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  1. Kara Kara 2007-06-23

    Good stuff, Hugh!

  2. […] How podcasting is going to save the world. How can my skills as a podcaster help solve problems? This is exactly what I was pondering the past few weeks (also to blogging and the rest of my online concoctions). Hugh McGuire did a fantastic presentation about this. […]

  3. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2007-06-25

    If you substituted ‘the invention of printing’ for ‘podcasting’, and imagined it as a presentation given by gutenberg, would most of it still hold true?

    or ‘the invention of television’…

  4. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-25

    sure. it’s all about distribution of data, so to the extent that TV and printing presses promote distribution of more data, they will contribute (in this model) to significant innovation and better problem solving.

    tho i would argue that to some degree, TV has *reduced* the diversity of data distribution, so operates as a killer of innovation.

    but podcasting is just a tiny subset of internet distribution, which is the real story…more powerful because it enables not just distribution of data but also collaborative analysis and implementation of data.

  5. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2007-06-25

    I guess I was (too) subtly suggesting that both printing and TV have failed to solve many of the problems that they seemed to be capable of solving when they first appeared.

    I seem to remember a fake ‘Onion’ newspaper front cover which announced the invention of television as an ‘educational aid’ which would usher in a new era of learning. Perhaps I (and they) are being unfair – perhaps it has.

    The impact of all innovation tends to be poorly foreseen. But I wonder how rational podcasts can help us be, as I feel humans very rarely act rationally. Which has positive and negative consequences. An argument for another day, perhaps…

  6. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-25

    i think you are putting your value judgment on what sort of innovation you’d like to see, but innovation comes from people (individuals, companies, govt, etc) trying to scratch itches, and while we might like to see innovation go in a particular direction, i’m not really talking about some kind of moral quality f innovation, just innovation full stop. life today looks pretty different from life before the press, at least for you and me, so I would suggest that the printing press at least has had a huge impact in increasing innovation and our ability to solve problems (say, standardized plumbing specs). you’d have a hard job to convince me to me that the printing press has NOT allowed innovation on a scale previously impossible maybe unimaginable.

    there’s another question about distribution of innovation, which is important tho. But re: TV, again, I think it’s done a bad job precisely because it does not allow free flow of data, but only tightly controlled – very different from the printing press and the internet, tho i’d be interested to see someone examine that in detail.

    and I don’t think podcasts help us be rational, any more than potatoes do (or something!) … but they help spread diverse data around, which I argue helps us solve problems.

  7. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2007-06-25

    I thought the value judgement _you_ were placing was on – quote – saving the world. So – that kind of innovation.

    Printing and tv, radio etc, all had a huge impact. But none of them saved the world. The improved technology, brought about innovation – certainly. But that seems to be exactly what did not save the world, but rather put the world in the position of needing to be saved. Solved a problem – ‘how can I get my eggs to the market quickly? Ah! a petrol engine!’ – and caused another one. And by a series of rational little steps we make some irrational big ones.

    And potatoes make me rational, but bloated.

  8. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-25

    well, sure, but innovation did all sorts of nice things for human life expectancy, and domination over the world… that it *also* has lead to us into the precarious position of threatening our own existence is a good point, tho, but what are you going to do?

    but what I mean by innovation is: “solving problems we want solved.” that pyramid of human needs (forget what it’s called) is a good start for what motivates innovation, and then things extend out in complexity from there.

    but i don’t see saving the world as moral argument … or rather, i think moral arguments are dubious because they are so shifty. some people think that torture is morally right – required even – because of the supposed results, others disagree. But by and large (almost) everyone agrees that extinction of the human species is not desirable, not so much for moral reasons, but because, well, organisms tend to like surviving.

    anyway, part of how i’ve been thinking about this is that the “moral” justification for the open movement (it’s “good” to make free software and free audio books and free art etc) is not compelling, exactly because so many people disagree about morals.

    i think the much more interesting argument is a pragmatic one: the open movement makes our societies better able to solve problems we want solved.

    that appeals to a totally different – and, i think, more solid – kind of justification, that is more convincing to all sorts of people, not just the lefties like me (who are more or less in a minority in the universe at the moment).

