Tag Archives: book review

Wikipedia: Community Management as its core competency

Last week Paul Biondich lent me The Starfish and the Spider and I just finished reading it (I know, I didn’t put it in the sidebar). Indeed, a number of people I respect have had great things to say about it – John Lily suggested the book ages ago and I remember reading his review and wanting to pick a copy up.

Tons of exciting ideas in the book. One that excited me most related to an idea (articulated by many people) that I’ve been trying to advance – namely that Community Management is core to open source. Specifically there was this exciting piece on how Jimmy Wales, the “catalyst” behind Wikipedia, spends his time:

Jimmy focuses a great deal of attention on maintaining the health of the Wikipedia community. “I go to speaking engagements all over the world at conferences, and everywhere I go I meet Wikipedia volunteers,” he told us. “Usually we go off to dinner and talk shop about Wikipedia. The Wikipedia gossip is the same all over the world-just the characters are different. The problems that affect community are always the same problems.” When he doesn’t meet the members in person, Jimmy spends “a ton of time writing e-mails internally, to the community, touching base with people, discussing issues that come up on the mailing list.” But “as far as working with Wikipedia, I don’t write articles. Very, very little do I ever edit. But I do engage with people on policy matters and try to settle disputes. (page 112 – paperback edition)

It could be that in starfish organizations the role of managers and leaders isn’t to tell people what to do, but help settle disputes, grease the wheels and make sure that groups are working well. Is this to say other expertise are not needed? Not at all. But it is great to see another take on how soft skills such as dispute management, facilitation, negotiation and mediation may be essential for sustainable success of starfish organization (like open source communities).

The challenge of Wal-Mart – the challenge of America

Just finished reading The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman and thoroughly enjoyed it. So much to discuss and share, which I intend to, in a future post. Right now, I’ve just landed in Chicago about 4 1/2 hours later than planned and it’s late so I’m going to head to bed.

The one thought I wanted to throw out there was that this book – which beautifully dissects the strengths and weaknesses of Wal-Mart (hint, they are one and the same) is a fantastic microcosm of the two critical challenge facing America at the start of the 21st century.

The first, centres around if and how America will renew its social contract in the face of globalization and the existence of companies like Wal-Mart that are simply so much larger in scale than anything it has previously experienced. This challenge is made all the more complex by the fact that despite being a retailer, Wal-Mart is, at its core, an information company. The story of Wal-Mart is the story of America’s transition from the industrial to the post-industrial era (I think this is fascinating because of course no one sees Wal-Mart as an information age company but it is a much more accurate reflection of what this change looks like than say, the story of MicroSoft).

The second has to do with how isolated Wal-Mart is from American mainstream culture (and by extension the world’s) and America’s isolation from the world’s culture. Check out these lines from the last few paragraphs of the book:

“No one likes to hear or read an accounting of his or her faults. Most of us would wave off such blunt recital, or avert our eyes. But Wal-Mart needs to continue to try to listen to what Americans are saying about it, and we have a responsibility to continue to insist on accountability.

What Wal-Mart is trying to do, really, is engage the world, understand the world, meet its customers and suppliers in a different setting than shelf price. To do that, Wal-Marters need to travel, to routinely get out and hear what people say about them-in city council meetings, in industry conferences, at public forums. The transformation of Wal-Mart itself must come from the buildings in Bentonville [it’s HQ], yes: but the motivation for change can’t be found in the supplier meeting rooms or the streams of sales data, no matter how cleverly analyzed. The motivation for change will be found in the passion of customers and vendors-the ones who like Wal-Mart, the ones who don’t like Wal-Mart but can’t resist, the ones who define themselves by their refusal to deal with Wal-Mart, the ones who fear Wal-Mart.

For Wal-Mart to really change, it needs to be able to see itself as we see it, it needs to see the world clearly, it needs to look out.”

