Paperworks / Padworks

I: Paper, works

At the end of May I received an email from a senior official at the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.  DEECD was in the midst of issuing an RFP, looking for new content to populate FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Education), an important component of ULTRANET, the mega-über-supremo educational intranet meant to solve everyone’s educational problems for all time.  Or, well, perhaps I overstate the matter.  But it could be a big deal.

The respondents to the RFP were organizations who already had working relationships with DEECD, and therefore were both familiar with DEECD processes and had been vetted in their earlier relationships.  This meant that the entire RFP to submissions could be telescoped down to just a bit less than three weeks.  The official asked me if I’d be interested in being one of the external reviewers for these proposals as they passed through an official evaluation process.  I said I’d be happy to do so, and asked how many proposals I’d have to review.  “I doubt it will be more than thirty or forty,” he replied.  Which seemed quite reasonable.

As is inevitably the case, most of the proposals landed in the DEECD mailbox just a few hours before the deadline for submissions.  But the RFP didn’t result in thirty or forty proposals.  The total came to almost ninety.  All of which I had to review and evaluate in the thirty-six hours between the time they landed in my inbox and the start of the formal evaluation meeting.  Oh, and first I needed to print them out, because there was no way I’d be able to do that much reading in front of my computer.

Let’s face it – although we do sit and read our laptop screens all day long, we rarely read anything longer than a few paragraphs.  If it passes 300 words, it tips the balance into ‘tl;dr’ (too long; didn’t read) territory, and unless it’s vital for our employment or well-being, we tend to skip it and move along to the next little tidbit.  Having to sit and read through well over nine hundred pages of proposals on my laptop was a bridge too far. I set off to the print shop around the corner from my flat, to have the whole mess printed out.  That took nearly 24 hours by itself – and cost an ungodly sum.  I was left with a huge, heavy box of paper which I could barely lug back to my flat.  For the next 36 hours, this box would be my ball and chain.  I’d have to take it with me to the meeting in Melbourne, which meant packing it for the flight, checking it as baggage, lugging it to my hotel room, and so forth, all while trying to digest its contents.

How the heck was that going to work?

This is when I looked at my iPad.  Then I looked back at the box.  Then back at the iPad.  Then back at the box.  I’d gotten my iPad barely a week before – when they first arrived in Australia – and I was planning on taking it on this trip, but without an accompanying laptop.  This, for me, would be a bit of a test.  For the last decade I’d never traveled anywhere without my laptop.  Could I manage a business trip with just my iPad?  I looked back at the iPad.  Then at the box.  You could practically hear the penny drop.

I immediately began copying all these nine hundred-plus pages of proposals and accompanying documentation from my laptop to the storage utility Dropbox.  Dropbox gives you 2 GB of free Internet storage, with an option to rent more space, if you need it.  Dropbox also has an iPad app (free) – so as soon as the files were uploaded to Dropbox, I could access them from my iPad.

I should take a moment and talk about the model of the iPad I own.  I ordered the 16 GB version – the smallest storage size offered by Apple – but I got the 3G upgrade, paired with Telstra’s most excellent pre-paid NextG service.  My rationale was that I imagined this iPad would be a ‘cloud-centric’ device.  The ‘cloud’ is a term that’s come into use quite recently.  It means software is hosted somewhere out there on the Internet – the ‘cloud’ – rather than residing locally on your computer.  Gmail is a good example of a software that’s ‘in the cloud’.  Facebook is another.  Twitter, another.   Much of what we do with our computers – iPad included – involves software accessed over the Internet.  Many of the apps for sale in Apple’s iTunes App Store are useless or pointless without an Internet connection – these are the sorts of applications which break down the neat boundary between the computer and the cloud.  Cloud computing has been growing in importance over the last decade; by the end of this one it will simply be the way things work.  Your iPad will be your window onto the cloud, onto everything you have within that cloud: your email, your documents, your calendar, your contacts, etc.

I like to live in the future, so I made sure that my iPad didn’t have too much storage – which forces me to use the cloud as much as possible.  In this case, that was precisely the right decision, because I ditched the ten-kilo box of paperwork and boarded my flight to Melbourne with my iPad at my side.  I poured through the proposals, one after another, bringing them up in Dropbox, evaluating them, making some notes in my (paper) notebook, then moving along to the next one.  My iPad gave me a fluidity and speed that I could never have had with that box of paper.

When I arrived at my hotel, I had another set of two large boxes waiting for me.  Here again were the proposals, carefully ordered and placed into several large, ringed binders.  I’d be expected to tote these to the evaluation meeting.  Fortunately, that was only a few floors above my hotel room.  That said, it was a bit of a struggle to get those boxes and my luggage into the elevator and up to the meeting room.  I put those boxes down – and never looked at them again.  As the rest of the evaluation panel dug through their boxes to pull out the relevant proposals, I did a few motions with my fingertips, and found myself on the same page.

Yes, they got a bit jealous.

We finished the evaluation on time and quite successfully, and at the end of the day I left my boxes with the DEECD coordinator, thanking her for her hard work printing all these materials, but begging off.  She understood completely.  I flew home, lighter than I might otherwise have, had I stuck to paper.

For at least the past thirty years – which is about the duration of the personal computer revolution – people have been talking about the advent of the paperless office.  Truth be told, we use more paper in our offices than ever before, our printers constantly at work with letters, notices, emails, and so forth.  We haven’t been able to make the leap to a paperless office – despite our comprehensive ability to manipulate documents digitally – because we lacked something that could actually replace paper.  Computers as we’ve known them simply can’t replace a piece of paper. For a whole host of reasons, it just never worked.  To move to a paperless office – and a paperless classroom – we had to invent something that could supplant paper.  We have it now.  After a lot of false starts, tablet computing has finally arrived –– and it’s here to stay.

I can sit here, iPad in hand, and have access to every single document that I have ever written.  You will soon have access to every single document you might ever need, right here, right now.  We’re not 100% there yet – but that’s not the fault of the device.  We’re going to need to make some adjustments to our IT strategies, so that we can have a pervasively available document environment.  At that point, your iPad becomes the page which contains all other pages within it.  You’ll never be without the document you need at the time you need it.

Nor will we confine ourselves to text.  The world is richer than that.  iPad is the lightbox that contains all photographs within it, it is the television which receives every bit of video produced by anyone – professional or amateur – ever.  It is already the radio (Pocket Tunes app) which receives almost every major radio station broadcasting anywhere in the world.  And it is every one of a hundred-million-plus websites and maybe a trillion web pages.  All of this is here, right here in the palm of your hand.

What matters now is how we put all of this to work.

II: Pad, works

Let’s project ourselves into the future just a little bit – say around ten years.  It’s 2020, and we’ve had iPads for a whole decade.  The iPads of 2020 will be vastly more powerful than the ones in use today, because of something known as Moore’s Law.  This law states that computers double in power every twenty-four months.  Ten years is five doublings, or 32 times.  That rule extends to the display as well as the computer.  The ‘Retina Display’ recently released on Apple’s iPhone 4 shows us where that technology is going – displays so fine that you can’t make out the individual pixels with your eye.  The screen of your iPad version 11 will be visually indistinguishable from a sheet of paper.  The device itself will be thinner and lighter than the current model.  Battery technology improves at about 10% a year, so half the weight of the battery – which is the heaviest component of the iPad – will disappear.  You’ll still get at least ten hours of use, that’s something that’s considered essential to your experience as a user.  And you’ll still be connected to the mobile network.

The mobile network of 2020 will look quite different from the mobile network of 2010.  Right now we’re just on the cusp of moving into 4th generation mobile broadband technology, known colloquially as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution.   Where you might get speeds of 7 megabits per second with NextG mobile broadband – under the best conditions – LTE promises speeds of 100 megabits.  That’s as good as a wired connection – as fast as anything promised by the National Broadband Network!  In a decade’s time we’ll be moving through 5th generation and possibly into 6th generation mobile technologies, with speeds approaching a gigabit, a billion bits per second.  That may sound like a lot, but again, it represents roughly 32 times the capacity of the mobile broadband networks of today.  Moore’s Law has a broad reach, and will transform every component of the iPad.

iPad will have thirty-two times the storage, not that we’ll need it, given that we’ll be connected to the cloud at gigabit speeds, but if it’s there, someone will find use for the two terabytes or more included in our iPad.  (Perhaps a full copy of Wikipedia?  Or all of the books published before 1915?)  All of this still cost just $700.  If you want to spend less – and have a correspondingly less-powerful device, you’ll have that option.  I suspect you’ll be able to pick up an entry-level device – the equivalent of iPad 7, perhaps – for $49 at JB HiFi.

