art, society, data, stability

by admin

I haven’t written a ramble in a while. Here’s one:

I had an impromptu drink with Boris the other night – unfortunately the other brain I seem to be feeding off of a lot lately wasn’t there.

We rambled about art, data, open source, society, flexibility, stability, evolution to touch on a few things.

My experience with the open project LibriVox has been very interesting, and has influenced my thinking about a lot of what we talked about: it started small, and grew and grew; in about four places it encountered major environmental challenges – mainly having to do with putting together the structures to let the project accomodate more volunteers, and more projects. At 10 people and a couple of projects it was OK with me running the thing, and some help on the website design; then it went up to 50 volunteers and 10 projects, and I needed help, and a new mode of managing people and projects; the help appeared. It cranked up to 250 volunteers, and 40 projects; more help & organization was needed; it appeared. We’re now up to 1000+ volunteers and something like 150 active projects. Needing more structure and more support. It came.

Because the project was open everytime a major problem presented itself, someone seemed to be there who had just the skills needed (designing the site for clarity, setting up a forum, cataloging, documenting, setting up a wiki, a promo poster, catalog software). Like an organism encountering environmental challenges, LibriVox was flexible and open enough to easily evolve into something able to handle the new demands. One hopes it will continue to do so.

Is there anything in the little microcosm of LibriVox worth thinking about in a bigger context?

Boris gave this interesting visualization about society. (Boris can you draw it so I can link to a pic?) Imagine a bell curve, moving from left to right along a time axis. Stick a couple of wheels under the middle of the curve: the wheels are industry – driving things forward; the big hump is regular society who go along with things; and the front angle part of the bell-curve/snowplow are the out-there artists at the far tip, and then creative types who interact with industry making up the rest of the angle. There’s some interaction between the two. The artists are at the forefront, are misunderstood, and suffer the greatest amount of attrition because they are battling directly against the universe – in a way they both lead the way for the rest of society, and introduce us to, and protect us from, the new. You can go on about this metaphor, but probably there’s an optimal steepness of the curve – steeper meaning more arty & creative types.

I’ve seen two arty shows recently: Marie Chouinard’s dance show Body Remix/Goldberg Variations; and Anslem Kiefer’s Heaven & Earth. Neither was “beautiful” in any standard sense, but in both cases my mind was flying the whole time I was experiencing them. I don’t know what I was thinking about, but these two big shows — both very intellectual, and very abstract — had my mind whirrling around at top speed. There was something about the depth of the data transfer to me — chaotic and not really articulable by me — that influenced me in profound ways both times. And I think this is what Boris was talking about, about art, especiallly challenging art, communicating information about the universe that we are not really able to comprehend in any systematic way: we can take a bash at it, we can define & systematize, but the chaotic and big nature of out-there art is precisely powerful because we can’t describe it properly. By it’s nature it’s beyond a complete intellectual definition; so much data referring to so much, interacting with our own particular data processing systems. But somehow there is great value in that process, because it forces me to *try* (we are, after all, so earnest we humans) to process the data, and in doing so I reform my brain paths, and evolve my brain to try to cope with a changing universe.

And this, maybe, is why the free software/open source and open data movement is actually of huge importance. An open source approach to problems, along with an open data approach to the world will allow “us” to a) have access to the data we need to solve problems and b) allow all of us to contribute to the solving of these problems in open source projects.

I have a feeling that the world will become more chaotic soon. Two things in particular make me worried: climate change, and oil supplies. Those two issues are catastrophic in ways that most people aren’t willing to admit: human civilization has developed over a small band of time, the last 10,000 years, with relatively warm & relatively stable climate (scroll down to chart: “Temperature of Lower Atmosphere Last 400,000 years“). If things get unstable, we’ll be in trouble. As for oil everything in our modern world is based on cheap available oil, particularly our food-supply system. Without cheap fuel for farm equipment, and food transport, we’re in big trouble.

So if you consider that:
a) major environmental challenges (ie. global upheaval) are on the way
b) successful organisms are those that best adapt to environmental challenges
c) providing the maximum amount of data to maximum number of people will allow maximum adaptibility
d) and supporting open source solutions to problems is the most flexible & adaptable approach

Then any society that does not support open access to civic data; and open source solutions to problems … is likely to have major troubles soon. This is the next level of democracy … data democracy, and is I think crucial for our survival. Maybe that’s too much; but a country (say Canada) that embraces data democracy, will inevitably become more flexible, more nimble and more innovative in its solutions.

Do you think our politicians are at all ready to think about this? There’s a new, not yet public project, called civicaccess.ca, that will try to convince governments to start. Good work Mike.