Startup Fictions & The Link Age {1995-2010}

After producing four editions of BarCamp Leeds between 2007 and 2010, I figured I should finally speak at one of my own events!

I'd originally planned to host a screening of August as part of the LSx2010 fringe. A little known 2008 movie starring Josh Hartnett, that chronicles the ambitions of a pair of dotcom entrepreneurs. I couldn't clear the rights in time, so this evolved into a BarCamp screening of The Startup, a short documentary about a young startup trying to make it in NYC, produced by the creators of the NYC 3.0 blog, as an experiment in hyperlocal journalism.

Rather than just play some video, I figured bookending the screening with some opening remarks and a round table discussion would give some useful context and open up a discussion.

Curiously, wandering through several media representations of startup and dotcom culture, ranging from novels and movies to documentaries and TV series, I found that a discussion of the media representation of dotcoms, seemed to be more interesting than actually showing them! 

So here are my slides, covering a period stretching from Douglas Coupland's 1995 novel Microserfs to Aaron Sorkin's upcoming movie, The Social Network

So yeah…

  • Friends' Matthew Perry narrated the audiobook edition of Microserfs
  • ER's Noah Wyle played Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley and an actual Stevenote!
  • 2001 was the peak of dotcom media – with Tim Robbins as a murdering monopolist, David Walliams as an anal web designer in BBC's Attachments and the superb documentary Startup.com.
  • David Bowie has played a cane-wielding venture capitalist in a movie also starring Jason Calacanis…!
  • The Social Network will be produced by Kevin Spacey, directed by David Fincher (of Fight Club) and star Justin Timberlake!

Invariably, most media on dotcoms is populated with an unlikeable panoply of awkward nerds, highly strung creatives, greedy monopolists or megalomaniacal “desktop despots”. Did old media look upon new media with a sense of envy, foreshadowing its own fading relevance? With little observable idealism and drama, is all that's visible simply a radiant greed, vanity and self-importance to the observer? 

Since 1998, I’ve worked in a half dozen startups, variously as a founder, board director or early-stage employee. Every culture has been unique, but generally staffed by an intoxicating mix of idealists, iconoclasts & visionaries.

And that's where I believe the truth lies – this industry has an abundance of idealism and vision, where the # displaces the $ and a gift economy gives us Wikipedia, Firefox and Linux; for every Facebook, there's an Ushahidi.

It's unsurprising that mainstream media has found an awkwardness in portraying how this generation created a new mind for an old species;  we need some distance and perspective to really assess this epoch through fiction – although the BBC's Virtual Revolution was a great attempt.

My 1995-2010 snapshot will one day stretch to 2060. At the end of my life, as I'm prepared for my post-human future in the Amazon ∞ cloud, somewhere there'll be a great movie launching…of this pivotal period in civilisation - The Link Age.

Ideas for Cities

Ideasforcities In establishing CARBON:imagineering, a little over three years ago, one of our goals was to reinvigorate the technology ecosphere in Leeds and more broadly, Northern England.

In the course of this journey, I've come to believe that cities, and our understanding of the concept of a city, are critical to this, and other wider projects. There's a subtext of anti-urbanism that lingers in British culture, yet cities as social and physical constructs carry within them the seeds of prosperity, happiness and almost counter-intuitively, the "green-ness" that most of us seek. Also, for Brits, we identify more closely with cities than city regions, counties or the home nations.

Being involved in helping Old Broadcasting House flourish at the heard of a vibrant technology scene; engaging in free-form discussions with Leeds' civic architect John Thorp and chief economic officer Paul Stephens; visualising the rebirth of Temple Works; observing the civic passions of people like Matt Edgar, Emma Bearman and others; all illustrate a palpable exhilaration at shaping the future of an old city, with deep problems.

