Make Your Own Slogan: MYOS and the Networked Future

When I started this post it was only a week since I submitted an abstract for the dLRN15 Conference, but the it’s taken much longer to pull this post together than I originally thought. The title of the talk that I submitted was Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure and in this post I want to begin the process of sketching out some of the core motivations and ideas I’ve been having in regards to the technology for living and working in a networked world.

This is has been a process of attempting to bring together some of the ideas I’ve been dwelling over for the last year and a half about what is happening online, particularly in the ed-tech space, and alternative ways that we could do things. The ideas are very much tied into notion of networks, in particular the concept of distributed systems. I put it down on my “year ahead” post back in January as a topic that I really wanted to explore this year, so when the call for papers, and the list of speakers/organisers came out – I figured this was as good a time as any.

In the meantime Jim Groom has published a couple of posts, one & two, that share similar ideas, particularly around the architectures around how to build alternatives. Yesterday Michael Felstein also put together this great post on the EDUCAUSE NGDLE and an API of One’s Own. Both share commonalities with what I’ve been thinking in particular around APIs and an “operating system” of sorts. It’s kind of why I decided to get this post out even though in some areas it’s still only half-baked.

So what’s the problem?

The big issue that I have with the current raft of technology is centralisation. Some of the big players are working desperately towards concentrating all your data, profiles, media and personal information into their own systems (see Facebook has officially declared it wants to own every single thing you do on the internet). Commercial social media tools have given life to the idea that networks are things that can be created, manipulated, bought and sold. However,

a network isn’t a thing, but an expression of individual nodes, how they interact with each other and the relationships they develop.
The Network & Me

These enterprises do not operate as networks, but as containers. They are an explicit attempt to seize and monetise our digital endeavour by controlling the vectors through which they flow. They are closed, controlled and centralised systems that are attempting to enclose the web, the notion of commons and the ability to connect and share. Yes it will be possible, but on their terms and in their space. As the importance for digital networks grows, the tools we currently rely on are undermining their ability to function. They are becoming a medium where networks do not grow and thrive, but silos in which they become stunted and curtailed by a simple binary choice – accept or decline.

Technologies in which digital networks can thrive don’t look like the tools available to us today, or those planned for tomorrow. Not the learning management system, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Medium.

So what’s the alternative?

I’ve been a huge fan of Jim Groom & Tim Owens’ work on developing up the literature and architecture for a Domain Of Ones Own. I think that idea – a space owned and controlled by the user – is paramount in this networked age. It forms a solid foundation from which to build networks in a distributed way, rather than the centralised silos that are currently available.

I’ve been eating up information relating to domain of ones own projects and the related technologies and concepts like Known, APIs, Docker & Containers, Federated Wiki, WordPress, JSON, GIT, node.js, Open Badges, xAPI, Blockchain – because to me they all work towards developing an idea of how a domain of ones own can be transformed into an operating system of ones own. An operating system that can drive us forward into the networked age by changing the current technological paradigm to one that seeks to empower the node rather than enclose them. “Nodeware” rather than explicit software or hardware.

This platform would aim to improve the ability for each individual to connect and share with others in truly negotiated and social ways. A platform that allows us to rethink the ways in which we learn and engage with digital networks – distributed, negotiated, social, interactive and sovereign.

Genesis

The genesis of this was an attempt to rethink the Learning Management System in a distributed rather than a centralised way. I was over bemoaning what the LMS is and was and so took it upon myself to think through the what a viable alternative might actually look like. If we simply reinventing the LMS we’d end up with something like the Learning Management Operating System that Feldstein and co developed. The central idea I was working on however was to provide students, rather than the institution, a way of creating content, recording learning, developing a portfolio and managing their online identity. The challenging component of this was to think beyond the standard institutional IT infrastructure and beyond a better centralised system but one that was truly distributed system. Domain of Ones Own showed that there was a viable alternative, and coupled with concepts embedded in the indie web movement such as POSSE (Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and the growing momentum behind APIs ideas started to form around a way to manage, mind and make your own learning:

mind-your-own-learning

That image was from about a year ago – the kernel of an idea was there but not necessarily the means to take it forward.

Over the new year I participated in the first Federated Wiki Happening and the experience of not only using, but embracing, a federated, socially constructed, non-linear and cooperative environment was fantastic. It opened my eyes to what could be possible if we re-thought not on the applications but the underlying technologies we used too. I loved the open nature of the federated wiki, but what I fell in love with was the concept of being an “empowered node“. The system worked in a way that empowered the individual. It provided tools and methods to create an individual identity while at the same time allowing others to connect social and professionally.

Last year I also worked on our university Badges project, and have been thinking about the potential of xAPI to capture a more nuanced and broader spectrum of learning and so have been broadening my concept of what’s possible technically and culturally.

A fortnight ago we held a workshop on how as an institution we could support Learning Technology Innovation. One of the key areas I wanted to explore with the group was APIs. So in the process of planning and putting together a presentation for the event I’ve been engaged in that space too. Just follow Kin Lane and have a play with IFTTT and you will quickly understand the power and potential that APIs offer. (PS this video offers a neat explanation of what the hell APIs are).