What sorts of things will the iPad 10 be capable of?  How do we put all of that power to work?  First off, iPad will be able to see and hear in meaningful ways.  Voice recognition and computer vision are two technologies which are on the threshold of becoming ‘twenty year overnight successes’.  We can already speak to our computers, and, most of the time, they can understand us.  With devices like the Xbox Kinect, cameras allow the computer to see the world around, and recognize bits of it.  Your iPad will hear you, understand your voice, and follow your commands.  It will also be able to recognize your face, your motions, and your emotions.

It’s not clear that computers as we know them today – that is, desktops and laptops – will be common in a decade’s time.  They may still be employed in very specialized tasks.  For almost everything else, we will be using our iPads.  They’ll rarely leave our sides.  They will become so pervasive that in many environments – around the home, in the office, or at school – we will simply have a supply of them sufficient to the task.  When everything is so well connected, you don’t need to have personal information stored in a specific iPad.  You will be able to pick up any iPad and – almost instantaneously – the custom features which mark that device as uniquely yours will be downloaded into it.

All of this is possible.  Whether any of it eventuates depends on a whole host of factors we can’t yet see clearly.  People may find voice recognition more of an annoyance than an affordance.  The idea of your iPad watching you might seem creepy to some people.  But consider this: I have a good friend who has two elderly parents: his dad is in his early 80s, his mom is in her mid-70s.  He lives in Boston while they live in Northern California.  But he needs to keep in touch, he needs to have a look in.  Next year, when iPad acquires a forward-facing camera – so it can be used for video conferencing – he’ll buy them an iPad, and install it on the wall of their kitchen, stuck on there with Velcro, so that he can ring in anytime, and check on them, and they can ring him, anytime.  It’s a bit ‘Jetsons’, when you think about it.  And that’s just what will happen next year.  By 2020 the iPad will be able to track your progress around the house, monitor what prescriptions you’ve taken (or missed), whether you’ve left the house, and for how long.  It’ll be a basic accessory, necessary for everyone caring for someone in their final years – or in their first ones.

Now that we’ve established the basic capabilities and expectations for this device, let’s imagine them in the hands of students everywhere throughout Australia.  No student, however poor, will be without their own iPad – the Government of the day will see to that.  These students of 2020 are at least as well connected as you are, as their parents are, as anyone is.  To them, iPads are not new things; they’ve always been around.  They grew up in a world where touch is the default interface.  A computer mouse, for them, seems as archaic as a manual typewriter does to us.  They’re also quite accustomed to being immersed within a field of very-high-speed mobile broadband.  They just expect it to be ‘on’, everywhere they go, and expect that they will have access to it as needed.

How do we make education in 2020 meet their expectations?  This is not the universe of ‘chalk and talk’.  This is a world where the classroom walls have been effectively leveled by the pervasive presence of the network, and a device which can display anything on that network.  This is a world where education can be provided anywhere, on demand, as called for.  This is a world where the constructivist premise of learning-by-doing can be implemented beyond year two.  Where a student working on an engine can stare at a three-dimensional breakout model of the components while engaging in a conversation with an instructor half a continent away.  Where a student learning French can actually engage with a French student learning English, and do so without much more than a press of a few buttons.  Where a student learning about the Eureka Stockade can survey the ground, iPad in hand, and find within the device hidden depths to the history.  iPad is the handheld schoolhouse, and it is, in many ways, the thing that replaces the chalkboard, the classroom, and the library.

But iPad does not replace the educator.  We need to be very clear on that, because even as educational resources multiply beyond our wildest hopes –more on that presently – students still need someone to guide them into understanding.  The more we virtualize the educational process, the more important and singular our embodied interactions become.  Some of this will come from far away – the iPad offers opportunities for distance education undreamt of just a few years ago – but much more of it will be close up.  Even if the classroom does not survive (and I doubt it will fade away completely in the next ten years, but it will begin to erode), we will still need a place for an educator/mentor to come into contact with students.  That’s been true since the days of Socrates (probably long before that), and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  We learn best when we learn from others.  We humans are experts in mimesis, in learning by imitation.  That kind of learning requires us to breathe the same air together.

No matter how much power we gain from the iPad, no matter how much freedom it offers, no device offers us freedom from our essential nature as social beings.  We are born to work together, we are designed to learn from one another.  iPad is an unbelievably potent addition to the educator’s toolbox, but we must remember not to let it cloud our common sense.  It should be an amplifier, not a replacement, something that lets students go further, faster than before.  But they should not go alone.

The constant danger of technology is that it can interrupt the human moment.  We can be too busy checking our messages to see the real people right before our eyes.  This is the dilemma that will face us in the age of the iPad.  Governments will see them as cost-saving devices, something that could substitute for the human touch.  If we lose touch, if we lose the human moment, we also lose the biggest part of our ability to learn.

III:  The Work of Nations

We can reasonably predict that this is the decade of the tablet, and the decade of mobile broadband.  The two of them fuse in the iPad, to produce a platform which will transform education, allowing it to happen anywhere a teacher and a student share an agreement to work together.  But what will they be working on?  Next year we’ll see the rollout of the National Curriculum, which specifies the material to be covered in core subject areas in classrooms throughout the nation.

Many educators view the National Curriculum as a mandate for a bland uniformity, a lowest-common denominator approach to instruction, which will simply leave the teacher working point-by-point through the curriculum’s arc.  This is certainly not the intent of the project’s creators.  Dr. Evan Arthur, who heads up the Digital Educational Revolution taskforce in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, publicly refers to the National Curriculum as a ‘greenfields’, as though all expectations were essentially phantoms of the mind, a box we draw around ourselves, rather than one that objectively exists.

The National Curriculum outlines the subject areas to be covered, but says very little if anything about pedagogy.  Instructors and school systems are free to exercise their own best judgment in selecting an approach appropriate to their students, their educators, and their facilities.  That’s good news, and means that any blandness that creeps into pedagogy because of the National Curriculum is more a reflection of the educator than the educational mandate.

Precisely because it places educators and students throughout the nation onto the same page, the National Curriculum also offers up an enormous opportunity.  We know that all year nine students in Australia will be covering a particular suite of topics.  This means that every educator and every student throughout the nation can be drawing from and contributing to a ‘common wealth’ of shared materials, whether they be podcasts of lectures, educational chatrooms, lesson plans, and on and on and on.  As the years go by, this wealth of material will grow as more teachers and more students add their own contributions to it.  The National Curriculum isn’t a mandate, per se; it’s better to think of it as an empty Wikipedia.  All the article headings are there, all the taxonomy, all the cross references, but none of the content.  The next decade will see us all build up that base of content, so that by 2020, a decade’s worth of work will have resulted in something truly outstanding to offer both educators and students in their pursuit of curriculum goals.
Well, maybe.

I say all of this as if it were a sure thing.  But it isn’t.  Everyone secretly suspects the National Curriculum will ruin education.  I ask that we can see things differently.  The National Curriculum could be the savior of education in the 21st century, but in order to travel the short distance in our minds between where we are (and where we will go if we don’t change our minds) and where we need to be, we need to think of every educator in Australia as a contributor of value.  More than that, we need to think of every student in Australia as a contributor of value.  That’s the vital gap that must be crossed.  Educators spend endless hours working on lesson plans and instructional designs – they should be encouraged to share this work.  Many of them are too modest or too scared to trumpet their own hard yards – but it is something that educators and students across the nation can benefit from.  Students, as they pass through the curriculum, create their own learning materials, which must be preserved, where appropriate, for future years.

