Cory Doctorow’s Makers

One of the things that I liked about Cory Doctorow’s Makers is that he didn’t write for the screen. Sometimes perfectly fine novels include chase scenes, combat with vehicles, emotionally resonant moments with interesting landscapes, ensemble dramatic climaxes, and other gratuitous moments seemingly designed with a film advance in mind. Doctorow’s Makers avoids these cliches. The structure sprawls, and several climactic moments happen over un-filmable email and online chat.

The sprawl of Makers is mostly a strength. A classic story has a setup, dramatic middle, and resolution. The dramatic arc of Makers takes its characters – a team of technology entrepreneurs and the journalist who helps to publicize and create the market for their innovations – through a couple of boom and bust cycles, and back again to the creative impulse that got them started. The emotional arc of the story seems to come from the experience of having lived through the dotcom boom, and subsequent boom and bust cycles in the tech and overall economy. As a novel of ideas about the evolution and integration of promising technologies, the book rejects the beginning-middle-end structure that is misleading in the context of a longer trajectory. Technology changes, business cards change, business models change, but people’s motivations and tensions replay in each cycle.

Doctorow’s future scenario has emerging technologies paired with business process innovations. Makers imagines a boom in micro-fabrication, accompanied by quickly-assembled networks to produce and distribute the innovations. After a bust in the microfab market, there is a boomlet in theme parks built on the detritus of the first boom. The theme parks are built and re-assembled by microfab robots, collaboratively designed with open source, crowd-sourced processes. The fun of the book is the way the book pictures the crazy particulars of this future – a car being driven by a set of robots assembled from parts of Elmo dolls, a narrative story that starts to emerge from the flow of a collaboratively created amusement park ride.

In Makers, the social, economic and legal trends remain fundamentally the same while technology changes. The US remains on a downward path toward away from first world status, with growing gap between rich and poor. One of the big opportunities for the microfab market is cheap products for the growing market of people who live in shantytowns. Cheap space for startup businesses is found in abandoned malls and big box store buildings around the country left behind by the early-century real estate bust.

The social and legal stasis in the world of Makers is particularly interesting. Consumer brands retain great power to create images and to market products, even as the power to make things decentralizes. At the beginning of the story, the Disney Corporation, and the legal defense of old business models of IP protection remain in place. Large corporations retain power, are still slow-moving and bureaucratic, and absorb the innovative products and creative energies of entrepreneurs who sell to them.

Perhaps this telling represents pessimism about the slower change of social structures in the face of technical change. At the least, it is a dramatized argument against the techno-deterministic viewpoint that technical change will inevitably lead to social and political changes.

Makers focuses on several trends, and doesn’t develop other trends that could be powerful forces in the coming years. The book only barely touches on energy and material resource issues. The communications technology seems like a straight extrapolation of a couple of years ago. Characters remain dependent on email. Twitter is a continued presense, but social networks don’t play a major role in communications. It’s fine by me that Doctorow varies some factors in his future scenarios and leaves others constant – there is plenty of fodder remaining for future books!

While the book’s richly-imagined, evolving future scenarios belie simple techno-deterministic models, the episodic structure and sprawl also shows some signs of attention deficit. The microfab boom, like the dotcom boom, ends in a spectacular crash. The explanation is that the transformative technology couldn’t generate hoped-for economic returns. But the internet revolution also left behind slower but far-reaching change. Markets for travel, maps, books, news, music, voice and other information-rich services are fundamentally different and still changing fifteen years later. Makers does a less good job of imagining the ways that things get fundamentally different after the microfab revolution, and the ways the economy might be different if more economic activity could be performed by quickly-assembled small networks of workers.

One side plot is the emergence of “Fatkins”, a boom in biotech-fueled weight loss that creates a new class of formerly fat people who pursue hedonistic lives with their new slim bodies. But the book doesn’t follow through broader themes of body transformation that might have occurred given the same technology revolution. Another side plot is a subculture of “goths” who are the target market for a subdivision of Disney, and join the open source ride revolution when it happens. These are two intriguing examples, but the book doesn’t deeply follow through the concept of cross-geographical lifestyle tribes.

