The World of the Yeltsins

I have not had the slightest piece of time, opportunity or reason this last year to revive the Kaplak Blog – or the Kaplak Log, as I think I’ll soon rename it – until now.

For one thing, Kaplak doesn’t exist as a proper company any longer, and for another I have a new job and position as a teacher of history and media. I’ve had my hands full, and I’ve still got a lot of new things to learn.

And there’s the thing, that in a company blog like this, every post always seemed like it was building up expectations for the next, even longer and more insightful piece, and it became impossible to live up to. Eventually the blog simply lost it’s pace, along with the energy and ideas which went down with the company and it’s troubled work relationships.

Yet, I have never quite stopped thinking about the problems that we worked to solve in Kaplak. If I have, it has been only briefly and because I’ve been preoccupied with other thoughts and work. But I’ve watched and used the web and tools of the web just as intensively in my new position, yet with the major difference that I no longer has to study them, just because I have to find a way to make a living out of them. I use and study them because I find them interesting, and actually find myself in the position of someone looking for obscure niche products (such as documentary films, for instance). And I’ve realized over the past year, that we’re nowhere near solutions to the problems we set out to solve – connecting products on the slim end of the long tail with their distant markets.

And this in spite of the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook, the improvements and new products of Google (Google Wave being the most interesting), lots of affiliate networks and business models (Amazon’s model still in a prominent position), experiments with paying web contributors (Knol, Mahalo, Squidoo and others). In many ways, the web seems a lot more like in a standstill today than when we started out with Kaplak in 2007. Or when I first started out working with the web in 2003 and 2004. Back then Wikipedia was still a young experiment, and YouTube was a daring startup, not yet consolidated by Google. Peer-to-peer services were alive and well – and bittorrent was looking very promising. It still is promising, but has failed to expand into popular use, despite the efforts of startups such as Bittorrent.com and Joost (which was never a true p2p service, after all) and lots of free publicity for services such as The Pirate Bay. And despite the widespread sharing practices on services such as Facebook. Facebook never became a great place for sharing torrents, as the company was very quick to ban and remove users’ links to torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. Lots of startups have died trying, and Google and Facebook looks even more dominating in the webspace today than 5 years ago.

Noone talks much (or just as energetically) about Chris Anderson’s ideas about ‘the long tail’ as many did just a few years ago, yet I still see the same opportunities in it for transcending core aspects of western, industrial society. While the economics (one can earn more in the tail than in the head) may or may not be true for particular types of businesses and product categories, the long tail helps demonstrate (and helped demonstrate at the time), that there is much more out there today than previously, and that there is a demand for it (however slight). Whether a business model is feasible in the long tail (with or without the head to support it), however, remains, in my humble opinion, a matter of finding the right business model and cutting costs appropriately. The vital component of both these priorities is an architecture which supports them, i.e. makes products accessible to their precise markets at the right time, and at very low cost. Now, what makes this difficult is that one has to build such an architecture in a totally convergent and converging field, where concepts such as producer, product and ownership to information changes rapidly.

Connecting niche producers and niche markets much more precisely and efficiently might and would transcend our dependencies on time – just as the industrial revolution transcended our dependencies on land to our present dependencies on time. The last turned out to be a much more flexible arrangement for western societies. The workforce was no longer tied to the land, but could earn their livelihoods manning the machines. No longer could one harvest and produce only in one season of the year, production could be kept up, as long as there were hours in the day, energy provided by steam engines and electricity and a sufficiently large workforce to man the machines. Welcome to the world of economic growth as we know it.

Now, what we can do, and what we have the technology to do, is loosen our dependencies on time. We already do it, we already have it. We can work everywhere, thanks to wireless networks, we can meet and arrange to meet each other up until the last minute, thanks to mobile phones. We can keep ourselves informed and filter our incoming information streams, thanks to RSS and services such as Twitter or Google Reader, and countless other web services. We can construct our own information architectures, in our own webspaces, using free software such as WordPress and MediaWiki. We can sell our own homegrown products with everything from eBay to osCommerce. We can buy home-delivered groceries over the net, which meets our needs precisely. We can produce and sell our own soap and beer thanks to recipes found online and our own experiments. We can write, print and sell books-on-demand, more cheaply than ever, without the wasteful mass printing of big publishing houses. We don’t have to rely on schedules, workhours, heftily regulated industrial workplaces – and we don’t have to rely on the editorial filters of others.

