I, for one, welcome our half-human, half-robot overlords in the cloud

Amazon RemembersI suppose every now and then you run up against some kind of technological experience and think, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

This doesn’t happen to me all that often. I’m so enmeshed in technology and the web that by the time some technology is deployed deep enough in the wild that I randomly encounter it, it’s already passé — old news — and entirely unsurprising. Rare is the moment when I think, “Wow, this really changes things.”

However, I had one of those experiences today, and it’s particularly compelling for two reasons: the realization of the alignment of so many different contemporary “advances” (technological, cultural and social) and the coincidence of a particular news story which I’ll turn to momentarily.

So what happened?

Well, Brynn and I went to a physical OfficeMax store, determined to buy some kind of corkboard or dry-erase board for our new home office (which we’ve dubbed “The War Room”). Simple enough, and you’d think that a place like OfficeMax would be able to help.

Apparently we were wrong. Between the shoddy made-in-some-third-world-country quality of the products to the clerks whose eyes screamed “I’m going to kill myself with a ballpoint pen in the eye if you ask me a question”, OfficeMax was at once the most depressing and hapless places I have ever shopped. Even worse than KB Toys. Yes, it was that bad.

Ultimately we found what we were looking for, except that every single board was damaged in some way. When we reluctantly asked the clerk if there were any more in storage, he seemed to shrug absentmindedly, as though such damage was par for the course.

Frustrated, I decided to take a picture of our discovery to see what Amazon might later offer us. I didn’t just use my iPhone’s Camera app — no no! — instead I launched the Amazon.com app and used a feature called “Amazon Remembers” — a clever little twist on their Wish List feature that lets you take a photo of something to remember it later.

And then the magic began.

You see, once you take a photo and save it, it’s automatically compressed and uploaded to Amazon. It’s saved for you to retrieve later, but lo, they also ship off a copy to Mechanical Turk, so some busybody on the interwebs can come along and complete what’s known as a HIT (or “Human Intelligence Tasks”) and identify the product that you’ve snapped, sending you a link to the product on Amazon.com. Within minutes.

Of course you can imagine who’s getting my business in this situation.

But let’s think about this for a moment!

What I find so incredible about this experience is how commonplace it feels — how downright banal it seems to me to be able to take a photo of a product (with a cell phone), upload it over a cellular network (EDGE no less!), have it be put into a queue where humans are waiting to do something to the photo (at pennies on the dollar, mind you), whose output — in a fraction of the time it might have taken me to perform the same task — will be returned to me in the form of a hyperlinked product that I can add to my cart and have shipped directly to my doorstep — free with Amazon Prime.

The cynical among us might call this the ultimate in instant gratification; others might think of this as merely modern convenience in a globally-connected, cloudy world. Frankly, it’s a bit of both. But I also think of it as the best example of what I’ve called “connected commerce” — with a splash of Web 2.0’s “networks get better the more people use them” adage thrown in for good measure.

So, let’s turn to that piece of news that I mentioned.

TerminatorAs it happened, on our drive over to OfficeMax, I heard a rather disturbing segment on the BBC that announced that Australia and the US have decided to jointly launch a contest to fund the development of autonomous military robots for fighting in tight, urban environments.

The MatrixAs the announcer put it: “the winning design must demonstrate the ability to neutralize the enemy.” Or as Zack de la Rocha said it best: And neutralize them. And neutralize them. And neutralize them.

I mean, we’ve seen this movie before, right? Did these guys not get the memo or something? (Or did they?!)

In any case, here is this personal encounter that I had— exemplified by leveraged social media against the commercial experience — starkly juxtaposed against a much more ominous, darkly situation — where robots fight in place of humans — doing the so-called “dirty work” — in situations where it is presumably becoming increasingly expedient to use non-human agents to neutralize human dissenters! What if such technology were brought to bear in China or Iran? What would the Twitterverse have to say then?

Any way you slice it, it is clear that the technology that we create — and are engaged in creating — remains ambivalent about the fate of humankind.