Substitute Wal-Mart for America and think about this as not the marketplace, but the global stage and you pretty much sum up the challenge of America. The country no longer can see itself the way the rest of the world does – and it needs to, if it is going to play the role we need it to play. America, like Wal-Mart, is neither inherently good or evil, it is simply an increadibly powerful force that needs to figure out how it is going to choose to make its actions felt. And we all have a responsiblity in shaping those choices. Americans’ or not.

The Public Service as a Gift Economy

In his description of why Open Source works Eric Raymond notes that open source communities don’t operate as command hierarchies or even as exchange economies. Instead they often operate as gift economies:

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods… Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.

What is interesting about the public service is that it, in theory, could operate like an open source gift economy. Indeed, there are no survival necessities for those who work in the public service – their salaries are generally acceptable and their jobs secure.

This isn’t to say scarcity doesn’t exist within the public service. But it is driven by two variables – neither of which is intrinsically scarce – but have been made so by the public service’s cultural history and industrial structure.

giftThe first is resources, which are siloed into various functions and cannot allocate themselves to problems without the consent of a centralized administrator.

The second is information, which for primarily historical corporate cultural reasons is rarely shared, and is hoarded in order to maintain control over resources or agendas.

Neither of this are necessary for the public service to function. Indeed, it would function a whole lot more efficiently and effectively if such a scarcity model were abandoned. This is why I’ve been such an advocate for a social networking system within the public service – it would serve as a clearing house to allow information and resources (people) to move around the system more freely and allocate itself more efficiently.

Such a clearing house would reduce the benefits of hoarding information, as it would be increasingly difficult to leverage information into control over an agenda or resource. Instead the opposite incentive system would take over. Sharing information or your labour (as a gift) within the public service would increase your usefulness to, and reputation among, others within the system. Nor would this mean political actors at the centre of this system would have to abandon agenda control – a central authority can still have enourmous influence ascribing value to what should be worked on. It would simply no longer have absolute authority over that agenda (It is worth noting that under the current model this absolute agenda power is merely theoretical anyway – public servants have an amazing ability of doing whatever the hell they want regardless who which party is setting the agenda).

Indeed, the above contrast also explains, in part, the challenge around recuiting. As gift styled economies become more prevalent, the command hierarchy model of the public service is becoming an increasingly undesirable system within which to reside.

Update: Think a gift economy built around reputation and recognition still doesnt make sense? The Ottawa Citizen’s Katheryn May recently noted that “The “churn” of the public service, characterized by the rapid and high turnover of people in jobs, has been identified as a big problem. The APEX survey showed 64 per cent of executives think of leaving their organization at least every month. More than half want to leave because of lack of recognition. (H/T to CPRenewal)”

Why does Kinsella support Obama?

So I’ve just finished Kinsella’s new book – The War Room – which I thoroughly enjoyed, but not for the reasons I thought I would (more on that in another post).

I find it interesting that Kinsella is an Obama fan, and that he’s been one since early on (e.g. long before Hillary went off the deep end and her campaign started imploding). After finishing his book I was even more surprised. Here’s why:

First – Kinsella’s fighter:

Kinsella is the ultimate Canadian political fighter (second to Chretien, I’m sure he’d add). As his book testifies, he’s unafraid to pull out the brass knuckles and pummel his opponent. But which Presidential aspirant does that sounds like? Who talks about beating up Republicans, of the dangers of ones political opponents? No one is more partisan, nor more of a scrapper, than Hillary. She’s practically remolded her campaign around the notion that she is a “fighter.”

It doesn’t stop there though. Not only is Kinsella a fighter, he’s also not a believer in any type of “new politics” – such as that advocated by Obama. In his book’s intro he states (page 27):

“So they [politicians] will make soothing noises about the need to “do politics differently” and to avoid “the old politics” (or what has been called “the politics of personal destruction”). They make these disclaimers because they know it is what the voting public wants to hear (even if it isn’t what the voting public necessairly believes, but more on that later). Watching them, you would think such politicos would seldom utter a discouraging word about anyone.
But that is a pile of crap.”

