December 31st, 2011
Year-End Processing: The Network as Growth Medium
A few year-end thoughts about the Network have been rattling around my skull. This is probably a continuation of the exploration of the ‘finite shapes of growth.’ The real-time social messaging space seems to have reached a saturation point, and therefore the upper end of the sigmoidal growth curve. The big single-index real-time systems have exerted their dominance and are largely engaged in enabling features that increase the density of connections within the territory they’ve already marked out. The second-tier systems will struggle and many will fall to the wayside. A few will stand waiting in the wings for the possible moment when a first-tier player stumbles.
After walking around the block several times, pulling on all the doors, trying to find a way into this exploration, I ended up with the word: “medium.” Medium, as in the physical channel through which messages are passed; and medium as in a culture medium used to grow micro-organisms or cells. Medium can also be understood as the time/space aspect of an object, its identity/variability. When we consider ‘big data’ on the Network, we seem to be talking about creating and maintaining a medium where higher-level statistical objects can be grown. These meta-patterns are made visible through feats of data collection and statistical computation. It’s analogous to cataloging weather events and other data to model climate change. “Climate” as a dynamic entity only becomes visible through the deployment of a large network of sensors hooked up to computers updating a model in real time. Weather is visible as the raindrops that keep falling on your head, climate is visible only through a complex computational sensing system to which only a few people have access.
The business model of harvesting these higher-level patterns has generally involved slicing up the data into the groups of people who create these patterns. Lists of these target audiences are rented to commercial interests, and recently so is the messaging apparatus and the communications medium. A well-targeted message should show increased effectiveness in confirmed delivery and lead to net positive transactions. If you think about it, all of these new real-time social media companies are in the television business. Television is transformed into a container that holds a message stream of condensed multiple media types on the Network. This medium is designed to grow various audiences (meta-patterns) to harvest and take to market. Once a certain scale is achieved this set up becomes a cash machine. The energy to grow the crop is largely supplied by the participants using the system. The users of the system gain access to a simple real-time content management system along with a flat view of a subscription stream. The valuable patterns are reserved for exploitation by the owners of the system.
When you look at the imposition of the real-time social media model on to the corporate enterprise, you’ll see the same model. The valuable patterns are reserved for management. The corporate enterprise will spend a lot of money attempting to absorb this new model of television in the coming year. It will allow each corporation to become its own media company. It should be noted that a person is not ‘social’ when using corporate social media behind a firewall. An employee is a human resource to be profitably deployed, not a person. The idea isn’t to empower people, it’s to provide data to management. The pattern data belongs to the central management structure and it will be used to create and refine the workings of a well-oiled machine–of which the employee will be a replaceable part. The entire benefit accrues to the survival, growth and sustainability of the corporation, not to the individual person. Can you imagine a social media revolution within a corporation that drives the current C-level executives from power? The power structure within the corporate enterprise will use the system to maintain and refine their power, all the while, selling the use of the system as a democratization. For instance, it’s unlikely that unions would be allowed to use a real-time corporate social media system to organize workers and collect violations of work rules.
If the single central-index model has reached a saturation point, does that mean the Network has reached maturity and an end to its growth phase? The Network can accommodate other models and I expect we’ll see some rapid experimentation over the next few years. The key to these new models will involve pushing valuable meta-data patterns to the endpoints of the Network. Simple examples include mobile applications that function as commuter traffic data collectives. Members contribute reports of their own traffic data to a pool and in exchange they received a general picture of traffic conditions. This is similar to the dynamic of reporting weather data and receiving compiled climate reports in return. The key difference is that when data is contributed, access to meta-data patterns is guaranteed.
Clay Shirky uncovered a vast resource when he wrote about cognitive surplus. We can easily ask what might be accomplished should all those hours of passive television viewing be turned into two-way networked interactions. In a sense, this is the rediscovery of the Network as a commons. Not as a common natural resource for each to exploit, but as a common resource built by all the participants. Another untapped resource was uncovered by John Thackara in his book “In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.” In our consumer society it’s a point of honor to keep up with the Jones’s. We each buy our own industrially-produced copy of the latest prescribed set of consumer objects. We accumulate and store them as quickly as we can. But as Thackara notes, we purchase and store, accumulating social capital. We are known as the kind of person who can, and did, buy that particular thing. We rarely use what we buy, its use-value remains untapped—it sits passively in the garage or the hall closet. eBay and Craigslist have emerged as the markets where this passive value is converted back into capital. Here’s Thackara on the eco-economics of the power tool:
Power tools are another example. The average consumer power tool is used for ten minutes in its entire life—but it takes hundreds of times its own weight to manufacture such an object. Why own one, if I can get ahold of one when I need it? A ‘product-service system’ provides me with access to the products, tools, opportunities, and capabilities I need to get the job done—namely, power tools for to use, but not own.