But, and there’s a big but, many of our laws, courts and workplaces still not recognize what’s going on. Our lives and businesses are regulated nationally, even though we operate nascently internationally via the internet. We predominantly receive our salaries dependent on how much time we spend doing something, or based on how high up in the command-chain we are – not so much dependent on how useful it is what we do. We pay taxes to local institutions and obey local laws, despite the fact that the problems we have to deal with are increasingly of a global nature, from terrorism (which is, in this context, a very small problem) to the threat of environmental disasters. We may add information to radically open and globally reaching information systems such as wikis, yet our educational systems (broadly speaking) are hopelessly medieval in their narrow focus on classes, professors and courses.

The final blow will come the day, if/when the ‘old’ economic system breaks. I’m not sure the present crisis is just it – I expect a transition to a ‘new’ economic system to take longer and be more painful. There may not even be a ‘visible break’. If you can’t see or feel it now, I wonder if you will at a later stage. Many of these changes are not clearly documented or reported by our mass media-based news system, and our networks-based information filtering still needs a lot of work – it is still polluted by much noise.

The question is how deep these changes will go politically? Can our political institutions handle radically big transitions of our economies and property-based systems? One area is patents and copyright, for example. Can our political parties and institutions reform this? Is it possible? A lot of things leaves the impression it isn’t possible, yet some of us has to insist that it is. If it isn’t possible, p2p will be driven underground, reserved as an outlet for the few privileged, who knows how to circumvent the official pathways. If it is, what new institutions may emerge from the battlefield, what new types of infrastructure will we need, and what should they be like?

Lawrence Lessig once referred to himself as the ‘Gorbachev of this movement’, in the sense that he didn’t want to tear down the copyright system, but to reform it. But here we are, and even Lessig’s own talks are taken down from YouTube because of alleged copyright infringement.

It seems to me that this is much more the world of the Jeltsins. Of a web that consolidates itself into major players, which are not as intent to empower their users, as they are intent to profit themselves and keep the industrial system in place.

The reason I write this post is I still see opportunities to revive Kaplak, not as a company, but as an idea and set of ideas which can still be worked with and developed upon to build better tools, which can help take a crack at our original problem : connecting products and markets on the slim end of the long tail. But it is even clearer to me today that this battle is also political. It cannot be fought without taking a political stand. It can’t be reduced to just business or just a company. It has to have a wider scope. I will keep this blog a space to explore this further – the construction of concrete tools and information architectures as well as the politics.

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Twitter fatigue, social networks fatigue

Laura Hale has a great post on the Fan History blog (via Kaplak Stream), which deals with Twitter fatigue. Among other things, she writes :

I really wish that as Twitter exists now, that I felt like I was getting more out of my relationships that use Twitter to facilitate them. They don’t. I’m tired of trying to make the effort while feeling like I should be getting something out of it. I’m tired of people following me for no apparent reason who never communicate with me. I’m tired of the idea that I should be getting more connected with people as I feel even less connected.

I’m tired of the hype. (…) CNN talks about Twitter. FaceBook changed to look more like Twitter. News people talk about how Twitter will change how news is reported. Newspapers print Tweets. Twitter will change the world! Celebrities tweet from everywhere. Entertainment Tonight covers people who are tweeting while they are being interviewed. I get it. This is like MySpace about 2 years ago. (And we know where MySpace is going.) I kind of just want to be left alone in a world where I can use it with out everyone and their neighbor going on about how great it is. If we could get back to reporting the news instead of reporting on how people are sharing their news, I might be less tired.

In my particular case what Laura describes goes a long way to describe the love/hate relationship I have with most proprietary social networks (if in doubt, see this piece on why we don’t really like social networks). It would best be called social networks fatigue in general.

On Twitter in particular, I tire excessively of the countless outright attempts to game the system, of which this is only the latest I’ve bumped into. I like experiments and new ways to approach the Twitter API – but I dislike manipulation and being treated like a fool.