Given that Obama talks regularly of how people are tired of the politics of division, does Kinsella think this is all a clever ruse?  Either way, I’d have put him squarely in the Hillary camp (on a philosophical level at least).

Second – her war room runs like his war room:

To my (untrained and unsophisticated) eye, Obama campaign conducts itself in manner counter to the approaches Kinsella argues for in his book. This is in contrast to the Clinton war room, which hits back hard and fast at any opportunity.

(I’d love to hear Kinsella’s take on the Obama war room – I’m pretty sure my blog will never get on his radar but with luck he’ll blog about the democrates respective war rooms). For example on page 90 Kinsella shares the rule “Leave No Charge Unanswered:”

Any critical statement offered up by a reporter or the other side, no matter how imbecilic or nonsensical it may seem at first blush, must be taken seriously, and pronto. If the charge appears to be getting ready to blast off into the political stratosphere, fight back.

Again, unlike the Clinton campaign, the Obama campaign appears to ignore this rule on some occasions. On numerous points through out this campaign the Hillary camp has claimed to have won the popular vote, the states that count, and criticaldemographics. Often, the Obama camp does not seem to hit back, or at least hit back hard. (This strategy frustrated me enormously a few months ago) Indeed, on occasion they’ve been near silent – especially on the charge that Hillary has won the popular vote. There is rarely a counter-quote from the Obama campaign team in articles about Hillary making this claim (especially on CNN).

Finally – Legitimate Policy differences:

While there are few legitimate policy differences between Hillary and Obama, one area where people are concerned there might be differences is over Israel and Middle East policies. In his book Kinsella self-identifies himself as a ZIonist… and if any candidate can be defined as pro-Israel it is Hillary Clinton. Indeed, this one part of the Democratic Party that Obama has been working hard to assuage.

That, and the fact the (like me) Kinsella is a huge fan of Carville and Bill Clinton (and unlike me, Begala) I would have landed Kinsella squarely in the Hillary camp.

In sum:

Obviously, these are only 3 of thousands of reasons why anyone might choose to support one of the nominees. As an Obama supporter I’m pretty pleased that Kinsella is a fan as well. It’s just that his book has left me more puzzled, not less, about why he’s a supporter. I’d be interested to know what Kinsella thinks the Obama campaign has done effectively, and what it has done poorly, and if he thinks Obama is going to redefine politics, or if he’s a just a brilliant new spin on an old theme.

Canada's racial stalemate

Calvin Helin author of Dances with DependencyThe other week – as virtually everybody is now aware – Obama gave his much celebrated speech on the racial stalemate in America.

Here in Canada we have a stalemate as well. It is discussed less frequently (if at all) then the American stalemate Obama spoke of, and it does not fall along clearly delineated racial lines. I am speaking of the stalemate between First Nations and the rest of Canada. On page 157 0f his book “Dances with Dependency: Indigenous Success through Self-Reliance” (if you don’t have a copy I highly recommend picking one up), aboriginal rights activist Calvin Helin writes a paragraph that parallels the sentiment of Obama’s speech.

When chronicling and discussing the very real problem of abuses of power, mismanagement, nepotism and corruption found on some First Nation band councils, Helin notes:

Aboriginal people are reluctant to speak publicly about these issues because they do not wish to provide grist for the political right in Canada who many feel are racist, and have no real interest in actually trying to make the situation better (though often there is a sizable, but silent contingent that supports the publication of such issues in what might be considered right-of-centre publications, because they are regarded as only telling the truth and trying to make things better for the ordinary Aboriginal folks). Generally, non-aboriginal observers have been reluctant to raise this issue as well because, in the current climate of political correctness, they might automatically be labelled as racists. Even the many Chiefs and Councils that are running honest governments in the best interests of their members feel compelled to defend against such reported abuses, because they fear their activities may become tarred with a brush that does not apply in their particular circumstances. Usually when this matter is raised publicly, there are entrenched positions on both sides of the debate and little communications as to how to solve these problems. (my own italics)

While this hardly captures the entire dynamic, it highlights an important dimension of Canada’s racial stalemate.  That anger and guilt in both communities – aboriginals and non-aboriginals – can sometime build narratives about the other that reinforce their mutual distrust and preventing us from reaching out and finding a way to address what is our country’s most important challenges.

