hacking the noosphere

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.

Categories: data

history’s best charts

…over at datalibre.ca on your way to the economist.

Categories: art, data

the shape of the waves

Ever wonder what those wifi and rfid and gsm waves in the air actually *look* like?

Sorta like this:


See more fictional radio spaces here.

[via infoesthetics]

how much to know you’re poor?

Tracey posted this over at Datalibre.ca …:

There is an excellent article in the Toronto Star about why we have little understanding about the social demographic situation in Canada! Bref! No one can afford the research! In the article Truth carries a painful user fee; Carol Goar tells it like it is right now in Canada when it comes to access to our public data:

The United Way of Greater Toronto had to pay the agency $28,000 for government data showing that family poverty deepened in Toronto between 2000 and 2005, while low-income households made modest gains everywhere else.

It had to spend its donors’ money to prove that Toronto has the lowest median income of any major urban centre in the country.

It had to dip into its charitable givings to marshal evidence – already collected at taxpayers’ expense – that a one-size-fits-all poverty strategy won’t work for Toronto.

Categories: art, data, friendsprojects

barcamp sketch

Matt sketched barcampmtl#3:

barcamp comic

That’s me yammering about data.

Categories: data

like google maps, but more internetty

The Whole Internet:

Yes, we map all 4,294,967,296 IP addresses onto a huge image and let you zoom into it and pan around. Just like google maps, but more internetty.

Categories: data, technology

Ministry of Communication Limitations

… I refer to the big cellphone carriers as the “Soviet ministries.” Like the old bureaucracies of communism, they sit athwart the market, breaking the link between the producers of goods and services and the people who use them…

From the wall street journal.

Categories: data, neutrality, politics

green party’s net policies

The Green Party, reports Michael Geist, put out it’s policy document.

Have not looked thru it yet, but there’s support for network neutrality:

Supporting the free flow of information

The Internet has become an essential tool in knowledge storage and the free flow of information between citizens. It is playing a critical role in democratizing communications and society as a whole. There are corporations that want to control the content of information on the internet and alter the free flow of information by giving preferential treatment to those who pay extra for faster service.

Our Vision

The Green Party of Canada is committed to the original design principle of the internet – network neutrality: the idea that a maximally useful public information network treats all content, sites, and platforms equally, thus allowing the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application.

Green Solutions

Green Party MPs will:

* Pass legislation granting the Internet in Canada the status of Common Carrier – prohibiting Internet Service Providers from discriminating due to content while freeing them from liability for content transmitted through their systems.

and free/open source software:

Open source computer software

As computer hardware improves, it is important that software programs are readily modifiable by the people who buy and use them. Developing alongside the proprietary software sector is Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS). This software is generally available at little or no cost, making it very popular in the developing world. It can be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed with little or no restriction. Businesses can adapt the software to their specific needs.

Under the free software business model, vendors may charge a fee for distribution and offer paid support and customization services. Free software gives users the ability to work together enhancing and refining the programs they use. It is a pure public good rather than a private good.

Our Vision

The Green Party supports the goals and ideals of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) and believes that Canada’s competitiveness in global information technology (IT) will be greatly enhanced by strongly supporting FLOSS.

Green Solutions

Green Party MPs will:

* Ensure that all new software developed for or by government is based on open standards and encourage and support a nationwide transition to FLOSS in all critical government IT systems. This will make Canada’s IT infrastructure more secure and robust, lower administration and licensing costs and develop IT skills.
* Support the transition to FLOSS throughout the educational system

I’d say it would be worth asking them what they think of civic access to canadian government data.

Categories: data, politics

can the government just give it away?

[cross-posted at datalibre.ca]

The Guardian UK Tech Section has an ongoing campaign to free UK government data, with an associated blog: freeourdata.org.uk/blog.

Their campaign inspired a response from the Ordnance Survey titled:
These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free
. The response argues that the maps cost money, that the OS needs money to operate, and that by charging for the maps they can continue to provide a valuable service. Among other things:

It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

If we are successful, we can cover our costs, encourage widespread licensing through partners, and stay focused on providing value for users. Under licence, there are many examples where our data is free at the point of use. This does not mean there is zero cost.

[Interesting to note that the OS’s clients, much like statscan clients, are “users,” not citizens].

The Free Our Data people responded to response in their blog, noting the key reason for their campaign:

We believe [making OS data and maps free] would set off an explosion in private-sector use of the data, and lead to more companies which would create more jobs and generate more taxes. That would offset any extra taxation required to fund OS. Making the data free would also get rid of onerous and inefficient licensing schemes that tangle up central and local government departments, which wonder if they can reuse something or even display it on the web. (Search this blog for NEPHO.)

And that was followed by further response from Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, the authors of the Power of Information, who say:

The key issue about charging is whether the UK would benefit more in net terms from the more vibrant information market that more open information would bring than it would lose through having to find an additional £60m per year. This is a serious question that the Treasury is currently looking into, having accepted the recommendation in the independent review we co-authored for the government earlier this year.

[link to complete letter].

Which garnered some further feedback from the Free Our Data.

And in the end this is a compelling case, perhaps the compelling case: a case that ought to convince you whatever your political leanings, right or left or circular. There are moral and social and philosophical reasons to support free government data. But the one that’s most likely to win converts is the case that free data makes for more innovation. The innovation can be commercial, social, socioeconomic – touching on health, environment, planning, equality etc, but also just good old-fashioned economic vitality.

But all of it, we’d argue, will “make Canada a better country” not just morally, but in our ability to solve important problems, and, yes, make some people more money in the mean time. Which means, in the end, more tax receipts, which means that it should offset any lost revenues Statscan and other Canadian agencies now receive for excluding all but big companies and institutions from their datasets.

Categories: data, web


MoveMyData looks interesting:

Your content and data should be yours to manage and do with as you please. Your images, writing, tags, profile, blog entries, comments, testimonials, video, and music should be yours to download and move anyplace you want.

We will help ensure that no website ever holds your data hostage.


I have not played with it yet, but I love the idea. Has anyone taken it for a testdrive?

PS I love the graphics on the site. A site that looks like that just *has* to be made by good people.