Breaking fast

This is a follow-up post to Information Fast where I pledged to constrain my information intake for the month of September in an experiment.

Let’s start with a brief after action report:

Fast results

I consumed no football, nor any of the punditry. I have no idea what is happening to Spurs or the Whitecaps. I didn’t scroll through Tumblr, Google+, Hacker News or the like. I posted to Twitter and G+ a few times as a broadcast medium (mainly links to my blog posts), and replied to mentions, but gave up my morning and evening catching-up of the stream. I was successful in my use of App.net and enjoyed it. I watched only three movies this month, two with my daughter. I watched four TV episodes (BrBa) which I just started this weekend. This could be a problem going forward…

Failures

I wasn’t able to stick to one non-fiction book. The reason is the book I picked up at the beginning of the month was an actual paper book. It is nearly a month later and I still haven’t broken the 100 page mark. It is far too difficult to get in the right context to read a paper book for me. Ebooks on the other hand can be read anywhere. It was one of the main reasons for getting a Galaxy S3: the size of the display is very comfortable to read on. I was able to blast through a few eBooks this month including The Information Diet and Startup Communities. All the while, my poor paper book languishes on the mantle.

A partial failure was podcasts. Although I limited myself to a single podcast, I did not listen to one episode. This was because there were no episodes that interested me (Star Trek and Journey?) or others that I want to check the source material first (Small Change, Doctor Who) I didn’t listen to one episode this month. I think this contributed to my consumption of non-fiction audiobooks (see my review of Future Tense).

Conclusion

Overall, this experiment was a success. I found myself with much more time to think, and even kindled in me a thirst for knowledge that I haven’t felt for a long time. Before, I was consuming much more information, but I was not synthesizing it into healthy knowledge. Basically: empty calories. By choosing carefully and thinking about what I consume, my brain muscle feels stronger after only a few weeks.

One thing that makes me happy is that my blog output has increased. I did not put out a ton of posts (mostly due to me spending time converting my blog to Octopress and redesigning my personal site), but later in the month I was able to write some substantial pieces. In all I wrote about 3800 words for the blog this month (including this post). That is a huge increase.

I did feel out of the loop concerning All Things Apple, especially since the launch of the iPhone 5. But it was actually refreshing. I have lived that life non-stop for five years. I think I can let other people take over for me now.

Next steps

So, the fast is over. Now to construct a healthy information diet. As mentioned above I am starting Breaking Bad finally, which means I will have to watch that I don’t fall back on passive consumption rather than reading at night again. I also have the new season of Doctor Who queuing up as I write this. I must be vigilant or my “attention fitness” will suffer.

As for taking Clay Johnson’s advice, I am considering a few things:

  1. Twitter: I quite enjoyed just using it just for broadcast, but I might try bringing reading back by only checking the Tweets of the people in my community. App.net I will continue with because I want to support it. Maybe someday my community members will move to it and I can drop Twitter altogether.
  2. News: I am going to experiment with local news sources. I am not sure what is available for Kelowna that is good, but I intend to find out. I will start up Intigi again in the near future, only because I found it helpful in surfacing news about space that I could not get without much trawling of RSS and Twitter.
  3. Podcasts: The Incomparable and You Look Nice Today for sure. I might consider listening to Critical Path again, since I don’t get a chance to read the blog, and I learn lots about business from Horace.
  4. Apple blogs: Nope.
  5. Books: Focusing on one at a time is much easier if they are eBooks. Lesson learned. Will continue with this.
  6. TV and Movies: Stick to my plan of BrBa and later Doctor Who. I might not have time for many movies which is okay.
  7. Meetups: More of this. Actually interacting with others is important for synthesizing ideas. I will probably post about this again.

Peer Progressivism — a review of Future Perfect

To my knowledge, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age is Steven Johnson’s first attempt at pamphleteering. The other books of his that I have read — The Invention of Air, Emergence and Where Good Ideas Come From — have been about telling the stories of complex concepts in an engaging way. In Future Tense he tests his hand at creating a new concept, and comes up somewhat short.

A fairly enjoyable book, I hope it becomes a cornerstone of new political discussion. By way of that discussion, I have a few criticisms that I would like to lodge.

First, we must define our terms. “Peer progressivism” is in Johnson’s words:

… the belief that new institutions and new social architectures are now available to us in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.

By the adoption of peer network style structures in government, business, education etc. society’s next phase of progress is ensured. It is meant to be a positive message and Johnson uses the examples of Wikipedia and Kickstarter to demonstrate how massive, decentralized networks can contribute to humanity — all the while making digs at “the market” for not being able to come up with such solutions.

