In the previous installment of "Relevant New" (April 2006) we travelled to some of the best conferences of 2005 to gather insights, meet innovators, and discuss ideas. What follows are running notes from five conferences I have attended in the first half of 2006: DLD, or Digital Lifestyle Days, in Munich in January; LIFT (Life Ideas Futures Together) in February in Geneva; TED (which stands for Technology Entertainment Design) in Monterey/California also in February; Reboot in Copenhagen and Aula in Helsinki, both in June. I've also added a couple of speakers from other smaller events. In most cases, I've already blogged the speeches live from the conferences, so this is really just a structured summary offering a cross-section of what I've heard during those gatherings.
This text was written a few weeks ago for GDI IMPULS, which is the German-language journal of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, a think-tank based in Zurich, Switzerland. They translated and just published it, slightly re-edited for length, in their Autumn 2006 issue, again under the title "The Relevant New" - which, the editors just decided, will become a fixture of the journal. The German version of the article, in the magazine's layout, can be downloaded in PDF format here (268 KB).
How many times have you heard that the former American vice-president Al Gore was boring, wooden and stiff? Well, here is the "new" Al Gore. He keeps the audience's attention with passion and energy talking about the impending climate crisis. He discusses the continuous growth of CO2 in the last decades. He strongly disputes the argument that the current warming is a cyclical phenomenon - and shares sets of numbers and shows graphs indicating significant climate shifts: the ten hottest years ever measured have been in the last 14 years, and the hottest was last year; the oceans' temperatures are rising, as well as their acidity; global warming creates both more flooding and more drought. He reminds that permafrost is thawing: in Alaska the number of travel days went down in 20 years from 225 to 75 a year because the roads, built on permafrost, "melt away". He says he's worried about the stability of the gulfstream Atlantic current (it is a gigantic heath conveyor, and if it stops, Europe will freeze). He talks about the increase in intensity and duration of tornadoes and hurricanes. And he offers a telling figure: the US is the primary producer of carbon emissions (30.3%) but Europe is a close second (27.7%). Global warming remains a controversial issue but, says Gore citing Churchill, "the time for procrastination and delays and excuses is over, we are into a period of consequences and we must act now".
The world is changing in many other ways. Swiss technophilosopher René Berger reminds that "just a dozen years ago something happened that was unexpected and unforeseen", he recalled. "The invention of the World Wide Web and the networking of the world introduced the idea that anyone can establish a contact with anyone else on the planet, in real-time. It's a Quixote-like idea, in a way. Real-time never existed before, and it brings a total transformation of our spirit, cultural categories, and behaviors". At the beginning, "not many bought into this", but today the network is a vital portion of the economy and of everyday life: "It's becoming impossible not to visit with Google daily", he said. Berger strongly believes that we live in the era of "technoculture", that for the first time in human history technology is a constitutive element of cultural development. He argues that the networked computer is not just another innovation in the long development of tools used by humans to enhance their capabilities. "Some may argue that we're just living another acceleration of history, but this is not the car replacing the carriage", he said, "this is about the brain, it's a cognitive revolution. We are at a totally different, superior level. For the first time in history, we can simulate reality, we can grasp the complexity of the real, we can create alternative realities. We can externalize our intellectual capabilities".
Consider Joichi Ito's explorations. Ito is a Japanese investor and one of those guys that seem to be always a step ahead. Recently he has been immersing himself in World of Warcraft, with over 6 million active users the biggest massive multiplayers online game ever. Games such as WoW have gone from subculture to mainstream, and are becoming powerful testing grounds for collaboration, leadership, interface development, and more. Ito has a hard time the concept of "cyberspace", which is still defined in a binary mode: "you're at your computer - in cyberspace - and then you turn it off and go away from it". But this idea "of delimiting cyberspace and real space and splitting time is no longer real". Many people are now moving - after the terminology coined by Ed Hall - from monochronic time, where a meeting follows another unrelated meeting, to polychronic time, which is highly fluid and contextual and people-rich. That's exemplified in World of Warcraft. The game's interface is very crowded and multilayered and diverse indeed: the screen is occupied by the actual game environment, plus the status of other players, plus chatter, plus timers, plus alerts, plus tools, plus plus plus. A non-gamer has a hard time figuring it out. But it's more than a game. "This is one of the most sophisticated real-time management tools I've ever seen. It's a game but lots of it is about coordination, relationships, communication, community: the managers of tomorrow will have the skills of today's gamers".
