turn, would express permanently its needs in order to realize its projects and, as for consumption, through Internet, these would be instantaneously collected, processed and put at public use.
What really would change the world in fairly rapid order would be just that: the ability to view it more clearly. If you actually could SEE, much more clearly than you can now, what is going on, what needs there are, what problems there are, how well the solutions are working, what is being produced, and what isn't - most reasoably rational humans would right away get ideas about what to do, and who to do it with and for.

The biggest problem is blindness. The prices in a market are a way of seeing. If you see that something is cheap or expensive, or abundant or scarce, it tells you something. Not necessarily the truth, but you assume that a whole complicated process already has taken place to establish those conditions. That works, but badly. How about if you actually could access, directly, the real costs of different products, services and activities. And you could see their real value. Do they really work, do they solve any problems? And you could see what is needed in many different areas and how well those needs are met.

That would all require some very fancy data processing which doesn't quite exist. But just imagine it. You're being fooled into paying high prices for products and services that often are of low quality and that could be done much more cheaply. You're being fooled into spending most of your life doing work that isn't actually very useful or needed. You're supporting organizations and electing leaders that don't necessarily do what's best for you or for the world. You do that because you're blind, getting your information from heresay and from the media, so you just give it your best guess and do what other people seem to be doing. But what if you could actually see, in a way that much better approximated reality, what is going on around you and in the world?

Peer production would be a no-brainer, if you had the right information and good enough communication channels. It would also be the end of many other systems that don't actually work very well, but that work in muddy waters.
[ | 2008-06-20 15:40 | 7 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Tuesday, May 6, 2008day link 

 Why can't we stick to our goals?
picture L.A. Times: "Does your brain have a mind of its own?" - Why can't we stick to our goals? Blame the sloppy engineering of evolution.
How many times has this happened to you? You leave work, decide that you need to get groceries on the way home, take a cellphone call and forget all about your plan. Next thing you know, you've driven home and forgotten all about the groceries.

Or this. You decide, perhaps circa Jan. 1, that it's time to lose weight; you need to eat less, eat better and exercise more. But by the first of May, your New Year's resolutions are a distant memory.

Human beings are, to put it gently, in a unique position in the animal world. We're the only species smart enough to plan systematically for the future -- yet we remain dumb enough to ditch even our most carefully made plans in favor of short-term gratification. ("Did I say I was on a diet? Mmm, but three-layer chocolate mousse is my favorite. Maybe I'll start my diet tomorrow.")...
I thought it was just me. It seems surprisingly hard to make my mentally conceived plans stick. If once in a while I really feel what needs to happen in my bones, or in my gut, it happens. But if it is merely a good idea, however logical, coherent and important I conclude it is, it usually gets overridden by whatever distraction that shows up that feels more compelling in the moment. And my plans are easily forgotten.

The article blames it on faulty evolutionary engineering. I'm not sure I believe in such a thing, i.e. I don't quite believe that evolution is so dumb and blind, but he does have a point. Our animal instincts are well developed. A danger appears and we'll know how to jump aside, without thinking about it. Something delicious appears in front of our nose and we'll be munching on it it no time. Our abstractly thinking mental faculties are much more sophisticated, but at the same time they seem like an after-thought, not entirely wired into the machinery. We can make great plans, based on the processing of abstract information, aimed at desirable long term objectives. But a single piece of chocolate cake or a random interesting website might get us off track.

I suppose some people have something called discipline, which involves subordinating what one actually feels to one's mental plans and ideals. But that just seems so .. brutal. It would of course be better if one's instincts, emotions and physical desires actually were synchronized with the mental planning. Not subordinated to it, as the mental ideas aren't necessarily the ones that are right. But coordinated at least. Maybe I should work on that. Or maybe I'll see what's on TV.
[ | 2008-05-06 13:57 | 9 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, February 21, 2008day link 

 Open social networks
It is odd that nobody has made an open, public, platform free social network yet. Social networks *should* be independent of any particular central website, but it hasn't happened yet. They're all isolated, proprietary islands. Or, even if they're built on open source software, there's no way of exchanging much between them.

My main contribution to the field of social networks was and is the New Civilization Network. Which still exists, and I'm posting this message from my blog within it, but which is a bit dated in terms of it's software. But it has had profiles and buddy lists and blogs and forums and picture galleries for more than a decade. At the beginning, it was the intention to create a platform for social networks that would span many servers, run by different people, so that one could plug into it from many places, each having a different flavor, but accessing the aggregated resources of all of them. "The Sprawl" was the code name for this plan. Didn't actually materialize, so today NCN is just another isolated island in cyberspace.

Facebook, Ryze, Orkut, LinkedIn and all the others are also separate islands. Several of them have interfaces so that programmers can add modules to them, or access a limited amount of information from them. But nothing at all that allows you to move seamlessly between them.

People who make virtual worlds are working on standards that would allow you to go from one to the other. There's no terribly good reason you shouldn't be able to teleport from Second Life to World of Warcraft. To create something like that would require that one defines a minimum of characteristics that a virtual character would have everywhere, so that each world could implement a way of supporting them.

Social networks could do the same. If there was a shared way of representing a person/profile, what they do, and who they know, it should be something transferrable. But it is probably harder than the virtual reality scenario. Because a big part of it is the relation one has with other people. Or, we could say, with other profiles. And how do they exist, separately from a particular network site and its software?

That probably ties in with identity. How does one know that the ffunch on Facebook is the same as ffunch in Orkut? Not without some shared standard of identity, one that everybody would support.

