logo Ming the Mechanic - Category: Organization
An old rigid civilization is reluctantly dying. Something new, open, free and exciting is waking up.

Saturday, February 24, 2007day link 

 Meetings make us dumber?
People have a harder time coming up with alternative solutions to a problem when they are part of a group, new research suggests.

Scientists exposed study participants to one brand of soft drink then asked them to think of alternative brands. Alone, they came up with significantly more products than when they were grouped with two others....

The researchers speculate that when a group of people receives information, the inclination is to discuss it. The more times one option is said aloud, the harder it is for individuals to recall other options, explained Krishnan, associate professor of marketing at Indiana University.
Of course it would greatly depend on how a meeting is run. There are brainstorming formats that certainly would work better in a group than alone. But, I guess, if it is the normal format of a meeting, once something emerges as the theme or focus of the meeting, it would be hard to make it go anywhere else. Which is a good thing, if that's really what you're supposed to work on, but a bad thing if you're trying to generate new or alternative ideas.
[ | 2007-02-24 14:15 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Sunday, July 23, 2006day link 

 No, That's Not an Open Market, This is an Open Market
Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, about the difference between the business done by big profit-for-shareholders driven companies, and that done by small, networked "natural" corporations that do things that actually need to be done.

Hierarchical Corporation's Offerings:
Advantages to the Customer
Natural Enterprise's Offerings:
Advantages to the Customer
  1. Recognized, popular brand (a salve for low self-esteem)
  2. Low price (possible because of massive government subsidies and favours like 'free' trade agreements)
  3. Efficiency (as long as your needs are standard)
  1. Personal relationship (knowledge, trust, partnership, friendship, even love)
  2. Customization (really have it your way)
  3. Local just-in-time service (responsiveness)
  4. Superior innovation
  5. Low pressure (since supplier is not dependent on growth for survival)
  6. Reciprocality (mutuality, flexible pricing)
  7. No corporatist costs to pass on (huge management salaries, huge margins to achieve 20%+ ROI demanded by shareholders, massive advertising, marketing, transportation and packaging costs)
  8. Resilience (reliability in the face of economic or other crises, due to superior improvisational capacity and focus on effectiveness rather than more vulnerable efficiency)
  9. Quality and durability (no crap from indifferent Chinese factories)
  10. Appeal to altruism (supplier is good to its people, its community, its environment, and good for the local economy)

Or, summarized well here:
Large, multinational, hierarchical corporations are not designed to provide customer service. They are designed to maximize margin and profit for senior executives and major corporate shareholders, by charging the customer as much as possible and giving them as little as possible. Under their charter (and under threat of dismissal or legal charges if they defy it) they can do nothing else; they are tied to this model of operation and decision-making. Worse, they have to grow each year or die. The model is inherently unsustainable, and Fortune 500 companies all, inevitably, crash and burn.

All Natural Enterprises need to do is focus on meeting customers' evolving unmet needs effectively. Talk to anyone who is buying from a small business with no growth aspirations, instead of from a 'competing' large hierarchical corporation, and in so many words they will tell you that is why. The chart at the top of this page summarizes the 10 enormous advantages a Natural Enterprise has over a hierarchical corporation, when it ignores all the absurd conventional wisdom (about growth, external financing, advertising, huge risk, endless struggle, the need to do everything yourself etc.) and just focuses on meeting customers' evolving unmet needs effectively.

As my book explains, doing this takes a lot of work, but it is low-risk, low-stress, low-cost, joyful work. It is the antithesis of what most people do (even those who should know better) when they actually start to establish their own business.
And this needs to be pointed out often:
There is no 'open market' or 'free market'. We live in the most tightly-controlled oligopolistic economy in history. These oligopolies buy politicians (and hence subsidies and favours), corner supply, buy up competitors to eliminate competition, and blanket the media with an unprecedented and relentless flood of propaganda called 'advertising'. We don't want to compete in that market, and we don't want to 'expand'. Growth is unsustainable, period. What we do instead is outmaneuver. We're better off starting businesses wherever there is a significant, researched, evolved unmet customer need that we have the competencies, knowledge and resources to fill. Every sector, every market has lots of them.
So, the anti-dote is to find unmet needs and meet them better and more efficiently than a large uncaring corporation can. Do that in every area, and network well.
[ | 2006-07-23 12:34 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, July 13, 2006day link 

 Cambrian House
picture Cambrian House seems to be the first crowdsourcing company, launched just a couple of weeks ago. I'll let Jeff Howe introduce it:
A new crowdsourcing company, called Cambrian House, launched this week. The idea is pretty straightforward – open source software development minus the free labor. It's a little hard to evaluate whether Cambrian House can develop competitive applications in an increasingly crowded market, but I'm impressed with the degree to which they've thought out the model. I also like that they intend to put the crowd to work at three separate tasks: 1) originating the ideas; 2) evaluating the ideas; and 3) developing the code itself. A lot of the discussion in the media and the blogosphere since my original article came out has focused on the last of these functions -- I suppose because it's easiest to get one's head around--when in fact the crowd's ability to distinguish between fodder and folderol is, to my way of thinking anyway, the most fascinating and perhaps useful aspect of the crowdsourcing model (as well as being one of the only areas in which crowdsourcing does in fact overlap with peer production, in that the labor can only be performed by the collective.) It's also hard not to be won over by the egalitarian spirit that seems to animate Cambrian House, even if it's a little eerily reminiscent of the It's-Good-to-be-Good-Especially-if-We-Can-Make-Gobs-of-Cash-in-the-Process zeitgeist of the late '90s. At any rate, I look forward to following Cambrian House's development, and wish them the best of luck. One question guys: Will the source code created by the crowd remain open to the crowd after it's launched, or is that contingent on the client?
Looks intriguing indeed. You can sign up and submit ideas, and you'll then see if they get shot down or not. If your idea gets implemented, you'll get royalties. Is it going to work? Too early to tell, but this is an exciting development.
[ | 2006-07-13 16:12 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Wired Article by Jeff Howe, who just recently coined the term "crowdsourcing". Essentially it is when you use networks of amateurs who work for little money to create content, do programming, solve problems, or whatever. Which, often and increasingly, is a solution more attractive than going to a traditional well-entrenched professional. Example from the article:
Claudia Menashe needed pictures of sick people. A project director at the National Health Museum in Washington, DC, Menashe was putting together a series of interactive kiosks devoted to potential pandemics like the avian flu. An exhibition designer had created a plan for the kiosk itself, but now Menashe was looking for images to accompany the text. Rather than hire a photographer to take shots of people suffering from the flu, Menashe decided to use preexisting images – stock photography, as it’s known in the publishing industry.

In October 2004, she ran across a stock photo collection by Mark Harmel, a freelance photographer living in Manhattan Beach, California. Harmel, whose wife is a doctor, specializes in images related to the health care industry. “Claudia wanted people sneezing, getting immunized, that sort of thing,” recalls Harmel, a slight, soft-spoken 52-year-old.

The National Health Museum has grand plans to occupy a spot on the National Mall in Washington by 2012, but for now it’s a fledgling institution with little money. “They were on a tight budget, so I charged them my nonprofit rate,” says Harmel, who works out of a cozy but crowded office in the back of the house he shares with his wife and stepson. He offered the museum a generous discount: $100 to $150 per photograph. “That’s about half of what a corporate client would pay,” he says. Menashe was interested in about four shots, so for Harmel, this could be a sale worth $600.

After several weeks of back-and-forth, Menashe emailed Harmel to say that, regretfully, the deal was off. “I discovered a stock photo site called iStockphoto,” she wrote, “which has images at very affordable prices.” That was an understatement. The same day, Menashe licensed 56 pictures through iStockphoto – for about $1 each.

iStockphoto, which grew out of a free image-sharing exchange used by a group of graphic designers, had undercut Harmel by more than 99 percent. How? By creating a marketplace for the work of amateur photographers – homemakers, students, engineers, dancers. There are now about 22,000 contributors to the site, which charges between $1 and $5 per basic image. (Very large, high-resolution pictures can cost up to $40.) Unlike professionals, iStockers don’t need to clear $130,000 a year from their photos just to break even; an extra $130 does just fine. “I negotiate my rate all the time,” Harmel says. “But how can I compete with a dollar?”
Wikipedia is an example, for that matter, of how unpaid volunteers can do a possibly better job than a professional staff of editors and experts. Or rent-a-coder, which I'm very familiar with, where you often can get quite extensive programming jobs done for very little. Or iStockPhoto, like he mentions.