Basically, it’s easier to brainstorm and imagine a few entertaining outcomes of a promising idea than it is to fully develop the idea’s consequences. The book displays on a larger canvas the esthetic manifested in the Boing Boing blog that Doctorow has co-edited for years – it is an imaginative, relentlessly miscellaneous compendium of novelties. It illustrates trends but is inconsistent in exploring them.

The previous Cory Doctorow novel I read was Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I enjoyed the book, but thought its treatment of ideas was somewhat shallow, and its plot and characterization were more shallow. I thought that book would have been a lot better if Doctorow had spent many times longer writing and editing it.

Makers has much more of an emotional core – I found some of the key moments really moving. The characterization isn’t Shakespeare but is much more interesting than the earlier book. And Makers does a good job of imaginatively envisioning potential consequences of current trends. It still seems to me that with his talent, activism, and globe-trotting life, Cory Doctorow can get away with publishing books that would be even better if he edited them more.

The book’s not perfect, but I liked it a lot, I recommend it, and I’m enjoying the author’s maturation as a writer.

Rybczynski’s chairs – on architectural layers in social design

One of my favorite pieces of writing on design is the section in Witold Rybczinski’s Home on the history of the chair. Comfortable, cushioned sitting tools are a relatively recent development in human history. Chairs didn’t start with the goal of comfort. In ancient times, rulers sat upon thrones, and “during the middle ages, the prime function of the chair was ceremonial. The man who sat was important – hence the term chairman.”

Comfortable chairs, says Rybczinski, as well as other elements of furniture design and layout for comfort and relaxation, were pioneered in eighteenth century France. “Sitting was no longer only ritualistic or functional, but became a form of relaxation. People sat together to listen to music, to have conversations, to play cards. A new sense of leisure was reflected in their sitting positions: gentlemen leaned back and sat with their legs crossed–a new posture– and ladies reclined.” To support these social practices, movable chairs and tables were developed to support varying “informal groupings, around a tea table, or in groups for conversations.” (This is the root of the French word for furniture, “meubles” or “movables”; contrasting with earlier fixed-design seating that was chosen and located by the architect).

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand elaborates on the notion of different layers of physical design that have different levels of flexibility. Decorations like pictures and lamps and pillows are easiest to modify, followed by furniture, then things like paint and wallpaper and rugs, then doors, indoor walls, windows, then outdoor walls and foundations. Some layers change very slowly (over decades, or even centuries), while other layers may change every 5 years, and some every year or two, or even months depending on the decorating zeal of residents. Buildings evolve to keep up with the needs of their inhabitants, and are designed with these different layers that are relatively more or less easy to change. (The materials vary depending on economic circumstance but not the fact of changeability, for example, used milk-crates are at the low-cost level of modular design).

Physical social design has come up recently in a few social contexts. A set of people was seeking a space for an enjoyable group discussion. The place we chose had comfy chairs, a long, low table, several little movable stools, and a mid-volume level of background noise. It was clear from the physical design that there would be conversational clumps at either end of the long table, and there were going to be several conversations, rather wasn’t going to be one conversation. As people gathered, I moved the little stools around the long table so there could be a few clusters of conversation, at each end and in the middle. The decorators of the room created a space that would be easier to use for some purposes than others. Then, as a facilitator of conversation, I moved chairs around to help foster interchange.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a public session that was structured as a panel – but I wanted a very high degree of interactivity. I set up the open space as a broken circle – the “panel” as an shorter arc in the front, and the “audience” as three longer arcs completing the circular form. This supported the format I wanted to set up, with the panel “privileged” to get first crack at the discussion topics, but the overall group facing each other, for back-and-forth interchange, in which “audience” members, including individuals who were steeped in the topic, were expected to be providing alternative answers and points of view, not just asking questions of panelists as the designated experts in the room.

The social experience of the get-togethers I just described is influenced, but not determined by the furniture and the layout of the furniture.

The first get-together had congenial, slowly-shifting conversations, shaped by existing connections, interpersonal discovery knitting together new relations among people linked by multiple-second-degree connections, sets of common interests, and shared patterns of conversation. As a co-host I tried to very lightly encourage the formation of new connections by introducing people and gradually getting out of the way, and focusing myself on newer connections. But the same furniture layout would also support more animated, mobile conversation among a group of students at one-stop in a several-stop social evening, or conversation that is more personal, but more formal among a set of couples where some of the partners know each other barely; or intimate coded exchanges and intermittent high-voltage friction among family members gathering at a ritual time; or any number of other possible social patterns in the same set.