But, assuming that the problem of a universal identity system was worked out, what would be interesting would be if somebody made the pieces of a platform-free social network.

The web is based on some standards for presenting content, and linking it together. It doesn't matter what server anything is on, it is just part of the address. So, I can link to your stuff from my webpage, hosted on any which web server, and I can even include some of your stuff on your server in my page on my server.

That is of course how a social network should work too. I don't just have friends who use the same brand of shoes as me, or who drive the same brand of car. I have friends wherever they happen to be, and whatever they do. The web way of doing it is of course that I can link to them, and make a list of them, no matter where they are, what ISP they're using, etc.

I can call your Nokia phone from my iPhone. Doesn't matter at all, as long as I have your number. That's kind of the point of network structures, that one can link freely between nodes. That's kind of the definition of a network. So, what we call Social Networks are kind of fake networks. One can list web links as before, but one can only link to people who are wearing the same shoes, who are subscribed to the same website.

So, all it takes is that somebody comes up with a way of expressing profiles and lists of contacts in a standardized format that can be put on any website. Some kind of XML thing that has most of the things you'd find in a profile on Facebook. Your interests, where have you worked, the lists of movies you like, and links to other profiles.

There is, of course, FOAF, which is indeed an open format for expressing a list of contacts. And, really, it is what the Semantic Web is supposed to do. And the World Wide Web could transform into the Giant Global Graph, connecting everybody with everybody else, no matter what server their stuff is on.

"Social Graph" is a word that expresses what Social Networks should have been, but aren't: the actual network of connections between people.

I don't know what's so hard about it, since it hasn't yet happened. Other than it maybe is more complicated than it seems. Whenever I try to look at the work of standards groups that are working on pieces of that puzzle, I walk away confused. I'm not sure if that's because it really is terribly complicated, and I'm a little slow and/or impatient, or because they're making it more complicated than it is.

Sometimes a major advance in Internet standards comes from somebody who didn't bother dealing with committees taking years to work through all the complexities. Dave Winer invented RSS and XML-RPC and other good things, basically just by deciding what would be useful to himself. RSS is very simple, and can't really be called anything other than a huge success. Somebody might come along and do the same thing with the standards needed for social graphs.

Anyway, in a week and a half I'm going to BlogTalk and Webcamp in Cork, Ireland, which will focus on these kinds of things, I'm sure, with smart people who've been much more involved in possible solutions than I have. So, hopefully I'll get a little wiser on where things are going.
[ | 2008-02-21 21:16 | 16 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, November 8, 2007day link 

 The value of connections
picture Fine Article at World Changing by Jon Lebkowsky about social networks and the value of connections. I'll excerpt a good explanation of some of the basics for discussing that:
The conversation about social network value starts with a couple of assertions, or "laws," that have influenced the evolution of both technical and social networks:

Metcalfe's Law: The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of endpoints.
Reed's Law: The utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.

The first law, authored by Ethernet creator Bob Metcalfe, describes how the value of a communications network grows with the square of the number of people or devices it connects. Forgetting the math behind this assertion, what he's really saying is that the value grows faster than the number of access points.

Metcalfe coined another term, network effect, to describe the increase in value of a good or service as it's adopted by more and more people. This makes sense: If only one guy has a telephone, it's not valuable at all, but as more and more people acquire phones, value increases because the potential for connection increases. When I first got an email account in the 1980's, its value was practically zero because there were so few email users and nobody I knew had it. From a personal perspective, as more people used email, and especially as more people I knew got accounts, the more valuable it became. From a global perspective, email has significant value now because so many people have accounts. Even the homeless guy sleeping in the park is liable to have a free email account that he can access at the library.

(Increased value can also have a down side. Because the network is so valuable, it creates a negative, in that it creates value for the spammers who make my life, and probably yours, miserable.)

Metcalfe was influential early on, but David Reed went a step further, and a lot of us who've been co-creating the "Web 2.0" world had an "aha moment" when we read his piece about the "sneaky exponential" and the real power of community building...
I think it is important to stress that we're talking about the potential value of a network. Just because you can call everybody in the world on the phone doesn't mean that you will or that much will come out of it. There's lot more potential there than if you didn't have phones, of course. But even in a vast network where one can form groups and collaborate, the actual value is a small fraction of the potential value. I'm a member of a lot of groups in places like Facebook, a bunch of which sound great, are along the lines of things I'm very interested in, and that are populated by people I like. And yet I rarely visit them, and not much comes out of it.

There are a lot of bottlenecks that limit network value. Bandwidth issues, and lack of ways of organizing stuff. I have no great way of processing huge amounts of information because I don't have time to figure out what to do with it, and even though there is too much, there is also too little, so I don't necessarily perceive my connection with it, or the relevance for me.

There's of course Dunbar's Number, which says that one can only maintain a meaningful social relationship with 150 people at the same time. There's that we can only keep our conscious attention on 5-7 things at the same time. And there's that computers don't help us much in overcoming such attention limits, even though they potentially could. Software does help us keep track of more things at the same time, and more things that are dispersed around the world in different places and different fields. And software does help me pay attention. But it just as much scatters my attention.

There's a lot of software that hasn't been invented yet, which usually appears in science fiction, where one has some kind of symbiotic relationship with a computer and network, which makes us smarter, staying conscious of more stuff. But it doesn't really have to be in the form of a metaphysical merging with some big Singularity AI thing. Somebody has to write the software, and they could potentially do so now.

