Tag Archives: networks

“I Am Seeing Things”. Or not.

I have had many conversations over the past few years about “the internet of things” – giving any object an ability to communicate, a specific URL and putting it online – particularly with Tony Hall and Martha LaGess; their interest lay in particular in what the internet of things might mean for cities and society – a kind of “quantified self” for buildings and social structures.

I don’t get it. (Actually, I get neither the internet of things nor the quantified self!) But that makes it interesting. So when I learned about I Am Seeing Things a few weeks ago, I signed up.

It was an interesting day, though in some ways it didn’t live up to expectations: the papers were not as focused on the internet of things as I had expected, and there was a fair bit of academic dissociation from reality. (But hey, it was a symposium held in a university – clearly my expectations were off-kilter!) There was a lovely moment when one of the organisers described playing with augmented reality apps on his phone in the park; he turned to his companion, expecting her to react like ecstatic characters in a Vodafone ad – but instead she said, “You’re a sad little man!”, demonstrating the gap between virtual and physical reality!

I think that gap is crucial. There are some neat tricks one can do – or experience – by connecting everything to the internet: the ToTEM project allows people to record their stories about objects, linked by a QR code, for instance – every object could have a narrative, adding to the way one experiences the object. But fundamentally I think most people respond with a huge “so what”, and get on with their lives.

There is also something a bit too exclusive about it all – a bit too “clever-clever”: partly this is down to the use of QR codes, which I feel is currently limiting – users have to be pretty interested already to use QR codes, and you are excluding anyone who frankly can’t be bothered to download an app or find out what the pretty chessboard patterns actually mean. (As an example of how bizarrely dissociated from reality people that use this stuff – mainly marketeers, I guess – can be, I saw an advert in last week’s “The Economist” for IMD. It contained a QR code – and they want you to download an IMD-specific app to your phone, then scan the code and see what happens. Because that is so much easier than just, say, providing a URL. I mean, FFS! It’s not just me that thinks so, either.)

You are also adding to the work people have to do to get at your object, story, information or other experience – in effect pushing them away, rather than bringing them in. (As you probably noticed, I don’t really get QR codes…)

There were several interesting presentations, though some seemed only tangentally connected to the internet of things.

My reaction to Mark Shepard‘s vision for the Sentient City veered from “so what” to out and out paranoia as the ability to track things through the physical world (the internet of things apparently started up as a way to better manage logistics, using items tagged with RFID transmitters) turns into a Orwellian surveillance nightmare. The smart city could seem more like a prison than we would care to admit.

Mike Philips talked about using sensors or “ecoids” – Arduino-like systems – within the environment, detecting and managing dynamic systems: pollution, for instance, or the internal environment within a building. Such systems interact with people already – the nature of a building depends on the people using it – and tying in active monitors allows greater control and management. Including biological data from personal sensors – an extension of the “quantified self” extends the person into the environment: we are already part of the environment, not separate from it (and as Philips pointed out, we are ourselves environments for significant number of organisms – we contain more cells of bacterial than human origin!), and becoming part of the internet itself is perhaps the next step. Perhaps…

“Things” can take on a different meaning when they are connected. Chris Speed discussed how attaching stories to objects changes them. Using QR codes and the internet so that any object has its own URL, meaning can be stored in a readable database: objects can be tagged with meaning, and they can tell their own stories. (But they don’t: the stories are stored in a database; we put them there, we retrieve them; the objects are and always will be inanimate. It is our stories and our meaning we associate with them.) He reckoned this changes the value in objects – though of course this has been the case for valuable objects forever: a painting with known provenance is more valuable than one without. Most things don’t have stories attached to them – they are purely utility – and I’ll admit to remaining pretty sceptical of this.

Maria Burke and Irene Ng both took a business-view of value (a broad term!) and the internet of things: what it means for the value chain. This was a fascinating, hard-headed take on TIoT: what difference it could actually make in the way people do business. Value depends on context (as Speed had pointed out): connecting things to the internet changes both the value proposition and the relationship to the object. Value becomes more of the moment – an digitised object may have no intrinsic value until it is used, pushing value down the value chain. With the proliferation of mobile services, value becomes “on demand”.