How we, as individuals, choose to apply the technology still makes all the difference. The consequences of our decisions resonate. Just like those who originally investigated, researched and developed the technology that made nuclear weapons possible — those of us who make possible robotics, neural networks, smart, geo-positioned social networks and sentient, sensing computing apparati will someday be faced with a similar dilemma: do we continue to doggedly pursue the modern, human-benefitting conveniences that many people increasingly and blindly rely upon? Are they worth seeing through to their logical, amoral conclusions — regardless of outcome on civil society — or do we, at some point, say STOP!, and leave well enough alone?

It should come as no surprise that my presumption is we are past the point of stopping — that Daniel Quinn wasn’t wrong — he just didn’t capture the spirit broadly. The rules change over time. More importantly, we will be forced to cope with what we have wrought — as part of the unconscious effort to realize the full potential of social and commercial technology.

Of course this alarms me greatly, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know.

In the meantime, I’m tickled pink to outfit “The War Room” with a new magnetic, dry-erase whiteboard, shipped in pristine condition and scheduled to arrive no later than Thursday of this week. I can’t even begin to imagine all the great ideas I’ll come up with on the thing.

Flywheels and spinning plates

Cables and Flywheels of San Francsico by Mike Sweeney
Photo by Mike Sweeney and shared under Creative Commons license.

Interesting conversation tonight with Greg Wolff and his wife about capturing social capital as a dynamic kind of “currency”.

I didn’t follow the discussion in its entirely, but going off on my own tangent, I did come up with a rather interesting framing of the idea… at least insomuch as it relates to the gift economy and participation in open source communities.

The example given had to do with choosing, let’s say, an ice cream store to shop at. Everything being equal save the size of the crowd gathered outside, the very size of the crowd (or social capital as defined by the amount of accrued activity) could well determine which shop you’d buy your ice cream from. Essentially, the premise is that in numbers lies preference, wisdom or the promise of something better.

Applying this to open source projects and open source communities, it does seem to be true that the amount of momentum or potential attention such projects or communities can generate determines its attractiveness or recruiting-slash-staying power (obviously quality, opportunity and interestingness also play a role among other things).

Spinning Plates by  MerWhat’s interesting about this observation is that it can be modeled by imagining, first, a vast number of simultaneously spinning plates, representing all active open source projects. When someone sees a “plate” faltering, there is an opening to get involved and to contribute productively, keeping the plate “spinning”. Should there be a lack of interest or a lack of talent over time, that “plate” (or project) will fall (essentially going dormant). Now, fortunately, the value and progress made on that project has not been lost, since, as it is open source, anyone can come along later and start up the plate spinning again. An important principle in play here is the “conservation of attention” within a system run on social capital. Knowledge-based systems are infinite; what is limited is attention spread across knowledge-amassing projects. In thinking of open source projects as spinning plates, they require attention in order to keep “going” or producing more knowledge.

The second part of this observation is that, similar to the plate metaphor, successful open source projects operate like flywheels, spinning faster and faster in perpetuity the more that people join up and contribute.

However, this only works to a certain degree. If an open source project builds a community of active contributors and “gets the flywheel going” but then is unable to build infrastructure to harness the additional marginal effort that is contributed as social capital, eventually the excess social capital will dissipate and spread to other spinning plates (or open source projects). The result is something of a self-correcting equilibrium state where projects will continue to grow and flourish so long as they are able to sufficiently spend the capital that is being amassed.

This is a reflection of the self-healing, decentralized aspects of open source projects, where if they can not build large enough “buckets” to contain the magnitude of contributions directed their way, they will grow temporally only to revert back to a smaller and more manageable size.

In other words, if a project needs me for something and acknowledges and shows appreciate for my work in the context and view of other contributors, I’ll be happy to contribute more (to continue helping to spin the flywheel). If instead, I give my “gifts” of work to a project and they ignore, reject or otherwise devalue or fail to acknowledge what I’ve contributed, I will likely abandon the project and seek a more receptive audience elsewhere, that will compensate me with social capital in exchange for the work that I am willing to do — monetarily speaking — for free.

My contributions should be valued in direct relation to the degree that I am able to help “spin the flywheel”. And insomuch as the project is one that others are willing to work on, there is a derivation of social capital that comes predominantly from the shared experience of working together with peers. Thus I am able to produce more “wealth” (in terms of social capital) for myself and for others by giving away my work freely and by working on projects in which many others are willing to do the same.