We could get closer to the potential value of a network if I could see more of it. Even though the phone network is a relatively "simple" to understand network, I can't see it, I can't perceive it. I can see it like I can see the world through a keyhole. I can call one number at a time, or maybe two if I have call waiting, or a few dozen in a conference call. But nothing close to the few billion numbers there really are. I can get a list of people to call from a phonebook, a big stack of paper, sorted alphabetically, covering only a small geographical region. I can get much more online, but I can still only see it a limited number of ways, and organized by place, name and business. I can't really see the potential.

I can see much more in online social networks, like people's pictures, their interests, their activities, where they go, what they do, who they know. At least to a certain extent. If I already know them well, it might be enough to stay connected in a useful way. If I don't, it might still be like the difference between a travel brochure and the actual journey. The brochure might have feeds and videos, but I'm still not there. My computer screen is still like a keyhole.

In some kind of idealized future cyberspace everything will be connected and all information will be cross-indexed and we'll have access to in a computer-assisted way. Hopefully, when we figure out how. We can demonstrate some of it on a relatively small scale, and it is available if we put our mind to it. If I've read a book, and I no longer need it, I might be happy to give it away or exchange it with somebody else for another book which I might like to read, and which that person no longer needs. There are websites that will let you do exactly such an exchange. But you have to really decide that it is important, and to join it, sign up, type in the books you have available, mail them, etc. I'd of course want it to be more automatic, and thoroughly optimized. It would be easier if it were a person a couple of streets away who wanted my book, and easier if I didn't have to first join a website and type in the information about it.

The potentially exponential value of a network comes about only if all information is linked up. If I can always find the very best information available, and the exact best people to work with, and the exact right time to do stuff, everything changes, of course. The Internet didn't yet magically make that happen, even if we suspected that maybe it would.

So, how can we connect more, with more people? How can we use social software to get us beyond more of the limitations we're still taking with us from the non-wired world. I.e. how many things or how many people we can keep track of at one time. Connections will become more valuable if they can produce value even when I'm not paying attention to them. Paying attention, even when I'm not paying attention. Staying connected even when I don't connect.
[ | 2007-11-08 01:49 | 13 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Wednesday, November 7, 2007day link 

 Diversity counterproductive to social capital?
Metafilter:
James Wilson's article in Commentary magazine talks about Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam's essay recently published in Scandinavian Political Studies. In the essay, Putnam publicizes the findings of his research, conducted in rural districts, towns, and cities, whose conclusion establishes that diverse neighborhoods show less "social capital" because ethnically diverse residents seem to distrust each other.

Putnam has discovered that friendship, carpooling, participating in local projects is much lower in ethnically heterogeneous communities than in homogeneous ones. His research reveals that the exception to the tendency of diversity to inhibit "social trust" occurs in ethnically diverse military or religious settings as well as in social circles with intermarried couples. Wilson adds sports teams to the list of these exceptional places where ethnically different people click well.
Duh. One doesn't create community just by putting people next to each other. But if that's what one does, yes, it is more likely that the people who're most similar will develop relationships and social trust. Everything else being equal, the white middleclass working family with kids is likely to relate to their neighbors who also are white middleclass working families with kids, and they can babysit for each other, and come to each other's barbecues, and meet when they're picking the kids up from school in their minivans. And maybe they're less clear on how to relate to the unemployed black guy across the street who's sitting in front of his house all day.

Diverse groups of people are more likely to become bonded together, not just by proximity, but by either a common purpose or a shared history. If you were in the army together, or you work in the same company, the diversity is not so likely to get in the way.

And if social capital is a kind of capital, it would be reasonable to expect that differences generate potential value, and bigger differences can create more value. Meaning, we're worth more to each other, notbecause we're the same, but because something we do is complementary to what the others do. Even if you're similar people, a lot of the value in the social relation come from the areas where there's a difference. If nothing else, that your neighbors are home on a day when you want to go out, so they can babysit. But bigger differences can produce more value. If one of your neighbors is a auto mechanic, and you're a klutz, there's obviously some value in getting along well with him, even if he has a different "profile" from you, as he can repair your car. And if there's something else you can do that he can't, great.

So, the diversity IS the social capital to a large degree. Except for that it doesn't get activated unless the parties somehow get close enough together to form some links between them. Which is a little bit of a puzzle, of course.
[ | 2007-11-07 00:51 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Friday, July 13, 2007day link 

 Plan vs Reality
picture
From Lee's Doodles
[ | 2007-07-13 23:42 | 7 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, July 12, 2007day link 

 Emergence and democracy
picture Emergence is one of my most favorite subjects. The one I'd maybe most like to figure out. What makes things emerge? Good stuff. Seemingly out of nothing. Here's a definition by Jeffrey Goldstein, from Wikipedia. It is:
the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.
And some common characteristics:
(1) radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems);
(2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time);
(3) A global or macro "level" (i.e. there is some property of "wholeness");
(4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves); and
(5) it is "ostensive" - it can be perceived.
Excelleeent! More of that, please.

Monday I was taking part in an online discussion organized by Extreme Democracy, around emergence in relation to politics. Sort of poking around in the thought of whether a better and more direct democracy possibly might emerge from the bottom and up. I can't seem to locate a transcript, so I can't quote all the good points.

One of the starting points was Two ways to emerge, and how to tell the difference between them (pdf) by Steven Johnson.

The two types he's talking about, he calls "Clustering" and "Coping". Those aren't very good choices of words, but it is a good observation that there are different kinds.

