Hugh McGuire

publishing, technology, media, philosophy, a bit of politics.

Information Society, Circa 1981

I think this guy was on to something, when he wrote this in 1980:

In the information society (1) information, the axis of socio-economic development, will be produced by the information utility … a computer-based public infrastructure … (2) self-production of information by users will increase; information will accumulate, (3) this accumulated information will expand through synergetic production and shared utilization and (4) the economy will change structurally from an exchange economy to a synergetic economy …

[openbook booknumber=”0930242157″]

Let Us Consult the Web Before We Reach Our Verdict!

Young jurors want to check this stuff out on the web, not listen to a bunch of people yammer on, says the Telegraph:

In a speech, Lord Judge of Draycote, the Lord Chief Justice, said it might be better to present information for young jurors on screens because that is how they were used to digesting information.

He said: “Most are technologically proficient. Many get much information from the internet. They consult and refer to it. They are not listening. They are reading. “One potential problem is whether, learning as they do in this way, they will be accustomed, as we were, to listening for prolonged periods.

“Even if they have the ability to endure hours and days of sitting listening, how long would it be before some ask for the information on which they have to make their decision to be provided in forms which adapt to modern technology? [more…]

Knitted Animation: Tricot Machine

Knitted animation, a music video of the song Les peaux de lièvres, from Montreal band Tricot Machine… wow:

[via Knitguy]

Obama, Web Entrepreneur

Interesting article in the WSJ, about that scrappy entrepreneur, Barack Obama:

If Barack Obama ran for president by calling for a heavier hand of government, he also won by running one of the most entrepreneurial campaigns in history.

Will he now grasp the lesson his campaign offers as he crafts policies aimed at reigniting the national economy? Amid a recession, two wars, and a global financial crisis, will he come to see that unleashing the entrepreneur is the best way to raise the revenue he needs for his lofty priorities?

Like every entrepreneur, Mr. Obama’s rise was improbable. An unusually-named, African-American first-term senator defeated two of the most powerful incumbent political brands, the Clintons and John McCain. Like many upstarts, he won by changing the rules of the game.

Mr. Obama, following FDR’s mastery of radio and JFK’s success on TV, is the first candidate to fully exploit the Web. The community organizer seemed to realize that new social networking and video technologies were perfect for politics. It didn’t hurt that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes worked for the campaign. “What ultimately transformed the presidential race,” Joshua Green of The Atlantic wrote in June, “was not the money that poured in from Silicon Valley but the technology and the ethos.”

The results of Mr. Obama’s decentralized Web effort were staggering: 8,000 Web-based affinity groups, 50,000 local events, 1.5 million Web volunteers, and 3.1 million donors who contributed almost $700 million. Republicans, Charlie Cook reported on Nov. 3, believe their large but impersonal centralized databases could not match the tacit knowledge, individual initiative and agility of Mr. Obama’s diffuse social networks.

Such creativity could bubble up because Mr. Obama was stable at the top. Not just anyone could recruit an army of volunteers and let them run free, establishing their own networks, offices and events. Because Mr. McCain lurched from one message and tactic to the next with dramatic frequency, his supporters froze. They spent more time defending or deciphering his shifting policies and tactics than they did organizing and persuading. Mr. Obama’s even temper and relentlessly consistent message, on the other hand, encouraged supporters to take risks without the worry of being blindsided.[more…]

The article goes on to argue for laissez-faire economic policies and deregulation, much of which I don’t agree with. Experience at LibriVox tells me that what leads to success is a clear objective, backed up with carefully designed regulation that clarifies what people can/can’t do, and *then* the widest amount of freedom possible, within set constraints. Obviously LibriVox ain’t the United States, but unleashing individual creativity is still about balancing openness with clear boundaries, and that’s the challenge Obama has, writ not just large, but world-wide.

Outlook Bleak for China & the Rest of Us

One part of the recent economic picture has been the too-cheap credit that has kept us all feeling really rich for the past decade. In the most famous story about this problem, cheap credit meant many people bought houses they couldn’t afford, and we all know what happened there. When the bad mortgage market collapsed – as it had to do, since it was built on fantasy demand – the housing market went with it, wiping out apparent wealth people had invested in their homes. Initially people here talked as if it was a problem specific to the USA, and that the Canadian real estate market and economy would be fine, since our banking and real estate sectors are significantly more conservative. The fundamentals of the Canadian economy were fine (whenever you hear that, you can assume the opposite).