The second get-together successfully achieved a highly interactive, back-and-forth group discussion in a group of about 40 people. People were quite eager to contribute; as a facilitator, I tried to draw out the connections between different comments, and to help get people expand on the ideas and feelings they expressed in their comments. Other possible outcomes with that same format might have been a passive audience, with facilitators striving to draw out participation; or contentious group exchanging highly argumentative opinions; or a situation where anti-social members attempted to dominate speaking time or attack other participants. A more traditional panel format would have had brief presentations from each speaker, then panelists responding serially to questions by a moderator, then short time remaining for questions, where the audience addresses their questions to the panelists as designated experts.

Above the layer of the physical design, there are layers of social circumstance, of the temperaments and interests of participants, of cultural and subcultural social norms, of shared social practices such as social-host introductions, panel structure and meeting facilitation, practices for handling disputes and social boundaries. And then there is the conversation itself, that combination of ritual and small-talk gestures, interpersonal dynamics, and complex improvisational exchange of thoughts and feelings that creates the one-time and irreduceable experience.

Conversations about design; whether physical design or online design sometimes short-circuit the role of the designer, making assumptions that the design itself determines the social experiences within the constraints of the physical or virtual space. My recent post on platforms for change is only one example of the argument that architecture and design determine experience. This is a fallacy – there are layers of context, social practice, and social interchange above the physical or virtual design that create the experience.

Design, whether physical or virtual, influences social experience, but doesn’t determine it.

Platforms for change

Yesterday at TEDxSV, Reid Hoffman spoke about the opportunity for low-cost, highly-scalable internet platforms that can engage millions in social change. These platforms, Reid envisions, will take advantage of the ability of open source projects to self-organize to harness small contributions to make a large difference. Examples included and Facebook Causes. Hoffman is currently a VC at Greylock partners, was an early PayPal employee, founded LinkedIn, and (disclosure) was an early investor in Socialtext.

The trends Hoffman described are interesting and promising, but they are not enough. As an example of the failure of large-scale internet activism, think of the trend for users to turn Twitter avatars green in support of people in Iran protesting the election. The green avatars raised awareness outside Iran but had negligable impact on what happened in Iran.

The next presentation from Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson revealed several layers that were missing in Hoffman’s talk. Carson is best known for his work editing the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, but he got his start researching the work of Bob Moses, whose pioneering community organizing with SNCC enabled poor black folk in Mississippi to build courage, skills and leadership abilities. The charismatic leadership of Dr. King inspired millions to protest segregation and press for civil rights; the less-glamorous, on-the-ground work of developing local participants and leaders laid the foundation for longterm transformation; and the disintegration of SNCC into violent spinoffs made King’s emphasis on nonviolence seem more prophetic in retrospect.

Hoffman’s vision of a platform for change is missing the layers of inspiration and organizing. Tools can lower the cost of coordinating and taking action. But tools themselves do not inspire people with the vision and hope to make a change. And tools themselves do not provide the organizing methods to give courage and leadership skills among people in the community. There is a layer of inspired leadership above the tools. There is a layer of organizing above the tools.

The well-known example of the Obama campaign’s use of social networking for fund-raising and organizing supports this distinction. The campaign used its social networking and campaign data tools well, but it was Obama’s inspiration and the fear of Bush administration failure that provided the drive, and the community-based, personalized, and highly-co-ordinated organizing methods that enabled large numbers of people to take effective advantage of the tools.

There are a few additional elements in the layers above the tools. First is the design and leadership of self-organization. Reid Hoffman talked about the ability of open source projects to “self-organize” and break work up into many small contributions. But in the Obama campaign, and in large open source projects such as Linux and Apache, there is substantial human effort involved in coordinating project roadmaps, making technical decisions at many levels, coordinating code integration, and more. From a distance, it looks like open source projects are “self-organized,” and contributions flow to the project like streams to the Amazon to the ocean. Closer in, there are sophisticated practices of governance that are different from the centralized processes of traditional corporate development, but that still require human effort.

