From society of the book to a networked society

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Neerav Bhatt did an interesting post about Encyclopedia Britannica, saying:

Organisations in the information industry such as Book Publishers and Libraries would do well to learn from Encyclopedia Britannica’s precipitous fall from grace. Formerly a powerful company that could demand and receive large payments for access to it’s storehouse of human knowledge, it’s now been reduced to near irrelevancy and suffers the ignoble fate of being sold by discount clearance stores. — Neerav Bhatt

It is very easy to sit here in 2009 and critique Encyclopedia Britannica’s decisions with 20/20 hindsight. But it is a difficult situation for a business when:

  1. the world you inhabit has been stable & profitable for a very long time, and your product has worked very well in that environment;
  2. then quite quickly the very thing that has made your product valuable (i.e. fact checked and professionally researched articles delivered in hard copy volumes) is no longer valued in the same way as previously.

Few organisations seem able to develop metrics that help them to detect seismic shifts in the competitive landscape. An interesting parallel is the iPhone & all the other mobile phone manufacturers. The entire playing field has shifted from the simple mobile phone to a converged mobile computing/music/video device and the other manufacturers are scrabbling to catch up.

The problem for Encyclopedia Britannica was that they were in the middle of a genuine paradigm shift (in the Kuhnian sense) and that they did not realise it (nor did many of us back in those days). This is the shift from a society of the book to a networked society. We are still only at the beginning of this shift and Encyclopedia Britannica was an early casualty.

The shift from a society of the book to the networked society has been made possible by the emergence of the internet and its continued evolution.

What do I mean by this? In the past we had the book as a unit of collected information. It was revolutionary! A book was easy to share with others and to transport anywhere. Knowledge that was once transmitted by one person to another orally could be translated into a book and shared with many. Nor did the author need to be physically present to transmit their ideas. It was only necessary that the audience become literate for books to revolutionise the world. The power of the book is evident in the Protestant Reformation and the various European revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

But the problem with books is that to merge ideas from two texts it is necessary to create a new book. However, with the internet and HTML we moved from the unitary texts to hypertexts. With web 1.0 many us whiled away hours surfing the hyperlinks to find new information and find things we’d never know existed before. With the current phase of the web (sometimes called web 2.0), we have moved beyond textual linking to linking people, information, groups and applications. And the next generation of the web, sometimes called the semantic web, will enable networking to be taken even further. This is sometimes referred to as the internet of things, and it will enable us to connect people, places and things.

It is this growth of networks that will create a networked society.  And it is one of the reasons why Twitter is such an interesting example of how these network based technologies can be a force for social change.  Unlike Facebook, which is all about people we already know, Twitter is about people we don’t know yet.  An important part of this change is the ability to recreate a village like set of relationships that are not constrained by physical co-location.  These social networks give us the ability to experience non-localised proximity with other people.  They extend our reach from those physically nearby to anywhere in the world.

When we put this all together with the democratisation of technology that has accompanied web 2.0 then it is the beginning of a shift in societal relations akin to the printing press. I wonder where it will take us?

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Why not give peace a chance?

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During our busy lives it seems to me that we often let the chances for peace pass us by. And how does this happen?

It happens with our reactions to things, to events, to words and actions by other people. For example, the snappy response to a question asked when we’re busy, or the angry outburst when things don’t go as expected. The responses we make to these things can often lead to friction or bad feelings.

One of my old bosses used to tell me that I needed to act not react. His idea was that reaction was an instinctive, visceral and almost unthinking response. While he believed that action was a considered response to a particular person or situation.

Just think about this for a moment:

  • What would happen if we decided not to react instinctively to people or situations?
  • What would happen if we decided not to protect ourselves before it was necessary?
  • What would happen if we took a few breaths before acting instead of simply reacting?

Would this give peace more of a chance to grow in our lives? I’m going to give it a try, it’s a simple change that will cost nothing and it might just make the world a slightly better place.