Clustering would be where a bunch of somethings get together and do the same thing. Like slime mold. Or a flash mob, or other group phenomena where large numbers of people suddenly get excited about one thing or another, and they all show up at the same time, or they do the same thing.

Coping would be where a bunch of individuals get together, and they don't just do one simple thing, but they form a more complex organization. Like an ant hill. The ants specialize, they take on different roles, they solve problems, they change their behavior if necessary, etc. Without anybody handing out the orders.

It is a lot easier to simply get a large number of people together, or to get them together for one well-defined purpose, than it is to get large numbers of people to self-organize towards solving unknown problems.

Somebody suggested the Howard Dean presidential campaign as an example of a bottom-up emergence of the clustering kind. It was a successful attempt of getting a lot of people together in being excited about one thing, organizing their own local meetings to futher it, etc. But it only worked as long as the main point was being excited about Dean being a leading candidate, and as long as things went well. The moment people started being dissatisfied about something, or they wanted to change direction, there was no vehicle for that, and it fell apart rather quickly. It wasn't the Coping kind of emergence. I don't think it really was emergence at all. That a political candidate gets a lot of grass-roots support might be interesting, but it isn't something that emerged from the grass-roots, or it would have been the assembled crowds that told him what to say, rather than him telling them what to be excited about.

A lot of things that might be given as examples of bottom-up self-organization and emergence probably aren't. Or they're very weak examples. If the date and time of the Superbowl broadcast is announced, and millions of people organize parties around it in front of bigscreen TVs, is that self-organization? Sure, it inspires some self-organization, but it is based on something you're provided from the top down. If some big movie or music star is very popular, and their fans organize fan clubs and websites and online forums, is that self-organization? Yes, it is, on a local level, but it isn't a whole lot of emergence. It is a clustering effect based on stimuli provided from a central source, a movie, an album, a TV show, etc.

If a political candidate hears that through the internet one can easily launch thousands of self-replicating self-organizing local support groups, and forums and meetings, etc, he'll say "great!" Saves a lot of advertising dollars. He'll love it exactly until the point where that network of people starts disagreeing with him, wanting him to do something different from what he had in mind. Which is what would happen if it really were some kind of emerging self-organizing democracy. Candidates with a program don't go well together with real bottom-up democracy. Nobody's really seen such a democracy, so that probably isn't entirely obvious.

Anyway, it of course isn't enough to get a whole lot of people together. That's the clustering thing. If one promotes and organizes it well, and one hits the right nerve, one might get 100s of thousands of angry people to show up at the same time and express themselves. But that doesn't necessarily add up to doing something in any organized fashion. For large numbers of people to do something complex together requires a complex organization. The traditional way of doing that is the top-down way. Somebody's in charge, somebody sets the tone, inspires everybody, sets goals, hands out jobs. They delegate some of their power to others, and so forth. It works, but it creates dumb, inflexible, slow organizations.

We sense that something better is becoming available. The networked world. We're all more and more connected, and the world is moving faster and faster, and obviously it is better if decision making is distributed to those who're most involved with whatever decisions need to be made about. So, many organizations are busy trying to develop more flat structures, more networks, more communities, more self-organization. But if we're talking business or government, there's still somebody in charge who largely decides what one should self-organize around.

The very hard problem is how stuff can actually emerge from the bottom and up, how one can self-organize around what emerges, and how that can scale to a bigger size.

Self-organization amongst people can work great in small groups. If your family is going to have a picnic, you'll probably all figure out how to contribute, without anybody having to be in charge. A few dozen people can maybe do that. But can thousands? Or millions?

Could the world possibly work without anybody being in charge? It is sort of a ridiculous idea to expect that a few people can be in charge of governing the world. Sooner or later it will be not just a little ridiculous, but it will become impossible, as the world moves faster and becomes more complex. Sooner or later the answer has to be that it is some kind of emergent self-organizing direct democracy. It isn't just some idealist notion. The alternatives will stop working sooner or later.

But nobody seems to know how, yet. Hopefully the answer will somehow emerge, and be a delightful surprise.

A couple of other excellent papers on the subject are: Emergent Democracy by Joi Ito, and The Second Superpower Rears Its Beautiful Head by James Moore. Both PDFs.
[ | 2007-07-12 22:53 | 105 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Monday, June 25, 2007day link 

 Outsourcing your life
What a splendid idea. Read at 43 Folders about The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. So, this is first what Merlin Mann says at 43 Folders:
A lot of my friends have been reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, and, to varying degrees, several of them have started trying on some of his more audacious ideas, such as checking email once a week, finding an “income muse,” going on an extreme information diet — a few people I know are considering outsourcing pieces of their personal and professional lives.

For reasons I can’t fully explain — and will, for now, just write down to Tim’s engaging style — I also found this outsourcing idea weirdly fascinating. You identify the tedious tasks in your life that don’t represent the best use of your time, and assign them to an overseas worker who can complete them for a few bucks an hour. This apparently can be virtually any kind of mundane task, from booking a dinner reservation to doing research on a company to — heck, why not? — answering your email...
And he asks for examples from people who've tried things like that. Does it work, does it not work?

Read an excerpt of the book from Tim Ferriss.

Again, I find the idea very intriguing. Not that I haven't thought of it, but there's a certain jump to actually doing it, and making it work. Obviously there's a potential there. That is, if you have too much to do, particularly tasks you find boring or difficult, which are expensive for you to do in terms of time, but which aren't part of your core activity or your mission in life. Others who maybe are better at it, or who get paid at a different rate, might of course be able to do a better job, and more gets done, and everybody's happy. At least in principle.