Welcome to MYOS

MYOS is the name I’ve given to the concept of developing a personal and social software system that provides not only the tools and technology to empower the individual in the networked age but some guiding principles about how it should enable, enhance and empower the user.

The name came from a bit of a play around with various combinations of words to describe what it would encapsulate:

  • make your own stuff
  • mind your own stuff
  • manage your own stuff
  • my online self
  • my operating system

MYOS could simply be – Make Your Own Slogan :)

MYOS is very much the model the Jon Udell laid out as “hosted life bits” – a number of interconnected services that provide specific functionality, access and affordances across a variety of contexts. Each fits together in a way that allows data to be controlled, managed, connected, shared, published and syndicated. The idea isn’t new, Jon wrote about life bits in 2007, but I think the technology has finally caught up to the idea and it’s now possible to make this a reality in very practical way.

Technology Foundations

There are two key technical components to MYOS – Containers and APIs.

Containers are a relatively new phenomenon and arose as part of Docker. They allow individual applications and services to be packaged in a way that can be deployed on a single server. Apps can be written in any language and utilise a variety of databases because they are contained their own package. At the same time they can talk to each other – share common layers that allow for greater integration. Containers provide a way for a variety of “life bits” to be co-located and packaged in re-deployable ways.

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) at their most basic level allow applications to to talk and interact with other applications. APIs are the vectors through which information travels between systems. For many years they were primarily used internally with large and complex systems, but they are now emerging into the public space. They provide you the ability to cross-post between twitter, facebook, google and instagram. They allow you to push files to and from Dropbox from a multitude of applications. APIs are increasingly accessible not just to developers but to users too. Services like IFTTT allow almost anyone the ability to harness APIs to create useful “recipes” that link their own data and interactions in ways that increase effectiveness and impact.

Founding Principles

On top of those technical foundations MYOS aims to embed a number of key principles common with the Indie Web movement and help define what the system aims to do – Empower the Node:

  1. You are in control
  2. Data is yours
  3. Connections are negotiated
  4. Enhance and enable diversity

You are in control

The focus of MYOS is to empower the individual rather than re-enforce the network. Empowered nodes provide a stronger and more resilient network that is able to not only cope but thrive on change. An empowered individual is not locked in or enclosed within a single system but is free to move between them.

Data is Yours

You should always be in control of your own data. You should be able to decide who and how that data is accessed, viewed and shared. Data sovereignty is now more important than ever as we see how state surveillance and commercial enterprise has transformed private data into a commodity that is bought, sold and exploited. MYOS should ensure that any data is ultimately controlled and managed by the individual.

Connections are negotiated

In a world that relies on the network we need to ensure that democratic values are not lost. Individual choice has increasingly been eroded by the binary – Accept or Decline. We need to move beyond the autocratic rules that have come to define much of our digital lives. Connections need to be negotiated and a key way of developing that is building in a handshake mechanism that ensures transparency but also encourages users to negotiate terms that suit them. This would include being able to decide what information is shared, how it is shared, what is hidden, what is private, what is relevant, what is preferred as well as negotiating a period of renewal. This handshake could include the development of “data lifetime” clause to ensure that data isn’t kept in perpetuity, but can be removed or forgotten without the deletion or removal of the user or service.

Enhance and enable diversity

Rather than enforce a monoculture, MYOS aims to promote diversity. While there is a need for a stable core, MYOS should promote a diverse eco-system of applications. From a technical level a containerised approach enables different application built with different languages, foundations and data structures.

Making it Work

For MYOS to work it hinges on a number of cultural concepts:

Owners not Consumers

I’ve written before about my notion that society is transitioning from passive consumerism to active ownership. The current model of networks is very much on built on consumerist conventions and why much of the potential inherent in the technology has devolved into manipulative and exploitative marketing. As an alternative Ownership requires a personal investment and active participation in order to receive a reward. An owner understand that there is always risk and a cost involved, but rather than be manipulated into supporting a venture, they wish to be informed. Value needs to be demonstrated and transparent.

Openness

In a cultural capacity openness is still a fairly new and one that is continues to challenge and disrupt existing cultural modes, model and practices. Many aspects of Western culture are built on practices that install and maintain rigid hierarchies of power and exploitation that are achieved by ensuring knowledge is limited through secrets, lies and division. openness destroys those notions and instead requires trust to be created, managed and maintained through transparency and a shared experience. Openness seeks alignment rather than consensus, cooperation rather than collaboration – which tends to turn all processes into a “consensus engine”. Openness encourages federation rather than centralisation, a key tenet of MYOS.

Community

For MYOS to ever function it requires a community, but communities don’t just happen. They require encouragement and nurturing as well as a level of active participation and contribution. Rather than being an emergent outcome of a social environment they require the result of careful fostering and cultivation. Community is the outcome of contribution, not participation. MYOS needs to be something that works with people, not for or to, and lies in the process of reclamation and liberation.

