Sometimes YouTube reminds me of Judge Dredd. Around the age of 13 or 14, I fell in love with the The Judge Dredd role playing game. At that age I floated towards the darker futuristic RPGs like Paranoia and Shadowmancer rather than the fantasy fluff of Dungeons and Dragons. The game is set in MegaCity One and is well summarized in The Indepedent newspaper:
In the 22nd century, the story goes, most of the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable radioactive desert (in 1977, post-apocalypic futures were the only kind imagined). The population of the world is crammed into a few Mega-Cities, where tens of thousands of people are housed in skyscraping City Blocks. Unemployment is total, and the unhinged citizens pass the time in ever crazier ways. They have plastic surgery to make themselves ugly; they eat until they weigh half a tonne each; they take up spot-welding as a hobby; they fly around on jet-powered surfboards. Mostly, they shoot each other, or are shot by the judges, the unaccountable, unemotional government / police force.
This was what the future of mass unemployment looked like with computers and robots doing the serious work and humans left with nothing but frivolity to fill their time. Many of the videos on YouTube hint at this dystopian outcome of surplus time.
But Clay Shirky offers a different vision of what he calls the cognitive surplus in his wonderful book Here Comes Everybody. This is one of the few books that I bought in paper and almost every line in every page is underlined as Clay has such a wonderful way with words. Watch this extraordinary video of him speaking (or read the transcript):
Starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialized world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.
Society never really knows what do do with any surplus at first. (That’s what makes it a surplus.) In this case, we had to find something to do with the sudden spike in surplus hours. The sitcom was our gin, a ready-made response to the crisis of free time. TV has become a half-time job for most citizens of the industrialized world, at an average of 20 hours a week, every week, for decades.
Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.
The value in media is no longer in sources but in flows; when we pool our cognitive surplus, it creates value that doesn’t exist when we operate in isolation. The displacement of TV watching is coming among people who are using more of their time to make things and do things, sometimes alone and sometimes together, and to share those things with others.
So what kinds of things are possible with this cognitive surplus? Recently on YouTube I am finding an increasing number of beautiful videos by amateurs who wanted to teach. Diabetic children make videos showing how to inject insulin, exercise instructors demonstrate four-minute workouts, and enthusiasts explain wikis.
Which is why I was so interested to read the book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. It is a cornucopia of companies collaborating with crowds and he mentions a few in this Tech Nation interview.
InnoCentive, for example, allows companies to post bounties for problems they have not been able to solve internally. People from around the world compete to provide solutions, make money, and basically enjoy using their congitive surprlus. Take Mrs. Sgargetta, an Italian scientist who left academia to look after her family. After she finishes making dinner for the children and putting them to sleep she runs chemical experiments in her kitchen.
In the four years following Sgargetta’s first encounter with InnoCentive, she solved two InnoCentive challenges. In one she invented a type of dye that turned dishwater blue after the correct amount of detergent had been added. Although InnoCentive “seeker” companies are supposed to remain anonymous, Sgargetta later discovered that P&G had filed a patent referencing her and her discovery. She netted $30,000 for her kitchen-brewed coup.
What did you do with your surplus after dinner last night?
Some of the more dispiriting items I receive in my e-mail are Word document attachments. This would be fine if the sender wants me to edit the document but most senders are actually sharing finished documents. And so I get to read through so many changes and comments in CVs that I know the authors would never have wanted me to see. It is sad that so many documents come from NHS staff. And that includes the guardians of UK NHS IT systems, the good people of Connecting for Health.
There are many ways to avoid divulging information in this way, the easiest of which is of course to use open source software like OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office. If you do not want to take this route, however, the USA’s National Security Agency would like to help you. They published a nice guide to the alternatives (Redacting with Confidence PDF or see original NSA website). The guide finds “three common mistakes with MS Word and PDF that lead to most cases of unintentional exposure”:
1. Redaction of Text and Diagrams – Covering text, charts, tables, or diagrams with black rectangles, or highlighting text in black, is a common and effective means of redaction for hardcopy printed materials. It is not effective, in general, for computer documents distributed across computer networks (i.e. in “softcopy” format). The most common mistake is covering text with black.
2. Redaction of Images – Covering up parts of an image with separate graphics such as black rectangles, or making images ‘unreadable’ by reducing their size, has also been used for redaction of hardcopy printed materials. It is generally not effective for computer documents distributed in softcopy form.
3. Meta-data and Document Properties – In addition to the visible content of a document, most office tools, such as MS Word, contain substantial hidden information about the document. This information is often as sensitive as the original document, and its presence in downgraded or sanitized documents has historically led to compromise.
Note that many of these mistakes can also occur inadvertently in document composition. For example, sensitive information in an embedded image can be overlaid with another image during format. Such hidden data can be difficult to be spot during manual review of the softcopy.
The document was originally published back in 2006 and I found it today while going through blog posts I have in draft mode. I guess I was worried about republishing NSA materials, but seeing as MI6 is checking my GMail anyway, I thought I would push out the post.