I would maintain that it is possible to use these tools to create and sustain meaningful relations, although like Laura it is probably no more than a handfull or at most a few handfulls which have come out of my personal use of Twitter. I haven’t calculated it rationally in terms of how many hours I’ve put into it, and if I did the numbers probably would not look encouraging.

But I don’t look at it in those terms. I see it more like a big learning experiment which helps me dress myself and others up for whats coming – and what will be _more_ the real thing. More peer-to-peer driven, more sharing, more caring and much more powerful (as in the Wikipedia meaning of the word). More so than say Twitter, Facebook, even Google, which are all young wild proprietary experiments trapped in the “old” economy.

I never forget the wonder of encountering Wikipedia in those early years, in 2003 and 2004. I and a few others worked on the Max Stirner article in the wiki and we built what we thought was a pretty decent encyclopedic article on Stirner. Since then, our work has been completely destroyed, mashed-up and remixed into an obscurity of an enormous and unstructured piece of writing. Great, because our work was not so sacred it couldn’t be demolished, and the lively activity on the article suggests that a lot of people find Stirner’s thinking interesting – which is great. Great, because the friendly environment and cooperative spirit which nurtured and built Wikipedia in those years laid the foundation for a global phenomenon we have yet to fully understand and appreciate. Great, because Wikipedia shocked me. It woke me up! In the Lessig meaning of those words. Sure there are problems. Lots of them. One of these minor quibbles may be, that the article which at present introduces Max Stirner to the uninitiated is not as good as the one we once wrote. But when all comes to all, it is a minor quibble. What shocked me and appeared to me as truly revolutionizing, was the power of people coming together, from different parts of the world, working together towards a meaningful goal, if just an encyclopedic article, we wanted it to be the best article it could be. And this stays with me. A lot of people these days use services such as Facebook and Twitter and marvel at the opportunities of connecting with other people. Most coming in via these online services have not learnt how to connect. They are easy targets for the “make a quick buck”-promoters who will sell their old grandma for +10.000 additional followers on Twitter.

There’s a big job in educating ourselves on how to communicate. The real power of tools like Twitter is not in the meaningless “what are you doing right now”-nonsense (except these may sometimes be good conversation-starters) but in the ability to reach someone beyond far distances, who shares your concern, your problem, your interests. Who may be able to help you. Whom you may be able to help. Not in the “shouting” and “selling your products in the face” way of “helping”. Forget the products. Help because you care. Because you share passionate common interests.

I like when I can see the person behind the connection. “It is the real you I want to see, behind the imagery”, I once described it somewhere. In that context, I spoke about the importance of crafting films with authentic messages and stories which resonate with oneself and one’s audience. But it is no less true when connecting with others using internet tools. To have something important to say, something meaningful to communicate. Something to ask. Something to think about, to be concerned about. A piece of information which makes my life richer, in the deeper sense and not the monetary sense.

We don’t always know what that is, and if we can’t write and post a message without thinking deeply about the deeper meaning of it, we would write and post a lot less. Which may be a good thing, some might say. Something which I repeatedly find very embarrassing myself, is how despite all precautions, you can’t easily hide the less flattering sides of yourself when engaging in online conversations. Some of it doesn’t look very pretty. Misspellings, impatience, frustrations, childish blabbering, pride, just plain rudeness. I’m a big fan of civil online behaviour as I am in civil offline behaviour, but still sometimes things slip out, which are less than flattering, sound a little too blunt than it was meant etc. And it doesn’t all have to be flattering. I’m also a great fan of filtering tools and I hope those who read what I have to say take note and learn how to use these to their great effect. As we’re still only learning how to handle and filter our in/out information streams, the noise levels of our online communication are inevitably rising as we try and deal with the problems of communicating with people in different contexts, on different platforms, and using different kinds of filtering tools.

Those of us who learnt how to communicate and work together building the early articles of Wikipedia, and did it the hard way, by connecting with others and discussing page up and down with complete strangers how best to do it, we’ve got a long way helping the many others coming into this world of online connectedness much less well prepared. And most importantly, whether we use crude (but working) wiki talk pages or sophisticated tools like social messaging or multi-platform microblogging, we need to make our passions shown. To help deliver the shock.

