Rachel Botsman: Collaborative Consumption

Access is better than ownership.

-Kevin Kelly

This recent TED talk is a great primer on collaborative systems and their potential to change our approach to consumption. It's now possible to increase the dignity of our Christmas presents by boosting their use exponentially!

Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks

Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability.

-Bruce Sterling

 Bruce Sterling's December 22nd commentary on Wikileaks is gold. I've read about twenty of the hundreds of editorials covering Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Cablegate and the rest; only Bruce has found the proper vantage point from which to describe the chaos. Unlike the pundits, Sterling has the benefit of a historical perspective. He knows hackers, he has chronicled the rise of cyberculture (helped birth the unfortunate trend of affixing "cyber" on anything new and tech related, actually) and he understands what Wikileaks represents. Bruce's perspective allows him to relate to Assange and pity his plight. Conversely, Sterling's maturity, and perhaps a bit of aged based conservatism, allows him to simultaneously groan for the State as it attempts to adapt to the the emerging world.

This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that's obvious.

The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting wikileaks.info because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze.

Sterling isn't picking sides, he's offering perspective. In the end, I think we all have to agree. It is truly a godawful mess.

Mobile Phones and Economic Development

Ever since I used a text message to pay for food from a Kenyan street vendor, I've been following the growth of mobile banking in the developing world. Foreign Policy's The M-Banking Revolution is a decent overview of the latest developments around the world.

In May, Safaricom took it one step further, partnering with Equity Bank and offering M-Kesho, an interest-bearing savings account, to all M-Pesa users. Subscribers can now use their cell phones to transfer money from their M-Pesa accounts -- using Safaricom's existing network of nearly 20,000 licensed card vendors -- into their M-Kesho accounts. M-Kesho users are also able to access mobile microinsurance and microloan products. By registering SIM cards that double as individualized account numbers, Equity Bank is seeing 8,000 new customers each day, and its CEO, James Mwangi, recently predicted that, in mere months, Kenya "will be the most-banked country in Africa and the developing world."

What if You Controlled Facebook?

Facebook has 500 million active users. If it were a country, the Kingdom of Facebook would have the third largest population on the earth. Those are impressive numbers, especially for a company started in 2004. Every day hundreds of millions of users post personal news, upload private pictures, and connect with friends they haven’t seen face to face for years. Facebook provides an amazing service. However, if Facebook were a country its users could not be called citizens, they would be subjects. Again and again, Facebook has shown that, outside of revolt, users have no direct say as to how this powerful new social space develops.

On September 15th, four idealistic programmers will launch a different form of social network, one that you control. They call their project Diaspora* and the goal is to give the ownership of your personal life back to you. It’s an idealistic mission, but one that is increasingly necessary.

Marshall Kirkpatrick, in a January 2010 article, points out the drastic turn Facebook’s privacy stance has taken in just a few years. In 2008, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg said that a user’s control over privacy was “the vector around which Facebook operates." Flash forward just two years and he claims that changing social norms demand that Facebook open your information up to the world.

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was ‘why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?’ And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are. A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change - doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it. -Mark Zuckerberg (emphasis added)

I agree that privacy norms are changing. Actually, I’m a big fan of social transparency. It's obvious that a certain segment of society is more and more comfortable with sharing the intimate details of their lives. That’s no reason for Facebook to force openness on all its users. It would be just as possible to give users complete control over their information and allow them to choose their own personal privacy norms. Unfortunately, under the my way or the highway system on Facebook, users have to accept what’s given to them. Diaspora doesn’t work like that. The beauty of Diaspora’s approach is how much power is given to the users. So much power, in fact, that Diaspora participants shouldn't be called users. They should be called owners.

Diaspora’s key innovation is the removal of the middle man. As one of the founder’s said during an initial pitch for funding, “in real life we talk to each other, we don’t have to hand our messages to a hub, and have them hand it to our friends.” Cutting out the hub allows you to retain control over your information. At the same time, all your information is encrypted, guaranteeing that only the people you want to share with will gain access to your personal life. Be as open or as private as you like, the point is, you have the choice.