The problem is that while our banking and mortgage systems might have been in better shape, the underlying demand for real estate is driven by the health of the overall economy. 30% of our GDP is generated by direct exports (not counting the significant spinoff economic activity that comes with those exports). 81% of our exports go to the ravenous USA. So, with a little bit of math you can conclude that if the US stops buying, Canada’s economy is up the creak.

And the problem is that the “cheap credit” problem was hardly confined to the real estate market. It’s in every bit of the economy. Credit was sloshing around everywhere, and that means spending everywhere: corporate mergers and acquisitions, new business, expansions, small business loans and student loans, car financing, luxury good purchases, lots of jobs for lawyers, accountants, and every kind of supplier to the big and little companies you can imagine, including web designers. Credit sloshing means we all feel rich, since there’s lots of cheap money to invest in new projects, lots of money and work to spread around.

But starting with the mortgage crisis, credit started drying up. All of a sudden the the rosy prospects for the whole economy contracted greatly. With credit expected to be no longer cheap, all the big spending ways of companies and governments and individuals, and all the VC money starts to tighten.

Imagine you have a platinum card, $100,000, and you spend accordingly, assuming you’ll be able to pay it off later. Then all of a sudden your card gets cut to a $1,000 limit. You’re going to spend less money: fewer trips, fewer gold necklaces, fewer iPhones. And each company that used to benefit from your largesse will feel the pinch too.

That’s why the stock markets have plunged. Because as each company’s credit has dried up, they are likely to buy less (services, materials etc). And since each company is likely to buy less, each supplier sees drops in their orders across the board. So everything is going down down down.

Since the stock market has long been a proxy for “health of the economy,” at least in the media, a shudder of terror went through just about everyone as the Dow, Footsie and TSX (and the rest of them) started to tank. But in some sense I get the feeling that people still think this is an abstract problem, with impacts on their RRSP statements, mutual fund holdings and stock portfolios, robbing them of significant paper wealth, but not quite linked to the day to day of life.

Of course it is: the result will be job losses across the board.

And then there is another problem: China.

While cheap credit was one reason we’ve all felt so rich the last decade or so, the other part of the equation is China’s manufacturing sector. Ever notice how cheap things are these days? You look at an item, say a BarBQ at Costco, and you just can’t figure out how something with so many components, materials, weighing tens of kilos, could have been assembled, built and shipped to you for such a low price. It often doesn’t make any sense, but we haven’t really bothered to care about that, we’ve just happily bought and bought more.

I worked for an environmental tech R&D company for a while, and one of our main products was a power inverter for alternative energy sources. A major part of the inverter was printed circuit boards. To get prototypes built here in Canada cost about $350 a piece, and took several weeks. To get the same thing from China too several days, including shipping, and cost $35 a piece.

That’s 10% of the Canadian price, and while I’m sure workers are paid poorly in China, I had trouble squaring such a price difference.

And the problem is that our whole economy is built on Chinese imports – of consumer goods sure, but just about everything now has Chinese components somewhere or other, especially anything in the hightech sector.

So if there is a problem in Chinese pricing, and if there is a real readjustment, then we’re all going to face the consequences. Here’s what Avner Mandelman has to say in today’s Globe:

You see, China, like Nortel and Japan and Soviet Russia, has been selling most things below true cost – which is the direct cost of production plus the cost of capital – and thus lost money on much of what it produced, and so destroyed much of its capital. A company that does so must eventually lay off workers and go bust. China, in my opinion, now faces similar risks, which Mr. Wen finally admitted.

Why does China sell below true cost? Because it is a dictatorship that wants to keep its restive people employed, and so, like (democratic) Japan before it, it keeps throwing good savings at bogus products. I say bogus because if you sell below true cost you create fictitious demand that otherwise wouldn’t be there had the product been priced realistically. Thus the large factory you built to satisfy the goosed-up demand cannot be rebuilt once it wears out because you didn’t include depreciation in the product’s price.