The positioning of the peer progressive is a funny one. Imagine a political compass where the vertical axis is hierarchy and the horizontal free-marketism. On the top half are the traditional, lumbering bureaucracies of the two American national political parties — Democrats to the left of the scale, and Republicans to the right. Below the Republicans are the Libertarians — free-marketeers with a strong dislike for bureaucracy. The bottom left quadrant is the realm of the Peer Progressive: anti-bureaucracy and wary of laissez faire.

Now, the above illustration is not entirely fair. Peer progressivism is more nuanced and I have included a fairly long quote from the book summing up the values of the peer progressive at the very bottom of this post so you can get a more well-rounded description. The example simply illustrates how I found peer progressivism positioned in the book. Something like, “the Republicans have the Libertarians… what do we Democrats have?”

That aside, the exploration of applying peer networks to politics, government, education and business was very interesting exercise. It reminded me somewhat of What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis. Yet I don’t think it went far enough, specifically in the realm of politics and government.

Firstly was the purely domestic approach to politics. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the peer progressive approach to solving a problem is “to build a peer network around it”. International politics is inherently network-based, as it lacks any hierarchy. States may posses power or influence over one another, but they all retain the same equal status since Westphalia. Solving international problems in the post-empire era has always been about “building a network”, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. I would have expected Johnson to discuss this topic, even though I do not particularly think it supports his thesis.

Secondly, with regard to domestic politics, Johnson doesn’t talk about the how. The concept of eGovernment has been around since the beginning of the networked age. It is something that everyone says they are for, yet we still do not have it. Issues based voting (rather than party-based) is a wonderful idea, but the logistics has not been resolved. This book is another account about the why, but the true problem lies in the how.

As a self-proclaimed citizen of the internet I am prime mental real estate for an idea like peer progressivism. Running society like the internet? Count me in! Hell, the only political party I have ever become a member of is the PPC. Yet somehow, the book didn’t reach me. The concept had not been fully fleshed out, and the overwhelming impression that I got from this book was a bad case of “machine metaphor”. This is a phenomenon seen throughout history: that as a new technology begins adoption, it is often used as a metaphor to describe other parts of human understanding. For example, Galen thought of the body as a hydraulic system, reflective of the new technology of the time: plumbing. The brain has been known as a pneumatic device, a calculator, and more recently a computer. Companies are vast machines with human cogs as workers. With new technologies, came new metaphors. Berlin himself has used advances in network theory to describe Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. I think Future Perfect may have taken the metaphor too far.

If you want more of Steven Johnson, or are a fan like me, follow him on Twitter(@stevenbjohnson), read his blog and his Medium blog.


Peer Progressive Value Statement

Peer progressives are wary of excessive top-down government control and bureaucracy. They want more civic participation and accountability in public sector issues that affect their communities. They want more choice and experimentation in public schools. They think, on the whole, that the teacher’s unions have been a hindrance to educational innovation. They think markets can be a great force for innovation and rising standards of living. But they also think that corporations are far too powerful and top-heavy in their social architecture. They beleive the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to those of the 1950s. They beleive that the campaign finance system is poisoning democracy, but want to maintain an individual’s right to support candidates directly. They want lower prices for prescription drugs without threatening the innovation engine of the pharmaceutical industry. They are socially libertarian and consider diversity to be a key cultural value. They beleive the de-centralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the internet has been a force for good and that governments or corporations shouldn’t mess with it.

Startup Communities

In the past few days I have devoured Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City by Brad Feld. Rather than write out a synopsis of the book, just check out the Startup Communities Book Trailer and watch Brad draw out the Boulder Thesis in about 3 minutes. If you want more, check out this video of Brad Feld presenting to Montana Programmers about the book (1:49:30). There isn’t really any visuals so you can download the MP3 if you like. I also made a cut of just him speaking about the book, with no introductions or questions (38:02).