Agnostic Appropriation

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
– Steve Jobs

MYOS isn’t a new thing. It’s an attempt to draw a line that connects a number of concepts that relate to our digital lives and the way we are increasingly living and working in this connected space. Movements (like the IndieWeb) and software (like Known) already provide aspects of the kinds of functions I see MYOS fulfilling. MYOS is an attempt to create a map of a networked idea.

Nodeware

In developing up a set of features for MYOS I started thinking about the idea of “Nodeware”. A combination of software applications, hardware and device that don’t just provide a service to the user – they empower them. They provide a rich set of tools to create, manage and maintain their online selves. Names are purely illustrative, but below is a quick list of starting features:

Identity Management – profiles and memberships
Cards – identities and personas
Keys – authorised access
Records Management – quantified self
Sash – badge display
Qualifications – certification, diplomas & degree
Shelf – web and print publications
Gallery – photos and graphics collections
Cinema – video collections
Radio – audio collections
Portfolio – assembled artefacts
Notes – ideas, notes and fragments of thought
Scrapbook – collection of the curated and salvaged

Expanded not replaced

The idea I’ve been working from is not an attempt to go and reinvent or recreate existing applications and services but to expand their features and connect them together. Open source projects make a perfect candidate for this expansion – so rather than replace Known or WordPress they can be developed in ways that integrate it into MYOS. One way that this could work is by rethinking something like cPanel and turning it into an OS level application that provides an underlying data structure and tools to connect and deploy various application via their containers.

More to come…

I’ve felt a little rushed to put this post out, but I wanted to join in the conversation not sit outside it. I’ll admit to not having everything fleshed out, or even properly specced, it’s still very much about an alternative way of thinking, designing and working with systems online. There’s a couple of posts I can see already that need to be written,in particular what the LMS and other institutional systems might evolve into when students are using MYOS. Until then I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Featured Image: flickr photo by rrruuubbb http://flickr.com/photos/rubodewig/5161937181 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Thoughts on Learning Experience (LX) Design

Straddling a background in design and an evolving career working in Education I’ve been aware of the the commonalties between the fields of user experience (UX) design and learning/instructional/educational design and the opportunity for cross fertilisation. So I’m really interested to see the emergence of an attempt to formalise the relationship between two. This post are some of my initial thoughts.

At this early stage I think it’s vitally important that Learning Experience (LX) doesn’t fall for some of the misconceptions that mystify and befuddle UX.

One of my personal bug bears is the inability for many people to actually define what the User Experience actually is. Take this image for example:

design vs UX

I fundamentally disagree with the way the image is labelled. What we have here are two alternate USER INTERFACES. The User Interface is the tool or process in which to achieve the intended goal, it’s central component but it is only part of the user experience. The experience relates to the journey to the destination. Of course the interface, or the way that we get there impacts on us but it’s not the user experience. It’s part of a greater whole.

Another way to look at UX design is to take a look at the factors that make it up:

Those interested in learning design can quite quickly see the commonalities between this model and say TPACK and how things tend to overlap and overlay rather than act in isolation. You can also see why the User Interface is so often confused with UX – it’s the central component that overlays each of the other disciplines, but the centre is not the whole.

For those interested in understanding a more nuanced approach to UX and how it impacts on LX I’d suggest engaging with the work of Whitney Hess. Whitney has been a guiding light for me in the domain of UX because she provides so much clarity in here writing an speaking. Let start with her 10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design and this summary side:

For LX to take off I think it needs something similar to explain what it is, and perhaps more importantly, it needs to articulate what it isn’t. (See MOOCs for what happens when these things don’t get articulated)

Whitney also put together these comparisons of interface and experience which might also be useful to clarify LX:

User Interface is a street light. User Experience is an evening stroll.
User Interface is a surfboard. User Experience is riding the tube.
User Interface is a camera. User Experience is a memory.
User Interface is a door knob. User Experience is keeping your conversation private.
User Interface is a book. User Experience is a land far, far away.
User Interface is a dimmer switch. User Experience is a romantic evening at home.

Why it matters?

Understanding UX and designing for it is almost the antithesis of business as usual because as human beings we don’t take the time or make the effort to see how things connect. In that sense its very much the same way we see Learning. We tend to think of learning as this linear storyline but that’s only how we picture it in hindsight. LX could provide a way for education to move beyond thinking in this linear way because it’s not how UX works and it’s not how learning works either. We have to start embracing the complexities of learning and design with that in mind, rather than seeking the simplicity of a single model, technology or mode.

I think LX is a concept that not only has legs, but it’s one that is vitally important as we attempt to make use of the affordances of our rich, connected and digital world.

User Experience is a big concept made up of tiny details, connections and relationships.

Learning Experience needs to ensure that it thinks of itself in the same way.


*PS Thanks to Joyce and Jess for kickstarting this whole thing :)

The precious thing we do

Dying is the most precious thing that we do, the most important and generative capacity that we share, and it’s the one thing that should restrain our chasing of productivity, status and stuff.