Traditional media outlets are also starting to engage in these synthetic worlds, says Alice Taylor from the BBC. Recently, the BBC has organized a music festival in Scotland, and built a virtual version of it in another popular online game called Second Life. "Thousands of people showed up and "took part" in the festival that way, from all over the world". Television is also about creating environments, and games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft "are established dramatic environments where people can actually step in, rather than just be at the receiving end of a broadcast".
Design professor Jeff Huang from the Harvard Design School and the EPFL in Lausanne, adds another piece to this discourse on the intersection of reality and virtuality, talking about architecture. "New typologies are emerging: server farms, tech hotels, mega warehouses, mega fulfillment centers. These are totally new typologies that didn't exist before the 90s". Citywide fiber-optic networks are "beginning to influence real-estate buyers, forcing them to take into account proximity to a central node". Architecture, he contends, is becoming the interface between physical and virtual activities.
"An" interface, Julian Bleecker of the University of Southern California and Nicolas Nova of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology would probably reply. They study blogjects: objects that blog, that can produce content, share meaning, report about themselves, communicate. They wonder "what the world would be like if objects could participate with us in shaping the world". The discussion about networks of objects are not new ("the Internet of things") is not new but it's often limited to business efficiency practices. "But linking objects is not only about creating better margins for a corporation: it's about creating new social practices", says Bleecker. So he wrote a "Manifesto for networked objects", trying to enlarge that approach and introducing the idea of "blogjects". Why does this matter? "Blogjects are traces, they are physical manifestations of the world, they know where they are, can trigger actions, and reshape social practices". Bleecker and Nova discuss a few examples, from GPS tracers to tags attached to objects, to a "blogging pigeon" that carries a GSM cell phone modem and an environmental sensor on a small backpack "and while it flies around it records the micro-local environmental conditions. It trumps all the high-tech high-cost solutions - and the pigeon becomes a participant in the way we understand the world". Question: are social beings prepared to share the web (and the creation of meaning) with non-human content creators?
Adam Greenfield is concerned about this emergence of a "ubiquitous computer" always surrounding us, and has written a book ("Everyware") pointing out the need for an ethics of ubiquitous computing. The basic thinking behind UC is that "computing power will no longer be localized in a specific machine or device such as the PC, but will be distributed around us, invisible but everywhere", embedded in tools and walls and even on us. That's already happening to a certain extent, as computing-capable devices such as scanners, sensors, "smart" appliances and buildings, chips in credit cards, etc (including cell phones and the likes) reinforce by the day their presence in our environment. "That raises some ethical questions", he says. "Tech tends to colonize everyday life, and when these things continuously and independently pick up traces of our body and of what we do, we are no longer able to control how we appear" and the information about us. I have the thought, while listening to Greenfield, that people equipped with cameraphones and other recording devices and with blogs are, technically, also "everyware", for they can pick up traces of our whereabouts, autonomously, and store and distribute them.