Mike Crang took this one step further by following objects through their life to destruction and salvage. This was fascinating – the way objects become incorporated into others, attract meaning and stories (“social biographies”), and change and are destroyed. The meaning remains – “ghost stories” (or as Craig put it, “the afterlife of things”). Despite being the most functional of processes, there was real poetry here. Some people don’t want their objects to have stories or history – in the market for second hand clothes, one doesn’t normally want to know the history of the bra you’re wearing (unless it was worn by Madonna or Monroe!). But at the end of their lives, even waste materials can attract value from thoses who have been part of their history: naval vessels being scrapped attract souvenir hunters, often those who have sailed in them. Almost any removeable part can have value.

Throughout the day, inanimate objects on the internet of things seemed to develop their own identities and personalities: we anthropomorphise our objects in relation to ourselves. When discussing the internet of things, people talk about the objects tweeting, for instance. They’re not: a computer sensor, programmed to respond (still anthropomorhising…) in specific ways to particular conditions or data is doing just that. It is possible to have “Death” of an object is part of an natural (re-)cycle. But on the internet of things, the dead objects survive as digital ghosts.

Addendum: Tony Hall has directed me to this download on the internet of things: a critique [pdf] – which looks interesting!

(I also liked the artworks demonstrated by Torsten Lauschmann and Geoff Mann – but it was hard to see how they fitted into the internet of things: rather, they struck me as being digital art. I missed the connection. But here are a couple of works I enjoyed:

Personal Learning Networks: why?

I first came across the term “personal learning network” in a blog post about five years ago (possibly this one from 2008, or this one or maybe this one – or maybe not!).

The phrase was new to me, and frankly I didn’t understand it – or rather, it didn’t seem relevant. And I am still not sure if it is relevant, because my personal learning network – defined by Wikipedia as

an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…

is constantly changing. Back in 2008 I doubt I was thinking about personal learning much, and most of what I learned came somewhat randomly from the many blogs I read, through an RSS feed.

Following my move to London, that changed: I became involved with Tuttle, where I learned a lot, mostly through conversation, and through Tuttle, the School of Everything, and more specifically its offshoot, Everything Unplugged, a weekly meetup to discuss learning specifically and much else (ranging from politics to art and music) besides.

Fred Garnett, one of the many regulars at Everything Unplugged, recently pulled together others’ thoughts on the gathering, limiting us to 50 words. What I wrote was

A loosely-connected group of people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences who gather together to talk about ideas – prompted by, but not exclusively about, an interest in learning. It is essentially an ongoing, wide-ranging conversation which challenges, educates and entertains.

(Fred’s and others’ thoughts can be seen in his presentation on SlideShare.)

So Tuttle and Everything Unplugged formed part of my personal learning network. But – well, conversations are just the start. I think the internet, mediated by Twitter specifically, forms a huge part of my learning environment. Which means anyone sharing a link on Twitter may form part of my PLN. That is a whole lot of people – sufficient for it to be pointless defining it, frankly. Through Twitter, it feels like I have access to the whole world: quite a large network, and one which doesn’t benefit from mapping.

In Edinburgh, where I now live, there are alternatives Tuttle and Everything Unplugged – Edinburgh Coffee Morning, a huge range of meet-ups and tweetups, a dialogue group – ranging from the formal to the very informal, all based around conversation and with various degrees of learning attached.

And of course the internet is still out there, facilitating the exchange of ideas, learning and conversation (as well as cute pictures of cats).

Is there value in the concept of a personal learning network? I think if one has embarked on something with a clear learning objective – gaining a new skill our specific knowledge, or to obtain clearly identifiable learning objectives – it clearly makes sense: it would be the group of people on whom one relies to help meet those objectives. Even then I am not sure on the value of identifying (and hence naming and formalising) that network: I can’t see what is actually gained by doing so. (Though I doubt anything is lost.)

But outside of specific, structured objectives, when the whole world is available to learn from, specifying a discrete network seems almost to defeat the point. With self-directed, self-organised ad hoc – or even self-disorganised – learning, it seems beside the point.

