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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Once again, Tim Brown jangles my head around and out pops ideas. The Ideo CEO's "Design Thinking" comes close to Clay Shirkey's "crowdsourcing" to my mind. From Tim Brown's "Design Thinking" idea (TED talk), and from some new music I heard last night (band: Kyu. The song: Sunny In Splodges - hint: look on mySpace not iTunes) I got a subtly different idea.

The design-space of music has been intensely interrogated for the last 50 years. Traditional forms have fallen in authority and novelty has come to the fore. A lot, and I mean a whole lot, of energy has been put into this exploration. I mean energy both as in "electricity" and as in "human endeavour" (not to mention the lawyers). Where the traditional market has relied on "talent scouts" and critics to determine "popular" music; the current model relies on the plebs clicking. The traditional market put a wide talent pool through a narrow bottleneck, which then spewed forth a narrow stream of piss-weak music onto the masses, ok, and some good stuff too. The current model takes the wide pool and fills it with a mash of producer/consumers and everybody. In this new way, bright lights shine through a spectrum of genres and new genres are created. The old model looked like daytime: one star burning down on us all, for a day. The new model like the night sky: brilliant, cool, mysterious, varied, and deep.

In the last 10 years we've seen a dramatic democratisation, even socialization of music. It's gone from being a clearly defined "music industry" to something more like a crowdsourced music mashup. And that, as a non-business-model, is important. Look at "songs" as the baseline commodity. "Performers" become synonymous with "producer/distributors". And the overarching governance-model is massively distributed. From this model, we've seen a huge blossoming of diversity on one side (the interwebs) and a contraction on the other (the music industry). That blossoming of a diverse solution to the question "what is music" is contained in a new type of garden. The garden in which the divergent solutions are sprouting from is a new-style non-market created of non-consumers, a sort of organic community garden. Tim Brown talks of the business of design designing for Consumers as being a dead-end. "Design Thinking" is the act of designing methods of employing design-participants. That's exactly the organic model we've seen emerge in music (put "define: mashup" in google).

(Note the number of hyphenated words in the preceding paragraphs. That's a clue that we're considering concepts which don't have words yet.)

My take:

In previous posts I've pronounced that "entropy" is the purpose of life. And in that model I suggested that something is needed to balance an increase of "consumption". And for any environmentalist, the idea of increasing consumption as an imperative is surely heresy. Sorry. But in my defence, I have suggested an aggressive sort of sustainability. This is to say a "closed cycle" consumption. And here I come to the ah-ha moment. I haven't been satisfied with my formulation of how we'll take consumption to the next level. The idea of "aggressive sustainability" is missing the sort of transformative step required to get us over the hump. But the idea we're living, the consumer-producer-distributor mashup model, the crowdsource model, a thousand points of light, whatever you want to call it - that model applied en mass to disassemble mass markets - that's the sort of transformative step I'm looking for.

To stitch things together a little bit, think about replicating (or recapitulating) the new music model to “everything else”. Reality TV is dipping its feet into this idea. Where 20 years ago we saw plebs on game shows, today the plebs are pushing into the star realm. Broadcasters are tapping the pool. ABC just calls it like it is, they have http://pool.org.au. TV, music, very similar ideas. They're information based, aesthetic, ephemeral. What about mining, farming, etc. ? Well, I think we're seeing the electricity grid start to crowdsource. Solar and wind are starting to make economic sense for individuals. Rapid prototyping machines are starting to be affordable enough for home desktop 3d printing. Some of these sorts of hard, engineering-type innovations are coming soon. Adoption rate is another matter, but arrows do seem to be pointing to a new low-energy solution for an explosion of artefacts/ design-space-solutions and idea-flows.

I totally understand if you haven't had the "ah-ha" yet. I doubt I've gotten to the point. The point is, with 6 billion consumers you have essentially 6 billion containers. Sure we can stuff ourselves with artefacts, but we all reach a limit. A world of 6 billion producers would be fundamentally different. Imagine it as a world of 6 billion pipes. And if we apply the economic idea of "velocity of currency" to these "container" vs. "pipe" models, it's easy to see that pipes will enhance the velocity of commodities. Consumers serve as a terminus for commodities. Producers serve as a conduit for commodities. (and if we look at the culture of music mashups, the commodities can never be determined to be "finished goods").

The new model that emerges is highly social, highly productive, highly democratic, and yet highly communal. The key to success of this model hinges on the throughput of the "pipes" and the connectivity of the pipes (see etsy.com - lots of yarn being died by individuals, sold to individuals, lots of knitted items being created by individuals, sold by individuals). Also see David Logan’s TED talk on the staged architecture of human Tribes. You will hear a similar sort of calling to connectivity and network theory.

What’s a big example of what I’m talking about? Beveridge’s evolution of the idea of a Welfare State is one example. Early on while enacting the idea of welfare, the word had no charged component. The idea of “welfare” seems, well, fair. But later in life, even Beveridge came to see the "Welfare State" as bad because the way it was implemented created welfare consumers. We need welfare participants - but this is not "work for the dole". See the group Participle’s rehash of William Beveridge’s idea. They call it: Beveridge 4.0

Have a look at hive systems used by ants and bees. No individual ant or bee has an overall understanding of what needs to get done, only a local "response to stimulus". The bees/ants form this sort of pipe through which commodities and information flow. They get stuff done. Trees arguably do the same. They form forests in which they all grow to their potential based on the balance of inputs and outputs around them. And trees are essentially a system of pipes. For that matter, people are actually tubes made of meat. But I'm more talking about the meta-layer of human society rather than the oesophageal architecture of bodies. At that meta-layer, it's very natural for people anyway, to work individually en mass, to feed each other their work ad infinitum; however this model hasn't been seen for a while. In the words of Parag Khanna "nature doesn't repeat, it rhymes" Perhaps this coming time of mass cottage industry, many-to-many markets, will rhyme with a certain medieval history, but it will certainly look very different.

One more big example which I’ve been wanting to find a reason to mention for a while is what’s going on in Egypt. For years and years Christians in Egypt have been the rubbish collectors. As rubbish collectors and as Christians in a Muslim country they are discriminated against (to put it lightly). This past year something else happened, swine flu. The Egyptian government (I believe in Cairo anyway, not sure about other cities) decided to kill all the pigs. Now, you need to understand that pigs aren’t well regarded in Muslim circles. All pigs are owned by Christians. So, politically, Christians being a vast minority, it was easy to get the go-ahead.

But what the government didn’t understand, the pigs were used by the Christians to eat the organic waste. The materials which could be recycled or re-used were picked up and sold on, but the rest was fed to the pigs. The pigs were then eaten by the Christians. So rubbish collecting in Cairo was fairly a crowdsourced activity. The Christians were not/are not paid to provide this service. But when the pigs were killed, the Christians stopped collecting the rubbish – there wasn’t enough in it for them. (Also note: there has not been a documented case where swine flu has crossed from pig to human. So, there was no technical need to kill the pigs)

In their place, the government contracted with private companies. The private companies put bins at selected locations around the city. But the population, being used to just dropping rubbish any old place, kept doing that and largely ignored the bins. Besides, handling rubbish is too low a task for them. The end result? Armpits deep in rubbish, Cairo is a stinking mess. Why? Because the government interrupted a perfectly functional network of Beveridge’s welfare participants. Why? An overactive imagination, spite, disregard for the value of non-paid services, lack of leadership, etc.

That's a very large example of missing the value. But in smaller and more varried ways, we do this daily because we have a cultural blind-spot to the value of unpaid work. I predict, as the value creeps into our awareness, this blind spot will start to abate.

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