Generative Media Networks: Fueling growth through action: Modeling commercial success

Most media organizations measure success in terms of a cost model, a profit model, or a growth model.  The key decisions are about either operating at peak efficiency, increasing revenue while decreasing cost, or acquiring more customers, respectively.

Actually, most media organizations operate along those three axes simultaneously and have one or two additional hooks that make them unique in their market.

However, there is another way to model success in the digital market.

If there’s one lesson to learn from the growth of social software it’s that value can be found in the relationships between people.  The more relationships, the better.  The more activity across those relationships, the better.

Social networks understand that there is value in each person in the network, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that there is value in the links between people, too.

They model success using graph theory.  A mathematical graph is “an abstract representation of a set of objects where some pairs of the objects are connected by links.”  This graph, for example, has 3 nodes and 6 edges:We’re all familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon theory that any actor or actress can be linked through their film roles to Kevin Bacon within six steps.  This is a graph, too.

What a media organisation needs to learn from this approach is which things need to be connected and how to fuel value in those relationships.

Importantly, the graph must be self-reinforcing.  In other words, nodes in the network must benefit from both the existence of new nodes and activity along the edges between them.

One of the projects developed at the Guardian in a recent ‘Super Happy Dev Day’ (aka hack day) demonstrated how powerful a simple self-reinforcing graph can be.  It’s called The Social Guardian.

After logging on with your twitter account, The Social Guardian will show you a page with 3 columns of content and some navigation.  It includes the editorially chosen featured articles from the Guardian home page, a most recent articles list, and a list of articles other users are reading right now.  The left-hand column shows you who is reading the site simultaneously with you, recommended articles based on what you’ve read , and a profile of topics it thinks you like.

The Social Guardian backend is a very simple database of users, urls, and tags.  Each user, url and tag is a node in the graph.  There’s a simple directed graph that could be visualized like this:

If it also included each person’s social graph (all their friends and followers), then the recommendation capabilities could get even stronger.

Of course, you can then imagine a very powerful ad platform optimised not only against the profile of users but also against both the live activity happening on the site and behaviors extracted from connected and other similar users.

Advertising becomes incredibly powerful when a system is optimized to match activity against marketing messages.  The unique characteristics of this particular application are the individuals’ profiles, the content they are looking at and the live nature of the experience.

Therefore, the appropriate ad platform would offer advertisers the ability to target messages to users based on what their profiles say about them and to be able to adjust the content of the messaging based on what content the users are viewing…and to do it right now.

Clearly, the graph in this kind of model gets complicated very quickly.  These nodes each grow massively.  The edges have different value, and there are multiple edges between nodes.

This is one of the many reasons that the concept of an Active User is so useful.  It gives the system permission to throw out any data it deems irrelevant after 30 days or to abstract the last 30 days’ data into smaller data chunks.

But let’s be real here, these are only some of the nodes a media organization cares about, and none of them are very clean and easy to work with.

  • We have different concepts of what a user is, and users appear in many different ways to the business.
  • Content used to be associated with a single canonical URL, but the influx of very small pieces of data and data within datasets make the concept of content much more complicated.
  • Ad campaigns can come in all different shapes, sizes and values with different intents and purposes.
  • Distribution platforms and digital products have different user experiences with different rules of engagement.
  • The different sources of content will have different usage models to them.  One of those sources is the user.

Trying to take all that into account becomes an incredibly challenging graph problem.

However, there’s a beauty in such a design which is that the edges convey an action.  And those actions are where success will be discovered.

Success in a graph-centered media model is one where you can clearly measure the impact of the edges.  Rather than think about increasing the size of the nodes, think about increasing the activity in areas that encourage the nodes to grow.

As the saying goes, “If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves.

For example, rather than think about how to acquire new users and build the total user number up, the graph helps you think about what activities are going to encourage more users to participate.

If the system works better for each individual when each individual brings their friends along into the system, then the network will do all the work of building the user numbers up for its own selfish gain.

In the Social Guardian example, the incentive to encourage more users to join is natural.  You want other people to bubble up interesting content for you, and you might like to read it along with them. Your experience gets better with more users, therefore you want to add users to the system.

Everyone wins.

And that’s the lesson: generative networks build value for all those who participate.

It works in lots of different contexts, and the media business is incredibly well suited for it.

Of course, publishers with open approaches to the network have an easier path toward generativity, but it’s certainly not limited only to those with open platforms.

As Steven Berlin Johnson once noted about the amazing power of Apple’s more closed ecosystem:

“…if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

The key is to build generativity in the business model, a business architecture that creates value for everyone as opposed to the more simplistic industrial era give-and-take relationship with customers.  Value must form as a result of more participants contributing more activity.

More specifically, advertising must match and relate to the activity happening across the system.  Products offered for sale must add a layer of value on top of what’s possible within the network.  Partners using the system must be able to profit while also adding value the system can’t otherwise offer on its own.

Crucially, the business must be open to giving away control to the participants in the platform, or it risks failing to be generative.

