Tag Archives: David Weinberger

What the post-bureaucratic era will mean for the public service

In a number of blog posts and, in greater detail, in a number of lectures and speeches I’ve been outlining how the social and organizational impact of  information technologies (like wikis and blogs) will uproot and transform the public service. Specifically, in the coming era of self-organizing, the public service will have to find new ways to balance accountability and control with decentralization, accelerated information flows and emergent problem-solving.

There is, obviously, a ton to dive into here, which is what I’ve been having fun doing in my lectures and seminars. The other week while doing a presentation in Ottawa to a group of Health Canada employees, one of the participants asked me what the implications of self-organizing systems and social media would be for the core values of the public service (the Canadian Federal Public Service is the case study here, but this discussion likely applies to most government bureaucracies). More importantly, he wanted to know if they would have to be amended or changed. I’m not certain they do, but that doesn’t mean they won’t need to be reviewed…

For example, zero in on one of the Public Service’s core values in particular:

Professional Values: Serving with competence, excellence, efficiency, objectivity and impartiality.

  • Public servants must work within the laws of Canada and maintain the tradition of the political neutrality of the Public Service.
  • Public servants shall endeavour to ensure the proper, effective and efficient use of public money.
  • In the Public Service, how ends are achieved should be as important as the achievements themselves.
  • Public servants should constantly renew their commitment to serve Canadians by continually improving the quality of service, by adapting to changing needs through innovation, and by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and services offered in both official languages.
  • Public servants should also strive to ensure that the value of transparency in government is upheld while respecting their duties of confidentiality under the law.

None of these values are wrong. What will be challenging is how emerging technologies will shift expectations among citizens around how these values should being interpreted and what that means for how government operates.

In his 2008 Bertha Bassam Lecture at the University of Toronto, David Weinberger points out that for the last several centuries we have associated credibility (read: professionalism) with objectivity and impartiality (note values listed above). However, the rise of the internet is beginning to erode the link that once bound credibility to objectivity and impartiality:

“Wikipedia is far more credible because it shows us how the sausage is made makes Wikipedia far more credible. Yet this is exactly the stuff that the Britannica won’t show us because they think it would make them look amateurish and take away from their credibility. But in fact transparency – which is what this is – is the new objectivity. We are not going to trust objectivity, we are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.”

Replace Britannica in this sentence with “the public service” or “government” and you see the problem. The values of the public service presume that objectivity and impartiality will lead to credibility.  Increasingly, however, this is no longer the case. We want the right to see how the sausage is made. More importantly, as an increasing number of organizations like Mozilla, Wikipedia and DirectLauncher make it clear that such transparency is both technically and practically feasible – even when managing highly complex and sensitive tasks – our expectations around what we expect of government is starting to shift. Who do you trust more? Wikipedia or the Government of Canada’s website? Who let’s you see the discussion? This answer to this question is getting less and less clear.

Indeed it is this increasing number of transparent organizations that throw the last bullet in the section on professional values into sharp relief:

Public servants should also strive to ensure that the value of transparency in government is upheld while respecting their duties of confidentiality under the law.

Even if the public’s expectations of what should be legal confidential does not shift, radical change will still be necessary. Already you see people beginning to demand better access to all sorts of government data sets (think the Sunlight Foundation). And we haven’t even mentioned the whole process of Freedom of Information Requests (FOI). Here is a system that is clearly overwhelmed. But think more carefully about the whole process of FOI. The fact that information is by default secret (or functionally secret since it is inaccessible to the public) and that it must be requested is itself a powerful indication of just how fundamentally opaque government is. In a world where information generation is growing exponentially, will the government really be able to manage and access all of it, and determine what is confidential and what isn’t? This seems like a system destined for real challenges. All of this to say that even if the last line of the value statement above does not change one iota, what it means – and citizens expectations around its implementations – is going to change radically.

This transition – the movement from a public service that is opaque by 21st century standards to one that is transparent is going to be gut-wrenching, challenging and painful, not because it isn’t technically possible, but because it is going to require reversing 200 years of culture, values and modes of operation that are embedded within the public service and deeply embedded within the political class. This isn’t to say that the transition will erode the power or influence of these groups, it won’t. But it will be different, and that in of itself is often scary enough to create resistance and a painful transition.