We should do this.  We need to do this.  Right now we’re dropping the best of what we have on the floor as teachers retire or move on in their careers.  This is gold that we’re letting slip through our fingers. We live in an age where we only lose something when we neglect to capture it. We can let ourselves off easy here, because we haven’t had a framework to capture and share this pedagogy.  But now we have the means to capture, a platform for sharing – the Ultranet, and a tool which brings access to everyone – the iPad.  We’ve never had these stars aligned in such a way before.  Only just now – in 2010 – is it possible to dream such big dreams.  It won’t even cost much money.  Yes, the state and federal governments will be investing in iPads and superfast broadband connections for the schools, but everything else comes from a change in our behavior, from a new sense of the full value of our activities.  We need to look at ourselves not merely as the dispensers of education to receptive students, but as engaged participant-creators working to build a lasting body of knowledge.

In so doing we tie everything together, from library science to digital citizenship, within an approach that builds shared value.  It allows a student in Bairnsdale to collaborate with another in Lorne, both working through a lesson plan developed by an educator in Katherine.  Or a teacher in Lakes Entrance to offer her expertise to a classroom in Maffra.  These kinds of things have been possible before, but the National Curriculum gives us the reason to do it.  iPad gives us the infrastructure to dream wild, and imagine how to practice some ‘creative destruction’ in the classroom – tearing down its walls in order to make the classroom a persistent, ubiquitous feature of the environment, to bring education everywhere it’s needed, to everyone who needs it, whenever they need it.

This means that all of the preceding is really part of a larger transformation, from education as this singular event that happens between ages six and twenty-two, to something that is persistent and ubiquitous; where ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t a catchphrase, but rather, a set of skills students begin to acquire as soon as they land in pre-kindy.  The wealth of materials which we will create as we learn how to share the burden of the National Curriculum across the nation have value far beyond the schoolhouse.  In a nation of immigrants, it makes sense to have these materials available, because someone is always arriving in the middle of their lives and struggling to catch up to and integrate themselves within the fabric of the nation.  Education is one way that this happens.  People also need to have increasing flexibility in their career choices, to suit a much more fluid labor market.  This means that we continuously need to learn something new, or something, perhaps, that we didn’t pay much attention to when we should have.  If we can share our learning, we can close this gap.  We can bring the best of what we teach to everyone who has the need to know.

And there we are.  But before I conclude, I should bring up the most obvious point –one so obvious that we might forget it.  The iPad is an excellent toy.  Please play with it.  I don’t mean use it.  I mean explore it.  Punch all the buttons.  Do things you shouldn’t do.  Press the big red button that says, “Don’t press me!”  Just make sure you have a backup first.

We know that children learn by exploration – that’s the foundation of Constructivism – but we forget that we ourselves also learn by exploration. The joy we feel when we play with our new toy is the feeling a child has when he confronts a box of LEGOs, or new video game – it’s the joy of exploration, the joy of learning.  That joy is foundational to us.  If we didn’t love learning, we wouldn’t be running things around here.  We’d still be in the trees.

My favorite toys on my iPad are Pocket Universe – which creates an 360-degree real-time observatory on your iPad; Pulse News – which brings some beauty to my RSS feeds; Observatory – which turns my iPad into a bit of an orrery; Air Video – which allows me to watch videos streamed from my laptop to my iPad; and GoodReader – the one app you simply must spend $1.19 on, because it is the most useful app you’ll ever own.  These are my favorites, but I own many others, and enjoy all of them.  There are literally tens of thousands to choose from, some of them educational, some, just for fun.  That’s the point: all work and no play makes iPad a dull toy.

So please, go and play.  As you do, you’ll come to recognize the hidden depths within your new toy, and you’ll probably feel that penny drop, as you come to realize that this changes everything.  Or can, if we can change ourselves.

Crowdsource Yourself

I: Ruby Anniversary

Today is a very important day in the annals of computer science. It’s the anniversary of the most famous technology demo ever given. Not, as you might expect, the first public demonstration of the Macintosh (which happened in January 1984), but something far older and far more important. Forty years ago today, December 9th, 1968, in San Francisco, a small gathering of computer specialists came together to get their first glimpse of the future of computing. Of course, they didn’t know that the entire future of computing would emanate from this one demo, but the next forty years would prove that point.

The maestro behind the demo – leading a team of developers – was Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was a wunderkind from SRI, the Stanford Research Institute, a think-tank spun out from Stanford University to collaborate with various moneyed customers – such as the US military – on future technologies. Of all the futurist technologists, Engelbart was the future-i-est.

In the middle of the 1960s, Engelbart had come to an uncomfortable realization: human culture was growing progressively more complex, while human intelligence stayed within the same comfortable range we’d known for thousands of years. In short order, Engelbart assessed, our civilization would start to collapse from its own complexity. The solution, Engelbart believed, would come from tools that could augment human intelligence. Create tools to make men smarter, and you’d be able to avoid the inevitable chaotic crash of an overcomplicated civilization.

To this end – and with healthy funding from both NASA and DARPA – Engelbart began work on the Online System, or NLS. The first problem in intelligence augmentation: how do you make a human being smarter? The answer: pair humans up with other humans. In other words, networking human beings together could increase the intelligence of every human being in the network. The NLS wasn’t just the online system, it was the networked system. Every NLS user could share resources and documents with other users. This meant NLS users would need to manage these resources in the system, so they needed high-quality computer screens, and a windowing system to keep the information separated. They needed an interface device to manage the windows of information, so Engelbart invented something he called a ‘mouse’.

I’ll jump to the chase: that roomful of academics at the Fall Joint Computer Conference saw the first broadly networked system featuring raster displays – the forerunner of all displays in use today; windowing; manipulation of on-screen information using a mouse; document storage and manipulation using the first hypertext system ever demonstrated, and videoconferencing between Engelbart, demoing in San Francisco, and his colleagues 30 miles away in Menlo Park.

In other words, in just one demo, Engelbart managed to completely encapsulate absolutely everything we’ve been working toward with computers over the last 40 years. The NLS was easily 20 years ahead of its time, but its influence is so pervasive, so profound, so dominating, that it has shaped nearly every major problem in human-computer interface design since its introduction. We have all been living in Engelbart’s shadow, basically just filling out the details in his original grand mission.

Of all the technologies rolled into the NLS demo, hypertext has arguably had the most profound impact. Known as the “Journal” on NLS, it allowed all the NLS users to collaboratively edit or view any of the documents in the NLS system. It was the first groupware application, the first collaborative application, the first wiki application. And all of this more than 20 years before the Web came into being. To Engelbart, the idea of networked computers and hypertext went hand-in-hand; they were indivisible, absolutely essential components of an online system.

It’s interesting to note that although the Internet has been around since 1969 – nearly as long as the NLS – it didn’t take off until the advent of a hypertext system – the World Wide Web. A network is mostly useless without a hypermedia system sitting on top of it, and multiplying its effectiveness. By itself a network is nice, but insufficient.

So, more than can be said for any other single individual in the field of computer science, we find ourselves living in the world that Douglas Engelbart created. We use computers with raster displays and manipulate windows of hypertext information using mice. We use tools like video conferencing to share knowledge. We augment our own intelligence by turning to others.

That’s why the “Mother of All Demos,” as it’s known today, is probably the most important anniversary in all of computer science. It set the stage the world we live in, more so that we recognized even a few years ago. You see, one part of Engelbart’s revolution took rather longer to play out. This last innovation of Engelbart’s is only just beginning.

II: Share and Share Alike

In January 2002, Oregon State University, the alma mater of Douglas Engelbart, decided to host a celebration of his life and work. I was fortunate enough to be invited to OSU to give a talk about hypertext and knowledge augmentation, an interest of mine and a persistent theme of my research. Not only did I get to meet the man himself (quite an honor), I got to meet some of the other researchers who were picking up where Engelbart had left off. After I walked off stage, following my presentation, one of the other researchers leaned over to me and asked, “Have you heard of Wikipedia?”

I had not. This is hardly surprising; in January 2002 Wikipedia was only about a year old, and had all of 14,000 articles – about the same number as a children’s encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, though it had put itself behind a “paywall,” had over a hundred thousand quality articles available online. Wikipedia wasn’t about to compete with Britannica. At least, that’s what I thought.