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The Scary Part of Risking Yourself on the Web

Satheesh Kumar, developer of the Yet Another Autoblogger plugin recently wrote this post on the difficulties of conveying your enthusiasm for blogging to others around you. I can relate a lot to Satheesh’s experience, as he describes it here :

I have made a lot of fruitless attempts to bring them to the world of blogging. I have offered them free blog resources, free themes, add-ons etc. But no one was interested.

I found that my school has a high page rank .gov.in website kept useless with only a few HTML files. I have asked the principal to set up blog hosting and offer free blogs to the students. It will not only develop their communication skills but inculcate a new culture in them. I have offered all helps. But none was interested ( both students, teachers, and the administration )

I have asked a lot of senior doctors with good practice and knowledge to start blogs in their favourite topics. Most of them said some unclear reasons for not blogging. One of these senior guys ( he was my teacher too ) said ” I knows how to send emails and to use orkut, but I haven’t entered complex things like blogging.” !!

I tried a lot to confess him that its simple like email and Orkut. I clarified that he can publish a blog by just sending an email to a secret email id. But no one was interested !!!

Resistance to new technology, new services and new ways of thinking is natural. We are all animals of habit, who hate unneccessary disturbances and like rhytms, customs and habits, which we have become accustomed to. It’s easy to perceive of the internet or particular phenomena related to the internet as threats best to be avoided.

On a personal level, one reason blogging is scary is because you put yourself on the line. If you write something and put it out for public consumption, you risk looking stupid, ignorant or otherwise become exposed. Most people don’t like to be exposed. They like to hide. They like to let others go first, so that they can watch from a distance and enter the new domain, once it’s been defined and secured by others.

But does this do it for the internet? I doubt there is or will be such a thing as a defined and secure internet. You have to risk it. You have to expose yourself. There’s no going away, no hiding behind others. Because the internet is about meeting other people. Some of these you already know, others you enjoy more distant relations with, and yet others you have yet to meet. You can’t hide if you want to connect with someone. It is the real you, you want to show, if you want to be taken seriously. And it is the real you, others want to connect with.

At least if you want to yield the power of this new space and learn to embrace new ways of thinking, working and communicating, you have to risk yourself, like Satheesh, myself and millions of other bloggers, twitterers, wiki editors, and other participants of the digitally networked information economy.

There’s a slight danger that the prejudices and fears about online activities such as blogs, twittering or wikis will widen the gulf between people who resist new technology and those of us who are rapidly getting sucked in and fast learning new ways.

On the other hand, I’m hoping we can do a lot to attract others to “jump in”, even though it’s uphill a long way. I find Facebook is a good place to start, so I use every opportunity to post links there for my blogposts, and to crosspost tweets to Facebook as well, in order to make people in my network curious about what’s going on in other places. Curiosity is king, I hope. But ultimately, I want people I know to leave the confines and false safety of Facebook and enjoy the full range of opportunities available to them, once they learn to embrace them. Because this, I feel, will empower them. They can be the ones who define who they are in this space, and what they’ll use this new space for.

Ultimately, resistance is futile. However, there’s nothing to be scared of. How could there be?

We’re not going to be senseless web junkies. To the contrary, what is happening is an awakening, an image often invoked by Lawrence Lessig, like in this great, thoughtful article on Lessigs talk in Dona in Qatar in 2007. We’re in the process of extending our methods and communication on a truly global scene and unprecedented scale. There are grand shifts in power taking place right now – from those who rely on the tested and tried methods and institutions of yesterday, and those who embrace and develop new methods and institutions, rooted in use of new technology and new social opportunities which arise from the clever use of new technologies. The order of the political landscape is changing. And it is changed by you and me.

Then again, this is really scary to a lot of people, especially if you insist on your old ways in spite of what’s going on. This is scary, if you do not feel anything in your heart. If you have become so accustomed to living by another man’s rules and definitions of the world. If you are not curious to learn about the world. If you’ve got enough in yourself and do not want to embrace other people. But I can’t believe that is really the case.