Yesterday I was asked by the Renaissance Leeds team to comment on innovation strategies for the city; what is it, why it's important and how we ‘do’ innovation. I immediately though of GOOD magazine's series of Ideas for Cities, a 'continuing brainstorm on the future of cities'. Some of the more compelling ideas, particularly relevant to the tech industry, included…

Tech
Mission
; working with a large tech company – say Google – to
establish a location for startups, meetups, popup classes, new projects
& lectures.

Decentralised
Design Hubs & Work Centers
;
Neighborhoods become local
“offices” and create workplaces to support and encourage employees
to work in these hubs rather than driving or commuting.

Incubation
Infrastructure
;
Cities partner with property owners to outfit homes and workspaces with broadband, connectivity
and computers as well as meeting rooms and to help nurture entrepreneurial activity.

Talent Districts;
Converting neighborhoods into districts for
personal and civic development, encouraging residents to win residency, subject to meeting a developmental and goal.

Free-agent Portfolio; Citizens collect "lifetime learning points" for skills and qualifications with civic administrations providing a "talent agency" and infrastructure to employ those earned credentials and progress people along a career path. I can almost envisage points as an augmented reality game 🙂

Always-on Service; a civic "call centre" staffed to answer any question of concern at
any time – like NYC's 311.

Zooming out further into the future, Matt Jones' The
City As A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future
underlines the
powerful notion that cities are perhaps the eternal solution for humanity.

I'm uncertain of the best courses of action to recommend – witness Leeds' calamitous Clarence Dock experiment – but I sense we're not even asking the the appropriate questions of ourselves as citizens, but offloading this responsibility onto civic leaders.

Your To-Do list is going to KILL YOU!

If you have an ever-expanding to-do list -  then you're failing to
understand your mortality. That's right, your cherished, life-affirming
task list is ultimately a pathway to your own death!

Let me explain…

Years ago, my good friend Rich Gibson and I were thinking about design principles for software that reflects who you are, what he called an "Internet of Values"
– in essence, applications and services that allowed you to articulate
your values (not your tastes) and helped you stay true to them using
intelligent feedback loop; a to-do list is at heart an articulation of
our life's goals – whether immediate or long-range.

Here's how Rich explains it

"When you put a thing on your to-do list, you are
making a commitment to do it," he says to me. "Meaning you aren't going
to do some other things." He pauses. "So you have to choose between
those things. Now, why do you have to choose?"

I think about this for a second. "Because your time is limited?" I venture hopefully.

"BECAUSE YOU ARE GOING TO F*CKING DIE," he responds.

Rich goes on to suggest that…

"one's to-do list, in whatever form, is ultimately a skull on the desk, a memento mori, a reminder that our time here really is limited and we ought to make the most of it, in as much as the list is also meant to be a tool for helping one actually do so"

The reasoning may be morbid, but it's certainly thought provoking.
Indeed, just last month, celebrated Italian author Umberto Eco debuted
a new exhibition about the place 'lists' hold in our culture and noted
in an interview with Der Spiegel that…

"…how, as a human being, does one face infinity? through lists, through catalogs, through collections.."

Eco suggests that lists and collections ultimately embody the ways
in which we think about death and are intrinsic to our culture. Rich is
however more pragmatic and goes on to suggest a 'Someday' or 'Maybe'
list for lingering tasks and hazier goals which should perhaps never be
part of to-do lists anyway.

Both Rich and Eco offer fascinating and thought provoking
perspectives on otherwise innocuous cultural artifacts. Indeed,
Twitter's recent launch of its Lists feature hews close to Eco's notion of cultural curation – lists as 'playlists of people'.

I'd like to think that future to-do list application could sense and
interpret my goals, subtly helping me to differentiate between Submit Knight Foundation proposal and Visit Tokyo as 'to-do' and 'someday' tasks….could software that sensed or guessed at our values, ultimately help us rediscover them?

Read more at We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die and The Skull On Your Desk.

Save To… the Cloud?

Savetothecloud

A couple of years ago, my good friend Ian Pringle wrote about the anachronistic persistence of a floppy disc icon to indicate a save command.