The beauty of the Boulder Thesis is its abstractness. Rather than figuring out how you can replicate the qualities of Silicon Valley in your town (large silicon deposits to attract transistor manufacturers, easy access to a shipping port, world class research universities, shake and let sit for 60 years…) Feld abstracts the success of Boulder CO into a few simple rules that can be applied anywhere. To wit:

  1. Entrepreneur led
  2. 20 year view
  3. Be inclusive
  4. Engage the full stack of entrepreneurs

Granted, he does a pretty good job framing those four rules within the historical context of Silicon Valley, and the quest to found “Silicon X’s” beyond the Valley. But he spends most of his time talking about Boulder:

… there was no strategic plan. Government had little to do with it and there weren’t committees wading in bureaucratic quicksand wasting hundreds of hours of people’s time strategizing about how to create more startups. Boulder caught fire because a few dozen entrepreneurs believed in their hearts that a rising tide lifts all boats and they derive great pleasure from helping make that happen.

It is a pretty amazing feat and an inspiration to third-tier cities like Kelowna. Our population is slightly more than Boulder’s at 117,000. We have had a few successes (eg. Club Penguin) but the startup community is still in its infancy. A few friends and colleagues and I have been considering what to do to strengthen the community. This book could not have come along at a better time. It is the framework we will use to build our own Startup Community.

Two aspects of the book leapt out to me. The first was the very first rule: building the core network with nodes made of actual entrepreneurs. They are the ones that should set the tone of the community. Everyone else is welcome to engage and help, in fact, we are all better for it. But the leaders of the community should have the same motivations as the community at large. Feld has a great table outlining the motivations of the different players in a startup community on his blog. In our community, the community is dominated by government programs, which we already knew to be a short-termist strategy. Brad was able to articulate it perfectly. Now we are sure about our first step to independence.

The second aspect I enjoyed was rule 3. Don’t get me wrong, we pride ourselves on our inclusivity. For example, I arrived on the scene here only five months ago, attending my first LeanCoffeeKL meetup Think Massive. Think Blue Ocean. The community accepted me right away, and within a couple of months I had quit Apple and joined a promising local startup. However, discussing the potential for alternative startup organizations to grow the community, many countered with the argument: “You will split the community! We are too small!” etc. Yet people accuse Kelowna of being cliquey. Feld writes about zero-sum thinking often in the book. For example:

This is dumb. As a society, we are far from the saturation point in terms of entrepreneurship. Although there is not an infinite capacity for it, playing a zero-sum game, especially within neighbouring geographies, simply stifles the growth of the startup ecosystem.

And another:

Building a startup community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers; if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.

For me personally, this was liberating to hear. I have nothing against the actors involved in the community now, but wish for a community with multiple outlets to help attract attention to Kelowna: a network that evolves beyond any single node within it. I moved here to raise my kids, so I am all in on this venture. Are you?

If you want to talk more about this book, keep your eye on the #LeanCoffeeKL meetup group where we are sure to be discussing this book in the next couple of weeks. Or, you could pop by The Digital Economy Book Club where I have started a discussion. Get the book from Amazon.

Organization of No Organization

Remarkable that two books released this month advocate eschewing hierarchy for network-based approaches to changing society. The books in question are:

A deep review of Brad Feld’s book is forthcoming, and I am only part way through Steven Johnson’s new book, but I thought I would highlight the similar argument made in both books now.

Feld argues for an entrepreneur-led startup community rather than hierarchical government or university institutions, which seek to control things rather than to actually do things. He says on page 32:

The best startup communities are loosely organized and consist of broad, evolving networks of people.

To paraphrase: in order to build a thriving startup community (a driver of innovation and economic development in your wider community) you need to form a network around the problem.

This is very similar to Johnson’s view under his proposed political philosophy of the “Peer Progressive”. First, I should define that term: a peer progressive is a political progressive which favours the approach of peer networks to solve social and community problems. To illustrate the approach of peer progressives, take Johnson’s speculated solution to a market failure:

Instead of building a large government agency to combat the problem, [a peer progressive approach] tries to build a peer network around it, a system of dense, diverse, and decentralized exchange.

Think of the Kickstarter approach to funding unknown artists and performers, as compared to the massive bureacracy of the National Endowment of the Arts. It’s the network, stupid.

Feld is a libertarian capitalist who admires meritocracy. Johnson is heavily versed in emergence. Although I think they might differ in political persuasion, they are both convinced that to get things done, you need to have a network.

In a previous life, as a military academic I spent a lot of my time thinking about leaderless movements and non-hierarchical organizations. I find it highly interesting that all the insights into distributed terrorist organizations is now be re-purposed for civic betterment.

Conversion to Octopress

It took a while, but I have finally set up a new home for my blog.

I am on a new host (check out the new home page) and am now powered by Octopress. This is the same system that I use for Above Orbit. (I love having everything in delicious Markdown.)