Jonathan Zittrain argues in his book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” that openness is a prerequisite to generativity.  Owners of generative platforms need to understand the impact of what they are doing and to act responsibly for future generations.

“the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity—and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. A seductive and more powerful generation of proprietary networks and information appliances is waiting for round two. If the problems associated with the Internet and PC are not addressed, a set of blunt solutions will likely be applied to solve the problems at the expense of much of what we love about today’s information ecosystem. (p. 8)”

via David Weinberger

This series is an attempt to assemble some ideas I’ve been exploring for a while.  Most of it is new, and some of it is from previous blog posts and recent-ish presentations. I’ve split the document up into a series of posts on the blog here, but it can also be downloaded in full as a PDF or viewed as a sort of ebook via Scribd:

Generative Media Networks: Fueling growth through action: Conclusion

The existential discussion often percolates when the challenges ahead seem overwhelming.  In the face of such a daunting task there’s a natural tendency to question why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Fortunately, the Guardian has a mission much larger than itself and a funding mechanism that supports its goals in the form of the Scott Trust:

“The Scott Trust was created in 1936 to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian. The sole shareholder in Guardian Media Group, its core purpose is to preserve the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity, while its subsidiary aims are to champion its principles and to promote freedom of the press in the UK and abroad.”

It doesn’t take long to work out why we’re here when you understand the Scott Trust.

The harder question isn’t “what’s the point?”  The harder question is “what are we going to do about it?

In today’s connected world, media organizations need to measure success by the value of the actions they influence on and across the nodes in the network.

First, we must inspire people to do things, meaningful things, useful things.  Without triggering a spark of some sort we’re merely shouting into the abyss.

Then we must improve and benefit from the activity happening around us…the things we make, how people use them, what ideas people are sharing and contributing, and our ability to evaluate what’s happening.

The circle must complete itself and begin to bloom into its own self-reinforcing network of activity.  That’s when the brand reaches hearts and minds, when journalism impacts what’s happening in the world and gives power to the voices and ideas that matter, that the business earns real, meaningful, sustainable income to support the organization into the future.

Conversely, the cost of failing to inspire people into action is worse than losing money…it’s becoming irrelevant.

The beginning all over again

In his 2006 book “The Wealth of Networks”, Yochai Benkler explained what kinds of changes we’re experiencing right now living and working in a networked information economy and what they mean for individuals and society as a whole:

“A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture.

These changes have increased the role of nonmarket and nonproprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations.

These newly emerging practices have seen remarkable success in areas as diverse as software development and investigative reporting, avant-garde video and multiplayer online games.

Together, they hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century.

This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.”

Mark Zuckerberg made a slightly more concise but similarly inspiring comment in his interview at Web 2.0 Summit this year that speaks volumes about why journalists and everyone in the business of media should be very optimistic about the future.

There was a giant map on stage that was used as the symbolic backdrop for the whole dialog at the event.  The intent of the map was to show how the various players in the market were occupying and competing in different ways…it was titled “Points of Control: The Battle for the Network Economy“.

Mark walked on stage, sat in the interview chair, looked behind him and said:

“Your map is wrong.  I think that the biggest part of the map has got to be the uncharted territory. Right?

One of the best things about the technology industry is that it’s not zero sum. This thing makes it seem like it’s zero sum. Right? In order to take territory you have to be taking territory from someone else. But I think one of the best things is, we’re building real value in the world, not just taking value from other companies.”

This series is an attempt to assemble some ideas I’ve been exploring for a while.  Most of it is new, and some of it is from previous blog posts and recent-ish presentations. I’ve split the document up into a series of posts on the blog here, but it can also be downloaded in full as a PDF or viewed as a sort of ebook via Scribd:

MasterCard site partially frozen by hackers in WikiLeaks ‘revenge’

Just as I was getting my head around the whole WikiLeaks issue and where I stand, this happens…

Powered by article titled “MasterCard site partially frozen by hackers in WikiLeaks ‘revenge'” was written by Esther Addley, for on Wednesday 8th December 2010 12.02 UTC

The website of MasterCard has been hacked and partially paralysed in apparent revenge for the international credit card’s decision to cease taking donations to WikiLeaks.

A group of online activists calling themselves Anonymous appear to have orchestrated a DDOS (“distributed denial of service”) attack on the site, bringing its service at to a halt for many users.

“Operation: Payback” is the latest salvo in the increasingly febrile technological war over WikiLeaks. MasterCard announced on Monday that it would no longer process donations to the whistleblowing site, claiming it was engaged in illegal activity.

The group, which has been linked to the influential internet messageboard 4Chan, has been targeting commercial sites which have cut their ties with WikiLeaks. The Swiss bank PostFinance has already been targeted by Anonymous after it froze payments to WikiLeaks, and the group has vowed to target Paypal, which has also ceased processing payments to the site. Other possible targets are, which suspended dealings on 3 December, Amazon, which removed WikiLeaks content from its EC2 cloud on 1 December, and Visa, which suspended its own dealings yesterday.

