April 23, 2006
To blog or not to blog

A little while back, Trevor Butterworth had a good rant about blogging in the FT Magazine. He argued - through a series of interviews with the blogging literati - that blogging has overstayed its welcome and isn't quite as revolutionary as everybody seems to think it is. He set up his argument like this:

"Shouldn't we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one - especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn't the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?"

I've seen this kind of 'blogophobia' creep into conversations over the past few months. When I was in Canada, it came up in a seminar when one person said he didn't want think tanks to undermine political parties in the way that blogs undermine newspapers. He then talked about the unaccountability, bias and hyper-immediacy of blogging, taking it as a given that blogging was A Bad Thing.

Butterworth basically takes the same line, but I think it's mistaken, or at least misses the point. Saying blogs are bad is like saying the telephone is evil. Yes, all technology comes with its own biases and rules that shape social uses of it. But blogging rules are pretty good, or at least pretty democratic: it encourages debate, it encourages decentralisation, the barriers to entry are very low. Now, I recognise that each of those comes with downsides, but I think the overall effect is very positive.

And blogs aren't causing the shift away from newspapers - hundreds of forces are busy doing that (the narrow-mindedness of many media professionals for one) - but they are accelerating it, particularly for people in their teens and twenties, the people who were walking away from newspapers anyway. A few years back I was going to run a project on the decline of newspapers and I did a quick tour of newspaper editors and publishers to see who might be able to help. Most people denied there was a problem (of course) but one editor said yep, we were right and actually it was worse than we thought. He said his strategy was to completely embrace the internet and that it was starting to work. Sure circulation was falling - although there are always ways of massaging the figures - but internet readership was rocketing and advertising meant that the web now turned a profit. He said this was just the beginning and he was confident that he was in the best position of any of the UK newspapers for the next decade. I'll leave you to guess which editor that was.

There is one part of Butterworth's argument that I agree with:

"...[blogging] renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence."

Or as one commenter in the blog set up to discuss the piece writes eloquently (ironically enough): "The first draft of history is still somehow nobler than the scribbled, easily misplaced notes of it."

I think that's fair enough. I haven't read many blog postings that have changed my world or become seared into my memory like certain features or books I can think of. In his piece Butterworth asked all the bloggers whether they thought Orwell would have made a good blogger. It was a kind of trap because Orwell was notably better writer when holed away for months at a time. Butterworth notes, "any writer of talent needs the time and peace to produce work that has a chance of enduring."

Books are my first love and hopefully I'll start work on one later this year. But I'm trying to work out how to mix blogging and writing. I don't think any of the above precludes using a blog as a tool in the writing of a book, as a way of gathering information and advice and testing the arguments as I go, but I might be wrong. There seem to be two models: Steven Johnson doesn't even mention the fact that he's writing a particular book until it's finished while Chris Anderson and John Battelle set up 'book blogs' that make sure people know and can get involved.

I'm going to try the latter and will launch the site in a few weeks time but I know I'll need to work hard to find the 'time and peace' Butterworth talks about. Advice gratefully received.

Posted by Paul Miller at 12:41 PM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2006
Get back in the box

Douglas Rushkoff has written an excellent new book called Get Back In The Box. I've been reading it on the beach in Kerala after picking up a copy in Bangalore airport. Not that I'm rubbing it in or anything.

I hesitate to call it a business book, although that's definitely the market it's aimed at, because it's much more about the implications of changes in personal outlooks and social organisation. It reinforces much of what Paul Skidmore and I wrote in Disorganisation.

The basic point of the book is that innovation happens when you know your stuff, enjoy your job and the organisation's aims and ambitions are in line with those of its employees and customers. Except he tells that story much more convincingly - peppered with interesting and relevant examples.

I've been a Rushkoff fan since 2003 when we brought him over to London to launch the pamphlet he wrote for Demos called Open Source Democracy (some of the book is actually drawn from it). The pamphlet was alright but didn't have the zing of the new book. What really got me were the talks and the discussions that Rushkoff gave and the chats I had with him in between times. I guess I fell for his overall philosophy of work, or play as it should really be described.

