Co-opting and Saturation

I read this study recently, about the inequality of online contributions. You should go read it as well, and then come back here. It’s easy to digest, and a quick read. You can even just skim it.

The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.

I wonder if there are studies on off-line communities, and if they show a similar trend. If you know of any, please post to comments.

Imagine if we could push people up this pyramid. What an incredible world we would live in, were more people to be creators, or at least to actively contribute in some way! Or at the least, we would be less fucked. I sincerely believe many of the problems facing humanity could be addressed if more people took an active role in their lives. Blame my socialist upbringing if you like. It’s why I worked (and continue to work) so hard at Jigsaw – creating an entry-level environment for n00bs to get their hands around a soldering iron before facing what can be rather intimidating robotics and the like. I gave a talk at Berlin-Sides in 2010 about hackerspaces being extroverted, and how it was an absolute necessity. Not for every group, but for at least some. We can’t just serve the people who already know, and request, what they want. We can’t just create a new class of elite. We have to welcome, and actively invite, lurkers to become editors; and editors to become creators. (Or do we? I am sad to question this assumption)

So while this pyramid might hold true for online communities, what about communities which simply do most of their interactions online? Makerspaces have become A Thing. Tech conferences are blowing further and further past their capacities (On what feels beyond an expected progression. I would love actual numbers on this if anyone has them). What is causing this? People wanting to have an active role in their lives? Is consumption finally not enough? Or is it just the new shiny?

Insert plug for the totally rockin’ Brainmeats podcast on Co-Option of Subcultures here. (Download mp3)

Regardless of the reason for the shift, one of the strengths of these movements has been that we all KNOW each other. We’re engaging in things that, while sometimes not inherently dangerous themselves, bring upheaval and unrest. And now that things are gaining traction and the public eye, we’re gaining mass like some sort of burgeoning star. How do we encourage the engagement of more people while not diluting the vision of what we are? As Johannes said at HOPE, “isn’t being elite part of being a hacker”? So how do we balance that necessity and functional form of seclusion with a wider vision of the world? How do we infect memetics without turning into homeopathy? Meaning: how do we actually change larger culture as it gobbles us up, while holding onto our ethos? Becoming diluted will not increase our impact.

This was my third DEFCON. Saw old friends, actually went to a few talks, and got into bed before 3a both nights (no lie!). This year was massive – over 10 thousand people. And we talked a lot, in continuation of HOPE, about what to do when your community gets huge. We’ve been way past Dunbar’s number for awhile now, but still broke into manageable group sizes. But now… there’s a worry, just like at Congress… what is “too big”?

Something I’d like to see: specialized, smaller conferences happening in tandem across a city. See the tracks that interest you, speak to the people who share your background. But at night, visit the people you know well and share what you’ve learned. You likely already work closely with friends who share your interests. Now see what patterns exist across interests.
Another thing I’d like to draw on: there are now more medical journal articles coming out than anyone could ever read, for many individual fields, and still have time to work. So what’s started happening is there will be academics who just read a bunch of those papers and pull out the meta aspects of them. Then practicing folk read those meta articles.

A small group of friends and myself hope to try out these methods next year in July. I’ll post about it soonish.

One of my favorite things is to meet someone who is inspired, brilliant, driven.. and realize that we have no overlap. That we aren’t going to be working together. I love that because there are so many things that need to be worked on, and I am but one person. That someone I can grow to trust, and who I respect, is working on one of those myriad aspects gives me a bit more hope for the world. We can continue to break down silos through communication, sharing, and transparency. We can balance that with diving deep into our specialized areas.

When conversing about all this with a dear friend, this was their response:

Profitable problems will always explode with magic-seekers. Computer hacking is now a profitable problem, and participation is accordingly weird.

There will always be too many interesting problems in the world and never enough people connecting to solve those problems. Valuing hacks over hackers helps, as does creating opportunities to gain social status by teaching others. I’m not worried about losing a unified vision because I don’t think there should be one. As for maintaining a community, decentralized networks of curious and creative people scale well. – Kaleen

Chaos Camp and What’s the Point?

20+ hours into travel (LAS->TXL), I watch the sun set over German forests. Two new friends sleep hard in the seats next to me, our luggage tucked under the seats. Cellos in my ears. Camp tomorrow.

Sitting in the woods, aircraft from WWII the Cold War (thanks, Skytee!) surrounding us. Chill acoustic music over the quality sound system (likely being played live a short walk away). Mate in hand, disco balls in trees. Every person I have met here is exceptional. Ever talk I have heard has been interesting.

As camp closes down, I feel like I’m doing the walk of shame back home from The Future. Unwashed, same clothes as the night before, the people I pass and I smile knowingly at me.
I’ve been walking and walking and walking. Finding tiny pockets of projects I hadn’t yet seen. The crepe robot. The lamayed fighter jet. The ammunitions bunker tiny rave. I haven’t slept yet since last night: there was a flash mob dance party that lasted 6 hours followed by a celebration party for going so long. There was Chinese tea service and stories in the Metalab tent in the wee hours.
I think it must be the sleep dep – people speaking moon language and wandering around in thongs and with bloodied eyes. There are fighter jets whose bombs have been yarn-bombed and a lounge on top of a tank.