In conclusion, I suspect that the few of the values will, or need, to change – indeed most are necessary and good. However, while the values themselves won’t change, continuing to adhere to them will require dramatic changes to how the public service operates.

The Death of Journalism? (or journalism in the era of open)

For those that missed them two of my favourite authors – Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson – posted brilliant pieces on the future of the news industry this week. I’ve pulled some of the best lines from both so you can glimpse at why these to writers are models for me. These relevant paragraphs also reveal a further analysis, one I think both authors stop shy of but that both pieces hint at: the Death of Journalism.

…in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage… I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life – out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house;

But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. [A veritable rain forest of information where there was once a desert]

Steven B Johnson

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Clay Shirky

Both Shirky and Johnson’s pieces acknowledge that the trends hitting the news industry are hitting every part of society but – because they have written articles and not books – they deal with the changes to the news industry ecosystem in isolation. As a result, their analyses account for the death of the newspaper in its current form. However, both shy away from explicitly looking over that bigger cliff – are we seeing the death of Journalism? I for one, hope so, as it will mean a more profound change may be upon us.

Step back and look at the relationship between news gathering institutions and the organizations they report on. A large piece of “investigative news” has been about one set of opaque institutions – the news organization – covertly gathering information on another set of opaque institutions – government, corporations or non-profits – so as to shine a light on some malfeasance.

What if it isn’t just the business model newspapers and TV news that is faulty. What if it is the underlying structure and values are eroding not only among news institutions but also among the entities they normally cover? What if the belief in objectivity and trust in opaque structures are dying? This would mean that the public’s confidence in products, ideas, services, policies and news created behind a curtain – within any opaque institutions – is slowly crumble. In his Bertha Bassam lecture, this is precisely what David Weinberger brilliantly argues is already taking place:

“Wikipedia is far more credible because it shows us how the sausage is made makes Wikipedia far more credible. Yet this is exactly the stuff that the Britannica wont show us because they think it would make them look amateurish and take away from their credibility. But in fact transparency – which is what this is – is the new objectivity. We are not going to trust objectivity, we are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.”

Such a transformation, a reshaping of credibility from objectivity to transparency, would have profound implications for every organization – corporate, non-profit and governmental – in our society.

The trends Shirky and Johnson describe as killing newspapers – the fact there are more eyes, able to create more information, that is able to flow faster, and freer than ever before – may be making openness and transparency a strategically salient choice for an increasing number of organizations. Firstly, it is simply becoming harder and harder to keep secrets. More and more organizations may decide that, rather than devote energy to hiding secrets that will inevitable see the light of day, why not devote energy to solving the underlying problems that are creating them? More importantly, by being transparent allows these organizations to access the long tail of analyses an additional powerful incentive to being open. Those who share information and invite criticism and analysis may be better positioned to survive crises and challenges than those who don’t. Many eyes makes the bugs in any institution more likely to be shallow.

As a result we may see an organizational ecosystem emerging that strongly favours transparency. This is not to say that every organization will instantaneously become “open” overnight… but there would be increasing pressure, and more powerfully the adoption of the naked corporation as the default model in the new system.

Such a shift would forever change journalism. The first is that opaque news entities – those that don’t make clear the bargain with their readers, that fail to spell out their editorial decisions and philosophy and allow readers to hold them to account, will themselves be at risk. I suspect this will be true even if some magical financial solution (like the terrible idea of subsidizing news with an internet access tax) were to emerge. The problem would simply shift from being a financial crisis to a credibility crisis. If journalism prides itself on objectivity – then it had better find ways to be transparent. This means news sites had better engage with legitimate critics: and this means doing more than having columnists who ignore commenters that poke large holes in their arguments or electing to publish retractions on the bottom corner of page 8 or on some lost webpage.

More profound however may be that journalism in a transparent ecosystem could look very different than it does today. If investigative journalism has been about uncovering the dirty secrets within opaque institutions – what does it do if an increasing number of institutions have no secrets?