And they often offer voluntarily a lot of information about themselves. Which brings Dan Gillmor, author of "We, the Media", to say that "we should probably start accepting the idea that when we were young we all did and said stupid things - and cut ourselves some slack". The digital world is increasingly shadowing the real world, and that shadow, once it appears in one's life, may never go away. In ten or fifteen years many people entering political life will be those that entertain today personal blogs and pages on social networks such as MySpace, where they often share opinions, views, and very intimate details of their daily life in shocking details. In 15 years, one of them will be running for mayor and another for a parliamentary seat and so on (this applies also to job searches and to a larger social context, by the way) and out there there will be many embarrassing leftovers (or more) about them, which they willingly posted on the Internet. Sure, we can hit the "delete" button, erase files and take down websites, even physically trash computers. But digital data has this most annoying attribute of being tendentially indestructible. That's why, as Gillmor suggests, we need to start accepting that if you said or wrote or did something stupid in the past, unless it's criminal it should not come back to haunt you. Or else, it will be very difficult to maintain a functioning political and social system.
What would Karl Marx say? Adam Arvidsson, a professor of media studies at the University of Copenhagen, believes that marxism remains an interesting framework for analyzing our times: if you thought it was definitely out with the end of the Cold War, it's time to reconsider, says Arvidsson. In his "Foundations of the critique of political economy" ("Grundrisse", 1857), Marx introduced the concept of "general intellect", suggesting that at a certain point in the development of capitalism the creation of wealth would no longer depend only on labour and capital, but also on technology and organization. Hence a new mode of production will be found in the "development of the general powers of the social brain". Today we would call that "social intelligence", which technology has embodied in social software, peer2peer, wikis, open source and other forms of cooperative production modes. These rely decreasingly on control of labour and capital and more on competences and the ability to forge social relations. What is the production value of things like Skype and MySpace? It rests in part on the fact of creating the technology/tools themselves, but "most of it rests on the new and advanced forms of social cooperation that they make possible".
Norbert Bolz, a philosopher and media specialist from the University of Technologx of Berlin suggests that communication and mobility (what he calls "linking value") are two of the current megatrends. What is linking value? "If I ask you what keyword better defines this early 21st century, many among you would probably answer "network". And what's the key success factor? "Links. "Today's entrepreneur is the person who can leverage networks and spot the "holes" in them - and fill them by creating new meaningful links.
Which is a point also made by Bill Liao, one of the founders of OpenBC, the largest (1.1 million users) European social-networking platform. He mentions Frigyes Karinthy, the Hungarian author who first proposed the concept of "six degrees of separation" (in a story published in 1929, called "Chains"): the idea that anyone is connected to anyone else on Earth through a chain of no more than five other people. And James Surowiecki's "Wisdom of crowds", which looks at how groups, under the right circumstances, are often smarter than the smartest individual in that group. "If we could couple that group wisdom with influence, it could generate an amazing impact", he says, and that's the direction in which he sees social software develop in the future. "What I don't see in the blogoshpere yet is a way not only to express and discuss what you know but to couple it with who you know".
Robert Scoble, until recently the "top blogger" at Microsoft, adds that this is true for organizations too: if you are not linked, you don't exist. A firm producing home-theatre equipment asked him why, when they googled "home theatre", blogs showed up but not their corporate site. "If you don't get people to link to you you don't exist in business today, and other people control the conversation that's happening about you and your products". He stresses (several times) that search engines are one of the most powerful trends of the last ten years. In other words, "searchability", and "findability", are becoming key business assets.
Search is also at the core of Larry Brilliant's newest project. Brilliant is the new director of the Google Foundation. This is how he summarizes his biography: "I'm the luckiest guy in the world: I got to see the last case of smallpox in the world, and recently in India I may have seen the last cases of polio". How did smallpox get eradicated? "Mass vaccination was not sufficient: early detection and early response are key". He wants to apply the same approach to bird flu and other future potential pandemics: "since we don't have a vaccine, it is obvious that the only way to deal with these diseases is to find them early and respond". So he wants to build an Internet-based global early-warning system. A transparent, non-governmental, open, multi-lingual system, hosted in a neutral country, built around the existing Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) in Canada. Which is basically a specialized Internet search engine, that scours the network, filters the information for relevancy and patterns, detects early signs of a potential problem and flags them for analysis by specialists.
