Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Review I want to Read of "What Technology Wants"

A few weeks ago I finished “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly. For those unfamiliar with Kelly (as I was) he was one of the co-founders of Wired magazine and sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation.

What Technology Wants is a fascinating read – both attracting and repulsing me on several occasions. Often I find book reading to be a fairly binary experience – either I already (explicitly or intuitively) broadly agree with the thesis and the book is an exercise in validation and greater evidence, or I disagree, and the book pushes me to re-evaluate assumptions I have. More rare is a book which does both at the same time.

For example, Kelly’s breakdown of the universe as a series of systems for moving around information so completely resonated with me. From DNA, to language, to written word, our world keeps getting filled with systems the transmit, share and remix more information faster. The way Kelly paints this universe is fascinating and thought provoking. In contrast, his determinist view of technology, that we are pre-ordained to make the next discovery and that, from a technological point of view, our history is already written and is just waiting to unwind, ran counter to so many of my values (a strong believer in free-will). It was as if the tech-tree from a game like Civilization actually got it all right – that technology had to be discovered in a preset order and that if we rewound the clock of history, it would (more or less) this aspect of it would play out the same.

The tech tree is civilization always bothered me on a basic level – it challenged the notion that someone smart enough, with enough vision and imagination could have in a parallel universe, created a completely different technology tree in our history. I mean, Leonardo De Vinci drafted plans for helicopters, guns and tanks (among other things) in the 14th century? And yet, Kelly’s case is so compelling and with the simplest of arguments: No inventor ever sits around unworried that someone else is going to make the same discovery – quite the opposite, inventors know that a parallel discovery is inevitable, just a matter of time, and usually not that much time.

Indeed, Kelly convinces me that the era of the unique idea, or the singular discovery may be over, in fact the whole thing was just an illusion created by the limits of time, space and capacity. Previously, it took time for ideas to spread, so they could appear to come from a single source, but in a world of instant communication, we increasingly see that ideas spring up simultaneously everywhere – an interest point given the arguments over patents and copyright.

But what I’d really like to read is a feminist critique of What Technology Wants (if someone knows of one, please post it or send it to me). It’s not that I think that Kelly is sexist (there is nothing that suggests this is the case) it is just that the book reads like much of what comes out of the technology space – which sadly – tends to be dominated by men. Indeed, looking at the end of the book, Kelly thanks 49 thinkers and authors who took time to help him enhance his thesis, and the list is impressive including names such as Richard Dawkins, Chris Anderson, David Brin, and Paul Hawken. But I couldn’t help but notice only 2 of the 49 were obviously women (there may be, tops 4 women, who made the list). What Technology Wants is a great read, and I think, for me, the experience will be richer once I see how some other perspectives wrap their heads around its ideas.

Individualism in the networked world

Evolving thought:

One of the large challenges of the 21st century is going to be reconciling our increasingly networked world with traditional notions of individualism.

The more I look at a networked world – not in some geopolitical sense but on a day to day experience for everyone – the more it appears that many of the core to elements of liberal individualism are going to be challenged. Authorship is a great example of this dynamic playing out – yes Wikipedia makes it impossible to identify who an author is – but even tweets, and blogs and all forms of digital medium confuse who is the original author of a work. More over, we may no longer live in a world of unique individual thought. As Kevin Kelly so remarkably documents in What Technology Wants by looking at patent submissions and scientific papers, it is increasingly apparent that technologies are being simultaneously discovered everywhere, the notion of attributing something to an individual may be at best difficult, at worst impossibly random.

And of course networked systems disproportionately reward hubs. Hubs in a network attract more traffic (ideas/money/anything) and therefor may appear to many others in the network as the source of these ideas as they are shared out. I for example get to hear more about open data, or technology and government, then many other people, as a result my thinking gets to be pushed further and faster allowing me to in turn share more ideas that are of interest and attract still more connections. I benefit not simply from inherent individual abilities, but from the structure of, and my location in, a network.

Of course, socialist collectivism is going to be challenged as well in some different way but I think that may be less traumatic for our political systems the a direct challenge to individualism – something many centrist and right leaning parties may struggle with.