In this we find one of the motivating factors for working in open source and reveal how people come to decide on which project(s) to contribute to: namely, the degree to which one can earn and spend social capital, both individually and collectively. The degree to which one derives personal satisfaction from the outcome of this exchange will in turn determine the longevity and ongoing success of a project.

The atmosphere of community

Hurricane Katrina Satellite Image
Photo shared by Glenn Letham under a Creative Commons License.

Was thinking over the Digg and Flickr hub bubs and had an observation.

For one thing, Kathy Sierra’s mediocrity index comes to mind — where you’re either at both ends of being loved and hated (to greater and lesser degrees) or you’re in the middle, and frankly, no one cares.

There’s something else that’s missing from that graph though… part of it is helping to prepare community builders and managers for what happens when you get a surge in one direction or the other… and the other part is what leads you to climb outwards, in either direction.

I might propose a natural phenomenon to be considered here, and that is the phenomenon of atmosphere and the weather that results by being contained in this protective particle shell.

Without atmosphere, you’re a dead planet — there’s no oxygen, the conditions are extremely harsh and barren, and life simply cannot thrive.

Too much atmosphere and you get global warming effects — things like “community algae blooms” where too much life is created too quickly and the internal ecosystems break down because they buckle under the weight of the increasing resource demands… we are living in a period similar to this today (also, think spam!).

Now, the sweet spot — where systems are in harmony and life is able to sustain isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. Under these conditions you definitely get weather — and that weather can be destructive, can come on unexpectedly and worse, can ultimate change the landscape forever.

From a community building standpoint, this is the kind of weather that you need to be extremely careful of, because these tempests in teapots can wreak havoc on the livelihood of your broader community ecosystem and can do untold damage if you’re unprepared when it happens. The strategy to take varies on the kind of weather we’re talking about, and whether you’ve conjured it up by something you’ve done or whether external factors are to blame.

A couple examples: Digg’s founder Kevin Rose declares the end of the Top Diggers list… Flickr declares their acquisition by Yahoo… 18 months later, they announce the termination of independent Flickr accounts… The Wikipedia co-founder breaks off to establish his own competing project called Citizendium… Mozilla revenues are flat after earning upwards of $80M the previous year… The Flock founders leave in semi-rapid succession… BarCamp is planned and executed in a span of 6 days “changing the way we think about, organize, and participate in technology conferences“.

All of these events bear an interesting semblance to what I might call social weather patterns: moments in time when a tropical storm could have made the shift from a benign warm rain into a destructive gale force hurricane at a moment’s notice. Also consider tremors and earthquakes as coming from within, typically along well known social fault lines where some well known controversy erupts and shakes the pillars of the community. In some cases, these shifts have happened, taking out entire communities or leading to the crumbling of support infrastructure or the dissolution of leadership causing people to flee for refuge in neighboring communities. These behaviors are all fairly well documented and established in the real world — but for once, because of the digital context I’m thinking on, we can see precisely that this weather is heavily influenced by us — a conversation of sorts that our environment is having with us and for us on a grand scale.

In any case, looking at Flickr in particular, there are lessons to be had.

In particular, Flickr decided to drill into a particularly well known fault line in the community and stirred up a minor tropical storm. They had prepared for it, however, and in the early hours of the storm, had staff manning the levee-forums as the first order of defense. Next came the blogger response with heavy winds and crashing waves — Stewart and others waded into the comments and attempted to diffuse any self-spiraling weather patterns. Finally, with the leadership and community infrastructure still firmly intact, the storm subsided into the sea (aside from a few stray lightning bursts) and things continued on as normal, as they should.

But this is not always the way things go down. And without proper preparation and an understanding of the goal of resiliency as opposed to domination, you’re likely to fare far worse under similar conditions.

So the greatest lesson from this is to consider the existence at the poles of Kathy’s index… to realize that stormy weather is a good thing, and a result of positively creating atmosphere — an excellent indicator that you’re alive and creating the conditions for life and for survival. Without weather, you’re probably dead; and with too much atmosphere, you’re probably suffocating your community, in which case, it could be too late to turn back anyway. Keep these things in mind as architect the foundations of your community — and remember that community isn’t warm and fuzzy all the time.