— Kate Bowles, Writing and Dying

I’ve long struggled with the way Western Cultures conceptualise death. Death is something I’ve been forced to come to terms with, to make peace with, and I think I have, but I’ve never been able to externalise that feeling or process. Kate has. This is how I think about death. Inevitable, but often avoidable and sometimes unnecessary at the same time. Giving while at the same time taking. It’s a force within us that’s equal to life itself. It often brings more power and clarity to our decisions. Death is precious, not something to be feared. Respected, acknowledged and contemplated.

Thoughts on Anzac Day

I spent today mostly with my daughter and in doing so could not have felt any more far removed from war, despite being surrounded and bombarded by its imagery for a number of weeks. I’ve seen ANZAC Day conflated with everything from supermarkets to fitness regimes. It’s gone beyond something I can ever relate to and has been turned into some commercial, plastic carnival.

On a day synonymous with the phrase “Lest We Forget” – I think we forgot.


A centenary on and Galipoli has been transformed into a myth that’s far removed from reality.

It was the moment that defined the Australian Nation.

If you were going to pick something from that era that defined Australia it wouldn’t be Galipoli. It would be what happened after the war. The rebuilding of a shattered society. Of repairing towns missing an entire generation of men. Of broken families that decided to mend and move on. Of mental anguish that destroyed not only individuals but enter families. It’s a story of women who sacrificed as much as the men. Women who had to clean up, recover and survive. Of a society that self medicated with booze and drank it the pain away. A society that embraced the surface dwelling larrikin as a mascot rather than confront the demons deep down and suppressed. It’s a white story too. One where we continued to not even recognise nations in our own county as actual people for another 50 years. A repressive, regressive nation that is yet to reconcile it’s mongrel beginnings.

Anzac Day doesn’t have to reflect any of that, but what it should, it doesn’t.

If it’s about remembering then let it be about that. Let’s not cram it in to a dawn service that takes grief and turns it into a well choreographed spectacle. Let’s not cram all that remembering into a morning so that we can fit in a footy match, get some shopping done and round it all out with a gamble.

What does that “remember”?

Moving Beyond The Default

Default. According to Homer Simpson the two sweetest words in the English dictionary.

To me though, default is more insidious. It represents choices denied and removal of control as by eliminating the opportunity for discussion to occur at the place and time it should – before decisions are made.

This post was triggered by some fairly innocuous tweets from Rolin Moe but they struck something that had been sitting there for some time.

While one the surface these are small fry complaints they point to something big:

What are the consequences of the default?

I’ve been doing some work on designing spaces over the last year looking at spaces that promote creativity and group work. One of the key issues we are facing is that space is at a premium, so a “feature” of these designs is that they are required to have multiple configurations. They need to be able to be re-designed and re-configured to suit a range of purposes and activities.

The work has involved visiting a range of spaces across our campuses but also looking more broadly at other universities and places which enable the kinds of work we are seeking to promote.

I’ve taken a few key things from this:

  • Furniture is too often bolted to the floor and thus it actually inhibits true flexibility. Furniture needs to return to its root and once again become mobile rather than a structure.
  • Technology is still fixed. The reality is that it still requires wiring, connections, setup, support and central control. These fixtures limit the flexibility that’s possible. Wires and cables are still the reality when it comes to technology – wireless just isn’t there in any way shape or form just yet.

But perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

The Default is what defines the space. No matter how flexible the room and the furniture in it is, it has to have a default position. No matter how flexible the space is, it has to have a starting point, a point zero that it can return to. It’s this default that defines what the space is, how it is perceived, how it is defined and inevitably how it will be used.

The simple reason is that people rarely move beyond the default.

Yes, the room may have a million-and-one configurations, but the reality is people stick with what’s there. They won’t move anything because they are used to the notion that the choice has already been made. That the default isn’t a starting point, but the end of a designed process. That someone else with more skills has looked at all this and made decisions on our behalf, whether this is true or not.

I get the reasoning behind the default. It’s something that’s necessary because decisions can’t be made all the time. There’s a cognitive load related to making decisions that is often at the expense of focussing on what really matters. Yes configurations are important, but at what cost and for what benefit?

Should we simply accept the default or be actively working to change it?

Defaults aren’t bad, and they can actually be sweet, but we have to start questioning the consequence of them:

  • What it is they entrench?
  • What do they avoid?
  • What do they hide?
  • What do they improve?
  • What do they enhance?
  • What to they leave behind?

And more importantly WHO?

  • Who it is they entrench?
  • Who do they avoid?
  • Who do they hide?
  • Who do they improve?
  • Who do they enhance?
  • Who to they leave behind?

Questioning the defaults is perhaps really interesting when applied to opt-in/opt-out scenarios. Take organ donation. It’s an area where the default has a significant effect on the outcome (It’s also one of the few occasions where I can mention the work of my brother!). Changing the default organ donation setting from opt-in to opt-out increases the number of transplants. You don’t remove or deny choice – it’s just switching the default position. It speaks to the power of The Default. It sets the agenda, it defines the space, it changes the argument and resets the tone. It’s the kind of trigger needed to move beyond the ‘gift of life’.

So perhaps we just need better defaults?