I have tried outsourcing where it didn't work so well. I.e. where communication difficulties, having to explain everything too much, and different work rhythms end up making it not give any benefit. There's an eastern European fellow who still writes me and says thank you once in a while, because he was able to get married and start a family and get a nice place to live for what I paid him, which was relatively little for me at the time, but which kept him working full time. But it didn't really work out for me. The idea was that I would just pass things on to him that I needed to do myself, and I always ended up losing patience and finding a faster way of doing it myself before he was done.

At the same time I see it apparently working in places like rent-a-coder. It is not personal assistants you get there, but anything related to programming, graphics, translation, project management, etc. I do notice people who piece together whole projects there, for very little money, but with people who're perfectly happy with the work. If you do it well, you can get one person to develop a program, another to do the website, with graphics from a third person, a fourth writing the content, a fifth testing it, and a sixth being the project manager, etc. And it wouldn't be unrealistic that a whole project might get off the ground for $1-2000.

But it appeals even more to me on a personal level. I tend to either focus deeply on one project, forgetting everything else, or I scatter myself in many directions, pursuing interesting ideas. And I'm not very good at the stuff in the middle, like staying organized and remembering to bill people and ask others for things I need from them etc. I have very much enjoyed times where I worked with others who enjoyed doing some of those things, who were perfectly happy answering the phone for me, coordinating projects with customers, etc. Because I tend to hate doing that myself. So the idea of a personal assistant makes me salivate.
[ | 2007-06-25 23:45 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Wednesday, June 20, 2007day link 

 Are breakthroughs social?
picture Matt Mower talks , here too, about breakthroughs, based on Terry Frazier discussing a talk by Lisa Haneberg, who in a talk said this:
  • Breakthroughs happen in a social context, If you aren't out actively promoting your goal or idea, discussing it regularly with friends, colleagues, and strangers and sharing your challenges, achievements, and objectives, you aren't going to make any breakthroughs.

  • Introverts, no matter how smart, rarely make breakthroughs, Breakthroughs do not happen in front of your face. They happen in the connections and gaps and networks that emerge from constant forward action and focus.
  • So, is a breakthrough a social thing? I'm not sure I agree that it is, necessarily. Rather, it sounds like an extrovert speaking.

    A breakthrough is, I suppose, when there's something somebody wants, and something stopping it which is somewhat complex. So, it is a problem, or dilemma, or a confused situation, where an objective is known, but not being met. Something is stuck. And then, bing, something changes, and you're at another level, a better place, where things are simpler, and things are flowing. Might be just a reframe, you suddenly see things differently. Or you acquire a piece you didn't have before. An individual can do that, or a group.

    But is that inherently social? I agree that more evolved social networking could be more likely to generate breakthroughs for individuals, breakthroughs in thinking or living. The availability of more social flows might give you an opportunity for being more in the flow. They might, but they won't necessarily. And it is not like it couldn't happen without.

    Personally I often need people to talk things over with in order to break through something. I need input, and I need to see ideas reflect themselves in other people before I quite know what they mean, and then I make up my own mind. But it works differently for different people. Some people need other people before they can do certain things. Other people need to be alone to do the same thing. And it isn't as simple as extrovert/introvert. One might be extroverted as to some aspects of one's life, and introverted in regards to others.

    But the question of how social contexts can be more conducive to breakthrough is a very intesting one. How do you lay things out so that routine breakthroughs are the norm?
    [ | 2007-06-20 22:41 | 7 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


    Tuesday, June 19, 2007day link 

     Waterfalls and Chaos
    Johnnie Moore used it as a couple of his slides at Reboot, and described it further in an old blog post, based on a paper on wicked problems. We're talking about how things are supposed to happen in somebody's neat mental model versus how it actually happens.
    The authors put up this diagram. It shows the traditional view of a problem solving process. This should be pretty familiar to any kind of consultant. It shows four stages of problem solving: gather data, analyze data, formulate solution, implement solution. Apparently, this is called the waterfall model of problem-solving, where we move graciously from the area of looking at the problem to that of working out the answer.



    A study at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) looked at whether this model is a good description of what happens in the real world. So they took a team of successful designers and set them to work on a real world problem (designing an elevator control system). They then looked at how one designer actually spent his time. That's then plotted over our waterfall here:



    That's interesting isn't it? He's clearly not following the script. Instead, he's jumping to a potential solution and then realising another aspect of the problem and so on. Here's someone who allegedly is a good designer and he's not doing "the right thing".
    And they go ahead and try it with more different people, who don't fit the neat waterfall model either, and who don't at all match each other's patterns either. And we were talking about skilled, successful designers there.

    The conclusion is of course along the lines of realizing that in the real world real people do something very different from what they're supposed to according to neat diagrams. They probably couldn't do it exactly like the diagram, or if they did, they would be very ineffective. Seen from the perspective of the people who like neat diagrams, the actual behavior seems chaotic. But it is productive chaos, and not really chaos. It is a different kind of order.

    It is often not wise to try to impose rigid one or two-dimensional patterns on problems and solutions and people and organizations that really have many more dimensions to them. You can simplify things that are complicated, but over-simplifying functioning complexity is unwise.
    [ | 2007-06-19 22:22 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


    Thursday, June 14, 2007day link 

     Denial of complexity
    picture

    "The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity". -Jacob Burkhardt
    What a great quote! Burkhardt was a Swiss social historian from the 19th century. He is credited with discovering (identifying) the age of the Renaissance. And for that matter also with the basic idea of being able to study and describe different periods as a whole, including culture, institutions, daily life, etc.

