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Masters of Networks 3: designing the future of online debate

Back in the day, the emergence of the global Internet was saluted with joy and hope by lovers of democracy. Many activists saw an opportunity for an electronic agora, endowed with always-on operations mode and total recall, that would finally deliver an Athenian-style participatory democracy at the planetary scale, and win power to the collective intelligence of people. It turned out things were not so simple. Online communities have been around for at least 30 years: some of them led interesting, deep debates, and even built amazing things like Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap; others, not so much. A large-scale participatory democracy is very far from being realized.

Masters of Networks 3: communities is an event that tries to learn from the experience of 30 years of online debate. Why is debate fruitful and creative in some contexts, sterile and conflictual in others? Are there reliable tests for a debate’s good health? Can we predict how conversations will evolve? We will tackle these questions starting from a key idea: any conversation, both on- and offline, is a network of interactions across humans, i.e. a social network. In the course of the CATALYST project, Wikitalia and its partners have built Edgesense, a simple software for real-time, interactive network analysis of online communities (video demoexample).

Masters of Networks 3: communities is a two-day hackathon for network scientists, active members of online communities and people interested in participatory democracy to get together, discuss these themes and make sense of what we already know about them. We will visualize and analize the networks of several online communities, using the deep knowledge of its active members and moderators as our guiding star; our goal is figuring out what a “healthy” conversation network looks like, and if we can tell them apart from the networks of “sick” conversations (too conflictual, superficial, polarized etc.).

Masters of Networks 2: communities happens in Rome on 10-11 March 2015. Several scientists, developers and community managers from the CATALYST project will attend, but we have set aside about ten places to allow any interested person to participate. In particular, if you are running an online community and would like to visualize and analyze its interaction network, we can probably help – get in touch and we will see what we can do. Participation is free, but registration is necessary – go here to register. The working language will be English.

I will be there. I think this is a central issue; I tried to argue as much in the video below

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

World without marketing: the hacker utopia of 31C3

31C3 was my first-ever Chaos Communication Congress. If you have never come across it, CCC (or “the Congress” – Wikipedia) is Europe’s largest and most venerable hacker conference, organized since 1984 by the Chaos Computer Club, which in turn is Europe’s oldest and largest hackers association (founded 1981). It is estimated that 12,000 people participated in it. Like everyone else, I absolutely loved it. So many things made me and my fellow travelers (I participated in the Edgeryders assembly) feel welcome, at home and in awe at the same time:

  1. The intellectual firepower. These guys will gladly crowd a lecture on elliptical curve cryptography at 10.00 pm on a Saturday night, then head off to a session on how to design antenna arrays based on Maxwell’s field equations right after.
  2. The playful, take-no-prisoners attitude. You have to love the way the CCC crowd plays with technology, science, philosophy and their own bodies: it’s no holds barred. DJs all night long; the guy 3D printing colorful dildos (by night he plugged the printer next to the dancefloor. I wonder if that was a pickup line?); the internal pneumatic-tube messaging system cheekily nicknamed SeidenStrasse (Silk Road), which is hardly necessary for a conference that boasts having more Internet users and bandwidth than North Korea, but is (apparently) fun to build it, just because you can. The amount of human labor and ingenuity that goes into building stuff that has absolutely no purpose other than being “cool” or “fun” is bewildering. Fun is very serious for this crowd – these are people that will cheerfully dig trenches to lay optic fiber so they get faster Internet at their summer camps.
  3. The wild wild diversity. People from every walk of life showed up to engage in every kind of activity, and there seemed to be a place for everyone (certainly there were toilets for many kinds of creatures). From meditation to bondage workshops from beginners, from gaming to math, from lockpicking to metalworking, from cryptography to cooking. We hanged out a lot with our new friends of Food Hacking Base, who sported some pretty impressive DIY kitchen appliances – and used them to prepare tasty “wormburgers”, based on dried insect larvae. Yum!
  4. The generosity. Most people are at CCC to give something to the community. All workshops I know of were free. You are charged to get in, but 100 EUR is not much for a four-day conference of such a stellar level – I doubt there is much profit in it. Food Hacking Base gave delicious food, free of charge, to anybody who showed up, at any time of the day or of the night.