  9. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-25

    oh sorry there’s a bit more, which goes back to that old discussion we had about morality in general:

    my theory is that “morality” is just social codification of behaviours that have proved “effective” over time (at keeping a society healthy, stable, happy). so don’t steal, or commit murder become moral imperatives because they make for more stable, effective societies. sex before marriage is morally unacceptable pre-ubiquitous birth control, because the result is kids out of wedlock, which is an has an unstablizing effect – esp when the mothers are very young. but few still argue (tho there are some) that one should be married before sex … and I argue that the reason for the change is the pragmatic consequences of sex before marriage have changed. and so changes morality.

  10. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2007-06-26

    I wasn’t referring to any kind of morality, as defined by you or me, I was looking at your argument of how podcasting can save the world (acknowledging the deliberate hyperbole of the title, but taking the broad point on board).

    Your broad point, as I understand it, is: That open flow of information between people helps to reduce misunderstanding and increase knowledge, and access to information. Any technology that enhances this free flow of information will enhance the chances of people acting co-operatively to solve global problems, and privately to solve private problems.

    This all sounds fine, and I agree on most levels. My problems with this are:

    1. When people act, they often THINK they are acting in the best interests of society, or themselves, or both. There are many instances in history, however, where later events have shown these well-meaning people to be mistaken. Take missionary efforts into Africa. By the lights of their generation, they were saving the world. (Perhaps I am failing the avoid the morality question here … damn) The consequences were not positive, as we now know.

    2. Any open conversation needs to be open to all. At the moment, there are high technical hurdles to those who wish to be involved in podcasting (or printing, or television). At the moment, the parts of the world that most need saving (shall we agree on ‘saved from starvation’ as saving, for now?) have no ability to hold up their end of the open conversation, so we just end up taking about ourselves. Which leads neatly to my third point…

    3. Language. All human communication (written, broadcast, podcast) needs a shared language between people to be effective. My worry is that our open conversation is between the wealthy in the west, and even more particularly, english speaking westerners. This make english a trophy language, where non-english speaking countries are under pressure to conform to english. The younger generation watch american television, learn to speak english, and dress like americans. The older generation don’t like this, are fearful that their children will adopt the sexual mores of the west, and feel their culture and way of life is under threat. And it is. Perhaps it should be: I don’t know. But I do know that any culture sees its language as central to its identity (Heck – who am I telling, you live in Montreal), and reacts to being under pressure with resentment and hatred. I am a few miles from Wales, and language is still a hot issue there, many hundreds of years after the Saxon invasion.

    I seem to be arguing that a free flow of ideas is a bad thing. I am not. I am saying that a free flow of ideas BETWEEN EQUALS is a good thing. I am fearful of a world where cultures have to conform or die, where english is imposed on unwilling cultures. And the flow of technology suggests this direction.

    Sorry to go on at such length, but this is an issue I wrestle with (internally) a lot, and I rarely get the chance to discuss it. And I have no solution.

  11. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-26

    “Your broad point, as I understand it, is: That open flow of information between people helps to reduce misunderstanding and increase knowledge, and access to information.”

    but that’s not my point! my point is that open flow of diverse information results in innovative solutions to problems. again, this takes a pragmatic approach: rather than saying “misunderstandings are bad” or “access to education is a good thing” etc…(both of which are value judgments that many people clearly disagree with, cf Fox News) … I am saying that more diverse and open information flows means a society better able to solve problems.

    “Any technology that enhances this free flow of information will enhance the chances of people acting co-operatively to solve global problems, and privately to solve private problems.”

    I guess this is about right. With the proviso that the history of the human race is, essentially, the result of efforts to solve problems, small and large scale – which, as you point out above may well create more problems that existed previously.

    re: point 1: I don’t disagree, except all I can do is raise my shoulders and shrug. I argue that access to information is what makes innovative solutions to problems possible. more information for more people means more solutions. that some (or many) of our problems are made worse by our solutions is undeniable… but i still think it’s preferable to structure society in a way to make solutions easier rather than harder. i suppose i have some faith in our ability to make evidence-based decisions, so that the tendency ought to be to make iteratively “better” choices, based on past experience & history, and I *think* maybe the overall tendency works like this. tho clearly the last 6 years of US foreign policy suggests otherwise. one hopes it’s a blip tho. maybe not.