Trying to value “social capital”…

Last month, Lloyd Davis gave two performances at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, telling stories from his recent trip – sorry, social art project to the States, “Please Look After this Englishman”.

Today, he set off on his next project: an unplanned, working journey around the UK, led by the contacts, leads and ideas generated from social media.

Lloyd’s performance was very enjoyable – he is a good storyteller – and thought-provoking. I meant to write about it, but my own social art project – sorry, trip up north got in the way, and I didn’t get around to it. Until now.

Lloyd Davis, telling tales

I won’t tell my own versions of Lloyd’s tales – you’ll have to see him for those – but some of issues he raised. Lloyd travelled from San Francisco to New York, guided by his social media contacts (with the proviso that he needed to stop off at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas). His contacts prompted his route, where and with whom he stayed, and even how (and by whom) he was entertained. We are clearly a perverse bunch: he was directed north from San Francisco to Seattle, west to Wisconsin and then south to Austin, before heading back north to Maine and finally New York. Not the most direct route – although that wasn’t really the point of the project.

Redrawing the map of the USA

His contacts – largely his online friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends – became his safety network. (It would be interesting to know how many degrees of separation this network extended, but of course anyone can become a one-degree of separation friend online with the click of a mouse.) They put him in touch with people and places, and occasionally the net broke: he found the extent of his network when it was overstretched and vague contacts wondered who the hell this guy was and what he wanted.

It seems to me that this was an exercise in realising “social capital” (a phrase Lloyd used, too) – but also it made me think what a bad term social capital is. It is of course a metaphor, a way of conceptualising the value of a social network as one might value the capital built up by an enterprise.

But a balance sheet or bank account isn’t the right model for this concept. Social capital is not spent: indeed, using social capital – as Lloyd did, by meeting and conversing with his many connections – actually creates more social capital, rather than depleting it. The highly intangible – and possibly volatile – nature of social capital mean it isn’t something that we can consciously build a stock of.

It is clearly something that is created through social interaction and social acts. Sharing something on Twitter, writing a blog post (perhaps even this…), meeting new people, introducing others – all these things (and more!) can create value within a network.

It isn’t a zero sum game – there isn’t a finite amount in an account in which we can measure the rise or fall as a result of our actions. Or inaction – I am sure that my social capital decreases when I have quiet periods on twitter or fail to post to this blog for a month or so (an all too frequent occurrence). It isn’t static.

I’m not sure where this gets us, aside from a belief that borrowing the metaphor from a financial concept is less than helpful. Is there a better term that more adequately explains the ephemeral nature of social capital? I’m not sure that I can think of one – at least, not yet.

(You can follow Lloyd’s progress around Britain on Twitter, @LloydDavis.)

Connected: It’s Contagious

The poster for the film “The Crazies” has the strapline “Insanity Is Infectious”; Nicholas Christakis argued last week at the RSA that indeed it might – along with many other social phenomena.

He was in London to plug his book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, and he discussed how he’d arrived at his main idea – that many things in our lives are socially mediated, including depression, stress, obesity, emotions, and death – and what it might mean for society.

Christakis said first came up with the idea of investigating the effects our social networks when studying the “widow effect” – that partners in a relationship often die soon after each other. He found that those at some remove also suffer stress (he came across this when a friend of the partner of someone whose parent had a terminal disease said they were concerned: the ripple of stress spread out to “three degrees of separation”).

He started to investigate social networks, and found a lot of different phenomena were mediated through networks. Most famously, his analysis of obesity showed that having obese friends increases the likelihood of your being obese by up to 45%, and this too is effective at up to three degrees of separation – that is, if your friend’s friend’s friend is obese, you are more likely to be obese.

There might be lots of reasons for this – you might all drink in the pub together, or hang out in the same fast food joints, or live in the same gym-free neighbourhood, or …


We are social beings: we are influenced by our friends and their behaviour, and vice versa.