The action was confirmed on Twitter at 9.39am by user @Anon_Operation, who later tweeted: “WE ARE GLAD TO TELL YOU THAT is DOWN AND IT’S CONFIRMED! #ddos #wikileaks Operation:Payback(is a bitch!) #PAYBACK”

No one from MasterCard could be reached for immediate comment, but a spokesman, Chris Monteiro, has said the site suspended dealings with WikiLeaks because “MasterCard rules prohibit customers from directly or indirectly engaging in or facilitating any action that is illegal”.

DDOS attacks, which often involve flooding the target with requests so that it cannot cope with legitimate communication, are illegal. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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WikiLeaks: Internet backlash follows US pressure against whistleblowing site

Powered by article titled “WikiLeaks: Internet backlash follows US pressure against whistleblowing site” was written by Charles Arthur, technology editor, for on Sunday 5th December 2010 14.49 UTC

American pressure to dissuade companies in the US from supporting the WikiLeaks website has led to an online backlash in which individuals are redirecting parts of their own sites to its Swedish internet host.

Since early on Friday morning, it has been impossible to reach WikiLeaks by typing into a web browser because everyDNS, which would redirect queries for the string “” to that machine address, removed its support for Wikileaks, claiming that it had broken its terms of service by being the target of a huge hacker attack. (See What is DNS?)

Without a DNS record, it is only possible to reach WikiLeaks by typing in the string of numbers which, for most web users, is too unmemorable to make it feasible.

That, campaigners say, points to the principal weakness in the internet’s pyramidial DNS setup, where a limited number of site registrars can control whether a site is findable by name or not.

Website hosts are being encouraged to add a “/wikileaks” directory into their sites, redirecting to which redirects to, run by the Swedish hosting company Bahnhof.

At present, that location redirects users to a Wikleaks page at, which is run by a French company, but if pressure from the French government pushes Wikileaks off that host, it will still have the Swedish location.

At the same time, scores of sites “mirroring” WikiLeaks have sprung up – by lunchtime today, the list was 74-strong and contained sites that have the same content as WikiLeaks and – crucially – link to the downloads of its leaks of 250,000 US diplomatic cables.

The backlash has also gained its own tag on the microblogging service Twitter, where people who have linked to the main site are using the hashtag #imwikileaks.

The technical details of how to make a site’s subdirectory point directly to the WikiLeaks site are described by Paul Carvill, a British developer, and Jamie McClelland.

“I’ve done this as a simple gesture of my support for WikiLeaks and my opposition to arbitrary censorship of the web by governments and corporations,” Carvill says on his page, while McLelland says that adding his support “seems like a good way for us all to really pitch in and share the risk that the folks at WikiLeaks are taking all by themselves”. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Building mobile apps using WordPress

I’ve been wanting to test a hypothesis, but I think my time (and skill) are going to come up short.  So, I’m hoping I can use my blog here to get people to help me and shortcut some of the madness that comes when tinkering with code for hours on end.

The idea is that WordPress could be used as a mobile app publishing platform.  Ideally, people with little or no technical expertise could build, deploy and manage really good apps.  If WordPress can do that for publishing on the web, then why can’t it (or something similar) do the same for publishing in an app container?

So, what I’m trying to do is pump topical articles, images and video from the Guardian’s API into a WordPress instance that will then render everything in a nice HTML5 theme.  And then I want to package up that experience which is mostly just for the iOS web view into an app for the app store.

I’ve asked a few people about this, and after we get through the common debate, “why should it be a native app and not a web site?” the conversation about the approaches then varies quite a bit.  (I’m not convinced it should be an app and not a web site, but I want to try it nonetheless.)

To start with, there aren’t many known iPad-friendly themes for WordPress.  There’s WPTouch which is very popular (1.3M downloads).  And Mobility which looks very nice.  But there’s a lot of room for theme developers to come up with some better iPad options.

Then there’s the issue of flowing content into WordPress.  Is it better to pull the API via a plugin or to post content via XMLRPC?

We have a plugin that could be reused to accomplish what I’m after with some tweaks, but I want to simplify it to something that’s essentially invisible to an editor.  I was playing with the auto-post via XMLRPC idea the other night, and stumbled into a Simon Willison script meant to make this easier.  Is there any advantage to one solution over the other?

Now, let’s say we solve the theme and auto-posting issues…how do we package up the app for delivery via the app store?  The iOS publishing tools seem pretty incomplete, so far.  I nearly had Titanium Appcelerator setup before finding my Mac is incapable of running the iOS SDK.  I’m stuck on the deployment part of this project at the moment.

Anyhow, if you accept the premise that WordPress could be a useful delivery platform for mobile apps, then I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to do that.  Obviously, it could easily be a flawed idea in the first place, and I’d love to hear other solutions to the problem.

Making smaller things have bigger meaning

The atomization of everything digital is a wonderful direction of travel which seems to create more and more opportunity the deeper we go.

It’s only going to accelerate, really.  More and more raw data is getting published.  Short-form dialog is proliferating.  More apps are on more devices responding better to ever-smaller information signals.

The problem is that this massive growth of small things also creates some challenges when meaning gets lost in the detail.