It is the free market, and it is a good thing, I think. At least when you're a buyer. When you're a seller, it means you have more competition than you might have liked. As far as I'm concerned, $300 is an outrageous price to pay to use a photo on your website, and I'd never be a buyer of that. I've bought $1 pictures, and that suits me just fine. I've also done projects as a seller on Rent-a-coder, even though I at first thought it was totally impossible, and that it only could work for programmers in China who would work for $1 per week. You just need to be better organized and move faster.

A lot of what you see in markets is that established vendors are trying to hide from you that there are alternatives that give much higher value. Well, earlier there were more technological limitations as well. You couldn't so well do a complicated project with somebody in China without the Internet. You couldn't search huge databases of photographs from thousands of photographers without the net. So you'd settle for one photographer, maybe locally, who could supply your needs. There's no longer a good reason for that.
[ | 2006-07-13 01:11 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Sunday, November 6, 2005day link 

 Software Development Corps
Intersting paper, Opening Doors and Smashing Windows found on Slashdot. About how excessive Intellectual Property Rights are costing the U.S. economy lots of money, and things really could be arranged very differently. This is the executive summary:
· Copyright and patent protection may impose costs on consumers of between $80 and $120 billion a year, compared to a situation in which all software was available at its competitivemarket price. The pure efficiency loss to the economy could be in the neighborhood of $70 to $110 billion a year. These losses dwarf estimates of the losses from other forms of protectionism, such as tariffs or quotas on imported goods;

· A substantial portion of the resources devoted to software development are currently wasted due to IPRs. This is a result of the fact that IPR protection leads to unnecessary duplication, as developers have substantial incentive to produce software that simply replicates the function of existing software. In the absence of IPR protection, developers could better spend their time improving existing software. IPRs also provide incentives for software locks and secrecy, which impede the process of software development. It is likely that a substantial portion of software development (possibly a majority) is misdirected as a result of the market distortions created by IPRs;

· IPRs also lead to large amounts of waste by providing incentives for rent-seeking activity. This waste includes expenditures for advertising and marketing, and payments to lawyers and lobbyists. Those enjoying IPR protection have also been able to impose costs on third parties, for example by requiring Internet Service Providers to monitor activities or universities to take steps to reduce the amount of unauthorized copying of IPR protected material on their premises. IPR holders have also secured laws that restrict the development of software and hardware designed to support better searches and digital reproductions;

· There are feasible alternative mechanisms for supporting software development. One mechanism outlined in the paper would create a “Software Development Corps,” which would be a series of competing government funded software corporations. An annual appropriation of $2.1 billion (approximately 0.08 percent of federal spending) should be enough to support the work of approximately 20,000 software developers. The government should be able to recoup most, if not all, of this money through the lower price it will pay on the computers and software it purchases. The remaining benefit would be the equivalent of a tax cut to consumers in the range of $80 to $120 billion a year. This money would provide a substantial stimulus to the economy and lead to the creation of millions of jobs.

Wow, why not? Because many members of the U.S. government are corrupt and in the pocket of special corporate interests, that's why. It makes sense. Produce software for the public good, and save loads of money. Cut off anybody who has a business strategy of making money off of locking people into paying for mediocre products by monopolizing fictitious rights, rather than producing value. Free market, rather than monopolies. Solve problems well once, rather than having to reinvent the same things over and over because somebody else owns the rights and won't share.
[ | 2005-11-06 14:09 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, October 27, 2005day link 

 Categories and Tags
The categories I originally set up for the entries in my blog here are pretty non-sensical to me. They just don't fit, so I pick one fairly haphazardly. A fixed list of categories just doesn't work any longer. I think I'll have to switch to tags. Which is the same thing, but without the obligation for it to add up to a small list of logical global file folders. Just add one when you feel like it.

I did add tags to my blog software a while back. I'm just not using them myself here.
[ | 2005-10-27 13:10 | 0 comments | PermaLink ]

Tuesday, October 4, 2005day link 

 The Corporation
picture I finally saw the movie The Corporation. I mentioned it previously here. It is a documentary about, well, corporations. Very well researched, about the history of the concept of the corporation, and about how (badly) corporations often end up behaving, following quite naturally from their foundation, from what they're defined as. In brief, a corporation is a legal person, but a person with often huge amounts of resources, and no need to answer to the same standards as regular humans. The obligation of the people who run a corporation is to make large and increasing amounts of money for the people who own it. They might be nice enough people on their own, but their job is simply to acquire as large profits as possible. It is quite harmonious with that aim to use child slave labor in foreign countries, or to let foreign armies eliminate protesters who object to the environmental record of their factories. Maybe not right, maybe not moral, but a corporation has no conscience. It luckily has some people running it, who sometimes have a conscience. But in itself it doesn't. So, if we evaluate a typical multi-national corporation as if it were a person, it would fit every criterion for being a psychopath. It can continously get away with all sorts of irresponsible and destructive behavior. Yes, it might get fined, somebody might get fired, somebody might even go to jail, but those are just expenses and minor inconveniences. The corporation itself typically goes on. Unless it somehow fails to make profits.

Another enlightening aspect is the economic concept of externality. It is basically when a business makes a decision that causes costs (or possibly benefits) to be incurred outside that particular organization. You make it somebody else's problem, essentially. For example, a corporation might cause heavy wear and tear on certain public roads, but might let the local city government bear the costs of that. Or it might pollute, and let somebody else worry about that. Or it might let some army clear the way for its oil business, or remove people who were standing in the way of their business. Externalities can be great for a company's bottom line, making great profits, but at high costs elsewhere. So that when we add up the total accounting, it is anything but a beneficial and profitable activity. I.e. it causes much more damange or uses many more resources than what good comes out of it.

It doesn't have to be that way. The movie provided some bright spots, although not all that many. Business leaders might start thinking differently, and some do. Thinking about how to run a sustainable business, where what they do actually is beneficial, also when we count the external influences.

Interestingly I saw the movie in a local business college. One of the professors had persuaded the school to purchase the movie, so she could show it to students. Which obviously would be rather controversial, as that's a place where students are taught to do exactly the kinds of things the movie warns against. But change starts by being conscious of what is going on, of course. And, most likely, corporations will change to the degree that somebody figures out a way for it to be profitable to be sustainable and ethical.
[ | 2005-10-04 01:33 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Sunday, June 26, 2005day link 

 Categories, Links and Tags
picture Absolutely marvelous article from Clay Shirky, Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. About how the traditional ways of trying to organize the world hierarchically are on their way out, and wonderous things emerge from tagging links. Well, we knew that tags are a very happening thing, but Shirky spells it out in neon, in great clarity. It is a whole presentation based on some talks he's given recently, with pictures and good examples. This is just the start:
"Today I want to talk about categorization, and I want to convince you that a lot of what we think we know about categorization is wrong. In particular, I want to convince you that many of the ways we're attempting to apply categorization to the electronic world are actually a bad fit, because we've adopted habits of mind that are left over from earlier strategies.

I also want to convince you that what we're seeing when we see the Web is actually a radical break with previous categorization strategies, rather than an extension of them. The second part of the talk is more speculative, because it is often the case that old systems get broken before people know what's going to take their place. (Anyone watching the music industry can see this at work today.) That's what I think is happening with categorization.

What I think is coming instead are much more organic ways of organizing information than our current categorization schemes allow, based on two units -- the link, which can point to anything, and the tag, which is a way of attaching labels to links. The strategy of tagging -- free-form labeling, without regard to categorical constraints -- seems like a recipe for disaster, but as the Web has shown us, you can extract a surprising amount of value from big messy data sets."

The cool thing is that the whole tagging thing is still so new that there's plenty of opportunity for innovation. There's still room for inventing the google of tags.
[ | 2005-06-26 01:32 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, June 21, 2005day link 

 Rational Street Performer Protocol
Dewf mentions The Rational Street Performer Protocol and an improvement, The Rational Street Performer Protocol.