Second is the connection of online to offline. Hoffman was particularly skeptical about this element, seeing that offline connections add friction to otherwise simpler, more viral on-line only programs. But in order to catalyze real change in the world, there needs to be connection to people’s real world social networks, and to the levers of power that operate in the real world. Without this offline connection, we are often left with ineffectual green avatars and no change in the world.

In summary, Reid Hoffman’s presentation sketched a vision of internet-powered, low-cost, scalable platforms for self-organized change. As Silicon Valley tech innovators, we are often tempted to consider technology as the determining factor in social change. But the change enabled by new platforms is likely to be trivial without the presense of other layers of practice above the tools that long predate the internet: visionary leadership, grass-roots organizing to empower participants, effective co-ordination of decentralized action, and connection to realworld networks and actions.

FB new privacy settings – a contrarian positive view

Facebook’s privacy changes are drawing a lot of fire, but they work pretty well for me, and are at bottom a positive change. But the way Facebook presents these changes is untrustworthy, and makes the company seem even more untrustworthy than they are being.

Facebook now makes it easier for you to share information with the world, and to make that choice on a post-by-post basis, and to share posts with a specific set of people. In the past, I didn’t share much on Facebook because the conversation would be walled off – no discovery, no memory. Now it will be more appealing to share discussion topics.

Many people perceived Facebook as a comfortable space where they could share private thoughts, but that has never been true for me. My Facebook friend set is a weird mix of family members, high-school/college alums, political folk, business contacts, and personal friends. There aren’t many topics that I want to share with all of those audiences, and it wasn’t possible to target a post to a particular set.

Facebook’s new post-sharing mechanism is a couple of excess clicks away from being brilliant. For each post, you can choose to share a post with a specific friend list – so I can send a message to political friends, or family, or music fans, etc. The only problem is that it takes too many clicks to do this. The option is a bit hidden – then the top level of the option set is the abstract “friends, friends-of-friends, networks” – only at the third level is the choice to target a post to a list.

All together, the ability to share openly, plus a greater ability to target posts to lists, make Facebook a much more congenial place for me to share information and start conversations.

The one thing I hate is their mandated sharing of information with applications. This is a consumer rights problem, an incentive not to use Facebook applications – and call for protest.

A lot of the to-do is in the change of expectations – Facebook’s model was socially construed to be about privacy, while Twitter’s model was socially construed to be about sharing – so people have a strong emotional reaction about the change in model – even if the underlying capabilities still allow a lot of privacy – and allow *more* control over what you share to whom.

And a lot of the to-do is in the obnoxious and clumsy way that Facebook presents the changes – it encourages people to open everything up all at once. It’s still hard to understand, and comes with the kind of smarmy, it’s in your own good language you expect from corporations that are imposing sneakily anti-customer policy updates on customers. Facebook does not come off as very trustworthy, even as they are making underlying changes that make the product better.

Facebook has a large enough audience and stickiness because of the people, that people will stick around to adapt to the changes, and Facebook will become more useful as a result. I still dream of the day when we will have truly decentralized social networks, where individuals manage their own information, and share as they please, without being sharecroppers to a social network plantation, where our identity and information is the product being grown and sold.

Talk to each other – moderation in public forums

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates maintains a consistently lively, interesting, respectful discussion section on his blog. The combination of substance and civility is maintained with a firm hand on moderation – people who don’t follow the rules are out. He posted his moderation policy, in response to an influx of new readers. In the policy, Coates called out an item that seems striking in our culture of conversation. Coates insists that his commenters actually talk to each other.

When a commenter responds to another participant, he or she must respond to what that person actually said, not a straw man version of it. A commenter who makes straw man arguments in bad faith is quickly banned. A commenter who misreads someone else’s point, out of passion, speed, or misunderstanding, is coached to respond directly, and to quote the person to ensure they are responding directly.