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Racism, Sexism and Privilege

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Just came across two fairly old articles that are really worth reading:

The Male Privilege Checklist by B. Deutsch
This is a summary of the unconscious privilege to which able bodied white men are generally subject. This is not a criticism of white men – really it is just how they experience the world unless something intervenes to reveal their own privileged situation.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
This is the 1990 article that sparked the Male Privilege Checklist – it looked at the unconscious privilege to which white people are generally subject. Peggy McIntosh says, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.

This is all very interesting because the other day I was listening to Jackie Huggins talk about her life and her family. It was a long drive so there was nothing to distract me. As I listened it became clear to me how hard it must be to become a successful aboriginal woman. So many unconscious freedoms that I take for granted were and remain blocked to non-whites in Australia.

I’ve studied sociology, philosophy and anthropology so I’ve known intellectually about these phenomena. But it was listening the Jackie talk on the radio that humanised the whole thing.

It behoves us as a nation to bring to an end this unconscious privilege and the associated unconscious discrimination. And it behoves me as an individual to think about what I can do. This post is the first step.

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New Digital Divide?

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Seth Godin makes an interesting point about a new digital divide:

“I think a new divide has opened up, one that is based far more on choice than on circumstance. Several million people (and the number is growing, daily) have chosen to become the haves of the Internet, and at the same time that their number is growing, so are their skills.”

This is a fairly Darwinian point about people who choose to accept the new medium and develop new skills. Although, the ‘old’ digital divide is still with us and many people do not have access to the internet there is a growing gap between those who embrace technology and those who do not.

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Blogtalk Downunder

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Just back from the Blogtalk Downunder conference that was held here in Sydney over the past few days. The conference was organised by the education department from the University of Technology Sydney, and the attendees were largely academics and teachers. There were a few industry people there, notably Trevor Cook from Corporate Engagement. Senator Andrew Bartlett from the Democrats was also there – he did admit his ignorance about blogging but continued on to make some comments.

The conference was interesting for me on several levels – firstly as a blogger, secondly as a practicing technologist, and thirdly as a student of communication. There was a lot of information presented and I’m still digesting it all.

One issue that came out very clearly is that a lot of people – especially academics who write or theorise about blogging – are not necessarily bloggers. Instead they read about blogging in the media rather than reading & writing blogs. Also the level of comfort with technology varied, from uber geek to technophobe.

There was very little to be heard from practitioners of blogging.  Perhaps that is because there are not many in Australia?  In any case it was a little disappointing.

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Strange thoughts on women & men …

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According to Yvonne Roberts, society has not shaken off stereotypes of mothers, homemakers or tarts :

“It is striking how a number of recent events have revealed the enduring power of traditional stereotypes – not least the bad girl and the good mother, now defined by the Vatican as showing the traits of “listening, welcoming, humility, fruitfulness, praise and waiting”. The bad girl is, for instance, the underlying theme of the sagas around the sex lives of the famous, such as England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. The idea is that it’s natural for men to want to have their cake and eat it, while women are invariably cast as the tarts.”
Source: “Why a man can’t see the other woman“, Sydney Morning Herald, August 4, 2004

Hmmm, of course there are no negative stereotypes associated with men. That’s why they are so happy that they are killing themselves at a higher rate than women (suicide has been a commoner cause of male death than road crashes since about 1990, see here for report).

Then later Yvonne comments :

“Women, against the odds, are attempting to balance autonomy and dependence; self-fulfilment with a desire and obligation to care for others. In the present climate, as hurdle after hurdle remain in their way, they are encouraged to blame themselves – instead of examining how and why the hurdles were constructed in the first place.”

Funny way of thinking – is the assumption here that men do not do this too?

I am annoyed by this article – again portraying women as victims. In reality, all people have problems balancing autonomy and connectedness, self-centred desire and obligation to care for others. As Freud explained so well, we all face these dilemmas. They are part of the human condition.

Stereotypes too are part of the human condition. Jung wrote of the power of archetypes in human life. The power of archetypes can be a driving force for good or evil in a society. It all comes down to what individuals do.

Deeds, or what we actually do with our lives in spite of the human dilemmas and stereoptypes are important. As George Eliot (1819 – 1880) put it

“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”

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