The Grand Conversation

20 July 2008

Featuring Our Cognitive Surplus

One of the ironies of blogging is that in pursuit of the grand conversation, the epitome of Web 2.0 togetherness, writing often takes precedence over reading and the chance to comment on some-one else’s blog dwindles with each new post. Those of us who work professionally as writers and editors feel this the most, partly because we read so much in our line of work anyway, but also because a small distraction in a day can set a project back by hours. And if it’s not done by six o’clock, you just have to keep working into the night. Or on the weekend. So as I try to do from time to time I’m using this post to highlight a blog that I really should be commenting on, Greg Sadler’s new effort, Our Cognitive Surplus.

Many bloggers are sceptical about new blogs, wanting evidence of longevity before the initial burst of enthusiasm can be evaluated. But my opinion is that silence never encourages, and that enthusiasm grows with enthusiasm returned. Greg left a couple of very pertinent remarks here earlier in the week, on both my rudimentary (and yet to be tested!) comment policy and my recent consideration of Roman historiography. They struck me as intelligent and meant very much in the spirit of conversation, so I visited his blog to see what else he’s been ruminating about.

Greg writes from Canberra in Australia, and while his focus is by no means on the city, he does capture its essence in one brief burst – his comments on being accosted by evangelical Catholics in Civic had personal resonance for me, having lived thereabouts for six years. Canberra is very often a city of extreme and contradictory opinion, thrown about without much consideration for whether anyone is listening. Greg’s also perceptive in his assessment of the encounter, considering the importance of beliefs expressed even as he rues the lack of an internally functional paradigm within much religious debate. In other words, reason flies out the window all too often when dissent dares object to the received wisdom.

You might not agree with everything Greg writes, but that’s the whole point. He wants to start a conversation, and disagreement is inherent in any dialogue. So Greg, if you’re reading this, I will reply to your comments soon and I’m sure there’ll be much more to talk about. To everyone else who cares to converse, pay Our Cognitive Surplus a visit. It’s just beginning, but there should be a great deal more to come.


Flickr Fascination

9 July 2008

On Images and a Little Innovation

The very best images capture something of the movement that brings a moment alive, the idea central to a new understanding. They drag the viewer in and speak to the senses of what has been and what might have been, just beyond the frame. For every fact they leave a promise, an invitation to return later to think again. I mentioned in a previous post how Roy Blumenthal’s artwork on Flickr does just that. Roy offers his electronic paintings under Creative Commons licences, which are superb invitations to revisit, use, reuse and share. But the more I’ve been using Flickr to find the images that populate my posts – that explain, contradict or reinforce what I mean – the more frustrated I’ve grown with its Creative Commons search function.

Flickr is a fantastic resource for any blogger and an endless source of fascination for me. It offers something for everyone, from the truly weird and the powerfully stated to the deeply experimental and the blandly pornographic. That’s the whole point – it draws people in, allows them to share their efforts with those who are likeminded, or who might well become likeminded after a browse or two.

By every indication, Flickr groups, the virtual communities that form around certain styles, subjects and themes, are very much alive and well. As Clay Shirky observed in Here Comes Everybody, even the most ad hoc groups on Flickr serve the valuable function of allowing people to organise themselves without organisations. Photostreams featuring social movements and protest rallies abound.

But that’s also a problem. Ask Flickr to search for images labelled ‘poverty’, for instance, and you’ll soon see countless photos of middle-class white people protesting about conditions in the third world. It’s all a little abstract. You’ll also find the stunning and equally moving photography of Gregory Smith, founder of the Children at Risk Foundation in Brazil, which is a saving grace. Finding an image that speaks to you is a moment to treasure – a precise point in time at which you can learn something valuable. But finding another ‘make poverty history logo’ is a hollow experience. It leaves little else to say.

Thankfully there’s an alternative way of searching Flickr for Creative-Commons-licensed images. When I was speaking on the Everyday Extraordinary Lives Show podcast the other day, Mike Seyfang mentioned to me a web application that’s been around for a while and seems to have quite a few happy usersflickrCC.

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Connecting the Commonplace

3 July 2008

A Podcast on Possibilities

Neon mic, by fensterbme, with Creative Commons licencePrivilege is an under-rated word – it tends to convey a sense of unwarranted wealth and power when it can more easily be a synonym for honour. The two concepts are diametrically opposed but together can produce a synthesis of sorts, with the honour perhaps just a little undeserved. In that sense I had the privilege earlier today of speaking to Dave Wallace and Mike Seyfang on their Extraordinary Everyday Lives Show. Along with Kent Newsome, the pair host occasional podcasts that range across the spectrum of technology, networking, people and ideas. Much of our focus today was on the work I’m doing with domestic helpers here in Hong Kong, especially in relation to Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death. But the concepts shifted from the significance of Creative Commons licensing to the nuances of activism and on to technical solutions for networked text messaging.

As I say, a privilege. You can listen to the podcast at the site, or download it to listen at your leisure.

Dave Wallace has featured here at Greetings Earthlings! a few times now, first as a commenter and then as the inspiration behind ideas I’ve reworked or reinterpreted. He describes his Lifekludger blog as an “ecosystem for enriching human life”, and his capacity to identify connections that other people might just barely notice is only really apparent when you speak to him in person. Or as ‘in person’ as a connection between Hong Kong and Adelaide will allow.