This is all still half formed but mental note for myself. More thinking/research on this needed. Open to ideas, articles, etc…

How to Unsuck Canada’s Internet – creating the right incentives

This week at the Mesh conference in Toronto (where I’ll be talking Open Data) the always thoughtful Jesse Brown, of TVO’s Search Engine will be running a session title How to Unsuck Canada’s Internet.

As part of the lead up to the session he asked me if I could write him a sentence or two about my thoughts on how to unsuck our internet. In his words:

The idea is to take a practical approach to fixing Canada's lousy
Internet (policies/infrastructure/open data/culture- interpret the
suck as you will).

So my first thought is that we should prevent anyone who owns any telecommunications infrastructure from owning content. Period. Delivery mechanisms should compete with delivery mechanisms and content should compete with content. But don’t let them mix, cause it screws up all the incentives.

A second thought would be to allocate the freed up broadcast spectrum to new internet providers (which is really what all the cell phone providers are about to become anyways). I’m actually deeply confident that we may be 5 years away from this problem becoming moot in the main urban areas. Once our internet access is freed from cables and the last mile, then all bets are off. That won’t help rural areas, but it may end up transforming urban access and costs. Just like cities clustered around seaports and key places nodes along trade networks, cities (and workers) will cluster around better telecommunication access.

But the longer thought comes from some reflections over the timely recent release of’s second submission to the CRTC’s proceedings on usage-based billing (UBB) which I think is actually fairly aligned with the piece I wrote back in February on titled Why the CRTC was right about User Based Billing (please read the piece and the comments below before freaking out).

Here, I think our goal shouldn’t be punitive (that will only encourage the telco’s to do “just enough” to comply. What we need to do is get the incentives right (which is, again, why they shouldn’t be allowed to own content, but I digress).

An important part of getting the incentives right is understanding what the actual constraints on internet access. One of the main problems is that people often get confused about what is scarce and what is abundant when talking about the internet. I think what everyone realizes is that content is abundant. There are probably over a trillion websites out there, billions of videos and god knows what else. There is no scarcity there.

This is why any description of access that uses an image like the one below will, in my mind, fail.

Charging per byte shouldn’t be permitted if the pipe has infinite capacity (or at least it wouldn’t make sense in a truly competitive market). What should happen is that companies would be able to charge the cost of the infrastructure plus a reasonable rate of return.

But while the pipe may have infinite capacity over time, at any given moment it does not. The issue isn’t about how many bytes you consume, it’s about the capacity to deliver those bytes in a given moment when you have lots of competing users. This is why it isn’t the “where the data is coming from/going to” that matters, but rather how much of it is in the pipe at a given moment. What matters is not the cable, but the it’s cross section.

A cable that is empty or only at 40% capacity should deliver rip-roaring internet to anyone who wants it. My understanding is that the problem is when the cable is at 100% or more capacity. Then users start crowding each other out and performance (for everyone) suffers.








Indeed this is where the OpenMeida/CIPPIC document left me confused. On the one hand they correctly argue that the internet’s content is not a limited resource (such as natural gas). But they seem to be arguing that the network capacity is not a finite resource (sections 21 and 22) while at the same time accepting that there may be constraints on capacity during peak hours (sections 27 and 30 where they seem to accept that off peak users should not be subsidizing peak time users and again in the conclusion where they state “As noted in far greater detail above, ISP provisioning costs are driven primarily by peak period usage.” If you have peak period usage then, by definition, you have scarcity). The last two points seem to be in conflict. The network capacity cannot be both infinite and constrained during peak hours? Can it?

Now, it may be that there is more network capacity in Canada then there is demand – even at peak times – at which point, any modicum of sympathy I might have felt for the telcos disappears immediately. However, if there is a peak consumption period that does stress the network’s capacity, I’d be relatively comfortable adopting a pricing mechanism that allocates the “scarce” amount of broadband pie. Maybe there are users – especially many BitTorrenters – whose activities are not time sensitive. Having a system in place that encourages them to bittorrent during off-peak hours would create a network that was better utilized.