Service design is about arranging things so that people who need things done are connected to other people and equipment that get things done—on an as- and when-needed basis. The technical term, which comes from the logistics industry, is “dynamic resource allocation in real time.” Agricultural cooperatives that purchase tractors and sell their use-time to associates are well-known examples, but once one starts looking, examples spring up everywhere: a home delivery service for detergents in Italy, a mobile laboratory for industrial users of lubricants in Germany, dozens of car-sharing schemes, an organic vegetable subscription system in Holland. Industrial ecologists Francois Jegou and Ezio Manzini found enough examples to fill a book, ‘Sustainable Everyday: A Catalogue of Promising Solutions’, which is filled with novel daily life services that they discovered around the world. These are ‘planning activities whose objective is a system,’ Manzini told me. Hundreds of services suitable for a resource-limited, complex, and fluid world are being developed by grassroots innovators: those that enable people to take care of other people, work, study, move around, find food, eat, and share equipment.
Local systems that enable dynamic resource allocation in real time of local resources, which includes both data patterns and physical resources, would allow a kind of optimization of value by ordinary people that has previously been reserved for the corporation. Some nascent examples of this include, Phil Windley’s Kynetx network scripting platform. Windley talks about a Kynetx script that runs on his browser while looking at the Amazon site. The script instantly tells him whether the book he’s looking at is available in his local library. One can easily imagine a similar scenario involving power tools or other kinds of durable resources. Mobile computing expands the purview of this kind of scripting from web pages on the Network to objects in the real world. This is sometimes called the internet of things. It’s not the point of connection, but rather the advent of scriptability that makes these things creatures of the Network.
Another example is Jon Udell’s Elm City Project — a project to create networked data hubs and librarians of announcements of local community events. Solving the problem of translating and integrating the various methods in which calendar data is recorded is transformed into the production of a meta-data object that provides a wide view of the public events occurring in a locality. We don’t yet know the effect increased visibility of public events will have on a citizenry, but providing a higher-level view of the event life of a community feels like an entirely democratic endeavor. In times of peace and prosperity, an effort like this is non-controversial. In times of political strife, it attains the status of a public square and its commitment to openness will be tested.
While the shared resource of a power tool seems like a simple thing, it implies some very complex social group dynamics. It’s only with the rise of the sociality of the Network along with the politics of the 99% that we may have the ground for learning how to share a larger set of resources with more diverse groups. David Graeber, in his book, “Debt“, describes what he calls baseline communism. By this he means the understanding that unless people consider themselves to be enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply. Here’s Graeber:
Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace. Still, in most circumstances, that minimal baseline is not enough. One always behaves in a spirit of solidarity more with some people than with others, and certain institutions are specifically based on principles of solidarity and mutual aid. First among these are those we love, with mothers being the paradigm of selfless love. Others include close relatives, wives and husbands, lovers, one’s closest friends. These are the people with whom we share everything, or at least to whom we know we can turn in need, which is the definition of a true friend everywhere. Such friendships may be formalized by a ritual as “bond-friends” or “blood brothers” who cannot refuse each other anything. As a result, any community could be seen as criss-crossed with relations of “individualistic communism,” one-to-one relations that operate, to varying intensities and degrees, on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
This same logic can be, and is, extended within groups: not only cooperative work groups, but almost any in-group will define itself by creating its own sort of baseline communism. There will be certain things shared or made freely available within the group, others that anyone will be expected to provide for other members on request, that one would never share with or provide to outsiders: help in repairing one’s nets in an association of fisherman, stationery supplies in an office, certain sorts of information among commodity traders, and so forth. Also, certain categories of people we can always call on in certain situations, such as harvesting or moving house. Once could go on from here to various forms of sharing, pooling, who gets to call on whom for help with certain tasks: moving, or harvesting, or even, if one is in trouble, providing an interest-free loan. Finally, there are the different sorts of “commons,” the collective administration of common resource.
The sociology of everyday communism is a potentially enormous field, but one which, owing to our peculiar ideological blinkers, we have been unable to write about because we have been largely unable to see it.
While networked computational tools can assist us in expanding the scope and breadth of the sharing we do with groups and individuals, it’s our ability to navigate the new social customs and ceremonies of the Network that will determine how far all this spreads. It’s a counter-cultural idea, instead of placing the highest value on independence and individuality, it takes us down the path of interdependence and coexistence. And this brings us back to this idea of a growth medium. As the old year ends, and the new one begins, I’m imagining an as yet unpublished Whole Earth Catalog filled with tools and perspectives on how we might grow this new crop in the fields of the Network. It’s a thing that “is” what it describes.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
- Percy Bysshe Shelley