hacking the noosphere

by Hugh

I had dinner with one of my favourite web writers last week, Jon Udell (along with a collection of other Montreal datahounds and web citizens). I like Jon’s stuff because he writes not about exploring the outer edge of the snowplow; but rather taking things from the snowplow blade and figuring out how they might make our lives and societies better. I think so much in the world of tech is about making the technology better, and we don’t spend nearly enough time wondering about the impacts or how we can really use these things to imporve lives. He gave a talk, while in Montreal, that I missed, but luckily he put the whole thing up on the web.

Coincidently, Jon’s talk starts with reference to Teilhard de Chardin, who I have been (re)reading about in Annie Dillard’s extraordinary book, For the Time Being (seems to be unavailable in Canada).

In any case, here’s an interesting anecdote from Doug Engelbart, that forms the centre of Jon’s great talk:

On that day, as a young engineer, [Doug Engelbart] suddenly stopped what he was doing and asked himself: Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of this technology that fascinates and compels me?

After wandering around in a kind of revelatory trance for a couple of hours, the answer came to him. He realized that, as a species and a civilization, we were facing serious challenges to our survival.

Now that was sixty years ago, during an era of post World War II optimism, when the limits we’re facing today weren’t so apparent to most people.

Those limits are a lot more evident nowadays, and our political and economic systems are poorly adapted to deal with them. We need to reengineer those systems, in dramatic ways.

To do that, we’ll need to mobilize the collective intelligence necessary to figure out what needs to be done, and the collective will necessary to accomplish it.

So, how do we do that?

Engelbart’s vision is crystal clear. It’s a vision of human augmentation. We need to augment human capability in certain ways. In particular, we need to create — and project our minds into — a shared information space that works like a planetary associative memory.

And we need to populate that shared space with tools that support and amplify and extend our natural ability to analyze, visualize, simulate, decide, and act.

Fifteen years ago that would have sounded nearly as fantastic as Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. Today, if we look sideways at the web and squint, we can see the picture coming into focus.

But as William Gibson famously said, the future is unevenly distributed. In this case, what mostly isn’t here is the part where we come together in shared online spaces, with shared tools and information, to analyze, visualize, simulate, decide, and act — on a planetary scale.

The good news is that we can hack this problem. I absolutely believe that we can. But we’re going to have to hack it at a different level than the one at which the computer and information sciences have historically tended to operate.


Unfortunately we do have a tendency to hack the wrong things. I guess because we tend to think first, and best, about the protocols that enable machines and applications and services to work together, instead of about the protocols that enable people to work together — in a context that is defined, but only partly defined, by machines and applications and services.

Ultimately, the right hacks are the ones that help people make sense of their world, and collectively improve it. And the right level is the level of human cognition, attention, intention, and desire.

And (heh) I just finished reading Jon’s talk, and lo, there was a nice reference to LibriVox and me …

Another example, one that happens to be Montreal-based, is LibriVox, the collaborative project to make audio recordings of public domain books. For quite a while the whole project ran on nothing fancier than an online bulletin board. A lot of us here, me included, would have been tempted to write a soup-to-nuts database-backed application to support that project, because that’s what we’re good at, and that’s what we like to do.

But when I saw how the project really works, I realized that would have been a mistake. Like Wikipedia, LibriVox is actually powered by a set of agreements and protocols and traditions. You can imagine encoding those in software, and the project’s founder — Hugh McGuire — might have wanted to, if he’d had access to the right kind of software talent. But he didn’t, which was almost certainly a good thing. Because the agreements and protocols and traditions weren’t known ahead of time, they had to emerge from the collective. As it turned out, a bulletin board — with its weak structure and loose coupling — was exactly the right way to nurture that emergence.

Over time, those loose structures have begun to coalesce. There’s a database behind LibriVox now, but the project still doesn’t feel like a database application, it’s more like a bulletin board that’s been enhanced with some database features. The real innovation continues to be in the agreements and protocols and traditions that attract, reward, and sustain contributors. LibriVox is a success not because of any particular bit of technical hackery, but because of Hugh McGuire’s inspired social hackery.

Which requires a couple of notes, LibriVox is not really Montreal-based … it lives independently on the web, and almost it’s only Montrealness is me, and the odd chapter read by other Montrealers. Also, while I may have had some inspired social hackery, there sure were a lot of people who were just as inspired.

Have a read of the whole thing here.