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Category: tribes

Only Connect: The iPhone Crosses the Bridge

Alexander Graham Bell speaking into a telephone

The dashboard formerly known as “computing” is always already mobile. It’s when we try to think about mobile computing as a separate category, potentially having something to do with “telephones,” that we make a fundamental error. All computers have always been mobile; granted, the speed and practicality of moving them has improved enormously. And, shrinking the form factor to size of a pocket has also helped– there’s little real difference between a computer and a teleputer.

And, what do we mean when we say “computer?” In its most common usage, it refers to an appliance in the home or office that is used for certain kinds of activities. And this matches up nicely with Doug Engelbart’s idea of computing as an augmentation of human capability. Computers are valuable to the extent people can use them in the course of their lives. They have no value in and of themselves. Even when they’re crunching numbers and calculating astounding Bayesian probabilities, they’re doing so with human purposes as their program. If we focus on Engelbart’s idea of augmentation we can see that the form of a “computer” is unimportant.

After spending a very short time with Apple’s new iPhone software (version 2.0), it’s clear that the iPhone is not a telephone. The name of the device is a bridging mechanism; it creates a familiarity that enables dispersion into the Network. The actual use of the device has now crossed over that bridge. Telephones transmit voice over far distances; they are single purpose and that’s the derivation of their name. Any analysis of usage patterns of the iPhone will show that voice transmission will be a shrinking percentage of overall engagement with the device. The iPhone is not limited to the augmentation of our capability to transmit voice over distance. The first release of the App Store has given us a preview of the many kinds of augmentation to which we can look forward.

EM Forster in his rooms

As friction in the user interface is reduced, and mobility and connectivity is improved; the augmentation layer becomes more transparent. When our vision isn’t clouded by the cumbersome interface of primitive machines, we can look up and see what the Network connects us to.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. 
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, 
And human love will be seen at its height. 
Live in fragments no longer. 
Only connect…

E.M. Forster, Howards End


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@cshirky > Promiscuous Reading > Contra Solipsism > Here Comes Everybody

This isn’t a review. I’m not sure that reviews are very useful beyond the basics: Here Comes Everybody is an important book. Some people will choose to read it, but that doesn’t really matter because it’s in the air we breath. You’ll absorb the book’s insights through some sense organ within the next few years. Clay Shirky has written about network theory in a style that might appeal to a broader audience; and it will directly reach more people than books by Duncan Watts or Albert-László Barabási. However reading will not be the primary diffusion model.

One criteria I have for judging the quality of a book is the number of times I have to stop reading. This generally occurs when some string of words in the flow of the book makes a strong connection either to concepts from another text, or to something I’ve scribbled in one of my notebooks. The monologue of the text is interrupted by a conversation racing across a network of intertextuality. While this slows reading as an act of consumption, it opens the door to reading as a full-duplex, 2-way engagement. And that’s where its real value is revealed; in this sense, I found Here Comes Everybody to be a very promiscuous book. There were connections everywhere.

The obvious literary reference would be to Joyce, but instead Rilke provided the more forceful connection with his fragment “We are the bees of the invisible:”

Transform? Yes, for it is our task to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.

There’s a sense in which this describes the process by which poetry is crafted, but it also seems to inform the way we build the collective experience and history of a group. We have a collective story we tell each other about the importance of the individual, but stories about family, tribe and society are on the rise again. Shirky points out that the transaction cost of organizing a group has declined nearly to zero through the tools available on the Network. He goes on to note that low transaction costs are not sufficient — a plausible promise around purpose and a mutually beneficial membership bargain are equally necessary for a living community. 

Two factors suppressed in the current commercial infatuation with the social graph are the ownership of the products of the community and the emotional volatility of a group. These are high risk ingredients in the recipe, human elements that need to be purged to sell the current business models. And those services without explicit business models continually run up against these issues. Can you sell what isn’t solely yours to sell?

As we gather in tribes and loose associations across the Network, we invent ceremony, initiations, ritual, taboos and forms of justice to ensure the ongoing health of the system. We optimistically believe the rules, mores and sins of our fallen culture won’t simply be mapped on to the social space of the Network. Experience has shown that absent some form of persona or identity, the life of an online community will be nasty, brutal and short. Could the Network be the new world where individuals are judged by the character of their content? Or is it really just more of the same, a place where it’s not Metcalf’s law, but Sturgeon’s law that rules the day.

We’re in the middle of a shift in perspective. We’ve been focused on the individual, the physical limitations of an un-networked personal computer metaphorically defined the limits of our ability to think about the Network. In the area of identity we seem to only now be uncovering the idea of a relationship layer. The silo’d thinking of the technical community causes it to lay down cow paths on the well-paved roads of other disciplines. While Shirky’s book is written for the layman, its highest and best purpose may be in introducing technologists to the idea of society.