Diaspora has some major hurdles to overcome. They avoid the middle man by allowing any participant to create their own server. I’m confident in predicting that most users won’t want to run their own servers...or even know what that means. To address this, the Diaspora team is planning on offering a Wordpress-like service for those who want to get started with a minimum of fuss. Also, their promises of an intuitive user interface would have to be dead-on. People use online services precisely to avoid the hassle of running their own system. Diaspora needs to do all the heavy lifting behind the scenes or it won’t appeal to a mass audience. Then there’s Facebook itself. As I said, it’s the third largest country in the world. Getting its subjects to defect is quite an undertaking.

Still, I predict a slow, successful rise for Diaspora. September 15th will not prove to be another unveiling of the Segway. Instead it will be Android versus iPhone. Diaspora is creating an alternative social environment, one where personal freedom and ground-up innovation is the rule. On April 24th, 2010, four young programmers asked web users to donate ten thousand dollars so they could begin working on a dream project. In a little over a month, they received more than $200,000. People understand that their digital lives are still their own lives and they want to retain control. In just a few weeks, a new environment will start growing that can allow them to do just that.

The Toilet as Destination

Meet Ecotact, a company focused on changing the urban poor's perception of toilets. In the slums of Eastern Africa, open trenches and flying toilets are the go to methods of waste disposal. In many slums there may be one toilet for a thousand residents. That toilet is filthy. As a consequence, toilets are assumed to be disgusting. Ecotact is attempting to combat this perception and make toilets desirable destinations. Their primary draw is clean water. Ecotact's Ikotoilet malls double as community water centers. No one has to tell the urban poor how important clean water is. That's why the 27 Ikotoilet malls in Kenya serve over 30,000 customers. I've read about a variety of pay-toilet models, and paid for a few trips myself in Kenya and Tanzania. I think Ecotact's plan is smart. By tackling two major problems at once (water and sanitation) they've actually enhanced the effectiveness of their business. I wish them all the best.

Violent Mobs on Facebook

A woman drops a cat into a trash bin. It’s caught on video. That video is posted on YouTube and Facebook. Within a day, intrepid internet users have identified the woman. The next day, she is under police protection.

This particular event is unfolding in Britain. Here’s an over the top article to explain the situation. The video drew hits because of the shocking nature of the act, but it’s the aftermath that should make us pay attention.

Mary Bale, the perpetrator, called for police protection after reading the many threats of violence directed towards her on Facebook. The comments are understandable. Animal cruelty offends many people and the communal nature of Facebook makes it a perfect venue in which to vent. The question is whether all that social rage would enable a violent act. We do know that participants were able to identify Mary within a 24 hour period. Armed with that information would someone try to “spray her with BBQ sauce and throw her into a den of lions at the zoo” as one poster suggested? Let's hope not.

Many people believe Mary Bale deserves shame for what she did. Perhaps she does. I don’t think she deserves fear. It’s very frightening to have a mob chasing you. And mobs beg for vigilantism, even if the mob in question is digital. Look at China, where they've been dealing with online vigilantism for years. They even have a word for hunting down wrong doers through the internet, renrou sousuo, it translates to human flesh search engine.

For example, in April after a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States showed her support for pro-Tibet independence demonstrations, Chinese bloggers started a human flesh search with pictures of her at the demonstration to find out who she was. In the end, not only her name, age, and which part of China she came from was publicized, but also the names of her parents and where they lived. -Asia Times Online

This is what bothers me. I’m a strong supporter of freedom of speech and association. I’m also very enamoured with informational transparency as enabled by modern communication systems. I am not a fan of mobs. Mary Bale’s “crime” was a physical act. The Duke student’s crime was an opinion. In both cases, individuals that had no direct connection with the accused took the time to dig up personal information and pass it on to some very angry people. What sort of actions are you calling for by doing that sort of legwork? One last example, the hunting of an adulterer.

Those in Beijing, please share with others the scandal of these two,” a Netizen wrote. “Make it impossible for them to stay in this city.” The search crossed over to other Web sites, then to the mainstream media — so far a crucial multiplier in every major human-flesh search — and Wang Fei became one of China’s most infamous and reviled husbands. Most of Wang’s private information was revealed: cellphone number, student ID, work contacts, even his brother’s license-plate number. One site posted an interactive map charting the locations of everything from Wang’s house to his mistress’s family’s laundry business. “Pay attention when you walk on the street,” wrote Hypocritical Human. “If you ever meet these two, tear their skin off.” -China's Cyberposse, NYT

I’m a huge fan of empowering the individual but oftentimes technology serves to amplify the darkest parts of our nature. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t believe the answer is wishful thinking that people can learn to obey the golden rule. I certainly don’t want to ban or police chat rooms. Can we code for civility? I’m not sure. I think we better find out soon.