So the OpenMedia piece seems to be open to the idea of peak usage pricing (which was what I was getting at in my UBB piece) so I think we are actually aligned (which is good since I like the people at

The question is, does this create the right incentives for the telco’s to invest more in capacity? My hope would be yes, that competition would cause users to migrate to networks that provided high speeds and competitive low and/or peak usage time fees. But I’m open to the possibility that it wouldn’t. It’s a complicated problem and I don’t pretend to think that I’ve solved it in one blog post. Just trying to work it though in my head.




Applications and Hardware Already Running On Open Data

Yesterday, Gerry T shared a photo he snapped at the University of Alberta in Edmonton of a “departure board” in the university’s Student Union building that uses open transportation data from the city’s website.

Essentially the display board is composed of a simply application, displayed over a large flat screen TV turned vertically.

TransitApp_BusDepartures-217x300It’s exactly the kind of thing that I imagine University Students in many cities around the world wish they had – especially if you are on a campus that is cold and/or wet. Wouldn’t it be nice to wait inside that warm student union building rather than at the bus stop?

Of course in Boston they’ve gone further than just providing the schedule online. They provide real-time data on bus locations which some students and engineers have used to create $350 LED signs in coffee houses to let users know when the next bus is coming.

It’s the kind of simple innovations you wish you’d see in more places: government’s letting people help themselves at making their lives a little easier. Yes, this isn’t changing the world, but its a start, and an example of what more could happen.

Mostly it’s nice to see innovators in Canada like playing with the technology. Hopefully governments will catch up and let the even bigger ideas students around the country have be more than just visions in their heads.

Not sure who at the University created this, but nice work.

New York release road map to becoming a digital city

Yesterday, New York City released its “Road Map for the Digital City: Achieving New York City’s Digital Future.” For those who missed the announcement, especially those concerned about the digital economy, the future of government and citizen services, the document is definitely worth downloading and scanning.

At the heart of the document sits a road map which I’ve ripped from the executive summary and pasted below.What makes me particularly interested in it is how the Open Government section is not uniquely driven by the desire for transparency but with the goal of spurring innovation and increasing access to services. Of course, the devil is in the details but I’m increasingly convinced that open initiatives will be more successful when the government of the day has some specific policy objectives (beyond just transparency) it wishes to drive home, with open data as part of the mix (more on this in a post coming soon).

As such, “government as platform” works best when the government also builds atop the platform. It itself must be a consumer and stakeholder. This is why section 3 is so important and interesting. Essentially section 2 and 3 have parts that are strikingly similar, its just that section 2 outlines the platform and lays out that the government hopes others will build on top of it whereas parts of section 3 outline what the government intends to build atop of it. Of course section 3 goes further and talks as well about gathering information and data from the public which is the big thing in the Gov 2.0 space that many governments have not gotten around to doing effectively – so this will be worth watching more closely. All of this is great news and exactly what governments should be thinking about.

It is great when a big city comes out with a document like this because while New York is not the first to be thinking these ideas, but its profile means that others will start devoting resources to pursue these ideas more aggressively.

Exciting times.

1. Access

The City of New York ensures that all New Yorkers can access the Internet and take advan- tage of public training sessions to use it effectively. It will support more vendor choices to New Yorkers, and introduce Wi-Fi in more public areas.

  1. Connect high needs individuals through federally funded nyc Connected initiatives
  2. Launch outreach and education efforts to increase broadband Internet adoption
  3. Support more broadband choices citywide
  4. Introduce Wi-Fi in more public spaces, including parks

2. Open Government

By unlocking important public information and supporting policies of Open Government, New York City will further expand access to services, enable innovation that improves the lives of New Yorkers, and increase transparency and efficiency.

  1. Develop nyc Platform, an Open Government framework featuring APIs for City data
  2. Launch a central hub for engaging and cultivating feedback from the developer community
  3. Introduce visualization tools that make data more accessible to the public
  4. Launch App Wishlists to support a needs-based ecosystem of innovation
  5. Launch an official New York City Apps hub

3. Engagement

The City will improve digital tools including and 311 online to streamline service and enable citizen-centric, collaborative government. It will expand social media engagement, implement new internal coordination measures, and continue to solicit community input in the following ways:

  1. Relaunch to make the City’s website more usable, accessible, and intuitive
  2. Expand 311 Online through smartphone apps, Twitter and live chat
  3. Implement a custom url redirection service on to encourage sharing and transparency
  4. Launch official Facebook presence to engage New Yorkers and customize experience
  5. Launch @nycgov, a central Twitter account and one-stop shop of crucial news and services
  6. Launch a New York City Tumblr vertical, featuring content and commentary on City stories
  7. Launch a Foursquare badge that encourages use of New York City’s free public places
  8. Integrate crowdsourcing tools for emergency situations
  9. Introduce digital Citizen Toolkits for engaging with New York City government online
  10. Introduce smart, a team of the City’s social media leaders
  11. Host New York City’s first hackathon: Reinventing
  12. Launch an ongoing listening sessions across the five boroughs to encourage input

4. Industry

New York City government, led by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, will continue to support a vibrant digital media sector through a wide array of programs, including workforce development, the establishment of a new engineering institution, and a more stream- lined path to do business.

  1. Expand workforce development programs to support growth and diversity in the digital sector
  2. Support technology startup infrastructure needs
  3. Continue to recruit more engineering talent and teams to New York City
  4. Promote and celebrate nyc’s digital sector through events and awards
  5. Pursue a new .nyc top-level domain, led by DOITT


TorStar Op-ed: Liberals have to create a next political centre

This past Saturday the Toronto Star published the following piece by Taylor Owen and myself on its op-ed page. Thought I’d put it here for those who might have missed it.

Liberals have to create a new political centre

Canadians may have once valued the Liberal party, but they reject what it has become. The reason is simple. The centre is dead. Worse still, Liberals let it die. What once was the pragmatic core of Canadian politics, today is a wasteland devoid of an imaginative, progressive vision, occupied by a largely obsolete electoral strategy.

Don’t believe us? Consider the issues the Liberal party managed over the 20th century. The creation of universal health care and the social safety net. The management of the Canada-U.S. relationship by balancing opportunities for Canadian businesses with our desire to preserve our identity. Engaging Quebec and seeking to affirm its place within the country. Cultivating multiculturalism while simultaneously securing individual rights in a charter. Fostering peacekeeping to ensure local conflicts did not escalate into nuclear confrontation.

These were significant accomplishments that defined three generations of Canadians. They are also no longer relevant.

Today Canadians, especially young Canadians, are confident about themselves and their identity — no longer is there a “lament for a nation.” The sovereignty movement, while not dead, struggles. Individual rights continue to erode discrimination and the hierarchical relationships that impeded free expression and liberty. While some progressives continue to bang these drums, no one should be surprised that they no longer resonate.

In other cases, the solutions offered in the 20th century are no longer relevant. Canadians know — as health care threatens to eat up 50 per cent of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed — that their health-care system is broken. Young Canadians don’t even pretend to believe a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts.

On all of these issues, the traditional offerings of progressive rings hollow. But there is an opportunity for progressives. An opportunity to build a new centre. A centre that moves beyond the debate between conservatives of the right and conservatives of the left.

On the right is a Conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. It’s a vision for Canada grounded in the 1860s, of a minimalist government that is responsible for little beyond law and order and defence. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing it will leave behind many of those who are protected and enabled by the government.

On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger health-care system, social safety net and welfare state. Its appeal is a defence of the status quo at all costs, which in the long run will be many. The conservatism of the left means protecting what is unsustainable. It is the unreformed arc of old ideas.

If there is going to be a new centre between these conservative poles, Liberals will need to stop lying to themselves — and to Canadians. They need to acknowledge — loudly and publicly — that they failed to reform the institutions of the 20th century and, as a consequence, health care is broken and the welfare state as presently constructed is financially insatiable. A progressive future lies in taking these challenges head on rather that passively avoiding them.

Moreover, a modern progressive view of government needs to meet the consumer expectations created by Google, Apple and WestJet. Fast, effective, personalized, friendly. In short, progressives need a vision that not only safeguards citizens against the extremes of a globalizing market, but also meets the rising expectations Canadians have of services in the 21st century — all this in a manner that will be sustainable given 21st century budgets and demographics.

No party has figured out how to accomplish this, on the left or the right. And trolling through 20th or 19th century ideologies probably isn’t going to get us there.