It’s important to note that the default often hide difficult and complex decisions. Those PowerPoint templates? Well they hide a huge range of design choices about fonts, line heights, placement, styles, colours, look, tone and feel. The problem is that PowerPoint hides all those decisions by not exposing you to them. There is just the default. You don’t find out about them until you actually sit down to develop your own template and you realise how messed up the system is. The Default is the choice because there are few alternatives. Customisation is a chore, or more realistically something closer to a layer in hell, but what are consequence of changing the default?

But if you take that lack customisation into something like an LMS? Well the stakes get a lot higher. The consequences rack up quickly when you’re talking about the cost of a course and the potential impact on a life! Bad design when it comes to learning has real and definite impact. There are consequences. Big ones.

Better defaults, better modifications

I think we need to start questioning the default. Yes they’re necessary, but we need to better understand what their impact is. Simple defaults in PowerPoint effect the look and feel, but are how consequential are they? Complex defaults, like those employed in an LMS or a course design, can and do effect lives. We need to question the assumptions they make and the impacts they have.

The other area that needs considerable work are the tools that allow us to customise. At the moment they tend to suck, badly. They’re either too light weight to just too complex. This points to a design problem, one that is built on assumptions about the consequences (or inconcequences) of the default. Making customisation not only accessible, but transparent as well, is vital in enabling accountability but also encouraging learning and improvement. It provides a way for us to not just accept the default, but to move beyond it.

One way I’ve been thinking about this, particularly in the educational context is through the development of patterns and blueprints.

Patterns & Blueprints

Patterns are ways of defining components relating to structure, tone, material and activity. They are abstracted so that they do not define the entirety of a design, but make up the pieces through which it is constructed. They are multifaceted which allows them to be reconfigured in a variety of ways to suit specific applications.

Blueprints on the other hand provide a way of sharing a design. They show how various patterns fit together. They highlight areas where adjustments needs to be made but essentially what they allow is for design to be communicated and shared. They bring transparency to the process by providing insight into the design. You can see how the default has been made, what decisions have been made and what areas could be changed.

In many ways Patterns are like Lego pieces and Blueprints are the instructions.

Watching Amy Colliers videos at the end of her awesome blog post Not-yetness was an interesting way of thinking about this analogy. Blueprints can suck the creative joy out, but at the same time they provide a default. They specify the patterns required and usually in the box are multiple variations of the blueprint on the front of the box. The Blueprints provide a marketable and packagable default, but the underlying point is the Patterns they contain are able to be re-formed and re-constructed.

Remixed.

I’ve used the terminology patterns and blueprints very specifically. I don’t want to talk about templates, learning objects, learning designs, OERs, LAMS etc – because they don’t do what I think they need to do.

They lack a form that enables remix. They are like wooden blocks rather than Lego. Yes you can build similar structures, but you lack the ability for those components to be integrated. Blocks tend to sit on top rather than connect and integrate into the structure. They’re often too big and cumbersome to be shaped into exactly what you want. This leads to a compromised, rather than customised design.

What we need are ways of working that not only embrace the remix, but enhance it.

Innovation and the Novelty Factory

My ears and eyes seem to have been bombarded by one word so often over the last couple of weeks that I’m now developing something akin to shell shock. A nervous tick here, a Tourette-esque outburst there, a cringe and a cry, a bewildered look in my eyes and a wanton desire to disconnect and float away.

Innovation.

Over hyped and over used the mere mention of innovation makes me wince.

You see

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What scares me about this trend is that now innovation is being talked about in government policy, institutional strategies and every goddamn mission statement known to man – and yet, I don’t think there is any understanding about what innovation is: what it really means, what it entails or the implications of adopting it actually are.

Horace Dediu posits a taxonomy which I think is extremely useful to help discern innovation and reduces some confusion:

Novelty: Something new
Creation: Something new and valuable
Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Using that model we can see that a lot of what people declare as “innovative” should be re-graded as simple novelty, and what people want in their mission statements isn’t innovation but creation. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not something that everyone should aspire to or need to achieve. In fact the pursuit of innovation often means that quality, sustainability and longevity are put at risk.

Innovation is a lot harder and more difficult to achieve because it is essentially change. And the reality is that most people don’t want to do that.

People want the same, but better. Faster and cheaper, but not different.

Change is hard. It’s disruptive and scary. Innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtractive – you have to lose or destroy something in order to attain it. It’s not the same but better, it’s different and better. It requires the embrace of something new, different and foreign.

Innovation is not something everyone should be striving for, and the reality is that they’re actually not. They use the label of “innovation” but if you listen to the pundits in government, technology and finance sectors what they actually want is Novelty. They want something that generates “new” at scale and from very little real investment or effort. What they crave is the Novelty Factory where you can package something differently, appify it, give it a new spin, change the colour and produce it at scale, but never actually do anything different. The reason for this is that novelty has the potential for massive profits, simply because who doesn’t like new? It’s engrained in our psyche to be curious and that’s exploited ruthlessly through an array of psychological manipulations that drive the cravings of a consumerist economy.