Groups of people place place donations in escrow, to be released to an author who's promised a certain work, if he puts it into the public domain. In other words, it is a system of private financing for public works. The intent is in part that such a scheme might fund alternative or marginal works that might not otherwise find financing.

The "Rational" protocol adjusts the approach so that the negotiations are done over several rounds and each person pledges a certain ratio out of the total that they're willing to pay, up to a certain maximum amount. The result is a fairly complex formula, but the idea is to show that one's contribution influences the total. So, one can see that one influences the total by more than simply the amount of one's contribution, and thus there should be a higher motivation to contribute, because one can see that one gets something for it.

I don't know if that's necessary. I think what makes the biggest difference is simple stuff, like having one's name listed as one of the contributors.
[ | 2005-06-21 19:30 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

picture Seb mentions Fundable. Seems like a great way to raise funds for a particular purpose. Essentially it works like this:

Recently completed transactions are stuff along the lines of buying a computer for some open source or charitable project, manufacturing t-shirts for some sports club, buying storage for some guy who's moving out, sending a kid to camp, etc.

Quite remarkable that this kind of thing works. It is of course in part because many people like to do good things. And it is also because the site makes the proposition clear and easy and safe. And because many people like completing numbers. So, if there's a site showing that we have 8 our of 10 needed contributors, one kind of gets more motivated to complete the target.
[ | 2005-06-21 18:18 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, March 10, 2005day link 

 The Internet as a weapon against terrorism
Dan Gillmor is in a working group on terrorism and the internet at the International Summit on Democracy, Security and Terrorism. This is some of what they've come up with:
1. The Internet is fundamentally about openness, participation, and freedom of expression for all -- increasing the diversity and reach of information and ideas.
2. The Internet allows people to communicate and collaborate across borders and belief systems.
3. The Internet unites families and cultures in diaspora; it connects people, helping them to form civil societies.
4. The Internet can foster economic development by connecting people to information and markets.
5. The Internet introduces new ideas and views to those who may be isolated and prone to political violence.
6. The Internet is neither above nor below the law. The same legal principles that apply in the physical world also apply to human activities conducted over the Internet.
OK, and then a number of points related to terrorism, which are good. Specifically that decentralized networking might be the best tool for combatting decentralized networks doing bad things. And that the best response to abuses of openness is more openness. In other words, the response to terrorism shouldn't be increased censorship and control and secrecy. The antidote is widespread open collaboration and sharing of information. The internet can provide a connectedness that can far outweighs the divisiveness that terrorists might hope to create.

Here are commentary from John Perry Barlow who's in the same working group. He's not sure it is going to make all that much difference at that conference.
[ | 2005-03-10 20:44 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 The PeopleWeb
Mark Pincus on The PeopleWeb, via Marc Canter:
i believe we are close to the point where people will start to be organized online into a 'peopleweb' where browsers will surf and search through people not pages. i will attempt to describe the what, how and why below.

what is the peopleweb? as more people take on 'open' identities online, that can be crawled, found and linked to with bits of semantically organized data like 'profile', 'about me' or 'my tribes or groups', there will soon be an ability for search engines to organize people into relevant groupings. the key relevance here will be based on two intersections; people's group affiliations so that i can quickly find experts in flying bonanzas in baja and people's credibility which may be estimated in a number of ways from how 'linked' you are to who you're linked to to slashdot type ratings if they evolve to work in an independent fashion.

how will the peopleweb happen? along with my vision of the revolution of the ants, the big portals will all succumb to their audience's desire for openness and transportability of online identities. people will no longer choose to invest in a profile that is locked into msn or friendster (or tribe). just like email had to be free and compuserve lost out to aol, so too will profiles. we already have this with blogs. my company, tribe.net, will soon be launching open profiles which will let people compbine elements of their blogs with social and community networks. this will occur with virtually every site, where users will decide who has access to what, whether it's by degrees of separation or group affiliation. this wont be decided by my company, friendster, linkedin, yahoo's new thing etc...

what will the peopleweb enable? well, imagine a future where the network acts as one database. you will tell the web that you are single and what your dating criteria is. your dating profile will only be shown to those people (so no more daily humiliation of your sisters and friends snickering that you describe yourself as a tall dark handsome romantic). kinda unhappy with your job. no problem. tell the network you're available for jobs paying over $150k, vp level, and maybe you want to limit to a few companies or block them. wanna organize a poltical revolution without leaving your home? just tell the network you are into 'emergent democracy' and 'legal revolution' (possibly through group tags) and you will automagically be connected with all the other archair revoultionaries.
I was just starting to get really bored with the various online social network I'm a member of. As in that I almost never log into them, except for occasionally when somebody sends me a message, which usually is some guy networking for business whom I have nothing in common with. OK, my lists of friends in each network is great, but it doesn't really do anything for me. Nothing I particularly can use it for on a daily basis. But that could all be different if the features were better. Yeah, I shouldn't have a redundant profile in a number of different places. I should control it myself in one place. And the tools should be smart enough for me to use it for finding stuff I need in my network, and not just sit and enjoy how large it might be. It hasn't really happened yet, but, yes, it probably will. When somebody makes the right tools.
[ | 2005-03-10 20:43 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, January 28, 2005day link 

 Online Moderation
Via BoingBoing, Theresa Nielsen Hayden is an experienced moderator of online forums and has some excellent advice:
1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.

2. Once you have a well-established online conversation space, with enough regulars to explain the local mores to newcomers, they’ll do a lot of the policing themselves.

3. You own the space. You host the conversation. You don’t own the community. Respect their needs. For instance, if you’re going away for a while, don’t shut down your comment area. Give them an open thread to play with, so they’ll still be there when you get back.

4. Message persistence rewards people who write good comments.

5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.

6. Civil speech and impassioned speech are not opposed and mutually exclusive sets. Being interesting trumps any amount of conventional politeness.

7. Things to cherish: Your regulars. A sense of community. Real expertise. Genuine engagement with the subject under discussion. Outstanding performances. Helping others. Cooperation in maintenance of a good conversation. Taking the time to teach newbies the ropes.

8. Grant more lenience to participants who are only part-time jerks, as long as they’re valuable the rest of the time.

9. If you judge that a post is offensive, upsetting, or just plain unpleasant, it’s important to get rid of it, or at least make it hard to read. Do it as quickly as possible. There’s no more useless advice than to tell people to just ignore such things. We can’t. We automatically read what falls under our eyes.

10. Another important rule: You can let one jeering, unpleasant jerk hang around for a while, but the minute you get two or more of them egging each other on, they both have to go, and all their recent messages with them. There are others like them prowling the net, looking for just that kind of situation. More of them will turn up, and they’ll encourage each other to behave more and more outrageously. Kill them quickly and have no regrets.

11. You can’t automate intelligence. In theory, systems like Slashdot’s ought to work better than they do. Maintaining a conversation is a task for human beings.

12. Disemvowelling works. Consider it.

13. If someone you’ve disemvowelled comes back and behaves, forgive and forget their earlier gaffes. You’re acting in the service of civility, not abstract justice.

I often err on the side of trying to set up some kind of automatic system of making conversations useful. Which rarely works well. In my own experience, the best conversation spaces I've started have been the ones I moderated myself. And when I stopped moderating them, they tended to become less useful. But the problem is how to successfully configure a bigger space, where it isn't one discussion, but many. I'm talking about the New Civilization Network, where I frequently get accused of not moderating things enough. Well, again, the answer is not necessarily that I moderate everything, but rather that there's a way to make moderated spaces, where somebody who cares sufficiently about that particular section can step in to moderate. I still have some work to do in making that easier.
[ | 2005-01-28 12:17 | 9 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Monday, November 15, 2004day link 

 Tensegrity in the structure of the United States
picture From Kuro5hin article
Tensegrity is a term used in architecture.

What is tensegrity?

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder”
Richard Buckminster Fuller (excerpt from Synergetics, p. 372.)

The tension of the different parts of the structure gives the structure its strength. Separately each part is a burden on the structure. Together the parts make the structure strong.

Tensegrity structures are distinguished by the way forces are distributed within them. The members of a tensegrity structure are either always in tension or always in compression.