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Lessig, the Abolition Movement and the Wicked Problems We Face

Stumbled over this very thoughtful interview by Charlie Rose with Stanford professor, Creative Commons founder, copyright reformer and Change Congress-initiator Lawrence Lessig (via Lessig’s Blog) :

Lessig has some very interesting remarks re: his meeting with Barack Obama years ago, where Lessig encouraged Obama to seek public office. According to Lessig, Obama responded, “you know, Larry, guys like me don’t make it in public service like that”. Obama presumably felt politics would demand too great compromise, than he felt he was able to give. Seems like he changed his mind. Here’s fingers crossed he’ll have some success in changing that game.

On another interesting note, Rose asks Lessig if he has any concerns in regard to filesharing and what’s happening in ‘free culture’, if he’s to take the perspective of ‘the other side’, i.e. the entertainment industry and MPAA intellectual property lobbyists. His answer is thoughtful and enlightening. Lessig fears, he says, the extent to which the reactionary and draconian IP legislation has created such resistance to copyright law, that the new generation – or a substantial segment of the new generation, will simply abolish copyright law altogether – just get rid of it :

Lessig : I think there is a real risk, because of the growing – I think of it as a kind of abolitionist movement with copyright. People who think that copyright was a great system for the 20th century, but we just need to get rid of it now. It’s not doing any good now, it’s not necessary, let’s just abolish it. Well, I am not an abolitionist. I believe copyright is essential in the digital age. I think we have to find a way to make it sensible in the digital age, but we have a richer, more diverse culture with it than we would without it. But my real fear is that the last ten years has unleashed a kind of revolutionary attitude among the generation that will take over in ten years and it’ll be hard for them to distinguish between sensible copyright legislation and the kind that we’ve got right now. So my real fear is we’re gonna lose control of this animal. Not in the sense, that we’re trying to guide it, but in the sense that we’re creating an environment where we can really have rich, diverse culture. So in this sense I feel like I’m Gorbachyov, not Yeltsin, I’m like an old communist who’s just trying to preserve..

Rose : (laughs) – who’s not gonna let go of everything…

Lessig : Yes exactly right. They just wanted to reform it, to make it make sense.

Rose : But can you do that, I mean?

Lessig : Gorbachyov couldn’t. So I don’t know. But that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid we’re gonna destroy something important. Because the thing copyright does, when it works well, is it’s very democratic. It gives the artist an independent ability to create. He doesn’t have to worry about his patron, supporting his kind of creativity. He can create on his own. And he creates on his own, and he owns what he creates.

Lessig emphasizes the importance of businesses to understand, harness and protect creative communities, like a Yahoo does in ‘securing’ the community of Flickr and the built-in ability of that community to use Creative Commons licensing of their images, or a Google does in similar ways with Picasa.

However, on this occasion as on others Lessig fails to enlighten us on what good copyright does us, when businesses vigorously seek to uphold IP rights in software. Google may harness the creative community of Picasa and enable free licensing within their software and as long as it provides value to their business, but what about the rights of Googlers, whose entire creative work by contract ends up being owned by Google, not by themselves? What good does it do us as a society, that companies benignly builds in free licensing, if, when and where they choose to do so, but seek to uphold IP barriers for users to change the actual software they use daily and operate on their own machines? Does that make us more free as a society, or less free? Does it give us a more diverse or less diverse culture?

Wouldn’t it be better, for transparency, for competition, for our culture of understanding and sharing; for our die hard focus on what’s really at stake; the big problems and big challenges we face as a global community : poverty, disease, pollution and international, armed conflict – to abolish a system, which systematically gets in the way of solving problems we face and which we need to solve? Which systematically gets in the way of enabling us to work together to help share information to crack the hard problems facing all of us? In what way is it democratic for a western author to deny the unauthorized distribution of his audiobook in a third-world country? In what ways do the distribution of Lord of the Rings (itself based on another work of fiction) via p2p networks harm anyone in this culture or another?

Lessig have always been careful not to associate himself with the pro-piracy movement. In 2006 a very nervous Morten Blaabjerg met briefly with Lessig to conduct an interview for a film project. Lessig was then visiting Denmark on the occasion of the official launch of the set of Danish-context adapted Creative Commons licenses.