Cities vs. States

What happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else.

-Parag Khanna

 In a provocative Foreign Policy article, Beyond City Limits, Parag Khanna examines the future influence cities will have on our world. As Khanna points out, today "100 cities account for 30 percent of the world's economy, and almost all of its innovation." Tomorrow, there will not only be more cities, but a significant number of megacities, each of which will assert a powerful gravitational force economically, politically, and culturally. Khanna lays out the trajectory of city growth quite well, but his article doesn't live up to its promise.

Subtitled, The age of nations is over. The new urban age has begun., one would expect an explanation or, at least, speculation as to the manner in which cities will decouple from states. State economies have always been dominated by their urban centers. Simply pointing out that cities are growing bigger and continuing to innovate is hardly a proof that state systems need to worry. The strongest example of an imbalance between the state and city interests given by Khanna is China, where "cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment." This may indeed challenge Beijing's particular love of centralized control. However, the government delegates of capitalist societies have been similarly outnumbered even prior to calling themselves capitalist and yet they persist.

Khanna has penned an interesting primer on the primacy of the modern city. I fully agree that cities pose a challenge to states and, if we are lucky, could lay the foundations for a worthy successor. Still, I don't find any explanation of how cities would move beyond the limits states impose upon them. I would have welcomed his input.

Google as Guidance Counselor

I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

-Eric Schmidt

A recent interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt is gaining a lot of attention, mostly for his belief that children will need to change their names as adults to escape the youthful indiscretions captured and posted on sites like Facebook. I'm more intrigued by his thoughts on the future of search.

Schmidt says, "We're trying to figure out what the future of search is...one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type." It's easy to see the practical benefits of a 24/7 digital personal assistant. Facebook is already the only reason I ever know when anyone has a birthday coming up. I would love it if my phone reminded me I was out of milk while driving past the local grocery store, but do I really want Google to tell me what I should be doing next?

I suppose it's a matter of finesse. Right now, I think Google could recommend "next steps" to me with about as much accuracy as Netflix recommends movies, meaning not that well. Netflix thinks I will enjoy every documentary Ken Burns ever made just because I liked Spellbound. That's better than Amazon's recommendation of Sawyer's Premium Clothing Insect Repellent...which was based on my ownership of the book Colloquial Swahili, but not by much. I attended a Nerdcore show at the Casbah a few weeks ago, but I wouldn't want my phone to text me every time I pass the O'Reilly books at Borders. That's the wrong kind of nerd.

I could hope that Google's recommendations were on the level of Pandora, a music service I find useful, but that would bring its own set of problems. My musical taste is very specific, so all my Pandora stations have a laser-like focus and consist of about five songs on constant rotation. Now, I like these stations very much, but they play no part in expanding my musical horizons. If Google were like Pandora, it would only alert me when I pass liquor stores and pizzerias. I don't need my ruts dug deeper.

I hope the future of search is something amazing. I hope Google can bottle serendipity and send it to my phone. I'm fearful that the next few years will be more like Microsoft's office assistant paperclip, everpresent and annoying.

Karl Schroeder on "Rewilding"

I enjoyed this rather heady talk Karl Schroeder gave at the O'Reilly Open Source Con. His claim is that the next breakthrough in technology is understanding when to not control things. An example is ecosystem services. The filtration provided by a healthy natural water table is more efficient than the filtration plant it could be replaced with, however, our economy can not easily represent the value of nature's services so the plant gets built and the water table gets destroyed. In the future, we may be capable of understanding the value inherent in the natural system and choose to allow it to do what it does well.

Rewilding, as Schroeder puts it, stems from understanding when to control something and when to leave it alone. Environmental services provide value by not controlling nature. This idea applies to human systems as well. Democracy derives its efficiencies by relinquishing control to an (hopefully) ever more diffuse power base. The next form of government will go a step further and relinquish control not just to individuals, but to man-made systems.