The United States has a similar tensegrity.
Yeah, hm, I guess. But not nearly as well as it used to, or as well as it could. And not as much at this particular time. However, the author does a nice job of outlining how different elements in society sort of push against each other, to create a more stable system overall.

But you spoil the tensegrity if you put too many things in one hat, or make things too one sided. There needs to be a certain equilibrium.
[ | 2004-11-15 22:06 | 5 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, October 21, 2004day link 

 The Winner takes it All
picture Selfishness is an intriguing thing. I do believe that all humans, and all lifeforms for that matter, have built-in instincts to try to make their situation better. I.e. they instinctively make choices to improve things for themselves and maybe their companions. When there's a choice, of course you pick the better food source or the better territory, and if there's a way available of arranging things to better accomplish what you're doing, of course you take it. And, surprisingly or not, a well-functioning natural order emerges amongst many diverse individuals who go around trying to make things better for themselves, without any of them having to think much about the overall whole, if at all. In the plant and animal world, that drive helps form self-adjusting and evolving ecosystems. In the human world it becomes the basis for free market economics. If many life units continuously make choices of what they prefer, many things get balanced out, good choices get validated, and resources get distributed by supply and demand.

But there's an additional human quality, which at first glance appears to be just the same thing, but which isn't, and which instead tends towards destroying all such self-organizing checks and balances systems. I'm talking about limitless amplified selfishness, disconnected from personal needs. It is when somebody wants it all, without a regard to what they need, and it is when their will can be amplified by economic or economic machines so that potentially vast resources might be applied to carrying them out.

You know, there's the negotiation technique that starts off with the assumption that you will get 100% of whatever is available. And only if the other parties can make a sufficiently good case, or are able to coerce you by force, will you accept less. Sounds just like a little convenient technique at first, but it also represents a certain principle. What you're asking for, and what you will take, unless hindered, is not directly related to what you need. You want it all of course, just because. Because that's what that particular game is about. Or maybe because you'll then be powerful. Or because you're worried about not getting anything at all. Regardless, that is a new and different principle, different from how the rest of nature works.

If a lion is hungry it will go and hunt down a gazelle or something, and kill it and eat it. If it wasn't all that hungry, it might eat just half of it. But no way is it going to go and kill the whole herd just because it is able to. It is hungry, it eats if it can, and then it lies around in the sun until it gets hungry again. Yes, it is very selfish, but only in relation to covering its needs.

It is when it gets abstract that the game starts changing. I want it all. Not just that I want the biggest house or the biggest steak that I can get. No, I want it all, whatever it might be.

Even if the lion happened to be a little crazy, as far as lions go, and it actually went out and killed a bunch of gazelles just because it was bored, the damage would be relatively slight. It would only be able to manage so many. And somebody else would probably get their dinner based on that, so it isn't entirely wasted.

In our society, structured according to more abstract principles, often hierarchically, very different things are possible. One of us can decide we want something, and we can organize a big organization, like a company, which will have as its sole purpose to do just that. Oh, that isn't easy. Takes various kinds of skill and good connections to put it together. But somebody can do it. You can have a 100 thousand people doing what you want done. If you aim for becoming the head of a nation, like as a government leader, you can aim even higher. You could have a million people doing what you want done.

Now, that is very different from the self-adjusting natural balance free market thing. 100 thousand people trying to fill various needs based on their own choices will form all sorts of checks and balances and self-adjusting mechanisms. But 100 thousand people working for one cause, which isn't their own, and who only receive their rewards to the degree that they carry it out, that's very different. We have not much more than one choice, at the top, and the choices of the individuals making up the lower rungs of the hiearchy are primarily involved just in how best to carry out that choice, setting aside their own instincts and needs to a large extent.

That's a bit like the sorcerer's apprentice. You remember Mickey Mouse making the broom go and get water for him. And the broom splinters, and soon there are hundreds of brooms only filled with one purpose: getting water. You can do a lot of damage when your wish gets amplified many times over, without any self-adjusting mechanism, and when it turns out you didn't quite think it through well enough. If you're just operating by your own power, your mistakes are relatively harmless. If your choices are multiplied thousands or millions of times over, your mistakes can be devastatingly destructive.

Now, put these things together. You can decide what you want, based on purely abstract reasoning, and you can decide you want it all, 100%. And you can line up colossal resources in that direction. Vast amounts of materiel. Huge numbers of people. Communication channels that broadcast and magnify your message, your wish. Economic engines that amplify your resources many times over, and makes many more people contribute to them, whether they're aware of it or not.

And when you then get what you're asking for, or most of it, another major departure from nature's order is apparent. You don't really have to share it. It is yours. And if you actually don't need it, you can just leave it around, applying some of the previously mentioned resources on making sure nobody else uses it for anything they need. Take it out of circulation and put a fence around it. It is yours, after all.

And it is not just that somebody cleverly managed to do so. It goes further than that. Another level. People who wanted to do that have actually managed to make it THE system on most of the planet. They've made it the law. You'll be prosecuted, penalized or jailed if you resist in any other way than through the same system they're using. And they've made it THE economic system. The whole economic machinery and the printing and generation of money is designed to make just that happen, and to make alternatives unviable.

What makes it seem less horrific at first glance is that there are many people who try to play that game. A small percentage of the Earth's population, but quite a few nevertheless. And a very small percentage of them seriously succeed. But there are still several of them, so we don't see their wishes quite carried to their final conclusion. Unless in those cases where those guys work together towards unified aims. Then, if you find yourself able to look, you might suddenly realize that a very small number of people own and control most of what's worth owning and controlling on the planet, and they've already long ago set it up so that resistance is futile, and it is both illegal and immoral and unprofitable to object.

It is what sometimes would be called black witchcraft, black magick. It is when somebody selfishly establishes what THEY want, their will, and they have the knowledge and the skill to activate the forces that will make it happen, and they do so, without regard to what is is good, needed, harmonious or sustainable. That's the part that makes it black. White magick would be that you bring forces into motion that makes things better for everybody concerned. The black variety is that one agent puts every available weapon in the arsenal into play to accomplish their will, with no regard as to what everybody else might need or want or like. Everybody else is but a piece in the play, and will only be consulted or informed to the degree that their willful cooperation accomplishes the selfish will faster.

The puzzling thing, and the part that is difficult to overcome, is that this approach quite easily wins over the competition. I.e. a few willful individuals who will stop at nothing to take what they want, and who have the skill to engage multiple levels of amplification and manipulation to get there, will easily outcompete much larger numbers of individuals who just are bumbling around, going around their business, trying to fill their own needs, trying to be nice to the people around them, trying to acquire the best means of survival.

This principle of selfish single-minded anti-social organization has for a while out-competed the alternatives. When it meets societies organized in older ways, it wins. The American Indians didn't have a chance. Made no sense to them that somebody wanted to own the earth and that their solemnly given word meant nothing. Not that they themselves were angels. However fierce warriors they were, they were no match for detached, organized, hierarchical, leveraged selfishness.

The pyramids wouldn't have been built by small cooperative tribes. Stonehenge maybe, but not gigantic structures requiring 10s of thousands of people to work for many years to create burial places for a few people. Could only have happened by anti-social rulers forcing large numbers of people to do things that have nothing to do with their own needs or wishes or choices.

It is an evolutionary development, really. It is a new principle which is more efficient, more able to win and outcompete the old approaches. It operates at a higher order, leveraging energies to greater advantage. It is a directed scheme that outguns lower level self-organization. Doesn't meant it is good and right. Just that it wins against small groups that are based on meeting needs, and that adhere to principles such as honor and the value of good work. They don't have a chance.

But that is also the way forward. The principle can be outcompeted by something better. Not by complaining about the moral faults in the scheme. No, it would be outrun by a system that would be even better at making things happen.

It is not very hard to figure out that widespread sufficiently well-connected and well-organized cooperation could outcompete leveraged corporate ventures. It doesn't yet, but it is obvious that it could. And that it very well might, some time rather soon.

A handful of people making plans and tricking and coercing large numbers of people to follow them, against their own best interests - that might win over small cooperative groups, just by the sheer magnitude and resources involved and the cleverness of the scheme. But it is bureaucratic and inefficient, and the true capabilities of most of the people involved are badly utilized. Enormous amounts of resources are wasted. Compare that with large nubers of people who are well networked, well informed, who are cooperating. Who all are doing the things they want to do, and who're free to act appropriately on the information they have. Potentially much vaster collective intelligence and combined power than the hierarchical corporate entity.