This practice of talking to each other runs counter to the norms of much of our culture’s public discourse. Anyone who has media training knows that in public forums, you plan your points ahead of time, and then repeat the points you planned, matching those pre-planned points as close as possible. Given the characteristics of mass media, where soundbites will be taken out of context, a speaker needs to be extremely polished and prepared to reduce the likelihood of being mis-interpreted. Also, in a political context, extreme positions are used to stake out debate turf, and addressing a point directly can give credibility to a bad frame. By saying “I understand that you doubt human-caused climate change, but the evidence is clear” – you re-iterate the opponent’s point. There are good reasons, in political discussions, to speak over the heads of the immediate people you’re talking to to reach a broader audience. Similar techniques are used in a business context, where someone representing a company is expected to stay on message.

Even in more informal, less risky settings, such as a collegial panel discussion at a conference, people tend to start with talking points. In response to an overall topic, each panelist will recite talking points. A follow-up to another panelist will be in terms of one’s own talking points. Creating an original response runs the risk of sounding unpolished or incoherent, so speakers take the safe route and repeat programmed answers. Facilitators are accustomed to move topics along, so they don’t often ask follow-up questions to clarify and expand on the initial point.

I had this discussion in the last week with folk including Kevin Marks, Jeannie Logozzo, Adrian Chan and Heather Gold in response to some panel discussions at the Supernova conference, where informed, thoughtful facilitators and panelists still held discussions that sometimes contained more fragments of speeches then current engagement with new ideas and with each other. Heather is leading a series of workshops to help people get beyond soundbites to authentic engagement in public forums.

The concept of actually talking to each other – in an in-person public forum, or an online forum such as a high-profile blog discussion, is so out-of-character to the norms of our public discourse that the proposed alternatives seem shocking.

Moderation in general is critical for a good public discussion. See this piece from Sarah Granger about the dangers of ignoring the need for moderation. The comments section in a post expressing political opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle quickly devolved into trolling, and comments were shut down. The Chronicle has had a lax moderation policy, and its comments sections frequently resemble Lord of the Flies.

In software, some basic tools are needed to enable moderation and facilitation. In safer intranet environments fewer explicit features are needed. Large public forums with many strangers need much more explicit tools. Over an above the features, we need to have practices and norms of facilitation and moderation. Starting with the strange concept of actually talking to each other.

Van Zandt and Yeats – Enchantment and Oblivion

This image from Townes Van Zandt’s At My Window sounds awfully like an echo of William Butler Yeats.

Time flows
through brave beginnings
she leaves her endings
beneath our feet
walk lightly
upon their faces
leave gentle traces
upon their sleep

Here’s the short Yeats poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” is one of the more memorable lines in the English canon. It would be surprising to me if this wasn’t a deliberate allusion.  Assuming that the quote’s on purpose, what is Van Zandt doing with the Yeats?

The Yeats poem is about hope – the narrator lays out his aspirations to the listener and hopes they are treated gently. In Van Zandt poem, the narrator also asks the listener to tread lightly, but the fragile floor-covering represents the remainder of things that have ended.* Yeats’ narrator is poor but hopeful – he offers his dreams to the listener. TVZ’s narrator is down on his luck and high on heroin “Three dimes / hard luck and good times / fast lines and low rhymes.”

Yeats’ envisions night-time as enchanted – the blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half light. Van Zandt’s nightfall is a more uneasy place “At my window watching the sun go/hoping the stars know/it’s time to shine” – maybe the stars won’t come out and the night will stay black. Yeats’ magical night-time is a representation of heaven. Van Zandt’s nightfall is an allusion to death without afterlife “Living is laughing / dying says nothing at all”

Not to forget sheer style – Yeats’ early lyric style is notoriously pretty; Van Zandt has one of the better lyric ears in the language for whatever my opinion is worth; and Van Zandt carries the tradition without sounding precious. (“Aloft” is a little poetic, but so is “enwrought”.) Yeats uses the lyric style to convey enchantment. TVZ conveys a feeling of being tranquilized. Feel fine / feel low and lazy / feel grey and hazy / feel far away.

If Townes Van Zandt is quoting Yeats, he is doing something rather different with a similar image in related style – Yeat’s poem is a vision of hope; Townes’ lyric is a vision of oblivion.

*The image of walking over sleeping faces also brings to mind Tolkien’s dead marshes; Van Zandt is also known to have read Tolkein, maybe he’s quoting that too?