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

Interestingly this is precisely what many blogs – alone or as part of an emergent network – already do. They take large complex stories, break them down and, by linking back and forth to one another, create a collective analysis that slowly allows the mystery to be decoded. I hope this post is part of such a mystery solving exercise – I’m trying to build off of, and extend, the brilliant analyses of Johnson and Shirky.

Does this mean the death of journalism? Well, in a world where everybody can be a journalists… is anyone a journalist? I don’t know. I’m sure there will always be some professional journalists, but in a world where people distrust opaque institutions I’m not certain they will reside in organizations that look even remotely like the news institutions of today. Most importantly, in a world of mysteries perhaps citizen journalist and bloggers, and their role in the news ecoysystem, will be less frightening than the one most present day pundits (especially newspaper columnists) would have us believe.

The internet is messy, fun and imperfect, just like us

Last October 23rd David Weinberger gave the 2008 Bertha Bassam Lecture at the University of Toronto. I happened to be in Toronto but only found out about the lecture on the 24th. Fortunately Taylor pointed out that the lecture is online.

I’ve never met David Weinberger (his blog is here) but I hope to one day. I maintain his book – Small Pieces Loosely Joined – remains one of, if not the best book written about the internet and society. Everything is Miscellaneous is a fantastic read as well.

The Bertha Bassam lecture is classic Weinberger: smart, accessible, argumentative and fun. But what I love most about Weinberger is how he constantly reminds us that the internet is us…  and that, as a result, it is profoundly human: messy, fun, argumentative, and above all imperfect. Indeed, the point is so beautifully made in this lecture I felt a little emotional listening to it.

Contrast that to the experience of listening to someone like Andrew Keen, a Weinberger critic who this lecture again throws into stark relief. After reflecting on Weinberger, Keen dislikes the internet and web 2.0 mostly because I think he dislikes people. It may sound harsh but if you ever hear him speak – or even read his writing – it is smart, argumentative and interesting, but it oozes with an anger and condescension that is definitely contemptuous and sometimes even borders on hatred. If the debate is reduced to whether or not we should, however imperfectly, try to connect to and learn from one another or whether we should just hold others in contempt, I think Weinberger is going to win every time. At least, I know where I stand.

Indeed, this blog is a triumph of Weinberger’s internet humanism. It is a small effort to write, to share, and to celebrate the complexity and opportunity of the world with those I know and those I don’t, but who share a similar sense of possibility. Will millions read this blog. No. But I enjoy the connections, old and new, I make with the much more modest number of people who do.

I hope you’ll watch this lecture or, if you haven’t the time, download the audio to your ipod and listen to it during your commute home. (lacking the slides won’t have a big impact)

Active online often means being active offline

Anyone under the age of 30 – skip this post.

From time to time, after I give a talk about technology and public service sector renewal, I end up getting a question from the audience to the effect of, “hey isn’t all this technology just isolating and distracting? Aren’t people who spend time online just sealing themselves off from the world?”

Despite the Web 2.0 explosion, their remain pockets of people for who the “geek” stereotype of internet user remains dominant. Stephen Johnson’s book Everything bad is good for you began to poke some cavernous holes in this stereotype – for example, white collared professionals who play video games are actually more social, more confident and more adept at solving problems than their colleagues. But then, video game geeks and internet users may be different people.

Trolling through some old emails I stumbled up some studies that challenged these stereotypes. A while back Alan Moore shared with us some of the following exciting (and expensive) conclusions of the University of South California’s Digital Future Report:

The Digital Future Project found that involvement in online communities leads to offline actions. More than one-fifth of online community members (20.3 percent) take actions offline at least once a year that are related to their online community. (An “online community” is defined as a group that shares thoughts or ideas, or works on common projects, through electronic communication only.)

So online activities actually lead to offline activity for a fifth (and growing percentage) of people. No surprise here. What surprises me are people who think the internet and the “real” world are some how disconnected things. They aren’t. As David Weinberger has so vigorously and effectively argued – the two are deeply emeshed in, and shaping, the other.

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.

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.