Libertarian Architecture (and Zoning)

Architect Teddy Cruz is inspired by Tijuana shantytowns. Mr. Cruz plans on building a series of tightly packed neighborhoods that take advantage of lessons learned in shanty environments. Assuming he can pull off the zoning of such an area, it will be quite an experiment.

I'm skeptical that the positive lessons of squatter communities are understood well enough to utilize them. Shantytowns definitely do have lessons to teach. I remember reading Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth. It's a good introduction to the wild urban environments that house a billion human beings. The variety of solutions developed ad hoc to solve issues like the transportation of goods, or the removal of waste, or electricity distribution are inspiring. However, there's the problem, the solutions are ad hoc.

Both the problems and the innovations of shantytowns derive from the libertarian nature of the population's existence. Features like tightly packed and stacked buildings, mixed use areas and the like are consequences of free use. The vitality of squatter cities stems from the ability to abandon any aspect that loses it's function and re-envision its purpose. A home can become a business can become a lot can become a road can become a home. This is in opposition to standard cities, where zoning and other factors of control create vestigial areas.

The Cruz faux shantytown will succeed as a visionary experiment only if the vision is fuzzy. Cruz should focus on loosening the demands made by the municipality on what the neighborhood should be. I'm afraid he may focus more on a romantic vision of what the neighborhood should look like.

Time is On My Side

An A-filled semester is over and I have time to think my own thoughts. I'm hoping that this winter will get me in the habit of posting. Unfortunately the only habits that I tend to form are vices. If I can figure out a way to make this project unhealthy, it should thrive...no matter how contradictory that sounds.

Well, I was mainly posting so that the next bit won't have an "I'm back" note spoiling the theme. However, I would like to point out the availability of the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2025 report. I have yet to finish it, but so far it is enjoyable. If reading projections about the future of world power interests you, then be sure to check it out.

On Human Security

As I hone the mission statement of Trustocracy, I realize how well the term human security captures...maybe 60 percent of my interests. Wikipedia defines human security as,

an emerging paradigm for understanding global vulnerabilities whose proponents challenge the traditional notion of national security by arguing that the proper referent for security should be the individual rather than the state. Human security holds that a people-centered view of security is necessary for national, regional and global stability.

I might expand on that definition, but not now. All I would add at this time is a talk about security given by Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues. I think her point of view is wise and worth hearing.

Dean Kamen Saves the World

Dean Kamen is an inventor and a great man. I call him great because he intentionally puts his efforts into changing the world for the better.

After 12 years working on these two problems, the engineers at Deka now have their solutions on show at the workshops in Manchester. The first is the 'Slingshot', a large box about the size of an office photocopier, sheathed in black protective foam, that can cleanse water of any contaminant from radionuclides to sewage, and run for years at a time without maintenance. The second is another metal box, five feet square, connected to a bottle of compressed gas, which emits a low murmur of humming energy. This is a Stirling engine, similar to the one installed in his electric car, but large and efficient enough to electrify an entire village, which can be driven by any locally available source of heat. Both devices have already been proved amazingly effective: one six-month test has used a Stirling engine to provide electric light to a village in Bangladesh, powered by burning the methane from a pit filled with cow dung; Slingshot has undergone similar tests in a settlement in rural Guatemala. But Kamen has yet to find a commercial partner to manufacture either of the devices for the customers that need them most. 'The big companies,' he says, 'long ago figured out - the people in the world that have no water and have no electricity have no money.' He's tried the United Nations, too, but discovered a Catch-22: non-governmental organisations won't buy the devices until they're in full production.

Here's on of the things that's broken in the world. Kamen has world changing devices that can't get funded under present systems. Now, that's not totally the case. I've thought of three different vehicles for capital that might work. Anyway...

Just wanted to point out that there's a lot of potential out there in our world. We just have to make it potent. As Kamen puts it, "if you include all the money we've spent on Stirling, and all the money we've spent on the water project, it probably is in the area of $50 million. And I'm a little company, and that's a lot of money. But I believe in it. I just believe in it. It might fail, but you've got to try. Look at the state of the world,' he says. 'It's a mess. What if we can fix it?"