By deconstructing and isolating everything we understand, from data in a news article to the exact position of a device on the planet, we can then assemble new views of the world and reinvent knowledge itself.  It’s heady stuff when you start seeing how time and space converge onto small points.

But globalizing small things also creates imbalances. It means that the weight of the world’s attention can crush unstable information.  It means chunky and complicated ideas have to compete with individual and often out-of-context datapoints in the same environments.  And small things can be elevated to have more meaning than they deserve.

Glenn Beck famously uses such tactics by saying things like ‘fear is up 6%.’

The atomization of everything often seems to happen at the expense of context. That isn’t good. Atomization and context should at least co-exist if not actually reinforce each other.

I was reminded of how important it is to develop context more when Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch reporter and author, visited the Guardian the other day to talk about what he’s working on.

Joris has been applying some interesting approaches to reporting, collaborating very explicitly with experts to educate himself and therefore his readers on big themes.  He’s asking the question, “Is the electric car a good idea?”  The collaborative process he’s using is fueling a community of shared interest that includes among its members thought leaders, scientists, officials and challengers in addition to an increasingly engaged community of more peripheral readers.

He needed to step out of the news cycle in order to do the work properly.  Joris said that competing at the pace of news means that reporting must focus on the changes happening in the world, the abnormalities.  The variance becomes more important than the purpose of reporting something. The result is a news popularity contest.

We saw this with the US midterm elections. The witchcraft variant squeezed out the slower-paced topics such as repealing healthcare law.

News should be more than an expression of normality variance.  News is not a changelog

Computers are complicit here. They are brilliant at finding variance in streams of data. The Google News algorithm is a great example of how effective machines can be at discovering and amplifying new information. But when a machine-driven system becomes successful at amplifying small things, new machines will find small things to create in order to get amplified.

For example, 70 Holdings is an SEO business that targets Google News through a sort of network of blogs.  They simply produce content that will attract attention. The company elicits “clicks and ad impressions on content simply because it ranks among the highest–and supposedly most trustworthy–results on Google News,” according to CNET. And this is not much different from what Demand Media is up to, too.

That kind of ecosystem fools itself into thinking that it informs people or that it understands intent, but all it really does is direct click traffic patterns, casting a huge net hoping to catch a few fish.

What it fails to understand is that the signals they are using to interpret intent, variances in data flow, lack any awareness of the context of the activity observed by the machines.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee suggests journalists need to surface the stories in the data:

“Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.

But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

Experts, inside sources, stories, commenters, readers and even data are all going to benefit from the existence of each other and the new knowledge each contributes when they are connected via context, a theme, an idea. And if the human inputs to an idea all benefit from the existence of eachother then the story will find itself at the center of a new kind of network effect.

Consequently, the business models around network effects can be incredibly powerful.

News then becomes connective tissue for people who share an interest in an idea.

Some view linked data as the connective tissue and news as a transport vehicle for ideas to spread.  Zemanta and Storify both tackle the problem this way.  Zemanta finds related context when you write a blog post from around the web through linked data.  Storify helps you connect things you write with things people are posting on twitter and youtube.

The fact that the Internet makes it possible to connect to people around the world so easily should mean that it’s easier to engage with things that matter to us, but it often feels like the opposite is happening.

The noise makes us numb.

We need to amplify meaning when it matters. We need to value the small things in some sort of understandable scale.

Without these dynamics, we will lose the forest through the trees and find the flood of media in the world overwhelming and increasingly useless to us. That’s already happening to many.

While social filters are helping with this problem, they are also atomizing relationships and creating even more noise.

In a recent blog post “The False Question Of Attention Economics“, Stowe Boyd wrote about the need to innovate around our relationship to information rather than give up and drown it:

“I suggest we just haven’t experimented enough with ways to render information in more usable ways, and once we start to do so, it will like take 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule again) before anyone demonstrates real mastery of the techniques involved.

Instead, I suggest we continue experimenting, cooking up new ways to represent and experience the flow of information, our friends’ thoughts, recommendations, and whims, and the mess that is boiling in the huge cauldron we call the web.”

Our world would be much worse off if the flow of information slowed down or reversed.  There’s so much to be gained still.

I think the solution, rather, is to fuel meaning and understanding by directing atomization toward a purpose, giving it context, and framing it in a space that makes it matter to people.

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My new role at the Guardian

Today I start a new job, Director of Digital Strategy at Guardian Media Group.  The change is part of a wider move happening here at the company (see below).

The job will probably have a few different aspects to it, but the overall intent is for me to work very closely with GMG CEO Andrew Miller (my new boss) and Editor Alan Rusbridger and everyone in the business to align what we’re good at with where the market is going.

I’ve learned a few things about that already.  The question I get asked more than any other when people want to learn about the Guardian’s Open Platform is, “How did you convince the business to back it?

To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that. There was a lot of powerpointing to define a view of the market we wanted to play in. We benefited from establishing some important vision statements like “weaving the Guardian into the fabric of the Internet”. I had tireless support from Mike Bracken and an engineering team that already knew what to build.

