23 November 2010

Crowdsourcing Intelligence and Foresight

James Surowiecki had an interesting and meme-worthy idea when he published his 2004 bestseller, The Wisdom of the Crowds. However, when reduced to its simplest ad absurdum, the concept breaks down in ways that are hugely problematic. It is not necessarily the case that an arbitrarily large group of poorly informed, often disengaged, and self-interested individuals will magically coalesce into a wisdom-dispensing oracle. Nonetheless, it is also the case that, putting aside disengagement, collective cynicism, apathy, and selfish interest, together we are all smarter (which is why I release most of my stuff under Creative Commons).

National security, going beyond the current burlesque sideshows at airports, is quite another matter. Its practitioners and purveyors are certainly engaged and often overly informed. (That they have multiple self-interested, ideological, and political interests is another matter.) However, a case can be made that the massive interactions among a myriad of environmental, economic, social, technological, cultural, philosophical, and yes, political circumstances and factors suggests that the more minds that can be directed towards the extreme complexity of global problems, the better.

Such is the case made by Carol Dumaine, a deputy director in the Office of Intelligence and Counter-intelligence at the US Department of Energy. Writing in Seed Magazine, she proposes a Global Foresight Commons that:
would expose discoveries, assessment processes, and foresight methodologies to the evaluation of a larger and more diverse community of people than currently possible. A single agency, government, or nation could not achieve the requisite diversity, involving millions of participants worldwide, that such a global foresight commons would entail. It would need to evolve organically, initially in a bottom-up fashion, with an international mix of early contributors, and would eventually need to attract the support of organizations that encourage their members to contribute their ideas to the commons. This system can be thought of as a robust and strategic form of Wikipedia, but with capacities for globally distributed synthesis, and for evaluation of non-proprietary, non-classified, forward-looking assessments: a “StrategicPedia,” as it were.
Interestingly, she echoes Marshall McLuhan's opinion of the artist, the person who lives their lives on the edge that demarcates the future from the present.
The gift of the artist is to reperceive the present by thinking what no one else has thought about. Great artists—and great scientists—detect the early tremors of seismic change in society, politics, technology, religion, and philosophy and represent the world as they see it through new eyes and new understanding. But the shock of the new often challenges orthodoxy, branding many creative minds as threats to the stability of society.
Sadly, governments are BAH organizations. I know of not a single one that has either the foresight or fortitude to give up what a government (and those individuals drawn to exercising the power of government) crave: control. To succeed, a proposal such as that which Carole Dumaine suggests must acknowledge that its participants are actually engaged in a UCaPP endeavour, and hence, must embrace principles of a UCaPP organization. A foundational principle of UCaPP leadership is that the leader must cede control to be able to create an environment of individual autonomy, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability. This, of course, is anathema to conventional (pseudo-)democratic processes based on partisan politics and geopolitical neo-liberal ideologies that are driving most of the Western world today. It also stands in stark opposition to what is presumed to be the risk-reducing, best-practice-du-jour based on a cult-of-the-experts, not to mention the experts' vested interest in their own expertise. Such abdication of true UCaPP leadership (by those who may have been elected to high office, but are often not worthy of those positions by any objective qualification) inevitably results in a collective inability to employ novel methodologies, to seek undiscovered possibilities, and to draw on the associative pattern-discerning power of para-disciplinary minds. UCaPP leaders welcome dissent in the context of a culture of inquiry; demands for compliance and hewing to a party line poorly serve a complex, massively interconnected world.

What Carol Dumaine proposes may be radical, but it is far from new. She simply points out that solving complex problems during a disruptive periods of change - like the one through which we are now living - necessitates Renaissance minds, "what Leonardo da Vinci called saper vedere, or knowing how to see. Da Vinci’s relentless questioning of everything challenged the conventions and taboos of his time."

The challenge is not to see what no one else can see, but to think new things about that which everyone already sees.

21 November 2010

Not Your Father’s (or Mother’s) Normal: The future of “new-television,” at the Television Bureau of Canada

On Friday, I had the opportunity to speak to the annual Sales Advisory Conference of the Television Bureau of Canada. This is an organization representing all of the major broadcasters in Canada; this meeting was concerned specifically with the future of the business side of television—advertising, marketing, and demographic shift research. The theme of their conference was “The New Normal,” and they asked me to speak about the future of television and television advertising. Here are some ideas that I introduced to the attentive and responsive crowd at the Four Seasons Yorkville on Friday morning.

As I derive in detail in No Educator Left Behind, our understanding of the term, “mass media,” changes with each change in cultural epoch. In the primary oral society of ancient, Periclean Athens, there was no mass media since there were no masses (as we have constructed that concept). The first mass media was literally “media IN masses” during the manuscript culture dominated by the medieval Church—people were instructed how to conduct their lives by those who had command of the (literate) Word of God in masses. But when Gutenberg began printing the bible on a moveable-type press, he signalled the beginning of the transition to what McLuhan calls, The Gutenberg Galaxy, in which information – mostly fragmented and segmented – can be “cast broadly” or broadcast. Media in masses transforms to become media FOR the masses, a conceptual understanding whose dominance persisted through to the 20th century.

Now, however, as we have come through the break boundary into the UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) era (which occurred in 1995), the construction of the term, mass media, once again changes. It is no longer media for the masses, but media BY the masses. weblogs and wikis—publishing and the press by the masses; podcasts—radio by the masses; YouTube, Vimeo, Revver, BlipTV—television and cinema by the masses. And all of these represent a profound change from the Enlightenment model in which a sole author creates an artefact and “casts it broadly” using the technology of the day. Rather, all of these UCaPP technologies enable a mash-up/remix culture of collaborative construction in which new cultural creations emerge from prior creations in a process that is consistent with an ethos of sustainability: produce, reuse and recycle, and from the reusing and recycling, produce some more.