The Article

Empowering Women and Pooling Resources

You may have noticed my Twitter post about Jeffery Gettleman's NYT article Rape Victim's Words Help Jolt Congo Into Change. It was a follow up to an older story, Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War. These are powerful and gut-wrenching pieces that I seriously believe you should read. I do not say this because I think that everyone has to be steeped in the details of the worst atrocities on earth simply for the sake of knowing. I do not believe that impotence is very inspiring. I post these articles first, because they show that concerned individuals do make a difference and second, because I believe more can be done.

Gettleman's latest article speaks of the various efforts being made to address the rape crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of these efforts are government driven, some local. In the United States, V-Day has an active campaign going that both places pressure on the government and helps traumatized women on the ground. V-Day could use your donations.

All of this is important, but so much more is necessary. The Congo is politically and economically unstable. Also, like so many other places in the world, women have little say over their own lives even in the calmer times. Studies have shown time and time again that societies improve when woman are empowered and that the foundation of that empowerment must be  economic. Personal income equates to personal control. That's why I believe in microlending, and that's why I choose to lend exclusively to women when I use Kiva.

If you do not know about Kiva, please check it out. I had planned to write an article about it today, but this took precedent. In short, Kiva allows you to become a financier of entrepreneurs around the globe. Microlending is a potent force for change in the poorest regions of the world. I know that Kiva has already loaned to businesses in the Congo. Here is my question. Would Kiva lending be that much more potent if it focused on the traumatized regions of the world?

Here is what I would like to do. I want to ask Kiva to send its people into the Congo to set up contacts with the microlending organizations there. I believe in what Kiva is doing. I think their efforts could mean more here than elsewhere.

I am going to draft a letter asking Kiva to focus more attention on the Congo. If anyone has ideas on how best to shape this letter, or has reasonable objections, add to the conversation on the Discussion page. Also, if anyone knows how to create one of those online petitions that multiple people can sign, let me know. Thank you.

Superstruct: Join Me in Creating the Future

Superstruct is the world's first massively multiplayer forecasting game. Developed by Institute For the Future, Superstruct projects a future (2019) when multiple crises are beginning to harm the globe. Players are asked to develop solutions in order to prevent the potential extinction of humankind. Superstruct is running for six weeks.

This project is interesting for multiple reasons. First, as a means for advocating a long term mindset, it is top notch. The interactive aspects of Superstruct do a better job of presenting the human consequences of global change than most of my International Security professors who are teaching courses on the subject. Second, and most promising, this game harnesses the creativity of the player community. It makes brainstorming fun and rewarding.

My idea of the day: I want a Schoolhouse Rocks version of this game. Specifically, I'm Just a Bill. Present the difficulties of governance in a compelling way and make developing solutions engaging. Then get actual Congresspeople to sponsor the solutions.

Alright, off to play Superstruct.

Widget For Visualizing Political Bias

Andy Baio has an interesting post about a recommendation algorithm he and a partner created to color a writer's words red or blue to reflect political leanings. A writer's bias is weighted based off of links to sites deemed appealing to either the political Right or Left. The program is site specific, having been developed for use on MEMEorandum.

This is a great example of social feedback technology. At a glance, a user can make a judgment about the content in question. I don't know if it's desirable for people to make rush judgments of this type, but damned if the program doesn't make them easy!

I would like to know if general usage promotes negative or positive feedback. If writers desire to be seen as objective, they may seek to balance their links. A negative feedback loop could drive the content towards a calm middle ground. Or perhaps bias drives traffic and writers will strive for Red or Blue through and through? MEMEorandum could become a totally bipolar site. Here's a situation where an outsider's tool could shift the output of a system*. Fun stuff!

*As I understand it, the program doesn't use live information. So "shifting the output" is only theoretical.

By Way of Introduction

Trustocracy covers the amorphous, but more and more recognizable, zone where politics, economics and social technologies converge. I don’t believe that’s my mission statement. I’d like to give this site some time to gel before I lay out something so very formal. In any case, my projects tend towards the eclectic. I expect the items I post and ideas I develop will often seem disjointed. However, I do hope that at least two things will be apparent from Trustocracy’s content. First, that modern technology is creating spaces and means whereby individuals can pool their power and effect real change. And second, that I am overwhelmingly excited about the possibilities.

Thank you for checking in. I’d love for this to be a conversation. Let me know what I'm missing out on. The internet is a vast place and the view I have of it is much to small.