It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next few months – as Wikipedia approached 30,000 articles in English – an inflection point was reached, and Wikipedia started to grow explosively. In retrospect, what happened was this: people would drop by Wikipedia, and if they liked what they saw, they’d tell others about Wikipedia, and perhaps make a contribution. But they first had to like what they saw, and that wouldn’t happen without a sufficient number of articles, a sort of “critical mass” of information. While Wikipedia stayed beneath that critical mass it remained a toy, a plaything; once it crossed that boundary it became a force of nature, gradually then rapidly sucking up the collected knowledge of the human species, putting it into a vast, transparent and freely accessible collection. Wikipedia thrived inside a virtuous cycle where more visitors meant more contributors, which meant more visitors, which meant more contributors, and so on, endlessly, until – as of this writing, there are 2.65 million articles in the English language in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s biggest problem today isn’t attracting contributions, it’s winnowing the wheat from the chaff. Wikipedia has constant internal debates about whether a subject is important enough to deserve an entry in its own right; whether this person has achieved sufficient standards of notability to merit a biographical entry; whether this exploration of a fictional character in a fictional universe belongs in Wikipedia at all, or might be better situated within a dedicated fan wiki. Wikipedia’s success has been proven beyond all doubt; managing that success is the task of the day.

While we all rely upon Wikipedia more and more, we haven’t really given much thought as to what Wikipedia gives us. At its most basically level, Wikipedia gives us high-quality factual information. Within its major subject areas, Wikipedia’s veracity is unimpeachable, and has been put to the test by publications such as Nature. But what do these high-quality facts give us? The ability to make better decisions.

Given that we try to make decisions about our lives based on the best available information, the better that information is, the better our decisions will be. This seems obvious when spelled out like this, but it’s something we never credit Wikipedia with. We think about being able to answer trivia questions or research topics of current fascination, but we never think that every time we use Wikipedia to make a decision, we are improving our decision making ability. We are improving our own lives.

This is Engelbart’s final victory. When I met him in 2002, he seemed mostly depressed by the advent of the Web. At that time – pre-Wikipedia, pre-Web2.0 – the Web was mostly thought of as a publishing medium, not as something that would allow the multi-way exchange of ideas. Engelbart has known for forty years that sharing information is the cornerstone to intelligence augmentation. And in 2002 there wasn’t a whole lot of sharing going on.

It’s hard to imagine the Web of 2002 from our current vantage point. Today, when we think about the Web, we think about sharing, first and foremost. The web is a sharing medium. There’s still quite a bit of publishing going on, but that seems almost an afterthought, the appetizer before the main course. I’d have to imagine that this is pleasing Engelbart immensely, as we move ever closer to the models he pioneered forty years ago. It’s taken some time for the world to catch up with his vision, but now we seem to have a tool fit for knowledge augmentation. And Wikipedia is really only one example of the many tools we have available for knowledge augmentation. Every sharing tool – Digg, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, Twitter, and so on – provides an equal opportunity to share and to learn from what others have shared. We can pool our resources more effectively than at any other time in history.

The question isn’t, “Can we do it?” The question is, “What do we want to do?” How do we want to increase our intelligence and effectiveness through sharing?

III: Crowdsource Yourself

Now we come to all of you, here together for three days, to teach and to learn, to practice and to preach. Most of you are the leaders in your particular schools and institutions. Most of you have gone way out on the digital limb, far ahead of your peers. Which means you’re alone. And it’s not easy being alone. Pioneers can always be identified by the arrows in their backs.

So I have a simple proposal to put to you: these three days aren’t simply an opportunity to bring yourselves up to speed on the latest digital wizardry, they’re a chance to increase your intelligence and effectiveness, through sharing.

All of you, here today, know a huge amount about what works and what doesn’t, about curricula and teaching standards, about administration and bureaucracy. This is hard-won knowledge, gained on the battlefields of your respective institutions. Now just imagine how much it could benefit all of us if we shared it, one with another. This is the sort of thing that happens naturally and casually at a forum like this: a group of people will get to talking, and, sooner or later, all of the battle stories come out. Like old Diggers talking about the war.

I’m asking you to think about this casual process a bit more formally: How can you use the tools on offer to capture and share everything you’ve learned? If you don’t capture it, it can’t be shared. If you don’t share it, it won’t add to our intelligence. So, as you’re learning how to podcast or blog or setup a wiki, give a thought to how these tools can be used to multiply our effectiveness.

I ask you to do this because we’re getting close to a critical point in the digital revolution – something I’ll cover in greater detail when I talk to you again on Thursday afternoon. Where we are right now is at an inflection point. Things are very fluid, and could go almost any direction. That’s why it’s so important we learn from each other: in that pooled knowledge is the kind of intelligence which can help us to make better decisions about the digital revolution in education. The kinds of decisions which will lead to better outcomes for kids, fewer headaches for administrators, and a growing confidence within the teaching staff.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a panacea. Far from it. They’re simply the best tools we’ve got, right now, to help us confront the range of thorny issues raised by the transition to digital education. You can spend three days here, and go back to your own schools none the wiser. Or, you can share what you’ve learned and leave here with the best that everyone has to offer.

There’s a word for this process, a word which powers Wikipedia and a hundred thousand other websites: “crowdsourcing”. The basic idea is encapsulated in a Chinese proverb: “Many hands make light work.” The two hundred of you, here today, can all pitch in and make light work for yourselves. Or not.

Let me tell you another story, which may help seal your commitment to share what you know. In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc.

Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, or RateMyProfessors.com, or the promise of your own work over these next three days, Douglas Engelbart’s original vision of intelligence augmentation holds true: it is possible for us to pool our intellectual resources, and increase our problem-solving capacity. We do it every time we use Wikipedia; students do it every time they use RateMyProfessors.com; and I’m asking you to do it, starting right now. Good luck!

Understanding Gilmore’s Law: Telecoms Edition

OR,
How I Quit Worrying and Learned to be a Commodity

Introduction


“The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
– John Gilmore

I read a very interesting article last week. It turns out that, despite their best efforts, the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China have failed to insulate their prodigious population from the outrageous truths to be found online. In the article from the Times, Wang Guoqing, a vice-minister in the information office of the Chinese cabinet was quoted as saying, “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.” If China, with all of the resources of a one-party state, and thus able to “lock down” its internet service providers, directing their IP traffic through a “great firewall of China”, can not block the free-flow of information, how can any government, anywhere – or any organization, or institution – hope to try?

Of course, we all chuckle a little bit when we see the Chinese attempt the Sisyphean task of damming the torrent of information which characterizes life in the 21st century. We, in the democratic West, know better, and pat ourselves on the back. But we are in no position to throw stones. Gilmore’s Law is not specifically tuned for political censorship; censorship simply means the willful withholding of information – for any reason. China does it for political reasons; in the West our reasons for censorship are primarily economic. Take, for example, the hullabaloo associated with the online release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, three days before its simultaneous, world-wide publication. It turns out that someone, somewhere, got a copy of the book, and laboriously photographed every single page of the 784-page text, bound these images together into a single PDF file, and then uploaded it to the global peer-to-peer filesharing networks. Everyone with a vested financial interest in the book – author J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury and Scholastic publishing houses, film studio Warner Brothers – had been feeding the hype for the impending release, all focused around the 21st of July. An enormous pressure had been built up to “peek at the present” before it was formally unwrapped, and all it took was one single gap in the $20 million security system Bloomsbury had constructed to keep the text safely secure. Then it became a globally distributed media artifact. Curiously, Bloomsbury was reported as saying they thought it would only add to sales – if many people are reading the book now, even illegally, then even more people will want to be reading the book right now. Piracy, in this case, might be a good thing.

These two examples represent two data points which show the breadth and reach of Gilmore’s Law. Censorship, broadly defined, is anything which restricts the free flow of information. The barriers could be political, or they could be economic, or they could – as in the case immediately relevant today – they could be a nexus of the two. Broadband in Australia is neither purely an economic nor purely a political issue. In this, broadband reflects the Janus-like nature of Telstra, with one face turned outward, toward the markets, and another turned inward, toward the Federal Government. Even though Telstra is now (more or less) wholly privatized, the institutional memory of all those years as an arm of the Federal Government hasn’t yet been forgotten. Telstra still behaves as though it has a political mandate, and is more than willing to use its near-monopoly economic strength to reinforce that impression.