We now create a media ecosystem that includes both the artefact itself plus all of its contextual links that give it meaning in our contemporary, massively interconnected, UCaPP world. In particular, that ecosystem includes attention hooks that attract us to that media parcel, and those hooks link us in to the rest of the environment that includes the artefacts, the happenings, and the people, that almost magically emerge and appear in our individual and collective consciousness. Any given media artefact enables the emergence of a sort of complex, media ecosystem, more like a strange attractor in complexity terms, or what I have taken to calling a strange media attractor.

Similarly, audience itself is interconnected in diverse and complex ways via the media artefacts themselves, and these contextual links. It can no longer be simply understood as multi-way divisible demographic groups, but rather is complex and emergent, depending on the influencing factors of the myriad interconnections and experiences. The more diverse the environment enabled by the strange media attractor, the more robust is the emergent audience that is produced. The more the audience is produced, the stronger the strange media attractor becomes, to be reused, recycled, continually producing and reproducing each other. This, by the way, is the complexity science explanation for what you might otherwise call media branding in the UCaPP world.

In the same way that mass media are no longer mass media, and audiences are no longer audiences—television is no longer television. The key to understanding the future of television, or “new-television,” centres on appreciating the nature of complex, emergent audiences and how they interact with multi-modal, strange media attractors—these diverse collections and collaborations that include conventional content, a wide range of diverse experiences and interactions, often enabled by technology like apps, that span both the physical and cyber-worlds, and connection with and proximity to, other people.

Interestingly, the role of broadcasters remains largely the same in the UCaPP (business) world: they deliver audiences to advertisers. In this respect, the two largest broadcasters in the world are Facebook and Google. Google – now the world’s largest advertising company – their nominal claim to fame is that they became really effective at sending people away. When they started in 1996, this was a revolutionary idea, because at the time, the biggest marketing issue for websites was how to make themselves more sticky. Google succeeded because they became tremendously skilled at sending its users away to where they really wanted to be.

Facebook, on the other hand, became tremendously successful at bringing people together in all sorts of different configurations of events, and groups, and especially collaboratively constructed, shared experiences. Together with Craigslist, Facebook and Google deliver more consumers to more advertisers than any other organization in the world. They don’t explicitly seek to own content and regardless of what some might say with respect to privacy concerns, they don’t even seek to own you. I would think of them more like Hotel California—you can check out anytime you like – especially with your credit card – but you can never leave.

What Google and Facebook do especially well among their various properties and affiliates is they create emergent, complex audiences. They, themselves, are the strongest of the strange media attractors. They are open, they’re relatively agnostic with respect to specific content, and they don’t judge. Whether it’s YouTube enabling the emergent audience for Old Spice Guy, wrapped up and delivered to Proctor and Gamble, or Zynga’s addictive but annoying Facebook games, Farmville and Mafia Wars, the most successful broadcasters in today’s UCaPP world do one thing and one thing only, and they do it exceptionally well: They enable and create emergent, complex audiences. They make it easy and cheap for consumers to access the content they want. They make it easy and cheap for those consumers to be delivered into the hands of the advertisers. And, most important, they make it the most natural thing in the world for people who are ubiquitously connected to experience pervasive proximity, with other like-minded people, and coalesce into that complex, emergent audience around whichever media attractor wants to do business with them, no matter how strange they might be.

From these various understandings, and from the lessons (apparently not completely) learned by the recording industry, I was able to suggest some specific, recommended tactics and strategies for the television industry, based on openness, collaboration with a complex, emergent audience, focused on developing and monetizing these new, strange media attractors. Based on the individual responses from many of the attendees, I was able to provide some useful food for thought. There may yet be hope for an anticipatory transformation of the television industry, at least here in Canada, in a time of “The New Normal.”

12 November 2010

CBC's Quirks and Quarks 35th Anniversary Show

I had the privilege of being invited as a panelist for CBC's renowned science program, Quirks and Quarks' 35th Anniversary Show. The show will be broadcast live tomorrow, Saturday, November 13 at noon in all time zones, and streamed live from the CBC Radio One site (drop down the "Listen" tab from the top menu bar; you can choose which feed you'd like).

The show provides an outstanding survey of developments among many diverse areas of science and tech that have occurred (or should I say evolved) over the 35-year history of one of CBC's flagship programs. On the panel will be:
Cosmology: Dr. Barth Netterfield, Professor of Observational Cosmology, in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, at the University of Toronto

Neuroscience: Dr. Jody Culham, Associate Professor specializing in Neuro-Imaging, in the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario

Climate Science: Dr. Danny Harvey, Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography and Planning, at the University of Toronto

Renewable Energy: Dr. Aimy Bazylak, Assistant Professor of Micro-scale Energy Systems, in the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, at the University of Toronto

Planetary Science: Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, and Professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, at the University of Toronto.

Genetics: Dr. Marla Sokolowski, Professor of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Genetics at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

Fundamental Physics: Dr. Lee Smolin: Faculty Member, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

Ecology: Dr. Madhur Anand, Canada Research Chair in Global Ecological Change, and Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph

Human Evolution: Dr. Shawn Lehman, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, at the University of Toronto

Technology: Dr. Mark Federman, Independent business and technology consultant. He was previously Chief Strategist at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

Listen on-air Saturday, or download the podcasts. Either way, it's well worth the listen!