I suspect this stalemate will not last. A new force could be about to completely alter this debate. A new generation – a demographic tsunami in fact – of smart, educated, and motivated young First Nation is about to crest over this country (While Calvin Helin is an excellent example, he is much older than the cohort I’m thinking of). I’m not sure that non-aboriginal leaders – and, to be frank, current aboriginal leaders – are even aware of what is about to hit them. Gauging from those I have met and befriended, this cohort is frustrated, but motivated, organized and very pragmatic. But perhaps, most importantly, they increasingly urban and, not as tied to the power structures of the reserves or chiefs. In this regard they transcend the discussion, living in, and comfortable in, both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal domain. One way or another they are will redefine this debate.

My "top 10" 2007 blogging moments: #9

Part 1)

I write complimentary book reviews of

and the authors post comments and or drop me an email. Hurray for the internet.

Part 2)

I don’t write a book review but suggest, in complete violation of copyright, that a group of volunteers dictate and record the oldest of Newman’s works as MP3 files and publish the voice recordings online so as to create free audiobook versions of his work.

Peter C. Newman actually comments (note: he doesn’t protest against the idea) and justly notes that it is crazy that all but two of his works are out of print… That man is a legend.

Part 3)

Taylor and I publish what I think is possibly one of our strongest pieces – a critical review of Michael Byers, Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? in Embassy Magazine, and an extended version on our blogs.

Byers does not comment.

Review of Michael Byers "Intent for a Nation"

Today, Taylor and I published a review of Michael Byers “Intent for a Nation: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada’s Role in the World” in Embassy Magazine.

Attached below is the full length version – we strayed far beyond Embassy’s word count…

Intent for a Nation

Michael Byers, Professor of Politics and International Law and regular public commentator, describes his book, Intent for a Nation: A relentlessly optimistic manifesto for Canada’s role in the world, as a challenge to Grant’s generation-defining thesis. Canada, Byers argues, may not be on an inalterable path towards full US integration.

intent for a nationBut contrary to its title, Intent for a Nation does not reject its namesakes’ thesis – it embraces it wholeheartedly. Lament for a Nation paints Canada as a country already lost to the forces of Americanization. Byers, in contrast, places Canada on a precipitous edge, teetering on the abyss. Indeed Canada position is so precarious, Byers himself twice believes the country doomed: once after the “Free-Trade election” and again after Chrétien signs NAFTA. And yet, a handful of increasingly rare policy decisions manage, albeit just, to preserve a distinct Canada and Canadian foreign policy. In reality ‘relentlessly optimism’ simply means believing Canada can still be saved.

Intent for a Nation is thus a firmly nationalist treatise – a book that sees Canada under immediate and imminent threat from Americanization – and this perspective is the source of its strengths and weaknesses. As a nationalistic critique, it is often powerful, providing important insights. At the same time, its anti-American lens is extremely limiting. Byers, like Grant or Hurtig, overweight’s America’s role, holding it responsible for almost all Canada and the world’s problems.

As such, this book is as much about America and Americanization as it is about Canadian Foreign Policy. In virtually every instance the analysis inevitably leads to the same conclusion. Canada’s choice is black or white – assimilation or isolation. A choice Byers echoes with chapter titles like “Do We Really Need a Continental Economy?” The face that such a course of action would be a best difficult, and at worst disastrous, is a window into the book’s central limitation – its inability to move beyond critique. For a self titled ‘manifesto,’ the book focuses almost exclusively on what Canada shouldn’t do, and says little about what it should.