Between them Doug Rushkoff, Steven Johnson, Pat Kane and Charlie Leadbeater had quite a lot to do with my decision to go freelance at the end of last year. It wasn't necessarily what they wrote that got me, but meeting them, talking to them and realising that at heart, like them, I have a play ethic not a work ethic - I like experimenting and pushing the system rather than just working within it.

Hopefully Rushkoff's new book will convince a few organisations to become more hospitable places to play.

Posted by Paul Miller at 04:26 PM | Comments (2)

October 26, 2005
About Time

I spent a wonderful evening yesterday chatting about a new book that my former colleagues at Forum for the Future have put together called About Time. Loads of interesting links to the project I'm working on next year in London in partnership with the Long Now Foundation (who, incidentally, have just unveiled the next version of the 10,000 year clock).

As we were talking about the effect of speed on our lives, I couldn't help thinking about a bit of Mostly Harmless where Arthur Dent ends up on a planet called Lamuella:

"The days were just a little over twenty-five hours long, which basically meant an extra hour in bed every single day and, of course, having regularly to reset his watch, which Arthur rather enjoyed doing.

He also felt at home with the number of suns and moons which Lamuella had - one of each - as opposed to some of the planets he'd fetched up on from time to time which had had ridiculous numbers of them.

The planet orbited its single sun every three hundred days, which was a good number because it meant the year didn't drag by. The moon orbited Lamuella just over nine times a year, which meant that a month was a little over thirty days, which was absolutely perfect because it gave you a little more time to get things done in. It was not merely reassuringly like Earth, it was actually rather an improvement."

Posted by Paul Miller at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)

August 09, 2005
What the Dormouse said

My new computer arrived last week. A sleek, silver new Apple PowerBook to replace an aging iBook that was beginning to creak. As I took the new machine out of its box I felt I understood a little better what went into it because I've just read an excellent book. What The Dormouse Said is John Markoff's history of the personal computer, charting the path taken by the lab pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s through to the homebrew computer club and then on to the names that we all know today like Apple and Microsoft.

It's a fascinating tale, compellingly told, focusing on the context for the development of the technology, rather than the technology itself. Markoff takes us through the characters, the protest politics, the sex and drugs and the desire to do things in new ways. The book's subtitle is 'how the 60s counterculture shaped the personal computer industry' and Markoff makes a very convincing case that it has.

There were two themes in the book that I thought were particularly interesting. The first is the tension best summed up in Stewart Brand's famous phrase "information wants to be free and information also wants to be very expensive". On the one hand you had Bill Gates who believed (and still believes) that the best way to produce software is to reward the people who create it. On the other you had a culture of sharing and collaborating. The original 'open letter to hobbyists' Gates sent to members of the Homebrew Club who had stolen the code for BASIC on paper tape is included in the book but could easily have been written by the Microsoft Press Office last week. It's a perennial clash of civilisations.

Sure Gates became the world's richest man but over time MS is losing its monopoly as the 'other way' develops new ways of collaborating. What the Markoff book does for me is show the deep heritage of openness and collaboration in the networked age and how it is built into both the technology and the ways we use the technology. It's not just a question of licensing. So I'm optimistic.

But there is a second thing that is really striking about the philosophy of the pioneers. Within moments of getting my PowerBook out of the box, I had it connected to vast amounts of information, knowledge and experience. I realised very quickly that I am an 'augmented' human. I can do things that people couldn't before the PC pioneers like Doug Engelbart who set about to improve human intelligence and creativity through technology. Cheesy as the adverts are I can rip, mix, burn. I can create.

I'm editing a book about human enhancement at the moment (due out next year) and one thing that interests me is the collective implications of individual enhancement. Kevin Kelly has called the human/technological collective The Machine in a recent Wired article. That has connotations of disempowerment (Kevin’s book Out Of Control partially inspired The Matrix) that I don't like and that don't fit my experience but the dynamics of what he's talking about I think are very interesting.

Posted by Paul Miller at 07:47 PM | Comments (0)