Mike Seyfang, a self-confessed “IT-git”, is also a pleasure to speak with because he digs into concepts and shakes their entrails. He’s particularly fervent about the possibilities of open licensing for intellectual property, and has featured at the Creative Commons wiki. He also blogs at Learning with the Fang, which I’ll be visiting a great deal in the near future.

Meela & freedado, by pierofix, with Creative Commons licenceTogether the pair made me think more about the intersection of people and technology that’s becoming more commonplace, and indeed more liberating, as new possibilities move from fertile minds to people on the street who are busy living, learning, working and laughing. And from that everyday activity, other ideas move in the opposite direction.

It’s like an ecosytem, as Dave would say, or a merging of memes. Most importantly its about people meeting people regardless of the distance between them.


Getting Organised for Good

25 June 2008

After the Limits of Web 2.0

Unorganized City, by Christy C, with Creative Commons licenceSome people can never really get organised, but others do it with natural ease. At the group level much the same occurs, with everything possible from loose yet effective organisation to downright chaotic failure. But in blogs, social networking platforms like Friendster and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Web 2.0 is a great leveller, offering forums for spontaneous activity, flexible boundaries that allow groups to form, function and disperse with minimal effort.

In Here Comes Everybody, Cay Shirky calls this “organising without organisations” and the sense of freestyle coordination plays out most often in protest movements. The other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, is a classic case of that, or at least seems to be. But ask yourself what more could be achieved if this sort of temporary organising became permanent, if Web 2.0 could be a decisive factor in social change.

That notion has been a constant concern lately as the group behind a Death in Hong Kong has started to manoeuvre it away from a focus on one disappearance and death to the broader social, economic and legal problems faced by migrant workers in Hong Kong. So when reading Dave Wallace’s brief Lifekludger post on Clay Shirky and the limits of Web 2.0 yesterday I encountered a few simple but serious issues very much worthy of further consideration.

Dave specialises in workarounds, and he needs to because he’s quadriplegic. Lifekludger is an attempt to draft a community of like-minded people, those willing to look beyond the way things are to how they might yet be, with a nudge or two. Workarounds are ways of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. I mentioned Dave in a previous post, and his observations tend to make me stop and think, then think again.

Traffic Light, by johnmarchan, with Creative Commons licenceThis time around Dave simply mentions that the social networks created on Web 2.0 tend to be used for STOP actions when GO actions, or forms of positive change, are needed to give his concept of a “collaborative ecosystem” more traction. He does so while introducing a recent Clay Shirky interview that breaks open the whole idea of network limits to poke at how they function.

Shirky mentions that continuity and a density of trust are crucial in moving towards more permanent Web 2.0 networks, but that conversation and a shared mission easily break down. We have a protest culture, he says, but “we don’t yet have a constructive culture”. He also mentions, at the prompting of the interviewer, that third generation mobile phones are starting to proliferate in developing countries, which will rapidly narrow the ‘digital divide’ in telephony.

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Risk and Redemption

28 May 2008

On the Crucial Importance of Mistakes

Disney Institute -- Steamboat Willie Says Take Risks, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons LicenceAll too often we think of mistakes as inherently wrong, as disappointments, as fundamental disjunctures. They’re everything we strive against, and witness to our bitter failings. But I want to suggest that mistakes can be liberating, that they’re small, undernourished risks of the sort that, tended carefully, just might deliver enormous opportunities. Of course, they could also slap us back down to the grit of our everyday lives, but then we’d be none the wiser anyway. So we have the opportunity to learn given to us when things don’t work out, like a half-minute free-for-all in the supermarket of change. Now that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

After completing my last post I both made and unmade a mistake, which is no mean feat. I learned something, I lost something and I eventually gained a whole lot more. My mistake, after receiving a friendly comment from Dave Wallace, lay in presuming that the fantastic ‘Lifekludger first idea’ image I originally used in the post was really meant for his Lifekludger blog, even though his friend Roy Blumenthal had offered it on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I removed the image just in case, writing to both men to explain. But, as it happened, Roy left the most gracious comments here noting that I was free to use the image and any others that he offered.

So the image is back in this post, partly because I want to discuss ideas that Dave Wallace is grappling with on his blog, and partly because it matches nicely the other two Roy Blumenthal images that I’m using.

If a picture says a thousand words, then Roy’s paintings speak long and then speak again, at the interval between technology and art, on the margins of creation and reproduction. Roy creates most of his images on a tablet PC, and works – in one of his many guises – as a visual facilitator, someone who attends conferences and captures speech as it’s spoken, distilled into images that refine and release thought, motion, colour, shade, difficult to grasp abstracts and absolute certainties.

The initial image on this post is one of the fascinating results, a mix of metaphor, movement and challenge to change all rolled into one. Roy’s art speaks of the very moment at which risk becomes reality, that split-second when an opportunity – to learn, and to unlearn – rushes up, about to rush by. It’s not precise, it’s not exact in a formal way; it’s more of a workaround, a compromise, a sort of accommodation with the promising inadequacies of life.

Lifekludger first idea, by Roy Blumenthal, with Creative Commons licenceDave Wallace’s Lifekludger blog is a lot like that too, although to call it a blog overshadows its power as a kind of electronic thought tablet. Dave uses the term meme, and it seems to be a work in perpetual process. A Kludge, not incidentally, is a workaround, a way of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. Dave Wallace is interested in what you might call life-hacks, and he brings to bear on them the perspective of a quadriplegic former mechanic who is seeking new tools to shift between contexts, who is exploring the possibilities of social networks in the Cyber Age.

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