Ian noted that the notion of 'saving' in an age of web applications is itself an absurd notion and that state is perhaps more appropriate – recording a temporal snapshot of attributes and values. However, expressing state/time in a universally comprehensible icon is a daunting brief…

Of course, replacing the floppy with a hard drive or USB key icon would be just as arcane as a 3.5" disc, but I've noticed recently that alpha-geeks speak of saving to the cloud or assert that a particular document is in the cloud.

With the advent of web-based applications such as Google Docs and the emergence of cloud computing, perhaps The Cloud is an appropriately contemporary metaphor for saving a piece of work.

Saving to the Cloud blends the notion of a resilient, repeatable and trustable act, with an ambiguous, dimensionless, time-skipping cloud of data, servers and connectivity…a metaphor that's a good enough start 🙂

Curiously, the discless Google Docs does employ the traditional 3.5" floppy icon, but the disc-based iWork does not

The TED Gift Bag

Gift Bag TED conferences are famous for the complimentary gift bag distributed to each delegate upon registration.

Not
only are the bags replete with politically/ecologically-correct goodies,
but the bags themselves aren't your usual cheap-ass branded schwag, but
sourced from the likes of Timbuk2 and Rickshaw Bagworks…this year, TEDsters got very cool (and very large) Zero Messenger

So what's in the bag?

Books…

DVDs…

Other Stuff…

Every night, returning to my hotel room, I'd find a schedule for the next day, along with a little gift – a copy of The Dodo Guide To Oxford, sometimes a box of Vosges Peanut Butter Bonbons or Hazlenut Bombalinas, Mari's brownies, and most impressively/embarrassingly an N97 couriered to me for live-blogging, by my sponsors Nokia; embarrassing because I can't use it without an iPhone SIM removal tool to flip out my SIM into the N97…

Over at Keble College, Toms Shoes
were giving away complimentary pairs of their (very weird looking)
footwear to all TEDsters; for every pair collected by a delegate,
another would be donated to a child in need. So, Gordon Gekko was kinda right? Speakers get to pickup a Livescribe and (um) a pair of UGG slippers and Knome are offering a selected few TEDsters the possibility of sequencing their personal genomic data – neat!

So the TED gift bag is very 'right-on', speaking to ecological, creative and innovative motivations. I can't help but wonder if – assuming David Deutch's parallel universes theory hold – that there's an evil twin for the TED gift bag, containing DVDs of hardcore porn, Jeffrey Archer novels, a filament lightbulb, a bottle of Evian, pack of cigarettes, a hand grenade, a copy of Windows Vista and keys to a Hummer.

I'm hoping when I check-in to the pearly gates sometime around 2069 there'll be a gift bag with a Qu'ran, some holy water, a prayer mat and seventy-two virgins…oh and some Five Fingers 🙂

(woah, this post reads like a product placement singularity)

TED and me

Tedxleedsglobal2009

I don't really remember where I first came across the TED conference but in recent years, I've quickly become hooked on the eponymous talks and, in recent months, TED seems to be serendipitously intersecting with my career in many wonderful ways…

  • Most surprisingly, next week I've been invited to attend TED Global 2009 in Oxford. Earlier this month, Nokia, one of the conference sponsors, contacted me to offer a sponsored place at the conference. Upon enquiring why they approached me, they explained that I was 'one of the UK's top bloggers'. Um, that's slightly embarrassing, but I'm not going to argue with Wikio's rankings, however inaccurate 😉

    The speakers list looks awesome, with Stephen Fry, Rory Bremner, Karen Armstrong, Stefana Broadbent, John Lloyd, Daniel Pink & Aza Raskin amongst others. Oddly, for a tech conference, delegates are discouraged from using laptops or phones during sessions; Nokia have suggested even a pen and paper might be frowned upon. It'll certainly be a novelty maintaining focus and attention for hours at a time. I couldn't even do that at university…like a laptop, I tend to fall asleep after extended periods of inactivity.