That said, it is refreshing to read a strong nationalist critique of Canadian foreign policy, particularly one that adeptly engages on military issues. The argument that the goals and purposes of Canada’s military are increasingly shaped by its integration with US forces is the book’s most convincing discussion. A Canadian military that fully integrates with its US counterpart does indeed run the risk of preparing for, and executing, US styled military operations. As military strategist Martin van Creveld points out, American Forces: “Combine aggressiveness with impatience. Putting blind faith in technology and using far more firepower than is needed, they regularly end up by alienating whomever they face-as happened in Vietnam, Somalia, and now in Iraq.” Do we want to spend (literally) billions to emulate the many idiosyncrasies of the US model? More importantly, if we mold our tools after America’s hammers, should we be surprised if we increasingly see global problems as nails?

In a similar vein, Byers’ discussion of the Canadian Arctic rightly stands in notable contrast to much of the military-centric discourse on ‘securing’ the north. And his treatment of war on terror, racial profiling, and missile defense are all notably level- headed. It is clear that Byers has an important voice to add to the debate. Indeed the problem in each of these cases isn’t what he says, its’ that he doesn’t say more. A strong critique is important, but we were frequently left wondering, what does Byers think Canada should do?

As a manifesto, the book provides few options. Both the chapters on climate change and terrorism never take the reader beyond past mistakes. There are hints of possibilities (such as increased individual responsibility for emission control, and greater use of legal mechanisms in the war on terror), but at markedly few points does Byers provide directions for action. Indeed, his regular calls for national leadership, with little indication of a policy platform, become frustrating.

Take, for example, the treatment of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Byers rightly argues that Axworthy showed prescient leadership by convening the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). He then argues that Paul Martin, and by extension Allan Rock, sold out by presenting a watered down version to the UN General Assembly in 2005.

The principle of R2P is that the international community should have a mechanism to intervene when sovereign governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens. Faced with the problem of how this principle should be actualized, Martin argued that the Security Council’s threshold for the authorization of Chapter VII intervention should be expanded to include a wider range of harms. Byers suggests a more appropriate course would have been to “embark on a long and difficult campaign to shift international opinion towards a right to unauthorized humanitarian intervention.”

This is a strikingly ambiguous, and controversial, statement regarding one of the central foreign policy challenges of our time. We are provided with no indication of what a different legal framework might look like, nor do we receive guidance on how this would mitigate the central concern of R2P’s critics – its abuse by powerful countries over weak ones. Indeed, this policy challenge was so difficult, that the ICISS commission itself deferred answering it and it is the underlying reason why Martin chose to work within the UN framework rather than against it.

In addition to failing to flesh out his policy prescriptions, the few sentences he does provide do not form a coherent list of policies, but rather a catalog of often conflicting reactions.

For example, in a chapter entitled “Climate Change” Byers speaks urgently, but vaguely, of the need for a green economy. But later, in a chapter entitled “Do We Really Need a Continental Economy?” he laments the decline of east-west tractor-trailer traffic across the country and rise of north-south traffic between Canada and the United States. And yet comparatively, this east-west traffic was grossly inefficient. Trade between Seattle and Vancouver is much more efficient – and thus green – than that between Vancouver and Toronto. Byers may be both a nationalists and environmentalist, but he never tackles the tough issue of prioritizing or contextualizing these two policy objectives with respect to one another.

Another example emerges from his treatment of Afghanistan and Darfur. “Where would we gain the most?” Byers asks. “Continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur.” The choice appears clear: deploy our military to Darfur to project our humanitarian interests. But in order to do so, we would need to pull our troops out of Afghanistan. While our role in Afghanistan should be debated, there are real humanitarian costs to leaving. Not accounting for these costs, in an argument on the moral imperative of inserting military forces – against the desire of its government – into another Muslim country rife with sectarian conflict and radical jihadism is highly problematic.