But no.. It’s just Camp.

It’s not all party tho. I learned about electronic waste and more about bitcoins. I learned about my new favorite activist group, Telecomix. A lovely gent walked me through how to use sonar to make me brighter as people get closer to my bike. We’ve cooked, we’ve lugged pallets, bridged politics and hacked badges.

Was asked today what I’m taking away from life. Here are my thoughts on it:
Most mornings I wake up and I have to watch Carl Sagan videos on youtube. We’re all monkeys in clothes with language and illusions of grandeur. We have no purpose, but we can give ourselves purpose. I don’t know what answers are, but I can push to empower individuals in such a way that also makes stronger communities. I don’t think the biggest dangers will come in my lifetime, but I can help prepare for them. Shoulders of giants and all that. Ella and I get in fun conversations all the time about fighting for the survival of the species, or fighting for the advancement of the species, or just fighting for the diminishing of suffering while we’re around.
So.. taking something away? I don’t know about that. I’m learning. I’m fucking up. And I’m meeting amazing people who are far smarter and kinder and powerful than I am. And that’s an entirely enjoyable existence.

Something I love about Berlin and the European hacker scene is that there is an assumption of competence AND people tend to be much more politically minded. Of course you know what’s going on. You have an opinion on it. And you take action about it.

I could get spoiled about this.

Train Station!

even the train stations are awesome

Sea Change

So, there was this whole series of cultural shifts around hacker and maker spaces from about 2005 to now1. In America, people were realizing that they could work together. Then that they could pool resources and form spaces. Then that other spaces existed. Now, how we can link spaces together and how to help make more. Next will be what to turn them into. I vote schools. More on that another time.

A similar thing is happening with hackathon / app contest / civic engagement culture right now. Hackathons have been around for a long time, but more recently there have been a greater quantity in rapid succession. Another knee. Why? Tools are more accessible, people want to create something useful, but also because it’s a powerful motivator to be in something so engaging as OpenGov. Again, at first, it was “hey, other people are doing this?” Then “I want to do that!” and now, most of the discussions at OpenGovWest11 was about how to do it better. How do we make the things that hobby-ists are building sustainable, robust, and most of all – impactful2.

There are a few ideas. Beyond just the excitement of continued work, and post-geographical ideals of traveling to where the awesome is, we can also encourage people to maintain, improve, and build upon what already exists instead of just creating the new. It’s like maker ethics of Fix What You’ve Got brought to the hacker ethic of I Will Build It Better. So… how do we encourage a culture of maintenence while continuing to uphold a culture of innovation?

Hard question, but we have a few ideas.

Things like GameSave are a start with a format of long-running competition with an intense work weekend and the goal of the program being funding for full development.
This has also been done with things like the X Prize and other such things, but rarely quite so grassroots.

We can also start to look at progress between two phases made during a hackathon style competition instead of just how far from the startline someone is.
I think we should also give awards based on adaptation of or improvement on existing tools, or just the research time needed to discover that you don’t actually need the thing you were going to build.
Continued incentives and interest in further building of tools

We have to maintain and encourage the long term agility and mythos of our ideals to continue this sea change instead of just being co-opted and burning out. We can’t just use the scientific method in testing and building the tools we use because that almost guarantees failure.

1. Well of course it’s always been a cultural change. Outside the norm. Etc etc. I’m talking here about the knee of the curve, mostly sparked by the 2007 Chaos Computer Camp.
2. Yes that’s a word shut up

World Maker Faire

Maker Faires always make me happy. The passion inspired among geeks when you say “Look! Look at this thing I have done!” is like Christmas always should have been. It’s also affirming to all of the effort it takes to operate the brass tacks of maker and hacker spaces. You see the people who have toiled oer their projects for weeks finally show the finished product with a flourish and an adoring audience. The hours of effort, the stress of paying the bills on the space, the stupid drama that inevitably must be mucked through when eccentric people are brought together… that all fades away in the face of joy, collaboration, and SCIENCE.

I had the honor of moderating a panel at Maker Faire NYC. Leigh Honeywell, James Carlson, Jordan Bunker, Christina Pei, Eric Michaud, and Psytek joined me as panelists. We talked about what makes spaces sustainable – everything boiled down to money and community. Make sure people are happy and communicating, and make sure your bills are paid. That’s it. We all had different ways of doing that, with meetings and accounting methods, and making sure the passion remains.

We also talked a lot about education, and the impact that these spaces can and already have on our educational systems and communities. We talked about charter schools, project-based credit, passion-based learning, and inter-generational teaching. Change is in the air. And we’re making it.