    Life is complex, biologically, socially, culturally. The most awesome stuff that exists is complex. The universe, evolution, eco-systems, art, adventure, human culture in general, and the human mind.

    That same human mind is at a crucial point in its evolution. We can consciously think abstractly. But not very well. The part of our mind we're conscious of, and that we usually identify with as "me", typically has an extremely inflated idea of its own worth and its own independent existence. That despite that it can only solve extremely simple problems, and it doesn't even know how. It over-simplifies everything, and it tends to think it is in charge.

    That simple mind is also the wonderous faculty for paying attention and appreciating life, and for consciously discovering the mysteries of the universe and of human existence.

    But when the simple mind gets stuck in the idea that it is in charge, and one of those simple minds end up commanding armies of millions of men, and huge economies, guiding the lives of billions, we're quite a bit in trouble. When the simple mind doesn't accept the complexity that brought it about, and it actually believes that its simple ideas are facts, and it tries to act accordingly, then we're in a lot of trouble. Yes, tyranny is when powerful rulers decide that the complexity simply is unacceptable, and it tries to control it, deny it, wipe it out. When a small group of people agree on a small list of small ideas as being the correct ones, validated by nothing much more than the voices in their heads, life is in danger. Doesn't matter much if their ideas are religious or moral or economical or political. It is the denial of the fundamental complexity of things that turns it into tyranny.

    What saves us is often that those simple minds make many mistakes and miscalculations, so eventually their schemes fall apart. But it might take a while, and it is hard to predict what they take with them on the way down.

    It hopefully sorts itself out in time, before it is too late. As the world becomes more complex, it gets harder to control big chunks of it without some understanding of complexity. One can still win in the short term by strategies of denying complexity, by forcing life into simple monocultural molds. But complexity has a life of its own, and there will inevitably be a certain evolutionary natural selection that takes place. The stuff that works will outcompete the stuff that doesn't work, given enough time.

    And that in itself is reason for limitless optimism. Simple, rigid structures are subject to entropy. They fall apart over time, turn to dust. Wheras complexity, of the type that life is made of, regenerates, re-configures itself, it evolves, it transitions to higher orders of organization. I think I'm gonna place my bets on life.
    [ | 2007-06-14 13:47 | 8 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

     The Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity
    picture Oh, this is just brilliant. This article. I had read it all the way through before I realized the author is Marc Andreessen, the guy who invented Mosaic, essentially the first web browser. This is, as he calls it, Productivity Porn. A lot of people, myself included, are addicted to new systems of staying organized and productive. Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen has been the most popular angle recently, and so far the best system I've run into. But then again, I haven't completely succeeded in making it work for me, even though I agree with it. And, now, this system is not incompatible with GTD, but it goes some steps further in simplifying things, and addressing that which makes people productive. At least people like me, who do the best work when I don't have to, and get stuck when I've got too many commitments and deadlines and meetings. So, a key new principle here is:

    don't keep a schedule

    Don't keep a schedule at all. Don't schedule meetings for next week. He's quite right, that often a meeting scheduled in the future is a way of avoiding the fact that it is not very important to you right now. Or, at best, when next Tuesday at 3 o'clock comes along, even if the subject maybe interests you, most likely there's something else you'd rather be doing at that exact time. So, don't give away your future time. Always work on what is most important to you. If somebody needs to see you, either see them right now, or tell them you can't commit to anything, and you don't keep a schedule.

    Andreessen didn't altogether invent this. He seems to be inspired in part by the book A Perfect Mess, which presents that idea, that it is more productive to not have a schedule, and which gives examples of well-known people, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supposedly organize themselves like that.

    He gives other great suggestions. Like, every night write down, on a 3x5 card, a todo list of 3 to 5 things you for sure need to do the next day. Then, the next day, do your best to get those things done, and cross them off when you've done them. And, on the back of the same card, write down an anti-todo list, which are the things you get done during the day that weren't on your actual todo list. And, at the end of the day, enjoy the fact that there probably are many more items on the anti-todo list, and that actually you were more productive when you weren't supposed to.

    And then there's the related Structured Procrastination approach. I recognize that very well, because I do that often. Deliberately procrastinate some things you need to do, but which you don't feel like, and use that time to get some other things done that you feel more like.

    Which is indeed what I'm doing now. I have lots of work to do today, which I don't feel like doing, and I wouldn't be writing this post if I only followed my todo list.

    There are more suggestions, but you can read them yourself. But basically it adds up to organizing your life so that you can do the things that are most important to you, the things you love doing, the things that seem most valuable at the time. As opposed to a list of "shoulds" that don't do much for you.

    It is cool that we're beginning to have technological tools that make that more possible. You know, you can better do impromptu meetings when everybody have cellphones. Or you can do it online. It is easy to know when a small group of people are available at the same time, even if nothing was scheduled. It is actually often easier than scheduling anything.

    And in ad-hoc self-organization within networks there are potentials that don't exist in strictly organized, scheduled, hierarchical systems. It is entirely possible that you can do what you love most of the time, and that at the same time collective intelligence emerges in your network. It just can't be planned in advance.