Among the things I asked Lessig about in this interview was his attitude to what was then happening in Sweden, the police raid on the Pirate Bay. Lessig responded :

The Pirate Party and the people behind it are extraordinarily sophisticated, and this most recent post, a speech at the Reboot conference, called The Grey Commons, is an extremely sophisticated analysis of the problems.

In America, in my view, it’s counterproductive to encourage something called quote ‘piracy’. And the reason it’s counterproductive, is that if that’s what you push, then people stop listening to your argument, because they think that it’s all about, you just wanna be able to get something for free. And, if they stop thinking about the argument, then we’re not gonna make any real progress. So in America, I think this would be a bad strategy, and in fact, I’ve come to regret my role in certain lawsuits, that have gone to the supreme court, defending the right of peer-to-peer filesharing. Not because I don’t believe in the right of peer-to-peer filesharing, but because, as a strategic or even tactical move, focusing on that activity causes more confusion, than it causes understanding.

Now it could be, certainly could be different in Sweden and in Denmark.

There’s a long way from Lessig’s warning to ‘talk of piracy’ as a ‘bad strategic move’ to his talking with Charlie Rose about an ‘abolitionist movement’. This goes to say a lot about what has happened during the last 2-4 years. Use of bittorrent has been and is rapidly expanding, some of this no doubt due to the publicity surrounding the Pirate Bay. What’s more important, IMHO, is that social networking have become near mainstream, as a recent local television story about Facebook, in which I participated, made totally clear. Apparently, the popularity of Facebook among the +45 years old is a lot greater than people usually think. The sharing practices of these social networks have made copyright concerns a lot less practical. If I want to share photos with my friends, why bother thinking about copyright? Why bother about what they do with those photos? Why protect us against who they’re going to show them to, if they will make money on it or not, or whatever protectionist concern there may be. If you put it out there, it’s beyond you and your control. With or without copyright. It hardly makes any difference, as the ability of law enforcement to actually crack down on these sharing practices, is inefficient and good for nothing.

The only problem remains that services, such as Facebook or Google, seek to retain all rights to their users’ activities and information. This creates great problems for users, if they wish to ‘take out’ information and use it elsewhere. The loss of freedom lies not in the architecture, but the inability to help change those architectures, so that users may take their data where they’d like to go, in what ways they’d like to do so. To create a free and culturally diverse online environment, we need not protect ourselves from the use of ‘our data’, but from the entrapment of ‘our data’ in systems beyond our control. We can wait until doomsday for such companies to embrace the GPL. It’s not likely to happen. Our focus should not be the data, on ‘works of art’ – it should be on the systems which enable us to transport data, enable us to work together, share information and solve problems. Right now IP is used to prohibit or make this harder, as it is used to protect software and software companies and their incumbent business models – not the creativity of individual ‘artists’. This is why it is enlightening to read about the open source business strategies of companies such as Sun Microsystems and others. There are other ways to go. Abolition or not-abolition is not really the question. It doesn’t really matter, in so far as just discussing it doesn’t improve our architectures of communication or our problem solving capabilities. Embracing free software now does. Embracing Wikipedia now does. Embracing copyleft licensing does. Embracing tools of sharing, aggregation and open publishing does. Showing the effects of what you do does. Theory doesn’t. Fighting over legal matters doesn’t. Arguing back and forth about abolition of copyright with someone somewhere who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about (and doesn’t care to either) doesn’t.

P2p filesharing is the hope that we can create and maintain architectures of data transportation beyond centralized control. That we can reach out on our own, to reach others and understand each other. That other someone chose to share that particular movie, book or piece of software with us, which might or might not otherwise have reached us via different channels. That particular movie, book or software today – tomorrow something else of great importance. The channels of distribution are not really that interesting, except if your business model depends on measuring numbers of eyeballs, so that you may cash in on the commercials broadcast to these numbers of eyeballs. That’s what seems to be the concern of IP holders. Not to harness creativity, not to nurture a rich, diverse cultural landscape, but to protect incumbent business models, which stands in the way of creating and improving our decentralized methods of data and information sharing.

What’s interesting and what’s at stake is far more important than creating a culturally diverse environment : it’s about saving lives, about enabling us to live together peacefully and take a deep look at the world we’re in and imagine, what kind of place this could be, if we treated it with the same kind of generosity, as it treats us with.

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