But nobody needed to be convinced.  The hard part really was figuring out how to get from idea to launch. And then I just acted as shepherd.

To me, the more interesting question isn’t about selling an idea but rather one of culture, “What is it about the Guardian that makes it possible to be so bold digitally?

There are some obvious reasons like the ownership structure, the people, the tradition of openness, etc.  Editor Alan Rusbridger expanded on our operating philosophy here in an article titled “Openness, Collaboration Key to New Information Ecosystem” which was published by Poynter in the September report “Brave New Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape (pdf)”:

“To us it seems fairly evident there are two features of this new information ecosystem which it would be foolish to ignore, whichever camp you’re in: openness and collaboration. …I don’t see that as particularly Utopian. I think of it as a basic necessity for survival.”

If we dive deeper into the strengths of the culture here and embrace (and occasionally influence) the changes happening across the digital world then we could create some real magic.

For example, the Guardian brand resonates naturally in the US, but we know it can mean a lot more there. The Guardian has done some very pioneering work with crowdsourcing and data journalism, but making those efforts more systemic like we’ve already done with community and blogging is going to require more people to get involved and to iterate on the ideas more rapidly. We have a very strong advertising business and some solid revenues from several digital products, but the social marketplace has created commercial opportunities we’ve only just begun to demonstrate.

My new job is going to be about those kinds of issues. I won’t be answering all those questions as much as trying to define what the right questions are and creating the space for the answers to happen.

The stuff I’ve been involved with so far like the Open Platform and Activate Summit are going to keep growing, too. We have filled some jobs and opened some others related to the Open Platform. In particular, we’re now hiring a Product Manager for the Content API (apply here). And Activate event producer Robin Hough is building momentum for a big 2011 which will include events in both London and New York City.

Anyhow, lots of exciting stuff for me personally and for the Guardian. And hopefully this will mean more blogging, too.

Powered by article titled “Miller announces GMG reorganisation” was written by Dan Sabbagh, for on Monday 15th November 2010 09.46 UTC

Andrew Miller, the new chief executive of Guardian Media Group, is planning an internal reorganisation aimed at aligning the company more closely with its flagship newspapers and websites.

The simplification comes as the company divides itself into a “core business” – the Guardian and Observer titles and the website network, which includes – from its “investments” – its other media interests, ranging from local radio through to shares in the Auto Trader and Emap joint ventures.

Miller, who was appointed in July, said in an internal memo that he believed that the chief executive of GMG “must be closely involved in our core business” and added that he believed that the newspapers would be his “primary focus” in the job.

He will chair a new company committee that combines the old executive commitee of GMG with the board of Guardian News & Media, the division that publishes the two national newspapers and

However, Miller told GNM journalists that were no imminent plans to sell any of GMG’s investments, despite recent speculation that a flotation of Auto Trader will be announced soon. GMG owns 50.1% of Auto Trader parent company Trader Media Group in a joint venture with the venture capital group Apax Partners.

Speaking at a staff briefing, Miller indicated that operating losses at the Guardian and the Observer would be in line with last year’s deficit, as the downturn in public sector advertising offset cost savings made from a voluntary redundancy programme. A year ago, the newspapers lost £37.8m before exceptional items.

In the 12 months to the end of March, just over 200 staff left GNM, reducing the total workforce to about 1,500.

GMG had about £260m of cash and short term investments at the end of March 2010. Auto Trader, meanwhile, has been valued at £1.5bn, although the used car website is loaded with debt.

Guardian Media Group is owned by the Scott Trust, which exists to safeguard the future of the Guardian in “perpetuity”.

• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000.

• If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly “for publication”. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Kevin Kelly: Technology is as great a force as nature

Kevin Kelly is always fun to read.  I share his optimism for technology, the Internet, in particular, and its role in progressing civilization.

Powered by article titled “Kevin Kelly: Technology is as great a force as nature” was written by Tim Adams, for The Observer on Saturday 23rd October 2010 23.05 UTC

Kevin Kelly is a former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founder of Wired magazine, where he remains editor-at-large. He has been an irrepressible prophet of our digital future for 40 years. His most influential book was Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World (1995) – mandatory reading for all the actors in The Matrix. His latest book marks a development of such thinking. In What Technology Wants (newly published in the US by Viking), Kelly sees technology as an extension of evolutionary life, a selfish system with its own urges and desires. Kelly takes technology in its broadest sense to include all invention, including language and culture. Some of the things that technology wants are diversity, beauty and complexity. Technology may be, Kelly writes, “as much a reflection of the divine as nature is”. As well as being a devoted evolutionist, Kelly is a Christian. He is 58. He lives just outside San Francisco.

At one point in your book, you write that “technology is as great a force as nature”. How so?

Well, I am arguing that technology is both an extension and acceleration of natural evolution; what I am trying to suggest is that it is greater than the organic. Tools and technology drive us. Even if a problem has been caused by technology, the answer will always be more technology.

You sense that we are in a special moment in technology’s journey; do you think every civilisation has felt that?