    (Thanks to Loic for mentioning it)
    [ | 2007-06-14 13:28 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


    Sunday, June 10, 2007day link 

     Microblogging and Dialogue
    picture So, since last week I'm hooked on microblogging. I don't know if "microblogging" is the best word for the phonomenon, but it will do, I guess. It is sort of a mix between chat, instant messaging, blogging, and widgets for showing one's current status or location in one's sidebar. I'm in jaiku and twitter, accessing both through twitku.

    One posts maybe a couple or a handful of one-liners per day. Doesn't really take any time. Although it is a bit addictive to glance at the page often, to see what people are saying. But not that much different from glancing out the window once in a while to see what weather it is. It is sort of a peripheral thing. You notice that somebody's waiting for their luggage in an airport somewhere, somebody else is preparing a gourmet meal, a third is thinking about some important question, and a fourth got a sunburn from being outside. Nothing necessarily important, certainly mostly not anything that would warrant an e-mail or a phonecall or a blog post. But it keeps people on your radar screen. You don't have to respond, but you can, if something somehow rings a bell. It doesn't have to be your close friends either. It is surprisingly meaningful, even if it is people you've never met, but you have some kind of interest in what they're up to.

    It occurs to me that it is a bit like Dialogue according to David Bohm. Oh, it is more casual, but there are some interesting correlations.

    In this context "dialogue" is used about a particular type of group interaction. A group of people sit down in a circle. Initially they might be quiet. When somebody feels like speaking, they speak, and everybody listens. Nobody needs to answer it, and nobody would argue. But if you're inspired to say something else, you do so. It might have been inspired by what somebody else said, or it might not. Everybody's sort of speaking to the space in the middle of the circle. We might have different ideas about what the subject is, but we're speaking into the same space. And a dialogue develops. It will be about something, and it might not be clear in advance what exactly it will be about. It will not be about one thing, and different people go off in different directions, but there will also be a certain coherence and evolution in it.

    In a microblogging space, some of these things happen too. I watch a screen where a few dozen people say something once in a while, and I can say something too. Interestingly, they aren't all watching the same screen, as they have different groups of friends than I do, although they overlap. They aren't all there at the same time either, and they aren't all paying attention. But once in a while somebody feels like saying something. That will be something that relates to what's going on for them at the moment, and it will also be something they feel like saying into that fuzzy kind of space, usually without saying it to anybody in particular. They typically don't expect a response either. Other people do the same. Whether you directly comment on anything else or not, what you say will necessarily be colored a bit by what you see already on the screen.

    I have tried in the past to deliberately create dialogue spaces online, usually in the form of a chat room, where I carefully would try to explain the rules. You speak into the common space, you say your truth, you don't argue or defend your opinions. It isn't a discussion, not an argument to win, rather a shared inquiry. No rules, really, other than that you shouldn't screw it up. People can say whatever they feel like saying, as long as it is what they perceive and what they feel needs to be said, and not just an attempt of making somebody else wrong. And I've found that it was very difficult to do online. Easier to do in person, where one has non-verbal cues, etc, and one knows whether one is on the same page or not. But a chat room easily develops into something else.

    So, ironically, this kind of microblogging flow is a good deal more like a dialogue than what one would tend to get if one tried to create a good dialogue space online. Even though it isn't at all trying to be any space for deep inquiry or anything like that. It is not very profound that somebody is on their way to the market, or they're playing with some new website or something. But the atmosphere created is a shared space, where people say what they experience, in little soundbites, without fluff, without much need to be posturing or defending anything, and sometimes one perceives things together. And there's some kind of intangible thread that goes through that.

    Although it isn't clear where that might take us, it is entirely possible that this might be fertile ground for some kind of collective intelligence to emerge in.
    [ | 2007-06-10 13:10 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


    Wednesday, June 6, 2007day link 

     Natural organization
    picture Robert Paterson:
    I am on quest - a quest to find the reality of a way of organizing people so that we can become the most that we can be. My ingoing thesis is that humans must have a way of organizing that is natural. After all acorns, whales, stars and winds do.

    My bet is that we "forgot" how to do this. Instead we became captured by an idea, a dogma, that we are not human but we are machines.

    My method has been to follow the example of science and to observe and look for patterns.
    I'm with you on that. Me too.

    Robert gave one of my favorite presentations at Reboot. Slides here.

    One of the things he talked about was what could be learned from the organization of Roman legions. An organizational structure that worked very well for a great many years.
    This core organization is about 5,000 people. It has inside of it, all the capability to do any work.

    These core units were part of a larger organization of about 150,000. It had a junior but related organization making up another 150,000. The total network was about 300,000 people. There was a small secretariat that was responsible for the entire larger unit. This secretariat had one major focus, talent spotting and talent building. More on that a bit later.

    The design for the core organization took about 400 years to reach peak. It evolved like a fishing boat evolves in a region: as a result of trial and error until the optimal design settled. After reaching optimum, this design remained relatively stable for nearly 400 years. Key elements of the design are still found in organizations that require peak performance today 1,500 years later suggesting that these design principles are natural and not invented.

    Unlike our fantasy design today, this was not a CEO or head office dependent organization. It was designed to be brilliant with ordinary people who were put inside an extraordinary design for a society. It was the social design that made it so high performing.

    Senior leadership was designed to be transient. The CEO of this 5,000 person core organization changed every 3- 5 years. He had a head office administrative staff of 6. The Staff Executives usually only stayed for 6 months!. The CEO usually had held one of the staff jobs earlier in their career. The CEO relied on 2 senior middle managers at head office for all the important operational decisions that he had to make. They had at least 40 years experience each and would be the best of the best in the larger organization of 150,000. Their posting lasted for one year.