The reason for the guide was to avoid the US military divulging information like they did in the case of the Italian intelligence officer they killed in Iraq, also in 2006:
U.S. military commanders in Iraq released a long-awaited report of the American investigation into the fatal shooting of an Italian agent escorting a freed hostage through a security checkpoint. In order to give the classified report the widest possible distribution, officials posted the document on the military’s “Multinational Force-Iraq” Web site in Adobe’s portable document format, or PDF. The report was heavily redacted, with sections obscured by black boxes.
Within hours, however, readers in the blogosphere had discovered that the classified information would appear if the text was copied and pasted into Microsoft Word or any other word-processing program. Stars and Stripes, the Department of Defense newspaper, noted that the classified sections of the report covered “the securing of checkpoints, as well as specifics concerning how soldiers manned the checkpoint where the Italian intelligence officer was killed. In the past, Pentagon officials have repeatedly refused to discuss such details, citing security concerns.” Soon after, the report was removed from the Web site.
I hope clinicians learn from this before releasing their Word and PDF documents.
As the markets crash rumbles on, it is time for a little fun with forecasting. Of course I have to begin with the traditional quotation that “It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future.” I believe that came from the philosopher Yogi Berra. Today on the BBC’s Business Daily I heard ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont quoting a statistician who said “the past had its own uncertainty, though on the whole, it wasn’t as great as that of the future”. That is because statistics about the past also change and come with their own uncertainties.
But I would like to turn to the Ladies Home Journal December 1900 issue which ran an article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”. I heard about this in a lecture by Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research, about the quality of predictions.
Many of the predictions came out close, for example, that “Trains will run two miles a minute, normally”, “There will be air-ships” and “Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance”. Some are sad because they once were true but are now slipping away: “A university education will be free to every man and woman”. And others are worrying because they might come true – “There will be no wild animals except in menageries” – although at the time the prediction was made as an advance waiting to happen.
But my firm favorite is:
There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other.
It is time for this prediktion to kome true!
I often think about what I would like to teach my children. Aside from the lessons I hope to pass on to them that I learned from my parents – a love of learning, a respect for others, and a commitment to doing the right thing – I hope to teach my daughter (or, hopefully, daughters!) to be arrogant.
For the rest of this post you should know that I do know that everyone is different and that generalizations should not be used against individuals. But there are some worrying generalizations about women that I would hope to teach any daughter of mine to avoid.
First, Women Don’t Ask. That is the title of a book by two women who were furious when their research uncovered how rarely women ask for raises. Because they do not ask for raises as often as men do, they do not get raises as often as men do. And then it becomes a vicious cycle as these women’s contributions are automatically discounted when applying for jobs because employers measure the quality of the applicant by their previous salary, and base their salary offers on salary history.
Fortunately, this problem can be cured by education. When the authors share the data with other women about how often their male colleagues ask for raises while doing the same quality work that the women do, these women start asking for raises. And part of the wage gap begins to disappear.
The arrogance that allows men to ask for raises is more difficult for teach for entrepreneurship.
But I think it is responsible for an important phenomenon I saw at all the start-up events I attend. There are almost no women.
Over the last few months I have gone to several of these events in San Francisco, DC, Cambridge and London. Even in San Francisco, where I expected everyone to have a business plan just like every waiter in L.A. has a script, there were very few women attending Startup School. At TechCrunch UK‘s event in London Alicia Navarro was the only woman panelist and one of the very few women at the event. Later on in I heard her bemoan the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship.
I think this is because entrepreneurs require an inappropriately high confidence in their chances of success. The data shows that they are wrong, on average, at estimating their chances. And I think that men tend to have that inappropriate self-confidence more often than women do.
Now, this is not to say that every habit from men ought to be copied (for example, their response to urinals). But this one is important.
One of Grameen Bank‘s noble aims and notable achievements is their focus on lending to women. It is a real pleasure to hear Muhammad Yunus describe the outcomes in this interview with Ashoka. This is targeting women for entrepreneurship for poverty-reduction.
But the people who to come these events are mostly in wealthy families in wealthy countries and their entrepreneurship is for wealth-generation, not poverty-reduction. Perhaps the ratios are different for social entrepreneurship where more women might participate in the generation of social capital, and I am interested to learn how many women will attend Social Innovation Camp in London. But I want my daughters to have just as good a shot at wealth-generation as my sons would.
I do not know what the approach is, but it is important to get right. So for my daughters, it begins with teaching them to be as arrogant as men tend to be about their chances of success.
One of my strongest memories is of a taxi drive between Syria and Lebanon. The driver was racing the car because we were desperate to get across the border, the airport having been closed off that day because of bombing. And the racing was on a mountain road. I must have been 6 or 7 years old but the memory is vivid.
But it was never as scary as this slideshow of driving in Yemeni mountains. My uncle sent it to me and I am awed by the drivers in the photographs. I am also trying to avoid imagining where the photographers would have had to stand. Extraordinary photographs, well worth looking at.