Sofar only potentially, though. Lots of people can see it, and smell it coming. But it isn't there yet. Putting millions of people in potential contact with each other isn't enough. Loads and loads of information isn't enough either. The neural network between them needs to be woven tightly enough. Systems need to be in place that are tuned well enough. There needs to be sufficient bandwidth between these people. There needs to be sufficiently sofisticated tools to show them what is going on, what is needed, what do we know, who's here, who wants to do what.

But once it really happens, the battle will be over quickly. The old dinosaurs will be slow and dumb and nobody will feel like feeding them anymore. Millions of minds thinking together will be so much smarter than a few hundred. Millions of people doing what they see needs to be done will accomplish much more than a few hundred doing what serves themselves. A fast moving, coordinated, pragmatic network will be orders of magnitude more effective than a slow moving ideological hierarchy.

When given the chance, most people will choose the options that do what they think is needed, that fulfill their needs, that improve their environment, as far as they pratically can see it, and that are fulfilling to be part of. Of course. So, if lots of people can SEE more clearly, they can make different choices. And if it is practical and obvious that one can cooperate effectively with as many people as necessary, scaled to any level, and that one can leverage one's own activities with the combined power of all these people, it is a no-brainer. Goodbye to wasting your life supporting anti-socials doing things that nobody really wants. Hello to doing what you're really here for.

The means are still missing. But once enough of them become available, there's no going back.

The imperialistic, corporate, capitalist, industrial approach outcompeted the tribal, territorial, earth-bound approach based on math. It used to be a linear progression. You have twice as much land, you can get twice as much food. Twice as many wives, you can have twice as many children. Do twice as much work and you get twice as much benefit. Twice as many members of the tribe, and you can beat a twice as big enemy.

That got out-competed by an exponential progression of returns. Like compounding interest. You not only get more back than you put out, if you're the guy in the right place, you get more and more back, the more loops you can add to the game. And the more you get, and the more cycles you go through, the more you'll be able to get.

Now, if my math doesn't fail me, a well-functioning cooperative network also adds up to an exponential rate of return. But in a different way, which doesn't depend on repeated cycles over time. The more people participate, the more possible connections and opportunities there are. Not linearly, not quadratically, but the number of participants will be in the exponent. Right away. Capabilities and change to the Nth degree. Without a need for time to make it work.

So, say there's something you see that ought to happen. You could just start working hard on it yourself. Or you could leverage your saved energy by investing it and getting others to work, and tapping the result down the line, after a number of cycles. Or you could right now connect up with the collective resources of everybody else on the planet, and instantly engage in effective cooperative action with anybody else who is willing to make that happen. What do think will be most effective?

Global cooperation of the informed and connected many will win over global exploitation by the informed and connected few of the uninformed and unconnected many, which won over local cooperation by small connected communities, which earlier won over unconnected individuals working alone.

Sometime soon. Because it will get me what I need and want, better. And I will have a choice. Better yet, I will have many choices.
[ | 2004-10-21 21:45 | 16 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Friday, October 15, 2004day link 

Rhizome: expanding underground root system, sending up above ground shoots to form a vast network. Difficult to uproot.
Deleuze & Guattari seems to be the folks who've evangelized it a model for organization and for the Internet. Well, they sort of predate the popularization of the Net, but it seems to be a natural fit. Seems to be most popular with an assortment of alternative art collectives. Deleuze & Guattari wrote a lot of stuff which seems inspiring, but not easily penetrable. So let me just pick out a few things from what others' quote, like here or here, to elaborate on the rhizone meme.

Note first of all that rhizome is often meant as contrasted to or opposed to the model of a tree. A tree in this context representing hierarchy and linear thinking.
We're tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They've made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. ...

Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories. In corresponding models, an element only receives information from a higher unit, and only receives a subjective affection along preestablished paths. ...

Accepting the primacy of hierarchical structures amounts to giving arborescent structures privileged status ... In a hierarchical system, an individual has only one active neighbor, his or her hierarchical superior. ... The channels of transmission are preestablished: the arborescent system preexists the individual, who is integrated into it at an allotted place. ...

Many people have trees growing in their heads, but the brain is more like a grass than a tree.
So, the rhizome is the alternative. A more organic structure without any centralized, hierarchical organization.
Any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. ...

The rhizome is an anti-genealogy. ...

The rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model. It is a stranger to any idea of genetic axis or deep structure. ...

The rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by the circulation of states.
So, they invite us to become rhizomes. Something that infiltrates and subverts tree structures. Something that sprouts transformative connections everywhere, but which is impossible to pin down. Something that can't be reduced to a managable simplicity.
To be rhizomorphous is to produce stems and filaments that seem to be roots, or better yet connect with them by penetrating the trunk, but put them to strange new uses. ...

Form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization, extend the line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.
Cool, count me in. I'm a rhizome. Here's some poetic advice from them:
"Write to the nth power, N-1, write with slogans: Form rhizomes and not roots, never plant! Don't sow, forage! Be neither a One nor a Many, but multiplicities! Form a line, never a point! Speed transforms the point into a line. Be fast, even while standing still! Line of chance, line of hips, line of flight. Don't arouse the General in yourself! Not an exact idea, but just as idea (Godard). Have short-term ideas. Make maps, not photographs or drawings. Be the Pink Panther, and let your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon. As they sing of old man river:
He don't plant tatos
Don't plant cotton
Them that plants them is soon
But old man river he just keeps rollin
A rhizome doesn't begin and doesn't end, but is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo."
One could discuss whether the Internet really is the perfect substrate for rhizomes. Like, see Robin B. Hamman: Rhizomes and the Internet. Despite that the Net seems to give space to all these subversive activities and free networking and peer-to-peer, it is in many ways designed as a hierarchy. Think about DNS and the Registrar system. Authorities hand out authority to lesser authorities. And think about that most of you have only one access point to the Net, your DSL or dial-up provider, who routes everything you do. Related to that subject, see Questioning Protocol. Even after widespread decentralization, control remains. Doesn't matter how much IBM splits into decentralized teams, it is still IBM, with essentially the same hierarchy. Doesn't matter how many P2P networks you set up, they still run through a few central routers run by a handful of agencies.

But, hey, it can all by rhizomized, I suppose. Might be worthwhile to pay close to attention to which structures and technologies are inherently hierarchical (even if they aren't used as such) and which ones aren't. And consistently choose the ones that subvert unnecessary hierarchies.
[ | 2004-10-15 23:59 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Thursday, October 14, 2004day link 