Similarly, calling Afghanistan a “US led war in Asia” and Darfur a peacekeeping mission trivializes the former and romanticizes the latter. This month rebels killed 10 African Union peacekeepers and a further 50 are missing. Darfur could be every bit as complicated and dangerous as Afghanistan. Both are examples of complex emergencies in which new, and in large part Canadian-led concepts such as 3D and human security, are being applied.

One senses that Byers disdain for Afghanistan springs not from the nature or intent of the mission, but simply that it was American instigated and led. When discussing Afghanistan this bias is merely distracting, but in other cases, the distortions border on the absurd. For example, Byers rightly criticizes successive Canadian governments for failing to give .7% of GDP in overseas development assistance (ODA). However, when assessing why Canada has failed to do so, his culprit is all too predictable. The United States – who contributes a mere .1% of GDP – fear their international reputation will suffer if Canada fulfills its ODA commitment and thus exerts subtle pressure which keeps our contributions down. Putting aside that no examples of how this nefarious influence is exerted, are we really suppose to believe the United States cares how much Canada donates in ODA?

What makes this bias all the more frustrating is that without it, the book would be far more compelling. Byers considers Canada a powerful country, capable of greatness on the international stage. In interviews he fleshes out how internally generated insecurities often impede our success. It is a sentiment we agree with, and to which history can attest. When Canada chooses to lead, our track record has been remarkable. But in his book, this insight is crowded out by the obsession with the United States, who is inevitable blamed for our shortcomings.

If Canada is a powerful country, how should it exert its influence? The final chapter on Global Citizenship is clearly intended to provide an inspiring framework that can tackle the problems Byers identifies. But the conclusion does not unify the book’s varying themes and critiques. It is hard to find the link between the concept of global citizenship proposed and the challenges outlined in the previous 9 chapters. Moreover, Byers’ definition of Global Citizenship ultimately does not differ from those he critiques, as well as others he doesn’t mention, making it difficult to tease out his unique contribution to the debate over this term.

In addition, the book’s obsession with the United States ultimately hinders, rather than enhances, its analysis. Byers’ examples – standing up to the United States and charting a path not determined solely by economic factors – of how Global Citizenship can be actualized at the national, as opposed to individually focus principally on Canada-US relations. Canada must preserve its ability to act independently on the international stage when necessary. But Byers conflates our capacity to act independently with our choice to do so. Are there troubling aspects to the Canada-US relationship? Absolutely. But Byers seems less interested fixing them than firewalling the country off from the United States. Is disengagement and isolationism the logical conclusion of global citizenship? Surely being sovereign, and a global citizen, entails more than not being American?

But this criticism should not diminish the role Michael Byers’ and his book serve as agent provocateurs. Intent for a Nation was written to spark discussion, and in that spirit it is an important contributor to the national debate. He is right to argue that Canada can do more and that message deserves an audience, both in Ottawa and across the country.

As a stand alone piece however, the book lacks cohesion, contains vague and conflicting advice, and overemphasizes the role of the United States. These issues largely spring from the fact that Intent for a Nation embraces the same flawed analysis of its namesake. Four decades after the publication of Lament for a Nation, nationalists continue to cling to the same gloomy predictions. All this despite the fact that Canada has retained its independence, and according to some pollsters, has become increasingly different from the America. Maybe its time we moved beyond the constraints of this thesis?

review of small pieces loosely joined

I’m not sure where to begin with Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

Maybe with my regrets. My biggest regret is that it took me so long pick it up and read it. And I had no excuse, Beltzner had been trying to get me to read it for months. I now understand why.

Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture took me into new territory by introducing me to the dangers and important issues confronting our emerging online world. In contrast, Small Pieces Loosely Joined did the opposite, it was a homecoming, a book that explained to me things I intuitively knew or felt, but in a manner that expanded my understanding and appreciation. It’s as though the author, David Weinberger, took me on a tour of my own home, a place I knew intimately, and explained to me its history, the reason and method of its construction, its impact on my life and its significance to my community. Suddenly, the meaning of a thing I use and live in everyday was expanded in ways that were consistent with what I already knew, but didn’t. Wienberger accomplishes all this, but in talking about the internet.

Weinberger achieves this by outlining how our sense of time, space, knowledge and matter is shaped by the online experience. Initially, the book could be mistaken as a more sophisticated Wikinomics, but as each concept builds on the other, the book becomes an increasingly philosophical and thoughtful treatise. Indeed, unlike Wikinomics, which anyone can scream through like a normal business book, Small Pieces took longer to read than anticipated because I wanted (and needed) to slow down and play with its ideas.

Indeed, you can see how so many ideas connect with this book. From The Naked Corporation (Weinberger’s discusses how our desire for authenticity drives form on the internet), to The Wisdom of Crowds to The Long Tail, this book is essential reading to those interesting in understanding of our emerging new world, one overlaid with an internet. Even I was caught in the vortex. For example, I recently wrote a post on the emerging trust economy (all while pitching in my two cents on Keen). I knew the ideas weren’t completely novel, but there was Weinberger, filling in the holes of my thoughts, outlining why we keep going back to the internet even though it is filled with so much disinformation (unlike FOX, CNN, or CBS or any corporate brochures that preceded the internet). Weinberger recognizes that:

…we don’t process information the way philosophers or computer programmers expect us to. We don’t use a systematic set of steps for evaluating what should be believed. Instead, we do on the web we do in the real world: we listen to the context, allow ourselves to be guided by details that we think embody the whole, and decide how much of what this person says were going to believe.

It’s not perfect. But then, neither are we.

But even without all that perfection, we still managed to create this amazing thing called the internet. This is singularly significant accomplishment and one Weinberger believes we must celebrate. And he’s right. At almost no time in history have we built something that is, and can become still more, broad and representative. And it is important that we remember the values that made it possible. A culture of freedom.

…consider how we would’ve gone about building the Web had we deliberately set out to do so. Generating the billions of pages on the web, all interlinked, would have required a mobilization on the order of world war. Because complexity requires management, we would have planned it, budgeted it, managed it,… and we would have failed miserably… We’d have editors pouring through those pages, authenticating them, vetting them for scandalous and pornographic material, classifying them, and obtaining signoff and permissions to avoid the inevitable lawsuits. Yet we — all of us — have built the global web without a single person with a business card that says “manager, WWW.”

Our biggest joint undertaking as a species is working out splendidly, but not only because we forgot to apply the theory that has guided us ever since determines were built. Whether we’ve thought about it explicitly or not, we all tacitly recognize — it’s part of the Web’s common sense — that what’s on the Web was put there without permission. We know that we can go where we want on the web without permission. The sense of freedom on the web is palpable. The web is profoundly permission free and management free, and we all know it.

More recently, Weinberger has emerged as a champion of the internet, probably most famously for taking on Andrew Keen in a now famous debate whose transcript can be read on the WSJ. His book explains the knowledge and understanding that allows Weinberger to be optimistic in the face of people like Keen. Indeed this book serves as a map to what has become Weinberger’s larger thesis – that the internet is not just a human project, but a humanizing project.

The Web is a social place. It is built page by page by people alone in groups of that other people can read those pages. It is an expression of points of view is diversion as human beings. In almost every case, what’s written is either explicitly or implicitly a view of how the world looks; the Web is a multimillion-part refraction of the world. Most of all, at the center of the web is human passion. We build each page because we care about something, whether we are telling other shoppers that a Maytag wasn’t as reliable as the ads promise, giving tips on how to build a faster racer for a soap box derby, arguing that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax, or even ripping off strangers.

What we see when we look into the internet is ourselves.

Increasingly, understanding humanity will require understanding the internet, and Weinberger’s book is a good departure point for that education.