What this means is that we’ve been rich based on two simultaneous fantasies: cheap credit and cheap goods from China. But cheap credit eventually dries up, and the cheap goods from China have essentially been sold at below cost, meaning China’s whole economy could come tumbling down.

It’s hard to figure out how all of this will play out. After all, China owns much of the US’s debt, and China can only keep it’s economy going if the US keeps buying. So everyone has an interest in keeping the fantasy going, but the laws of physics, I fear, are going to get in the way eventually.

All that to say, things might be much worse than we think they are. I hope not.

Wifi and Space

Wi-fi structures and people shapes, from Dan Hill:

One of the ideas I’ve been exploring relates to how urban industry – in the widest sense of the word – in the knowledge economy is often invisible, at least immediately and in situ. Whereas urban industry would once have produced thick plumes of smoke or deafening sheets of sound, today’s information-rich environments – like the State Library of Queensland, or a contemporary office – are places of still, quiet production, with few sensory side-effects. We see people everywhere, faces lit by their open laptops, yet no evidence of their production. They could be using Facebook, Photoshop, Excel or Processing. [more…]

wifi structures

Udell on the NYTimes

Jon Udell on the NYTimes:

The newspaper industry has surely earned this kind of scathing criticism. And it may well fail to capitalize on the amazing opportunities for self-reinvention afforded by the Internet. But the Times is attracting an all-star team of information architects, interactive graphics designers, programmers, and media producers. And according to Gabriel Dance and Shan Carter, these folks are increasingly collaborating with reporters to marshall complex information in ways that make the newspaper’s stories deeper and more open to independent analysis and interpretation.

So I’ll say it differently: When the lights go on at the New York Times, our work can start. [more…]

feria: a poempark & movie

My friend Oana Avasilichioaei recently released her latest book of poetry, feria: a poempark (amazon link):

Oana Avasilichioaei deftly dismantles language and landscape in a whirling collection of poetry. feria is a poetic frolic in Vancouver’s Hastings Park eluding boundaries of landscape, time and narrative. Avasilichioaei writes and rewrites over this image, interpreting its evolving layers. Park and book coincide, and the author finds herself asking what is natural, what is language, and whose voices are we listening to. This is a book that pulls the reader into a wild ride, leaving you breathless but exilirated by the end.

Part of the project included shooting a beautiful film, which was done by another friend of mine, Theirry Collins:

Obama on Tech

This is when I got sold on Obama, his June 2006 podcast about net neutrality. Have a listen. Speak my language? Yeah:

The topic today is net neutrality. The internet today is an open platform where the demand for websites and services dictates success. You’ve got barriers to entry that are low and equal for all comers. And it’s because the internet is a neutral platform that I can put on this podcast and transmit it over the internet without having to go through some corporate media middleman. I can say what I want without censorship. I don’t have to pay a special charge. But the big telephone and cable companies want to change the internet as we know it. They say they want to create high-speed lanes on the internet and strike exclusive contractual arrangements with internet content-providers for access to those high-speed lanes. Those of us who can’t pony up the cash for these high-speed connections will be relegated to the slow lanes. [more…] [mp3]

I don’t know how Obama’s presidency is going to go, and I don’t hold my breath for any miracles. Any president of the USA has one hell of a challenge on his (or her) hands, and the O-man has inherited a bigger mess than anyone can clean up.

But, man if he wanted to make me happy, he could not have started in a place nearer to my heart than his Tech/Science platform, released today. First para:

The Problem: We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us. We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.

A datalibrists dream.

Whether Obama can do what he plans or not, I don’t know. He may be great or he may be terrible: we’ll find out. But I am happy that on day 2, I feel, frankly, more excited by the concrete vision described here than in all the talk of hope and renewal that had me cheering with the rest over the past few months.

See the rest of the platform here.

Let’s hope whoever wins the looming Quebec election has such vision.

LibriVox on O’Reilly

O’Reilly TOC blog has an interview with … me! …. about LibriVox:

LibriVox is a volunteer effort with a big goal: record audiobook editions for every title in the public domain. In the following Q&A, LibriVox founder Hugh McGuire discusses the project’s beginnings, the organic development of the LibriVox community, and the distinctions (or lack thereof) between “professional” and “amateur” efforts. [more…]