 The Peer to Peer Paradigm
picture Michel Bauwens wrote an excellent paper:
Peer to Peer - from technology to politics to a new civilization?
A specter is haunting the world: the specter of Peer To Peer. The existing economic system is trying to co-opt it, but it is also a harbinger of a new type of human relationship, and may in the end be incompatible with informational capitalism.
Indeed, it may. And this is important stuff. First, if anybody's still confused about what Peer to Peer is, here's this from Wikipedia:
Generally, a peer-to-peer (or P2P) computer network is any network that does not have fixed clients and servers, but a number of peer nodes that function as both clients and servers to the other nodes on the network. This model of network arrangement is contrasted with the client-server model. Any node is able to initiate or complete any supported transaction. Peer nodes may differ in local configuration, processing speed, network bandwidth, and storage quantity. One of the first uses of the phrase "peer to peer" is in 1984, with the development of the "Advanced Peer to Peer Networking" architecture at IBM.
It is that we can do something between our computers, without needing centralized servers. Sharing music files has been the most successful application of this model. It is widely held by internet enthusiasts as some kind of holy grail ideal of how things should work. Ultimate democracy and freedom from hierarchies. Individuals working together as they please, without needing hierarchical control. It is not just the technical thing as described above. It is also something way beyond internet protocols. It is for example a new way of doing work:
P2P is not just the form of technology itself, but increasingly, it is a "process of production", a way of organising the way that immaterial products are produced (and distributed and "consumed"). The first expression of this was the Free Software movement launched by Richard Stallman. Expressed in the production of software such as GNU and its kernel Linux, tens of thousands of programmers are cooperative producing the most valuable knowledge capital of the day, i.e. software. They are doing this in small groups that are seamlessly coordinated in the greater worldwide project, in true peer groups that have no traditional hierarchy. Eric Raymond's seminal essay/book "The Cathedral and The Bazaar", has explained in detail why such a mode of production is superior to its commercial variants.
And it isn't an entirely new thing. This way of working is what has worked fairly well in science for a long time.
Please also remember that peer to peer is in fact the extension of the methodology of the sciences, which have been based since 300 years on "peer review". Scientific progress is indeed beholden to the fact that scientists are accountable, in terms of the scientific validity of their work, to their peers, and not to their funders or bureaucratic managers. And the early founders of the Free Software movement where scientists from MIT, who exported their methodology from knowledge exchange to the production of software. In fact, MIT has published data showing that since a lot of research has been privatised in the U.S., the pace of innovation has in fact slowed down. Or simply compare the fact of how Netscape evolved when it was using Open Source methods and was supported by the whole internet community, as compared to the almost static evolution of Internet Explorer, now that it is the property of Microsoft.
Peer to Peer production, as in open source software, might potentially do it better than the development of science, which is after all still based heavily on entrenched hierarchies, which don't allow entrance to just anybody. P2P done right might allow the best stuff available to be distributed most widely. And it might simply be a better way of organizing, which naturally will outcompete the older, more inefficient and cumbersome approaches.
One has of course to ask oneself, why is this emergence happening, and I believe that the answer is clear. The complexity of the post-industrial age makes centralised command and control approaches, based on the centralised control, inoperable. Today, intelligence is indeed "everywhere" and the organisation of technology and work has to acknowledge that.

And more and more, we are indeed forced to conclude that peer to peer is indeed a more productive technology and way of organising production than its hierarchical, commodity-based predecessors. This is of course most clear in the music industry, where the fluidity of music distribution via P2P is an order of magnitude greater, and at marginal cost, than the commodity-based physical distribution of CDs.

This situation leads to a interesting and first historical analogy: when capitalist methods of production emerged, the feudal system, the guilds and the craftsmen at first tried to oppose and stop them (up to the physical liquidation of machines by the Luddites in the UK), but they largely failed. It is not difficult to see a comparison with the struggle of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) against Napster: they may have won legally, but the phenomenon is continuing to spread. In general, we can interpret many of the current conflicts as pitting against each other the old way of production, commodity-based production and its legal infrastructure of copyright, and the new technological and social practices undermining these existing processes. In the short term, the forces of the old try to increase their hold and faced with subverting influences, strengthen the legal and the repressive apparatus. But in the long term the question is: can they hold back these more productive processes?
In a free market, they can't, of course. But it isn't an entirely free market. You can legally force people to use inferior and more expensive solutions. At least to an extent.

P2P also applies to poltical organization and to economics and to news.

Politically speaking, we're talking about that people might rise up and change things, without any centralized hierarchical organization, and without obvious leaders. Which, when it works, seems a better fit than the alternatives. Traditionally, movements towards putting The People in power have been considered leftists, and have usually involved some massive centralized organization which tries to get their hands on government power. And when they do, it again becomes just another hierarchy and not really power to the people. Look at communism, obviously. Now, free people in a network, well organized, but in a flexible non-hierarchical manner - that can be quite a different matter. Something very difficult for the traditional oppressive powers to fight against, because they don't know who to take out.

As to economics, there are local currency systems like LETS, and there's barter systems. And underground economies and black markets. And gift economies. In P2P the idea is that you can just go and do it, and that you can exchange with whoever it is appropriate to exchange with. Whether the government or a bank thinks it is good or not.

As to news, there are blogs. Networked peer to peer information. And there are networks like IndyMedia. Hard-hitting grassroots non-corporate owner information. No spokesmen, no anchors, no owners.

P2P networks work on different rules than what they're replacing. It is no longer that the winner is whoever has the most power, the most money, the best ads, or the biggest police force. These things are replaced with a more free market competition. Reputation suddenly becomes more important. It is now more important that people know about and like what you're doing, and that they find it useful. Actually useful, not just being tricked into buying it.

In an economy of abundance, like the internet's abundance of information, there's competition for the scarce resource of attention. Thus it becomes an attention economy. Or, rather, that's the still somewhat corporate way of looking at it. The real way of getting attention is to put good stuff into the hands of as many people as possible, and letting them know you did it. Not just by, eh, attracting attention, in the advertising sense.

P2P production works on different principles, different motivations. People do stuff because they feel like it, because it needs to be done, because it is cool, because people will like them, or whatever. But they don't do it because anybody forces them too. And they cooperate simply because it makes sense in order to accomplish things we'd like to do. They'll cooperate even if they have no great ideological belief in cooperation as opposed to the alternatives. But cooperation naturally happens.

And now to the exiting stuff. We could say that there's an evolutionary trend towards widespread cooperation, in the P2P fashion. That our next step is a cooperative planetary organism. Evolutionary psychologics John Stewart talks about things like that:
Evolution's Arrow also argues that evolution itself has evolved. Evolution has progressively improved the ability of evolutionary mechanisms to discover the best adaptations. And it has discovered new and better mechanisms. The book looks at the evolution of pre-genetic, genetic, cultural, and supra-individual evolutionary mechanisms. And it shows that the genetic mechanism is not entirely blind and random.

Evolution's Arrow goes on to use an understanding of the direction of evolution and of the mechanisms that drive it to identify the next great steps in the evolution of life on earth - the steps that humanity must take if we are to continue to be successful in evolutionary terms. It shows how we must change our societies to increase their scale and evolvability, and how we must change ourselves psychologically to become self-evolving organisms - organisms that are able to adapt in whatever ways are necessary for future evolutionary success, unfettered by their biological or social past. Two critical steps will be the emergence of a highly evolvable, unified and cooperative planetary organisation that is able to adapt as a coherent whole, and the emergence of evolutionary warriors - individuals who are conscious of the direction of evolution, and who use their evolutionary consciousness to promote and enhance the evolutionary success of humanity.
Yeah, I believe that. I want that. I hope that's what's happening. But there's the question of how to get from here to there. Maybe it will happen by itself, but one can't help wondering what ought to be done to facilitate it.

An immediate obstacle in moving more thoroughly to P2P methods in our society is that their presence to a large degree is paid for out of the side-effects of the old system.
The central problem is that most of the existing peer to peer emergence is based on the surplus created by the present economic system, and that many forms of peer to peer live from the wealth created by this system, being unable to sustain themselves independently. I am personally not convinced yet that peer to peer can sustain itself economically, and so are many of its proponents. Which is the reason why many peer to peer oriented theorists point to the need of a "generalised citizen wage", which would replace all existing transfers (unemployment, etc..) and allow for a generalisation of peer to peer activities, based on the surplus generated by the money economy.
And he goes on to outline various visions for a P2P type of society. Like a GPL Society, based on the principles of the General Public License. I.e. production not based on exchange, but based on making things that are needed, and making them as easily accessible as possible.

It isn't clear how to get there. Maybe the old style centralized hierarchical capitalism will collapse under its own weight. But maybe it won't. There are many possible scenarios where it instead will be able to swallow up the alternatives and be able to control even more aspects of your life.

Anyway, most of this is directly from Bauwens' paper, so read the real thing. Some parts are in French, but you can probably do without them.
[ | 2004-10-14 21:54 | 7 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Wednesday, October 6, 2004day link 

 The Amateur Revolution
picture Fast Company article about how networks of amateurs more and more are replacing the pros. An increasing number of innovations are now being driven by such networks in fields like music, software, games, economics, astronomy.
These far-flung developments have all been driven by Pro-Ams -- committed, networked amateurs working to professional standards. Pro-Am workers, their networks and movements, will help reshape society in the next two decades. ..

In the developing world, Pro-Ams are solving a historical scarcity of professional resources. The Grameen Bank, founded by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economics professor, trains barefoot bankers to deliver loans to people earning less than a dollar a day. This Pro-Am workforce makes it possible to cost-effectively administer 2.8 million loans worth more than $4 billion. Had Grameen relied on professionals, it would have reached a tiny proportion of the population. ..