That's a massive challenge, both technologically and in terms of public health. But not all inventions need to be grandiose, complex things. Sometimes they can be simple and smart ideas that help alot of people. That's what Amy Smith (from MIT's D-Lab) talks about: a simple solution to one of the world's main causes of death among children (breathing fumes from indoor wood-burning stoves: 2 million deaths a year) and at the same time a way to fight deforestation. If you look at a satellite picture of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the latter appears green while Haiti is desertifying. In Haiti people cut down forests to cook and produce charcoal, and that sets in motion a cycle of further resource depletion, soil erosion, droughts etc. What are alternative cooking fuels? "It's extremely important to design from within the community", Smith says to indicate the need to seek solutions locally. With her students they came up with ways to use "bagas", the waste from refining sugar cane, and turn it into charcoal briquettes. In Ghana they experimented with corn cob charcoal, which "don't require compression: they come naturally briquett-ized". She pulls some out of her pocket and passes them around, saying that "this is about the most exciting thing in my life right now".
Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor and founder of non-profit Gapminder in Stockholm, also tries to look differently at the realities of the world. His main point is that the world-view of most of us is hopelessly out of line with reality, and this has implications for our understanding of the biggest problems facing the planet: many big decision are based on ill-informed preconceived notions. For example, the concept of "developing countries" is flawed - there are tremendous variations within Africa, or within Asia, or within the Arab countries. He shows how over time countries move in different directions. He offers an insight instructed by the analysis of the data: in terms of development, "you can move much faster if you're healthy first than if you're wealthy first".
Social software expert and NYU professor Clay Shirky believes that organizations that want to encourage innovation should focus on reducing the cost of failure rather than focusing on minimizing its likelihood, as most companies do today. He derives this insight from the surprising results of an analysis of the open-source software movement. Open-source is software that any owner can look at, modify, transform. A central repository of this software is SourceForge.com which carries over 122'000 open-source projects. Shirky analized some of their numbers, and discovered that the most popular products (those with an activity score on SourceForge of 100%) are downloaded millions of times. As the score gets lower, however, the number of downloads decreases dramatically. At 99%, we are already in the thousands of downloads per software, "and we are still in the top one-percent of the most active projects!". By the time we get down to 90%, products are downloaded only dozens of times, and from 75% to the end of the tail there are tens of thousands of pieces of software that are never downloaded. "We have been concentrating on the successes - such as Linux, Firefox - but the normal case of an open-source software is actually failure", Shirky said. Does this mean that the whole open-source thing has been exaggerated? No: "open-source is not important despite the failures, but because of them". Shirky's argument goes like this: when you explore really new ideas, it's pretty much impossible to tell in advance the successes from the failures. The business world today is geared towards "optimizing" the innovation processes in order to reduce the likelihood of failure. That's a significant disadvantage when compared with the open-source ecosystem, which "doesn't have to care" and "can try out everything" because "the cost of failure is carried by the individuals at the edges of the network, while the value of the successes magnifies and adds value to the whole network".
Joshua Ramo, the managing director of Kissinger Associates (Henri Kissinger's firm) talks about velocity and enlightenment: "How do we become enlightened in an age when we move so fast? How do we move from knowledge to understanding?". He developed the concept of "personal velocity" (PV) which he measured on himself: in 2004 he flew 300'000 miles around the world and drove 50'000 miles. Dividing the sum by the number of hours in the year, that gives a PV of 39.95 miles/hour. "Velocity does not guarantee understanding, but in general I believe that in today's world, whose dominant feature is constant and accelerating change, the faster you move (exposing yourself to much) the smarter you become". However, in a high-velocity life "it is hard to hold onto emotional attachments"; hence "the faster you go, the more you have to be internally stabilizing". "To be enlightened is not to know for certain: it is to be prepared to deal with the uncertain".
Photos: Leslie/TED and Kalliola/Aula