Although seemingly unavoidable, given the established patterns of the organization, Telstra’s behavior has consequences. Telstra has engendered enormous resentment – both from its competitors and its customers – for its actions and attitude. They’ve recently pushed the Government too far (at least, publicly), and have been told to back off. What may not be as clear – and what I want to warn you of today – is how Telstra has sewn the seeds of its own failure. What’s more, this may not be anything that Telstra can now avoid, because this is neither a regulatory nor an economic failure. It can not be remedied by any mechanism that Telstra has access to. Instead, it may require a top-down rethinking of the entire business.

I: Network Effects

For the past several thousand years, the fishermen of Kerala, on the southern coast of India, have sailed their dhows out into the Indian Ocean, lowered their nets, and hoped for the best. When the fishing is good, they come back to shore fully laden, and ready to sell their catch in the little fish markets that dot the coastline. A fisherman might have a favorite market, docking there only to find that half a dozen other dhows have had the same idea. In that market there are too many fish for sale that day, and the fisherman might not even earn enough from his catch to cover costs. Meanwhile, in a market just a few kilometers away, no fishing boats have docked, and there’s no fish available at any price. This fundamental chaos of the fish trade in Kerala has been a fact of life for a very long time.

Just a few years ago, several of India’s rapidly-growing wireless carriers strung GSM towers along the Kerala coast. This gives those carriers a signal reach of up to about 25km offshore – enough to be very useful for a fisherman. While mobile service in India is almost ridiculously cheap by Australian standards – many carriers charge a penny for an SMS, and a penny or two per minute for voice calls – a handset is still relatively expensive, even one such as the Nokia 1100, which was marketed specifically at emerging mobile markets, designed to be cheap and durable. Such a handset might cost a month’s profits for a fisherman – which makes it a serious investment. But, at some point in the last few years, one fisherman – probably a more prosperous one – bought a handset, and took it to sea. Then, perhaps quite accidentally, he learned, through a call ashore, of a market wanting for fish that day, brought his dhow to dock there, and made a handsome profit. After that, the word got around rapidly, and soon all of Kerala’s fisherman were sporting their own GSM handsets, calling into shore, making deals with fishmongers, acting as their own arbitrageurs, creating a true market where none had existed before. Today in Kerala the markets are almost always stocked with just enough fish; the fishmongers make a good price for their fish, and the fishermen themselves earn enough to fully recoup the cost of their handsets in just two months. Mobile service in Kerala has dramatically altered the economic prospects for these people.

This is not the only example: in Kenya farmers call ahead to the markets to learn which ones will have the best prices for their onions and maize; spice traders, again in Kerala, use SMS to create their own, far-flung bourse. Although we in the West generally associate mobile communications with affluent lifestyles, a significant number of microfinance loans made by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and others in Pakistan, India, Africa and South America are used to purchase mobile handsets – precisely because the correlation between access to mobile communications and earning potential has become so visible in the developing world. Grameen Bank has even started its own carrier, GrameenPhone, to service its microfinance clientele.

Although economists are beginning to recognize and document this curious relationship between economics and access to communication, it needs to be noted that this relationship was not predicted – by anyone. It happened all by itself, emerging from the interaction of individuals and the network. People – who are always the intelligent actors in the network – simply recognized the capabilities of the network, and put them to work. As we approach the watershed month of October 2007, when three billion people will be using mobile handsets, when half of humanity will be interconnected, we can expect more of the unexpected.

All of this means that none of us – even the most foresighted futurist – can know in advance what will happen when people are connected together in an electronic network. People themselves are too resourceful, and too intelligent, to model their behavior in any realistic way. We might be able to model their network usage – though even that has confounded the experts – but we can’t know why they’re using the network, nor what kind of second-order effects that usage will have on culture. Nor can we realistically provision for service offerings; people are more intelligent, and more useful, than any other service the carriers could hope to offer. The only truly successful service offering in mobile communications is SMS – because it provides an asynchronous communications channel between people. The essential feature of the network is simply that it connects people together, not that it connects them to services.

This strikes at the heart of the most avaricious aspects of the carriers’ long-term plans, which center around increasing the levels of services on offer, by the carrier, to the users of the network. Although this strategy has consistently proven to be a complete failure – consider Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL – it nevertheless has become the idée fixe of shareholder reports, corporate plans, and press releases. The network, we are told, will become increasingly more intelligent, more useful, and more valuable. But all of the history of the network argues directly against this. Nearly 40 years after its invention, the most successful service on the Internet is still electronic mail, the Internet’s own version of SMS. Although the Web has become an important service in its own right, it will never be as important as electronic mail, because it connects individuals.

Although the network in Kerala was brought into being by the technology of GSM transponders and mobile handsets, the intelligence of the network truly does lie in the individuals who are connected by the network. Let’s run a little thought experiment, and imagine a world where all of India’s telecoms firms suffered a simultaneous catastrophic and long-lasting failure. (Perhaps they all went bankrupt.) Do you suppose that the fishermen would simply shrug their shoulders and go back to their old, chaotic market-making strategies? Hardly. Whether they used smoke signals, or semaphores, or mirrors on the seashore, they’d find some way to maintain those networks of communication – even in the absence of the technology of the network. The benefits of the network so outweigh the implementation of the network that, once created, networks can not be destroyed. The network will be rebuilt from whatever technology comes to hand – because the network is not the technology, but the individuals connected through it.

This is the kind of bold assertion that could get me into a lot of trouble; after all, everyone knows that the network is the towers, the routers, and the handsets which comprise its physical and logical layers. But if that were true, then we could deterministically predict the qualities and uses of networks well in advance of their deployment. The quintessence of the network is not a physical property; it is an emergent property of the interaction of the network’s users. And while people do persistently believe that there is some “magic” in the network, the source of that magic is the endlessly inventive intellects of the network’s users. When someone – anywhere in the network – invents a new use for the network, it propagates widely, and almost instantaneously, transmitted throughout the length and breadth of the network. The network amplifies the reach of its users, but it does not goad them into being inventive. The service providers are the users of the network.

I hope this gives everyone here some pause; after all, it is widely known that the promise to bring a high-speed broadband network to Australia is paired with the desire to provide services on that network, including – most importantly – IPTV. It’s time to take a look at that promise with our new understanding of the real power of networks. It is under threat from two directions: the emergence of peer-produced content; and the dramatic, disruptive collapse in the price of high-speed wide-area networking which will fully power individuals to create their own network infrastructure.

II: DIYnet

Although nearly all high-speed broadband providers – which are, by and large, monopoly or formerly monopoly telcos – have bet the house on the sale of high-priced services to finance the build-out of high-speed (ADSL2/FTTN/FTTH) network infrastructure, it is not at all clear that these service offerings will be successful. Mobile carriers earn some revenue from ringtone and game sales, but this is a trivial income stream when compared to the fees they earn from carriage. Despite almost a decade of efforts to milk more ARPU from their customers, those same customers have proven stubbornly resistant to a continuous fleecing. The only thing that customers seem obviously willing to pay for is more connectivity – whether that’s more voice calls, more SMS, or more data.

What is most interesting is what these customers have done with this ever-increasing level of interconnectivity. These formerly passive consumers of entertainment have become their own media producers, and – perhaps more ominously, in this context – their own broadcasters. Anyone with a cheap webcam (or mobile handset), a cheap computer, and a broadband link can make and share their own videos. This trend had been growing for several years, but since the launch of YouTube, in 2005, it has rocketed into prominence. YouTube is now the 4th busiest website, world-wide, and perhaps 65% of all video downloads on the web take place through Google-owned properties. Amateur productions regularly garner tens of thousands of viewers – and sometimes millions.

We need to be very careful about how we judge both the meaning of the word “amateur” in the context of peer-produced media. An amateur production may be produced with little or no funding, but that does not automatically mean it will appear clumsy to the audience. The rough edges of an amateur prodution are balanced out by a corresponding increase in salience – that is, the importance which the viewer attaches to the subject of the media. If something is compelling because it is important to us – something which we care passionately about – high production values do not enter into our assessment. Chad Hurley, one of the founders of YouTube has remarked that the site has no “gold-standard” for production; in fact, YouTube’s gold-standard is salience – if the YouTube audience feels the work is important, audience members will share it within their own communities of interest. Sharing is the proof of salience.