Astronomy used to be done in national "big science" research institutes. Now it is also done in global, Pro-Am, open-source collaboratives. There is still a huge gulf between amateur astronomers and theoretical astrophysicists. But the line between professional and Pro-Am astronomers has become fatally blurred. Much the same will happen in other fields.

Some professionals will find that unsettling; they will seek to defend their monopolies. The more enlightened will understand that the landscape is changing. Knowledge is widely distributed, not controlled in a few ivory towers. The most powerful organizations will enable professionals and amateurs to combine distributed know-how to solve complex problems.

Pro-Am activity will continue to expand. Longer healthy life spans will allow people in their forties and fifties to start taking up Pro-Am activities as second careers. Rising participation in education will give people skills to pursue those activities. New media and technology enable Pro-Ams to organize.
Combining distributed know-how to solve complex problems. Yep, very cool. I dare say, that's where everything is headed. Flexible, distributed networks.

It is interesting that we could say that being a "professional" often means we have something invested in doing a certain job a certain way, whether we're really the best one for the job, whether it is really the best way or not. There's an inflexibility involved in being very educated in a certain field, being paid for doing it a particular way, and being part of a big slow-moving organization. Even if one is very qualified and organized, it might not for much longer provide any obvious advantage when competing with large numbers of people who have access to the same information, who are free to act on their passions with few constraints, and who possibly might become better organized than any hierarchical outfit can be.
[ | 2004-10-06 23:59 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

Tuesday, September 21, 2004day link 

 Marxism, Open Source and New Economy
picture Adina Levin posts Red Penguin about whether or not the open source movement is some kind of contemporary marxist thing. She has read Coase's Penguin, which is a classic paper written by Yochai Benkler, providing an economic explanation of open source software and other peer production endeavors like Wikipedia.

You know, open source software is developed mostly by people who work for free, who give their work away to the general community, and who don't seem to be much interested in profits. Is it some kind of communist conspiracy?
Marxism argues in favor of collective production and against monetary rewards out of political belief that capitalism is inherently exploitative. The way to ensure a just society is collective production where production is organized and rewards are distributed fairly through central planning. But centrally planned collective production proved inefficient and corrupt.

The first puzzle about open source peer production isn't whether or not developers have marxist political beliefs, but why it works, especially since the Marxist collective model failed miserably.

This is what Benkler explains elegantly. Coase's Penguin builds on the theory of Ronald Coase, who explained in the 30s that firms exist when the cost of separate transactions with many independent parties is greater than the price-efficiency of a competitive market. The problem Coase was trying to solve at the time was to explain the persistance and dramatic growth of centrally managed corporations, if a market is an ideal way to allocate economic resources.

Benkler solves today's version of the same problem. If money is the ideal way to incent and co-ordinate production, why are we seeing the persistence and dramatic growth of production methods that don't use money?

Benkler explains that commons-based peer production is more efficient than either firms or markets for information goods, where the costs of communication and distribution are low, and the difficult problem is allocating human creativity. When there are masses of potential contributors, and it's easy to participate in little chunks like an open source plugin or a wikipedia article, the best way match skills and work is a million little decisions by independent contributors.

Mandatory, Marxist-style collective farming doesn't benefit from these resource allocation efficiencies. Workers on collective farms have pre-defined work and can't leave. Collective farms don't gain the benefit of unique, voluntary contributions by thousands of distributed workers.

Another attribute of political marxism is an belief in mandatory equality. Peer production projects often have a meritocratic culture with dramatic inequality, where founding leaders and high-value contributors have greater prestige, influence, and sometimes financial reward. It's not considered inherently unjust that leaders of open source projects like Perl and Python have received grant, foundation, and corporate funding to do their work (although visible leaders of peer projects can also become lightning rods for criticism).

Another marxist value is opposition to a money economy. Cash is seen as a symptom of the alienation of workers from the products that result from their labors.

Clearly, the motivation of many thousands of open source, wikipedia, livejournal, and other peer content producers is non-monetary. But is it anti-monetary?

Benkler deals with the incentive question in the excellent third section of Coases Penguin. Benkler makes an astute distinction between activities where money is commonly thought to be an inverse motivation (sex), and where it is seen as complementary (sports, music). Many people who like basketball would love to be NBA stars. By contrast, most people who like sex would not like to be prostitutes.
So, a few thoughts, related to how we might more pervasively live in a different kind of econmy.

A central question there is why we indeed still do have a system that is dominated by centralized corporations, as opposed to a real free market. As she points out, Benkler, or rather Coase, said that firms exist when the cost of separate transactions with many independent parties is greater than the price-efficiency of centralized ventures. Large corporations are largely counter to a free market. They work quite a bit like communist governments, just with even greater incentives for greed, and the removal of any ideals of providing for the population or having them live in equality. And the corporations do compete with each other, and with whatever people do in a non-corporate way. But the somewhat mysterious puzzle is how come big inefficient bureaucracies actually CAN compete successfully with individuals and small groups in a free market.

Part of the secret, I think, is that capitalist ventures aren't doing what most people sort of intuitively think they're doing. A central tenet in Marxist thinking was that what is really valuable is the work that people do. The actual work that individuals put out is what the economy should be based upon, not the capital it is financed with, or the profits one might extract from it. And somehow most people seem to assume that their work output is valuable, and that's what they're being paid for, and that's what makes the economy work - that people do good work, which creates value. And of course, the economy wouldn't work if there weren't people doing good work, but it is rather far removed from what really makes the wheels turn.

Most corporations work quite a bit like a communist country did. I.e. the actual work people do has rather little to do with anything. A majority of people have figured out how to get through the day, looking like they're doing their job, without really doing much of anything. Despite western propaganda, making it look like everybody were in slave labor camps, the truth about work in for example the old Soviet Union was more in the direction that there wasn't a whole lot to do. Let's say you were a baker. It would be common to show up for work, and then around lunch time you'd run out of materials, no flour to bake with, so you'd stop working. After a long lunch, there'd maybe be something more to do, but most likely you'd go home early. It was the fault of central planning, and since you couldn't do anything about it, you just sort of made it through the day. And there was then plenty of free time to get really educated, or to drink, or whatever. None of it in very good style, but you were at least assured a living, and you probably weren't overworked. Now, a western corporation or a government job isn't all that different. It will produce a higher standard of living, albeit with much less security, and most people have figured out how to look busy all day long, and things are better planned, so one doesn't run out of paperclips in the middle of the day. But it is still the same situation that for at least 90% of the workers, what you're doing doesn't make much difference, and you're just sort of keeping up appearances, even if you're actually working quite hard. Many of you work for corporations that could fire 10,000 people if "the economy is bad", and it still wouldn't make much difference.

Now, let's say we set up a grassroots network of people who were exchanging their work for money. A very flexible and full-featured thing, allowing you to quickly find qualified workers for a job, and to always get the best work for the best price. You would be able to act on opportunities quickly, by selecting out good people, structuring attractive proposals, doing the work, and moving on to a different constellation when it is done. That kind of setup ought to be many times more efficient and competitive than corporations that are slow, bureaucratic and wasteful.

The annoying thing is that it probably isn't. And despite sounding very sensible, it would miss how things really work. Most of us are not just interested in working hard and being rewarded fairly for it. We'd much rather work as little as possible, but have a good time, and be rewarded unusually well for it. We'd rather get paid handsomely without any relation to what we actually do or don't do. And that's the point where the big centralized capitalist corporation wins out over the competition. Sofar the best of all worlds. For the people who're in the loop, at least. Most of the executives, the investors and the workers get away with being paid well, or even amazingly well, without doing much real work, and without having to be measured on their actual performance. I.e. what they do to increase the quality of life in the world.

Most of what we actually need in the world could be produced by a small percentage of us working. And a small percentage of us are indeed doing something very valuable and needed which we're inspired and excited to do. The rest are mostly passing time filling up a slot that probably didn't really need to be filled, if somebody took a bigger view on it. OK, good and useful things get accomplished too, even by people who aren't quite in it, and who're mostly looking forward to the lunch break. But really what is going on is that there are some big economic machines in motion. What makes those machines run is only to a rather small degree the quality of work done, even though some work of sufficient quality has to take place. What makes them run is to a higher degree the creative financing that allows somebody to manufacture the capital for them, without any exchange of real work. And the fact that the whole thing is so opaque that hardly anybody can understand how it really works. And then it works on how well the machine succeeds in guiding or matching the desires and whims and habits of the public.