We like to think that the most marvellous organ in the world is our brain, but we obviously have to remember which organ is telling us that; we have a natural tendency to put ourselves at the centre of things. But I do think it is true that we are always at the edge of this process and have been for 10,000 years. The first singularity was language, 15,000 years ago. That was the first great technology. Are we at another cusp? I think we are. A lot of people say the invention of the internet was like the invention of fire, but I’m going further – I think actually what is happening right now might be comparable with the invention of language.

And you see that as an overwhelmingly positive fact. Is that just because you are an optimistic character?

If I am totally honest, I would have to say that all this is part of my temperament. When I was a younger man, instead of going to college, I went to Asia, and travelling there I caught this disease called optimism. Right before my eyes, I saw an entire continent begin to transform itself using technology from third world to first world-plus. You could see progress happening daily. When I was growing up, we prayed for the starving people of China; pretty soon they might be praying for us. So I have come to believe in the impossible.

It is technology that creates these impossibilities?

If I went back now 20 years and told you that all of the world’s information – second-by-second stock quotes, a constantly revised encyclopaedia, 24‑hour news – would be available to you for free, at all times, in your pocket, you would have dragged me off the stage as a lunatic…

Does technology change the underlying dynamics of what it is to be human?

It is very clear that our media change our brains – to what extent, we are still working out. Literate people think differently to illiterate ones and the internet will no doubt have a similar effect. And if it changes the way we think, then it changes our identity and therefore it changes the way we live and the way we love. Right now, the changes are small. But I think in the long run bigger change of who we are is inevitable.

And in your terms these will inevitably be changes for the good?

The orthodoxy is to say technology is neutral. I acknowledge the fact that there are many destructive problems created by technology. But what I am saying is that despite all the problems, there is always a small advantage to the good, and if you multiply that small advantage incrementally, then over years and generations it becomes a very positive thing. Even if there is only one-tenth of a percent more good than bad in technology, or if we create one percent more than we destroy each year, then that compounded is how civilisation progresses.

Should we describe this purposive force, this compound interest of goodness, as God?

I call it exotropic force. We can’t describe it without supernatural language. It is the force that runs counter to entropy – the force of life if you like. This energy is not evenly spread in the universe but we happen to live in a little corner where exotropy is greatly accelerated to produce not only life, but also minds and now technology from those minds.

And the purpose – what technology wants – is understanding?

The point of technology, I would say, is to create structures that organics cannot. What life is trying to do is to discover all the possible ways to evolve. What we are seeing is that there are possibly minds in the universe that biology cannot get to, but technology might be able to get there. We are making minds that biology can’t make. The long-term trend will be to make as many different kinds of mind as possible, because only in that way can we comprehend the universe.

Is more of this exotropic energy found in California than elsewhere?

A hotel clerk in Delhi once said to me that the centre of the universe is where there is least resistance to new ideas. The hippy origins of the computer revolution are well documented. Changing consciousness and changing tools, they have always gone together, and in our lifetime California is where this has happened.

How would you describe yourself in religious terms?

I’m a Christian.

A Christian with caveats?

We go to a rock’n’roll church in San Francisco. I’m an evolutionist but I happen to believe that Jesus was some incarnation of God. My epiphany for that came from looking at virtual realities, god-games. Those who create the rules always want to put themselves inside the world they have made to see how it feels. There it was: the Christian story. I believe that we are creators and that we will create in the way that we were created. The minds we create will eventually have free will. When we achieve that we will start to appreciate the complexities of godhood. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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The real cost of free

Cory is spot on, as usual.

Powered by article titled “The real cost of free” was written by Cory Doctorow, for on Tuesday 5th October 2010 11.06 UTC

Last week, my fellow Guardian columnist Helienne Lindvall published a piece headlined The cost of free, in which she called it "ironic" that "advocates of free online content" (including me) "charge hefty fees to speak at events".

Lindvall says she spoke to someone who approached an agency I once worked with to hire me for a lecture and was quoted ,000-,000 (£6,300-£12,700) to speak at a college and ,000 to speak at a conference. Lindvall goes on to talk about the fees commanded by other speakers, including Wired editor Chris Anderson, author of a book called "Free" (which I reviewed here in July 2009), Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde and marketing expert Seth Godin. In Lindvall’s view, all of us are part of a united ideology that exhorts artists to give their work away for free, but we don’t practice what we preach because we charge so much for our time.

It’s unfortunate that Lindvall didn’t bother to check her facts. I haven’t been represented by the agency she referenced for several years, and in any event, no one has ever paid me ,000 to appear at any event. Indeed, the vast majority of lectures I give are free (see here for the past six months’ talks and their associated fees – out of approximately 95 talks I’ve given in the past six months, only 11 were paid, and the highest paid of those was £300). Furthermore, I don’t use an agency for the majority of my bookings (mostly I book myself – I’ve only had one agency booking in the past two years). I’m not sure who the unfortunate conference organiser Lindvall spoke to was – Lindvall has not identified her source – but I’m astonished that this person managed to dig up the old agency, since it’s not in the first 400 Google results for "Cory Doctorow".