Christakis also demonstrated that emotions also spread contagiously, and postulated that there was an evolutionary benefit to this, going so far as suggesting that we are adapted to networks. He reckoned that 40% of our network structure was down to genetic influence – that is, the number of friends or contacts we have, and the closeness of those contacts, is partly under genetic control. (Spoiler: theories suggesting evolutionary benefits of social adaptations are notoriously tricky and more or less impossible to prove: they might be neat ideas, but they are not particularly scientific…)

He reckoned our social networks influence the following behaviours and emotions:

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • drinking
  • drug use
  • happiness
  • depression
  • loneliness
  • altruism
  • voting
  • innovation

That is quite a broad list, though it is possible to see the social side to most these points. Christakis described this as “a connected life”.

It was interesting, but it actually seemed a lot too neatly tied up. Life seems more rough and unregulated than Christakis described. Much of his work has been done in closed networks, if only to be able to map and measure all the connections. Educational institutions seemed to be common networks to work in. He showed network maps (like the one above – a map of my Facebook network, created by Touchgraph); in closed networks, the people at the periphery look like lonely souls, but of course no network is closed: those people have friends and connections outside, in other networks. These weren’t taken account of.

The book may answer some of my unease – I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say. I think there are a lot of implications in how we manage communications and develop policy: in answer to questions, Christakis said it might be more effective to target policy on specific nodes – people – in a network in order to reduce, say, drug taking rather than everybody in the network. These poeple sound a lot like the mavens described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point – those individuals who are key to spreading new ideas, just as there are carriers responsible for spreading infectious diseases.

Improvising on a Theme: trying out different ways of working

I’ve written before about some of the work Tuttle did with Counterpoint, but I haven’t really talked about how we did it.

This is remiss of me, because the most interesting thing for me was the opportunity to try a new way of working.

At last month’s discussion on social media in enterprises, there was a lot of talk of new, flatter organsiation forms – virtual firms – mediated through, perhaps, social media; for decades, Charles Handy has been going on about portfolio workers and the shamrock organisation (I’ve always been dubious about that last, having experienced too many sham organisations…). I can remember discussing different levels of worker engagement in organisations, full-time through part-time to freelance associates, twenty years ago (before I was the least bit interested in it).

There has been lots of talk and lots of theory, then; but I hadn’t really seen any evidence of it.

This was a shame, because it sounded to me like a great way to work: lots of variety, lots of flexibility, little security: kind of “freelance-plus”, if you like.

I was therefore very interested when Lloyd first floated the idea of “Tuttle Consulting”, a bunch of freelancers who met through Tuttle Club working on projects together. I thought of it as a loose affiliation of associates – definitely the realm of a virtual organisation.

Here were nine or ten of us in all working on different aspects of five projects for Counterpooint and the British Council, and it was the first time that any of us had worked together before.

It was very much a learning experience, and there is a lot I think we could have done better – with hindsight. Because we were all working in a new fashion, the working relationships needed to be negotiated between us – and that is a hefty number of relationships to negotiate straight up. We naturally enough each had a different set of expectations (as well as wants and needs).

From its inception it was a very loose arrangement; the client wanted us to be as creative as possible, and so they set a very broad brief. This meant we were also negotiating around their expectations, wants and needs, too. We were nearly as empowered as any team I have worked on before, which was energising but created some new issues, too.

Not being in any formal contractual arrangement, there was no formal power relationship – no one could tell anyone else what to do. In some ways this was a delight, since it meant a concensus view had to be strived for, but it also meant that when decisions needed ot be made there was increased uncertainty.

I think the main lessons for me were about communication – which doesn’t surprise me at all: I think most management issues involve communication at one level or another. One of the reasons that flatter organisation structures are seen to be the structure of the future is that up-and-down communication will be greatly simplified; and people coming together in project teams for the first time need more communication.

To start, I think we could have had more effective, in depth induction. To be fair, we knew this at the time – not all of us could make the briefing session. Taking the time to really explore what we each expected from the project – and from each other – would have made sense; indeed, having this session mediated by someone outside the team would have been beneficial, too. (Thing is, we could all do facilitation, so it didn’t seem worth it at the time…!)