Regardless it's a real privilege to be invited to TED Global, and along with a pair of Foo Camps, I'm just a Web2Summit away from my exclusive tech conference treble.

Like Foo Camp, TED is subject to accusations of elitism and exclusivity. Ironically, those are the qualities that make each gathering special. There's a kind of meritocracy at work, generally driven by achievement, but 'by-invitation-only' conferences do make me slightly uncomfortable. On the other hand, Foo's philosophy of asking invitees to select next year's group does ensure there's a constant churn of people and ideas each year. Today's Times, has a useful analysis of the culture of TED at TED conference offers ideas to change the planet – in 18 minutes.

Now will the official TED bag be a Timbuk2 or from Rickshaw Bagworks

Leaving Mobile Messaging 2.0

Mm2 After two years, two editors and 140-ish posts, I'll be stepping back from my role as a contributing writer to Corante's Mobile Messaging 2.0.

The first couple of years for MM2 were a sponsored curation of thought leadership and conversation around mobility. As my first paying gig as a professional writer, I learned a great deal in terms of discipline, leads, brevity and the economics of digital publishing, as well as the distributed camaraderie of working with other writers such as Ewan Spence and Debi Jones…all things which helped secure my contributing role at Giga Omni Media's Web Worker Daily.

Sadly, my work at MM2 will fade away as the site transitions towards being an automated aggregator, rather than curator of original content. I haven't decided whether to republish my MM2 contributions, blended here with my personal blog, or to host an MM2-branded site for posterity.

In the meantime – onto ventures new 🙂

The North’s Digital Spring – ‘ThinkingFuturesonicbTWEENLSxDigital’

The five great cities of the North are buzzing with conferences and festivals as we close out the Spring and head into Summer…

  • 11 – 12th June: Liverpool plays host to this year's bTWEEN, previously held in Manchester and Bradford.
  • 19 – 21st June: Sheffield's third BarCamp rounds out the Digital Spring.

Lsx09 There's been a little controversy at the overlapping schedules and content – but personally, I think it's cool. Every city's conference or festival has something unique to offer…Manchester's music, Newcastle's ingest of global speakers, Leeds' student show and grassrootsy content, bTWEEN's media focus and Sheffield's newly minted Digital Campus. But the overlaps might actually be helpful as speakers like Stowe Boyd can commit to a few weeks touring across the North and various events, the same way ETech and SxSW's proximity make for a productive conference season in the US.

Ian Forrester is encouraging LSx, Futuresonic, TD and bTWEEN to coordinate more closely next year, so there's great potential to cross-promote and synchronise where we can.

Katie Lips, in her own unique fashion, is attempting to bring some harmony, between TD and Futuresonic in particular, by running a Tech Bus Tour between both conferences (via Leeds!)

2010 already looks like a promising year as FutureEverything spools up and LSx seeks to merge with Live At Leeds…now where will bTWEEN end up in '010?

Fuzzy Inside

Herishnowish There's been an interesting confluence of commentary recently on why precision is not only unnecessary, but perhaps undesirable, in the formulation of communication services…

  • In Valleywag's Against Realtime, Owen Thomas argues that Facebook's recent makeover has emphasised recency and buried relevancy – in apeing Twitter, Facebook is assuming that 'the only news is breaking news' (Thomas' piece builda on comments from Om Malik's discussion of Facebook's identity crisis)

Dopplr it seems has been motivated by understanding context and what might be useful in a given situation, where Facebook's embrace of the realtime web has been driven by the faddish pursuit of a competitor.

Regardless, there are useful social models and design patterns that need to be abstracted from the Twitter, Facebook and Dopplr articulations of time, space, serendipity and relevancy, patterns that might enhance other services. There's an assumption that relevance and seredipity can emerge from simply aggregating together news items from social connections. Yet there's a growing anxiety that we're all drinking from a firehose of data.