After two years of media sharing, the audience for YouTube (which is now coincident with the global television audience in the developed world) has grown accustomed to being able to share salient media freely. This is another of the unexpected and unpredicted emergent effects of the intelligence of humans using the network. We now have an expectation that when we encounter some media we find highly salient, we should be able to forward it along within our social networks, sharing it within our communities of salience. But this is not the desire of many copyright holders, who collect their revenues by placing barriers to the access of media. This fundamental conflict, between the desire to share, as engendered by our own interactions with the network, and the desire of copyright holders to restrain media consumption to economic channels has, thus far, been consistently resolved in favor of sharing. The copyright holders have tried to use the legal system as a bludgeon to change the behavior of the audience; this has not, nor will it ever work. But, as the copyright holders resort to ever-more-draconian techniques to maintain control over the distribution of their works, the audience is presented with an ever-growing world of works that are meant to be shared. The danger here is that the audience is beginning to ignore works which they can not share freely, seeing them as “broken” in some fundamental way. Since sharing has now become an essential quality of media, the audience is simply reacting to a perceived defect in those works. In this sense, the media multinationals have been their own worst enemies; by restricting the ability of the audiences to share the works they control, they have helped to turn audiences toward works which audiences can distribute through their own “do-it-yourself” networks.

These DIYnets are now a permanent fixture of the media landscape, even as their forms evolve through YouTube playlists, RSS feeds, and sharing sites such as Facebook and Pownce. These networks exist entirely outside the regular and licensed channels of distribution; they are not suitable – legally or economically – for distribution via a commercial IPTV network. Telstra can not provide these DIYnets to their customers through its IPTV service – nor can any other broadband carrier. IPTV, to a carrier, means the distribution of a few hundred highly regularized television channels. While there will doubtless be a continuing market for mass entertainment, that audience is continuously being eroded by a growing range of peer-produced programming which is growing in salience. In the long-term this, like so much in the world, will probably obey an 80/20 rule, with about 80 percent of the audience’s attention absorbed in peer-produced, highly-salient media, while 20 percent will come from mass-market, high-production-value works. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to bet the house on a service offering which will command such a small portion of the audience’s attention. Yes, Telstra will offer it. But it will never be able to compete with the productions created by the audience.

Because of this tension between the desires of the carrier and the interests of the audience, the carrier will seek to manipulate the capabilities of the broadband offering, to weight it in favor of a highly regularized IPTV offering. In the United States this has become known as the “net neutrality” argument, and centers on the question of whether a carrier has the right to shape traffic within its own IP network to advantage its own traffic over that of others. In Australia, the argument has focused on tariff rates: Telstra believes that if they build the network, they should be able to set the tariff. The ACCC argues otherwise. This has been the characterized as the central stumbling block which has prevented the deployment of a high-speed broadband network across the nation, and, in some sense that is entirely true – Telstra has chosen not move forward until it feels assured that both economic and regulatory conditions prove favorable. But this does not mean that the consumer demand for a high-speed network was simply put on pause over the last years. More significantly, the world beyond Telstra has not stopped advancing. While it now costs roughly USD $750 per household to provide a high-speed fiber-optic connection to the carrier network, other technologies are coming on-line, right now, which promise to reduce those costs by an order of magnitude, and furthermore, which don’t require any infrastructure build-out on the part of the carrier. This disruptive innovation could change the game completely.

III: Check, Mate

All parties to the high-speed broadband dispute – government, Telstra, the Group of Nine, and the public – share the belief that this network must be built by a large organization, able to command the billions of dollars in capital required to dig up the streets, lay the fiber, and run the enormous data centers. This model of a network is an reflection in copper, plastic and silicon, of the hierarchical forms of organization which characterize large institutions – such as governments and carriers. However, if we have learned anything about the emergent qualities of networks, it is that they quickly replace hierarchies with “netocracies“: horizontal meritocracies, which use the connective power of the network to out-compete slower and rigid hierarchies. It is odd that, while the network has transformed nearly everything it has touched, the purveyors of those networks – the carriers – somehow seem immune from those transformative qualities. Telecommunications firms are – and have ever been – the very definition of hierarchical organizations. During the era of plain-old telephone service, the organizational form of the carrier was isomorphic to the form of the network. However, over the last decade, as the internal network has transitioned from circuit-switched to packed-switched, the institution lost synchronization with the form of the network it provided to consumers. As each day passes, carriers move even further out of sync: this helps to explain the current disconnect between Telstra and Australians.

We are about to see an adjustment. First, the data on the network was broken into packets; now, the hardware of the network has followed. Telephone networks were centralized because they required explicit wiring from point-to-point; cellular networks are decentralized, but use licensed spectrum – which requires enormous capital resources. Both of these conditions created significant barriers to entry. But there is no need to use wires, nor is there any need to use licensed spectrum. The 2.4 GHz radio band is freely available for anyone to use, so long as that use stays below certain power values. We now see a plethora of devices using that spectrum: cordless handsets, Bluetooth devices, and the all-but-ubiquitous 802.11 “WiFi” data networks. The chaos which broadcasters and governments had always claimed would be the by-product of unlicensed spectrum has, instead, become an wonderfully rich marketplace of products and services. The first generation of these products made connection to the centralized network even easier: cordless handsets liberated the telephone from the twisted-pair connection to the central office, while WiFi freed computers from heavy and clumsy RJ-45 jacks and CAT-5 cabling. While these devices had some intelligence, that intelligence centered on making and maintaining a connection to the centralized network.

Recently, advances in software have produced a new class of devices which create their own networks. Devices connected to these ad-hoc “mesh” networks act as peers in a swarm (similar to the participants in peer-to-peer filesharing), rather than clients within a hierarchical distribution system. These network peers share information about their evolving topology, forming a highly-resilient fabric of connections. Devices maintain multiple connections to multiple nodes throughout the network, and a packet travels through the mesh along a non-deterministic path. While this was always the promise of TCP/IP networks, static routes through the network cloud are now the rule, because they provide greater efficiency, make it easier to maintain the routers, diagnose network problems, and keeps maintenance costs down. But mesh networks are decentralized; there is no controlling authority, no central router providing an interconnection with a peer network. And – most significantly – mesh networks now incredibly inexpensive to implement.

Earlier this year, the US-based firm Meraki launched their long-awaited Meraki Mini wireless mesh router. For about AUD $60, plus the cost of electricity, anyone can become a peer within a wireless mesh network providing speeds of up to 50 megabits per second. The device is deceptively simple; it’s just an 802.11 transceiver paired with a single-chip computer running LINUX and Meraki’s mesh routing software – which was developed by Meraki’s founders while Ph.D. students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The 802.11 radio within the Meraki Mini has been highly optimized for long-distance communication. Instead of the normal 50 meter radius associated with WiFi, the Meraki Mini provides coverage over at least 250 meters – and, depending upon topography, can reach 750 meters. Let me put that in context, by showing you the coverage I’ll get when I install a Meraki Mini on my sixth-floor balcony in Surry Hills:



From my flat, I will be able to reach all the way from Central Station to Riley Street, from Belvoir Street over to Albion Street. Thousands of people will be within range of my network access point. Of course, if all of them chose to use my single point of access, my Meraki Mini would be swamped with traffic. It simply wouldn’t be able to cope. But – given that the Meraki Mini is cheaper than most WiFi access points available at Harvey Norman – it’s likely that many people within that radius would install their own access points. These access points would detect each others’ presence, forming a self-organizing mesh network. If every WiFi access point visible from my flat (I can sense between 10 and 20 of them at any given time) were replaced with a Meraki Mini, or, perhaps more significantly, if these WiFi access points were given firmware upgrades which allowed them to interoperate with the mesh networks created by the Meraki Mini – my Surry Hills neighborhood would suddenly be blanketed in a highly resilient and wholly pervasive wireless high-speed network, at nearly no cost to the users of that network. In other words, this could all be done in software. The infrastructure is already deployed.

