Assignment Zero. 21st Amendment, SF, March 22nd

The cultural manifestations of the new networked world.

I am starting to discover a certain culture that permeates the fabric of the networked world. Regardless of what group is meeting, the room is always filled with a thirst for knowledge regarding this new world and the anxious desire to make sense of this forming world in a clear way. To think of a “new collaborative networked world” as something that occurs in the Internet, or an Internet-based phenomenon may be too shallow an idea at this point.

Past Thursday I went to an Assignment Zero event in San Francisco. On the table pints of beer and around those David Cohn, from Assignment Zero, Phil Kast, co-founder of Writewith a collaborative writing tool, Frances Oman, who heard of this event through an email from a Texan friend, Sarah Cove and myself. It became eventually apparent to me that my difficulty to speak of how all our projects were part of a same phenomenon was something I shared with the rest of the group. However, the initial “difficulty” was well handled due to everyone’s interest in genuine collaboration. The conversations were centered around the offer of greater possibilities through new tools, books, experiences.

How is collaboration possible? Through transparency and accountability which generates trust between collaborators. The major questions that we explored were how we can build and use systems that will have that transparency and accountability in order to create a trusted network of collaborators in the fields of journalism, politics, etc. in order to give the user not only an offer or product they want, but something they in turn are responsible for creating.

Tools to Produce Social Change: FrontlineSMS

Another speaker at last night’s Net Tuesday was Ken Banks of He is currently a fellow at Reuters Digital Vision Program at Stanford and has been involved in bringing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to Africa to improve conversation and development.

The mobile network has grown in Africa and is becoming a powerful tool for dealing with breakdowns. Examples Ken gave included:

  1. tracking animal populations via signal transmitters that can be picked up by cell phones
  2. antibiotic pill containers containing a device which sends a signal to a doctor whenever the cap is opened to ensure that antibiotic treatment is followed all the way through
  3. health text messages on HIV/AIDS sent out to cell phone owners
  4. individual market prices sent out to phones so fisherman and farmers can know which markets have the best prices or which one is full
  5. Mobile for Good, which sends texts about city job notices to those in rural areas so that they have a chance of getting to a job before it fills up
  6. environmental disaster warnings

Ken is developing a program called FrontlineSMS, providing non-profits with text-messaging services to coordinate their programs across large distances. And he is planning to make the program Open Source, pending a grant from a major US foundation.

In Africa, it seems that cell phones are the major networking tool for individuals. And the network that is being built is vast. For example, Ken said that in South Africa, 98% of individuals have are in cell phones coverage areas. The presentation, and once again the potential of networks, impressed us. Now, how can we learn from and enrich this network?

Note: Changes made thanks to Ken Banks checking for accuracy.

Tools to Produce Social Change: Village the Game

Last night, we went to NetSquared’s Net Tuesday in San Francisco and listened to Darian Hickman speak about his multi-player strategy game, Village, where each gamer is an entrepreneur building companies to bring prosperity to the villages of the third world.

We listened to some of Darian’s concerns as:

1. How can we build a game to produce social change – educating and engaging individuals in developing countries problems?
2. How can we best build a tool which imitates the real-world, that entrepreneurs and individuals can use for taking action outside the game?
3. How can we have this game make money and become popular?

The game is currently designed for:

1. Individuals in developed nations who can play the game and then donate money to businesses that are producing valuable innovations and change.
2. Social entrepreneurs who play the game, can network with individuals that are different capacities in the game – like mico-lending or bringing irrigation tools into villages, and eventually notice what works in different villages and countries in the game and apply that to their real world experience in bringing change to those villages.

Darian’s vision is that as the processes are automated, a game, such as his, will be able to have an impact in the real world. For example, with our credit card number or paypal account, and a few pieces of personal information, some day we will be able to search on Google Earth for a piece of land anywhere in the world, click on it, and if its for sale, buy it. So why not create a game that enables a community of people to virtually engage in humanitarian entrepeneurship work in Africa or Central America where they can virtually be in contact with locals and other players with a wide array of expertise. Some day, an individual who sells irrigation equipment in the game can coordinate with some other player who is familiar with microcredit and thus make it possible to have negotions in this virtual game that will have impact in the real world.

The point of the game is to gain “village points” while dealing with financial concerns, Village points are based on declared point values for financial, social, and environmental work. You can take a look, and get involved with the initial declarations here.

To deal with some of the above concerns, Darian is speaking with real-world experts in various countries who, as we understand it, send him “requirements” for the game. The companies that you can bring into a village are businesses which have a track record of producing noticeable differences in countries around the world. He is keeping the game two-dimensional, designed after World of Warcraft II, so that it can be used on a variety of systems throughout the world.

The first edition of the game will be a download which you can sign up for here. It will be a single player game where users can send their comments to Darian. Then a year later, he will release the multi-player game.