It’s true that my stock response to for-profit conferences and corporate events is to ask for ,000 on the grounds that almost no one will pay that much so I get to stay home with my family and my work; but if anyone will, I’d be crazy to turn it down. Even so, I find myself travelling more than I’d like to, and usually I’m doing so at a loss.

Why do I do this? Well, that’s the bit that Lindvall really got wrong.

You see, the real mistake Lindvall made was in saying that I tell artists to give their work away for free. I do no such thing.

The topic I leave my family and my desk to talk to people all over the world about is the risks to freedom arising from the failure of copyright giants to adapt to a world where it’s impossible to prevent copying. Because it is impossible. Despite 15 long years of the copyright wars, despite draconian laws and savage penalties, despite secret treaties and widespread censorship, despite millions spent on ill-advised copy-prevention tools, more copying takes place today than ever before.

As I’ve written here before, copying isn’t going to get harder, ever. Hard drives won’t magically get bulkier but hold fewer bits and cost more.

Networks won’t be harder to use. PCs won’t be slower. People won’t stop learning to type "Toy Story 3 bittorrent" into Google. Anyone who claims otherwise is selling something – generally some kind of unworkable magic anti-copying beans that they swear, this time, will really work.

So, assuming that copyright holders will never be able to stop or even slow down copying, what is to be done?

For me, the answer is simple: if I give away my ebooks under a Creative Commons licence that allows non-commercial sharing, I’ll attract readers who buy hard copies. It’s worked for me – I’ve had books on the New York Times bestseller list for the past two years.

What should other artists do? Well, I’m not really bothered. The sad truth is that almost everything almost every artist tries to earn money will fail. This has nothing to do with the internet, of course. Consider the remarkable statement from Alanis Morissette’s attorney at the Future of Music Conference: 97% of the artists signed to a major label before Napster earned 0 or less a year from it. And these were the lucky lotto winners, the tiny fraction of 1% who made it to a record deal. Almost every artist who sets out to earn a living from art won’t get there (for me, it took 19 years before I could afford to quit my day job), whether or not they give away their work, sign to a label, or stick it through every letterbox in Zone 1.

If you’re an artist and you’re interested in trying to give stuff away to sell more, I’ve got some advice for you, as I wrote here – I think it won’t hurt and it could help, especially if you’ve got some other way, like a label or a publisher, to get people to care about your stuff in the first place.

But I don’t care if you want to attempt to stop people from copying your work over the internet, or if you plan on building a business around this idea. I mean, it sounds daft to me, but I’ve been surprised before.

But here’s what I do care about. I care if your plan involves using "digital rights management" technologies that prohibit people from opening up and improving their own property; if your plan requires that online services censor their user submissions; if your plan involves disconnecting whole families from the internet because they are accused of infringement; if your plan involves bulk surveillance of the internet to catch infringers, if your plan requires extraordinarily complex legislation to be shoved through parliament without democratic debate; if your plan prohibits me from keeping online videos of my personal life private because you won’t be able to catch infringers if you can’t spy on every video.

And this is the plan that the entertainment industries have pursued in their doomed attempt to prevent copying. The US record industry has sued 40,000 people. The BBC has received Ofcom’s approval to use our mandatory licence fees to lock up its broadcasts with DRM so that we can’t tinker with or improve on our own TVs and recorders (and lest you think that this is no big deal, keep in mind that the entire web was created by amateurs tinkering with systems around them). What’s more Apple, Audible, Sony and others have stitched up several digital distribution channels with mandatory DRM requirements, so copyright holders don’t get to choose to make their works available on equitable terms.

In France, the HADOPI "three strikes" rule just went into effect; they’re sending out 10,000 legal threats a week now, and have promised 150,000 a week in short order. After three unsubstantiated accusations of infringement, your whole family is disconnected from the internet – from work, education, civic engagement, distant relatives, health information, community. And of course, we’ll have the same regime here shortly, thanks to the Digital Economy Act, passed in a three-whip wash-up in the last days of parliament without any substantive debate, despite the thousands and thousands of Britons who asked their legislators to at least discuss this extraordinarily technical legislation before passing it into law.

Viacom is just one of the many entertainment giants suing companies like Google for allowing everyday people to upload content to the internet without reviewing its copyright status in advance. Never mind that there’s 29 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, that there aren’t enough lawyers in all the world to undertake such a review, and that throttling the videos (by charging uploaders for legal review, for example) would put practically every person who finds in YouTube the opportunity for personal and creative expression out of business.

Never mind that if this principle were passed into law, it would shutter every message board, Twitter, social networking service, blog, and mailing list in a second. That’s bad enough, but in addition to these claims, Viacom has asked the court to order Google to make all user-uploaded content public so that Viacom can check it doesn’t infringe copyright – it thinks that its need to look at my videos is greater than my need to, say, flag a video of my two-year-old in the bath as private and visible only to me and her grandparents.

Meanwhile, the entertainment industries continues their push around the world for a series of China-style national firewalls (in the UK, former BPI executive Richard Mollet boasted of getting this legislation inserted into the Digital Economy Act).