As some of you have no doubt noted, this network is highly local; while there are high-speed connections within the wireless cloud, the mesh doesn’t necessarily have connections to the global Internet. In fact, Meraki Minis can act as routers to the Internet, routing packets through their Ethernet interfaces to the broader Internet, and Meraki recommends that at least every tenth device in a mesh be so equipped. But it’s not strictly necessary, and – if dedicated to a particular task – completely unnecessary. Let us say, for example, that I wanted to provide a low-cost IPTV service to the residents of Surry Hills. I could create a “head-end” in my own flat, and provide my “subscribers” with Meraki Minis and an inexpensive set-top-box to interface with their televisions. For a total install cost of perhaps $300, I could give everyone in Surry Hills a full IPTV service (though it’s unlikely I could provide HD-quality). No wiring required, no high-speed broadband buildout, no billions of dollars, no regulatory relaxation. I could just do it. And collect both subscriber fees and advertiser revenues. No Telstra. No Group of Nine. No blessing from Senator Coonan. No go-over by the ACCC. The technology is all in place, today.

Here’s a news report – almost a year old – which makes the point quite well:

I bring up this thought experiment to drive home my final point: Telstra isn’t needed. It might not even be wanted. We have so many other avenues open to us to create and deploy high-speed broadband services that it’s likely Telstra has just missed the boat. You’ve waited too long, dilly-dallying while the audience and the technology have made you obsolete. The audience doesn’t want the same few hundred channels they can get on FoxTel: they want the nearly endless stream of salience they can get from YouTube. The technology is no longer about centralized distribution networks: it favors light, flexible, inexpensive mesh networks. Both of these are long-term trends, and both will only grow more pronounced as the years pass. In the years it takes Telstra – or whomever gets the blessing of the regulators – to build out this high-speed broadband network, you will be fighting a rearguard action, as both the audience and the technology of the network race on past you. They have already passed you by, and it’s been my task this morning to point this out. You simply do not matter.

This doesn’t mean it’s game over. I don’t want you to report to Sol Trujilo that it’s time to have a quick fire-sale of Telstra’s assets. But it does mean you need to radically rethink your business – right now. In the age of pervasive peer-production, paired with the advent of cheap wireless mesh networks, your best option is to become a high-quality connection to the global Internet – in short, a commodity. All of this pervasive wireless networking will engender an incredible demand for bandwidth; the more people are connected together, the more they want to be connected together. That’s the one inarguable truth we can glean from the 160 years of electric communication. Telstra has the infrastructure to leverage itself into becoming the most reliable data carrier connecting Australians to the global Internet. It isn’t glamorous, but it is a business with high barriers to entry, and promises a steadily growing (if unexciting) continuing revenue stream. But, if you continue to base your plans around selling Australians services we don’t want, you are building your castles on the sand. And the tide is rising.

Herding Cats

That which governs least governs best. – Thomas Paine
I.Nothing is perfect. Everything, this side of heaven, contains a flaw. The master rug makers of Persia go so far as to add a mistaken stitch into their carpets; perfection would be an insult to the greatness of God. For nearly everything else, and for nearly everyone else, we don’t have to worry about adding errors: we work from incomplete knowledge, we work from ignorance, and we work from prejudice. As Mark Twain noted, “It’s not what you don’t know that’ll hurt you, but what you know that ain’t so.” We believe we know so much; in truth we know nearly nothing at all. We have trouble discerning our own motivations – yet we constantly judge the motivations of others. Cognitive scientists have repeatedly demonstrated how we backfill our own memories to create a comfortable and pleasing narrative of our lives; this keeps us from drowning in despair, but it also allows us to be monsters who have no trouble sleeping soundly at night.

We constantly and impudently impugn the motives of others, carrying that attitude into the designs of systems which support community. We protect children from pedophiles; we protect ourselves from unsolicited emails; we protect communities from the excesses of emotion or behavior which – we believe – would rip them apart. Each of these filtering processes – many of them automated – serve to create a “safe space” for conversation and community. Yet community is at least as much about difference as it is about similarity. If every member of a community held to a unity of thought, no conversation would be possible; information – “the difference which makes a difference” – can only emerge from dissent. Any system which diminishes difference therefore necessarily diminishes the vitality of a community. Every act of communication within a community is both an promise of friendship and a cry to civil war. Every community sails between the Scylla and Charybdis of undifferentiated assent and complete fracture.

When people were bound by proximity – in their villages and towns – the pressure for the community to remain cohesive prevented most of the egregious separations from occurring, though periodically – and particularly since the Reformation – communities have split apart, divided on religious or ideological lines. In the post-Enlightenment era, with the opening of the Americas, divided communities could simply move away, and establishing their own particular Edens, though these too could fracture; schism follows schism in an echo of the Biblical story of the Confusion of Tongues. Rural communities could remain singular and united (at least, until they burst apart under the build up of pressures), but urban polities had to move in another direction: tolerance. Amsterdam and London flourished in the eighteenth century because of the dissenting voices they tolerated in their streets. It was either that, or, as both had learned – to their horror – endless civil wars. This essential idea of the Enlightenment – that men could keep their own counsel, so long as they respected the beliefs of others – fostered democracy, science, capitalism and elevated millions from misery and poverty. It is said that democratic nations never wage war against one another; while not entirely true, tolerance acts as a firewall against the most immediate passions of states. The alternative – repeated countless times throughout the 20th century – is a mountain of skulls.

Where people are connected electronically, freed both from the strictures of proximity and the organic and cultural bounds of propriety that accompany face-to-face interactions (it is much easier to be rude to someone that you’ve never met in the flesh) the natural tendency to schism is amplified. The checks against bad behavior lose their consequential quality. One can be rude, abrasive, even evil, because the mountain of skulls which pile up as the inevitable result of such psychopathology appear to lack the immediacy of a real, bleeding body. It has been argued that we need “to be excellent to each other,” or that we need to grow thicker skins. Both suggestions have some merit, but the truth lies somewhere in between.

II.

While USENET, the thirty year old, Internet-wide bulletin board system remains the archetype for online community – the place where the terms “flame”, “flame war” and “troll” originated in their current, electronic usages – USENET has been long since been obsolesced by a million dedicated websites. We can learn a lot about the pathology of online communities by studying USENET, but the most important lesson we can draw involves the original online schism. In 1987, John Gilmore – one of the founding engineers of SUN Microsystems – wanted to start a USENET list to discuss topics related to illegal psychoactive drugs. USENET users must approve all requests for new lists, and this highly polarizing topic, when put to a vote, was repeatedly rejected. Gilmore spent a few hours modifying the USENET code so that it could handle a new top-level hierarchy, “alt.*” This was designed to be the alternative to USENET, where anyone could start a list for any reason, anywhere. While many USENET sites tried to ban the alt. hierarchy from their servers, within a year’s time alt. became ubiquitously available. Everyone on USENET had a passion for some list which couldn’t be satisfied within its strict guidelines. To this day, the tightly moderated USENET and free-wheeling, often obscene, and frequently illegal alt. hierarchy coexist side-by-side. Each has reinforced the existence of the other.

Qualities of both USENET and the alt. hierarchy have been embodied in the peer-produced encyclopedia-about-everything, Wikipedia. Like the alt. hierarchy, anyone can create an entry on any subject, and anyone can edit any entry on any subject (with a few exceptions, discussed below). However, like USENET, there are Wikipedia moderators, who can choose to delete entries, or roll back the edits on entry, and who act as “governors” – in the sense that they direct activity, rather than ruling over it (this from the original Greek kybernetes, from which we get “cybernetics,” and meaning “steersman”). By any objective standard the system has worked remarkably well; Wikipedia now has nearly 1.5 million English-language articles, and continues growing at a nearly exponential rate. The strength of the moderation in Wikipedia is that it is nearly invisible; although articles do get deleted because they do not meet Wikipedia’s evolving standards (e.g., the first version of a biographical page about myself) it remains a triumph of tolerance, carefully maintaining a laissez-faire approach to the creation of content, applying a moderating influence only when the broad guidelines of Wikipedia (summed up in the maxim “don’t be a dick”) have been obviously violated. The community feels that it has complete control over the creation of content within Wikipedia, and this sense of investment – that Wikipedia truly is the product of the community’s own work – has made Wikipedia’s contributors its most earnest evangelists.