You’ll hear plenty about “disruption” but how much of that is actual innovation? How much is actually changing? Isn’t it just the same as before? Isn’t it just like the other thing? Isn’t it simile rather than metaphor? If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption.

People don’t want to invest in innovation because change is really hard. It’s complex, expensive and risky and more often than not takes time – years if not decades. It requires behaviours and mindsets to adapt to entirely different concepts, inputs and environments. It requires people to leave behind what they did, what they built reputations on, what they trust and tacitly know, and replace it with something strange. Innovation is about trust and relationships more than anything else. It’s about building, shaping and learning not just coming up with ideas.

What most people want is novelty – simple, cheap, dumb and easy to sell. You can invest in that. You can profit from that.

Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation – it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change. Sure there are innovators operating there, but they simply share the space rather than dominate it.

Real innovation requires change, not from the product but the audience, user or consumer. That’s where the complexity lies – it’s not about coming up with something new, its about convincing people to change. To let go of traditions and to trade in status, comfort and power from the old model to embrace something new and different. It’s for this reason that true innovation is exceedingly rare. There are plenty of new things we do, but how many require real change? How many were really just the same, but better? How many were subtractive and forced you to give away, give up and destroy?

Innovation is not as pervasive as we think, nor should it be as widespread as we’re led to believe.

I think there’s a need for a more nuanced approach to innovation, invention, creation and novelty. The distinctions are important and there’s a growing need to articulate the difference, to accept it and to choose what it is they need. If we want governments and institutions to embrace innovation we need to really understand what that means and what’s at risk. Maybe when we think about it novelty is enough, or that creativity is more important. Maybe that’s the real innovation.

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/4jCHgj

The Value of Exploitation

At the core of our societal structures, economic and political systems is exploitation.

Exploitation creates value in the most simplistic way by imposing a basic deficit model – I have, you do not.

Exploitation is systematic unfairness. It divides and separates people. It motivates the worst aspects of our human nature and utilises our innate ability to blinker, separate and abstract ourselves. It divorces us as individuals from what made us successful as a species the very idea of what is shared and common.

Value is created through exploitation which is then represented by “wealth”. Wealth is the abstracted concept of value and the process of having what others do not.

Money is the evolved representation of wealth. Before money wealth was tangible through physical manifestations such lands and treasure. Easily seen, easily coveted, easily taken. Money, in particular it’s digital form, abstracts wealth into something more pure and fitting of the modes and methods of current exploitation. Rather than simply act as a tool to simplify trade and exchange, money allows wealth to be accumulated in truly unimaginable amounts. Hidden and locked away as digits in a database its form is disguised – no longer an object easily identifiable, coveted or requiring armies to protect it. Wealth is removed from social constraints, removed from communities and removed from any need for redistribution.

The abstraction of wealth, and it’s associated value, into money allows exploitation to go on unfettered, unmonitored and mostly incomprehensible. How can you rebel against something you cannot imagine? How can you revolt against that which you cannot see? How can you reclaim that which isn’t tangible?

The current economic model of globalisation amplifies exploitation into a form that is trans and multinational. Exploitation can be systematised and localised – Asia becomes the hub to industrial exploitation, Australia and South America the environmental, North America and Europe is informational and economic while Africa is only pock-marked with points of exploitation due to its violent instability. Global exploitation is now almost complete – and for what? And for who?

The global disparity in wealth has never been higher. There is only an incredibly small number of humans on the planet actually benefiting form this global form of exploitation. As we charge into the Anthropocene leaving an indelible mark on the land, water and air around us – who benefits? As we poison the air, land and water shouldn’t we be asking why? As we destroy the planet piece by piece what do we gain as a people?

Capitalist ideology will simply attach value to something new – from land to industry, from industry to labour, from labour to information. Whenever a limit is reached you simply change the game, change the rules and move the goal posts.

Every equality is eroded.

Every commons is enclosed.

The value system that we’ve created has become so abstracted that people, the environment and the relationships we form are anomalies and impediments of the system. They are the dark areas, the externalities that affect the system but are not of it.

How did we develop a system that doesn’t recognise us or the ecosystem around us as part of it?

It has to change.

We need to move to a post-capital mindset. As an idea it is about finding and attaching value to something else – us. This is how you redistribute wealth. You assign value to each and every individual. The same value. In this way wealth is truly democratic and is untethered from the deficit model. Our footprint and ecosystem are not external to the notion of wealth, they become are part of it.

Can we effect this change now or will it emerge from the ruins? Will it require exploitation to reach its conclusion before we are ready to transform? How much needs to be exploited to the point it collapsed and is destroyed? What are we willing to lose in order to live appropriately? The forests? The oceans? The ice caps? The air we breathe?


POSTSCRIPT – After writing this post I listened to Can accountants save the planet? and Jane Gleeson-White discuss the idea of Six Capitals. It’s an interesting concept but there are some big caveats to this kind of approach. Monboit’s comment sums this up perfectly:

‘… everything will be fungible, nothing will be valued for its own sake, place and past and love and enchantment will have no meaning. The natural world will be reduced to a column of figures.’
– Guardian, 2014

I’m not sure if this is the right approach, but the singular model of financial capital has passed its use by date.