I am still transitioning all my old posts from tumblr. So far I have done 16 posts. Only 330 more to go… Please bear with me as I figure out how to tackle the archives.

The Information Diet

During the first weekend of my information fast I read The Information Diet by Clay Johnson. I felt pretty sheepish when I came across this comment criticizing fasting:

For most, I think this will yield an unsuccessful outcome. By the end of the fast, you’ll be so eager to plug back in that — like a food fast — you’re likely to binge as soon as you get the chance.

Regardless I am sticking with my fast plan. My idea is to break my diet down and build it up from scratch, using the guidance from this nice little red book.

Johnson uses the metaphor of healthy eating to communicate his idea of the ills of “junk” information and information overconsumption. Much of the book relates his experience in the DC beltway, witnessing the FUD spread by the political information production-consumption machine.

The authour advocates battling information “obesity” and the three types of ignorance (agnotology, epistemic closure, filter failure) with an information diet consisting of low ads, information diversity, balance, a sense of humour and data literacy, which he defines as the abilities to:

  • search, filter and process data
  • produce data
  • synthesize data

These last two really struck home. As I mentioned in my Information Fast post, I find I am constantly consuming other people’s opinions without properly synthesizing them and coming up with my own. I don’t blog as much, and if I do it is rarely original.

I pine for the time when I was writing my Master’s thesis, when I was forced to think and write out of necessity. I would periodically come up for air and see what was going on in the outside world. It was difficult, but much more satisfying.

Johnson writes about the ability to focus, and coins the term “attention fitness”:

Attention is something that requires cognitive energy, and it’s something that we must build up. You don’t train for a marathon by sitting on a couch and you don’t help your attention span by giving in to the temptation of every distraction that comes across your eyeballs.

Recently I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on a (printed) book for any length of time. Most of my reading is done through audiobooks. It normally takes me 2 months to read a print book during which time I can finish about 4 audiobooks. Reading books has become difficult, a chore. At night I would rather sit back and listen to a book, or watch a TV show (passive consumption). Furthermore, I usually read four books simultaneously. This is a symptom of my SNS/Blogs/HN/etc.-media-overconsumption-induced ADD. I can barely remember any of the books I have read in the past year. My short term memory may be suffering too… I can’t remember. I need to get back to when reading was relaxing. But there is too much to read!

In the tech world, curation is all the rage. But Johnson warns against this:

… the information overload community tends to rely on technical filters — the equivalent of trying to lose weight by rearranging the shelves in your refrigerator. Tools tend to amplify existing behavior. The mistaken concept of information overload distracts us from paying attention to behavioral changes.

Rather than filtering the aggregated curators, it is better to gather your information from primary sources. Johnson uses the metaphor of an information trophic pyramid. Cut out “processed” information from the punditocracy and read the source material, consider it and synthesize it yourself. Being an “activist” Johnson encourages readers to seek out data catalogues of public information provided by federal, state and local governments. If your city doesn’t have one, lobby for one. You are paying for that data with your tax money.

I found Kelowna’s Open Data Catalogue, which I plan to take a look at and think about uses. It would be great to get some people together for the next Startup Weekend Okanagan and use this data to make something cool and useful. I wonder who is responsible for making this data available, and are representatives from the local tech community in touch with this person? I know who to ask.

Anyways, trophic pyramid. Consume lots from this category. It is healthy for you. With that said, I encourage you to read The Information Diet. Although it probably should be a long magazine article, it is short enough for you to finish in a weekend if you are willing to ignore Twitter for a couple of days. I am going to consider this book a lot over the coming weeks as I plan my own information diet.

Information Fast

The pledge:

For the month of September I pledge to limit my media consumption. This means no Twitter, Google+, Path, Tumblr, Hacker News, Popurls , Intigi or Zite. It means no Apple blogs. It means no football podcasts or watching MOTD. I am limiting myself to 1 of each of the following sources:

  • 1 Non-fiction book at a time
  • 1 Fiction book at a time
  • 1 Social network for interaction (App.net)
  • 1 Podcast per week (The Incomparable, approx. 1hr)
  • The occasional movie

My goal is to throttle my media consumption to:

  1. Find out what media sources are truly valuable to me; and
  2. Gain more time to think.

The result will hopefully be more blogging of original material.

@replies only

One caveat I reserve is to check mentions from social networks. I do not have comments on my blog and garner reactions from my posts on Twitter and Google+. I get notified when I am mentioned and I pledge to only check these mentions, and not to wander down the ratholes of other people’s conversations.