It is about creating a value chain. Not necessarily real value, but economic value. If you own a patent which forces some people to pay you a billion dollars per year in licensing fees, you can hire 10,000 people, and it doesn't really matter what they do, and you'll still have a lot of money left over, and everybody is happy. Or you set up a manufacturing and marketing machinery that makes everybody eat your baked beans. And again, it doesn't matter much in the small what the employees are doing, as long as an acceptable quality of baked beans come out, and people feel like eating them. Everybody involved gets paid a small piece of the value produced by the big system in place.

A network of good people doing work for money can't easily compete with that, unless they can manage to set up similar kinds of value chains. Just doing work and being paid isn't quite good enough. If I look at the amount of money I need per month, and I consider making that by doing work for people I know who need something I can do, it looks pretty grim, unless I actually can do something very tangible and sought after. The more likely thing I'd do is to find somebody with a big value chain for whom the kind of money I need is very insignificant.

But now, open source, it actually works. Why? Unfortunately, to a large degree because the other things are in place. There are plenty of qualified people around who have a day job that doesn't inspire them, and which doesn't have them do much, but which pays them. So there's plenty of energy left over to do something that is actually valuable, based on one's own free choice. That wouldn't happen if one came home from a 60 hour week of manual labor, all worn out. Wouldn't happen if one had no source of income. Might happen when one is on unemployment, or while one is studying, and one's living and one's studies are paid for.

But the success of open source economics shows us a glimpse of how the world could work. People working for the common good, of their own free will, collectively doing higher quality work than one could buy for money. And somehow still being supported. They leverage this out of a capitalist economy which otherwise is totally antipathetic to such activites, and despite considerable odds against it, they demonstrate new kinds of economic relationships, and the potentially superior qualities of free organization.

But what would it take for such principles to actually replace the old, inefficient, but very powerful institutions?

They would have to not only be superior in terms of getting useful work done, which is by now well covered and documented, if certain conditions are met, but also superior in terms of generating life support value. I.e. they'd have to pay the rent and put food on the table.

One way would be to create ways for more loosely organized groups of people to capitalize their activities, and hook into common value chains. Co-operative business ventures. Maybe doesn't have to be done with dollars that come out of a bank, but maybe it can be done with other kinds of currencies. Obviously, if big value is generated for many people, there ought to be some formula for inverting that into a reward for everybody who were involved. Either way, at the same time the problem has to be solved how large heterogenous groups can communicate well, and coordinate their activities. Maybe the right kind of economic system will implicitly carry the answer to that too.

The open source approach would not be to figure out how to force somebody to pay directly for one's work. Rather, treating it as a universal problem to solve, and once one solves it, one gives the solution to anybody else who wants it.

Much harder to do with the physical world than with software, but maybe it mainly is software or blueprints that is needed. At least a little down the road. I need to have food to eat. So does 6 billion other people. What if somebody came up with ways of helping me fill that need on my own. You know, like the plans for a selfcontained hydroponic system I can have in the basement. Some nano-tech replicator would be better of course. But the point is that somebody can come up with a solution I can install locally, rather than me having to be perpetually hooked into a farming, factory, super-market system. A solution that puts the ball in my court.

Yes, currently we can't compete with big corporations and governments on many points. Because some of what we need and want requires big machinery, and because the collective activities of thousands of people better can be pointed in a particular direction with hierarchies and propaganda. However inefficient and wasteful they might be, they still has an edge over anarchic self-organization when it comes to big central projects.

But the scales tip a bit whenever a technology becomes small and cheap and virtual enough that it can end up under your personal control. Like when you were able to buy a personal computer for the first time, and you could create your own typeset newsletters, and you could program it, and then you could create websites for millions of people to see, easily and cheaply. Soon computer graphics will have gotten far enough that you might author a fairly sophisticated feature movie on your PC. Little by little, the keys are handed to you to do things on your own that you previously were dependent on corporations for. OK, you can't build your house or your car that way, or grow your food. But it is fairly inevitable that eventually you can, based on open source blueprints. Along the way some big corporations are going to try to stop you from actually using what they've sold you, but the cat will be out of the bag. If you sell LPs and I have a tape recorder, the economics of music distribution have already inextricably changed, no matter how many laws you have passed forbidding me to hit record.

A free market is good. For people to participate in a free market, they need to be free to choose, and they need some kind of tools that allow them to have something valuable to give to others. The internet and open source have opened up a bunch of areas, creating new free markets. Now we need better communication tools, to allow larger numbers of people to coordinate their actions. We initially need ways of capitalizing such networks of people. And then we need more technologies virtualized and made free. And eventually the centralized capitalist bureaucracies will go the way of their communist cousins, and crumple under their own weight, because they can't compete with well-organized free people. Will take some work, but it is probably inevitable.
[ | 2004-09-21 19:46 | 8 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

Sunday, September 5, 2004day link 

 Hypertaskers do things faster but not better
picture Article in azcentral. Yeah, I'm probably one too. A hypertasker. Somebody who tries to do many things at once, who's always working, and who gets rashes if they don't have a fast internet connection close by. But doing many things at the same time isn't necessarily faster or even good for us, some researchers seem to say.
"Hypertasking is excessiveness," says Patricia Arredondo, associate professor in Arizona State University's graduate counseling program. "It's overload in the sense of having your brain trying to respond to a number of stimuli at the same time, and that can really start to cost you."
Excessiveness? Seems a little strong. But maybe they're right.
Researchers argue that the brain isn't wired to do more than one thing at a time without loss of efficiency and quality.

In a recent study at Harvard University, psychologist Yuhong Jiang studied the brains of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as they performed "extremely easy tasks." When the students were asked to identify a letter and a color simultaneously, it took twice as long as when they did each task separately. In addition, brain activity diminished.

"When the brain tries to do two tasks (at once), instead of increasing activity it has decreased activity," Jiang says. "It's not as efficient."

Jiang's research, published in the June issue of Psychological Science, adds to a growing body of science that shows the downside of doing too much at once.
Hm, I'd say it isn't necessarily just too much. It is that certain activities might well dovetail together, and create a certain kind of synergy, where others don't. Like an example they give, one might very well go for a walk and talk with a good friend at the same time. One does several things at the same time, and yet one doesn't get stressed.

But trouble certainly starts if we get anywhere close to trying to do time-sharing like a computer. You know, for years computers have pretended to do many things at the same time by slicing each second into many parts, and simply switching from task to task very quickly. Doing a little bit of one task, then a little bit of another, etc, and shortly return to the first one, and do a little bit more from where you left off. Might work for a computer, but that's the kind of thing that drives people crazy.

So, if we have to talk brains, the problem might appear when we do several of the same kind of thing at the same time. Might not be stressful to walk and eat and juggle and talk at the same time, even if that is stretching it a little bit, because those are different systems. But if we need to talk to two people at the same time, we start getting inefficient and stressed. Just like if we're trying to taste two different foods at the same time.
"How much can we push one part of the brain to do two things (at once)?" he asks. "Mother Nature didn't think we'd be sitting at a computer with four windows opened and the phone ringing. It's a cultural invention."

But then, so was reading, he notes. "And now we all read."
So it isn't so much that we do strange and new things. It is more when we try to make several things occupy the same space when they can't. Some things can co-exist, if they complement each other, or if they operate on different wavelengths, so to speak. But if they're trying to use the same wavelength and they collide, then we start being just very busy and very inefficient.

If we assume that we actually do need to deal with a much greater amount of continuous information than in past times, the task becomes to make it all appear simple and coherent. You know, a library isn't confusing, even if there's a million volumes in it. Reading 5 books at the same time, and not having time for it, that's confusing. Looking at a picture of the weather patterns on the planet, that typically doesn't stress us (unless there's a hurricane heading our way), but trying to predict the weather, while also trying to remember your shopping list, and keep track of your schedule, that might be confusing and stressful. The trick is to make it all fit together. To make information scalable, so that more of it doesn't have to mean that it collides.
[ | 2004-09-05 23:59 | 7 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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