Why can't Twitter, for example, learn to whom users grant their attention over time…or Facebook understand to whom I'm 'nearby' (at Matt says – 'hereish-and-soonish/thereish-and-thenish'), helping users make relevancy rather than recency based choices, that wire serendipity into the fabric of social software.

Fab Lab Discussion Forum

Fablab

I first started following the work of Neil Gershenfeld during my various visits to MIT Media Lab, and of course through his book Fab, along with speculating about fictional HP DeskFabs and Fabster P2P networks…a miniature attempt at Bruce Sterling-eqsue Design Fiction!

So it was a huge surprise to learn that Gershenfeld would be stopping by Manchester's Manufacturing Institute, last Tuesday, for a half-day discussion forum on the launch of the city's first Fab Lab. With 50-60 people in attendance, I was surprised that no one from Manchester's tech scene was there.

The morning opened with keynotes from the institute's CEO, Dr. Julie Madigan, Gershenfeld, New East Manchester's regeneration chief, Sean McGonigle, and Paul Jackson of the Engineering Technology Board (download the PDF flyer)

Here are some of the interesting snippets from the forum…

  • Gershenfeld characterised digital/additive fabrication as materials that contain information – essentially embedding 'code' into materials.
  • Gershenfeld 's influence on Squid Lab's Saul Griffith was evidenced by his illustration of sending design code into universal protein strings to 'fold & fab' 3D structures – similar to Griffith's TED talk noting that the 'secret to biology is the way it builds computation into the way it makes things'.
  • The fab wet-dream of self-replicating Von-Neumann machines is nearing reality with the RepRap project – the rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines.
  • Gershenfeld namechecked an experimental prototype alarm clock with which you had to arm wrestle to prove you were indeed awake!
  • Fabrication is still at the 'mainframe' stage, with the greatest impact set to come from the personalisation of technology – analagous to the transition from mainframe to personal computers.
  • Gershenfeld envisages an opt-in network of 'Fab Labs' across the globe – equipped with laser cutters, sign cutters, milling machines, electronics assembly and microcontroller programming – that can democratise manufacturing and mobilise people and projects across this network. A little like a super TechShop; the network currently includes locations in Jalalabad, Utrecht and Amsterdam.

Perhaps more interesting than the progress of the science, are the socio-economic drivers that're making the introduction of a Fab Lab to Manchester so appealing. The city was centrai to the industrial revolution, with it's eastern areas known as the 'workshop of the world' – apparently, the first transatlantic communications cable was manufactured in the Bradford area of East Manchester. Yet, though the area has found new purpose with the recent Commonwealth Games and the presence of Manchester City (the world's richest football club), large parts remain deprived and struggle in a post-industrial economy.

Regeneration officials see the Empowerment > Education > Problem Solving > Job Creation > Invention cycle of Fab Labs as a critical component in reviving manufacturing in the area, energising brownfield sites, as well as retaining local skills and raising educational standards. Upon being asked on Fab Labs' model for civic sustainability, Gershenfeld quipped that people 'don't ask whether public libraries have a model for civic sustainability' – implying that the labs hope to provide a similarly essential role in civic culture and education.

The city is due to open its first lab in late 2009, anticipating the 2010 edition of the city's Big Bang Fair for young scientists and engineers. The lab will be free for individuals, who will be encouraged to share their ideas and knowledge freely within the international Fab Lab community and beyond.

Personally, I'm really interested to see where the intersection of digital 'make' services like Etsy, Ponoko and Folksy, with the potential 'Napsterisation' of manufacturing. Indeed, my friend Steve, suggested that the d_shape robotic building system be used to 'endlessly replicate copies of the RIAA building!'

I'm wondering if Fab Labs has a natural analogy in the global coworking community – one for 'atoms', the other for 'bits' – indeed, is there a useful and natural crossover between these two grassroots global communities?