In the larger network of connections there are two that put themselves forward. In Saussureian Linguistics meaning is derived from the set of differences within a system. Here are a list of ideas that can help us overcome the solipsism of the hard drive:

  • “A sign is the basic unit of language (a given language at a given time). Every language is a complete system of signs. Parole (the speech of an individual) is an external manifestation of language.”
  • “A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas.”
  • “The connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.”
  • “In language there are only differences, and no positive terms”
  • “Speaking of linguistic law in general is like trying to pin down a ghost”

The other charged connection is to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the idea of Private Language. Like those who believe in Private Languages, we seem to be caught in the fly bottle. We don’t understand that language and communication is social at its core:

If the idea of a private language is incoherent, then it would follow that all language is essentially public: that language is at its core a social phenomenon. This would have profound implications for other areas of philosophical study. For instance, if one cannot have a private language, it might not make any sense to talk of private sensations such as qualia; nor might it make sense to talk of a word as referring to a concept, where a concept is understood to be a private mental representation.

Nor might it make sense to talk about identity apart from society, computing devices apart from the Network, or data (signifiers) apart from an economic and trading system of language. The end of our solipsistic weltanschauung is beginning; we are perhaps in the middle of the beginning of a general revolution. Some will ride the strong currents as they emerge, others will fight the current, grow tired, and eventually drown. And the looming danger ahead is the task of assuring and preserving the inalienable rights of the individual in this new Network. Once the technical perspective has been transformed from the one to the many, all the really important questions become political.

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Small Bits of the Future Distributed in Cleveland

At a Cleveland American Advertising Federation luncheon today, Larry Weber talked to a room full of traditional PR and marketing types about “marketing” and social networks. While the talk was mostly a new coat of paint on the Cluetrain Manifesto, it was interesting that this group of people showed up in good numbers to listen. As the talk went on I could feel that the room, even at this late date, was skeptical of his premise that markets are conversations with communities.

Weber suggests that big brands should be hosting honest conversations containing both positive and negative messages about their products. He recommended building communities from scratch around a brand, and implied that the brand should want to keep the users inside their own walled garden. In fact, he suggested that the network’s future will be filled with social network-based walled gardens existing as a form of client loyalty program. No mentions of VRM or the role OpenID will play in the future of the commercial web. And not even a hint of the way that Google’s Friend Connect might bring existing social networks to a brand’s site, rather than building a new community from the ground up.

Only small bits of the future were distributed in Cleveland by a guy from Boston. It’s a small sample, but it gives you a sense of the information asymmetry in the market that values the social web. It’s the definition of opportunity.

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The Network’s Continental Congress: Searls, Gillmor, Windley, Arrington

Mark the week of May 11, 2008 as a milestone in the nascent politics of the Network, attending the Internet Identity Workshop, I had the feeling of participating in a kind of Continental Congress. In this regard, Doc Searls and Phil Windley are statesmen of the Network doing the good work of bringing the small and large states to the table to talk about politics, technology, interstate commerce, identity and inalienable rights. Acknowledgement is also due to Kaliya for her critical role in facilitating the dialogue through the unconference format.

Windley described the early meetings of the IIW as “brawling” among major vendors and protocol authors. A form of what Thomas Hobbes called bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). By the sixth meeting of the IIW it’s become clear that OpenID, Cardspace and SAML are emerging as the dominant forces.

The week was capped by a brawling Gillmor Gang with Robert Scoble and Mike Arrington engaged in heated debate over ownership of identity artifacts. The wall at the back of Marc Canter’s revolutionary garden emerged as an offline visual rough draft of our constitutional articles. Canter also put forward the metaphor of tentacles as the current mode of portability, and this connects directly to my observation of the general transition to rhizomatic power architectures.

Chris Saad injected the data portability meme into the flow and suggested personal Access Control Lists, in the form of a “Sharing OK/Not OK” check box on data you give to individuals or companies. It would be interesting to watch Robert Scoble manually configure a complex ACL on his 20,000+ friends (Scoble rushes in where Angels fear to tread).

The one thread I would contribute to the conversation is the idea of data liquidity. Think of data as a financial asset, as cash it is at its most simple and portable; the other end of the spectrum might be venture capital where it is complex and liquidity events are highly limited. We trade liquidity for potentially higher value when we park our data at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter or Yahoo.

  You can hear for yourself here:

In the general argument about identity and user data, Steve Gillmor has played the role of Alexander Hamilton. He argues that because we own our data, we don’t need to petition for rights not surrendered, or for exceptions to powers which were not granted. Hamilton objected to the Bill of Rights on the following grounds:

Bills of rights are in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was “Magna Charta“, obtained by the Barons, swords in hand, from King John.

Hamilton continued:

I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and in the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?

These are dynamic times akin to the days in 1787 when the Federalist Papers were authored. Hamilton, Madison and Jay (under the pseudonym “Publius“) often published between three and four essays per week. Doc Searls just announced at the Berkman@10 event: The Publius Project is a “compilation of ‘essays and conversations about constitutional moments on the Net’ at the singular moment that happens to be now.” There was a moment in all this when I thought we were laying down cow paths onto paved roads, but Doc has connected the dots at just the right moment.

During the process of thinking and writing about the week that was, a song kept playing in the background of my thoughts. The song is called “Playmate” and was written in 1894 by Philip Wingate. I first heard it in the film Reds, and more recently in The Savages. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about it that expresses the emotional and human center of these constitutional conversations.

I don’t want to play in your yard,
I don’t like you anymore,
You’ll be sorry when you see me,
Sliding down our cellar door,
You can’t holler down our rainbarrel,
You can’t climb our apple tree,
I don’t want to play in your yard,
If you won’t be good to me.


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