    So this was a 5,000 person organization with almost no head office! All the the head office jobs are temporary including the CEO's. No dependency on star CEO's here.
    The numbers are important.
    The base organizational work unit has 80 people in it. Depending on the task of the time, these were sometimes doubled up into a work group with 160 people. When a big job had to be done, 6 of the base groups would be assembled into a work group of about 480 people. This 480 person grouping was ideal for complex work of all types. Such a group could also be separated from the main body by thousands of miles and by years and still hold its cohesion.
    So, apprently the numbers end up forming something similar to a Fibonacci sequence, representing some numbers that just naturally work well, and that add up in a certain way.
    This organization is in reality a network of social building blocks of 1 - 2 - 8 - 80 - 160 - 480 - 5,000 - 150,000.

    The hubs of this network where all the nodes intersect is in the 80 unit molecule. Every unit of 80 has a Hub Connector. Yes a span of control of 80! This works smoothly and routinely because of the social structure inside the 80 of 1 - 2 - 8. The world of the 8 is the "Trusted Space" that is designed into the organization.

    At every level after that a Hub Connector is either in charge or has the major say operationally. The Hub Connector is the link at every point including the larger world of 150,000. The Hub Connector is not tied to the 5,000 person organization but serves inside the entire system.
    The point is that there are certain sizes of groups that work better than others. There are limits to how many people one can have a relation to at the same time. Like the 150 of Dunbar's Number. There are other key factors than the numbers, of course. Factors that make people very close, like living in the same tent with the same group for 20 years. And how the leaders are selected.

    I wouldn't have thought of Roman legions as being an example of natural organization. But it makes sense that when one evolves organizations that work very well, one is likely to have stumbled upon some principles of nature that just work.
    [ / | 2007-06-06 22:55 | 0 comments | PermaLink ]


    Tuesday, June 5, 2007day link 

     Action Learning
    picture In a presentations about Boosting Collective Intelligence, George Pór and Martin Ludwigsen had a short segment where one would divide up into small groups and ask each other questions, in order to deepen one's understanding of a given question. Which was an excellent exercise. My group picked the question "How can I silence my ego to experience collective intelligence more often?" out of the three choices. So, instead of trying to answer it, one asks more questions. Like, we questioned whether one really needs to silence one's ego, or anything at all, in order for collective intelligence to happen. Which was a useful thing to look at, I think. And quite a productive thing to do for 5 minutes, compared with many other types of inquiry one could do.

    They called it a simplified version of Action Learning, and since I couldn't remember what that is, I had to go and look it up. See Wikipedia, or look in Google, and you'll see that a lot has been said about Action Learning and Action Research. See here for a more clear introduction.

    Now, on one hand I think it is great that people have studied learning that is based on action, rather than on just theory, and on the other hand it seems a little bit ridiculous in a the-emperor-has-no-clothes kind of way that people have spent their life developing a model, and writing dozens and dozens of books about something that basically ads up to:

    - Go out and do something
    - Have a meeting and evaluate how well it went, and what you have learned, and what you can do better
    - Go out and do it some more, but hopefully better

    Don't get me wrong, that's a great approach. Particularly when one compares with traditional education which goes something like:

    - Listen for years to people who know better than you giving you a lot of theory
    - Spend the rest of your life doing what they told you to do, if you remember it

    The Action Learning idea is that there are alternating cycles of action and reflection. You do it, you reflect on it, and learn from it, and you go back to action. So, like this:

    action --> reflection --> action

    Or, you can make it sound more business-like and say it is:

    action --> review --> planning --> action

    One could say that this is very obvious, of course, but unless one makes something explicit, it might not happen. Companies and individuals and governments will happily keep doing the same thing forever, even if it isn't working, just because they never have a phase where they ask themselves whether it is working or not, and why and why not, and how one possibly could do it differently. A phase where one actually can reflect and inquire, and even question the basis of the whole thing. The feedback cycle is often missing, or real feedback is not allowed. Let alone real inquiry.

    It is kind of tragic that it is news that there is a type of learning that is directed towards being able to take action in the most effective way possible. I mean, that all learning isn't based on being able to do something. And kind of bizarre that people need to invent a whole new subject and write loads of books about it, in order to make the case for such an idea. But aside from that, I'm all for it.

    I'm sure there's much more to action learning, and any proper expert will be horrified by my casual treatment of the subject. I do believe in keeping simple things simple, and complex things too. And then again, maybe I'm jealous that it wasn't me who came up with a simple, obvious two-step process that I could write books about and lecture about for years.

    Oh, a few more meta observations... There's a lot of power in simply naming stuff, and in the way one frames it. So, simply saying that there are two phases of doing stuff, action and reflection - that automatically re-arranges the world, and sets up a quite different framework than if one hadn't mentioned it. Likewise, the simple hint that it is a series of cycles - that changes everything too.
    [ | 2007-06-05 00:13 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


    Sunday, March 11, 2007day link 

     The Art of Creating a Community
    Guy Kawasaki's advice on how to build a community, in particular a user community. These are the bullet points:
    1. Create something worth building a community around.
    2. Identify and recruit your thunderlizards—immediately!
    3. Assign one person the task of building a community.
    4. Give people something concrete to chew on.
    5. Create an open system.
    6. Welcome criticism.
    7. Foster discourse.
    8. Publicize the existence of the community.

    [ | 2007-03-11 01:44 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >



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