At the same time, though, we listened to what Darian said as having the following major problem: Darian is trying to design and build the perfect game for dealing with major challenges. And the potential of this game to harness the “wisdom of the crowds” is missing. When asked how he would grow the game and incorporate new things he said that, at first, he would bring in the companies based on track records. Over time, he said experts and those working in the field could suggest improvements. Also, those with many village points, which he said was a measure of trust, would probably be allowed to make changes. But it sounded like he didn’t want to open up changes in the game to everybody. His concern here, it sounds like, is that he doesn’t want a lot of non-relevant, non-effective businesses and practices to enter the game, making the game less relevant for reality.

The game lacks a mechanism to create social value. He is too focused on a process to measure social value, rather than create it. A good exmaple for him to follow and examine is Ebay’s user-rating, as a method to build identity in the site. If the rules of The Village are designed correctly, and the shared concern made clear, then allowing for a network of user-generated content could improve flexibility – catering to local problems and enriching the distinction of “Village Points” — and how relevant this game is in the world.

“Truth”: The Purpose of Journalism

I am reading a collection of essay about journalism called: American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices. The first article I read, “The Purposes of Journalism,” was written by Julie Hedgepeth Williams, an assistant professor at Samford University.

At the beginning of the essay she says, “The press had a purpose of publishing the truth. Should the truth be what was literally there? Or should it construct a reality that Americans presumably needed to achieve? The desire to publish truth has been in the press from the start. The basic question in that endeaver, however, is as old as humanity itself. What is truth?” (p 4)

Her story begins in Puritan Massachusetts and shows how the press has shifted between showing the citizens “what is literally there” and “shaping the reality and future” for them. Two examples she gave were:

  1. The era of the “party press”: After the American Revolution, the newly-formed parties hired editors and newspapers to write about “reality as it out to be.” These papers encouraged people to go to the polls and vote for one party over the other.
  2. The “penny press” era: In 1833, papers began printing daily papers for a penny, catered towards poorer individuals. These papers, with famous editors like Horace Greeley and James Gordon Bennett, often ran stories recounting criminal court cases that involved common people accused of drunkeness, theft, etc. This “truth” became part of the selling point for these papers. Williams claims that the notion of objectivity as part of truth arose during this period.

Williams finishes the article saying at the end of the 20th century, traditional media was “firmly convinced that “truth” meant “the world as it is.” (p 12)

My question is what is “the world as it is”? The world is seen through the eyes of an observer and doesn’t exist outside of the language and stories that the observer has to talk about the world. So for a journalist to “see” the world, he/she is already interpreting it. How do journalists deal “objectivity as truth” when there is no “objectivity”?

Wealth of Networks: An Invitation to Shape the Future

This book has opened to me the following possibilities:
It has helped me look at our current world and see some driving forces that are in conflict. First, as Benkler calls it, the “Industrial information economy” and the “Networked Information Economy”. I can boil this down to the confrontation going on right now between Microsoft and Google, the increasingly heated debate regarding licensing with Google being a proponent of Creative Commons and Microsoft sticking to standard copyright practices. I’ve heard about it, creative commons, and its potential benefits, but in all honesty it seemed like a fringe movement, ill articulated and raw. Boy was I wrong. Benkler has an incredible powerful articulation of how this current conflict or struggle is reshaping of our cultural landscape. This is happening now, and at an accelerated rate.

We already live in a world where open source software can compete quite compentently against very well established corporations, like Microsoft for example. A loosely connected network of people collaborating with each other can create, leaving Encyclopedia Britanica on the shelf collecting dust. So is the path of evolution set towards “Networked Information Economy”? It seems inevitable that the confrontations and frictions will increase, and pivotal that we change our current course.

While this power struggle exists in the big scheme, the space for action is here now, for millions of individuals and might not be here indefinitely. And whether that space continues is only dependent on us using the tools.

Distinctions of Today’s Web Phenomena

An interesting post by Doc Searls where he questions the distinctions that are being used today, like “Social Media” and “Web 2.0”. It opened up the following questions and speculations for me:

First, I listened to Doc Searls as saying that “Web 2.0” and “Social Media” are not about some magical new world which will bring us out of all the “real” problems of what it is to be human. I listen to him saying that these distinctions have that quality. Instead, he calls importance to focusing on the daily practices that he performs, bringing a simple, “real” quality to the his life. That was quite nice.

And this brings up a question of how to look at these distinctions. It is grounding to look at (and make) distinctions by examining the patterns and reality of us as human beings. But distinctions, at the same time, show us possibilities of the future while invoking the past. For example, “social media,” for me, brings forth my story of media (shaped by Yochai Benkler)– a way of human beings to show others events and stories about the world, which has become (in my lifetime) a less responsible domain of our communal space. And the “social” aspect of “social media” brings forth a story of a potential future which could resolve some of the breakdowns in the past by organizing social/communal collaboration in certain ways. So how to resolve these two temporal domains of a distinction: how it shows what we are doing now, and what breakdowns and possibilities it shows us as we direct ourselves to the future?

Doc Searls also said the following, “It’s natural to want to lump technologies and practices together into categories that bear Greater Significance. But for some reason we still drag along the limiting concepts that the new stuff should help us escape, no matter what we call it.” The second sentence triggers the question, “What does he mean by “drag along the limiting concepts…”?

Anyway, very cool post which got me struggling for a good hour. (And I am still not done doing so.)