    re: point 2: “Any open conversation needs to be open to all.” … i would tweak that to say: “more data to more people means more innovative solutions.” or rather, if the theory is right, then it implies that society ought to increase data flows in all directions. and, perhaps, one of the most compelling reasons to increase data flows to and from the parts of the world in need of saving, is that it will increase human ability to find innovative solutions. so rather than appealing to an abstract sense of morality, you appeal to the inner pragmatist (what’s in it for me) in us all.

    re: point 3: yup. again … such is the universe, not sure what’s to be done. in the end tho, i’d bet that solving problems finally triumphs over maintaining language. that is, to the extent that adopting another language makes for better outcomes (ie useful problem solving), then that’s the natural tendancy of cultures. tho note, again, I argue that diversity of data flows are important too – so different languages mean data diversity. which is a good thing, in my schema, because it makes for more innovative solutions.

    re: conclusion … the question is, given inequality, what to do? though I must back up a bit and say that my primary interest here is what the canadian government does with the data it collects (ie sells it at high rates, in bad format, with restrictive licenses).

    still, i think much of this is in some sense inevitable, exactly because human tendency is to solve problems, and other concerns – rightly or wrongly – fall by the wayside. If you have the choice between starving, or learning a new language you learn the new language.

    All this does not say that “the internet will solve all our problems” … or the internet should be implemented willy-nilly. In fact just the opposite, by taking this approach, you have a kind of specific pragmatic basis for what the internet might be doing, which means you have a logic for policy decisions, say around access, or net neutrality, or more specifically, goverenment data, that does not appeal to the uncompelling argument: you should do what i want because it is “right.” rather: you should do what I want because it is better.

  12. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2007-06-26

    You say: “rather than saying “misunderstandings are bad” or “access to education is a good thing” etc…(both of which are value judgments that many people clearly disagree with, cf Fox News) … I am saying that more diverse and open information flows means a society better able to solve problems.”

    Isn’t defining something as a ‘problem’ as much a value judgement as anything else?

  13. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-26

    not if you define problems as, “those things which people wish to solve.”

    so, to start: access to oxygen, water, food. then things expand out from there. i’m not saying which problems are good or bad or ought to be solved; i’m saying that more data means more ability to solve problems.

  14. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2007-06-26

    Right. I get it. So the only assumption underpinning all this is, as you say above, that the extinction of the human race is undesirable. And that our inherent problem solving abilities, combined with an open flow of information, will help prevent this.
    And that the greater the flow, the greater potential for problems to be solved.

    I see your point clearly (I think), but my world view is a little more chaotic. I tend to think that humans have a chimp at the controls in their brains, with a PEZ dispenser spitting out happiness when we do what it wants. ‘EAT FAT! Maybe famine tomorrow! EAT SALT! it rare! MAKE BABY! who care she no wife!’ etc etc.

    As a result I feel most of our motivations are confabulations to hide the chimp at the controls. That, and the the law of unintended consequences, will mean that, no matter how good we get at solving problems, we will always be making new ones.

    This has been most enlightening; I had no idea I had so little faith in humanity.

  15. Hugh Hugh 2007-06-26

    yes, kinda. i look at it like this:
    -we are organisms.
    -we live in an environment.
    -natural selection works on us just like it does on mosquitos and badgers.
    -natural selection favours certain physical traits, but also certain behaviours
    -we adapt, as a system (ie as cultures/societies), and over time, “successful” adaptations/behvaiours get preserved (in cultural codifications, some of which we call “morality”), unsuccessful ones disappear.
    -we are “somewhat” self-reflexive about our adaptations
    -but in the end we are subject to the exact same forces as every other organism… and even our self-reflexiveness is nothing but another characteristic, that for whatever reason has been a successful adaptation for humans.
    -so, on a grand scale, culture, intelligence, internet, art, soccer, etc, are all manifestations of behaviours that may or may not help us succeed (in the darwinian sense) in our environment.
    -i would argue that that’s a good reason to support, say art and sports in schools, since they have done a good job so far and we ignore past success at our peril

  16. […] posted is superb presentation, how data will save the world, hopefully I’ll get to see it presented live at some point but the slides are a good read in […]

  17. […] have proposed a LibriVox talk, based on the presentation will I did at Podcasters Across Borders (slides and audio + transcript […]

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