Image used https://flic.kr/p/owgD3y

The Enclosure of the Web

It’s been a dark time in Australia when it comes to our lives in digital spaces. Both sides of government voted to instate draconian, opaque and dangerous new legislation to increase surveillance. They have traded the people’s freedom and right to privacy for “increased national security” – a term I am yet to understand. Now we can be watched, monitored and investigated at any time without our consent and with no impartial oversight.

So ridiculous are these measures that members of government have been spruiking apps, tools and practices to circumvent the legislation they were working to implement. I kid you fucking not!

Australia however is not alone in its pursuit of greater surveillance. Similar efforts are underway in Canada and the UK, perhaps trying to replicate the truly horrifying efforts of the US. Despite these efforts little has been discussed by the general public and even less about the implications of these measures. Its complex but it is vital as John Oliver pointed out vividly in his recent interview with Edward Snowden:

So what happens when we are forced into trading the open web for something that needs to be encrypted, secure, private and hidden simply to avoid someone watching over your shoulder noting your every move? Is the concept of “security” actually cannibalising itself to the point where safety and privacy are eliminated rather than upheld?

At the same time one area that really hasn’t been discussed at all is how we as a people are being forced behind a firewall and to surrender the distributed commons that is the web.

Want email? Just get inside Gmail or Outlook – just don’t use a local service because Australian big brother is watching that. Don’t worry though because the NSA is watching the others.

Want to communicate with friends and family? Just use this app that has built in encryption. Don’t worry that now you’re being surveilled by a corporate vulture who on-sell your data to the highest bidder.

Want to read the news? Just do it inside Facebook!

App this and app that. The Web is Dead. Access is no longer free.

The vectors of information have been taken over, monetised and passage is paid by surrendering our data. The commons has been taken away and eroded by corporate interests and government surveillance and all of this has happened before.

During the agricultural revolution this process was known as “enclosure“:

the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners.

I’d say the web as it was, an open commons of information, is being enclosed. The Information Revolution, or whatever you want to call it, is following the same script.

Just like the before the process is being accomplished in two ways:

  1. “by buying the ground rights and all common rights to accomplish exclusive rights of use, which increased the value”. Hello Silicon Valley and startup culture where the aim is not to contribute to the commons, but get bought out by someone bigger. Data is the asset and the value point is not in what your app can do – but how many users and how much data you can get!
  2. “by passing laws causing or forcing enclosure, such as Parliamentary enclosure”. Hello Australian government! Your actions – implicit or explicit,implied or not will have the same effect. “Come inside our walled garden, its safe in here!” they’ll say. Government surveillance destroys the commons and forces people to seek safety and privacy somewhere else.

For labour the fallout of enclosure was considered a positive sum, but that requires you to completely disregard the hunger, suffering and displacement that occurred. Sure, eventually displaced workers found jobs and their labour fuelled the industrial revolution but many died and many lost centuries of knowledge, wisdom and connection. They lost their identity and cultural heritage as they were forced off the land. This process was repeated as part of global colonisation, not because it was good, but because it worked. It worked to establish a new ruling class and elite. It effectively worked to dispossess the people of all they had so they had to trade their agrarian subsistence for the exploitation of the workhouse. It reduced skilled and knowledgable agronomists to become simply cogs in the machine.

So what looms ahead in our revolution? What do we lose as we’re slowly being enclosed?

Let’s not forget that there is value in the commons.

It’s not in efficiency or profitability it’s in building social cohesion. It becomes a place to share, to cooperate and collaborate. It becomes a place to dance and feast and celebrate as well as to mourn and cry and grieve. The commons is the heart of a community, something that urban planners are finally starting to understand. You don’t achieve social cohesion without the commons and housing projects around the world provide all the evidence you need to understand that. By focussing on efforts on building housing and not a community the commons was left off the plans and what ensued was complete social chaos.

So when I look at what’s happening on the web I wonder what is to come…

What if we lose the commons? What happens if the web is enclosed?

Image used https://flic.kr/p/nZotpM

Reactive Ideas

The next three posts that will appear on the blog have been worked on concurrently for the past couple of weeks. They started as ideas and thoughts that grew out of what I saw and felt was happening around me. They’ve lived in draft form since their inception, not quite finished enough to let out as they weren’t really clear in my head, let alone as text.

Over the last week they’ve coalesced into something more solid – solid and connected.

Working on these three seperate topics – enclosure, innovation and exploitation – at the same time has been an interesting experience. Phrases that started in one post drifted into another. Concept that didn’t work in one would work in another. They fed each other and it’s been a strange experience to be part of. They aren’t a series as such but definitely share an origin and a process.

I’ve tagged them as Reactive Ideas because at their heart was a pure reaction to the world around me. A mental and physical reaction to events going on around me. Nothing in here is revolutionary or new – in fact there’s an increasing sense of history repeating itself. They are of their time and place and triggered by social happenings but they have forced me to ask bigger and deeper questions. About our society, what we value, where we are going and in some ways what we are destroying and willing to destroy.