The Fascinating Phenomenon that is Andrew Keen

So Andrew Keen oozed his way on to the Colbert Report the other night and I just caught the video off the website.

For those unfamiliar with Keen he is the author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture” a book in which he describes how the internet is making arts and media unprofitable. As innumerable blogs, and most notable, David Weinberger have documented, there are so many holes in Keen’s thesis it is hard to know where to start.

On the Colbert Report Keen cycled through some of his regulars. He correctly pointed out that certain types of media and arts are unprofitable because of the internet… and ignored how the internet has simultaneously given rise to a multitude of new ways for artist to earn a living. New business models are emerging. On the hilarious side, Keen briefly tried to argue that it was blogs and the internet – not American’s old media institutions such as CNN and FOX – that allowed the American public to be hoodwinked into believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. My god, blogs were the only place in the US where an honest discussion about Iraqi WMDs took place! I could go on… but why repeat what so many others have said.

What it interesting to me is that a phenomenon like Keen even exists. Why is it that we repeatedly listen to people who take a simple ideas and overextend it in illogical ways. Does anyone else remember the fear mongering 1994 book – The End of Work – about how “worldwide unemployment will increase as new computer-based and communications technologies eliminate tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors”? Keen’s book is similar in that it nicely capture our society’s paranoias and fears about change (this time wrought by “web 2.0”).

Interestingly I think Keen is a necessary and positive phenomenon. Indeed, Keen exists, is championed and raised up on a pedestal not because he is right, but because is so glamorously wrong. Societies need Keen so that his arguments can be publicly destroyed in a manner that satisfies even the strongest doubters. In this case, Keen’s book helps advance the larger narrative of how centralized authorities that offer the illusion of certainty are collapsing in the face of probabilistic networks that offer a reality of uncertainty. This narrative is hardly new – books that preceded “The Cult of the Amateur” like “The Long Tail” and “Free Culture” more than aptly dealt with Keen’s arguments, they just didn’t do it publicly enough. The publics’ appetite to understand and hear this debate is merely climaxing and has not yet been sated.

The San Francisco Chronicle is right to say “every good movement needs a contrarian. Web 2.0 has Andrew Keen.” Sometimes being contrarian is about offering a valuable insight and keeping the debate honest. And then, sometime its about encapsulating the worst fears, insecurities, and power dynamics of a dying era so that a society can exorcise it. I guess it’s a role someone has to play, and Keen will be well rewarded for it… as his book is reviewed and sold, online.

(NB: If you are looking for a good book on the internet, skip The Cult of the Amateur and consider David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined or Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder they are both excellent).

Small piece from small pieces

After being side tracked by the final Harry Potter book (which was excellent), weddings (congrats to Irfhan and Gen) and work (Chicago is a good a place as any to find oneself)… I’m finally back to reading David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined and it is fantastic.

Favourite line so far:

It is no accident that the web is distracting. It is the Web’s hyperlinked nature to pull our attention here and there. But it is not at all clear that a new distractedness represents a weakening of our culture’s intellectual powers, a lack of focus, a diversion from the important work that needs to be done, a disruption of our very important schedule. Distraction may instead represent our interests finally finding the type of time that suits it best. Maybe when set free in a field of abundance, our hunger moves us from three meals a day to day-long grazing. Our experience of time on the Web, its ungluing and re-gluing of threads, may be less an artifact of the Web than the Web’s enabling our interest to find its own rhythm. Perhaps the Web isn’t shortening our attention span. Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting.


Check out Weinberger’s blogs: Everything is Miscellaneous and Joho the Blog

Speaking of hyperlinked… Harley Y., a frequent reader and a fellow open-source affectionado noticed in Monday’s post that I was in Chicago. Being in town himself by chance he dropped me and email and we met up for dinner. Good times and conversation ensued… welcome to the world of the web, it’s not just online anymore.