The future for progressives rests in figuring out the political axes of the 21st century around which new solutions can be mined and new coalitions built.

We suspect these will include open vs. closed systems; evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism; sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks vs. hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we speak to.

The challenge is enormous but progressives have done it before. In the 19th century, the rise of industrial capitalism led to a series of tense societal changes, including the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the terrifying possibility of total war.

A centrist party turned out to be the place where three generations of pragmatically driven progressives were able to lead nearly a century of Canadian politics. Doing this again will require starting from scratch, but that is the task at hand.

David Eaves is a specialist on public policy, collaboration and open source methodologies.

Taylor Owen is a Banting Fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia

An open letter to new MPs

Dear new MPs,

Congratulations on being elected! You’ve every right to be excited – as a fellow Canadian who is hoping that the house can be changed, I’m excited too. You are the largest group of young MPs to hit the house in a long time. You’re also mostly from the same province (Quebec) and of the same party (NDP). So you have a lot in common – you can act collectively. Don’t be afraid to use that power.

Because as exciting as everything is, things are stacked against you. Remember. Ottawa has worked itself into a nice groove around how MPs are supposed to behave and how the house is supposed to work. Everything will be pushing you into that mold.

First, you’ll arrive in Ottawa (maybe you already have) and you’ll partake in the one day (half-day?) new MP orientation. Don’t expect much. If you want a real orientation, find Aaron Wherry. Read his article here on why the House is broken (there is this video of him too). This is the orientation you really need.

But the real first test will come when you set up your office. The test will happen so quickly and so subtly you won’t even notice it. It will go something simple like this: you want to use a Mac or an Android phone as an MP. A friendly parliamentary IT staff will deferentially but sternly tell you that for reasons of security and compatibility this isn’t possible. There’ll be a moment of awkwardness and, the next thing you know, you’ll be sitting in your office, using a HP desktop computer with Windows 7 thinking “I’m so lucky to have been set up this quickly…”

Stop. Stop right there.

The real lesson that will be learned there is that – when it comes to parliamentary staff – you will do as you’re told. That you are young enough, pliant enough, naive enough to follow their lead. Remember. You are the elected officials. They are the staff. It’s their job to meet your needs. Not the other way around. If you are going to reshape parliament, make it more open, more democratic, more accessible to a broader group of possible MPs you cannot learn the first lesson they will try to teach you: compliance.

Sadly, it isn’t just the staff that will be trying to prod you into the gentle groove of an MP. One of your biggest obstacles will be your party elders. They will dangle a big carrot in front of you: the opportunity to be in government and the opportunity to be in Cabinet. In exchange they too will want compliance. You must read from the party line, sit on this committee, not that committee, ask this questions in the house, don’t ask that one. Be a good MP.

Stop. Stop right there.

Don’t believe it. Maybe you will have an opportunity to be in government, and even cabinet (and even if you do, even these positions are so controlled by the PMO as to have varying degrees of autonomy). But the reality is: it isn’t likely. Few people get into cabinet. Still more starkly, many people don’t get re-elected (it happens to even the best of politicians). You may think you are playing a long game, but the truth is, the opportunity to be difficult, to demand change in how the house works, to cause a fuss, is now. Not tomorrow. If you wait, you may think you’ll be able to change the house one day in the future, but in reality, the house will change you. The best way to change our house of parliament is to have a group of young MPs angry, hungry, carefree and naive enough to simply demand it. That’s you. That’s right now.

I don’t pretend it will be easy. You’ve got the government, parliamentary staff, even your own party leaders working against you in different ways. But don’t underestimate your influence. Even the small things you can demand could make everybody’s lives more interesting. Make CPAC pan out when MPs are talking so we can see how few people are in the house. Demand a bigger research budget so that you can display some independent thought on issues and not rely on your party’s research bureau for all your information. Blog about your committees so that Canadians don’t have to just rely on Kady O’Malley (who can only be in so many committee meetings at one time).

You’ve got a chance to make a fuss. I hope you’ll take it. But either way. Good luck.

PS Sorry for any typos, sadly lost the first draft of this, so have been rushing to publish this version before flying out the door.