They may seem a little bit off topic from what I’m usually banging on about in regards to edtech – but I can assure you they are linked. They explore ideas that are fundamental to the role and force that technology plays in our world and the trust we place in it. Maybe drawing more explicit links is another set of posts.

Subconsciously there seems to be a bit of Marx embedded in these posts. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed emerge from the process of writing, editing and rewriting them. I’ve been exposed to more Marxist critique and ideas recently mainly because I find them exceptionally relevent. His critique of capitalism is extremely insightful and the hype around Picketty’s book and the coversations stimulated by Stiglitz has revived a lot of the concepts and solutions that link back Marx. There’s a global discussion about what global capitalism is doing and the problems that it not only created but continues to exacerbate rather than solve. I think there’s also a deep concern for the lack humanity built into to the discussion going on around us. The ease that people can be abstracted from situations is deeply concerning and I wonder if empathy is being drained out of society.

It might explain why this resonated so much:

The other influencer on these subconscious thoughts was McKenzie Wark’s work on the athropocene and probably more directly his essay on 21st-Century Marxisms. Both of these broad topics have exposed me to many new ideas and thinkers including CSU colleague Clive Hamilton.

It feels good to get these three posts out. It’s been a challenge and an interesting experience – hence this post – and something a little unique to how I usually work. It will be interesting to see if they resonate with anyone else :-)

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/pVSiLo

Riffing off Remix

I’m feeling a little inspired after reading David Wiley’s The Remix Hypothesis and Mike Caulfield’s Paper Thoughts and the Remix Hypothesis. That’s on top of putting together an application for a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship where I’ve applied to carry on doing work around adaptive digital publishing. (The pitch video outlines a lot of what I’m going to describe in a pretty simple way – so if you want to know more have a watch and I’m happy to answer any questions). One thing I’m particularly keen to explore in this space is how to improve sharing, collaboration, reuse and remixing – is it possible to build that kind of functionality into a system so that is built for and with open content at its heart?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been playing around with the concept of Adaptive Digital Publishing. A group of us wrote a paper and developed a proof of concept. We shopped it around for funding but other people had other priorities.

Conceptually I think it stands up as the most effective way to publish materials across multiple platforms. It bought together ideas that are only now starting to emerge into the mainstream – e.g., in srcset and picture in HTML – where content is adapted depending on attributes set by the device & browser. The Adaptive Media Element we worked on did that – but in more complex ways and for all types of media – from video, data, images to audio and across print, web and eBooks.

The proof of concept we developed was built on WordPress and used the PressBooks plugin to provide many of the features we required, an easy to use interface and a solid foundation to work from. The ideas were executable more easily within an existing framework, so rather than attempting to build everything from scratch we could focus on our innovations – the AME and the corresponding Publishing Profiles.

Ever since we built that initial proof-of-concept I’ve been toying with how to make it simpler. How can we make it easier to share, collaborate and remix content? Our initial concept didn’t really think about those areas, but they’ve been bugging me ever since.

How to Support Remixing?

One way would be to expose the WordPress system via JSON. This would allow other systems to pull content in to display, but also to commingle, re-contextualised and retooled. My experience over the summer with Federated Wiki has challenged many of my preconceptions about how content, and indeed publishing can look like in a purely digital sense. I’m enthused by the concept of a JSON based system but there are plenty of dependencies and technicalities required to develop things this way.

My other idea is to go simple by removing the need for a database by abstracting authoring into a simple files & folders structure, and then focussing on developing a “generator” to the publishing. So rather than create a contained system we could build something that can be plugged into a file system and live separately locally or online. This idea builds on those already in use in a range of static site generators that leverage markdown, scripting and something like GIT to manage the whole workflow.

By simplifying the system down to the bare minimum the potential is to make content more “forkable”. You reduce the need for specific software in the authoring but also open the process to powerful versioning and management technology. In this way remixing is encouraged but with the ability to merge back the potential is a truly inspiring. This would ensure that the remix doesn’t become another standalone piece of content, but a connected component that might be co-opted back into the main branch. It enables localisation, translation and adaption to specific contexts not just to be made, but tracked, traced and attributed.

The other attraction to this more simplified model is that it also reduces the technical overheads required. It could be run locally or over a simple network. It could run offline and allows for asynchronous editing and collaborative authoring in a manageable format. I’m not sure if this will provide the simplicity or granularity of that the federated wiki has, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

This flat file model also means that content can be openly hosted using repository sites like GitHub but also almost any online space, and for educational and research publishing this could be a huge boon. Being openly hosted means that access is greatly improved. The ways that Mike describes data models being accessed and modified could be achieved this way.

The final plus is that switching to a flat file generator model means that there is less reliance on single technology or system . While GitHub, WordPress and certain programming language are the choice today they are also dependancies in the long term. Not relying or depending on certain technologies means that we’re creating more sustainable content that is open to change and evolution as technology and trends change.

Publishing in the digital age needs to embrace the concept of remix as it’s the most significant affordance of being digital. I’m in a state now where I can see that the technology required is getting closer to realising that idea. Once it does we’re going to be in for a ride.