Weeknotes

Maybe. Maybe they won’t be every week. Maybe more thoughts than notes.

Having stopped contributing actively to the Digital Life Collective, my plan for October and November is to explore ideas for how co-operatives could play a useful role in enabling sensibly-governed and managed next generation technologies (and what those technologies might be).

The obvious technologies are ones which address the concerns most often expressed about the tech we have today — such as control over personal data. However, most people won’t pay, or pay more, for privacy, or to have more control over personal information. This is sad, but also offers hope — privacy and agency shouldn’t be premium goods, only available to the wealthy. Knowing this we can create services that people choose for other reasons, such as convenience, good design, useful functionality. (This is not news — folks like Aral Balkan have been saying it for years.) I think there are other things we need to be designing for too — such as resilience (so important services keep operating, at least somewhat, even when things go wrong), and maintaining a balance between security, safety and sustainability.

But getting the tech right isn’t enough. We need business models which enable it to get out into the world, to be useful, and ownership and control models that give confidence. (The much-amplified announcement of Solid’s new commercial vehicle is rather light on details on both of these. Solid has been around a while — the commercial model is where any interest would be, therefore.) Whilst the kind of technologies I find most interesting are emerging from the lab, and usually need investment up front to make them real, there are increasingly more investment options for co-ops and businesses which want to avoid the growth and exit treadmill of venture capital funds. I’ve started a crowd-sourced list of funding and support programmes, especially for UK organisations, here. Contributions welcome.

There is something in the space of distributed systems, and distributed ledger concepts, which suggests potential deployment models might exist (this by George Danezis is a good piece about this space, and how we got here). Chainspace is on my list of things to dig into more, along with HOLO/holochain, RChain, Hashgraph, and Sovrin.

I had a rather more pragmatic conversation about near term ways co-ops could start to offer regular folks everyday internet services with Nathan Schneider. Nathan has been thinking about these things for a long time, as part of a progression from the collective ideas of Occupy after the financial crisis. His new book, Everything for Everyone, is a great read and much livelier and more thoughtful than the title might suggest. From our conversation, the main thought I was left with was how modern internet services have become very impersonal and alienating. It’s not just the business models, but the huge scale, and the feel of the experience of using it. Nathan talked about May First and the very different relationship he feels he has with the organisation, and the technology. The idea of more local technology, with real people behind it, which is delivered in alignment with the community’s values, feels like a powerful one. It doesn’t mean you can’t build scale infrastructure — but that the parts of the technology and support services people encounter are appropriate for them. It’s easy to imagine open source infrastructure, built to open standards, with local or small-scale instantiations and carefully designed and operated services.

I’ve also been writing up the Festival of Maintenance, at which Adrian McEwen reminded me of a poster I took a photo of in an Istanbul community space.

P J O’Rourke quote on a poster

In the recent week in which I co-organised the launch of the Trust & Technology Initiative at Cambridge, I commented that despite my grandiose title of entrepreneur in residence most of my work was admin, very basic project management and menial tasks. A friend said:

These days I think most crazy venturing, even of the actually, physical crazy venturing type is mainly that kind of stuff.
I think most adventure doesn’t get done because no one can be arsed to do boring stuff for the vague possibility of a distant and maybe unrewarding reward. Some of that is the risk taking in the sense of acceptable losses (and you need to be in a position in life to be able to take a risk, which not everyone is), but a lot of it is probably coping with slog that may well achieve nothing.

There’s a lot in that.

Ella Fitzsimmons’s wonderful slide deck about the stories of tech and how it is made crossed my desk this week too, exploring the problems of focussing on heroics and heroes in entrepreneurship (check out slide 28 onwards, or watch Ella’s talk).

In a University common room, I ended up in a conversation about how we showcase business entrepreneur role models, and train and encourage our students and academics to create businesses, especially in tech; and how we don’t do this at all for social ventures, charities, new movements and communities. Despite academia being a great place to catalyse a new field, set up an NGO or charity, or kickstart a campaign, we don’t really talk about this as a possibility, or offer support. We also talked about the work often being very practical — not the idea of a new thing, but the readiness to fundraise, to manage a team, and so on. Doing the dishes.

This social entrepreneurship needs different skills and knowhow, and whilst I’m pretty sure there are some good resources out there for social change-makers, they are probably harder to find unless you already know the lingo. It feels like it might be useful to gather some good resources together, so they can be made available to folks in the University world — unless maybe there’s already something like this (links very welcome!). (Social entrepreneurship is distinct from social enterprise, which tends to be purpose plus profit, not purpose before profit, or even just purpose.)

So quite a few disparate conversations, but a surprising amount of overlap in the ideas.