Similarly, I think having more whole team sessions as the projects progressed would have been beneficial, too. Each of the four main projects stood very much alone: there wasn’t a great deal of cross-linkage between them. I believe that there could have been more, creating a fully fledged suite of projects. I think the benefits – not least through mutual understanding and support within the team – would have left us more engaged in the whole rather than our own individual projects. It would have helped us in the multiple negotiations we undoubtedly undertook.

There were lots of things that worked very well, of course: basically, it was exciting to be working in what felt to be a very different way. We were improvising – making it up as we went along, and that felt good. The flexibility and empowerment that came along with that felt very healthy, too; but perhaps the lack of a fixed framework – the rigid scaffolding of some organisations, for instance – made it harder at times, too.

I think it was a great experience: definitely the start of a model which we can learn from, and I certainly hope that we will continue to work together in one form of relationship or another. It felt good to be trying something new.

Trust, sharing and caffeine: Steven Johnson on Priestley, coffee houses and innovation

Steven Johnson was in London last week, mostly for a talk with Brian Eno at the ICA; but he also fitted in a conversation at NESTA, which I was able to get to.

Johnson was talking about his new book about Joseph Priestley, the Enlightment scientist and theologician and, as I learned on Tuesday, freind and influencer of the Amercian founding fathers.

What interested me most was Steven’s description of the Enlightenment mileu: an ecosystem of interested individuals and environments – largely coffee shops – which promoted the free circulation and sharing of new ideas. With open discussion and scepticism testing their ideas, these environments promoted a new synthesis; the whole was greater than the sum. Johnson reckoned that the discovery of photosynthesis and its roll in releasing oxygen into the atmosphere was down to the sharing of ideas between Priestley, Benjamin Franklin and others.

This seemed to resonate with those in the audience interested in open source technology and working, free-flowing ideas and co-operation being central to their working methods. (This also reminded me of Mike Masnick’s talk in Edinburgh learlier in the year, where he said that it was the sharing of ideas around Silicon Valley that made the area so innovative.)

Johnson also believed that dissent and scepticism were important qualities which facilititated innovation. This requires a tolerant society, able to accept dissent – not something that was guaranteed in the Enlightenment: Johnson described how Priestley had been chased from his Birmingham home by rioters who took exception to his dissentng religious views; they burnt down his home and he took exile in the young USA.

Johnson reckoned that the equivalent to the coffee house is now to be found online – natch. Modern media open up access to anyone with an internet connection, and we can all contribute, borrow ideas (copyright or not…) and play around with them, creating new syntheses in exchange.

His description of the coffee shop sounded to me very much like Tuttle: I think the face-to-face, social aspects of meeting together add a lot to the online fora the internet facilitates. I think it helps the serendipity and the fluidity of conversations. One never knows who is going to be there, and it is easier to explore and disagree face-to-face than it is online. The offline gathering engenders trust – and that is important if you are sharing ideas, debating and arguing.

Communing with Communities…

Where I live, there is a community market. The community market includes a community fishmonger, a community butcher, a community greengrocer and a community florist; on Saturdays only, especially for the strong north London French community, a community fromagerie who only sells French cheese, and for the chauvinistic Covent Garden community, a community Neals Yard cheese merchant, whilst on Sundays there is a community antiques market – for the aged community, presumably.

I have no idea what any of these have to do with the community, except that people locally may shop there – as may anyone else. Perhaps a local market for local people wouldn’t resonate so much. Or neighbourhood market; or frankly, just “market” – because that is of course what it is.

Community” is a word I have problems with; I have been thinking about writing something about it – and my lack of understanding – for a while; but it is having difficulty coming out; this is the best I have done, so far…

Community is something I have discussed a lot – often with Francesca, for whom community is a particularly powerful concept, and more recently with people at BarCamp Scotland – indeed, a lot of the things I hope to discuss here were raised in conversation with @btocher, @lynncorrigan, 0olong, Cairmen, Peter Ashe and others at BarCamp, whom I thank!