In the small hours of the third day, when the party was in full swing (with most people dancing, but a few diehards coding away on their laptops, two meters from the dancefloor), it finally hit home: I had not seen a single advertisement in the whole conference (if you don’t count laptop stickers). 31C3 is the most marketing-free public space I have ever been in throughout my entire adult life – OK, except the small, radical events like Living On The Edge, but those are a hundred times smaller. It felt just great to be in a social space, enjoying the company of others, with no pressure whatsoever to buy stuff so that you can conform to some ideal archetype.

It cannot be easy for the CCC crowd to keep marketeers out of their space. Why do they do it? Do they not need money? With 12,000 people with disposable income, companies must be salivating to brand the Congress.

I suspect there might be a connection between the freedom and creativity of CCC and its disdain of marketing. With the desire machine turned off, the pressure to conform to the rich and beautiful people in the commercials goes away. We get extra space in our brain, which we can reallocate to the full range of crazy stuff we, as a society, are actually interested in. All in all, CCC feels much like the early Internet, where indeed commercial activities were forbidden until 1995.

Don’t get me wrong: I have many friends that work in marketing. I don’t mean to invoke a prejudice against the whole discipline. But, after the taste of a world without marketing in CCC, I wonder how, exactly, that discipline is contributing to the advancement of humanity, and if we would not be better without it.

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

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Striking in the 2010s and the sadness of it all

So, I walked the streets of Brussels today – public transport is down because of La Grève, The Strike. Belgian trade unions are on the warpath because of the new government’s yet-to-be-introduced austerity policies, including a rise of the retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2030. As I walked past the small groups of striking workers manning the picketing lines I could not help feeling sad.

Sadness is not a sentiment normally associated with strikes. Strikers are supposed to be angry; people caught in the fallout of the strikes, like me hiking across the city, are supposed to be annoyed.  So why am I sad at this strike?

In part it is the sheer loneliness of the tableaux vivants I saw as I walked. In the gray winter morning, Belgian strikers huddled around  brasiers to keep warm. They looked present-shocked and lost in a world that they don’t understand. They looked very homogenous: white, middle- to late-middle aged.

But mostly it is this: I think these workers have absolutely no chance in hell to succeed. The demand for welfare (state-provided education, health care, pensions) keeps growing; so far, we have met it by increased government budgets, but they now stand around 40-45% of GDP in most European countries, and it seems politically impossible to further increase taxation. An aging population means that fewer active workers are supporting more pensioners. Persistently high unemployment means fewer people are saving anything at all for their retirement. Persistently low interest rates mean that, even if you do have a job and you have been saving, your pension will be smaller than you planned. And that’s assuming your pension fund managers, desperate for yield, are not buying into the next bubble; that climate change will not drown us all; and so on.

There is no way most countries are not going to raise legal retirement age. In fact, humanity seems on course to reverting to its historical default of old people being poor. The only achievable goal for the striking workers is to hold out a little longer. Manage to retire at current conditions; then join a Pensioners Party and defend the monthly check as long as they possibly can, hopefully dying of old age before defeat. They just might be able to save themselves; there is no way they can save their children. Unionized workers are getting ever older throughout Europe (already in 2010, 52% of the members of Italy’s CGIL – Europe’s largest union – were pensioners). With these numbers, trade unions can’t help taking sides in the generations war. And they will either lose it, or win it, but damn everybody else in the process: the young unemployed, the migrants, the homeless people taking their sleeping bags at Gare du Midi, even their own children.

What a contrast with the generous young people in Edgeryders and elsewhere, scrambling to fix the world’s problems. That includes providing for the elderly: they – we – are experimenting with living together in intergenerational communities like the unMonastery. Most of them have very little money; practically no one has any stability; and yet, so many are willing to show up and make a stand – for all, not just for themselves. Their example humbles me; I just have to step in and try to help. These Belgian workers on strike, on the other hand, are probably very decent human beings, but they are fighting the wrong fight and I will not stand with them.