There is a price to be paid for this open-door policy: noise. Because Wikipedia is open to all, it can be vandalized, or filled with spurious information. While the moderators do their best to correct instances of vandalism, Wikipedia relies on the community to do this nitpicking work. (I have deleted vandalism on Wikipedia pages several times.) For the most part, it works well, though there are specific instances – such as on 31 July 2006, when Steven Colbert urged viewers of his television program to modify Wikipedia entries to promote his own “political” views – when it falls down utterly. Wikipedia can withstand the random assaults of individuals, but, in its present form, it can not hope to stand against thousands of individuals intent on changing its content in specific areas. Thus, in certain circumstances, Wikipedia moderators will “lock” certain entries, allowing them to be modified only by carefully designated individuals. Although Colbert meant his assault as a stunt, with no malicious intent, he pointed to the serious flaw of all open-door systems – they rely on the good faith of the vast majority of their users. If any polity decides to take action against Wikipedia, the system will suffer damage.

With a growing consciousness of the danger of open-door systems – and a sense that perhaps more moderation is better – Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger has launched his own competitor to Wikipedia, Citizendium. Starting with a “fork” of Wikipedia (that is, a selection of the entries thought “suitable” for inclusion in the new work), Citizendium will restrict posting in its entries to trusted experts in their fields. The goal is to create a higher-quality version of Wikipedia, with greater involvement from professional researchers and academics.

While a certain argument can be made that Wikipedia entries contain too much noise –many are poorly written, have no references, or even project a certain point-of-view – it remains to be seen if any differentiation between “professional” and “amateur” communities of knowledge production can be maintained in an era of hyperdistribution. If a film producer is now threatened by the rise of the amateur – that is, an enthusiast working outside the established systems of media distribution – won’t an academic (and by extension, any professional) also be under threat? The academy has always existed for two reasons: to expand knowledge, and to restrict it. Academic communities function under the same rules of all communities, the balancing act between uniformity and schism. The “standard bearers” in any community reify the orthodox tenets of any field, blocking the research of any outsiders whose work might threaten the functioning assumptions of the community. Yet, since T.S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we know that science progresses (in Max Planck’s apt phrasing) “funeral by funeral.” Experts tend to block progress in a field; by extension any encyclopedia which uses these same experts as the gatekeepers to knowledge aquisition will effectively hamstring itself from first principles. In the age of hyperintelligence, expertise has become a broadly accessible quality; it is not located in any particular community, but rather in individuals who may not be associated with any official institution. Noise is not the enemy; it is a sign of vitality, and something that we must come to accept as part of the price we pay for our newly-expanded capabilities. As Kevin Kelly eloquently expressed in Out of Control, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” The question is not whether Wikipedia is perfect, but rather, is it good enough? If it is – and that much must be clear by now – then Citizendium, as an attempt to make perfect what is already good enough, must be doomed to failure, out of tune with the times, fighting the trend toward the era of the amateur.

As Citizendium flowers and fails over the next year, it will be interesting to note how its community practices change in response to an ever-more-dire situation. The pressures of the community will force Citizendium to become more Wikipedia-like in its submissions and review policies. At the same time, additional instances of organized vandalism (we’ve only just started to see these) will drive Wikipedia toward a more restrictive submissions and editing policy. Citizendium overshot the mark from the starting line, and will need to crawl back toward the open-door policy, yet, as it does, it risks alienating the same experts it’s designed to defend. Wikipedia, starting from a position of radical openness, has only restricted access in response to some real threat to its community. Citizendium is proactive and presumes too much; Wikipedia is reactive (and for this reason will occasionally suffer malicious damage) but only modifies its access policies when a clear threat to the stability of the community has been demonstrated. Wikipedia is an anarchic horde, moving by consensus, unlike Citizendium, which is a recapitulation of the top-down hierarchy of the academy. While some will no doubt treasure the heavy moderation of Citizendium, the vast majority will prefer the noise and vitality of Wikipedia. A heavy hand versus an invisible one; this is the central paradox of community.

III.

A well-run online community walks a narrow line between anarchy and authoritarianism. To encourage discussion and debate, a community must be encouraged to sit on a hand grenade that always threatens to explode, but never quite manages to go off. In general, it’s quite enough to put people into the same conversational space, and watch the sparks fly; stirring the pot is rarely necessary. Conversely, when the pot begins to boil over, someone has to be on hand to turn the heat down. Communities frequently manage this process on their own, with cool minds ready to reframe conversation in less inflammatory terms. This wisdom of communities is not innate; it is knowledge embodied within a community’s practices, something that each community must learn for itself. USENET lists, over the course of thirty years, have learned how to avoid the most obvious hot-button topics, and regular contributors to these lists have learned to filter out the outrageous flame-baiting of list trolls. But none of this community intelligence resides in a newly-founded community, so, in an absolute sense, the long-term health of any community depends strongly on the character and capabilities of its earliest members.

The founding members of a new community should not be arbitrarily selected; that would be gambling on the good behavior of individuals who, insofar as the community is concerned, have no track record. Instead, these founders need to be carefully vetted across two axes of significance: their ability to be provocative, and their capability to act like adults. These qualities usually don’t come as a neat package; any individual who has a surfeit of one is more than likely to be lacking in the other. However, once such “balanced” individuals have been identified and recruited, the community can begin its work.

After a time, the best of these individuals – whose qualities will become clear to the rest of the community – should be promoted to moderator status, assuming the Solomonic mantle as protectors and guardians of the community. This role is vital; a community should always know that they are functioning in a moderated environment, but this moderation should be so light-handed as to be nearly invisible. The presumption of observation encourages individuals to behave appropriately; the rare examples when a moderator is forced to act as a benevolent and trustworthy force for good should encourage imitation.

Hand-in-hand with the sense of confidence which comes from careful and gentle moderation, a community must feel empowered to create something that represents both their individual and collective abilities. The idea of “ownership,” when multiplied by a community-recognized sense of expertise, produces a strongly reinforcing behavior. Individuals who are able to share their expertise with a community – and help the community build its own expertise – will develop a very strong sense of loyalty to the community. Expertise can be demonstrated in the context of a bulletin board system, but these systems do not easily adapt themselves to the total history of interactions experts have within the community. A posting made today is lost in six months’ time; a Wiki is forever. Thus, in addition to conversation – and growing naturally from it – the community should have the tools at its disposal to translate its conversation into something more permanent. Community members will quickly recognize those within its ranks who have the authority of expertise on any given subject, and they should be gently guided into making a record of that expertise. As that record builds, it develops a value of its own, beyond its immense value as a repository of expertise; it becomes the living embodiment of an individual’s dedication to the community. Over time, community members will come to see themselves as the true “content” of the community, both through their participation in the endless conversation of the community, and as the co-creators of the community’s collective intelligence.

This model has worked successfully for over a decade in some of the more notable electronic communities – particularly in the open-source software movement. The various communities around GNU/Linux, PHP and Python have all demonstrated that any community with room enough to pool the expertise of large numbers of dedicated individuals will build something of lasting value, and bring broad renown to its key contributors, moderators, and enthusiasts.

However, even in the most effective communities, schism remains the inevitable human tendency, and some conflicts can not always be resolved, drawn from deep-seated philosophical or temperamental differences. Schism should not be embraced arbitrarily, but neither should it be avoided at all costs. Instead – as in the case of the alt. hierarchy – room should be made to accommodate the natural tendency to differentiate. Wikipedia will eventually fork into a hundred major variants, of which Citizendium is but the first. The LINUX world has been divided into different distributions since its earliest years. Schism is a sign of life, indicating that there is something important enough to fight over. Schisms either resolve in an ecumenical unity, or persist and continue to divide; neither outcome is inherently preferable.

Every living thing struggles between static order and chaotic dissolution; it isn’t perfect, but then, nothing ever is. Even as we feel ourselves drawn to one extreme or another, wisdom wrought from experience (often painfully gained) checks our progress, and guides us forward, delicately, into something that is, in the best of worlds, utterly unexpected. The potential for novelty in any community is enormous; releasing that potential requires flexibility, balance, and presence. There are no promises of success. Like a newborn child, a new community is all potential – unbounded, unbridled, standing at the cusp of a unique wonder. We can set its feet on the path of wisdom; what comes after is unknowable, and, for this reason, impossibly potent.