This is an approach that millionaire pop stars like U2’s Bono wholeheartedly endorse – last Christmas, he penned a New York Times op-ed calling for Chinese-style censorship everywhere. And just this month, MPAA representatives told the world’s governments that adopting national internet censorship regimes for copyright would also allow them to block information embarrassing to their regimes, such as WikiLeaks.

The MPAA was addressing a meeting for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a secret treaty that is being negotiated away from the UN, behind closed doors, and which includes proposals to search iPods, phones and laptop hard-drives at the world’s borders to look for infringement.

So yeah, if you want to try to control individual copies of your work on the internet, go ahead and try. I think it’s a fool’s errand, and so does almost every technical expert in the world, but what do we know?

But for so long as this plan involves embedding control, surveillance and censorship into the very fabric of the information society’s infrastructure, I’ll continue to tour the world, for free, spending every penny I have and every ounce of energy in my body to fight you.

Helienne, I can’t fault you for not reading my Guardian columns; after all, I’ve never read yours. And while I do fault you for not correcting the record, I won’t ask the Guardian’s reader’s editor to intervene or make silly, chiropractor-esque noises about libel. I’m a civil libertarian, and I have integrity, and I believe that the answer to bad speech is more speech, hence this column.

But you really ought to familiarise yourself with the ideologies of the people you’re condemning before you tear into them. I don’t agree with everything Chris Anderson says, but he hardly tells people to give their stuff away: mostly, Chris talks about how different pricing structures, loss-leaders, and sales techniques can be used to increase the bottom lines of creators, manufacturers, publishers and inventors, and he cites case studies of people who’ve made this work for them.

I have no idea what Seth Godin is doing on your hitlist: Seth’s a marketing consultant. The last three times I’ve heard him speak, he’s been talking about how to improve corporate communications and brand identity – that sort of thing. Sure, he apparently charges a very large sum of money for this advice, but that’s the topsy-turvy world of marketing for you. If your point is that creative people deserve to get paid, then presumably you’re all for Seth charging whatever the market will bear.

Now, Peter Sunde is an interesting case. He really does advocate something like totally unrestricted copying. But as you note yourself, this is a belief that he’s prepared to go to jail for, which is generally considered the gold standard for sincerity (the only higher standard I know of is being prepared to die for your beliefs – you should ask Peter where he stands on this). If your point is that Peter is only shamming about his politics, how do you explain this willingness to be imprisoned for them? Also: given Peter’s latest startup, Flattr, exists for the sole purpose of making it simple for audiences to pay artists, I think you might reconsider his place in your parade of villainy.

I understand perfectly well what you’re saying in your column: people who give away some of their creative output for free in order to earn a living are the exception. Most artists will fail at this. What’s more, their dirty secret is their sky-high appearance fees – they don’t really earn a creative living at all. But authors have been on the lecture circuit forever – Dickens used to pull down 0,000 for US lecture tours, a staggering sum at the time. This isn’t new – authors have lots to say, and many of us are secret extroverts, and quite enjoy the chance to step away from our desks to talk about the things we’re passionate about.

But you think that anyone who talks up their success at giving away some work to sell other work is peddling fake hope. There may be someone out there who does this, but it sure isn’t me. As I’ve told all of my writing students, counting on earning a living from your work, no matter how you promote it or release it, is a bad idea. All artists should have a fallback plan for feeding themselves and their families. This has nothing to do with the internet – it’s been true since the days of cave paintings.

You know who peddles false hope to naive would-be artists? People who go around implying that but for all those internet pirates, there’d be full creative employment for all of us. That the reason artists earn so little is because our audiences can’t be trusted, that once we get this pesky internet thing solved, there’ll be jam tomorrow for everyone. If you want to damn someone for selling a bill of goods to creative people, go after the DRM vendors with their ridiculous claims about copy-proof files; go after the labels who say that wholesale lawsuits against fans on behalf of artists (where labels get to pocket the winnings) are good business; go after the studios who are suing to make it impossible for anyone to put independent video on the internet without a giant corporate legal budget.

And if you want to find someone who supports artists, look at organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who have advanced the cause of blanket licences for music, video and other creative works on the internet. As a songwriter, you’ll be familiar with these licences: as you say, you get 3% every time someone performs your songs on stage. What EFF has asked for is the same deal for the net: let ISPs buy blanket licences on behalf of their customers, licences that allow them to share all the music they’re going to share anyway – but this way, artists get paid. Incidentally, this is also an approach favored by Larry Lessig, whom you also single out as "ironic" in your piece.

It’s been 15 years since the US National Information Infrastructure hearings kicked off the digital copyright wars. And for all the extraordinary power grabbed by the entertainment giants since then, the letters of marque and the power to disconnect and the power to censor and the power to eavesdrop, none of it is paying artists. Those who say that they can control copies are wrong, and they will not profit by their strategy. They should be entitled to ruin their own lives, businesses and careers, but not if they’re going to take down the rest of society in the process.

And that, Helienne, is what I tell people when I give my lectures, whether paid or free.

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