One of the problems with “community” is that the word means so many different things to different people that it actually means nothing. I don’t think this is just semantics: people use the word because it does have powerful associations. When I first got a mobile phone, the service provider welcomed me to the “biggest mobile community in the World”, as if possessing a mobile phone was all that it took to create a romantic, nomadic lifestyle. The director of the department I used to work in used the word community as he vainly tried to control loosely connected work groups. Politicians talk about “community leaders” – a job I never saw advertised. This Government is particularly fond of community: there is the Department for Communities and Local Government, headed up by Hazel Blears (and I bet her idea of community is miles away from mine – if I had one…); they talk about !community justice” (which sounds like vigilantism to me – the posse is coming to a community near you!) and “community policing”. Schools have become “community learning centres”. The media talk about the “gay community”, the “black community”, the “Asian community”, the “Christian community”, and “Muslim community” – indeed, pick a religion – all manner of communities, as a shorthand for broad heterogeneous groups (and that sounds like stereotyping to me…).

And frankly it is all meaningless.

Perhaps it is just me. I was a teenager in the 1970s and a student in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s version of conservatism took its grip over the country. Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”, and maybe there’s no such thing as community – just people living, working and playing together.

Or perhaps it is just that I lack the genes that make me feel part of a community: I have of course been parts of things other people see as communities – neighbourhoods, schools, colleges, academic and professional practices, large corporate organisations – but growing up in a large city and subsequently living in three or four other large cities, maybe the sense of community left me: I see aggregations of individuals. People I know who come from small towns or villages certainly seem to have a stronger sense of community. Maybe that is what I call “friends”?

Or maybe everything can be seen as being part of a community: because Homo sapiens is a social animal; perhaps society is community. (Was @virginia875 right and it is just semantics?)

The context around community matters a lot. In Wikinomics, it is proposed that the value of contributors to (ugh) “Web2.0” is in part created by the sense of community created through collaboration, openness and sharing. There has been a lot of talk of how successful interactive, social media create a sense of community – such as Wikipedia, flickr, LiveJournal or Facebook. Thing is, of course, I am an active participant on these sites: I post photographs to groups on flickr, I belong to various communities on LJ, I remorselessly poke people on Facebook; none of which engender a sense of community in me.

Some of the strongest feelings around community seems to stem from those engaged in open source computing or other networks on the web. Talking to some who have been involved in online communities, they felt a community requires collaboration, participation – and hierarchy – this last, I believe, because the people I spoke to had been involved in moderating their communities, although they thought that even unmoderated communities had an implicit hierarchy. In society – at least in the Government’s eyes – there seems to be an implied hierarchy, too: one in which the establishment – their establishment – is on top.

Here are some of the things that others have suggested that create a sense of community:

  • shared values
  • shared meaning
  • shared interest
  • emotional attachment
  • shared commitment
  • shared assumptions

All of which sound like a shared culture to me: so what is the role of culture in establishing a community?

In the offline world, community seems most to be used around a specific locale – a neighbourhood, like my local market – or a “special interest group”. I am not sure that either of these have these shared attributes: they can have, but it isn’t a given. Just because I live somewhere, it doesn’t mean I have similar values to my neighbours (indeed, I wouldn’t presume to say what their values were).

And everyone has a different, changeable definition of community.

Mike Masnick on Silicon Valley and Innovation

Mike Masnick, CEO of floor64 and founder of TechDirt, was in Edinburgh this week, and he talked to the Edinburgh e-club about Silicon Valley: why it is like it is, and how it got to be like that.

Mike showed figures that Silicon Valley received twice as much investment as the whole of New England, which itself received twice as much as the largest next investment area. This article shows the same: in 2004, Silicon Valley received $7.1bn in venture capital, New England $3.0bn and metropolitan New York $1.5bn. That is a huge amount of investment pouring into a tiny area.
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ARGs, social media and organisations…

The Economist has an interesting article in its Quarterly Technology Review about “alternate reality games (ARGs)” (link possibly needs subscription to work – sorry if so!) and how they are being used for advertising – to build or change the perception of a brand. For instance, McDonald’s ran an ARG as a promotion coupled with the 2008 Olympics, and there were ARGs to promote “The Dark Knight” prior to its release in cinemas.

I have been thinking about this in relation to the way organisations use social media, and their role in training and development.
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